Wednesday, 29 September 2010

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

What the Dickens is he talking about, I hear you say. Let me explain...

Monday was just the best. 250 miles of excellent road, starting with the “Avenue of the Giants” and ending at Bogeda Bay, where Hitchcock filmed The Birds.

100 metre high Redwood
The “Avenue of the Giants” is a stretch of winding road through redwood territory. With groves and nature trails to stop off and explore it took me 3 hours to cover the 30 miles. The majesty of these trees is legendary, but as I alluded too in my last blog, its the utter silence underneath these colossal tress that is so impressive. Unforgettable, unbeatable. For some reason I was more impressed with this than the Redwood National Park. Perhaps it was because I was riding a motorbike through them. Open to the elements, and able to see them properly I really think you get a much better feel for the tress on a bike.

NEVER trust tourists to take your picture. But you get the idea, it's big.

This tree was 1600 years old and 360 feet tall. It fell in 1991. Another tree 50 feet away had mud spattered 15 feet up its trunk.It will take over 400 years for this tree to decay.

Avenue of the Giants - breathtaking

Here are a few facts I picked up about redwoods.

  • Redwoods are so immense that they live in three climatic zones, from base to canopy.
  • A large redwood can release up to 500 gallons of water into the air a day.
  • It can take a fallen redwood 400 years to decay into the forest floor.
  • The oldest recorded redwood was 2200 years old.
  • The can grow at least 360 feet (110m) tall

And when I left the avenue the next 200 miles were just wonderful. I'll just post a few pictures to give you an idea of what my Monday was like. I thought the Oregon coast was spectacular. Today certainly equalled that. I rode and rode the road as is rode down the coast. A glorious Californian sun shone on me and things just couldn't have been better. I enjoyed every last minute of the day, so much so that I sort of forgot that it would all have to end at sunset and I would have to find somewhere to sleep.
How was your Monday commute?

So, that was the best of times - Tuesday, however, was to be very different. For two weeks now I've been concerned about the performance of the bike. The front brake has started shuddering which has been, to say the least, worrying. Especially as I've been riding 800 miles of the most fantastic coast roads in the world. Good brakes would be useful! I've asked a few people and looked on the internet and it seems likely that the front brake rotor blades are warped (how I have no idea). This all started last Friday and by Saturday I had decided that I need to go to a BMW dealership. Unfortunately they all shut on Sundays and Mondays so there was very little I could do. I decided to carry on with my route and get it sorted out in San Francisco. So, on Tuesday morning I rang the shop in SF. They were fully booked and couldn't even see me until Thursday. I decided to head 30 miles inland from where I was to go to the Santa Rosa shop. To cut a long story short they were less than helpful and I started looking for an alternative. I started making some calls. I rang Sacramento and Reno, both fully booked for days and days. Finally I got in touch with Chico BMW. They had the parts and could see me that afternoon. I rode the 200 miles north to Chico. Incidentally, there was a heatwave going on on Tuesday, Record temperatures all over California. I rode for over 3 hours in over 100 degree (30 +C) temps. The hottest I have ever ridden in. Strange really, this time last week I was camping in near freezing temps. in Silver City, Idaho. But since then I'd ridden hundreds and hundreds of miles south from 46 to 38 degrees latitude. And now the weather was certainly hotting up.

Anyway, back to Chico. Bad news, it seems the triple clamp was cracked/worn away. (For the uninitiated its the bit that connects the handle bars to the front forks – just below where you put the ignition key.) Having just ridden down all those twisty roads I suppose I should just be grateful that I made it alive. But actually I'm just really annoyed that things keep going wrong with my bike. And it's getting so expensive I'm beginning to think that the domwayround my only make it to Panama. I might not have the funds (or a functioning bike) to make it to Africa. This has been a bit of a shock to the system. I've been on the road for 9 weeks now and having a really great time. So often I've been asked by people what I'm up to and I have got (or is it gotten) so used to saying “I'm riding down to Panama and then shipping to South Africa and heading back to Europe) that its difficult to imagine that I may actually NOT do this. But at some point I'm going to have to seriously look at how much this is costing me. Canada was much more expensive that I thought and although much in the USA is cheap, fixing the bike isn't! But equally importantly I need a fully functioning bike if I'm too tackle Africa. It's OK to have the kind of problems I'm having here in the US, on one level all I have to do is find a dealership and sit it out in a cheap Motel whilst they fix the problem. I just won't be able to do that in Africa (or Central America for that matter.) I hate to think what I would have to do if either of the major problems I've had so far actually happened in the middle of Guatamala or Namibia instead of Montana and California.

This is so frustrating as I was having such a great time. And I'm beginning to doubt myself as I seem to have bought a dud bike. Perhaps it's just the shock of finding another problem and by the time it's fixed and I'm on the road again my mood will change. Anyway, I hope to be on the road a again by Thursday afternoon and am heading inland to the desert region. I'm taking Route 50 across Nevada, It's called “America's Loneliest road” a good place to take an ailing motorbike!

Oh yeah – Chico. Not a great place to be stuck for 48 hours. Sights to see include the “world famous Yo-Yo museum”. And I'm becoming increasingly frustrated with American television. I would really like to watch a serious in-depth news channel. Something that actually analyses what is going on. Americans are getting geared up for mid-term elections in a month but the news is so shallow and bitty and they shout so much. As for the rest of the world – it just doesn't exist. Central America means Kansas City and Mexico is only EVER mentioned if there is a gun fight or a mud slide. No wonder I keep getting told to be very careful when I “go down there”, and two or three times I've been asked if I'm carrying a gun for protection in Mexico.

Having just written this I decided to do something about it and went out to buy a newspaper. The best I could get was USA today. On page 7 there was an article about Obama commenting yesterday on his Christina beliefs. According to a survey 18% of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim, only 34% thought he was a Christian. I shall quote the article and leave you to draw your own conclusions.
“ Obama is the son of a Muslim father from Kenya. His mother was from Kansas. As a boy, he lived for seveal years in predominantly Muslim Indonisia. Some think his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, sounds Muslim.”

There was some foreign news. On the back page in the weather section. Strikingly I also discovered that Chico, California was the hottest place in the USA yesterday, clocking in at 113 degree F (45C). No wonder I was hot and flustered when I got to the BMW dealer.
Am in a better mood today (most of this blog was written yesterday), and have promised myself that when the bike is fixed and I'm on the road I'm just going to enjoy it for however long it lasts. After all I'm on a 2000 mile loop of Nevada, Utah and Arizona before I head back to the Californian coast and Mexico. I've always wanted to go this part of the world and I'm going to love it. In the next two weeks I plan to go to; Nevada desert – Bonneville world finals, Zion NP, Arches NP, Canyonlands NP, Mesa Verde, four corners, Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Sequoia NP, Yosemite NP, Californian coast and Big Sur. If I can't look forward to that I might as well kill myself.

You all have yourselves a good Californian day you hear....

Monday, 27 September 2010

Oregon coast

I had been looking forward to riding down the Oregon coast for some time. And it most certainly didn't disappoint. I can, without doubt, state that this was the best 180 miles of coastline I have ever ridden down. Windswept sandy beaches, rocky outcrops and giant stacks and quaint little seaside villages, all seen from a twisty, undulating and well maintained road. Motorbike heaven. And if that wasn't enough, apparently I passed over the worlds smallest harbour and the worlds smallest river. What more could I want – it was even sunny.

Great Oregon road

Now that's a coastline

The only slight disappointment in a glorious day was the stop at the “World's largest sea cave” to view sea lions. First of all the sea lions were all out to sea and not in the cave, and the cave itself wasn't actually as large or impressive as I expected. To get to it I had to descend in an elevator which was novel but that was it. There was a viewing platform (but nothing to view) but you couldn't really walk anywhere. Oh well, at least the road was good. I really liked the Oregon coast and want to live there!

My only complaint about Oregon is the silly rule which says you can't lift your own petrol pump nozzle. Every state in the US seems to have slightly different laws over this and in Oregon the customer cannot lift their own nozzle. The attendant will lift the it for you and hand it to you so you can fill your own tank. They will also take your credit card and swipe it in the pump right next to you. It seems I can't do this either. When I first stopped for petrol in Oregon I lifted the pump and the attendant came over and told me off telling me that we would both be fined $500 if caught doing this. Crazy.

I like this part of the world so much that on the following day I stopped for the day at 1 p.m. But only after a most exhilarating 30 minutes on the Oregon sand dunes. In Everett I'd bought a book called “Great American Motorcycle Tours”, by Gary McKechnie. In it he maps out 25 of the top day rides in the lower 48. Although I won't be seeking them out I will be passing by several of them (I've already done the three, in Montana and Idaho). Obviously he does the Oregon coast (which HE says is the best) and he stops off to go sand buggy racing – so I thought why not? For $25 you get strapped into a buggy and raced around the dunes for 30 minutes. That doesn't sound very exciting but honestly it was. These dunes rise over 300 feet and stretch for about 50 miles north to south. But there was little time to think of that as the driver gunned the engine and the huge tyres bit into the sand sending us on a steep ascent of one of the dunes. It was great fun - and I'm glad, for once, that I wasn't on my bike!

I took the bike apart and then put it back together. Looks slightly different.

300 feet high and 50 miles long.

As I was saying. On Saturday I stopped at 1p.m. I was just looking for a lunch stop and took a turn off from the 101 toward the sea. Two miles down the road I came across THE most magnificent, in all its meanings, beach. Mile after mile of sandy, wild coastline and not a soul in site. Best of all there was even a campsite there and absolutely no-one else around – did I mention this was a SATURDAY. I couldn't believe my luck. I left $12 in the honesty box (honestly), pitched my tent and walked out to the beach. It was just wonderful to be totally on my own on this fantastic beach all afternoon long. I thought there was bound to be someone else at the campground when I got back, but no. Total solitude. I couldn't believe it. Where was everyone? It was the weekend and it was warm and dry? There wasn't a tsunami warning was there??

whole beach to myself

Obviously not. The next morning I rode into California (Having promised the “border patrol” that I didn't have any fruit or veg with me) and on to the massive redwood trees. Well what can I say. You know that the redwoods are huge and impressive so there's no point in me telling you that the trees are huge and impressive. I'm reminded of the words of John Steinbeck (well actually, I just read it in the Lonely Planet). “The redwoods once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always... from them comes silence and awe. The most irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect.” Well said, and I though the Grapes of Wrath was boring.

More redwoods tomorrow and then on to San Francisco. Please don't make me pose in front of the Golden gate bridge for a tourist photo, please....

Friday, 24 September 2010

When bunnies attack - The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog*

You have no idea how good it feels to be camping tonight. I'm at Cannon Beach, Oregon, and camping has just become fun again. OK it gets dark at 7:30 which is a bit early but for the first time on this whole tip – in over TWO MONTHS I can camp safe in the knowledge that there aren't any bears around. In fact, as if to rub it in this particular campground has an infestation of cute little white bunny rabbits hopping all over the place.
Now don't get me wrong. I wasn't actually afraid that I was going to be eaten alive by bears every night, it was just the fact that you had to go to such lengths to be careful; locking food away in boxes, or up trees, not having ANYTHING that mights smell interesting in the tent, cooking away from the tent. Honestly its a real palaver. I'm sure all you Canadians are reading this and laughing at me but you haven't experienced bear free camping – its so nice. And the rest of you who are tutting that I'm making a mountain out of a mole hill, I just say - you go two months camping like this, having to be careful about everything and then tell me I'm overreacting.
I had a fantastic time in Alaska/Canada and am so pleased I went, but now I'm enjoying the easy life. Tonight I'm camping with bunnies, and I don't have to pack everything away in a box up a tree. I don't even know where my pepper spray is and I don't care!

* The white bunnies remind me of the killer rabbit in Monthy Python and the Holy Grail.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

American Dream

I've been away for a while. Sorry. To make up for it this is a big blog so you may want to settle down for a long read. (Or skip the reading and just look at the pictures.)

Oh dear, that was more painful than I expected. I'd only gone in for an oil change but the guys at BMW Missoula were changing the final drive oil and discovered that the whole thing was corroded. Whilst it was still working fine that wouldn't last and I needed to get a new one. (For those with about as much mechanical know how as me the “final drive” is BMWs version of a chain and sprockets. It's all encased and bullet proof – at least that's the theory. And it's VERY expensive). Obviously they would have to order the part so that meant another day or so in Missoula. The following day they replaced the drive and final drive and did one or two other jobs that I was going to get done before I hit Mexico like new spark plugs and I needed a new rear break rotor. Total bill - $4200.

Pretty sure it's not supposed to look like that!

I headed south from Missoula trying to put the bill out of my mind. There wasn't much I could do about it, at least it had been discovered at a BMW dealers and not in the middle of the Guatamala jungle and anyway, it's only money. Hum, I kept saying it but it still hurt. Anyway, that night I camped at a small place called Darby, had a good chat with four retired Americans who spend there whole time travelling around the States and in the morning headed off on some wonderful mountain roads in the general direction of Yellowstone National Park. A fantastic day riding was only interrupted by two interesting tourist stops. First was the Big Hole Battlefield site, where the Nez Perce (pronounced Nezz Purse) were slaughter by U.S. Government troops. And then further down the road I stumbled upon Nevada City. Like a scene from a Western film Nevada city was a collection of around 50 buildings all from the mid to late 19th Century. Each building was the original but all had been uprooted, moved and lovingly restored (is there any other way to restore?) at this site. I paid my $8 and wandered around. Not only had they rebuilt the buildings but each and every one of them was crammed full of furniture, products and trinkets from the era. Another example of America treasuring its history.

Moving on the road twisted up the mountainside and spat me out ontop of the Madison Valley. 50 miles later I was pulling into a campground in the foothills of Yellowstone. The only other tent in the campground belonged to a couple on a tandem bicycle. They were flying the Union flag so I went over to say hi. Huw and Carolyn were cycling from Vancouver to Florida for charity. Raising money for Shelter Box (Disaster relief) they were covering 50 miles a day, stopping off to give talks at schools and being helped along the way by the Rotary Club. It was nice to chat with someone “from home” and as it was now getting dark at 7:30 it was also nice to break the evening up a little. Whilst I always feel a little sorry be cyclists, especially when it's raining, I soon learnt that I shouldn't. It seems that everyone takes pity on them and they have been inundated with offers of beds for the nights, food and help. The following morning, as I went over to say goodbye, they pointed out that someone had left a few quarters on their table with a note saying that as it had rained in the night they might like to use the money to dry their clothes on the laundry. Needless to say there was no such note on my table! Whilst they went to dry their clothes, I let their tyres down,cut some holes in their tent and stole their cash. That'll teach them to “cycle for charity”.

Friday morning I set off early for Yellowstone. Today was going to be an excellent day. I had all day to ride into Yellowstone, and it was going to start with a trip over the famous “BeartoothPass”. This fantastic road climbs from 7,000 feet (2300 m) to 11,947 feet (4,000 m). Infamous amongst bikers this was going to be an excellent ride. And I had fantastic weather for it. The pass had been closed for snow two weeks previously and as it was now the third week in September I was pushing my luck a little. But the sun shone and I enjoyed the ride so much I turned around and did it again.

And the best thing of all was when you have finished the beartooth pass you are in Yellowstone National Park. And for once I wasn't disappointed. The park was fantastic. Famous for its geysers and hotsprings I must admit I was more taken with the wildlife. I saw a few deer and a coyote but best of all, my first every bison. How can I explain it. Well, it's not so much what it looks like - I knew what Bison would look like. It's the way it moves. Almost prehistoric, which is apt because these beasts have been roaming around Yellowstone for Millennium. I can still remember my first giraffe in Kenya and my first Nile crocodile in Ethiopia and now I have my first bison in Yellowstone. And it wasn't as if there was only one or two. There were Bison everywhere, on their own plodding along, in pairs dust bathing and in herds grazing on the plains. Awesome.

All together now - what's the difference between a buffalo and a bison..

You don't want to hit that on a motorbike

I really enjoyed Yellowstone but the night was bitterly cold (hovering around zero) and as Yellowstone is the number one place where bears attack campers (two had been killed this year) one night was enough. I was also aware that just riding a bike around Yellowstone was dangerous. The park is so full of animals that it isn't uncommon for a biker to get hit ans seriously hurt. Just the previous day a Canadian on a Harley had hit a deer. He'd broken his leg in seven places – mind you he didn't have ANY protective gear on limiting my sympathy. 

I still had one small bike issue lingering in the back of my mind. Although the new final drive was working perfectly, because it was new, I had to change to oil after 600 miles. In my rush to leave Missoula and get back on the road I hadn't really appreciated where I would be after 600 miles. As I left Yellowstone I notched up 600 miles, and I was a long way from a BMW dealer. I had thought about this a few days earlier and had pulled into a fast food joint to hook up to their wi-fi. With time running out on my netbook battery I had just managed to find a motorbike shop in Idaho Falls and had called them up. They had said they could change the oil but there was some discussion going on as to what kind of oil they had in stock. Whatever oil I put in would stay there for 12,000 miles so I didn't want to settle for an inferior brand, but likewise I didn't want to have to ride on another 400 miles to Boise, where I knew there was a BMW shop. I got back onto the internet just before my battery died and found a Harley rental company along my route that also rented BMWs/ perhaps they would have some oil.

That's why I pulled over in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone. I found the shop and although they didn't have a mechanic on hand as it was Saturday, they did have some BMW oil, which they happily sold to me. Again, I love it when a plan comes together. Two hours later the bike (I've started calling her Heidi, but that's between me and her) was in the capable hands of a mechanic in Idaho Falls getting the oil changed – and only 100 miles over the stipulated 600. For the first time since Gibsons, on the Sunshine coast (12 days and 1800 miles ago), everything was fixed and working properly. 

Perhaps for that reason, or because the landscape had changed, the ride west towards Sun Valley was liberating. Although I have loved very minute of every piece of scenery I have passed through I have a thing for deserts and I was pleasantly surprised to be riding west from Idaho Falls into one. Caused by volcanic eruptions and lava flows Route 20 took me past a huge Atomic research centre, through Arco (Famous as being the first town on the planet to be powered my Atomic energy in 1956), and on the the Craters of the Moon National Monument. Now, I've seen lava before and wasn't expecting to be overly impressed with this place but it would have been rude to have just passed it by, so I pulled in and took the seven mile circuit around the park. In summary several times during the past several thousand years, a parallel line of fissures erupted through volcanic buttes and cones to spread a flow of lava across the area. The last eruption was only 2,000 years ago, surprisingly recently in geological terms. This whole geological phenomenon has shifted from west to east over the millennium and the centre of the activity which was once under this area is now the cause of all the hot springs and geysers in Yellowstone.

The highlight of Crates of moon were the four or five “caves”. 2000 years ago sheets of lava ran downhill, flowed into channels and cooled. The surface hardened, formed tubes. To quote the guide book “The formation of tubes is a complex process dependent on eruption rate, topography, and the chemical and physical properties of the lava”. All I needed to know was that, with a torch and a willingness to scramble over some rocks I was allowed to explore these caves. I spent a good hour clambering through these caves and it had a great time. (Tracy – you would have loved this.)

By the time I left it was already getting dark but I wasn't concerned about where I was going to camp that night. I was heading for a friends house and a warm comfy bed.

I had first met Trent in Argentina 15 years ago and since then we had kept in touch. We spend the Millennium with Trent and his wife Candida in the Dominican Republic and they had come to our wedding. In fact, he's the one who first instilled in me a desire to go to Montana and the western half of the U.S. He currently lives near Sun Valley, Idaho with Candida and their daughter Kali. I had a wonderful, restful three days at their place out in the absolute middle of nowhere. Nothing to do but write my blog (that's why it's so long), wash the bike and relax. 

Trent's the kind of person who makes you feel inadequate about your own life. I thought I was doing something adventurous with this trip. Not so, since I last met him, seven years ago he has learnt to run sled-dogs, has completed the 1000 mile Ididerod challenge in Alaska and has 16 dogs out back training them up for this years race. He's also built his own house on land he's bought in Alaska, taken part in the 1000 mile Yukon kayak race and just last month flew to Mongolia, built a kayak, transported it over the border to Russia and spent 10 days kayaking on lake Baikal, just for fun. Don't you just hate people like that!

How many of us have 16 dogs in the yard?

Taking the dogs out

Taking the dogs out by ATV when there's no snow

Tracy, we're doing to buy some huskies!

It was hard to pull myself away from Trent's place but if I didn't move on soon it was only going to become harder and anyway, I've still got a lot do to and see. I've got four more weeks in the U.S and I think about 4,000 miles. This weekend also marks the end of my first two months on the road. 9000 miles covered for those of you counting. I left Trents heading west for the Oregon coast aware that now I was totally on my own. No more friends or cousins to stop with, two months or about 62 days until Tracy arrives in Mexico –time for yet another stage on my trip to begin. This is going to be interesting...

P.S I just had to add this. I've had the most weird 24 hours since leaving Trents. First I went to Silver City, a ghost town in south Idaho. It ws originally a mining town but closed down in the 1940s. Now only a handful of people live there (in the summer) and without electicity and 20 miles down a dirt road it shuts down totally in the winter. I turned up their, pitched my tent in the campground. I was the only person around. I wandered around town and a guy came up who was one of the 10 residents. He showed me around town (using my headtorch as there is no electricity), including into his house and upstairs in the Freemasons hall. It was all laid out for a Freemason meeting, very spooky.

After ANOTHER cold night I rode west towards the Oregon coast. For once I stopped for lunch in a dusty nothing place called Unity Oregon. I walked into the bar/diner and, honesty, as I entered everyone turned around to look at me. Scary. I went up to the bar and ordered a coffee. A minute later a guy came and sat next to me. We got chatting - he was also on a motorbike. We had a good talk; he ran a motorbike resort up the road, had lived in the UK (Leighton Buzzard!) and was an interesting guy. Just before he left he introduced himself as "I'm J. W Everitt, guitarist with Crosby, Still and Nash."  Bizarre but true.

J.W. Everitt

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

I went to a brothel today

More on that later. First this. I've been getting hate mail. Well, what I mean is someone emailed me and said I was being a little too miserable. So, Dan, this one is for you...

I expected Glacier National Park to be cold and I was pushing my luck a little visiting so late in the season. The trees were certainly warning me that it was Autumn and I settled down in my tent for a cold night. Ten hours later I got up but I can't really say I slept, at least not well. It was one of the coldest nights I can remember. I was in three layers of clothes,plus I had my biking jacket liner on and I was still cold.

Cooking dinner-  before it got really cold

I rode the “famous” 50 mile road to the sun, which passes right through the middle of the National Park. And I can report that it is a good road. However, a combination of 6 weeks of these kinds of roads, a miserable nights sleep and the fact that is was Sunday and everyone was on the road made it a slightly less than awesome experience. Sorry.

Still a stunning road

I exited the park and headed towards Browning. Browning is home to the Plains Indians National Museum. I felt it deserved a stop so I did. There was one other vehicle in the car park (unlike the Indian owned and run huge Casino next door which had at least 100 cars in it's car park – enough said). The museum had the usual stuff you'd expect with a depressing graphic wall map showing how the Plains Indians, who had lived in this huge swath of North America since the days of yore were basically wiped out (they didn't use that phrase) in as little as 100 years. In 1800 they were living, more of less, happily alongside small numbers of white Americans. But the gold rush of the 1840s, and some other stuff I've now forgotten, led to land seizure and by 1900 they had all been “settled” on reservations. History lesson over.

In one room, however, there was a grainy DVD of several Indian chiefs talking, using sign language. I didn't really understand why they were using sigh language until I stepped outside. In front of the museum there is a monument. In Sept. 1930 the U.S. Government organised a conference of all the (remaining) Plains Indian at Browning. The Indian Sign Language Conference. At that meeting the Indians were filmed talking using sign language. This was a language they had developed over the years as a way of communicating with each other (as they all have different languages) and it was being filmed for posterity. The monument was constructed by getting the 20 participants (16 Plains Indians, four U.S. Government officials) to stand in cement, a bit like they do in Hollywood.

Take a look at the pictures, it actually made me laugh out loud.

Monument with 20 foot prints

For me, this says SO MUCH about Indian/US Gov't relations. The officials just couldn't lower themselves to go barefoot and be on a level with the Indians. I can just imagine them having a conversation along the lines of “What should we do Governor?” “General Scott we will keep our shoes on, it's what makes them savages and us dignified.”

I was still smirking when I rolled into Augusta, Montana. And the smile was only going to get bigger. This was the America I was looking for. A one horse town Augusta consists of one road and 310 souls. I pulled up to the motel and enquired about camping out the back. $15 later I was pitching my tent ON GRASS for the first time on this trip AND for the first time I didn't have to pack all my food and toothpaste away.

I took a stroll along the road and, honestly, there was a guy sat on his rocking chair on his porch, under a star spangled banner, smoking a cigar. I went into a shop to buy some food and as well as selling food they sold bullets - where we normally have cigarettes.

Across the road was the towns bar, “The Buckhorn”. I had to go in. The interior was exactly as I had expected. Neon Budweiser signs, big T.V., long bar with stools and trophies of dead animals all over the walls and ceiling. I ordered a Bud and watched the ball game – I've been looking forward to finding this America and I was having a great time. All was going well until I nearly choked on my beer. Behind the bar there was a big hand written sign. It said. “ Win a gun – and help the needy kids at Christmas. Ask our friendly staff how.” I know I should have asked, I just couldn't - not with a straight face anyway.

The following day was just fantastic (happy now Dan). The sun shone - it was the hottest day I've experiences so far - and I rode for a glorious 100 miles through wonderful Montana. I stopped a lunchtime for a cold drink at Lincoln. Another small Montana town famous for nothing. Well that's not strictly true. I believe the Unabomber lived near here. If you're American you will know who I mean, but he's not that famous abroad so others may have to BING him. I first heard of the Unabomber 15 years ago and people like him intrigue me.

Montana - no pine trees and glaciers here!

Montana - Awesome

Anyway, moving on, the bike was purring and the fantastic Montana scenery was awesome. It's not called the Big Sky state for nothing. Occasionally the nothingness was punctuated by a sign telling me that I was about to pass a “Point of Historic interest”. This usually referred to something that happened in the 19th Century, often involving “Lewis and Clarke”. But this one was different. This historic point of interest was pointing out that I was near the spot that holds the record as being the coldest ever place on “Continental America”. Now, I know that the coldest point in the USA is near the Arctic Circle in Alaska so I suppose Continental America means the lower 48. I was just glad I was passing through in mid September and not four months later.

I've now been to both of the USA's coldest spots. Guess I'd better head to Death Valley now.

With about 50 miles to go to Missoula and in no particular rush I followed a sign off the main road and up a gravel track to a Ghost Town. I wasn't expecting much but was very pleasantly surprised. Garnet was a Gold rush town, set up in the 1880s it reached it's peak in 1898. With over 1000 residents Garnet had four stores, four hotels, three stables, a hall a school, a doctors and THIRTEEN salons (many of whom doubled a brothels – hence the title of today's blog.) 1000 people and 13 bars – doesn't take much imagination to know what went on most of the time in Garnet. But whatever did go on it wasn't for long. Garnets population dropped to a few hundred by 1914 and although it struggled on until World War Two (which started in 1941 apparently!) it soon became the Ghost town that it now is.

Gold Rush/Ghost Town Garnet

Garnet - "when men were men and boots had nails in 'em"

Not everyone in Garnet made it rich

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Garnet, all the more for not having expected it at all. This was the problem with the “Going to the sun Road” - over hype - and I fear for Yellowstone and the infamous “Bearclaw pass road” on this account.

But first I must stop off an another BMW shop in Missoula. I'm picking up my new spoke and I want them to check the front tyre. Ever since they changed it in Spokane (I've just re-read this and noticed the connection between the place and the bike part - cool) I've had a nagging feeling that it isn't quite right. It might just be me, it might be the spokes or, or course, it might be something much more expensive, like the bearings of the whole damn wheel frame. Time will tell.

Also, I've been typing far too much lately and will try to keep my blogs down to once a week from now. Enough of the laptop and more of the black top! I should be in Yellowstone towards the end of this week and am then heading west into Idaho.

Friday, 10 September 2010

I'm an American Idiot

Dropping Tracy off at Vancouver Airport was hard. Getting into the US was easy. A 45 minute queue but only a 2 minute interrogation and I was through. I rode down to Everett and booked into a cheap motel – for two days because the weather was so bad. As I'd entered Canada I sung “Blame Canada” in my helmet. As I crossed the US border I tried to think of a song with America in the title (Go on, try it) I came up with Green Day's “American Idiot”. “Don't want to be an American idiot. One nation controlled by the media. Information age of hysteria. It's calling out to idiot America.” - My subconscious giving away my prejudice. I'm already working on Mexico – please email me your ideas...

Everett to Spokane, what a day. It all started with a wet ride up and over the highest navigable road in Washington, via a ski resort. Down the other side and the sun came out. I love it when that happens. Then it all got a little weird. Having ridden through mile after mile of pine forest since, for ever, the environment suddenly changed and first I was in a semi-desert region that eventually rose up a hill and turned into Kansas. Or at least what I think Kansas looks like. Hundreds of square miles of wheat fields and huge skys. It was a strange feeling to be ridding through anything other than mountains and pine forests. I'd got used to Canada.

300 miles after leaving Everett I arrived in Spokane. The main reason was to pick up a new front tire that I'd ordered at the BMW dealership in town. I should have know things wouldn't go to plan. First I had to find a campground. I'd googled Spokane whilst in Everett and found a State Park west of town that has a campground. I found it quite easily but it seemed all the pitches were booked out. I rode around wondering what to do. It was only 5 p.m. And I have a good two hours before dark. I could try to find another campground in the city, or a Motel. Just as I was about to leave a camper starts waving at me and I pull over. Andy and Janice were cruising around in a van and offered to share their pitch with me. Wasn't that nice. So I set up camp (the first time since the rain in Vancouver Island). I had a brief chat with Andy and he gave me their address in Portland should I want to “stop off and wash some stuff”. Even nicer.

As I was no loner in Canada I was no longer concerned about bears as I went to bed and I fell into a deep sleep. You know when you are woken from a deep sleep suddenly and are fully alert and awake - well that happened to me that night. Something wasn't right. Instinctively I stretched out an arm for my Bear spray only to grab hold of my water bottle. (I'd stored the pepper spray in my pannier when entering the US and hadn't seen it since). I heard a sniffling, grunty noise close outside and began to panic. Then I realised that I was in Spokane, not the Yukon and this campground has plastic bins (no bears present). I quietly unzipped the tent door and peered out. About 6 feet from me was a fox. Glistening in the moonlight he/she turned, took a good long look and then slowly walked off. Cool.

Next morning was sunny and warm and with the memory of the fox fresh in my mind I rode off to the BMW dealer certain that today was going to be a good day. Oh dear, how often does a trip to the mechanics turn out well.

First the good news, they did have the front tyre that I had ordered. (I has stopped off the previous day to see if the tyre had arrived and it hadn't). And the mechanic agreed that the cracking I had spotted on the right side of my old tyre was a problem and the tyre did need changing (Even though I should get 15,000, not 7,000 miles out of a front tyre). Then he looked at the rear tyre and suggested I change that too. I had hoped to get another 2,000 miles out of my rear tyre but upon reflection it did make sense to change both now, especially as I was heading towards some tricky reads at Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. I'd ordered an Avon front tyre, but as they were now changing the rear as well and they don't carry Avon, both tyres were now going to be Continental. Not really a problem but the whole reason I'd come here was to change my tyre, like for like, and I'd phoned up on Tuesday to order an Avon which they'd freighted up from Nevada.

Twenty minutes later the mechanic comes out to tell me there is a problem, and we weren't in Houston. The spokes were loose (all the way around on both tyres). This had, partly, caused the cupping on the front tyre and was potentially a big problem. He could solve it but, of course, it would take time/money. I was annoyed with myself over this. “Spoke maintenance” was one of the things I'd picked up on my bike maintenance course. And I had, over the last 7 weeks, occasionally tested the spokes by banging them with a spanner. This makes a noise and if one spoke is loose it will make a duller noise. Of course if ALL the spokes are loose they all still sound the same. But surely I should have noticed this. This wasn't good, either for the bike, or for my pride. I can't even do a simple thing like checking the spokes properly. Why on earth do I think I've got the ability to ride this bike around the world. Am I fooling myself? Perhaps I should pack it all in before I hurt myself.

Still, at least it was noticed by a mechanic in a shop rather than on a steep road in Glacier National Park in the pouring rain, or half was down Baja California in the heat. All I have to do is sit here and wait. But I am annoyed with myself, I really must take more care over the bike. I'm just glad nothing terrible happened when Tracy was on the back. I could never forgive myself for that.

I've also asked them to sort out the computer anomaly on my bike. I have a light on the dash board telling me the front light isn't working (when it is) and the gears are out of sync with the computer so it says I'm in Neutral when I'm in first gear. Neither of these issues are a real problem but I may as well get them sorted whilst I'm at a dealership that has the BMW computer system to do it. It's only money....

Whilst I wait for the bad news I've managed to remind myself of a few thoughts I've been having in my helmet whilst riding along. They are a bit random and half thought through but here goes.

“Have a nice day”. Are they juts being polite or are they after something? As I Brit. I'm slightly suspicious of people who are overly friendly, sorry, I can't help it. However, on one level I really like the friendliness of people here. There's an air of optimism about it and let's face it, if you're going to buy a coffee or some food you might as well be happy about it.

However, is that all there is to it? Or are they after something? I'm aware that tipping is big here but I agree with Mr. Blue (or whatever colour he was) in Reservoir Dogs, that tipping only encourages employers to lower their pay and why should I tip just because someone has done their job? Are people just saying “Have a great day” because they want me to tip them. After all, it's not like I was thinking about having a shitty day when I bought the coffee but have had my mind changed by the waiter, and now that I'm certainly going to try my best to “Have a great day” I should leave her a dollar for planting the thought in my mind.

It's so difficult, especially when you only have superficial contact with people, and although I speak to dozens of people every day it's always going to be superficial. From the one sentence conversation to buy coffee (you can see that I drink a lot of coffee) to the 10 minute chat at a gas station with a Harley riding skydiver who used to live in Milton Keynes (Don't ask). I'm sure most people are genuine enough and I should just accept it for what it is and not try to read too much into it. After all,I've met so many friendly and helpful people so far on this trip I shouldn't be so suspicious should I. What does interest me, though, is why are Americans?Canadian like this and us Brits. aren't? Now that is a question...

Talking of Coffee,as I was, I'm intrigued by the little drive-thru coffee shops that I've noticed and can only assume permeate the country. Some are smaller than the trucks that pull up to them, most are shaped a little like Gypsy caravans and all serve every conceivable kind of coffee. It's not the fact that they exist that I'm concerned about, it seems like a really good idea. It's more that fact that we don't have them in the UK. We refer to Americans as “our Cousins”, and apparently we have a “special relationship” but in many ways we are very different. And this, although granted is not a huge difference, it is one I've noticed. We have imported many US food “restaurants” and coffee shops but not this neat little idea for selling coffee - a drive-thru coffee hut. I must fly home immediately and sink all my money into setting one up.

Another difference I've noticed has nothing to do with coffee and all to do with politics. We are two months away from mid-term elections here in the US. Many members of Congress are up for re-election as are, evidently, many State representatives. T.V. is punctuated by what we would call party political broadcasts, and billboards litter the countryside. As an teacher of Politics, I was already aware of some of the similarities/differences between our form of democracy and Americas. I knew that things were much more personal here and I believe it is against the law, here, for bill boards to advertise the Party, it must be the person. Also every T.V. Advert which is, say, promoting Bill Smith for Congress, must have a voice over by Bill Smith saying “I'm Bill Smith and I endorse this advert”. Often these T.V. Commercials go on for a minute or two and don't even mention the party Bill Smith is standing for. Something of an anathema for us in the UK I think.

But the thing that has really surprised me is that over here Judges and Sheriffs stand for election. I hadn't realised this. In some ways this is refreshing and very democratic. We've just moved towards the idea of elected Mayors, and even an elected Police Commissioner. Blimey, some crazy people in the UK are even suggesting changing the voting system so that politicians actually have to get a majority of the vote! But voting for Sheriffs and Judges got me thinking. I passed one homestead, for example, that had a bill board telling me to re-elect John Smith as Sheriff and Kevin Duke for Judge. Now, what if Mr. Smith and Mr. Duke do get re-elected, won't they be fully aware who did and who did not support him? Could that have repercussions? Or am I just being super suspicious at the moment???

I'm still in the bike shop. It's now 3 p.m. and I've been here since 10 a.m. This is going to cost a lot. I'm that bored I'm going to post this now. Not sure whether it's even worth moving on tonight, but if I go back to the campground it will be full already (Friday). Not sure what to do.....

P.S Finally left at 3:30. Total bill was $530 ( £375). They'd changed both tyres and their computer had sorted out a few glitches. It all needed to be done and now the bike is safer so I shouldn't moan. One remaining issue was that a spoke broke and the dealership doesn't have any! I've phoned the BMW dealer in Missoula, Montana and they've ordered some for me. I pick them up on Tuesday. Before I set off someone did suggest taking spare spokes and someone else said don't bother. I've ordered three! It seems that at the moment I'm traveling around the US picking up a different part for my bike from each state I visit.

Glacier park tomorrow, so lovely scenery and cold weather no doubt.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Gibsons Bay

I know this is supposed to be a bike trip but recently it's turned into a “visiting friends and relatives” trip. Weirdly between Tracy and I we seem to have notched up several friends/relatives in the Vancouver area. Leaving the lovely Spheres in Qualicum Bay we stopped for a very short visit with an old school friend of mine. Tony and Lisa had only just moved to Sayward, Vancouver island and it was great to meet up again. We hadn't seen them for several years and one brief night wasn't enough to catch up properly but we tried.

Next we caught a ferry to the sunshine coast and stopped, briefly again, to visit Neal and Karen. Tracy had been at University with Neal sometime in the dark ages. They fed and watered us and even took us out on their boat to a nearby Sea Lion colony. But again we had to move on, catch another ferry and wind our way down the coast to Gibsons. We were here to visit Tracy's cousins.
We spent three wonderful days in Gibsons, staying with Steve and Stephanie who have a boat (EVERYONE on the sunshine coast seems to have a boat and a dog) and they took out to cruise the area. We moored up next to friends of theirs (Scott and Karen - sorry Karen I was only joking.) They were super friendly and even cooked us vege burgers- what a great day.

Karen and Scott
Tracy, Lucas, Stephanie and Steve at Tim Hortons. All Canadian family at an all Canadian institution

Tomorrow/Tuesday is a big day. Tracy flies home from Vancouver Island and I head into the “Lower 48”. It will be my first time in the US (Except for Alaska obviously) and I'm really looking forward to it. So far my trip has been divided into three week sections. Three weeks in Alaska and Canada getting down to Banff to meet Tracy. Then three weeks with Tracy, visiting BC, Vancouver Island and people. Now I'm moving into the next stage. 6 weeks in the US. I have to be at the bottom of Baja California by Nov. 1st (to start a two week Conservation project with Sea Turtles).

I'll start all this by stopping at Everett, Washington to get some new tyres. My back tyre still has some distance in it but I've noticed some disturbing cracks on the front tyre. All around the right hand side the tyre wall has cracked (but not on the left at all). It's annoying because the tread is fine and I was hoping to get a lot more out of it. But tyres are important so I'd better change them whilst I can. I've found a bike shop in Everett who will change the tyres and I think I might as well get both done.

Stats. so far:

Alaska - 10 days – 2500 miles
Canada – 35 days – 4500 miles

Friday, 3 September 2010

Goats, Parrots and orbs in the sky.

The sign said “Goats on a roof”. How could anyone pass a sign like that? We turned off the main road and found ourselves at, well, a grass roofed cafĂ© with goats on the roof. Apparently it all started in the 1950s when a Norwegian, missing home, built a shack with a grass roof. Soon goats turned up on his roof, swiftly followed by tourists (not on the roof) who wanted to see this. Over the years this has developed into a major tourist attraction and tourists need food and coffee and, now it seems, shops selling garden furniture, tie-died t-shirts and jewellery. Weirdly interesting. I suppose, in it's own way this is how places like Lourdes started out.(Substitute Goat for vision of virgin Mary).
A Goat on a roof

We got chatting to a Canadian couple interested in my trip. After the usual, where are you from/going? He asked if I'd seen The Long Way Round/Down. Not wishing to point out that, as my trip is called the dom way round, I may well have seen an episode or two, I said that I had. He was also a big fan of other BBC programmes like Top Gear. Having just seen it on the web that morning I was able to tell him that the identity of The Stig had been revealed. Odd, the conversations you can have with a total stranger in a car park.

Moving on, Tracy (or should I say Ewan) and I visited the World Parrot Refuge. I will let the photos do the talking but suffice it to say a parrot is not just for Christmas, and these friendly guys were cool. I was particularly taken by one little fella who kept pecking at my ankle. He couldn't fly and all he wanted was to be picked up and stroked. Parrots are very intelligent animals, they bond with their “owners” and can live for 75 years. Most of these parrots/macaws/cockatoos are victims of the illegal international trade in wild and exotic birds, secondly, in profit, only to the drugs trade. 
Pecking my ankle for attention
He just wanted some attention (the bird, not me)

Now for the surprise. Weeks ago I'd seen a place mentioned in the Lonely Planet that I just knew Tracy would love (and me to be honest). Whilst at Sebs. I'd managed to phone them and book us in for an night. Tracy had no idea where we were going and was a little surprised when I pulled off the main highway and into someone's drive. We were going to spend the night 15 feet up a tree in a sphere.

Again I think the pictures tell the story but what great idea. Building a wooden sphere and hanging it in the trees. It's like a tree version of a hobbit hole – or perhaps it's where the Ewoks live. Needless to say we had a fantastic evening hanging in the trees and a real unique experience. Isn't that what travelling is supposed to be about? Better than drowning in a sodden tent.

Our sphere for the night