Friday, 12 July 2013

Colorado, USA - to Winchester, Hampshire, UK

It's been a week since I flew back to London. My travel laptop hit the dreaded black screen of death yesterday, and I nearly faced the unthinkable prospect of writing my last US travel post on a different machine. Thankfully, after letting it cool off in the fridge for a while, I was able to reinstall the OS and it's now running beautifully again. It's important to me that this laptop sees it though to the end.

I celebrated my first week back in the UK by doing something I've never done before - signing on. Or at least, attempting to. I'm greeted by a portly man in a suit and tie at the Jobcentre door. Near the waiting area, a fellow interviewee sits at an empty desk eating sandwiches from a Sainsburys plastic bag. My Personal Advisor, who I've yet to meet, is called Mrs Cahill - I imagine she wouldn't stand for this behaviour. In my view only teachers, school librarians and prison wardens can get away with using honorifics professionally in the 21st Century. I look forward to our meeting so I can judge if this group can extend to Job Centre Advisors.

I sign a contract that stipulates that I must 'actively seek work by doing at least 8 things a week' and 'arrive 10 minutes before Jobcentre appointment'. I also agree to 'Contact the Jobcentre to look for work via the internet'. I have no idea what this actually means, but I thought it best to sign anyway. In fact I signed contracts and agreements left right and centre, which means the whole process is suitably named.

I'm pretty relaxed and optimistic about finding work soon - my CV is in good shape, and I've got a good list of places online to hit for find jobs in my sector (Academic Librarianship). I feel like I'm adjusting well to being back in the UK - the sunny weather is definitely helping. The walk to the Jobcentre for a dole interview must be infinitely better in the sun that doing it in the rain.

I've had one touch of post-travelling blues, a combination of jetlag and re-adapting to being back in normal society. I'd spent the day working through my finances and cleaning out my tent in my parents' garden, and felt groggy and depressed. I wasn't missing the cycling or the States - I was ready to come home when I did. This was more of a minor identify crisis, stemming from me being no longer required to use the same skills I'd developed while away.

Thirsty? No need to ration water or even carry it with you - just turn on the tap at home, and no concerns about water quality or sterilisation. Need a wash? Jump in the shower - no quarters needed for hot water, washing in lakes, or going without. I can choose from about 5 different cafes to visit in Winchester - they all have wifi. Ease and convenience abounds - which of course makes everything less fun.

As I cleaned the underside of my tent's rain fly I noticed something strange. Its colour was changing from a pale, sickly yellowy green back to the deep dark forest green that it was when I bought it. I put some music on as I worked, one of the Doce Pulgadas electro mixes that was regularly on my headphones when cycling.

My mood cleared immediately with the music as I washed away the accumulated sand, dirt and dust. I realised that there was no identity crisis here at all - it wasn't a case of deciding to be either the person I'd become while away, or the person I'd been before. I can carry everything I've learnt about myself forward with me. The resourcefulness, ability to improvise, work ethic, flexibility, confidence and networking skills will help me in whatever work I can get. I'm ready to see my own society and culture with fresh eyes, and explore new parts of the city that I love - London.

I arrived at Heathrow's terminal 5 at around midday on Tuesday the 2nd of July. I proceeded straight to a Costa stand for coffee. I swiped my card for payment and waited for the receipt. Nothing happened. The guy gave me the coffee and I told him the payment hadn't gone through. He gave me a funny look, and put my card in the front of the reader. "You have to put your pin number in", he says. I'd forgotten all about chip and pin machines - I'd been signing for all my card purchases for the last 3 months. The coffee was good and strong, perfect after the long flight. But it was expensive, and no free or cheap refills, and no choice of half and half, hazelnut or French vanilla creamer.

After reassembling the bike outside the main entrance, I began to feel tired. I'd done well in getting my body clock prepared for the time difference from the flight. The UK is 7 hours ahead, so the night before flying I'd gone to bed at 7pm and woke up at 3am on the day of flying. To get off to sleep that early I drank a litre or two of red wine, and getting trashed in the hotel room while watching Seinfeld and Big Bang Theory re-runs.

That was my reward for the day's work - boxing up the bike before flying. I'd gone in to central Boulder in the day and picked a bike box out of a dumpster behind a bike store, with their permission. Disassembly took a while, and I got some funny looks doing it outside my hotel room.

That was my second night in Boulder - I'd rolled in to town the afternoon of the day before, hungover but quietly exuberant to have completed my final USA miles. The hangover was a result of a party I'd gone to in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

My last post left off with me about to cycle out of town for a final night's wild camping. Halfway up the hill out of Estes, I stopped for a quick snack and to check my maps for trails off in to the forest for potential camping spots. A car pulled up, and a guy called Dave started chatting to me. He said he worked for the National Park, and invited me to a party a few miles up the road, where I'd also be able to camp. There would be lots of Rangers and Park people, all into cycling, hiking, rafting and other good fun stuff.

It turns out Dave had spotted me in town earlier and wanted to invite me then, but didn't have a chance. He'd passed me coming down the hill in his car, saw me at the side of the road, turned his car round and came back to offer the invitation - lucky for me!

I cycled up the rest of the hill and followed Dave's directions towards one of the park's entrance stations. The road to the house was quiet, except for the strains of Stairway to Heaven floating on the breeze. A group of people called me into the party, and I was met by Micah who also lives there. I got a beer and a hotdog and it was fun times from there.

I can't think of a better way to have spent the last night in my tent than this - at a party drinking Sierra Nevada IPA from a keg, chatting to lots of interesting people who had worked in lots of the parks that I'd cycled through. Aaron, for example, who had an excellent beard and gave me some of his tasty home brewed porter. The music was good, 70s rock and roll, funk, soul and psychedelic pop records - vinyl, naturally.

I followed a tipsy group of party-goers - led by Dave, in the dark down to the river to try and see a moose that had been seen around there. The high spirits of the group probably scared it off, but we went for a walk in the morning and saw it then. I cooked some oatmeal on their stove, packed up and made my farewells.

Micah and Dave the morning after the party. Micah in uniform and off to work.
The morning after
The moose!
And so I woke at 3am in Boulder on the day of my flight with the bike already nicely boxed up, and spent the morning forcing everything into an old suit travel bag I'd picked up from a thrift store in Estes Park for $1.50. It was a tight squeeze, but got everything in except the pannier I was carrying on to the plane as hand luggage.

After that I walked into town in the sunshine and got a haircut, then picked up a couple of clean 2nd hand t shirts from a goodwill store for the flight and days in London. A quick shuttle ride to Denver after being picked up from the Hotel in Boulder, and I checked my bike and big bag in at the airpot almost straight away, and went through security with no problems. 

The flight back went smoothly, and I cycled out of Heathrow at about 4pm. I phoned a campsite in Crystal Palace and cycled over there. My phone battery died before I arrived, and I had no London maps on me, so I found my way by following the huge broadcasting tower to the park. I'd arranged to meet my girlfriend Annette for dinner, but couldn't contact her, as there was nowhere to charge my phone. In the meantime she'd found her way to the campsite, and she surprised me by walking up as I was putting my tent up.

We went for a curry and a drink, it was amazing to see her for the first time in months. I got back to my tent and slept for a solid 12 hours. I had no idea what country I was in when I woke up. I'd arranged to meet Annette for lunch, but woke up late with no charge in my phone. I packed my tent up, loaded up, bought an A-Z from a nearby petrol station, and hopped on my bike to cycle to Deptford for our rendezvous. My saddle promptly snapped - meaning I couldn't sit down - I rode there standing up.

After lunch, I brought a new saddle and waited in a pub to meet Annette after work. We had a couple of drinks then I cycled to Battersea to stay with my friend Chris. He'd already planned to take the next day off work to go cycling, and offered to join me in the ride to Winchester. 

We rode out to Brighton on Friday and stayed in Lewes that evening. This was a hard 85 miles with a few punctures on my rear wheel. The humidity took me by surprise, and I was humbled by the East Sussex hills. The next day we followed the coast into Hampshire, and I arrived home after another 80 miles. It was good riding with Chris, and cycling from Heathrow to Winchester was definitely a good plan - a nice way of easing back into things. Another reason for the detour was to put my mileage up to 4000 miles, which is my total for the trip.

I rolled down my parents' drive and they were having a BBQ out the front. We had another family BBQ the next day and I caught up with my sister and her fiancee Paul. It was great to see everyone again, and to finally celebrate finishing the ride for good.

So I'm home, I've signed on, and the job hunt starts in earnest next week - time to move on to the next thing! I've written on this blog how I've been constantly amazed at the hospitality and kindness from the people I met on my trip - but I want to end this by saying thanks to everyone who has sent their encouragement from home. Every single comment, retweet, Facebook like, text message, email and so on helped me along my way - It wouldn't have been half the trip it turned out to be without your support. Thanks and love to you all. 

Does this feel like an appropriate place to put a photo montage set to music? I think so!

Monday, 1 July 2013

Colorado and the Rockies

I'm writing this post in is the patio of a KOA campground in Estes Park, Colorado. So far, my mobile office setup is one of the few things that hasn't broken or gone wrong. That this little Linux 7 inch laptop is still working is impressive- It's survived desert the heat of Utah, torrential rain and freezing nights in Oregon, as well as 3,700 miles of road vibration including some pretty serious beating on dirt and rock trails. Not bad for an £80 laptop from 2007!

My office - 2007 Acer Aspire 7 inch notebook, USB drive and card reader.  
I did worry a bit about the weight of carrying a laptop; when researching the trip I knew how many grams it weighs, as well as the weight of all of my other gear. I haven't got a clue now - I stopped caring about weight a while back. This is why I bought a 3 litre bag of wine yesterday, so I can have a glass or five on each of my remaining nights out here. What difference does 3kg extra weight make when I've already ridden 3700 miles?

My wine bag does weigh a little less now after drinking some (a lot actually) yesterday while watching a spectacular lightning storm in the distance out over the Rockies.

This is the second lightning storm I've seen. The first was a lot closer and scarier- almost over my head- when I was camped wild in national forest land up high in the mountains. After fretting where to put my tent, I nervously waited for the storm to end before getting off to sleep.

I wanted to be away from trees as their height attracts bolts, meaning tree limbs could fall on you, and potential wildfires. But my instinct was to get under them as I didn't want my tent to be the only thing out in a field to attract a bolt, so I felt a bit torn. Also my metal bike worried me, and my tent poles are aluminium. I pushed my bike well away from my tent, and ended up putting my tent quite near the trees and so not completely out in the open in the valley. I hoped the trees and metal bike would attract any bolts if they fell nearby and keep them away from me. I crouched down low and cooked my dinner outside my tent, making sure I wasn't higher than the nearby bushes.

The storm passed on without incident and I slept well. It had been extremely hot the previous day leading up to the storm, but when I woke there was ice in my water bottle because I was camped up at 10,000 feet. Crazy weather!

Lightning is one danger, dogs off leashes are another. The first thing I had to do in Colorado was dodge a Doberman on the loose. It took me by surprise by running fast at me without barking, as if it’d been lying in wait. I was going uphill and it kept up with me at 15mph, the speed which I usually out-pace chasing dogs. I cranked up to 20mph and left it behind, I could see it sulkily dropping back to the side of the road to wait for it’s next victim.

This isn't the dog that chased me. 
Dog and lightning attacks aside, I've met with some fantastic hospitality in Colorado. After Utah, I was keen to get my rear wheel trued before hitting the Rockies. I called in to Lizardhead Cyclery in Dolores and met Nicholas, who runs the place. He's an artist and ex-pro rider as well as supremely talented bike mechanic, and an all round great guy. He has a very cool belt he made out of old bike chains, which you might be able to just about see in the picture below.

I got my wheel trued for ten bucks, and then mentioned my saddle had been riding kind of rough. Before spotting that my saddle was 2mm out of alignment (by sight!), Nicholas did some fun tricks with a blowtorch(!), mink oil and Brooks proofide. My saddle has been way more comfortable since. Nicholas did this for free.

I mentioned my gears had been grinding a bit and suspected my derailleur was bent - Nicholas proceeded to bend my rear mech hanger back into shape and adjust the back gear cable tension - for free. I wanted to buy another cycling cap as I'd lost mine along the way - Nicholas gave me one. I wanted to replace my old 80s Carradice panniers which were literally falling apart at the seams - Nicholas sold me his, used only once, for an absolute bargain.

I went back to the shop later in the day with a couple of beers and we sat out on the porch and talked retro bike conversions in the sunshine, it was a great afternoon. Needless to say, I'm glad I called in to the shop and had the chance to meet Nicholas, who perhaps in a few hundred years will be made patron saint of bicycle tourists.

Nicholas with one of his conversions

Me with my serviced bike - like a child at Christmas
Dolores is a cool little town, with a brewery and decent food market as well as a great bike shop and access to great cycling country. One incident that demonstrated its small town charm was when an escaped cow trotted down the main road. One of the local kids who'd been hanging out with us at the bike shop gave chase on his scooter, which is the well-practised standard procedure for incidents of cows on the run.

From Dolores I went to Telluride ('To Hell You Ride'), which is another great mountain town, and not at all like hell (I assume). I camped in the town park for free, in the site of a Bluegrass Festival, which was fun. I wondered round the camp all evening listening to musicians playing in little groups to small audiences of campers, sharing various varieties of booze with each other. A nice moment was when a collection of musicians did a cover of Townes Van Zandt's White Freightliner Blues, which I know the words to, so could proudly join in singing with everyone else. I met more great people interested in my trip, including April - who rightly pointed out that while I have a lot of things mounted on my bike, I don't have a unicorn:

From Telluride I rode to one of my all time favourite places on earth, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. As well as having an amazing name, this park boasts less tourists than some of the other big parks, as it is slightly off the radar. It's another huge canyon cut into the landscape, but the canyon walls are much, much steeper than the Grand Canyon or Yosemite valley. It gets its name from the fact that its walls are so steep - almost vertical - that sunlight can barely penetrate to the bottom. Nobody has ever lived at the bottom of the canyon, not settlers of native people. It's a wild place.

I spent a day wondering around the trails, hanging out with the flowers, butterflies, deers, birds and grasshoppers. I cycled to most of the viewpoints at sunset, and spent a magical half hour sitting with my legs dangling over cliffs twice the height of the Empire State Building. Swifts and swallows cut shapes into the air above my head, snatching up insects, while the faint roar of the river echoed up the canyon walls from below.

Painted Wall, with two leaping dragon shapes on the right cliff
It was a full moon that night, so I got my camera and cycled back to one of the canyon's overlooks and took some photos by moonlight.

The canyon lit by moonlight

Pretty desert flowers
Noisy little bastards, these.
And so I've wound my way North through the Rockies, up to the town of Estes Park at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park. The mountain scenery has been amazing, and the riding has been strenuous but rewarding. One of the hardest days I've had was riding over 2 mountain passes in one day - Hoosier Pass (11,542 ft) followed by Loveland Pass (11,990). These climbs were long, and high, but some of the shorter sharper climbs have been harder, hitting 8 and 9% grades in places. It's only occurred to me recently that I've spent the last few weeks riding long days at elevations greater than about 7 or 8 thousand feet, meaning I should be super fit when I get back to the UK!

One of Colorado's many awesome bike trails

I'll soon be home - I've reached as far North as I'll go. I'm heading off into the mountains tonight for one more night of wild camping, then I'm riding to Boulder where I'll box up the bike and catch a shuttle for the flight home from Denver. But I've decided the trip isn't over until I reassemble the bike at Heathrow and cycle to Winchester, where I'll be based until I can reinstate myself in London. I want to complete the trip in the spirit which I've been doing things so far - cycling everything that I can.

Getting the bike back is a bit of logistical headache, but the plan is coming together and I'm glad I've reached the Rockies with enough time to sort this stuff out. I'm already finding it strange adjusting to a new routine where I have to plan and think about things other than eating, sleeping and riding. But I'm excited to be heading back to the UK, and looking forward to what comes next. But I'll save that sort of sentiment for the final post - watch this space!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Surviving the Utah Badlands

I’m up in the Colorado mountains, and the end of my trip is almost in sight. Getting to this point through the badlands of Utah was tough and intense, the most unforgiving and lonely part of this world that I’ve seen. It was also one of the most memorable and amazing experiences I’ve had, and I’m proud to have come through without any issues.

Bryce Canyon was the last big tourist destination I saw before setting out into the badlands. It’s a strange and beautiful sight. When my sister and I used to go on family trips to the beach when we were younger, we used to make these cool gothic sandcastles by packing out a base and making tall spires by dribbling wet sand through our hands on top. Bryce Canyon is a huge natural amphitheatre filled with structures that look a bit like this, but huge, and made from stone.

As with most of national parks, the interpretation events they have on are amazing. I went along to a free night time Stargazer event, and met some of the 35 amateur astronomers from Salt Lake City who had brought down their enormous telescopes (and I mean huge!) and set them up in the car park. I looked through a few telescopes and saw some galaxies and star clusters whose names I forget, very pretty though. I went mainly in honour of the Rainbow song Stargazer, one of my favourite all time songs and a regular on my cycling playlist.

As you head east from Bryce, the traffic diminishes and you have the road to yourself. Which of course means you have to be ready to fend for yourself. One of most valuable things about this trip is stripping my day-to-day existence back to basics. The section of Utah badlands brought this into sharp relief. For me there are 4 essentials that need to be met when cycle touring and camping. In reverse order of importance for this is:

4 - somewhere decent to sleep/put the tent
3 - a bike in working order
2 - food
1 - water

Water became the number one factor in planning my days’ riding. You know the riding is getting hardcore when you start worrying about the most basic of human needs. There’s a story posted up in the Grand Canyon about a girl who was a good marathon runner, but died in the canyon from the heat after heading out for a hike with only 1.5 litres of water. I haven’t done anything before where running out of water was a real issue, so this all became very serious. I worked out a rough formula for planning the amount of water to carry, by basically looking at the route elevation and mileage, estimating the hours of cycling needed, and carrying 1 litre per hours riding. In the really hot climbing sections I’d stop and drink 500ml every half hour.

Fun fact: on one of these days I drank 7 litres while riding and didn’t spend a penny all day so to speak - which shows how much is being processed and sweated out by the body.

After Bryce, I got a permit to camp wild in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This was my first taste of carrying huge amounts of water, I took 7 litres - enough for the afternoon’s ride, cooking food in the evening, cooking breakfast, washing dishes, and the morning’s ride. I found a decent spot but got mobbed by ants, which covered every surface of that bit of desert. I diverted them by leaving my trash out overnight, which kept them occupied. The view was worth it though.

All this trip I’d been wanting to make 100 miles in one day, and I noticed a large downhill section coming up on this part of the route. I figured I might not get a chance like this again so the next day I decided to do as much climbing as I could, to position myself at the start of the downhill section for the following day to try and make a century. I climbed all day, 4000ft straight up, with some incredibly steep bits.

For fun I decided to keep a record of my food consumption for the day, which I’ve copied out here:

- Full bowl oatmeal (triple serving) cooked on stove
- Plate of breakfast potatoes with a fried egg, bought at a cafe in the middle of nowhere
- 2 coffees at cafe above
- choc chip cookie at cafe above
- apple
- pack of peanuts
- 2 coffees bought at a store
- Clif energy bar bought at store (raisin & oatmeal)
- 2 bananas bought at store
- 6 large flour tortillas bought from store, eaten throughout day
- pack of jerky bought from store
- orange bought from store
- pack of trail mix (nuts, raisins etc.)
- 4 jolly rancher sweets eaten throughout day
- coffee made on stove in evening
- Pasta for dinner - boiled on stove w chopped fresh garlic & salt added to water then tin of kipper steaks added with pepper and sachet of taco sauce purloined from store
- 7 or so litres of water throughout day

After the day’s climbing, I camped wild in the forest, enjoying the cool and the shade after the heat of the desert. I set off the next morning, straight downhill out of the forest, through a couple of towns, and down through Capitol Reef. I would usually have stopped here for a look around but I was on a mission. At one of the towns a guy came over for chat after seeing the bike, he turned out to be the town mechanic and the guy who gets called out to help cycle tourers whose equipment fails. We had a good chat and he seemed impressed with my gear and level of preparation, which boosted my confidence. He said he’d recently seen a couple of Belgian cyclists trying to hitch a lift through this part of the route rather than risk riding it.

I nailed it through the park and out into the Badlands proper. The scenery quickly changed from green forests, to red rocks and formations of Capital Reef, to grey stone. I’d heard from a clerk at a visitor centre that there was a bakery in the middle of nowhere on my route, and got a stern warning from the guy that ran it about water supplies for the next stretch - “the heat, it’ll kill ya quickly”. I stocked up on supplies at Hanksville and filled all my water containers up. I’d done 50 miles already, and it was about 1pm, and getting hot. I was carrying enough food for 2 days, and 8 litres of water. This must have added at least 10 kilograms to my already very heavy bike.

I started to get apprehensive. My map showed the next potential place to get water as being at least another 65 miles, and this would be uphill. I was aiming to reach Hite Marina at Lake Powell, where there was a campsite and water tap. No stores, gas stations, ranches or houses on the way to get water from. The baker had told me the marina was dried up, the campsite shut and the water taps ripped out. My plan was to check this out, and sterilise water from Lake Powell if I could get to it, if necessary.

I was carrying extra water in case of a breakdown, but it was incredibly hot so this would go quickly. My phone reception had disappeared some time ago, so there would be nowhere to call for help. Traffic occasionally passed, so there could be some hitchhiking options in case of real trouble. As soon as I left Hanksville I turned straight into the wind which blew against me all afternoon and then the following day too.

I pushed on uphill and into the wind. After about 75 miles, a UPS van driver pulled over for a chat. He told me the great news that Hite Marina was open, camping was available, and they had water. He offered me some water but I declined as I was carrying enough. He told me a place a few miles on into a canyon where there was a spring he used to wash his face and cool down, although too muddy and small to drink from. He told me the temperature was up at 110f (43c) at Hite, but there was some shade behind the Ranger’s building.

A few miles later I met a group of American cycle tourers headed the other way for San Francisco. They’d stayed at Hite and confirmed drinking water. They also told me it was uphill all the way and steep at the end of my day. I told them they had a 50 mile climb out of Capitol Reef. I hit 100 miles. I honked my horn and did some singing out loud for celebration, and felt great.

This quickly turned into swearing as I saw the last hills of the day. I’d counted 3 big hills from the elevation plan on my map, so when I ran into the 4th and 5th I lost my temper and actually started shouting and cursing out loud, the first time on the trip. My water was down, and my legs really were hurting now. The last few miles are a bit of a blur, but I remember listening to Meshuggah’s Chaosphere on repeat and very loud, which served to whip me up the last climbs.

I crossed the Dirty Devil river and then the Colorado River, and here my memory is sharp - straight after the Colorado River it was 1.3 miles up a really steep grade to the campsite turn off. I was on 110 miles now, and it was about 7:30pm, and the sun was setting. The shadows were long and everything was orange. My music had finished and I did this last bit in silence. I stood up in the saddle; I sat down and spun my legs as hard as possible, and slowly, very slowly, reached the turnoff for the campsite. This hill felt like it took forever. Then 4 mile of cruising downhill to the campground.

The marina at Hite has dried up, there it nothing there except for a small store, a few caravans and the campground restrooms and pitches. And the water tap of course. The sort of place that makes you feel like there has been an apocalypse and you are the last person on earth. It felt great to be finished for the day, but I was almost too tired to put the tent up. I lay on top of a picnic table and ate some bread and drank gallons of water. 

I considered sleeping out in just my bag as I was tired and didn’t want to put my tent up, but the wind was till blowing strong, and there were quite a few bugs about. I roused myself and put the tent up, took a couple of photos of the stars, crawled inside and slept like a log. My distance for the day was 115 miles.

I woke up the next day as soon as the sun hit, and it was hot! I took the tent down quickly and packed up, got out of the sun and waited for the grocery store to open at 9am. In the meantime I took a close look at the map and my heart sank. I’d know there was going to be some climbing, but it was another 40 mile day going straight uphill to the next water stop, which was the visitor centre at Natural Bridges Park. The only consolation was that with each mile it would get cooler as I got higher.

It was a truly horrible day on the back of the long day before, it was all about endurance rather than enjoyment. One nice moment came when a motorcyclist came over for a chat while I was resting in the shade of a bush, looking sorry for myself. He gave me some water and parted with ‘fare thee well and say hello to the Queen for me’. This cheered me up and I managed somehow to get myself up the hill to the visitor centre at Natural Bridges.

I did a short session the following day to a town called Blanding by early afternoon. I was exhausted. The wind had blown up and the town was covered in red dust. This gave me the excuse I needed to keep the tent packed away and get a hotel room for the night. I really fancied a beer but the town was dry, as per usual for Mormon towns in Utah. Instead I hit all the stores in town and ate voraciously. I’d made it though the Utah badlands, got my touring century in the process, and felt pretty good about things.

I woke up the next day planning to leave Blanding early but hit a major disaster - my solar panel was bust! More than being the source of power for my phone, camera and headtorch, it powers my phone to serve me music while riding. The thought of riding the last few hundred miles of my trip without music was too much. I figured my panel had served me well for two months, had taken a beating from my riding, so I could sacrifice it by trying to fix it myself.

I cut back the material casing and took a look inside. I saw one connection from the panel to the output plug had worked loose. I took it the hardware store who told me there would be no store that could fix it for me. So I found a small battery-powered soldering iron on the shelves, bought this with some super glue, and went and sat out the back of the hardware store to work on it. Luckily, my first attempt at soldering the loose connection worked, which was great as it was fiddly to get to. I then super-glued the plug back into place and got out of Blanding about lunchtime. Success!

The next day I crossed the border into Colorado. I’d made it though the Utah badlands, got my touring century in the process, and felt pretty good about things. People are often impressed about the length of this trip, the mileage covered, the camping, the weight of the bike etc. I tend to laugh that off with genuine modesty - if you enjoy cycling, it’s not so hard. But anyone who rides those Utah roads in summer and gets through without problems is tough, including me. I just geek it up a bit with my solar panel!

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Utah and Arizona - to the Grand Canyon

I'm poised at the start of a route that will take me east through the Canyonlands of Southern Utah; to Bryce Canyon; Escalante National Monument; past the wonderfully named 'Box-Death Hollow Wilderness'; through Capitol Reef National Park; so basically high, dry and lonely but beautiful roads almost nothing on them. Route 12, which I'll follow for a while, has the following dubious honour:

"Be warned: this waterless region was so inhospitable that it was the last to be mapped in continental US." (Lonely Planet)

I'm really excited about this section of my trip, and feel like the last two months has been training for it in some way. I'm going to do some careful route planning and map checking before departing, there are long sections with no food or water, so I'll be carrying extra supplies. It would also be an unfortunate place to run into bike trouble.

I'm writing this post from the campsite at Red Canyon a day behind my planned schedule, because of bike trouble. The delay is because in the afternoon of the day before I'd noticed a large kink in my back wheel. This is bad news for any cyclist, and spells out quite serious problems. If the wheel is no longer running true, it won't be strong enough to ride on, especially the majority of a full touring load plus me. Luckily the problem was with the tyre, not the wheel itself, and I could still ride after adjusting the brakes. I'd probably hit some large rock which had damaged a section of the tyre, which then grew worse until I noticed it.

Thinking back, there was a moment when I was checking my mirror and trip computer, took my eye off the road, and went straight into a rubble-strewn ditch at the side of the road's shoulder, which could have been the cause... So I needed a new tyre, especially with this awesome section of South Eastern Utah was quickly approaching.

The nearest bike shop was 45 miles the wrong way. Worse than this, 35 miles of that was straight up a mountain - the bike shop was based at a ski resort at the top of a peak called Brian Head, which stands up at 11,296 ft. If they didn't have a tyre I could use, I'd have to get to Cedar City, another 26 miles from the top of the mountain pass. To climb that mountain twice in order to get back on route would take 2 or probably more like 3 days, time which I can't afford to lose now I'm in my last month.

With little else in the way of options, I started the climb and got halfway up by 8pm, where I camped in the Dixie Forest. The next morning I got up early, took a bath in Panguitch lake, and went to a resort cafe where I met a cyclist here who bought me coffee and said there was a store a mile up the road that sold bike parts! Unfortunately the store didn't have any bike gear after all, but the owner - the very awesome Jerry Owen - helped me out by 1. establishing that the mountain bike shop had nothing I could use and 2. finding me someone who could collect and deliver tyres from Cedar City on the other side of the mountain. I paid the bike shop over the phone, and sat around for a few hours waiting for new tyres to arrive - courtesy of Beth, wife of Tom who works in the store. Again I'm grateful for the practical friendliness of people over here.

I sat and read in the meantime - and finished my Kerouac book (The Dharma Bums). Some people say they have a specific author who speaks directly to them, or so it feels - who writes in such a way that they can identify with them and say 'that's exactly who I feel' or 'I used to do that too!'. Kerouac was always that author for me and I got that feeling renewed in the part of Dharma Bums where he's having a hard time of it hiking on a trail in California, and starts fantasising about a Hershey bar with nuts in it, which he gets bought for him at the end of the hike with a bottle of port, which turns out to be his favourite wine. Port and nut Hershey bars have been two of my favourite things on this entire trip.

The tyres arrived and I fitted one and packed the other (a folding tyre) away for emergencies. I rolled back down to rejoin my route with best luck wishes in my ear from Lindsay, a 9-yr-old girl who'd befriended my while I was working on the bike. I get good luck wishes often, almost daily, from strangers. But Lindsay's somewhow meant more, as she said it with such gravitas - she came up to me while I was pouring out a coffee in the store and said "I'm going to do something very special for you: I'm going to wish you luck". Typical of a child to realise the value of best wishes when they are meant sincerely.

My mission to get a new tyre was successful, and the detour only cost me 35 miles, and I got the chance to do some nice wild camping, and a few hours reading, and the chance to meet some great people. Speaking of great people and detours, I should probably mention that time I cycled the Grand Canyon. I 'cycled to the Grand Canyon', I still have trouble digesting that sometimes. I went through Zion national park, which looks a bit like this:

Zion was cool, I camped in the park and made friends with neighbours who were up drinking beers after dark. I'd been putting a new bike chain on while wearing disposable nylon gloves to keep the crap off my hands (which takes hours to get off) and wearing my headtorch for light. I'd bought a beer to drink afterwards. My new friends asked "are you performing surgery on your beer?". So I joined them when I'd finished and they gave me more beer. I overheard some people in the park comparing Zion to the Grand Canyon: "In Zion, you stand at the bottom and look up at it, at the Canyon, you stand on the edge and look down into it". This is a nice way of comparing the two places, and gave me an idea of what to expect from the Grand Canyon. But it still blew my mind when I actually looked off the edge and in to it.

Everyone who goes there says it and it's true, it's hard to get your head around the scale of the immensity of what is in front of you. What also took me by surprise is how green the north rim is, you are riding up in to forests until you get to the edge. This was lovely after all those miles of desert riding. Trees - shade! Imagine how good it feels to camp in some shade after you've been pitching your tent spots like this:


I can't mention the Grand Canyon without mentioning Diane. She walked up to me the morning I left the Canyon I was drinking a coffee around 6:30am. She asked me very politely if I was happy to have a chat. I said sure although I was half asleep - I’d got up at 4:45am so I could pack up my tent and get over to a viewpoint for 6am to catch views of the north rim just after sunrise, and was making up my mind whether to set off or wait for the the grocery store to open at 8am to get supplies for the road.

Diane lives in Portland, where I started my trip, with her husband Harry who is a retired post office worker, - she’s a nurse, still working, who takes various contract jobs around the country. She’d seen my bike lent against the wall round the corner, and had obviously had taken a good look at it as she asked a few questions about the make of the bike, who made the wheels, and so forth, and didn’t lose interest when I answered in to some detail about the various quirks of my rig.

Her bright-eyed and wistful smile when engaged in bike talk meant I wasn’t completely surprised to learn that she and her husband are in to cycling, but I was surprised and impressed to learn that she’d toured solo from Portland to Alaska in the 70's (I think) on her Trek bike. She's also done some cycling in the UK around Cornwall from Penzance. We had a great chat about cycle touring and the benefits of travelling alone, and Harry joined us, bought me a refill of coffee, and we talked about cameras, blogging, the national parks, MOT laws in the UK, work, travelling and other stuff.

It was by now 8am so I said goodbye and made to head off to the store. Just as I was leaving Diane caught up with me again - she said that when she did her big tour to Alaska, people she met would sometimes offer to buy her a meal and night in a motel. She then put a $50 note in my hand, saying I’d be able to pass it on to someone else at some point in the future. I'll make sure to.

So I'm rested, refreshed, and about to head out to Bryce. I also took my stove apart and cleaned and fixed it up, as it was acting up. I should be ready for the challenges that this section will offer. I camped last night with a Brit called Adam - we shared the cost of a pitch. He's cycling for charity so check out his blog here: He's going the same way so we swapped contacts in case one of us gets in to a fix.

Time I got moving!

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Nevada - To and Through Las Vegas

I'm writing this from the poolside of a Motel 6 at the rough end of St George, Utah. I cycled a short day of 40 miles of Interstate 15 to get here and finished early - this morning was hot hilly desert canyons filled with fumes from the fresh tar that teams of road workers were spreading, mixed with exhaust from lines of traffic crawling along next to me. Riding in the rough narrow shoulder of the road, I had some good 6mph uphill races with articulated lorries while dodging rotting car tyres, smashed beer bottles and old screws and nails in the shoulder of the road. Today I woke up in Nevada, crossed into Arizona, then in to Utah, which was fun. Alas - this isn't because I'm some sort of supercyclist, just the way the road lies through the state boundaries.

The I-15 between Mesquite and St George, before hitting the roadworks. The manky asphalt on the right is the bike lane.

Although conditions sound less than ideal for cycling, I was working hard and enjoying myself - probably because I was feeling strong after a good night's sleep. Last night I stayed in a cheap hotel room in the old-fashioned, dark and smoky Virgin River Casino. Hotel registration is in the casino itself, it had a nice feel to it when I arrived, kind of 'bit of innocent fun' casino instead of hardcore gambling, with a jolly one-armed emcee calling out names of guests to go up and claim $500 prizes. It has a sort of old fashioned Butlins or Caravan park lounge/bar feel, with people chuffing on cigarattes while pumping coins into slot machines. I saw a slightly darker side this morning when I returned my room key, old men slumped over the bar at 7am with their heads in their hands.

I didn't do any gambling in Mesquite or in Vegas - getting my bike and gear in and out of Vegas was enough of a gamble itself. Back in Lancaster, California, I'd tried to ride to a bike shop in the morning to get a few things looked at. I got another puncture on the way (2 in 24hrs) which told me the rear tyre needed replacing. I pushed the bike along the road in the morning heat for an hour before getting to the bike shop - and thankfully it was a good one (Block Cycles).

After putting a new fatter (1.75 inch) tyre and 'Desert Thorn Proof' inner tube (filled with sealant) on the back I had a great chat with Rich, the owner. He suggested if I wanted to get to Vegas I'd do well to cycle through Barstow and ride from there. He gave me a great desert dirt road detour out of town down, past the church used in Kill Bill and along some of the old Route 66.

I've ridden a few dirt roads recently, hard but fun. The problem is when the asphalt/sand becomes loose and more than an inch deep - Leaving Lancaster I had to get off and push for quite a bit of it as the ground literally slips around beneath the wheels when riding. Queue some strong cursing and swearing from me, sweating along pushing my 45kg load through sand drifts. I nearly wiped out a few times going downhill, skidding about a metre left then right on one occasion. It's testament to the way the bike handles under weight that I stayed upright - well done Surly! (I built the bike up from their Long Haul Trucker Frame, getting the largest frame that would take 26inch mtb wheels). I camped rough out in the desert that night.

Avenue G heading east out of Lancaster, before hitting the dirt track
Shadow mountain road the morning after leaving Lancaster and camping rough, on the way to Silver Lake/Helendale
Another desert dirt road detour, this one after leaving Las Vegas. The ground here was littered with empty bullet cases. 

After reaching Barstow, I found that I wouldn't be able to ride the Interstate to Vegas as planned. I scouted out the various entrances to the freeway in town, and all of them had 'no bicycle' signs. I was torn between getting the Greyhound (my backup plan) and riding the freeway anyway. I decided on the former as I didn't want to risk finding no shoulder to ride in on the road. The Interstate lanes are surprisingly narrow, just enough room for a lorry, not real room to squeeze a bike in, plus I saw a few highway patrol cars going up and down town.

So I found a Motel 6 in Barstow in order to get the Greyhound bus to Vegas the next day. Greyhound policy requires me breaking down and boxing the bike - queue me cycling around town that evening trying to source a large enough box for the job. I tried a few places and eventually got the Walmart manager to promise to save a box from the coming evening's night shift. But I went back at 7am the next day to find they had nothing for me. I scrounged a couple of large boxes anyway and put something together that I thought would work.

While I was taking the bike apart outside the front of the motel room, my neighbour came for a chat. A little old man from San Franciso, he talked incessantly at me but rummaged around his truck and offered me some duct tape when I ran out. He used to be a cyclist before a bad car crash, had been married 3 times, his first wife was Welsh (the first American I've found that's heard of Wales), and he's owned 11 dogs. He said he'd been a cartoonist for Walt Disney and offered to draw me, but unfortunately I was too busy working. I went into his room to get some extra cardboard he'd offered me, and saw the room covered with handpainted signs and small pots of paint, and 2 friends working away on a Betty Boop poster. Fitting all this in to a Motel 6 room is quite a feat. I went into the office for coffee for a break and saw two policemen - a truck had been stolen and lots of other cars broken in to while I slept.


After calling a taxi number for a ride to the station I discovered that there were not taxis in town big enough to fit the box, which was roughly 6ft long. I measured the box by lying down next to it while on the phone to the taxi lady. She was lovely, and actually drove round to see if it would fit. When it didn't, she suggested I call the local UPS and get it shipped down to the station. This was half an hour or so before I wanted to get to get there and sort my ticket out. I called UPS and had the good luck to get Carla on the line, who offered to give me a lift in her own car! She turned up within 30 mins and brought me an extra roll of tape and a pen to mark the box off. After delivering me to the station, she told me to let her know if the Greyhound people wouldn't accept it. Another example of simple practical friendliness which has meant so much to me on this trip. I got the box on the Greyhound, and after various office power failures, ticketing issues, and general confusion all round, we reached Las Vegas.

Vegas! I learnt while staying there that 'Las Vegas' means 'The Meadows' in Spanish, named by settlers who stumbled across a vision of a green oasis in the desert. Before the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead created enough water to found the modern city, the natural springs running under the desert (since dried up) attracted native travellers and then settlers needing rest and water on their way west to California. My sojourn in Vegas was in keeping with this tradition, thanks to a friend of my Sister and her finance's. I spent four nights as a guest of Claudine, Adam and their toddlers Raffy and Leo - the friendliest and most hospitable family you could hope to meet. Adam collected me from the bus station on his way home, gave me a quick tour of the strip, and a beer when we got back to their home. A shower, steak and chips for dinner, a glass of red wine and one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in made me a very happy man indeed.

I don't know how they managed to make me feel so at home while looking after two toddlers at the same time - the hard parts of my trip suddenly didn't seem quite so hard. My first job there was to try and fix my knee which had got infected and swollen from the cuts made by the straps I'd been wearing, making my left leg difficult to flex and walk (and cycle) on. So I spent more time relaxing in the suburbs and nursing my knee than sightseeing, which is exactly what was needed. It was nice to hang out with some fellow Brits too - thinking back, the only other one I've met on the whole trip is a guy who worked at the San Francisco hostel, who hails from Catford, London.

I spent some time putting the bike back together, tinkering with it - and before I left I got a local bike shop to change the chainrings on the front, effectively lowering my range of gears which should help pressure off my knees on the hills. For the geeks - I've gone from 26-36-48 on the front chainrings down to 22-32-44, keeping 11-34 on the back cog (9 speed). One mechanic I spoke to said this wouldn't make much difference but so far is seems to have done. It's only recently that I've realised that I rode some of the hardest and steepest climbs in the Sierras, so running gearing traditionally suited for cross country mountain bikers makes a lot of sense, when pulling the load that I am.

Apart from the bike geekery, I asked Claudine about town museums and she had some great suggestions. Las Vegas, perhaps surprisingly, has a great selection. The Springs Preserve is ace, lots on desert wildlife, the Hoover dam, settlers, railroads, and a room that creates an artificial flash flood around you. The Nevada State musuem has more on flora and fauna, and a section on the evolution of the city as a capital of entertainment, including costumes of famous performers. The Neon Boneyard is a collection of old neon signs from historic Vegas establishments, rescued and stored out in a yard downtown - paradise for the amateur photographer!

I did one day of fairly heavy sightseeing. Claudine drove me out to Red Rock Canyon in Adam's Mustang (with the top down naturally!), which was ace! Then I cycled 40 or so miles between the museums and then straight down the Strip at night. Cycling down the full length of the Strip was unlike anything I'd ridden before, heading south from the Neon Musuem past wedding chapel after wedding chapel and bail bond shop after bail bond shop, until you start hitting the big famous casinos, The Bellagio, Caesar's Palace, The Mirage, the Mandalay Bay. It was Memorial Day weekend when I visited, so the pavements were almost too choked to walk down. One of the strange things about this part of town is that the pavements will actually take you off and lead you straight into a Casino. I walked the bike a bit, then cycled the rest of it. This was a whole lot of fun, ducking and weaving through the traffic like I'm used to doing in London, except there is more lanes to play with, and enormous Disney style hotels towering up on all sides of you, lit up beautifully. The only other cyclists I saw were police cyclists. I pulled in at Caesar's Palace to watch the fountains in the lake dance to Elton John. A strange and amazing place - fountains dancing to Elton John in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Driving out to Red Rock Canyon
Neon Boneyard Museum #1

Neon Boneyard Museum sign #2

Las Vegas traffic

Circus, Circus

Eiffel Tower Restaurant

So I left Las Vegas feeling good and refreshed, thanks to awesome hosts. I got my head down and put in a couple of fast days, one out to the Valley of Fire, where I camped. then on to Mesquite and St George along the Interstate 15. To get to the Valley of Fire, I tried to avoid the freeway and took a nice quiet road, which started out lovely smooth tarmac. It then turned to asphalt, and then dirt. My offline Google map called this SR40, and clearly showed it crossing the freeway at one point, before joining the highway on to the Valley of Fire. It does cross the freeway, in a manner of speaking:

if you can't go over, go under!

I had to unpack the bike and carry everything under the freeway here in several trips here - this was the first two lanes, but there was an island of grass and another two lanes to pass under too. I reassembled everything on the other side and found my dirt track. It was there, but was covered in loose sand and asphalt for the last stretch. Queue me pushing the bike through the loose stuff, queue me sweating and swearing profusely in the afternoon heat. This was before I realised the interstate freeway wasn't the monster I'd been imagining it to be, so I could have ridden that instead. By parts of the dirt road were a lot of fun! 

The Valley of Fire is spectacular, kind of like being plucked off Earth and deposited on Mars. I almost bumped in to a Bighorn sheep while there, which was very cool. All sorts of wildlife were attracted to my pitch after I ran some water from the tap - lizards and birds came over to drink from the splashes, as did bees. I read from a notice in the rest room that these were Africanized honey bees - Killer Bees for short. I was careful not to accidentally squash any or swat them away too vigorously and they were fine. But kill one and all their friends will come and sort you out...

The riding conditions are now dictated by the heat. The sun is hot as soon as it rises, 29 or 30c at 6:30am. Then no clouds in the sky until the temperature reaches 35c between 2 and 4pm. This is OK to cycle in if you aren't climbing, as the wind cools you, but finding shade to stop in is difficult - sheltering in the shadow of road underpasses etc. If you camp at night it's hard to get cool - the winds are too strong to pitch just the inner tent (guy ropes are needed which necessitates the outer tent too). Everything that can melt in your packs does. I bought my usual lump of sharp cheddar on the way out of Vegas and the whole thing had melted in the wrap by the time I opened it (nothing for it but to it the whole lot in one go). I'm now eating jerky, bagels and peanut butter for lunches. The peanut butter melts too, so you can just dip the bagel straight in. I wear my white cotton cycling cap on backwards to protect my neck, with the visor of my helmet covering my face. I soak the cap in water where I can, which keeps my head cool.

There isn't much in the way of campgrounds down here, this should improve from tomorrow as I gain elevation in my approach towards the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I've been riding without a strap on my knee the last couple of days, in order to let the cuts on the back heal to keep infection away. So far no real trouble with it - and I've done some hill work. I'm really hoping the new gearing is doing its job, but the real climbing will start tomorrow, so time will tell.  

Nice and cool after the sun set. Yes - getting tent pegs in that ground was hard work!
The Seven Sisters, Valley of Fire
The Valley of Fire