The Bike Leaves First
On a chilly grey Aberdonian afternoon the bike, loaded up with camping gear and a few odds 'n sods was chugging away with 5710 miles on the clock. Recently serviced and with a new pair of tyres we departed Portlethen just South of Aberdeen in a slight drizzle at ten past two on the 16th April 2009, bound for Milton Keynes and an overnight stop in the eco hutch.
Apart from a few drops of rain at the start and a few more on the Southern Edinburgh bypass, the weather held off nicely. Bit chilly though. The heated handlebar grips made quite a difference and the BMW suit and gloves were awesome.
Gods own country greeted me with a downpour that continued right the way from South of Leeds to Milton Keynes. The bike performed faultlessly, the rider’s joints a bit less so.
The next morning, after a brief lay in, the mutt and I headed over to the dealers at Northampton who had kindly sourced new keys for the bike. Lesson one. Do not bend the only master key in the top box lid with the electric garage door having parked too near to the door. Especially, do not wreck your main key 10 days before a trip like this.
From Northampton, on to the M1, then round the M25 and down the M3 to Southampton. Total distance ridden, just over 600 miles. Mostly motorway, mostly boring and spent singing the 118 24 7 theme tune that I can't seem to get out of my thick head. It's motorway heaven!
At Southampton, a very nice lady called Debbie, who had answered 101 questions over the past 6 months, sorted out the paperwork and directed me to the quayside where I parted reluctantly with the big yin.
Will it arrive in one piece??
Saying goodbye to your loved ones isn't easy when you're heading off for four months. So it was an emotional goodbye in Aberdeen with Diane and a second one at a sunny Gatwick with Matt and Suzie.
The descent into New York was through a blanket of claggy cloud right down to the runway. There was a glimpse of a shoreline followed by a reasonably smooth landing. I expected the homeland security bit to be a pain, but it wasn't too bad at all. JFK is a huge airport but it is a surprisingly short stagger with loaded bags to the taxis outside.
A quick negotiation - "that yella one 55 bucks, my nice people bus 19" and I'm squeezing into the back of a mini bus load of young Italians and, after a short delay, blasting out old Motown music, we're heading towards Manhattan. It's a bombardment of the senses.
The driver, an old fella in an immaculate checked flat cap with pencil moustache, takes us around a route just to show us the Empire State building before landing up outside the Pennsylvania hotel which is my stop. The hotel is packed out and worn out - but the bed is clean and the ancient bathroom is too.
After a quick freshen up I head over to the Penn train station and buy a ticket to Baltimore (92 bucks) for tomorrow and then wander down to Times Square. The main impression is of a wall of yellow cabs, all honking, masses of people - tourists, city workers, people hustling tickets for Madison Square Gardens and the odd police siren. Tired out red brick cliffs of buildings, with fire escapes just like in the films. Taxi driver, Leon, Fort Apache. Spot on.
I've only got a few waking hours here. I'll have to come back.
A bike passes by loaded up with travel gear, German plates. I wonder if my bike is OK out in the mid Atlantic??
On to Baltimore
The Pennsylvania hotel lobby is a great place to sit and have a coffee. The lobby is a lot posher than the rooms for one thing and it is a hive of activity of tourists from all over the world who all seem to be excited at heading off to see the Big Apple.
The city woke up at about 4:30 am with a hubbub of noise coming through the window, low level at first but at considerable volume by 7am. The taxis seem to stop honking around midnight to give everyone a few hours rest, but they're back at it pretty early on.
I have to check out early to avoid the queues at the check out and in my rush I forget my train ticket and have to get the bell captain (whatever one of those is) to let me back in the room. That's my first Homer moment of the trip - pretty good going really for someone who once got so drunk at the Belgian 24 hour endurance racing that he went to sleep in his sunglasses and thought he'd gone blind when he woke up...
I drag my bags over to the Penn station. This is another very large place. And impressively clean by a train station standard. Everyone is polite and helpful and there are plenty of armed Amtrak police around giving it a nice safe feeling - I mean surely no-one would cause trouble here would they?
Sat on the floor I read my book, a history of the battle of Agincourt. And very interesting it is too. I learn that the French invaded Blackpool in 1404. Apparently they didn't enjoy the rock and they found that the hotels were shabby so they upped sticks and left without paying their bill. They were also quite hacked off that someone had built a tower and undertook to make a better one when they got home.
It's the last time that anyone with any culture has visited Blackpool.
The train journey to Baltimore is a real eye opener. From New York down to Philadelphia (where they make cheese?) the landscape is one mostly of old decaying industry. A million and one photo opportunities exist right there outside the window. The neighbourhoods often as not look very run down. For a while there is very little greenery.
After Philadelphia there are more woods, the odd field and wide estuaries.
There is a French couple in the carriage. They begin by having a domestic mostly involving him getting an ear bashing. I think that she probably saw my book cover and is telling him to seek revenge.
The train station at Baltimore is a gem. All wood and marble, it defies the preconception that the US is ultra modern. The taxi driver, Sileshi, is from Ethiopia. We chat all the way to the hotel/motel. He gives me his number so I can call my own personal cab during my stay in Baltimore. Nice one.
I've been worried a bit about the hotel because of some of the negative comments on the internet. First impressions are that it is clean and comfy, a definite improvement from the rooms at the Penn.
A Greek Tavern but not as we know it
The write ups on the internet said that there was a Greek restaurant on the site but on investigation this appears to be an all-American bar. Time for my first taste of American portions. I can't find anything on the menu that would suit my dietary limitations. Oh dear. The nearest I can find is a Turkey and Bacon melt with fries and salad. It is delicious admittedly. According to the dietician I can afford to eat a meal like this once every Soltice. I might be in trouble on this front...
There's a big screen showing Ice Hockey. Pittsburgh vs Washington. Pittsburgh win 1-0. I used to love watching Ice Hockey in the Winter Olympics - especially the US vs the USSR when they used to crash into each other for the entire match. By comparison this is more like croquet. Nary a handbag drawn.
A bit of a hitch
Tuesday the 5th of May was the original docking date for the Tarago. But a phone call to the customs clearance agent reveals that the two day delay has now become a four day one and that means that unloading won't take place until after the weekend.
This is a big spanner in the works so a re-work is needed. The hotel desk informs me that there is a car rental station across the road (it's a big six lane road) so I head over there and make arrangements to pick a car up for a week. After that I phone Sileshi up and head into town to buy a mobile phone and have a mooch around.
The plan is to do a proper road trip down to Cape Canaveral see a few rockets then head straight back. Just under 2000 miles in 5 days. Shouldn't be too bad...
If the customs agent phones me and needs me back then that could be a bit dodgy depending where I am but I don't want to spend 5 or six days in one place.
Every cloud has a silver lining. In this case I can learn driving here (which is a bit different) from inside a tin box and the bike tyres will remain in good nick for the trip to Nashville.
An ancient mariners dream
A twelve dollar ticket got me a look around two ships. The first one was the USS Constellation which is a civil war sailing warship. It has been beautifully restored and occupies about an hour walking through the decks. By comparison the USS Torsk is a Second World War submarine that sank the last ships to be destroyed in that war. The submarine takes me back to a trip I had in a Royal Navy submarine, HMS Otus. That trip was from Gibraltar to Portsmouth and involved taking part in an exercise off Portugal.
The comparison between the sailing ship and the submarine is surprising. The USS Constellation is, to my mind, just as sophisticated a vessel in many ways. The difference is that it is built of wood, rope and a small amount of steel. The submarine is later technology but built in a quite rudimentary way, less crafted than the earlier ship.
There are a lot of similarities between the Torsk and the Otus but the difference is in the technology. Otus the first new submarines built after WW11 and Torsk represented a vessel that had many similarities to those of World War 1. Interestingly though the bunks were bigger than the ones I remember on Otus and the crew had their own dining mess deck next to the galley. On the later submarine I remember us eating in the same mess deck that we slept in.
HMS Otus is a museum now as well. Situated in Germany.
I'm becoming addicted to 'Family Guy'. Brian is my hero.
A Night in Hawg Heaven
Interstate Route 95 - a wide strip of blacktop that runs right down the East Coast of America, Baltimore to Florida in two days. Seventy to Eighty miles per hour for thirteen hours without having to slow down once. Apart from for petrol and a stop over in a Motel in South Carolina.
The roadside scenery starts with the urban jungle of South Baltimore, where the traffic is manic and the roads rough, then eases into a more relaxed pace with a rural aspect outside the window. South of Washington the view is of endless woodland, a mix of conifer and deciduous where the latter have recently sprouted leaves.
Further South this changes into a variety of agriculture and woodland and further South again marshes and inlets predominate. The road is as good as anything in Europe and, by and large there isn't a scrap of litter on the roadside.
It takes a short while to get used to the traffic. Each lane travels at it's own speed and the trucks don't have speed governors on them. It's quite amusing being overtaken by a huge rig with a massive wide load crane on it when you're travelling at seventy. With roads this big it all makes a lot of sense - the traffic flows really well.
The end of the road for this two day trip is Daytona Beach, one of the most famous motorcycle meeting and race venues in the world. I've arrived a few weeks after the events and the T shirts are cheap.
It's my chance to stay in a proper independent motel. There are hundreds of them of varying states of attractiveness ranging from prison block shack to quite swanky. The one I pick is on the South side of the town.
The lady running it is really friendly and lets me see the room. It has an old tiled floor, ancient rose curtains and is clearly in it's original state since the 50's (with a 70's chair thrown in and a 90's telly and 00's Wi Fi). Absolutely perfect!
The bathroom is the original pastel tiling which is actually quite elaborate and adds to the charm.
Food at Last
Even though bike week is long gone, Daytona is all about Harleys. There are dozens of them thudding around and the restaurant I dine in is run by a mountain man biker called Dave.
I've been struggling with meeting my dietary needs which unfortunately involve avoiding saturated fat and sugar (the two staple diets in America). A few days ago I found an ethnic supermarket that was mainly Latino foods. They were selling fresh fruit and nuts (which I eat a lot of) along with a kind of granary bread. I've been surviving on that and the odd turkey sandwich since.
Here in the 'First Turn' restaurant is a menu with 'Blackened Fish' on it. After a bit of questioning on what that actually means I order it up. It's a Halibut kind of beastie with pepper seasoning sitting on a massive salad. Superb!
A Psycho Moment
I've managed to avoid too much drama so far apart from one small incident of which I'll write a bit later, but today I manage to take the proverbial biscuit.
Waking up in my 50's motel is fine, everything is as it should be so, after a quick shower, I'm ready to pack the car and head off South to Cape Canaveral. Which is fine until I try to open the door. This is equipped with impressive security. A chain, a dead lock, and a normal button lock on the door handle. Like a big kid I've engaged all of the above the night before.
Once all of these are removed I confidently push the door - to no effect. Oh dear this doesn't feel too good! I re-check everything and push again. The main handle is very loose and I think it isn't working. More checking and pushing but nope. I'm stuck.
So I check the windows. Can I climb out? Nope, they're made of strips of glass on an aluminium frame that opens for air but not for porkers attempting an escape.
It passes my mind that I'm now stuck in a prison, there's nothing to do but call for help. So I phone the reception office (it's just like in all the films).
"Hi I'm locked in my room and I can't get out"
"Which room honey?"
"I can't remember. Is it 18?"
After a while there's a knock on the door.
"Just turn the deadlock"
It can't be that, I checked and double checked it. I turn it, then, turn it really hard. Click. DOH!!!! Homer moment number 2.
"I'm really sorry Barbara, I swear I checked that"
"That's OK honey. I was so worried. I would have broken that door down for You!!"
If you're ever in Daytona, you just have to check out the Town and Country Motel. I'm definitely going back there one day. I might even buy a Harley while I'm there....
Atlantis is ready to lift
I chat to Barbara before I leave. She's very keen that I should see more of Daytona, but I'm a man on a mission and that means heading further South. The road to Cape Canaveral is easy. Turn right out of the Town and Country and keep going. It takes about an hour along the road that follows the coast.
The signs come up really suddenly! Turn right sucker!
Kennedy space Center 6 miles.
My friend Dylan told me some time ago that the Kennedy Space Center is really a bit of a theme park and, as usual, he was right. I think that the centre (to spell it correctly) has changed over recent times towards looking after families with kids and the over 65's - all of whom seem to be having a ball.
I have to say that the I-Max film of the international space station is brilliant and the rocket garden, with all the rockets displayed in amongst the shrubs, is worth a look. But, in truth, I was a tiny bit disappointed.
Anyway, on popping to the loo I passed a man in blue overalls with a flight badge who politely said "hello, how are you? Have a great day". Hang on. Was that an astronaut? Or the Nasa equivalent to Woody's assistant (you've got to go to Suffolk to work that one out).
On the bus to the Saturn centre I get a phone call from Susan, the customs agent. The boat is docking on Saturday, the US customs have 'blocked' the bike. Clearance could take anything from 2-3 days but sometimes can take a week.
I'm sitting agog. The mother of all bummers!
It has finally come down to the fact that shipping by sea is probably not a good idea. In fact, outbound, it is pants. The UK end was fine. But this end (although I can't complain about the service of the customs agent who has been fine), there are just too many snags and potential delays. I won't be doing it this way again.
A little tinsy mite tad disgruntled I dis-embark (which is more than the bike is doing) at the Apollo/Saturn centre. This place is awesome. I think Nasa probably set this up first then turned everything into a theme park.
The Saturn 5 rocket is held in a cradle so that you can walk right underneath. Each stage is split so you can see clearly how it worked. I think it is probably the most amazing machine made by man. I never knew where the astronauts sat when they launched, but the answer's here - they sat right at the top of the whole shooting match.
It really is ready to lift - Honest
Part of the trip takes us to the observation gantry where you can see the launch pads. There are two and both are occupied with shuttles that have been mated up to their fuel and rockets and are preparing for launch. Well, to be accurate, the Atlantis is ready to launch and the astronauts are flying in today in their T38 jets from Houston, but the Endeavour is set up in case Atlantis needs a rescue mission.
Atlantis is heading off to the Hubble telescope for what will be the final servicing mission of that device. Hubble is in orbit 360 plus miles up and that is at the extreme range of a shuttle.
It's easy to get wrapped up in all this, but I can remember, as an eleven year old, running down the street telling all the neighbours that man had landed on the moon. I think I watched every minute I could of the Apollo mission and it was a great day just to look at it all.
Top Trumps - USA vs East Anglia
Florida is like Lincolnshire with mangrove swamps, alligators, Pelicans and oranges in place of cabbages. It's a bit bigger too but it doesn't have Skegness. Lincolnshire wins.
Daytona is like Hemsby (of Alan Partridge fame) but a lot bigger. Hemsby doesn't have a lighthouse called Ponce but it does have its fair share of mobile homes and real chips. Hemsby wins
Hemsby has a derelict weather balloon station. Florida has a state of the art space exploration launching and tracking station and nature reserve. Florida wins.
The village next to Hemsby is called California. You can travel from Hemsby to California in about three minutes but even an astronaut can't manage that from Florida. Hemsby wins.
I did spot an Alligator and it was eating a tree. I can't quite get my head round that one yet. I wanted to ask the bus driver, "Why is that Alligator eating a tree?", but I thought that might sound a bit silly.
Battleship North Carolina
On the way down to Florida I was intrigued by signs that said 'Battleship Memorial North Carolina' and I decided to follow them on the way back. I decided to overnight somewhere north of Jacksonville which meant a two and half hour drive from the Space Centre.
The overnight stay is in a Comfort Inn which proves to be exactly what it said on the box, at a price though. They're a bit more expensive than the traditional motels. Next door to it I is a very strange fruit grocery that also sells petrol and cheap gifts. These include the heads of alligators in a number of sizes ranging from very small at around $10 upwards. Behind them there is a stuffed gator which is 13 feet long and calculated to be 40 -50 years old when it got it's own personal State of Florida hunting certificate.
The plan is to travel to the battleship in the morning (Saturday). The plan fails miserably and I turn up at the memorial exactly five minutes after five - which is closing time. The ship sits in a creek at Wilmington. It was here that one of the main shipyards produced hundreds of ships in WW2. Frankly it has seen better days. The surrounding areas are a bit run down and I get lost in one of them.
Eventually I manage to extract myself by 'driving around a bit' and head out of town, finding a reasonably posh motel which is very nice but bit expensive again. Ding Ding, trip turning out too expensive slow down and get into hovel mode.
I wander up the road because I've spotted a sign that is ringing all the right bells - 'Winery'.
There aren't any pavements in this part of town. Reason being that if you want to go anywhere (including up the road 300 metres) you do it by car. I get shouted at through a car window. People are giving me really strange looks. Just for walking. It reminds me of the spaceship in Wall E.
I risk life and limb by being the first person in history to traverse the six lane road and make it into the winery. It turns out that the guy in there is the wine maker and he invites me to taste a selection (and happily joins in with me). They're excellent too and not too cheap. I can't help it. Gotta have two bottles.
The proprietor advises me that the area isn't populated by natives but is largely populated by people from everywhere else. This includes a proportionately high number of South Africans.
"Yeah they get everywhere I quip" (Tim Peel I hope you are reading this!!)
Now that's what I call a gun
The USS North Carolina is immaculate. It was launched in 1940 and commissioned into service in 1941. At the end of the war her displacement was just under 47,000 tons.
My main interest is the British battleships from World War 1 through to the final ship, HMS Vanguard which was commissioned just after the end of WW2. The North Carolina is a beautiful ship that looks modern in comparison and, to my mind, resembles the German heavy cruisers and battleships.
Part of the reason she looks like this is that she was built for speed and is therefore lightly armoured - but very heavily armed. In some ways I think she has more in common with a battle cruiser.
Two things struck me on boarding her: the first is that she is in remarkable condition inside and out and the second is the smell which is a rich waxy oil kind of smell - not unpleasant at all.
Oh yes, and the guns. Well they're 16" mark 6 triple gun turrets that could fire a shell weighing 2700 pounds a distance of around 21 to 23 miles.
North Carolina was torpedoed in the war by a Japanese submarine I-19 in a quite remarkable attack which resulted in the destruction of the carrier "USS Wasp" and a destroyer as well as hitting the North Carolina. Five crew members lost their lives in the battleship.
Somewhat chastened by spending too much money on accommodation I decide to drive as far North as possible and also to stay in an economy motel on my next stop. Mission achieved as I pull into suitable candidate near Richmond later that night (Sunday).
One of the staff seems to suffer from narcolepsy. At breakfast he keeps falling asleep and has to be woken to carry out necessary tasks, one of which involves killing a bug in one of the polystyrene breakfast bowls - a feat achieved by stamping on the bowl. Hmmm.
Which way is Manchester
One of the most infamous cases of bad navigation is often recounted by my kids when I mistook Macclesfield for Mansfield and ended up a few miles outside Manchester in an attempt to get to Norfolk.
I nearly managed to top this in Washington. I'm at a pretty crucial part of the waypoint planning (in common parlance I needed to be in the correct lane for a crucial junction) just at the point that the customs agent rings my mobile. He's a nice enough chap with a very flat pitch.
"I'm responsible for clearing your motorcycle which has been unloaded today". Hurray!
"I need to discuss the situation with you"
"OK, I'm heading towards Baltimore and I'll call you back when I can find a rest stop"
Major, major missed junction. Slight Detour. Arlington cemetery, Capitol Hill, Department of this, Department of that. Nice city though, but they really need to do something about the grass. It needs cutting!
The Saga of the missing Mutt
Well it's off the ship but it isn't going much further. Not this week
anyway. It's now in the hands of the US Customs who 'have a schedule'. "Can I talk to them, beg them,"
"No sir that would not be wise"
Car hire extended one week and me and the little black Focus are heading
out West to the Appalachian Mountains. Road trip number two. Enterprise car
rentals are gems. I pop in to extend the rental and the nice assistant who
rented the car comes over and shakes my hand.
"Are you enjoying yourself sir?"
"Oh yes, I've been to Florida and back!"
The room of assistants nearly faint!
"Yep. Erm there isn't a mileage limitation is there"
"Yes sir there is. We have a two state policy - anything more than that and we normally charge 25cents per mile, but since we didn't tell you we won't charge you - have a nice day"
Waiting for the bike
Quite by accident I've holed myself up right next to Camp David. The Rambler Motel is an excellent place to spend a few days kicking your heels, decent rooms at a reasonable price and very friendly staff (special mention to Ian).
The morning chorus is a whole swarm of helicopters that rattle their way in and out.
Rather than languish in my room stuck here waiting for a customs agent to give the bike it's once over (will they wear rubber gloves??), I head off for a couple of trips. The first one is into the blue mountains which, surprisingly, are really only hills. Never mind, at least I see my first 'beware of the bears' sign.
I also see some interesting road kill. Notably one Raccoon, two skunks and what looks suspiciously like a beaver. Florida only managed a turtle. Quite what that was doing on a road is anyone's guess.
Back to Washington
The next day I head down route 270 to Washington and 'drive around a bit' to find somewhere to park.
Washington is a bit of a mixture of Rome meets Milton Keynes whilst being a good bit cleaner than either of those places. It's impressively green (like Milton Keynes - honest) and littered with monuments (like errm Rome). Milton Keynes has world famous monuments too. The concrete cows of course. And a snow dome.
Every few minutes presidential marine helicopters and their escorting colleagues clatter across the city.
The White House gardener is talking it up to the crowds. "We just get given a different detail every day, I got this today", he says leaning on his shovel. Golly, that's riveting.
The World Bank is undergoing an evacuation as I stroll past. I sometimes have this effect on large global organisations.
The highlight of the visit is the memorial park and especially the Roosevelt memorial which comprises a number of zones with examples of his speeches (many of which I think came from his 'fireside chat' radio programmes) set in walls next to cool fountains and beautiful gardens. Profound words set in a thought provoking memorial.
It's all a bit fishy
Someone reading this blog has commented that it would be better with dates in it. So to keep them happy I'll just mention that the events described in this blog happened on Thursday the 14th of May. If I haven't lost track of time.
So we do have at least one reader who will remain nameless apart from her first name is Jayne and her surname can also mean a small seed eating bird. Rhymes with pinch.
Only kidding, we've had a bit of other feedback - thanks to those who've commented. Baltimore aquarium, the National aquarium, what can I say. It's a big fish tank.
No, of course that wouldn't do it any justice. Trouble is, in being stuck without the bike I've stooped to the level of petty tourism which wasn't the intention of the trip at all.
The trip to Florida was a step into the unknown armed with only a credit card (and the roadside cover offered with the car hire), but since then I've had to base myself within spitting distance of Baltimore and can only radiate a short distance from base. Just in case I get the call that I can pick the bike up.
Anyway I went to have a look at the aquarium. Between my arrival in Baltimore ten days before and now there has been a noticeable increase in the number of tourists there, mostly Americans and mostly school parties. There weren't any queues to the aquarium but once inside it was bedlam so it became a bit of a whistle stop walk around.
On balance I think it would be worth a visit with kids, but I have to be partisan and say that I think the London aquarium is by far the better of the two.
Baltimore itself is an interesting city though. After the aquarium I decide to try and find the docks. In doing so, I take a few wrong turns and end up in a very poor neighbourhood in the East of the city. It all feels a bit edgy. But maybe that is just me. I grew up in a pit town in South Yorkshire and this is exactly the same feel as the bottom end of town (by the Ship Inn).
One of the traditions of America seems to be the seat on the porch. If you haven't got a porch then it would be the front doorstep. There are plenty of people just sitting out front, plenty of kids playing on the street and, to be honest, they aren't causing trouble. In fact, the more I look at it, it seems to be a proper neighbourhood with relaxed people just chillin'.
Apart from Swinton the East of the city reminds me of Hornby in Liverpool. Big red brick buildings that have seen better days (in some cases much better). It is particularly well known for it's terraced housing which apparently has three layers of rooms (so presumably no light in the middle ones). I guess it would have been quite grand around 1910. Towards the end of my detour I feel that it isn't particularly dangerous but you might not want to attempt it at night on foot.
In the evening on the History channel a programme runs - "In Baltimore, where drug trafficking and violence are a way of life in the poorer part of town, rampant crime fills the prisons of Maryland. Murder, mayhem and gang culture......". Well, all I can report is I didn't see any on that particular day.
Which reminds me of a very innocent Australian friend of mine who, whilst working in London, decided not to take his kids on the tour bus but rather on a tour on a bus. So he just hopped on a bus and went on a 'drive around a bit' (I like his style). Anyway the bus was going through Brixton. Being an innocent Australian (and a surprising number of them are quite God fearing and innocent - in fact it surprises me that they can rustle up a half decent rugby team but I digress..), he tended to stare at things that were new to him. Presumably his kids did too.
So this rastaman who got on the bus ended up being spookily stared at by three Australians. Which made him very angry and threatening all kinds of painful deaths.
Colin managed to top this by trying to ask a pair of Liverpool fans sat behind us at Anfield if they would mind curbing their language as there were ladies present... what a guy.
Call to the customs agent. The bike has passed through customs. Hooray!
A Light Switch
I have to go to the Agent's office, pick up the paperwork then head to a pre-arranged spot to meet the escort into the docks (which will cost $75) who will get me to the bike. Hopefully it will be in one piece.
Having met Dan (who's having his lunch but is more than happy to sort me out), I make a James Bond like call to a guy called Ray who arranges to meet me at the Best Western Plaza near to the docks. Ray appears a few minutes after I arrive and passes me on to Ron who has an impressively large pick up truck.
As we drive in Ron chats to me about bikes in between making sure the right person gets the right paperwork. He's the proud owner of a Triumph. We have to go to one office, get our paperwork stamped, then go to another office and present the paperwork (It's really the reverse of shipping from the UK actually), then we are directed to a shed 11 where the bike should be. It's $75 dollars well spent I doubt I would have made it on my own.
And there it is. Covered in dust but completely intact. I get cheerfully told off by a lady in shed 11 for not wearing a helmet as I pootle off to meet back at the pickup and be escorted from the docks.
As we part company Ron and I exchange numbers. "Give me a call when you get back", He says "I'd really enjoy a ride out with ya!".
And so it is from the moment of picking the bike up through the next two days. From being Just another bloke driving a Ford, I'm back in the biker mould and people want to talk.
Suddenly they are coming up and talking bikes, talking trips, asking where I'm from and where I'm going to. It's like a light has switched on.
And Ron. If you're reading this, it'll be around the beginning of September that you'll get the call mate.
Departing the Rambler Motel
There is one tiny hiccup the next day. I've got way too much gear (and this is me travelling light). There's going to have to be some severe re-packing and maybe even some ditching of non-essential gear or Diane won't be fitting on come LA.
Whilst trying to pack the bike a steady stream of people pop over from the gas station (alright, alright, it's a petrol station I know, but when in Rome..). One gentleman is called Sam and we chat for a good 1/2 hour to forty minutes. He's due to do a road trip of his own in a WW2 Willys Jeep retracing the route a convoy took across the US. Then a fellow biker called Scott pops by. He's done a 6000 mile trip up to Newfoundland and back on a Kawasaki KLR.
Anyway, eventually I hand in the Key and say cheerio to Ian (who I've been chatting with and laughing with for the past four days or so). He's a diamond fella from Jamaica who has a very interesting family tree in that half his family are white (from England and Scotland) and half are black "We mix well in Jamaica", he laughs.
So, off to Gettysburg. This is just a little loop to have a look before heading West then South. It takes me a bit far out of my way, but eventually I'm heading South on a beautiful stretch of highway - the 220 which winds it's way over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
At a stop I'm approached by a party of older gentlemen one of whom says "Are you a Brit? My
dad was English, he came from Sheffield"
"So do I, well very near"
"He used to say you were either a United or a Wednesday"
"Yep. I'm a Wednesday"
Up in the mountains the lovely blue skies and cotton wool clouds have given way to darkening and the odd rumble of thunder. I'm not too keen to get caught up in lightning up here in the mountains woodlands. And there be bears too.
Then the skies literally open. The raindrops are enormous and threaten to overpower the waterproof properties of BMW's finest bit of riding kit. Absolutely typical! First full day on the bike and it pours. Another arrival at a motel sopping wet awaits.
I was hoping to camp tonight but I have only managed to find one campsite that looks like it last opened five years ago and now is occupied by very old trailers with people living in them. Hmmm. I think I'll give that one a miss for now.
So at a place called Elkins I turn up dripping all over the lobby of an EconoLodge and settle in for another motel evening writing this blog. And a very nice EconoLodge it is too, modern clean and warm. With a bath.
It is a complete fluke that I'm heading out on Sunday (17th May 10:45) left out of the motel onto highway 33. Hang a left after quarter of a mile and I'm on the 219 heading South. I've finally done some navigation using my Garmin Map source software and written the route on a bit of paper and stuffed it in the very handy window on the left arm of my riding suit.
However, having already ascertained that my navigation skills make Mark Thatcher look like Sir Ranulph Fiennes, things might not go as planned.
It's a fluke because my original route would have been to ride to Florida then head up to Nashville from the South. Having been forced to wait two weeks for the bike to clear customs the route on the bike is now Baltimore to Nashville which means crossing the Blue Mountains and then heading South and West.
The Blue Mountains are part of the Appalachian mountain range that stretches down the East of North America starting in Canada and petering out just North of Florida. Which is an enormous length. It's like the Pennines but a little bit longer.
A bit of bad luck often turns into a lot of good and I really would not have missed this part America for the world. Of course I managed to get lost. I think it happened at a point where I passed a penitentiary. I was so busy taking everything in that I left the 219 and joined the 250.
This took me back East - a remarkable feat which was the opposite of what took me to highway 219 in the first place (I was on the 220 and missed a turn which took me West to the 219). Even Mark Thatcher had an excuse - there were no roads in the Sahara. And I've got Satnav.
It really doesn't make any difference which one you are taking anyway. They're all brilliant, twisting over the mountains through an endless forest or through the Valleys - 260 miles of sweeping 'S' bends and very, very few other road users. A bikers paradise.
Plink a plink plonk plink
When visiting Liverpool to do a bit of SAP training a while back I went with a few mates in to the city and saw the best busker come beggar I've ever seen (apart from perhaps the Norwich Puppet Man). He was an old guy with a long beard sat on the pavement outside an Irish pub. He had a round bit of cardboard which was attached to along thin rectangle of cardboard.
When you went past him he made out he was playing a banjo "plink a plink plonk plink". At which point he would look at you questioningly to see if you would join in - strum a strum strum strum. And off you went with the duelling banjo's.
Well I wasn't sure if this was 'Deliverance' territory or not. Until I saw a sticker on a pick up 'I hunt hillbillies'. I wouldn't recommend any anti-hunting lobby people come over here. Everyone hunts. And if they don't get something that swims or moves on land then the road signs get it.
I'm still trying to work out if they shoot the signs whilst driving past or whether they just get out and blast them to death (which would be a bit un-sporting). But up there, there aren't any living signs. And they don't bother to put any speed cameras up either. They wouldn't stand a chance.
The mountains are all but deserted and eerily quiet. As you descend into the valleys the houses are a lot different to those over in Maryland. There are ancient cabins some lived in, some not and the perfect farms and small towns to the East change into ones that appear poorer. This is much more like it!!
The people I meet are really very friendly.
However, I did eventually get fatally attacked. By a bee! A big bee which managed, at a combined speed of around 70 mph, to avoid the bikes enormous wind screen duck under my visor, avoid my chin guard and wallop me in the left cheek. I know it was fatal because it managed to sting me.
A hundred and eighty miles later and I'm back on track heading West towards Nashville.
Road Kill: One Raccoon, a rat, a bee and a large deer with severe rigor mortis (all four legs were sticking out straight)
The first time I've seen a wild eagle. I think it was a Golden eagle (impressive wingspan Buzz). It wasn't doing anything spectacular, just flew from a roadside fence pole into a field.
I also saw a large rodent that I think might have been a groundhog. It didn't predict the weather though which remained cold but dry.
Camping in the Woods
I've lost track of time. I think it is Monday the 18th of May and I'm lying in my tent on the edge of the forest listening to a lot of howling. And it isn't the locals.
The whole place went eerily quiet as darkness fell and just before I managed to find a black stool at the foot of the tree next to the tent. What colour is bear poo?
Well actually my dear Watson I know exactly where this excrement came from?
Really Holmes, how on earth do you know that, because - to be honest - I'm confounded dear chap.
It came from a Homo Sapien.
And how did you know that?
Well observe the toilet paper over there Watson. I have it on very good account that bears don't use paper.
It's a nervy night. Next morning I talk to Jake who I was introduced to on booking in at the camp site and he informs me that there is a Kennel just along the lake.
This is another stunningly beautiful spot on earth. I'm in Tennessee. Following an almost luxurious night in a Super 8 Motel surrounded by the US Army's finest (and I have to say very politest) who were also overnight there. To digress I was fearing a night of hellish drunkenness, doors banging, shouting and hollering but they were very quiet and off before I'd shaken a leg.
Anyway, following that I rode down highway 19 South and Westward through the Mountains. Road signs assured me that these had become Smoky as I crossed the border into Tennessee having found the correct junction for interstate 81.
The scenery gradually turned from quite close wooded hills and valleys into more open, rolling countryside. At every stop I was approached by someone who wanted to talk. I think the first attraction is the bike which is a bit unusual for the States (I've seen one GS Adventure, thousands upon thousands of Harleys, a few Gold Wings and the odd other BMW or Japanese bike).
After they've looked at the bike they then clock my accent and away we go.
Dam und Blast
Anyway, I eventually arrive at Knoxville. It is the most amazing area of river valleys leading into the river Tennessee that were blocked by a series of Dams in the 1930's by President Roosevelt. This was the first example of central planning in the USA. I think I remember reading that it was all part of his attempts to drag the economy out of recession so quite an interesting place to see considering the state of the world’s economies now and the attempts at public works.
So the area is one of steep wooded hills and lakes. I don't get into Knoxville which I'm pleased about because I wanted to avoid a city tour (although I have been to a couple and I do intend to go into Nashville).
The roads around the Lakeside Marina campsite are a biker's dream awakening in paradise (apart from the speed limit which is 55mph tops). I can't really do justice to them other than they are a switchback series of flowing bends that dip up hill and down dale through the forests and would put Brands Hatch to shame.
After a stint in the laundry on catch up duty I head off for a ride out. First to see the nearest dam (which is cheerfully called Norris - good name for a dam), then head to the Appalachian Museum.
I thought this might be a bit lacking, but it isn't at all. A local man started buying the log cabins of people after they passed away (people he had known and knew the history of). He and his friends moved the cabins and re-built them stick by stick (as I'm typing this the howling has commenced - "we can't leave them poor lads out on the moors like that").
Back to the script - I guess that is what the real hillbillies were. Poor people who eked a living out in these areas. One cabin is literally smaller than my shed (which I do intend to live in one day).
I do hope to return tomorrow night with more, but right now I can hear things out there. Wait a minute.... who put those stones around my tent...
The Home of Country and Western
Well the Blair Witch didn't get me that time and I managed to escape with all my fingers intact. I say cheerio to the lady who runs the site and head off for one more blast along the switchback. I try and film it on the video camera but the wind keeps blowing the view screen shut and switching it off.
I’ve decided to use the interstate on the leg over to Nashville and to stay in a motel tonight so that I can send off the blog. This turns into a bit of luck because I meet a couple Hans and Carol who are riding Beemers at a rest stop. Hans has a GS Adventure the same as mine and Carol is riding a standard GS. We chat for a bit and they ask me if I'm heading for the Chicken Run (I think that's what they called it). Nope - never heard of it.
Turns out it is a big BMW rider's gathering where you pay 40 bucks for 4 days camping and eat as much as you can eat.
It's at Huntsville Alabama which is a bit out of my way and would mean a leg South (maybe 200 miles) but I think it will be well worth it so I decide to ride to Nashville, buy a couple of guitar picks then head to the rally for the weekend. This should do wonders for my budget if I can avoid buying any goodies at the trade stalls.
The motels are getting cheaper the further West I go. The mountains start to ease out of view. A sign at the rest stop recorded that it was the site of an inn which was the last one before travellers hit the plateau and headed West. You can imagine the wagon trains heading out across Cherokee territory away from the last of the forts.
Nashville is surrounded by a concrete freeway jungle, but the city is really attractive (when I see a city I don't like I will report on it honest, but Nashville isn't one). It is a very successful mix of modern buildings, many of which are predominantly glass which I do like, and older buildings that date from late Victorian times. The Broadway is a road crammed with bars with live music (some of which sounded a bit dire to me). It also had the world’s worst busker. He managed to strum his guitar reasonably well (probably better than my standards of guitarmanship), but then hollered out in a tuneless roar that I initially thought was a joke act.
No such luck. People were crossing the streets to avoid.
A nice touch is that there are loudspeakers at the pedestrian crossings playing a sample of the town’s talent. Good job they don't play a recording of the busker, people would jump under buses.
Walmart vs Asda
I found my first visit to Walmart to be an interesting one. I was expecting a cheapish joint but I was advised on good authority that I would be able to buy some camping gas from there. Really?
A good friend of mine does most of her clothes shopping at George of Asda and I have been known to make the odd tongue in cheek comment although, to be honest, I don't think you can tell where stuff comes from. Anyway, I was a bit surprised to find that 3/4 of the Walmart I visited was dedicated to general living and a quarter to food. In the main section you could buy a range of air guns and pistols, bearing guns, a huge range of fishing equipment and a camping shop that would put Millets to shame.
But search as I may I was unable to find a single bottle of red wine. Where would we Brits be without the Alcoholic beverage section of our Supermarkets? I was starting to panic a bit and had to resort to buying beer.
I also met a really pleasant gentleman called Nihal (I think I've got the spelling correct). He was a chemist who had lived in Oxford whilst on a scholarship and was genuinely pleased to be chatting with someone from old Blighty. I later met a lady called Michelle who also lived in Oxford and would love to go back there. So there seems to be something about Oxford...
Strangely I've not met anyone who said something like "Oh yeah I spent two wonderful years in Rotherham. Ah remember so well the smell of Parkgate coking plant..."
It's quite difficult. "So where are you from Andy?"
"A place called Swinton which is near a place called Rotherham which is near a place called Sheffield", no recognition, "which is near a place called York, which is - well it's about 200 miles from London".
Three Days in Alabama
Thursday May 21st to Sunday 24th
Well just as I make a bold statement I'm proven wrong again. At the Chicken Rally someone places exactly where I'm from just by my accent but more of that a bit later.
So far I've commented that I've found everyone over here to be very friendly but that is about to change as I cross the border into Alabama. Because in Alabama they are just stupendously friendly!!
I purposefully plotted a back road journey to Huntsville from Nashville and it was more of the same lovely farmland scenery. Drifting over gently undulating countryside. More and more sightings of old vehicles in the properties flashing past - Cars and trucks don't seem to get scrapped but are left to live out the rest of their days with plants growing around them.
It's not the 'Chicken Run' that I'm going to, it's the 'Great Chicken Rally' run by the BMW MOA of Alabama. I get a really pleasant welcome from a group of people who are a bit surprised that a Brit has turned up with a UK registered bike and there is a lot of interest in my trip before I get processed, tagged and directed (in the nicest possible way) to the campsite.
I drive around a bit looking for a suitable area not too near and not too far from the portaloos and find a nice spot next to two other tents beneath a large tree. I hop off the bike and say a quick hello to the neighbours Steve, Claudia and Lee who have accents unlike anything I've heard before (well at least Steve and Lee do because they're from New Orleans).
Having pitched the tent Steve pops over to chat and says "Hey looka the lightning strike man".
A strike has killed part of the tree and left an impressive furrow right down the trunk, exiting at the root and pointing straight through the front porch of my tent. Hmm, if that happens again and lightning does strike in the same place twice it won't just be chickens that are getting a roasting.
Over the next three days I'm the most fortunate of travellers to be in the company of these three people and a compadre, David who turns up a day later. On top of that two further arrivals on the Thursday are Dudley and Joe who have come in from Florida. Dudley is a fellow Englishman who has made the move over and Joe is very easy to chat with straight away because he has family in Yorkshire and has also been to the Isle of Man TT with Dudley at the same time as I went in the early 90's. So we've got a lot to talk about in common and we are straight into the beers, red wine and a spot of Jack Daniels into the evening.
The first evening is topped off by a visit to listen to the live music and an opportunity to have a dance. Perfect. In Alabama if you do a bit of jive style dancing (say a mix of Salsa and Ceroc) they call it twirling. So at the end of the evening I 'twirl' one of the ladies present and she dashes off and brings her friend over and says - ya gotta let this guy give ya a twirl. It wasn't one of my better performances what with the alcohol intake and all that but it was a nice end to the evening. I don't know who you were ladies but if you read this blog then thanks for the boogie.
I find out from Lee that he has property up here in Alabama and that he, Steve and Claudia are heading off to look around the property, so I decide to follow up a tip from a lady back in the mists of time when I was staying in the expensive motel in Wilmington. She said that there was a second space museum at Huntsville Alabama. So I decide to take a look at that. The space and Rocket museum is a little bit faded around the edges compared to the Kennedy space centre but I would have to say that I think I preferred it because it is more of a Museum and less of a theme park. For kids they have the Space Camp there and for Adults a bigger range of exhibits.
There is a Saturn five hall just like the one at Florida but they also have a Saturn five set up vertically which is very impressive.
During the evenings entertainment, mostly provided by Steve who is a one man talking show aided and abetted by his lovely lady Claudia who is a perfect foil to him, I am hunted down by an Australian.
"Aye up luv say summat to us in Yorkshire" he says.
This gentleman is David Woodburn who with his wife, the lovely Emy, is the proprietor of Barnsley Motor Werks. David and I talk at various times over the weekend and his story fascinates me. He has travelled around the world with Emy and their daughter Mattea on a motorcycle and sidecar combination. They've done it the hard way too. Through jungles, across deserts - getting arrested as a spy, all sorts of things. Now they've settled in Georgia just over the border. But for quite a time they chose the unlikely spot of Barnsley to base themselves between trips and he holds a real soft spot for my part of Yorkshire and doesn't mind telling everyone about it. He loved it that much he named his business after it.
David and Emy live a very simple life. They fix BMW airhead twins and run a small farm. He told me that it was unlikely that he would see the blog as "I'm not very up on computers although Mattea helps us by goggling things". He told me that they were both very, very poor but that they were very happy and managed to live a hard but contented life. Look at mother's hands he said (mother being what he calls his wife). They were like hardened cracked leather. "That's because she builds Dhrystone walls".
I also find a really comfortable place to be is with Steve and Claudia. Steve and I are both gadget freaks and he excitedly takes me through each of his gadgets and I reciprocate. "Claudia, Claudia you just gotta see what this guys got. Andy ma man you are the king of gadgetry". But there's one bit of kit I haven't got that Steve does have and I was very close to buying one when I was kitting out. It's a really neat camping barbeque that folds in to its own stainless steel tube and is ultra portable.
"It'd make a great weapon we all jokingly agree"
David from New Orleans works on the Mississippi supervising stevedores. He tells me about a bunch of Liverpudlians who were working the cranes there. "Man those guys were just crazy dudes".
A Ride Out
Dudley and Joe have decided to ride out to the Barber museum near Birmingham Alabama and I tag along with them for the day. It's quite strange to be riding in a small group again having spent the past week on my own and I take the position of tail end Charlie. The ride down to the museum is about 110 miles and the museum itself is an exquisite collections of motorcycles and cars (with the motorcycles in the majority). The museum is very modern with a central glass and a broad helix exhibition floor that sweeps in a curve upwards.
The owner of the museum has a penchant for Lotus cars and there are many of them on show including some of the Formula one cars of the late eighties, early 90's (including the one with active suspension which I think was banned). The guys asked me later what was my favourite bike and I couldn't decide, but I think on reflection it was Mike Hailwoods 1979 Sports Motorcycles Ducati. This is much less famous than the 1978 bike which is legendary because he came out of retirement to win the Isle of Man TT on it (and probably saved Ducati as a brand in doing so), but it is a connection to one of the greatest British riders of all time.
The other exhibit that is a very close second is the Britten race bike. My best buddy Nev and I met the man who designed it at the Isle of Man and gave our own little bit of support by buying a badge from the team. It's still an amazingly radical machine today 18 years later. The engine is actually thinner than the back tyre.
The museum is situated next to a magnificent race track that reminds both Dudley and myself of Brands Hatch. Sadly though I learned later on returning to the site that there had been a double fatal accident there the day before involving a racer and a staff member which doubtlessly explains why the staff were a bit subdued. They still made a point of walking around and saying hello to you which was a very nice touch though.
Eat til you drop
Despite the volunteer cooks at the rally serving up endless barbie meals of Chicken (hence the name of the rally) that wasn't enough for the New Orleans contingent and we had our own private barbeque on the go already when we rolled up back (in fact on both nights).
The strange tale of the Armadillo
I asked Claudia whether the little armoured beasties lying on the roadside were Armadillos. confirmed that they were and went on to tell me that they have a peculiar defence against oncoming 60 ton kenworth trucks.
An Armadillo is nearly blind and also deaf. It didn't get the top drawer of tools in the great scheme of things so it was given and armoured plate covering and a defence of last resort (all sounding a bit like a hedgehog so we can see where this one is going...)
Armadillos apparently don't see or hear a vehicle until the last moment so their defence mechanism comes into play right at the last second. They leap into the air.
Oh dear. That queues them up for a perfect volley pinging off into the side of the road where they all lay with their little legs outstretched in that final last leap. At least they don't get squashed too often like our native hedgehogs do.
A tale about time
Australian David and I had a few conversations and one that struck a chord was his comment about time.
"When I was travelling I had all the time in the world, but now I've settled down I have none"
We chatted more about this because although I have a watch with me I'm not looking at it any longer. Time has become largely irrelevant and I can do pretty much whatever I want. What David was pointing out was that when we are tied to working we are putting ourselves under the big dictator which is the clock. When we came to pack up the campsite everyone else had to hit the road. But Steve noticed that I wasn't in any rush. "Andy, that is the longest I have ever seen anyone take to pack a tent"
What he doesn't know is that I was still at it 2 hours after they left and I was one of the very last to leave the Chicken Rally.
I'd like to thank everyone who I met at the rally for making me so welcome including Ron from the Alabama club and the lady who runs the club (who's name I didn't get) and finally Craig who gave me an insight into firearms control down here in the South which I will probably write into the blog because I found it very interesting. Craig has a virtual museum of BMW bikes back home and had turned up in an immaculate old Ford pickup with a little teardrop caravan and a 1941 ex German forces BMW motorcycle.
In Search of Elvis
On to Memphis from Huntsville. Around two hundred miles, crossing the river Tennessee at a point where the old steam boats used to dock. The bridge across named after Steamboat Bill. The road becomes arrow straight and darkening skies provide a scattering of rain showers. The countryside is increasingly flat except for a ridge of higher wooded ground to the West of me. I'm going to spend two days around Memphis, then cut Westwards because I am slowly being drawn back into the dictates of the clock. Got to be in LA on the fourth of June to pick up Diane.
When I get to the motel in Memphis I realise that I've been bitten really quite badly by mosquitoes (sweet meat) and I was enjoying myself so much I didn't really notice most of the bites. A couple of uncomfortable nights of itching are in store!!
I make a point of keeping the bike clean. Working around it helps me to notice any problems - today it's a slightly loose connection on the screen and the need to top up the oil in the next day or so. The bike itself isn't looking as new as it did when we took it to Switzerland but at least it's reasonably clean.
In Memphis while I'm tidying up the bike a gentleman called Mark comes over for a chat and I give him my card. If you're reading this Mark I'm not sure I introduced myself properly - I was a bit whacked out from the weekend in Alabama.
I also had a very nice chat with Jennifer the chambermaid at the motel who knocked on my door just to ask me where I was from and I thought she was wanting me to vacate. ha ha.
The motel I checked into wasn't up to much and was very pricey so I decided to find one to the West of Memphis and then ride back in to Graceland. But in order to find where I was going I attempted to do a ride by on the way.
This got me into a very rough part of town and, even though I found the right road (Elvis Presley Boulevard is a bit of a clue), I didn't find Graceland. So I rode out to the Interstate to find a cheap motel and that took me across the river.
The Mississippi has flooded and it is at least 2 miles across it as it washes out fields and roads. Quite an impressive sight.
Having found a motel I ditch my bags and pick up a leaflet with the address for Graceland which I plug into the Satnav and head off. As I approach Memphis heading East I hit a thunderstorm. The rainfall is terrific and I didn't pack my suit waterproof inner. Within seconds I'm soaked to the skin.
The road floods and cars start crashing. Mayhem. I can't see where I'm going but I can't stop because other traffic will wipe me out. It's by far the heaviest rain I've ever ridden in. I can't lower my visor because that would ruin any chance of vision and as I breath I'm drinking water.
Eventually I manage to get off the interstate and onto a quieter road where I can slow right down and find a safer route to the mansion.
When I get there I check the bike out and find it to be gleaming immaculately at me. It's the cleanest I've seen it since I wheeled it out of the Showroom. The rain has blasted it clean in every nook and cranny.
Quite a nice house
I've heard a lot about Graceland most of it highlighting the appalling taste of the King. But looking beyond that (and some of it is exactly as described) it has a nice kind of lived in feel to it. You can feel that lots of people would have been kicking around the place and that it was probably a very sociable place to go. It isn't huge or ostentatious in the way I expected. In some ways you could say it is quite modest for someone as famous as Elvis.
But it was missing a garden shed.
Hustled by a Scammer
Much to my shame I then got scammed. I rode into Memphis and went to Beale Street via the riverside. There's a nice park at the riverside with a visitor centre. Around the park there are quite a few people knocking around in groups. This could be a bit intimidating but I thought it was probably OK and went down to take some pictures.
A group of two girls and a bloke asked me where I was from and I had a chat with them then three guys asked what bike I was on. The main guy I spoke to, Charles, was really pleasant and we were soon having a laugh and a joke.
After that I headed for Beale street which is renowned for it's music bars (particularly BB King's club and bar). I rode into a deserted car park.
A guy strolled up and asked me if I wanted to park and I said yes. He then walked ahead of me and put a credit card into the machine and got a ticket. "You can buy it off me. Look I just got it for you".
I've developed a way of dealing with this kind of situation which is to give way a little bit but be firm at the first opportunity and don't be frightened or intimidated. I've had to use it on one other occasion on this trip and it worked fine.
So I said to the guy that I didn't have the exact change did he have any change which (of course) he didn't. At this point I tried to gain a bit of control of the situation.
"OK well you give me the ticket and we'll get some change and I'll pay you".
This is a great scam. Probably a stolen credit card.
So we went to the nearest bar and I got change and gave him a couple of extra dollars.
"That's so you watch the bike for me, don't let anyone touch it", that's him off happy for the price of a can of drink.
I watched a few other people hustling the tourists. They're wasting their time. They use really good tactics to get people to speak to them then move in with whatever their scam is. They'd make great car salesmen!!
On the way back to the bike one approached me and said the bike was about to be towed away but he could help me if I could give him some dollars. Yeah right! On your bike son, I've been had once and it ain't happening again. Time to be a bit blunt. He got the point and waved as I rode off. Not sure what he was saying beneath his breath.
All of this might make Memphis sound the pits. But actually I quite like the place. As much as there is a bit of a street lowlife thing going on, I was also greeted at traffic lights with "Hey man nice bike, where ya from?" and quite a few motorists and pedestrians waved at me. Yep. I could probably stay a bit longer but it's time to be moving on....
One final mention. I met a fellow road rat from Europe today, a French guy called Nicholas who is riding from Ontario to Vancouver on a Ducati 750 monster. We had a brief chat - might see him again on the way over.
The state of Arkansas begins at the mid point of the Mississippi so I'm spending the night of the 25th May in a motel in Arkansas. In the morning, after a night of rumbling thunder and lightning the bike is bagged up and off we go.
I don't want to follow the interstate but opt to head North a bit then head West. Passing through a small town I see a computer sales outlet (a small locally run one) and decide to ask about mobile broadband. Most motels have wireless networks, but they aren't secure and I need to sort out a VAT bill online and will have to do other banking things during the trip.
The people in the shop recommend I double back and go and see a mobile phone sales outlet back the way. The people in there are really helpful (sorry I didn't get your names) but in the end can't sort me out because I don't have a US address for billing. So they direct me down the road to tiny outlet called 'Cricket' who should be able to sort me out because they do pre-paid.
Here I am dealt with by a charming lady called LaGea (pronounced with a soft g) who calls me sweetie a lot and sorts me out a mobile broadband. It won't work everywhere I go but should be useful near most of the main cities. I promised I would mention her in the blog because she gave great customer service number one and was a good laugh into the bargain. And her workmate was fun too. LaGea says that in her other job (which sounds like she works in a bar) there's a guy comes in "who's from where yo's from and ah just make's him talk all the tahm jes te here that accaynt". Well I liked your accent too sweetie. Ha.
All of that means that although I left early today, I haven't made much geographical progress at all come midday. And I'm making even less because all roads lead either North or South and I need to head West. Navigation at this point is by compass - I'm just using the little North pointer on the satnav. American roads run more or less North South, East West so this works.
The countryside here is dead flat. For a while I am heading towards the Mississippi but eventually I manage to find a road heading West and am on my way through a very rural back country landscape. Enormous fields, often flooded growing mostly rice but also from some of the farm signs cotton. The traffic is light and my butt is a bit bored of the saddle so I spend a bit of time stood up just for fun.
I don't know if I'll get fed up of too much flat countryside later on, but at the moment this is a bit novel (shouldn't be for someone who has lived in Norfolk for quite a lot of his life!). Not least there are some brilliant birds around. There's a black bird with scarlet (sometimes orange) patches on the 'shoulders' of it's wings - lots of them - and also some brilliant scarlet finches with little crowns that look like they might be cardinal finches.
The road kill is interesting too. Another turtle - so I wasn't dreaming that one when in Florida, a large owl, a large snake, a small hunting mammal that looked like a meerkat but can't have been one because they live in Africa, and a deer. I saw a dead wolf or coyote a few days ago too. On top of this a scattering of the poor old Armadillos including quite a large one who didn't manage to jump very far by the look of things.
The rice fields are interesting. The farmers build sweeping curved dams in the fields and the rice is bright green, so the whole effect is quite striking.
Over the seventy or so miles of flat land the weather starts to improve and brighten up. The land seems to rise a bit over a couple of hills that seem to lead to further flat lands in a series of shallow plateaus and all the time the road is dead straight for miles then delivers a tight bend to catch out those who are napping.
I've spotted a few interesting road signs over the course of the past few weeks:
Speed Limit Enforced by Aircraft. How? With Sidewinder Missiles?
Beware of Fallen Rocks. What about the ones that are on their way down?
Beware. Road Unsafe when under water. Really? Are you sure?
For my American friends. Don't worry. We manage to do much the same with some of our signs too.
Suddenly the landscape starts to change. There are a more hills and woodland and the plain gives way to a gradual climb and sweeping corners. I stop at a couple of motorcycle shops to see if I can buy a new lock (I only had one key on the one I brought from the UK which is a bit risky if I lose it so I gave it to Steve at the rally - and he gave me a set of earphones for my I-Pod with remote on off switch - very useful).
So far I would say that things feel pretty safe and I don't see anyone else putting locks on their bikes. This seems to be borne out by the fact that the bike shops don't sell them. I think world bike crime is centred on Aberdeen!
Added to that, the bike is alarmed. The rider is pretty nervous most of the time too.
At the second bike shop the guys are very welcoming and a bit wowed by the bike. "Pity the boss isn't here - he wants one of these!!"
They advise me to head for a place called Mountain View which is the direction they go to enjoy the corners and it's a good tip.
Coffee Politics and Religion
Eventually I pull into a small town called Leslie. The architecture looks quite old, like a throwback to the thirties and there's a coffee shop advertising a nice hot Latte. So pull over and pop in. Really interesting place. A combination of a curio shop and coffee bar with a very high ceiling and tin roof.
I have a chat while the coffee is being prepared with Dottie behind the counter and a gentleman called Wayne in front of it. We talk about the state of the world, which I don't know about because I haven't been watching the News.
I've talked a little bit about politics with various people and have found that everyone has their own opinions, but equally are happy to listen to points of view. I've tried to avoid instigating political discussions but have been happy enough to talk if it gets round to politics.
Up to now I haven't talked to anyone about religion and haven't added it into the blog in terms of what I've seen. It is very obvious though that America has a lot more active Christianity than the UK simply in the number of churches and the fact that they are invariably immaculately kept including in the rougher parts of cities. I guess we all knew about that already.
Another gentleman joins us as Wayne and I have a wide ranging conversation about Christian and Islamic history. And very interesting it is too. On the one hand Wayne is a committed Christian where I'm probably best described as a long lapsed one who has studied religious history during my history degree.
It turns out that the other gentleman is Carl who is the local Pastor and not only a biker, but is having a chopper built (like the ones in Orange County Choppers) and is married to Dottie.
At the end of our conversation Wayne asks if he can say a prayer for my journey and I say sure - no problem.
I can't say verbatum what the prayer he said was but it was simple, witty and quite moving actually. It asked for my safety and that I may avoid encounters with Deer and Turkeys which he's previously warned me about. "Watch them both 'cos they're thick and will just run at you. Best thing to do is just stop". I forgot to ask him to include bears but I know he'll read the blog so perhaps you could include me in your thoughts and prayers when I get to camping in Canada and the Rockies Wayne. Thanks.
Wayne asked me an interesting question during our chat. Was I running away from something or seeking something? My answer was that I was observing something (this earth and the people, architecture and creatures on it but I didn't make that clear).
Thinking back to one of my chats with David in Alabama though, I also think I'm trying to escape the dictates of modern working life which makes life pass so quickly for so little spiritual reward - and I don't mean that in a particularly religious context. We just don't normally get any time for ourselves and end up giving ourselves over to the companies and corporations that we work for. Being self employed is a gift because I can choose to drop out for a while, climb on my bike and do whatever I want to do.
After a brief, pleasant chat with Carl about bikes I'm off and manage to take the wrong turning at the end of the road, go straight over and up a very small road heading kind of South a bit.
Never mind all roads lead somewhere. Apart from the superb bit of new road near Memphis that led to nowhere at all. It came to a dead end with another strange sign. Road ends in 1000 yards. Well why did you build it then? At the end of the road was a circle so you could turn round and come back again. Some enterprising soul has carved out a little vegetable garden in a fallow field at the end in the middle of nowhere. That I'd managed to navigate myself to!
You might ask why, if the sign said that the road ended, did I go down it anyway? Curiosity killed the cat.
A bit of trail riding
And this particular road suddenly became a dirt road. Not an ordinary dirt road but a big one. The numbering on the map is CT107 which I guess probably means Cinder Track. There seem to be quite a few of them too. So a bit of gentle off roading or turn back. I have a quick look on the satnav and can see that the track leads to a village then a small town.
I decide to put Wayne's prayer to the test and head on. Great fun!! The GSA may be a very big heavy bit of kit but it was made for roads like this and it is probably good practice for Russia (there's a clue in there somewhere!). We handled it fine. This is the second bit of off roading I've done on the trip - albeit nothing too severe - and I'm getting a bit of a taste for it.
We arrive in a small town called Marshall shiny side up and find a super little Motel called 'The Rose' which is very cheap and has simple rooms with lots of nice touches in them - and immaculately clean. A real treat after all the major chain motels which are all a bit samey and vary in quality but are mostly OK.
The local supermarket is interesting. It doesn't sell any alchohol but has a magnificent selection of full on hunting rifles and shotguns. Probably best not to mix the two together.
A few rumbles of thunder again in the morning, departing the Rose Motel. Heading North initially then following signs to the Mystic Caverns following breakfast at a 'Mountain shop' come restaurant. Guided tour of two caverns, the latter of which used to hold a moonshine still and was a venue for parties in the prohibition. The bottom of the cavern, where there are two crystal clear pools was covered over with a floor and bands used to lower their gear in down a rope. So raves are nothing new really.
At the caverns I get to chat to a group bikers riding two Harleys and a Yamaha 1600 Drag Star. Pat, Carl and Diana give me the lowdown on Sturgis (huge bike rally) and a number of other places to try out west and North West. A lot of the bikers around here are very well travelled.
They also give me some vital information about Buffalos. Apparently they don't like motorcycles. If you approach one on a bike with the engine running they will start huffing and snorting and scratching up the ground.
The area I'm in is called the Ozark region of Arkansas. It's basically a plateau (so I'm told) which matches exactly what I saw yesterday coming in off the Mississippi plain. On the Plateau are a range of hills which aren't what I would call mountainous, but are still threaded with roads just as good as in the Appalachians. Another biker's paradise.
I think this region is one where the Amish people settled but I didn't see any, just some signs advertising the fact. I did see two Amish girls on the train from New York right at the beginning of the trip and they were dressed exactly as in Victorian times.
The three bikers show me an intriguing bit of motorcycle wear. It's a quilted suit filled with a kind of silica gel. When it is soaked in cold water the silica gel takes up the water keeping you dry and the suit acts as a kind of cooling bag. Apparently it works really well and I want one already!
Towards the end of the day I arrive at a town called Eureka Springs. It's a very big biker town and also has a famous religious passion play. A bit too touristy for me and I pass straight through.
I'm afraid my march Westwards becomes very half hearted as I chase around most of the afternoon round the hairpins and sweeping curves. I even head East for a good half hour at one point.
Gonna have to break free and get some serious Westward miles in tomorrow. Today was really about wearing away the sides of the tyres.
Heading for Route 66
Thursday 28th May.
The morning dawns grey and overcast, but you can tell it isn't going to rain. I don't know whether it's because the weather is continental compared to Atlantic, but you can tell whether it's going to rain or not (four whethers in a sentence).
The Ozarks have one more present for bikers before you hit Oklahoma. A series of fast bends (with 45mph limits on them). This is common in the US. They have a speed limit on bends. For a gentle rider like me it's quite easy to calculate a safe cornering speed. Just double the limit and bingo! A faster rider would probably be able to triple it. A corner that says 15 mph is going to be a 270 degree bend.
After that the road straightens out and plots a course (according to the satnav compass) of exactly, bang on precisely West. I'm amazed at this but shouldn't be really. They had so much land and it is either flat or gently undulating so there isn't any reason not to I suppose. The scenery at this point of North Eastern Oklahoma is broad farmland with large fields.
I'd like to say that the fields were huge beyond a Brit's comprehension but I'd be lying - they're big. Just occasionally there's a ripple of higher ground that the road cuts through presumably via the art of rock blasting. The road I'm on is a turnpike, that is one that has a toll (2 dollars 25 cents).
After a few miles I play around with the satnav to keep occupied. The bike has done just over 5400 miles with the satnav switched on since brand new. The highest elevation it has reached is just over 7400 feet (in the Swiss Alps) and the average speed has been 47.5 mph (which isn't bad considering the amount of town riding which brings it down quickly). The fastest it has gone is 104 mph (don't know where officer). I've had quite a bit more out of it than that with the satnav off but I always think there must be a limit that the little touratech top screen can endure.
Flicking through the onboard computer I can see that on this trip the average speed has been 48mph (so very close to satnav) and the average miles per gallon has been 51 which is very impressive for a fully loaded 1200. The US speed limits explain this though.
I've covered just under 5500 miles on this trip including 2400 in the car on the Florida jaunt.
The famous road itself
Oh here we are, arriving at Tulsa. This is a city with the usual busy network of concrete highways buzzing around it. I don't use any navigation skills at all, I'm just looking for a non-interstate route heading West. And the first one I see is very, very tantalising. 66.
I had an inkling that the old route 66 touched on Tulsa and I've talked to Americans about where I should go to hit it. To be honest I was intending to check out the wigwam Motel further West. I decide I might as well investigate and sure enough as soon as I hit it, in a fairly rough industrial part of the town, the signs clearly indicate that this is the original road. So I settle for a quick chow at a Subway and then head off down this most historic of roads.
It's a wonderful bit of road too. There are still loads of buildings and little towns frozen in time. Some businesses are closed, some open. I stop at a biker shack which is in an old wooden, erm well shack and buy a pair of fingerless leather gloves (beloved of Harley riders). These are a revelation. I would consider for this type of riding that they are much safer than normal gloves, particularly in operating things like the Satnav which is very distracting and frustrating in normal gloves. And they're so much more comfortable in the heat. Just don't fall off.
Because the cloudy skies of Arkansas have given way gradually through a gradual break up of the cloud cover to a few cotton wool white clouds to a beautiful vast pool of pale clear blue. The temperature has risen from a chilly 19 degrees C to 28.
Then as quickly as I find Route 66 I lose it. It just ends and by riding straight on I end up in farmland to the North of Oklahoma and lost.
I have a bit of a problem because I've ridden off the end of the map! Basically I've only loaded down maps to cover the end of Arkansas (there's a limit to how much I can fit on my 2 gig card). So I am riding in a kind of brown desert at the moment as far as the satnav is concerned. A new download is attempted by the roadside which isn't successful. Got to do that tonight.
Once I've recovered, by the simple expedient of back tracking to the junction I got lost at, I head in towards Oklahoma city centre where I pick up Interstate 40 to crack a few more miles before the sun goes down at a place called Weatherford.
West of Oklahoma the landscape changes to something I can honestly say I haven't seen before (not even in Lincolnshire). Vast grasslands. Prairie I suppose. It is fenced off and in some places cultivated but it is basically a sea of deep green parted by the arrow straight interstate dead set on exactly 270 degrees.
A Handfull of Firsts
A live Racoon.
A Cherokee Reservation Casino
A Hillbilly Hotel (canoe rental optional)
A wild Tortoise (unfortunately a dead One)
I'm still amazed at how welcoming people are here. In Oklahoma I got the feeling that people are a bit more reserved. I still got people driving up at traffic lights and asking me where I'm from before wishing me a safe journey. On leaving the motel at Springfield, Arkansas a guy called Ty walked over from the petrol station and had a chat.
Having bought another sub from across the road in Weatherford I went to the drinks machine at the motel (Scottish Inns - most of them look pretty good but this one is broken down in a fun kind of way) and found that a diet coke had transmogrified itself into a full fat sprite. Not being able to consume sugar in any great quantity this was no use to me.
A guy at that point in time came out of his room. He was a travelling painter (of the construction industry kind rather than Constable). I asked him if he wanted the can of drink explaining it was no use to me. He said yes he'd have it, but what was I going to drink. At this point he went to the back of his pick up (which are huge by the way) and rooted about a bit finding cases of coke but no diet coke.
"We got loads of water if you want any" he said
He handed me a couple of bottles which were swimming in a huge ice bucket. "If that ain't enough buddy come back - take as much as you like"
Friday 29th May
In the morning I give the bike a good clean down while the sun is drying the shirts I hand washed in the sink last night on the railings of the empty swimming pool enclosure. When I go to check the shirts, both me and the very large spider that has chosen to sun him or herself on one of them get a nasty shock.
The first part of my day's journey is a short hop to the Route 66 museum just down Interstate 40 where the ladies in reception make a bit of a fuss over me. I'm just lapping it all up.
Just a brief history of the road. It was built in the 1920's and, when completed, ran from Chicago to California. Nothing like it had been built before in the US. Initially it was built using horse drawn grading machines and by hiring farmers and their son's at each section that it was built. It was made very solidly of concrete section with a concrete curb all in one slab.
Over the years it became an icon. The idea that you could travel right across (well almost) made it part of the American adventure and coined the phrase (California or bust) because vehicles were abandoned or scrapped along the way. Whole communities prospered by providing lodgings, repair facilities and depots along the way and many of these were built in the style of the era they were built so, for instance a lot of early buildings are Art Deco.
It also added it's mystique in music and in the genre of the road movie. The sections of it that I rode were absolutely dead straight on 270 degrees. The death knell of Route 66 was delivered by Hitler. Well almost. Impressed by the Autobahns that he saw in Germany at the end of the war, Ike commenced the building of what we would call motorways and, when Interstate 40 and others were built and opened Route 66 was instantly doomed.
The business that had kept the infrastructure alive died literally overnight leaving many places as virtual ghost towns. It is now a fragmented set of road sections. So far I've ridden about 40 miles of it or so including 15 miles of original section which runs right alongside the Interstate and is virtually deserted. Quite eerie really.
The museum isn't huge but is good fun and well worth a visit and an hour's relaxation. It's got a set of halls for each era crammed with the iconography of that time.
After the visit I was directed to the stretch of road mentioned above and we're off.
It is worth mentioning that the Interstates are the modern equivalent in that they too have the new motel's, eateries and garages at nearly every intersection with every road. What is different is that big business has moved in and they all look the same. A sign of modern times I guess.
This part of the journey is a real road trip. Using the Interstate (which Americans call 'Slab Top', I'm eventually on 40 heading West in the company of a young lady in a small car with Texas stickers all over it and a truck in a legal limit race where we each keep overtaking the other at between 70 and 80 mph.
The scenery in Oklahoma is the same as yesterday, big open farmland sometimes crops, sometimes grassland. This gradually gives way to the real prairie some of which isn't fenced off and looks original. You can imagine the Indian hunting parties trekking across under an open sky. Which is a dome of blue. Temperature is rock steady at 30 degrees C.
Then we're over the border into Texas.
The Lone Star State
After about an hour I decide to get something to eat and see signs for a town called Shamrock. Bet there won't be an Irish pub here then! This is one of the original Route 66 towns. It runs in a long street North to South intersecting the Westward pathway of the old route and the newer Interstate. Apart from the references to Shamrocks and anything else you can think of Irish it's main feature of interest is a beautifully restored and incredibly elaborate tiled gas station with a tower on it which appears to be the town civic centre now.
Off again after a quick phone home. The landscape becomes more scrubby and drier. People in cars now have ten gallon hat's on.
Amarillo. Not hard to find. There's probably more than one way there but if you're lost I40 would be the kiddie. And before that it would have been 66. Point North, turn left. That's the route to Amarillo.
When you get there it turns out to be a sprawling junction. For road traffic, particularly for freight trains and also for my first sighting of the Us Marine Corps most interesting aircraft - the tilt rotor Osprey. This is a fixed wing aircraft that can land and take off vertically by tilting it's wings. The propellers are enormous and spin relatively slowly.
Quick stop for water and off again. West of Amarillo the scenery is stunning. It's like riding inside a massive christmas snow shake ornament (do they have an official name, if they do I'm having a senior moment). The limit of visibility on land is the horizon for 360 degrees, maybe 20 miles in each direction and over this disc is a clear blue sky. This continues for many miles broken up only by a cattle ranch with hundreds of cattle in pens awaiting their 72oz steak destiny.
After many miles of this I'm twiddling with the satnav and notice the altimeter says 3880 feet. I thought I'd be at sea level. Maybe I'm in some kind of cumulative mode. I'll have to check it out - perhaps this is quite a high plateau. Just as I'm contemplating this we drop off the plateau so to speak. There must have been a geological fault line where two plates have slipped because we descend off one plain down a ridge of cliffs that run as far as the eye can see down to a new plateau.
I take a quick rest stop and chat to the owners of a huge motor home. Dudley and Robbie from Memphis. They're heading to the same destination as me - the Grand Canyon. We chat about the motor home. I'm only half surprised that you can drive any of these monsters on a normal license. The biggest one I've seen was the same size as a National Express Coach (literally the same) and Dudley's is not much smaller at 35 feet long. Behind that he's towing his car. I ask him if most RV parks will allow tents on and he says they will which is worth knowing.
The next State in this three State day of riding (which is only 300 miles actually) is New Mexico. Getting more like desert by the mile.
A bit further down the road I'm looking for my turn off to the North to take me up towards the mountains to the East of the Grand Canyon. I find the turning before that and decide to use that. After a few miles I decide this might be a mistake. I have 113 miles worth of fuel and it becomes apparent quite quickly that I'm heading into a wilderness. I have four horizons worth of travel and the first one has nothing at all in it. The land is what I would describe as bush. Not yet desert but there are cacti and the grass isn't managing to grow very high if at all.
It is therefore a bit of a relief when the road sweeps round and starts running West parallel with the Interstate. Eventually I'm able to give up on that one and cut back to the Interstate and find lodgings and fuel with 80 miles left in the tank. Phew.
Tomorrow I'm stocking up with water in my suit pack, fuel, a bit of food and I'm heading into the wilderness.
States Visited one way or another:
New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Columbia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico.
I bin through the desert on a horse with no name
The next two days have been an experience that I'm not sure I can do justice to in a few paragraphs. It feels a bit like the ending of 'American Beauty' where heaven is discovered to be an endless time of reflection on life. Well I feel like I've been bombarded with a million images, each one a photo opportunity that would take a very long time to reflect upon.
I think I've travelled in all about six hundred and fifty miles encapsulating scrubland, desert, mountains and high plains and the Rio Grande Canyon. In some parts it has felt like a true wilderness whilst in others it has been populated by people living in either very remote places, or in small communities. Racially it has covered the Hispanic people living in New Mexico and the Navajo people living in New Mexico and Arizona in the Navajo Nation.
On leaving Tucumcari I headed off into the scrubland desert that I described in the previous blog. Date, Saturday morning 30th May, just under a month since leaving England. A mile or two out of the town I pass a sign saying 'Las Vegas' 109 miles. That's Las Vegas New Mexico which probably never saw Elvis or Elton John. It is, however, the next petrol station. That means that my Honda Hornet back home would probably just about make it if the run in to the station is downhill. Hmmm.
I later saw a sign for a fuel station in the middle but this turned out to be deserted. Maybe put there to confuse those of us who would depart with 113 miles worth of gallons in our tanks!!
Before very long and with the temperature around 32 centigrade, blue skies above, with the occasional car or pick up passing by every ten minutes or thirty, it starts to feel very remote. And when I stop to take photographs, with the engine switched off, it is eerily quite. I mean totally quiet.
Slowly the landscape changes. Less bushes, very little grass if any and more cacti. But there's a lot of life out here thriving in the heat. Lizards, bees and other insects, hawks and erm vultures. And rabbits. Only one which has been squashed by a vehicle and is being eyed up by four or five vultures circling above. They keep the road very clean those chaps.
Gradually too I see rock outcrops that look like they're the stumps of ancient mountains ground down over time. When I get close to one the road rises and twists through it. Bang!! A massive blow knocks the bike alarmingly, grit blasts my face with sand and dead insects and nearly knocks me clean off the road. It was a blow of massive instant violence and was a single bolt of wind out of the blue. After it there is a screaming storm of wind then nothing.
The rock formations and desert sand are a rich brownish red in colour and when you pick a small bit of stone up it is surprisingly light.
The next time I'm near high ground I'm fortunate to be following a car and see it swerve violently. Then Bang! Hit again. It seems like it is the result of thermals and the air swirling and eddying around the cliffs of the high ground. The ground gets drier and drier, the road passing over dried out gullies and past a seemingly endless desert of small bushes and cacti.
Boats in the desert
Out of nowhere, in the middle of this Martian-like landscape appears a.....boatyard! Turns out that there is a dam and there is a small community and a National park camping ground and visitor's centre. Everyone living out here in this wilderness seems to have a boat which they bring to the lake. Which predictably is almost empty. In the UK this would actually be seen as quite a large body of water, but here it is clear that it is filling just the bottom of the available valley that could be filled.
Never mind, people are out there zooming around in their speedboats (presumably yachts would get knocked over). They also are sunbathing on the beaches of red sand.
Then, after about seventy miles there is sign of further habitation. At one entrance to a ranch there is the bizarre sight of a christmas tree. Someone has decorated a desert bush with tinsel and it looks like the burning bush of the bible.
Gradually the desert climbs, becomes cooler and gives way to a plateau of grassland that seems to stretch forever. And in the distance there are mountains. Proper ones with snow on them. Nestling under them is the town of Las Vegas. Which is very Hispanic.
I don't need fuel but I decide to stop and top up - maybe buy something to eat. At the fuel station I nod to a guy with a Harley who has just topped up, fill up the tank and go and buy some salted sunflower kernels (got of a bit of a taste for these... and some real beef jerky).
On going back to the bike a lady sat on another Harley behind me shouts over that the bike is well loaded, have I come far? When I tell her she is a bit surprised to say the least. Annabelle is strikingly pretty and has a smile that would brighten anyone's day up (not that I'm having anything but a great one). We have a chat about travelling alone, and about her Harley (it's not fast enough to keep up with her parents who are on the other Harley).
Up into the Mountains
Well that was nice and now I'm off again. Promptly get lost by taking the right direction, wrong road. This takes me up into the mountains through tiny villages where people stare at me. That's 'cos they know that the gringo on the big bike ain't going now where. That's because this road comes to a prompt stop with a sign that says 'End of State Maintenance'. So where was the road going in the first place? And what about the poor beggars who live further up the mountain? They get a dirt track, that's what.
Talking Heads knew just what they were on about when they wrote the song 'We're on the road to nowhere'.
On recovering my directions I start to head up into sweeping Alpine roads where the cabins are much less cabin like and more like what you would see in Switzerland or Italy. In fact it reminds me a lot of the Tatra mountains in Slovakia and Poland except they are higher because they start from nearer sea level whereas these are about four thousand feet high.
Eventually a road sign says 'No vehicle greater than eight foot wide'. Then 'STRICTLY no vehicle greater than eight foot wide. A quick pacing check of the Mutt shows that we are only seven foot eleven and a quarter.
The road follows a deep cut in the mountains with a gushing stream. Pine trees and sandstone rocks that have been worn smooth. It's exactly like a film set for those B film westerns where camping wagon drivers drink coffee and are stalked by Indians. So the set makers were really on top of their game. And when you thought - that's obviously done in a studio you just might have been wrong...
At this point it gets darker and darker and it is quite obviously going to bucket down. I pull over and get the wet weather lining for the suit out. There isn't any choice - I've got to strip off down to skiddies to get the bottoms on. At the precise moment that I've got my boots and suit bottoms off and am hopping around in the middle of the road trying to get my leg in the lining, a huge Peterbildt comes flashing past. Steve from New Orleans told me that these are exactly eight foot wide (or should be), which is fortunate. Not sure what the driver thought though.
At the top of the Mountain there's a sign which records that the pass was used by the Indians returning from hunts down in the plains. It is over 9000 feet high and the height on the sign coincides exactly with the altimeter on the Satnav, so a new record for the bike.
I imagine that this could well be bear territory. I catch a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. Could it be.... I get my camera ready and very slowly stalk forward. He's sat on a rock eating his lunch and eyeing me up suspiciously. I shoot off a couple of shots then inch forward. The lens just doesn't have enough zoom for this kind of thing. Will I get a decent shot before he decides to attack??
Chippie the Chipmunk decides enough is enough and scurries off to his hole. I walk up to it and wait a bit. Of course they have more than one hole and doubtless he's popped up behind me and is giving me the finger.
A most beautiful campsite
The afternoon is dragging on and, by the time I've cleared the mountains and crossed the plain back into the desert I really need accommodation. While I'm thinking that a sign pops up indicating another dam and a park with campsite. Hooray!! I trundle in. These sites are built and run by the US Army corps of Pioneer Engineers. This one is built in a natural amphitheatre above a beautiful lake with desert mountain ridges all around. It is simply stunning.
The couple running it are very nice. They're living in a huge motor home on site. I think the gentleman's name was Art. He's ex-US Airforce (served in the UK at Lakenheath).
"How long do you stay here", I ask
"April to October when it closes", his wife tells me. "We just love it here and want everyone to enjoy it".
The nearest food is at a petrol station nearly twenty miles away. By the time I've pitched tent, got food and lit up the stove, it is inky dark.
Across the Navajo Nation
The morning of Sunday 31st of May dawns around five AM. A lot of the nautical community are up very early. The night was a bit chilly but as soon as the sun comes up the tent is nicely warm.
I take my time to pack my tent. My things are in complete disarray. I think I've lost the plot with packing and need to sort myself out before Diane arrives.
Heading North Westerly I have a couple of issues with the bike. The clutch operation has deteriorated a bit over the past few days and changing down from sixth gear to fifth is a bit fraught. I think it is a combination of running in hot temperatures in one gear (sixth) for most of the past few days but I am a bit worried by it. I check the manual at the first town I come to.
'The clutch doesn't need adjusting' says Mr BMW. Well I beg to differ dear chap - this one does! The only explanation can be that there's a bit of air in the hydraulic system which will need a look when the bike gets serviced in Seattle.
BMW gearboxes aren't renowned for their slickness but up 'til now this one has been quite sweet. I play around with it and it seems to free up a bit. The more I head into twisties over the next few miles the better it gets. I think it's just a 'feature'. Finally I notice that the brakes are pulsating a bit.
I would have thought that this signaled a warped disc (got one on the Hornet and it feels similar). Over the next few days I keep working the brake and that eases up too. Strange. I think the bike has run so many miles without gear change or brake usage that it needed a bit of a shake up.
All of these small niggles are nothing when measured against the landscape. A few miles down from the campsite there are some beautiful escarpments and cliffs. They're a mix of pastel colours in banding, pink, cream, yellow, green and almost blues. Remind me of a Battenburg cake.
There is a natural domed hollow in a cliff that would probably contain the dome of St Pauls Cathederal. It's advertised as the echoing dome.
When I pull up there a family depart in a pick up leaving just one other car there. I make my way up the pathway to the dome. There I find two girls with a pair of dogs on leads. They're probably in their early twenties and seem slightly wary when presented with a weathered old geezer in strange biking gear.
To break the ice I say "Hi" and ask if the dome really works.
"Yes it does" they reply
"Hello, hello, hello"...
That makes them laugh and relax.
"We've been trying to get the dogs to bark"
The scene from 'Something about Mary' flashes before my mind for some reason.
"Well hello there coochie coochie coo, who's a handsome fella"
Well I didn't say that, but I did lean forward to the nearest Mutt (the larger one) and say "Hello there Yap, Bark, Yap, Bark.
Well that worked well then.
A stop for fuel
This is a long day's ride. I keep stopping to take pictures and I'm just not covering distance very efficiently, but I do manage around 380 miles cross country on back roads.
One of the key towns that I pass through is called Shiprock. All the way up to it I've noticed small Oil Wells in the fields and this seems to be the main service town. Lots of names here that I'm familiar with. I can see pipe yards with tubing run out for inspection, yards with trucks that have rig derricks on them. Thought I'd escaped that for a while!
I also see a depot that advertises itself as the Navajo food distribution centre. It seems to indicate some kind of Government support for the Nation.
Further on I pull over into a petrol station and see that it is also a food store and cafe for the Navajo. I'm surrounded by people who are unmistakably Indian which I'm privately very pleased about (having read a bit about their history).
I decide to stop and have a coffee. Quite a few of the children that come through look nquiringly at me and the lady who serves me is very interested to know where I've come from and what I'm doing.
Cathedral of the Plains
The landscape is always changing. Still very dry high plains. But now a new thing. A majestic rock towering in the plain. It's so beautiful I keep stopping to try to photograph it. I think of Ely Cathedral, towering above the fens in East Anglia. This is so similar.
A bit further on I get chance to stop over and buy some souvenirs from some Navajo ladies by the roadside. The first stall has everything I would like and I only have eleven dollars in my pocket. So I buy ten dollars worth and give them eleven for luck along with two of the stickers of the Yorkshire Rose that I'm carrying with me.
The ladies two daughters seem made up with these and say they're going to stick them on their bead boxes.
There's a stone feature at the end of the lay by that another stall holder tells me is called the Elephant Feet. She then tries to sell me her wares and I tell her regretfully that I simply don't have any dollars left. She's really disappointed - "I haven't sold anything today and need to get home". Tears my heart out not to be able to buy something.
My overnight stay is in the Navajo town of Tuba, one hours ride away from the Grand Canyon.
The Outlaw Josey Earnshaw
I had a nice meal in a Navajo restaurant last night and am fortified with a breakfast in the morning. I also managed to draw a hundred bucks out of the cash machine so if I see any more sellers I might buy something for the kids (twenty year old ones that is!).
Sure enough, a mile or two down the road there's a stall. No-one there. I have a quick look. An embarrassed Indian lady appears from a car. "I'm so sorry, I never saw you arrive".
It reminds me of the scene in 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' when Dirty Harry, sorry Clint erm Josey manages to creep up on the old Chief.
"White man been creeping up on us for years"
Another box ticked.
By the way. The Navajo seem to call themselves Indians, not Native Americans, so I'm sticking with that.
On for an hour or so into Arizona.
I don't think I've done New Mexico any justice in this description. All I can say is that the State car license plates (or Tags as the Americans call them) might help.
North Carolina "First in Flight" - must be the Wright fellas
Florida "The Sunshine State"
Alabama "Moonshine Country" - only joking
New Mexico "Land of Enchantment" - Absolutely.
The Grand Canyon
Indescribable in my limited vocabulary. If you check out my flickr site you can see the photos but they don't do it any justice. You have to see it for yourself to appreciate the breadth, depth and majesty of this place. I can say though, that it hasn't been over commercialised and that can only be good.
I met a few bikers there though. The first one was Chris from Minnesota who has ridden down to meet his wife in Las Vegas and will then be riding back over three days. He's riding a Suzuki SV650 and has got himself well organised. We spent a couple of hours riding around the different viewing points.
Chris has recently met Lois Pryce, an inspirational solo biker who has written a couple of books. The first one is called 'Lois on the Loose' and is a must read if you are interested in overland riding. Diane and I went to a travel event at Touratech in Wales during mid-April this year (shortly before I departed). The evening's entertainment was a talk by Austin Vince who is Lois's hubby (he had me in stiches). Around the same time, in the USA, Chris was listening to Lois doing her talk. Small world in many ways.
Even smaller is that Lois and Vince's next expedition, on a Ural Russian sidecar combo was to the Appalachians, which I've just come from.
On the way we met Dave, from Kent, a fellow Engishman. Dave has hired a GS1200 BM for a few days and is visiting the Canyon. Finally a guy riding a KTM Adventure turns up and strolls over. This is another Dave from Pheonix AriZona. He's a serious mileage rider who has taken a few days off to ride right round the Canyon (which is not a small distance. It's hundreds of miles).
We cheerfully chat and exchange stories and contact details before parting on our individual journeys.
For me that means the sixty mile trek out of the Grand Canyon park and then another seventy or so miles towards Vegas.
Nevada is another very beautiful, almost ghostly, wilderness with just the Interstate 40 cutting through it. Fuel stops become very few and far between. In the distance real big mountains, blue in the late afternoon. Heat is 32 degrees on the bike's onboard computer.
The bike seems to have sorted itself out. I tightened a few bolts up for good measure at the last motel. The side stand had worked itself loose. I love it again long time.
One good turn
Just when I'm wondering when the next lodging stop will turn up I spot a group of bikers sat on the hard shoulder. In the UK there is an unwritten rule that you don't pass a biker by if you think they need help.
The group come over and say that they've run out of fuel. The guy with the problem is riding a BMW R1200 Custom. His name is Gerry from Colorado.
"No problem, I've got spare fuel and a transfer pump"
Well I did have a transfer pump, but I can't find it anywhere. Bags off, frantic searching. Nowt.
In the end I resort to pulling off my water bag's feeder pipe and doing the age old suck through to transfer fuel into my multi stove fuel bottle. I get a nice dollop of petrol in my mouth each time we fill the bottle. But it does the trick and, once fully loaded, we set off. We think Gerry has enough fuel for twenty miles tops so I stick with them hoping against hope that I don't have to repeat the job.
Turns out that the next fuel stop is two miles up the road. We're all relieved and amazed that he was so close when he ran out.
Quick photos are taken and numbers exchanged. We're all headed for Vegas an might make a meet up there for a few bevies. Nice guys: Gerry, Aron, Ritchie and Jeremy riding a BM, two Triumphs (well done chaps) and a Suzuki GSXR.
Over to Las Vegas
By gum, it's a bit warm here. Setting off from my overnight signs say that Las Vegas is just over a hundred miles away. The temperature has risen and is showing dead on 35 degrees. The road rises from a desert plain. It's a highway and there is plenty of traffic now.
I realise that I haven't picked up any water and I couldn't fill my pack up because the pipe is now smelling distinctly of petrol.
Concerns about the bike
Apart from the problem with the clutch and gearchange I noticed an ominous space under the fuel tank where something used to be. Considering the loosened bolts on the screen and the sidestand I wonder if something has fallen off.
Poring over the maintenance manual and CD rom that I have in the Motel and Denny's restaurant the night before (Monday 1st June), I can't see anything of massive importance and I can't identify what it is that is missing.
The bike is running OK. In fact as I come down to lower altitudes it basically fixes itself on the Clutch, Gearbox and Braking fronts. So I'm fairly sure that the oil in each of these components must have been affected by the altitude. In fact the bike feels brand new again.
A bit over half way into the desert crossing (Mojave I think) we come upon some major roadworks. I find it amazing that people are working away in that kind of heat. After the roadworks there's a security stop (they wave me through). Strange...
The reason is clear as soon as we get to the Hoover Dam. This is a really incredible piece of engineering. All the more amazing that they're building a very high bridge above it. There is more security stopping traffic the other side of the Dam. Concerns about terrorism I guess.
It's very, very hot at the Dam. But the BMW Rallye suit is working exceptionally well out here in the desert. Doing what it says on the packet actually. Just wish I had the water pack in too, but if I drank from that I might spontaneously combust.
And so another thirty miles on I hit Las Vegas. Quite a beautiful sight it is too shimmering away in the desert. I let the Satnav choose a motel and get a very good rate for a room in a Comfort motel which would be a five star hotel room back home. Mine for about £40.
A quick internet search reveals a BMW bike shop about ten miles across town so I scoot over there. The staff are very helpful and the workshop foreman takes a look at my empty space. It's a carbon filter that is missing which extracts fuel if you overfill the tank and then holds it until it can be burned cleanly when you start up. The bike will run perfectly without it and he thinks it can't have fallen off but was probably removed by the guys in Dundee as it is really a non-essential extra.
So that's both me and the Mutt sunny side up in a scorching Las Vegas ready for a night out and then the ride to Los Angeles ready to meet Diane. We've covered just under 5000 miles from Portlethen to Las Vegas 7500 if you add in the car trip to Florida.
The last section across the deserts and mountains of New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada have been quite remarkable and I would love to go back and see more. I think I've covered about 1300 miles of backroads through the desert, met some wonderful people, had a few nervous moments with the bike and got lost once or twice. But I also enjoyed being there especially when I was alone in the vastness of it all.
I don't think it was particularly risky. At any time, if something had happened (barring a serious crash) I would have just had to wait a while for someone to happen along.
After the next short leg to LA there will be a month of riding two up. I'm not quite sure how we're going to fit the little lady on but it will be acheived one way or another. I might have to throw out some of the 200 pairs of pants that I brought with me. I'll just have to stop buying T shirts too.
Viva Las Vegas
How can I describe Las Vegas? Well; if Blackpool is Great Yarmouth on Viagra, then Las Vegas is Blackpool on steroids. And Viagra. Plus a shot of Red Bull and Voddie. With ice.
Having said that, Las Vegas might lose out on top trumps in a few areas. For a start it has a much vaunted replica of the Eiffel Tower. Well sorry chaps, not good enough. Blackpool's is better. And it has the best ballroom in the world underneath it. And another one in the Winter Gardens. Blackpool wins.
If you compare Vegas with Yarmouth, Vegas does have the Flamigo Casino. Yarmouth has the Flamingo amusement arcade. But dig a bit below that and you might find that the Flamingo in Yarmouth is built on the front of a Georgian building of some historical importance. One that Nelson himself would have been familiar with. If he'd have visited the Flamingo in Vegas he would have found a couple of rocks with scorpions or rattlers underneath them. Yarmouth wins.
People do seem to be enjoying themselves in Vegas though. Even though they are undoubtably losing their whole life savings in the process. Vegas tries to help them with the crisis. Lots of pawn shops and ones that advertise that they will pay the up and coming pay check so you can buy some crisps. Sorry chips.
I think maybe there's a better class of people visiting Vegas. Then again, most visitors to Yarmouth are from Leicester...
And then there's the donkeys. I haven't seen a single donkey in Vegas. Lots of sand but no donkeys. There's a killing to be made there for sure. Get a few burros over here and start giving rides down the strip. They'd love it.
I went and gambled five dollars of my works leaving present on the slot machines. Confused? Not since I toured the Grand Canyon with my flies undone did I look such a cretin. Pressing buttons here there and everywhere to no avail. Give me the penny fountain in the Flamingo Yarmouth any day. Yarmouth wins.
Freaky Weather. Scary Moments
Wednesday morning on the third of June and it's an early get up to pack the bike (getting routine now) and hit the road to Los Angeles. It's a cloudy morning and that means it's much cooler than Tuesday at a chilly 33 degrees C. Brrr.
The interstate carves across the desert. To get to it we have to ride past the airport, under the runway and hang a left a few miles further on. Easy Peasy.
It's quite a boring leg this. There is some scenery, but somehow it isn't as exciting with a huge freeway carving through it. I get a bit bored and pull over into a rest area for a swig of water.
While I'm trying to phone home I'm approached by two ladies with three little kids. The two elder boys who look to be around 4 years old want to talk to me about my bike. They tell me that they want to be baseball players when they grow up.
Their grandma is a lady called Rochelle Hecker. We have a quick chat. It turns out that Rochelle was born in the British Raj and is technically a Brit (albeit with an American accent). Rochelle lived in London for two years including a stint in Kensington (where I lived for 3 months on a previous company's expense). Isn't it a small world really.
It's really nice to have people come up to you and want to talk to you. And the main attraction is initially the bike rather than the aging bald Yorkie riding it. Only joking. It's my stunning good looks really.
A few miles further down the freeway and me and mutley hit a real problem. Very high crosswinds blowing up the desert and reducing visibility. I don't get too ruffled by what the elements can throw at me and I think I can handle this. But it starts to become very marginal. I can feel the bike threatening to be picked up sideways.
I see a slip road to a roadside eatery and decide it might be prudent to hang on for a bit.
When I slow down at the junction I literally am fighting to hold the bike upright. I'm in serious danger of being blown off it. I decide that moving forward is the better option and re-join the freeway.
The wind storm eases up a bit later and I pull in to a stop advertising 'Peggy sue's 50's Diner'. Got to be worth a look.
If the diner is an accurate representation of a 50's one then it's a bit of a surprise. I was expecting a leatherette and chrome masterpiece much like those on display in the Route 66 museum and beloved of films like 'Back to the Future'. But this is a large establishment with quite a few theme rooms and a large gift shop. It is very popular and fairly well packed with tourists passing through including a large French party.
The portions are large. I sit munching on mine and realise looking at the wall that I've sat down in the area dedicated to Julie Garland and the Wizard of Oz which I find a tad ironic since I've just come close to being blown heavenbound in a sandstorm!
Approaching Los Angeles
On the approach to the city the traffic becomes noticeably faster and more aggressive. Not as startling, by any stretch of the imagination, as Milan but a bit of a culture shock nonetheless. Time to speed up a bit and put the skills learnt in five years of London commuting to good use.
The worst thing you can do is be searching for things like accommodation in this kind of traffic, so I work my way in towards Los Angeles and then hang a right and stop on a quiet street. The Garmin GPS has an accommodation search which works really well in these circumstances - do the search, pick a motel and select 'go-to'. I think this feature is almost a safety one.
An Electronic Meltdown
Having sung the praises of the Great God Garmin, back to reality. I check in for one night into an independent motel run by a Sri Lankan family. It's pretty basic but clean (as nearly always) and has the benefit of a coin operated laundry. That night I decide to load up new maps into the GPS from the Garmin Mapsource software that I use on my netbook PC.
During the download there is some kind of error message on the PC indicating a problem with the GPS, then a message saying the maps have downloaded. I check the GPS and sure enough the maps I chose have loaded successfully. But then I notice that the map on the PC (which I use for planning and recording a track of my trip) has gone to a simple mode.
Garmin have a registration policy similar to Microsoft that use a key. So when you buy the software disk, the maps you get are very high level and no real use. You then have to go online to redeem a voucher given with the software which registers it via a 25 digit code to the GPS you own. This would be fine if it was a once only event, but I've had two instances before where the PC map apparently switches to a locked mode. When this happens I've used the 25 digit code to unlock the map again.
All of this wouldn't be too bad if the website was easy to understand and navigate around, but my experience of it is that it is pretty poor really. The online and software help is quite poorly written.
Anyway, the upshot of this is that when I recover the code (which is fiddly and not well explained) it doesn't appear to work. No maps. I've got the ones that cover the next week or so then nothing.
When I phone the Garmin help line the situation gets worse. There is a 20 minute queue for the operator because 'All our lines are busy'. Why am I not surprised? There'll be people stuck up mountains, fighting raging oceans and stuck in the shadow of rapids with unshaven banjo players commenting on how purdy they are all in a queue with their mobile signal fading. Not good enough Mr Garmin.
I give up and go and do some washing. At the laundry I meet three guys who are hanging around drinking the odd can of beer. From what I can gather they are construction workers who are out of work looking for contracts and being supported by union funds. They're clever guys too. Very articulate. One guy, called Mickie, is an engineer. He explains to me that the Government stimulous package which is supposed to kick off big construction projects hasn't percolated down to the construction companies who can't get money from the banks. So everyone is in Limbo.
Where I've just come from there is a shortage of engineers and where I've arrived they can't find work. I find myself treading a fine line in talking with them because sat in front of them is a pretty expensive bike and yet I gave up work to do this trip and will be in the same situation as them when I return to the UK. At the moment though I'm in a fortunate situation and they aren't.
A Grand Old Lady
The next morning I load up and head off towards Long Beach and the Queen Mary. Diane has booked us on to her for one night. I notice with dismay that the GPS isn't working and has lost all it's detail too. I can see on the display that Long Beach is to the South West so I use the compass to head in that direction then stop and ask directions. I've come a bit too far South but the instructions are dead simple and before long I'm following signs to the ship and then get a first glimpse of her.
The plan is to drop my bags off then head to the airport to meet Diane at 3:10pm. It is Thursday the 4th of June.
As I'm dropping the bags off a guy in a pick up shouts over to me. The usual questions of where are y'from man? But asked by a gentleman called Murray, who is very funny and animated. "Yo should be in a film man o on tha teleyvision doin that ridin. Right acrows Ahhmerica"
He said a lot more but I won't go on.
He seemed to be meeting people and organising something to do with a tattooing convention that was taking place over the coming weekend. I saw him a couple of times afterwards and he would always shout over. "Hey there's ma brother from England, How're ya doin man?"
I can't check in using Diane's name but they take my bags (all seven of them!) and I head off for the airport. It's very exciting to be seeing Diane again but her plane is delayed and it takes her a while to get through customs. I'm worried that her bags haven't transfered which would be a bit of a problem because it's straight on the bike and back to the ship.
There she is, walking through arrivals. Big hugs and then off to the bike. Diane has brought the bike's tank bag and a small Ortleib waterproof bag containing her clothes and camping gear. By my calculation we can fit everything in apart from her camera when we load the bike up again tomorrow.
The ride back to Long Beach is about thirty miles in the rush hour. One good thing about Los Angeles which is different to everywhere else so far is that bikes can filter. I check out how the locals are doing this and see that they sneak into the lane reserved for pool share cars and use the edges of that. This speeds things up significantly.
When we arrive and check on to the ship we have a fair wait behind a queue of elaborately tattooed bodies and are then directed to our cabin.
I've heard a few negative reports about the Hotel on the Queen Mary but both Diane and I agreed that they're nonesense. People aren't taking into account that the ship is nearly eighty years old. Personally I think it is stunning. The wood panelled cabin we're in is huge and beautifully appointed. I think that the ship is in remarkable condition and love all the art deco bars and public spaces.
In the evening we have a nice meal in one of the restaurants surrounded by more ink artists, all of whom seem very pleasant people. We joke about whether I should go and have a tattoo done. Being a bit of a non-conformist I was one of the very few Royal Navy sailors of the seventies who left the service without one. Despite attempts to get me drunk and adorned with something I wouldn't have been able to show my mother I successfully managed to avoid the needle.
Meeting the Enemy
Part of the Queen Mary real estate is a Russian Foxtrot class submarine tied up next to the liner (and completely dwarfed by it). As an ex Sonar operator this is my first opportunity to have a look at the 'other side'. Actually that isn't quite true - the shore establishment HMS Vernon hosted a Russian destroyer while I was there. We got on with the Russians extremely well - so well in fact that I realised I was a bit of a pacifist....
The next morning we went and had a quick visit to the submarine which was Diane's first look round one of these amazing machines. Right through the visit I was interested to compare the Russian boat with the British one's of that era. Diane asked me when the boat was built. Oh it would have been the 1950's, our boats were a lot more modern than this and were built in the early sixties.
I was then amazed to hear on the running broadcast guide that the boat was built in 1972. The technology was so old for that era.
Oh Dear. Tourism at it's finest
We're a bit sad to leave the Queen Mary and would have enjoyed a few more days on it, but leave we must and we load up (now people are really amazed) and head off in search of a Garmin dealer.
I've been given directions and have a real map and we eventually find our way to Fry's, a big electrical retailer back near the airport. Just as we arrive and turn in, there is a horrible screech as a car goes out of control skids and spins across the dual carriageway and ends up facing the wrong direction in the opposite lanes.
As we walk in to the store I say to Diane "This might sound stupid but you don't think they were checking out the bike do you?"
"I thought exactly the same thing, I'm sure they were staring at it". It does look like Canary Wharf on wheels...
The idea of going to Fry's is to see if they have the SD card version of the map software which will at least give me maps round the rest of the US and Canada although I wouldn't have use of them on the laptop. Unfortunately they can't help so we head off towards Santa Monica and look for a motel. We find one called the Pacific Sands right opposite the seafront. Cheap it is not. Booked in for two nights we can check out the beach and think about a trip to Universal Studios tomorrow.
The seafront on Santa Monica is a curious mix of beautiful people parading in their shades and a higher class of tramp who sleep around on the grass under the palm trees and move their belongings around in wheeled suitcases. They're also better dressed than I am which isn't very difficult at this stage of the trip. It's quite entertaining to take a coffee on the pier and people watch. It's like Eastbourne without the grey rinse.
There are some excellent breakers hitting the beach which make me wish I had my kayak with me. We decide to go and have a dip. The waves are really powerful. I have a go at surfing sans surf board and more than once get flipped head over heels much to Diane's amusement.
Back at the motel I show Diane the problem with the map software and have another go at unlocking it unsuccessfully. I go through all the menu view options checking each one. Buried in there is a menu flag which says 'show GPS detail' which is flagged off. Flag it on and bingo, the puzzle is solved. Why it set itself to the non GPS view when the download problem occurred is a mystery but at least it is fixed. The onboard GPS is also working again, we just rode a bit further South than the maps I'd loaded into it covered. Simple as that.
As a celebration we have a New York pizza and two bottles of red. Cue the hangover...
The motel tried to sell us tickets to Universal Studios which I thought were too expensive so we decide to travel over there on the bike and buy direct. I'm glad we did because the motel/hotel tickets were a rip off. Riding over to the Studios is really interesting too. We head off down Santa Monica Boulevard which is actually the end of Route 66 - which ends overlooking the sea.
We pass through Beverly Hills past Bel Aire and into Hollywood. We only get a quick glimpse of the famous sign on the hill. The area is clearly pretty wealthy but has it's more seedy side too (although many of the buildings in the poorer streets have interesting designs on them, little motifs and scrolls that show they were quite wealthy streets at some point).
The very expensive car count is surprisingly low. Much lower than Kensington or Aberdeen. Aberdeen has more Porches than Barnsley has pigeon lofts.
The Universal Studio tour is probably the nearest I'm going to get to being a tourist. Everyone I've met has said it is a 'must do' and we both find it a good way to pass an afternoon. The crashed aeroplane props from War of the Worlds (one of my fave films) is pretty spectacular. They bought a real 747 and smashed it up. It cost them less than the cost of a modest house to buy an old one.
Back on the Road
Los Angeles was a nice couple of days relaxation but it is time to head North. We aren't quite sure which route to take and have to sort out a couple of things over the next few days. Basically the bike has done too many miles and is drawing due to it's next service and the need for a new back tyre earlier than anticipated. The bike is booked in to a BMW dealers in Seattle in four weeks time but I don't think the back tyre will last that long, especially if we go to Yellowstone as planned.
So I'm going to need to bring the service forward if possible and, at the very least plan a new rear tyre in the next week or so.
We decide at a stop for lunch on the Pacific Highway, to head up the coast to have a look at the Hearst Castle and phone the dealer in Seattle to see if we can head there first and get the service done early. We'll know that on Tuesday.
Heading up the pacific highway we pass the famous surf dude names, Sunset Boulevard and Malibu. The beaches are exactly as you would expect with perfect breakers and surfers. Not many VW Combis about though.
Another type of Wave
Right round America, the bikers have waved. I've been flapping my left arm like there's no tomorrow. It's much easier to do the biker wave here than in the UK where our use of the left side of the road and having your right hand on the throttle means you have to wave across the body if you were so inclined. For that reason, bikers in the UK have adopted a nod rather than a wave as a form of acknowledgement to other bikers.
Anyone who merely drives a car will probably wonder why we bother in the first place. Well it's just part of the brotherhood (and sisterhood in more recent times). Generally bikers tend to get on well together and help each other out (although drinking petroleum product is taking it a bit far I think...!!).
Here near LA the bikers have ceased to wave (which is a bit like in London). I think there's just too many bikers so they don't bother waving to bikes passing along the other lane. But they do do a neat 'V' salute (Churchillian, not the Agincourt version) as they go past in the same direction.
The only other place I found they didn't acknowledge each other was in Taos where there was a 'real biker' community. People had warned me about the real bikers who are the original Harley riders I guess. They are the special ones who are lampooned in films like 'Every which way but loose' and 'Wild Hogs'. I'm not sure how you would describe them, I don't think they're Hells Angels but to cut a long story short, they don't acknowledge other bikers on the road.
Each to his or her own. Trouble is I can't work out who's who since they all ride Harleys so I kind of dithered with my hand hovering ready to flash a quick wave just in case the bandana'd individual dropped his arm down at the last minute and caught me out. The real bikers didn't seem to ride very far out from base (probably their bikes are a tad uncomfortable being often heavily modified) and twenty miles out from their town normal service had been resumed.
I did come across some of these grizzled old boys at a fuel stop heading towards Los Angeles. Pulling in to the station I could see straight away these were the real deal and made a quick decision to park right next to them. Heading into the station there was no acknowledgement, but as I came out the bigger of the two fellas was stood next to the Mutt.
I nodded to him and supressed the desire to ask if he'd bitten off any chicken heads recently. "Nice Beemer" he said in a Southern Accent that was very difficult to understand.
We had a chat about Harleys, where they were from (Oklahoma) and what I was up to.
"Ride safe" he said as we parted. Just normal decent people really wave or no wave.
The Pacific Highway
Up until now, the Pacific Highway hasn't met riding heaven expectations. It's been a combination of the original route 1 with the odd stretch of Highway 101 which is motorway. The scenery is pretty enough consisting of hills that are parched quite dry and glimpses of the mountains inland.
We overnight in a Best Western Motel in Morro bay which is famous for a huge rock that can be seen for miles around and is well signposted. They didn't signpost the three huge chimneys adjacent to it. The motel rooms are some of the smallest I've encountered thus far and are almost the most expensive.
The next morning we head up the coast about fifteen miles to the Hearst Castle. I once heard a young couple on a train to London waxing lyrical about the Hearst Castle saying it was the most amazing place they had ever been. I would have to say that it is impressive. The story about how William Hearst came to build it is interesting too. It was the impression given to him whilst accompanying his mother around the European tour in Victorian times that gave him his inspiration apparently.
He hired California's only woman architecht to design and help him build the castle (I would call it a house really albeit a very grand one). He entertained many friends there, often the movie stars of the day.
I have to disagree with the couple on the train though. If you want your breath taking away then any of the great cathedrals or just the interior of the Wallace collection in London would do it for me above the Hearst Castle. The indoor swimming pool was pretty cool though I do have to admit and it is well worth a visit. And the view from the top of the hill where the house stands is stunning.
Fierce Aquatic Creatures
Back on the bike and we're heading up route 1 which, the map shows me, promises to wiggle a bit around the coastline. We only manage to get about two miles before a sign says we can observe some elephant seals. With my uncanny ability to navigate incorrectly we manage to turn off early. Which is a very good thing.
We end up at a small gravel park next to a small beach which is not the main one being observed by the greater populace but, sure enough, there appears to be a mammalian carpet up the far end of the beach. There's evidence of people having climbed down the small cliff so I clamber down to try and get some close up shots. Being intelligent animals the seals are sound asleep at this time in the afternoon having a siesta.
So I sneak a bit nearer and take a few more shots before one wakes up quite near to me and has a good old snort. I've seen one just now clamber out of the ocean and noted that it has an over the ground speed of a three legged tortoise but I can tell you that my bravery quotient does not allow me to risk being rolled to death by three tons of blubber and that's as far as my David Attenborough talents are going to be pushed.
But, dear blog reader I did make an effort.
Now that's more like it!
One of the visitors to the Hearst Castle promised me a road with curves a bit further up and he wasn't lying. Suddenly all the fuss makes sense because it truly is a wonderful stretch of tarmac maybe about fifty miles long. Sweeping and twisting around the cliffs with the Pacific Ocean to your left and the cliff side to your right (If you're heading North and haven't ridden off the edge). It's heavily populated by bikers, many of whom have come quite a distance to ride it (we chatted to some from Salt Lake City at a fuel stop).
The few habitated places are quite non-commercialised with tiny petrol (gas) stations attached to small gift shop attached to lodgings. The perfect antidote to the huge commercial versions found at the intersection of most Interstate junctions. Although I shouldn't complain too much because I've stayed in a lot of Super 8's and eaten a lifetime's worth of Subways by now.
By the time we pull over at Big Sur into a roadside Motel I think we've both decided that this is a version of biker's heaven on Earth. The Motel is gut wrenchingly expensive, but when we get to our little cabin and open the door we can see why. Designed in a Scandanavian fashion with everything top drawer designer perfect, it is transformed into the bargain of the century. It even has it's own patio garden.
Across the road is the Big Sur Roadhouse restaurant where we have a great meal just to cap off all the luxury and good living and make sure that we are heading flat out in top gear to early bankruptcy. If you're going to go down you might as well do it in style.
Baked beans and a tent for you tomorrow madam.
The next morning we get up a little late and grab a quick coffee while Diane updates the blog. We then head off up towards Monteray. The road isn't quite as spectacular as yesterday's switchback of curves but it is pleasant enough and we have a go at filming a few of the tighter twisties. Monteray is a pleasant place with a well known fishwharf which is quite touristy.
After a meal in a fish restaurant watching Pelicans and seals frolicking in the harbour we head back to the car park via the penny squashing machine. Actually Pelicans don't frolic very much, they're far too cool for that. They have the ability to fly in line astern formation better than the Red Arrows (or Blue Angels for any American readers). In fact if you tied a coloured smoke cannister to their backsides the result would be ace.
Penny squashing machines are a strange American affliction with the need metomorphise a perfectly good American penny into a token with an imprint of the local attraction at any given place. They charge you two quarters (normally) for the privelidge of this desecration of a perfectly good coin of the realm. This sad and pointless activity is completely addictive and I have a pocket brimming with the 'highly collectable' tokens.
Back to Pelicans
They patrol in single file.
I mean how do they sort themselves into formation without radio? Is there a (big) pecking order as to who goes at the front of the formation and who's next in line? How does the one at the front know that the one at the back can keep up? Pelicans are cool and impressive birds. The one I took a picture of had a little yellow punk mohican. How cool is that?
There are a number of boats promising Whale watching excursions which we don't have time for today so we have to devise a return visit in our plans. I phone the nice people at Ridewest BMW Seattle and they manage to pull the bike service forward to the 18th June. So we decide to head East to Yosemite National Park for a few days camping, then return to Monteray to try and see a whale or two before heading right up the Pacific highway to Seattle. Once the bike is serviced we're going to do a circular route to Yellowstone before dropping Diane off back in Seattle around the second of July.
At the bike park there are a couple of bikers who we have a chat with. Gary, who is riding a BMW R1150 RT and is from Salt Lake City, is riding a similar route to us over to Yosemite - we may see him a bit later in the week. We also meet a citizen of Monteray who is a dead ringer for Sir Bobby Charlton. He comes over and chats to us and the other bikers.I advise him that he would probably get a few free meals if he ever went over to Manchester! He tells me that he finds soccer very boring. He might be advised to brush up on that line if he wants a free meal in Manchester...
Departing Monteray Eastwards we just follow the compass which takes us out into the hills and the wide valleys that stretch to the Southeast of San Francisco/San Jose. This is deep farming territory with big fields of all sorts of crops - strawberries, onions, brocolli, lettuce and corn.
We aren't quite on the right track and eventually we have to do a bit of planning with the GPS which gets us onto route 152 to Merced, a reasonably large agricultural town and junction of roads heading North/South or East/West which seems to be populated by a breed of even more friendly than normal locals. Everyone says hello to us even when we are dressed normally and are not near the bike. I was even given a polite hello by a gentleman with 'Coroner' written on his shirt. Which was nice.
The tyres are now very nicely worn right over to the edges. Highway 1 the Pacific Highway is splendiferous. Diane asks me if there is any UK road that hugs a coastline like numero uno does.
I can only think of the Norfolk Coast Road.
Top Trumps Highway 1 versus the Norfolk Coast Road
Highway 1 has about a hundred miles of switchback around dramatic cliffs that tower hundreds of feet above and hundreds of feet below. The NCR is completely flat until Sheringham where there is the Beeston Bump. Erm I think Number one wins.
Highway One has Elephant Seals that would bite you if you were mortally incapacitated already and they could blubber wobble their way over to you. The NCR has grey seals at Blakeney Point which often carry strange diseases but are otherwise cute. It's a draw.
Monteray is noted for it's clam chowder bars. You can pick your own cockles at Stiffkey on the NCR. Monteray wins.
At the top end of this bit of number 1 is the Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco overlooking 'Frisco bay. At the top end of the NCR is Hunstanton overlooking the Wash. Hmmm difficult one this....
I think number one has it folks.
Real Cowboys and Mountains
Wednesday 10th June
Our search for a campsite on the evening of the 9th June led us neatly to a nice independent motel. The quest for camping continues.
In the morning we pack the bike with 30 seconds to spare before the 11am check out limit and head off along a route that is designed to confuse non colonials. The road we are following starts off as highway 20 but then becomes highway 20 and a half. Strange.
We are travelling across a perfectly flat plain with a small mountain range called the Mustang Ridge blue in the distance to the West of us and the bigger range of the Sierra Nevada to the East just visible. That's our destination.
The primary feature of this part of today's journey is an enormous orchard that by my calculation must cover twenty or so square miles. Some of which is for sale. In the recession we are seeing a lot of things either closing down or for sale and people do talk about the uncertainty of the recession with quite deep concerns. We are also seeing quite a lot of people who are homeless or moving to try and find work.
After thirty or forty miles the land changes with a few ripples and foothills which means that the dead straight farming roads are starting to twist a bit. The people living out here either live in small farming communities or in fairly solitary houses.
Eventually we arrive in a small town (we would probably call it a village) called Raymond. We spot a museum then a general store with another store opposite. The general store says that it was established in 1913, but it could have been fifty years before that because it is pretty much what you would find in a cowboy movie from the outside (with a big porch).
We decide to stop and get something to eat and drink. Before we can get in we are asked where we are from (in a nice way) and the lady in question then tells us about the history of the town and the store.
Raymond was settled by English people whilst the village next to it was settled by Scottish people (I think looking at the map that must be Knowles). It seems that these two communities out in the middle of no-where decided to bury any hatchets (in the ground rather than each others heads) and there was a fair amount of cross community marriages because everyone seems to claim a Scottish Grandmother and English Grandfather or vice versa.
So me and Diane fit in quite well. Raymond prospered because of the Gold Rush in the Yosemite. They managed to build a railway to it but people then changed to Stagecoaches which took people up into the mountain. And there across the street you can see where the railway ended and the decaying wooden remains of the platform used to mount the stage coach.
All of this died off with the advent of the motor car. Raymond became isolated again and is now a farming community with the general store at it's heart. And what a fascinating place it is, frozen in time. They've closed the top part which was a clothing store but the lower level has it's original fittings. Where the post office was there is now a cafe which seems very popular and looks like it was added in the fifties. Through the other side of the store is a bar that probably hasn't changed since 1913.
Just about everyone is interested in us because they literally don't see many strangers in these parts. A couple who ride Harleys come over for a chat and explain that this route we've taken is right off the beaten track. In a way this is the 'real' America. They tell us that there are three routes to Yosemite but can't agree between themselves which is the best one to take.
To the right and straight on both lead into the park through the traditional portal, but tantalisingly to the left is a back road that 'has only recently been paved'. "It might be a bit dodgy but you would enjoy it. Watch out for Turkeys though 'cos they really hurt if you hit them".
Heading down the single street in the town a command decision is made to take the left road. This passes a few outlying homesteads and ranches and then dives into an impressive scenery of dried grasslands, oak trees and large rocks. The road varies in quality with gravel on a few bends.
Eventually we end up following a pick up truck and then, out in the middle of nowhere we end in a traffic jam. It's difficult to see round the pick up (they're massive things) but it looks like a transfer of cattle is taking place ahead. Once this is done we get waved by and can see some real working cowboys on their immaculate horses rounding up the cattle from the wagon. The only thing missing is the Marlborough adverising.
Yosemite National Park
The road up to Yosemite climbs through the pine covered mountains and the air gets decidedly colder. The road up to the park snakes with a series of fun bends. At the park entrance we pay for a seven day pass (20 Dollars) and are told that the park campsites are full. Apparently you have to book well in advance for them. So we have a little look around and then head back down into the nearest town which is called Oakhurst. There's and RV park there and I've been advised by the RV owners I've talked to on the way across America that the RV parks do have a few tent spaces.
Turns out to be correct. The RV park owner takes Seventy Six bucks off us and directs us to a site down by the river where we pitch up Agnes the tent and head off for some provisions from the nearest supermarket. A five litre box of red wine should last us for the duration and is a lot cheaper than a three litre box in the UK. The campsite has the obligatory fire pit with neat inclusive barbeque. Having introduced ourselves to the neighbours, Martin and Lisa from San Francisco, we fire up a barbie and proceed to dispose of two thirds of our wine box.
It's a near miracle that the tent managed to survive the night. I think I was a bit sozzled but I know for a fact that my navigator was totally drunk and had a fit of hysterical giggling just trying to open the door to the flysheet.
The next morning, slightly worse for wear, we head up into the Park. The main part of Yosemite is a glacial valley which is accessed through a tunnel which itself is high into the Sierra Nevada. At the far end of the tunnel is a car park an viewing point which provides you with the first sight of Yosemite in all it's glory.
The Sierra Nevada mountain range is a single block of granite eight hundred miles long. In the Yosemite It took millions of years of erosion and movement of the earth's crust for the granite to be revealed having been formed in the earth's mantle. Initially eroded by rivers into deep 'V' shaped valleys it was then eroded by glaciers in the last ice age, it's valley sides cut and polished by the rocks in the ice. It is truly impressive.
Another feature of Yosemite that we really want to see and enjoy is the wildlife and plants. The evening before we went down to the Sequoia glade, giant redwood trees up to two thousand years old. But we really want to see some bears. There are plenty of signs about the bears but they aren't what you would expect. In the park they want the bears to be left alone to be wild and warn people about speeding (which kills dozens of bears a year) and about being careful around the campsites.
There's a film in the visitor centre showing how bears learn how to break into cars (and I mean literally break in and destroy the car) to get to food or rubbish. Once they've learned out to do this they become a problem and can get aggressive in the campsites whilst looking for food. Trouble is, however much we look for a bear sighting we don't see any at all.
We do see a nice red deer though. It's pretty tame, or so it seems and attracts a lot of people taking pictures as it eats grass right in the middle of the car park. Later on we stop at a viewing point where we are cheerfully informed that a deer killed a five year old boy right near this point while he was feeding it along with a graphic cartoon of how exactly it managed to do it.
A Real Bear
The next day we decide to head up to the Glacier Point where the view is supposed to be outstanding. Lisa advised us that the ride was a bit terrifying because there aren't any rails or armco and the drop off is straight down thousands of feet. I don't find it too bad but then manage to peer over the side at one point and it certainly is a long way down. At the viewing point the chances of vertigo increase considerably as you peer over the sheer rock into the valley thousands of feet below. The birdlife and chipmunks add to the photo opportunities.
On the way back down the driver in front is very erratic and keeps braking whenever another car comes up the other direction. We then come on some kind of incident that has stopped the traffic ahead. People are photographing something in the valley below. We park up the bike and grab our still and video cameras and head towards the crowd (who are pretty excited). At first I can't see anything, but with a few directions there it is. A beautiful brown bear.
He (or she) is either completely unaware of the commotion above or isn't particularly interested and is moving slowly towards us all grubbing around for food. I think they probably trained this one because right on queue he climbs a tree, works at the bark and tears a huge chunk down. At this point we decide he's about three hundred metres away. I've always wanted to see a wild bear and this seems like the perfect distance. Included in the safety margin are a number of older people who I reckon I can outstrip on the way back to the bike and I'm fairly sure I can run faster than Diane.....
This particular bear is very docile compared to bear 37. Bear 37 features very heavily on the video at the visitor centre seemingly being an expert in grand theft auto. The park have tagged his ear with a huge white tag with his number on. The video advises the innocent visitor that bears with attitude are shot. Bear 37 has more attitude than the collected Chav population of Chatham. I do hope he survived and was rehabilitated.
Yosemite has a substantial population of these little critters. I can't quite understand the purpose of a squirrel that doesn't climb trees. I mean does it really qualify for the label? At what point does it cease to be a squirrel and start to be a rat? Apart from that, ground squirrels are very bad at posing for photographs. They appear to be experts at blinking just as you press the shutter button so none of your photo's come out in a fit state for your flickr account.
A Second Meeting with Nicholas
Isn't it strange that in riding across this huge continent you would run into the same person twice? On the way down out of the park I notice the unmistakable shape of a Ducati Monster loaded up with solo rider and camping gear. I comment to Diane on the intercomm that it looks remarkably like the French bike that I saw in Memphis. Sure enough it has French plates. We catch up with him at the park exit and I say hello (again).
I don't think Nicholas recognised me right away but maybe had to put two and two together. A bit later on he pulls over to let us pass and gives us a wave.
Back to Monterey
Yosemite was a fabulous experience capped off perfectly by the bear sighting but it was time to draw a big geographic curve Westwards and then North to 'T' up the service in Seattle. I could have tried cancelling the service and maybe get it done by a dealer in San Francisco or somewhere else nearer, but so far I have found Ride West in Seattle to be very accomodating and I don't like letting people down.
Besides the trip up route 1 is very tempting.
So we pack up our tent under the curious gaze of our new neighbours (who have flown over from Baltimore to visit Yosemite) and depart the camp site around half eleven on Saturday morning. The ride back to Monterey on the coast South of San Francisco is a reversal almost of the ride out to Yosemite back on Wednesday.
A friend of mine, Teresa, once discussed with me the merits of reading 'Lord of the Rings' for a second or third time when the first Film of the trilogy came out. After a lot of deliberating she said that she just couldn't face being dragged with Sam and Frodo across the wastelands and into Mordor. Tolkien, she said, tortures the reader every step of the way and she had much better things to do with her life. Turned out this involved getting pregnant.
So I think I will spare you the trip back across the plains and the windy mountain range. Not that the scenery resembled the fired out wastes of the Dark Lord, but we've done it once and there are more interesting things to blog. Motels.
When we arrive at Monterey we discuss on the intercom whether to travel in to the centre of the town to look up some accommodation or to be lazy and choose the nearest accomodation at hand which is a Quality Inn. A command decision is taken by the pilot which is, of course the laziest option possible.
Unfortunately the Quality Inn is a bit of a misnomer. It's not that it isn't clean, or particularly badly fitted out, but the room is small and way too expensive. Quality Inn have now joined Best Western at the bottom of the pile. Overpriced for no creditable reason.
At the top of the Motel charts are most of the independents which are normally cheap and cheerful, the Glen Oaks at Big Sur which was very expensive but 5 star plus and, for the big chains, Super 8 which I haven't found a bad or overpriced one yet. Travelodge are a bit expensive but pretty good too from what I've seen of them in the USA.
The main reason for heading back to Monterey is to take a trip out to the bay to spot whales. To do this we pack the bike up on Sunday Morning (14th June) and risk parking the bike in Monterey with all our gear on it by the historical fishing port.
We should report that we found the whale watching to be expensive at 40 dollars each. Diane, being female, converts this into how much it would cost to take a family on the trip whilst I, being an ex matelot, find the timber construction of the boat to be much more interesting. I think it is safe to say that cost doesn't matter a jot when the first sighting of 'thar she blows' (or something similar) echoes around the boat's tannoy.
I have seen whales before whilst serving in one or three of Her Majesty's grey line tubs and have picked up a few on sonar while chasing the black metal slugs that resemble them a bit, but I'm a bit surprised to realise that the high pitched whoop that some idiot was letting out on that first sighting is issuing from me of all people!
The whales in question are humpbacks. The first sighting is some twelve miles offshore - two of these gentle giants expel air in a huge condensating blast and then slowly curve over and dive for food (sardines apparently). They have plates in their mouths that are made of the same material as our nails which also have hairs attached. They open their mouths and take in a great gobful of Pacific Ocean expanding the loose flesh underneath their mouths like a pelican. They then use the muscles in this flesh to squeeze the water back out of their mouths, trapping the fish in the hairs around the plates which they then lick off with their tongues.
This method wouldn't suit my mate Neville who chews each mouthful one hundred times and takes half an hour to eat an egg.
The guide on the boat passed around a plate. These fellas need a bit of whitening. Their smile must be very yellow and their breath is doubtless a bit fishy too. That aside they are beautiful creatures to see and about eight of them quietly keep a boat full of tourists enthralled for nearly an hour. some of these were Japanese tourists so I do hope that whale is off their sushi menu of choice from now on.
We're a bit anxious returning to the bike as it's probably the longest it's been lying around a car park with full kit on board. Following the lead of most American bikers we've even left our helmets hanging loose on the bike. As we pass through the car park about six cops have increased the local forces efficiency in the arrest of one hood. Oh dear, doesn't look good.
But there the bike is, to all intents looking like a baggage mountain with something red glinting underneath it. Jim from Florida told me that he thought things were generally safe and he hadn't had anything taken and, so far, that has been the case. Having had four bikes stolen in the UK (well one city actually) I think the comparison is fairly clear.
I think everyone gets a bad impression of where they live because they get to know more about what is going on, but equally I think the newspapers don't help by focusing a lot on crime. I never locked my bike up in London in five years of riding there and the worst that happened to me was being caught up in a parking fine scam run by the City of Westminster (which I refused to pay and got off because the incompetent who scammed me didn't fill his or her ticket in properly! Ha).
From Monterey we head up Route 1 towards San Francisco into some beautiful countryside and coastline. The road, which is initially straight dual carriageway around Monterey passes across the farmland plains to the North but eventually hugs the coast and starts to twist and swoop again.
We were tipped off by a biker from the area a few days ago about a stretch of road starting at a small town called Pescadero, that heads up into the hills. Looking at the map I can see that there is a loop to be had in riding this road, then turning North and rejoining highway 1. So we turn off at the sign and head up there. When we hit Pescadero we decide to stop to get something to eat. It's getting on for five in the afternoon and this will probably be our last chance of getting something and we need to put a few more miles on before sun down.
There is a restaurant that looks to be an Indian one but that is booked up. There's a fair few bikers stopping off and it seems a favoured spot. We've parked up opposite the restaurant and get chatting to two guys who's names I didn't note properly - I think one was called Maurice but could be wrong. Sorry guys - if you read this and pop a comment in I'll update the blog to correct this memory loss. Anyway, they're really nice fellas and very enthusiastic. One is riding a Husquvarna and the other a Kawasaki GPZ500 twin.
We get a meal at a cafe across the road which is selling Mexican food, very nice and highly recommended and then go and have a look round a warehouse type of concern which is selling local products called 'Made in Pescadero' ranging from furniture and paintings to jewellery. The jewellery is by Marty Magic - we buy a couple of necklaces with a fishy theme and also a small whale sculpture by Joel Hagen.
What a Road
Generally the tips by bikers on good roads to ride round here are spot on and this is no exception. The road heads through wooded hillsides and is another typical switchback all perfectly cambered. It could be even better if I wasn't just a bit worried about wildlife, namely deer as dusk is rapidly approaching.
Towards the end of the road we swoop round a corner and are met by a car that brakes and gives . I wonder if he had right of way and I've just made a big boo boo. Turning round and heading back I'm curious to see if it was my mistake and am relieved to find that I was in the right and he was in the wrong, but it wouldn't have been much consolation if he'd T boned us.
The Golden Gate
We hit San Francisco late into the evening, after dusk. We are really desperate to photograph the bridge as the sun goes down but we get there too late and our photos are disappointingly dark. As we wander back to the bike a familiar red Ducati monster sweeps into view and brakes to a halt next to us. Nicholas has definitely identified us today and we have a jovial chat with him and get an update on what he's been up to. He's found a hostel and seems to be pretty pleased to be sleeping indoors for a change.
As we're chatting with him a couple with a big Kawasaki come over. They're both English and reckognised the plates on the Mutt. Peter has been living over here for quite a few years and this is day one of Caroline's visit over here. He reckons he hasn't seen a single Brit plate in his years over here and she left London only a few hours ago not expecting to see one. There we are with one Brit plated bike and one French one on their first tourist stop over.
The Roads Just Get Better and Better
Our overnight stay is in an independent motel across the Bridge. It is reasonably priced and the room is good. Next morning is a late get up. We've got a long way to go up to Seattle and this isn't good enough really. The other factor that is going to hold us up (little we know) it the road which is simply astonishing.
Diane is tasked with filming my attempts to replicate Joey Dunlop. Both efforts are a total failure. But I have to say that this section of road on highway one is just incredible. It's only later that evening that I realise that my arms are sore from wrestling the bike from one apex to another for mile after mile. All with a huge grin on my fizog. I haven't ridden anything like it before.
The film is a complete and utter travesty to the superhuman efforts of the pilot and the tyres which, despite being pretty much nackered manage to hold on. On re-running the film it starts with a section of sky then deftly focusses on flowers flashing by. By a supreme example of the cameraman's artform it then takes in the back of my helmet before bouncing all over the place without a whiff of the road. Diane is relegated to navigator duties quite quickly after this episode.
At a petrol stop a BMW GS 650 pulls up for fuel and a really nice guy called Josh comes over and has a chin wag. He's a teacher from Georgia who is doing a month long 'Big Trip' taking in a fair bit of what we are doing. Josh is putting in a lot of miles a day (about 500) and is doing it light. He's got a fraction of the kit we've loaded on to our machine. There's a lesson in there somewhere. Our experiences are similar though. He had the same fascination crossing the desert that I did and enthusiastically talks about the subtle differences in it's landscape that kept me entertained and enthralled all the way through.
So now there are three bikes heading much in the same direction and we ask Josh to keep an eye out for Nicholas and say 'hello' if he meets him on his travels.
As we head North we enter the deep valleys and high Redwood forests that this part of Northern California is famous for. Our overnight stop is at a town called Garberville well into this forest area. The temperature has dropped somewhat as we climb into higher latitudes. The only regret we have at the moment is missing San Francisco out of itinerary. We want to get the bike serviced and to make sure we get to Yellowstone. Maybe one day we'll rent a Harley and do this again.
Seattle is a wonderful city. It lies at the North Western most part of the USA close to the Canadian border. Famous for 'Frazier', Starbucks, the Space Needle and Pikes Place Market.
A few years ago, on a work's off site day, we were put through the normal torture of inspirational team work exercises (which actually weren't too bad although they can be worse than tooth extraction sans anesthetic). But the high point, for a few of us at least, was a video showing the fish throwing antics of a fish stall at Pikes Place Market.
I always thought that the actual stall was called Pikes Place, a kind of pun on the words if you know what I mean. But that isn't the case. The stall is just one of a few that sell fish in a market and the whole market is called Pikes Place (including a few other shops around as well). It's an amazing, partly subterranean, market and well worth a visit.
I think Seattle is my favourite city in the US so far. It's true to say that I've been avoiding cities and trying to keep to the backroads, but Seattle really shouldn't be by-passed. It has an organic feel to it. The outlying neighbourhoods are beautifully green and mixed with well kept streets intermingled with run down houses lending a 'lived in' feel to it. The residents seem to like gardening and they spill their gardening out on to the streets - something which is new to me.
The city has a very well developed public transport which we take full advantage of. Downtown is a mix of very modern skyscrapers that don't spoil the older buildings and the down to earth shops and market. And true to Frazier there are lots of coffee houses.
The Journey to Seattle
To get to Seattle we have two very hard days of travel. It isn't so much mileage, but an extension of the previous couple of days of twisties. We had left Highway one behind and think that the uber-curves are a thing of the past, but there are sections of Highway 101 that twist around the coast too. There are also long sections that are straighter, but limited in speed so we aren't getting anywhere fast.
After a day of this we turn into a really charming motel at Coos Bay. The town here has been touched by recession, not the first sign of the tough times that are affecting everywhere, but one of the first times it is really noticeable. Shops and businesses up for sale and people without homes are hitch hiking (presumably looking for work).
In the evening we head across the road to a restaurant that has been recommended to us by the lady running the Motel (who gave us a half hour run down of all the attractions of the area with such enthusiasm that we were too embarrassed to cut her off in her prime and tell her we were just passing through).
When we walk out of the restaurant suitably imbibed with a squiff of Californian red or three, I notice a nicely modded GS BMW and am checking out the kit on it (deeply envious at this point of the fixed video camera on it), when the owner, a very pleasant chap called Albert, joins us.
Albert has lots of information about things BMW locally and assures me that Ride West in Seattle are going to do a good job with the service, which is a relief. Besides talking all things GS and comparing how he's kitted his bike out to how mine is kitted, he tells us that there is a bike rally at a place called John Day this coming weekend. A quick check on the days Diane has left confirm my best suspicions that we can take in the Rally at the weekend on the way to Yellowstone. Thanks Albert, good tip.
In Oregan, there seems to be a bit more poverty around than in California. The first part of the Oregan coastline seems a bit gray, with darker sand on the beaches and a bit less of the surfer atmosphere (although there are still surfer dudes out there). But to some degree this is due to the overcast weather.
Madman Across the Petrol Station
Our second day travelling through Oregan and Washington towards Seattle is spiced by a strange meeting. The first part of the day is spent in Oregan on the coastal byway. This is notable for Sand Dunes. The forest still grows, no longer the Redwood trees, but smaller pines growing in the sand dunes as if they are gathering them together.
There are a number of quite large towns and impressive bridges. But to us it was flashing by and, like the Redwoods, we didn't do them any justice, rather we turned inland and headed for Portland and beyond that Seattle.
At a quick stop for fuel and butt relief we buy some drink and hang around chatting to some old boys who just seem to be chillin' taking in the scene at the station. They seem to be chatting jovially to everyone who passes by but pay particular attention to any young lady in range. All the girls seem to love them to bits. Our conversation, in between them charming females is the usual: where have we come from, where are we going.
It's a small town, quite attractive if it wasn't for six lanes of concrete cutting right through the very heart of it. The biggest event for many years happened last Thursday when someone might have put a light to the library which explains the blackened gap in the row of houses just down from the petrol station (could have been a bigger gap if the wind had been in a different direction).
The old boys say cheerio. I'm not sure if they've spotted what I'm about to spot before me, but I do now. There's a bloke with very wild dreadlocked hair and very stary eyes approaching this direction shouting and hollering at nothing in particular. As he reaches ten yards there's the whiff of eau de too many park benches on the breeze. Don't you just know that when someone like this arrives they're going to head in your direction. I think this isn't helped by my BMW Rallye Suit. Subtle it is not.
But, typical biker that I am, out of the corner of my other eye I've spotted a very interesting machine being fuelled up. It's a three wheeler, of the type with the two front steering wheels and a big fat driving wheel at the back. The guy putting his fifteen bucks worth in the tank has spotted me spotting him and he climbs on and drives over for a chin wag.
The bike come car thingy is a Rotax powered Can-Am ridden/driven by Jeremy a six foot five giant with silver hair. What follows is an animated twenty minute chat covering everything from the removable panels on the Can Am allowing colour changes to the trike, to the American Civil War and that fact that one vote was all that stood between the Colonists choosing German as a language to the eruption of Mount St Helens and the river turning to sludge flowing past the petrol station. Whew. Jeremy can tell a good one...
All the time the local mad person is working his way in our direction and is now shouting over at me 'Are you a Policeman', 'Are you a Policeman'. Does this put Jeremy off. No. But it's starting to put me off, because on every shout he's taking a step closer until he's got to the point where something is going to have to be said.
So in trying to keep the conversation going with Jeremy, who is now covering retirement and leisure activities, some of which I feel I shouldn't go into at this point, I'm trying to decide what I'm going to say to disarm the attentions of my new friend.
Then, apparently out of nowhere appears a rather old real policeman approaching the mad person in a quite determined manner, so I manage to turn from Jeremy and say to the dreadlocked pongy chap "No I'm not a policeman but this gentleman is", whereupon the local Sherriff takes the poor fella gently by the arm and leads him away for a quiet chat. Sometimes it is really great when a plan comes together.
Ride West BMW
Arrival in Seattle involves navigating to the motorcycle shop then looking for a Motel nearby. Albert warned us to steer clear of a road that seems to contain just about all the motels in town as he considered it a bit rough. Fortunately, about three miles from the dealership is a travelodge which is just next to the University Campus. They have a room at around a hundred dollars (which is a bit pricey, but it is in a major city).
The bike is dropped off in the morning and is pampered with new tyres and it's slightly overdue 12,000 mile service. We decide to pick the bike up on Friday the 19th so that we get a full day looking round Seattle city centre.
Good Service/Bad Service
The bike service is excellent. It feels really fresh when I pick it up. Ride West are highly recommended. The travelodge, which is clean as ever, is a bit of a letdown because the wi fi internet access doesn't work at all and when the helpline is phoned it puts you to an answer machine saying they will call back. Sorry but not good enough Travelodge, pleasant helpful staff let down by poor organisation. The advertising of free wi fi in a lot of the main motels is bordering on blatant lies because most of them have poor signals or none at all. Strangely a lot of the independent ones work fine and a lot of them have laundries too.
The Chief Joseph Rally
Following the tip by Albert who we met in Coos Bay, we decide to ride to the South East back into Oregan to the Chief Joseph Rally which is being run by the Oregan BMW Owners Club. I've bought a new map of North America which is very small scale and the journey looks to be a doddle.
So, with the bike loaded up to the gunwhales and the navigator wedged in to her seat, a random address in John Day is fed into the satnav and it pops back with a road map view telling me that there are 418 miles to run. Oops!! that means a late arrival.
The weather is inclement. The tyres are brand new and therefore as slippery as Jane Torvill's footwear. The bike is a wee bit top heavy to say the least. Washington state roads are just that. In a bit of a state.
The road passes through a myriad of different views. From wooded hillsides to hot dry plains where the wind is hammering across the prairie. We are amazed to see Devon on one side of the road and Grampian on the other. This is Diane's first longer mileage leg, distance wise, but due to the fact that a lot of the road is dual carriageway we are going to end up travelling about the same length of time as we did on the coast, maybe arriving an hour later than usual.
Reasons to ride slowly
I think that we in Britain think everyone rides slowly in the US compared to Europe, mainly because Harleys are usually a bit slow. Generally speaking I think the traffic is a bit slower here but I think there are some good reasons. I'm learning quickly that there are real risks of wild animals on the road.
Everyone I talk to warn me of this and I've been riding a lot slower at dusk than I would normally have done at home. Diane is on deer watch but we haven't quite got communications sorted out yet.
"In that field over there...."
An Interesting Little Bar
Arrival at the bike rally is late and thankfully Deer/Elk free. We just manage to get the tent up before dark and then head in to the town on a search for Liquor. Everywhere is shut. This isn't a surprise. Small town back road USA is nowhere near as commercialised as anywhere back home. Here they are in the little town of John Day with a load of thirsty bikers on their doorstep and the bars are closed by ten!! A killing is to be made. Let's not bother.
We wander along the high street and are met by a couple of young lads in their late teens.
"Do you know where we could get a drink?"
"Oh yes. You've just walked past the bar"
The problem is it doesn't have an entrance. Just a kind of secret door round the back. This leads to a series of corridors then a quite rough and ready bar full of zero bikers and quite a few locals. There's a poker game in progress on a proper casino type of table. By the description of the locals we chat to this is a bit of a 'redneck' area and many of these guys are well weathered but perfectly friendly and we quickly feel at home. As the night goes on it quickly fills up with a younger group and things really start to rock.
We get chatting to a few people including a gentleman called Mel who is wiping out all comers at pool and entertaining them by clearing their remaining balls off the table once he's demolished them in the game. Without missing a shot. Clearly this man makes his living as a pool hustler. Diane asks him what he does at which point he pops over to his coat and returns with a card. It is quite an elaborate card that explains that he is an artist who releases the characters that reside in wood knots.
This intrigued me a lot and I ask him what his work is like. He says he has a couple of examples in his rig and disappears off to the car park returning with a pair of beautiful wood carvings of old men's faces that are carved into the wood in such a way that they look to be part of it. A price is negotiated for one of these that I think is very reasonable (in fact he tells me the price and I say "yep, I'll have that one thanks") and we arrange to meet up in town for breakfast so I can pay him.
We return to the campsite which is totally quiet and populated by a team of snorers that could win the world championship of snoring. This rally is a bit quieter in ambience than the one put on by their Alabama cousins.
Saturday 21st June.
We are woken at 5am by the hubbub of the rally snoring team who are already up and talking bikes to each other.
When we meet Mel at the local diner he's a bit late explaining that he left the bar late and was given a lift home. We chat about the local area and he tells us that there is an English lady called Lynne who runs the antique shop and would be delighted to see us. John Day (a strange name for a town) is really an area that includes a river of the same name and some of the most famous fossil beds in the USA. The man himself was apparently 'nobody in particular', he just ended up having his name applied to all these things - I think that's pretty cool.
Back at the campsite the rally goers are organising themselves into ride outs, the trade stalls are busy selling their wares and the bike needs a good washdown. We've found out that there is a brand new visitor centre at the fossil beds but, to be honest, we're both a bit knackered after six weeks and two weeks of fairly constant travel and decide just to chill around the rally site.
The rally is being held on a fairground which is where trade fairs take place (I think) and there is a large building with lots of chairs set up for various seminars. We drift in there to look at the trade stalls that are also set up there. A guy is doing a presentation which we are morbidly drawn into very quickly.
What is it like to be eaten by a bear?
This chap, a member of the Oregan BMW owners club, is well known because he recently survived a full on attack by a Grizzly whilst on a riding trip, camping in his tent. He managed to fend the bear off sufficiently well to allow his friends to join in and fight the bear off (pretty good friends I would say). The bear was a pregnant female who I think was then captured, has had her cub and is in captivity.
There are some useful tips for people travelling to camp in bear country (erm, us). Black bears can climb, Grizzlies have trouble climbing because their claws are too long (like massive), they just knock the tree over - I believe it, I've already seen a brown bear do that. With a black bear, if you are attacked you have a reasonable chance of surviving by fighting back - with a Grizzly you're in big trouble.
Of course the truth is that many more bears are killed by humans than vice versa and that fatalities are veryrare. Apparently moose kill more people than Grizzlies. Comforting to know.
Meeting an escapee from the Motherland
When we pop down to the antique shop we meet Lynne (I hope I've spelled your name properly Lynne). She's a very charming lady who seems very pleased to meet a couple of Brits. Her shop is full of interesting antiques including ones from the UK. She has one of Mel's wood carvings which he gave her to 'watch over the shop'.
Our final wander of the day is down to the local supermarket to buy some wine for the evening. On our return to the site we are invited over to a group of riders under a Gazeebo who are already well into a few shots of Tequila and/or whiskey. The rest of the evening, including the free meal, is a bit of a blur but I do know it was very enjoyable and that I gradually lost the power of speech towards the end (which was probably a bit of a relief to all concerned).
We were a bit lax in exchanging names with everyone and I only remember two names, Bud and Marsha. But it was a most excellent night.
Somehow, after all that, they manage to get up around five am, break camp and depart. I awake with a massive hang over and manage to drag my carcass out for breakfast five hours later by which time the rally has all but dispersed and melted away.
We meet Mel at the diner to return the compliment of buying him breakfast (yesterday he sold me a piece of artwork and bought me breakfast with some of the proceeds). Albert strolls in and sits opposite and we join him for a chat before heading off. It seems like he is planning a few big trips himself so I would like to wish him the best of luck and hope he enjoys it as much as we are.
The John Day Fossil
Sunday 21st June
I've managed to get back my track of time. I lost it completely over the last few days. True to form we are very nearly the last people to leave the rally. There are a few stragglers though. Mark, a New Zealander intercepts Diane and wanders over with her for a chat. He's among a group who have flown over and borrowed friends' bikes to come to the rally. It's a very useful arrangement that more and more people are doing. Nice meeting you mate.
A bit later as we are finally finishing off the bike packing in what must be the record for the longest time to pack a bike and leave a rally, we are approached by two Canadians, Gordon and Cliff from the Vancouver area. Turns out that Cliff and his wife run a Bed and Breakfast which is right on my intended path so I take a card and hope to get booked in with them in a couple of weeks time.
Gordon and Cliff both run Moto Guzzis although for the rally Cliff is on a BMW 1000 RS airhead. They do a lot of serious mileage and give us a good tip on an excellent road to the East of Yellowstone that would fit into our Northern loop back to Seattle. So that rounds the rally off nicely and we head off gingerly to the campground exit.
After two days off the bike, I seem to have lost the knack of slow riding with all the weight on it and am riding it like a big wuss. I have, however, managed to retain the ability to miss turnings and get lost which is fortunate because it leads us into a canyon called the 'painted hills' which is a quite stunning set of basalt lava flow rocks with an even better snaking road running through it. The new tyres are finally scrubbed in. Wonderful!
Eventually we manage to arrive at the John Day Fossil Beds centre which is free of admission and well worth an hour or so's browse round. The fossil beds cover a huge area and contain fossils from the later geological time span when mammals were evolving. There are fossils of a mixture of plant life, fish and mammals. The main group of specimens were fossilised after there had been volcanic eruptions and mud flows. It's quite amazing what was recorded in detail, even fruits. And looking at some of the mammals it would probably have been best not to camp in the woods there either!
A Breakfast Meeting
Monday 22nd June
The night before we bimbled away from the fossil beds and found the first convenient motel nearby which happened to be in a small place called Mount Vernon. The motel is an older establishment with lots of patch repairs, rickety outdoor stairs and quite a bit of charm really for very little money. Across the way is an original diner, populated by locals that serves up my first proper beefburger of the trip (a locally made one) which is delicious.
We make a note to have breakfast there in the morning and get up at our usual time. Late.
The usual ritual of bike packing takes place and we park the baggage mountain outside the cafe while we have breakfast (pancakes with sugar free syrup for me). While we're finishing off a guy comes over and comments that his mate reckons he overloads his GS but he thinks our attempt has taken the biscuit. His mate is outside looking at the bike.
When he comes in he says he has loads of information that would be useful to us and produces some local maps (some of which we picked up at the rally but we accept anyway). There's an ongoing chat with ourselves and some of the locals around the fact that this guy owns two bobcats which he keeps at his house at Seneca a few miles away.
"It's a biker lodging, we run guided tours around here and all over the world"
I really wanted to be on my way, but he tells me that there is a small road that will cut 40 miles off today's journey and I've found that meeting people and making time for them is part of the enjoyment of having so much freedom on the road, so we decide to head their way.
The ride up there is just great. Mountainous country with the typical (by now) sweeping bends - quite fast ones too.
When we get up there we're greeted by the second guy who we spoke to who introduces himself as JW and his mate as Bill. JW is quite a big character and not just in height. Our first stop is a quick look at the biker lodge which is an old lumberjack barracks that he is converting into a kind of hotel for bikers. It's quite magnificent.
JW tells me that he is a professional musician, a guitarist who has played with many of the really famous bands. I won't go into it in detail here but he is personally friends with some very famous bands and people. It is clear that his days recording and playing on the road with these bands has been very profitable and he seems now to be pursuing a business that incorporates his other passion which is motorcycling. And cats.
Bob and Big
His pride and joy is in his two Bobcats. He's owned them since they were born and they live in a large enclosure that is on one side of the barrack house with access into the house itself. I guess you could call them tame in that you can go into their enclosure but it's probably also true that they will never be tame in the same way as a domestic cat because they will 'allow' you to stroke them if they feel like it.
The female is bigger than the male and called 'Big' and the smaller male 'Bob'.
JW has made an magnificent job of the conversion with themed rooms a cocktail bar and a recording studio in which he is currently recording a blues album. His wife Carol designs jewellery as well as cooking for the guesthouse.
In the middle of the guided tour a group of bikers, one of them a fellow Englishman who has moved over to the US, turn up and join the tour. It seems like JW is getting this part of the business going. When we discuss the pricing for staying here I'm kind of taken aback a bit from his response.
There are options to have the 5 star deal. Staying in amazingly well presented suites at the lodge and having virtual personal guided rides around the vast number of roads and/or trails up in the mountains, but equally he wants bikers who can less afford to do this kind of thing to be able to stay there. To be honest it seems to be a real bargain and a great opportunity to ride bikes and have a great place to stay after a day's riding. The link to his site is www.bearcatlodge.com
After all that we have to head off (would have been nice to stay a day or two but we have to get on the road).
The road JW told us about takes us up into the hills a few thousand feet up (I think maybe around 5,000) and eventually offroad. It's Diane's first experience of riding offroad. The trail is a nice gentle one and we manage to stay upright. At the end of the trail we come upon a cattle ranch with an immaculately dressed pair consisting of a Cowboy and Cowgirl. It looks like a scene from a Roy Roger's film. They're working a corral full of cattle.
The Starlite Cafe
Towards four in the afternoon, well on our way to Boise, our destination, we decide to stop for a bit of chow at a place called Vale. We stop at a diner called the Starlite. Another excellent place to eat (big portions). Jenny, who runs the place makes sure we're very welcome. This is hospitality in small town America, I doubt you could beat it.
I think I've just got over my hangover.
The Trip to Yellowstone
Monday 22nd June
After our excursion off road it's time to head back into town traffic at Boise (pronounced Boysie as in 'Only Fools and Horses' which tickles me everytime someone mentions it). It's a big town by the standards of what I've seen and we are limiting our visit to an overnight stop in an independent motel which is nae too bad but not the best we've been in. But it does have a laundry.
Tuesday 23rd June
At four in the morning the motel parking lot turns into Clapham Junction for truckers with all sorts of clattering and banging. Doh!
The temperature in the morning is hot, hot hot!
We have a breakfast in the little restaurant opposite the Motel which is another gem. It could be a theme diner for the Fonze but it is all genuine and original. Sparkling clean and serving up a fantastic breakfast with a cheerful banter. I have a go at zero cholesterol egg which appears suspisciously bathed in full fat butter. I can feel a heart attack stalking me as I scoff it without complaint. Who could complain when you're being entertained at full tilt by the waitress endlessly topping up your coffee?
So wired by caffeine and with my life expectancy reduced by at least ten years I wander with Diane over to the bike and off we go.
But before we can get on the bike we're approached by a guy called Wyatt who recommends a few routes to us that we might enjoy on our way to Yellowstone.
On my map, which is admittedly so small scale as to be as useful as a kids atlas, there is a tantalising red note on our route up to a place called Lowman saying 'ghost town'.
"There ain't no ghost town there" says Wyatt. "Just Idaho City"
This damps my squib somewhat.
Out of Boise the road quickly climbs into hills with steep valleys, a reservoir, and dry farmsteads. From the bustling town it is very quickly fairly rugged terrain. And hot. After a few miles we ride into a long town (a small one) with various businesses along the road and a centre that is pure nineteenth century western. Boardwalks and wooden buildings declaring themselves to be saloons, saddleries and such like. It is, according to Wyatt, a fake.
But it's history is interesting. Idaho City is one of the original gold rush towns. Being true Brits we head straight for the souvenir shop and start buying. Blackpool here we come. In the shop Diane get's into an interesting conversation with the shop owner who has traced his geneology back to a Scotsman called Davison who was sent to the colony as an indentured servant after the 'Cromwellian' Wars. I suppose this might be someone who fought in the English Civil War on the wrong side, or maybe was involved in fighting after Cromwell sent his army North of the border.
E-mail details are exchanged to see if we can help find out a bit more when we get back home.
Onwards and Upwards
Our route to Yellowstone is sort of cross country. It takes us higher and higher into the mountains which are beautiful and still clinging to the last remnants of spring time. It's quite amazing to have left Aberdeen in Scotland in springtime and to still be chasing it round the continent of North America. From the Appalachians to the Ozarks and just missing the desert flowering cacti in New Mexico, I've now caught up with it again. The rivers are running deep and fast and there is still snow on the mountains. Just a few weeks ago the roads were impassable.
Late into the afternoon we stop for a meal at a small settlement, high in the hills, called Stanley. We have a pair of Caesar Salads in a log cabin. Totally excellent food. How do they manage to get the fresh salad up here and feed the odd tourist like this without a lot of waste?
Our target tonight is a town called Salmon which is (surprisingly) on the Salmon river. We miss it totally and end up in Challis. We've just basically run out of day and have acheived a pathetic mileage. We're setting off too late and stopping too much because there is so much to photograph. Idaho is a beautiful State.
Wednesday 24th June
Having missed our projected stop the night before we have a big leg to do if we want to sleep in Yellowstone tonight!!
We overnight in a wood lodge motel at Challis which is a good un. Wi-Fi is out of the question though. We're out in the wilds and on our own. Another diner. Another ace breakfast. Trout for me. Makes a nice change to eat fish for brekkie.
Heading out of Challis we pass a small holding with a museum of scrap in front of it. Old mining equipment of all sorts and lots of ancient cars from the forties and fifties. We can't ignore the photo opportunity and double back to take a few pics.
Then it is off on the now familiar roads that twist and wind through river valleys, forests and wide pastures with the mountains on each side of us. It is stunning scenery. Sometimes Alpine and sometimes pure cowboy film. Rocky igneous cliffs that have fractured and are spilling dark basalt scree down to the very edge of the road.
Rounding a corner we run for the first time into our projected nightmare. Deer on the road. I see them in good time and brake hard to a stop. There's a mother and a fawn which is reasonably well grown. The doe stops and eyes up the situation before deciding to climb a gulley. And as quickly as that they are both gone.
When we draw level with the gulley some four seconds later they have climbed it. And it is just about vertical. Amazing.
Turning right at Salmon we head down a valley looking for a road that is supposed to pass over the mountains to our left, the Bitteroot Range, which is clearly marked on my boys own atlas. We, I, miss it. So we end up in a pure western town called Leadore and hang a left on the bigger road over the mountains on the map.
It's a bit disappointing. The other road looked more interesting. That was a back road maybe and this one is a major...whoa... what's happening. The road ahead has changed colour and is looking remarkably dirt roady like. We're heading at seventy into a broken trail.
Emergency brake. Not good enough. we're going to hit it at speed on an overloaded Elephant of a bike bucking like no tomorrow. Worse than that I can already see that there are gravel filled ruts. I think we are about to kiss the earth.
There's nothing for it but to stop braking and hang on. My illustrious pillion squeals only a bit. We hit it and squirm all over the place but the bike is staying upright. Eventually it is safe to brake again and we come to a halt in a cloud of dust.
There are more than sixty miles to the next town of note. Should we turn back? Nope. We've had a taste of off road and we're going to have a go at tackling this. On we go. The trail heads up into the mountains. It's a big one, about the width of an average 'A' road in the UK. One dusty pick up is the only traffic we meet coming the other way. At the mountain top there is a historical marker which explains that this was a trail originally taken by the Indians to and from the hunting grounds.
As we descend from the heights we come to open fields with cattle in them, a couple being on the side of the road. And then the trail ends. Some fifteen miles after it abruptly started it finishes just as abruptly and becomes a nice tarmaced road. We're both a bit disappointed because we've started to enjoy trail riding, but on the other hand we can make a bit of time up now.
A little further on we head up a series of bends through the hills and suddenly are presented with a view of true magnificence. The Madison valley. I'm sorry but I can't start to describe it. Imagine two ranges of mountains with a wide, wide green valley dotted with ranches. Then take the ranches away and fill it in with herds of buffalo and the hunt being on. A migration route still, today, for the wild animals and years ago for the indigenous tribes of this part of America. Snow still on the mountains and just wilderness beyond.
South of Ennis in Idaho we pootle into a museum town of buildings from the gold rush, complete with a modern re-creation of a railway shed which has origial steam engines and carriages from the period all in original condition (i.e. quitely decomposing). This is Nevada City. It is very similar to the museum of the Appalachians that I visited what seems ages ago. The houses have been uplifted from all over the gold rush area and assembled to re-create a town that never existed like this but did exist in some other form, if you see what I mean...
This is also the site of the most famous trial and hanging in history which I will have to research and add to the blog a bit later because we only have time to have a quick look around and photo opportunity before heading off to the next gold rush town which is Virginia City. This appears to be much more original and has more substantial brick built buildings - again we just pass through.
The final run in to Yellowstone takes advantage of the generous speed limits in Montana (75mph). We might have broken the limit a very little bit officer, then again we might not have. The lower end of the valley is famous for it's features created in a huge earthquake. You can see where the land on one side collapsed. Or maybe the other side was forced up. Very dramatic landscape.
Arrival at Yellowstone involves arriving in one of the gateway towns, West Yellowstone which lies just outside the park. It's a touristy place and pretty crowded. Lots of bars, junk food eateries and motels. We pull into one called 'Dude' and crash for the night after a meal in a Chinese restaurant. The air is full of mozzies. Not your average one's either. These are the B52's of the mosquito world. Their speciality? Biting you through your shirt.
Mosquitos are attracted to me. They follow me armed with knives and forks. But over the past few weeks they've changed their eating habits and, more and more, are taking the odd nip of prime Scots woman. Tonight though Yorkshire pud is back on their menu. I've added a lot of egg protein to the mosquito world on this trip.
Initial Impressions - a bit of a disappointment
Thursday 25th June
The next morning we ride the short distance to the park entrance and get a five day ticket for $20 which is a bargain. Driving in to the park the initial scenery is OK but not particularly inspiring and there is a lot of tourist traffic which shouldn't particularly upset me because that, after all, is what we are. Plenty of bikes passing along in each direction with a friendly wave. I'm making the mistake of drawing comparisons with Yosemite and at the moment things aren't favourable. Yosemite is initially top trumping Yellowstone.
Since the whale watching, where the crew taught people to use the minutes of the clock from the
front of the boat (being twelve o'clock) to point out where something is, Diane has started using the
same referencing on the move.
"Something at Nine O'clock"
I've seen hundreds of signs warning you to take care of Elk crossing the road and haven't seen a sniff of one of the beasties, but here are two or three out in the grasslands. Very shortly after, "Buffalo at eleven o'clock!"
We excitedly pull up next to some other watchers and get out the binoculars and cameras to watch and photograph three dots on the distant landscape. It's exciting stuff this is!
A bit further on we find a campsite. We were told by outbound bikers that only two campsites were open because of bear activity and this one isn't one of them, so we're a bit surprised to find this one occupied by (what I think are) very brave people, in tents. Every tree is damaged. I imagine by marauding Grizzlies but I later realise it is probably Elk.
This campsite is very remote. I'm somewhat relieved that it is full and don't put too much effort trying to find that last elusive free site. So we move on a bit. More animal life sightings which involve stopping with other tourists and rushing for the cameras, then hot springs and more dramatic scenery. Hmm it's starting to grow on me.
After about forty five miles and the odd traffic jam for road works, we roll into Mammoth Springs. This, we were originally advised, had one of the two open campsites. We have a look round the General Store, magically drawn to the souvenirs and then climb back on the bike and follow the signs for the Campsite.
Oh dear! They've got spare pitches. A nice lady signs us in and gives us a sheet of paper with the 'Strict Rules which must be followed'. We must not keep anything attractive to bears or any other wildlife in the tent. Does that include mosquitoes? If so tonight I sleep in a metal box.
All food, cosmetics, tooth paste, water and smelly socks must be placed in the metal boxes provided. Water used for washing up must be poured down the toilet. This is serious stuff. Strangely, they don't tell you what to do if you roll over in the night and put your arm round your girlfriend only to find that she's grown a thick furry moustache and additional facial hair.
"We're going to put you in the area reserved for motorcyclists". I imagine this to have a sign in bear language saying 'eat these first'. I'm relieved to hear that there is already a biker camping there and we are in the pitch next door. The pitches are typical of those on National Parks here. A squared off pitch filled with gravel, a fire pit come barbie and a picnic table. First priority is a bit of dib dib dib, pitch the tent, light a fire and get something grilling. While we're doing this our neighbour draws up on his Kawasaki 550 custom and we make introductions. He's a tall fella called Richard from Minnesota.
We also meet our other neighbour and his wife, Ed and Sandy who are from all over America. They have sold up and bought a huge trailer (caravan in our parlance) and have already circumnavigated the USA four times in four years. The trailer has a garage in it which contains a beautiful black Harley trike.
We've managed to pick up some beers and we have a few as the sun goes down before we retire to the tent in the dark. We do not sleep.
There are noises outside the tent. Some are made by cars passing on the road below, but after these cease the noises take on a more 'beasts creeping around and occasionally yapping or howling' variety. At three am the beers ring the bell for a call to nature, but there's no way I'm going anywhere until first light.
The next morning I have a chat with Richard.
"There ain't any bears here" he says quietly and with confidence. "They're up in the hills where those other sites are". His confidence is inspiring.
A Vicious Elk Attack
Friday 26th June
The next morning is a grey overcast sky. We snore on a bit due to the lack of sleep in the night. When we do get up Richard is eating his breakfast and comments what a wonderful feeling it is as the sun crests the huge hill to the East but not today. Once we're sorted out we decide on a ride to explore the park. Ed is very helpful pointing out places to see and what we might find there. We decide to look at the Geysers first and then go looking at wildlife second. I'm very keen to see more Buffalo and bears if possible and Ed reckons that there are huge herds of Buffalo in the central part of the park.
Richard has sussed out that you can get a nice shower in the hotel in Mammoth Springs for four dollars each which is a relief because there aren't any showers on the site. I guess that the riper you smell the more you will fit into the landscape as far as meat eaters are concerned. While we're up in the village we marvel at a small herd of Elk that are quietly cutting the grass (and presumably fertilising it).
We have another look at the souvenir shop and have breakfast in the eatery up there (which is extortionately expensive). When we return to the camp site the elk appear to have moved the short distance down and are now moving through the site. It's a marvelous experience to sit and watch them. Ed is sitting outside his trailer reading a book seemingly unaware that an elk is right next to him. They move on towards us. Richard has come over and is standing next to Diane and me.
A bunch of Japanese tourists stop on the lower road and come over shouting excitedly. Their children run shouting towards the elk. Richard shouts over to them to stop. "Dangerous wild animals, keep away!!" This is undoubtably true - there are signs all over the camp site saying that you must not approach the elk, they are dangerous.
The elk stop eating and look up at the source of the noise. They waver a bit and all but one start to move away. The one that doesn't is a young bull I think. It has two bumps on it's head which I think are the beginning of horns. The Japanese tourists back off and control their children.
The elk then approaches Agnes the tent. It sniffs around a bit and then takes a bite. Hmm nice tasting tent. It then starts to eat the tent. This draws quite a crowd who find the scene very entertaining. The elk has a particular taste for the nice vestibule that my friend and ex-boss Gina brought all the way over from Calgary for me. Diane and I are aghast!!
"It's safe to approach and shoo away I think" says Richard. Yeah right.
As the elk really starts to tuck in to Agnes the tent I carefully move over the the Mutt and fire up the engine. The elk stops eating and looks over. Do I risk it attacking the bike or the tent. It returns to eating the tent. I fire up the engine again and it is clearly a bit worried and moves away again.
"That's it, move on" says Richard.
It takes a few steps and stops to look back at what had been a nice lunch.
"Move on!" says Richard. Each time he talks to it it seems to move and eventually the drama is over.
Sandy comes over laughing.
"That was the funniest thing I've ever seen!"
She's managed to get a photo which she says she will e-mail to us. We approach the tent. I'm fearing the worst but it turns out that the elk had mistaken the zip tags as bits of bush. They apparently like to eat the new growth off the ends of bush branches. It had nibbled the zip tag and was trying to pull it off (unsuccessfully as it would happen) which from our angle looked horrible because it appeared that it was eating the whole vestibule.
It did manage to completely cover the vestibule door in elk drool though.
Beasts and Bikes
Following Ed's advice we head off on the Northern route round the park which takes us past more mountainous territory interspersed with broad grassland valleys. There are more sightings of buffalo, some pretty close up.
The buffalo is an amazing animal. It is also called a North American Bison. I'm sure everyone will be aware what it looks like with that huge head and shoulders and a ridiculously small posterior. But I wasn't aware why it was like that. It is in fact a living bulldozer. It uses the huge muscles in it's neck along with a bone structure that comes up above it's backbone to shovel snow aside in winter and find the grass that survives beneath the snow.
Apparently bull buffaloes have a problem with motorcycles because they are unable to distinguish between a bike and other buffaloes in the mating season. Fortunately the problem is not mistaking the bikes for a female buffalo so this doesn't result in any buffalo on bike action of an obscene nature - "What's that Bison doing with that motorcycle daddy...."
No. It's worse than that. They have been known to get a bit aggressive. But I'm reassured that this only happens to Harley Davidsons. From what I saw you'd be lucky to get one to move ten feet. This of course might be a problem for a Harley because they are a bit slow too. Oops sorry Ed - I didn't mean to dis your scoot...
After a bit of animal watching we stop off to have a look at a canyon and take a few pictures. It's quite lazy going but I'm struggling a bit with the altitude (well over 6,000 feet) and the temperature which, despite the overcast nature of the skies, is still a bit warm in all my gear. Being diabetic doesn't help. I'm just not managing to get enough energy through my muscles.
The altitude and heat is also conspiring to affect the bike again in the same way as in New Mexico which kind of confirms my feeling that the hydraulic oil being the culprit. The clutch action has gone all squishy but thankfully the brakes are OK.
As we round a corner in a nice area with a glade alongside it we notice a sizeable crowd. Drawing up we can see the extra excitement as people clamour to get a photo of something. A person heading back to their car tell us it's a black bear with cubs. Quickly dismounting we grab our cameras and head for the crowd. My Canadian friends seem to have a fearful respect of bears that leads them to run in the opposite direction to any sighting. Americans and (particularly) Japanese people seem to have the direct reverse of this tendency and run towards bears. Presumably some get eaten now and then.
I, myself, have come to the conclusion that the most intelligent animal in the whole charade is the bear. This one in particular is doing bear type things that are purposefully designed to keep the tourists happy. She seems a trifle bored but is ushering the cubs around keeping an optimal distance between herself and the crowds whilst still providing a photo opportunity. It's about as dangerous as attending a Mothers Union tea party.
A False Sense of Security?
A bit further on up into the hills we come across a similar crowd with the same edge of excitement about it. We park the bike up again and check out the scene. Very quickly, after taking the cameras and video out of the top box we are way too near to a big black bear. The crowd melt away into their cars and the only idiots left in the open are the two motorcycle chappies.
I'm walking down a line of cars looking for a way in to take shelter. The bear is looking right over at me and moving towards me at the same time. I don't really know where Diane is at this point but I hope she can take some kind of cover. The bear is less than twenty feet away.
At this point an Italian bloke decides to be a complete idiot and tries to get closer to the bear than I am. Suits me pal. A few others take courage and also join him. I follow them and start filming and am vaguely aware of Diane nearby. I realise that the bear is actually scared of the people across the road (us) and is looking for a gap to try to cross the road. Why did the bear cross the road? Because he wanted to fool!
The Italian is very, very close to the bear now and we are next in line.
"That's close enough for me - I'm off!!" I hear myself say.
Diane clicks a final shot. When we get to view it it is quite dramatic. An Italian shoulder and a very close bear!
As I make my exit stage left I can hear people shouting and moving for cover. I think the hairy chap passed within a few feet of some of them, but not me. I was well on my way heading for safety and I don't mind admitting it. A scared bear is a dangerous one and things were a bit too close for my liking. I only realised later from Diane that she was right after me.
The Heavens Open
The last shot of the bear that I get is of it running down the hill away from the crowds. We mount
up and ride on a bit further up the mountain. There are spots of rain so we pull over and I start
togging up with my waterproofs.
"I haven't got my waterproofs", says Diane.
"Didn't you hear me say it was a bit dark?"
We have a choice. Go over the mountain or re-trace our steps - I decide to go forward over the mountain. Big mistake. Before long we are in a big thunderstorm and it starts to hail. Diane is very cold and not too happy on the intercomm. The hail is trashing my hands in their fingerless gloves. It is truly agony. We are forty miles from the camp.
The journey home is miserable.
The next morning dawns bright and clear. The sun rises just as Richard says it would at nine thirty above the mountain and warms the tent that was a mite cold through the night. We stagger out blinking a bit in the bright light and say hello to everyone. Ed offers me the opportunity to wash my bike down with his hose and cleaning gear and we chat about the old biker days.
Ed is an original biker of the type I have written about earlier. He says he has always ridden Harleys apart from a very short spell trying to get to grips with a BM. It's a genuine pleasure to meet people like Ed and Richard. They're both a bit different from each other in their own way but when I think about the bikers I've had the pleasure to meet, Steve and Claudia, Dudley and Joe, Ed and Richard, David the Australian, David and Lee from New Orleans and all the others I've mentioned in the blog, I feel very lucky.
A Final Ride Round Yellowstone
Saturday 27th June
After we take our shower and have a bite of breakfast in Mammoth springs, we head off on our last planned ride around the park. we head out of Mammoth Springs and are quickly faced with the usual excited crowd of tourists. Must be a bear. And sure enough it is. But this bear is maybe a bit more alarming than yesterdays because it is less than a mile from the campsite! Despite Richard's calm assurances we really are camping very near to these beasties and we've got to sleep tonight knowing that they are so close. It might take a tot or two to calm any nerves. Good excuse really.
The Yorkshireman tasted nice. He was well marinaded in Merlot.
Our mission today is to finally get to see Old Faithful and maybe one or two other Geysers.
But about half an hour into our trip and after seeing quite a few Buffalo close up, we see the
familiar crowd of excited tourists. We park up and wander over.
"There's a Grizzly over the river, it pops it's head up every now and again"
Where-ever there is a bear then there is a park ranger keeping an eye on events. They've been tracking the bear since five am when it killed a young elk. It's now about midday and it has consumed the unfortunate elk (I hope it is the one that bit poor Agnes the tent but I don't hold out much hope). Right. Let's get this into perspective. Black bears are quite scary if they are scared but they eat mainly vegitarian diets and might hurt you if they take a swipe.
Grizzlies kill elks which are big and bad by themselves and can seriously hurt a human.
Scanning the far bank of the river with my binoculars I don't see anything for a while. And then. A movement can be seen with the naked eye. Bring the binoculars to my eyes and... holy ****. Man that is a massive bear. It has a silvery brown back and is huge. Thank god that he is over there and I am over here. I don't ever want to meet anything like that at close quarters. The Canadians have got it right. If you see one of them or ever get sniff of one then run for your life. Won't do you any good though.. they can reach thirty emms per aich. Just make sure your navigator is a shade slower or is riding a Harley. sorry again Ed.
A bit further along in our afternoon ride we pass a lot of hot springs around a huge lake that is a centrepiece of the park. Stopping at a set of hot springs for a photo opportunity we get chatting to another GS rider then Ed draws up on his Harley. You do meet the finest class of people at geo-hot springs these days.
With all our delays and bear sightings we are pretty late arriving at Old Faithful which is due to blow at around six fifty one in the evening give or take ten minutes. So it's a bit better at timekeeping than the British Rail network. It's worth the wait too. After a half hearted attempt at a Mexican wave by the semi-circle of tourists around the edge of the Geyser and a few bubbling attempts to get people to use up their film in their cameras (if they have old ones that is) it roars into life. It's quite a beautiful spectacle really especially against a clear blue sky.
It even has it's own performing chipmunk to keep the crowds happy.
Three days isn't really enough to even scratch the surface at Yellowstone. As we head back to the campsite in the gathering dusk Diane catches a glimpse of some dog like creatures circling an Elk in the distant pastures. We never saw any wolves and this isn't the part of the park where they are normally seen so it was probably a pair of coyotes (in which case they were deluding themselves), but it goes to show that there is a huge diversity of wildlife to be seen there and fabulous scenery too. We're sad to be leaving in the morning but we have to head back to Seattle and meet Diane's flight home.
Yellowstone has a final wonder to bestow on us which was again pointed out by Richard. In the crystal clear sky with little or no light pollution the visible universe is spread like a dome above us. I don't know if you can actually see the Milky Way from here but I feel as though that is possible. A Milky whisp seems to pass right through the sky.
I once saw on a discovery type program that the ancient Incas could see the Milky way in their night sky, but that it was slowly disappearing with a change in the Earth's axis. Apparently their prophesies said that their world would die when it disappeared which happened to coincide with the Tacos and San Miguel.
Pack up and Ship Out
Sunday 28th June
The next morning dawns bright in Yellowstone and the tent warms instantly at close to nine thirty. We aren't very enthusiastic about leaving. It takes us from seven thirty to twelve fifteen to break camp. This is a new record. We also seem to have magically increased our number of tent pegs.
Our grocery shopping is found to be grossly over conservative and we end up distributing food to the campsite in roughly the same tonnage as Unicef which seems to make us very popular at the point of departure.
One last shower and another hour later we have a final chance meeting with Ed and Sandy (who waved us off 60 minutes ago along with Richard) and then we're off. To the flashing of a warning sign on the bike computer saying Lampf! We both take this to be German for 'you're seriously overweight - either shed a passenger or I'm not going any further...!'
A Technical Glitch
I don't like technical hitches at the best of times and certainly not before I've managed half a mile and my frustrations are excacerbated by the fact that I think the bike manual is in the hard cases, not in the soft luggage so the bike, which was carefully loaded over the past five hours, will have to be stripped down again. Double and triple DOH!!
Diane wants a picture of the Teddy Roosevelt Park entrance which is a stone gate you can drive through so we stop near there and with a fair bit of cussing I strip the bike luggage off only to find that the manual isn't where it is supposed to be. I've mis-placed it after the bike service.
When I finally do find it and get to page 22 - warning messages, I find that it means 'Vee think zee fronten bulben haff blown Englander, get a new von schmartish'. Damn clever these Germans.
Not really a problem as the day is lovely and bright and the weather forecast is more of the same for the forseeable future. Much relieved I pack the bike up pronto and off we go.
In studying maps with Ed before leaving, he recommends that we should take Route 12 down the
"It's a lovely road that follows the river following the Lewis and Clark trail"
I think Ed assumes we would know who Lewis and Clark are but we are quietly assuming we can research that one later... I was under the assumption that they made posh footwear.
Monday 29th June
Anyway, that's where we are heading and our first recommended stop is Missoula which means a bit of Interstate riding once we are out of the clutches of the park. So we head Northwards and then cut West on the I90 which would take us all the way to Seattle if we so wanted it to. I think the mileage would be about 750 miles. Ed reckoned his route to be nearer 900 and we've got three days to cover it. Easy Peasy.
Or not. The day is beset with high winds and hot weather. Quite tough going. On the way Diane spots a Harley Davidson dealership called Yellowstone Harley Davidson in Belgrade Montana and we decide to stop and see if they can sell us a light bulb.
You would think that a Beemer turning up at a Harley Dealership would be met with some kind of ritual involving black cloaks daggers and altars, but we virtually have a red carpet rolled out. They couldn't be more interested or keen to help but unfortunately Harleys have sensible light bulb fittings and BMW's have very expensive rare ones.
But they are able to tell me that there is a BMW dealership in Missoula where we plan to overnight and that they think they will be open in the morning (normally a day of closure but the biking season is so short they think they will be making hay).
We arrive in Missoula in reasonably good order around six pm and book into a motel that is easily found and close to a Safeway (cheapish food and a bottle of plonk). Diane is leading me constantly astray towards the odd glass of vino of an evening. I do try to resist.
We've made two hundred and eighty miles today which is quite poor really.
And Then There Was Light
On my Europe trip I took spare bulbs. This time I seem to have overlooked that in my eagerness to take more underpants than the full counter and fitment range at an average Marks and Spencers store. This is put right in short order by a trip to the bike dealership in Missoula who have precisely two headlight bulbs which I promptly purchase along with an indicator bulb.
The GS has LED rear lights which I'm assuming will be indestructable. A bit naive me-thinks.
And so, with full and clear lighting now displayed we set off and promptly miss the turning for the Lewis and Clark trail on Route 12. Normality is resumed.
The Lewis and Clark Trail
Tuesday 30th June
Lewis and Clark were part of a mission that travelled to the West Coast and back through the Mid West in the very early Nineteenth Century. They were involved in buying land held by the French apparently. Ironically the success of their travels were in large part due to the help they got from the indigenous people who aided and sheltered them and probably knew very little about their lands being owned by a short French dicatator who was about to get his ass kicked by a Wellington boot.
The road climbs quite a bit early on. We stop at a rest point high up in the hills where a group of bikers chat to us. They let us know that there are quite a lot of roadworks ahead. They aren't wrong. Further down in the valleys the road hugs the side of the river which is proper white water and in use by kayakers. When we do hit the roadworks they quickly become quite a big problem. They extend for a good distance down the valley.
It certainly is a terrific road though and very scenic. Eventually it changes into high plains and rolling hills that are heavily farmed for grain. It's a dramatically different scenery with long shadows cast by the hills. Very atmospheric.
The result of the delays are that it doesn't look like we're going to make our target distance again, but a bit later we get the chance to put serious miles on and finally stop at a town with the great name of Wala Wala for Diane's first sample of my favourite of the big motel chains - Super 8.
I should mention one quite poignant moment at a fuel and meal stop where a guy bought a huge amount of scratch cards and then fretted away as he scratched them off and won nothing. It felt like he was down on his luck and was scratching away the last few dollars that he had left.
Seattle - Again
Our final dash into Seattle is easily managed but is marred by the Satnav going AWOL at a rest break in a town called Pomeroy. The unit won't acquire the satellites. The last part of the oddysey for Diane is an interstate dash back through Washington state on some really ropey motorway. I think the roads have been damaged by weather and earth tremors because some parts are pretty awful.
We've checked into the Travelodge by the Space Needle which we quickly find is a very nice motel. More like a hotel really and quite a bargain. If you're ever staying in Seattle on a budget then I would recommend this place.
Wednesday 1st July
The plan today is for Diane to go and shop 'til she drops while I look up Touratech Seattle. I bought the satnav from Touratech UK and a quick call to their shop in Seattle (by some fortunate coincidence Touratech USA is based here) reveals that they would like to try and help.
I also put a help call out to Garmin. When I arrive at the Touratech shop a gentleman called Tom Myers who is their Satnav guru checks everything out with me and by phoning Garmin. Tom is a huge help and is able to prove that the unit is kaput. Garmin agree on the phone that it needs replacing and say they will honour the warranty even though it has failed ten days after the warranty ran out.
There's a problem though. Garmin can't get the replacement to Touratech before the 4th July holiday and by the time it gets here I'll be well into Canada. They can't send it to me in Calgary because it will attract a lot of tax and probable delays. Also the unit will be an American one and Tom reckons it won't be set up for places like Russia or some of Eastern Europe.
So the only way forward is for me to buy a new unit. When I get the unit back to the hotel I find that I can't unlock my maps because they only have a license for one unit and now I have two. Garmin eventually sort this out for me on the phone and I'm back with Satnav. I wasn't aware that Garmin purchase the mapping software from a cartographic company and have their arms tied by the licensing agreements. A lot of the things I find frustrating are due to these agreements and not really something that Garmin can do anything about.
Diane and I have a last meal before she goes back at a very expensive Sushi restaurant. It'll be baked beans for me from now on in.
A Sad Farewell
Thursday 2nd July
Diane's flight is late in the evening, so we have a day to take one last look at Seattle. We hop on the monorail at the Space Needle and head into town. First stop is the Underground Tour which lets you have a look at the Subterranean world of old Seattle, which it seems was a badly planned sewage works with exploding toilets that fortunately for everyone burned to the ground. It's a quirky and interesting little tour.
After a bit more shopping we head back to the hotel and do Diane's final packing which involves taking back all the things I shouldn't have brought in the first place. Surprisingly it all weighs only 24.7 kilos all of which was mounted high on the bike. This means we won't have to pay a surcharge which is probably a good thing following the purchase of a new satnav.
We calculate that Diane has pillioned just over five thousand miles in the stage from Los Angeles to Seattle via Pacific Highway 1, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Seattle. The only regret I have is that we never made it as far up the coast as Cape Disappointment.
The bike has now completed just under 10,000 miles on this trip and I have done another 2,500 miles in the car to Florida. The GS has used very little oil. It seems to be only using oil when it is used in city traffic. On the open road the legendary GS oil consumption shrinks to very, very little. In it's overloaded state the bike has handled really very well and coped with everything including two quite lengthy trips off road.
We catch the connector bus to the Airport and have a last coffee and bite to eat together. When we head for my bus back to the hotel we go to the wrong place and it all becomes a bit of a rush so our parting is suddenly all too quick. I'm gutted that she's leaving. The hotel room is very empty and lonely.
Bye Bye USA
I've got used to the USA. I really like it here and it sort of feels like a second home. It feels strange to be leaving. My last little jaunt is to the Boeing plant for the tour. The massive factory is the biggest building by volume on Earth. Strangely I don't quite get the impression of size and it seems smaller than I would have imagined it to be. Impressive though. The new 787 Dreamliner is completed and the first two are out on the tarmac, due shortly for it's first test flight. Recession, what recession?
The final part of the journey to Canada is hot, very hot. Like 33 degrees. The traffic is heavy for a lot of the way. The Canadian border post is very impressive. All landscaped gardens and top notch design of buildings for the customs guys to sit in. The roads just North of the border are really good too. It reminds me of the English Scottish border just North of Berwick. Alex has made sure that the Scottish side is pristine and the Saltire is immaculate on it's flagpole. The English side is dirty with a tatty flag and is smells like someone has peed on it. I wonder who did that??
Hitting Vancouver in the rush hour is a bit of a shock. The traffic is log-jammed due to a motorcycle accident and it takes a long time for it to get moving again. Turns out people are just slowing up to take a look at the wrecked Suzuki. Hope the rider is OK.
I ride pretty much right through Vancouver because my nice new American Garmin tells me to do so. I think it must be set to sightseeing idiot mode. It seems a nice clean city with a it's fair share of village like suburbs. All very pleasant. A bit like Barnsley or maybe Scunthorpe. Not.
Not that there's anything wrong with Barnsley. It has some of the best grassed over coal tips in South Yorkshire.
I may be rambling a bit here, but the truth is I have no idea where I'm going. I have a vague idea that I want to catch a ferry to an island everyone keeps ranting on about but I don't know where from or where to really. Could be any island. The boys own atlas that I have in my possession has a ferry port in West Vancouver with a red dotted line showing a sailing to somewhere, but it runs out of sea before it patches in such details of where that might be.
Never mind. That's where we will be going tomorrow. I hope it isn't Hawaii. Then again....
With the aid of some precision navigation called turn right a bit we end up outside a motel called the Grouse Motel and check in for the night.
A Hippy Hideaway
It's just a short ride along the coast of West Vancouver to the ferry terminal, but it nearly ends in a crash.
The coastline itself reminds me a lot of Cornwall or Devon with steep hillsides and nice houses. Very green. When the little coastal route meets the highway there's a very strange staggered junction. Initially I sit tight waiting for traffic to pass. Then a car draws up to the left and stops and waits. I mistakenly (I think) believe that this is like the American four way crossroads. These are weird examples of highway design where first arrival pulls off first.
In the US, cars almost always seem to give way to bikes which makes sense because bikes are quite vulnerable in this kind of situation so I assume the guy is letting me go. As I pull out another car appears inside the one that has stopped and gives me a huge blast on his horn. Truth is it isn't that dramatic, I doubt he even had to brake, but it's a timely warning not to make assumptions.
I do like ferries. Wherever bikers meet there's always a decent bit of banter and this is no
exception. A good mix of BM's, Jap bikes and Harleys. There are two German overland bikes (one a GS)
which are really manky and have clearly done some hard work. The riders come over for a chat. One is
a quieter bloke and the other quite an extrovert. They've come down from Alaska and are now skint,
intending to stay with a friend on Vancouver Island and earn a bit of money to continue their journey.
So that's where I'm going...
There's a bit of cheerful banter between us.
"Your bike is too clean", says the extrovert.
"Yours is filthy!"
Leave the poor lad alone
The sea journey is quite short - around an hour and a half. As we all tog up ready for the off, I have a chat to a lad who is riding a Yamaha XS400 from the late '70s or early 80's. I like his bike. It has a bit of patina and is quite cool. He's got himself a quite period leather jacket and a pudding bowl helmet from Japan with a burberry interior along with old style goggles. I think he's put some effort in and tell him it looks cool.
This seems to trigger an older rider who asks him if his helmet is DOT approved - "Ya shouldn't be riding in a non approved helmet". What does that prove? The Titanic was DOT approved.
I hope it doesn't put the new rider off. Be yourself mate and stand out from the crowd. Your helmet is as good as his fake german WW2 DOT approved helmet, 'made in Japan' is good enough for me.
The German adventure rider and I have a final chat and I give him my card.
"Your bike is still too clean"
"Give me yours for two hours and I'll make it gleam"
The guy who sold me the ferry ticket asked me where I was going on the island. "Dunno really", "You should go to Tofino on the West Coast. It's the most beautiful place on Earth"
OK then. That's decided. When I manage to identify where I'm going it seems to me that the Island is about the size of the Isle of Wight. Wrong. It's huge. Tofino, which looks like it is twenty miles across tops is actually well over a hundred miles away, across mountains, by lakes and through ancient forests. Quite a ride.
When I finally pull into the small town of Tofino it's a bit different to what I was expecting. I thought I would be staying in a very remote area with one or two campsites. But this place is, well I don't really know how to describe it because I don't want to be rude. It's kind of theme park for Hippies and Surfer Dudes. This is going to take a bit of getting my head around.
I quickly find a campsite which has one space left. The site is run by young dude type dudes and dudettes. Most things are awesome, some are understood totally and others are totally awesome. They're nice enough kids though and run a good site. They say the pitch I've got is really bad man and that I might want to move to one near the beach tomorrow which would be really awesome. Cool.
My pitch is next to two surfer dudettes with a large dog. There are signs all around warning of a resident bear, so it's quite nice to have a dog next door. A bit later on the surfer chicks sneak a second tent on with more surfer chicks but by then my attentions have been grabbed by the group next to them. Anton, a Russian who lives in Calgary comes over for a chat and invites me over to their pitch for some food and drink.
I don't have any booze and feel a bit awkward not being able to return the favour and I've eaten.
But my rule is 'Never look a gift horse in the mouth while on the road' so I pop over. Anton is
a big red faced fella who is camping with his girlfriend Denise (lovely lady) and Igor who may be
related but I never worked that out. They're over from Calgary with a pick up and a boat and
have been fishing. We have a beer, then the Vodka comes out. It's a very convivial evening
with a bit of chat about the Oilfield since all of us work in that line of business.
"What's this with the Hippy thing going on here", I ask "I mean it's not real is it?"
"They all got rich Daddies back in Vancouver or Calgary Andy, Look at all the SUV's, that isn't a real dropout"
They invite me to go out with them on the boat tomorrow but I have to decline. I've seen a place advertising sea kayaking and that's my mission for the morning. I spent quite a bit extending my accident insurance to allow kayaking and I'm damn well going to use it.
All at Sea
The next morning I pop into town and book up for an organised trip. I want to just hire a kayak but the guy asks me if I'm familiar with solo rescue which I'm not, so I don't lie.
Back to the campsite and re-pitch the tent in the new pitch which is lovely jubbly (I'm flat refusing to say totally awesome). Then it's off to the kayak shak.
Nick, who is the guide on the trip, is a young guy from Eastern Canada who has settled in Tofino for a bit of alternative lifestyle living. He's very competent in instructing us on the finer points of sea kayaking which is slightly different to the river and surf kayaking that I normally do back home. The main difference is that the sea kayak has a rudder and the paddles that they use at this particular company are straight rather set at 90 degrees to each other.
Other than that it's just nice to be back paddling after a break of well over a year.
The other couple participating are Deiter and Claudia from Germany. They haven't kayaked before but they soon get the hang of it in the two person kayak they are given.
The trip lasts for around three hours and takes us across the currents of the estuary opposite Torino and into the waters around a set of Islands. Nick points out a couple of Bald Eagles that are circling near an island and shows us one of their nests. Chatting with him I find out a bit more about the history of Torino. Apparently the original hippies arrived when the road to Torino was dirt track and mixed with the lumberjacks and fishermen, hanging out at Long Beach, a strip of beach on the run in to the town. The surf was very good there and it attracted more and more people, especially after the road was tarmac'd.
It's really beautiful out in the tidal waters, the islands are deserted - sometimes occupied by bears who swim out to them and the real drop outs seem to be living on houseboats out there (one displaying a pirate flag). It does rain for two hundred days a year though, so not really California.
After a few shots my little Sony point and shoot camera stops working. I suspect it's a flat set of batteries.
Nick tells me a bit about the forest which is genuine and original. There isn't much of this ancient forest around and typically the lumber firms wanted to be allowed to chop it all down. The population rose up and conducted a campaign of civil disobedience with resulted in the most people being taken to court in Canadian history. Thankfully they were successful though and the trees are still there.
It reminded me of a brilliant documentary about Windsor where Prince Phillip was talking to the
cameras whilst driving through Windsor Great Park in his Land Rover.
"Yes, we wanted to thin this row of trees down. It really needed to be done but the Bleddy Tree Huggers stopped us...."
Well the Bleddy Tree Huggers managed to stop the corporations this time too. Only thing is they haven't given up and it's by no means certain that these ancient forests are safe. It underlines the need for people in places like Europe to start asking where wood came from before they buy the next beautiful bit of wooden furniture (and I've got lots and need to start when I get back!!)
A bit of Campfire Banter
After the kayaking I'm tempted to go and fly the kite I bought in Oregon on the beach but I
run out of time and need to get a fire going and cook the local giant prawn tails that I've
bought in the Co-op. Whilst this is going on I get to chat to one of my neighbours who is Brock
from Oldham in England who has moved over with his wife and son Connor to start a new life over
"Yeah, let's face it England is stuffed, it's much better here, especially for Connor"
A bit later I get talking to my other neighbour, a Russian emigre who is probably a bit younger than Brock.
"North America is done for, US and Canada. I'm moving South to Mexico, it's much better there. Hmmm. I think my neighbours need to talk to each other!!
I have a few scoops of wine and busy myself by collecting wood from spent fires on the beach because I don't want to pay seven dollars for more wood. I'm reduced to scratching for wood like a tramp picking up fag butts. It's fun. The surfer dudes and hippy dudes are too lazy to pick up the free wood lying on the beach and in the campsite and give me funny looks. My fire is roaring away all evening for nowt.
The Sad Passing of Agnes
When I decide to turn in it's getting a bit cold. As I zip up the mosquito net door on the tent the zip comes right off. Shining the torch on it I can see that the terminal bit has disintegrated. Tonight Andrew you sleep with the midgies.
I'm devastated. Agnes is a nice tent but things have been going downhill even before the infamous elk attack. The first thing to go was a clip on the flysheet. Then the vestibule started getting awkward to zip together. Now the inner is broken. To cap it all, at two in the morning there is an omminous rumbling and before long flashes of lightening. My mind drifts off to Alabama and the lightening tree....
The thunderstorm creeps closer and closer. With ten seconds between lightening and thunder clap at around four am, the sound becomes really impressive as the banging and crashing rolls down the mountain valleys, seemingly echoing for ever to the point that one rumble merges eventually into the next one. Then the rain comes.
Thankfully Big Agnes doesn't let me down and I doze on in the morning hoping the rain will stop. It doesn't. I hate having to break camp in pouring rain. Never mind, nothing for it but to get up and get cracking. I carefully pack in the tent trying to avoid getting things wet and finally break down the soaking tent. What's the point of packing a useless tent which is wringing wet alongside gear that is dry? In a fit of pique that I'm going to regret later I unceremoniously dump my super duper lightweight backpacker friendly canvas friend into the rubbish skip.
Big Agnes the tent lasted the equivalent of three weeks worth of camping. About the same as my second ex wife.
There and back again
The journey back to the ferry is back on the same road that I arrived on which is wet and a little bit slippery. This is a sad moment. From now on all roads are leading me inexoriably back to Blighty. We'll have to find some new places to explore to make sure it is interesting.
I quite liked the mixed up hippy town of Tofino. People keep mentioning it saying they would like to go there and I don't try and put them off. It's just trying a bit too hard. My big sister should go there. She'd sort them out. She used to have a genuine uncured Afghan coat and loons with bells on the knees. That's a Hippy.
A Fellow Yorkie
On the Ferry back I get to talk to a biker from Calgary who speaks the dialect of bah gum. Paul is riding a Honda VFR 800 and is basically heading in the same direction as me. We have a good old chin wag. He gives me some good tips on which would be interesting roads to ride. Back on the mainland I tag along behind him for a while but decide to drop back so I can take it easy.
The traffic around Vancouver is really busy and the weather mucky. It's tempting to find somewhere to stop early but we're against the clock to get to Calgary so I press on through the outlying areas of Vancouver which are quite industrial. A lot of works and bridge building slow things down significantly. A bit later the road passes through pleasant countryside on sweeping roads that Paul had mentioned.
Later on again, whilst riding along a valley, I notice a silver bike following which is unmistakably a VFR. I pull over and Paul and I say hello again. He's heading another thirty kilometres to a place called Hope and suggests I overnight there too so we can have a bite to eat and a beer. Sounds like a plan.
An Embarrassing Moment
A young girl in one of the multitudes of motels I've no bunkered in told me that it was sometimes
very awkward trying to find out if couples want one bed or two. I guess quite a lot of people just share
rooms. The guy in the Royal Motel digs a hole and just keeps going.
Me: "Hi. We'd like two rooms with single beds"
Motel owner: "You want two beds right?"
Me: "No a single bed"
Motel Owner: "A single bed?", eyeing us both up rather suspicously.
Paul: "TWO ROOMS, TWO ROOMS!!!"
Financial Meltdown in a town called Hope
Having paid for my room and unloaded my gear I go down to reception to use the ATM that I've noticed there. Card in, pin in, slip of paper - Not Authorised.
OK, I'll try my credit card. Not Authorised.
OK, I'll try my emergency card. Not Authorised.
Hang on a minute. How much money have I got. Ten Canadian, Forty US Dollars. Maybe enough to get to Calgary in fuel but certainly not for the next motel. And I've ditched my tent. I might be in trouble.
Paul thinks that it is probably the machine so I have a go at buying a map in the fuel station up the road using my credit card. Denied. I realise that my policy of not carrying much cash has backfired and I'm in trouble if this doesn't clear up in the morning. The lady at the gas station very helpfully lets me use their phone to call the bank in UK who tell me my cards are fine and everything should work. Maybe it is just a comms problem between Canada and the UK - happens quite a bit.
Paul and I go for a meal and he very kindly picks up the tab. I can't let this go by and say that I will pay for breakfast in the morning. Hopefully the cards will be OK tomorrow.
In the morning the situation is exactly the same. No cards working. Pride kicks in and I spend some of my dwindling finances on breakfast with Paul. Paul is the manager of a camera shop in Calgary which is good news because Diane and I were looking for one for ages to try and buy a polarising filter for the Digi SLR, so I ask him to e-mail the address and I'll pop over when I get there.
Or maybe that's if I make it! I have enough money remaining to get me three quarters of the way to Calgary. As Paul heads off (heading on a different track to me to overnight at his sister's) I mooch down into town and find a bank.
The nice lady behind the counter is ultra helpful. "Try our machine and if it doesn't work we can advance you cash against the visa account. We can do that." It's very useful to know that this is possible, but you have to find a bank that honours Visa or Maestro depending on what your card is.
The machine works and I take out enough cash to just see me through to Calgary. I'm confident everything is OK now.
At the next petrol stop my main credit card doesn't work which dampens my earlier elation that things were sorted, but my emergency card does work. Confused am I. Worse news still. A pair of new batteries in the Sony camera don't bring it back to life. It looks like it has given up the ghost which I can't really blame it for. It's a well battered example of the species.
Everything is falling apart. Tent, Camera, Banking system and the body is sore too. I've got a small muscle in my back that has been playing up since Memphis and gets really painful, especially after a few hours on the bike with the camelpack water container on my back.
The weather holds off but there are very low clouds and the ranges of hills and low mountains are shrouded in clouds as I head along the route 97c to Kelowna then up to Vernon. Paul advised me to then take Route 6 which he said was a very good motorcycling road. He wasn't wrong. It snakes it's way through a mountain range that I get a glimpse of occasionally which, according to the boys own atlas is the tail end of the Monashee Mountains which then merge with, or maybe are part of (?) the Columbia Mountains.
Lassie Come Home
At a stop I read a poster about a dog that went missing on the mountain. He was helping the cowboys round up cattle (what voluntarily?) and went missing. We miss him desperately.... hope is fading. There's a photo of the dog. As an old hound and, for some inexplicable reason, one taken when he was a puppy. Hang on a minute! How many dogs are there lost up there that they need ID? Of course it wouldn't do to rescue a wolf. This ain't mah dawg, this wun kips howlin'.
I'm in bend swinging mode happily attacking the chicken strip on the tyres when I miss all the signs and run into the ferry at Needles. The dramatic version would have me braking furiously, swerving to miss the queue of cars and driving straight into the lake in a welter of spray. The actual version has the bikes superb brakes bringing it to a graceful stop with a competency that shames the sign reading skills of the idiot riding it.
Ferry across the.. erm wherever it is
The ferry ride is very pleasant. On the far side I fill up with petrol and try paying with my main card. No luck. It definitely looks to be blocked despite what the bank told me. Reserve card works fine.
The road up the Eastern side of the lake is a mixture of quite long straights and, in other parts, fast bends. Along the side for part of the way the road follows the Canadian Pacific Railway line. Huge bird nests sit on top of each and every railway post across the lines. I think these may be eagle nests but they are probably more likey Osprey ones. The scenery is exactly like Western Scotland. Without the signs, that's where you could be.
So, sad though it is historically, it makes perfect sense that the people who were dislocated in the Highland Clearances ended up here and ironically ended up clearing the Indians out of their land.
It's the Upper Arrow Lake I think. On my map it looks like a blue streak, but in reality it is probably a similar size or bigger than Loch Ness. There's only one sizeable town in something like eighty miles of lakeside and that is called Nakusp. It's a pleasant town with a nice beach. My concern for whether my cards will work has turned into paranoia which is fed by the fact that none of them do work when I try them at the bank.
At the top of the lake there's another ferry taking me back to the Western shore and the short hop to Revelstoke where I hope to find a cheap motel. On the ferry I get chatting to a gentleman who makes stone fireplaces for a living. He's very keen to hear about the trip and agrees with my enthusiasm for New Mexico when I describe it. He's been there buying rocks for his fireplaces.
Revelstoke is a junction of a number of roads and has a couple of decent motels. I watch nervously as the receptionist swipes my reserved card. It works. Phew!!
So, in financial terms, we're certain to reach Calgary now. Just have to ride across the Rockies in the morning. I do hope the weather clears up.
Short hop to Calgary
So we're holed up in Revelstoke and the celebration is having just enough money to pay for the meal and get to Calgary and sanctuary. A couple of glasses of red wine are in order.
The morning dawns grey and drizzly. The mountains aren't visible at all. Wet weather gear is zipped into the riding suit (yes BMW have designed as suit that leaks and you wear an inner waterproof. Bizzare, I know, but it works). The road quickly climbs. Basically a two lane interstate just about all the way. I notice that there are teams getting rid of the gravel that they put on the roads during the winter so the snows are not that long gone.
Before departing I went and invested in a pair of BMW winter gloves. These work well with the rest of the suit and, indeed, the bike's heated handlebar grips. I'd like to come out all ruffy tuffy and say that I braved the elements across the rockies, but the truth is I was as warm as toast. In fact that isn't quite the truth. The suit actually keeps you cool but not cold. So to be warm you have to add layers underneath it and my Patagonia top, which cost quite a lot, is just right to complete the set.
Of course that isn't like twiddling nobs and switches in cars, but the end result is that I'm probably just as comfortable, if not more so, than the poor souls driving on four wheels or more. And I think on a bike you are likely to stay more aware.
So the Rockies are a doddle really, but I don't really have known much about them apart from being aware of climbing very high and then descending again. Shame really.
I do get glimpses of them and I have to admit I've been to Banff and Lake Louise before so I do know that
they are magnificent. The journey goes by surprisingly quickly, passing through Donald and Golden, then Lake
Louise. I stop at a Lodging-come-restaurant for a bite to eat and meet another biker forlornly eating a
"What're you on a Harley?"
I think back to what Ed said about all the Harleys he's had with belts. "They last the life of the bike and never, ever break"
But I've read road tests where the same isn't the case with Buells which are a sporty bike that were once
made by an independent company now owned by Harley themselves.
"It's a new belt. Put on last week"
I didn't say it but I think he was incredibly lucky. He stayed the night in the motel and the belt broke
before he pulled away. He could have been out on the mountains in this filthy weather without a mobile
reception. I ask if there's anything I can do to help.
"No thanks, it's OK. Just gotta wait for my sister to finish work and drive my pick up out from Calgary"
It's going to be a long wait.
Banff sits in it's own National Park. It has a famous Hotel that we visited when we came on a business trip up at Lake Louise. The hotel is one of those that was built for the tourist industry brought by the railway. Banff in Scotland has a hotel too. It won't win top trumps though. Or maybe it would win if you pulled out the card saying which one came first.
Banff itself is very touristy. Wet and touristy. But I do have a mission and this is definitely going to help me succeed. I need stickers! My cases haven't been graced with any stickers since arriving in Canada. The Canadians seem generally shy of self promotion (which isn't a problem generally in the USA!).
Banff doesn't let me down. There are plenty of shops selling tat and I head straight past the shop frontages selling countless expensive trinkets of a higher cultural standing and into the Banff version of Yarmouth's Regent Road. As I buy my stickers (of a Bear related theme) I ask the assistant where I can buy wine.
He seems shocked and gives me very vague directions. I assume he's religious and seems to have taken on a bit of a guilt trip that he actually knows where the store actually is. It's not like I asked him where the local adult shop is.
Never mind. I soon find a wine shop and get two bottles as a gift for my host for the next three or four.
The arrival of a Road Rat
My bike is absolutely filthy. Nothing much apart from the bike is fully operational and I'm looking a tad weathered myself. But despite running out of shaving foam I have scratched my blunt razor across my stubble so damn I look good as I roll up at my hosts house.
Gina needs a bit of a description for anyone reading this (If you've got this far, congratulations, but go and get a life!) who doesn't know her. She has been my boss and friend for two SAP system implementations at one of the large Canadian oil companies in their office in Aberdeen, Scotland.
She is a tiny powerhouse of a woman with an amazing sense of humour an apparently boundless energy. Since we're both straight talking we've had quite an 'interesting' time working together which normally involves us having a difference of opinion which inevitably results in me doing what she said in the first place. Through all of that I'd like to think we've remained firm friends.
I've had three offers to put me up, all from ladies who are good friends, and I chose to stay with Gina because we worked together just before I left so it was easy to say yes and give a date of arrival plus Diane has met Gina and knows her reasonably well. In doing so I let my other friend Colleen down a bit and didn't let Allison down because she's ended up with another house guest while I'm there. Tricky n'est pas.
Anyway, here I am in Calgary looking like a filthy tramp outside a very respectable house in a very respectable neighbourhood. No-one answers the door bell. Ha! Well I've actually managed to arrive at precisely the time agreed, unless my watch is wrong and I've got time zones mixed up.
The weather in Calgary is warm so I unpack my book 'The Lords of the North' and crash out on the front doorstep.
The book is written by Bernard Cornwell who also wrote the 'Sharpe' series of books. I won't read them on principle because Sean Bean who played Sharpe on telly is a Sheffield United fan. It's about an Anglo Saxon warrior who was brought up by the Danes then fought for King Alfred before heading North to avenge the loss of his estates (plus a few other misdemeanours.
Normally I wouldn't read a book like this but it was the only book on the Vancouver Island ferry that wasn't written by a woman and didn't have some soppy Barbara Cartland type title to it. I'm loving it to bits...
Anyway, I'm getting to a crucial bit where he's been held as a slave on a Danish trading ship and is just about to be saved, when a friendly face pops round and says, "Are you Andy?"
It's Gina's neighbour Darlene who invites me round to hers to wait for Gina there.
Darlene's house is very nice. I haven't been in one for sixty eight days and it all seems a bit strange to be cosying down on a nice leather sofa once again. Darlene introduces me to Perry her husband. I don't think I've ever met anyone called Darlene or Perry.
I was worried that I would have trouble recounting my experiences to people when I got to Calgary. There's been such a bombardment of the senses over the past few weeks and I've been genuinely trapped in a huge time warp, where even the trip through Memphis seems a lifetime ago. So I thought I might be a bit muffled and stumble around a bit. Not so! On being asked how my trip has gone I suddenly fire up and my gob rattles off a massive blurb like an out of control gatlin gun.
I then embarrass myself totally without even a passing sense of guilt when Darlene asks me if I'd like a
drink, perhaps water or a glass of beer?
"Ooh a red wine please!"
Oh dear. My social ettiquette, never my strongest point, has just headed hot foot back over the Rockies and deserted me.
Gina's has gone AWOL too. When Darlene manages to contact her she's boozing it up in some bar with Allison. She's completely forgotten my e-mail saying "I'll arrive at five". When she arrives she chides me for not phoning. No change there then.
When we get round to Gina's I get a bit of a tour round her mansion, I mean house, and she then deposits me in the basement. Actually it's a really nice basement. Really, really nice. A comfortable four days awaits where I can chill out, carry out essential maintenance (which means buy a tent and small camera) and rest in a comfortable bed. I didn't account for the Stampede.
Oh dear (or as most ladies in Aberdeen say "Oh deary, deary me")
How do we cover the Stampede?
Well the first thing I should say is that I find Canadians to be considerably quieter and more reserved than the Americans. I have found the Americans to be very, very engaging and almost always incredibly polite. The Canadians have been quieter. I'm avoiding saying that Americans are brash because my experience is that the stereotypical view, as always, almost never fits reality.
I mean have you ever been to Newcastle? If you have you would never, ever describe an English person as reserved, stiff upper lip or any of the other stereotypes. In fact you might be deaf from them shouting, hollering, laughing and joking with you. And you would probably have enjoyed one of the best nights out in your life if you can remember anything at all.
My experience is the Scots, God bless 'em, are a bit more reserved than the English and I think this shows in the roots of the Canadian psyche.
So, on the road, the Canadians, like their Scottish forebears are quieter, a bit less likely to approach you for a chat but not really less friendly I would say.
Bring on the Calgary Stampede and everything changes. Ten days of debauchery. Imagine a Saturday night out in Newcastle after the Toon have won the Premiership and the European Cup double and everyone has decided to dress like Brokeback Mountain and we've just about got it.
It's chaps in chaps and girls in tight Wranglers wrestling cows and racing wagons like Ben Hur with his backside on fire drinking in beer tents littered with the detrius of the past eight days of much the same. Er, I mean the chaps in chaps are doing the wrestling, not the girls in tight jeans. I think they're mostly after wrestling with the chaps in chaps sometime after the cows have been put back in the coral.
The Stampede itself is a series of events that culminate in 'big money' finals on the last weekend. People who do well in the smaller rodeos qualify for a go in this, the big one. They come from all over North America to do so. These guys (and girls) can be big earning professionals.
Our first run at it involves me walking down to central Calgary to meet Gina and some of my ex-colleagues before taking the tram to the Showground. It's nice to see everyone again.
The tram is jam packed. Trams weren't designed for packing in a load of people wearing ten gallon hats.
I've been included in the team day out at the rodeo for which I would like to make special mention to Gail as a thank-you. This involves a meal before the rodeo in a hospitality tent and a few beers, followed by the rodeo and more beers followed by a few more beers in a huge tent listening to some bands with some dancing. Apparently standard Stampede fare.
The meal goes well. I get to chat with some of the people who were over in the UK back in 2005, Todd, Dan, Allison, Colleen (who chides me for not staying round hers), Gail - plus a few others I became friends with later: Rahim, Sarah and Mary Lyn and Michelle to mention not all of them. On top of that I meet a few new people that I didn't know.
A tiny bit the merrier we head off to the Grandstand for the rodeo. I sit with my mate Allison who explains how things work.
Basically there are a number of events which include: riding broncos in saddles, without saddles, lassoeing calves and tying them up, bareback bull riding and wrestling steers.
I'm not going to try to describe the issues of animal welfare here because everyone I meet kind of had their own thoughts on it but I would like to describe what is explained to me.
The bucking bit with the horses and bulls is derived from a kind of a belt which, not to put too fine a point on it, caresses the animals gonads. Caressing quite firmly without actually hurting or injuring it. I'm not quite sure how this is exactly acheived but those animals hit that dirt with a vengeance. And the people riding them are complete and utter nutters. I will never joke about the camper aspects of the cowboy cult ever again. Them's mean geezers.
I've always held motorcycle road racers as a race of mentalists apart but rodeo riders and their compardres are now firmly in the same place in my estimation.
Apparently, the aim is to come out of the stalls with one arm up at a jaunty angle - the precise number of degrees isn't clear to me - Allison does tell me but I've had one too many beers by this time. The other arm is gripping the reins for dear life and the legs are supposed to be pulled backwards and forwards (I think to make the animal buck even more). This performance goes on for (I think) eight seconds after which a hooter goes and they can jump off normally by being picked up by another rider coming alongside. They are then judged by the style and quality of performance of rider and bronc. Dressage it is not.
For pure skill and strength, I would have to say that the calf tying takes the biscuit for me. Here the rider starts in a trap on his horse. A little bull is released (Tommy Steele would undoubtably be able to make a cheerful cockney song out of this one...) and runs for it's little leanest beef on legs life across the stadium whereupon the rider charges out lassoe circling and lassoes the little white bull round the neck.
In the blink of an eye (literally) the rider jerks the bull to a halt, leaps from the horse, the horse comes to a halt and the rider whips the tying rope (which was in his teeth), wrestles the calf to the ground by picking it up and dumping it, and ties it's legs in the approved standard bull tying knot. The horse all the while, and of it's own accord gently pulls back on the lassoe rope which was deftly attached to it by the rider thus ensuring the sirloin can't move.
You might say this is clearly cruel to the little white bull, but as soon as they are released, up they pop and off they trot straight to the gates of the holding pen to see their mates. On a couple of occasions I saw the rider miss with the lassoe and I swear the little bull legged it off singing 'We are the champions my friends...'.
I have to report though that the Steer wrestling met with tragedy. This involves two riders riding after a released steer (with right big horns). The steer wrestler who is one of the riders and who are built like brick whatsits, leap from their horse grabbing the steer by the horns after which they flip it by the horns over on to the ground. They are timed by when the steer has no feet on the ground.
The whole rodeo is just about over when a wrestler kills the steer accidentally with a broken neck. This is relatively rare and actually makes the news. Bad luck for the poor steer though.
I should mention the cowgirls who have their own barrel racing competition riding horses at breakneck speeds around a circuit marked by barrels. Suzannah, my daughter would enjoy watching that. Or rather she'd probably enjoy taking her loaned horse which she rides in cross country events around the circuit. 'The Arch' as he is known locally in Milton Keynes is a cob which I think should really be in front of a cart delivering beer.
The Beer Tent
The Stampede is as much about the beer tent though. Vast quantities of beer sold at ludicrous prices are consumed in a party atmosphere that gets wilder as the night goes on. The dance floor reeks of the contents of a number of stomachs from nights gone by which doesn't help when Gina does her customary thing and falls over trying to do a mambo. She does this every time I dance with her.
Once the free beer tokens have run out I go and get a round in and nearly faint. That's me on baked beans for the next eight weeks then.
Allison has a go at teaching me two step which is very similar to a dance we do in ballroom exams called 'Social Rythm'. Either that or I dance it completely wrong. I then decide to see if it would be possible to dance a bit of Ceroc come Mambo to country and western, something that has never been acheived before but, in my drunken state, I think I pull it off reasonably well.
My night is made complete by a lady from my ex-work who I haven't met before dancing the rest of the night away with me. Big thanks to Marina - hope I've spelled your name correctly. Eventually it is time to go home (well back to the cellar that is) and we depart. Just far enough outside the beer tent to realise I've left my Patagonia top behind. I've only got two thermals so recovery of said clothing is essential.
They won't let us get back in. This leads to Gina being her most assertive (and believe me that would even scare a steer wrestler into submission) and an alarmed bouncer manages to enter the fray of drunken, dancing and convulsing bodies to miraculously re-appear with exactly the right top. This is a miracle of biblical proportions because I was not able to remember any other description of it other than 'black top'. It also goes to prove that being armed with a second generation Italian at five foot nothing with a few beers inside her is better than virtually anything known under Christendom.
The Mountain Equipment Co-op
The Mountain Equipment Co-op is my favourite outdoor shop in the world. Their prices are about half that of anywhere in the UK and they sell brilliant stuff. They also have a better returns policy than Marks and Spencer and any Brit will tell you that is pretty good.
I bought Agnes from them along with lots of other good stuff. Gina often brought it over to Aberdeen for
me if I didn't pick it up on the two trips I did to Calgary on business. I realised a couple of days ago
that I was really, really, monumentally stupid for throwing Agnes away. The next morning, in the MEC this
is double and triple brought home to me.
"The tent fell apart and in a fit of pique I threw it away"
"That's a shame sir, if you'd have brought it in we would have given you a full refund"
That's eighteen months after I bought it.
"I'm not sure what we can do, but I'll just talk to a manager and be right back to you"
I head off and look for a replacement. I need something a bit more heavy duty but maybe also a bit smaller so I can put it up quickly and not have mess around so much with things like vestibules. A young German staff member takes me right through the options and I decide on a tent called a Tarn which is a two man tent but probably only if you are very well aquainted.
The help desk gentleman comes over.
"We'd like to offer you a ten percent discount on your new tent which is a one off gesture.."
What a place. I decide to pop back in to buy the tent tomorrow and they put one aside for me.
Chuck Wagon Racing
I'm aware that Ewan and Charley came through Calgary on 'The Long Way Round' and Charley was knocked off his bike near Calgary and got it fixed there. They also visited the Stampede. I'm not trying to emulate them. My camerawoman has gone home.
Anyway, day two of the Stampede is my final taste and it is the brilliant, brilliant chuck wagon races that take place in the late afternoon/early evening that is the entertainment today.
We meet up for a couple of beers. It's Friday the 9th of July and a work day for some but not for me or Gina who, incidentally, woke up with a bit of a hangover and wasn't alone in that department.
When we get to the showground we head for the Grandstand and, armed with a beer, it is explained to me that it is customary to have a few little side bets.
Before I attempt to describe the specatacle, I would like to say that I have never met such a bunch of double dealing Shysters as my erstwhile ex-colleagues. If I say that out of eight races I managed seven thirds and one fourth (with four wagons in each heat) you will probably get the idea of how badly I get scalded. I won't mention any names but Allison and Todd you know who you are.
The races themselve are a fabulous spectacle. They start with the wagons, which have teams of four horses, describing a figure of eight around numbered barrels while you decide which one you're going to bet on. They then head off back up the oval race course and turn round before stopping back at the barrels. There are teams of outriders that have to finish the circuit within a reasonable distance of the wagon.
It all starts with a claxon whereupon the dismounted outriders load a tent into the wagons and, with the tent inside the wagon careers off round the barrels while the outriders leap on their horses. The wagons they race like a chariot race anti clockwise at breakneck speed with their covers flapping around while the outriders chase after them. Everyone is on their feet as they hurtle round the last corner and the whole massive charge of wagons and outriders thunder across the finish line.
I've never seen anything like it before. It's insane. And I'm skint.
Each night the Stampede finishes with a show which is apparently by mainly young amateur Canadian performers which includes all sorts of dancing, an excellent comedian, a kind of trapeze act which is quite astonishing and some motorcycle stunt riders (hooray!) followed by a top notch firework display. The London olympic committee need to get over here for some tips pdq.
Everyone is just a little bit subdued in our group after the excesses of the night before and we end up heading home via Allison the taxi cab in good order (much better than last night).
A New Tent
Saturday 11th July
The day dawns bright and I'm up very early bushy tailed and eager to go and spend some well earned credit card dosh. Not. Nope, it's a lazy get up in the basement and their ain't much sound of stirring in the elevated reaches of chez Gina.
The walk into town is a gentle forty five minute stroll, nearer an hour to get to the Mountain Equipment Co-op. Apart from buying a replacement tent, I also want to get a campground chair. I'm fed up of sitting on the floor on a tarp. I'd really like to get a Kermit chair (If you don't know what one is google it and you'll see) which are amazing but at $126 a bit outside my means at the moment so I settle for a $37 Canadian MEC camp chair.
I also intend to send my current sleeping bag home with Gina who is due to visit the UK tomorrow and get something that might be a bit warmer than yesterday's penguin squit on the arctic ice cap. There's a really lovely looking red number that is very cheap but promises warmth down to minus 5 and looks like it came out of Jackie Collins' bouduoir. Trouble is that when it is fully compressed it will just about fit into a Walmart (Asda for UK) distribution warehouse.
Since the previous source of any warmth in the tent departed via Seattle, needs must and a deal is struck. I leave the MEC with a small tent, a cheap chair and an enormous sleeping bag. So big I have to take a taxi back to Gina's.
I then hop on the bike and key the co-ordinates given to me by Paul of the Vancouver ferry fame to visit his camera shop. It's great to see him again and he helps me choose a really nice replacement for my little Sony camera. Paul takes me through all it's features. I'm sure I'll never use them all but I buy it anyway (doing a quick Canadian Dollar to pound calculation convinces me that a few nights under canvas will pay for it). Little do Paul and I know (it's a fabled bloggers trick) but the camera has precisely two days and twenty two hours to live. I can hear the travel insurance agent reaching for his/her gun....
That evening Gina's monumental garden barbeque, which is much bigger than that used for the Queen's garden party and probably sucks gas from three of the nearest gas fields, is fired up and a most convivial evening is spent with Gina's friends Barb and Ron and their daughter Erin and later on Darlene and Perry, my rescuers from next door.
I think Gina is now severely short of Port.
Departure from Calgary
Sunday 12th July
Oh Dear. Gina's barbie ended at four am. I'd love to leave at the planned time but I'm hardly awake and need a few hours recuperation. Allison has agreed to meet up for a light lunch at the River Cafe which is in a nice park where very fit people do lots of exertion. Lucky them.
I take great pleasure in having an Elk bacon benedict, whatever that is. The main pleasure it the thought of revenge for Agnes the dearly departed tent. By the way, how on earth do you get Elk bacon. The cross breeding of animals is just plain wrong! Tastes OK though.
A final flurry of packing takes place, Gina for Aberdeen, me for ...er...well wherever, and the only task set for me for the four days is to try and carry her bag downstairs for her. Holy whatever!! What on earth is she taking! "I've got some wine and booze to put in there yet!" Clearly she's booked on a Galaxy airfrieghter.
I't not like I'm travelling too light either. The new sleeping bag fits like Hattie Jaques into a corset and has taken up one whole pannier. But I will be warm. Toastie.
Departing Gina's house is a sad occasion. At least for one of us. She's lost her resident tramp who did nothing and drank most of her cocktail bar. I'm heading over to Colleen's to have a quick cup of tea, a chin wag and to meet her son Michael. That's if the satnav can find it's way there. It takes me the scenic route.
Colleen has a garage to die for. It's bigger than my house. What's with these Canadians? Can't they have an ordinary garage? One like our UK ones that are purposefully designed to fit one old mattress and a box of newspapers in them.
Departure from Calgary is a cheery wave to Colleen and navigation to Highway 2 South. Next destination the Whatsit National Park a mere two and a half hours South. Or should have been.
Rain, Rain go Away
As I leave Calgary I get to see a really bizarre sight. Hundreds and hundreds of swans swimming in perfect formation. Oh, no scratch that they're white pelicans. They're in perfect line abreast below a weir on the river. Presumably it's a kind of mass fishing tactic or maybe it's the Pelican white water national championships....
In the distance the sky is darkening and it's clear there's going to be rain. My main plan is to get out of Calgary to find a motel that isn't affected by the Stampede hotel inflation effect. Looks like I should have put my wet weather gear on.
The only real downside to BMW's decision to put the waterproof layer on the inside is in the trouser department. If you ride with now't on but the pantaloons under the riding trews then you're going to be startling other road users doing the change into wet weather mode (as I did in New Mexico). But there's nothing for it, I ain't getting wet. So I turn off and find a nice big housing estate so plenty of people can see me and, cue stripper music, off we go...
Just in the nick of time. It's soon merrily bucketing down.
So much so and with such darkening of sky threatenig worse that I pull over into my favourite-most of big
chain Motels a Super 8.
"It's one hundred and fifty eight dollars I'm afraid", says the young receptionist with an apologetic look.
"Is that due to the Stampede?" Yes.
She takes a long time to swipe my card.
"OK that other couple have gone I can do you a discount now, I just didn't want to upset them because they just paid full whack, but we like to try and help motorcyclists in this kind of weather"
I could leap over the counter scoop her up and give her a big lip-lock, but a) That would be unseemly and b) Diane would have killed me on reading it in the blog so I don't.
A Terrific Thunderstorm
Monday 13th July
The forecast last night wasn't very hopeful. There were tornados to the East and bad thunderstorms in Alberta. And tomorrow (today) is going to be much worse. So take all hairpins out, unplug the telly and shelter under the bed. Whatever you do, do not, repeat do not get on a motorcycle and ride across the flat prairie.
So off we go, nice and early. Well the usual ten thirty five in the morning. It's dry for about three hundred yards. Then is spots a bit with rain.
The flat prairie land seems to go on for ever to the South and East, dotted with the occasional farm. To the West the Rockies are brooding. I'm sure they don't always brood, but today they are shrouded in a big black thunnery looking cloud as far as the eye can see. which is Ok because the road is heading straight towards the lighter bit of sky ahead of me.
Then the road takes a right turn.
There are flickers of lightning to the right, then a few ahead. It gets darker and darker but, fortunately I see a town and two old fighter jets along the roadside. It's an air museum. The Nanton Lancaster Air Museum to be precise. I can see the front of the Lancaster through the half opened hangar door which is alongside the road. Got to be worth a look.
The museum is donation only, no admission fee. Normal donation five dollars but I think it's got to be worth ten. It turns out to be a superb small museum dedicated to the memory of Squadron Leader 'Baz' Bazalgette who is Alberta's only son to win the Victoria Cross. His aircraft was badly damaged in a raid and with the aircraft burning he held it on course to allow those of his crew who could bale out to parachute he then stayed with it to try and crash land to safe the others. It blew up on landing.
There are a number of aircraft on display including the nose of a Bristol Blenheim and another complete one and, at the centre a fantastic example of a Canadian built Lancaster. Perhaps the best thing about the whole museum is how close you can get to the aircraft.
Whilst I'm absorbed in all this the thunderstorm hits Nanton with a vengeance. It doesn't give up either. After an hour or so I decide to scoot over town (one block) to a cafe to have something to eat. In just that short distance I get thorougly soaked so everyone is really sorry for me. "I've only come 200 yards!"
Just before I order a bolt of lightning is followed by an instant bang and the electricity sub-station is apparently fried. The whole town loses electricity. I'm able to have some soup heated on a camping stove and very nice it is too. The rain is particularly fierce and the cafe roof discovers a new leak. But the BMW suit hasn't. Soaking on the outside, dry on the inside.
Eventually the storm subsides and heads, guess which way? and I can think about continuing. I don't take long to catch it up. This time there's no-where to shelter and I just have to sit tight and ride on through. I don't mind the deluge but I don't like riding in the lightning. At one point I ride under a massive cloud that is shaped like a huge aircraft wing extending from the Rockies a good thirty or forty miles away right past me to the East. Under it the lightning flickers away right along it's length. Scary.
The ride to the next town, Fort Macleod, isn't too long, forty two kilometres to go but it seems an eternity. When I eventually get there, amid a huge crashing and banging I give up and head for the nearest motel. It turns out to be the cheapest of the trip so far and is a nice little place, immaculately clean. Despite the concern that I might be fried in there I dive into a nice hot bath. I've managed to ride about a hundred miles in two days.
Just down the street on the same block as the Motel is a Chinese restaurant. When I walk in it is very bare, populated by only one table of people, all formica top tables. But just to prove that looks can be deceiving they serve up a superb mixed meal with fresh vegetables very lightly stir fried, chicken and fried rice along with wine at supermarket prices. It's the cheapest full meal I've had on the trip and a top notch meal to boot.
So Fort Macleod proves to be really good value for money, if you can avoid the lightning strikes.
A Beautiful Campsite
Tuesday 14th July
For once I do genuinely get up early and pack the bike for the trip to Waterton National Park. The park sits above the Glacier National Park just over the US border. In reality they're part of the same thing really.
The rain holds off but I've got the waterproofs on just in case. The road heads South from Fort Macleod (there's more than one route to take) then cuts Eastwards to the town of Cardston then, after hanging a right, starts to climb into the foothills of the Rockies. The views are really something else.
As I ride up and down dale I spot movement to my right. Running smoothly alongside me are two beautiful young stags each with their new antlers (well I assume new - they aren't huge but they do look impressive animals). They're tagging along just in front of me keeping a careful eye on me. The temptation is to accelerate past them, but, bearing in mind all the helpful advice I've been given I decide to ease back a bit.
Good job too. With the most elegant of leaps the braver of the two leaps the cattle fence alongside the road and accelerates across the road in front of me. I watch the second one transfixed as it deftly negotiates the fence too and follows suit. They both leap the left hand fence and, in a twinkling of an eye, they are gone.
There's a neat little town (more a village really) up there called Mountain View. A perfect name.
The left turn into the National Park is still in the foothills, but having paid the fee for a two day visit I'm soon riding into the Mountains. The clouds have rolled back from yesterdays horrible downpours a bit so it's possible to see them. I have a choice of campsites, one in the hills and one down in the town of Waterton. I decided to go for civilisation.
The town itself is full of restaurants and gift shops, but it isn't purely for tourists. There's a small herd of deer strolling around. The campsite is on a lakeside and is heavily populated by gophers - ground squirrels. The new tent is removed from it's pristine wrapping and is up in a jiffy. It's a lot smaller than Agnes. Bijou would be one description. But on the plus side it seems to be a lot more robust.
There isn't enough room to put all the bags I've got so I cover them with one of my tarpaulins. Having set the site up I head off for a ride up to Cameron Lake. The road up there is a bit broken up but the views are great. The road snakes it's way up the mountain past a deep river gully and then into some forest. There are hundreds of beautiful spring flowers up there just coming to the end of their flowering. One type in particular catch my eye. They're like ghosts in the forests.
When I get to Lake Cameron I check out the kayak and canoe hire and decide I'll come back tomorrow to hire a kayak.
Bye Bye Camera
Heading back the way I stop to take a picture of the river gushing down it's valley. I notice that some stickers I bought for the panniers are dropping out of my pocket and decide to sort them out now. That done I have a look at some of the shrubs growing on the side of the road. They're minature alpine conifers that make up ground cover very effectively.
I jump on the bike and head about a mile further down to where there is an impressive rock outcrop. Reaching into my pocket my hands grope around an empty pocket. Where's the new camera? I skip my mind back to the last stop. What did I do with it. Mortified, I realise that for the first time on the whole trip I didn't return it to my pocket but put it on the bike seat. What an idiot!!
I race back up the hill hoping on hope that it fell off into the soft conifers on the side of the road, but when I get there there is nothing to be seen of it. I repeatedly search the side of the road but have to give up as the afternoon is getting on and I'm aware that this is big Grizzly bear territory. There are fewer and fewer cars coming past. The camera is gone along with all the photos of the Lancaster museum. Gutted.
The other problem is that I've lost my last SD card which I was sharing with my digital SLR so I need to head straight into town to get a new one. There aren't any in Waterton and they reckon I'll need to go into Cardston. I decide to head off straight away. With my combats on rather than my riding gear.
Heading out of the park I can see that Cardston is forty two kilometres away. I can also see that the sky is darkening a bit to the left. I decide to risk it.
I just get to Cardston as the heavens open.
There are a choice of two places to buy an SD card and in one, the Napa auto accessory store, they seem to be selling off a small selection of point and shoot cameras. They have the previous Fuji model to the one I bought from Paul for the equivalent of sixty quid. So I decide to replace the replacement. I also get a massive forty percent discount on an 8 gig SD card so that's made me a bit happier.
The ride back is through deepening gloom and I get thoroughly soaked.
I manage to change into dry clothes and pop into town for a nice meal and a bit of time in the internet cafe before heading back in the dark to the tent. Which is sitting in the middle of it's own little lake. I wonder how the gophers (who's burrows are right next door) are getting on in this water table. I imagine them to be working a chain gang with buckets.
Warmth at Last
Happiness returns inside the tent. The massive sleeping bag is as warm as toast and the tent is still dry. There's something nice about being inside a dry tent in rain as long as a) You're warm b) You're dry and c) Things stay that way. The thunderstorm that follows makes things a trifle nervous but it isn't anything like that of the night before and the rain eases off in the early hours of the morning.
There is apparently great danger in wild animals becoming 'habitualised'. That is in them becoming used to humans. In the case of the gophers next door they didn't do too badly in the storm and are out and about quite early. They're all pretty obese. I think their natural enemies such as coyotes and hawks are probably put off by the humans around. Who wouldn't be. The humans in question are campers.
The little gophers do make a pretence of popping out of their burrows and having a bit of a look round but I think that's just to admire the newest trailers or RV's that have turned up. Once they're out they scurry off considerable distances from their burrows to eat the primest grass. So fat are they that their wide burrow entrances have become a hazard and there are warnings not to fall inadvertently down them.
I have a chat with a really nice gentleman, aged 70 years, called Rudi. He and his wife Sharon are here in a nice example of an RV. It's a few years old but seems very well made and is immaculate. Rudi tells me that he grew up in this area and returns every year. Apparently the deer have developed alarming tendencies and are not averse to violently attacking the odd dog or two. So violent has their behaviour become that there is a survey going on into their genetics. Dems interbred deers dem is.
So this is quite a dangerous place. If you don't fall into a gopher burrow on your way to the shower you are absolutely certain to be mugged by a mutated deer and that's before the bear arrives. Rudi has an amazing picture taken three years ago of a black bear on it's morning constitutional walk along the lakeside walk by the campsite. He reckons there was a person walking behind the bear and a jogger coming the other way apparently completely unaware of it's presence. When the bear realised it was surrounded it turned to him and snarled at him - which is the picture he has of it before he withdrew to the RV.
Kayaking - Again
Wouldn't it be funny if I drop my new camera in the lake?
Lake Cameron looks tiny on the map of Waterton and Glacier National parks but it is pretty huge when viewed from a kayak. It takes the best part of an hour to paddle to the end of it whilst taking piccies with the new camera mark 3.
The snows are still melting and feeding waterfalls that descend thousands of feet into the lake. It's really peaceful out here in the middle with the water lapping against the kayak.
On completing that bit of over the water travel I head back through the high valley and take the pictures that I wanted to take yesterday. I have a snout around for my old new camera but to no avail. That one sleeps with the bears unfortunately.
I head for the outdoor shop which is a pretty good one and buy a mobile fire pit. These are wonderful little things that fold out into a bowl for barbeque briquettes. I really want one of the snazzie barbeque grills that Steve had. They sell them in Aberdeen and obviously in New Orleans but no-where else. So I buy a really cheap alternative and try and cook up a steak and some corn on the cob.
Works perfectly. Chuffed.
Return to the US of A
The guard at the border crossing tries to be stern and professional, but in truth he just wants to know about
my bike really.
"Where are you headed sir?"
"To Glacier then Sturgis via Bighorn"
"Do you have any firearms"
"Not as many as you (thought), No!"
"Is that the 1200 GS Sir"....
"Aad reyally like one of them, do you have any alchohol"
"Not yet, but hopefully soon"
On the American side of the border normal service is resumed. Scrap cars in front of cabins. I have missed it a bit I must admit.
The scenery is open and expansive. The Rockies are a splendour.
Arriving at Glacier I buy a seven day ticket (it's all they have and it costs less than a Yorkshireman would give in a tip) and head through the park. I'm only half heartedly looking for a campsite. My back is aching - I think the height is contributing to muscle weariness.
Everyone has been going on about the 'Going to the Sun road' so I ride it. OH MY GOODNESS GRACIOUS ME. The scenery is stupendous. The road itself is crap. There's too much traffic and too many roadworks but the views rival the Grand Canyon. I kid you not.
I just can't face camping tonight and I search out a Super 8. "Do you have a room for one?"
"I'm sorry sir we only have our honeymoon suite and that's a hundred and sixty eight Dollars"
Really? You mean some cheap so and so takes his new bride to a Super 8 Motel for their first night of marital bliss? You're kidding me! I mean I do love them dearly myself but please, please tell me you're joking. And before Jane, my first wife says anything, it was a proper hotel and we were poor.
"That's too expensive, can you recommend somewhere else?"
Try the Mini Sun Inn at Hungry Horse. NOW YOU'RE HAVING A LAUGH....
It turns out to be the least hospitable Motel so far. I mean it is immaculate and has massive rooms but the owner is the sourest person since the Seattle bus driver and seems to have a lot of friends hanging around who might just play the odd banjo and take attraction to city slickers. And it is well overpriced.
On the plus side there is a great little grill diner just down the road called the Elk Horn Grill and I get looked after big time in there. Some you win, some you lose.
Carry on Camping
Speaking of the title of this section, I once got waved at by Barbara Windsor. I gave way to her at a zebra crossing on Marleybone Hight Street and she gave me a lovely smile and wave.
That's my name dropping for this section. Racked with guilt at failing to camp and stung by the awfullness of my latest Motel experience I up sticks and head straight into the park to the nearest campsite which is splendidly located alongside a beautiful lake shore. I should add that I do this via the Elk Horn Grill for breakfast. I just can't get over the fuss that they make of me there. Alright, alright, it's vanity - I know...
The welcome I get from the resident warden at the site is in direct contrast to the measily gruff attitude of my last host. When I didn't vacate soon enough he started hosing down the tarmac in front of the bike. It was a battle of wills but he was dealing with one of Rotherham's finest and I made sure I was the last one off the Motel that morning.. Yorkshire 1 Montana Gruffs 0.
I'm lucky to grab the last available pitch which is situated right next to the toilet. Convenient in more ways than one.
Glacier National Park
Every time I get to a National Park it becomes my favourite. Glacier is no exception. The truth is that they are all different from each other and spectacular in their own right. They're all more than worth visiting for different reasons. With it's wide lakes and high pass over the Rockies, Glacier is a huge photo opportunity.
The first night's sleep isn't great. Sleeping in bear territory has it's apprehensions. All my food and cleaning stuff are stashed in a metal box provided nearby and the tent only has clothes and sleeping gear in it (well apart from my travelling electric guitar!). So there's nothing for a wandering grizzly to take a fancy to apart from me.
On the plus side, the campsite is full so we are in a target rich environment and the odds of being eaten are lessened a bit. In fact I've found that you usually get used to the site pretty quickly and then feel pretty safe.
I'm up reasonably early and take a 'Wet Ones' shower because there aren't any real ones on the site. Last night I went for a dip in the lake (Lake McDonald) which was very cold and refreshing after a particularly hot afternoon. I then lit a nice campfire and cooked some chicken breasts on it in tin foil. My old cub scout leader would have been very pleased with me.
I leave the campsite around ten in the morning for my next foray up the road to the sun. There are parts of the road that are quite decrepit. I've found out that there is a huge repair going on over the next sixteen years! Apparently congress has provided additional funds as part of the economic recovery program and the timescale may come down.
I have to mention the workers up there at around six thousand feet because I haven't seen anyone working on a road construction project like that before. When I compare that to our own road workers (five workers watching one working a shovel and thousands of miles of traffic cones without a solitary bit of work being done), the differences are stark.
American and Canadian roadworks don't seem to use traffic lights. They use pretty girls (normally a girlfriend of one of the road workers so don't get too excited) with a stop go lollypop to direct the streams of traffic who cheerfully chat with you and keep everyone up to date on how long it's going to take. On the road to the Sun they help everyone go off and take photo's then call you back when the time is right. USA/Canada 1 Europe 0.
The workers are all working. In this case a good few of them are dangling in a waist high cage over a thousands of feet drop on a wire rope attached to a small crane while they do the pointing on the stonemasonry below the road. Last night there were three sets of road works but today there is only one. They seem to be co-ordinating the road work around when the traffic will be lightest. In the UK they normally co-ordinate for the greatest disruption then forget to take the cones away.
There's a visitor centre at the top of the mountain, a place called Logan Pass. I have a wander around it and become aquainted with a stuffed Marmot. This is the animal Todd thought I was referring to when I described a strange little beastie that Diane and I met up with on the trail across the mountains in Oregan. I'm pretty sure that the Marmot wasn't the critter in question.
Marmots look like cartoon characters. They have massive front teeth and look a little bit like a beaver to me. They are famous for sunbathing. Apparently they eat as much as possible and then go sunbathing. Sounds like us Brits in Costa del Sol. Well that is to say I don't think Marmots drink the place dry but other than that.... Maybe Marmots are more like the Germans and pop their beach towels on the nearest rock while they go eating.
Looking up the mountain behind the visitor centre I can see a steady stream of people heading up a trail that way. They seem to be predominately older Americans of various shapes and sizes. I think it must be worth a look and decide to join the stream and push the average age up a fraction or two. The National Park is keen to avoid damage to the plant life and physical properties of the park and they have been so good as to build a wooden staged pathway with stairs on it which exends a fair way up the trail.
I'm surprised to find that I'm overtaking people. I mean I think from all the dancing that I've got quite strong legs but I seem to be roaring up the slope. Mind your backs folks, biker coming through. Old biker with bad back. On the way up there's a ripple of excitement which must mean an animal of some kind. It's a long horned sheep.
These don't look like sheep - more goatish really. As soon as I arrive, the alpha male seems to take a dislike for the biker chappy and approaches in a slightly alarming manner. Why does this keep happening to me (thinking about black bear incident a couple of weeks ago)? Is there something wrong with my deodorant? Come to think of it, why do I feel threatened by shorn the sheep? Probably something to do with those enormous horns he's sporting.
If I stay put then there's gonna be a showdown - Shorn versus Yorkshireman. I get the hell outta the way.
Once he's cleared the pathway of any threat the rest of the herd follow. Damn I feel silly.
A bit further up the pathway disappears under snow and is marked by coloured poles. Wow! This is exciting, there's people with snowboards up here. It's a bit like a comedy though. The aged hikers are now slipping and sliding, but doggedly continuing up the mountain. I'm slipping and sliding for England. I've got my motorcycle boots on with very little tread pattern.
Why is it that we lose the ability to balance at about the same time as we start buying jeans that resemble nappies (daipers) - around 45? When I was a kid I would have been running and sliding without falling over, now I can't manage to put one foot in front of the other at the slightest sniff of snow. After a mile or so we come to more animals. Proper mountain goats these. They're beautiful white creatures, just losing their winter coats.
The path reaches a small lake high up the mountainside. The aged hikers are still trundling on but I fear it is time for me to head back down. I want to ride to the far side of the park and back again.
On the way down I come across a group of photographers setting up their cameras. One professional has a big tripod, hauled way up the mountain. He's rummaging through his case for his massive and super impressive telephoto lens. The object of attention is one of those wonderful fellas, the marmot.
True to form he or she has spread him or herself (enough of that it's a lady marmot from now on) on a lovely rock, has pulled out her 'Hello' magazine and lodged her sunglasses on for a spot of tanning. She times things to perfection. Just as pro cameraman has clicked his lens on and is about to focus sunny the marmot casually gets herself up and hops down her hole. Ha.
An Unusual Contraption
At a stop off for food, I meet a couple of fellas from Europe. One is a German BMW rider and the other a Norwegian who rides a Honda Blackbird. The Norwegian chats enthusiastically about the benefits of having a bike on various continents. He's shipped a few to Norway and heads off there every year for a month.
He tells me he's invented a new type of bike rack for long distance travellers and hands me his card. To
be honest, I'm more interested in a wire that connects the left and right handlebar grips.
"It's my freeway steering device"
It allows him to steer without his hands on the handlebars and with his cruise control switched on. Hmm
"Have you patented it?"
"No. Only Norwegians can use it. Because we're all crazy. You have to pull the opposite side to the way you want to go".
That makes perfect sense. Any non bikers probably need to know that a bike reacts in the opposite direction to the movement of the handlebars once the bike is moving at any real speed. It's called countersteering and you learn to do it without noticing - a little nudge on the bars will tip you into a lean.
I've got friendly with the two ladies in the site next to mine. They've got a Dodge Ram pick up with a caravan unit in it's back bed. I quite like the Dodges.
The caravan units are quite cool too. Never seen one in the UK. That's probably because we have nowhere like the pick up mentality over this side of the pond. The units are able to stand on legs, the pick up is then backed in and the caravan lowered on to it. Dorit and Jean have a nice unit which has a tent upper (like a trailer tent but a bit more caravan-like).
They invite me to have a look inside. It's really nice - better than one I saw a day or two ago in Waterton which was a fixed caravan type. Their version seems really spacious. Over a campfire we have a chat and they tell me about an event in August down in the desert called the Burning Man. It sounds a bit like Glastonbury without bands, a sort of hippy festival of life. They think I would like it. It must mean I'm looking more like a hippy every day. Maybe something happened to me at Tofino.
The next morning I commence the ritual of packing the bike. The ladies are intersted to see how everything will fit into place. It's a cheap trick. Just use the two big Ortlieb bags for anything that won't fit into the panniers. The tent and a few other bits and bobs go into a small yellow Ortlieb bag which doesn't have to be opened unless it is time to pitch the tent.
The Tarn tent is working well. It does seem well made and is quicker to pitch or break down than poor old Agnes. I can't think of a name for this one though.
My journey out of the park involves a decision. Right turn or Left. One is right and the other wrong. Guess which one I take....?
Never mind, we're soon back on track after a quick glance at the compass. It's a hot day again. Well over 30
degrees. I'm dawdling a bit. I stop for fuel in the Blackfoot Indian reserve. I get chatting to a couple of
bikers from Pheonix Arizona. One of the guys has a bike the same as mine.
"It's 119 degrees back home"
An Indian beggar comes over. He stands near to me and says he hasn't eaten in four days. He looks quite ill. I don't know what to do because I know you can just keep giving money to beggars in places like this and I'm sure it won't go on food. I give him a packet of peanuts that I've just bought it's the only food I've got. He looks down at them in confused dismay and tries to give them back to me. "Keep them and hand them to someone else if you don't want them".
It makes me feel very sad and inadequate. I just know that he only wanted money.
The guys from Arizona reckon I should head back to Yellowstone and ride the road that comes out of the Northeastern exit. I wanted to ride this when I planned my trip out of Yellowstone first time round with Ed. It's called the Beartooth highway according to Jim from Florida (via Flickr). Thanks Jim.
So that sounds like a plan and I'm soon travelling down highway 89. There are signs of more road works that are probably part of the economic stimulous package. These are proper roadworks. The road ends and you get sent up a gravel highway for miles which is optimistically called a diversion. Diversion into the field more like. Great fun on the GS though. I must admit to getting a bit over enthusiastic and nearly falling off! I hit a bit of deep gravel and the front wheel washed out on me. I think, having ridden a few trails on the trip, I'm getting a bit overconfident.
The road, once re-joined, is pretty straight across the prairie with the mountains on the right side, ever present.
I arrive at a hamlet with a small Dinosaur museum and stop for a look round. It has the largest Dinosaur on display apparently, a something-a-docus (sorry I didn't take note properly) which I think looks like a model, but apparently isn't. It's quite an interesting little museum with a full Tyrannosaurus Head so close you can really inspect it. Even better it's free today but I do leave a wee donation anyway.
When I get outside it's raining locusts. Well I think it's locusts, they look like flying grasshoppers. They have very soft squishy bodies.
I once read that you have to be travelling at sixty miles-per-hour for an insect to squish on impact. These beasties squish at twenty. Huge splodges of yellow plastered all over the bike and rider. Lovely. I'm doing my very best to hold off a plague and, changing the habit of a lifetime, I'm keeping my gob shut too.
It's quite fascinating to consider that these are the very plains where the Indians hunted the Buffalo. To the East they seem to stretch to infinity, to the West they rise in smooth hillocks, many with crags. Maybe these are where they drove whole herds over to their destruction.
Overnight is in Lewistown courtesy of Super 8.
A Lazy Day
I'm up and off at the obligatory ten thirty five. Last night I had a meal at a Pizza Hut. The meal was OK but the place was a bit down beaten. A lot of the tables were still piled with the remains of previous occupants' meals and the decor was a bit shabby. The big chains aren't as good as the local diners but I think Denny's is a better bet than what I experienced there.
I start off in the usual fashion by heading the wrong way. It's almost become a ritual by now. When I check the satnav it tells me to backtrack up the way I came last night which means re-negotiating the roadworks where I nearly came a cropper. Never mind, I'll do better today. It's not quite as hot as yesterday, there's a bit of cloud around and that makes all the difference. But my back is pretty sore. It's not taking kindly to the daily hardships and the nigh on twelve thousand miles have taken their toll.
After a quick petrol stop its a left turn southwards on a smallish road that heads for a gap in the string of mountains. This road isn't even on my boy's own map! There are a number of small hamlets which are one horse towns for sure complete with buildings that look like they've come straight out of a Western. On two occasions I get a glimpse of cowgirls practicing barrel racing. I wouldn't have known what that was but I sure do now. There must be a local rodeo in the offing.
There's a slightly larger place that is quite immaculate with the charming name of Judith Gap. I presume that must also be the name of the gap in the hills. At the end of the town there's a huge road building project going on which has, for some reason known only to the planner, involved turning a dead straight road into a fair impression of Donnington race circuit with a lovely series of sweeping bends. But this doesn't appear to the be the object of the exercise because alongside the race circuit they're building the road proper which seems to be a four lane affair. I can't work it out.
I mean I can't work out why the four lane freeway will start or finish at Judith gap, nor why the diversion is a race circuit. I'm going to keep an eye on this one on Google Earth.
Then the race circuit ends and we're back on the gravel surface for a mile or so. I know what it is. It's a Supermotard track!
Most people tell me that the prairie is uninteresting compared to the mountains, but I have to say that I think it is beautiful. It has it's own way of changing and it contrasts with the hills to the West so there is always something to be looking at. I'm taking loads of photos. They're reminders really just so I don't forget how different it is to any landscape I've seen in Europe.
It's dotted with small farmsteads. Well the farms are small, but I would think the lands they farm must be enormous. I pull over for a photograph at one small ranch and I come close to an embarrassment.
The entrance road to the ranch falls away a bit on me but I decide that it isn't too bad and pop the side stand down (which is on the left hand side of the bike for any non-bikers). The bike is quite high and well loaded up. There's a crucial few degrees of lean where gravity takes over and spoils the show. It's at a point where the weight is too heavy to lever back over while sitting on the bike. There are maybe five degrees of lean where this has been reached but the sidestand will hold the bike (so it's safe to climb off) after which I think the sidestand won't cope any more and the whole thing will fall over. The angle of lean depends on whether the ground is level, or rises a bit or falls away from the bike.
Up to now I haven't reached the tip over point but I have, once or twice propped it over too far to be able to lift it back up while sitting on it - if it is fully loaded. This time though I can feel that the bike is almost certainly going to fall over - luckily I've done my normal habit of stopping it in gear but I'm kind of stuck. I can't get off it because it will fall over. I can't start it and use the engine to work up the hill and on to the road because it is stuck on the sidestand and won't pull away with the side stand down.
The first rule when in a situation like this is DON'T PANIC.
This is God's revenge for the great mirth I took when I saw a posh accountant come a cropper at the Isle of
Man. He'd apparently only just passed his test and then gone and bought a 1970's MV Agusta (quite a top heavy
bike I think) and headed for the TT races. At the Gooseneck corner the bike park is a field run by the Girl
Guides. It's got quite a gradient. You have to ride in, turn uphill and hope you can get your stand to hold
the bike. The unfortunate guy stalled his fifteen thousand pound bike and got stuck.
"oh dear, oh dear, I'm going to fall over"
A bunch of hairy bikers went to his aid and held the bike whilst one of their mates helped him climb off. Ha.
Well, now it's happened to me.
There's nothing for it but to ditch ballast and lighten the bike up so it won't tip over on the side stand. So all the bags are turfed overboard and I gingerly lower the bike to what seems like the point of no return. Somehow it's worked just enough for me to slip my right leg over the saddle and climb off while keeping a bit of pressure on it. Then clutch in and I ease the bike round onto firmer ground.
Touratech and Nippy Normans do some plates that reduce the amount of lean the bike can get to on the side stand. They are number one on my Christmas list now....well after the Kermit chair that is.
After my near disaster I head a bit further and check in to another Super 8 at a place called Livingston. I need to buy a book so I ride into the town centre and while mooching around I see a sign outside a gift shop.
'A Silent Feather - Massage and Bodywork'. Now that's what my back is needing...
The Bighorn Commercial Museum
Actually the museum is very, very good. It has a lot of artefacts and explains a lot of the key players in the battle from both sides. Custer himself, I think, is a very enigmatic figure - partly because he is now quite largely vilified. But in many ways he was a person of his time. They needed a hero in the warfare against the plains tribes and he fitted the bill very well.
If he'd won he would have destroyed Sitting Bull's encampment and we wouldn't really know much about either of them I guess, even less so my own personal hero in the whole story, Crazy Horse. But Custer made a few blunders. He rushed into battle as was his way - he'd led a number of cavalry charges in the Civil War and here he was out on the plains doing his thing again. But this time there were between 1500 and 2000 Sioux and Cheyene warriors between him and glory.
I love the story from the Cheyenne. They reckoned that the Sioux were ideal partners in warfare because they were good at holding horses - meaning when the Cheyenne warriors went in for the kill the Sioux would make sure there were horses there when they returned.
It's just a joke. The only people who can give us history of what happened at Little Bighorn are the Indians because they, alone survived. Well, that's not entirely true. Reno's detachment fought for two days and many survived, but they didn't witness the end of Custer's detachment. Here in front of us on the battlefield we can see the poignant result of history. White marker stones show where each cavalryman from the 7th Cavalry died (and some showing where Indians fell too). They were mostly young men, mostly immigrants. There were, for instance, four Englishmen who died with Custer and one Scot. His messenger, who survived, was an Italian who couldn't speak much English and was unable to relay his command properly for the other companies to move up. A disaster.
But let's be straight about this. The intention was to attack the Indian encampment and destroy it. Instead the attackers were repulsed and destroyed, then mutilated. This is a sad place in American history. I've been to other sad places, Ypres, Arnhem, Auchwitz and Culloden for example. These places are haunted by ghosts. This event marked the end of the plains society. The end of freedom for a race of people. It has a great deal of importance in American history.
It's one hundred and two degrees farenhiet here on the battlefield. I walk part of it to see the place where Crazy Horse led his warriors up the deep gully from the encampment and obliterated a detachment of soldiers. Their bodies have never been found. They lie there even now. He continued up the gulley and attacked another detachment. There seems to be a line of fallen soldiers who were a picket line against the attack on the main body. They were simply overwhelmed.
On the main defensive position Custer died with his remaining men. They killed their horses and fired from behind the bodies, but all was lost. Earlier in the day, their Indian Crow scouts (who had no reason to love the Sioux they lost their lands to them) had taken off their army garb and returned to Indian dress. "we are all going to die today and we want to enter the happy hunting grounds as Indians, not as white men". What an amazing place. So full of recent history. I mean my Grandad was born just twenty or so years later.
Difficulty finding accommodation
After the visit to the battlefield I take a quick bite to eat at the Crow Indian trading post next door and buy a few souvenirs. Checking the maps reveals that there isn't much in the way of towns or accommodation nearby and I'm getting to be quite tight with money these days. I don't want to book into a motel too close by because I think they'll be overpriced.
I end up riding quite late into the afernoon along a road that takes me deeper into the reservations (and heading straight into another one - the Northern Cheyenne reservation). The quality of life on the reservations is in direct contrast to that outside of them. The land that they're situated on is rolling prairie farmland and there are some farms scattered through it.
Route 212 goes right through the reservation and into the Cheyenne one to a town called Lame Deer. There's a campsite a bit further on from there on the maps, but I don't have any food and I decide to cut Northwards to a town outside the reservation called Colstrip. The differnce in the apparent wealth of the reservation farms and the first non-reservation farm that you come to is stark. A little further on from that farm there is a National Historical Marker which just says 'Custer camped here on June 23rd 1876'. Two days before the battle. It's quite a way out too.
One of the facts on record was that his men and horses were exhausted and here is evidence that he was forcing the pace considerably.
Lord Louis Mountbatten
Probably the most famous person I've met was Lord Louis Mountbatten. In some ways he reminds me a bit of the Custer story (I'm risking offending the Queen here but I'm guessing she won't be reading a blog about motorcycle chappies). The meeting took place on a ship I was serving on. We'd provided a kind of guard of honour for him and he was famous for paying attention to the lower deck sailors and was much admired for that - all gay sailor jokes will be ignored!
I got called up to the Master at Arms office and thought I'd done something wrong, but he said I'd been selected among six or seven others to have 'tea and sticky buns' with the Admiral of the Fleet, the man himself. It was quite exciting stuff at twenty years old to be meeting the last Viceroy of India and cousin to the Romanov princesses.
When we met him he was a very personable man, as you might expect, and like most navy men very keen to tell us a 'Sea Story'. His story centred on the loss of his ship HMS Kelly to a squadron of German Stuka dive bombers in the evacuation of British forces from Crete. Mountbatten was well known by then for hoisting the battle ensign and steaming flat out towards danger. But on this occasion the opposition overwhelmed the ship. The bombers straddled the Kelly and, according to him "She rolled straight over whilst travelling flat out at forty knots".
He was sucked down with the ship but somehow managed to get clear of the bridge and swam towards the light until he thought his lungs would burst whereupon he broke through to the surface. Which was a might bit scummy. The whole area was covered in Oil and flotsam. He paddled around a bit looking for other survivors and, just when he thought he was the only one, another man popped to the surface next to him covered in oil.
The man, a Petty Officer Stoker, gasped a bit then looked at him and recognised him as the Royal captain of
"Bloody hell, isn't it always the case that the shit comes to top first!"
It was such a good story that I always liked him a lot not least for entertainment value but a few years later, after he'd been killed by an IRA bomb I got a different take on things.
I met a lady who's husband had been on the ship and was about to sing the praises of him when she said, "I couldn't stand him. My husband died on that ship. It was just a means to glory and promotion for him".
The second most famous person
The second most famous person I've ever met is my mate Nev. He's the fastest man ever to ride the Isle of Man TT circuit on a Suzuki SP400 trail bike and the second fastest on a Ducati 900SS bevel twin. The fastest man on a Ducati bevel was Mike Hailwood but he had a highly tuned special so I think Neville wins. Even the legendary Stuart Robinson couldn't keep up with Nev and he's a nutter.
Tonight is another motel night in Colstrip but camping must surely be just around the corner.
In search of Walmarts
The morning is very hot and my main mission is to find a new mobile phone. The old one got drowned in the Canadian thunderstorm and will receive but not transmit. Some people might praise the Lord for small mercies.
There don't seem to be any outlets selling mobile phones. "Ain't no reception out here". Well that makes sense.
So I decide to head to the nearest big town, stay there overnight and go on a Walmart hunt. I manage to track one the the elusive beasties at a place called Miles City. You could say I took the scenic route. The first part involved tracking back to Lame Deer and visiting the bank there (which is all run by the Cheyenne). Travelling South from there I headed through a quite picturesque part of the reservation. As soon as the reservation ends the road does too!
I decide to do a bit of off road and travel about seven miles across the scrub range. About five miles in I encounter a herd of cows who don't seem to understand the relationship of cow to motor vehicle to road. On the return trip it has deteriorated a lot further. A cow is feeding her calf in the middle of the road. And I mean a cow with big horns and an expression that looks like "I wish I was really a bull".
A slightly nervous stand-off ensues. I decide to try the Richard of Yellowstone fame method of herd control: "Move along now!!", "Come bye", "Scoot, vamoose, bugger off!!"
Edging the bike forward there is a tantalising moment when it could all turn pear shaped and I get trampled but the cow's nerve buckles first - good job too 'cos mine wasn't far behind. Suddenly there is a panic stampede to get offa da road. I'm pespiring in relief.
South to Sturgis
In motorcycling terms. Around now (Saturday July 25th) all roads lead to Sturgis. Find a Harley, latch on and slipstream all the way there. Switch off the satnav, it won't be needed. For some inexplicable reason, having selected the chosen pathfinder, I decide to hang a right. It just looks a quicker way to me.
For the second time on the trip I find myself in a fit of terror heading from a perfectly well laid piece of tarmac with a speed limit of seventy, at the prescribed speed limit of seventy, towards a dirt track. The road just ends in gravel. On this occasion I don't have a passenger and I can emergency brake just before hitting it. But it doesn't pay to be braking heavily when you hit the trail (well actually the beemer could probably handle it with it's ABS system). I must admit I was daydreaming a bit - the road was dead straight.
Anyway I hit the trail at about fify five mph and have an entertaining hundred yards or so before I hit a reasonable speed. I've travelled about forty five miles to get to this and I reckon there's at least another forty to go. There's a sign saying 'Open Range' which is very, very tempting. I mean pristine prairie to see. Decision taken and we're off.
It really is beautiful out there. During the journey I see two farm pickups and a massive truck hurtling along having a whale of a time. Great fun.
It's a hot ride on road and off road and mostly across open country with just a few hills scattered here and there. The area around Sturgis seems to be quite well to do in comparison to the isolated farming towns I've passed through today. These are amazing places that are sixty or seventy miles from anywhere of any significance and, in some cases, a hundred or so miles from anything like a Walmart. Some have their own tiny airstrip.
When I arrive at Sturgis I have a drive through. There are streets and streets of vendors setting up stall. The rally doesn't properly start for a week, but it does ramp up in the next day or two and there are already thousands of bikers settling into the area.
The Campsite is a little further on down the I90 at a place called Blackhawk. When I get there I quickly find Ed and Sandy's trailer with a note outside it telling me they're on a ride out but will be back soon. About twenty minutes later they thud in on their Harley trike.
The tent is set up. It's got a new name: Rip - it's official name is 'Tarn' so a bit of cockney rhyming slang reminded me of the actor in 'Men in Black', Rip Torn and bingo! The tent is christened. So rip is erected....oh gawd this isn't working is it.
I put up the tent in the lee of the trailer and settle in for my first night in a few under canvas. It's really good to see Ed and Sandy again, they're very welcoming and can't do enough to make sure I'm comfortable. Ed takes me through a few trips that he has planned for us around the Black Hills. I'm really looking forward to this because I've read so much about the Black Hills and their importance to the culture of the Plains Indians.
It was said that a man could enter them old and starving and come out after as season fit and well fed. I suspect the experience in biking terms may be similarly good too.
I should mention that Before my departure for Sturgis I made as good an attempt as possible to tidy up my ride. The bike had been liberally plastered by grasshoppers. When riding some of the back roads my boots were striking them at about three a second. Thousands upon thousands died. Those that hit the engine fried (in fact they were probably a good source of protein but I chose peanuts instead).
I felt like screaming at them. "Get back on the grass! You're not Roadhoppers!!!"
On cleaning the front wheel I noticed with horror that one of them had survived the crash and, amazingly, hours of spinning around. As I washed him off the wheel he managed to stand on his three remaining legs. He seemed to recover a bit and then, ping, leapt off and disappeared around the other side of the bike. Well at least one of them lived to tell the story.
As I worked round to the other side of the bike I went to dip my sponge in my mobile sink. Oh dear! He leapt straight in the water and drowned.
Saturday 25th July to Sunday 2nd August
The rally doesn't start officially until my leaving date which is the 2nd August but that doesn't really matter because it starts unofficially way before then. I mean Ed and Sandy have been here weeks and they're not alone.
When I think of rallies in the UK and Europe I think of the BMF rally (and subsidiary rallies), the Bulldog Bash and the myriad of smaller rallies that take place throughout the summer (and in some cases in much colder weather). I haven't been a big rally goer up until now, but this is my third rally of the trip and they've all had a flavour of their own.
But Sturgis is famous for maybe two things: Firstly it is reputedly the largest rally in the world and secondly Harley Davidsons. You can't get away from it, this is primarily about hogs. I thought I would write this part of the trip up as a kind of report on what I've seen rather than a daily blog. I think this will be the only part of the blog that doesn't split up day by day.
I've read about Sturgis over the years in the UK bike press and basically think I've been fed a load of codswallop. I think some of these bike journos must be drunk when they leave Heathrow, get drunker on the plane and be plain paralytic for the time they're at whatever event they report on. In a report I read a few years ago the press hound reported that most of the riders weren't really riders but rednecks who drive up in a pickup truck with a little ridden full dress Harley in the back just to parade up and down a bit.
Well Ed, Sandy and I have been camping in an RV park alongside Interstate 90. A full week before the rally started bikes were arriving along the freeway and on the way in from the opposite direction I began meeting the stream outside Yellowstone, hundreds of miles away. I spoke with one bunch of guys who were on their way in from LA. That's like riding from Moscow to the BMF rally in Peterborough.
Throughout the week the traffic has been gradually building and right now, there is a continuous thunder as they all stream in from every corner of the States, Canada and Latin America. Half a million of them apparently. That alone makes it an amazing spectacle. The sound of them chugging past goes on virtually all night too.
There are sure to be thousands upon thousands of other makes, but they are simply swamped by the number of Harleys of every possible description. I was interested in getting a ride on a Harley because I've never ridden one. What better place to try one out? so I pootled down the road towards Rapid City to Blackhawk Harley Davidson a dealership about two miles away and ended up in a rally within a rally which was not far short of the size of the lovely old BMF. For any non UK readers the BMF is the British Motorcycle Federation and their rally was (and maybe still is) the biggest one in Europe.
Unfortunately on asking Blackhawk Harley Davidson they weren't too keen to give me a test ride if I wasn't in the slightest bit interested in buying a bike from them (which is not entirely unreasonable) so I went for a stroll.
Ten minutes later I'm struggling with all the bags of things I don't really need that the unscrupulous vendors had hoiked onto me with their wonderful sales technique: "Come over here sir and let me clean your sunglasses" "Let me sort those boots out for you sir they're a bit dirty" - yeah the stain of a thousand dead grasshoppers. Good grief you would think I would be able to see all that sales patter coming at my age.
But I did meet one lady who's sales technique never addressed anything she was selling. She just wanted a good old chin wag. Carleen hails from Los Angeles and sells some cool clothing of in-house design made in the US. Her site is www.SaddleShades.com. We had a long chat about the trip and just in general and I bought a top for Diane from her. It was really nice to meet you Carleen.
One of the big features of Sturgis is that it is situated on the edge of the Black Hills. These were originally kept as part of the Sioux Indian lands as part of the treaty of Laramie but a financial crash led to a clamour for them to be opened up so that Gold could be mined. This was assisted by our old friend Custer who was charged with exploring the Black Hills and reporting back. His expedition (which was quite huge, over a thousand men) found small traces of Gold and the place was inundated with speculating miners very quickly.
The Black Hills are truly a magical place. There are a number of rides around them and Ed has it off to pat. All I have to do is follow the Black Harley trike. This is made even simpler by the fact that Sandy gives a top set of hand signals. It's like she's conducting an orchestra back there.
One of the stages takes us up to Mount Rushmore famous for the faces of four Presidents carved into the rock face. The Presidents in question are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Interestingly (well it interests me but might bore the pants of you), this is very near the calculated centre of the USA. They had to re-calculate this when Alaska became a state, but I wonder if they've calculated in Hawaii. I mean how did they do that and avoid the centre being somewhere a few miles West of San Francisco??
Never mind, this is near the middle and it's pretty warm I can tell you. The ride up here involves dipping and diving round tight bends following a stream of Harleys under some pretty extrodinary bridges that were built in the thirties and are made almost entirely from huge wooded logs. These appear to have weathered extremely well and prompt the consideration that maybe we don't always use the best materials in our public buildings. Another example of where wood is incredibly resilient and effective is Copenhagen airport, but I digress.
Everywhere there are bikes, bikes and more bikes and this is about thirty or forty miles from the centre of the rally. Ed takes us along a circuitous route with stop offs for light refreshment. Time for a bit of people watching. There's a whole cross section of riders. I guess a lot of them are just your average rider who get into the image by working on their bike as well as their apparel complete with bandana and patches. In amongst them you will see your odd original grizzly biker. The old boys. There's a lot of lady riders too, apparently their number is increasing a lot.
We visit an area called 'The Needles' in one of our early trips out. It's high up in the Black Hills with a road that swoops upwards through the hills and trees then starts plunging through square holes cut into the rock faces where tradition and road safety insists you do a beep on your horn. All very entertaining.
At the top are a series of jagged points, the Needles, which are formed from the eroded crystaline rock that is amongst the oldest formations in the world (according to Ed who is a very well informed person of note - he also advised me that the North American Bison - Buffalo - is the only mammal with separate testicular sacks, something that I think will arm me with interesting after dinner chit chat for some time to come).
A close look at the rocks reveals that they are composed of many different crystals. Ed also informs me that this was one of the things that gold hunters looked for. Where there be crystals, there by gold and there's gold in them thar hills.
There's also a lot of Harleys. Loads of the blighters. And nary a BM dubya to be seen anywhere. Slight exaggeration. There's the odd one or two but not many.
The Wildlife Loop
Part of the area is known as the 'Custer State Park' which has a road in it called the Wildlife Loop. This runs through open range with a variety of different animals. Amongst these are a small herd of wild Burros. Donkeys to be precise (or perhaps more technically correctly Mules - actually I have no idea so lets ditch the word 'precisely' and just say they look like Donkeys).
The main group of these are all females with youngsters and a single male animal seems to be hanging around the edges. He was hanging around too, but I won't go into the details (everyone was highly amused, that's all I'm prepared to say!) - Look away Martha!! The Burros are experts in begging for food to the point of getting their heads right inside some of the cars and SUVs.
We also see the Prong Horned Antelope which is a truly beautiful animal. We're not quite sure if this is a true Antelope or a Deer but it is, apparently, very fast. I think I read somewhere that it is the fastest animal in North America. There is also a herd of Buffalo that peaks at about 2500 head each year and is then rounded up (an event which people travel to see). The herd then mysteriously returns at 1500 head of Buffs. Aahhh, so that's where all the Buffalo Jerky comes from.
A chat with two original bikers
On one of my trips out to buy souvenirs I ended up in Sturgis itself. It was still early on in the week and the rally was just building up, but there were plenty of vendors selling a huge variety of 'T' shirts, skull rings, insurance, bike tuning accessories and suchlike. Unfortunately I got completely wrapped up in it all and before you could say 'Bob's your Uncle' I've got a 'T' shirt with skeletal theme, a bandana or three and new fingerless gloves to replace the one I've lost somewhere in the process.
Suddenly the heavens opened and it began raining hard.
I found shelter under an awning next to a counter which was at the entrance to a cellar bar. This is being
guarded by a couple of old boys who look suspiciously like gang members. "It'll cost ya five dollars to stand
there!" they joke.
I laugh and say "Yeah right"
This prompts the usual question "Are you Australian?"
"No definitely not - they're all in London opening theme bars"
We got chatting and they invited me behind the bar, I thought "hopefully this won't involve biting live chickens". They were a great laugh. In a scene completely reminiscent of the one in Wild Hogs with the two police deputies (one of whom is deaf in one ear), the guy nearest me in the shelter was deaf in his right ear. That's the one nearest me. His mate who was the further away of the two of them in the tight space behind the bar was asking questions about my trip.
At each answer his mate said to him "What did he say" upon which he repeated my answer in his good ear. They were entertaining me so much I didn't want the rain to stop.
One of our trips out involves a stop off at the Mammoth museum. This is really worth a visit.
About 26,000 years ago, round about when my Dad's front tooth fell out, the area was riddled with limestone caves. Water works it's way through the limestone forming the caves (reminds me of our school trip to Malham in Yorkshire this). One of the caves collapsed and in doing so opened up an artisian well which filled the resulting hole, the boundary of which was marked by a ring of shale (which is slippery when wet).
They reckon that the grass was probably a bit lusher around the wetter sink hole and so it attracted Mammoths. The odd two or three a year slipped into the sink hole and either got stuck and starved or just slipped right in and drowned. Over a period the sink hole slowly silted up until the artesian spring dried up and it then became safe to transit so they only find footprints from that time on.
The museum sits astride the rock that forms the remains of the silted up sinkhole. There's still an excavation going on which you get to see. At the moment there are the remains of over fifty mammoths. There are two types in there the larger Columbian mammoth and the smaller wooly mammoth. They have also found many other animal remains, most recently that of a short faced bear. Now that's a critter you wouldn't want to meet on a dark night!!
Interestingly all the fossils are male. Mammoth society was apparently matriarchal and young males would be driven out of the herds (I think buffalo are probably a bit like this too - it might explain the solitary ones that wander around trying to mate with Harleys). The young males weren't really very worldly wise and thus came croppers.
The bones in there aren't fossilised, there's real ivory in them thar hills. Good job Custer didn't find that out.
At the start of the week the area of Sturgis itself was moderately to fairly busy, but as the week goes on and the bikes stream in from all over the contintent, it swings into action like a well oiled machine. Vendors open up, a myriad of 'T' shirt designs become available, shiny showbikes appear on stands and bars begin to rock. By the end of the week it is chock-a-block and is hitting festival mode.
After my attempt at a test ride on a Harley falls flat I decide that the only thing for it is to hire one. I noticed a place doing Harley hire in Sturgis and decide to check them out. They're called 'MidWest Motorcycle Rentals' and are situated in a temporary storage warehouse on the Eastern side of the town. They have quite a nice line up of bikes and rental is $250 per day which isn't too bad I suppose.
Rental aggreements are signed and I arrange to pick the bike up at 10am the next morning. When I get back to the campsite Ed seems quite excited by the prospect of riding out on a brace of Harleys.
The next morning I'm like a kid with a new toy. A nice shiny 80 cube Softail Deluxe. I've never ridden one before and don't know how I'll find it. I decide to ride up and down a back street for a few minutes while the insurance kicks in. The first thing I notice is the riding position which is completely different to the BM with feet well forward on running boards and a more leant back position. This isn't totally alien because I've ridden and owned scooters before.
There you are, I've admitted it. As a kid I always wanted to be a Mod - all my family friends were Mods and all I ever wanted in life was a Lambretta. I did end up owning a Vespa and used to enjoy pootling up and down Yarmouth sea front on it in the summer. And one day I will be having a Lammy.
Anyway, back to the Harley. The next thing that I notice is the steering which is completely different. Whoooa! Might take a minute or two to get used to. Never mind, other than that the gears are OK, the brakes are erm, well working of sorts and opening the throttle reveals lovely great gobs of torque. Yes! I am liking.
As soon as the clock hits ten I'm off up the road with a huge grin on my face nodding at my fellow bros like an in car dog ornament. I particularly like the engine. I've ridden my brother-in-law's Buell once before and really liked the tuned sportster engine in that, but this bigger engine is even more to my liking. It kind of feels like a big American muscle car if that makes sense. The other surprise is that it doesn't handle half badly. Just not razor sharp, but it seems to go where you point it and soaks up road imperfections to make for a very comfy relaxing ride.
The other thing that dawns on me is what these bikes are really built for. They sit rock solid on the freeway at anything between seventy and ninety miles an hour and are (by all accounts and evidence that I've seen) totally reliable. Fitted with a back rest you would be able to cover massive mileages. By the time I cover the twenty miles to the campsite I think I would really like to own one. Still love the Beemer though...
A Really Big Buffalo
By repute, Buffalo's don't like Harleys. Ed and I go off on a nice long ride out so that I can really explore the Harley experience. We scoot around the Black Hills, once again joining the droves of others riding Milwakee's finest. We sweep through the tight turns of the Iron Mountain road and head round the Wildlife Loop.
The Burros are back at their precise spot but, either pickings are poor or it's just too hot, because they're sheltering under some bushes. Eventually we meet some traffic backed up. For good reason. There on the roadside is a huge and truly magnificent male Buffalo. To be truthful he's too near for comfort. When angered these animals are very fast and potentially very dangerous, but this fella seems to be just contented eating away at the roadside grass.
I get my camera out to take a shot. As I'm fumbling around with it Ed rides right past him. He then looks
up and stares over in my direction - the Buffalo, not Ed. Do Buffalo's truly dislike Harleys? Then he puts
his head down and starts eating again so I snap the shot, pocket the camera and get past as gingerly come quickly
as seems sensible. Later on chatting to Ed he passes on another of his gems of knowledge.
"They raise their tail to a cranked horizontal position before they attack"
Really? But don't they do the same if they're having a pap? I mean how would you know? Oh no! He's raised his tail! Oh it's OK he's done a number two.
Returning the Harley
It's a sad moment when I take the Deluxe back the next morning. The guy at MidWest seems happy to see it back
in one piece; someone has pranged one of the others big time. He's also pleased that I've polished it. Yep, I
couldn't help myself - there was so much chrome and it had been splashed a bit by rain at the end of our trip
round the Black Hills.
"I didn't put the Beemer in the warehouse last night 'cos you locked it but didn't leave the keys"
"Yes I did, I gave them to Carol when I signed the agreement"
"I'm sure we haven't got them"
"Oh dear, I charge 250 bucks for lost keys", I joke - it's a quip on the charge he outlined to me for lost Harley keys. Carol walks out with my keys in her hand and there is an audible sigh of relief from el patron. Good service, nice bike and not too bad a price. My own Hog for a day - a trip highlight I would say. www.midwestmotorcycle.com
The Final Day in Sturgis
It's Saturday 1st August and it's another hot one. Throughout the week we've been riding the roads and visiting the outlying towns, all of which have their own contribution to the event, but today we're heading into Sturgis itself to catch the atmosphere now the bulk of riders are here and the official week is about to kick off.
Somehow we manage to get parked in the main street area which is famously blocked off to allow thousands of bikes to park up and their riders and pillions tour the bars, tattoo parlours, shops and eateries. It's quite a sight. Quite like nothing I've seen before (is that a Graham Taylorism that slipped out there?). The nearest thing I can think of is the Isle of Man TT (which is an event of equal pre-eminence in my mind and somewhere every biker should try and experience at least once in their lifetime - Sturgis is the same: you've got to go at least once).
I studiously avoid the tattoo parlours. I'm probably one of the few people to escape Her Majesty's Navy without one and I'm trying to avoid the temptation now. "Let's get him in there and have 'Diane' tatooed over his forehead", jokes Ed.
What I'm not nervous about is buying as much tat as possible and I'm soon dragging bags of the stuff around. Actually, it isn't really tat. I'm particularly happy to buy a small half style helmet which I think will be a lot cooler (in literal terms) than my flip up Shoei helmet and I get a really excellent pair of goggles to go with it at another stall. All for seventy three dollars (£43).
I'm also a bit of a convert to the bandana which is really comfortable under the helmet and keeps sweat off it. Oh deary, deary me. I look like one of Dustin Hoffman's crew in the film 'Hook'.
Ed and Sandy introduce me to the delights of the Dungeon Bar, which only opens for the event and where, tradition dictates, patrons leave a dollar with a message pinned to the wall. Well, some patrons do but not tight Yorkshire ones. Some patrons of the female gender leave items of underwear too. From what I can see of a particular red piece of underwear Dolly Parton has been to Sturgis. In UK terms this bar would be termed a 'Sticky Carpet' bar.
Night time in the town is one big buzzing party. The police are around in a fair amount of force but things feel perfectly safe and everyone seems to be having a good time. The mix of bikes thudding through the throngs, loud bars where novel ways are being found of serving up liquor involving scantily clad females, heavy rock music and a very slightly edgy feel that you get when bike gangs are around (I'm thinking Bulldog Bash for anyone who's been there) all add to the atmosphere. It's great!
Incidentally, one of the biggest bike gangs we saw around the town and surrounding area were the Latin American gang who had a lot of members around. Quite a few of them seemed to be from Venezuela but others seemed to be mostly from Florida. I also saw a guy sporting the 'Wild Hogs' patch which I thought was a great laugh. Good on him.
A Very Sad Departure
The next morning dawns very hot and bright. I'm up early to try and fit all my mis-guided new purchases onto the Mutt. The main concern is fitting the Shoei on top of everything but, after a bit of jiggling around, everything fits albeit the bags are bulging a bit again. How I'm going to get it all on the aircraft home is anyone's guess. It's time to head East and South a bit to Sioux City which is four or five hundred miles away depending on which route to take.
I'm very keen to see the Badlands and also to see Wounded Knee and Ed has very kindly worked out a route for me and drawn it on one of his masterpieces of map simplicity.
With the bike packed it is time to say goodbye to him and Sandy for the second time. The difference is that in Yellowstone we spent three days camping next to them and got to know them a little bit. This time we are parting ways as very firm friends. For eight days their home has been my home whenever I wanted it to be, we've dined out in plenty of different places, tried a Mongolian meal together, quaffed beer and more than the odd drop of Red together and ridden hundreds of miles of superb roads. I'm genuinely sad to "say goodbye for now and thank-you so much ":o(
Sunday 2nd August
The first part of Ed's route takes me along the I90. There's a general feeling of "hey you're heading the wrong way" accentuated by the stream of bikes on the opposite carriageway. But there are also a few bikes heading out East towards the Badlands for the day. It's a hot day alright.
After a while the signs all say Badlands as does the hand written map and I turn off South. It's a National Park so a small fee to pay to enter. Having paid the cheerful young lady at the entrance I head off on the road which is flanked by rolling hills and dry grassland.
Suddenly, the Badlands are revealed. It's as if a curtain has been drawn et voila! WOW.
The grasslands suddenly give way to a vista not a million miles removed from that of the Grand Canyon. The landscape was formed by the gradual erosion of layers of rock created by volcanic ash. Geologically it's a relatively recent development having only started about five hundred thousand years ago. If you're a creationist you can take a couple of noughts off that.
There's a viewing point off to the right so I pull over and get my camera out. It's very difficult to get a shot in. There's a smattering of bikes parked up, but that's enough. It's like being a superstar!! Everyone comes over and asks about the plate, how far have I come? Have I been to Sturgis? I'm asked by two groups to have my photo taken with them and a very attractive Australian lady asks if she can take my picture on her cell phone. I could get used to this.
Diane noticed the same phenomenon. With luggage on, the bike seems to draw attention like Brad Pitt in a nunnery. Without luggage on it gets ignored a lot more.
Back to the Badlands. There's a lot of variation in the rock formations, from great cliffs and pinnacles to small smoothed bumps in the landscape. The different layers of ash are varying colours. It's a very dramatic place. As I travel through it I tag onto different groups of Harley riders touring out from Sturgis, all very relaxing and a last bask in the biking brother and sisterhood.
It's easy to imagine these lands a century and a half ago being a place to be avoided, or a place to hide up in. The land would have been very inhospitable.
I eventually ride out of the Badlands. I can still see it stretching out to my right as I head back Westward on a forty mile leg that takes me back towards Sturgis. This is necessary to a) follow Ed's map and b) get me to Wounded Knee. Getting there involves turning South at a town called Scenic and heading into the Ogallala and Lakota Sioux reservation.
I once read that the journey through the reservation to the Wounded Knee monument was a sad one because the reservation was depressing. I have to say that I felt a bit down by the Cheyenne reservation, but this one felt a bit more like the Navajo one in New Mexico. I think the Sioux have received a financial settlement from the US Government (might be wrong about this). Quite recently (I remember reading) Congress admitted that the taking of the Black Hills was illegal and should not have happened - the treaty of Laramie should have been honoured. I hope that the Sioux Nation has started to be recompensed properly for their loss.
A few miles into the reservation there is a really excellent visitor's centre which explains the formation of the reservation and how the great leaders felt about it. It leaves you feeling that the people who live there still don't know how to feel about what has happened to their people.
Red Cloud said: 'when we first had this land we were strong, now we are melting like snow on the hillside while you are growing like spring grass...' Don't you just love the eloquence of how they spoke. It haunted me when I first read it and it haunts me still... and over the past two weeks I've travelled over the very lands that it happened on. The older trees that I pass bore witness to those historic events.
A little further into the reservation I'm riding along and quite out of the blue I come face to face with something I will never forget. There are a few small holdings to my right and as I approach the last one a young boy on a horse gallops out of the front. He's no more than eleven or twelve, riding a frisky horse bareback and with just a traditional rope bit and reigns. I slow down so as not to scare the horse and for a second or two we're both staring at each other. Then he digs his heels in and the horse shimmies then gallops off. It's a dramatic sight straight out of the Wild West.
I've read a number of articles and books about the massacre at Wounded Knee. The book 'Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee' is a harrowing account of the fate of many of the tribes of North America. The site of the massacre is a small plain with a gulley running down the back of it and a hillside on top of which stands a simple marker stone as a monument. On one side of the monument is a graveyard where people of the Ogallala and Lakota tribe are still buried. This includes some who have died serving the American armed forces.
The roads that access the monument are dirt tracks. The monument itself marks the spot where those that died in the massacre are buried.
When I get there I park the Mutt up by the graveyard site along with a small number of other bikes and head
into the small cemetery. Here I'm met by a very tall resident of the reservation. He's a handsome man, about
six foot two high, well built and with long black hair.
"That suit looks like it could stand a lot of bad weather", he says "Where did you come from?"
"I'm from England, the suit is actually designed for deserts"
He pointed at his bare chest and said, "This is my desert suit, what's your name"
"My names Andy", I say holding out my hand.
He shakes my hand with a firm grip. "My name's Dave"
This made me smile a bit more inside than the smile on my face hopefully gave away.
Dave is trying to sell some bead and leather jewellery. He has a couple of pieces with black bear claws on the end and one with a Buffalo bone arrow head. I don't really want to buy the bear ones but I guess the Buffalo was probably part of the cull at Custer National Park or something like that. So I buy that piece from him.
I head down the dirt roadway to the site of the massacre. As I get there I meet two young Sioux people, a very pretty girl and a guy. He asks me if I would like to know more about the history which I say yes to.
His name is Dakota High Hawk and he runs an organisation called the 'Wounded Knee Lakota Youth Organisation'. His explanation of events there is detailed and informative. As a brief summary, a group of a few hundred including a hundred or so warriors, old people, women and children of the Minnaconjou and Hunkpapa tribes camped at Wounded knee in 1890 and were surrounded by the US 7th Cavalry. It is thought that some of the warriors were survivors of Sitting Bull's group that had fought at Little Bighorn.
The cavalry had four Hotchkiss guns which were placed at strategic points around the camp. The task of the cavalry was to dis-arm the warriors and move the Indians to reservations. The Indians conducted a 'Ghost Dance' which, in part, was supposed to make them impervious to bullets. This sounds bizarre to our culture, but it was taken very seriously by the Plains Indians and there are many accounts of Crazy Horse displaying his 'medicine' in battle.
I've read a number of different accounts of what happened when the soldiers tried to disarm the camp, but the one recorded here is that a medicine man tried to stir the warriors to fight rather than be disarmed, a shot was fired which caused the cavalry (who were probably pretty nervous) to open fire and upwards of two hundred and fifty Indians died, along with the soldiers who were trying to disarm them.
There was quite desperate hand to hand fighting in the centre of this and some women tried to escape down the gulley many of whom were killed. Dakota told me that the Lakota account says that there were as many as four hundred Indian fatalities on that day. It was the last act of resistance in the history of the Plains Indians.
After telling me this history, Dakota High Hawk told me that he traced his ancestry on his fathers side to Sitting Bull and on his mother's side to one of the men killed at Wounded Knee. He makes traditional artifacts including medicine bags and dream catchers. He took me through the symbology of his dream catchers and I just had to buy one from him. His dream catches have four beads on each strand coloured black, red, white and yellow. These represent the colours of the people of the world and peace between them. The leather is coloured blue for water which represents life.
I was pleased to buy something from the reservation. At least I know my money is going directly to the people there.
On a lighter note I should mention that I, like my father, have an Indian name. In 1991, when the film 'Dances with Wolves' came out I was working at the Hamilton Brothers offshore oil and gas supply base in Great Yarmouth. We all watched the film and loved the name given to the Kevin Costner character by the Sioux based on his nocturnal activities. We decided to give each other nicknames based on a defining characteristic of each person. For some unknown reason everyone agreed that mine should be 'Offensive when Drunk'.
Since I have never so much as slapped a soggy lettuce leaf while under the influence I can only assume that I get a bit loud when I've had a scoop or two of the red stuff - I must admit to stealing everyone's dinner once at a meal in Calgary too.. At least I wasn't as unlucky as my good friend back in Yarmouth. He had a habit of regularly checking out his erm, well his package and was given the Indian name of 'Fondles both Balls'. Ha ha.
My Dad's Indian name is 'Bald Eagle' so you can guess what his main attribute is - I'm not that far behind him either...
On leaving the reservation I head East along highway 18. There's a lot of flat farmland along the road and the day is getting muggy. Sure enough I see a dark cloud dispensing rain to my right and then a darkening of the sky to my left. Then there are flickers of lightning from the one on the left. The road seems to be heading for the only bright spot in between the two. I'm pretty nervous about the one on the left, the lightning becomes much too regular for my liking and this is very flat countryside with me sat astride a metallic object. I wonder what would happen if lightning hit a bike?
Ed was fairly sure that there would be a motel at the town of Martin with is tantalisingly close - 14 miles to be precise. Will I get there before the storm? Will there be a motel or will I have to follow the map and turn towards the other rain storm on the route to highway 20 and the town of Merriman? The answer is Yes and No. I spot an Inn on the intersection to highway 73 and breath a sigh of relief.
East to Sioux City
Monday 3rd August
Today's journey takes us hopefully to Sioux City which is situated in Western Iowa. Navigation couldn't be any simpler, just head down Highway 73, hang a left and follow Highway 20 to destination. The storm clouds have cleared and it's a lovely hot day. Temperatures have been hovering around the 38 to 40 degrees mark which is hotter than New Mexico and Las Vegas, but I seem to have become inured to it.
The scenery is rolling farmland and the road is pretty much dead straight heading South into Nebraska. Time of a quick count up of States, those with an asterix were covered solely by car or train:
New York*, New Jersey* Maryland, Columbia*, Virginia, North Carolina*, South Carolina*, Georgia*, Florida*, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregan, Washington, Idaho, Montana, British Columbia (Canada), Alberta (Canada), Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska. I make that 27 of the United States, just over half.
Turning Eastwards on Highway 20 at the town of Merriman I can see that this part of Nebraska appears to be pretty poor. There's a lot of farming and I'm starting to see huge silos for grain. Typically, in this part of Nebraska there will be a broken down dis-used town silo and a newer gleaming one with rail sidings and a few commercial buildings (in the larger ones). As in most of the US, there don't seem to be any scrapyards so when something becomes disused it just sits and quietly rots away. I love this aspect, it gives a feeling of history and real character albeit making things seem pretty decrepit.
Across this part of Nebraska, for instance, there are a quite a few abandoned farms. Small ones, where the weeds are slowly taking over. But one thing that I also notice is that the people here rival the Southern States in friendliness. Everyone is waving or nodding at me, even truck and tractor drivers. The further East that I travel, the greener the landscape becomes and the larger the farms become. The towns are very neat and the rural decay seems to disappear. The farms appear to be big business around here.
There aren't many insects around here either. I think the odd sighting of a small, agile crop dusting plane may have something to do with that. I cover around 370 miles today. People have told me it will be monotonous, but I'm enjoying seeing a new landscape and am marvelling at the height of the corn in the fields which must be around ten foot high.
On the way, at a fairly deserted patch of roadway, I spot the unmistakeble profile of a biker in trouble. It
turns out to be Craig from Lincoln Nebraska who is peering at his engine alongside the road. "Got a problem?".
He walks over smiling. "Ran out of fuel!", he says with an embarrassed look. Oh great!! My moment of glory has
come. I know exactly where the transfer pump is, I have at least five gallons in the tank and I won't have to get
a mouthful of fuel getting to a few pints.
"It's OK though, my friend has gone into the nearest town to buy a gallon". No!
Craig is(n't) riding a Victory motorcycle (of which more later). He's a cheerful soul for one so stranded and points out that a small group of antelopes have been entertaining him just up on top of the hill. He knows the shop that are going to service the bike and is full of praise for them which is good. We have a chat about the trip before I head off and leave him to top up his sun tan.
After around four hours on one road Sioux City appears and it isn't long before I spot a Super 8. I'm becoming a creature of habit again.
A Well Earned Service
Tuesday 4th August
BAK BMW are luckily situated relatively near to the motel and are easy to find - ride down the road, turn left after the railroad crossing and go straight for five miles. Dave Bak is behind the counter and is very welcoming. We discuss the service and he says it will be four hours. I ask about a taxi and he offers me his pick up truck!!
It's a big Ford with a column automatic change. I sit in there thinking how embarrassing it would be if I stick it in the wrong gear and drive it in through the wall. After a bit of careful working out I find reverse and avoid disaster. Then I notice the gear indicator in the instrument binnacle. I've been dying to try one of these out all trip. Like most large vehicles, it's only intimidating before you've driven or ridden it. In fact it's a doddle to drive on American roads which are all uniformly at least eight feet wide.
I spend a few hours relaxing, catching up with the blog and doing my laundry. One big plus at Super 8 motels is that they all have laundries and the prices out here in the middle of America are very reasonable at around 35 pounds a night. For that you get a large room, often with two huge beds, cable TV, free Wi Fi and, praise the Lord a bath!
When I return to Bak's, the service has been done, including a bleeding of the clutch hydraulics as requested (I hope this fixes the spongyness at altitude and will be desperately looking for a mountain to ride up somewhere between here and the Atlantic... might be difficult. I'll just have to nip down to Switzerland...
I show interest in their 'in house' T shirts and Dave shows me one with a cartoon on it that they got made up locally. I ask to buy one, but in checking the bill later I find he's thrown it in for me. They also sell Victory motorcycles which are American made and are a relatively new manufacturer. They started off looking a bit like Harleys, but the latest models have a very futuristic cruiser look about them. Very nice. Oh dear, here we go again, I'm turning into an American. I've got to stop this and get a grip.
Come on now! Think whippets, pigeons. Hmmm. Tripe, jot, Arthur Scargill, trouble at t'mill. Wey'r 'as ta bin since ah saw thee. Ariel Red Hunter. Phew, that's alright then.
Dave Bak you are a proper gentleman. Thanks very much. www.bakbmw.com
Green and Pleasant Land
Wednesday 5th August
Another nice clear day! After a bit of mis-navigation I'm back on Highway 20 heading Eastwards towards Chicago. It's much the same as yesterday, lots of farmland and towns that are very much based on agriculture. Passing through a town called Rockwell I spy a '50's car for sale and pull over for a look.
There's a guy and his son looking over it and the Harley Softail that is also for sale sitting next to it. We get chatting. Their names are Norm and his son Joel. He's a farmer from out of town. They ask me about the trip, where I've been and I give Joel one of my cards so he can check out the website. It was nice to meet you both.
The car is a 1954 Chevrolet.
At one point on the trip I spot a small plane doing turns to the right hand side of the road. On one of these he lines up on a field right next to where I'm passing. I get my camera out ready to snap him. He approaches at a steady speed roaring down my right hand side and I click the shutter. The result, I'm to find out later is a picture of blue sky. Missed him!!
A quick flick through the bikes computer reveals that it has averaged over 50mph since we reset it on the way back from Yellowstone (the we being Diane and I) and the bike has returned an amazing average of 55 miles per imperial gallon an improvement of three miles per gallon since I dropped the lovely pillion off in Seattle. The bike has travelled nearly fifteen thousand miles since departing Portlethen.
Also, incredibly, there is still plenty of wear on the rear Tourance tyre fitted to the bike in Seattle. They must use a harder compound on American tyres because this one has done six thousand or so miles and still has plenty of tread. I'm hoping it will last out the trip, but I think that might be a tad optimistic.
Along the route I arrive at a fairly big town on the Mississippi called Dubuque which is quite industrialised. The mighty river is huge at this point in it's journey which surprises me (I don't know why but I guess it seems to be so far upstream I would have thought it to be a bit smaller than that). There's a very impressive iron bridge spanning it.
My final destination today is a beautiful little town called Galena which is notable as being the town where Ulysses S Grant lived. He was a great General in the American civil war but maybe a bit less successful as a President largely because of the levels of corruption he put up with in his government. Sounds a bit like someone back the UK to me!! Well, without the General bit.
Accomodation tonight is a clean and reasonably priced independent motel.
A Gentle Change of Landscape
Thursday 6th August
Departure from the motel is distinctly early. I woke up at four thirty and couldn't get back to sleep so, after writing up a bit of the blog, I packed the Mutt and headed on back into town to get some money and take a few photos. It's hot again.
Galena is really pretty and in comparison to the towns to the West it has the real first signs of real old colonial style buildings, quite a few of which are open to the public in addition to Ulysses's house. I don't have time to look round any because I need to get into town to get cash.
At the entrance to the town there's a weird traffic control where each direction takes turns to drive into the town. It takes a few moments to realise. While scratching my head trying to work it out I realise with horror that in shaving my head this morning I've missed a patch at the back of my head!! I must look like a fledgling. My morning is about to get even worse....
The obstruction is a pair of enormous flood gates which were built in the 1930's by the Corps of Engineers. Beyond them is a bank.
At the bank my debit card is rejected. Then I try my credit card and realise that I've forgotten my password. This is my emergency card (the main one having been blocked by the bank whilst I was in Canada) and I can't remember which of the two pins is the right one. Not a problem I hear you saying, you've got three tries. Except when I put it in the first time I put the wrong digit in so I only have two.
I decide to use it to buy some more phone credit and then I can get on to the bank. So off up to Walmart. Suitably armed with more credit on the phone and strangely having been able to buy it with the debit card, which then fails again in Walmart's ATM machine, I phone the bank. I get put through to the fraud department. The card has been blocked because they've noticed I'm using it abroad. WHAT?? IVE ONLY BEEN HERE THREE MONTHS!!!!
The tone of the voice of the young fella on the other end indicates that he's just noticed the file notes further down the screen. He goes through the motions of checking recent transactions off, but we both know they've boobed. And it's costing me a fortune in mobile phone fees. I keep my patience though. I seem to have a lot more of it recently. I've reconciled myself to the fact that very few modern organisations work very well, least of all those using computers.
However, it does show how badly the banks are orientated towards people who are travelling and it gives you a pertinent reminder that you're a posh tramp and one step away from getting stuck and becoming less posh rather quickly.
I celebrate having a few ponies in the pocket by buying a nice coffee before setting off into the beautiful countryside of rolling green hills which reminds me of Devon and Cornwall. This goes on for many miles but gradually starts to flatten off and the grass starts to yellow off a bit as we draw nearer to the Lakes. We're heading towards Chicago which means I need to cut Northwards parallel to the Western shore of Lake Michigan to a point opposite Milwaukee. Home of Harley Davidson.
Accents are also changing. They sound a bit like Gangsters round here.
I decide on a change of motel tonight and spend my first one in an 'America's Best Budget' motel which is a bit like a prison block but strangely cheap and cheerful too. comfy bed as well.
A Visit to the Harley Factory
After all the journeying through the back country with very few visits to any large towns since Calgary (perhaps with the exception of Sturgis and Rapid City but I don't think they count) it seems strange to be in an area where there are the unmistakeable signs of being near a built up area. The countryside is tamed somewhat and given over to more roads and more concrete. And it's starting to rain.
It reminds me of when I walked the Cleveland Way with my sister. The hike takes you up to areas of North Yorkshire that are still fairly wild. You can walk out there for quite a few days, just dipping into villages for an overnight stop at a hostel or B and B. When the trail eventually heads down into Redcar it's a horrible feeling that you've left the Moors, forests and fields behind. It does have a Chinese take away though...
The road in towards Milwaukee is a busy freeway. The Harley engine plant, which I intend to visit today, is situated at a part of the city called Wauwatosa. Apart from a small junction overshoot which is put right by a prompt 'U' turn, it's fairly easy to find. It seems a bit cheeky to be parking the B Em Dubya in the parking reserved for motorcycles right in front of the front door. Needless to say it's the only non-Harley thus parked.
The visitor centre isn't huge but it is quite impressive. There's a few of the most recent models for people to sit on and a good display of the lineage of V twin engines that have powered Harleys through the ages. I never really new the distinction between flathead, panhead, knuckle head or shovel head before but I do now. And it's a secret so I'm not telling anyone.. ha ha.
The staff don't bat an eyelid when this tramp appears completely garbed out in the teutonic suit of the opposition proudly displaying the Bavarian roundel. This feels like an invasion of their citadel. I'm just waiting to be pilloried for my choice of mount.
When the tour starts (and it's free for heavens sake. They even give you a badge and other little goodies - of which more later), you head into the auditorium for a film about the history of the plant and a bit about manufacturing engines which was interesting. An older guy and a very attractive young lady are our guides. He says he likes to ask where everyone has come from and starts his way around the group.
When they get to me I say "England" and it puts him right off his stride. He's about to skim to the next
person but as it registers he stalls and says
It's thrown him a bit because I'm clearly on a bike too.
They then move on to ask about bikes.
"How many people here ride bikes?"
About half of the fifteen people present.
"How many own Harleys"
About seven, my hand is kept down, eyes are wandering over to me. Is it time for black capes, altars and daggers?
"We can see what you ride sir! How many people rode here today?"
One hand is in the air.
"Ladies and gentleman I think we have a hard core biker here, you can't be afraid of the rain doing that kind of mileage". How embarrassing! I've been described as a few things in my life.
The tour is divided and I'm in the pretty girl's group. We're given protective glasses and a radio box so we can hear her and then it's off into the factory. It's an interesting tour, a first for me, seeing the inside of a motorcycle factory. They do a lot of in-house manufacturing. The component castings come in as raw material and are manufactured (mainly by robots) into the finished article which then goes to the assembly line to be built into an engine, this by a combination of men, women and robots.
The finished engines are, I think, a thing of beauty. I love the Harley engine because it still looks like a real engine. By that I mean an engine crafted from solid bits of metal. And it isn't an illusion because that's exactly what it is.
The other thing that impressed me was the factory re-work facility. Here engines can be sent in from older bikes in a very worn state and the factory will re-manufacture them for you, turning them out in virtually a brand new state.
At the end of the visit it is apparent from the clouds that today's ride is going to be wet. So I swap over my lightweight helmet for the Shoei and put on the waterproof suit inners. I decide to head for the lake which is a left turn out of the factory and straight East into Milwaukee. The city itself is a typical industrial town. For the first time in ages I see lots of rubbish scattered around the streets.
I think it is common to have a fairly critical view of your own country. Most people I meet will give you the downside to living in their country once you strip away the layers of nationalism. I always get very frustrated in the UK about the amount of rubbish people put up with (or throw) on the streets. I mean how can you say you love your country, plaster your cars with it's flag and suchlike if you turn it into a trash skip.
Most of the USA and Canada are very clean. People sponsor sections of highway to keep them clean and the towns are normally devoid of rubbish. But the big cities can be an exception. I think wherever there are a lot of people this starts to happen - with a few exceptions.
As soon as I can I head for the freeway North and put some miles between me and city life. I then hang a right and head to the shores of Lake Michigan. The shoreline up here is rather nice. Very green (they've been having a lot of unseasonal rain) and with pleasant houses lining it. There are quite a few stone built buildings too. We're also back in rural farmlands where I seem to be happiest with only one major town, Manitowoc, to contend with.
East and West
The long hours in the saddle have left me time to think about my experiences so far travelling both ways across America and Canada. When I travelled through the South towards the West the land petered out into wilderness around Texas. Before that farming had taken over, often rice fields from what I saw. In the extreme East there was an older colonial feel to the country. People were busier and generally were town or city orientated. More like Europe.
Heading across the Mid lands the other way is slightly different in that the wilderness is in the mountains Eastwards of which is the high prairie and open range where you can still see Cowboys going about their work. That gives way to extensive grain farming across a huge swath of the countryside. America is still a huge bread basket. Having said that, a lot of the farms in the West were up for sale.
The industry I saw, Boeing and Harley Davidson, were showing signs of distress from the recession. Few planes being built, and part of the Harley Factory was being packed up to be consolidated in another plant. The workers don't know if the plant will survive. Harley are cutting down the breadth of their model range and have a demographic bomb sitting underneath them. Their sales base is older riders who will, in time, peter out. People are worried about the healthcare reforms and their future in economic terms. It feels like a country at the crossroads.
I complete my Northward day's riding at the town of Green Bay and a very plush Super 8 which lets me down by not having a laundry. The night is disturbed by a thunderstorm.
A Large Seaport
Saturday 8th August
It's grey and spitting with rain this morning. Quite fresh though which makes a nice change. Everyone is complaining about the weather which is unseasonally cold and wet. Apparently this is due to the jetstream having slipped South, a bit like my waterproof inners which I haven't zipped into my suit trousers properly.
The day's ride is about three hundred and fifty miles across open farmland which is a mixture of cereal production and quite a lot of dairy farming. Apparently this is the 'Dairy Capital of America'. The farms look a bit less intensive and a bit poorer than they did to the South West.
My track is initially back Westwards for about two hundred miles then North to Duluth, which is situated on the Western edge of Lake Superior.
A couple of mildly entertaining road signs crop up:
CROSS TRAFFIC FOR THE NEXT 75 MILES - how cross?
ONLY EMERGENCY STOPPING PERMITTED - What, so we're not allowed to come to a gentle halt?
At a stop for a bit of chicken jerky type meat in a plastic bag and a banana I spot a touching scene. There's a very new born foal and it's mother in the field opposite. But the foal seems to have something wrong with it's right front leg and is hobbling along trying to get the the source of milk. The mother allows the foal to get about six foot away then wanders off. The little crook foal then hobbles painfully near and off she goes again. Nature is cruel.
Back on the bike and off again at a stead 70 - 75mph. Norwich are losing 7-1 to Colchester (I'm later to find out from my distressed son) Sheffield Wednesday hold the mighty Barnsley to a 2 - 2 draw. It's the first day of Championship football back in Blighty. I'm not missing it too much.
The scenery changes from rolling farmland not unlike England (that would be Suffolk I think) to flat farmland then to more coniferous woodland. The aren't particularly old, their trunks are slender.
The first town I come to at Lake Superior is called Superior. It's a little bit down-trodden. And there ain't no room at the inn either. I try a couple. One is called Barkers where three absolutely splendid ladies tell me there's a blues festival in full swing in Duluth leading to very expensive rooms if you can find one.
They then proceed to phone around the whole town and find me a slightly less expensive room at a place called the Suites. This turns out to be situated in an old quayside warehouse. On the way over in the darkening gloom of a rain sodden port I spot an old ship called American Victory which is distinctly odd. It is very long and probably about 6000 tons and has the bridge and wheelhouse right at the front of the bow.
My room at the hotel is an apartment. I don't really need an apartment, just a motel room. There's a lot of blues fans around. They don't seem particularly cheerful, which makes sense really I suppose. Got into Duluth and it gave me the blues, rooms too expensive and and too few to choose. The town itself is an interesting place. It's a sea (lake) port that has seen better days and seems to have tried to turn to marinas, dockside apartments and other attractions to pick itself up. It ought to remind me of Liverpool, but it doesn't. It reminds me of Inverness for some reason. It seem to have that certain ambience of a place just a little bit far out from normal civilisation.
The last time I went to Inverness there was a Rangers vs Celtic match on and half the town wanted to kill the other half. Don't know where the Caledonian Thistle fans were. Holding a meeting in the local bus shelter perhaps.
The North Shore of Lake Superior
Sunday 9th August
The Northern end of Duluth is quite posh. The road I'm on follows the lake shore and is signposted as the 'scenic route'. The day started wet but the clouds seem to be breaking and it's reasonably warm. Too warm to be riding in waterproofs, which I am. As the skies break the lake turns from a limpid grey to deep blue.
I had in my head that this would be a wild and deserted part of the planet. I don't know why, but it all looked a bit remote on the map. Turns out it's a bit of a tourist trap. The road up the lake is fairly packed with cars. The road is flanked by a mixture of housing ranging from holiday cabins to very nice family houses set in plots of woodland. There are a lot of people towing boats or with canoes or kayaks on their roof racks. It reminds me of the road up the East coastline of Seeland in Denmark.
The Candian border isn't too far away, maybe a hundred and thirty miles or so. My intention is to stop off before the border for an overnight stay then head over. I'm not in any rush. I've got exactly a month left to work my way via the Niagra falls to the East coast, maybe New England then work my way down the coast to Baltimore. I'd really like to see a bit more wilderness before then though and start wondering about whether I should head further North after Thunder Bay. Decisions will have to be taken shortly.
Diving into the Sink Hole
Riding along checking out the scenery. Stop off in a small town. There's a cafe selling sandwiches and coffee. Alongside the cafe there's a local centre with an interesting small museum. This place has lots of iron ore. There's a waterfall nearby. A little further along I can see another stream meeting the lake in a waterfall. I stop off to look for some pictures. Gawd my back aches. It's like a hot needle is being thrust into the muscle. It cleared up a lot after the massage some three weeks ago but it's back with a vengeance now. I think I've just done too many miles for my back and will need to rest it up when the trip finishes.
The place I've stopped has a gulley with a waterfall. Where it meets Lake Superior there's a plunge pool with a bridge above it. The older people are on the bridge watching events and the younger people are in the plunge pool or are on rocks above it. The teenage boys have been showing off by diving from the rocks into the plunge pool. The teenage girls have been watching but are now being goaded into jumping. And, give them their due, that's what they do.
The further I head Northwards the more the tourists begin to thin out. Eventually I pitch up in a town called Grand Marais. This turns out to be quite a big town in these parts, but a touch too touristy for my sensibilities. Perhaps I'm getting a bit picky. I find a motel for the night, boring: another Super 8. I'm going to have to try harder, how can I recommend anything else if I keep this up? Truth is, if you're touring the Us or Canada and you need a reliable place to stay you won't find better for the price. And they ain't sponsoring me. They just do the biz.
Not that I can quite say the same for Subway. Oh dear! Here at Grand Marais they're just plain grumpy. I've eaten a lot of Subways because they're reasonably healthy in terms of what I need to eat. My goodness me, I've patronaged them to the point of being a super uber patron. But this one is not very good. 'Nuff said. Maybe I'm getting a bit grumpy and particular, but I need a bit more than this, a bit of chat and cameraderie but it most certainly isn't here.
I know I'm struggling a bit here. I've hit a bit of a wall. Maybe I've been on the road too long. Maybe I've been spoilt. I'm chasing a dream and I can't find what I need to find. I've been to some incredible places and seen some sights that most people will never see. But right now I need a bit of extra spark and I'm not quite finding it. The muscular pain in my back is certainly part of the problem but I think that is part of my diabetes, something I need to cope with.
Back into Canada
Monday 10th August
The day dawns nice and bright. It's warm up here on the hill above Grand Marais. I pop into town to see if I can pick up a sticker. The bike hasn't had any stickers put on it since Sturgis and that, most certainly, will not do. But there aren't any (well apart from a few crude bumper stickers) so I head out of town stickerless. The ride up to the Canadian border is done at a very leisurely pace, taking in the sights on the way.
There's a lot less traffic up here and it's getting thinner by the hour. Just a few people crossing the border between the two countries. Just below the border is a town in the USA called Grand Portage. It has a rebuilt stockade and visitor centre, so I pull over and have a look.
Grand Portage has had an interesting history it seems. It was here that the fur trade operated out of and it was a kind of supply base for that industry way back in the 1700's. The people who did the trading were called voyageurs and there were two types. The younger one's who did the movement to and from the shoreside and the older ones who went into the bush. They relied on old Indian trails and the help of the Indians who knew how to live off the land. Most of the voyageurs were French with a few English and Americans mixed in.
They apparently wore very bright clothing and were tough as old nails. In the summer they would row canoes right up the lake.
After having checked this out I have a ride up a couple of back roads and find an Indian art trading shop.
In it I meet an old Indian man who introduces himself as Ernest. Ernest's speciality is making things like
Moccassins and beaded jewellery. I'm particularly taken by a pair of moccassins that have been made right
from scratch (I mean they hunted the deer and tanned the skin before making up the moccassins. I can see me
wearing those at home as slippers and before you can say 'don't buy anything else the bike will tip over' the
deal is done. Ernest asks me to send him a Christmas card.
"We like to hear from our foreign customers, I promise, when I've got your card with your address I will send you one back".
Suddenly the little dip in mood that I had last night has lifted and all is well with the world again. I climb back on the bike, thumb the starter button and, with a parting wave to Ernest, I'm off towards Canada.
The border post is just up the road. I top up with fuel first - I think it's slightly cheaper - and also have a meal at the cafe attached. The border post isn't as posh here as the one South of Vancouver but the young lady guarding the border is very pleasant and I'm through in a jiffy. Almost immediately Canada welcomes me with a well aimed downpour.
The scenery is promising though. It's all a bit wilder than the American side, with less cars passing and a few hills. I forget that everything is back in kilometres and am surprised when I pull into the wonderfully named Thunder Bay. This is a fairly big city with a reasonably large airport and quite a lot of industry (paper mills). Oh and it's got a Super 8.
An Invite for Supper
When I was in Sturgis I happened by chance to get talking to a Canadian gent called Andrew who told me he
was from Thunder Bay. I told him I was likely to be passing through that way on my journey around the lake.
We exchanged numbers and he contacted me shortly after via the website. Once I'm settled in to the motel I
give him a ring.
"I'd like to invite you round for a meal with my family I can drop by the motel on my way home from work"
So that's how I find myself following a tidy K1200 BMW bike through the back streets of Thunder Bay. I'm introduced to Jan, Andrew's wife, Bryn his youngest daughter who is ten years old and Madison who is fourteen (and who I met with him at Sturgis) Jan has cooked a very nice meal which goes down very well.
We chat about the trip and about a strange occurence that I've noticed while riding around the lake. It often gets cool very quickly then warm very quickly. That's due to the temperature of the water. Lake Superior is enormous and is very deep (greater than 1,300 feet in places). It holds around ten percent of all the fresh water on planet earth - amazing). The temperature hardly changes between winter and summer and it is still very dangerous if you fall in even in summer. So as you get near the lake the temperature in the air fairly plummets.
I'm also surprised to learn that winter doesn't descend on this part of the world until October/November. Somehow I'd got it in my head that it would be time for snow shoes and Polar Bears come the middle of September. The lake has it's own climatic nuances and winter isn't too near right now.
After the meal we have a look at a map which they kindly let me take with me and they recommend that I don't take the Northern route "too boring", but stick to the lakeside route. Good advice I'm sure.
I'd like to thank Andrew and Jan for this hospitality, I'm sure it's not too often that Andrew brings a (very badly dressed) road rat home at short notice!
No Printers for Five Hundred Miles
Tuesday 11th August
Sadly, it is time to start the wheels in motion for shipping the bike back to good old Albion. There's forms to be filled in and faxed to Jessica at the import/export company. The omens sound quite good. E Harms the company in question can take the bike off my hands and have it delivered to the dockside for $150. Seeing as it would cost me $75 to do the trip into the dock myself (because you have to hire a guide) and considering how much time that will take up, taxis etc. this really does seem like a good option. I just hope they don't drop the bike.
I'm hopeful that the return shipment will be a bit more hassle free than the import. At least I don't have the same kind of time constraints. Before then though, I need to get the forms printed and faxed. The lady at the Super 8 says they can't do that but Staples down the road will be able to help.
So after packing the bike and returning the key card I potter off down to Staples. "I'm sorry sir, all our three printers are broken" Well I do hope you're not selling that model back there in the shop. The next staples is about five hundred miles away. Oh well, it will have to wait a day or two. I ride downtown and stop off for some cash from one of the banks. It's a nervous moment. Recalling the difficulty getting cash out of the ATM's when last in Canada I punch in for $200 Canadian and.... phew I can hear it counting the dosh.
OK, cool. Got dosh, bike is more or less full of fuel and...hey what's that woman doing by the bike? She seems to be loitering with intent. As I approach she moves away a bit drawing on a cigarette. The penny drops, that's a cheap hotel and I think I've gone and parked on the red light street. She must have seen me park up and head over the bank for cash... ha ha.
I make a fairly quick exit (honest) and head out along the road Eastwards. The scenery is really very beautiful. The lake is deep blue with hints of distant tree lined islands, creeks and bays. The beaches are reddish brown mostly, the same colour as the rock faces. I stop quite regularly to take photos.
I then see a sign for an amethyst mine 'The largest in the world'. When the turn off arrives on the left I decide to have a looksee. The road crosses some railway lines and then, at another turn off, becomes a dirt track. It's well graded and a doddle to ride for a kilometre or two but then it deteriorates and climbs quite steeply into the hills. Boy this is fun!
Five kilometres up into the hills is the mine. It's got a brand new log cabin with amethysts for sale and you can sign in, pay your six dollars and have a quick guided tour of what is an open cast mine. Then you can get a bucket and a kind of spike tool and go mining yourself. Well, to be honest all you're doing is being let loose on the spoil heap to look for one's the miners have overlooked. But it's good fun and takes me back to my younger days knocking around the coal tips of South Yorkshire.
We used to delight in sneaking over the huge tip at the colliery at Wath on Dearne carrying an inflatable boat across, dodging the security patrol in their Land Rover, diving over the other side and launching the boat in the nature reserve on the other side. People used to pick coal from the tip in much the same way as I'm now picking amethysts. Poor people who we felt sorry for. That's until some of them turned out to be poor people with air rifles who tried to puncture our little dinghy to see if we could swim.
I'm really quite made up to find a significant piece of amethyst with lots of crystals in a fissure in a piece of rock. Because I've fished it out of the tip, I get charged considerably less than I would if I'd bought it in the shop and I leave like a kid with a new toy.
Now that's what I call a pair of bikers
Further up the road I pass by two cyclists who are heading the same way as me. A mile or two further on they catch up with me as I sit outside a petrol station eating peanuts and supping an ice cold lemonade. John comes over and introduces himself. He's English, from Bournemouth, and has spotted the plates on the bike. His travelling companion Tara (Tara I think that was your name - hope I got it right) is from Alberta and they met up on the road a while back.
Both of them are riding across Canada for charity. John tells me a bit about the charity he is trying to raise money for. He had a friend called Rob Gauntlett who was a very young adventurer. Rob was the youngest person to climb Everest (I think that's what John said) and had made it to both Poles. He tragically was killed in a climbing accident in France. John is riding across Canada in memory of Rob and raising money for a fund set up in his memory. His website is www.canadacoast2coast.weebly.com
Well, that really is some challenge. Makes my dodgy back seem a bit pathetic I have to say. Good luck to them both.
Further along I pull into a small town called Rossport. There's a huge hill on the way to the town and another pair of cyclists are labouring up it in the heat. This two are on a tandem. I pass by them and turn into the little town heading down the hill to the quayside. It's a nice place to take a photo and there's a group of ladies doing just that. I offer to take a picture of them together then have a quick chat with two of them. Their names are Donna and Kay. The rest of the gang are Kay's grandchildren and Donna is mother to one of them and aunt to the others.
I've been chatting to quite a few people today. Sometimes it's just a quick hello, sometimes a bit more of a general chin wag. Most people are interested in the trip but I try not to list all the places I've been to. It's just too much now so I try and do an abridged version.
As I pull out of Rossport I see the tandem riders have managed to get up the hill. They're an older couple and they look absolutely whacked. The guy comes over while his co-pilot (I'm assuming wife) just about manages to hold the bicycle up. They're French Canadian (or maybe even French) and he speaks only a limited amount of English. They're looking for a campsite via trip instructions typed onto an A4 paper. I check my satnav but Mr Garmin's computer says "non".
It says on the paper that the campsite is 1.2 kilometres to the East so we both agree it must be down the road a bit further. With that I head off. But there isn't a campsite anywhere near that distance. I eventually ride three miles before I pass it. Will they get that far or will they give up and go back to Rossport. I decide to do my good turn for the day and head back. "It's quite a way, more than two miles", I say when I meet them. They're most thankful that I came back to tell them.
So now it's time for me to find accomodation. I really ought to be camping to save money, but I find a nice little motel in a place called Schreiber a few miles further on. Apparently there's a railway museum here so I may well check that out tomorrow. But for now I have a very basic but clean room for about thirty quid. Great.
An Invite for Tea
Wednesday 12th August
Another bright and clear August morning. I get up and packed reasonably early and head off down to the diner that I ate in last night. This is one of the typically good roadside diners that crop up in nearly every small town or village around the lake.
After a breakfast of pancakes I head out to the bike and am fairly surrounded by a mix of people who want to know where am I from, how far have I travelled and where am I going? I end up with a semi circle of people, young and old, with one guy asking most of the questions and me answering them. I feel like telling them that the guys with the really amazing story are pedalling up this way and should be through sometime later today..
I head into Schreiber to have a look at the local railway museum which is very small and takes just ten or fifteen minutes to have a look round, but offers some opportunities to photograph the train and carriages there.
I set off at a steady pace, just taking in the scenery which is beautiful. On just about every major rock I pass there are small rock cairns built by loads of people along the road. I decide I'm going to build my own cairn somewhere along the route.
Eventually I find a spot which is reasonably remote and build a little block of stones on top of a huge rock which is stood back just a little from the road. It overlooks a beautiful bay. I mark it on my satnav. It's a sobering thought that if it is untouched it should last many hundreds of years, gradually weathering away.
The landscape around the Canadian North Shore is quite stunning. There are endless bays, islands, tumbling streams and creeks into the lake. The temperature is moderated by the water and there are occassional veils of mist out on the lake itself. It is a deep marine blue under a paler blue sky with cotton clouds.
At a place called Terrace Bay I see a huge 1960's car on display outside a Chevrolet dealership. It's an Oldsmobile, praise the Lord. Every time I stop to photograph an old car it turns out to be a Chevvy. Don't get me wrong I love them all and photograph as many as I can, but it's nice to find at least one that is different. And what a beauty this one is. Truly massive as well. It is almost totally immaculate.
As I'm about to photograph it a guy walks out of the dealership and says hello, stopping for a brief chat when he hears my accent. Then a black Chevrolet Impala draws up and the lady inside asks if I'm a Brit. The slightly excited gent next to her is from Northern Ireland. "I was sure those were yellow UK plates!" he declares.
Their names are Keith and Lila and they live along the coast at Marathon. Lila is Canadian and Keith is from Armargh. They invite me to stop at theirs when I get to Marathon and write down the address for me. I promise that I will pop in for a cup of tea. With that they head off up the road and I concentrate on a bit of photography.
Afterwards I head in towards Marathon and pull up at the nice house that Keith and Lila live in. They welcome me and usher me in for a very welcome meal of sandwiches, a downright perfect cup of tea and a cookie made from digestive biscuits which is very nice too. Keith and Lila live on the edge of town backing on to woodland and, very nearly, the wilderness to the North. Apparently there have been a lot of cats disappearing due to the local wolf and it's not unknown for the odd Moose to make an appearance. As Keith says, it's like living in a postcard.
Lila is a lady of the First Nation, of the Ojibwe people who are the indegenous people of the Lakes area. We talk a bit about my experiences travelling through the reservations in the United States and the people I've met and I promise to show her the moccassins that I bought from Ernest which are now amongst my proudest possessions. I spend a good hour or so with Keith and Lila enjoying the food and his natural Northern Irish enthusiasm.
When it's time to depart Lila presents me with a necklace made of leather with an arrow on it and a small package of tobacco which is given to people by the Ojibwe people as a token. I put that into my deepest pocket in my jacket where it will stay for the rest of the trip. Oh yes, and they make sure I leave with a ritual box of digestive biscuits. I count myself extremely lucky to have come across Keith and Lila and, of course Andrew and Jan a day earlier. The people around Lake Superior are certainly incredibly friendly and welcoming.
I head on around the lake and Southwards to a place called Wawa. It's still very hot and dry and, after a quick recce through the town, which has a proper beach, I find a homely little motel called the Beaver and head off to the local grill for a meal.
A very Sad Day
Thursday 13th August.
I have decided not to blog today out of respect for my friend and ex-colleague in Calgary who's wife died in a tragic accident last night. My thoughts today are with him and his family.
Friday 14th August
A quick summary of two days worth of travel: The final miles journeying around Lake Superior are blessed with more beautiful scenery. I discover that the cairns I've been seeing are actually Nakchuks, which are part of Inuit culture and represent human figures that guide and protect you. Mine resembled more of a pile of stones but, hey, it'll weather all the better for that. The scenery is much the same right round the Lake until you get to the Southern end of the arc when there is more evidence of people, more habitation and a lot of cabins by the beaches.
At a place called Sault Saint Marie it is time to cut Eastwards across the top of Lake Huron. Here the landscape changes to being typically farmland along the trek to a town called Sudbury which is quite a large city. I pitch up overnight in a Super 8 motel which is home to a lot of wasps. They seem to be attracted to the bike and, much to my surprise, commence to eat the bug remains covering it.
A quick check around the bike shows that everything is in order. The back tyre is showing considerable signs of wear now, but it isn't wearing at a dramatic rate so I think there are quite a few miles left in it. The oil, which was changed in Sioux City is still at a good level and consumption is very low.
Down to Toronto
The wasp cleaning squad have done an amazing job on the bike in the morning and there's very few insects to clean off. I tend to clean the bike with a wet cloth every morning just to keep it reasonably bug free. I head off to find the local Staples to try and get my export documentation printed and prepared for faxing to the agent. When I eventually find them I get this done and then sit in a Starbucks sipping a latte and filling in the paperwork.
All's fine but there are a couple of questions I have to e-mail off to the lady who is dealing with the export so I'll need to fax the stuff down to her in a couple of day's time.
It's now incredibly hot again as I set off and find the route South to Toronto. Another long day in the Saddle, around three hundred miles or so. Once out of Sudbury there's a bit of farmland, but also semi wilderness. The road has been blasted through some amazing rock formations. It looks like igneous rocks in fine layers giving off different crystalline colours that I try and photograph on the move (rather unsuccessfully as it turns out).
There are also lots of lakes and Moose warnings. I learned a couple of days ago from Keith and Lila that the problem with the moose are that they often get attacked by biting insects. The poor old moose, maddened by the wee beasties, runs hell for leather away from them and hurtles into the road where, occasionally, there is something travelling along.
As we approach Toronto the traffic becomes very slow. Then stopped. There's a huge number of vehicles travelling the other direction too. I guess everyone is heading to their lakeside cabin. That or a moose has run into the road followed by a swarm of nibblers. Looks like every big city on a Friday afternoon.
The next two and a half hours are spent in very heavy traffic. Bikes aren't allowed to filter through the traffic in this part of the world. Even if they were I'd have a problem doing so because of the width although, as a veteran of five years worth of commuting through central London I pride myself in being pretty competent in filtering, in fact I normally love doing it. The area has had fairly continuous rain for the whole summer and it seems like everyone is heading for the beaches, parks and lakesides to bask in the sun.
I eventually find a Motel 6, which is another of the big chains in North America. It's a fairly new motel with nice wooden floors in the rooms and pretty cheap for a stay in a major city. The girl in reception is cheerfully chatty. It turns out that she's originally from Iraq.
More About Wasps
Saturday 15th August
In the morning, whilst packing the bike, I notice a little wasp walking around my tank bag in the room. Seems like one of the Sudbury wasp crew got caught up in the baggage and took the ride South. He doesn't look in great shape, but I'm not chancing him getting an opportunity to sting and give him a whack with one of my maps. Tough little blighters wasps! He seems to recover and gets back up. Whack! That did it, he's on his back with one leg twitching.
I continue loading the bike. When I get back to the room he's back on his feet! I don't like killing any creature (well maybe apart from mosquitoes) and decide to wrap my cleaning cloth round him and take him down to the grass round the car park. When I unwrap him he's very much alive and when I leave he's just about flying. Fare ye well little wasp, I'm off before you decide to wreak revenge...
It puts me in mind of my friend Micky's run in with a striped warrior.
Micky was a late convert to motorcycling and one of the first bikes he treated himself to was a Harley Sportster. One day he went for a ride on the Harley with his wife on the back. He was riding along when he saw a blur as something hit the side of his helmet.
He didn't think much about it until he felt a buzz...INSIDE HIS HEAD!!
There were a couple of more buzzes right inside his head and then the wasp (which is what he'd hit) started stinging. The insect had ended up trapped right inside his ear. The pain was excruciating. His wife was totally unaware at this point. Micky emergency braked the bike and screamed at her to get off the bike. He leapt off without worrying about parking or putting the harley on it's stand and ripped off his helmet. But he couldn't get the wasp out of his ear and all the time it repeatedly stung him.
In the end he ripped his spectacles off and tore the arm off the spectacle off before ramming it in his ear to kill the wasp and lever it out. The result of the incident was Micky ended up in hospital due to the reaction of being stung in the inner ear.
The Niagra Falls
The journey to Niagra takes ages in the sweltering sun. The road is as well congested as the M25 in rush hour (the London circular for non UK readers). However, it seems that only a few of these travellers is heading to the falls because the traffic thins out when the road splits off into the tourist attraction. And that's what it is. A honey pot for tourists. There's a big built up area of hotels, shops and casinos right opposite the falls on the Canadian side, with a bridge across the gorge to the USA.
The Canadian side get by far the more spectacular view and I have to say it's very impressive. I ride up past the falls and pull into the car park. Walking down to the paved frontage to the falls I'm really hot but the sight is well worth it. Over on the US side is a smaller fall and, on the Canadian side, you can walk right up to the larger fall and watch it cascade over into the huge plunge pool below where a ship seems like a toy taking people into the mist.
It's very wet up there too. The spray rises hundreds of feet giving you a very welcome cool down!
I have to say that, compared to something like the Grand Canyon, Niagra is spoiled. The impressive thing about places like the canyon and the National Parks is that they haven't gone overboard on tourism which accentuates the incredible beauty of the natural features. At Niagra that is all reversed and it's pretty tacky. I didn't see the American side but I hear it is much the same. It's a real shame, because it is, despite all that, a wonder to behold.
My slow queue devilled journey at snails pace over the bridge to the US side of the falls is the end of my time in Canada on this trip. After a very wet start I've come to really appreciate the country and the people I've met. The scenery around the lakes and in the Rocky Mountains has been incredibly beautiful and I'm sad to be departing. I'm entering the last three weeks of the trip tomorrow and will be heading for the coast from now onwards.
When I get there I'll have completed a trans continental journey East to West and West to East and will be pretty close to closing off the circle sometime around September the third in Baltimore.
A Near Miss
I should mention that I had a pretty near miss the other day when a local driver decided to wait for me to approach so he could pull out at precisely the correct timing to enable a 'T' boning to take place. Luckily I was on his case. He just looked like a Norfolk geriatric driver from days gone by (where they also wait until they can see the whites of your eyes before pulling out). Something told me he was going to do it.
So I backed off the throttle and took avoiding action by cutting right and swerving around the back of him. I gave him a hand gesture that might not really be understood over here. Incidents like this have been few and far between.
Back in the US of A
The US side of Niagra is initially more than a little bit run down. If the Canadian side is as tacky as Clacton then this is like the rough end of Dagenham. A bit further in it does improve though and before long I'm travelling through some quite pretty countryside. I decide to ride along Highway 5 which is an Eastbound alternative to the Interstate 90 (which I've travelled along quite a few times on the trip for sure!). Highway 5 runs through a lot of unspoilt villages in the farmland which is reasonably flat around the Southern borders of Lake Ontario.
In the evening I manage to find a cheap back roads motel. It's typical of the breed and perfectly good for a stop over. They don't have wi fi at this one and they have quite a few people staying who seem to be local. I get chatting to one of them. His name is Jim and he tells me that he and his wife are looking for an apartment. They can't find anything decent for the price and are taking their time looking.
A lot of people would probably be careful to avoid motels where people who are technically homeless are staying, but I've found a lot of these people very chatty and friendly. Jim and his wife are very pleasant articulate people. The one thing that seems to interest them though is how much the bike cost, which is a tad embarrassing because it sounds a whole lot of money when you are talking to someone who could be struggling to make their ends meet.
The customs officer back at Niagra took a look at the license plate and the bike and asked me sardonically if I was a millionaire!
Long Hot Days
Sunday 16th August
It really is extremely hot this morning. Not a cloud in the sky. Bike loading ritual completed, oil checked, tyres given a bit of air and off we go.
This is a pleasant but slow ride through the rolling countryside along highway five. Five heads steadily eastwards through the farmland, small towns and past the occasional lakes. These are called the finger lakes and are small compared to the great lakes and pretty enormous by most other standards.
At one of the towns I spot a beautiful red Packhard car. It interests me because I stopped to photograph a wreck of one in a wreck of a gas station back in the trip round Lake Superior in Canada. I haven't seen any Packhards before and found them interesting for the pure fifties chromework around the grille. It's nice to see one in new condition.
I spot a road with a really classic name: 'Sleepy Hollow'. Cue a headless Hessian horseman and plenty of tomato ketchup.
Up to this point we've been travelling to the South of Lake Ontario, but we're now starting to break away Eastwards. The whole of this area from the US side of Niagra up until this point is New York State. The traffic signs say that New York is now 186 miles away to the East.
Late in the day I take the opportunity to head on to the Interstate 90 to put on a few extra miles. There are unmistakably a few lumps and bumps in the countryside which I think are probably the first inklings of the Appalachians which I'm due to re-visit a little further North. I'm looking forward to being in the green hills again it's been many weeks and thousands of miles since we were last aquainted.
I've been riding pretty solidly for six hours and have only acheived 228 miles by staying on the back roads most of the way, but it's been interesting seeing all the farms, often with an old tractor parked up outside, the traditional wooden barns and the villages. It's interesting to note that there are more brick built buildings around as well as the wooden framed houses.
There's been the odd interesting place name too - Rome and Syracuse to name two.
Generally speaking the people are a bit more reserved in this part of the world, much less likely to start a conversation. So I'm having a quieter time and, to be quite honest, I'm not particularly worried about that.
My overnight is in a place called Colonie Town near Albany in the state of New York, not far from Troy. Someone round here really liked the theme of ancient times.
I've started reading a new book. I bought it in a secondhand bookstore a few days back in a small bookshop located in a house in a small town who's name I forget. It was quite near to the wonderfully named 'Ball Park Road' which was near to another brilliantly named road who's name was something like 'Vaguely Familiar Road' but the exact name of that one has slipped my mind which annoys me greatly.
Anyway, the book is called 'Better than Life' by Grant Naylor and is based on the iconic Red Dwarf series from British TV comedy at it's very best. I was a bit surprised to find the book in the middle of the Canadian outback until the gentleman running the shop told me he'd moved from Essex a couple of years ago.
Back Towards the Appalachians
Monday 17th and Tuesday 18th August
It's been quite a few weeks since I travelled through the Appalachians back in May. It seems like a lifetime. The countryside is definitely starting to have little hills in it. Still very much farming territory with huge wooden barns, often painted a kind of red lead colour. There's a lot of old tractors that appear at the front of the property too.
The route I'm taking is initially towards a place called Lebanon and then onwards to Troy. It certainly does seem like someone had a bit of an Eastern Mediterranean thing going on here. The occasional town has a bit of red brick going on too, more established again like back in the area to the West of Lake Michigan. The Easterly part of my travels is on back road USA and the occasional Northwards spurt is on the Interstates.
On the Easterly sections I'm still a few miles away but parallel to the I90. But the highway that I'm taking (initially five then two) is a lot more interesting to follow and a lot slower too. It takes all day to cover an average of around two hundred and fifty miles.
Prior to setting off today I fortified myself with a decent breakfast at a kind of bakery come cafe with a Neapolitan theme. The service was very slow there and someone had walked out on them whilst leaving a generous tip. It was a strange place that seemed to have come right out of the set of that film with Jim Carey: the Truman Show...
Right from Niagra to here I've been through the State of New York. It's definitely a more populous area than many I've passed through. There's less countryside between the villages. It's quite pretty though.
Heading into Vermont things start to change a little. A bit hillier, and quite grand towns. I pass through one called Chester which has a very olde worlde quaint feel to it. In the centre there's some very large colonial looking hotels and shops which are opposite a well established graveyard. One of the early inhabitants of the latter is a soldier who died around the time of the War of Independence, maybe courtesy of a British bullet...
My overnight stay is in a place called Lancaster where I put up in the best motel of the trip so far. It's called the Coos Travel Inn and it's run by an Indian family from what I can see (that's people from India not the First Nation). It's quite modern and fairly large, has been decorated immaculately and is extremely clean. The rooms are huge with very comfy beds, great service and little touches that make it seem homely. Superb place at the average going rate. There could be better ones but I haven't stayed in one yet.
Back to the Wilderness
From Lancaster the journey continues North Easterly through New Hampshire and into Maine. The first part of this is in the Appalachian Mountains proper. Green forested ridges turning to blue ghosts of hills as they stretch out on the horizon. There's much more reference to skiing and to snowmobiles here and small resorts with chalet style to them remind you that you're in an area that must spend quite a bit of time under snow.
It's a very beautiful place. With a train crash. The road is partially blocked by repair efforts to remove the remaining rail trucks that have fairly smashed themselves up in what looks like a derailment. Quite dramatic.
The temperature is still hot and there are a few threatening cloud formations starting to stack up, so I expect that I may be riding through thunderstorms again. Eventually I meet the Interstate 95 which heads right down to Florida South and up through Maine to the North, and I elect to follow that to speed up the journey again. As we head Northwards further the trees are becoming much more coniferous in their variety and there aren't any major towns any more. Moose warnings return.
Not your normal Service Area Fare
At a stop over I'm pleasantly surprised at what is dished up in a motorway caff. Lobster. Prime Maine Lobster fresh in from the coast served in a variety of dishes. Or failing that, how about clams? Little Chef, eat yer heart out. I settle on lobster salad in bread with fries. Mmmm. All for about eight pounds. Or put another way, the same as a couple of packets of crisps and a diet coke at your average motorway stop back home.
The Northern end of Maine is on the edge of an expanse of wilderness. At tonight's stop over a mini crisis unfolds. It's an easy evening with not much on TV so I rejoin battle in my computer game: Lord of the Realm 2.
I shouldn't brag but I'm a bit of a dab hand at this having played it on and off for more years than I care to remember. I've given the Squire a whupping and left him with no lands and just a small army wandering around looking for somewhere to invade. The Knight has had a similar bloody nose but retains his lands. The Bishop, on the other hand, is a bit of a nuisance and keeps invading my lands. But all in all I think I'll have the game wrapped up in another couple of sessions so I hold off a bit to watch 'Family Guy'.
In the advert break I reach over to the computer to play a round and notice that the screen has frozen. CTRL_ALT_Delete. Nothing. Nothing at all! Eventually there's nothing for it but to try and reboot through the on/off switch.
Dead as the proverbial big beaked bird with no flight. My little Acer netbook has died. I can't really blame it, it's had a hard time on the road and wasn't really designed for this kind of abuse (intense heat in the top box, constant vibration). I ask the reception if there's a Walmart close by because I've seen them selling netbooks very cheap. There is, so I think I'll book in an extra night, get the computer situation sorted and maybe go on the Moose trip advertised on one of the local attraction brochures.
In search of a Computer
Wednesday 19th August
I really didn't need this expense at this stage of the trip, but I can't blog the trip without communications back to the Navigator and web guru in Scotland and I can't update flickr either. No, I might as well bite the bullet and get down to Walmarts. Which leads to a slightly updated version of the little Acer in a nice red hue to match the bike.
I destroy the old netbook and keep the hard drive. I've got some photos on there that I didn't back up (Doh!) and hope to be able to recover them when I get back to the UK.
About a Moose
I phone up and reserve a place on this afternoon's moose expedition. Then I settle down to getting my new little friend up and running.
The moose expedition commences at a private house in nearby Millinocket. The lady running it is a professional photographer called Vicky. My fellow hunters are a family of four from Philadelphia and a lady from Basingstoke in England whose husband is busy climbing the nearby mount Katahdin. In this heat! He must be mad.
Mount Katahdin is the last mountain on the Appalachian trail, so we are told by Vicky. She's quite a character, with a booming voice and a very direct way about her. She's spent about fifteen years tracking moose and is a bit of an authority on them. she is quite tall with a shock of platinum hair and is dressed in kind of combat fatigues, except they're not, but that's the best way I can describe them.
I really wanted to be able to tick the moose box off and the pesky big things have been very hard to come by. This is a summary of what I learned from Vicky.
Moose are apparently wonderfully docile animals. Their society is matriarchal. Moose horns are the quickest growing animal part in the world, even quicker than a New Labour politician's nose when questioned about the invasion of Iraq. They can reach up to 72 inches from root to tip. Their antlers are shed each year.
The bulls apparently don't fight so much as play and test each other's strength. The prime bulls are about seven years old plus before they get a chance to mate in the rut and it is normally the same bull who has rights (i.e. acceptance by the cows) until he becomes too old or ill and fades away back into the general bull herd. The other male moose have a kind of boys club thing going on where they all muck around and have a great time.
They (the alpha male and the one with lipstick) pair up for only two weeks during the rut and, if the cow has a calf with her at that time, the bull accepts it and they become a family for the two weeks. Then the cow drives the bull off and he'll go and have a look for another cow to mate with. The moose in the hills around Millinocket are the largest ones on the planet (up to twice as big as those found in Sweden). They spend most of their time in the forest but they come to the myriad of ponds to feed, because the weed in the ponds is full of nutrients that they need for their horns to grow.
They are apparently very good at conserving energy. A euphemism for being lazy in my books. They don't generally move far at all which is why they are difficult to find. Sounds like my son Mathew.
They have a kind of symbiotic relationship with beavers. Basically the beavers build the ponds by their building of dams and after four or five years the new pond is ready for the moose to eat and bathe in. Moose are apparently really good swimmers.
Which is all well and good but we can't find any. They get heat stressed very quickly and it is just too hot. But not too hot for the mozzies. Oh dear me no! And I'm like the only bar of Cadbury's in a chocoholic convention as far as those little beasties are concerned. It's totally embarrassing. At one pond they literally attack me in a swarm, each carrying a knife and fork.
In fairness the two kiddies, Ellie and Andrew are also bitten as is their mum and... well everyone except our guide who is completely and totally absorbed in the quest for her favourite passion.. moose.. and seems to be completely free of winged blood sucking insects. At this pond, the swarm follows us into the Dodge minibus to finish the sweet meat Limey off.
The great moose search heads deeper and deeper into the wilds. It looks exactly like the woodland setting for the Blair Witch Project round here. I'm surprised to discover that this wilderness is five times the size of Yellowstone. It must be about the size of Wales. There are virtually no roads (even more like Wales!) and those that do exist are maintained by the logging companies who own nearly all the land. The main logging road heads off up to the Canadian border over two hundred miles away. There's no electricity or flushing loos out there. Any campsites that exist are really quite wild.
There are so many lakes and ponds out there that most haven't even been named our properly counted.
The trip lasts for five hours from three to eight pm and we still haven't spotted a moose as the light fades away. We've been up dozens of dirt tracks, skirted a lot of ponds, spotted tracks, moose beds and the odd poo. But no live moose.
Then on our final trip back to a pond we saw hours ago, Vicky parks the van up and quietly scouts through the bushes. She returns with a slightly wild expression of excitement on her face. She's found one!!
It's a female and she's right in the middle of the pond swimming around with just her head showing black in the twilight. As soon as we're in place and staring through the binoculars you can almost hear the mozzie squadron on their radios. "Yorkshire Bandit, red five zero at angels five foot eleven and three quarters, tally ho chaps it's baldy for supper"
I have over two hundred bites about me when I get back to the motel. My skin feels like a Kentucky zinger special with chillies rubbed in for good measure, but I'm happy as Larry. I saw a beautiful Moose which splashed around and played it's own game in the water in front of us just for the sheer pleasure of being in a nice cool pond with plenty of green weed for supper. Well done Vicky, you came up trumps.
A small matter of Geography
Thursday 20th August
For a person who got an A for Geography I've made an appalling map reading error. For some unknown reason I've decided that Nova Scotia is in America. I can't really apologise sufficiently to Canada for this oversight. It ranks higher than most of my navigational misdemeanors, maybe not quite as high as when Nev and I got within five miles of Germany then couldn't find it no matter how hard we tried. I mean surely just heading East would do the trick? But no! We just failed at every turn.
Eventually Nev decided we were there and declared as much. I wasn't too sure, the number plates were still red which, to my mind, meant Belgium. Nev went into a garage and asked in his best German if we had, indeed, found the home of the Um pah pah band.
NON! NON! BELGUIQUE. CHERMANY QUATRE KILOMETRES THATA WAY ENGLISH BUMS - begone and never darken my door again! Pah!
The thing is, I knew full well that Nova Scotia is in Canada. I've been to quite a few war cemeteries where the regiments of Nova Scotia are represented amongst the Canadian ranks. But somehow I've forgotten. So now I'm a mile from the Canadian border having lovingly said au revoir a nearly a week ago fumbling for my passport to ask forgiveness and will they please let me back in. They're having an amnesty for idiots today and they welcome me back with open arms.
The trip back over the border is trouble free. I've got more Canadian stamps in my passport than in a stamp collector's shop which excites a few good natured questions. My destination seems to coincide with Hurricane Bill - not that I'm told that until it's a bit too late, I'm already in the North of New Brunswick when a guy next to me in a traffic queue asks me if I'm not worried about the impending storm.
New Brunswick is French speaking. They're all very pleasant French speaking people, beat the pants of Parisians I have to say. It must be a bit awkward having to cope with two languages, but we only have to look as far as Wales again to find somewhere else coping with it. The big surprise is the number of Union flags wafting away in the increasing breeze. Seems like all the patriotic Brits have moved over here. But why? When they all speak French?
A Town called Pugwash
Friday 21st August
At first sight Nova Scotia doesn't appear very much like Olde Scotia, it's quite low lying really. In fact, so far, New England seems a bit more like Scotland and vice versa. The two areas seem to be as confused as Berwick is playing it's footie in the Scottish league. Then again when you look at Hartlepool, Blythe and Carlisle's position in the English game perhaps it's understandable. It's got a nice flag (Nova Scotia, not Berwick) though which is the inverse of the Saltire colour wise with the red lion rampant on a yellow shield in the middle. There are a number of places that refer to Scottish heritage but also ones like Truro that have their roots elsewhere.
But best of all there's a place called Pugwash. Non UK readers might be a bit confused that this caused me much mirth, so for their interest there was a BBC children's programme called 'captain Pugwash' which is notorious for a reputation of very rude inuendo that was supposed to be written into it.
Having arrived here, I'm planning to head to the Northern most part of the island then travel to the South to catch the ferry over to the US. But I may have been pipped by the hurricane by a day or so, apparently they're already closing the beaches in preparation. I'm not quite sure what to do. Stay here and hunker down or head rapidly back towards the mainland. A decision will be needed tommorow at the latest.
Decision taken - Could be the wrong one
Saturday 22nd August
I'm staying at a motel called the Balmoral, fortunately it's free of corgis. At breakfast they supply me with a printout from the internet which gives the predicted track of Bill the hurricane. It's travelling a bit slower than previously thought, even the GS should be able to beat it. It looks like it will hit Nova Scotia tomorrow afternoon, so I decide to stay today and get the hell out tomorrow. I won't be taking the ferry because 110 mph winds might be a bit much. I'll head back to New Brunswick and cut South back the way I originally came.
Fingers are crossed that I made the right decision. If I didn't I might have to sit it out here, but the part of the island I'm on isn't expected to bear the brunt of the storm so the risks seems to be pretty low.
My mission is to get the furthest North and East that I can get today. I haven't checked out distances and reckon it will be a hundred and eighty or so miles at a guess.... It's a hot day again, but there is something in the air that I can't quite explain, kind of like what you get when a thunderstorm is in the offing. Anyway, for all that I risk riding out in my combats (which is fairly rare for me, at home I would wear a pair of biking jeans with a bit of protection in them at least).
Pretty soon it becomes obvious that this is going to be a lot longer ride than anticipated, it's the best part of a hundred miles just to the bridge over to cape Breton which is the Northern Most part of Nova scotia. The further North we head, the more the landscape starts to look like Scotland. There's a causeway over to cape Breton and once over there it really starts to look the part. Still another hundred or more miles to go before we're anywhere near the Northern tip. This is turning into an mega ride out.
I stop off at the visitor centre just over the causeway and check out the maps. There's a famous circular route called the Cabot Trail which takes in the Northernmost point at St Laurence bay, so I guess that's the order for the day. A bit further on I stop off for a bite to eat and have another of the Lobster rolls. Getting a bit of a habit this eating Lobster!!
A few miles further on there's the signpost for the trail (little did I know that the other end of it comes out right next to the restaurant I've just been in, I just didn't notice the sign.
I can immediately appreciate the significance of the trail and why the (very nice) Nova Scotia guide for motorcyclists which was free at the visitor centre makes a bit of a fuss about it. Initially the road is a bit cut up, but there are some really nice corners of the type I've been quietly missing since the Black Hills. Only there isn't any traffic here so I can engage in a bit of enthusiastic bend swinging.
Bad Day at Black Rock
When you ride a bike, you have to accept that there is an increased risk of serious injury or worse. It comes with the territory and, I would argue, adds to the excitement of riding and that little bit of danger that you carry around with you which kind of interests many non-bikers.
Serious incidents are, thankfully, few and far between and they hopefully get fewer and further between the longer you ride. Back in Seattle I was reading a book for beginners and contemplating buying it for Diane. In it the author said something that I think is very true. You can't cancel out the possibilities of having an accident, but you can ride defensively and limit the risk.
I wasn't riding entirely defensively, I have to admit. Oh no! I was entirely enjoying the set of corners before me. I'd just finished taking some pictures of a very photogenic little inlet and was back on the bike swinging through a set of bends, the last of which came down off a hill with a right hander (bear in mind UK readers that I'm riding on the right hand side of the road).
There in front of me, quite close as I exit the bend leaning fairly well over, is a Chevrolet Impala in a silver bronze colour. It's OK, I'm able to back off the throttle and I can see that he's pulling over into a little layby to the right even though he isn't signalling. As he completes his manouevre I pull out to the left and start to accelerate past him.
Everything is fine. Except - from the corner of my eye - I detect the very slightest of a movement to the left. Oh no! He isn't going to do what I think he is, is he?
Yep! As I'm just committed to passing him he swings directly in front of me, just yards away and executes a U turn right across me. I'm being 'T' boned and I am definitely going to hit him, very hard. He hasn't even checked behind him. This is exactly how a huge number of motorcycle fatalities occur.
My first reaction is completely instinctive. I guess about a second ago I could have hit the horn and hoped that would stop him, but I didn't. Instead I panic brake. I mean I hit the rear foot brake and the front hand lever absolutely as hard as I can. I always do that and I suspect most other motorcyclists would too.
At this point, the car isn't quite fully across my path but he isn't stopping and there isn't any way out to steer round (which since riding in London is how I normally try to avoid crunches - if you can steer out of them that seems the best course of action to me).
I don't seem to have a chance at this point. The two vehicles are coming together for a smash. Suddenly time slows right down and my brain starts taking in the scene almost in a series of frames like a film that keeps getting paused. Normally, what would happen now is that the braking forces would compress the front suspension right down, lighten the load on the rear tyre which would lose contact and break. That would allow the rear wheel to travel faster than the front and the back would tail slide round.
Then the bike steps in and deals me a couple of cards. Card number one, it's got ABS (the first bike I've ever had with it). There are a couple of big clicks and bangs from under the front and the bike stays dead straight, the back doesn't come round. But I'm still going to hit the car. It's like the scene from Titanic the movie. The wheel is hard over and the engines are in full reverse but the ship is swinging too slowly to avoid collision. In this case the car's front has passed my trajectory and I'm going to bury myself into it somewhere round about the rear pillar.
BMW shoots me the second card. Telelever front suspension. I've described this elsewhere, but just to re-iterate: It separates out the braking forces from the steering ones. I'm sure it is instinct but I put the bike into a right swerve whilst emergency braking with the ABS cracking away merrily. Suddenly it seems like I might just miss him, then again no, then yes, I might just do it.
All of this happens over the time it takes for a car to execute half a U turn promptly. I don't know, maybe two or three seconds. By the tiniest of margins, a sliver of paper, the bike slips behind the car and we coast down to a couple of miles per hour while the person who just very nearly killed me drives down a side road in the opposite direction apparently un-aware.
West coast to East Coast Continental Crossing
It was by this tiniest of margins that I almost miss completing the second trans-continental crossing by a few miles. I'm a bit shaken by the near miss, but strangely phlegmatic about it (I even surprise myself). I think that I'd told myself there were a lot of dangers to travelling on a bike in strange lands (I mean Ewan seemed to spend more time off the bike than on it) and I'd weighed that up before deciding to start travelling like this. But I do surprise myself when I realise that I'm coasting along patting the bike on the handlebars.
I'm so pleased with the way the bike has saved my bacon. I really can't say much more than that about the BMW R1200 GS Adventure with it's clever electronic suspension, telelever front end, ABS and traction control. It might just have saved my life that time round. I'm very honest about these things too, if I thought I'd ridden badly I would admit it, but I don't think I did. I just don't want to put it down to luck or rider skill, rather to a brilliantly designed bike. And that's coming from a Ducati fan. Alright I admit it, and a GS fan too. Alright, BM's in general. I'm getting old, I can live with it.
I'd better get off to confession. Father I have sinned. I have fallen in love with two bike brands simultaneously.
As I pull up to the jetty at St Laurence I've done the US/Canada coast to coast in both directions. I glance at the odometer. It reads 23,810 miles. By a strange coincidence that is exactly 18,100 miles since leaving Portlethen in Aberdeenshire on April 16th. It's not been difficult really. It almost doesn't feel like an acheivement, but deep down I feel a little bit of pride. I've done it in spite of that prat in the Chevrolet.
This little trip to reach the most North Easterly point possible has turned into a bit of a marathon. As I head back down the Cabot Trail it's close to six pm and my odometer is telling me that the mutt and I have travelled 248 miles from the motel. Which means that the day's ride is going to be close to 500 miles.
The thing I'm nervous about is travelling in the twilight and dark with deer and moose aplenty. My eta back at the motel will be around 10:30, well after dark.
I decide to latch on to the tail of any four wheel vehicle I can find hoping that they will hit anything before I do. I don't tail too close behind though, if anything runs out there'll be some braking going on. The last thing I need tonight is another close shave after the one with the car. Other than that little concern it's quite an enjoyable ride, if a little windy.
After a long hot day with a bit of a breeze, the island is bracing itself for hurricane Bill, which should be hitting the South tomorrow around 2pm. They're incredibly relaxed about it. "We'll just take in the garden chairs dear, It'll blow over pretty quickly", yeah right! At about a hundred and twenty miles an hour. I won't be there - I'm going to hot-tail it back to New Brunswick and head South that-a-way.
Sunday 23rd August
Well it's goodbye to the Balmoral motel. Everyone has been most helpful there, they've been giving me little computer printouts showing the track of the hurricane. It's pretty close now so I'm offski. when I wake up and go for breakfast the first real signs of the storm arrive with a terrific downpour. This is the first time I've seen a real downpour and not been on the bike or in a tent, so it's quite nice to be dry in the dining room and later in my room while it tries it's best to flood the place.
For a while it looks like it's going to last hours and I'll have to leave in it, but eventually it abates and I quickly pack the bike and head off on the sixty or so mile trek to the causeway back through Pugwash. It's definitely starting to get a bit windy.
When I get to the causeway I think I'm hitting one of the tails of cloud and wind from the hurricane. It's blowing fairly badly and there's another dump of rain. But it isn't as bad as the sandstorm I hit in Arizona, not by a long chalk. Nope, I can't make a fuss about my first brush with a hurricane, the great storm of '87 in England would easily have top trumped this.
It's a fairly damp trip South and, after a bit of faffing around near the town of Dieppe, I hit the freeway and head past so many places named after Saints that I can't remember them all. When I arrive at the American border there's a classic navigational problem reminiscent of the 'we've lost Germany' incident that I can't believe the irony having only written about that in the blog a few days ago. Yup. can't find the USA.
That's because they've gone and built a brand new freeway that leads to nowhere. It heads straight for the US then stops and the confused traffic heading along ends up in the middle of nowt. I wonder if canada and the US are having one of their spats. I mean they don't really seem to get on all that well together. Maybe Canada has built a freeway to allow Americans to get out as quickly as possible and the US has gone and built theirs in a different place. Ha ha.
After a bit of 'riding around aimlessly' I find the border and queue for a short while before being interrogated by a fairly brusque young man in shades.
It's a lot of the usual questions with an added one: "Where's your proof of ownership for the bike?"
"Packed away in my top box, shall I root it out for you"
He looks at me as if I've just dumped on the flag, thinks for a second or two, looks at the queue behind me and decides the better of it waving me through.
A very strange motel
The American side of the border in Maine is a bit down beat again. I head a bit South to get away from it and end up pulling into a very strange but wonderful motel. The main part of it is a huge elaborate wooden house that might of been a hotel at one point. It seems a bit run down, not enough to put you off mind but just not quite tip top. The motel part is a normal set of single storey rooms in a crescent around the car park.
There's something about the independent motels, the one's that have been around a bit and maybe seen better days. They're hanging in there and they still attract clientele. I expect that they get people coming in who are regulars. They're normally a few dollars cheaper than the big chains and they nearly always very welcoming and offer a little bit of a more homely feel. This one is like that but on a grander scale.
When I check in, the lady at reception is like a young Dolly Parton with immaculate country and western styled hair, make-up and spangly lipstick. There's a gift shop next to reception selling china and a restaurant further into the building. When I get to my room it's magnificent, immaculate and huge with a picture window looking right over the beautiful bay.
So strange in a nice way. Later on I sample the restaurant, which is reasonably busy with clients and locals and have a very nice seafood supper. It seems to be family run with everyone mucking in to carry out the room service, the waiting in the restaurant and the running of the reception and gift shop. It's up there with the best experiences as is the Balmoral from Nova Scotia too.
Monday 24th August
The roads in this part of New England are getting a bit of attention and boy do they need it! Highway 1 runs down the coast of Maine North to South. In some places it looks like it hasn't had any attention for years. one of the really, really bad things about the roads in both America and Canada in the more mountainous North is the overbanding.
Basically, I think they have a lot of land movement and the roads crack all over the place. They fix that by putting a tarmac strip over the crack. They're all over the place. These things aren't too bad in cool weather or, suprisingly, the wet, but they are horrible in hot weather. I think the tarmac melts which makes it very slippery especially on a bike with a thin section front tyre (sorry tire).
You can get yourself well leaned over in a corner, hit one of these babies and the bike loses its composure (best case) or slides quite nastily (worst case). I hate it.
Heading Southwards on this route takes me through what appears to be a poorer part of the country. There's a lot of signs of failed businesses, although I don't think they're recent. It reminds me of route 66. My guess is that the Interstates that were built up until relatively recently have done for a lot of the businesses that used to exist along these original arterial highways. Highway 1 is no exception if this is the case.
It makes for interesting viewing as you pass through. There are the remnants of businesses that probably thrived up until the late sixties, early seventies and are now ghosts. I have to head up a back road to find a bank at one point. The road is derelict (but being fixed by big road works) and the town at the end of it has seen much better days.
It reminds me of a few UK seaside resorts. When I think back to how they were when I was a kid and how they are now, isn't it sad? The Brits went en-masse to Spain with the advent of cheap flights and the Americans went where ever the Interstate took them leaving these places to decay.
One gentleman who's having none of it is a chap with a classic car business. He's happily selling a range of interesting cars and pick ups alongside the highway from an amazing building built, it appears, from bits of scrap. It's a wonderful place. I'm busy photographing one of his older rusting chevys and can't help earwigging his conversation with a lady who is fascinated in the building. Yep, he built it himself. Yep a lot of it from bits and pieces he had laying around. You'd end up in prison doing that back home. Land of the free, that's what this is.
Wally and Gerald
I used to have a friend and neighbour some years ago called Gerald. Many people in the villages North of Gt Yarmouth knew him as Mootsey. Most of those who knew him were quite scared of him. He was a tough fella. His favourite sport was having a fight in a bar. I got to know him without being aware of his reputation and also at a time after he'd lost his legs which had led to him being a little less of a handful in the bars so I never developed the same fear of him as most people, we were good friends.
Not that losing his legs stopped him from being a bouncer. I once asked him how he dealt with rowdies when
he was bouncing.
"I stick the nut on em and when they fall down I fall on top of them", he laughed.
Gerald was a bit of an outlaw and I could spend the next ten pages telling stories about him, but the point of this thread is to mention his friend Wally. Wally was the son of a local businessman and he worked for the family firm. He also lived in a wooden mobile home down in the sticks (as the back of beyond is called in Norfolk, England) near the village of Martham. Wally was living a trailer life.
Gerald took me down to Wally's one evening so I could borrow an egg incubator off him. When Wally showed us around his gaff, it was apparent that he'd been doing a lot of construction work extending it just like the chap with the car business. It was quite impressive. That was until the local council found out about it. The building regulations people had been round quite a few times and had ended up getting a court order to have the place knocked down. It wasn't built with their permission.
Wally fought them tooth and nail. I think he had plans to have a shot gun stand off, but sadly he rolled his Range Rover a few weeks later and that was the end of him and his rebellion.
The point of this little tale is to draw a comparison between our over-regulated little Isle and the freedoms that Americans still seem to have. Build your business with scrap sir? Go right ahead. From some conversations I've had with Americans, they fear that the Obama administration is going to bring in 'Big Government' starting with the healthcare reforms and I guess they're right. So if you want to see America with the freedoms they cherish, I wouldn't leave it too long. Once they start eroding them they'll probably be gone forever.
Incidentally, I should say that I'm trying to be politically neutral - if you want to see the other side of the story go to Scandinavia...
It's getting to the end of the trip, so I thought I'd start mentioning bits of kit that have worked well and those that should have been left at home. Actually most of what I brought could have been left at home.
I wish though, that I'd brought one extra pair of Merino Iceberg socks. My main efforts in the clothing department have been to bring gear from outdoor shops with me, on the basis that backpacker and climbing gear packs easily. So I've brought loads of berghaus perfomance shirts, some other walking socks and a pair of Iceberg Merino wool socks.
Sock wise I could have ditched the other dozen pairs that I brought and just brought two pairs of these. They're absolutely brilliant. They don't pong at all. I read in the blurb at the shop that this gear can be worn for weeks on end without changing. Well excuse me, but that won't do at all. Just because these climbers are macho men clambering up places they should know better about trying to visit doesn't mean that a little bit of kit washing can't take place.
They're surrounded by snow for goodness sake! Just warm it up a bit, add a bit of detergent and off you go.
Anyway, due to those smelly individuals and their extreme sport mentality which obviously forgoes even a modicum of hygene, we mere mortals are left with socks that smell sweet as roses when you take them off after a hard days riding, can be washed and hung overnight and, even if they are a little damp in the morning will dry on the old tootsies in minutes. You'd only need the second pair as reserves because if you do put them in a washing machine, one or both are sure to go missing.
New Tyre a Go-Go
Another ace bit of kit has been the set of Tourance tyres that I had put on in Seattle. These were different to the Tourances that I'd had put on in the UK and it became apparent that they were of a harder compound that the other set as time went on. Right now, the rear tyre has done 11,000 miles and I think I could squeeze a few more yet. And it still performs commendably too.
Tuesday 25th August
A quick phone round of dealers withing a hundred and fifty miles locates a tyre in stock and a dealer willing to pop it on at short notice. They're located at a place called North Hampton which is a few hours ride back down into New Hampshire. So off we go.
The flags around here are at half mast. I asked them why back at the last motel and they didn't know. I said, "I wonder if Teddy Kennedy has passed away".
It turned out that it was for a local soldier who had been killed in Afghanistan. Little did I know that I was being extremely predictive...
The ride through to North Hampton is mostly down the I95, plenty of time to think about other bits of kit. One that I should mention is my nice black sheepskin that now adorns the seat. Ed very kindly picked this up for me in Yellowstone because Diane and I didn't have time to buy it and was expertly fitted with a strap that holds it on under the seat by him at Sturgis. I'd heard people who had them at the travel event we went to in wales rave and rave about their posterior soothing properties.
I have to report that everything they said was true. It more or less allows day long trips without stopping. You might not believe this, but the GS tank deals with the day long riding bit. With a full tank I can often ride all day, 450 miles, especially if I'm taking some back roads. The sheepskin seems to stop the normal aches and pains of numb bum. Not always, but more often than not.
A New Rear Tyre
Wednesday 26th August
After 11,000 miles, the old rear tyre deserves a rest even though it's less than two months old. The dealership in North Hampton is called Max BMW who have a fairly big dealership and modern workshop. A gentleman called Tom greets me and sorts everything out around noon.
It's around this time that I find out that senator Ted Kennedy has, in fact, passed away.
That evening CNN give over their channel to a program of his life in his words. I haven't paid a huge amount of to him really in the past, but the program is really very interesting. I didn't know, for instance that his father was the Ambassador to London from 1938 and on into the blitz and that he, as a child, witnessed the blitz up until the 15th September (the decisive day of the Battle of Britain).
I've planned to head for Cape Cod (where the Kennedy family home is) already and wonder if his passing will affect my plans. Oh well, I'll head off and see what happens.
Thursday 27th August
Following the interstate means cutting through Boston. I don't get much chance to see a lot of it, but it does seem a great city, very vibrant. I wish I had a bit more time because I would like a better look round, but there's another hurricane working it's way Northwards and decisions have to be made, Boston or Cape Cod. I remind myself that I wanted to stay out of cities and decide to head for the fishy place.
Before I departed the motel in North Hampton (which was called the Pines) I got talking to their handyman who's name was John. He'd lived quite a lot of his life on Cape Cod and was very enthusiastic in telling me the best places to stay, places to avoid and such like. I'd also like to mention a quick chat with two young fellas, Devin and Justice who were staying with their dad at the motel. Good to talk to you too.
A Motorcade Goes By
As I cross the bridge into Cape Cod I notice people lining the bridge and after that the road. It's not hard to put two and two together and work out that Ted Kennedy's casket must be due to leave Cape Cod. I'd heard on the news that he was going to lie for a day in the JFK Memorial Library in Boston. A bit further on I decide to park up and watch this little bit of history take place.
It's a fair wait and feels a bit weird parking on a dual carriageway and wandering across to sit on the central reservation with some other people. In the parking rest area opposite there's a lot more people, all quietly waiting. It's all very dignified. There are people of all ages and a cross section of races. I start to realise that the people of Massachusetts held him in genuine affection. Flags are at half mast and roadside electronic signs have been programmed to say thanks to him from the people of the state.
After about an hours wait the traffic in the outbound two lanes eases off and then a number of police motorcycle outriders sweep through telling people to clear back off the road. Then the cortage arrives, more police bikes and cars then the hearse, a normal one, nothing too elaborate. Behind that are limousines with the older members of the family behind which is a limousine with his grandchildren in it. A really nice touch is that Edward Kennedy third, his grandson is leaning out of the window waving and thanking the crowds.
As soon as they've swept past the crowd quietly dissipates. I can add this to a couple of other state funeral type experiences. I was living temporarily in Kensington when Princess Diana died and witnessed the near mass hysteria of people who didn't really know her and I got to see the procession for the Queen Mother which was quite an amazing spectacle I have to say.
I decide to look for a campsite to get a couple of days in the tent before the end of the trip and find a very nice one which is situated in woods next to a lake. It's nice to get the site ready for the evening and to get a fire going, chicken on a grill over the fire, quick chat with the neighbours Joe and Mary from Ontario "Just think of the nativity", they joke when I forget Joe's name.
So when is the hurricane due? Tomorrow. Oh no, here we go again....
Friday 28th August
This one's a bit gentler than Bill. The main threat to Cape Cod is a huge dump of rain. Typical. Just got my tent nicely set up and interesting places to visit and the forecast becomes biblical. When I checked it out yesterday they said it was going to arrive on Sunday, but they now reckon it will arrive on Saturday in the early part of the morning. I decide it isn't worth sticking around and trying to sit it out in the tent. Rather be prudent and head inland a bit.
So the plan for today is to ride out to Province Town on the tip of Cape Cod then return to the site, pack up and head out.
The ride out to Province Town is very pleasant. Cape Cod is quite busy as a holiday area and reminds me a bit of Dorset. It has a lot of place names from home: Yarmouth, Truro, Sandwich, Harwich. They named a river after Yarmouth which is a bit strange as the English tradition is that mouth is the place at the end of the river, the mouth of the river Yare. I've noticed a few perculiar place name errors like that. For instance, I noticed that quite often places had been apparently named after British towns or cities but then mis-spelt. Edinburgh has been spelt a number of different ways up in Canada.
One explanation might be that they weren't actually named after towns but rather after people. John back in New Hampton explained to me that some places are indeed named in this way. He wasn't aware though that virtually all of Cape Cod is has names that have originals back in Old England.
Province Town itself is a very quaint place with little streets with wooden boarded houses and a lot of men walking or cycling around in pairs. Hmmm. I'd better not mention that my second favourite hobby is dancing around these parts or that I'm an ex matelot. Just time for a few quick photos and head off back to the campsite.
When I get back it's already starting to spot with rain. There's a general exodus going on. Better get packing pretty quickly. My camp break is the fastest yet. Within and hour the bike is packed and I'm ready to depart. The rain is steadily increasing. It's a shame, I would have liked to stay the extra night I've paid for, but I'm pretty sure legging it is the right choice. Heading out of Cape Cod the rain increases.
I put on about a hundred and twenty miles before it gets fairly bad. I'm hoping that it will improve in the morning, but for tonight I settle for a Comfort Inn and a nice Chinese meal.
A Proper Downpour
Saturday 29th August.
Oh dear!! No improvement today, quite the reverse. The weather hitting us is a front hitting New England before Danny (who is now apparently a tropical storm). It's fair bucketing down.
I head up the Interstate but the conditions are, to be frank, dangerous. There's a huge amount of spray and very bad visibility. I decide that it would be prudent to abandon today's attempt to get nearer New York and pull over into a Super 8 as soon as possible, near Providence Rhode Island.
I decide to check in for two days. If the weather improves tomorrow, which it is supposed to, then I'll base here and take a ride down to New York.
I should just note that the BMW suit remained totally dry today in atrocious weather. It's really stood up well to the trip although there has been a bit of a failure with the trouser fly clip. It flew off! It's a partial failure. Metal fatigue no doubt.
Daytrip to New York
The weather is somewhat improved this morning. It's still a bit overcast but there are bits of blue mixed in, so a daytrip to New York is on the agenda.
The main part of the trip is down the Interstate 95 all the way, past New Haven and on to the Big Apple. The road varies in quality from superb to downright awful. Approaching New York it appears that they have gone for the grooved concrete approach which is particularly good, according to NASA, for landing a space shuttle. Not that many have been seen landing on the I95 and, for riding a motorcycle, it is pretty diabolical. Horrible.
It would seem to me that the US is missing a powerful motorcycle lobby. I once read that the motorcycle lobby in the UK and Europe is one of the most effective lobbying groups in parliament. Don't know if that is still the case, but I think they would have a thing or two to say about this pile of poo. Come to think of it, I think they are still very active and pretty good too because they managed to fight congestion charging in London and I think they recently won us the right to use bus lanes.
All of this is made up for by the time I get to ride over the bridge into Manhattan. The clouds have cleared and the sky is bright blue and the glorious sight of Manhattan appears as I ride over the bridge. I think I've fallen in love with NY on my second visit.
The first time around was pretty miserable. It was bucketing down, seemed dirty and vastly over-rated and the hotel was by far the worst I've stayed in over here with the added insult of being the most expensive. When I compare it with the cabin motel in Big Sur it was truly appalling. But now, wow! What a difference four months and a bit of sunshine makes. Oh, and let's not forget that I'm approaching on the very best mode of city transportation possible.
OK, shouldn't get carried away. You're not supposed to filter in New York on a motorcycle (although this doesn't stop quite a few of the bikers that I see) and I've got a pair of panniers wider than an elephants posterior, but I can enjoy scooting around the streets to it's full 'cos I'm wearing my cop style helmet and the traffic isn't too bad either. It's a Sunday morning and most people seem to be still in bed.
Manhattan is fabulous this morning. The skyscrapers are breathtaking. From a distance they remind me of a Tyrannosaurus smile but close up they're so varied in their design. The Chrysler building is probably my favourite with it's corner gargoyles. Love it.
The people are friendly too and I get quite a few acknowledging me or asking me where I'm from. Having all the
stickers on the panniers helps because they get a chance to read them, then wind their window down and say: "Been
right round then have you buddy?".
Not quite, but very, very soon....
Lassooing North America
After a good hour and a half of 'riding round a bit' in New York I happen along a road to a familiar junction. I can see Macy's and I know that the road crossing is the one down to the Penn Station and up to Times Square. As I cross the junction I've crossed my own track so to speak and have completed by various modes of transport one huge circle. That's not to say I've done it all by bike, that will have to wait until Baltimore.
Return to Maryland
Monday 31st August
The journey down to Maryland starts with me re-tracing the journey down the Interstate 95 to New York, back over the George Washington bridge and through New Jersey. On the way I pass Newark airport, the departure point for next Sunday. The interstate runs right past the runway and I get a fantastic view of a Portugese aircraft landing.
I'm heading for Thurmont in Maryland where the bike journey commenced, back to the Rambler motel, but I'm not in any particular hurry and I stop overnight in a Super 8 motel (last one of the trip) at a place in the North of Maryland Joppa. It's weird one this. It is painted up to replicate a Black Forest chalet and has a hunting theme. The strangest of all the Super 8's for sure.
Back to the Rambler
Tuesday 1st September
A nice bright morning, but the depth of summer has ebbed away and there's just the slightest chill that wafts in a whisper of autumn. The satnav point blank refuses to plot me a non-interstate route to Thurmont so I ignore it's repeated protestations and head inland. It eventually surrenders and plots me a back road track to the good old Rambler motel.
Maryland is a very beautiful state. It reminds me of West Sussex or maybe Kent. It's also very affluent and spotlessly clean, just like Gravesend. There's some great roads to sweep through, chasing the odd squirrel. They run like Pepe le Pew: run run then float. It isn't a particularly good avoidance technique, but they seem to have a better survival rate than others. Racoons seem to be very poor in the tufty stakes as do porcupines.
After a couple of hours the satnav comes up trumps and I sweep into the Rambler motel. Ian is on checkout and remembers me from my last visit. He phones the owner and gets me a really good rate and books me into a King size room. I was keen to come back to this motel, it's definitely one of the very best I've stayed in. It also closes the circle for the bike which has just turned it's 20,000 th mile of the trip.
Things I shouldn't have brought with me
Here's a quick list of things to forget next time round:
20 pairs of pants. Loads have gone missing, has someone been collecting them....?
Electric travel guitar. what on earth was I thinking of....?
Exotic camping gear... spare lamps, spare cooking stoves, hand warmers, tea towel, spare knives and forks, hand sanitiser - the list is endless, all totally pointless.
Extra wooly things x 3. Not necessary.
3 wooly hats. Never used any of them.
Water Filter. Didn't need it on this trip.
Put simply, far too many clothes and one toy too many.
The Crucible of the United States
Wednesday 2nd September
I rode through Gettysburg on my departure Southwards four months ago and I really wanted to see it properly, so after a bite for breakfast I head the sixteen miles from Thurmont to the battlefield visitor centre. Great museum and the Cyclorama painting is just incredible.
It was painted by a French artist and finished in 1884. It is mounted in a complete circle and is 359 feet long, 27 feet high. The visitor centre had it mounted in a special dome where visitors stand on a platform and can walk round to view it. It shows the height of the battle, Pickett's charge which was arguably the turning point of the American Civil War. They say that when it was unveiled to veterans, many just simply wept. It took them back to the day(s) of the battle.
The battlefield is spread across the town and surrounding countryside. The most memorable parts of it for me are the monuments to the individual units (which were all representing the Union Army as far as I could see) which are spread throughout, far and wide).
Pickett's charge had far more in common with the British Army's stroll across no-man's land at the Somme rather than it's name suggestions. Thousands upon thousands of Confederate infantrymen in parade ground order marched a mile through artillery and rifle fire in what was supposed to be a decisive action. They were repulsed and failed.
To the rear of the Union battle lines a cavalry action took place featuring our friend George Armstrong Custer. He really got about didn't he?
Reflections on a road trip
Thursday 3rd September
So here I am sitting at the computer in the Rambler motel Thurmont, Maryland.
Gettysburg writes the final chapter of this trip to North America. The trip is coming to it's conclusion. It's quite fitting that the final visit to a place of National significance is to the place where, in many ways, a Nation was crafted. Gettysburg was a decisive battle in the Civil War that resulted in emancipation and a return to Unification.
I've been surprised by the United States. It hasn't fitted into the preconceptions that I quietly brought with me. These included a concern about visiting a country that bears arms and the image of the worlds great superpower which is stereotyped as brash. The reality has been somewhat different. I've been touched by the warmth of the people that I've met. Many, many times someone has wound down their window and shouted out to me: "where're you from buddy?". Often, just shopping in a supermarket, the lady at the till has chatted briefly to me and called me 'honey'.
The truth is that Americans bear a remarkable similarity to their cousins across the pond and it's really quite easy to slip into feeling comfortable here. I never got a feeling that Americans are brash; in fact I would argue the opposite. I found them to be very concerned about the future and respectful of the fact that their dominance in world affairs is probably coming to a close. Often they offered quite deep thoughts about their future.
I've purposefully not written into this account whether a person is black or white. One person I've got a lot of time for simply described himself as 'American'. Colour of the skin should have no meaning when you are describing the person in front of you.
There is still a feeling of freedom here and many Americans hold that dear. They are very concerned in the small towns and the bible belt of big government. There is a real feeling of change with President Obama's administration and a feeling of resistance to it from the small towns out there in the hills and the prairies. But even there you will find the secret Democrat or three who voted against the swell of the masses around them and are looking for change. Albeit a little nervously.
While I've been here President Obama's administration has matured and their honeymoon has come to a close. Personally I think he is an honourable man who has recovered some respect for America in the wider world. Michael Jackson has passed away as has Senator Edward Kennedy, the end of two eras.
I struggle with the gun lobby. I've met quite a few of them and they were great people, fun to chat with. There's a strange logic to the idea that peace comes with carrying a piece. I wondered about this. I think in many areas I would rather stroll down an American street than quite a few British ones. I can think of plenty of British towns where there is a fear of darkened streets.
I've truly met some wonderful people here. The biker lifestyle runs deep and true. They know who they are. You are really a special group of people who've made this trip so worthwhile. I hope to come back as soon as possible.
Canada also holds a special place in my affections. The Canadians made me so welcome and treated me to a warmth that often simply sprang out of the blue. The beauty of the country, it's wilderness is only matched by the people who live there.
If you are a Brit reading this, or maybe a European. Get over here quick! It's such a beautiful continent with a jaw dropping moment every day. Get here as fast as you can, I promise you'll love it.
The GSA goes to the shippers tomorrow. What a machine! It might just have saved my life in Nova Scotia. I'm so much looking forward to rolling the Ducati out of the shed, but I can't help reflecting that this incredible bike has sauntered across 20,000 miles as if it were a Sunday ride out. Incredible.