Posts Tagged ‘USA’

Demise of the Shadow Cyclist

There are times when it strikes me that I’ve been cycling for a very long time. In Dawson City the revelation came just after I tried, unsuccessfully, to change gear with the grip-shift. I came to an abrupt halt in the baked goods aisle, looked down at my closed hand, which had subconsciously tensed around the handle of the supermarket trolley, and thought – maybe I should have some time off. Thankfully though I did not extend my arm to indicate whilst rounding the corner into the adjacent aisle, nor did I not lock the trolley to a lamppost in the parking lot.

Dawson City has a sinister seasonal split personality, like every other town at these latitudes. In the winter hardy locals and animals hibernate as the temperature drops to minus forty. In the summer it effervesces and teems with life and shudders under the shuffling feet of tourists, who arrive into town like a migration of wildebeest on the prairie. They get shuttled over the Canadian border from docked cruise ships or else have made their own meandering way here on motorbikes or in RVs. They come to catch a glimpse of this infamous wild-west town, clinging to it’s heritage, where houses are made of wood, the sidewalk is a boardwalk and there’s a nightly can-can show. Since the Klondike Goldrush more than a century ago a tide of misfits are drawn here too, girls with shaved heads and nose rings, burly, hard drinking men. There’s even a pub where there continues an old tradition of serving drinks which contain real pickled human toes donated in people’s wills. As you chug the crowd chants ‘You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.’ And I think that says everything you need to know about Dawson.

It was here I met a Swizz couple on bicycles, Aurelie and Layko, who had been riding north from Colombia. They had spent the past few weeks picking morel mushrooms in the forest and had earned 6000 dollars in three weeks, so they bought the beers at the local can-can show where it was agreed – we would all ride together over the Top of The World Highway into Alaska. A boat ferried me across the Yukon river where they were waiting for me on the other side, and we set off on a nineteen kilometre climb up into the tundra. On the way up we passed a couple of Canadians dozing under a tree with so much gear they could have been refugees evicted from their homeland. On closer scrutiny the contents of their tumid panniers and laden trailer became clear – they were carrying enough tools to repair an aircraft carrier, a tent that could have comfortably housed a mormon family, a sitar, a mandolin and a didgeridoo.
‘I don’t get it!’ bemoaned the guy ‘it’s taking us ages!’.
I almost pointed out his problem. ‘Well maybe if you’d left the orchestra behind…’

Eventually the road crept up over the ridges and snaked across the tundra, a rash of spruce filled valleys, concealing remote streams. In the distance the mountains were blue-tinged and bleary, somewhere a wild fire had taken hold in the boreal forest, the smoke mushroomed skyward and looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. Grazing caribou, a reminder of how far north we had come, scarpered as we cycled close by, their white tails bobbing up and down. Grizzly bears hunt the Caribou, so each evening we scanned the tundra and hauled food away from our tents.

The Top of the World Highway

I clicked with the Swizz straight away and the days towards Alaska overflowed with jokes and banter. We cycled at the same pace, although they both lived on a bean-heavy diet and were the most flatulent people I have ever met, so riding behind either of them was to invite a face-full of gas whilst evenings were supplemented by the heavy fug and music of their farts.

We approached the Alaskan border post with trepidation – none of us had a US VISA, I was banking on the guard giving me another 90 day VISA waver, even though I knew this was technically against the rules. The Swizz tactic involved responding to every question the border guard asked with a broad, inane smile and the same bright announcement.

You realise you need a VISA?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
Yes I know, but you’ve stayed in the lower 48 for almost three months, is that right?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
OK, fine, I got that. Tell me where you’re heading?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’

It worked a treat. Eventually the jaded guard stamped their passport, and mine to boot.

Chicken, a small town just across the border, allegedly got it’s name because some official couldn’t spell it’s actual name – ptarmigan, which is a variety of local bird, and so he just wrote Chicken. I’m not so sure. I think some crafty, longsighted entrepreneur saw the potential of the name change and now Chicken, which really has no right to anyone’s attention, has a steady stream of tourists who pose by the town’s signpost and buy bumper stickers and rubber chickens from the town’s souvenir shop. Every year the bustling metropolis of chicken, population 30, holds a music festival: Chickenstock.

Outside the pub in Chicken were dawdling men whose faces seemed to be hanging from their prodigious moustaches rather than being supported by their necks. They pierced cans of beer with knives and downed the contents in seconds. The road signs around here were peppered with bullet marks. There is an adjective to describe all this, and it’s ‘Alaskan’.

The road to Tok cut through a crepuscular light as smoke encroached from the nearby Moon Lake wild fire which had been sparked into action back in June after a lightning strike. There was an orange lip in the otherwise leaden sky and the air reeked – not of burnt wood, but of burning tundra. We got through just in time, two days later they closed the road. Wild fires are of course part of the natural cycle here and the fire fighting heroes of Alaska, the pilots who drop water and fire retardant and the hardcore Smoke Jumpers who parachute in front of fires with chainsaws to cut away the bush, only get called into action when the fire threatens people’s homes or areas of conservation. Otherwise Alaska is left to burn, and it burns a lot. 3000 square miles go up in flames every year, it often burns in a mosaic because of the underlying permafrost so great fingers of boreal forest are left unscorched, unless the wind changes and the fire can burn backwards, firing burning debris into the air which lands in some remote part of the forest and another fire takes hold.

The sun was blazing for my first few days in Alaska and I had to remind myself that winter here is a very different beast, the notion haunted me. I thought about the minus forty of a normal winter day, that the sun rises for only a couple of hours, that snow stays on the ground here for eight months of the year, and that below my wheels dig just a foot or so and the ground is frozen and will not defrost any time soon.

‘There is a kind of biotic riot in the summer outburst of colour, scent and sound… but always the season’s opposite haunts you: What about the winter? What must that be like?’ (David Roberts, Earth and the Great Weather, pub 1971).

Alaska was famously bought from Russia in 1869 at less than two cents an acre. A bargain if you like bog. Permafrost isn’t all that permeable so there are countless mosi-ridden pools brimming with decomposing vegetation, terrain known in these parts as the Muskeg. We cycled too across the flood plains of once epic rivers and I could only imagine the torrent flowing through them come spring. Now, in late summer, there was just a network of cement coloured streams trickling through. The Alaska range poked into view just briefly, ground squirrels scampered across the road and occasionally a moose loped onto the tarmac too forcing some emergency braking from our trio. We made it to Fairbanks where we spent the night in a campsite which was the type that featured, for free, a parade of wacked-out, bedraggled meth heads stumbling past our tents and making slurred, vague and mournful demands for alcohol and tobacco. Ahh, it was good to back in the good old US of A. Canada just doesn’t cut it in terms of desperate drug addicts.

In Fairbanks Ben, a great geezer, took me out for a film and food and then Duncan and his family put me up. Duncan had hosted several cyclists this year and had stories galore about my final stretch, the 750 km of road between Fairbanks and the Arctic Ocean, known as the Dalton highway, or more colloquially as The Haul Road. The Dalton is a supply route for the trans-Alaskan oil pipeline and oil fields of the north slope. The 800 mile pipeline runs adjacent to the road, almost always in view, and was constructed in the 70s, at the time it was the largest privately funded construction project in the world. This road north was only open to the public in 1994. The au caurant and urbane of my readership might know it from series 3 and 4 of the reality TV show ‘Ice Road Truckers’ where the tagline for the season is “In the Dark Heart of Alaska, there’s a road where hell has frozen over”.

If readiness can be measured by the quantity of peanut M&Ms in a pannier, my God I was ready. I was 2.2 kg ready. There were no grocery stores until my last stop, Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay, so the Haul Road was an apt monikor as I would be lugging eight days of food and my bike was as heavy as it’s ever been. On my second night out of Fairbanks I set up camp by the road only to discover I had lost my spoon, my only bit of cutlery. I’m experienced though, I thought. I’m adaptable. I’ve cycled from Argentina, I’ll improvise. After a spanner, a piece of wood and the lid of a water bottle I was left thinking two things – spoons are amazingly underrated contraptions, and sweet Jesus, I’m hungry.

Now I’m not entirely sure ‘trough’ is actually a verb but when I say I ‘troughed’ my plate of steaming pasta and tomato sauce, I’m sure you get my drift. And as my jaw grinded away, lips sucking up tentacles of spaghetti, sauce oozing down my hairy chin whilst I emitted a sound analogous to a walrus having an orgasm, memories danced through my mind of the journey north from Argentina, the literal one and the personal one too. And with my beard steeped in tomato juice and an indiscernible chunk of vegetable lodged in my right nostril, I thought ‘Wow. Look at how far I’ve come’.

Day three on the Haul Road began with the sound of rain drilling onto my tent and the words of Paul and Duncan echoing through my mind. ‘It’s not so bad‘ they told me ‘unless it rains‘. The unpaved parts of the road are coated with calcium carbonate for the benefit of the truckers but the bane of cyclists. When it rains the surface transforms into a brown goo, the consistency of toothpaste, which sticks to everything. That day was a mud bath as the road continued to get churned up by the downpour. I camped by a river and lugged my bike down to the bank, submerged it and scrubbed her clean, the next day was dry and I grew optimistic that the worst was over, the worst of course, was still to come.

Some drivers think they can scold cyclists as an adult scolds a child. In Fairbanks someone yelled ‘Hey buddy, get off the road, thems for cars’. It was kind of the occupant to share their opinion, and to take time out of their busy schedule of shooting road signs, scratching their balls and incest. Mostly though I get waves and a thumbs up but occasionally when a motorist has to slow down because there’s not enough room to pass and a car is coming the other direction, they get touchy. I won’t ride in the gutter and it’s better that I test their patience than they test my mortality.

‘Hey!‘ yelled the RV driver who had to slow down on the Dalton ‘You should wear something luminous, I could hardly see ya!’ What he meant of course was ‘goddam you for making me slow down!‘. I’m not sure though what was more stupefying about his complaint – the fact that I have a luminous yellow dry bag on the back of my bike, the fact that there were three more hours until sunset or the fact that he was wearing the most enormous eighties-style jet black sunglasses I have ever seen. So I gently reminded him that if he took them off, maybe he wouldn’t get locked up for manslaughter.

I arrived finally to the Arctic Circle to get my obligatory shot by the signpost. The Arctic Circle is the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours. A tribe of tourists shambled past me with a tour guide who was pointing out notable arctic vegetation whilst giving a nature documentary-like narration, but the camera lenses of the crowd became focused on me instead of the flora. I half expected the tour guide to continue…

‘And here we have a cycle tourist. It’s a solitary male, you can tell from the brown crust of peanut butter in the facial hair. They migrate to Alaska in the summer and are scavengers by nature and will eat vast quantities of anything available, often picking up morcels from the ground, sniffing them, shrugging and devouring the find. This one’s been on the road a while, notice the veneer of filth, the wild stare and the pungent odor. We like to keep the cycle tourers wild, so try not to feed them. Look, there, he’s scratching his arse, we believe that’s a courtship ritual.’

A Shamrock Orb Weever
Parts of the highway have amusing names conceived of by the truckers that ply the road all year – Oil Spill Hill, The Beaver Slide, The Rollercoaster and my favourite – Oh Shit Corner, a place where every trucker has had an Oh Shit moment, one told me. ‘Your brakes go out here in the winter and you’re at the helm of an 18 wheel toboggan’. I rode next through the truck stop of Coldfoot (singular, the other presumably amputated) where I found myself surrounded by burly, bearded men crowding their plates with fried food. I have never been in the presence of so much denim and heart disease in my life.

I rode past Prospect Creek, site of the lowest ever recorded temperature in the US – minus 80°F. Then through forests of spindly black spruce which can grow over the permafrost until I arrived at the Farthest North Spruce Tree (advertised by way of a signpost and which some joker had once tried to cut down), after which there is only bare tundra, a place too cold for trees to survive in the winter. Until the last tree the road had been bounding through the hills but now came the major climb over the Atigun Pass, crossing the Brooks Range and The Continental Divide.

The Atigun was shrouded in cloud and visibility fell to thirty metres. The headwind was fierce and slowed me to a crawl. By the evening I topped the pass, which had just a light dusting of snow, whilst the slopes of the mountains were yellowing with the coming of autumn. I dropped then, only a little, to a river where I spotted a bicycle and a tent. Leonard was a Canadian biker heading south, I camped next to him. The following day he called over to me as I shivered in my four season sleeping bag – ‘Hey Steve, there’s three inches of snow, and it’s still coming down!’. I unzipped the tent expecting a wind up, ready to scoff, only to find we had been engulfed – it was a white-out.

Climbing the Atigun Pass

I admit it – I had wanted some snow, because I wanted an archetypal Alaskan ending and a suitable crescendo to my journey through the Americas. Be careful what you wish for. I dropped roughly the annual produce of a large Colombian coffee plantation into my mug in an effort to warm me up and motivate me to ride in the snow. Leonard more sensibly decided to hitch hike because he still had to clear the pass.

I set out into the bleak white murk. Snow fell all day and the white mountains, peppered with snow yesterday became completely coated and soon blended perfectly into the cloud. My gloves were hole-ridden and wet, my hands took the brunt of the chill. I stopped for food for just 15 minutes – it was a big mistake. For the next hour my blue hands ached with the cold. I put a jar of peanuts on my handlebars so I didn’t have to stop to eat. Soon the mud that had collected on my bike froze solid and my brake levers, gripshift and brake pads were immovable. It didn’t matter much anyway – my hands were too cold to operate the brakes or gears even if they did function.

I camped early to get out of the blizzard by a road workers camp. The next day the sun was blazing and the snow had begun to melt, my bike though was in bad shape. The mud had frozen to completely lock the chain, the brakes and even the wheels. I carried it over to the road workers who had a water jet to get the mud off.

The next night I camped with a cheery bunch of bow hunters who fed me the caribou they’d killed on the north slope. They told me of six grizzly bears just two miles from here, munching on blueberries down by the river. When I left the next day in the fog I scanned the gloom for bear-shaped shadows but saw none. Then I remembered there were ten bow hunters out here scouring the tundra for caribou, with my bike I was about the right size and I hoped they didn’t mistake me for one of the herd. I wondered if I would end up on the ground, impaled, looking up at a circle of gruff, appraising faces whilst someone muttered ‘well, bit of gristle, but he’ll have to do’. Perhaps my head would end up above someone’s fireplace.

As I cycled over the north slope which was a vast, even expanse of tussocks and pools, up sprang my old compadre – the Shadow Cyclist. 21 months ago in the southern Argentinean city of Ushuaia I watched the same shadow cyclist, sinewy and sinister, stretched out to my right into the wind-blasted Patagonian scrub. As I rode north through the Americas the setting sun to my left would bring to life the Shadow Cyclist and he traveled with me. As my shadow glided over the tundra my mind was a whirlpool of memories, full of the weird places I’d been and the people that coloured them. In the distance the dark blots of roaming muskox could be seen on the plains, and up above snow geese honked as they flew in their malformed Vs and Ws, heading to warmer climes, as I continued to the top of the continent.

The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline
Bow Hunters
A Muskox making sure I didn’t come too close
Finally there it was – the town of Deadhorse – my last stop. I arrived with my eyes and face red from the wind, my hair knotted, bike mud-encrusted with a rattling chain and tinkling broken spoke and bare front tyre. I have never been as hairy or as dirty in my adult life. The oil companies, principally BP, don’t let anyone ride the three miles to the Arctic Ocean, which seemed a little unfair considering I’d cycled 22,000 miles from the Southern Ocean, but I guess they are too busy taking baths of money and dowsing sea birds in crude oil than caring about meager cyclists. Still though I admit feeling a tingle of pride that comes at each pivotal moment and each major milestone I get to. But temper that ego, I told myself, because two weeks before I cycled the Haul Road a couple of bikers were here too. They are both almost completely blind and had ridden a tandem 20,000 miles from Argentina. Now that’s impressive. My favourite part of their story is that they they had to paint their bike white, because every so often they would lose it.

Deadhorse – it’s assumed the eponymous horse died of the cold, I wouldn’t rule out boredom. Maybe it was a suicide, the horse might have flung itself headfirst into the Arctic Ocean after a week or so here. Deadhorse is a modern day, real life Mordor, and it didn’t feel like a place to celebrate. It’s the kind of place that might hold the International Agarophobia Society’s annual conference. Or it’s a place to send recurrent sex offenders. Its full of oil workers, metal freight containers, cranes, warehouses and machinery and nothing else. If there was a cemetery or a penal colony here it would actually add character. Of course none of that stops one of the town’s two hotels selling ‘I’ve been to Deadhorse’ T-Shirts. The best thing you can say about Deadhorse is that it is what it is, and what it is is a place for industry, not for travelers. There was no bar, Deadhorse is dry, which is just as well because if there was the residents would no doubt drink themselves nightly into a state of prelapsarian bliss in an attempt to forget about where they were. It was, in short, a massive anti-climax. At the end of Africa was the hubbub of Capetown and the glorious towering symbol of Table Mountain, here there was gloom, mud, bogs and ambient despair. There were no dancing girls to welcome me in and put a wreath around my neck, instead an oil worker came over to me –
‘You cycled up from Argentina then?’
‘Why you wanna do that?’

For two days I sat in the Aurora Hotel where everyone assumed I was a guest or an oil worker and plundered the buffet without ever opening my wallet. I stole so much food, presumably paid for in some round about way by the oil companies – so I felt no guilt, that I could hardly move. It was Grand Theft Edible. That night I sneaked inside a deserted warehouse that was sinking into the permafrost. In the back room was some floor space not covered by the glass and assorted junk over the rest of it, and I made it my home.

Courtesy of British Petroleum, unwitting sponsors of Cycling The Six
I hitch hiked back to Fairbanks after two days in Deadhorse with Ed, every inch the stereotype – a chain-smoking trucker with a paunch and handlebar moustache. He saw me shivering in the snow and didn’t think twice about giving me a ride. As the last week of my life flashed by in hours as Ed drove back the way I had cycled, we came across another truck which had broken down so we stopped to help and Ed performed his second rescue. ‘That’s what we do out here on the Haul Road’ said Ed. ‘We help each other out.’ Alaskans have proved every bit as generous and hospitable as I’d heard they are, though having said that I will never fully understand a group of people who collectively, and one must assume wittingly and without duress, voted Sarah Palin into office.

So what’s next – well my plans have been in flux of late but suffice to say things are looking peachy and there will be some important and very exciting updates coming soon. I will spend September here in Alaska where I will be speaking at the Alaska World Affair’s Council in Anchorage (20th Sep) and in Juneau (18th). In October I will fly to Australia, continent number five – a full plan coming soon. Expect a long overdue equipment review on this blog and some statistics about my ride through the Americas.

Thank yous – Huge thank yous to Duncan and family, Ben, Ed the trucker, the hunters from Minnesota, everyone who fed me on the Top of the World Highway, and anyone I’ve left out.

I’m commencing a 60 day crowd-funding campaign in September which will enable me to finish this journey – I will post on this blog in the coming weeks – please have a read, and if I can convince you to help me realise my dream of riding the length of six continents then make a donation, otherwise this blog will be put to bed, and my Mum for one will be disappointed. You can’t donate yet but I’ll post the link on here when you can. This video doesn’t really explain why you should, but it’s quite amusing…


Claire, the invisible bear and a kazoo

It was the worst possible sentence to hear since I was dog tired, horizontal inside my tent and intent on a restful night’s sleep. 

“But I love you Amy….You Bitch.”

Having heard that series of words, slurred and probably uttered in the aftermath of necking something brutally alcoholic, and after ruminating on them briefly, I suspected they would herald a long, long night ahead. Dave The Drunk Misogynist, as we’ll call him, was not going to unwind this perplexing dichotomy very quickly – that he loves her, but that he also thinks she’s a bitch. Amy, the subject of Dave’s affections and contempt, had locked herself inside a car which was parked on the banks of a river where I had set up my tent, about a day’s ride out of Seattle. Dave, it seemed, wanted to get into the car with Amy.

‘Come on you bitch, let me in. I love you.’

‘Fuck off Dave’ retorted Amy ‘I don’t love you, I love Brian’

The words must have stung ‘Fine, have your 20 year old boyfriend!’ returned Dave.

Dave, lovelorn but ever the romantic, would retreat for a minute or two offering me the tantilising prospect of slumber, only to charge back to the car and pledge his undying love before an impulse to shout ‘Whore!’ overtook him. Eventually after hours of stalemate (between Dave and Amy, me and sleep) Dave decided the best demonstration of his unrequited love for Amy was to deflate her car tyres, which he did, to Amy’s agonized screams, followed by ‘What have you DONE! Dave, what have you DONE!!’ and then softer and softer whimpering as I drifted off belatedly to dreamland.

Two days in Seattle with my second cousin Liz was well spent since it involved good company, the League of Gentlemen on DVD and quite a lot of ice cream. The Canadian border to me was just another boundary, not something to stress about. I saw no potential of being forbidden to enter Canada or any likelihood of it being more complicated than any of the sixty that have come before it. Or so I thought.

After a chain of predictable questions the border guard asked how long I’d been cycling. Three and half years caused his eyebrows to take a vigorous leap towards his hair line, he swiftly wrote the letter B on a piece of paper and told me to go inside the immigration building. The immigration official was a tall, bald, menacing man with a Scottish lilt. ‘Here’s what’s happening’ he declared in a no-nonsense and well-practiced fashion. ‘YOU (and he pointed at me) have to prove to ME (points at himself, in case I find simple pronouns confusing) that we’re not going to find you working in a bar in Canada. I want bank statements, I want papers, I want evidence. So come on then, show me what you’ve got.’

At this point he put his hands behind his head and wearing an expression akin to that of a sadistic child when pulling the legs off an insect, he rested back into his chair and I got the sudden perception that this was someone who had been short changed in life and was wreaking revenge on society, one cycle tourist at a time. I didn’t have much, no bank statements, nothing to prove that I had funds. In the end certificates proving I was a medic and a phone call to my relatives in Vancouver just about satisfied him. It was too close for comfort.

I stayed with MaryLouise, my mum’s cousin, a kind of extreme superhuman who thrashes twenty year olds in half Iron Man contests. She is also very charming and I enjoyed chilling out with her family whilst I waited for a very cool cat to arrive. Claire is an old friend of mine from Liverpool and also a superhuman by way of being a psychologist, PhD whizz, jazz musician, Frisbee champion, purveyor of winks and wry smiles and expedition leader and who is brilliantly dynamic in lots of other cool ways too. We swapped news, went to a poetry slam, biked around Vancouver and prepared for the road ahead. And we wondered a bit about some of Canada’s furry residents…

Bears – there are two schools of thought in Canada. The alarmists like to remind you of the ease at which a Grizzly can out-run you before it takes a minute to chew heartily away on your bone marrow, and there are the more insouciant brigade who like to compare black bears to big dogs and who offer assurances that they won’t give much trouble. Everybody though seems to think bringing a can of bear pepper spray to fend off a creature that gets too close is a sensible idea. I have my doubts. There are very few things in this world more disagreeable than being mauled to death by a bear. One of those things is spraying yourself in the face with extra potent pepper spray, and then getting mauled to death by a bear. Despite my reservations Claire and I headed off to a hunting store to enquire about some sort of defense strategy even though Claire has a kazoo and I have some interesting dance moves and I reckon a well-choreographed performance might repel even the most hulking of Grizzlies.

We get directed to a hunting store which is staffed exclusively by the sort of men who have taxidermied their own grandparents and have mounted them to the walls of their home, and who can’t finish a beer without crunching the can onto their forehead and growling. These are not the type of men you would leave to look after a family pet if you go on holiday. You might return to find they have finished off little Oscar with a crossbow and are sitting in a circle, skinning or spit roasting him.

‘This is essential’ explained one very serious man, holding the bear spray aloft and tilted unnervingly in my direction.
‘27 foot range. Just blast the bear right in the face, OK?’
‘Um, OK’ we mumble. 

I can’t summon up a mental image of either of us blasting a charging bear in the face with this. Instead I wonder if throwing the can at the oncoming bear and wailing pathetically would impede the attack. Probably not. I’m awed, impressed and a little disturbed by the array of bear repelling devices on offer. There are a variety of bear sprays, bear bombs (which just go bang and aren’t as exciting as they sound), flares, bear guns and projectiles. After a brief discussion, marked by total uncertainty and mild panic, we decide on the bear spray, mainly because the man behind the counter is perusing other bear defeating devices and I’m a little scared about what direction the conversation might soon take.

‘We call this the BEAR-VAP. Push this little button and it will vaporize up to 75 adult grizzlies in a 32 mile radius. Oh wait, you’ll need some of this too. BEAR-O-CIDE. Just sprinkle a thimbleful of this stuff into any small stream and it will kill every black bear that drinks from any river between here and the Yukon for 18 years.’ 

The actual packaging on bear spray. Something tells me it wouldn’t work out quite like this 
So excited, and with only a mild sense of impending doom bestowed on us by the hunting shop, we set off. Given that we had a little time to play with, a loop of Vancouver Island was on the cards before we set out on the more serious mountains of northern BC. Claire had three weeks before a bus from Prince George would transport her and her bike back to Vancouver. This year it seems that Canada’s tourism board have let the intern come up with British Columbia’s tagline, infused, as it is, with subtlety and edge.

‘British Columbia – The Best Place in the World’ 

There’s another one doing the rounds as well, the irritating ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’ which makes me want to decapitate something small, cute and furry just so I don’t have it in my head any more.

I admit it, three and a half years of biking has left me a little jaded. It’s getting harder not to make endless comparisons between where I am and where I’ve been, but having Claire with me has opened my eyes again to just how propitious it is to experience this wonky world by bicycle. Claire gets excited about herons. Claire is surprised when she consumes 200 grams of dairy milk chocolate and moves on to marsh mallows. Claire is enlivened by the prospect of not knowing where we’ll end up or where we’ll sleep. It’s invigorating.

We pedaled up the aptly named sunshine coast watched by the Canadian wildlife, as we watched back. We spotted a scuttling raccoon, a slightly pissed off deer, garter snakes, purple starfish and a seal which could have been doing a good impression of a sea otter. Ferries shuttled us across the watery bits as we sat on deck playing a kazoo, catching up and congratulating Canada. RVs crowded us a little on the roads and I mused over their curious names – The Adventurer. The Expedition. The RV manufacturers had done their research. We all know how important the microwave and foot spa were to Ernest Shackleton.

In Nanaimo on Vancouver Island we hung out with Chris, a diamond geezer, and Joe, his gigantean Newfoundland dog that cheerfully murders the neighbour’s chickens at every given opportunity. Chris cycled with us the following day and after eating for so long in a bakery we fell into a desperate tour-de-France peloton for the ultimately failed race to make the ferry, and after being too full of pastry based food to make it we opted instead to drink beer on the beach, like the serious cyclists we are.

The road that would take us to the world renowned resort town of Whistler and beyond is the Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky Highway, don’t let the abbreviated version fool you. Vancouver was steeped in a sullen murk as we rode away over the rolling hills of the coast whilst drizzle spattered the asphalt. Out to our west ethereal claws of mist raked through the dense groves of pines trees which crowded the low humps of the gulf islands.

Claire was the perfect cycling companion, just when boredom threatened she would nonchalantly pull up alongside me with a ‘Steve?’ and offer up some theories on the shape of the universe or ask my opinion on some aberrant topic.

‘Yes Claire’
‘What’s your favourite marsupial?’

We talked about people we both knew of course. We discussed other important issues too – Utilitarianism. Socialised medicine. Why gooseberries are under-rated. Who were the Thundercats. How much of a tosser David Cameron actually is. Interspersed with laughter and this mental and verbal workout we had an intensely competitive thumb war tournament (three all), we lobbed cherries into each other’s jowls and Claire tried to teach me to sing. I would say Claire failed, but really it was me.

There were some moments where I felt a little vulnerable as another pair of eyes appraised my slightly odd ball lifestyle. The discovery of a tin of tuna with a Spanish label and leaking powdered mashed potato that I can say with confidence has been in my food bag since at least Peru was one such moment. But Claire cooked risotto, could read road signs from more than ten metres away and sometimes felt inspired to use the phrase ‘amazeballs’. All of these things and many others made her a great travel companion. And she reminded me of how exciting the serendipity that courts all cycle tourers can be – it’s great when someone else is a bit awed by the hospitality of strangers, by the romance of wild camping, and by the buzz of meeting another biker. It feels good to share.

Claire wasn’t aware of this, but I was surreptitiously undertaking a research project whilst we cycled together through BC…

The effect of cycle touring on a previously uninitiated individual: An observational study.

Aim – To determine how long the transformation process will take from baseline to Cycle Tourer

Methodology – Observation of control subject Claire Press

Day Three – Claire accidentally ingests 95% DEET. Doesn’t seem to care.

Day Five – Claire has begun to develop a bizarre obsession with roadkill. Talk often veers to dead animals.

Day Six – I find Claire slumped outside supermarket surrounded by empty packets of blueberry muffins, crumbs covering her face, and with an expression of unsullied joy and contentment.

Day Eleven – Empties half a jar of strawberry jam onto bread and spreads it around wildly with index finger. Smirks when I offer a knife.

Day Thirteen – Wears T-shirt inside out. Doesn’t notice until mid-afternoon.

Day Fifteen – Uses the exact phrase ‘You know it’s a good day when sweat dribbles down your ass’

Day sixteen – Has become adept in killing mosquitoes in total darkness.

Day seventeen – gazes strangely at inner tube. Perhaps wondering if several of them glued together would make a serviceable bandana.

Conclusion – Transformation complete by 17 days.

Whistler is a busy resort town which hosted many of the events of the winter Olympics in 2010. Our plan on arrival was to find an Australian, an easy task here, buy them a beer, also an easy task, and subtly suggest (not ask) that we camp in their garden. It was a fail. After approximately six hours and thirty cups of tea we found ourselves sitting in a flat with two alcoholics, feeling slightly uneasy, whilst they made jokes about stealing all our stuff. In the end though they showed us to a decent spot to camp in the park, humanity prevailed.

Then it was a short ride to Pemberton where Tammy was going to put us up, a surfer I met on the coast of Mexico and an all-round brilliant human being. We met her briefly on the road where she gave us a very Canadian lesson about how to fight a cougar (‘just punch and kick it in the face’) and offered us her home to rest up in whilst she was away, a cosy forest retreat easily worth the uphill battle to get there.

Claire, pedaling uphill for three km: ‘Steve, I hate you right now’
And then two minutes later ‘I’m sorry Steve. It’s not you. It’s just that I hate everything a little right now’

As sweaty as sumo wrestlers, dizzy and slightly blue, we arrived. Claire admitted her pulse was strangely audible and at a slightly higher BPM than Happy Hardcore.

The next day was a well-deserved day off, and one where the adjective Perfect might just be the best fit. Tammy is also keen on paragliding and had arranged for us to give it a whirl with her mates, and for free. We both floated off the launch site on tandem paragliders, vaguely towards the snow covered crags and glaciated peaks of the coastal mountains and hovering high and occasionally swooping over the broad valley below.

Tammy’s pad was where we wiled away the afternoon, knowing that after you’ve spent the morning paragliding in British Columbia, the day is already awesome and you don’t have to exert any extra effort to make it so. That afternoon a black bear loped into the garden so I sent Claire downstairs to deal with it – part of an agreed plan that she handles black bears, Grizzlies and cougars, I get troublesome insects and noisy dogs.

The next day began with ‘Eye of the tiger’ ringing out from my computer – we needed it. The Duffy Lake Road beckoned. Or in local parlance ‘THE DUFFY’ (which comes with a brief whistle and bounce of the eyebrows). The road climbs a thousand vertical metres and starts out at a 15 to 20% grade with an average incline of 7.5% to the top. THE DUFFY had been on our minds and had exerted its menace well before we glanced up at its preliminary twists and turns, though despite the hype and irrefutable stats (maybe because of them), it was tamer than we imagined. A double handed high five came in the early afternoon as we crested the pass, glanced back behind us and exchanged a little look that said ‘Have some of that, Canada’. And Canada thanked us for our efforts with bold and imposing peaks, bald eagles, prodigious gorges and serene moments skirting turquoise lakes as we rallied downwards, sucking up the odd rush of cool air radiating from churning mountain streams that cascaded into the wide river at the gorge floor. Around us poplar fluff drifted easily on the breeze as if we were biking through a snow dome. In amongst it all two cyclists were grinning like crazy people.

The topography is as changeable as the weather in this part of Canada and soon we were in an arid semi-desert. Lillooet, we were reminded time and again, is the hottest spot in Canada. It’s a fact dished out with gravity by the locals of a country internationally renowned for its incessant tropical heat. ‘It’s gonna be way too hot to ride today’ scorned a local man in the supermarket. He went on to tell me a cautionary tale I only half listened to, which I think involved another cycling couple and probably involved them sweating so hard they were converted into a white crust and had to be scraped off the tarmac and their salt crystals repatriated, but I wasn’t really paying attention. We set off anyway, sweating and panting past signs that told us not to pass snow ploughs on the right.

Back into the verdant arable land to the east and lulled into a sense of invincibility by the absence so far of a bear attack, we camped out in a small village of Native Americans and left food inside our tent instead of the nightly ritual of finding a place to stash it where bears couldn’t get to it. In hindsight, this must have been on Claire’s mind. From deep sleep I was violently jerked into the real world as Claire kicked off her sleeping bag and shouted ‘It’s inside! ITS INSIDE!’

Now Claire was asleep and dreaming, but the important thing to understand is that I had no idea at the time that she was asleep and dreaming, and when someone shouts ‘IT’S INSIDE!’ at night, in a tent, with food in it, in Canada, in bear country, you have to assume the worst has happened, or is about to. Two thoughts raced to the forefront of my mind, interestingly the first was ‘use hysterical friend as human shield’ but this was soon superseded by the more sensible ‘better get the bear spray’. One close look at Claire though and I knew she was in the throes of an ursine-related nightmare. We settled back to sleep but half an hour later Claire threw herself wildly into the side of the tent, another imaginary bear had attacked whilst I was asleep and she was bravely defending us. Imaginary bears are much scarier than real ones.

The terrain flattened out as we climbed slowly up onto the Fraser Plateau and soon we were relaxing in Prince George, Claire’s final stop. I gave a talk to the local bike club, and I said goodbye to Claire. And then it rained. 

To my north and where I’m heading there is a big empty space on my map where I suspect bears outnumber people, moose heads adorn every wall and the women have beards. I will leave British Columbia behind and embrace the Yukon, a place twice the size of England and with a population that could fit inside Norwich City Football stadium. And yes, that really is something to be excited about.

Thank you’s this month – Liz and Zach, MaryLouise, Paul and the posse, Mark, Cath and Superman Luke, Josephine, Norman, Stacy and Deb, Etta, The Powell River Bikers, Vancouver Rotary Club, Prince George Cycling Club, Ruth and Paul, Stephen and Rua, Chris, Tammy, Mike and the paragliders, Brenda, Pero and Vanessa, a whole bunch of anonymous Canadians and whoever it was that drew a penis on the deer signpost near Quesnel. You’ve all been utterly ace, so mad props to one and all. If I’ve forgotten anyone, I blame it on last night’s drinking with Claire, who’s gone for now, but not forgotten.

Biking in the buff, and other stories

Amongst the Coastal Redwoods, California

‘Step outside Sir!’
Light fills my tent, the fabric glows blue, then red and back to blue in what I know must be the lights of a cop car outside.
‘Alright, alright, I’m coming!’ I shout back, and I stir my pan of simmering pasta before stepping outside into the night. My tent is pitched by the side of a parking lot – it’s the consequence of running out of daylight, energy and scruples during yesterday’s hunt for an elusive campground on the Marin headland. Just the other side of the parking lot there’s an escarpment and beyond the venerable Golden Gate bridge reaches across the choppy waters of the San Francisco bay. It’s a crap place to rough camp, way too visible, and I half expected some kind of comeuppance.

‘Show me your hands Sir. HANDS! WHAT ARE YOU HOLDING SIR!’
‘It’s just some dry spaghetti…’
I follow the order

There are two police officers, the twitchy, vociferous one has one quivering hand pinned to his gun belt. The other steps around me and picks up my knife from where it’s sat in a plate of chopped onions. Unconsciously I slide one hand into my pocket.
‘HANDS! HANDS!’ they bark in unison
‘Sorry, sorry’

After collecting some basic details they ask for my passport and I return to my tent to collect it whilst a beady eyed officer follows, watching me intensely, perhaps expecting me to launch into some kind of commando roll, snatch at the packet of dry spaghetti and stab him in the neck with the filaments of pasta. Or perhaps he’s spotted the potentially lethal weapon of my broccoli and assumes I will try to bludgeon him to death with it. It would be a slow demise.

There are a lot of guns in the US and a lot of nutters with the inclination to use them, so I can understand their caution, but when dealing with hapless cycle tourists cooking dinner I’m not convinced there’s need for these theatrics. Besides, I just don’t have the space in my panniers for an AK-47, too bulky. The officers check my passport, let me make my case and quickly calm down. They even give me permission to camp there overnight once I promise to move off in the morning. I had after all chosen a well developed area instead of throwing down my tent down over a meadow of wild orchids and spit roasting a slaughtered elk.

Marin county turned out to be a leafy utopia with streets all named after trees, where rakish middle aged women walked red setters and Afghan hounds and where grand houses lined up after each other, divided by rhododendron. Whilst I perused a menu outside a cafe, trying to decide which sandwich I would choose if I could afford one, which I could not, I definitely could not, a man attired in a waistcoat and sporting a thin goatee offered to buy me breakfast. Afterwards he spent ten minutes calling friends of his further north who could help me out in some fashion or offer me a place to sleep. It’s another charm of the US – more often people don’t wonder how they might be able to help, the approach is more – I’m going to help, and here’s how.

I made tracks north up the edge of California – the sparkling waters of the Pacific reaching out to my left as I freewheeled down to small coves and recruited my friend momentum to attack climbs up and over verdant headlands. June days in California are long and I pedal until they slowly bleed into night. Memorial day weekend arrived and RVs wrestled for space on the winding coastal highway, I among them, trying to hold my own. A campsite marked on my map ended up being a permanent site for these giant RVs without space for the skinflint bikers like me who expect a five dollar fee and a hot shower to sweeten the deal. A man spotted me scoping out the park and waved and shouted in a manner that made me think we were old friends. It turned out Eric just liked to adopt the odd touring biker when he spotted them and I was welcomed into his clique like one of the family. He offered me a spot to camp by his RV, made sure I always had a beer in hand, fed me with the family and that evening his and other families congregated around the fire, the kids played guitar and we toasted marshmallows. My send off was marked by cheers and waves and back pats and high fives and I admit it, I left a touch teary eyed.

Highway One
Towards the northern reaches of the state, California’s Highway One veers inland for a time, bent inwards by steep mountains which effectively wall off an area known as The Lost Coast. Locals told me of a redundant logging road I could use to make it over the forested lumps of land that discourage most into making the effort. The junction was unsigned but I met a jeep pulling out onto the main road.

‘You’re not going that way are ya buddy?’ asked the driver
‘I was planning to’
‘On that?’
‘Um, yes, I guess’
‘Well, good luck to ya!’

The warning shot was a good call. Most motor vehicles would not have made it. Gradients of 15 and sometimes 20 % turned my quads into fierce enemies of the decision making part of my body that had got them into this mess. Endless climbs precluded descents so steep and uneven that I didn’t dare take them at more than 10 km/hr, and still then with the sneaking suspicion I was heading towards spinal trauma and air evacuation. The logging road saw no other vehicles at all and the windless day was an eerie one – I was hemmed in by a forest of Blair Witch ilk, silent and still and foreboding. There was another reason to be on edge here too. Three weeks before my journey towards the lost coast, 200 miles away inland, a woman and her two children were found dead from gunshot wounds in their home. Shane Miller, the husband, father, ex-convict and prime suspect in the triple homicide, had disappeared. He grew up in these woods and the police had found his car two weeks ago, abandoned just a few miles from me now. He hung with a tough crowd and friends knew him as a survivalist with the skills needed to live rough. Reportedly he had a cache of weapons, money and food buried or hidden in the forest. Townspeople I met later on my route gossipped constantly about him and everyone had a theory – that he’d hiked out, that he was still here living wild, that he’d killed himself. I saw police involved in the manhunt with quad bikes and dogs. Was I was sharing the wilderness with him?

The next day can’t have been very pleasant for a fugitive on the run, or a touring cyclist. The rain was endless and fell in sheets, drenching the forest and me with it. An American might say I was thrown a curve ball. If that’s true the figurative pitcher was a sadist aiming at my nuts. My hands were shrivelled, white and aching with the cold. My feet grew insensate and I began to wonder whether there was a precise definition of trench-foot and how I would know when I had it. The roads continued their undulating torment until tarmac provided a brief respite but once again the road took flight like a bipolar maniac on crystal meth. Soon I realised I wasn’t entirely sure where I was and I waved down a vehicle for assistance, the driver was about as Northern Californian as you can get.

‘Hi, I’m White Star The Pacifist’
voiced the bearded curiosity behind the wheel.
‘Right. Hi White Star. Just need some directions – where does this road go?’
White Star The Pacifist was very helpful in every way except in the art of directing a lost person. He offered insightful and unique quasi-political ramblings. He used words I didn’t understand and some I doubted actually exist except in the bizarre world of white star’s grey matter. He cursed Tony Blair and made me promise that I hadn’t supported the Iraq war. Eventually I gathered from White Star that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere, waved him off and then alone, wet, tired, frustrated, and hungry, thought one and only one thing – Shit. And immediately after that, ‘I need a cup of tea’. To that end I descended 400 vertical metres in the wrong direction just to get one, which it occurred to me was a very British thing to do.

I hung out at the store, sheltering under the roof, procrastinating with determination, and daydreaming about a parallel universe once within my grasp. If only I had bought a car instead of a bicycle. If only I had waved goodbye to my mum and turned left, left, left and left and then said ‘you know what, I’ve got a better idea’. I could have been back in a cosy London flat and my life within it. I might even have a girlfriend. My parallel universe comes from a fork in the road which I reached on some forgotten day in early 2007. One road was loaded with predictability, comfort, financial security and convention. The other promised half a decade of banana sandwiches, a forceful dent in my promising medical career and the occasional worry about being mauled to death by a wild animal. But it also came with the allure of adventure and that priceless quantity: uncertainty. The guardian at this fork in my road asked a question I struggled with, the hardest of my life.

‘Will it all be worth it?’ 

The sacrifices I knew, the gains were more mysterious. A deeply rooted gut instinct pushed me in the direction of a yes but in my parallel universe I am not sitting here, shivering, fed up and lonely. In my parallel universe I answered that question with a no. My alternate self in my parallel universe and me, in this one, have journeyed together. There are some things I know for sure about my other self, others I don’t. For example – I don’t know for sure what medical speciality I would be working in. I can’t say what colour or model of hatchback my alternate self would be driving. I have no idea how big my plasma TV would be. But I do know some things – I know that my alternate self never had to pick leaf litter and pine needles out of pasta because he ran out of water and had to cook with muddy rainwater from a puddle, or that when he did so he thought ‘not again’. I can say with near 100% certainty that my alternate self doesn’t regularly take a tentative sniff of his socks, grimaces, and then thinks ‘probably a couple more days left in those’. My alternate self doesn’t I’m sure sneak out of his tent at night wielding a knife because he heard a rustle in the bushes and thinks it may be a recently escaped serial killer. Seriously, that’s how ridiculous my life has become.

But when I imagine my parallel universe and the man that lives there, I wonder when work’s over, and after he has kissed his parallel universe girlfriend goodnight, whether he flicks on the discovery channel on that huge plasma TV and wonders about a parallel universe where an alternate self traversed the Andes and cycled across the Sahara Desert and through Colombian cloud forest. Ingesting occasional foliage and wondering about trench foot is a good trade off for a life time of regret. It’s still raining outside the store, but I’m smiling and thinking that he can keep his plasma TV and loft apartment. I’m happy as I am.

Why do I like these little mini-adventures and the hills – I guess there’s something alluring about this type of challenge because it’s so dependent on one thing and one thing alone – me. Me versus mountain. If I keep going, I will make it. So many challenges in life are dependent upon extraneous and often unpredictable forces. I don’t need people to agree with me, to vote for me, to buy from me, to do anything in order to succeed. There’s something reassuring in the type of simple challenge in which you are the only variable that matters. Cycling the lost coast ended up being as much about discovering the coast itself as it was about discovering myself and how much I can handle.

The Lost Coast of Northern California
I rejoined the highway and each day ended in the retreat of another hiker-biker campsite. One night a guy came up to my tent and asked if I wanted to set up camp with him and his girlfriend making it a cheaper deal for all of us. I got chatting with Adam and Kiley around the fire. They had left their home in Colorado for the promised land of California with little more than a car, some stuff and a dog. They had no work lined up, no friends here, no house yet and no solid plan. They had hope and ambition to fill in the gaps. There was something endearing in their spontaneity, and also in their haplessness. They had been camping out for a week hoping a flat would come up on Craig’s list and were living day to day. They were broke and Adam was clearly the hustler of the pair, offering incessantly to sell me all sort of things I didn’t want or need. I overheard him on the phone to an old friend

‘No way man, this is California. I can’t be like selling meat from the back of my van like I did back home. People want menus and shit.’

They had lost the bulk of their money on their first day in California after Adam left his wallet in a toilet cubicle, most of his ID with it. Whilst relating their story to me by the fire Adam poured gas from a plastic jerrycan onto the flames which travelled up into the container and set it alight. He swung the blazing can around wildly trying to extinguish the flames whilst I shouted for him to throw it away before it exploded. Kiley threw some sand over the container and the flames went out. They both then laughed in a manner that told me they had no idea how close they had just come to weeks of pain and a lifetime of disfigurement. Three minutes later, Adam did it again.

Adam had spent five years in jail after being caught with 45 pounds of weed and 8 pounds of cocaine after he was caught transporting it for his dad. At trial he decided against ratting out his relatives and took the rap. He was 19 years old at the time. He told me he could get work like that again, 40,000 dollars per transport job, but knowing they would throw the book at him next time he hasn’t taken what must at times be a tempting job offer, especially as things are. I felt some sympathy for them, despite their troubles and bad decisions, perhaps because they were so irrepressibly chirpy and optimistic in hard times. I wondered if they would ever make it to where they dreamt they might – the statistics suggest no. The upward mobility in the US that people have historically and rightly been so proud, AKA ‘The American Dream’, has dwindled and comparatively the US is less a land of opportunity than many other developed nations, including most of Europe. If you were born in the seventies in the US and into the lower 5th of the socioeconomic spectrum, your chance of making it into the top two fifths are about 15%, less than other places. For me though, as an outsider, the saddest thing is that people still believe the American dream is a reality mainly I suppose because canny advertisers still promote it and play on the fact that people want to believe it.

There is something impressive though about people’s determination in the US to take responsibility for those around them. I’ve met children selling lemonade on the sidewalk to raise money not for themselves as I would have guessed, but for their school. Signs advertise a project called ‘adopt a highway’ where local groups clean up litter in exchange for their name on a signpost. There are book exchanges in corner shops where donations are given to raise funds for local volunteer fireman.

Oregon rolled around. The hills got longer but less steep. I rode past kite surfers on the beach, past dune buggies, past fishermen, through pine forests and everywhere green dominated the vista except to my left where the vast sea was uniformly blue in the mornings, a good sign. When the wind picked up later on in the day the wavetips frothed and the blue expanse became speckled white. My last two days on the coast were savage ones into gale force wind that slowed me to a crawl. I cut inland to Portland – my vision of the city was fashioned almost entirely from the TV show Portlandia – a satire on the odd, hippy-esque and quirky lifestyle of the residents. The show begins…

Remember the 90’s? When people were talking about getting piercings and tribal tattoos. People were singing about saving the planet, forming bands? There’s a place that idea still exists as a reality, and I’ve been there.
Where is it?
Remember when people were content to be unambitious, when people had no occupation whatsoever, when people would hang out with their friends and maybe work a couple of hours a week at a coffee shop?
Yeah, I thought that died out a long time ago
Not in Portland. Portland is a city young people go to retire.

I was determined to get beneath the cliché, and I had the perfect person to help me. Becky was a friend of Nate’s, a cyclist I met in southern California. She was an awesome, generous soul who helped shape my experience of the city, and as a consequence Portland is one of my favourites so far. The city was basking in a warm sunny spell and gearing up for a series of cycling events in a festival called Pedalpalooza, it was the perfect time to be there. I met up with the Garths, a couple from Alabama I met back in Argentina more than a year ago who are still touring around the world and now on the home stretch, and then I spent four days doing all kinds of cool stuff with Becky. I spoke at a bike shop turned bar, I joined Becky and her mates at a banging house party with some quality musicians, I sat on a peer in the Willamette river at 4 am, in the centre of the city, drinking good beer. I wished I had more time.

There is something of the stereotype in Portland of course. People really do keep goats and chickens next to their houses in the city. Everyone is tattooed. People do go to clown school. Perhaps the mayor of the city really does sit on a giant beanbag instead of a chair, but I have no way to verify this. But of course there is a whole lot more to it than that, and as it turned out the best way for me to really get under the skin of Portland was by throwing everything off. Literally.

The World’s Biggest Naked Bike Ride

I have never had much of a hankering to bare all in front of a crowd. Indeed for most people, bar hardcore exhibitionists, that’s not the stuff of dreams, but of nightmares. But since I’m an outsider with no chance of running into anyone I know, the prospect of doing it on a bicycle in Portland is altogether less daunting and actually quite enticing. That is because there is something about Portland’s eccentric and curious reputation that has inspired me to take part. Portland for starters is the most bike mad place in the whole of the US. It consistently tops lists of bike friendly cities, there are 180 miles of bike lanes and it’s the only large city to earn Platinum status from the League of American Bicyclists. Cycling is so much more than the mere subculture it might be considered in other cities, cycling dominates every facet of life and even dictates the fashion sense of the hipsters, the hippies and every denomination of bohemian. I don’t know if people here even recognize themselves as ‘cyclists’ because in Portland, that’s just a given.

These days more than fifty cities worldwide hold an annual naked bike ride, Portland though is probably host to the world’s biggest and last year saw at least 5000 naked bodies take to two wheels on mass, a feat that speaks volumes about Portland’s personality. This is the ninth year it’s been running and potentially only one thing could blight the chance of yet another world record – Portland’s sometimes grim weather. Luckily though a warm, dry night is on the cards, and so the whole city seems game to get naked.

The Portland ride has some notable differences to the many of the world’s other naked rides, nuanced perhaps, other than the fact it’s huge. First of all it kicks off after sunset and afterwards melds into a riotous party that stretches into the night. It’s also a ride in which every sort of person seems inspired to take part. It’s a paradox – that those who are most comfortable with their bodies and with showing them off are often the ones who have the less conventionally (and please treat these as huge inverted commas) “attractive” bodies. Older, rounder people prevail in the naturalist community and dominate some other naked rides. In Portland though the naked ride is most popular among the young, the trim and the supple. Or perhaps that’s just what you get with a city full of healthy food and bicycles.

All day, and for a few days prior, Portland has sizzled with anticipation, and on the evening of June 8th bars around the city are choking with those determined to kill last minute nerves the easy way – with booze. Many I speak with have cycled naked through Portland’s streets four or five times, and it reminds me what a major event this is on the Portland calendar.

I’m with Becky, we met three days ago. We’re tipsy and hyped up, like everyone around us. The sun has set half an hour ago leaving the sky a navy blue as we jump onto bikes and head off towards the start line. Almost immediately we become swallowed up in a jumble of riders pedaling towards the river. More and more converge on the melee every minute from side streets and bars, many painted, waving glow sticks, and a few already naked. There are cheers and yells and whistles and it feels like we’re part of something huge and bold and exciting. We hit Hawthorn bridge as a chaotic peloton. Two girls have stopped ahead and are undressing. Glitch-hop belts out from a boom-box on someones trailer, there are more screams. As the riders get denser we get off and walk our bikes into a jostling concrescence of nude bodies, all waiting for the ride to begin. The crowd is so tattooed that blue cheese is a decent simile.

The organizers don’t publicize the route, only the starting point. This year it begins from outside the art museum which has been open to the gathered riders for hours, they have been charging entry but not many paid, the fee is a dollar per item of clothing. There’s a smattering of voyeuristic pedestrians milling through the riders but nobody seems to care. Every so often a howl erupts from the assembly, a call to action, and soon after anyone who needed a little more inspiration to fling off their remaining clothes does just that. That includes me and in a flash of courage, spurred on by goading from Becky, my boxers are off and stashed in a pannier, it will be several hours until I put them back on. Becky though has set out boundaries – underpants are staying on and a blue star of tape covers each nipple. Within five minutes the tape has been peeled off and two minutes later everything else follows.

Technically we are now breaking the law – Portland’s city code reads:

“It is unlawful for any person to expose his or her genitalia while in a public place or place visible from a public place, if the public place is open or available to persons of the opposite sex.”

Thankfully though the police issued a statement in the weeks before the ride asserting that ‘whilst many participants may violate Portland City Code, Police Bureau will be exercising tremendous discretion’. Tremendous discretion is a lovely understatement, I’m surrounded by an estimated 8150 naked or near naked bodies, and the police couldn’t act if they wanted to, and they certainly don’t want to.

Within a minute I feel almost completely at ease with my nakedness, gradually we move forward and then suddenly the bikers thin out as the ones just ahead seize an opportunity to ride. We pedal off through a corridor of gawking spectators – most of them are congruent with our festive mood and offer cheers and high fives which feels like the right way to give up respect to those who have the courage to let it all hang out. Plainly some are there just to leer, a few are recording video on their phones, but again nobody gives them much heed.

Then it’s only naked bodies around me and the all pervasive thump and boom of electronica as the warming effect of adrenaline tempers the chill of the rushing air. Why are we doing this? There are a host of reasons depending upon who you speak with – there are political motivations – a protest on the planet’s reliance on fossil fuels. A way to highlight the vulnerability and rights of cyclists. These are ideas I concur with and an ethos I share, but admittedly not the only reason I’m here. I’m here too for the celebration, for a chance to be part of something daring and extraordinary. It’s the one thing I should do every day that scares me. I suspect that for the others too at least some of their motivation is just as personal.

We’re moving fast and proudly around the city on a proscribed route cordoned off by smiling policemen. Towards the finale of the seven mile route small gatherings of dissidents have ditched their bikes and are raving, still naked, around sound systems. We join them for a minute and then rejoin the riders to the finishing point under the highway where a bigger party is at it’s pumping apex. Soon after joining these revellers I discover it’s not just my feet that are moving erratically to the music, but another beer wipes away any self consciousness and I’m back into the insouciant tumult of ravers and their flapping bits.

Back on our bikes, we head to the official after party on the banks of the Willamette river. I’ve been naked for hours and getting dressed holds no appeal at all now. Eventually the cold bites too much though to avoid the strangely disappointing moment of donning garbs.

The naked ride is not just a day when people disrobe, it’s one that Portland itself does as well. With the stripping, Portland’s buzz and charm are easy to see, mainly through the characters who live here, and if you want to ride a bicycle naked with 10,000 other naked people, and even if you don’t, in fact especially if you don’t, it’s the spirited and creative city of Portland that must be the best place in the world to do so.

And now – I’m having some down-time in Seattle with my cousin Liz and about to head off into Canada. Next post will come out of Prince George in British Columbia. Apologies for one of my longest ever blog posts, but as Mark Twain put it – ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.’

And then there’s California…

“There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there’s California” – Edward Abbey

Street Life – Mooching around Los Angeles

LA was my office and playground for about a month and ‘work’ was gabbing away about my bike ride, mostly to school kids. I presented at small elementary schools where the pupils mmm’d and ahhhh’d and squirmed at my slides of snakes and spiders, and to an audience of over a thousand high school seniors at a prestigious private school where actor Will Smith sends his kids, who wanted to know whether cycling around the world was a religious experience.

I learnt some things along the way – like never to sign an autograph unless you have 45 minutes to spare because every kid will want one and you will be surrounded by a mob screaming ‘He’s famous! Sign my arm!’. And I have fielded all kinds of questions – the best came after telling a posse of teenagers I have had 210 punctures (lesson: use the more American ‘flats’ in future). One hand shot up and a perplexed youth wanted to know why I had been punched 210 times. I told him that I’m just very annoying.

Pimped up bikers at LA’s Ciclavia Bike Ride
One of my favourite quirks of America is how often strangers come over to make conversation. It’s refreshing and it’s disarming, but being accustomed to miserable England it took some getting used to. If this rare and brazen faux pas occurs in London I assume the person talking at me must be either

a)      Suffering from extreme loneliness
b)      Mentally ill
c)      Extremely drunk
d)      An American on vacation (bless them, they don’t know how to behave in the UK)

My bike is a conversation starter of course – it’s like having a gregarious wingman who’s forever introducing me to new people. And I have started to become Americanized with a z. More than once I have instigated a conversation with a stranger in the street whilst in the depths of my British brain a voice is going ‘My God Man! What are you DOING! Abort, abort, abort.’ And when I speak the American people who grin at my accent are unwittingly responsible for my ever more brutal and comical Lock-Stock style of the British voice. I don’t even hail from London, but I just can’t help it.

The USA is the most patriotic country I have travelled and that I’m ever likely to, though of course not everyone conforms to this stereotype, and less so in California. I know there’s a lot to be proud of, this post is full of American triumphs and delights, but the fact that I don’t see this facet of the national psyche as one of America’s virtues perhaps stems from the fact that I’m British and come from a place with crappy weather, worse food and ugly people. But then this particular brand of self-effacement is in itself something we are proud of, so maybe I’m a patriot too. Examples of America’s self-aggrandising abound – men who announce ‘Welcome to God’s Great Country!’. Bumper stickers that say ‘USA: Back to back World War champions’. The names of local servicemen on roadside flags – these are not men killed in combat, these are serving military personnel, what about the teachers and nurses and policemen serving the American people? Where are their flags? It’s all just a little weird.

Soon after leaving LA I stopped in Ventura and at the home of Cat and Pat Patterson, a couple who contacted me online with the kind offer of a place to crash. Pat had cycled around the world twice, once in the 80’s and again from 2003-2007 with his wife Cat. We drank wine, watched a film of Pat’s ride and talked about some of the pleasures and tests of a life on wheels before a zip around thrift stores so that I could replace the tatty hole-ridden vessels that were once recognizable as shoes.

I’m still revelling in the easiness of biking in the States and maps from the Adventure Cycling Association help, kindly donated to me by Calvin, a generous fella who heard me speak at REI and then gave me a bed for night and bought me dinner. So with cycle touring proving a cinch and a well-honed masochistic instinct still intact, I decided to leave the traditional well-worn Pacific Coastal route of California with it’s RVs, sea breeze, amenities, vegans and smooth tarmac and head instead for the hills.

A road in the sky – Cycling Camino Cielo (Santa Barbara county)

Local knowledge is sacred stuff and KG, a touring biker who came to my talk at a bike coop in Santa Barbara, had it in droves. By sheer coincidence KG’s Dad happened to be my burly companion Kenny who I sailed with from mainland Mexico to the Baja peninsula a few months before. Seeking an adventure away from Highway One I asked KG for advice and his reply came in Spanish – ‘Camino Cielo’. I liked the sound of it, the translation ‘sky road’ told me much of what I needed to know and KG filled in the details – a steep climb from the coast to 4000 feet where a hushed back country track rides a spine of rock in the Santa Ynez mountains.

‘The eye followed them up and up, and farther and farther, with the accumulating emotion of a wild rush on a toboggan…. It left you breathless, wonder-stricken, awed’. The words of author Stuart Edward White on the view of the Santa Ynez mountains from Santa Barbara. He was right. There’s no way out of Santa Barbara without crossing them – the San Marcos Pass is the shortest route and so was a popular spot for bandits to ambush traveling stagecoaches back in the mid-nineteenth century.

I pedaled up and away from Santa Barbara, from stop signs, traffic lights and convenience stores. Road cyclists breezed past me giving a ‘Wow!’ when they took in all my gear, and then a driver rolled down his window to reveal a wry smile before shouting ‘Damn masochist!’. He was right of course. If I were teleported to sea level every time I reached the high point of a road in the mountains, forgoing the reward of a breezy freewheel down the other side, I would still ride up into them. I enjoy the aftermath of pain, the light-headed buzz of breathlessness, the self-doubt and satisfaction they create.

Eventually I arrived at the Painted Caves, 400 year old drawings on rock made with ochre, charcoal and powerdered shells which were created by the Chumash Indians who lived in these hills long before the freakish crowd that makes up modern day California moved in. Visitors had signed the guest book, one entry read ‘We are on a bachelor party! Caves were great! Now we are looking forward to beer and titties!’ the entry ended with a sketch of a woman with enormous breasts which highlighted as well as the Indian cave paintings mankind’s propensity to explain through art. Unnecessarily, perhaps.

I continued climbing. Soon darkness billowed and wafted over the coast like smoke. The plum tinted streaks of cloud were quickly leached of their shine and the stars began to blink and sparkle. I slept rough on an elevated concrete platform, a strange thing – circular, flat, hidden from the road and overlaid with graffiti, and whose function I couldn’t work out. Someone had sprayed ‘locals only’ on the metal stairs leading up onto it and torn cigarettes littered the centre. I guessed that it now served as a weed smoking den for local kids and I was proved right when some ventured up the stairs in the evening. ‘Oh!’ one exclaimed when he spotted my makeshift campsite. ’So I guess we’ll go somewhere else?’,  ‘Umm, Yes please’ and I was alone again as the street lights of distant Santa Barbara flickered to life two thousand feet below.

The next day Camino Cielo turned to dirt and I was left with just the trill of insects and the increasing subdued sounds of gun shots from a local gun club. Nature moved in around me, a green ambush. Hummingbirds jerked and shimmied around the flowering plants which fired up the vista. Crested Caracaras swooped low over the ascending road, one of the most dramatic I have cycled, and the land beside it tumbled on one side into the sheen of Cachuma Lake and the other into remote farmland which flanked the Pacific. In the solace of the wilds I was reminded of the creatures that call it home – Coyote droppings in the dirt, and when I rounded a corner something large and furry ahead sprang up and lumbered away into the bush. The sight of a black bear, just a few miles from people’s homes, reminded me just how alluring and wild much of America’s third largest state actually is.

My plan was to ride through wine country and join the Pacific coast further north but a mistake at a junction took me back to the coast only 15 miles or so from the town I had left two days earlier. But, as with all excursions away from and beyond the well-trodden path, it was worth it.

Biking a legend – Highway One on two wheels

The venerable Highway One is a tourist destination unto itself – it twists around rocky inlets and coves, skims over cliff tops and meanders over headlands whilst the tourists inside gargantuan RVs and riding roaring Harleys take in the ocean view. En route I camped in the cheap and friendly Hiker-Biker camps (which I love more than chocolate) and took (stole) showers from expensive RV parks. Even when my days on Highway One were marred by murk and drizzle, and when the coastline had a menace to it, the Californian golden poppy sparkled, drivers honked their encouragement and finding a cheap place to crash was as easy as sourcing a cheap burrito.

Elephant seals, even without David Attenborough’s mellifluous tones in the background, are impressive beasts, especially when sparring. A beach full of them lies off highway one near Piedras Blancas and I stopped to get some photos of the animals in action:

I usually have a mental list of outlandish adventures I want to accomplish in the next 12 months or so. Cycling Highway One was a long term dream. Another involved a Mexican girl. But in amongst them was the long held desire to sleep in a cave, honestly, it was. So when KG’s email mentioned ‘Pirates Cove’ and a sea cave I decided this would be my chance. I arrived in the pitch black of night determined to shorten that list, and I did it in style – sea view, en suite (err, kind of), open air balcony and minibar (a beer in my pannier). And unlike the penthouse, free.

I closed in on the famous stretch of coastline known as Big Sur. One evening I walked my bicycle off the road up into a grassy space beside an abandoned Ranger’s hut only to find another biker had got there first. Nate had been riding for two years, mainly in the bits of Asia I was most excited about. He grew up in Berkeley and had just a few days left of his epic world tour and I could sense his conflicting emotions – the predictable elation melded with panic. Knowing I will probably suffer the same when I return I advised Nate to pitch his tent in his back yard and slowly reintegrate back into society. The next day we set off together.

The majority of bikers ride south down the Pacific coast, aided by the prevailing trade winds, but Nate and I were exceptions to the rule. Most days on Highway One I would come across these smug south-bounders – ‘You’re going the wrong way!’ their annoying spiel would begin. ‘Oh Yeah, right’ would be my weak and tired reply having heard this twice already that morning. So when Nate and I met swift tail winds and rocketed up the coast of California we made it our business to pull over every south-bound cycle tourer and remind them.
‘Hey man, hows that wind for ya? Must be tough.’
‘It’s gonna be a long day for you guys’.
Two sulked silently, a look of defeat etched on their faces. I think one snarled.

The next day ended with a game of scrabble in a taphouse and a boozy ride in the dark back to camp in amongst the grand coastal redwoods this coastline is so famous for. The next day Nate had a plan, and I was invited.

Big Sur on the hoof – Hiking to Sykes hot springs

Stop in any urban public place in America and look around – you can be sure to see two things. The first is a signpost or seven telling you about all the things there are to be scared about. I call this the ‘Tsunami-Risk Zone Syndrome’ after a spate of signposts near Los Angeles. It could also be termed ‘Beware of Falling Acorns Syndrome’. The second is yet another batch of signposts telling you what you shouldn’t do and what will happen if you do. The consequences are usually enormous fines or some other spine-tingling threat…

‘Do not cross the railroad tracks here, or the US government will eat your grandmother’. 

Or ‘Do not dump litter here. Penalty: Death by steamroller’. 

The word ‘liability’ is used so often I presumed it must be some sort of involuntary vocal tick, but as it turns out people do actually mean what they say. People crave liability as much as the bubonic plague. So when the Park Service at our campground refused to let us stash our stuff there for the two day return hike to some hot springs (‘Liability, Sir’), I was chuffed when a helpful park volunteer offered to let us stash our gear at his campsite which I think shows that as long as everyone is this helpful, Liability Tourette’s doesn’t matter all that much.

We marched off, pack-laden and sweating, up onto the first ridge whilst around us the soundscape was rich with the creaking of redwoods, the knock of woodpeckers and the low gush of the river hidden in the valley depths, only the odd harsh squawk of a Stellar Jay stabbed at the tranquillity. The sinuous trail dipped down to creeks and then climbed to reveal a yawning valley which burrowed through redwood groves out to the invisible ocean somewhere now in our wake. The Sequoias, megalithic and fire-blackened, towered overhead, some trunks had been smashed into hollows by lightning strikes of centuries past, some in this forest were alive at the fall of the Roman Empire. The trail snaked close to the broad, rusty mid-sections offering a pang of vertigo when gazing at either the roots or the upper reaches. Between the trees a tide of resplendent green made of redwood sorrel and poison oak was broken only by the surreal shiny bark of manzanita. On the way I discovered a chest high stick which I used both as a walking aid and as a prop in my intermittent impressions of Gandalf the wizard. On the 12 mile hike to the hot springs we paused every now and then to examine some curiosity of the Californian wilds – yellow bellied newts, some strange striated snake, and then on a mossy log, a slimy yellow Banana Slug.

‘Go on, lick the slug’ goaded Nate
‘Nate, I’m not going to lick a slug’
‘Come on man, lick it. You have to’
‘I don’t have to’
‘Just a quick lick’
‘Will I get high or something?’ I asked, imagining the hallucinogenic toads of Mexico
‘No, no, no. But you still have to lick it’
‘You’re asking me to lick a bright yellow, slimy thing for no reason at all’
‘Look man, if you don’t feel completely welcome in California yet it’s because you haven’t licked a banana slug’
‘I feel welcome Nate’ 
‘Oh for Christ’s sake’

I licked the slug. Nate licked the slug.

‘Welcome to California! Now lets get going.’

As sunset encroached we waded a river and found a multinational posse of trekkers camped out near the hot springs. After lolling in the steamy waters, perfect relief after the time spent on foot, we cooked around a campfire before collapsing into slumber. I woke to find that my legs, unaccustomed to doing much except move in circles, were no longer as functional as I remembered them. Plus, I was in a world of pain.

A Gopher Snake

Yellow bellied Newt

Bayside antics and Bay to breakers – San Francisco

I had the name ‘Warren’ scribbled onto some paper along with rough directions, my friend Ryan had told me that he would host us in Monterey. When we finally found Warren in the hills above the town, we found a man with stories. 

In the 60’s Warren co-wrote the anthem ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ (if the name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll know it when you hear it. It’s often sung to the losing opposition at sports events and has been covered a bunch of times). He was a millionaire by age 19 and working for Mercury Records as a sound engineer at a time where that was a rare profession. By the sounds of it he spent the next couple of decades squandering his fortune and having a blast by working closely with rock legends and pioneers including Jimmy Hendrix, Jon Lennon and a whole host of other household names. More recently he bought the State Theatre in Monterey which hosts live music events and he gave us a tour the following day.

San Francisco was a great venue for downtime and I spent it with Fin, Jon and Max – relatives I’d hardly met before. I now realise that my Irish heritage has benefits above and beyond the genetically inherited appreciation of Guinness, namely relatives everywhere. My mum was waiting for me with them, it was great to catch up – I hadn’t seen her for two years. By day we explored San Francisco and Alcatraz. In the evenings I made some sorely needed cash for the months to Alaska with more talks in schools and even people’s homes in which Fin set up a kind of donation jar and everyone generously chipped in. When I wasn’t performing these talks I listened to Fin and my mum and learnt more about my Irish family background and the characters that coloured it.

At the end of my stay came Bay to Breakers – a eccentric and very San Francisco street race followed by the more important street party where elaborate costumes or nudity are de rigueur and alcohol is slugged for hours. I was sitting in Goldengate park, sipping on a beer too, and waiting for Nate to arrive whilst watching some people party on the roof of one of the four story buildings on the edge of the pan-handle. And then something fell, something human-shaped. It seems strange to me now that I assumed it was a mannequin but in amongst the total strangeness of that day I thought it was some bizarre practical joke on the pedestrians below. Those on the sidewalk didn’t react with shock or horror, they just froze. It was only when the crowd on the roof began screaming did I realise I had just seen a body drop fifty feet onto concrete. I leapt up and sprinted across the park to find a young unconscious man on the sidewalk and next to him another doctor and a paramedic. We all chipped in with the resuscitation effort, stabilised his cervical spine, inserted a plastic tube into his mouth to keep his airway patent and put him on oxygen. Help arrived and he was moved onto a spinal board before being taken to the hospital. Sadly he died that night. He was 28 years old.

Mum and the mountains – Exploring Yosemite

It takes a lot to impress me these days. The back country, and all it’s stirring artistry, has been my home for most of the last three and a half years. When sunshine swept through our coach as it exited the tunnel inside Yosemite National Park, one of the three jewels in the crown of the US park system, the view set my mandible into a kind of involuntary and helpless free-fall that only a choice few spectacles have done.

My eyes were drawn first to the left and El Capitan, the hulking granite monolith which shoots up 2500 ft from the valley floor, beloved by technical climbers the world over. On the other side of the valley cascading water glistened in Bridalveil Falls, and between them the distant half dome, once the site of an improbable soft ball game. Climbers sauntered around gazing occasionally up towards their eventual destinations. The U shaped Yosemite valley carved by glaciers is simply a masterpiece, and still a work in progress as the slow sculptors of wind, rain and ice continue to reshape the land.

Yosemite was made all the more satisfying after our mission to get there. Car packed, mum schooled in American road rules, campsite booked, we set off towards the park. Our Dodge was borrowed from people we had never had the chance to meet. Thirty miles before Yosemite, on the start of a climb, there was a beeping sound and the light ‘check gauges’ flashed. We pulled up in 50 meters and steam billowed from the engine – envisioning a raging inferno we carted everything out of the car and flagged down the next vehicle which by some bizarre coincidence was a tow truck. The mechanics gathered around and quickly concluded the motor was finished and not worth replacing, our borrowed car was heading to the scrap yard.

The campsite down the road outside a motel was run by a woman with learning disabilities and a drunk guy who lived in the only trailer and who played rock music at full volume for most of the night. Hesitantly we decided to stash our stuff with them and took to buses to get to the park where my mum, who hadn’t been camping in forty years, slept fitfully in a valley renowned for the 400 black bears that reside here and that often stray into campgrounds in search of food.

We started with Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in the lower 48 states and allegedly the 5th highest in the world, which was funny because I had visited the fifth highest in Peru, 150 metres higher than Yosemite (Yosemite is actually 20th) but natural wonders always get a little embellished by their tour guides. The next day was a tour to Glacier Point and Jack our guide told the legend of Bridalveil falls – looking into the falling water for thirty seconds would mean you will be married in six months. My mum, anxious for a daughter in law and grandchildren one day, nudged me and grinned. Our bus continued past Ponderosa pine trees, the bark coloured a lustrous green by staghorn lichen, which eventually gave way to ghost forests where the larvae of tip moths had laid waste to the life and greenery. As we descended the larger leaved black oak, maple and incense cedar crept back into view. El Capitan was visible again too and Jack told of an 81 year old climber who scaled the granite monster a few years before. It was my turn to do the nudging, my mum considers herself a spritely 62 year old.

Phew! A mammoth blog post and I didn’t even get to mention Alcatraz, Ciclavia or a ton of other crazy stuff I’ve done. Massive thank yous to my hosts and general good people this month – Alan and Eno, Fin, Jon and Max, Calvin, Alynka, Kent, Pat and Cat Patterson, Brian, Janna, Laura and family, Warren, Angelika and family, Bicycle Ambulance for a free bike service, KG, and of course my mum. And I know I’m forgetting several people. You know who you are. I blame it on drink.

Next up – I’m off today, north through the Marijuana plantations of Northern California, into Oregon and Washington. I have less than a month to get to Vancouver from where my next post will come from. For anyone interested I’m speaking in Oregon at Velocult on the 6th of June.

Finally  – a plea for help: I have an unexplained website script problem on I designed the site with a friend before I left with the intention of doing very little with it once on the road. I’ve barely touched the site recently and it’s been so long since I used Joomla that I’ve forgotten how to! If anyone has any experience with Joomla / website design and might know how to help and has the time then please get in touch and I’ll explain my issue – Cheers!

Bike lanes and bacon doughnuts: God Bless America

I get sentimental when I leave places behind. Some smarting reminder of all that I have grown to relish suddenly stirs and every memory becomes tainted by a sense of loss and nostalgia.

January the 7th 2010: I was shivering and sitting astride my bicycle in the port of Dover waiting for a barrier across the road to lift so I could board my ferry to France, suspecting then that England would next feature in my life in half a decade or more. ‘Sorry about this’ remarked the lady in the ticket booth ‘the barrier’s a little temperamental’.
‘Oh yeah? Just like my wife!’ announced a burly truck driver who was leaning out of his window and grinning inanely. England, I thought, I will miss you. I will miss your quirky humour, your self-effacing satire, your casual misogyny.

It was Mexico’s job then to issue me a farewell that would serve as a keen reminder that behind me fifteen months and more than 25,000 km of Latin America would soon be dormant, my bond with the continent broken, my experience over and condensed into a scrap yard of memories. The reminder was a giant duck. To be more specific – a man dressed in a monstrous yellow duck costume who was dancing on a street corner and holding a sign which advertised the pharmacy beside him. He was raving as if his life depended on it, to some salsa infused Latin blend which blasted from speakers at a volume that would ensure it was audible in the stratosphere. So questions – What do ducks have to do with pharmacies? Why is the duck dancing? Who came up with this idea, and how drunk were they?

The answer to these of course is irrelevant – this is Mexico, or more broadly Latin America, and here loud music, dancing and dressing up are all essential ingredients of the Latin lifestyle. So why not use them to get more people into your pharmacy? It makes perfect sense, all except the choice of animal outfit, but probably the duck costume was just the one that happened to be available that morning.

The approaching hassle and hoopla involved in crossing the US border at Tijuana troubled me and I was convinced that US immigration would find some tiny infraction on which to deprive me of my 90 day VISA waver. US border guards don’t have a shining reputation in the areas of reason or lenience (or humility, humour, fairness, benevolence or compassion). I believe eye contact with a US immigration official is grounds enough for a good thrashing and a life ban from the USA. Referring to an official as buddy, bub, dude, geezer or my man carries an mandatory sentence of 25 to life in solitary confinement. Potential border guards at interview are made to watch videos of dogs doing human things in hilarious dog trousers. Failure to laugh means the candidate has either no sense of humour, or just didn’t get it. Either way that makes them the perfect machine the US government needs to stop all the scary drug addicts, terrorists, job seekers and riffraff getting in. Or at least that’s what I believed before crossing the border, I was about to be proved wrong.

Disabled people quite rightly don’t wait in line like everyone else at the Tijuana border but instead go straight through to the gate. You would not believe how many disabled people cross this border, call me cynical but I soon became convinced some entrepreneurial Mexican was renting out white canes and walking sticks to those waiting in line just down the block.

Eventually I reached the gate to meet what could only be described as a triumph in personnel selection. You would not mess with this lady, the face of the USA looked fresh from bludgeoning a small group of orphans to death for kicks. Once she signalled for me to move forward I wheeled my bike cautiously past only to hear ‘Hey!‘ I froze and turned slowly, trembling, half expecting her to radio in the SWOT team. ‘Just leave your bike here, I’ll watch it for you. It’ll be easier than dragging it through. So where are you riding from?’. I was so taken aback it took me ten seconds to mumble Mexico, which of course was obvious.

The man who would or would not issue my 90 day VISA waver had the opportunity to add some hilarity to my story but he was nothing like the stereotype either and turned out to be very pleasant, all smiles and quips, though he did linger a second longer than was comfortable over my Syrian VISA which takes up a whole page in my passport. ‘Wouldn’t want you as my doctor!’ he joshed after I told him I hadn’t worked for three years. It was a fair point.

I filled in the immigration form, making sure I added ticks to all the right boxes.

‘Have you ever been convicted or involved in Genocide?’ Yes or No.

“Genocide? well now, let me think, I’m so god damn busy these days. What was I doing Tuesday?…. Let me just phone my PA and check. Hi Jane. Yes I’m fine. Just at immigration, this nice American gentlemen wants to know if I’ve been involved in genocide at all over the last few years, can you just check in my diary for me? Great. Nothing? Sure? Maybe check under W for War Crimes will you, just to be on the safe side.”

The strange tick boxes continued “Have you ever been involved in espionage or sabotage?” Now my guess is that someone clever enough to work as a professional spy for some top secret agency or political movement would not get caught out by a tick box. I can imagine the sweat cascading down the face of a shifty looking panic-stricken man in a large over coat holding a briefcase whose brain is screaming ‘yes or no? YES OR NO?! Shit! Play it cool and think goddamn it, THINK!’

So finally into the United States for the first time ever, country number 41 of my world ride and 55 of my life. Not even a cursory search, no drugs dogs, no SWOT team, no white noise or pepper spray, just a thumbs up from the customs guy and a brand spanking new stamp in my now cluttered passport. I rolled my bike out into what I thought was San Diego – immediately there was something mightily familiar about it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it – perhaps it was the many Taco stands, or the Spanish road signs, or the fact that everyone was speaking Spanish, or ALL THE MEXICANS. I was so bewildered I had to return to immigration to check I hadn’t sauntered though the wrong turn-style and been directed accidentally back into Mexico, but no, this was the USA. That fact became clear when I ventured into a fast food joint to be served a burger roughly the size of my head and ate whilst cars pulled into the drive-through with wheels roughly the size of an average Mexican family.

People, I noticed, were overwhelming polite in stores, often so sunny in fact they left me dumb struck. Crazy people shuffled around muttering expletives, and there were a lot of crazy people. There were parking meters and malls and joggers and 12 lane freeways and Americans doing American things in their natural habitat. There were benches advertising injury lawyers which reminded me of a sentence by one of my favourite American authors Tom Robbins:

The logic of a contemporary American: “I’m suffering. Therefore, somebody must owe me money. I’m hiring a lawyer.”

Photo courtesy of mi amigo Max, thanks Max
I zigzagged through the southern reaches of San Diego trying to get north without an illegal jaunt down the freeway, listening to golden era west coast hip hop in my IPOD (America’s greatest invention, the hip hop not the IPOD) and soon pulled into a cafe outside of which a sign boasted ‘Top Gun. Sleazy bar scene filmed here July 1985‘. A beautiful waitress called Adra paid for my drink and told me she was getting off in half an hour, if I waited she would ride with me. Three hours later, drinking one of the twenty varieties of on-tap beer amongst the hipsters of Ocean Beach, eating noodles someone else had insisted on paying for, my inbox brimming with offers of places to crash from here to Vancouver, I was chuffed to bits to be in the States.

Life, I was sure, would be suddenly and soothingly easy once in the USA, it would be like taking off a tight pair of shoes. As it turned out, I was half right. Here cyclists are treated as worthy members of the road using community and not like some strange tribe that’s getting in the way of progress. Signs emblazoned with bikes declared ‘Share The Road’ and I felt the desire to pucker up and kiss them. And there were bike lanes, lanes just for bikes, a concept so alien to me now after my journey through Latin America that I almost forgot they had been invented. On each of the two occasions I happened upon a bike lane in South America I had an urge to call up the mayor’s office and ask politely if he or she would be available for a hug. Of course on one of these occasions the lane drifted peacefully on for a whole 100 metres before inexplicably terminating at a tree stump.

The USA – a place where I can choose from 17 varieties of peanuts in a store that opens at seven, closes at eleven and has a title to reassure me of this fact. A place in which I don’t have to worry if the ATM will spit out my card and keep the cash. A place I can drink the tap water without fear of amoebic dysentery and a place with things called signposts. HALLELUJAH!

Everything is bigger (including some of the people), faster (except the really big people), snazzier, flashier and a whole lot more familiar. But things have got a little more complicated too. I can’t afford hostels, though hospitality abounds. Internet cafes and call centres have vanished so I coughed up for my first computer and phone for three years, a pair of jeans would complete the Normal Life ensemble but I don’t have the courage just yet. People keep telling me (so far very politely) to take my bike outside when I wheel it inside stores, a habit formed from three years touring countries where I can. And there are rules, so many rules. In California I can’t drink a beer on the beach full stop, or get served in a bar without ID despite being more than a decade over the legal age limit. Technically (this is true) I can’t even throw a Frisbee on a beach in LA without a life guards permission. America might pride itself on being the country of the free, but it incarcerates proportionally more people, (many, many more people) than any other country on earth. Not all of these opened a beer on the beach, though there are more Ultimate Frisbee players in jail in the US than anywhere else on our planet. And I believe that’s a fact.

So America is a confusing place then, and so what? The fact that ‘lands of contrast’ has become a horrible cliche and features somewhere in the Lonely Planet guidebook to every country on earth is because in reality every country has it’s bizarre contradictions. My friends Benny and Jo arrived from the UK and their present, I am sure, was a comment on contemporary America. They brought me a bacon doughnut. Surely nothing better symbolises sweet and savoury America than the bacon doughnut. My palate is still in some sort of irreconcilable civil war.

The Bacon-Spangled Doughnut
The Pacific Coast Highway terminates abruptly on the way to LA, the only options are the freeway (illegal for bikers) and a road through the Pendleton Army Base. A police officer nearby informed me I would need a helmet to ride through the latter, but I thought I would try my luck anyway since I don’t have one and so was out of options. The soldier I spoke with seemed to have some sort of severe vocal tick and he would intermittently blurt out “Liability, Sir!” in answer to any of my questions and pleas to be allowed to pass. I retreated to think about my strategy but the police officer came back, now angry after finding out from the soldier with Tourettes that I had tried to get in when he had told me not to. Once he finally chilled out he radioed colleagues to find out the location of the nearest thrift store so that I could buy a helmet for the 13 miles of high liability virtually car-free, pancake-flat, benign bike path where the greatest risk would be collision with my own shadow. When one couldn’t be located close by we had a heated debate about my options (which he eventually conceded were non-existent) and I told him I would try the freeway. Incredibly he agreed this might be my best option. He AGREED! Overwhelmed by this I waved him off before he changed his mind, cruised onto the freeway and cycled as fast as I could to the next exit (stealthily past the highway patrol who were writing up a ticket for somebody and didn’t notice me). Then I was off and onto a bike path once again shouting ‘Phew!’

Now I’m not going to argue that helmets are unnecessary, that frankly, would be mental. In fact if you called me an idiot for not wearing one I might agree with you. In some countries helmets are compulsory full stop and I’m surprised that they’re not in California because there are many more outlandish health and safety measures, warnings and mandates in place, a spin off from the litigation heavy society here. As I reached Los Angeles a sign warned me I was entering a Tsunami Risk Zone. Wow. Surely as I’ve been cycling the coastline of the Pacific rim I have been biking in a ‘Tsunami Risk Zone’ for more than a year. I didn’t worry much about tsunamis before, perhaps I should have? I didn’t realise how much danger I was in. And it continued – The host of the planetarium show in the observatory in the Hollywood hills warned me about motion sickness. There are signs in America that warn people about the grave threat of falling acorns. Clearly there are a lot of things to worry about here, strangely much, much more than in the wild parts of Africa and South America I have spent the last three years. I had better be careful.

“Sorry Santa, those are the rules, I don’t care about how upset the orphans will be.”
First you have to pay for their funeral, and now this
Between San Diego and LA I stayed in a hiker biker camp for six dollars: Thank you USA, I forgive you now for getting me all scared about tsunamis, you have redeemed yourself. These are great little spots inside the State Parks and dotted all the way up the Pacific coast. It was here I met Chris, another cycle tourer who was on his way to a course to learn how to be a tour leader for the Adventure Cycling Association. We biked together the whole of the next day, cycled up through Long Beach, where I must report Snoop Dog was nowhere to be seen, and camped on someones lawn after getting nice and drunk.

The following day I consulted Googlemaps and made my way to Silver Lake to meet some old friends. Googlemaps is a wonderful thing though it doesn’t, as I found out, steer you away from gang land territory. ‘You are entering the City of Compton’ a sign told me, gulp. Having forgotten to purchase ‘The Cycle Touring Guide to Compton’ I decided to up my velocity.

Benny and Jo are old friends from the UK who were on holiday here and alongside their friend Rachel we busied ourselves taking in the sights – the freaks of Venice beach, the Hollywood mansions and hills, the Getty museum and more before watching Benny perform a gig in Hollywood. Benny AKA Benny Diction is an MC (my mum would say ‘one of those rappers’), check out one of his recent videos. Afterwards I stayed with Ryan, a genuinely nice, generous fella and the man in charge of Exploration Challenge, a TV series in production which features yours truly.

I am occasionally looking up at tall buildings in a style similar to Crocodile Dundee when he arrives in New York. I still find myself walking into a room, bar or restaurant and thinking ‘Wow, look how many Americans there are in here!’. And soon afterwards ‘Oh yeah, right.‘ But I am adjusting to the American way of life, mainly by a daily habit of consuming my weight in cheese.

Here are a five things I have learnt so far in the USA
  • Whilst store keepers are consistently chirpy, welcoming souls they do not like it when people stand by the door walking rapidly in and out in order to activate an automatic voice which tells departing shoppers to ‘Have a Nice Day!’
  • A sign with the words ‘Ped Xing’ is not, as I had hoped, advertising the presence of a road named after one of the lesser known (and Chinese) founding fathers. It’s just a short (and aesthetically painful) version of ‘Pedestrian Crossing’.
  • Every Californian is either vegan, or has at least 20 vegan friends
  • If I order a tuna (pronounced in the British way) sandwich I will receive a chicken one
  • The policy of prescription ‘Medical Marijuana’ is the most corrupt and bizarre system ever invented (and is tantamount to legalisation) though this topic alone deserves it’s own full post.

For the last week I’ve been staying with my second cousin Alan in the San Fernando Valley and have spent my days practising my presentation, writing, watching South Park and chatting in the evenings. It has been boss and just what I needed.

So thank you, thank you, thank you to my American hosts for a bad ass introduction to the USA: – Adra, Sam, Sol, Rachel, Ryan, Max, Alan and family. Cheers, you lovely people. I leave LA at the end of this month after some school and public presentations (I have given two school talks so far with around 15 more planned, including the very prestigious Oaks Christian on Tuesday where I will speak in front of 1000 high school pupils), then it’s San Francisco where my Mum will meet me and up the Pacific coast, dodging tsunamis, through Oregon and Washington until I hit Vancouver where my friend Claire will join me for a chunk of Canada.

Last month I won the annual photo competition for the Adventure Cycling Association’s annual photography competition with this winning shot from the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia…. here are the other finalists.