Friday 19 March 2010

Combe - Back home

It’s has taken me a long time to write up the last little day of my travels, so to make up for it you have a bit of waffle to go with it.

The ride from Aylesbury to Combe was uneventful, but pretty much what I expected, after all I was following a route I knew for the first time in almost 3 years. The trouble was that suddenly following a known route made it boring, I knew every junction ahead of me, every hill, I knew exactly how far there was to go. The unpredic- tability was gone, though as it turned out not entirely. The closer I got the more I thought about that pint of beer in my local, the Cock Inn in Combe. It was a vision I have had in my head for a long time, something that would mark the end of the journey. For those that don’t know, there is nothing in Combe other than the pub, so I rather liked the idea of finishing such a long journey is such an ‘insignificant’ place. I made the last turning on the back road to Combe, just one last little hill to enter the village, a hill that I hardly noticed and seemed so small after all those hills and mountains I had crossed. I entered the village, nothing had changed, it all looked exactly the same. I arrived at the green, the pub being on one side, so I did a quick lap to see it from all angles and bring back the memories, then pulled up at the pub. I strode proudly up to the door and without breaking my stride pushed down the handle and went to enter, but my body crashed against the door in a very undignified manner….the bloody place was shut! It was a cold March day, I just sat outside, back against the wall, a cold wind blowing. So here I was, the final turn of the pedals had been made, I was no longer cycling around the world, I had finished, from now on I can say I have ‘cycled’ around the world. So how does it feel? Actually, nothing like I had imagined, I didn’t feel joyous or jubilant, though I did feel content. As I said to the students in Philadelphia recently, I don’t think it as a great achievement, but it most certainly was a fantastic experience.

I rode the 200m back to my house (See photos, before and after the trip) and introduced myself to Dave and his family living there. I spent 2-3 hours there. It seemed strange being back at my home, but with other people living there, other people’s furniture in a very different layout to my own. I was shocked by the amount that the plants in the garden had grown. From there I cycled the short distance to stay with Lorna and Brian. They had kindly bought me some white chocolate (did I mention I like white chocolate? Everybody I visit seems to have some for me!), but Demelza and Tim had found it and already eaten it, surely proof enough that it is damned good stuff. In the evening I went bell ringing at Woodstock. They had their best turnout in months, partially as some of them knew that I would be there. It was great to see so many friends, nobody had changed, but it felt strange that their ringing had advanced so much. I am still on my little UK tour of visiting family and friends, I have been made very welcome everywhere. It has been a real joy to catch up with everybody. We went to the Woodstock Arms after ringing, at last that pint of beer was in sight. The pub was shut!

As I finished my journey I thought about how I would like to live life when I eventually returned. I would really like to live life simply, a small place to live, few possessions, no clutter. Right now I feel sure there will be another trip, so the idea is to keep life simple so that I can easily pack and be back on the bike at a moments notice, easy. As I did some washing up I picked out a pair of scissors. Just looking at those scissors made me realise that it might not be quite so simple. Even something so small and simple is just part of our everyday lives. Could I really live without a pair of scissors? I could use the tiny pair I have on my Swiss Army knife, but are they really robust enough for the day to day uses? It is going to be a challenge. First things first though, I would need a new phone. I checked out the deals and made a decision for a new sim card and went into a shop to sort it all out “We just need your name, address and telephone number” I was told “I can give you my telephone number in a few minutes when you have told me what it is” I replied. “I need it before you can go ahead with the purchase”, “I don’t have a telephone number, that is why I am in here trying to sort one out”. “We have to have one. You can just give a number of one of your family or friends”, “I don’t have any family or friends, at least none that would want to speak to you anyway”. “Don’t worry, it’s just so that we can get hold of you if we need to”, “Well, given the fact that I don’t have a phone and I am just about to by a mobile number from you, if you want to get hold of me I think that number would be the best place to start, don’t you?”. “I am sorry sir, we have to have a number for you before you can buy a sim card”, “So you are telling me I can’t buy a phone unless I already have a phone?”, “Yeah, I guess so”. Scissors and phones are already making my life too complicated. Is it possible to live in Britain without a house full of stuff?

Here’s a little story that I forgot to put in the last entry. A few weeks back I booked the flight home, then printed off the ticket. It was only when I saw the printout that I saw I had mistyped my surname, I had written Harwppd…oops! I called the airline to book the bike on the flight and asked they to correct my name, “That will be $75 please”, “$75! For changing two characters”, “Yes, we have to recreate the whole e-ticket”. What a rip off! I called back the following day to check the bike was booked on and as it was a different person tried again to get my name corrected, the answer was the same. “So what happens if I leave it and just turn up at the airport?”, “You can do that but they will charge you $95”. I was really pissed off at my own stupidity and at them for trying to rip me off. I had visions of turning up at the check-in and having a good argument about it but getting nowhere. Then I read a book about attracting things towards you by positive thoughts. It suggested visualising the desired outcome and even creating dialogue and saying it out loud. I thought it was worth a go, there was nothing to lose. I didn’t bother with the dialogue but I did visualise a friendly conversation and them eventually correcting the name for a reduced fee. The day arrived, I turned up at check-in, handed over my passport and started sorting out my baggage waiting for the inevitable. I saw the puzzled look on the woman’s face and asked “Is there a problem?”, “Yes, there is. The office staff are useless, they have spelt you name wrong”. This was sounding good “Oh dear! Aren’t they silly?” I replied. I was instructed to go and see another woman around the corner and she would sort it out. With this woman I had the cheery conversation I had envisaged, job sorted. Final cost….nothing! Blimey, it works!

So that just about wraps up what is probably the last entry on this blog. I have to say I have enjoyed writing it, it has made me reflect on what has happened, what I have seen, the people I have met, the conversations I have had. Without all your comments and emails I would probably have lost the desire to continue with the writing, but knowing people were out there reading this stuff has made it worthwhile. So thank you for all you words of encouragement, whoever you are, friends, family, people I have met, people I have never met. It’s been fun having you as ’company’ along the way. Thank you.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Aylesbury (England)

I had a great time with Auston, Sam and Tom, they had made me very welcome. My three different locations for accommodation in New York had worked out very well, a nice diverse selection of people too. I left at 10am, I had some time to kill before the flight home, still enough time to meet some incredible people. I cycled back to Manhattan, I wanted to cycle over the Manhattan Bridge, but it doing so I cycled over something very undesirable and picked up 2 punctures from sharp bits of metal sticking in the rear tyre, I was glad I had time to spare. I was in Chinatown so stopped off at a diner for lunch. As I went to use the bathroom a man from a table I passed asked “Is that your bike out there”. I stood there talking for a while, then suggested I come and join them at their table, it would be easier to talk. Ben Hom and his son Matthew were full of admiration for what I had done. I found it hard to understand why when it was me that was in full admiration for what Ben had done. Ben is a fire fighter based at a station around the corner and had offered me accommodation. He was amongst many fire fighters that responded to the 9/11 attacks on New York, he kept telling me that it had been a terrible day. I have little doubt that it was, but thanks to his courage he had pulled out 3 people from the rubble. I can’t begin to imagine the satisfaction of saving other people’s lives. For 2 ½ months they worked on the clear up operation but of the 50 men based at his station there are now only 6 remaining from that dreadful day. Ben even paid for my meal, it should have been me paying for his. I rode out through Brooklyn to JFK Airport, the road surface was terrible. I punctured again but didn’t bother to repair or check for more metal, I went straight for the spare tyre.

I flew home via Iceland and Reykjavik Airport. There is nothing particularly special or different about airports around the world, but I found the adverts fascinating. In the US it was all the latest electronic gadgets, here the competition was for the warmest knitted socks, hats and jumpers, all in styles you would never be seen dead wearing at home. I checked out the postcards, I was heading home but from the little I had seen at this airport it made me want to explore the place, they certainly had something different to offer.

I arrived back at Heathrow on time and was pleased to see my sister Cathy waiting for me, armed with food and coffee, all very welcome as I had been too tight to buy any food on the flights. Like the rest of the journey of the last 3 years time slipped by unnoticed, it was soon time to move on. I was heading towards London for my final night on the road. I had one last person to visit that seemed very appropriate, a very fitting end to my travels. Way back, almost 2 years ago somebody called Jacs posted a comment on my blog, she had enjoyed reading it and had been in the Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at the same time as I had been there. She commented again from Thailand, we had been waiting at the same place in Bangkok to see the Queen who had been at one of the temples near where we were both staying. After that I sent her an email. During the time when Aoiffe was ill and in hospital she wrote me another email. I was amazed at what she had written, here was somebody who understood exactly how I felt, knew exactly what I was going through and I found it very comforting. We started to exchange emails regularly, we have been ever since, we have talked on the phone too. Jackie ended her travels and returned home to Glasgow, then ended up working in central London where she has been for over a year. So a few miles of cycling along the A4 brought me to her flat. From the moment I had read that comforting email I had wanted to meet her and her I was knocking on her front door. It was wonderful to see her at long last, she always called me her ‘long lost travelling partner I have never met’ and to me it was like meeting an old friend, I felt I knew her already. We walked around to a local pub full of character where I had a pint of London Pride and I can tell you it went down very well. With her iphone Jackie booked a half price meal at a Moroccan restaurant which the GPS on the iphone guided us to. I would seem that in 3 years technology has passed me by a little!

By the time I woke up the following morning at 10:45 it seemed my plans to be away by 10am at the latest weren’t looking that good. I really wanted to finish in daylight, but by the time I finally departed London at 1pm things were by no mean certain. Jackie had given me a cycle map of the area which was really useful. I rode along the Thames Path for a while before switching to the Grand Union Canal. That could have taken me all the way to Aylesbury but my intention was to try and keep to it to Uxbridge. There were a number of gates obstructing the path with ’hoops’ for cycles to pass through, but after the 5th, all of which were right at the waters edge, I decide to use the roads. Each hoop was a struggle with a loaded bike and as they were right next to the water I had visions of ending up in the canal. Time was pushing on, I didn’t even know how far I had to cycle, but I could finally relax when I saw a signpost saying ’Aylesbury 23’. I rode past an office block, it filled me with dread, how could I possibly work at such a place, work 9-5, 5 days a week, I was mighty glad to only be passing the place. I passed through Wendover with plenty of time to spare, I savoured the last few miles. I arrived at Aoiffe’s house with plenty of daylight to spare. The strangest thing about my arrival back was that it didn’t feel strange, it didn’t even feel a long time since I had been here. I sat and talked to Aoiffe and Naomi as I would have done if I had only been away for a couple of weeks, but I guess I have to thank the internet and cheap phone calls for that.

The following day Cathy had arranged a gathering at my father’s house (photo). It was great to see everybody again, but nothing felt strange, everybody looked the same, for some reason I expected them to all look a little different. A lovely spread of food was laid on and in true cyclist fashion I am sure I ate the most. Over the next few weeks I will have a little tour and visit them all individually, but it was so good to be altogether, probably the first time in about 20 years!

I heard a little of 5 Live Radio, just a few seconds. I couldn’t listen too it, it made me feel terrible, it reminded me of my long commute to work. Last night I had a rough night, I lay there awake thinking about being back at home. I had always thought I would feel elated, I don’t, not at all. In New York I was asked the interesting question ’What has been your biggest challenge in life’. After mulling over it for the best part of a day I decided that setting out on this journey was my biggest challenge, not the journey itself, just the setting out, making the decision to leave everything behind and set off. I also said at the same time that I suspect that my biggest challenge in life lies ahead of me and last night would seem to confirm that I may be proved right.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) I set off to ride back to my home in Combe, only a short ride of about 50km, but that will take me to my journey’s end.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Day 1015 - New York, Brooklyn

Having spent a couple of hours in the morning watching the appalling weather reports from around New York and seen the visibility from the 23rd floor disappearing, it was time for me to set off across town from The Bronx to Upper Manhattan. The snow was still swirling as I set off. I had to cross back over the freeways by the cycling path, which surprisingly enough hadn’t been used. I had to push the bike through about a foot of snow which came above the bottom on my front panniers making a nice large surface area to have to push forward. I had to keep stopping for a breather, then once off the footbridges I couldn’t even see the path, it got deeper and harder. I gave up on the last few yards and decided to cycle the last little bit by going the wrong way up the freeway. I retraced down Westchester Ave, I thought it would be the best bit of road as it ran under the subway. It turned out to be the worst and I almost came off with a big slide. I took a long time to cover the 17km, but I got there. I stopped in a café full of Dominicans who were all delighted to hear where I had come from and wanted photos with me. They were a lovely bunch, I would have liked to have stopped and chatted with them longer. Helga, my next host was on the 10th floor with a lovely view over the Hudson Rivers to the George Washington Bridge and New Jersey beyond. It was so nice to be back in the warm. Before long I was heading down town to the Museum of Modern Art, it was free on a Friday evening, a $20 saving, but it did create massive queues at the cloakroom. I saw Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, a painting I have always wanted to see, but have never really liked. I then took a short walk to Times Square and Broadway. The lights there even put Japanese cities to shame.

I bought a 7 day unlimited transport ticket, very good value and entertainment indeed. It is probably no different to the London underground, but it’s the nutters that I love so much, they are so cool. They get on and seem normal, then they start their ’act’. One big Rastafarian started singing quietly, slowly getting louder and more passionate, then started dancing, first slowly, then more vigorously. But the best bit for me is watching everybody around them, they all try desperately not to look at him, behaving as though nothing is happening, but I could see the subtle body language saying “Oh shit! Please don’t’ pick on me”. I also love the emergency procedures on the train. There are different instruction for Fire, Medical and Police, but the first instruction is always the same “Do not pull the emergency chord”. This is truly a multi-cultural city. Different nationalities generally occupy different areas. I have heard so many different languages, most of which I can not recognise. I have spent my time using the trains and doing a lot of walking checking out the usual stuff, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street etc. The snow was a pain and to make matters worse my shoes are leaking so I get wet feet every time I go out, so when I take my shoes off my feet stink.

It was soon time to move on again, from Upper Manhattan to Brooklyn. I would be staying with Auston, Sam and Tom, all friends of Jerome, but they would not be back home until 7pm, so I had the bike and a day to kill. I made my way to Central Park and did a lap of it. It was all really nice scenes, loads of runners, walkers and cyclists. The cyclist had all the gear, flash clothing, fast bikes, but where are they other than in the Park, how do they get here? I cycled town 5th Avenue, the main drag north/south. People would call out “Where are you going”. In the past I used to say New York, they would be impressed, now I just said “Brooklyn” and they weren’t. I met Shelly, a cycle courier whizzing around on a recumbent bike. We stopped for a chat. It turned out he was the proud owner of 9 recumbents, I would be very happy to have just one. As I rode along I noticed one of the lanes was a fire lane, a bit over the top I thought, until I realised that there are sirens going all the time in this place. I made my over the old Brooklyn Bridge, a suspension bridge and well know landmark. The cycle path and footpath were above the road, there were crowds of people crossing on foot. I passed through a heavily Jewish area, they were all Orthodox Jews. I found the street where the lads lived. I rode down looking for 248, it all seemed to be industrial. People were going into an old warehouse so I asked “Do you know where 248 is?”, “This is it” they replied. It’s a converted textile factory split into apartments. I got on well with the guys, but I think I am glad not to be there at a weekend. The place is even mentioned in Wikipedia “The Lofts are two opposing loft buildings in Bushwick, Brooklyn. They share similar features, such as 5 floors (16 apartments per floor at 255 and 20 at 248). The apartments range in size from 400 to 2500 square feet (various units between the first and second floors of both buildings are duplexes). Approximately 400 tenants inhabit the two buildings. The building has a reputation for hosting raucous all-night "loft parties." Given this, and the preponderance of twenty-something recent college graduates living in the two buildings, the buildings have been given the nickname "Art Dorm." The building was constructed in 1936 and served as a factory space manufacturing various textiles and garments until 1998, when it was converted into residential lofts.” They are talented guys too, covering courses in film making, music and philosophy. The music is impressive, all constructed on the computer, no musical instruments are involved.

Today I read a news item on the beloved New York taxi cab. Apparently they are experimenting with sharing the taxis, something that isn’t going down too well, “New Yorkers don’t want to have to talk to other people” the report added. It gave some guidelines as what you should do “1) Don’t talk to any other passengers 2) Don’t talk on you mobile phone 3) If somebody talks to you, make a phone call.” What I find interesting about that is the fact that when you are away from the cities it always nice when people talk to you, yet in the cities, if somebody talks to you, you automatically think you have found another nutter. Thinking about it, they normally are! I called in at Trinity Church at the end of Wall Street this evening. They have a ring of 12 bells. I almost gave up waiting and was about to leave as they weren’t ringing, then I heard the faintest of sounds, the sound proofing had all but made them silent. This meant they could practice as long as they liked. We finished ringing on the 12 at about 21:45. I was surprised to find the bells have only been there for about 3.5 years.

Recently I have been counting down the days until I head home, now I can pretty much count the hours. It feels strange. It sort of feels like the end of a holiday, but when I used to do that I would think about going home and then to work the following day, but I have no intention of either of those for a while yet. So what of New York? Well, I haven’t fallen in love with the place. It never really stood a chance to be honest. No matter where I ended this trip, it was inevitable that my mind would be focused on heading home and seeing family and friends. I have certainly enjoyed my time here and stopping in 3 different neighbourhoods has made it interesting and yes, I would happily come back. For me the highlight was going up the Empire State Building, something I have always wanted to do, the views were amazing. So I am about to leave the US. It and its people have been very kind to me, I think they top the Aussies in friendliness, but still fall a little short of the Iranians. I have had a great time here and would love to come back and see a bit more, but may be I will wait for warmer weather next time.

I am intending to write another two blog entries, though I don’t expect them to be very long, after that I think I will call it a day. This was really written as a travel blog and although some of you may find it interesting to hear how I adjust back to life in the UK, I am not really sure I have the desire to write about it. I will see how it goes.

Sunday 28 February 2010

Day 1011 - New York

Whilst I was staying with Jerome he said to me “I would like to show you some photographs” so I assumed they would be from his bike trip across America, where we met in Arizona. They weren’t at all, they were of a project he had taken on. In a park near his home in New York State there is a wall with a mural on. It was old, the paint was peeling and it had become defaced with graffiti and had become little more than an eyesore. He decided that it would be a good idea for him and his friends to come up with something new for the wall, so he approached the local authorities and attended a series of meetings and it was eventually agreed that they could do it. He then had to go to more meetings to get the funding for it and they were finally given $350 for the materials. Over the course of a week they stripped the wall clean and set to work with the new image that they had decided on, one that they thought that local kids who went there to get high on whatever would look at and say “Wow! That’s cool”. During the week they worked on it, other kids (terminology that Jerome uses for people around his age of 20) became interested in what they were doing and joined in and helped until eventually so many kids of all ages wanted to help that he could no longer think of things that they could do. They all had a great time, it became not only a task to complete but also a place to hang out and just talk and enjoy themselves. The task was completed in a week. I have to say I as very impressed, Jerome showed me a whole series of photographs with everybody involved. He told me “Kids complain that there is nothing to do, but there is always something to do, it’s just that they do not use their imaginations and can not see a vision”. Just the day after Jerome set off on his two and a half month bike ride from coast to coast across USA. I woke early the following morning and lay there thinking, the paintings came into my mind and I thought about the enthusiasm Jerome had shown in both taking on the task and in showing me the photographs. Then I slowly began to realise that what I was looking at was also a pictorial representation of my journey, my life over the last 3 years. When I set off my little world was a mess, it had graffiti all over it, but I decided to set off on a journey, a journey to Australia. Slowly my life, my world was cleaned down, but I didn’t do it alone, I did it with the help of so many other people along the way, people I had never met before, people who didn’t even know they were helping me. I could see them in the second photograph. With their help it has taken my journey beyond my wildest dreams, I have been taken beyond the rainbow’s end, until now my journey is almost complete and I can see the change as in the last photo, my life feels vibrant, full of light and colour. But I am about to return home and when I get home I have to look after that painting, I have to ensure that I don’t let it decay and become covered in graffiti. That will probably be hard work, but worth the effort rather than letting it return to the sorry state of the first painting. Then I thought again about Jerome’s words “Kids complain that there is nothing to do, but there is always something to do, it’s just that they do not use their imaginations and can not see a vision” and I you know I think that can also be said of so many people’s lives, you here them saying “I don’t like my job but it pays the bills”, “I have got myself into a rut” and that favourite old British saying of ours “Life’s a bitch and then you die”, but if only people used their imagination, had a vision, fought like Jerome for what he wanted by going to those meetings and getting the funding for his project, then may be their lives could be revitalised like the mural.

Jerome had also asked me to give a little talk to his Outdoor Group at the Temple University. I am not a lover of talking in public, I get very nervous, but I thought I would give it a go. About 20 students turned up and I started to talk. I had written some notes, but I thought they were boring and when I started talking I took a completely different approach. Questions were soon being asked, in fact there were so many questions that it became a question and answer session. I enjoyed it and talked for 45 minutes with ease, I think far longer than I was supposed to. It was also nice to talk to some of the people that stayed behind afterwards including Sierra, a keen outdoor enthusiast who had created the group and a guy who was about to set off on a ride this summer down the west coast. Tabitha, a friend of Jerome’s came back to the house with us afterwards and Eric, whom I had met in Globe cycling with Jerome also came over and we had a really nice evening of discussions. I once again enjoyed Eric’s and Jerome enthusiasm as they recounted some the events of their journey. As Tabitha Left she gave me a couple of packages of food and inside was a little message that read “I look for examples everyday that prove there is more good than evil in the world, I always find them”. I really appreciated that, but it’s also a nice healthy outlook on life in my opinion.

The forecast was a 30% chance of rain, but it was already raining when I left. I found it hard to say goodbye to Jerome. I had a short but wonderful stop in Philadelphia and I am so glad I came here. All the kids I met seemed to have good heads on their shoulders, or at least seemed to be in a far better place than I was at that age. As we departed Jerome gave me a booklet which had the original words from the Declaration of Independence, something I had been thinking would be really interesting to read. Progress was slow through all the traffic lights, waiting at them was even worse in the rain. I kept going into cafes in the hope that it would soon stop. It didn’t, it rained all day, the very day I buried one of my waterproof gloves and couldn’t be bothered to dig it out. I paid the price, my hands got cold and wet. My route turned surprisingly rural, just what I didn’t need as the light disappeared early. I arrived at a set of traffic lights in the middle of nowhere, yet there on one corner was St Peter’s Lutheran Church. I called in to see if I could camp behind it. Steve the Pastor said “You can camp if you like, or you can stay in the room downstairs”. With water dripping off me a creating a small puddle it was a no-brainer. I had the Sunday school area to myself, including use of the well appointed kitchen. Steve even returned with a big bag full of food of cooked rice and chicken and some really nice fresh salad and fruit. He also gave me a very old and outdated map of New Jersey and New York City which I tried to turn down as it was of little use to me, but he insisted I take it so I gave in. I would really like to have camped out for the last time, but with the rain falling all evening I wasn’t going to complain.

The next day dawned to a very grey day. With a 60% chance of rain I had assumed I was going to get wetter than yesterday, though it just remained grey. I felt so much better than yesterday and pushed along easily. Thoughts were going through my head and time and kilometres slipped by unnoticed. I passed through New Brunswick and then Elizabeth and on to Newark. Whilst I stopped in a café I overheard a conversation. Now, in America a simple “How are you?” is really just a polite greeting, nobody really wants to know how you are and what your problems are, so when the guy serving said it to a customer he got rather an unexpected answer “I suppose I am ok. Guess where I have just come from to be dressed all smart like this”, “I don’t know….church” said the guy serving, “No, I have just come from my wife’s funeral, still we all have to die sometime”. His friend behind the counter had heard it all before and was either unfazed of not listening “Oh really….Sorry I missed you last week, I was away for the day”. What I saw of Newark was not pretty, either run down or industrial, more of the latter. The roads were terrible with large area of damage and gravel to be dodged. There were also large puddles from the rain. I didn’t dare going through any of them as I had a pretty good idea the road would be broken up underneath the water. I made my way to the ferry terminal to get me across to Manhattan. I used the map Steve the Pastor had given me, it was really useful and had far more detail than mine. The ferry would have been much harder to find without it. A truck stopped in front of me a flagged me down “What’s the furthest you have ever ridden on that bike?” he asked “Well in a couple of hours I will have just about finished cycling around the world”, “Wow, that’s fantastic” he replied, shook my hand and carried on. At the next traffic lights his passenger called out “Have you ridden all the way from England on that bike?”, then at the next traffic lights “How many hours did it take?”. Hours! That made me feel so slow when I yelled back “THREE YEARS”. Manhattan is an impressive skyline on the way across. For the past two years I have been heading for New York, it had always been in the back of my mind and there it was in front of me. Strangely I didn’t feel elated, I suspect my little brain doesn’t think I am finished until I am actually back home, even though it is only a days ride from the airport. Jerome gave me some excellent advice for Manhattan so I cycled north along the very good cycle path that runs all the way around. After about 10km I had to leave it and cut across Upper Manhattan in the rush hour. I headed out for The Bronx, it was getting dark and very slow going through all the traffic light as I had to squeeze my way through the queues. I reached Westchester Ave, it was classic big city America as I rode for miles along the road underneath the metro, the trains rumbling above my head. This type of road has been used in many an American movie and probably the very one used in a car chase in The Blues Brothers. I loved it, very atmospheric. I reached the end of the road and knew I was near to my couch surfing host Don so gave him a call. His instructions included footpaths and little grassy tracks to avoid the freeways that are around here. It had long been dark. It was a struggle, I returned to where I started but still couldn’t find the little paths. The final mile took me over an hour, I was frustrated but very glad to finally arrive. Without the map that Steve gave me I have absolutely no idea how I would have got here, it would have been almost impossible, it had been a God send, literally as it came from a church. I have become increasingly turned off from the Catholic religion, a feeling that has grown along this journey, so I thought it would be interesting to Couch Surf with a retired Catholic priest. Don was really interesting to talk to and had worked for 40 years in Africa. I expected him to try and make me see “the error of my ways”, but there was none of it. He was very subjective about all the issues we discussed.

I had made it just in time to New York. The 8-14 inches of snow that was forecast was falling by the following morning. It was a horrible wet snow. I caught the metro to Manhattan, though it was much more fun cycling below it. The compressed slush turned to ice on the pavements. Drains were blocked so deep water collected at the roadside which sometimes I didn’t realise was so deep and got soaked feet. I made for the Metropolitan and spent most of the day there. The place is massive, a complete maze. By evening the snow was deep. The weight of the snow had brought 5 trees down and people have been advised to stay out of the parks. As I write this the snow seems to have been falling all night, conditions look terrible. I am due to move on to another Couch Surfer, but I do not relish even the few miles that I will have to travel. Almost the entire time of my route across America people have been telling me “The weather isn’t normally this cold at this time of year, it’s the worst winter in decades” so I shouldn’t be surprised to hear that on my first day in New York, Central Park had a record amount of snow, a record that hasn’t been broken since 1894.

Monday 22 February 2010

Day 1006 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In the last post I had a little moan about American security checks, well I am going to start this one with another little rant. Whilst I stayed in Washington Gene had to go to a hospital appointment. He told me it took him 15 minutes to get there and another hour to get through the 3 security checks before he could enter the place, though most of the delay was due to the queue they created. It’s a hospital for goodness sake! I am getting a bit worried about ever having to use one here following a fall on the bike. I have visions of lying there unconscious in an Ambulance at the gate of the hospital and a security guard shouting in my ear “I JUST NEED YOUR ID AND A CREDIT CARD, THEN ALL WE NEED TO DO IS CHECK YOU BAGS FOR EXPLOSIVES”.

My time in Washington continued as before with a bit of sightseeing during the day. Amongst other things I visited the massive National Cemetery at Arlington where I was one of the few on foot. Everybody else opted to pay $7.50 for the short ride between the main points of interest which took me about 45 minutes to walk around. Ok, it was cold walking, but they looked even colder waiting around for the next bus to pick them up. Main points were the grave of John F Kennedy, memorials to the space shuttle crews and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. From the cemetery were good views over the massive and impressive Pentagon. I ate breakfast a couple of times at the renowned Ben’s Chilli Bowl, a place where amongst the other well know people to visitors, President Obama had eaten there just before his inauguration. The snow took the edge of most of the places, the Pool of Reflections in front of the Lincoln Memorial was an ice rink as were all the paths in the area. The evenings were spent going to a different bar each evening and sampling different beers. Gene takes his beer sampling seriously and writes notes on each beer and even wrote in the local leaflets for CAMRA when he lived in England.

It was time to move on. Finding my way out of DC was easy, just one long straight road. I headed north into Maryland which was remarkably hilly. At times the roads were narrow, twisty and steep. They seemed to have had far more snow than DC, though thankfully the roads were all clear. I passed through Westminster and started looking for a place to camp once I arrived in Mexico. By the time I had reached Manchester I still hadn’t found anywhere. With so much snow on the ground, still as much as 3ft in places, my tactics for finding a place have completely changed. Normally if I am near a village I stop looking, I like to be well away from people, but now my only chances are in the villages where snow has been cleared. But it is still a problem, if they are too big I don’t want to stay there, if they are too small I generally still can’t find anywhere. In Lineboro I found a patch of grass under the trees behind the church, so called at the nearby house to find the Pastor (pronounced pasta here). It was well dark before I was finally given permission. I camped in the snow in a graveyard, bliss, life doesn’t get much better does it? As I started cooking I was picked out by car headlights and somebody approached. I rather assumed it was a local person coming to complain, but it was Steve from the house I had been to earlier, inviting me to join them for dinner. Steve and Joan have 4 children, 3 girls and a boy being the youngest, and two dogs. They were all wonderful, a lovely happy family full of fun, but I bet they aren’t always like that! For the second night running I had sweet potato fries, highly recommended. They were interested in my blog. They started with one PC but within an hour they had 5 devices connected to the internet.

I carried on along smaller roads and soon entered Pennsylvania. The route was really nice, though a bit tarnished by the dirty snow at the roadsides, sometimes so deep I couldn’t even see over the top. It was hilly, very hilly, even more hilly than the previous day. I eventually reached Lancaster County and a small area I have always wanted to visit known as Dutch Country. It’s an area of about 15 by 20 miles and the home of the Amish Community. They are a religious community also know as the ’plain people’. They dress in black and the men have beards but no moustache and wear what looks like straw hats. They live a very simple lifestyle driving around in horse drawn buggies that have metal wheels making a loud noise on the road as they go along. The buggies are immaculate gleaming things, they probably take them to the buggy wash every Sunday. They also have another mode of transport that I didn’t know about. They use foot powered 2 wheel scooters with a little basket on the front. Apparently even a modest bicycle is too complex a machine for their simple lives. They generally live on farms, easily spotted by the buggies parked outside and the children running around dressed in black. Now in my opinion they cheat on the simple lives. I saw a number of them as passengers in pickup trucks. Apparently they can hire the use of them, including the drivers, but as it is not theirs is doesn’t count, it is apparently alright to use. They don’t have electricity apart from for farm use, though they are rumoured to watch football on televisions out in the barns. Still, it was pretty amazing to seem them, a community of people that looks as though it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years, all living side by side with modern day America. It was another night of struggling to find a place to camp. The villages were too big, there was no space behind the churches, I had little option but carry on. I called in at large house that had plenty of land but just received a friendly no, a sort of “We wish you well, but sod off!” I reached Parkesburg and called in at the fire station and came up trumps. They had nowhere for me to put the tent, but they did have some spare beds at the back. It was another eye opener for me as they informed me that all the fire stations in Pennsylvania are manned by volunteers, there are no paid fireman. If that is not bad enough they even have to do the fundraising to buy the vehicles themselves. We talked a little about travel. Bill told me of a couple of places he would like to visit overseas, but he would never go off American soil, he was too afraid of what would happen to him “I would have a target on my back” he told me. I suspect there are plenty of Americans that have that view, something that I believe is definitely not true, but it also a bit of sad reflection on how they see the rest of the world views their country. I was made very welcome and given coffee and snacks, but as they were volunteers they were off home, I had the place to myself for the night. I can’t imagine being allowed to stay at a fire station in the UK, let alone being left alone for the whole night. Thankfully they told me I didn’t need to know how the vehicles worked, but they did explain how to use the coffee maker. Above the coffee maker are is big long list very detailed instructions such as “Take coffee bag”, “Open coffee bag”, but the last instruction was “Press start button”, but there was no start button and nothing anything like it.

Despite being 50 miles to Philadelphia it was pretty much urban sprawl all the way, just small town after small town. It was easy navigation, one road the whole way. I didn’t have to look at them map at all and as I neared the city the tall central building came into view and all I had to do was head towards them. My route brought me into what on the surface seems to be the roughest and most deprived city I have visited in the US, a complete contrast to Washington. A very high percentage were blacks and I suspect most were poor and under educated. Blacks here dress very differently to the whites and there is little integration so it feels as though there are two cultures running along side by side. Jerome asked me to wait in the city centre as he would not be home until around 7pm. I cycled up there in the dark, another rough neighbourhood near Temple University where he is studying. He told me that Philly is one of the worst cities for drug problems and that is mainly overlooked by the police as they can’t handle the volume of work it creates. “If I policeman gets shot in this area it never surprises me” he told me “But I don’t feel in danger either, normally there are enough students around to make me feel safe”.

Philadelphia is an important historical city for America. I visited what is now called Independence Hall where on July 4th 1776 delegates of the 13 colonies met to approve the Declaration of Independence. The little tour around the building was really interesting. The Declaration of Independence stated words to the effect of “That all men are equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. I little odd then that they still had slaves, that women couldn’t vote and that they would push further west killing Native Americans that were in their paths. I think they omitted the clause “Applies to rich white men only”. Next door in a large, no expense spared building is a series of displays and films leading up to the one artefact on show, the Liberty Bell. It is not that big and very broken, but it was used when the Declaration of Independence was read to the crowd in the square. It just goes to prove you can make a tourist attraction out of anything if you give it enough hype. Surely the building itself and the location is what is of real historical interest.

I now have just 2 days cycling to reach New York. Recently I have found the cycling tough, it has been hard to be motivated. It’s a bit of a state of mind. Normally the first and last days of a stretch are the toughest as the first it is hard to get back into the rhythm and on the last I feel I just want to arrive, but on these little ‘hops’ I have been doing lately that is pretty much all I get. Added to that the fact that I am at the end of a very long trip does not help. I think I am struggling for motivation generally, my mind being on returning home, seeing my family and friends rather than being focused on what there is to see around me. I feel I am counting down the days.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Day 1000 - Washington D.C.

On Sunday I cleared Dawn’s driveway so that she would be able to get out in the morning. I guessed it would take about 20 minutes. After 20 minutes I had hardly started, it was hard, hard work. It was deep and had turned to ice with compressed ice at the bottom and painfully slow work, literally. Every now and then I would stop, look back to her car in the car port, them look at the road “Shit! I am still not even half way there yet!” Despite it being cold it was hot work. I worked in a T-shirt and wore no gloves. My hands were getting sore, then I saw why as my right hand was bleeding from burst blisters. I so wanted to stop, to hear Dawn callout “Don’t worry about that last bit”, but it became symbolic, that snow was not going to stop me getting to the road in the same way it was not going to stop me getting to New York. Now both were so close, yet would still need a final hard push. I got there, but it had taken over 2 hours of sweat. I went back in the house announcing “I don’t do manual labour” to which Dawn replied “Yes you do, you have just cycled around the world”, “That’s not manual labour, that is manual fun”. Actually I felt good for being outside, getting some fresh air, using a bit of energy, it was rewarding.

In my bedroom is a TV that is set to one channel, God's Channel as I call it. I think it is really something like TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network), whatever it is, it is great for sending me to sleep. The other night I listened to a preacher called Joel Osteen. He was in what I thought was a large stadium, but I think it was actually a massive church and the place was packed, it was impressive just to see that, I think it was somewhere in Houston. He told of his friend who was out hiking in the woods in a remote area far from civilisation. Suddenly on the path in front of him he saw a grizzly bear. The bear saw him and came running towards him. The guy thought he was as good as dead, he dropped to his knees and prayed to God saying "Please, please turn this bear into a Christian". The bear had almost reached him when it suddenly stopped, rose up on its hind legs and with its front legs reaching towards the sky it said "Thank you God for the food I am about to receive". I don’t really remember anything else about what he was preaching.

Another day, more snow. It was just awful outside so I stayed in all day. Dawn arrived back with her snow shovel in the back of the car so I set to and started clearing the driveway again. It still took much longer than I expected, but at least it hadn’t frozen this time, it took about an hour and this time I learned from my mistakes and wore gloves, though my hand is still sore from my previous efforts. I have been keeping an eye on the news, mainly for the weather to see when would be a good time to start moving again. There are lots of reports about Washington D.C. which has been badly hit and congress has been closed down for 4 consecutive days. They also reported that for each inch of snow that falls it cost $1m to clear up. I had no idea of the going rates, I will be sending Dawn the bill, though I might give her a couple of percent discount, but I should still clear $10m. My next Couch Surfing host in Washington has told me that he slipped over in the ice and has broken his wrist. I hope he is well, but it acts as a reminded as to how easy it is for it all to go wrong. It has also made me feel that I have made the right decision to sit out the weather as long as possible.

With a window of a couple of days of no snow forecast in either Richmond or Washington D.C. it was finally time to make a move. During our final evening Dawn wrote down all the new English words she had learned from me, none of them useful, such as lark, cheeky, cheerio, blimey, bloody hell, bloke, plus the odd phrase such as “Is this going spare” and a bit of Cockney Rhyming Slang such as “apple and pears”, “dog and bone” etc, but I was on my best behaviour and didn’t teach her “small brown Richard III”. In return she taught me nothing. The Americans are useless and have added no fun words to our language, they just seem content to pronounce them in a funny way! I arrived here to stay for two days but I am leaving two weeks later. Two weeks! Where has it gone? I arrived a Couch Surfer, Dawn was a Couch Surfing host, we departed as good friends. I really enjoyed reading Dawn’s books, then discussing them in the evening and seeing how those topics related to our own lives. I shall always remember her, I am sure we will stay in touch. I set off a couple of hours after Dawn, which ironically, was a couple of hours after dawn. It felt very strange to be cycling again, I didn’t really enjoy it, especially the bits over ice on a long bridge. Within a couple of hours I had settled into my rhythm and things didn’t seem so bad. I stopped in a café for lunch. There was a bloke there talking on a camouflaged mobile phone, though it was pretty useless camouflage, I could still see it. If you are going to have a camouflaged mobile phone shouldn’t it have a picture of an ear on it? The only time his would have been any good would have been in the woods and he dropped it. Then he wouldn’t be able to find the thing, so what’s the point? It seems to be less hunting orientated up here, probably because there are less deer and more people. I suspect there are about the same amount of guns though, it’s just that in the big cities I am heading for they use them on each other. I made good progress, the roads were clear and much better than I expected. I decided to get as far as possible just in case the weather turned for the worse the following day. By the time I started to look for a place to camp it was hilly, hardly any flat ground anywhere. It looked as though I would have to ask. I went along a long drive to a house where I had spotted some flat woodland nearby. I asked but was turned down “my father wouldn’t allow it” the guy said. As I waited for a gap in the traffic to rejoin the road I was called back “my father said you can camp in the pine trees near the road”. It was a bit too close to the busy road, but beggars can’t be choosers. I started to take a walk into the wood, then decided that this beggar could be a chooser and turned back. The snow was deep, way over my knee, it was almost impossible to walk through, let alone push a loaded bike through it. I carried on reluctantly as I was approaching the town of Stafford and camping opportunities would be even less. I spotted a fire station, so decided to see if I could camp behind it. There was nobody there, but there was an embroidery shop around the back. I asked them instead. “Sure, you can camp anywhere that you are happy with” then Donny showed me a building without electricity that I could use. It was perfect, apart from the fact that it didn’t have electricity! It was cold in there though. A couple of minutes later Joan came out “Come and stay in the shop, we have a small lounge out the back with microwave, fridge, a TV and a sofa. I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight thinking of you out here in the cold”. It was already better than setting up the tent and about to get much better. Once inside Joan said “Here, take this and buy yourself some breakfast tomorrow” and tried to hand me $10, “No please, I can’t, you have already been so kind” I replied, but she said “But I would love to buy you breakfast”, so I could hardly refuse. Sometimes I feel like a cat, you can throw me up in the air, but I always seem to land on my feet (That is not to saying how I treat cats though!). During the evening I called Dawn to thank her again. Ok so I didn’t use my name when I started talking but she replied with “Err, who is this?”. Clearly I have made a lasting impression!

I have to say that a breakfast in nice warm café on a freezing cold morning tastes even better when it has been donated in a good will gesture. It was too good, I really didn’t want to move on but move on I must. After the previous days good distance I was only left with about another 42 miles to Washington D.C., but constant ups and downs, a headwind and more sets of traffic lights in a single day than at any time I can remember, it ensured it would be a slow ride and a day that I never really got into any rhythm. I passed through the town of Alexandria where snow was piled up, seemingly far more than I had seen elsewhere. The traffic was terrible but I soon found out that the road ahead was being closed on and off so that bulldozers could fill up a fleet of lorries with snow. Here they are driving the stuff out of the cities, at the Winter Olympics they are bringing it in, the weather has gone crazy. At last I saw the Cathedral high up on the hill over the city, it seemed so close, but there was still a way to go. I crossed the river and made my way up 14th street, stopping at every block for the traffic lights, the timing was set totally wrong for a bike. I crossed Pennsylvania Avenue with the White House to me left, then shortly arrived at Couch Surfing destination, though I had trouble getting the bike long the narrow path cut in the deep snow. I am staying with Gene, ex military with a background in health and now working as a consultant with the government on health diplomacy. He has travelled extensively and his lovely three storey town house is tastefully furnished with items that have been given to him from around the world. As he took me out for a trip on the metro to see the Capitol at night (photo) I was soon to discover that he is a mine of information, very interesting to talk to about politics and has a very balanced view on it. He explained why Washington D.C. is the way it is. After the American Civil War the north and the south could not agree on where the capital should be, so in the end it was placed right on the imaginary border between the two being it’s own entity and not in either Maryland to the north or Virginia to the south. This creates odd little situations. For example it is not represented in congress, car license plate making that well know with the slogan ‘Taxation without representation’. There is a mayor, but they have no real power. Everything in the city is managed by congress, and not always very effectively. The metro is apparently the only underground in the world that has no maintenance fund, only having money spent on it in emergencies, so many of the cars running on it are condemned as being unfit for human transportation. Later, as we boarded another train Gene breaks the conversation with “…oh, by they way, we are now travelling in one of those death traps”. Still, I felt safe, if only by the law of averages as there had been a derailment only yesterday. We walked back via a pub that sold a good array of decent beers, the first such beer as I have had in a very long time, but unlike the rest of the country the capital has not been hit by the recession, there will always be work for the government, so good beer comes at a good price, but the place was packed.

On Sunday morning I made my way on foot to the cathedral. The whole route was walked through the narrow channels cut through the snow, or in the road. I was there to ring the bells and the most challenging ringing chamber I have ever had to find. I knew I had to go up a lift but there were 4 and the little official people wouldn’t let me up before the end of the service, besides, none of them really knew how to get there anyway. I eventually got there about 45 minutes later. Unfortunately they were only ringing 6 of the 10 as 4 bells had snow and ice on them which they could not remove. The ringing was good, they have a very competent band there. The cathedral was a wonderful building and sits on the highest spot in the city giving fantastic views all around. Inside it is crammed packed with stained glass and on a lovely sunny day the coloured light streamed in. One of the windows had a bit of stone from the moon in it, that is if you believe the Americans actually landed on the moon. There is also an ex president buried there. Being the National Cathedral, everything around here is ’National’, the 50 state flags were hanging in the nave, the church filled with the wonderful sounds of the organ, then later the impressive choir. I survived another metro ride to take me to the Mall. This is an impressive open space almost 2 miles in length and about a quarter of a mile wide with the Capitol at one end and a large memorial to Abraham Lincoln at the other with the sides cram packed with impressive buildings, mainly government departments or museums. I made for the National Gallery and a good day was made even better by seeing 5 Van Gogh’s in the impressionist section. Gene and I ate a block away from home in a restaurant cum bookshop known for its human rights campaigning. They are currently collecting 100,000 pairs of shoes to be dumped on the steps of the Capitol, one pair for each innocent life lost in Iraq.

I walked down to the White House (photo), much smaller than I expected. I checked out some of the fabulous museums, but had to be security checked at each one. At the Holocaust Museum I again had to put everything including belt, wallet, watch etc through the x-ray machine “This is worse that being at an airport” I joked, “No it’s not” I was informed as I was taken aside. My bag was being rubbed with a small cloth which was then put into a machine “What’s that in aid of? “ I asked, “We are checking for explosives” came the reply. This was part for the Smithsonian Museum, you could spend a week going around them and still only scratch the surface. It even has a separate building, a castle, just for information on the museums. I went it, I was told to go through another security check. This was one too many, I really couldn’t be bothered to go through all that again just to pick up a piece of paper that would tell me the opening times. Do the Americans really think that a terrorist is going to target what is basically an information kiosk? “Hell, they have blown up our embassies on foreign soil, they have targeted the world trade centre, who knows, the information kiosk may be next!” I can’t help thinking it is all political. Instil a little fear into everyday lives of people and that will make them feel threatened and the political decisions and measures can then be justified. Next stop was the National Air and Space museum where the centre piece for me was the actual aircraft used for the first ever flight by the Wright Bothers. I didn’t know they used to make bikes and what’s more, they have lasted better than mine! In the centre of the Mall sit’s the impressive Washington Monument, an obelisk type structure that stands head and shoulders above any other building here. When it was built it was the highest building in the world, but only for 5 years when the Eiffel Tower doubled the height. Now it is classed as the tallest freestanding stone structure in the world. A lift takes you to the top for views of…..snow! From the top I could see the ground below us through the snow, but little else. There was lots of blurb around on the life of George Washington, the first American President and a very important figure in American history. They told us how he was first in war, first in peace, a humble, humane man, they were full of superlatives for him. They also informed the visitors that it stated in his will that “his slaves were to be set free when he died”. Slaves? He wasn’t THAT humane then? It snowed all afternoon but thankfully never settled. As I walked home I witnessed a dodgy transaction, probably drugs. A quick handshake and a small package was expertly exchanged for a bundle of cash and hands then quickly disappeared into pockets. Later I told Gene about it “Did you see if it was a politician or a policeman? It is normally one of those people” he answered. If I tell you that Gene has a beautifully furnished house, doesn’t like to cook so eats out almost everyday, and has a Porsche in the garage, you may get an idea of his lifestyle, very different to mine. Clearly our wallets are very different too, mine is taking a right bashing at the moment, but I can not deny that I am eating good American food and excellent beer. Last night I was taken to one of Gene’s favourite bars. They have 6 cask ales and other 50 on tap and a huge array of bottled beer from around the world. In the fridge in front of me stood a bottle of Hook Norton, and in the folder I was handed which is updated weekly and takes 2 days to do an update, they even listed it as ‘Hooky’. They have a new refrigeration system here, it cost $100,000 but at the prices they are charging it should have paid for itself within a few minutes. It is funny how your mind can quickly adjusts to different prices scales. You can have a 3oz taster for $3-4, a bargain I thought as you can then taste a few. But hang on a minute, that is still about £2.50 and more than I used to pay for a pint when I left home. Hooky was $13 a bottle, I thought I could wait just a little longer!

Sunday 7 February 2010

Day 991 - Still in Richmond

Hey, another week on and I am still in Richmond. To make matters even worse I have hardly moved from the house. Dawn went off in a retreat on Monday and kindly allowed me to stay in her house whilst I was away saying “I really can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t stay here”. This is the sort of thing that makes me feel so good about the world, being trusted in that way even though I had only met just over 48 hours ago, though she did rather put me in my place by adding “You are on a bike, you couldn’t steal much anyway”, but I know what she meant. I am only the second Couch Surfer that Dawn has hosted and I was asked to be very quiet when her parents phoned as “They don’t really get this Couch Surfing lark and would probably go nuts is they heard I was leaving in the house alone for a few days.”

Dawn departed Monday, the snow was still deep, but the main roads were clear enough, but the cold nights had made it icy. I rode up to the local mall in the afternoon and was very glad not to be moving on. A little rain as the sun was going down and the roads were soon covered in a thin layer of ice so I had to be very careful when braking and heading in anything other than a straight line. Wednesday was a little better. To be honest I perhaps could have made a move but with a big snow storm with a special delivery for Washington D.C. it was perhaps a wise decision to stay put. Thursday was even better and by this time I was getting so bored that I was cleaning things amongst all my crap that I carry that had never been cleaned before. I read more books and tried to keep myself busy.

Dawn surprised me by arriving back early Friday morning. I had expected her back either Thursday evening or Saturday. “More snow is forecast for the next couple of days. 24 inches are expected where I was so I decided to leave before it started” she told me. Just minutes after her arrival it started snowing and snowed pretty much the whole day. It did its best to snow all day Saturday, but I made my way out on foot to the mall, I needed fresh air. Snow on the driveway was deep, but on the main road it was just a deep slush. All the shops in the mall were shut due to the weather apart from the supermarket. I sat in its coffee shop watching life go by. Here not only do the customers stand around and watch the staff bag up their groceries, they also watch them push the trolley out to their car and loaded into the trunk (boot). I am thinking about starting my own service here, for a couple of bucks I will eat it for them!

So not having much to write which ironically comes at the same time that I need to fill my time by waffling a little, I thought I would answer some questions that have been asked recently and forgot to answer in the previous post. As I remember there were 3 questions. Aoiffe asked about cleats, the funny things in the bottom of cycling shoes. Yes, mine do have cleats, but not the silly ones that you see some cyclists wearing that makes them walk like a penguin. There are all sorts of cycling shoes and mine are classed as ‘touring’. Mine are the only pair of shoes I carry (currently soaking wet from walking in the snow) so I chose them because they don’t actually look like a cycling shoes, so when worn with non cycling clothes they at least look sort of normal, in fact they probably look more normal than the rest of me. The cleats are reasonably flush with the bottom on the sole so you can only hear them when walking on rough concrete type materials when they grind the surface. They aren’t great for walking in as the metal on the sole tends to make them a bit slippery. Jacs asked to hear Anav’s (of the Twelve Tribes Community) answer when I stated to him that we both considered that we were leading our lives the way God intended us to, so we couldn’t both be right. He told me that each of us were at different levels of spiritual understanding and knowledge and that God wanted us to live the way we were to further our learning and growth. Oddly enough I have since read that same thing in a book, but talking about different religions and it would seem to make perfect sense to me. Finally Frances asked what country I would be visiting next. Well, my days on this journey are coming to an end. I have always acted and headed to where feels ‘right’ at the time, so consequently my journey has taken me further and lasted much longer than I ever expected, but now the time is right for me to return home. From New York I will fly to London and from there it is just a short cycle home. Then I will stop, but for how long I just can’t tell you, I have no idea myself.

Having been for a walk in the snow this morning and seen that there is thick ice covering the whole of the road, it does not inspire me with confidence for hitting the road tomorrow, but somehow I have to get out of this place. The weather is forecasting more of the stuff on Tuesday and Wednesday, so it looks as though my plans for route through to New York are going to have to be changed. It looks as though it is going to be main roads the whole way, though I guess I should just be thankful if I can just get through without having another accident. As requested, a few snow photos for you, more will be uploaded to the album in due course. Sorry Harpo, still none of the bike deep in snow, I am a wimp and staying nice and warm through it all.

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.