weather

No Drama

You can tell you’re back in Europe when the weather decides to play a large (and largely unwanted) role in your touring.

I was pretty sure, heading west from Alexandroupoli on Thursday, that I’d be able to update you on southern Bulgaria today.  The weather was nice, the road was good, and the hills weren’t too big and threatening:

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Xanthi on Thursday, then Drama on Friday, and Bulgaria on Saturday.  Not even stupidly long days.  Should have been easy.

And Thursday was fine, with the exception of a nagging headwind.  More of a head-breeze, really, so not a major problem.  The sun was out, the birds were singing (there seem to be a lot more birds here than in Turkey, for some reason), and all was well.

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I even found that ultimate mark of civilisation, a Lidl supermarket, when I got to Xanthi.  It was probably the busiest shop I’ve seen in Greece so far, which may be an indication that the Greeks’ economic woes are not yet all in the past.

My usual weather check that evening was where things started to go a bit sideways.  A huge blob of slow-moving rain was due to cover pretty much the whole of northern Greece (and southern Bulgaria and Macedonia) for about 36 hours from yesterday afternoon (Friday).

This was unfortunate.  You’ll be aware of my enthusiasm for getting completely soaked from previous posts.  And this blob of rain had all manner of online weather warnings attached to it, so it looked like the internet didn’t think it was just going to fade away, either.

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But you never know with weather forecasts.  It’s not like they’re never wrong, is it?  And this is Greece.  And it’s almost summer.  Surely it couldn’t rain that much?

So, proceeding according to plan, I twiddled away from Xanthi towards Drama.  But it was already clouding up by the time I hit the coast at the Beach of the Giant Pineapples (above).  It’s not really called that, by the way.  And I’m pretty sure it’s actually some sort of palm…

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I decided not to stop in Kavala, despite its impressive old town, complete with ancient castle and aqueduct (above – you might have to squint a bit to see the acqueduct).

I’d get as close as I could to Drama before the rain came.  And hope that I didn’t get stuck in no-man’s-land between the two big towns.  So, pausing only to have a quick look at the monastery at the top of the hill out of Kavala, I ploughed on.

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And duly got stuck in no-man’s-land.

Last night was a bit damp.  Today has been wet in an English summer sort of way – pouring with rain one minute, drizzling the next.  Miserable.  And not entirely helped by being stuck in the sort of village where a car driving down the main street would be a local talking point for weeks afterwards.

It’s my own fault.  In retrospect, I could have got to Drama in the dry quite easily, but it just didn’t feel that way at the time.

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If I’d been here a thousand or two years ago, things would have been different.  Where now there are just a couple of villages, separated by the fairly large hill above, there was once a Greek / Roman city called Phillipi (roughly; the spellings, and even the name, have not been particularly consistent over the years).

It was on the Via Egnatia, which was the Roman ‘motorway’ between the western and eastern parts of the empire.  And it was, by all accounts, a busy place; an administrative centre and a military site.  It was also, apparently, the first place in Europe where St Paul started spreading Christianity to the Romans.  Then it was abandoned.  Pretty thoroughly.  And used by the Ottomans as a quarry, according to Wikipedia.

So an interesting past, and a desolate and rain-soaked present.  I do hope that’s not some sort of metaphor for the rest of my journey!

It shouldn’t be.  The bike’s had a clean and fettle today, so I’ll be ready to head on to Bulgaria whenever the weather clears.  Which will hopefully be tomorrow.

If there are no more dramas.  Except for Drama, finally…

On Climbing and Waiting for Rain

I wasn’t sure that I’d get very far after I left Samsun yesterday morning (Tuesday).

First, there were some horrendous weather forecasts flying around.  Most of which suggested that I’d be pinned down by thunderstorms and wave after wave of heavy rain until Saturday.

Second, it was time to hit the mountains again.  This was sure to slow me down, and so leave me trapped in the middle of nowhere as the lightning flashed and a month’s worth of rain fell in twenty minutes.

All in all, it looked a bit nasty as I pulled on my brand new cycling shorts*.  The cloud was already down on the tops of the hills around the city, and I almost decided just to go back to bed for a week, and wait for the rain to get to me.

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So far, it’s been a decent decision not to.

The clouds began to clear as soon as I turned inland, and the remnants of the breeze which had pushed me along the coast were funnelled by the hills into a little tailwind.  The road has been beautifully engineered throughout, too.  But it was still quite a surprise to start at sea level, and to hit a 900-metre (close to 3000 ft) pass before lunchtime.  At an average of 13 mph.  And in the sunshine, too.

I wasn’t fooled, though.  This was not allowed to be a brilliant day.  I knew the mass of rain that the TV news was showing couldn’t just disappear.  It was just a matter of time.  I watched the skies, suspiciously.

Still, as I rolled into Havsa yesterday afternoon, I was still bone dry.  There were a handful of heavy storms about, but they were all pretty small and none came too close.  I figured I’d got lucky, and prepared to be rained in the next morning.

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After watching the sun go down behind the mosque, I considered composing a few sentences on how my trip has also been a little window onto the Islamic world.  Then I realised that nobody likes a pretentious cycle-tourist, and went to bed instead.  To everyone’s great relief, I’m sure.

I was woken after midnight by the sound of rain pounding down outside.  I felt vindicated, and a little smug, and drifted back off again.

The morning sunlight woke me before my alarm went off.  I was confused.  There really wasn’t supposed to be any sunlight this morning (Wednesday).  I looked outside.  There were some clouds scudding about on what looked like a fairly strong headwind.  But nothing that really spelled the sustained heavy rain I was anticipating.

I put my jacket on against the wind, and pedalled onwards in the sunshine.  Towards Osmancik.  More hills, more tunnels, and another 1000-metre pass.  With a beautiful, swooping decent off the top (below), which was only partly spoiled by the headwind.

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But finally, as you can see above, the horizon was darkening.  A mass of cloud was rushing toward me.  This was obviously the forerunner of the huge area of rain.  I actually thought I’d cut it too fine as I dropped into town, with another small but vicious-looking storm pummelling the valley next door.

As you can see, I didn’t get under cover a moment too soon, as the sky blackened over the castle, and the rain began.

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It stopped five minutes later, having barely wet the street.  And although there have been a few evil-looking clouds about since, it’s still dry as darkness falls this evening.

The forecast, needless to say, reckons that it’s already raining here, and will do so (heavily) for the next 48 hours.

However the weather works out, I’ve got to congratulate the Turks on their main roads.  The climbs are very long, but barely get above 3%.  And the road surface is almost silky, meaning that the bike rolls really nicely on the inclines.

So, if the weather seems designed to make me look silly at the moment, the roads are making me look good.

There’s definitely a lot more climbing to come, though.  And I can’t help feeling that the rain’s going to have its say eventually…

* This was a great result: I found a far-flung branch of Decathlon (large, French outdoors store) in Samsun, so was able to get a cheap (but reasonable quality) pair to replace my original shorts, which… erm… seem to have melted.  Or maybe rotted.  Don’t ask…

Summertime in the Sunshine State

Back at home in the UK, there’s an ancient summer tradition of kids riding donkeys at the seaside.  That’s on the five days of the summer that it’s not raining, blowing a gale or freezing cold, obviously.  And on the couple of beaches from which animals are not banned in the name of health and safety.  It probably doesn’t happen quite as much as it once did.

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In Queensland, it’s a little different.  There’s a camel train which wanders along the (fairly tiny) Airlie Beach, and it looks like it’s there to stay for another generation, at least.  The little chap above was being trained (not especially effectively, it appeared) to follow the rest of his family around, in preparation for a lifetime of trudging about with apes on his back.  I suspect the Beast sympathises.

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The sunshine and heat lasted for another day before I had something else to moan about.  At sunset in Bowen on Tuesday, I could already see clouds building behind the palm trees.  And by the time I started rolling up the highway on Wednesday morning, it was to the accompaniment of dire predictions of thunderstorms, torrential rain, and even possible highway closures due to flooding.

This was a bit of a bummer, as I was hoping to get to Townsville (roughly 200km / 125 miles away) by this evening (Thursday).

It’s been known to rain in the UK in the summer, too, so I shrugged off the warnings, slapped on the factor fifty, and pootled off determinedly up the road.  By lunchtime, I’d begun to think that I might get away with it, and make it to my target destination of Home Hill before anything too dramatic happened.  Then I stopped for a nice cold drink at the tiny hamlet of Gumlu, and emerged to see this hurtling down the road towards me:

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Ouch.

Needless to say, the Queensland rain’s not quite the same as at home either.  I spent three hours cowering in Gumlu as wave after wave of clouds unloaded, along with a spectacular lightning show.

Just as I thought I’d be stuck there forever, the clouds parted.  Enough time to dash the remaining 40km?  It looked like it might be.  And it would be light just about long enough, too.  I shifted into time-trial mode, ignoring the protests from my legs, and floored it.

For about ten kilometres.

Then I got a flat tyre.  Only the fifth of the whole trip.  Just one every 39 days.  So why, oh why do I get one in the middle of nowhere when I’m trying to beat a gazillion litres of airborne water to the next shelter?

I’m still not sure whether the puncture did me a favour in the end.  I was still 15kms out of Home Hill when the rain began again.  Amazingly, the arrival of the heavy stuff coincided with me spotting the illuminated sign of the petrol station / hotel / campground at Inkerman.  In I dived, and was rewarded by their phenomenal ‘waifs and strays’ policy – a free worker’s cabin (rather dubiously known as a ‘donga’) for the night.  Lucky, lucky boy…

Today’s forecast was even worse that yesterday’s, so I didn’t really expect to make Townsville.  In fact, I only just scraped that elusive 15kms to Home Hill before cloudburst number one arrived at eight this morning.

I hung around (under shelter) in town for a couple of hours, but things didn’t improve a great deal:

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And so in Home Hill I remain.  As I write, the sixth cloudburst of the day is ongoing.  At home, one shower like that would clear the air for days.  Not here.

Things are forecast to be a little better tomorrow, so I might be able to scramble up to Townsville with just a few showers to dodge.  My optimism remains undimmed.  More likely, I’ll make it to the next town, Ayr, and get stranded again.

So, summer in Queensland.  Animal rides on the beach and changeable weather.  Sounds very much like an English summer on paper.

But it’s really, really, not the same at all.

Lake Country

Four long-ish days to Christchurch, two fairly hilly, two fairly flat.  And a flight to Sydney on Sunday evening.  I did the sums.  It was only Monday morning.  After my escape from the rain on the west coast, I reckoned I deserved a day off at Wanaka.  It was a bit of a risk; if the weather wasn’t better this side of the mountains, I might end up needing a train or a bus to Christchurch.

I might still need a train or bus, as there are still a fair few miles to go from here in Geraldine.  But the weather’s been better.  Mostly.  I’ve ridden along canals in the sky.  And Wanaka’s really pretty in the sunshine.

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The shortest way to Christchurch was via the lakes, just the other side of Aoraki / Mount Cook from Fox Glacier, where I spent so much time last week.  First, there was the small matter of dragging the Beast and the bags up Lindis Pass, to my highest point in New Zealand at over 900m.  As you can see, the weather remained dire, but I bravely soldiered on.

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With Lindis pass behind me, the way to the lakes was open.  First Pukaki (very pretty, despite a name which must imply the opposite in pretty much any language), then Tekapo.  And just before Pukaki, I hit the first of the canals in the sky.

The canals run across many kilometres of the alpine foothills, generating hydro-power from the meltwater lakes, and providing a home for salmon farms.  I don’t know how many canals there are in the world at over 750m altitude, but I’m guessing not that many.  Between the lakes, the road along the canal provides a nice traffic-free route through the hills for pedestrians and cyclists.

I met an English couple on bikes, coming the other way as I skirted Pukaki.  I asked them how the trail was.  “Mainly tarmac, bit of gravel.  Flat as a pancake”, was the gist of the reply.  Apparently, they had both forgotten that they had just plunged down a 200 vertical metre, 10% gradient hill.  Much fruity language was deployed in their (now distant) direction, as I struggled up said hill, just a few minutes later.  Grrr…

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Still, once up on the trail, it was flat (or, at least, so gently uphill that you barely notice), and with a beautiful backdrop of snow-capped mountains.  And no traffic, which made for a drop in stress levels.  Until I arrived in Lake Tekapo village in the drizzle, only to discover that it was pretty much entirely booked out by hordes of Chinese tourists.

Having bravely borne a good, oh, 15 minutes of stress trying to find somewhere to rest my tired head, I finally collapsed into a super-grotty room.  And while wandering out to get some food a little later, I understood why the place is such a busy stop on the tourist trail.  It’s really stunning as the sun goes down.

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From Tekapo, it was an easy 90-ish km (55 miles) downhill to Geraldine.  On paper.  The kiwi weather, with its typical capriciousness, decided otherwise, as the wind flipped through a full 180 degrees in the time it took me to drink a coffee.  A decent tailwind, which had finally pushed me through the 40mph (64 kph) barrier just a few minutes earlier (I’ve been ludicrously close to the mark several times on the trip, but a tailwind was clearly the missing ingredient), suddenly became a fairly evil headwind, which made the last half of today’s ride a little tiresome.

Still, I’ve managed three consecutive days on the road without getting more than slightly wet.  That’s a first since I arrived on South Island.  I’ve also charged through the 9000km mark.  And there’s a chance that I might get the tailwind back for the long run to Christchurch tomorrow (Friday).

I’ll believe that when I see it…

Marooned: The Non-Cyclists of Greymouth

There are eight of us now.  Eight sad, trapped cyclists.

The middle-aged Dutch couple with the super-expensive adventure touring bikes.  The American lads with their soaked gear.  The Anglo-Malawi couple with their matching hire bikes, not yet ridden out of town.  The Aussie with the hybrid and the backpack.  And me.  The place looks like a cyclists’ refugee camp.

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It’s well over thirty hours now since the rain began in earnest, driving in hard from the sea.  It’s ebbed and flowed ever since.  And it’s still raining.  Sometimes a heavy drizzle, blowing damp into every crevice.  Sometimes a full-on monsoon downpour, hammering on the roof and even seeping through the hostel’s old windows.

For some of us (like me) it’s wiped out two days’ riding.  For others, it’s meant near-drowning before finding shelter here.  For all of us, it means we’re stuck in Greymouth for now.

Only the cunning old Frenchman escaped, sneaking out to the station at lunchtime to catch a train to better weather (he hopes) over the mountains to the east.  There are malicious rumours circulating that Christchurch is currently basking in 29C sunshine, but nobody wants to think about that.

No, the rest of us are doomed.  Doomed to gazing wistfully out of the window, sipping hot drinks and imagining slight brightenings in the gloomy sky.  Or to wandering aimlessly about town.  Or watching the washing spinning in the laundry.  Or reading flyers about what we could be doing if the sun was out.

The name of the hostel, in which we’re incarcerated, by the way?

Noah’s Ark.

How very, very appropriate…

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At least we’re not miners.  This area was built on mining, and the memorial on the sea-wall in town is a grim reminder of how many died in this area to bring coal and gold out of the ground.  We’re not dying here; just bored and frustrated.  And things should be better tomorrow (Sunday), with sunshine and showers promised.

I got this far from Westport in a day, which is better than nothing.  I ignored another woeful weather forecast on Thursday, and lumbered 100km down the beautiful coast highway.  I thought I’d only make it about 50km before the rain began, but the rain was late.  For once.  The road is still a bit lumpy, but it’s allowed to be; it’s a really lovely highway, with some impressive bays and areas of rainforest.  And I got to Greymouth dry, which in current circumstances is quite an achievement.  I even saw a couple of flashes of blue sky, as I remember.

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I met Andy on the way down from Westport.  Another English round-the-worlder (well, a Geordie, at least), heading in the opposite direction.  He’s well on his way home, in terms of miles, and we shared a little wisdom about our respective next destinations.  He’s another tourer with more than two years on the road, giving me perspective on the distance still to go, as well as some very helpful tips on carrying enough water in the outback.  That’s one thing I don’t think I’ll need to worry about in NZ…

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Assuming the rain doesn’t continue for the full forty days and nights (if it does, we’ll have to hope that Noah’s Ark actually floats), there should be a spectacular bomb-burst of brightly-coloured bikers out of town tomorrow.  All pushing the pedals with a little extra determination to make up for the frustrations of the last couple of days.  It should be quite a sight.

Assuming the rain doesn’t continue…

‘Sno Joke

I’m not sure when I started talking to the bike.  I mean full-on conversations, rather than just the occasional ‘giddy-up’ on a particularly steep hill.

These are not out loud discussions, by the way.  I’m not entirely nuts.

This seems to happen to a lot of long-range tourers.  First you name the bike.  Then its little creaks and foibles give it a personality.  Then you start to think it’s your friend.  Mainly because it doesn’t interrupt or run away when you’re boring it.  Then you start to discuss things with it.  I hope that we don’t get as far as the obvious next step, which I’m fairly sure is illegal in most places.

Anyway, The Beast was pretty convinced that it would snow today.  It seems to have settled into the role of depicting the worst-case-scenario, and then gently suggesting that I might rather stay in bed rather than getting frozen / drowned / roasted / whatever else is bothering its paranoid little head.  So today it was snow.  I ignored its pathetic snivelling, because it’s nearly summer here, and snow would be ridiculous.

To be fair, The Beast did have a few legitimate reasons for concern.  After being stranded in Rotorua for an extra day, I’d set off for Lake Taupo in sunshine, only to spend the rest of the day dodging showers again.  Not too many of them, this time, though, and I made good time initially, despite several sausage roll stops and a long chat with Greg, who I met coming the other way.  Greg is two-and-a-half years into a long and winding round-the-world excursion, and it was nice to chew the fat for a while.  Little did I know that the minutes spent taking to him would cost me an hour hiding under a not especially waterproof tree a few miles out of Taupo, as the showers kicked back in with a vengeance in the afternoon.  Still, once I was dry in town, I had to admit that they made a spectacular sight, scudding across the lake.

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I’d earmarked yesterday (Wednesday) as a gentle one.  Just a little trundle down the length of the lake to Turangi, before hitting the big hills today.  And it was a pleasant lakeside ride.  I finally met a pair of cyclists with a trailer who I’d seen from a distance five days before.  They turned out to be a Spanish couple, and the trailer turned out to contain a suspiciously well-behaved toddler.  It certainly put my load into perspective: the guy was riding a bike carrying the same amount of stuff as mine, and towing another 30kgs of trailer and small daughter too – can’t imagine what the hills must be like for him.  Anyway, I made it to Turangi by three, and checked into a hostel.  An hour later, this happened:

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And it kept raining continuously until 0730 this morning, when The Beast and I were having our long discussion about snow.  Because as the clouds started to rise a little, there was, maybe, a little smudge of white on the hilltops around town.  I put it down to The Beast’s fevered imagination.  Though it was chilly enough to warrant leg-coverings and full-fingered gloves.  Never have I been happier to be carrying winter gear on this trip.

The climb up to the edge of Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe (the second is by far the more impressive mountain – see below – but the area’s famous for Tongariro; probably just because you can pronounce it) was a toughy, and the reward for reaching the top was a (literally and scientifically) gale-force headwind.  Which was blasting a random selection of hail, sleet, rain or nothing at me, as well as reducing things to a crawl.  Thankfully, I could see most of the showers coming, and I managed to stay reasonably dry until two miles from the end, when I was snuck up on by a mean black cloud, loaded with horizontal rain.  Urgh!

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So, was The Beast right about the snow?  Not really; I was always below the snow-line.  Was The Beast right about staying in bed rather than riding today?  Well, that’s trickier.  It wasn’t much fun in places, and I’m not over-enjoying the bitter cold while I’m outdoors (especially after so long in the sun in the US).  But it’s all part of the fun.  And I’m sitting here now, warm and dry, and expecting to over-rule The Beast again tomorrow and get back out on the road again.

Unless it really is snowing, mind you…

 

Euphoria – it’s one of those days…

I was a miserable git this morning, wasn’t I?

Five hours later, and the world looks very different. I’m making the best average speed of the trip down Highway 54, with (whisper it) a bit of a tailwind. The sun is out, it’s not too hot, and all’s well in the world.

My clothes were dry by eleven. Then more rain swept in. I went and lay in the tent, coming reluctantly to accept that I’d have to stay another day at the campsite. I got out of the tent to pay, and a sliver of sunlight broke through the clouds. There were no more black clouds heading in. I packed up my kit and legged it.

As soon as I hit the 54, I felt the wind at my back. My legs were pumping around, easily turning the big gears on the flat, and climbing a couple of gears higher than usual. The bags were helping, acting as sails and pushing me up the road, rather than backwards, for a change. The best half-day of riding of the trip so far.

If Kansas is like this all the way through, I’ll be emotionally, as well as physically, drained by the time I get to Colorado…

I can understand why travel and journeys are so often used (and abused) as a metaphor for life. Today has shifted from frustration to elation in a matter of hours. The highs and lows come quicker on the road, and you can’t really appreciate the one without the other. Which I suppose means that I should be grateful for the frustration. I’m not.

Roll on tomorrow…

Heat, Humidity and Thunder – Sweating Across Indiana

I felt bad yesterday morning (Tuesday).  I’d had a good night’s sleep and a splendid fry-up to kick the day off, so all should have been well.  At first, I put it down to pushing too hard, or maybe a bug of some sort.  No energy, and feeling dehydrated despite drinking three litres of water before lunch.  I’m a bit slow sometimes, and there was a headwind which I was blaming for all my ills, as usual.

I did get to see a couple of covered bridges in the morning, which was nice.  I’m not sure exactly what the point of a covered bridge is; maybe it’s just so you stay dry in a storm while waiting for the bridge to be washed away.  But they are very much a mid-west institution.  This one was outside Darlington.20140821RTW_2

At lunchtime, I stopped at a petrol station to grab a load of sugary stuff to kick-start myself; I still had a way to go.  Coming out of the shop, it finally hit me.  Like a sauna (or at least the air within a sauna).  The humidity, which the headwind had been masking as I rode, was immense.  I struggled off into the afternoon, passing two helpful signs suggesting it was either 87 or 91F.  I’m not sure what the centigrade equivalent is (and probably don’t want to know), but I do know that’s pretty hot.  This all cheered me up.  After all, I’ve been beating the elements every day (even if they always come back for more).  Something internal would have been much, much worse.

I continued south-west through a town called Waveland.  Which is so named because the land around it is kinked up into a series of short, sharp rolling hills.  Like waves.  A brilliantly literal name for a place.  I was heading for Rockville, but was disappointed to discover very few rocks.  And very little rock-n-roll.  Obviously doesn’t work everywhere…

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What I did find at Rockville was a colossal thunderstorm, which hit just as I got the tent half-up.  This was bad because all my bags got soaked, but also good, in that the people in the RV next door dragged me in, dried me off and fed me.  While having a long discussion about rugby, which I was not expecting in the US.  Oh, and they somehow reduced my camping fees to zero as well, slightly mysteriously.  I know almost every post is turning into an Oscar acceptance-speech list of thanks, but I can’t let that go without acknowledgement.  Or the free breakfast I got this morning from a bloke in the local diner.  I might have to just put a ‘thanks’ page up.

I checked the weather forecast, and it looks like the whole week ahead is going to remain in the 90s F, with loads of humidity.  There are weather warnings out for heat in the area I’m riding into (around St Louis), and thunderstorms are breaking out pretty regularly, which is a little alarming on the bike.  I turned today into a half-day just in time to get under cover before another couple of inches of rain dropped in.  So more strength-sapping heat, worries about carrying enough water and dodging lightning strikes to come for a while…

But tomorrow looks drier, and I’ll finally be leaving Indiana, and crossing into southern Illinois.  Probably sweating like a pig and moaning endlessly about the heat and humidity, but still making ground.

More soon, I hope.  And I finally updated the Progress map!  Many more exciting red markers to explore; how much more fun can you have?