Monday, 16 August 2010

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.

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