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!