America - The Final Continent

July 31st, 2007

Yo folks,

Well I left Bangkok on the 21st of June after a sad farewell to Corinne. The doctors had given her the all clear to fly once a flight was available and so I felt able to leave without worrying too much. We’d been together 24/7 for 4 months and it felt strange to be heading off on my own again. Travelling together by bicycle truly is a baptism of fire for any relationship especially in SE Asia with it’s inherent risks but we’d gotten to the end closer than ever with plans to meet up once my journey was over.

I arrived in LA with the prospective of 1800 miles in 27 days to look forward to if I was to complete my round the world in under a year. It`d mean an daily average of close to 70 miles without a single day off. It was more than I`d averaged at any point in my journey and I didn`t hold much hope of managing it.

There was a number of factors which worried me. The first was that I hadn`t been healthy since falling sick in Vietnam. I`d have maybe three days where I felt good and then four days of stomach problems as well as feeling weak and nauseous. The second was the headwind I`d been warned about by everyone who knew anything about the Pacific Coast. My intention was to cycle LA to Seattle and everyone said I was looking at a month of headwind. The third factor was the terrain. The Pacific Coast isn`t renowned for being flat with constant rolling hills from Santa Barbara to San Francisco and then short sharp hills from there north. Things weren`t looking good.

Things went from not looking good to being bad quite quickly. I arrived in LA to find the airline had managed to lose my tent, sleeping bag and pedals. Tent and sleeping bag were a big problem but not as much as the immediate problem of being unable to propel my bike. I reported the loss to baggage claim and they responded with the complete disinterest I expect from baggage claim all over the world. Unless someone came over and smacked the guy over my head with my bag then I could forget seeing my things ever again.

I pushed Bessie out of arrivals to grapple with the immediate problem of getting myself some pedals. I saw a bus for Santa Barbara where I knew there`d be some bike shops. The bus driver pointed out that I couldn`t put the bike on the bus unless I had it boxed but after a bit of grovelling and an explanation of my predicament he let me and Bessie catch a ride to Santa Barbara.

I arrived in SB around 5pm and ran round looking for a bike shop which would stock the same style of pedals so that I could use the same shoes. No luck so it was a $200 bill for pedals and shoes. Things really were starting off a treat. Next I headed for an outdoor shop and bought a fleece sleeping bag liner just to get my through the first night and then it was some hard pedalling to get out of the suburbs of SB so I could find a place to wild camp for the evening.

I`d pretty much lost the first day and once I started on my way I got a taste of the headwind and it was brutal. I managed 60 miles and I reckon I spent 9 hours on the bike. I had the advantage of plenty of daylight hours but sitting on a bike for 9 hours into a headwind isn`t fun. I passed plenty of fellow tourers coming the other way all wearing that smug smile of people being pushed along by a 20 mph tailwind.

I had other problems as well. No tent. I`d been checking the weather reports and it looked like I`d be OK until I got to Oregon with the chance of rain increasing as I headed north. I decided to change my plans and stay in California. I decided to head north for 850 miles and then spin round and return to LA again. This had a number of advantages. First being I wouldn`t have to shell out another $200 minimum for a tent. Second being that I`d get some of that tailwind for the last two weeks of my journey. Apart from increasing my chances of finishing in under a year it`d mean I could enjoy the end of my journey that bit more. An obvious downside would be I wouldn`t get to see as much of America as I wished and I realise that any opinion I have about America are really an opinion about California.

I continued north into the headwind. The wind pretty much ruled my life. It dictated when I got up as I had to be up with the sun as the wind didn`t pick up till around 8 am. It dictated my mood as at 8 am I knew how bad my day was going to be ranging from bad to god damn awful. The wind was all I thought about and all I heard. I had little interest in my surroundings as it was just constant pain from when I got up till when I stopped cycling. Time moved at glacial pace. I`d received an email from a friend who couldn`t believe it was only a month till I was home but with the headwind that month may as well been another lifetime away for me. If I averaged 8 miles an hour for the day I was doing well and with 70 miles needed every day it meant 9 hours sitting in the wind every day.

The thing that made it bearable was the American people. I can safely say the people were the kindest and most interested I`d found anywhere in the world. I`d discussed this with people in the past who seemed to think the ‘have a nice day’ you get in McDonald’s is indicative of the sincerity of your average American but the two are completely unrelated. Ordinary Americans are genuinely kind. Everywhere I stopped people would ask what I was doing and where I was heading. Another great thing was the way Americans would always end a conversation by asking if I needed anything. They didn`t ask if I needed a ride or food but if I needed anything. An unconditional offer being the best type of offer. A bit weird was the constant offers of money. Maybe I needed to shave and wash more?

My route took me up Highway 1 which hugs the Pacific Ocean pretty much constantly. Most of the highways I`ve cycled in the world that bill themselves as a coastal drive could find themselves prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act. Not the American Pacific Highway. It`s just miles and miles of tarmac which is usually no more than a few metres from the crashing surf. A few Americans had warned me about the RV`s and the general traffic but when you`ve cycled Vietnam most roads in the world feel like the ones you see in car adverts.

As I headed north I continued to meet Americans from all walks of life from your aspiring American Dreamers driving their mobile palaces to the hobos who`d opted out. The great thing about travelling by bike is the range of people who will give you their time. A constant was their desire to discuss the war in Iraq which, in California at least, is universally opposed. I felt sorry for the people I met as they felt mislead by their own government and confused how what they saw as a chance to make the world a better place had ended up making things worse.

Eventually I reached San Francisco which ranks as one of the cities in the world I reckon I could live in. I read in the newspaper that a ‘cycle to work’ day had got 53% of commuters on their bikes which amazed me. We`ve had similar initiatives in England and still my daily ride to Bradford saw the same three cyclists I see every morning with thousands of people stuck in their cars on Bradford Road. That`s the interesting thing about America. We hear about fat people, big cars and the excessive consumption but it`s a place of extremes so while yeah those things do exist there`s also the plenty of people who ride to work everyday, people who have given up the car and dropped off the power grid. The media isn`t interested in that side of America so we just get fed the negative stereotypes. In San Francisco I slept in the Marin National Park which is just next to the Golden Gate Bridge and in the morning I awoke to views of the city, the bridge and Alcatraz.

As the days went by I noticed the people I met where changing. As you head north you leave behind the money orientated culture of southern California and head into hippy country. The smell of dope becomes more prevalent, the people become even more friendly and the anti-war sentiments grow stronger.

Maybe I was changing a little as well. I hadn`t shaved in a month or showered since Thailand and noticed I was becoming every hobo`s best friend. I like the hobos but for everyday conversation I like a spread of people and when a guy sat down in a mask and had a genuine conversation with me about how Paris Hilton was stalking him I figured it was time to find a river and have a shave and a good clean.

I hit the town of Mendocino which is another in a line of beautiful little Northern Californian Pacific towns. The great thing about cycling north of San Francisco is that there is a town every 10-15 miles but each town is small enough that it`s a pleasure to stop and chat to the locals. I`d been making good miles and was only 4 days ride from my turn around point so decided to give myself a break and buy some books. I hadn`t had time to read since Corinne had fallen sick and sometimes it`s great just to sit outside a cafe and watch the world go by with a good book.

I found a great little second-hand bookshop in Mendocino where I got chatting to Carl the owner. We had similar taste in books and I was able to recommend some books he`d never heard of and vice-versa. After hearing about my journey he offered me a place to camp. I headed up to his house to meet his wife Elaine. I had a feeling that even though he`d offered me a place to camp, if his wife decided I wasn`t a psycho then`I`d be offered a bed and a shower. I passed the wife test and spent a wonderful evening discussing books, music and politics. I was also offered that much needed and appreciated chance to shower and shave.

In the morning I left Elaine and Carl`s house and continued up to Fort Bragg and then a 2000ft climb then down to the town of Leggett. I`d kicked inland to the home of the Giant Redwoods some of which seem impossibly wide and had the pleasure of cycling up the famous Avenue of the Redwoods. The wind was having less effect inland and the trees were also giving me plenty of protection.

North of Klamath and I was 850 miles north of LA and it was time to turn round. It`d been a tough 850 miles, possibly the toughest of my journey so far. Sure I`d spent 30 days battling a headwind along the coast of Oz but that was a long time ago when I was probably fitter and far more enthusiastic. The last leg of the journey was proving to be the toughest and every morning I dreaded getting back on the bike and spending hours crouched up against the wind. I`d also developed an interesting and strange fear that something would happen which would stop me from getting to the end. A cycling accident being the obvious main fear. Where in the past I`d be nailing it full speed down big hills, tucked in for maximum speed, I was suddenly braking when the speed started to feel like anything remotely dangerous. If I saw I car at a junction I`d slow down to make until I was 100% sure they`d seen me. I think I even booked my flight home with Aer Lingus on the basis that the luck of the Irish would make sure I got back to England safe and sound.

Turning around and heading south was a revelation. I did 90 miles and then 100 miles the first two days. The wind which had tortured me for two weeks was suddenly my best friend and miles disappeared without me noticing. I think only someone who`s headed into a headwind for a long period of time can understand the joy and pleasure of suddenly being able to freewheel along flats and climbing hills with the speedo showing double figures. I now had time to look properly at the amazing scenery around me. I`d been told how great Big Sur was but I didn`t begin to appreciate it until I did it with a tailwind.

After 6 days of heading south and some big miles it was pretty much a dead cert that I`d finish the round the world in less than a year. I had a problem just north of San Francisco when my left crank snapped clean in half as I was climbing a hill. Turned out my previous shoes were a little wide and had worn away enough of the crank arm wall which weakened it enough to allow a crack to develop and after climbing out the saddle one to many times I snapped it in half. As always it was an opportunity rather than a problem and after 20 minutes and hitch hiking I was picked up by typical Californian surfer dude who`d finished hunting waves for the day and was heading home. I`d done enough surfing in South Africa to be able to understand his excited talk of off-shores and point breaks and passed an enjoyable 20 miles in his car before he dropped me at a bike shop and headed off to a waiting wife. I got lucky with the shop as they had a second hand crank arm which was the wrong colour and length but with 500 miles left to go I wasn`t willing to spend a possible $150 on an entire crankset and for $20 was happy to suffer a bit for 10 days or so with a wonky Bessie.

The 10th of July was my birthday but emails from friends and a phone call from Corinne meant I didn`t feel too alone. Plus as per usual the friendliness of Americans came through to save the day. I was cycling near Monterey when I met a guy called Ollie on his daily commute. After hearing about my journey and that it was my birthday he invited me for a meal out of the blue. I had a few hours before dark and the pressure of the miles was now off so I figured why not. We spent a good few hours in a restaurant having a few beers and some food and, as always with Americans, discussing politics and the Iraqi War. I had to leave when I realised I was losing light and with my camping spot still 8 miles down the road I knew I`d be doing some cycling in the dark. It was dark when I got to the place I`d be sleeping for the night and when a guy stopped in a pick up truck, I thought he was going to have a go at me for cycling in the dark with no lights but it turned out it was just another American being kind and asking if I`d like a lift to the next town.

I continued south with the wind at my back. North of San Luis Obispo I offered to help a woman who was struggling with her new bike. It was no big deal and it turned out she`d just misaligned the front wheel. I adjusted the brakes as well but all-in-all it was 5 minutes work. She asked me where I was heading and I told her about cycling round the world for cancer and as I left she asked me name. I only gave her my first name but when I stopped at the next town and checked my email I noticed she`d made a $100 donation to Macmillan which was just another example of the kindness of Americans.

Eventually I reached Santa Barbara which I thought was less than 100 miles north of LA which was perfect as I`d done 15903 miles and I wanted to pass the 16000 mile mark in England. I went into a hostel for the evening as I felt like a treat and figured a shower would be the least I could do for my fellow plane passengers. Ironically the hostel turned out to be anything but a treat as I`d forgotten how noisy hostels can be. Strange that I can sleep like a baby next to a three lane highway but put me in a dorm with a bunch of people asking each other the banal traveller`s questions of ‘where you been, where you going to’ till 3 in the morning and I can`t sleep a wink.

In morning I set out for LA and discovered I`d made a slight miscalculation. While SB is less than 100 miles north of LA if you can drive on the highway it isn`t if you`re on a bicycle and required to take alternative roads. It turned out it was 115 miles and so I crossed the 16000 mile mark just somewhere near Malibu but hey ho.

The next day I cycled into LA Airport and had my usual battle with the airport staff with regards to Bessie being unboxed. As much as I like America I can safely say they have the worst airport staff anywhere in the world. The increased security precautions seem to translate into an excuse to act like members of the SS. By the time I left JFK I was happy to leave American airspace and head for home.

In terms of people I met I`d say America was my favourite place but I`m also aware it`s the place I spent the least time. I noticed a pattern that places like NZ, where I spent a long time relative to it`s size, were the places I enjoyed the least. I left America with a real desire to go back and check the place out some more. For one I`m curious if the kindness and the intelligence of the people I met in California is the norm throughout the States. If so, then who voted for Bush? My impression of America is that it contains a diversity that people who live in smaller countries struggle to understand. I`d like to go and learn more about that diversity. I get the feeling the Pacific Coast just showed me a snapshot of American culture. I met some great people but then school kids in the inner city of Chicago are being killed at a rate of two a week. America is the land of extremes and everything in between. You have no real hope of understanding the place no matter who much insight you may think the media gives you. As I said I hope to go back one day and understand a little more.

Anyway that’s the end of the American section of my journey. I`ll do a summing up when I get some more time and a bit about how all this ended.

Lots of love as always,

Craig. XXX