Kansas to Colorado – the Sequel

To answer the question that I know has been burning in your minds since the last update: no, neither of my Indian SIM cards ever activated.  Hence the long gap between posts, again.

Needless to say, within half-an-hour of crossing the slightly shambolic, but unusually friendly border into Nepal this morning (Tuesday), I had a new, shiny, fully-functioning mobile internet connection.

A tiny, poor, landlocked country can make this work perfectly.  A country with both nuclear weapons and a space programme just messes you about for a fortnight without success.  Go figure…

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Anyway, it’s not been a bad few days to be off the air.  Almost nothing of interest has occurred, except that the unfortunate rash cleared up, and I developed a rather brutal cough from my daily doses of dust and diesel.

After crossing the Ganges (above) on the way out of Patna on Saturday, there’s been a lot of flat, flat country.  Fields, a few trees.  Then some more fields and a few more trees.  Northern Bihar is just like Kansas was.  Minus the soybeans and sweetcorn, but plus a total lack of driving standards.

Take five seconds to spot the two people in the picture below.  That’s about as exciting as things got…

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The roads were, at least, of a pretty reasonable quality.  Most of the way.  Nice, quick riding all the way from Patna to Motihari.  Motihari, for the trivia buffs amongst you, is the birthplace of George Orwell.  Who knew?

And then…

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The short, 35 mile run to the border at Raxaul yesterday was meant to be a formality.  Pan flat, and on an international highway to a reasonable-sized border crossing.  It might become a formality in a few years, once they’ve bothered to finish the road.  For now, it’s an unsurfaced nightmare, meaning that India (Part 1) finished in a cloud of dust and a rattling of racks and panniers.  An all-too familiar feeling for me and the Beastlet.

So, the verdict on India so far?  Nice food and people, but could do better in a few areas.  Like roads, driving standards, pollution, dirt, bureaucracy and (guess what?) internet connectivity for travellers.  Hopefully it will improve when I return for India (Part 2).

Nepal looked much the same for the first few kilometres.  This was fairly unsurprising, as the miles after the border are still part of the same plain as I’d been thrashing across for days.  And most of the lowland population there are ethnically Indian.

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But as soon as the road started rising into the first ripples of the Himalayas, things started to change.  The air cleared.  The road was a little bit lumpy in places, but not bad at all.  There was hardly any traffic, given that I’m piling up the main highway to Kathmandu.  And the scenery got quite pretty quite quickly, although I’m still very much in the foothills.  The high mountains should be spectacular.

And you can feel the culture change as well.  I’m only 60 kms up the road from India, but the feeling of Nepal is completely different.  There’s a significant wealth differential (India, on paper, is a lot richer than Nepal), so I was expecting the country to feel much poorer.

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But it doesn’t.  It feels much more relaxed (maybe because of the relatively low population).  And the town where I am this evening, Hetauda (picture above), has an unexpectedly European feel to it.  I had a wander along the smooth, wide pavements this evening.  Yes, that’s smooth, wide pavements!  You can walk around town without risking getting mown down or tripping over an exposed electrical cable!

Families were wandering about doing a bit of shopping or a bit of eating out.  Some drunks were playing in the traffic.  Almost British behaviour…

There’s a bar on the ground floor of the hotel, which feels like a nice cosy pub, and there seems to be more English spoken than in India, too.  And, of course, there are those big mountains looming at the end of the high street.

The Himalayas are just beginning, but I already feel like I’m going to like Nepal.  Now it just has to live up to my impression that it’s the subcontinent’s Colorado to northern India’s Kansas…


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:


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:


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.


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).


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…


Across the Great Divide

I might have to revise my comment of a few days ago about there being two types of people in Colorado.  I essentially implied that they were all either paranoid retirees or stoner-bikers.  It’s taken a few days, but I’ve worked out that people here are actually just more independent-minded, more thinking, and considerably less heavy (weight-wise) than those I’ve encountered elsewhere in the USA.

I headed out of Del Norte with a tiny headache on Saturday morning.  Mike and Kim at the Organic Peddler had arranged a party for one of their staff who was leaving the night before, and I’d been invited, which was lovely.  As tends to happen (at least to me), this had resulted in Mike, Mark and me sitting around in the late evening, having a long and rambling conversation about everything from sustainable building to US foreign policy.  I also had an invitation for breakfast at Patti and Gary’s (hoping I’ve spelled Patti’s name correctly) cabin by the Rio Grande.  They are both experienced offroad bike tourers, and it was lovely to eat out in the morning sunshine, overlooking the river, and discussing places we’d both been (like Spain and Portugal) and places I’ll be heading to (the Western US and Peru).  I startled a deer on the lane to the cabin, and saw another crossing the river as I left.  It was almost a shame to have to drag myself back onto the road, and head for the Great Divide.

20140921RTW_7Wolf Creek Pass is the highest pass on my US itinerary.  It was a fairly easy, but long, climb up from the valley, though it steepened up for the last couple of miles, and the combination of thin air and heavy bags meant I was forced to take my time.  Eventually, I pottered up to the top of the pass at 10857ft (3309m).  The pass is also on the Great Divide, meaning that (in theory) rain that falls on one side will drain into the Pacific, while on the other side, it will drain into either the Caribbean or the Atlantic.  Another landmark reached en route to the west coast.

Unfortunately, passing the Great Divide doesn’t mean it’s all downhill from here to California; there are still a few hills in the way.  But the descent off the pass was stunning.  I dropped nearly a thousand metres in half an hour (would have been even quicker if I’d not stopped a couple of times for photos), plunging down a wide, smooth but twisting road to the valley floor.  At an average of over 30mph.  There was a massive smile on my face all the way down; downhills feel even better when they’ve been earned by a big climb.

20140921RTW_8The other side of the pass (I got to Pagosa Springs that evening, and then on to Durango) is tourist country.  There are people from all over the states, and from many other countries, and prices which have risen to reflect the tourism.  It’s stunning countryside, and the riding is fairly easy, with gentle gradients between the hills (my thighs are disagreeing slightly about that last statement, but still…).

And there’s some hope for those wishing me a close encounter with bears (obviously out of a desire for me to have a great experience, not to be eaten or otherwise molested).  I met a biker last night, Nate, who was heading to Texas.  He’d seen a bear by the side of the road on the way in, and had the video to prove it.  So they are about.  Maybe I’ll catch a glimpse before I hit Utah in a couple of days.  But hopefully not from too close.


Two Tales of the Unexpected

First things first; congratulations to Scotland on making the right decision last night.  It would have been extremely odd to have returned to a completely different country to the one I left…

I’m having a day off in the nice little town of Del Norte today.  And pondering some oddities over my huevos rancheros and coffee this morning.

If I’d had to identify before I left home where the flattest day’s ride of the trip would be, the Rockies would not have been high on the list of candidates.  The French coast, maybe.  The plains of Kansas, maybe.  But not the Rockies.

And yet yesterday was the flattest day so far, with less than 100m (300ft) of climbing.  Very bizarre.

I climbed La Veta pass the day before, which took me to a height of 9413ft (just under 3000m), and then dropped into the valley beyond; a lovely 20 mile downhill, which was only slightly marred by being pursued relentlessly by a storm.  It never quite caught me, but meant I had to cut the day short at Fort Garland.  This left the whole of the flat valley bottom for yesterday.


The Holland-like flatness was a nice change of pace.  I seem to be fully adjusted to the altitude now, and the gentle 58-mile roll across the valley was a nice prelude to a day off.  There’s a bigger and steeper pass to come tomorrow, which is supposed to be stunning, so the rest day is well worthwhile.

I rolled into Del Norte and found another cyclists’ hostel.  This one is part of a fantastic little complex called Organic Peddler on the Edge, including a shop and cafe.  It was recommended by Debbie, who I met back in Newton, Kansas, about a hundred years ago.  The hostel has been set up mainly to cater for bikers doing the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, which runs nearly 2800 miles down the Rockies from Banff in Canada to the Mexican border.  Offroad.  If you think I’m doing a tough ride, think again…


I settled into the hostel, and was told that another biker would be arriving later.  Nobody seemed sure exactly when, but he was apparently a 70-year-old guy who was riding the Great Divide (again putting me to shame; 2000-odd miles offroad at 70?!?), and had decided to abandon as he couldn’t keep up with the rest of his group.  Some of this was true.

After a pizza and a couple of beers in town, I returned to an empty hostel.  I guessed maybe he hadn’t made it after all.

At about ten-thirty, there was a crunching of gravel outside, followed by a knock at the door.  A guy who looked to be in his late 50s stood in the doorway.  Dressed in a hospital gown, complete with wrist-tag and multiple wound dressings.

Clearly, he’d not had a good day.

It turned out that this was the 70-year-old I’d been waiting for, and that he was abandoning his Great Divide ride.  Not because he couldn’t keep up, but because he’d somehow (and he was no clearer on how than I was; I suspect alcohol may have been involved) managed to fall into his campfire, setting himself alight.  Thankfully, he’d been rescued by one of his companions, but not before sustaining severe burns.  He’d just got back to Del Norte after an air-ambulance trip to Denver.  Hope he’s got decent insurance…

So, the Rockies are being interesting already, and I’ve still got several days more to go.  Big climbs, hot springs, and beautiful scenery are what I’m expecting.  But who knows what other oddness may be on the way too?


Easing into the High Life

There seem to be two types of people in Colorado so far.

I pulled into Walsenburg on Sunday evening, after 75 miles of barren moors and climbing, with only a few giant wind turbines to keep me awake.


I was almost immediately assailed by a bewildering amount of “dude”ing from two guys on mountain bikes. They were excited by my bike, my trip, and because they’d never met anyone from “abroad” before. Once we’d cleared all that, what they really wanted to know was whether marijuana was legal in Europe.

Not that they really cared, as it’s legal here in Colorado, apparently. I didn’t get the impression they were intending to leave the state anytime soon.

And then today, having trundled a few miles up the road to La Veta, I met a lawyer who seemed to be an extremely worried man. My clothes are too blue; the awful drivers here won’t see me and will kill me. And when I get to Mexico, people will see me coming, then lie down in the street with ketchup everywhere, pretending to be hurt. They will then attack me “with machetes”, and steal everything I own. Where they’d get that much ketchup at short notice was never really explained.

I can understand why my lawyer friend moved here to get away from all the world’s perceived dangers. La Veta is a peaceful little town full of galleries and antique shops. Just the place for a nice cup of tea and a lie down in a dark room. And the scenery is already getting beautiful, before I reach the properly big hills. The sort of town where you can try to forget that the whole world is out to get you.


I do, by the way, accept that there may well be some perfectly ordinary people around here as well.

I was hoping to be further on today, over the big pass towards Alamosa. I felt good when I woke up this morning to crystal clear blue skies, and felt no effects from the relatively high elevation as I pottered around town for breakfast etc. Then I got on the bike. Suddenly, with the exertion, my legs felt like lead, and I developed a bit of a headache. Not enough to worry about, and there was a fair chunk of climbing involved too. But I took the view that stopping here at the bottom of the big hill would give me a bit more time to acclimatise; I’m already way higher that I’ve been on the trip so far. In fact, I’ve never ridden at these elevations before, let alone over a 3000m (9500-odd feet) pass, so I reckon taking it easy is the way to go.

So, the first big test in the Rockies tomorrow. Just hope the blue clothes don’t ruin it for me…

Not in Kansas Anymore!

Never waste a tailwind.

If there’s one rule that I’ve picked up in my travels so far, that’s it.  Especially on the great plains, where the prevailing westerlies are notorious.  If there’s a tiny element of the wind that’ll help, you take it.  Make as much ground as you can, so the ‘Cycling Zen’ can kick in when conditions are less favourable.

I’ve piled on the miles in the last few days, finally escaping Kansas on Friday (hooray!), and hitting Colorado in the coldest temperatures of the trip so far (boo!).  I’ve also met my first dog in a bicycle trailer (a slightly nutty labrador called Nimbus, who is heading west from Kentucky), which was exciting, although I believe there’s another canine making similarly effortless progress along the TransAm to my north.  The dogs are clearly cleverer than their owners; sitting curled-up and protected from the elements in a trailer while their humans sweat and strain from dragging the extra weight around.  Very smart…


And now I’m resting up for the day in La Junta, Colorado.  This is the time to take a break for several exceptionally good reasons.

Firstly, there are three route options to consider to get to the mountains.  I can head a little north to rejoin the TransAm trail in Pueblo, or I can head south-west to Trinidad and the RAAM route.  Or I can go down the middle, and get to Walsenburg, rejoining the RAAM route a little into the hills.  Decisions, decisions…

Secondly, I’ve hit a couple of big landmarks, which required a small celebration.  Friday was the end of my second calendar month on the road (this seems completely outrageous to me, as it already feels like months and months of changing places, languages, food and cultures; it’s been quite a ride…).  And I hit a big mileage landmark yesterday; 3000 miles on the road.  That was worth a couple of beers last night.  A day off to take stock, look after a slightly achy head, and establish some perspective on how far I’ve come (and how far I still have to go!) seems entirely appropriate.

And thirdly, the strangely freezing weather of the last few days has left me with a bit of a cold.  Common sense says that I want to try to get shot of that before tackling the Rockies.

So, a bit of thinking to be done and a little planning required, along with the standard laundry, refuelling and bike tinkering.

Colorado seems nice so far.  A bit more relaxed than Kansas.  The Hispanic influence, which really started to be noticeable in the west of Kansas (not surprisingly, as the Kansas section of the Arkansas River, which I’ve been riding along, used to be the border between the US and Mexico), is stronger in Colorado.  It’s a reminder that I really need to get past Unit 2 of my teach-yourself-Spanish book!


And after the cold snap, the skies are now clear, and the temperature’s back to the low 80sF.  Pretty much perfect riding weather, as it will get a little cooler as I get higher.  And it looks like it will hold for a while (hopefully, I can get through the hills without blizzards or freezing rain, which would be nice).

Just need to clear my sniffles and head for the hills on Monday…