Thursday, 23 June 2011


I've noticed that readership of my blog has started to drop dramatically and I have deduced it is because I went from eclectic topics to basically just one topic: the North American cycle.

So I've decided to revert to my usual style. My blogs are always influenced by every day things that happen, so obviously they will be viewpoints influenced by North America. If you want to know the details of the journey then please click the link on the right to The Bicycle Diaries.

So, in my opinion...

As I've trundled along on my way without a care in the world pretty much, my thoughts become more and more filled with the stuff we fill our lives with. At times unnecessary stuff. In fact, mostly unnecessary stuff.

I wear the same clothes every day, occasionally laundered of course, and change into one other set of clothes in the evening. I've done that for 6 weeks now and frankly, so what? How much of our disposable income do we spend on the latest fashions, only to wear it once and then clutter our closets with them. Oh the horror if we should be seen in last years shoes!

Given the financial state of the world and the ever chaotic weather patterns that are a part of global warming, you'd think we would be looking to simplify and therefore reduce the impact and stress on the planet and ourselves. But I find the opposite is true.

We've all heard of, and used no doubt, the "Drive Thru's" of fast food places, but I was surprised to find Drive Thru's for pharmacies and even banks! A Drive Thru bank for goodness sake! Sounds like a plan for a team of bank robbers! Are we really that lazy that we cannot park and leave the air conditioning of our vehicles to walk 10 feet to a cash machine? It would seem to me that competition for our hard earned money is becoming ever more fierce and there is the perception that if your business does not have a Drive Thru then you're doomed to financial failure.

Of course it's the love of the car that fuels all this. American towns and cities over the last 100 years have taken advantage of the abundant space available, so much so that now towns and cities are spread across vast areas, with very little attention to design and landscaping never mind convenience and they have created an environment where you have to have a car.

And the car is king. I went to McDonalds a few weeks ago and for fun decided I would take my bicycle through the Drive Thru. I was greeted with: "We don't serve bicycles at the Drive Thru, only cars".

Long live the bicycle.

Friday, 17 June 2011

1000 miles

From Niagara Falls to our next destination of Warren on the northern outskirts of Detroit was originally planned as following a cycle route along the southern shore of Lake Erie and through Cleveland. However, we changed plans and in essence took a short cut across Ontario.

Our stay in Lewiston on the outskirts of Niagara Falls was all too short. Kris and her daughters were great fun and we met two of her friends Dan and Ellen, sharing drinks, barbeque food and stories. We had only just met but after two days they felt like old friends.

We enjoyed great coffee at the Orange Cat with Ellen on our way to the Canadian border. The Canadian side of the Falls, though giving a front-on view of both, is far more commercialised and I found myself preferring the American side. Just 30 miles south from the Falls, down the Niagara River shore line in Ontario, we dropped our bikes off at Steve’s Bike Shop for overnight repairs. I decided after all my problems with the bike to replace both hubs with new, sealed, high quality ones, good for the remaining 3,000 miles.

The roads across Ontario are in good shape though one could call them boring as they go on for 20 miles at times in a single straight line, but they were easy cycling being predominantly flat. So you’d think clocking up more miles per day would be on the agenda, and indeed we had it in mind to achieve upwards of 60 miles per day. However, a clue to the obstacle in our way was on the horizon. Vast numbers of enormous wind turbines, all orientated in the direction we were going. Virtually every day of the week in Ontario was met with a strong headwind, and added to the inconsiderate drivers who rarely pulled out to make room for us, leaving us feeling overall that Canada was not bike friendly, made our cycling days a real challenge.

The campsites varied enormously, from pokey, grassless and dank spots, to sunny and breezy little grassy knolls. One thing they all had in common however was the price. Almost double that of the USA. Groceries were also expensive and added to the money we had to pay out for our bike repairs was making this short section an expensive one.

We followed the northern shore of Lake Erie just beyond half way to a small town called Port Glasgow. Scottish place names kept popping up with great regularity and we would see signs for Selkirk, Iona, Elgin and the likes, every day.

On the day we were pedalling from Port Stanley to Port Glasgow we passed our 1,000 mile marker and had a moment of reflection, which was quickly broken by the fact we still had more than 3,000 to go! Our last night on the shores of Lake Erie was admiring a full moon in a star-speckled sky, it’s reflection shimmering across the vast lake, followed the next morning by a glorious sunrise.

From Port Glasgow we turned north. The headwind had become a tail wind and so we set our sights on the border. We had struggled all the way in Ontario to get internet access and find grocery stores, until we pulled into Newbury and Monte at McNaughton’s DIY store. He visited Dumfries every year and welcomed us in with open arms and gave us the use of his computer and guided us to a grocery store. It renewed my faith in the Canadian people. By early afternoon we were on a small car ferry making the 10-minute crossing at Sombra to Marine City and our first stop on American soil was Gars Bar for thee largest and most delicious burger I’ve ever had. I could feel my arteries narrowing with every mouthful.

After a nights stay in a nearby campground, fantastically cheap compared to Canada, we set off to face what we knew in advance would become a nightmare on a bicycle: the car-congested streets of Detroit. Thankfully we were not going all the way in as not only would it be even less bike friendly but the crime levels would have seen us lucky to leave with our wheels still attached. Despite only being on the outskirts it was still crazy and many drivers shouted abuse at us as they passed. My stress levels were increasing rapidly and when one passenger decided to spit at me I snapped. I pulled over, furious, shouting and cursing. I grabbed the cell phone and was about to dial 911 when the Sheriff pulled over. We discussed with him our problems and he was embarrassed that as visitors we were being treated so badly and admitted it is a problem.

We pushed on to a Specialized store for my third visit to a bike repair mechanic and left the bikes overnight. They then very kindly took us and all our luggage to our final destination of Pauline’s uncle David in Warren. Ahhh, all-American friendliness at it’s best.

So now we are camped with Scots ex-pat David in his home for 3 nights in a real bed and fluffy real towels. All too soon we will be back on the saddle and heading northwest to Luddington to meet up with the SS Badger steam ship that will take across Lake Michigan

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Over a barrel

Syracuse seems such a long time ago now yet only a week has passed since then. The remainder of the trail alongside the Erie Canal continued to be a joy and thankfully no more crashes, from which I still have a painful shoulder.

The generosity of the American people also continued. We had stopped for the night beside a small marina where we could camp for free and I had just started to tinker with my rear brake problem. Just as I was about to resign myself to an expensive repair in the next bike shop, Josh from the bike shop in Brockport happened by out on a run. Within twenty minutes he had my rear brake all fixed and payment was a handshake and our story so far.

The following day was a sluggish for us both as we set off for the last stop on the Erie Canal, Lockport. On the way we dropped in to our first real American diner in Medina before checking online using a local wifi connection for somewhere to camp that evening. A number of months ago we had joined the network Warm Showers, which is a group of like-minded adventurers who offer a free bed and shower etc. We found one in Lockport under the names of David and Kathy Greenfield. As members of Warm Showers the etiquette is to give two weeks notice but on this occasion we were asking David and Kathy with just a few hours left in the day. No problem said David. After a monstrous vanilla milkshake in Lockport city we set off for David and Kathy’s house. We had just turned the pedals when they pulled up beside us in the main street! They were an absolute delight and it was a great luxury to have a real bed for the night and a real towel to use for a shower.

We bid farewell to our new friends and set off for our destination that day, Niagara Falls. Although it was only 25 miles we were battling a strong headwind all the way, which slowed us down to a crawl. Finally though we pulled into the city of Niagara Falls. All the time I was wondering how we would navigate our way to the falls, when ahead of me, rising above the buildings in the distance, was a billowing cloud of water spray.

Even though most of us have seen this natural wonder in books and television and occasionally in the movies, nothing quite prepares you for the natural wonder itself. The roar and sheer power of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per second cascading over the edge is incredible. At the American Falls there are points where you can get to within just three feet of the rushing torrent and it sets the heart racing. Why anyone has ever thought it was a good idea to go over the falls in a barrel baffles me, but many have and some have lived and some have died. Their choice of falls is the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, which was out next destination just a ten-minute walk away. From the American side you don’t get a great view of either falls to be honest, so I decided to dig deep and pay for a helicopter ride high above, the result of which is included in my latest video diary on the website.

Way back on the 28 May we met a great couple Connie and Tom at a campground who put us in touch with their niece in Lewiston, Kris. Lewiston is a very pretty little town north of Niagara Falls steeped in history. On my day off I had a lot to do in terms of servicing the website and missed out on seeing the best of it, however Pauline was able to indulge and I’m sure her blog will fill in the details. It was here that we spent a great two nights, and I wish we could have stayed longer. Friends popped round, namely Clair, Ellen and a local police officer Dan, who very kindly gave me a collectible police badge from Niagara Falls as a keepsake of my visit.

Fed, watered and laundered, we bid farewell to them all and after a quick visit to the Orange Cat coffee shop, hit the road to cross the border into Canada.

Which is where we are now. Today our bikes are in the mechanics shop being serviced and having a few replacement parts fitted overnight. Our first night in Canada is at a campground just west of Fort Erie and my first impressions of Canada are not good. Mainly I would say that opinion centres around the cost of everything. This evening we have a lumpy patch of ground to pitch our small tents on, which has cost a colossal $55. From my experience this is the most expensive campsite in the world. If I had driven a monstrous RV (camper van to my fellow Scots) onto the site and not required an electric hook up, it would have been just $5 more. I feel this is very unfair. As you can imagine I intend to say something before I leave.

Hopefully they won’t turn nasty and nail me into a barrel and toss me into the Niagara River.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

When in Rome...

We have just finished a great visit to Rome. Yes, you did read that correctly. Rome. With it's spacious piazzas', the Spanish Steps, the Forum . . . no, hang on a minute. I'm getting confused. It was Rome, New York state.

Our route along the Erie Canal has been relatively easy cycling, it being mostly flat, as one would expect of a canal. There are times when the trail for bicycles diverts onto the roads, which is anything but pleasurable with heavy traffic and up and down hills in direct sunlight at 80˚.

Our campsites have been mostly free as we are allowed to stay at the locks and most have had all the facilities we need. It is also a great pleasure sitting of an afternoon as the boats come and go being lowered or raised by the force of gravity.

As many of you know we have been concerned about being kept awake at night in abject fear of bears. However, we have been fortunate so far to have to camp in only a few bear-risk areas. I am, however, still kept awake at night. All through the night, roughly every hour, vast freight trains rumble past pulled by two colossal engines, some a good half mile long. Because the rail track is close to roads and paths and unprotected by any sort of fence, they blast their horns several times on approach. It's like having the funnel of the QE2 in my tent. Does wonders for the constipation.

We do have one blood hungry predator to deal with every night: mosquitos! Hundreds of the little blighters and they love my blood. At the moment my legs closely resemble an abstract Aborigine dot-art painting.

We continue to meet great characters and get some really great interviews. At Rome we visited an historically important fort that had been rebuilt on its original site called Fort Stanwix During the mid 1700s traders would come by boat up the Hudson River but in order to continue on the Wood Creek to Lake Ontario, they had to portage their boats and goods across land between the two, roughly a couple of miles. Therefore the area became a crucial place and had to be defended. until the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 which connected straight through. But Fort Stanwix continued to be strategically important in keeping the peace, which it wasn't always successful at and it also served as a jumping off spot for British troops advancing and fighting further west. This was an appropriate place to visit just a few days after Memorial Day, an event second only to 4th July.

The generosity of the American people toward us knows no bounds: Very recently we were struggling with finding a campsite, when out of the blue a complete stranger offered us his empty rental house for free for the night! Our heartfelt thanks to you, Doug Hewitt, for getting us out of a jam.

The best visit I feel we have done so far is to the Erie Canal Village. The canal creation is such a pivotal moment in history, affecting the UK and the US. It led directly to the war of independence due to its influence on cotton prices and taxes and yet so very few visit the canal and learn about its history. It only started to sink in a week into the cycle along it how important it was in the development of America. New York City would not be what it is today without the Erie Canal.

We're now in Syracuse and I am nursing an injury. I lost control of the bike, thankfully at a low speed, on some sand on a downhill bend of the towpath trail. The bike wobbled violently then the whole thing toppled throwing me to the ground, hitting my head hard (thank goodness for helmets) and then dumping all 40 kilos of itself on top of me. I escaped only with a bruised hip, shoulder, cut arm and slight headache.

Our chores are done and we head out west again tomorrow. No doubt we'll meet more characters along the way who will have questions for us about our trip. None will be as entertaining as one man's question, as I rode into the outskirts of Syracuse this morning:

"Hey buddy, is that a bicycle you got there?"