Saturday, 28 May 2011

Plain sailing

Getting across Massachusetts safely was quite a challenge, but now we're about to start the 398 mile Erie Canal that will take us west across New York state all the way to Buffalo. It should be plain "sailing".

Did you see what I did there?

After the wee cabin at Lamb City campground, just outside Athol, we decided to save a bit of leg work and take the more direct approach and hit Route 2. There were no signs prohibiting our entry as cyclists and it was great cycling, straight as a dye and flat, so quite fast. But our luck didn't last and just 5 miles on a state trooper pulled us over and sent us off onto the more hilly and winding Route 2A. I almost pulled out and cycled past him as I didn't think he was for us. He also realised this and did a last minute wave of his hands to stop us.

We stopped for lunch in a small town called Greenfield and I thoroughly enjoyed this pretty little town, and the coffee was excellent.

Moving on we had a relentless climb out and onto the Mohawk Trail that took us to our next campground. We made a small mistake by pulling into a campground of the same name a couple of miles before the one we were heading for. Just as well, as the next morning we discovered the actual destination campground was closed.

Next stop was North Adams, after a gruelling 12 hour climb in the heat. We covered only 17 miles of road this day, but it was enough.

Daunted by the next leg, the biggest climb of the journey so far over a mountain into New York state, we started chatting about our route to the campground manager and she thankfully gave us a far better alternative. We turned north on the outskirts of a very Ivy League looking town of Williamstown, apparently one of the most expensive college towns in the nation, and started our detour around the mountain. Though slightly longer it saved us a lot of work, and also had the advantage of dipping, ever so briefly, into Vermont, before crossing the state line into New York and south west to Troy.

Along the way we've met many colourful characters" a guy from South Korea who has cycled from LA to Massachusetts in just 50 days; a woodcutter called Chuck (I kid you not) who carves bears out of timber with a chainsaw; and a great guy called Nelson, who built his own boat over 9 years and now spends his retirement sailing back and forth seasonally between Florida and Syracuse were his kids live. In the late sixties/early seventies, Nelson served in the US Army and he had a a story or two to tell about his government, as you can imagine. We managed to film a short interview with Nelson and Chuck and they should make for interesting viewing on the final film.

Only 10 days in and I love just happening upon characters like this and deciding to film them. I couldn't plan this stuff.

In the morning we head out along the Erie Canal. Completed in 1820 it opened up trade to the west and made New York city what it is today. It eventually fell into decline once the Pacific Railroad opened but in the last 50 years it's appeal was rekindled and it is now a fantastic cross-country trip through some of the history of the United States. We'll keep you posted.

There's s storm coming tonight, in very similar to the wild night yesterday, so time to sign off and secure the tent for the night ahead. At some point I'll actually post some photos but in the meantime I hope you are enjoying the blogs by myself and Pauline.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

I got a sore butt!!!

Before travelling to join Pauline for our North American cycle, I had the task of working out the distance and calculating a rough schedule in terms of daily mileage, days off, etc. I was a bit concerned that the average came out at 40 miles per day with one day off per week. One week in and I wish it was only 40 miles a day!

Getting out of Boston was, not to exaggerate, a nightmare. The city map was about as useful as a condom in the Vatican and had it not been for helpful Boston residents offering directions, we would still be there. Trying to find a route away from traffic was pretty pointless. America is the land of the car after all. Since arriving in the States the weather has been appalling, with permanent low cloud and drizzle. The first day down to Plymouth was no exception and our first night under canvass was during an enormous thunderstorm. Filming so far has been almost impossible due to the torrential rain, which is very disappointing. I can only hope things will improve.

Location is something of a mystery generally. As you can imagine there is a proliferation of forest in Massachusetts, so you are hemmed in on all sides by thick forest depriving you of any view to find your bearings. Add to that a distinct lack of town names and it becomes very disorientating. However, America may be home to the automobile but it is also home to McDonalds, and though I would rarely eat them back home, they provided a welcome rest stop. They also have free wifi which enabled us to find our location using the computer.

Car drivers have, on average, been very courteous, stopping in the middle of the carriage way to allow us to cross safely. Occasionally we do get the odd bit of abuse, which generally goes something like: "get off the road asshole!" This has been few and far between, and today, as we cycled north west out of Ashland, a woman in a car pulled up beside us and asked where we were eating dinner tonight, offering to give us a meal. How fantastic. Mind you, maybe we were being taken back to a farm of mountain men and banjos.

So our official starting point was a foggy Plymouth beside the rock commemorating the first landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. Nearby was a replica of their ship, the Mayflower.

It had been 54 miles from Boston to Plymouth, and the second day in the saddle from Plymouth to Ashland was a momentous 70 miles. We had arranged to arrive at the Ashland home of my friends David and Karen by around 3pm, but events conspired to delay us until 7pm, by which point my "butt" was like a well tenderised steak.

We had been delayed as my bike was plagued by breakdowns. One hour in and the front tyre punctured. Half an hour later and the rear hub started to disintegrate due to lack of grease, and a half hour after that the front hub started to go! These breakdowns did have their upsides though. At the first a local guy called Marc Valentine popped by as I was repairing the tyre and gave us a potted history of the local area's original native Americans, which he kindly agreed to do on camera (see the website for a preview) and the repairs to the hubs introduced us to a stunt cyclist, who gave us a demonstration on camera.

We spent a great weekend with David, Karen and their kids, Jenifer and Craig, oh, and Dougal the dog of course, and it allowed us to reorganise our kit and onward plans.

As if the last few days of bike breakdowns and inclement weather were not enough, I also have the challenge of finding money. Of course I have an adequate supply of funds in the form of American Express travellers cheques, but virtually no bank in America, home of American Express, will change them back into dollars! You have to have an account with whichever bank you use. So a word of warning: if you are coming to the States don't bring travellers cheques. I'm hoping to find some sort of solution in Troy, New York State, just north of Albany, in a couple of days.

Tonight we are tucked up in a very basic cabin, out of the damp, in an attempt to keep our gear relatively dry. The days are tough cycling, as the roads twist and wind and undulate all the time, so on a very wet day the last thing you want to do is have the hassle of wet gear and trying to cook a meal in the rain while swatting the mosquitos.

I'm hopeful when we reach the Erie Canal that our mileage will become more sensible, but until then it's 50 miles tomorrow and 60 miles the day after. God help my butt.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

International arrivals

The journey from Edinburgh to Boston on 15 May went reasonably smoothly with only the odd hiccup. Thus began the adventure.

At a ridiculous early hour of 3am I set out for Edinburgh Airport for the first of two flights. A short one-hour hop to Amsterdam saw me safely in Schipol Airport ready for the Delta Airlines to Boston.

However, the flight was delayed by an hour due to “a problem” with the plane. As I sat patiently (and if you believe that you’ll believe anything) I was entertained by a group of hooded crows gathering on top of the giant aircraft, maybe in the hope of hitching a ride to Boston. But they had worked out which door the catering truck comes to on the aircraft and waited as it elevated it’s cargo for loading, then hopped down when the crew’s back was turned to nip inside for a scavenge.

We would have departed on time, or should I say on the one hour delayed time, but we were further delayed by a farcical series of security checks. A team, some ten strong, of US officials turned up, each with their own little lectern, and took the four hundred passengers, one at a time, and asked the same questions that we had been asked at check in. Then re-scanned our hand luggage, then put us individually in a full body scan machine, before making us wait again for boarding. Why everyone, except the Europeans, decided it was a good idea to stand and queue for the entire time, beat me. Eventually I was summoned and interrogated, chipped, barcoded, cavity and body searched before being shrink wrapped and bundled on board.

You could argue this was a good safety approach, but consider this: I asked if I could take a bottle of water on board and was told yes, as long as it was sealed in an airport security bag. So I wandered off and bought a 1 litre bottle of water, only to be told I wasn’t allowed that size. I could however buy as many as I wanted of the 330ml size!! So I could in effect have taken several litres of water in small bottles, but none at all in 1 litre size. When I asked the Dutch cashier why this was, she smiled and said: “we just do what the Americans say”.

I didn’t manage to sleep going across but the seven hour flight passed quickly. I was through customs and immigration in no time, despite having large cardboard cartons containing kit and a bike. The arrivals door slid open and there was Pauline, with a card like a waiting chauffeur, with “Yo Kitchy ma man” written on it. An emotional welcome was exchanged and we left by “cab” for the hostel.

Our first couple of days have been spent preparing for the journey ahead, though we managed a short sight-seeing wander past the home of the Red Sox baseball team at Fenway Park and through Cambridge, home to Harvard.

So far it has rained every day and is freezing cold. Tomorrow we set out south for Plymouth and hopefully better weather.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

T-minus 60 hours

I cannot believe how fast the time has passed. It seems only a few weeks ago that I waved a tearful goodbye to pauline on the streets of Santiago de Compostela, not 8 months!

I think they call it the red-eye flight. On Sunday I shall board the 6.15 KLM flight to Amsterdam and then transfer for the 7 hour flight to Boston. If on time I should land there and wish a fond hello to Pauline at Boston's Logan airport around 1pm local time, roughly 6pm UK time, on Sunday.

After a couple of days in Boston it is our plan to head south to our official starting point at Plymouth rock on Wednesday. Then just a mere 4322 miles left!

Today was the big pack, and after so many weeks of careful planning the packing didn't go all that well. My main hold luggage was 3 kilos over the limit, and the bike was determined not to dismantle easily. I had planned to do all this on Friday but decided to tackle it today. Thank goodness I did. Seven hours later and all was done. To make sure I was under the weight allowance (not me you understand, the hold luggage) I transfered my tent to the bike box and my spare clothes to my carry-on bag. One things for sure I'm going to have a great deal of work to do in Boston to sort out the mess. Nice packing it aint!

Given the past 8 months have flown past I guess the next 5 will be over before you know, but in the course of that I'm sure you'll be reading about a fantastic adventure as we push west across North America.

Please check out the website (link on the right) regularly. Although I blog every week in the UK I'm afraid that my blogs will be a little less frequent from America, but I do hope to post around every two weeks.

In the meantime . . .

Have A Nice Day! Miss You Already!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Pentlands trial run

I thought it would be a good idea to load the bike up with all the kit and have a trial run before the epic adventure of North America. So on Tuesday I set off for a short 20 mile trip to the Pentland Hills on the outskirts of the city.

Though it was a glorious sunny day it wasn't warm by any means, but luckily I had the wind at my back. Setting off for the first time with 25kg of kit strapped to the 17kg bike, things were a bit wobbly. The smallest of hills saw me changing down a few gears and crawling along. The odometer on the handle bar was rarely going past 5 miles per hour.

As the miles were eaten up my average speed doubled and the handling of the bike improved. Edinburgh is built on a series of hills and it felt like on this particular day they had all joined up and I was continually climbing. This was good practice I kept telling myself.

I stopped every now and then to break out the video camera and film either myself talking nonsense, in what they call a piece-to-camera, or I'd set the camera up at the side of the road, run back to the bike, then cycle past.

By mid afternoon, after a total cycle time of just under two hours, I reached the end of Loganlea reservoir in the hills and set up camp for the night. The rest of the day was spent trying out the tech equipment, such as the computer, the Kindle book etc, before tucking in to a bowl of noodles and lamb casserole.

The following day I had to rise very early in order to break camp and cycle back into Edinburgh city for a university course I attend every Wednesday. At 6am the first of the days light touched the top of the tent signalling it was time to get up.

I stuck my head out of the tent only to find everything covered in a thick frost and the bike was completely white. After a good bowl of porridge I was nicely warmed up and quickly packed the kit, struck the tent and set off by 8am along the shores of Loganlea and Glencorse Reservoirs for what would mostly be a downhill run.

There wasn't a breath of wind as I cycled out of the hills, past the moored fishermen's boats, new born lambs bounding about, a dipper in the stream having an early morning wash, a heron waiting patiently and motionless and a family of geese with new borns borns waddling after their mum.

Just over one hour later I was in the centre of the city and downing a well deserved latte at Starbucks, well in time for uni.

Lots of little problems and enjoyable moments of living in a tent were highlighted by doing this all important trial run, but one thing stood out among all others: as I lay there in my tent, tightly bundled up in my sleeping bag, I was happy in the knowledge that being the Pentlands I was not surrounded by bears.

Boy is that about to change!