Monday, 16 August 2010

17,000 - 17,200 miles: New York to London

Having not cycled around the world, my friend Sean greatly enjoyed sightseeing around Manhattan with us on a hired bike and trying to get a tan. It was great to see such a good friend after so long and he had kindly brought over his 15 year old moth eaten undertakers suit for me to wear on our cruise home. Tracey was panic buying cheap dress shoes. As we cycled over Brooklyn Bridge we could see the Queen Mary 2 in the docks several miles away. We exchanged our few remaining dollars for cheap vodka that we poured into our waterbottles and thankfully the sniffer dog at immigration was only trained to find drugs and explosives. The Cunard staff were very helpful but didn’t really know what to do with us so we wheeled the bikes onto the cruise liner fully loaded, walked them along the plush red carpets and took them up to our deck in the mirrored lifts. Thankfully our steward had a laundry room where he offered to store the bikes as our room was so small we would have had to have slept with them in the bed with us.

In our quest to get around the world without flying a cruise liner home was the only realistic option. It was a gross extravagance in contrast to our vagabond lifestyle on the road but given that we were only going one way, the 7 day Atlantic crossing in the cheapest room available wasn’t wildly more expensive than flying home. Besides, we had earned some luxury on the last leg of our journey.

As we slipped our moorings on a sunny afternoon we sipped champagne amongst the crowds on the upper decks and watched the slowly receding view of New York harbour, the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn docks. We passed under the Verrazzano Bridge and as Long Island receded into the distance we cruised out into the Atlantic Ocean.

It was gluttony on the high seas. Passengers gorged themselves senseless at all-you-can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner plus high tea in the afternoon and at least one restaurant was open for self serve 24 hours a day. It’s not uncommon for people to diet for their holidays in order to look good but we met people who had dieted just so they could eat more on their cruise. Our solution was the cycle machines in the gym, though I kept riding them in the hardest setting and by the end of the week they were nearly all broken. We woke the next day to find ourselves in a thick fog that would not clear until we reached the English channel, which must have been a blow for those passengers who had paid a fortune for a balcony view, especially those located near the ship’s foghorn. In the few spare moments between meals we went to the planetarium and cinema and I competed in the daily golf simulator competitions. The evening entertainment was aimed at a slightly older audience and we spent our time hanging out in plush lounges with our dinner table companions, Warren and Yvonne, travel agents on a free cruise. Luxury, relaxation and eating were the themes and excitement was low on the agenda so it was something of a highlight that after 4 days we slowed to a crawl to find the four man crew of the Artemis in the fog. Bobbing around in their tiny vessel they were on their way to breaking the world record for rowing across the Atlantic.

As the fog cleared and the sunlight glittered on the sea the distant outline of the Isles of Scilly came into view on the horizon, our first sighting of Blighty in over 2 years. I had mixed emotions about going home, I was really looking forwards to seeing friends and family after so long, and to chips with salt n vinegar and a pint of Guinness, I was sad that our amazing adventure was coming to an end and a little apprehensive about rejoining the rat race during a recession without a home, a job or money.

Bleary eyed we stumbled out onto the deck on a typically grey English morning to the unglamorous surroundings of Southampton docks. We wheeled the bikes through the old age pensioners and towards the exit and we were completely surprised to see my emotional parents waving a “welcome home” banner at us. I was so taken aback that I forgot to give them all our unnecessary gear and after we had said goodbye I cycled off towards Portsmouth with a warm glow in my heart. It was a short days ride but it still rained on us. As the lines of cars whizzed past we cycled over a tidal creek with shopping trolley and car tyres poking out of the mud – things had not changed very much.

We stayed the night with my friend Rosemarie and her boyfriend Pete before continuing east through a rainswept Chichester and then along the sunny coast. In Brighton Tracey’s friend Iain kindly let us stay at his flat for a few days while we reintegrated back into society and ate fish & chips. The chalk hills of the South Downs seemed to have shrunk in our absence and we rode over the top of them without breaking sweat. We wended our way north on lovely country lanes through The Weald and under the flight path for Gatwick airport. My friend Andrew in Reigate showed us his new chickens, cooked us a b-b-q in the rain and plied us with drinks and the next morning even though he looked rather hungover he kindly rode ahead of us to show us the backroads to the top of the North Downs.

We weaved in and out of the slow moving south London traffic on the new bright blue Cycle Superhighway which took us through Tooting and then Balham. It felt strange to be riding my old commute to work through Clapham, past the place where Tracey got knocked off one morning and past my old flat in Oval. We cycled onto Waterloo Bridge over the River Thames 800 days after we had cycled over it in the other direction. We had just met Peter, a cyclist and Sun photographer on his day off and he took some nice photos of us as we popped a bottle of champagne and drank it out of our camping mugs. A passer-by asked if we had done something special, “yes” I replied, “we have just cycled around the world”.

15,000 - 17,000 miles: New Orleans to New York

Only the brave or the foolish cycle on many American roads, so it was understandable but sad to see lots of cyclists riding up and down the traffic free St Tammany Trace Trail like caged animals in a zoo. We stopped the night at Fontainbleau State Park and while we explored the shore and swamps of Lake Pontchartrain two crafty racoons unzipped our tent, stole a pannier and ate Tracey’s last cookie. They are not as cute as they look.

After a lovely ride through shady woodland the Tammany Trail ends at the Arbita Brewery and on a hot morning we stopped to sample some ales. “American beer” is so insipid that over the past 20 years there has been a boom in micro-brewing and now there is fantastic, tasty, truly local beer on tap in nearly every town and city, which was just great as far as Tracey was concerned. We found that the same thing had also happened in music and food and doubtless many other things – at the local level America has some great things going on if you can avoid or ignore the bland corporate mainstream that otherwise swamps the nation.

We rode north and eventually crossed into the state of Mississippi on rolling roads through woodland. Despite new clothes a lady insisted on giving me $10 to buy lunch – maybe I was just too thin? Along Route 27 we passed a string of independent gas stations reminiscent of the “Mom & Pop” era, which was nice to see. In one of them two old timers sat in rocking chairs and chatted while they served customers. They pointed out that they used to ride bicycles in the 1950’s, but in a way that assumed we were so backwards in Britain that we had not yet advanced to driving motor vehicles.

In Asia I had sometimes complained about the effort required to buy supplies – lengthy negotiations in a language I couldn’t understand in the heat of the day with several different stall holders all trying to rip me off, while surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers – but our regular stops in small-town American supermarkets weren’t a highlight either. I did get to escape the heat in the air-con but while I trawled the endless aisles trying to find food in small enough sizes to put on a bicycle Tracey sweltered outside on the smoking bench fending off the friendly mad people who inhabit these stores during working hours – at times it was like visiting an asylum.

After a sweaty night in a swampy woodland we entered the Bible Belt – this was fairly easy to discern due to the biblical slogans nailed to the trees alongside the road. Repent your sins or be damned in hell seemed to be the message, the list of sins was extensive. The only other place we had seen such public religious zeal was in Iran, which was food for thought as we pedalled along the straight flat roads.

The advent of the motor car, the mall and “white flight” to the suburbs killed off most city centres decades ago. The Mississippi state capital of Jackson had about as much going on in its grand but deserted downtown as a Mexican village. In the plush and luxuriantly green suburbs we found the home of baby boomers Don and Becky and their pet miniature horse (think My Little Pony). We had contacted them belatedly through and even though we only stayed a night they showed us wonderful hospitality and an insight into provincial American life.

Just north of Jackson we turned onto the Natchez-Trace Parkway. In the days of the frontier, loggers and trappers rafted their goods from Kentucky down the mighty rivers to New Orleans. Having sold their goods the only way back was on foot or horseback. A trail grew up, eventually formalised by the fledgling US government as a mail route, known as the Natchez Trace. The arrival of steamboats able to travel up the rivers in the early 19th century put an end to the Trace which was largely reclaimed by nature. In the Great Depression of the 1930’s thousands of men worked on a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project to create a 400 mile long recreational byway following the route of the Trace from the town of Natchez, north-east to Nashville. Today the Parkway is well managed by the National Parks Service for gangs of old men on Harley Davidsons and vacationing drivers to meander their way through the countryside squashing turtles and armadillos.

At times it felt a little too much like cycling along a road that had been built down the middle of a golf fairway – bright green, landscaped and quite unnatural. But the road also passed through wilder woods, enchanted cypress swamps and flowery meadows and along the way information boards and nature trails told us about history and wildlife. It was a joy to be free of billboards, strip malls and the clutter of American highways. The traffic was light and friendly and in the late afternoon sunlight we had the road to ourselves, along with the deer and racoons. The Parks Service had even built conveniently located toilets for us to get water and clean ourselves up.

After 200 miles we made a short diversion on a scorching hot day to see Elvis’s birthplace in the town of Tupelo, where Tracey also discovered you could buy beer in a giant can. 100 miles further north, across the Tennessee River we stopped in at small town Collinwood where the folks were super friendly and the staff at the PigglyWiggly store even gave us a free baseball hat. As we pedalled north the scenery changed from swampy woodlands into rolling countryside with crystal clear pebbly streams amongst the woods and meadows. At one viewpoint we looked out at what could easily have been countryside in southern England were it not a sultry 90C with brooding storm clouds. It felt like we were getting closer to home.

Nashville was still mopping up from a devastating flood two weeks beforehand but unlike her neighbours across the street Leigh-Ann’s house was on slightly higher ground. It was a small honour to be her first guest and we did our best not to kill any pets or break anything. Leigh-Ann did a great job of showing us around the Country Music Hall of Fame and getting us drunk on George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey at the famed Honkey Tonk bars in downtown. As the son of a hairdresser I also enjoyed a visit to a black barbers shop for a trim and a cultural experience of a different kind.

It was in Nashville that we discovered that Google had recently added suggested routes by bicycle to its map service, which was handy as we didn’t have a map. From here on, for better or for worse, we would ride over 700 miles without a map, following Google directions scrawled in biro on bits of paper. Google sent us east through Lebanon, Rome and Carthage (I kid you not) and in Chestnut Mound we asked a man for some tap water and after he had heard our tale invited us to camp in his field out back, which was kind of him. Unbelievably kinder was the $20 he gave us in the morning to buy lunch. Humbled again we sweated our way up and down the first real hills we had seen for several weeks, past woods and meadows and white wooden homesteads. After 68 miles we were done and with nowhere to camp we knocked on the door of a suitable looking house to ask if we could camp on their lawn. Trudy lived alone but kindly gave us permission, brought us out coffee and cookies and advised us there were two bears in her garden a couple of days before. As we ate our dinner in the dark the fireflies lit the woods out back like fairy lights.

We had been dodging storms for days but our luck ran out in the hilly woods outside Wartburg. I stood under a small tree, my top off, plastic bag on my head and held a “Elect Glen Freytag for Sheriff” sign over me (temporarily borrowed from the roadside). Sometimes our journey was just rubbish but at least we amused passing motorists. Wartburg itself was the kind of small town where everyone who could leave already had. Late in the afternoon a redneck driving a pick-up truck tried to hold a yelled conversation at the lights, we randomly caught up with him at a store down the road – when we discovered he was so drunk he could barely stand up.

After camping the night next to a football field we made our way into the city of Knoxville. We called into the visitor centre where we were given a fantastic welcome and free coffee. The place also doubled up as a live music venue and radio station and we had arrived in time for the midday show’s live session and broadcast. After watching local musicians performing hillbilly and country music the host gave us a shout out on the radio and we were soon turning down offers to buy us lunch as we had to get back on the highway to be abused by irate motorists.

As the Great Smokey Mountains loomed into view we found ourselves in a surreal Las Vegas world of upside down houses, titanic sized ships in parking lots, Dolly Parton Amusement Park (Dollyworld) and dinosaur themed crazy golf. The town of Pigeon Forge was trying to cash in on its proximity to America’s most visited national park. We camped in the woods next to a mountain stream, close to the park and spent half the evening working out how to tie our food up in the trees so that we didn’t have a bear in our tent – even so Tracey spent most of the night awake in fear.

The road through the park climbs a long way up to a mile above sea level at the New Found Pass. It was our first big ascent since the sierras of Mexico and although the tourists in their vehicles gasped at our achievement it was a mere hill by comparison. Half-way up we saw a bear cross the road with her cub and when we stopped for lunch we were befriended by a hiking group who fed us pop and home made brownies. From the top we had our first huge view across the receding ridges of wooded wilderness that is the Appalachian Mountains. It was a view we would see almost daily for the next three weeks as we rode 600 miles north-east along the crest of the mountain chain.

At the National Park’s Smokemont camp ground we looked rather vagabond in comparison to the giant vehicles, trailers, tents and tarpaulins of our neighbours. They took pity on us and Neil and Marsha slowly adopted us into the Stich family over the few days we were there. We sat out the rain on their comfy chairs under their tarpaulin and ate tasty heart-attack inducing southern food around their campfire – and once again we were touched by the friendliness, generosity and warmth of strangers.

Like the Natchez-Trace, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive were built by the CCC during the 1930’s as recreational driving routes. For cyclists they are a much tougher proposition, with at least one mountain climb every day, sometimes 2 or 3, and few facilities along the way. Lance Armstrong trained in these hills on his comeback from cancer.

We entered the Cherokee Indian Reservation and halfway up our first ascent we disappeared into the cloud. This would have made for some dull riding were it not for the colourful displays of flowering Mountain Laurel, Flaming Azalea and Rhododendron along the roadside. We passed through a series of pitch black tunnels where over excited tourists blasted their horns and revved their engines (apparently there aren’t many tunnels in the US). When we reached the top of Waterrock Knob at 6,000 feet the friendly Park Rangers gave us some water from their personal supply and advised us we would not see a tap for a couple of days.

The cloud cleared briefly for some wonderfully moody mountain views as we sped down into a valley. As we hauled ourselves up the other side in the late afternoon we were soaked in a storm and at a mile above sea level were cold for the first time in 3 months, until we remembered we possessed warm clothes in the bottom of our bags. The next morning was crisp and sunny with spectacular views over both sides of the ridge as we reached the highest point on the Parkway. It was something of a blow that we were forced to divert down the mountains due to a landslide induced road closure ahead. It was hot and sweaty in the valley and after a pit stop at a gas station I forgot to refasten my bag and a passing motorist pointed out that my belongings were scattered along the highway behind me for some distance – I retrieved the clothes but my binoculars had been crushed into a hundred pieces.

Ashville is something of an anomaly in rural North Carolina, a thriving progressive community with hippy roots that seems to attract like minded people from other parts of the country, including Jess and John from They showed us around, allowed us to get washed and clean and cooked the most amazing vegan food I’ve ever eaten – just great.

We rode back up into the Black Mountains onto the Parkway and were soon ensconced in cloud and mist. Mount Mitchell the highest point in the eastern US was nowhere to be seen and although Tracey looked fetching amongst the rhododendrons in her newly acquired pak-a-mak it was soon apparent that these had been designed for tourists at Disneyworld and not cyclists hurtling down mountains. We found what seemed to be a great campspot in a clearing surrounded by towering Douglas Fir Trees. During the night the wind howled through the mountain and as the trees shook above us we realised why so many had already fallen down. While we were tossing and turning wondering whether we would be crushed to death or mauled by a bear two people came wandering down the path with flashlights and 20 minutes later wandered back out – it was midnight on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere for godsake.

Three days further north, as England played the USA in the World Cup, we were eating cake and drinking root beer while we sheltered from a storm at an old wooden trading post. We hadn’t been within miles of a proper store in days and were reduced to eating a soup of re-hydrated lentils and beans for dinner that night – methane asphyxiation in the tent soon became a terrifyingly smelly possibility.

Along the Blue Ridge the Parks Service has restored a number of settler log cabins and provided information about the pioneer lifestyle. It was an interesting interpretation of history, emphasising American values of hard work, self sufficiency and faith – whereas the millions of people with almost identical lifestyles in Latin America are today pitied as living in poverty.

The landscape mellowed a little as we entered the state of Virginia and what has become the major wine producing region in the eastern US. Tracey looked like the cat that had got the cream as she perched on a bar stool tasting wines in a plush wooden châteaux in one of the vineyards along our route. We camped a night in a meadow full of deer on top of a hill and when I stumbled out of the tent in the night for a wee there was a jaw dropping starry sky above me.

North of Roanoke, Bradley and Angela and their children Tessa and Caleb made us feel part of their family for a couple of nights ad we enjoyed the luxury of a bed, shower, laundered clothes and home cooked food. I was getting used to these WarmShowers.Com homestays and felt only slightly guilty about Tessa giving up her bed for us and eating all their pancakes for breakfast. On a really beautiful day Angela and Tessa rode their tandem with us up the Parkway to the Peaks of Otter.

Every spring 2,000 or so hikers set off from Georgia to walk the 2,178 mile long Appalachian Trail to Maine. It takes them around 6 months and according to the hikers we chatted to they were 2 months into it. For the next 300 miles the Trail criss-crossed the Parkway and we would regularly encounter hikers emerging from the woods looking like Forest Gump at the end of his running across America – one can only assume there is a prize for the hiker who can grow the longest beard.

We had left the storms behind us and on top of the mountains it cooled wonderfully in the evenings. In the mornings I made porridge and coffee for breakfast on the stove and a wonderful dappled light filtered through the green leaves of oaks and hickories while thrushes and vireos sang above us. It was the same every day but I never tired of the simple beauty of it all. What was incredibly tiresome were the zillions of tiny sweat bees on the wing. Whenever we stopped a swarm would be hovering around us driving us nuts and as we sweated slowly up steep hills in the midday heat, the b*****ds plagued us for miles. Surely one of the most pointless creatures on the planet?

I don’t know when it happened but the combination of a heavily loaded bike and flying down hills with potholes caused my new rear wheel to buckle out – we couldn’t fix it so I rode without brakes, yelling at Tracey in front to get out of my way.

The road was often quiet save for the occasional din of passing baby boomers on their Harleys. The wild forests that we gazed out on had all been logged to the ground by the 1930’s. People were shocked by the destruction and the hills were subsequently protected and allowed to regenerate. 80 years later they are full of large trees and abundant wildlife – a rare conservation success story it gave us a glimmer of hope for some of the forests we had seen being destroyed in Asia.

After 500 miles we had reached the end of the Parkway and out of provisions we dropped down into the heat of Waynesboro to re-supply. Hikers had told us about the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in town and the free showers at the YMCA. Seven plates of food and a good scrub later we rode back up into the mountains to start the Skyline Drive that runs 100 miles through Shenandoah National Park. Tracey had on her bear spotting glasses and over the next few days we saw three of them ambling around in the woods. There are several camp stores along the route and at each a cluster of bearded smelly hikers could be found huddled around cans of beer. It was a nice change not to be the weirdo grubsters.

We descended out of the Appalachians into a heat wave and the hottest day for 3 years. Google led us down a gravel track through the Virginia piedmont. Rolling English style countryside and one of the wealthiest places we had seen – polo fields, imposing gateways and palatial homes (one apparently occupied by the actor Robert Duvall). Charlie and his dad kindly allowed us to camp in the field behind their house. They liked to ride bicycles themselves and seemed as happy to have us there for the night as we were to find a place to rest our weary heads.

It was a scorching day as we rode the Washington & Old Dominion rail-turned-trail into the capital. We hadn’t seen many cyclists on our trip and were accustomed to waving and smiling at the few we did, but the toned, lycra-clad men and women riding up and down the trail responded only with stony faces – we had reached the industrialised north-east. We toured the bikes amongst the throngs of tourists past the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, along the Mall and had a look for the Obamas at the White House. There were actual cycle lanes in the city and friendly urban cyclists came alongside and chatted to us about our trip.

Seemingly half the population of Washington DC either works for the government or for organisations that have dealings with it. Not surprisingly very smart people from all over the US are drawn here and Dan Blah from WarmShowers.Com was no exception. Not only did he kindly provide us with a bed and air-con for our stay but exercised our brains with discussions about the physics of teleportation.

We saw two profound things in the many excellent museums and galleries of DC: the first, in the Natural History Museum, is a digital counter that shows an approximation of the world’s population. Standing there watching it growing steadily from 6,862,600,000 was like watching the countdown to Armageddon. The second profound thing we saw was across the Mall in the Air & Space Museum where mind blowing images from the Hubble Telescope reveal that in the grand scheme of things just about everything you can think of is irrelevant.

Google’s directions indicated we should follow a trail through a wildlife preserve to reach Baltimore. Unfortunately whilst this trail might exist on their map in reality it is in a government controlled exclusion zone with a very big fence. A passing cyclist came to our rescue and used his i-phone to download a map and re-route us down the highway.

Apart from the 100C heat it felt strangely like home as we made our way past rows of red brick terraced houses to Christine’s apartment above a shop. We had contacted her through and she had kindly arranged for us to join her for an evening sailing around Baltimore harbour and the bay on her friend’s luxury yacht. One minute sweaty vagabonds on bicycles lost in the woods, the next minute sipping cocktails with lovely people and watching the sun set from a beautiful sail boat – we could barely believe our good fortune and the friendly generosity of our hosts.

On our way out of the city we saw a different side of Baltimore – rows of empty, boarded up houses abandoned during the crack epidemic of the early 1990’s or repossessed in the recession of the late 2000’s. The heatwave was reaching its zenith and as we cycled into Pennsylvania getting soaking wet seemed a small price to pay for the relief the rain brought.

We spent what would be our last night in the tent. As we ate our campstove one-pan pasta, watched the fireflies and full moon and in the morning woke to birdsong and sunlight through the green trees we felt a little sad that our outdoors lifestyle was coming to an end.

It was fun overtaking the horse & carriages driven by the Amish men with big beards, straw hats and traditional clothes. In such a modern society it felt a little like being in a costume drama film set, as men, women and children went about their business farming the land by hand and horse dressed in 18th century Germanic outfits. It was a strange days ride. By afternoon we were in rough working class industrial towns with afro-american women wearing shower caps on their heads and sullen looking men lounging under porches. After that it was strip mall land and before we knew it we were in an area so wealthy that it had a luxury resort for pets.

Mike, in Collegeville, has an ambition to cycle around the world and so he was as delighted to take us in for the night, courtesy of WarmShowers, as we were to receive his hospitality. The weather changed overnight and it was refreshingly cool and sunny in the morning. We had cream cheese bagel and coffee on our ride into Philadelphia alongside the Schuylkill River. We passed the art museum where men were running up the steps and posing for photos jumping up and down with their arms in the air – the location for the famous scene in the movie Rocky. Philadelphia was the first US city we had seen than had really tall skyscrapers but more impressive were the hundreds of huge murals covering whole sides of buildings that were dotted all over the city.

Sierra and Travis from WarmShowers very kindly let us stay at their place near downtown for a couple of nights and briefly allowed us into their world. Their 4 years old son, Owen, was quite a character and drew a couple of great pictures of Tracey and I. Their apartment was linked to several others, based on an old four storey factory building that their artist landlords still lived in, having converted it into their studio in the 1970’s. It was a cool place to live with some wonderful people. We slept outside on the floor of the roofgarden under the orange skyglow to the sounds of the city.

Making our way east out of Philadelphia we passed through working class Irish and Italian neighbourhoods before joining a pleasant canal towpath heading north alongside the Delaware River. We stopped for the night at Ken’s house in an affluent part of the Pennsylvania countryside. He was something of an inspiration: 70 years old he looked great and was fit as a fiddle. He was training for a week long 500 mile charity cycle ride and next morning we could barely keep up with him as he led us through the rolling countryside. On a Saturday morning there were packs of cyclists in lycra everywhere, making jokes about our heavy loads as they whizzed past – “do you need a licence for that thing?”

We said goodbye to Ken and made our way north alongside the Delaware River to Philipsburg in New Jersey state. It’s amazing what you forget. 17 years ago I had lived here for several months but failed to recognise roads I had driven hundreds of times. It was more by luck than judgement that we found our way to my Uncle’s house on top of a steep wooded hill in the dispersed village of Harmony.

Truth be told we were knackered. We had been on the go almost without a break for 3 months and 3,000 miles. Unfortunately my Uncle Barry and Auntie Faye were away but they had generously said we could stay at their house anyway. We spent 10 days there, mostly sleeping, eating and staying out of the latest sweltering heatwave - but it was also a gentle re-introduction to “the real world” and we spoke to friends and family by phone and looked at jobs online. I enjoyed catching up with my cousins Rachel and Maxine and their children, who I hadn’t seen for 7 years. We weren’t alone in the huge house, the lovely housekeeper Tammy, Chris the South African filmmaker, my uncle’s 5 dogs and various stuffed creatures kept us company.

Inevitably it was pouring with rain on the day of our departure and Tammy and Chris watched us disappear down the driveway with plastic bags on our feet. Google directions led us north-east through green wooded hills on quiet roads. About 50 miles from New York City we turned onto a cycle trail through a wood. Had it not been raining solidly for 24 hours this might have been quite nice but instead the path was 20cm under water and as we tried to keep our feet dry and not fall off we were set upon by a plague of hundreds of biting horse-flies like something out of a horror movie – sometimes nature is too intense.

Our last WarmShowers stay was at James’ house, or more accurately at his parents house in the bedroom community of Randolph in central New Jersey. He and his mom did a great job of looking after us and we sat up late talking to James and his friend and drinking wine.

On a hot day it was tedious cycling through the urban sprawl to get to New York City. Google had us making 120 changes of direction to keep us off the main highways but at least there was some diversity in the hispanic, asian and black neighbourhoods we passed through. Half way across the George Washington Bridge, high above the Hudson River, we officially entered Manhattan. We stopped to take some photos and looked across at the famous skyline on the island and it felt both strange and exciting to think that we had nearly cycled around the world.

Friday, 9 July 2010

13,200 - 15,000 miles: La Barra to New Orleans

We began our long journey north in the rain through tropical forest. Cold and wet we took a dirty, semi-decorated room with a stunning bay view in the wind worn village of Montepio and looked out at the crashing waves, mist covered mountains and mating dogs. We abandoned plans for a break at the beach and made our way north on a ridge of hills separating the coast from an expansive wetland to our west.

We were looking forwards to a stay in the city of Veracruz which has a reputation as a sultry latin place with Caribbean influence. The ride along the seafront under a blue sky was great but the city's eclectic mix of cargo terminals, tourist beaches, strip development and old colonialism wasn't what we had imagined.

Having made slow progress through the mountains we hoped to make easy miles on the flat coastal plains of the Gulf. As we slogged along at 5mph into a gale force headwind that was coating us black with sugarcane soot we came to realise that this would not necessarily be so. Thousands of birds migrating north to the USA and Canada seemed to be finding it equally hard but not the convoys of north american retiree "sunbirds" in their enormous mobile homes that passed us on the highway on their way back from a winter at the resorts of the Yucatan.

We made landfall for the night at an "eco camp" near the village of La Mancha. The only eco thing about it seemed to be the hugely successful mosquito breeding programme in the thatched roof bathrooms. The wind was still blowing the next morning so we spent the day wandering the scenic beach, jungle and low hills under a grey sky.

North along the coastal highway we rode past rugged hills, lagoons, deserted beaches and a nuclear power station to reach the Costa Esmeralda where half of Mexico was arriving for Easter Week. We passed a faded wooden sign for Santander Turtle Project and decided to take a look. We found ourselves in a lovely secluded spot amongst pine trees next to the beach with free camping and friendly locals, so we stayed a couple of days.

Further north we threw our lot in with the holidaymakers at Casitas and camped under the palms on the beachfront and watched Mexican families at play - one of whom had brought their prize fighting chickens on holiday with them. I went for a swim but was told off by lifeguards - apparently there is a dangerous current along the entire Gulf Coast - so decided to sunbathe on the grass instead where I was promptly eaten alive by sandflies.

We made our way to Tecolutla by a quiet backroad that became a dirt track and ended at a river estuary where two friendly lads were pleased to relieve us of some pesos to take us by boat to the town.

Kemp's Ridley Turtles are critically endangered. Having completed an annual circuit of the Atlantic Ocean that takes them as far as north Africa the turtles return each spring to lay their eggs on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Along the coasts of Mexico and Texas a series of turtle conservation projects tries to protect the eggs from predation by humans and stray dogs. They rely heavily on volunteers to help patrol the beaches and locate the nests. We had arranged to spend some time helping the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project.

The beaches were so thick with holidaymakers it seemed inconceivable that turtles could nest there, but north of town a 5 mile stretch of beach had remained undeveloped due to a lagoon that drained into the sea creating two small rivers across the beach.

Recognising that we weren't going to be much use at educating the public we were offered the opportunity to go and live on the deserted beach in a hurricane damaged building formerly used as an Alcoholics Anonymous retreat with no running water or electricity, just a well. We cycled along the beach, waded across the river with all our gear and after 4 miles reached our new home.

We spent a couple of days cleaning, beautifying and shifting things around, Tracey wove a bathroom door from palm leaves and we pitched our tent in one of the rooms.

The makeshift roof still rattled in the wind and we hauled water from the well to flush the toilets but for vagabonds like us it was a kind of paradise. The constant sound of the waves, a cooling sea breeze swaying the palms, sunrise over the ocean and watching lines of pelicans flying over the sea while we sat on our porch drinking tequila and fresh coconut water cocktails out of camping mugs.

We rode the bikes along the beach looking for turtles and watched alligators, otters, dolphins and shorebirds. We were supposed to find and mark any nests so that "Turtle Man" could excavate them and remove the eggs to a safer location where they were covered with a grill to prevent the dogs getting to them. For whatever reason the turtles were late this year so there were no nests to find and move but we enjoyed Turtle Man's daily arrival, patrolling the beach on his quad bike and his ability to pick and open fresh coconuts.

The only slight problem was that when we ran out of food I had to do an 8 mile round trip riding through soft sand and wading across the river twice to get to Tecolutla and back. On one such trip a storm blew in and the turtles came ashore - on my way back along the beach I stopped with a group of students to watch a huge female lay her eggs and had the pleasure of removing some of them while she dripped turtle afterbirth on my hand.

Unfortunately Tracey was at the house sheltering from the storm unaware of the turtle surge and completely missed them - it would be the only time in our 10 days that they came ashore. Given the lack of turtles we felt rather fraudulent volunteers but we were rested, tanned and ready for the road again.

On the evening before our departure a storm system came in off the Gulf marking a seasonal change in the weather - heat and intense humidity under stormy skies would accompany us north to the US border. We would either be sweating or getting wet.

We headed inland into the hills to Papantla to visit the Totonac pyramids and temples of El Tajin. From there we struck north on back roads through jungled hills, past oil workers and burning flares onto dirt roads. In the tiny village of Sombrete we sheltered from torrential rain under the bandstand and ate our tortillas, chillies and tuna for lunch while bemused school children looked on, brass band music blared and CocaCola and Pepsi vans made their deliveries.

It was a long days ride and north of Tuxpam we searched for a campspot amongst the ranchos but only became caked in mud. We chanced our luck and entered the plush gates of Rancho Casa Blanca to ask if we could camp on their lawn. Fortunately for us the owner was away and the friendly caretaker and his family were Jehovah's Witness' glad to offer assistance and we camped under cover away from the insects and rain.

We cycled through woods, pasture and small villages and in Tamiahua ate our lunch on the dock and had ice lollies in the plaza where the children seemed to think we were famous and asked for autographs.

We crossed a river on a long ford and passed men on horseback to reach Naranjos, where I refuelled on tasty tacos. We imposed on a friendly family to camp on their land near the village of Mamey and next morning reached the shores of Laguna Tamiahua on a lovely quiet road and when we weren't sheltering from storms we cycled past swamplands teeming with wildlife and small fishing villages. We got a great deal on a hotel room next to the lagoon in Tampico Alto and sat on the jetty in the afternoon sun with tea and biscuits.

There wasn't much to recommend the city of Tampico on a searing hot day other than the dunes and lagoons on its eastern outskirts.

We turned off the highway and headed north on a dirt road and it took us 5 days riding to cover the 300 miles to the US border. The landscape opened up again into expansive ranchland with huge vistas, distant mountains and big skies. The roads were straight and empty and settlements few and far between. Red-winged blackbirds, Meadowlarks and Grackles provided the soundtrack and we helped tortoises across the road.

We got caught in a huge electrical storm and a family let us camp under cover in their compound in the village of Nuevo Progresso. We were grateful to be out of the rain but they possessed one of the worst drop toilets of the trip. We crossed the Tropic of Cancer for the fourth time but it didn't get any cooler.

The Mexican Marines had been a presence on the roads and beaches since we left Veracruz. No-one we spoke to could explain exactly what they were doing, other than "to protect us". In the war against the drug cartels it seems people have lost faith in the corrupt police so the marines now keep order.

In the dusty town of Soto la Marina the marines were doing house-to-house and half the populace seemed deranged - a night in the brush sleeping to the sounds of goatsuckers, frogs and cicadas under a beautiful moon was the better choice.

We rode 80 miles to San Fernando de Presas for a shower and a days rest. It was a down-at-heel place, the marines were doing door-to-door and the streets deserted by nightfall.

The 100 miles north to the border was the dullest scenery of our journey. We wouldn't see a hill for another 1,500 miles but the dead straight road through endless brown fields with newly planted crops, a grey sky and a headwind was tedious.

In Matomoros we half expected to see pick-up trucks driving around with machine-gun toting gangsters and dead bodies piled up in the streets but the old town was quiet and friendly and elderly couples dressed in white danced in the plaza. Tracey bought 1/2 tonne of coffee which we would be drinking furiously for the next two weeks to create some space in our bags.

We were trying to find our way to Mexican immigration, took a wrong turn and were surprised to find ourselves in the USA. We were sent back to Mexico, the only country we've visited that you have to pay to get out of.

While literally hundreds of Mexicans poured over the border carrying all manner of narcotics and firearms we were delayed for 2 hours by US Immigration who were suspicious of our "we're cycling around the world and need 90 days to get to New York" story until they read my blog and then they were all smiles and paperwork.

I was overwhelmed by the choice of provisions in the biggest supermarket of the trip so far and we picked up a Texas map and USA guidebook at the Brownesville Mall before heading north on a smooth road with a wide shoulder to ride in away from the speeding traffic.

We disturbed an armadillo while looking for a camp spot in an open field and as the full moon rose we were set upon by a plague of mosquitoes the size of helicopters.

As we rode north the next morning under a blue sky we entered a vast nothingness of ranchland scrub. The road verges were ablaze with a spectacular display of wild flowers and white-tailed deer trod carefully amongst the bushes.

It was all going well until we reached a gate into the wilderness and realised that what we thought on our map were villages were actually only ranches. Inevitably the wind got up and blew in our faces and on a hot day 40 miles is a long way on a packet of cherry sours and half a bottle of warm, foul tasting water. As we were reaching a dry mouthed state of delirium a gateman called us over as we passed and like a saviour dispensed ice cold bottles of water - "I figured ya'll must be thirsty coming in that direction". He advised us to be careful of rattlesnakes but the only ones we saw were squashed on the highway.

We reached a rest area and refuelled on vending machine root beer and cakes. A kind lady let us use her cell phone and when she heard our story insisted on laying hands upon us and praying for our safe travel - which may have accounted for the puncture I got 1/2 mile down the road. Tracey had cycled 5 miles before noticing I wasn't behind her, when I eventually caught up she confessed that some days she liked to pretend she was riding on her own!

We were glad to reach Keith from WarmShowers in the village of Riviera, who looked after us fantastically and his friend Diego used a smoker to cook up the best BBQ food I have ever eaten.

Keith is a nurse and in the habit of looking after the needy and so it is that he has rescued 3 donkeys and 13 dogs. On our second day there, Bobby, one of the dogs was badly mauled in a fight with neighbouring dogs. Keith gave him some tlc and concluded he would be OK but by the time he left to go on night shift at the hospital Bobby didn't seem any better. Keith asked us to call him if the dog got any worse. Dog lover Tracey was besides herself with worry looking after him and got up several times throughout the night to check on him, while I reassured her the dog would be fine. At dawn Bobby was as stiff as a board in the hallway. We had only just carried him out into the garden and cleaned up the blood when Keith came home to the devastating news. We rode north while he buried his dog and Tracey cried and blamed herself for the next two days.

We passed a visitor centre in Kingsville and went in for a look. The lady there prayed for our safe travel, which was fine as we had just availed ourselves of her free cookies, coffee and mints. We were out of bug spray and our slight concern that Walmart had sold out had turned to desperation by late-afternoon as store after store had their shelves cleared in a spate of panic buying as the B-movie sized mosquitoes took over the place. Just as we were contemplating smearing ourselves in mud we found some in the one strip town of Robesville (Home of the Greatest Junior Livestock Show).

There was a scorpion amongst our bags in the morning but of greater concern were the Spawn of Satan waiting for breakfast so we legged it in search of pancakes. We didn't find any but while I was sitting in the sun eating my cereal and drying the tent in Odem we were mistaken for homeless bums by a paranoid shopkeeper, though technically she was correct.

Cycling around Texas its easy to understand how theories of alien abduction gain credence - there are simply no humans to be seen. We would ride through towns playing spot the person. Everyone was either inside a vehicle with tinted windows or indoors - there was never anyone walking, cycling or playing. This was something of a pain as US roads are poorly signed and finding a person to ask directions was often frustrating - especially as old people had a tendency to flee in fear when approached by a stranger on two wheels.

We did daily battle with the headwind on long, straight, featureless backroads and by days end found ourselves a lovely campsite at Goose Island State Park. Apparently Texas in spring is a birdwatching mecca and I joined a morning bird walk with the retirees staying in their huge mobile homes ("RV's" as they are called here).

The nearest store going north was 50 miles away but for once the wind was on our backs and we reached Port Lavaca in half a day and camped at a trashy RV park as a storm howled in off the sea.

The Gulf Coast is unusual in that an almost continuous line of huge lagoons separates the mainland from a narrow strip of beach. Even though it seems like you are "at the sea" in fact you are on a lakeshore.

We crossed a number of long causeways over the lagoons, which would've been cool were it not for the dead pelicans squashed all over the road - their relatives were gracing the front pages covered in crude but no-one cared about these casualties.

It took a couple of days to actually reach the beach. On a beautiful day surfers rode the sparkling sea and people played on the sand amongst the traffic - Europeans take their towels to the beach, Americans take their vehicles.

It was an enjoyable ride north with the beach on our right and lagoon on our left and it was here we first saw "The American Dream" - enormous and rather lovely beachhouses raised on stilts and looking out to sea.

We decided to have a rest day on the beach at Galveston but I still had to cycle a 25 mile round trip to buy groceries.

Making our way north along the seafront a wrecked pier and hotel were Hurricane Ike's calling cards but most of the wooden Victorian "gingerbread" houses had been repaired.

We chatted to friendly locals on the ferry as we crossed the bay to the Bolivar Peninsular, where Ike had wreaked havoc. Water and sewage were only just back and some homes had been rebuilt but many people were living in RV's. We camped on the beach and were awake to watch an orange sunrise over the sea. As we turned inland across the swamps a field of "nodding donkeys" creaked as they pumped oil and offshore the rigs sat on the horizon.

The 20 miles of highway between Minnie and Port Arthur were remarkable for the variety of wildlife smeared all over the tarmac - alligator, turtle, tortoise, raccoon, armadillo, opossum, snakes, egrets and an array of small birds. Gases spewed from the Petrochemical plants as we passed through Port Arthur and onto Pleasure Island.

On a sunny morning we cycled over a pod of dolphins swimming below the Sabine Bridge and entered the swamps of Louisiana. The road had been rebuilt and re-opened after the hurricane and we had it almost to ourselves as we rode through the wetlands amidst egrets, wading birds, alligators, aquatic rodents and raccoons. We came upon some cowboys sorting cattle and watched their tremendous skill and horsemanship as they separated cows from the herd.

It was another "50 miles to a store" day and we rode alongside a deserted sandy beach and crossed on a ferry to the town of Cameron that had been devastated by Hurricane Rita and then flattened again by Ike. The people that remained seemed as defeated as the infrastructure. We ate crawfish pie and fries at the Hurricane Cafe as there was no fresh fruit or vegetables to be had. They had just rebuilt the library though and the helpful ladies there photocopied a road atlas for us as the nearest town selling a map was 30miles inland.

The next day I found my first fresh vegetable in 80 miles at Mrs Booths grocery store. There were newspaper cuttings on the wall showing her 1950's store reduced to rubble and of the 70 year old in her newly opened shop.

Mrs Booth refused payment for the onion and went out back and gave us 2 courgettes from her own kitchen and for the millionth time we were grateful and humbled.

As we headed east we were impressed by the vast swamp wilderness and the wildlife though had we been there a few months earlier we would have needed bullet-proof jackets and ear plugs in this "sportsman's paradise".

We turned inland and after a long day asked a man mowing his field if we could camp there - Josh said that was OK and we relaxed in the late evening sunlight under giant oak trees dripping spanish moss and at at night there were fireflies and a starry sky.

We checked into a dorm room at the Blue Moon Guesthouse in Lafayette which also doubles as a popular cajun music venue.

By the time Terry & The Zydeco Bad Boys had finished their set Tracey had already been dragged onto the heaving floor for a dance that combined elements of latin, country and cowboy.

I had the pleasure of chatting to people who actually voted for George W Bush twice and were proud of it.

In a drunken euphoria T befriended some locals who took us to another bar, plied us with drinks and then drove us to Waffle House. Tracey didn't look out of place passed out on the table and I polished off her waffles.

Tracey spent the next day with her head in the toilet and when Alicia (who we met the night before) came to pick us up for dinner at their house we had to make a couple of rather embarrasing unplanned stops at the roadside on the way. While I tucked in to Chad's fantastic cajun home cooking Tracey made trips to their bathroom. They were a lovely couple and our first introduction to famed southern hospitality, but who knows what they think of the British!

Up until this point we had found the US roads fine for cycling but as we made our way out of Lafayette we became acquainted with a type of American driver who, away from the civilised north-east, has evolved into a new human subspecies, Homo Assholeins, that through lack of use has lost the ability to use their brains and their legs. From here to the Mason-Dixie Line whenever we had to ride on a busy road sooner or later we would be treated to some knucklehead yelling "Geet owfaa tha gaawd-daamned rouwd" at us - or expletives to that effect. Young, old, black and white they were angry and aggressive. Its the only country I have ridden in where the drivers are hostile to cyclists and it made us scared, angry and sad. For every asshole there were 5 others who cheered, waved or gave the thumbs up but it was hard to keep that in perspective. We liked Louisiana but it wins the wooden spoon for the least cycling friendly place of our trip.

We toured a french plantation house and learned about the history of "The South". We came up against the Atchafalaya wetlands and were forced south-east along the Bayou Teche past beautiful white plantation homes framed by avenues of ancient oak trees. One hot morning we rode like devils into a headwind for 35 miles to reach Cajun Jack's in time for his 2pm swamp tour. Dripping with sweat and dehydrated we were told there would be no tour as we were the only punters and at least 8 were needed. As it turns out Cajun Jack, like many of his ilk, is a rascist right-winger and we so we consoled ourselves with a drive-thru milkshake, which in America is actually ice-cream.

A life on the road takes its toll and its fair to say we were looking rather worn, but only in America could a cycle tourer be mistaken for a poor vagabond - while we were filling our water bottles at a gas station a lady offered us $10. We decided we needed some new clothes. As we rode alongside the swamps in the evening sunlight a middle-aged guy looking like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider started yelling at us "Now that's freedom maaan, that's freedom, look at thaaaat" - its hard to go far in the US without concluding they are all mad.

Swamps aren't that great for camping but we found a spot inside a flood levee next to the river where the air was thick with humidity and mosquitos. We followed quiet back roads to White Castle and Tracey was shocked when she asked directions to be told openly in front of others "why'dya wanna go there, its full of blacks".

We ate a picnic lunch on a sandy beach besides the mighty brown Mississippi River and imagined the adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As we followed the river south-east towards New Orleans the rim on my rear wheel split but I managed to coax it for two more days into the city. On the way we visited an African-American Museum in down-at-heel Donaldsville and another beautiful plantation home at Vacherie.

Riding along a back road we were pulled by the local sheriff who said he had received reports of two cyclists on the road. He said that as we were riding without mirrors we were not allowed to ride with traffic but must cross to the other lane and ride into the traffic - at this point we knew bugger all about US cycling regulations but argued it was utter madness and totally dangerous - in the end he said he'd been a sheriff for 10 years, knew the rules and either we did as he said or he we would give us a ticket. We crossed over, he drove off, the first car blasted its horn and nearly killed us, we crossed back and carried on. (We would soon discover that the sheriff was as ill informed as his fellow citizens, indeed there were government billboard adverts in New Orleans educating drivers and cyclists to ride with traffic not against it!).

We cycled on top of the levee past industry and construction into New Orleans but missed the last ferry across the river at Gretna and had to ride another 2 miles on tired legs and broken wheel to the Canal Street Ferry and then back on the other side to Ray and Chris's appartment in the Lower Garden District.

A WarmShowers cyclist from Vermont, Ray gave up his bedroom for the weekend while he slept on the floor, he drove us around bike shops to get me a new wheel built and to the mall to get us new clothes and he took us to volleyball and a fun night out on Bourbon Street. We couldn't thank him enough.

On our way out of the city we cycled through the French Quarter, past elegant caribbean-colonial architecture and wrought iron balconies dripping with carnival beads, past the horse & carriages pulling tourists, through the black neighbourhoods still recovering from the Rita flooding, past dereliction and industry back out to the swamps.

We turned inland and rode across Lake Ponchartrain on a 3 mile long causeway and as the Gulf behind us filled with oil the wind was no longer in our faces.