Sunday, 31 January 2010

Day 988 - Richmond, Virginia

I made my way north out of Oxford on highway 15 and just before the border with Virginia took a small road to the right to look for a spot to camp. I explored some lovely oak woodland but I could never get completely out of sight of the road so I went in search of permission. I turned down a driveway and asked a guy I met there. I don’t think he spoke English and just said “Boss man, house”. At the house I was approached by a young smart man reeking of beer and carrying a can of Bud Light “Do you know who owns this land?” I asked “I do” he replied and introduced himself as Shayne. I told him what I was doing and asked if I could camp down the road “Here, come and listen to this” he called out to his companions and 4 hefty, rough looking blokes arrived, all drinking beer. We talked for a while but I couldn’t help but wonder how such a man had come about owning a nice house in a secluded area like this, but his “bodyguards” made me suspicious. My suspicions were not eased when we talked about Washington D.C. and he told me “Be careful where you go in Washington, I used to live there, I know it well. Two of my friends were killed when the ’wandered’ into the wrong area of the city”. Still, he told me I could camp where ever I liked “You can even carry on and have a look at the lake and camp there if you wish”.

As I packed away in the morning there was a big ‘boom’ from a massive gun nearby. A little later Shayne arrived, “I hope I didn’t frighten you with that gun. The dogs were going through the trash and I just wanted to frighten them. I wasn’t shooting at them”, “That was a mighty big gun, it sounded like a bloody canon to me“ I replied “No, just was just a little shotgun“ he told me. I headed into Virginia, it was pleasant cycling, rolling hills with woods of oak, farmland and buildings dotted about the landscape. There was plenty of roadside litter though. Every now and then I stop to check on ‘interesting’ rubbish that I see, in fact I am currently reading a book that I found at the roadside a while ago, and yesterday I tried on pair of glasses. They fitted well and probably really suited me but I couldn’t see a damn thing through them! I put them back carefully for the next cyclist to try on. I haven’t yet started to go through trashcans (dustbins), but it is only a matter of time. For a long time dogs have been giving me a chase. I get the impression dogs are owned for personal security, so they are just doing their job and seeing me off. They generally stick to the boundaries of their property, even if there is nothing to stop them going further, but those that do go beyond seem to have road sense. Having said that, in the last few days I have seen no end of dead dogs beside the road. I guess they are the ones that didn’t have much road sense, either that or Shane has been out to teach them a lesson.

I made my way into Farmsville. I felt I had covered enough distance but still had time to kill before looking for a place to lay my head for the night, so I stopped for a coffee. I set off again only to discover that bicycles were prohibited on the road I needed to go on. I had to head right into town and back out again, much further than my intended route. Now I had a race against the clock to get back out before darkness fell, I cursed having that coffee. I made it out and found a spot, but thought I had better check at the nearby house first. I woman with seemingly a fetish for pink talked non stop, she had a heavy twitch of the eye, or was that a wink that I was choosing to ignore? Most nights now I seek permission, but it is noticeable that the Southern Hospitality is no longer there, I am no longer in the south so why should it be? Actually I like my space, so if it was on offer every night I had to ask it would be a bit of a problem. But people are friendly enough, they almost always say yes, unlike the Californians who didn’t want me anywhere near them. It was hotter in California, it might have been the whiff factor emitting from me.

I had a fast run in to Fork Union, pushed along by the wind. I had a rare luxury of a contact there, Arqam, the brother of my sister Cathy’s friend. Arqam works in the maintenance department of the Military Academy there, a huge place in a small village. I found him easily, or more precisely he found me, I suppose I stuck out a bit in that environment. I was introduced to all of his colleagues and taken into the warmth of their workshop. It was still within working ours so after a little chat I was really surprised when they told me they had a room booked for me in the motel next door and they would pick up the bill. Arqam took me to the room and told me when he would be back. He picked me up an hour later in his new 5.7 litre sports car. I got in with my backside almost touching the ground, then we raced through the lanes at a frightening speed to a small farm where he worked a couple of hours each day. I was given a tour, a lovely place with a beautiful pond. There was a small menagerie of pets including a huge Newfoundland dog that looked like a small black bear, chickens, peacocks and best of all, emus. I was also shown the emus eggs, wonderful things, about the size of a mug and a dark green colour. They decorated and made carvings on the eggs which they then sold at the shows that they took the dog to. They breed the emus for the oil, which apparently when rubbed on wounds takes away any soreness instantly. I was then taken at the speed of sound with my eyes shut to an Italian restaurant for a wonderful dinner. Another white knuckle ride and I was with Bambi and Billy and their family who have rather ’adopted’ Arqam in the 4 years that he has been here. We all talked easily, it instantly felt at home to me too. I had just made it to Fork Union in time as Arqam and Billy were heading down to Florida early the following morning, but they had still very kindly given up their evening to entertain me and shown me around.

Whilst I stayed at the motel I saw a news item on the television. It said it had been proven that it was not dangerous to talk on the cell phone whilst driving. They had come to this conclusion because the accident rate in the states that have banned cell phone whilst driving has not been reduced. What rubbish! The only thing that this proves is that you can use statistics in any way you like to back up your argument. I would guess that a couple of things are going on here, firstly, who really takes any notice of such a ban? I know they certainly don’t in the UK and I would be very surprised if many people do here, so ban or no ban, nothing much is going to change. Secondly, those that do take heed of the ban are just going to do something else with their ’spare’ time in the car. We have all seen clips in American films where the driver talks to the passengers and doesn’t look at the road for about 10 seconds, well I use to just think “Yeah, right”, but now I think “Oooh, ‘eck!”

As I ride up the through the states on the east coast I see no end of churches, mostly small, some in little groups very close to each other, each seemingly a little different in its flavour of Christianity. It is mind boggling to me. Often there is a sign outside, some give worship times, others have little phrases. The phrases themselves vary enormously from the tacky “What is missing in our CH CH - UR” to the thought provoking “To hear God’s voice you need to turn down the world’s volume”, though probably the most common one is “God bless our troops”. I am still struggling with that last one, I just can not understand how it fits in with what is being preached within those walls “Love one another, turn the other cheek, have faith and put all you trust in God. Actually, don’t worry too much about that last bit because before God even gets a chance our troops will save us and kill anybody that might be considered a threat to us, so God bless our troops”. Hey, don’t get me started on the obsession with terrorist threats here, you are not going to make me fall for that one!

My short stop in Fork Union had been an attack on the senses. When I met Arqam and his colleagues at the Academy and was taken into their work shop where we talked. Most of them were smokers. It is such a rare occasion that I enter a smoky environment these days that the smoke really hit me, the smell was intense and my eyes began to water. Later in the evening when I was taken for a meal the cheese sauce and the chicken in the pasta were absolutely delicious, a taste that my poor old taste buds found hard to recognise as they have been subjected to either junk or bland food for most of my visit here. I think I need to throw a few spices into the food I cook on the camp stove. Then, as I left the motel in the morning my senses received a third and final hit. When I stepped outside I was alarmed at just how cold it was, I would be crazy to cycle in such cold weather, yet it was only -2c, a fairly normal morning. When I camp day in and day out in the cold my body acclimatises to the low temperatures. I can sit in my tent in the evening and be surprised that it is only 2c, yet I feel cosy and warm, whereas if I was in a house at that temperature I would think that it is really cold. Now, stepping from that warm room to the cold outside air it really hit me and it seemed to take ages for my body to adjust to its new and shocking surroundings. Now I could understand why so many people make comments of how cold it is and that I must be mad to cycle such conditions. I left Fork Union heading east for a change, heading for Richmond. I am not quite sure why I wanted to divert to Richmond, but I thought about my route on Monday and heading to Richmond just felt right to me. Since then the weather has been predicting 12 inches of snow on Friday evening, the very day I arrived there, impeccable timing. I laboured my on highway 6, for some reason it was slow going, but it was hilly. My route through the eastern states has not been very exciting. I have deliberately steered clear of the Appalachians due to travelling during the winter, but it has been remarkably flat, through lots of pine forests and nothing to get excited about. That started to change around northern North Carolina and has continued through Virginia. Virginia is rolling countryside practically the whole way, I like it, it is all very picturesque. I stopped at a café. These days it is far too cold to stop outside, the temperature had only risen to freezing since I left Fork Union. A guy came in, a well built guy. No, a large guy. No, a very large guy. No, a fat guy. No, a very big fat guy…..ok, let’s be honest, he was a big fat slob of a guy….there, I have said it, not very politically correct, but I have said it! He wore a t-shirt that said “My Perfect Day. 1.Get up, 2.Play video games, 3.Eat breakfast, 4.Play video games, 5. Eat lunch, 6.Play video games, 7.Eat dinner, 8.Play video games, 9.Go to sleep, 10.Dream of video games”. I couldn’t see how he could possibly live his perfect day, surely to maintain that size he would have to eat all day, there would be not time to play video games. He had reached point 5 on his t-shirt, then he proved me wrong, he played video games WHILE he ate his lunch. The guy was brilliant and what he did, he had perfected his technique and stuffed huge handfuls of fries into his mouth leaving about half of them sticking out of his mouth, which were then slowly drawn in as he chewed away. It was disgusting to watch yet at the same time it was compulsive viewing, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Having finished lunch he left and walked out of the door whilst still playing his video game. I was glad he left before me, I didn’t want him driving up behind me, I don’t suppose there is a state ban on playing video games whilst driving! I rode the last few kilometres into Richmond. I had left my Couch Surfing request very late and only sent out some the previous day, but thankfully Dawn had kindly offered to put me up for three nights. Her house was a little further out of town than I expected, but I think I have been guided to the right person. I instantly felt at home with Dawn, a lovely person and very talented. She writes her own songs and plays the guitar and she has a truly amazing singing voice. She sang a couple of songs that she had written, just fantastic. She is also a artist and took me around the house showing me the framed pictures on the walls. Added to that she is also a very spiritual person and I had a great evening asking questions and learning from her. She kept going to her collection of books saying “Here, you should read this” despite me telling her that I am a very slow reader and had no chance of getting through them all. There are also some wonderful little saying on post-its dotted about the house such as “We can not control the wind, but we can learn how to sail better”, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain” and “Don’t look back and ask why, look forward and ask why not”.

I was glad to be in a nice warm and cosy house, especially and it was forecast that a foot of snow would fall over night starting at around 5pm. By the time I went to bed there was nothing. When I got up, Dawn had already left for work at the Post Office, but it was snowing and there was an inch or two accumulated on the ground. It snowed all day, I kept looking out of the window and each time I looked Dawn’s car parked outside was slowly disappearing (photo). The forecast was right, the foot of snow arrived, just a little later than predicted. Dawn arrived home at about 3pm, a couple of hours later than normal, but she had only completed about a third of her round and had abandoned the rest as it was just too dangerous in the blizzard, she couldn’t even see the sides of the road. This morning there is a beautiful blue sky, but with the temperature not rising above freezing it looks as though I may be in Richmond for a few days. It would seem that I am a slow learner as I sit and wait for the storm to pass!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Day 983 - Oxford, North Carolina

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking “What is he doing back in Oxford already?” Well after I had made it across to the east coast and the Atlantic Ocean, I decided to forget about New York and all the horrible weather I would have to go through and instead took the quickest and shortest route to Oxford. It only took 5 days from Charleston. I know that is pretty quick, but this is Oxford in North Carolina and not to be confused with the Oxford in Mississippi. Don’t worry, I am not going back that way now. Yes, they have ‘spare’ Oxfords in the USA, but not as many as there are Jacksons or Jacksonville, they seem to be in every state that I pass through.

I stayed another day in Charleston, I had heard the weather forecast again and it wasn’t looking good. I stayed in while Jessica worked in her office. She went to the end of the drive to collect the post and was hotly pursued back by a barking Alsatian and just made it back I time. She carried on working, but saw the dog chase another person, go through all the recycling bins outside then chase a van down the road. She called Animal Control who said they would be over “…But DON’T go anywhere near the dog”. It had been drizzling but started to rain hard. Jessica came into the lounge and said “That dog is still running around and it is absolutely drenched. I think we ought to try and get it into the house”, “Oh ok, bringing the dog into the house is sort of not going anywhere near it, isn’t it? We could shut it in one of the rooms” I said but Jessica was concerned “No, we can’t do that, it will probably rip the place to pieces!” I was sent out in the pouring rain to try and bring it in. Even with an umbrella I was soon soaked, but I couldn’t see the dog anywhere and hadn’t seen any of the antics that Jessica had told me about. Jessica took the umbrella and went out and very soon came running back shouting “Quick, quick, it’s coming”. I stood by the front door and the dog came up to us, it seemed friendly enough but was very timid and frightened and very wet. I checked its collar but there was no tag so tried to dry it but it would have nothing of it. We left the door open and moved back with the dog on the doorstep and enticed it in with the help of Charlie, Jessica’s dog. It eventually came in, stood beside us and shook itself soaking us in the process. The floors were soon covered in wet footprints. Animal Control eventually turned up and said “We have seen this dog before”. There is never a dull moment in Jessica’s house. It rained all day, I didn’t even venture outside again.

I left the following day, followed highway 17, then diverted through the historical town and got onto the big bridge over the river which had a nice cycle path at the side. There were no signposts to the cycle path and if I had carried along the obvious route of 17 I wouldn’t have even been able to get on it. I followed highway 17 north for the whole day, it was never enjoyable, no shoulder and busy the entire day. It was boring too, through forest the whole time though at least it made it easy to find somewhere to camp.

At Georgetown I moved onto the smaller 701 still a boring road with no shoulder but at least it wasn’t so busy. It was another 37 miles to Conway. Mile markers are a funny thing in the US. Every state has its own rules, most of them have a mile number every mile, but here in South Carolina and in Florida they don’t have any at all. Texas had them every 2 miles, tiny little signs that were on alternate sides of the road, so really you would see one every 4 miles, though how the number worked I have no idea as they rarely seemed to be below 600 miles, even if it was only a short and minor road. Georgia’s were the silliest though, they reset theirs every time you entered a new county and there were plenty of those, nearly every time you crossed a bridge you entered a new county. I lost count of the number 1 mile markers I passed and it useless for working out how far you had to go to the next town. I crossed into North Carolina, I immediately liked it, there was a shoulder. It was only about two feet wide, but it gave me a little more space. Occasionally when there is no shoulder vehicles come mighty close and it doesn’t give me much confidence in their driving ability here, so I don’t know if they just passed too close or even worse just haven’t seen me at all. 95% of cars here are automatics, that frees one hand and the brain to carry out the other tasks that have to be done whilst driving such as stroking the dog on the lap, reading, checking the map, shaving, but more often than not talking on the phone. It seems almost obligatory to talk on the phone whilst driving, “I am just going out for a drive as I need to make a phone call. I will be back when I have scared the crap out of a cyclist!” My confidence isn’t enhanced by being a passenger in cars here either. I think am normally a good passenger, but here I just sit there, keep my mouth shut and pray, but that might be because I go in cars so infrequently these days. On one occasion though I did yell at the driver and undoubtedly saved a pedestrian from being hit on a pedestrian crossing. I stopped at a gas station in Bladenboro and joined the locals for a coffee who were sat at the tables. Being a Sunday it was quiet, people were either at church or sat at the gas station ogling at the good looking women working there. “We come here every Sunday and put the world to rights. It would be a much better place if everybody agreed with us” I was told. By the time I reached Elizabethtown it was raining…time for another coffee. I was cycling through fields and houses, not good camping country. I eventually spotted a nice track going into some woods, but the woman in the house opposite was watching me so I went over to try and get permission to camp there. As I started towards the house she went inside. I knocked on the door that had a big ‘Welcome’ sign. The dog barked but there was no answer, I knocked again, the dog carried on barking but there was still no answer. I left thinking how ironic that sign was and went down the track anyway. I camped amongst the tall trees. As the evening went by the wind picked up, there was a roar of the wind through the trees, though I was well sheltered and the wind hardly noticeable at the bottom of the trees. My only concern was that the wind would be blowing from the south in the morning, but before long I had other concerns as I heard nearby branches come crashing to the ground. I got around that problem easily enough, I just turned up the volume of the music I was listening to. In the early hours of the morning the rain started, and when it rains in the Carolinas it really rains! It rained hard and loud on the tent, so loud I couldn’t tell if the wind had stopped and left this depression over me.

It rained on an off but long and hard enough for me to delay my departure as long as possible. As I returned to the road the track was blocked by a fallen tree. But the day was on the up, the rain had stopped and I hadn’t even got went, the clouds were breaking, it was very mild and I had a tailwind, that is just about perfect. A few months ago people would stop and ask where I am going and when I told them New York, they would say “WOW! All the way to New York, that is amazing!” but now when I tell them they just say “Oh, right” and walk off. I guess that is a good indication that I am getting pretty close to New York. Having said that somebody asked me today and responded with “Wow! You are going to New York on that b-u-y-sickle, it will take you 57 days”. Each night now finding a campsite is tricky. I was heading through boggy woodland and houses with plenty of land owned by them, there seems to be little for me to camp in easily. I still don’t worry too much about it. I found an open field with a faint track going around it. I asked permission in the house across the road. “It is owned by the Duke and he wont mind, he is in Raleigh”, so I went around the field and into the woods on the other side. Once set up and in the dark it was quiet and nobody would see me there. I stood looking up at the stars hardly able to believe that camping possibilities had seemed so slim, yet this spot was just perfect.

This morning was colder than of late, though I was soon enough in shorts but kept me jacket on. People still tell me about the bad weather I am heading for, though right now it feels like spring. The scenery of the Carolinas hasn’t been that exciting. After Western USA it is hard to live up to, but the last 20 miles or so have been rolling hills through pretty farmland, the miles slip by easily.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Day 978 - Charleston, South Carolina

In the Twelve Tribes community Shabbat is celebrated from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Friday evening is a special occasion for them. The gathering is similar to normal, but guests are invited and there is more singing and dancing. All that is followed with a seated 3 course dinner and on this occasion there were about 65 of us including other foreigners from South Africa and Canada, though I was still the only guest staying here. It is their way of sharing their culture with the outside community and gives people a chance to ask questions and see how it all works, it made for an enjoyable and social evening.

Saturday was forecast for a 60% chance of showers during the day and 100% chance of heavy rain overnight. By the time the morning Gathering and breakfast was over the rain had already set in, so with an invite to stay as long as I wanted there was a 0% chance of me leaving. It rained pretty much all day but with it being a Saturday there were always people around to talk to. I enjoyed long talks with Doresh, who I was sharing a room with, Anav and others whose names I have already forgotten. During a discussion with Anav he told me that he believed God wanted mankind to live as they were living, i.e. living and working for each other rather than for yourself, but I pointed out that I honestly think I am living right now as God wants me to live “We can’t both be right” I told him. We were interrupted and Anav had to leave, but later he answered my question, it was pretty obvious and straight forward, we probably were both right. I won’t tell you his answer, you can have a little think about it. It continued to rain all day and by evening the weather forecasters were 100% right, it was raining heavily and was very glad that I had stayed another day. Saturday evening brought another longer Gathering, then the children had story time, a long story, a sort of padded out bible story, they all listened intently. At the end of it each one had to stand up and say something, though to be honest I was sat a little too far away and couldn’t hear what any of them were saying. There was an evening celebration to which guests are not invited so Doresh and I went down to the ship.

After breakfast on Sunday I said goodbye to those who were still around, nobody stays in one place for very long around here! The longer I stayed with the community the more I liked it, it seemed a nice healthy lifestyle to me, very open and very welcoming. I said when I arrived here that it was a sort of a cult, but that is being unfair to them, they are just living an alternative lifestyle that they believe is the right way to live and the way that God wants them to live. It had rained in the morning but had stopped by the time that I left, but it was so much warmer, about 18c. I headed out of Savannah and had to cross the river. Typically when I arrived at the bridge there was a sign saying “No pedestrians or cyclists”. I am getting a bit cheesed off with bans on bridges so I chose to ignore it, I carried on. As I headed up, coming the other way was a runner and as we passed each other a police car passed us without stopping, clearly they are a bit cheesed of with the ban as well. I could see no reason to stop us crossing, there was a wide shoulder that wasn’t on the road leading to it, so in actual fact it was safer on the bridge. The day got better as it went on with only one longish shower all day, I even had a good tailwind, progress was swift. The roads were through remote areas though surprisingly busy the whole time. Only when it came to finding a campsite did I fully realise just how heavy the rain had been last night. Each time I left the road the tracks were soggy and off the tracks were either waterlogged or so squishy that my feet were getting wet. I pulled off a number of times before at last hitting the jackpot and finding a gravely track to take me away from the road. I went under the gate and cycled about 150m before grinding to a halt. There wasn’t as much gravel as I had expected and the clay like soil had stuck to the tyres and clogged up everything. I got off and pushed but within a few metres the wheels stopped turning altogether. I lay the bike down and tried to move the wheels but using both hands on one wheel but I could not budge it in either direction. I cleared off the worst of the gloopy mess by hand and made another bad decision to continue down the track as time was running short, find a spot to camp and clean the bike properly in the morning. Within metres it was locked solid again, I changed my mind and decided to head out, the gate seemed so close but took me over half an hour to reach it. The bike got chocked in mud in seconds despite the fact that it was only going down into the mud for about a quarter of an inch. I started to carry it which just meant that my shoes picked up all the tacky stuff, it was a nightmare and I wasn’t best pleased. By the time I got back to the gate it was dark, so having cleared enough mud and released both brakes so that the wheel could just about turn I went back a kilometre to a spot I had seen earlier and decided wasn’t suitable. How I wish I had taken that spot in the first place.

I spent an hour the following morning trying to clear the mud off the bike, but at least the wheels would turn smoothly with the brakes connected. It was a main road bash into Charleston, then my written notes to my couch surfing place failed me when I arrived at a freeway and couldn’t get across. A bottled of water was hurled at me and hit the back of the bike, I guess I looked thirsty! I spent the evening with my host Jessica and her two housemates Matt and Mike. When I arrived they made me a cup of tea with tea from a nearby Charleston plantation and the only commercially grown tea in the USA. The teabags were large, this is America, the cup had to be equally large. In fact it was so large that as we talked, each time I drank from the cup the all disappeared from view. They were all very sociable and had some great stories to tell about people that had stayed in the house. Charleston is known as the medical city due to its medical university and its hospital and funnily enough both Jessica and Matt had medical jobs. Mike and Matt were both soccer fans and took great pride in showing me an article titled “Why England will not win the World Cup”. I also found out that England and the USA are in the same group this summer.

It was about 8 miles and 2 buses into Charleston, but what a lovely city, I prefer it to Savannah, there is more variety in the architecture and little lanes just cry out to be explored. As the sun went down on a lovely warm day the streets were full of joggers in shorts out running, I felt a little embarrassed and idle to only be walking. It must have been all those medical students out doing what it they know is good for them. Charleston also provided me with my first chance to ring bells in the USA. The Grace Church had a detached bell tower with 10 bells, only built about 10 years ago and the most clinically clean ringing chamber I have ever seen. After ringing Wood kindly gave me a lift home saying “If you come and ring at the Cathedral tomorrow I will give you a lift home then as well”. I walked to the front door, politely knocked, then expecting it to be open anyway, opened the door and walked in. Sat on the sofa opposite was a man I hadn’t met before, but surprisingly the room was smaller and all the furniture was different. I quickly realised my mistake and with an “Oops! Sorry, wrong house” I made a hasty retreat. I did take up Wood’s offer and went ringing the following evening at the Cathedral, the only ringing chamber I have even been in with a dog sat in the corner, and true to his word Wood kindly gave me a lift home again, so much nicer an more relaxed than a bus and an hours walk in the dark, the lifts were really appreciated. Charleston has a lovely downtown area, I am really taken with it. It is built on small peninsula so you are never far from water, but at every junction the streets are so inviting and begging to be explored. Some of you might know that I like photographing doors and windows, well I thought I was in heaven!

In answer to your question Aoiffe, yes, that is the same buff as I left home with, in fact all my clothes are the same as I left home with. I have probably thrown some out but the only addiction has been the second hand socks. Now do you understand why I keep saying I look like a tramp? I haven’t been joking.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Day 972 - Savannah, Georgia

The little road heading out of Lake City was hard to find, I had to ask but was soon on my way and heading down a deserted road to Gum Swamp Wilderness Area. I had been going a while when ahead of me on the road I could see an animal. It didn’t know I was coming, I couldn’t see what it was. It turned out to be a dog, miles from anywhere, and looking painfully thin with bones sticking out. It had a collar on but it wouldn’t come near me, it just kept circling around the bike. I tempted it closer with biscuits and managed to photograph the telephone number on the collar. Typically, being as I wasn’t in a large city I had no signal on my phone. I waited and flagged down the next vehicle, a couple of local hunters. I explained the situation and asked if they had a phone which I could use to call the owner “Arh, there aint no praablem, that be a hurntin darg. His owner has bin art hurntin an will pick im up later”. Bullshit! That may normally be the case, but anybody with half a brain could see that this dog had not seen its owner or a bowl of food in a very long time. Clearly this pair of gun toting bearded red necks had less than half a brain between them. They had been out for a day in the woods killing things and clearly weren’t going to spoil their Sunday by actually having to SAVE something. But since I have been in the United States I have made it my policy not to argue with anybody that might point a gun at me, (pronounced gurn in these parts), “Stop pointing that gun at me, I have a Swiss Army knife at the bottom of that bag you know. I can deploy a weapon of minimal destruction in less than 45 seconds! I could give you a nasty flesh wound.” I didn’t have much choice, night was fast approaching, I had to leave the dog there. Finding a place to camp was easy enough, there were various muddy tracks heading into the trees and the swamp. As I camped amongst the tall pines and it was one of those rare nights were you could stand still and enjoy total silence, there was absolutely nothing to be heard. Bliss.

After about 15km of riding I arrived at Taylor, a tiny village with a massive church. There was a little gas station and store, I called in, poured myself a coffee, sat in a chair and started talking to the owner. His name was Blue, a real character with his strong southern accent, a cowboy hat and padded lumber shirt and was busy chewing on a toothpick. The store was like so many around here, run down and very scruffy, but the shelves behind the counter were full of religious book and a well thumbed and bookmarked bible lay on the counter. I liked Blue, we talked about all sorts and he asked me how many kids I have. I returned the question, he stood there trying to work it out “9 altogether between us, though some of them are grandchildren. Their Mommy and Daddy went a bit crazy and now they have gone on a long vacation”. That sounds a bit like me, though I think they managed to get theirs all expenses paid! Anything I said that could in any way be thought of as religious was followed by an “Amen” from Blue. I asked if I could take a photo of him, he wouldn’t have it “Go on, just a little one….please”. I turned on the charm and gave him one last chance but he blew it! As I was getting ready to leave he said “Where did you get that rag you putting on your head?”. Cheek of it! That was my wonderful buff he was calling a rag! I followed his instructions for a short cut on roads that were not marked on my map, then crossed a bridge and entered Georgia, the peach state. Another 12 miles brought me to St George where I called in at K & C’s Oak Tree Café for lunch. They asked for the address of my blog and sat there reading it whilst I was there, then gave me a pork chop sandwich to take with me “You won’t just think that is the best pork chop sandwich you have ever tasted, you will KNOW it is”. As I departed they also gave me a bagful of blueberry bagels, they had just read in my blog that I like them, another lovely example of southern hospitality.

I carried on up the 23 heading north, the cycling was nothing exciting, mile after mile of pine plantations with the occasional dull town thrown in. The roads were quiet, though once through Jesup the increase in traffic was alarming. There was only a very narrow shoulder that had rumble strips in it, pretty awful for cycling, so I cycled as close to the white line as possible. I have to say the whole time the drivers were really good, not a single vehicle came too close and no horn blowing, even the lorries moved well out, I was impressed. Armadillos are still top of the list for being squashed around here, which reminds me of a southern joke. Why did the chicken cross the road? To show the armadillo it could be done. Alongside every road there is always at least some rubbish at the roadside, but here in Georgia there seem to be hundreds of coat hangers. I should collect a few, I could hang my lovely clothes from a tree at night. I spotted a tiny track leading into the woods, no driver would ever spot it so it would be good for camping. I tried to get as far away from the road as possible, but thought I saw some buildings through the trees so didn’t go too far. Once I was in the tent I soon realised that just a bit further down was a railway line, very noisy trains thundered past on one side and the main road was on the other side and aircraft flew overhead. If all that man made noise wasn’t enough some large sounding unidentified creature stood near the tent and started snorting, a far cry from that peaceful night in Big Gum Swamp.

I rode into Savannah of horrible roads. There were plenty of road works that made the road narrow and made it all seem much longer than it actually was. As I came into the outskirts I passed through mainly black neighbourhoods, and I felt an unease about them. As I cycle I often make eye contact with people of the streets, the give a wave or more often just a nod, from which I normally get a response, but in these parts there is rarely any eye contact, and when there is and I acknowledge the person there is nothing in response. I arrived early afternoon, the thought of a bed for the night seemed really strange, the thought of a shower even stranger. I took a shower, the first time I have even washed in 13 days, though I think I am going a bit soft as I didn’t really need one. My choice of places to stay in Savannah is a little different to normal. I am staying with a religious community, I am not sure if you could call it a cult really. They are called the Twelve Tribes and have communities all over the US and others dotted around the world including one in Devon, England. They have 3 lovely houses here all next to each other and about 50 live in the community with about 20 of them being children. If 50 names to learn weren’t enough, they all have Hebrew names, I have absolutely no chance what so ever! The idea is that they live their lives like the disciples. They effectively live and work for each other, they own nothing of their own other than a few clothes and a toothbrush, everything else is communal. They all have jobs working for the community in various industries, here it is mainly construction and farming, they are currently building a café across the road as well as working on outside projects. They do not receive any salary for their work, but all their needs are paid for by the community. The children are all educated within the community too. At 7 each morning and evening they have a gathering that consists of singing, dancing and prayers. They all eat together too, the women cooking vast quantities of food. The whole set up is based on love and sharing, working in the interests of the community and being selfless. Everybody seems to be very happy, it clearly works for them, but to enter the community they have to give up everything they own, it is a huge commitment. The men generally have longish beards, useful that, is saved me having to shave and tidy myself up, I felt at home. They have slightly more hair than me and keep it tied at the back in a sort of very small pony tail. The women have long hair down their backs and keep it covered in scarves during the gatherings. They also own a tall ships boat down on the riverfront where they give free tours around the boat to the many tourists in town. Being as I was staying with them I got priority treatment when I went to see them today. First I was given lunch, then taken on a full tour including everything that was closed to the public. They are wonderful people, very friendly and very open. I had rather expected to be given the hard sell on their community, especially as I am the only guest staying with them. But not at all, they are just pleased to host people and show outsiders the way they are leading their lives.

I took a trip around the city. It is a lovely city, first settled by the Brits and laid out on a grid system but cram packed with wonderful architecture and beautiful square full of trees. A guy called Oglethorpe was sent over to establish the city and keep the Spanish from moving north up the coast. He did a pretty good job but needed reinforcements to hold the Spanish back, but they were never sent out. Jewish people moved in and were welcomed by Oglethorpe and with their support he was able to achieve what he was sent out to do. When he returned home to Britain he didn’t get a great welcoming, in fact he was stripped of his titles and he was given no credit for any of his achievements. I don’t know what he did, but he obviously upset somebody along the way. The centre is classed as the historical district, there are a few shops and cafes and that is about it, the main high street stores are well away from the downtown area. Despite it being such a nice place I seemed to lack a little enthusiasm. May be my thoughts are beginning to focus more on home than they are on the sights that I am looking at.

I know I have mentioned this a few times before, but it is worth another mention. Thank you all for your comments on this blog and your emails, they are all really appreciated. I am not going to mention any specific names otherwise others are going to think “Why didn’t he mention me?”, but all those comments are very welcome. It’s always nice to get them from people I have stayed with or met along the way, but sometimes I read them and think “Is that me they are talking about”. People are so generous, and give me so much encouragement and all I have to do is ride my bike. But it is nice to know that people are still reading this stuff, it makes it all the more worthwhile spending the time writing it. Thank you.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Day 967 - Lake City, Florida

It was another bitterly cold morning, my cycle computer told me it was -5 c but my feet and hands were insisting it was colder and they made me stop for a coffee at the first opportunity. It turned out to be a good move, I warmed up nicely and stayed that way for the rest of the day. I turned onto smaller roads that meandered through pine forests, the sun was shining, it was still nice and crisp and all was well in my little world. With few food options available and now my stomach insisting that I stopped, I called into a little café/store in a tiny village and had lunch. It was a grimy little run down place with a sign that said “No tipping please, it is our pleasure to serve you”, but judging by the grumpy old women serving they hadn’t put the sign there and it would appear that they weren’t it full agreement with it either. Everybody who came in and spoke to me had the same opening line “It’s a cold day to be out cycling”. An old lady added “It is years since it has been this cold here. I am 83 and have a good memory and I can’t remember when it was last this cold”. This has been a bit of a theme all the way across the USA, I want somebody to come up to me and say “Lovely weather, a tad too warm for this time of year, but that’s global warming for you”. I carried on along more lonely roads, it was delightful cycling. I passed through Florala and realised I hadn’t filled up on water for the night so stopped at a mechanic’s workshop and asked for water “You can use that tap over there”. It was surrounded by ice which probably explained why nothing can out of the thing. His mate arrived and said “Use this one inside. Where are you heading for?”, “New York” I told him “What on that thing” he exclaimed “You are a crazy arse. I bet you stay in some nice motels”, “No, I normally camp”, “Well you will need to find a motel tonight, it is going to drop to 18 degrees (-8 c)” he told me whilst laughing, “It’s ok, I will camp, that’s what I need the water for”, there was a long pause and a look of astonishment, then he added “You really are one crazy arsed son of a bitch, you had better find a house to stay in tonight. Where are you heading”, “I am heading out on route 4” then the other guy replied “If you head out on route 4 you go right past my house”. I had expected an offer, I was glad it never came, I was quite happy to camp, there are so many places to camp in the pine forests it would be easy. I passed a sign saying “….Florida’s highest point”, I was only 300ft above sea level and hadn’t even reached Florida.

It was another cold start but another beautiful sunny morning, a glorious winter’s day. I carried on through the forest and finally entered into Florida, the sunshine state. As I approached Darlington I saw a tree with amazing icicles hanging from it in somebody’s garden so I stopped to take a photo. The dog barked. A man came out. We talked. It turned out that he had put a hose up the tree and sent a spray of water out “It has been up there for years, but this is the first time I have had a chance to use it”…great! Then out of the blue he asked “You have been travelling through many countries and the US, what do you think of the religious people here and they way they all preach to you about Jesus and God and how their religion is the only way?”, it was the start of an interesting conversation. His friends, a couple, stopped in their car and we all talked. When I was leaving he said “Call in at the restaurant in the village, they do a good breakfast and it is run by Steve’s niece“. I had to search it out, there were no signs to it and it was tucked down a side street, who would ever know it was there. Nobody by the look of it. It was called “The Two Cousins Café” and the two cousins were in there as well as me. We chatted away, I told them I had met Steve. They told me it was all local custom in the cafe, but they were great to me and even let me use there wireless internet and insisted on constantly topping up my coffee. People started to arrive, each one was told what I was doing and where I was heading and some of them came over to chat. By them time I left the place was almost full and I felt I had been made welcome by the whole village and not one had called me a “Crazy arsed” anything! Wonderful moments that make travelling so good and memorable. I made good progress on lovely little roads, but late in the day arrived back at a main road. The shoulder had a bicycle symbol, the first I have seen I weeks. It looked like being another cold night.

I was heading south, completely the wrong direction considering I am supposed to be heading for New York, but my map showed a nice road running along the Gulf of Mexico, it was too tempting, I was heading for it. I passed through Panama City, then though Tyndall Air Force Base, then what looked like nice coastal riding turned out to be mile after mile of pine forest. For the first time in weeks I saw cycle tourists, they were heading the other way and had absolutely no intention of even slowing down, let alone stopping. I eventually saw the coast at Mexico Beach. With a name like that I would have been really surprised if I had not seen the sea. I stopped for a break, it was balmy weather, 17 degrees c, I was down to shorts for a change. I saw another cyclist, this one decided to stop and we have a brief chat. I liked talking to him, I always like talking to cyclists who are carrying more crap than I am. I crossed into the Eastern time zone and the last time change of this trip. I gives me an extra hour in the evening so a longer day is much more relaxed. I stayed tight to the coast which meant there were houses all the way along, so I ended up camping in a plot of land that was for sale, a sort of test drive if you like. I wasn’t impressed, I didn’t buy it.

More coast followed in the morning, after a warm and wet night. I stopped at a supermarket in Apalachicola, the girl at the checked asked “Where are you heading for?”, “New York”, “What do you want to go there for?”, “Oh, I have always wanted to go there. There is so much to see, I think it will be really interesting.”, “I don’t want to go there! Where are you from?”, “England”, “I don’t want to go there either” so told me. “Where do you want to go then?”, “I am 18 and have always lived here, I don’t want to go anywhere. I am not a city person, besides, there is a lot to see here”. I moved a few doors down to a gas station that had a Subway attached to it, there I met Erin who does analysis work for Subway and sat working at the next table to me, at least she was working until I interrupted her. We talked about various things and I was astounded to hear that as she was in her first year with the company she only got one week annual vacation which is nothing short of slave labour. I talked to her about travel too, she hadn’t really travelled outside of the USA, but I guess with one week holiday a year I wouldn’t either. We talked about Obama’s health reforms which even if passed wont some into effect for 4 years, though they will start paying for it straight away. That will go down well, they already pay far too much each month for private health insurance, them on top of that the Americans will have to pay for a National Health Service that they can’t even use for another 4 years! I tried to learn a little more about football, but I think that no matter how many questions I ask I am never going to understand a game called football that is played using the hands! There are lots of different leagues too and even if I look at the tables I can’t even work out from the stats why the team at the top is there. A day is always made better after a good conversation with somebody and Erin made today a good day. I left her to carry on with her work and I carried on along the coast, the road ran right along the water front, just a narrow strip of beach and then the water. There were various jetties heading into the very calm water (photo). It is very sheltered here with a group of islands running parallel to the coast a few miles out. I crossed another long bridge that was very exposed, the wind hit me head on. I stopped for more coffee at a gas station and checked the weather forecast. It looks as though it will be sunny though cold, but still a whole bunch of degrees warmer than you lot are getting back in the UK.

I left the coast and the scenery inland has become a bit mundane, the last couple of days have hardly been exciting. I had set off in the cold so called in at Ouzt’s Bar in Newport to warm up, they were opening as I arrived. They were very friendly, coffee soon arrived and before long I was being given a history lesson by Dorothy, the owner. Newport has a population of about 5, but it used to be the 5th largest town in Florida, due mainly to the river which was used for logging. A hurricane destroyed the place, this one in 1853, and it never really recovered. I also learned that Florida is being hit hardest by the recession, probably as it relies heavily on tourism. Jodie told me to call in to JR’s gas station down the road and meet Barbara. So having left and been given the coffee for free, that is exactly what I did. I asked the woman there if she was Barbara, but I couldn’t make her understand me, by the 5th attempt I was speaking very slowly and as clearly as possible but I just got a “Bar what?” in reply. I knew she wasn’t Barbara and the whole attempt to make her understand the question was a complete waste of time, but at last it got through “Oh no, I am Joanna, Barbara works weekdays“. Sometimes the camping situation doesn’t really work out and last night was such an occasion. I saw a wonderful place in a remote forest but decided to press on for another half an hour only to arrive amongst farmland. It was well dark before I turned up a track and set up the tent close beside it and expecting visitors during the evening. Thankfully I did get a peaceful nights sleep, but I was never very happy there, I like to be well out of the way.

I have gone about as far east as I can go now, it is almost time to turn and head north for the final leg of my journey and the final destination of New York. I can’t say I am looking forward to heading north, it rather takes me on to a collision course with even worse weather, you know, rain, snow and that sort of rubbishy stuff. In the four months that I have been in the USA I have so far spent $27 on accommodation, $7 on a campsite outside of San Francisco and $20 on a shared motel room with Matt. I guess as the weather gets yuckier I will turn into more of a wimp and that will send my costs spiralling upwards, though it will still be less than paying for health insurance here.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Day 961 - Brewton, Alabama

I said my farewell to Bill and Erin, they had made me very welcome. They were heading off to see family, so my stay in New Orleans had been too short really, but I left well before I could get bored with the place, if fact I really like it. I took St Charles Street and made my way to the Downtown area. St Charles Street is the grandest street and home to those people who are dripping in dollars. Half way down the Mardi Gras route joins it. During Mardi Gras strings of beads are thrown into the crowd, it’s a sign of friendliness, but plenty don’t make it into the crowd and get stuck on the power lines or in the trees leaving some of them decorated like Christmas trees, there were beads everywhere. I cycled around the French Quarter, it felt so different to the previous day. Now the crowds had gone, so had the good weather, it was cold and overcast, the place had a completely different feel to it, at times I hardly recognised it as the same place. I headed out on route 90, a much quieter road than when it enters the city from the other side. I was soon leaving the houses behind, the traffic too, I had the road almost to myself. I rode along the narrow peninsula between Lake St Catherine and Lake Pontchartrain, once prime land for expensive properties, but this too has taken a hit in the hurricanes. New houses were being built, all of them raised way above the ground on high stilts, but the wrecked jetties clearly showed the forces that had passed though the area. Some people have spent a lot of money in building these houses, but surely it is only a matter of time before the area takes another hit, the hurricane season lasts about 6 months of the year. It seems a big risk to me, the insurance companies would probably agree. Before long I was crossing another bridge and entering into the state of Mississippi, where the open marshland and inland waterways gave way to pine forests.

At 6am I was woken by the sound of a vehicle right beside the tent. Somebody got out, I waited for them to speak, but after about a minute they drove off. The problem with heading east all the time is that the mornings get lighter earlier and earlier and the evenings darker. At 6am it is already light, but it is as good as dark at 5pm. I rode through more pine forests, then some more swamps and finally reached the beach. The sand is so white and fine, across the other side of the road more houses are being built. Some plots have the tell tale concrete bases that again reveal that this area was also hit badly by Hurricane Katrina. The Hurricane forced water towards the land and it was that excess water that caused the levees to be breached in New Orleans, but here there are no levees, the sea level just rose and caused floods up to a quarter of a mile inland, though here it receded quickly after the storm, but the exposed properties took a big hit from the winds too. Further along there was little evidence of damage, but plenty of evidence that those living here are not short of a dollar or two, every house was beautiful, it was all very picturesque. I passed through the larger towns of Gulfport and Biloxi. Casinos are going up like there is no tomorrow. It became state law that the casinos had to be built on water and had to float and were therefore mobile. The idea was that when there was a hurricane warning they could be moved onto the inland waterways, but when the need actually arose they couldn’t be moved as the bridges could not be opened as everybody was using them to evacuate the cities. Good planning eh? So the rule no longer applies and they aren’t hanging about, I guess they are building them quickly before the law changes again. I stopped at a pharmacy to try and get something for my sinus problem which I can’t seem to get rid of. They suggested some medication, then asked for ID. The only ID I have is my passport, I handed it over, then after 5 minutes of form filling which I had to sign, I was allowed to buy the stuff. It’s worse than the UK. I was going to get some paracetamol as well, but I didn’t think it was worth the hassle. I had had enough of the main road, I took a smaller road inland, I hoped it would be quieter for the night.

The nights are cold again, though it has allowed my new sleeping bag to reveal its real qualities. Sometimes I am nice and snug during the night but have to get up for a pee, then I am surprised to find that the tent is either frozen or frosted. I set off in the morning on nice country roads passing through swamps and over rivers, heading through the villages of Wade and Hurley before leaving Mississippi and entering Alabama. The road changed to the 56 and I continued towards Mobile, then as I approached a turning to the right and 18 wheeler truck pulled out right in front of me. I swerved to the right to go down the turning he was coming out of, but his backend of the trailer was rapidly eating my valuable road space and the inevitable happened, I hit it side on and went crashing to the ground. Thankfully the truck stopped otherwise the rear end would have gone over the bike. The driver jumped out and yelled “Haven’t you got brakes on that thing?” to which I should have retorted with “Haven’t you got eyes in that thing” but instead opted for the more obvious “What the fuck are you doing, why did you pull out right in front of me, where was I supposed to go?”, “I didn’t see you” he replied “Well why don’t you try looking?” I said angrily “I did look, but I was looking for cars, I wasn’t looking for bikes”. Well that is very reassuring. The guy in the vehicle behind came over and said “He was totally in the wrong, you should call the state troopers. These truck drivers are always doing that and getting away with it”. I didn’t see the need but he added “Well by law he has to fill in an entry in his drivers log”. “I haven’t got it with me” the truck driver added, so to keep within in the law that I know nothing about the state troopers were called. About 10 minutes later an ambulance and two fire vehicles arrived, the ambulance woman came over and asked if I was ok, “I am fine, I just have bumps and bruises on my knee and elbow”, “Well let’s go over there and we will check you out”, so I went into the ambulance and sat in a nice comfy chair and she took my blood pressure “It’s a bit higher than normal, but so would mine be if I had just been hit by an 18 wheeler. Here, sign this”, “What is it?” I asked “Oh it’s just a form for you to tell us that you are ok”. I thought the idea was that they would tell me that, so in view of the fact that it didn’t seem a very thorough check I hinted they might check the bits that hurt by rolling up my sleeve and saying “Can you spare an antiseptic wipe for this?” to which she replied “Ooh, I wouldn’t do that, you will start it bleeding again. Here sign this”. I signed it. Based on the time factor alone it would appear to be a bigger health hazard to buy a packet of Sudafed than it is to collide with a thumping great truck! Wow, what can they put in that stuff? I am beginning to understand why people are so reluctant to have a National Health Service here, they don’t want to lose that quality care. I left the ambulance to be questioned by the fire guys “Are you from England?”, “Yes, I am”, “Where from?”, “Oxford”, “How far is that from Norwich?”, “About 150 miles, why?”, “Oh I used to live there for about 7 years, my parents were in the forces and hated it there, but I loved it”, “I used to live there too and I still support the football team.” I replied “Any idea how they got on against Wycombe Wanderers yesterday”, “Sorry, I don’t know”. I guess he can’t have loved it there that much then. They all departed together, safety in numbers. I think they were all a bit disappointed. Having answered a call saying a cyclist had been hit by an 18 wheeler they were at least expecting to have to scrape a few bits off the road. About 15 minutes later the police eventually arrived and wrote a report based on a very brief chat with both of us. Half an hour later he gave us the paper work and said we could go, but not before he had told me how to fill it in “Where is says vehicle, here, you put bicycle“ then after a little pause he said it pronounced and very slowly “B-i-c-y-c-l-e“. It seems that in a world where the car rules, where you have drive through restaurants, drive through banks and valet parking so that never have to use your legs, then if you have a bike you are assumed to have no job, no car, no life and to be as thick as two short planks. Oh heck, reading that back, that’s me! As the truck pulled away the officer returned to me and asked “Where on the truck did you hit? And where on the road were you when you came off the bike”. These were the first questions I had been asked but he did tell me that the driver had said he hadn’t been looking for bikes. I am sure in the UK if he had said that he would have been done for driving without due care and attention. I would love to have read the report, I guess it was something like “The big truck hit the cyclist. Thankfully the big truck and the driver are ok”. I think it is probably a good insight to what some people here think of cyclists. Two hours after the incident I carried onto into the large town of Mobile. Another example of how un cycle friendly it can be here would soon show itself. There were no provisions for either cycle or pedestrians to cross the river, I had to go to a bridge 3 miles north and the only way to reach it was along the freeway! But I got across without being stopped by the police again, then crossed another couple of bridges spanning about 7 miles to reach Spanish Fort. I called in at a gas station and was offered a free coffee without having to talk my way into it. It was getting dark, I had to turn it down, I really didn’t have time.

My knee had been hurting all night, it hurt when I lay down, it hurt even more when I walked, I wondered if I would be able to cycle. The whole of my right side ached too, but my sinuses were clearing so it wasn‘t all bad. Strangely I felt perfectly ok when I was cycling, it is when I get off the bike that I have problems, but I would much rather it was that way around. I am sure in a couple of days all will be fine. I rode through back roads to Bay Minette, then rode through pine trees, the swamp has been left behind, at least for a while. It was a cold day, it never really warmed up, I didn’t remove any layers of clothing all day, even my gloves remained on the whole time. Whenever I stopped people said how cold it is for cycling, but like with my knee, it is much better when cycling rather than stopping. I tucked myself in for the night amongst some trees to try and stay a little warmer and reduced the condensation. The wind was picking up, still, it is January.

As I cycled through New Orleans I heard some manic shouting, for some reason I thought it was aimed at me, though I never heard my name. I looked around but couldn’t see who or where it was coming from, beside I knew nobody here and for a change wasn’t doing anything stupid. I have just had a mail from Justin, the cyclist I stayed with in Prescott, Arizona, it was him. What a shame I never got to speak to him, I love little coincidences like that.

With just over two months left on this trip I am beginning to think of home more and more, especially on the cold mornings when it is well below zero when I start cycling and my hands and feet become painfully cold, then I just wish I was home. On days like that I look at the map and New York seems such a long way off, odd that because when I looked at the same map when I was in San Francisco it seemed so close. I still remember the basics of the quote from the Alchemist though which was words to the effect of “the closer you get to fulfilling your dream, the harder it will become”. How true.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Day 957 - New Orleans

I decided to be clever and take route 90 around New Iberia, oh dear, a big mistake. It wasn’t a whole bunch of fun, a narrow fast dual carriageway without a shoulder and so narrow across the bridges I had to breath in while I crossed them. Added to that the sides of the road were strewn with bits of sugar cane and needed to be avoided. I got off and onto the much smaller 182, but there was even more sugar cane with lorries full of the stuff passing me, some so full the wind force was blowing it out of the top, I was in danger of being hit by a 2 pound bag of sugar. Ok, so that is exaggerated a little, there was still a little work to be done on it before it found its way into a bag. The road ran alongside route 90 which was now a freeway, the land all around me was either flooded swamp or lived on, there was little else. I spotted a track heading alongside a wood, though it looked a used track so it seemed advisable to try and get some permission before I used it myself. I called at a house, they didn’t own the land but rather insisted that I camp on their ‘yard’ as they called it, but more like about 2 acres of fine grass and the best surface I have camped on since….ooooh….I can’t remember when. I had managed to knock on the right door again and received another truck load of southern hospitality. Wayne and Juanita live there and their daughter Mona and son-in-law Shahar where there for the holiday, all the way down from the San Francisco Bay area, though they had taken just 3 days compared with my 3 months. A pot of coffee was soon brewing, two loaves of pumpkin bread were cut, a shower was taken, chilli was cooked up and the conversation flowed, I was made very welcome indeed. Mona used the phrase “I am so glad that you called in at our house”. Now I normally try and camp without having to ask for permission, so when I do ask I really want to cause as little inconvenience as possible. Disturbing the family for the whole of the evening doesn’t really fit in with my genuine intentions, but when I here phrases such as that, I know for sure that I am indeed truly welcome, I have no more need to be concerned. I still find it odd though, people go out of their way to make sure I have everything I could possibly need, then they say “I am so glad that you called in at our house”, but it does enforce my view that most people in this world are good people.

I had a long run into New Orleans, so I was up early, but didn’t leave before I had been given a coffee and instructed on the best way to get to and across the Mississippi river as bikes are not allowed on any of the crossings. They also kindly tried to give me more food but I was still fully loaded, though did manage to squeeze in a couple of pieces of pumpkin bread, you have to try the local fare, and this was home cooked after all. I passed through Thibodaux and missed my turning on route 1. As I headed back I was stopped at some traffic lights and decided to ask directions, I really didn’t want to lose any more time. A pickup truck pulled up alongside being driven by a strapping young lad. I tapped on the window, he looked at me as if to say “What!”, “Can you open the window please” I shouted miming the action at the same time. The window was opened half an inch. I put my mouth to the gap and shouted my question above the noise and he gave me clear and accurate directions, then drove off with his dog sat on his lap, the same position it had been in the whole time. Clearly an old fart on a bike was a major threat to his wellbeing, though driving around with a dog on his lap is a perfectly safe thing to do! I had to get back on to route 90, but Shahar and Wayne’s directions helped me cross the large Harvey Canal and get me to the ferry across the river, a vehicle ferry costing just $1 for a car and really only used by tourists and cyclists. Once on the other side I made my way through the Downtown area to Uptown, made very easy to find by following the Streetcar (old tram), where I easily found the home of Bill and Erin, my New Orleans hosts found through the Warm Showers website. They are both keen cyclists and I was surprised to find that Bill has his own mail order business selling bike parts to touring enthusiasts, so imagine my delight when I discovered that he was one of the few dealers in the USA to stock my tyres, Schwalbe Marathon XRs. So imagine my dismay when I discovered that he didn’t have any more of my size in stock as they don’t make them any more! His biggest selling product is the British made Brooks saddle. Bill was really impressed with mine, probably one of the oldest, tattiest and misshaped Brooks he had ever seen, though to me it is so comfortable and I dread the thought of having to replace it.

In the morning my first stop was Bill’s office for a little tour around, then the rest of the day was spent dodging the rain, walking under the covered shop fronts, popping in a few, stopping for coffee etc, it wasn’t nice out there. I went into a camera shop to pass the time, being the only customer they latched on to me and tried to sell me a lens attachment I didn’t want for $899, “But a discount of $200 brings it down to a incredible bargain price of $699”. It was ultra wide angle, something I would love but this had the worst vignetting I have ever seen, it was a pile of junk, but they really didn’t want me to go empty handed, or more precisely with a full wallet, so two of them worked on me, the price dropped to $300, then one eventually said to the other “I don’t think he is going to buy it, he is not a buyer”, “Got it in one, that is what I keep telling you” I replied and with that they both walked off and grabbed some poor unsuspecting passer-by on the street. I met Shahar for coffee. His parents live in the city and he had kindly brought me maps to cover the rest of my journey to New York. I’ll tell you, I don’t deserve to be treated this well. It as really interesting to hear some of the recent but tragic history of New Orleans from Bill and Erin. In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina was on a direct path for New Orleans, there was a mandatory evacuation of the entire city, so armed with 3 days supply of clothes, they headed off to stay with family in Alabama. Whilst they were there they heard that the levees had been breached and the city had been flooded, nobody was allowed back into the city and the National Guard enforced road blocks. It was another 6 weeks before they were able to get back to their home. 80% of the city had been flooded, but as it is below sea level it was unlike a ’normal’ flood because it didn’t recede, the water remained there for weeks. They had no idea what had happened to their home, but Erin’s work moved to temporary accommodation in Lafayette and Bill had to do what he could from an office somebody had let him use. The hotels were full for miles around, shelters were set up but they managed to acquire a mobile home to stay in, which they also had to evacuate when Hurricane Rita came through. When they eventually returned home they were one of the lucky 20%, there was no flood damage at all though the roof had some wind damage and it is safe to say the food in the fridge was passed it’s ’best before’ date. The city was far from back to normal, most districts were still without electricity, the supermarkets and grocery stores remained closed for months, the restaurants were packed but could only serve food on paper plates, all of the traffic lights were out of action and it was to be months before any sense of normality returned and 2 years before the street car returned to service. Even now there is still plenty of damage and an enormous amount of work to be done and Katrina is still a subject I hear talked about pretty much everywhere I go around here.

Bill and Erin very kindly took me on a tour of the city, all the bits that I would not have visited if I was sightseeing on my own. I could have only seen it with their local knowledge, they call it ’The Disaster Tour’. Just up the road from them was the first thing to look at, a gated entrance to a park, the water mark still clearly visible on the white paint. We carried on up to one of the levees. Nearby was a post with a height gauge, showing clearly that we were standing below sea level. Just a few metres away was a large canal complete with it’s new water pumps that get used even if they just have a bit of heavy rain as being below sea level it isn’t going to drain on it’s own. From the bridge we could see where the levee had been breached, many of the houses have gone, plots standing empty, other have been rebuilt, yet more are boarded up. This used to be a desirable and expensive place to live, the prices unsurprisingly have plummeted, others have moved in to the area now that it within their price range. We visited an area of another levee breach, this one being in a poorer community, it was totally devastated near to the breach, now all you can see is the concrete bases of houses, though work has just started on rebuilding in the area. A little further from the breach repaired home stand side-by-side with houses that are pretty much as they were immediately after Katrina. The sides are marked with large X’s, with information in each sector such as date checked and searched, number of dead people found, number of dead animals found etc. I was shocked by the state the place is still in. Back home disasters such as this drop from the news and we forget about it and with the passage of time was assume all is back to normal, but over 4 years on there is still an enormous amount of work to do. Many people have never returned, the city’s population is well down on pre Katrina. I found it morbid, yet thoroughly fascinating. I questioned why I was really wanting to see this, but it is really no different to seeing the likes of Hiroshima, it is just more recent history, that’s all. We stopped of at a café that Bill and Erin use with their cycling club, then we went our separate ways. I walked the short distance to the thoroughly absorbing French Quarter, probably the most famous part of New Orleans. I hadn’t really picked a good day. The previous day’s rain had long gone to be replaced with lovely warm sunshine, I walked around in shirt sleeves. It was New Years Eve, the place was already filling with people out starting early on their binge, but to make matters worse the Cincinatti Bearcats are playing the Florida Gators in a college American Football match tomorrow, another 80,000 people have arrived and they don’t seem to be the quiet types that are heading to the nearest library to sit down with a good book! As the day wore on it got busier and nosier, hardly surprising.

So tomorrow I am on the move again and as yet I haven’t planned a place for my next stop. I rather fancy a 10-14 day stretch without a stop, so I will ride for a week or so before I decide where my next break will be. I will be surprised if I can get through without another large slice of Southern Hospitality though.

Have a joyful and prosperous New Year and a very big thank you to all those many people who have shown me such kindness through 2009, you have made it a wonderful year for me.