Month: October 2014

Killing Time

I’ve spent the last few days killing time, as well as swapping hemispheres and seasons and climate. It’s all a little bit disorientating.

I actually tried to use LA’s ‘public transport system’ to kill some of the time I had before the flight went on Saturday evening. I even gave it a chance to take me to the city centre. It failed.

Having waited for an inordinate amount of time for a bus connection to the city, I headed for the beach instead. When I got to the end of the tram line, I discovered I was still two miles away. I waited for another bus. Nothing.

I gave up trying to actually get anywhere, and went for a burger. And then to LAX for my flight away. At least the airport looked nice (or as nice as airports can) as night fell.

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Having struggled to kill eight or nine hours of wait time on Saturday, I killed Sunday effortlessly. By the time dawn broke after about 11 of the 13 hour flight, it was already Monday morning in New Zealand.

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I presume that there’s some tedious law of physics which prevents one from fast-forwarding the date constantly by zipping across the International Date Line. Which is probably a shame, but would also probably make very dull sci-fi.

What’s important for me is that the IDL is directly opposite the Greenwich Meridian where I started. I’m actually halfway round the world. Strangely, every mile west from here takes me closer to home.

Of course, time will have the last laugh again. I’ve used up both my ‘big ocean fast-forwards’, meaning that the vast majority of the rest of the trip will be overland. And therefore slow. I’ve just left the Beast with a local bike shop to prepare.

Auckland feels very much like home initially. There are the obvious marks of proper civilisation. The roads are the right way round. The Queen’s head is on the money. People can spell properly. And it’s drizzled constantly since I arrived.

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It’s actually more complicated than that, of course. Auckland city centre is gridded, like an American city. There are US chains which haven’t made it to Europe, but flourish here. There are masses of kebab houses, sushi bars and Chinese students, adding an Asian tinge to the culture. And of course, there is the Maori influence too.

So it’s very much like home, and a quite different at the same time.

It promises to be an interesting few weeks exploring NZ. The volcanic north island, the fjords in the south. The whole place looks stunning (when it’s not shrouded in rain). It also looks hilly, which makes me happy I’ve got time to explore properly.

Just hope the drizzle stops occasionally…

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The Road to La-La Land

I didn’t intend to head for Los Angeles when I made my half-baked ‘plans’ for this trip.  I didn’t really intend ever to head for LA.  I’m not a celeb-spotter, a wannabe-actor or a psychotic stalker (as far as I know).  And I’m deeply suspicious of anywhere where you can actually see the air you’re breathing (and you can, believe me).

But then my planning wasn’t especially extensive, and I initially intended to fly to New Zealand from Chile.  There are no direct flights from San Diego, so Los Angeles it had to be.  I had to leave the friendly embrace of ‘America’s finest city’ (the locals’ own description, naturally), and head up the coast.  A gentle 120 miles or so in three days, with only the last thirty-ish miles through the sprawling suburbs of southern LA.

I was familiar with the northern Californian coast from a road trip a few years back.  I really liked the meandering coastal highway, with the redwood trees, cliffs, beaches and sleepy little towns.  Southern California is a bit different.

After a first day cruising gently out of San Diego, through its northern suburbs and the seaside towns up the coast, things got a little more exciting on day two.  You need to cross the giant US military base at Camp Pendleton, which appears to be a little schizophrenic about cycling.  For the northern half of the base area (the second section for me), there’s a nice tarmac cycle track along the coast, merging into a state beach area.  This is genuinely nice.

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Unfortunately, the southern half of the base essentially cuts off every road apart from the Interstate, leading to a hairy 12-or-so miles along the glass-strewn hard shoulder, with the traffic doing a minimum of 70 mph next door.  This is nice only in a particularly sarcastic way.

On the plus side, you get to see the US Marines playing with their toys.  I’m not sure whether innocently taking long-lens pictures of military aircraft doing circuits and bumps on the beach gets foreigners into trouble in these paranoid days.  Especially while standing on US military property.  So I found the picture below, which gives a decent impression of what was going on around me (including the huge sand clouds) as I trundled through the base area.

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Having traversed Pendleton, and cleared the sand from your eyes, lungs and crevices, there are a few more miles of seaside towns full of wealthy and semi-wealthy people before you hit the LA suburbs proper (I reckon LA starts a few miles before Long Beach).  I’ve seen more ‘all-too-well-known Seattle-based coffee shops’ in the last three days than in the whole of the rest of the way across the US.  This, I’m assured, is a sign of wealth.

A few more idyllic miles of beach-side cycle path followed, albeit with the dark smudge of LA’s halo of smog darkening the horizon.  This is the bike path along Huntingdon Beach, which is really very pleasant:

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And then an adrenaline-spiked, two-hour rush through southern LA.  I’m not entirely sure what happens to me when you put me on a bike in traffic, but it must be a relic of commuting in London.  Self-preservation requires hyper-awareness, eyes-in-the-back-of-my-head, and fairly (arguably very) aggressive riding between hundreds and hundreds of traffic lights.  The alternative is getting messily squashed.  It’s actually quite fun, in an extreme sport sort of way.  And it’s an absorbing enough game that you don’t notice how tiring it is.

Anyway, I arrived near LAX airport yesterday afternoon (Wednesday), leaving plenty of time to prep the bike for a long, long flight on Saturday evening.  Needless to say, I found a bike box within an hour or so this morning, so have an extra day to kill tomorrow. Not sure that I can find enough to keep me busy out here near the airport.

So maybe I will, despite my best intentions, end up in the centre of Los Angeles.  How unexpected.

Plan B

Five nights in the San Diego area so far, and one more to come.  I’m hitting the road again tomorrow morning (Monday).  But there’s been a bit of reflection, thinking, reality-checking and re-planning going on.  If you’ve read the ‘About’ page, you know I never made any promises about sticking to the original plan.

There’s also been a bit of ‘rest and relaxation’ at a busy travellers’ hostel, which has led to me needing some rest and relaxation.  It’s hard work keeping up with the youngsters nowadays.  Especially when you discover that you genuinely are older than some of their parents.  Ouch!

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I’ve learned a few things along the way on this trip.  Not entirely surprising, as this is my first long bike ride.  I knew I could manage my target mileage, at least in the short term.  I knew that I’d be happy travelling by myself most of the time.  And I knew that other tourers can complete long-term, intercontinental touring on miniscule budgets.  It only made sense that I could do the same, so I planned accordingly.

But here are a few of the more relevant pieces of knowledge I’ve attained over the last few months:

1.  While I can maintain a 50-mile-a-day average, it’s a little too athletic for my liking (this might be a roundabout way of saying that I’m a bit lazy).

2.  If I’ve spent a day straining and sweating on a bike, I really need a shower if there’s one available.  And I’m willing to spend money to have one.  I tried the wild camping thing, and after due consideration, have decided that it’s generally best left for dire emergencies, or places where there is nowhere at all to stay (this might be a roundabout way of saying that I’m getting too old to be filthy for days on end).

3.  If you add together the first two points, you still get a cheap (in terms of daily cost) trip.  But you don’t get one that’s going to cover all six rideable continents and three years.  Or at least, not without a much, much bigger budget.

So… Reality bites.

I really wanted to ride central and south America.  I also really wanted to ride around the world, from London to London.  But it’s very clear that I can’t (realistically) do both in one go.  I’ve had to work out what the priority is, and focus.

Going around the world generally involves moving in one direction.  Going to south America in the way I intended would take around a year, and cost a year’s worth of money.  And it would take me backwards in terms of moving around the world.  Heading directly around the world by heading to New Zealand would take 13 hours, and cost £600.  And it would take me a long way (a very long way) forward in terms of moving around the world.

There’s only one answer here.  South America will have to wait.  I’m flying to Auckland from LA on Saturday evening.  This is a bit gutting.  I was really looking forward to south America, as I’ve never been.  But it’ll probably still be there for a while.

On the other hand, there are some pluses.  I can keep a realistic daily budget for the trip.  I won’t have to live in hedges and eat earth all the way home.  And it’s probably only about 18 months from New Zealand, so people at home can buy me congratulatory pints sooner.  And I will circumnavigate the world on a bike, which is important.

So, it’s hobbits instead of tequila (a choice I never thought I’d have to make).

I tipped my hat to latin America yesterday, with an evening in Tijuana, Mexico.  It was very chilled out, clean and safe feeling despite the dire predictions of various people I’ve spoken to (and chunks of the international media).  And at least I can say that I’ve been to Mexico.  For a couple of hours.

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The frustration of knowing that ‘TJ’ would be as far as I got in latin America was offset a bit by some delicious beer, and a pile of tasty quesadillas with slightly alarming chilli sauce.  I think I could have got used to that sort of diet…

San Diego seems like a really nice town too.  No obvious ‘no-go’ areas, and easy access to the ocean, the mountains, and Mexico.  And some interesting buildings as well.  But I’ve been still and procrastinating for too long.  It’s time to head on.

20141017RTW_9I never intended to go anywhere near LA, but it’s where the flight is.  I’ll be meandering up the southern Californian coast over the next few days, and then repeating the ‘find a box, pack the bike, cross your fingers that the baggage handlers are real human beings’ process that I perfected in Lisbon.  It should be early summer in NZ, and I can take it fairly easy through there before hitting Australia to start the long ride home.

Still sounds like quite a good trip, actually…

 

Erm, What’s that Big Blue Thing?

Turns out it’s the Pacific Ocean.

Three months and two days after leaving London, I seem to have emulated the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and (inexplicably) One Direction, and ‘broken’ the States.  It’s an odd feeling; with the time-warping properties of bicycle travel, it seems like I’ve been in the US for ever and for five minutes at the same time.  And it hasn’t really sunk in yet that I’m apparently capable of riding a bike across a continent.  Odd…

The day before yesterday, I was still in the desert.  Another blistering drag across a sandy and featureless landscape, with just the coastal mountains getting closer on the horizon to reassure me that I was making progress.  Still close to a hundred in the shade, if there had been any shade.  Thankfully, I had the sense to make it a shortish day after the 90-miler previously, so I didn’t have too many hours of the ‘sunscreen in eyes’ thing to put up with.  I’d have struggled to make it any further in any case, as the long desert run had really taken it out of me, and I was feeling fairly rough.

20141014RTW_1By yesterday, I was feeling much better, but those mountains had become a reality.  There are 30-mile rides and there are 30-mile rides.  This one was 30 miles of uphill.  With over 1100 metres, or 3500ft, of vertical gain, it was also (slightly oddly) the biggest single climb of the trip so far, just because it started near sea-level, rather than from much higher up.  It felt like it too, although at least the temperature dropped to comfortable levels with the increasing elevation.  And that scent of pines, which I’d been fantasising about in the desert, was back for real for the last few miles.

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Just before the last major section of climbing, I met Don (“call me Rainbow – everyone else does” – I didn’t even ask…).  He was yet another super-impressive pensioner, who’d just spent five hours thrashing a mountain bike over the same hills I was puffing up.  And who looked as fresh as a daisy.  He was giving out free apples which he’d pinched off someone’s tree further up the hill.  Sixty-four going on fourteen.  It was nice to chat, but I was exhausted in a matter of minutes.

After a rest and junk-fuel lunch at a shop, and recovering slowly from the encounter with Rainbow, I ground on up the hill.  Ten minutes later, I was stopped again, this time after meeting Tim and Laura Moss, a pair of Brits who are on the final leg of their round-the-world ride.  I tried to sound knowledgable and experienced with the cycle touring stuff, but given that they’ve been 14 months on the road, and are just nipping across the US before getting home for Christmas, I didn’t really have much to offer except admiration.

Thankfully, getting to the beautiful little town of Julian at the top of the climb restored my self-worth a wee bit.  I’d nailed the big climb.  My dodgy knee was actually feeling better than it had in the morning, which was good, but peculiar.  And I was only a day away from San Diego.

20141014RTW_12I celebrated (arguably a little prematurely) with a giant spicy burrito.  That’s not some sort of euphemism, by the way.  Just dinner.  I wandered round town for a while, breathing in those pine scents, and marvelling at the change from the arid, super-heated desert just a few miles away.  It’s a completely different world given that it must take less than an hour in a car (even though the roads are small and twisty).  Amazing.

And then today.  Basically just a 60-mile plunge down from the mountains to the sea.  Ignoring a couple of nasty hills which provided a little sting in the tail.  Another completely different climate, with drizzle threatened overnight, and extremely moderate temperatures.  And a couple of entertaining hours on main roads, playing with trucks and buffoons in cars.  I haven’t seen this much traffic since Portugal; such fun!

I was even welcomed into the area by a pair of F15s (I think – they were a little way away), which were circling the big military base at Miramar.  Really nice of them to make the effort to mark my arrival.  Must remember to write them a ‘thank you’ note…

But more important to me than the weather, the military or the traffic was hitting the Pacific at La Jolla Cove at half-past four this afternoon.  I immediately handed my camera to the nearest total stranger to capture the magic moment.  He did OK.  And he gave the camera back.

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And that was it.  Across a continent on a heavy, heavy bicycle.  Job done.

What next?  A rest in San Diego (probably a week or so), and a tedious period of financial calculations to work out quite how badly I’ve obliterated the budget.  Probably some fairly radical surgery to Plan A to compensate.  Certain places may no longer have the future pleasure of a visit from me to look forward to.  If you see what I mean.

But at least I know I can get around the world on a bike now.  Whether I will or not is down to a vast amount of factors, only some of which I can control. I can’t be worrying about stuff all the time.

So, fingers crossed for the next stage; I’ll tell you exactly what that looks like as soon as I know!

A Day in the Life

Today was always going to be a toughy.  It’s hot here, and today was my second-longest day of the trip so far, at around 90 miles.  Across the desert.  With barely any shade or supply points.  I was a little worried about it, to be honest.

I’m writing about it, which clearly destroys any jeopardy or suspense I may try to inject into this post.  Likewise, the desert, while impressive, is not especially photogenic, except in a few places.

So I have a choice.  A short, to the point, post to reassure those who give a monkey’s that I made it OK.  Or something a little different, trying to give you a flavour of what a long, hot day in the saddle actually looks and feels like.

I’m thinking that the latter potentially garners more hero points, so here we go…

The alarm goes off in the dark.  6am.  Urgh!  I’m dreadful in the morning, or at least until I’ve got some caffeine on board.  But with darkness falling again just after 6pm in this neck of the woods, I need all the daylight today.  Plus, an early kick-off at least means serious miles before it gets too hot.

Check the weather.  93F is forecast (that’s 34C in new money).  In the shade.  The road’s always much hotter, but could be worse.  Sun-hat or helmet?  Stick with the helmet for now, see how it goes.  Check The Beast.  Mechanically fine, a little air needed in the rear tyre, a little of my bizarre (blue coloured, strawberry flavoured) chain lube to keep things smooth.  Water?  Two 1.5 litre bottles in addition to the usual two bike bottles.  That’s 4.5 litres.  Enough?  Not sure.  Think there’s only one chance to buy more en route.  Check my own fluid levels.  Drink two kilos of extra weight.

Ablutions.  No point in washing with a sweaty day ahead, but gain shiny white teeth and fresh breath, and lose a bit of the extra weight I just put on.  ‘Nuff said.

Pack the bike.  Rear panniers, front panniers, bar bag.  Add the tent, and the high-calorie food I bought last night; bread, plastic cheese, cookies and crisps (that’s ‘chips’ for the Americans).  Extra classy and decent calories-per-gram.  Good.  Still need to eat before I head off, though.  And get that caffeine in.  Quick sweep to ensure I’ve not forgotten anything.

Somehow, it’s already seven-fifteen.  No idea how I take so long to get ready, but I seem to be stuck with it.

Quick calories and coffee required to kick things off.  A mile-and-a-half into town to the Golden Arches and a fat boy’s breakfast (well, they’ve got a special on, and two of everything is definitely required).  Pop next door to the gas station.  Bottle of multi-vit-reinforced water to keep hydrated.  Sunscreen application number one (factor 50 – no messing about).  Shades replace specs, crash helmet and gloves on.  I’m ready, finally.

Seven forty-five.  On the road.

Twenty or so uneventful miles across the valley towards the desert.  Then a bonus; one last gas station before the end of civilisation.  A bucket of lemonade from the soda fountain and some chocolate.  More empty calories, which is exactly what I need.

Into the desert.  The road’s pretty easy, but the heat’s building already.  The sunscreen and sweat mixture is picking up dust and diesel from passing trucks.  Lovely.  It’s all getting a bit gritty; standard problem, though.

Just after eleven, I meet a couple on touring bikes coming the other way.  We stop for a chat, cleverly placed just under the brow of a small hill, alarming oncoming truck drivers for a few minutes as we discuss routes, bikes, and all the usual stuff.  They are doing my ride today in reverse, but left long before dawn to avoid the worst of the heat.  I’m duly ashamed of my morning tardiness, and a little worried about having to ride through that heat myself.  No matter, I’m committed now.

The road starts to rise.  It’s not steep, and not especially high, but it rises in waves, due to being built on a dune system.  It’s hard to get a decent climbing rhythm, and the sunscreen-sweat-road muck combo is making a beeline for my eyes as my fluid intake comes straight back out through my skin.  More stops for food, water and eye-sluicing.  Tricky balance; do I want to see clearly, or make sure I’ve got enough to drink?

Around 1pm, I’m hitting the top of the drag.  There’s a building, which is the first shade I’ve seen all day.  It turns out to house a bunch of Border Patrol agents searching for illegal immigrants.  They let me cool off in one of their vehicle-search bays, as long as I stay out of the way.  Shade feels good.  More water.  More sunscreen.  And off again.  Still wondering why they didn’t check the documents of the only obvious foreigner in the area…

Two-thirty.  After another twenty-ish miles of rolling road, sweat and itching road grime, I hit the gentle downhill to Imperial sand dunes.  The couple I met earlier told me there was a shop.  I stop.  Massively overpriced, but really don’t care.  An extra litre of water, a Coke, and an ice cream to drop my core temperature out of the red.  Third application of factor 50.  Half-an-hour cooling off in the shade.  Just enough time for a headwind to spring up to obstruct my last 27 miles.  Grr…  Unpack the Cycling Zen, check the clock (should still be just OK for daylight).  Roll out for the last stretch at three.

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The sand dunes are spectacular, which makes the next few miles easier.  Then it’s back to the grind.  Trying to think about other things to deflect negative thoughts about the wind and the nasty sunscreen-dirt muck, which is in both eyes now.  Notice that the desert doesn’t smell of anything other than the occasional road-kill victim.  The warm pine smells of the Rockies were nicer.  I try to pretend I’m still there.  I pass sea level (going down), which ruins the Rockies fantasy.  There isn’t even a sign, which is a bummer.

Fatigue and heat kick in properly for the last ten miles.  And the usual (literal) pain in the backside from a long day’s riding.  Stopping every few minutes for water, and to relieve pressure on delicate areas.  Racing the falling sun towards Brawley.  I’m knackered, but I’m going to make it.  Just.

Roll into town at five-thirty.  Thermometer shows 97F, still, despite the fact the sun’s nearly gone down.  Find place to stay.  Shower immediately (ah, the itchy, sweaty, nasty gunk is gone until tomorrow!).  Food.  More liquid.  Consider a celebratory beer (it is Saturday, after all).  Decide against (on the basis of dehydration risk).  Check wi-fi.  Write some bits and bobs.  Shortly to sleep.

Tomorrow?  Same again, but only about 40 miles; good chance for a lie-in…  Then it’s over the coastal range, and a drop to the Pacific.  And probably back to normal reporting.  This is exhausting just to re-read…

 

Today in numbers:

Distance – 91 miles (145km);

Hours from start to finish – 8hr 45min;

Hours moving – 6hr 55min;

Average Moving Speed – 13 mph (21 kph)

Climbing – 456m (1496ft);

Max Shade Temperature (conservative estimate) – 100F (38C);

Sunscreen Applications – 3;

Approx litres of fluid drunk – 8.5l

Other Cycle Tourers Met – 2

 

California’s East Coast

It’s been a couple of fairly quiet days.  I’ve been within sight of my last US state, California, since the run-in to Lake Havasu City.  But I only crossed the border yesterday.

Here’s a view of California from Arizona, in the slightly bizarre desert drizzle (courtesy of the remnants of Hurricane Simon):

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Why so apparently slow?  Well, I’m in the middle of a desert.  For the last couple of days, I’ve followed the Colorado river south, as there are plenty of towns and small resorts where I could get water and supplies.  And there’s a large chunk of barren emptiness between the river and the coastal mountain range before San Diego.  I needed to head south to find a manageable route across (i.e. less than 100 straight miles of nowt).  I don’t really want to get stuck out there.

Following the Colorado river south gave me plenty of time to inspect California’s little-known ‘East Coast’.  The river is quiet (hard to imagine that it’s the same river that cut the Grand Canyon), and is dotted with small RV and trailer resorts, where people go to swim, boat, jet-ski and generally chill out.

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The picture above is pretty typical of the ‘coast’.  The left bank is Arizona.  The right bank is California, complete with small RV resort.  The road is where I should have been riding, apart from a small navigational issue.  Out of shot to the left is the busy highway I ended up on, complete with stacks of diesel-belching trucks.

I finally left Arizona yesterday, south of Parker.  En route to the border, I stopped only when flagged down by a man in a van going the other way, who swerved halfway across the road while waving a tin of spam at me.  I’m still not clear if this is a standard Arizona leaving present.

And somewhere just after that, I hit the 4000-mile mark for the trip.  Another little milestone, and a nice complement to hitting my final state.

About five miles further on, my left knee began to give me grief.  It’s been a little bit dodgy since Kansas (I think as a result of riding on an angle while leaning into cross-winds), but seems to respond well to rest.  Just hope I can limp as far as San Diego to give it a few days off to recover properly.

In any case, (yet) another rest day today so that the knee (and the rest of me) is fresh for the 90-ish mile desert run tomorrow.  It’s amazing to think that it’s only a week or so since I was sleeping in my down jacket at well over 2000m altitude; tomorrow’s run to Brawley will leave me below sea-level, and the daytime temperature is back into the 90s.  And you can tell you’re in California from the sudden appearance of millions of palm trees in every town.

IMG_0331Assuming the desert goes OK, it should only be three or four days from here to the real Californian coast.  I’ve nearly knocked off a crossing of North America on a bike, which is an odd thing to contemplate.  Anyway, a few more days of sore knees, legs and derriere to go before I get there…

Different Strokes

There are different ways of ‘doing’ Route 66.

You can do it end to end, all the way from Chicago to LA.  You can dip in and out, zipping along the interstate between the interesting sections of the old road.  You can do it in a convertible car, or with a pack of like-minded Germans on Harleys or Scandinavians in camper vans.  Or you can do it on a bicycle, which is obviously the best approach.

In the same way, there are different ways of making money from the tourist traffic. In my mind, at least, there are right and wrong ways to do this.

My first impressions were that it was a nice enough road, generally dropping (always good) out of the hills, but spoiled by over-exploitation.  The ‘charms’ of Seligman, which is touted as a quintissential Route 66 town, were entirely hidden by rows of tourist buses.  People from all over  the world waving a thousand cameras kind of spoiled it for me.  As did the double-priced coffee and breakfast surrounded by moaning French pensioners (coffee not good enough, apparently) and squeaking Chinese teens (just generally over-excited).  It was all a bit cheesy and depressing.

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Riding away from tourist hell was something of a relief.  I had what turned out to be an over-optimistic plan to ride an 80-odd mile section of the old road to Kingman.  The fact that I didn’t manage to get on the road until half-past ten was not a good sign (getting up early has never been a strength of mine).  The heat that was kicking back in as my elevation decreased didn’t help.  It was quickly apparent that I wouldn’t make Kingman in a day.

I had developed a cunning back-up plan for just such a contingency, involving a motel I’d spotted online, so I was quite happy arriving there in mid-afternoon.  Until the toilets and other porcelain artifacts sitting outside the rooms made it fairly clear that the Frontier Motel was not currently open (apart from the gift shop).  And there was a grand total of zero alternative accommodation between there and Kingman.

Thankfully, it was time for another rescue from generous Americans.  Allen and Stacy bought the Frontier six months ago, and are gradually bringing the motel, cafe and shop back to its former glory.  Most importantly for me, they were happy to let a sweaty, smelly cyclist sleep on the floor of the not-yet reopened cafe.

IMG_0324They are a lovely family, who moved out (kids, dogs and all) with the aim of bringing a Route 66 landmark back to life.  There’s no intention to turn the place into another Seligman; they’re just really nice people working hard to re-build a small business in the middle of nowhere.  The contrast with Seligman’s disneyfied approach couldn’t be starker.  I wish them every success with it.

In the same way that there are different ways to earn tourist dollars, there are different versions of history.

I’m parked up in Lake Havasu City today (Tuesday).  Amazing that I can already see my last US state, California, across the lake.  The city is famous for only one thing: it’s the home of London Bridge.  I’ll be out later today to look at it properly, but this was my first view (sadly with a deeply attractive car park as foreground):

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There’s no doubt that it’s a bit weird to find a chunk of London in the Arizona desert, especially when I’ve crossed the replacement London Bridge so many times.  There’s a standard ‘stupid Americans’ story in the UK, which says that the intention was to buy the iconic Tower Bridge, and that they got this one by accident.  But dismantling and rebuilding the bridge stone-by-stone, with the intention of building an entire resort around it, is not the sort of accident that really happens.  Definitely still weird, though.

And ‘Bizarre History Week’ was topped off yesterday morning in Kingman.  I was finishing my coffee outside a well-known fast-food ‘restaurant’ when I was approached by what appeared to be a middle-aged homeless man.

I’m glad that I didn’t blank him, though, as he turned out to work for Howard Hughes’ son, who’s the rightful ‘world emperor’.  My informant had been battling a covert conspiracy by the royal families of Europe to take over the world for some time.  I only had time for one story, but it turned out that, at the age of four, he’d been sent to London to assassinate the King.  He’d succeeded, and escaped with his mother on a Constellation airliner.  The Queen was a bit miffed, and sent fighters to shoot the plane down (“it was like Swiss cheese”), which killed the pilots.  Thankfully, my friend had already been taught to fly by his Dad, and was talked down to a crash-landing in Paris.  The plane was so shot up that the tail fell off on landing, and he was presented with a pilot’s licence by the super-impressed Parisian air-traffic controllers.  A cynic may find this all a bit unlikely.  I’m just not sure where they found enough cushions for a four-year-old to see out of the plane’s cockpit.

In any case, I had hitherto been entirely ignorant of this important historic episode, and will be searching the internet carefully to find out more about it.

Plenty to ponder then, as I head into the last few days of crossing the continent.  I’ve got a tricky bit of hot desert to get across before the more temperate coastal zone, and there’s yet another hurricane dying off Baja California, which is pushing some rain and storms my way.  Should still be less than a week to the seaside, though.

Assuming the Queen doesn’t have me hunted down before I get there, that is…

 

Gripes and Moans. Oh, and Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon…

I expected to be without a decent internet connection from time to time on this trip.  Maybe India would be an issue, or Bolivia.  Probably Iran and parts of Africa.

What I didn’t expect was a giant vortex of internet blankness in the USA.

Ever since I left Colorado, and began crossing the Navajo Nation, almost everywhere I’ve stayed has claimed to offer wi-fi.  And yet, in each and every case, the promised connection has proved to be a mirage.  Sometimes so impossibly slow that I could sleep all night and wake up to find that my emails had still not downloaded.  Sometimes hardware so ancient and wheezing that my laptop and phone simply refused to have anything to do with it.  And sometimes a connection which would hold for a matter of seconds before evaporating entirely into the increasingly chilly autumnal wind.  I hope the locals have decent mobile internet coverage, because the rest of the infrastructure seems to be stuck firmly in the dark ages.

Having hit old Route 66 (much of which is now Interstate 40) at Williams, things seem to be on the up.  I even managed to upload a couple of pictures for this post, which is handy, as the last week or so has produced some tolerably decent views.

Dropping out of the Rockies, I had my sights firmly set on the high desert, and the genuinely world-famous sites of Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.  Perversely, given that both can be described as valleys, I had hard climbing days to both locations.  More sweating and sore legs than the big mountains had managed to produce.  And I think you’ll agree that the view from my campsite at Monument Valley was hardly worth the bother:

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Still, not to worry.  I met some lovely Californians there, who plied me with a four-egg breakfast(!) and an array of nuclear-powered energy gels and other tasty morsels.  And there was always the Grand Canyon left to redeem things.

I ploughed on determinedly into Arizona, hoping for some decent scenery, and fretting about the comms situation as well as a fairly immense storm that was apparently building from the west.  I distracted myself for half-an-hour by attempting to set up a ‘hero biker’ picture, using a road sign as a tripod.  This was the sixth attempt:

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It was pretty barren country, and the exposed landscape, together with large gaps between possible shelter, made it a challenging ride in the sunshine.  It would also be a dreadful place to get stuck in the last monsoon of summer.  I duly got stuck in the last monsoon of summer, about twenty miles short of Tuba City.

I’d already spent two hours cowering in the tiny sheltered doorway of a lonely trading post as the monsoon rain, hail, thunder and lightning let loose all around me.  Then there was a break, and I decided to make a run for the city.  All I needed was a ninety-minute lull in the weather.  Surely that wasn’t too much to ask?

Six miles past the gas station that marked the last shelter before town, and with ten or so miles still to go, the sky ahead turned black.  Literally black, with a few alarming purplish-orange patches.  And lightning ripping right the way across the horizon.  Eek.  I weighed up my options.  Push on toward Tuba City, and accept that I’d get soaked by the quickly-advancing storm front (plus maybe getting struck by lightning)?  Or turn around and run away?

I ran.  In full Bradley Wiggins time-trial mode.  Or maybe more like a middle-aged man lugging heavy bags.  If you’d seen that storm, you’d have done the same.

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Back at the gas station, trying to drag my breathing back to normal, I ran into an elderly Navajo gent called “Erm…, Ed”.  Despite the fact that ‘Ed’ was clearly fibbing about his name for some reason, I felt his pick-up truck was a better option for The Beast and I than either sleeping at the gas station or leaving shelter again that night.  ‘Ed’ duly repaid my trust by dropping me safely in the centre of town, our driving speed having been reduced to 15mph in places by the sheer volume of rain.  Thanks, ‘Ed’.

Once the storm cleared, I could press on to the Grand Canyon.  A downhill run to Cameron trading post, before a big climb out of Navajo country and up to the south rim at Desert View.  I rolled into Cameron feeling a little unsettled due to the shock of my second puncture of the trip, due primarily to the Arizona state sport of throwing glass bottles out of cars.  But thanks to the delay caused by fixing the flat, I gained a riding buddy for the Grand Canyon, Colin from New York.

Having someone to talk to up the near-1000m (3000ft-plus) climb up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon made the whole thing a lot easier (as I discovered in France, it makes the time zip past too).  And it was also good to have someone to confirm that the scale of the place is truly impressive (which is really difficult to convey on photos).

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We spent two nights at the Canyon, with a nice little 25-mile ride between campsites to soak up the immensity of the place.  The second morning, we woke to a herd of deer walking through the campsite, and then found our path to morning coffee blocked by a couple of completely unbothered elk.  And then a pretty gentle run down to Williams and old Route 66.  I’ll be following the legendary road west from here toward California, while Colin is heading east to rendezvous with a car for a cross-country drive back to NY.

So, back to solo tomorrow (Friday), getting my kicks on Route 66.  Maybe.  In any case, hopefully a shorter gap until the next update…