Reflections on bike ride through the 50 states

“America is just like the UK, only… bigger, right?”

I’d like to ask you all a favour. If you ever happen to be within earshot of such a comment, please make a beeline for the offending individual (even if it requires a Starsky & Hutch style roll across a car bonnet), cup their face firmly between your hands, lean in and scream “Nooooooooo.” It’s a common misconception. And one that I harboured myself a year ago. The truth is that our beloved countries are hugely and unbelievably different – both physically and culturally. I could write a thesis on the points that set us apart; Laws, history, work ethic, transport, environmental issues, to name but a few. My personal fave however, is language & communication.

Never before have I been so acutely aware how we British dance around our sentences – using colloquialisms, semi apologies and flowery comparisons to get a point across. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. In fact, I’m the worst offender of the prolonged prose. Here’s an example:

British: “Umm would it be possible, to perhaps, I mean, if it’s not too much trouble, to have a cup of coffee? And if there was a bit of milk hanging around in the fridge, that’d be lovely too.”

American: “Yeah I’ll take a Coffee. Milk. No sugar.”

THE GOOD TIMES

Oh my there were many. So so many. More than I’d ever hoped. Watching grizzly bears forage in the shadow of the Mount McKinley. Finding myself on the road at dawn in the desert, alone with no sound beyond the whirr of my wheels. Cresting that first pass in the Rocky Mountains. Striding through the plains of Wyoming, a herd of mustangs running alongside. Perched on a rickety bench, watching the morning sun creep above the North rim of the Grand Canyon. Finally leaving Route 50, America’s Lonliest road. Stargazing at 2am in Colorado. Looking out at classroom of excited schoolchildren, kids as young as five telling me they want to be an adventurer when they grow up too. Welling up when leaving families who’d taken me in over a storm. Eating breakfast with an 85 year old Grandma, listening to her tales of love lost and a life well lived.

THE BAD TIMES

Let it be known that it ain’t all rainbows and sunshine in Adventureville. Battling chronic knee pain for 2 months. Camping alone in Northern Wyoming, scared witless that a bear might come wandering by. Pitching my tent in a bush between an interstate and a freight railway line, a train shaking the ground every two hours. Pulling two people out of a car wreck in Colorado. Setting out to ride 120 miles in pouring Iowa rain, being soaked to the skin, verging on hypothermic and searching for a motel within 20. Riding into Cleveland on a busy road in the dark, fearing I’d be hit at any moment. A motor home passing far too close and almost sucking me under the back wheels. A campground owner treating me like vermin. Getting homesick with 6 weeks to go. Facing 30 mph headwinds.

WE, HUMAN BEANS

Are you still with me? Awesome. Perhaps pause for a cuppa, and go grab yourself a biccie? This shiz is about to get real.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the past 7 months, it’s that we’re a race governed by fear (hold those cries of ‘Steady on, love’ and hear me out). I know it makes evolutionary sense that we be wary of situations that could potentially cause us harm, but somewhere along the way, we took it too far. We began to spend our time focused on the things we can and can’t do, rather than the things we could.

I could have been attacked by a bear. Or a man. (Or a half man, half bear.) I could have been run over by a truck. Then again, at home, I could slip and smack my head on a work surface in the kitchen. I could get knocked down by the 281 as I cross the road in Teddington Town. In fact, the chances of the latter things happening are probably higher than the former. What am I do to? Stay out of the kitchen? Not go outside? Well that’s just ridiculous. Precisely. It is.

The truth is we don’t like doing things beyond our usual remit, because they expose cracks in our character. Weaknesses. Parts that we try to keep hidden from others to ensure we maintain a perception of us as a high functioning member of society. It’s only natural. I do it too. Yet nothing frustrates me more than hearing “I’d love to do that” To which, nowadays, I tend to go into bitch mode and reply: “So do it then.” It’s probably actually that you a) don’t want to do it badly enough (which is totally cool), b) it’s not a priority right now (again, totally cool) or c) that you’ve given yourself a hundred reasons why you shouldn’t. And what’s more, convinced yourself that those reasons are valid ones.

The only difference between me having spent the past 7 months blowing my mind, and having… not, was deciding that my excuses were just that. And that it was actually an option to go. Which, not having any real responsibilities and being at the point in my life that I am, it was. And I’m grateful for that. In short, when are you ever going to regret trying to do something that you really want to do? I’ll give you a clue, the answer is: Never.

If there’s one precious secret I’d like to share, it’s this: When you put yourself out ‘there’, way beyond your comfort zone, indulge in endeavours that cause your heart to beat fast and your chest to tighten – amazing things happen. Doors open, opportunities arise and most importantly, the painful chinks in your armour heal. The cracks that threaten to make you fall apart – they seal over. You become far stronger than you’d ever imagined. You grow, immeasurably. You surprise yourself, and you find it a far easier process to meet your own gaze in the mirror. We’re animals after all. In testing circumstances it will always come down to fight or flight. And you’re not very well going to lay down, are you?

I, A HUMAN BEAN

So what have I learnt about myself? Well. There are a few things I always suspected to be true. And then there’s a few new faces at my personality party.

Accept help where help is offered: I really don’t like asking for help. But what dawned on me through the trip is that sometimes the best experiences come from letting others save your British Bacon. If a stranger walks across a campground at breakfast time, and offers you coffee and a banana – newsflash, they want to give you coffee and a banana. In fact, it’d be ruder not to take it. From here in in I will be doing my best to accept all offers of coffee and bananas, among other things.

Please yourself, and only yourself: I’ve always held the belief that you should only really satisfy yourself in this life. I don’t mean be selfish, being proud of who you are and the way you behave goes hand in hand with treating others as you would like to be treated, after all. I’ve got two star based tattoos about my person, because I love stars. And I love stars because they remind me how marvellously insignificant I am. And that in the grand scheme of things no one really cares what you do, so you may as well do as you darn well like. That’s not changed.

Cut the comparison: We’re all so hard on ourselves. Constantly criticising and comparing the way we look, act and what we achieve with our peers. Facebook and Twitter can turn to tools of self destruction, and it’s exhausting. I do it a lot, and I’m trying my best to let it go. It’s incredibly difficult. And I know I’ll lapse from time to time. But I also know that comparing yourself to another person is downright ridiculous. It’s verging on insane. If you’ll excuse the cheesy trumpets and rousing theme music – there is no other like you. So please stop it. And I’ll try my best to do the same.

There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely: I haven’t really been lonely at all on the trip. In fact, I’ve felt more lonely at times in London, surrounded by people, than I have on my tod in the middle of the desert. I could be biased, but to spend time in your own company, you’ve got to be pretty good friends with yourself. I mean, you can’t have too many anxieties or insecurities, or they’ll eat you up from the inside out. So I think a little alone time is a great thing. It forces you to reevaluate whether you’re truly happy with what you’re spending your precious time on the planet doing. And that’s why so many people shy away from it. Because they’re not.

There’s a difference between being a bad ass, and a dumb ass. Pushing on through pain, bashing out 130 miles, dragging yourself out of bed when all you want to do is sleep – that’s badass. Winding up on a busy road at the mercy of trucks, ending up soaking and freezing with no shelter in sight and heading out to ride in a big storm – that’s dumb ass. And it’s been one of the greatest learnings of the trip. Dumb ass actions will only get you, and possibly others into trouble. And for what? So it’s bad ass action only from here on in.

WHAT NOW?

I’m going to write a book. Because, well, I’ve rediscovered that I love writing. And that there’s a real joy and art in sharing a good story. I hope some people will read it, but at worst it’ll be a record for any sproglets I have in years to come. I have no doubt it will be a tortuous experience, and don’t be fooled into thinking I have the faintest idea what I’m doing, but it seems to me like a marvellous new challenge for the next 6 months.

I’ll be refashioning the www.thebigfive-o.com into a historical record of what went down in Five-O town, and starting up a new blog – to host tales of all future adventures. If you’ve enjoyed following this one, don’t let this be the end of something beautiful. I’d love it if you made a mental note of the highly original www.annamcnuff.com. You’ll find me waiting for you all there with open arms in the very near future.

Tomorrow sees a return to work at Sky TV. To a bunch of people I love spending time with, and a job I do actually really enjoy. I doubt it’ll be too long before I’m off again somewhere for an extended period, but in the meantime I’m throwing myself back at working life 100%. And cramming every spare second around it with mini adventures. Adventure is a state of mind, after all. And my brain is addled forevermore.

Lastly, I can’t thank you all enough for sharing this trip with me. For the support, kindness and untold levels of awesomeness you’ve wafted in my general direction. Whatever future mischief lies in wait, you guys will always be my first adventure army.

One love.
Peace out.

McNuff xxx

The 50th State: Hawaii

Ah Hawaii. Islands of the sea. Land of the Hukilau cafe. Home to Polynesian princess’, pineapples and palm trees. And more importantly, the 50th state…

A BUMPY START

Finally sat on a plane at Dallas Fort Worth airport, I was overcome with relief, and also rather aware that we’d been stationary at the gate for quite some time. The pilot aka ‘DJ Wings McGee’ came on the tannoy. His soothing words were to the effect of ‘A part of a plane isn’t working. In fact, we’re concerned it’s missing entirely. We just need to make sure everything’s ‘OK’ before taking you up to 30,000ft and letting you plunge to your death.“ I couldn’t help but marvel at such a flawless execution of customer care – DJ McGee clearly missed the training memo about ignorance being bliss.

To cut a long story short, I disembarked. The flight was cancelled and I was moved to another. The only casualty of the debacle being… Boudica. As I waited for her beautifully decorated pink gaffa taped cardboard box to appear in the oversized section at Honolulu, it dawned – she was AWOL. Amidst the kerfuffle in Dallas, someone had left her behind (so much for my detailed marker pen box instructions to ‘treat her like a lady’). Of course, I was never too worried, you’ve gotta keep the faith after all, and within two days she was safely back in my possession. I don’t need Ms Morisette to tell me how losing Boudica en route the 50th state would have been mildly ironic. “It’s like cycliiiinngggg, 49-states-and-losing-your-bike-on-the-plane…”

Boudica, with high hopes of not getting left behind at Dallas, and instructions to treat her like a lady

MOUNT HALEAKALA

Way back in the heat of the Reno desert, when Hawaii was just a distant dream, a wise man named JP foretold of a mystical volcano on the Island of Maui, called Mount Haleakala. It was also foretold-er-ed that it was the longest, steepest paved road ascent in the world. Considering I was on the hunt for a special little sumthin-sumthin to round off the trip, that sounded perfect. So I floated the idea to my travel agent (AKA – Mum), and the plan was set – we’d nip to the island of Maui, and take on Haleakala.

Seeing as though my Dad was a) Going to be in Hawaii too and b) Loves destroying mind and body as much as I do, it was only fair that he join me on the climb. And, seeing as though he wasn’t going to be bringing his very own Pink ten-ton beast to the pedal party, I opted to leave Boudica behind on Oahu, and hire a little carbon number instead. She was Blue. She was beautiful. And I named her Wanda.

I’ll level with you, frightening as it sounds to ride from sea level to 10,023 ft in one go, Haleakala isn’t the hardest climb I’ve ever done. Far from it. The gradient is steady, the road is smooth, there are switchbacks to break up the slog and when you have a support car, you don’t even need to carry the many layers of kit required. But I’ll be darned if it’s not spectacularly unique. For a start, the climb takes you through 4 micro climates. And because the gradient is so steady, rather than splitting time equally between staring at the front wheel and trying to relocate your weaker lung, you actually get a rare chance to take it all in.

Usually when making the dizzy heights of 10,000 ft you’re surrounded by other mountains. So whilst the vista is a guaranteed spectacular, it’s largely comprised of neighbouring peaks. From the top of Haleakala all you can see is Maui. The whole of it. From one end to the other, and all the way across. Your eye line is spattered with views of the cinder desert landscape, the reef below, the offshore Molokini crater, lush green fields and endless delicate whisps of cloud – suspended as if someone hurridly dismantled an oversized candy floss and just… left it there. Reaching the top of Haleakala is pretty much the closest you’ll ever get to flying (well, aside from jumping off of the sofa, holding a Tesco bag above your head when you were seven. Just me? Oh, right, I see.)

I’m not a huge fan of descending. In fact, my level of fanship for the descent is on a par with my level of fanship for Justin Bieber. Suffice it to say, I would gladly never cycle down another hill in my entire life. But apparently old Isie Newton screwed me over way back when, and what goes up must come down. So down I went. Now I know the textbook du cycling says that you’re not supposed to brake whilst descending, but whatevs, I’m a braker. My Name’s Anna McNuff, and I’m addicted to braking. My Dad’s a braker too, I come from a family of brakers. It’s not my fault. And when you’re a braker, 90 minutes of downhill can take it’s toll. Halfway down, my forearms began to look like Popeye’s, my teeth had just about ground down to the gums and and both hands were stuck firmly in ‘the claw’ position. By the bottom I had no forearms. Nor gums. Nor hands.

THE DRIVE OF DEATH

Having seen Maui from on high, it was decided that we should do a little ground level exploring the following day. Within 30 minutes of setting off on a ‘short drive’, we were accidentally taking the scenic route to a town called Hana. That is, 30 miles of winding cliff top highway, with a speed limit of 10mph. Granted, it was incredibly beautiful – jutting in and out of tropical forests, past waterfalls, over tiny bridges and with ample opportunity to stop at ocean lookouts.

Following a stop for a hike up to a waterfall, the options to get home were either a 3 hour drive back the way we came, or via a more direct ‘category B’ road. Considering I was feeling rather car sick by this point, and firmly parked at chunder-junction, I requested that we take the direct route. After all, how B road, can a B road be? On Maui the answer is beyond B. So B-esc that I wouldn’t wish this road on anyone other than Indiana Jones. And possibly James Bond. After a few miles of tarmac, it turned to single track gravel. If you’d be so kind as to lend me a moment, I’d like to place you in the back seat of that car: Jostling around from side to side as if in a Star Tours simulator, with Mummy McNuff (who has a fear of heights) at the wheel. Driving an automatic, oversized SUV, on the wrong side of the road (yes this still matters in a single track). Round sharply banked corners, a sheer drop to the ocean on one side, and rough falling rocks on the other. Watching Dad in the passenger seat grip the door handle and utter soothing comments to an almost silent and shaking Mother Bear, as you try not to vomit for a further 2 hours. It was so frightening, that at one point I opened the window – thinking ‘Well if we plunge off the edge here, at least I have a way out’. Then I started wondering how I’d get Mum and Dad out too … Credit where credit’s due. Rally driver Snr Sue McNuff did well. And we actually make it home in one piece, just as the sun went down. A ‘relaxing drive’ my eye…

THE DOLE PINEAPPLE PLANTATION

There are many great unanswered questions in this world. Like, have you ever seen a baby pigeon? What happened to the cheerleading twins from Fun House and why is Floo powder not yet viable method of transportation? Yet, until now there was one huge philosophical consideration that had escaped the wanderings of my mind – how do Pineapples grow? Stop. Let it wash over you… There we go. You’ll now have found yourself in one of three camps:

Camp A) “Err duh. (rolls eyes). In the ground, of course”
Camp B) “Psssshh don’t be so silly, they grow on trees.”
Camp C) You know the truth.

Which is of course that they grow in a bush. Sort of like a Fruit-Fugees, hiding from the outside world, nestled between leafy splays of gigantic grass. And, I don’t want to blow your mind too much, but there’s more than one type. I tell you this from a throne of authority, having visited an enormous pineapple plantation on Northern Oahu. I’d love to relay how I spent hours learning about the humble pineapple. That it was my sole motive to go there and fill my brain with fruity facts. Alas – I heard that they had the best Pinapple ice cream in all of Earth-land. So I simply went to fill my belly, and learn a little bit on the side. The DoleWhip pinapple cone was more than worth the trip. The Pineapple revelation, a bonus.

WAIKIKI BEACH

The hard work (and a final ride on Boudica) done, I spent the rest of my time in Hawaii relaxing. I went snorkelling, which reminded me how much I missed swimming. I lay on a beach, which reminded me how much I missed sitting still (not much). And I drunk cocktails, which reminded me how much alcohol I’d consumed in the past 7 months (again, not much). Waikiki itself is a tourist trap, there’s no denying it – but I loved it. Unlike many busy tourists strips around the globe, at Waikiki there were a distinct lack of Pikies (American readers, you might have to urban dictionary that one). There were no lobster sunburnt, beer swilling, projectile vomiting, fishbowl fuelled louts with made in England tattoos across their shoulders and gold caps on their teeth. There were simply contented individuals, enjoying 24 hour paradise, a warm sea and a civilised Mai Tai or two at sunset. If I’m not allowed to be a snob in my last week, when am I.

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

I can’t believe we’ve made it to this point, Five-O gang. If you’ll stick with me for one last week, as I squirm my way through jet lag and the return to normality, I’d like to write you all a final post. A comment on the trip as a whole – what I’ve learnt (about me and about others), the highs, the lows, and where I go from here. I promise not to get heavy on your asses, but I do promise to be honest. And who knows, I might even be humorous.

This week"s pictures are up on Flickr here

Until then,
50 high fives to you all for each and every state,
Anna 🙂

Memphis And The Music

Greetings Five-O fans, and welcome to Part 2 of a journey thorough the South. This week, we’re going deep into Dixie. While you were all pulling crackers, exchanging sock gifts, and dribbling through a post turkey coma, I was riding a bejewelled, tinsel-tastic pink bicycle through Mississippi and into Tennessee.

ME AND THE MUSIC

If there’s one thing I learnt at University, it wasn’t that you could be drinking tequila out of shoe in Fulham at 3am, and still make rowing training at 6am, no, no – It was that any piece of well constructed discourse worth it’s salt, should be adequately supported with quotes. And what better scripture to use as a foundation for this week’s round up, than Marc Cohen’s “Walking in Memphis.” So, here we go.

I was beyond excited about the trip to Memphis. Being from White Middle class Kingston upon Thames, I was naturally raised on a mixture of Country, Reggae, Blues and Soul music (I’m joking. That’s not natural, it’s verging in child abuse). Shania Twain was my sunshine. Motown – my lifeblood. The Eagles – my Oxygen. I’m not a musical person per se, but I do love music. And I mean real music. Lyrics that make the hairs on your neck stand on end and a beat that sends your restless foot into a fidget frenzy. And for the real music lover, Memphis is a must.

THE DELTA

Memphis, is set deep in what’s known as the ‘Delta’ – an area of alluvial land characterised by frequent flooding of the Mississippi, famous for it’s fertile soil, abundance of cotton farms and … Blues music:

“I touched down in the land of the Delta Blues, in the middle of the Pouring rain”

Back in the 1920’s the folks on the cotton farms would sing to skip their days along. Heavily influenced by Church Gospel music, their melodies told of the hardships they faced in daily life. It’s this that defined the music of the era, and what I love most about it. Songs arose from a necessity. An irrepressible urge to sing – to ease pain and toil. Place this alongside some of today’s tracks (I refer to Bruno Mars singing about how he’s going to pleasure his lady friend like a ‘Bang Bang, Gorilla’) and I can’t help feeling it’s a form of musical expression long since gone, and something to be cherished.

BEALE STREET

Downtown Memphis was so very different from how I expected it to be. It’s a quiet place. And I mean, really quiet, ghostly even. As one local explained, Memphis is just a small Blue Collar town, and it always will be:

“Yeah I got a first class ticket, but I’m as Blue as a boy can be”

That surprised me. I’d mentally prepared for a traffic-heavy hectic ride in, and instead I found it rather civilised. There is one place where you’re guaranteed to find some hustle to add to your bustle however, and that’s Beale Street:

“Then I was walking in Memphis, walking with my feet ten feet off the Beale”

In years gone by, Beale street was a normal high street by day, and a muscial mecca by night. You went to see your doctor there, do your shopping, meet your neighbour for a gossip and get a haircut. At night you’d go for the music. And for the food. And the rum. But mainly, for the music. A visit to Beale in the dark hours is a sensory feast. Take a walk there at 9pm and your stomach will rumble with the beat of the baseline. You’ll catch the reflection of the BB King club neon sign in the lens of your eye, just as your ears begin to tingle, and the soulful sounds of the South escape through every cracked window pane to wrap themselves around you like a blanket of Blues. Be sure to take a deep breath and just stand – it’s pure dynamite.

During my time on Beale, I parked my heiney at the infamous Rum Boogie club. Surrounded by 1,000 signed guitars of the legends who’d played here (e.g Billy Gibbons, Bon Jovi, Sting), I drank wine from a plastic cup, ate BBQ and listened to Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks covers being played with gusto. I then headed down the road to a Jerry Lee Lewis tribute show. Complete with slicked back hair and a glamourous assistant with her boobies hanging out, fake Jerry Lee did things to those ivories I’m sure were illegal. Then he played ‘Great balls of fire’ and set the piano ablaze, naturally.

SUN STUDIOS

Just out of downtown is Sun studios. Boasting the original flooring, light fixtures, sound proofed walls and even the original microphones, this is where visionary Sam Phillips began recoding Blues music for the first time in 1950. It was here that greats like Jerry Lee lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins began their careers. And where an 18 year old kid called Elvis walked in off the street and recorded a demo track, then a year later (finally) impressed Sam with a countrified version of ‘That’s alright’. What Elvis did that day, is exactly what makes Memphis so special. It’s here that the predominantly Black Blues music of the Delta collided with the predominantly White Country music of Nashville. The result? Rock and Roll baby. And the kids went nuts for it.

GRACELAND

I was willing to hate Graceland. I was fully prepared to tell you that it’s a tourist trap – frequented by loud fanatics in stetsons and white rhinestone jeans, on a creepy mission to peer at a dead guy’s home. I was wrong. Of course there were a few rhinestone renegades, and it is up there with the more ‘touristy’ experiences I’ve had (standing in line for a hour to get on a bus which takes you across the road is ridiculous for a start), but it was all actually all rather humbling.

“I saw the Ghost of Elvis, on Union Avenue, followed him up to the Gates of Graceland, and watched him walk right thorough”

What I learnt in my time at Graceland was that Elvis was an incredibly kind soul. A humanitarian who gave huge amounts to charity, loved his family dearly and did as much as he could to make sure they were happy, nearby and comfortable. He was just a regular lad from Tupelo, Mississippi, with a deep love of music and an amazing God given gift to entertain. Sure he was a little kookie by the end. But that magnitude of hero worship would take its toll on anyone. I left feeling sad at the loss of such a talent from the world, but happy that I understood him and his music a little better.

REVEREND AL GREEN

Oh my word – is the only possible way I can start a description of attending a service at The Tabernacle Gospel church in South Memphis. I arrived a little early and so snuk in the back door and onto a pew to catch the end of Sunday school. I felt a tad awkward, like I’d just invited myself to dinner at someones house and I was now sat at the table with a spoon in my hand, heading for the mashed potatoes.

Gradually more people began to arrive. Characterised by their non smart attire and sheepish facial expression, it was clear many weren’t part of the usual congregation. Band members filtered from the wings behind the alter, as one man sat at the piano and began to sing. A lady to my left then joined in, slowly rising from her pew and and making her way forwards to harmonise with piano man. The Church choir then began to file in through the same doors, adding layer upon layer to an already divine chorus. By the time the service began at 11.30, the church was filled to the rafters – not only with people, half local, half tourist, but with the sumptuous sound of Gospel.

There was a short address and some local notices, before the choir and the band started up again. As they did, to the right, there he was. Motown legend Al ‘heard it through the grapevine’ Green glided out of the archway, with the biggest grin on his face. Wearing a cream and navy robe and patent black converse sneakers (what a dude), he moved purposefully among the choir and ministers, shaking their hands and smiling:

“And Reverend Green, be glad to see you, if you haven’t got a prayer. But Boy you’ve got a prayer in Memphis”

Rev Green’s service was one of the most uplifting experiences I’ve ever had. He’d speak a little, preach a little, converse a little, then break into song – swiftly accompanied by the band and choir who seemed to know what to do without so much as a nod. The two hour programme was like a Gospel version of Les Mis. It left me feeling that I simply must sing about anything and everything for the rest of the day. It really didn’t matter a jot if you were religious, it wasn’t about religion. It was about sheer joy. A celebration of life. Gratitude expressed via the medium of Gospel and positivity via the medium of prayer. I’m sure if they prescribed a morning at the Tabernacle over therapy or drugs, the world would benefit immeasurably.

I left my time in Memphis physically rested and more in love with music than I’d ever been. And it was a good job at that, for I’d need a fresh body and decent musical distractions to get me through the next week across the Ozark mountains. I’m on the edge of them now, having battled through some pretty interesting weather to make it here, and with possibly more to come – but that’s for next week’s blog.

The Dash For Dallas

This week, the Director at the Department of Destiny decided that I’d got a little too big for my Cowboy boots. He sensed my belief that the final ten days would be a mere formality, and so plunged his hands deep into the weather well, and began drawing out: “Flood? Hmm, no, we’ve done that one. Blizzard? Come now, that’s so 2013…” Then he happened across a little bottle marked ‘Polar Vortex’. “I wonder…”

A HERCULEAN STRUGGLE

The first few flakes of winter storm Hercules fell in Memphis. They were barely even whisps, so I thought no more of it, and ploughed North for the obligatory dip into Kentucky. Things there began to get a little brisk, even for a Brit (I had to put leggings on and everything), and when I looked out the window in Missouri the following morning, my mouth did the droopy thing. Snow. Sigh. I checked the forecast. Minus 7C. Windchill – minus 13C. 23 mph headwind. Turd.

So I had a brainstorm – with myself (this is totally possible, I didn’t even need a whiteboard), and came up with a what I thought was a Grade A plan. I’d move slowly from small town to small town, making as much headway as I could. Only… I couldn’t seem to get operation ‘Creep’ underway without at least bouncing the idea off of someone. I was caught between wondering if I was a fool to go out in such temperatures or whether I’d gone soft because I was even considering not to. My guts had gone glacial. My balls, below zero. My can of man-up, frozen. I needed back up, and fast. So who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? The A-Team? Danger Mouse? No…. your Mum. I flipped open the Skype App and hit call. “Hello Petal” came the familiar voice. Ah. I felt better already.

All credit to the Mothership, When every instinct is screaming at her to tell the precious little spawn (moi) to stay safe and warm indoors, she came at me with “I agree you’ve got to keep moving, it’s due to get worse” and “You’ll find a way, there’s always a way”. Parents. You’ve gotta love em.

So I let some air out of my tyres and embarked on 3 days of wind battered, icicle encrusted, hill-tastic riding. When the chill hit -15C my legs stung as if being stabbed by itty bitty knives. An icicle beard formed on my chin, frozen droplets took up residence on my eyebrows and my water bottles turned to lumps of ice. Oddly enough, and honestly, I was so het up by the challenge of it all, that it was rather bearable – or so I remember. I was careful to listen to the soft whispers of Captain Sensible however, who reminded me (at intervals) that no matter how good I felt, it was still bloody cold.

LOSING IN MILES, WINNING IN SMILES

I made it about two thirds of the way across the Ozark mountains before things slid off the scale of silliness. I woke up to a foot of snow and not a scrap of tarmac in sight. Bugger. What’s more, the sub zero temps had also caused a layer of ice to form under the snow. Double bugger. Had this been earlier in the trip, I would have sat it out, and waited the four days for it to pass. But with a visa expiring, and my folks bound for Hawaii to meet me – sitting tight wasn’t an option. So I did the thing that made me die a little inside – I took four wheeled assistance. The first was from super-host Larry, who, with nerves of steel (and studded tyres) drove me 60 miles through snowy back roads, round steep curves and over mountain passes. Each time he said “Well if we make it up this one, I think we’ll be okay” my heart crept higher into my mouth and my feet pressed a little farther into the footwell. At one point I wondered that they might break clean through the floor and we’d wind up in a Flintstones-mobile (“Willlmmmaaaaaaa!”)

At Springdale, Arkansas, Larry’s work was done. Like precious cargo I was handed over to new host, Jay, who drove me the final few miles to his home in Gentry. The following morning the mercury dropped to -22C, with a windchill of -28C, and I discovered that it was a warmer at that point in Alaska, than it was in Arkansas. I began to feel a tad foolish. Embarrassed even. Who rides their bike through the US in the winter? I’d done research. I’d checked the average temperatures for the times I’d be going through each state, and not found anything to suggest I might hit this kind of cool. But of course, like the flood and the blizzard, I was assured that this wasn’t ‘normal’. What can I say, I’m just a lucky lady. Or a weather witch. A lucky weather witch.

Funnily enough, a snowy stopover turned out to be just about the best thing that could have happened. Not only did I get to hang with kind and adventurous souls Jay and Shirley, I also got to meet their group of bicycling buddies – who all descended on the house for dinner one night. I was touched to discover that they’d been following the blog, and I enjoyed answering question after question between mouthfuls of Mexican nosh. In turn, they shared tales of their own – of dog chases, near crashes, actual crashes, post ride feasts and random acts of kindness. To be part of such a close knit group of friends for the evening was a joy. And I retired to the lad of nod with cheeks wearing from smiling and a belly that ached from laughing (that, and ODing on the guacamole).

For the remaining 3 days in Gentry I was treated like a princess. I got taken for a massage, went for lunches, played board games with the girls and had dinner with both sets of grandparents. I even went on a million micro-adventures from the comfort and warmth Jay’s couch – as he took me through photos of previous family bicycle, hiking and four wheeled trips.

THE ADVENTURE ARMY

I’m sure you find this hard to believe, but I struggle with asking for help (I know, right?). I tend to think I can fix most anything on my own and above all, I hate to put others to any trouble. Which is ridiculous, because going to trouble for others is literally one of my most favouritist things to do. Put it down to homesickness or weary traveller syndrome, but this week I accepted a mountain of help. And in inflicting my icicle-pickle on the residents of Arkansas, I found me a powerful Adventure Army.

On the second night in Gentry, the army was in full swing. Imagine the scene: Jay called bike friend Dan. Dan called his brother. The brother called his store manager, Erin, who said I could stay with her on the outskirts of Dallas before my flight to Hawaii. Bike friend Tod then called his mum, who agreed to put me up for my first night in Oklahoma, and his sister, Robin, offered to take me out for dinner. (Are you still with me? Good…). Shirley’s Dad arranged to get me clear of the ice and more cold weather with a ride to Kansas with friends of his. He then called another friend who’d source me a bike box in Dallas, drop it off, then come back at 3am in the morning to take me to the airport (who gives people a ride to the airport at 3am? Kind people, that’s who). And that wasn’t even the half of it. I had friends of friends on standby across Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, ready to host me and ride with me should I make it to their area. I watched all of this unfold in awe, feeling so incredibly blessed and grateful. It. Was. Awesome.

DALLAS, AT LAST

The final furlong, from Kansas to Dallas, wasn’t entirely plain sailing. I had a dash of nasty fog, headwinds, rain and a minor ‘moment’ on a clay farm track as I spent an hour unclogging one very dirty Boudcia. But as D-Ream foretold in 1994 ‘Things, can only get better (they can only get, they can only..) I said things, can only get…… better.“ And sure enough, by day four I was riding towards Dallas in sunshine and Blue skies, with the wind on my back.

I write this with the biggest grin my face, having just touched down in Hawaii and been reunited with my folks. There’s an upwards assault on a volcano on the cards this week – so tell the fat lady to hang tight for a little, I’m not handing her the mic just yet.

Catch you all when I’ve conquered the 50th state,
Anna

The Deep American South

I’d heard many things about The South. I was promised I’d be chased by dogs. That I’d ride on roads with no shoulders, get a yearly dose of bigotry and make the acquaintance of hicks with no teeth. And yet, that that all of this would be curiously juxtaposed with the greatest show of hospitality known to man. Anything less and I’d have been sorely disappointed. Anything more would have been a bonus. Of course, it was Christmas bonus time.

A CHANGE OF PLAN

Two days before I crossed the Mason-Dixon line, a historic boundary that marks the North-South divide, I went rogue. The pre-departure plan was to skirt inland, covering Virginia, The Carolina’s and Florida in as few miles as possible. Well now. At this point in the trip, that had a whiff of the sensible about it. So like a muscular moth to a flame, I added on a ‘few’ extra miles and headed toward the East coast instead.

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH

Here’s a lovely story for you. When I was 19, fresh out of school and eyes ablaze with the wonder of the world, I decided to move to Australia for a bit. There I became BFF-OUIGH (Best friends forever – or until I go home) with a girl named Amy. Although now having represented Australia in rowing at two Olympics, Amy is originally from (drum roll, please) North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. So as soon as I hatched the new route (code word: COASTAL) I thought of Amy, and decided that I’d make her home town the point at which I hit the shores of the Atlantic once more. So ten years after I met their daughter in a country 9,000 miles away, I appeared on the doorstep of Amy’s folks, Price and Barbara, and was welcomed in like a long lost child.

NOT SO DIRTY MYRTLE

Talk to Americans about Myrtle Beach and you’ll become familiar with its reputation as ‘Dirty Myrtle’ or the ‘Redneck Riviera’. Riding in, I could see the roots of such a rep. The main highway is a migraine sufferers worst nightmare. As far as the eye can see are bargains stores, chain restaurants and fast food joints, all announcing the delights on offer with big flashing lights.

But this is one beach book you shouldn’t judge by it’s lightbulb led cover. Get away from the busy highway, just one street over, and you’ll find the reason it became so popular in the first place – a gigantic golden beach, surrounded by tufts of wild grass, punctuated with boardwalks and modest dunes. The day I took a walk along the shore, a heavy fog rolled in, transforming my stroll from the marginally tranquil to the downright serene.

Away from the beach, Price told me that North Myrtle hadn’t always been such a tourist trap. And that in the 70’s, it was just a small town with less than a third of the population of today. He initially moved to the area to spend time at the Meher Baba centre – a 500 acre lake encrusted oasis of calm, dedicated to a man who believed in the pursuit of ‘conscious divinity.’ Set just metres back from a now busy highway 17, the centre remains at North Myrtle, as peaceful as ever, offering rest, meditation and a more spiritual life to those who seek it.

Riding out 2 days later, I saw the whole area through new eyes. I had a deeper appreciation for it’s history and beauty, as well as a fondness for the people who live there. It made me wonder how many towns I’d passed through and decided I wasn’t too keen on, only to miss something more delicate, cowering beneath a brash veneer.

MAKING NEW FRIENDS

If you want some attention anywhere south of Virginia – here’s what to do:

1) Become a woman (this may take more time for some than others)
2) Ride a Pink bike.

I’ve grown used to getting funny looks over the past six months, but the South East takes staring to a whole new level. I seemed to attract far more of an audience than usual at gas stations. By the end of one particular daily ham and cheese sub session in South Carolina, I had six people crowded around, asking questions and arguing amongst themselves as to the route I should take from there. It was really quite touching.

A little down the road from that stop, I pulled into a tiny convenience store at the side of the highway. And it was here I met my new favourite person – Jim.

Little more than a freestanding room, the convenience store was clad in crumbling brick, coated with peeling white paint and complemented by a door clinging to the very last days of its wooden life. As I stepped inside, letting my eyes adjust to a dark interior, I heard a soft southern drawl. “Well hello there missy, where you be a-comin from?” Behind a small counter to my right was Jim. Black, in his late 60’s with tight yet sporadic curls of Grey hair, and a cataract over one eye – he was straight from a work of fiction.

Jim’s question was always one that took a while to answer, but something told me that he’d enjoy the full back story, so I went right ahead and told it. He paused for a moment, considering me closely with his good eye. “Oh Lordy Lordy. I say Lordy Lordy my child. I will pray for you, that I will. I will pray. For. You.” I thanked him, and listened further as he regaled tales from 30 years spent working as a local police officer. “There be some bad peoples in the world, yes ma’m. I tell you there be some bad people’s on this here Earth. And I seen em all.”

Later he produced his wallet, gingerly unfolding it to reveal a tattered, monochrome picture of a woman. He beckoned me to come in closer. “You see this?” he said, that one eye of his sparkling as if it held all the secrets of the modern world. “This be the most beautiful woman in the universe. My Wife” He kissed the photo and touched his chest, just above where his heart was, before adding “I won’t ever have no other one after this one, I tell you. I won’t ever have no other, God bless my soul.”

I felt truly honoured to have met Jim. What a character. What a gem.

WHO STOLE MY SHOULDERS?

Lacking in characters the South is not. Lacking in space to cycle however… The past two weeks have been frought with a struggle to find any sort of shoulder to ride in, or a road that’s quiet enough not to warrant one. Through Southern Georgia especially there was one road to take, and I was sharing it with every other Tom, Dick and Harry. By the time I made Florida, I was mentally exhausted. Spending 10 hours a day being subjected to honks and shouts from passing cars (The Dicks shouted more than the Tom’s and Harry’s) and in mild fear that a truck might get a little too close, is just not cricket, and it’s certainly not fun.

THE BEAUTIFUL BITS

The lack of provision for road cycling, should by no means overshadow what these states have to offer, especially for the naturalist. The Carolina’s and Georgia have an impressive selection of cotton fields and shrubbery. I’ve yet to learn the official name for all the trees I saw in the swamps and forests, but The Beardy oak (Muchos Hairyiculus), the Mr Tickle tree (armus gargantuan) and the Spikey Hand Fan-Fern (Highus Fivus) were among those that repeated most frequently.

For the true lover of a reet good view, however, you best get yourself down to Florida. And to the stretch of Gulf coast between Panama City Beach and Pensacola. It’s stunning. The sand is a shade of white I never thought possible in anything other than snow, and it just goes on, and on. Route 30A, a road that runs right next to the shoreline is no doubt swollen with traffic in the summertime. But as it was ‘winter’ (ahem 21 degrees and sunny) the small, immaculately maintained towns and silky smooth sand bars were all but deserted. Lucky, lucky me.

INTO 2014

There’ll be more Southern tales in the first blog post of 2014. I’ve now moved through Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and am hanging out just inside Tennessee, soaking up buckets of Rhythm and Blues in Memphis. With only 3 weeks left to make it thorough the final 7 states, I’ve got a bit of a mission on my hands, but I’m more excited than ever about the final flourish. Fancy that?

Photo’s of the South – part one, are up to date on Flickr here

Here’s wishing you all a hugely happy New Year. I sincerely hope you have some mischief of your own in the pipeline for 2014 – if not, get onto it, quicksmart.

Go easy on the dizzy water and catch you then,
Anna

Mum. The Turkey Smells Like Fart

BOREAS THE UGLY

Since the incident in Iowa where I set out to ride 120 miles, and ended up almost hyperthermic and in a motel after 50, I’d resolved to be more sensible with any decision to ride in wind and rain. It’s not a question of being ‘ard. It’s a question of not being a tit. So when winter storm ‘Boreas’ rolled on up the East coast just as I was leaving New York, my heart sank. I had two days to make 220 miles to Baltimore in time for Thanksgiving with a friend. I decided that the temperature was warm enough to give riding a crack at least and so, at 5am, I snuk out of a Manhattan apartment and was on my way.

The next two days were lacking in glamour to say the least. It poured. Constantly. And just when I thought it might ease up, the wind picked up and it hailed. Then it snowed. I went into a weird saddle-based trance, removing myself from the situation entirely and pretending I wasn’t there (I use this technique climbing mountains too, before you know it you’re lost in thought and at the top. Magic.) I couldn’t tell you exactly what went through my head for those two days, only that I tried to remain ‘chipper’ at all times, and if my mind wandered, I lied. To myself and to others I met. To questions of: “Aren’t you cold?, Isn’t it miserable to be so wet?, That can’t be much fun.” I retorted “Oh no, I’m fine, it’s not so bad, I love the feel of the driving rain against my frozen skin” . If all else failed I told myself I only had an hour left on the bike. Then carried on for six.

I tell you this not as a plea for sympathy (although it will be gratefully received and securely stored for the next storm) but simply to share trip evidence for the great Yin Yang that is life. Naturally, It’s awesome, but there always comes a time when you have to wade knee deep through a steaming of pile ugly to get back to the awesomeness.

THANKSGIVING

Wet and cold, but definitely still chipper, I made it to Baltimore at last. And Thanksgiving was a marvellous affair. We took the dog for a walk. Ate. Drank an oversized bottle of wine. Ate. Dallied around. Ate. And then, at around 5pm began preparing dinner.

“What IS that smell?!” Came the cry from Lizzie, the hostess with the mostess in the the kitchen. (Five minutes of Turkey sniffing ensued – surely a contender for an Olympic sport in years to come). Calls to mothers were made:
“Mum. The turkey smells like fart.”
What kind of fart, darling?” (I wondered at this point how many kinds there were. I could think of at least three, and relevant subcategories to boot).
“Well. Sort of an eggy fart.”
“Ah a Sulphur dioxide fart (dammit I forgot that one). That doesn’t sound good. Is there any discolouration?”
“Errr… Hang on (pause for Olympic sport 2, Turkey staring). It’s yellow.”

And so with a jaundiced, farting turkey, our hopes of a perfect first ever Thanksgiving went up in a puff of sulphuric smoke. Thank goodness for the late night store and crispy chicken strips. I’m pretty sure the Pilgrims would have gone in for chicken strips anyway, had the Native American Indians offered them as an option in the first place …

Burnt corn fritters and chicken strips – traditional

Lizzie – the hostess with mostly the mostness

WASHINGTON D.C.

Boston and New York are incredible cities, but I’d visited both before. So it’d been a while since I’d experienced the little stomach jump that comes from seeing a famous landmark for the first time. Rounding the bend on the bike path into Washington DC, the Capitol Building came into view. It was perfectly silhouetted against a clear Blue Sky and so I squealed. Then giggled. Then mouthed “That. Is. So. Cool. ” and stared at it so long I almost rode my bike into the fence.

Lovely little ride into DC

The Capitol Building. Very very cool.

I never really had DC on my bulging bucket list until it became a part of this trip. I was a fool. Of course, I’d be a little disappointed if the Prez couldn’t get the city thing down pat on his own doorstep, but it delighted me nonetheless.

The bike lanes in and around town are some of the most impressive I’ve come across since Seattle, as was the attitude of the drivers to cyclists using them – a key indicator of how well supported cycling really is. The number of things to see and do in such a compact area is, quite frankly, ridiculous. The Art galleries cover French, Chinese, Greek, American and Russian work with indoor and outdoor collections spanning everything from the 330 AD Byzantine era to the 21st century. The choice of museums is no less redunk – Native American Indian history, Air and Space, American history, Natural history and Postal. And then there’s the monuments. Who’s greatest triumph to lend a sense of depth and soul to a city which is so young in comparison to other more established ones around the globe.

The Washington Monument

War memorials a plenty

Lastly but not least, there’s Abe. Mr Lincoln, the Lincolnator. It wasn’t until I spent time at The Lincoln memorial and at the American history museum afterwards, that I truly understood how he altered the course of the nation so dramatically. He was not only tenacious, but way ahead of his time. His irrepressible belief that every man was created an equal became a driving force in the eventual abolition of US slavery. Any man who sets such a morally righteous ball in motion, whilst maintaining immaculate facial hair, gets my respect.

The Lincoln memorial

Abe

ANTIETAM

I’m no history buff. In fact, you could likely attribute everything historical I learnt at school to one of those wooden rulers with the names of past British kings on it (Brits you know the one I’m talking about. Americans, see the pic below). I always thought history a little dull (hold your gasps. stay with me), and never really cared for ‘facts’. Litres of Mr Saunders (long suffering purveyor of education) Red ink were wasted on correcting my fictitious and elaborate accounts of what Henry the VIII would have said, had he been an utter dude instead of a gluttonous, wife slaying tyrant. But when I learnt, in West Virginia, that I was passing close to the site of America’s bloodiest civil war battle, something very odd happened. I was intrigued.

The extent of my History knowledge

And so the morning I was to leave Shepherdstown, I got up a little early and wheeled my way over the Potomac river to the town of Sharpsberg, and to the battlefield of Antietam.

Perhaps it was because it was a foggy morning. And that the rolling fields were blanketed in a heavy haze, which parted every now and then to reveal a distant cannon or monument to the dead. Perhaps it was that over 3,000 souls took their last breath here, and a further 18,000 were wounded – all in a single day. Whatever the cause, Antietam has real ‘feel’ to it. A murky effervescence, bubbling just above non existent, and just below the tangible. I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if a ghostly figure had wandered from the field to shake my hand. Take it or or leave it, believe me or don’t, it’s an erie place.

The erie battlefield at Antietam

Leaving the Maryland, DC, West Virginia area, I felt reinvigorated – full from a three course culture meal, intellectually nourished and ready to take on the South. I’m currently winging my way through the Carolina’s, somehow managing to avoid yet another winter storm which has affected 43 of the US states. I’m feeling rather jammy, although I have feeling that in these last 6 weeks I may meet old man winter head on yet…

Flickr pictures are now up to date here

Until next week compadres, thanks for reading
McNuff out 🙂

Cycling into New York City, Via The Bronx

“This could be a complete disaster. Or it could be fun. Either way – let’s be ‘avin it.”

Wise words from younger sibling, Jonty, as he boarded a plane to join me in Boston at the start of the week. This is the sibling that deposited a brown coloured gift in the bath when I was 5 (true story) and the reason I slapped a 9 year old lad when I was 7 (I don’t condone violence in any form. Unless they call your brother “Specky four-eyes.” Then you get buck-wild on their ass).

Yes he’s 27. Yes he’s 6ft 3". Yes he’s far more sensible and grown up than I am. But he’s still my ‘little’ brother. And this week it was my task to guide him safely from Boston to NYC.

BEING A TWO

Having ridden alone for 3 months since Lydia left my side at Reno, it was strange to have company again. Contrary to expectation, when cycle touring with another, a real conversation is rare. You mostly develop a form of store-sign Tourette’s, uncontrollably shouting names of places you pass in odd accents. I have no idea why this happens. It’s a new-world phenomenon.

One thing that didn’t change was the level and frequency of singing. In fact, singing levels hit an all time high. For when riding with a partner, it is imperative that everything be expressed via the medium of song. Were you to buy the ‘East Coast Hits’ album from this week, you’d enjoy classic tracks such as – “I need a wee”, “My chuddies hurt”, “Where is Lockwood Avenue?” and “Can I turn right, at this Red light?” (Radio edit). Where I was once alone in these musical endeavours, not only did I now have a back-up singer, I also had a percussionist. It turns out that Jonty and I would do very well in a musical round of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

Riding with a member of the opposite sex for a few days also proved rather educational. Too many times I’d set off and find myself alone 100 metres down the road. I’d look back and spot Jonty with his hands down his pants, rearranging ‘the furniture’. Apparently it’s all too easy to mount your bike in an excited leap and land on one of your testicles. Who knew?

CAPE COD AND THE WAMPANOAGS

Heading straight to NYC from Boston would have been a little too straightforward, so I decided to indulge in a cheeky side step onto Cape Cod. Here we stayed with Jim and family, and got to talking not about clams, or lobsters or cranberry farms (all things you might associate with the region), but instead we chatted Wampanoag. Wompa-who? Wompa-I’ll explain…

A key trip revelation has been the discovery of US Indian reservations. I knew they existed (I’ve watched Dances with Wolves after all), but I had no idea just how many there were, and how large. In Arizona I spent 2 days cycling through Navajo (Nava-ho) land, which spans over 24,000 square miles. The Cherokee, Sioux, Chippewa and Apache are just a few of the other tribes living on one of the 326 reservations across the US. These areas are ‘sovereign nations’. That is, they are countries within a country. They have their own laws and schools, and are governed and policed by separate political forces.

Spread throughout Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, are the homes of the Wampanoag (Wom-pa-nog) Indians. I was fascinated to learn that the spoken language of the Wampanoag died out 100 years ago, but one woman (with the aid of a linguistics degree from MIT) has been working since 1993 to revive it. She’s been successful, and although it’s now her 2nd language, it’s the mother tongue of her 10 year old daughter. Int that just wonderful?

THE ELI WHITNEY MUSEUM

Leaving the Cape and continuing South, we entered the town of New Haven – home to the prestigious Yale University. For those not yet old enough to walk the halls at an Ivy League School, the town offers an alternative – the Eli Whitney museum.

Upon entering, it’s immediately apparent that this isn’t an ordinary children’s museum. It doesn’t follow the standard template – that is, brightly painted walls, carpeted floors and milk and cookies on offer at 3pm. Instead, it treats youngsters as miniature adults, providing a space in which they’re respectfully encouraged to learn under their own steam.

Founded by William Brown (trained in child development) and Sally Hill (trained in design) The Eli Whitney is founded on a notion of ‘essential experiments’. The discovery method, trial and error, it has many other names. Sally and Bill believe that you learn by doing, not watching. You screw things up. You get messy, noisy, break things, but eventually you find a solution. The individuality of experimentation is a central theme, and although classes are structured, there’s no set list of things you should and shouldn’t learn before you ‘grow up’.

It’s an incredibly unusual place – one that nurtures and indulges the naturally inquisitive mind of a child. It provides a platform from which kids can develop an understanding of how the world around them is put together, and plants the starter-seed for a lifetime of exploration.

Perhaps I was so struck by The Eli Whitney because this the way I’ve always liked to learn (just ask my Mum and Dad). Perhaps it’s because it bases itself on the very thing I tell anyone and everyone who asks me why I embarked on this trip. As children, we’re curious. We’re excitable. We’re willing to tell people what we want to be, to try in spite of everything else, to get messy and wind up in a right royal pickle. All too often something happens in adulthood that stops this process dead in it’s tracks. We let the belly of our fear-monster get fat with regret and missed opportunities, and above all, we stop asking questions. We stop believing that there’s a unique and individual solution to just about anything if we just … keep going.

RIDING INTO NEW YORK CITY

Full of inspiration, and with my inner-child rekindled, we left New Haven bound for New York. Riding into the city was …. unforgettable. I knew it was going to be ugly, I’d figured as much, and been warned on top of that. Still, it had to be done. So we rolled up our sleeves and waded headlong into the urban jungle.

Twenty miles out, North of the Bronx in New Rochelle, we got ‘stuck’ in a traffic jam. Quite an impressive feat when on a bike, non? Here commenced three hours of using every sense possible (including my sixth one) to avoid being run off the road. I didn’t take it personally. The swearing, honking and bumper dodging weren’t reserved solely for us after all – although I’d wager that we had more car doors opened in our faces than most.

The only way to describe the Northern Bronx is as an assault in the senses. It’s like a scene from The Fast and The Furious (one through six) collided with Tooting high street, in the midst of an M25 traffic jam. And I’ll make no bones about the fact that it made this white middle class chick feel a little uneasy. More because Jonty and I stood out like a sore thumb. And then because a man made a beeline for us at a traffic light just to say “you two be careful through here”. Fabulous.

We could have found another way in. We could have taken a ferry over to Long Island, and gone in via Queens. But who knows what different traffic treats lay in store that way. Plus, really, it’s just like mushrooms, Blue cheese, olives and frogs legs – you can’t say you don’t like something until you try it. I won’t be using my holiday to go back to The Bronx next year, but at least I’ve experienced it. Ain’t no regret in that.

So we took three and a half hours to ride the last 20 miles (a new record), but eventually we made it to Downtown. Jonty was safely delivered to his awaiting girlfriend, Kate, and so ended my duty as a big sister for the time being.

This is my 3rd visit to the city that never sleeps. I’m a huge fan of the crazy place and so excited to come back with a purpose. I’ll be seeing a few more touristy sites whilst here, visiting a local school and meeting the guys from Right to Play USA before rolling out again on Tuesday.

To you all from The Big Apple, farewell until next week.

McNuff out 🙂

New England And The Dream Dumpers

Greetings to you all from the shores if the Atlantic Ocean. It took me a while (7,000 miles to be precise) but, using a route no TomTom worth it’s salt would advise, I’ve finally made it across the country. My reward? Another week full of new characters, a whack of beautiful riding through New England and even a bit of time to reflect on what making it to the coast really ‘means’.

NEW ENGLAND

New England is, as the name suggests, an area rather like England in parts. The hills in Vermont and New Hampshire are steeper and shorter than their mountain cousins in the West and are akin to the rolling landscapes of the UK’s Surrey, Kent and Sussex. The towns here are among some of the first established in the US, and as a result are small, sometimes cobbled and always quaint.

New England town Churches

MAINE – NEW ENGLAND’s FINEST

Until now, Maine was a mythical place. It’s a land where movies are set (Caspar – The friendly Ghost, Shawshank Redemption, The Parent Trap), where Bill Bryson’s ‘A walk in the woods’ concludes, and where (according to those in the West) “inbreds and people with funny accents live.” A little like Alaska, you know Maine exists, but really, come on, when are you actually going to go? Well. I can’t tell you how delighted I was to discover that it really is just as I’d hoped (minus the inbreds, or visible evidence of them at least). Teeny towns, brilliant sunshine, rocky shores, lighthouses, a fresh ocean breeze, lobster pots strewn accross front lawns and the catch of the day being served up on every corner. For the first time since Yellowstone, in Maine I desperately longed to stay and explore, just a little more. Alas. Sense prevailed and I headed South…

Maine at dusk

Rockin rocky shores

A RIGHT PAIR

One of the best things about this trip is meeting individuals I would never come across in ‘normal’ life (I use the term normal in it’s loosest sense). There must be something in the water in New Hampshire, because it was here that I encountered two incredibly unique ladies.

BETTY

93 year old Betty ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson is currently in training for a 5km race in January. In 2011 she entered the Manchester 5km and took 17 minutes off of the 90-99 age group record. Surrounded by a selection of her 19 grandchildren, and two of her sons – she didn’t just power through the finish line, but instead kept going for another ½ mile to the presentation area. She would pass men in their 50’s and the Grandchildren would turn and taunt them “Dude. You just got beaten by my 91 year old Grandma.” If you have five minutes to spare, in fact, even if you don’t – this video of her race will make you smile endlessly.

Betty and I

LUCY

Lucy, the mother of my host for the night in a town called Newmarket, was the second off-the-chart cool Grandma I met this week. Upon arrival, she swung open the door and proclaimed in a thick New Jersey accent “Oh sweetie, you’re here! I was beginning to get very bored.” She threw her arms open for a hug, ushered me inside, put the kettle on and began regaling tales of time spent living in Germany and England.

Lucy, as it turned out, is somewhat of a local celebrity. Over dinner she outlined the incident that brought about her fame. Following an advertisement in the local paper, she and 84 year old best friend Bill had attended a lecture on “Orchestrating Orgasms” at the University downtown (as you do). The curious night out culminated in Bill being given the opportunity to select a prize from a range of ‘toys’ on stage (for asking a question related to subject under discussion, naturally). The two of them then ‘got tired’, and left the auditorium early – much to the delight of the 500 university students in attendance, who promptly erupted in applause. It was a tale that needs far more space and a watershed license to detail in all it’s glory, but one that had me laughing so hard I snotted and dribbled on the table all at once.

Watching Lucy talk animatedly about a lifetime of mischief and adventure, I hoped that this’d be me one day.

DREAM DUMPERS

Over the past week, as I’ve made my way closer to this, the most North easterly point of the trip, I’ll confess that the overwhelming feeling has been one of relief. Since Alaska, when I’ve described the route and timings to people along the way, I’ve often had a less than positive response. Granted, some comments are intended as genuine concern, as opposed to discouragement, but I shan’t lie that every little “You’re crazy / that’s a bad idea / why are you doing that? ” Is like a teeny little paper cut – and we all know how much those buggers sting. There are days where I’ve got so tired of such a reaction that I’ve plain lied about how far I’m going. Isnt that terrible?

The relief of making it to Maine

The (Rich Tea) biscuit was taken by one particular guy I met on the roadside in the West. He’d been been cycle touring for a number of years and insisted that my route, at this time of year could not be done. And I mean really insisted. Repetitively. After me offering up novel ideas like “How about I just… try?” and “I’m sure it can be done” we parted ways. His comments made me so angry that I rode on rage for most of the day. And it made wonder – what is it that possessed him, entirely uninvited, to take a dump on my dream?

Until now there have been many names for Dream Dumpers – Negative Nellies, Dementors, Drains, Nay Sayers, Pessimists, Haters… Sadly, the world is all to full of them. You probably know a few yourself. It always pays to be well prepared for future encounters. So here’s what to do, should you be attacked by a Dream Dumper in broad daylight:

1. Don’t panic. Remain composed and look the Dream Dumper square in the eyes. Do not back away. Dumpers have a heightened sense of smell and can detect fear.

2. Smile. It’s well known that smiling confuses Dream Dumpers. “Why are you so happy?! I just dumped on your dream”. Flash those pearly whites and watch the DD turn into a bumbling buffoon.

3. Calm them. If the DD persists, step forwards, slowly. Raise one finger and press it to their lips, whilst saying “Shhhh shhh shhhh” (as if calming a newborn) and shake your head softly.

To quote the 21st century philosopher, Tinie Tempah: “Opinions aren’t facts, take them in and let them go.” I like to take that (literal) dump. Put in an (imaginary) box. And put it on a (metaphorical) shelf way way out of reach. That’s Dream Dumper destruction at it’s finest.

Dream Dump destruction – The Maine coastline

And on that note, I best continue on with my own rolling disaster waiting to happen. It’s finally time for this bird and her bike to migrate south for the winter. I’m currently hanging out in Boston, waiting for my little brother to jet in and join me for the week – from here to New York City. I’m excited and little nervous about having to be more responsible than usual (read: responsible at all). My big sis hat is on, and I’ll be doing my best to keep us (mostly) out of mischief.

This week’s pictures are up on Flickr here

Catch you all next time 🙂

Chicago: The Windy City

Lady Luck is definitely a Chicagan. There’s no other explanation for the star spangled, once in a lifetime, right-place-right time, pick your jaw up off that flaw’ experiences that were bestowed upon me this week.

Heading in, I’ll admit I was a little nervous. Having not enjoyed the ‘big city thang’ in San Fran, I made a concerted effort not to hoist The Windy City up on a pedestal, instead shooing down like a naughty kitty caught tip-toeing along the kitchen surface; “Get down, Chicago, get down!” Well? I loved it. Phew.

A CASUAL START

When you’ve got a big city to explore, there’s no sense in diving right on into Downtown. Oh no no. You’ve got to savour the city flavour, get a feel for what it is to live in and around the big smoke before filling your lungs with it. So I began in Lake Forest – a suburb 30 miles North of the centre, on the shores of Lake Michigan. There I stayed for 2 nights with a wonderful family and visited a local school, to talk to a group of 4th graders who were learning about the 50 states (perfect eh?). Lake Forest is… lush. It’s is the kind of place where the Labradoodles are immaculately dressed and the kids hang out at Starbucks after school. Ain’t no Hubba Bubba for 16p in Starbucks kids (when I was a nipper….).

A FAMILY OF LEGENDS

I then scooted round the edge of the city and headed South West to meet a Mr John Vande Velde. For those of you not inclined to follow cycling, or sport at all for that matter, John is one of the original US cycling legends. In fact, he is the original. Competing on the track at the 68’ and 72’ Olympics, he was then the first US rider to turn pro in 1972. Pile on top of that that he managed to produce three kids (Christian, Madelaine and Ian) who have also represented the US in cycling, and it all gets a little silly.

Meeting John was like meeting an old friend – he was kind, welcoming and more importantly, a total dude. And so we just… hung out. Ate pizza, drank wine and put the world back in rightful order through the medium of chat. His passion for the sport is still as fiery as ever, and I could listen for hours to race-tales from an era where cyclists were even greater hard-nuts than they are today. Of course, my timing couldn’t have been better (see – lady luck ‘in the house’). Vande Velde Junior, Christian, having just retired from 15 years as a pro, was on hand to pop over in the morning of my departure. And whaddya know – he’s a dude too. I’d like to have stayed for days at the Vande Velde gaff. In fact, I think I’d rather like to be adopted into the family, although only on the proviso that I didn’t have to give up mine. Joint custody, anyone?

THE REAL CHICAGO

When I finally made it into downtown, I met up with a sister from another mister, who’d flown in from NYC (she is actually a sister, sort of, it’s complicated). As evening fell we dashed straight to Millennium Park, and to the highlight of Chicago’s modern art – ‘The Bean’. I’d been pre-warned this was a prime tourist spot, where out-of-towners amuse themselves by taking ludicrous shots of their grinning faces reflected in it’s shiny surface. Meh. I shan’t engage in such Lemming-esc behaviour, I thought. Fool. NEVER underestimate the power of The Bean. There’s something about seeing the city mirrored at odd angles in an oversized haricot, that’s simply irresistible. We spent a good 30 minutes giggling and snorting like school children, executing the obligatory array of inventive poses.

DEFYING GRAVITY

Like many great cities around the globe (*cough* London *cough*), Chicago has a river running through it. Who knew? I didn’t. But Chicago’s waterway has a dark secret – it used to run in the opposite direction. You what? My thoughts entirely. In a bid to rid Lake Michigan of waterborne diseases, like cholera, a few civil engineering bright sparks set about reversing the flow in 1887. It hurts my brain, trying to understand how they managed to pull off such a feat (you can hurt your brain too by reading about it here). In short – they built a canal, which allowed the river to drain away from the lake, rather than into it. Genius. And a major success. Apart from the residents in the now downstream St Louis of course – who received a flow of watery Chicago poop where there was no poop before. Love thy neighbour? Nothing says love like the gift of raw sewage.

HISTORIC CHICAGO

If you want to cement your love of Chicago, take the architectural boat tour. You’ll learn a ridiculous amount, and above all that Chicago is a city is steeped in history. In 1871, a ‘great fire’ caused 6 square miles of destruction in Downtown. Bad news indeed, but like a grimy phoenix, and with the aid of famous architects from around the globe, a new Chicago rose from the flames. These architects flocked to the now blank city-canvas in a bid to leave their mark. They proceeded to fill the city with the most spectacular buildings, spanning a myriad of styles – The gothic Tribune tower, the Art Deco Merchandise Mart (my fave), The curvy groovy Marina city, The Wrigley building and by far the most famous – the 1,450ft Sears tower – once the tallest in the world.

But by far, and of course, my favourite trinkets of truth from the cruise were movie based:

Truth 1 – The Oscar statuettes are manufactured in Chicago (awesome).
Truth 2 – Scenes from ‘The Dark Knight’ were filmed at the old Post office.

I knew it! As we entered the city via the metro system that morning, on steel tracks above the streets, I’d turned to my friend and said “ This reminds me of Gotham city…. I feel like I’m heading towards Wayne Towers.” You just can’t keep a good movie buff down.

FINAL FLUKES

The night before I left town, I cashed in a birthday treat from my bro’s – dinner at The Sky Deck, in the Sears (now Willis) Tower. For some bizarre reason, no one else had booked dinner that night. So at a tourist attraction which gets 1.3 million visitors per year – we had the entire deck to ourselves. Talk about million dollar dinner dining. As I filled my face with Giordano’s famous Chicago style pizza (cheese first, then sauce) and sipped on root beer (why did we ever stop drinking root beer in the UK?), I felt I should be getting down on one knee and proposing to my mate.

After that, I thought Lady Luck was all out of tricks. Apparently not. As I left town, they happened to open a new section of the Lakeshore bike path. Cue cycling right into a media circus, an interview with a reporter from the Chicago Tribune and an easy ride out of town. Magic.

I’m now on the shores of Lake Erie, having made my way though Indiana, Michigan and on to Ohio. The weather is just about holding up and the riding is flat (ish) and beautiful. I’m going just as fast as I can, racking up big mile days before I hit the foothills of the Appalachian mountains and get slowed down significantly.

Illinois and Chicago snaps are now up on Flickr here, for your perusal and pleasure.

See you next week, kids 🙂

Falltum In America’s Rust Belt

Is it fall? Is it autumn? Don’t be silly, it’s Falltum. Considering my present affection for both sides of the pond, I’ve made a UK-US seasonal term compromise, and hereby introduce: Falltum. Gosh I’m diplomatic. Someone make me Pres-Minister already.

Passing through through Indiana, Ohio and Northern Pennsylvania during Falltum is a delight. It’s like the trees are having a party (not in their pants) and everyone’s invited. Well except the Evergreens. They, evidently, missed the memo. And remain stubbornly clad in their verdurous robes as surrounding neighbours partake in a slow summer-end striptease. Of course we have turning leaves in the UK, but nothing quite like the US. In the US, trees pop. They erupt. They explode in a multitude of colours, the likes of which I’ve just never seen before in shrub form. It’s stunning at best, and intriguing at worst. Fall in the North-East US is one thing about which you should definitely believe the hype.

So, aye, it’s cold. Aye, I have to check the weather on an hourly basis and dabble in days of rain and wind. But who gives a Badger’s nadger about that when there’s a chance you’ll get blue skies and sights like the below? Not I, for one.

LOU ANN, THE STORYTELLER

In the midst of my Falltum tour, I came across a profile on cycle hosting website Warm Showers which (in part) read: “... I live in a hundred year old house in a lovely mid-western town. I am a writer and a story teller, hang my laundry out in my garden!… Folks are often found sitting round in my living room listening to music and telling stories.

Well. Isn’t that the profile of a woman you simply have to meet? I thought so. Luckily I was in town on the one night that Lou Ann could actually host a vagabond. When I arrived there was no one about, but a kindly neighbour showed me indoors and I texted to notify her that there was now a Lycra clad stranger in her living room. A reply came quickly back – “Am out galavanting. Back soon”. Marvellous. I think the world would be a far better place if people galavanted just a little more, or in fact at all. I for one, plan to galavant much more on my return to the UK. Life’s just to short not to.

Her house is a marvel in itself. Brimming with trinkets, theatre posters, instruments and photos – it is a ‘real’ home. One that’s an extension of the owner’s personality. Enough with the minimalist, clean surfaced, clinical spaces, I say, give me a cosy cave any day. There was even a ‘welcome wall’ with quotes an signatures from previous guests – Something that made me feel as if I were creating a little piece of history, just by crossing the threshold.

Once Lou Ann returned, we got to chatting. And I slowly pieced together the rich tapestry that is her life. With each paragraph came a new activity, passion or contribution to the local community. She’s a storyteller by trade (a rare art), and when not touring the country, spends summers on Oracoke Island – off the coast of Virginia, telling ghost tales of the legendary Black Beard, who sunk nearby. She’s also a professor at the local university, writes and performs community plays, hosts seasonal and themed parties in her living room and contributes a weekly column for Northern Indiana newspapers. To further warm your heart, she rides her shiny Trek bike (a Mother’s day present) everywhere around town, and is perplexed by those who don’t use two wheels instead of four “I did 12 errands on my bike today. It just makes good sense. I don’t know what it is about being on a bike – that feeling you get. I can’t quite describe it…

Lou Ann is a gem, and one of life’s true characters. As a friend of mine recently wrote, no matter how abrupt and transient our modern day Tweet/Facebook/Email exchanges become – there’s always space and indeed a human need for a really good story. It’s food for the soul, and at this – Lou Ann is a Masterchef.

NIAGARA FALLS

This wasn’t my first meeting with Lady Niagara. I was lucky enough to visit the falls as part of a Toronto school netball tour, at the tender age of 16. Experience tells me that American readers aren’t familiar with netball. It’s like basketball, but you don’t move. Yes it’s silly, but were really rather good at it. This time, things were different. This time, I wasn’t dressed in ‘shants’ (why? Just why?), nor was I listening to, and achingly sympathising with the plight of Blink 182. No, no this time – I was making my Niagara assault from the US of A.

I cannie lie to you all, visiting Niagra from the US side isn’t especially scenic, and that’s putting it kindly. The only way for me to describe it is as … Industrial. I was working my way across what is affectionately known as ‘The Rust Belt’ after all. Comprised a of towns and cities that formed the backbone of the 19th century engineering boom – Like Detroit, Michigan (once an automotive hub, now a shell of its former self) and Gary, Indiana (contender for scariest place on earth to ride a bicycle). Henry Ford produced the first Model T on this belt and the cities within it were the greatest casualties when the US economic depression hit in 1929.

But let us not judge Niagara by her rusty surroundings. She is a rose amongst thorns. And no matter how many people tell you that the US side isn’t worth a detour, it’s nothing short of spectacular.

Of course, I’m not the only daredevil to make it to Niagara. I’m not a daredevil at all, it seems, when you consider the Niagara thrill seekers of the 20th century. Many of whom decided that encasing oneself in a barrel and throwing oneself into a watery abyss was a good way to pass some time. Evidently there was nothing good on tele that weekend (probably in-between Made in Chelsea seasons). Sixty-three year old Annie Edison Taylor was the first to take the perilous plunge in 1901. She was followed by a succession of others, in barrels, kayaks, or just… diving in. Predictably, many perished, like George Stathakis – although you’ll be pleased to know that the 105 year old pet turtle he took in the barrel with him made it out alive (quite suspicious – I smell a murderous turtle with blood on its… paws).

STATE 25

I’ll confess my week on the rust belt has been a bit of beast, averaging 90 – 110 mile days for the most part to take advantage of good weather and the flat plains. I’m now steaming across the rest of upstate New York, hitting substantially more hills and gearing up to cross into state number 25 tomorrow – Vermont. If we could all pray for the weather Gods to hang on to their winter motherloads for a few more days until I make Maine, I’d be much obliged.

Pics are up on Flickr again, so get your Falltum fill here

See you all next weekend then, once I’ve hit the Atlantic coast, and Maine – gulp!