Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Myths & legends

All across the United States over the past three and a half months I'v been warned of various things to be cautious about, ranging from people to places and wildlife. As my journey has progressed I began to wonder how much of these warnings were exaggerated Chinese whispers or simply myths.

Before I came to the States for this journey some friends back home had me believe that I was entering some sort of militarised zone, such was the proliferation of firearms ownership in the US. This was not a safe country to be travelling in I was told, to such an extent that maybe I would be better having a stroll down Main Street, Baghdad. The reality could not be further from the truth, and I think those that fear America in such a way just don't understand it and maybe watch a few too many movies and accept as fact too many conspiracy theories. In my opinion these people are way more scary and dangerous. It has been the highlight of my trip over the last three and a half months meeting the people of America and being part of their lives. Without exception they have been so friendly and helpful, volunteering to help almost before being asked.

As the miles were eaten up pedalling west I began to receive warnings about passing through Indian reservations in Montana. We would sit and plan our route to be able to pass through certain "dodgy" towns in a day, and would sigh with relief when we had done so. But actually there was never a problem. The towns and places we passed through do have very high unemployment, sometimes as much as 90%, but I think the danger we faced was again exaggerated. It's possible that in the past that one or two incidents have been reported and the facts grew arms and legs. Before long these places were advised as no-go zones. I'm sure that they are not without their problems but I can't help feeling sympathy for the good people who live there who must be weary of all the bad publicity. We visited a traditional Indian Pow Wow on one occasion and were welcomed warmly.

Back in Boston I purchased a very expensive can of bear spray, powerful enough to stop a grizzly bear in it's tracks apparently. For the first few weeks I made sure it was close at hand, ever alert for a pissed-off bear hungry for the taste of human flesh. For weeks and weeks and weeks I saw nothing, heard nothing. Not even the snap of a twig. So many people had told me stories of battles with marauding bears and yet once again I was experiencing the opposite. Then on the 25 August a 600lb black bear entered my campsite and proceeded to demolish a large dumpster just 30m from my tent.

OK, so maybe some stories aren't all myth.

Friday, 19 August 2011

And there it was

For the first time today, after more than 3,000 miles, I had my first view of the Rocky Mountains. I couldn't believe it. All this way, all this time pedalling, and there they were. Still 100 miles in the distance but a milestone nonetheless. But that didn't eclipse something that had happened just 10 miles before.

I had stopped on a remote section of highway 2 here in western Montana, about 20 miles east of Shelby, to film the passing of an Amtrak train, an American icon, a shot I'd been after for some time. Plenty of freight trains in the can but the Amtrak only passes through once per day, and never on time. I don't know why they bother to publish timetables to be honest. On this occasion it was 3 hours late!

Anyway, eventually, having waited for an hour in the blistering heat, it went passed and I captured the shot. Pauline had left me to get on with it some 45 minutes earlier, so I set off to catch her up on my own.

For company I decided to listen to some music on my iPod. I set it to random and what should play but a song by the Pet Shop Boys called, appropriately, Go West. The rhythm of the music had me cranking up a few gears and I was flying along the open road. It stretched out before me for miles in a perfectly straight line. It had clouded over, so the heat had subsided a few degrees and the headwind I had been fighting died down. As I ate up the miles, In the distance, I spotted the telltale sign of three lights in a triangle formation, the leading lights of a freight train locomotive approaching.

Just as it reached me the clouds parted, a shaft of sunlight beamed down onto the front of the freight train. I raised my arm and waved and the engineer sounded the trains horn in response, the music played, my bike grew wings and I flew through the vast emptiness of the beautiful Montana landscape.

And then it happened.

I found myself crying, and yet smiling from ear to ear. I felt at one with everything around me, all in perfect harmony. There it was. The perfect moment. After 3 months, 3 days and 3,000 miles, the perfect balanced moment of emotion and joy. I couldn't help the tears. All my troubles, frustrations and fears melted away, and dare I say it, I was happy. I pushed on to meet Pauline, my best friend and my soul mate, whom I owe so much to and have shared this journey and wonderful life experience with. And we're not finished yet.

Tomorrow we will start our pedal toward Glacier National Park to cycle over the Going-To-The-Sun road across the Rocky Mountains.

Bring it on.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Big, Bigger, Biggest

The dictionary gives the definition of big as being of great size or number, of great power or volume, or significantly important. It seems to be the right word then to apply to the oil fields we have travelled through, the trains that have sped past or the skies of Montana, but big doesn't seem, well, big enough a word.

If there's one thing America does well, and boasts about, it's doing things big. Be that trucks, RVs, burgers, buildings, trains or landscapes, being bigger or having the biggest is perceived as better.

Certainly no one would deny the significant importance of oil, or the power its immense volume of reserves gives the companies that own the mineral rights, but the chaos connected with the oil boom, that is currently consuming the city of Williston and the hundreds of square miles surrounding it, would suggest all is not quite right. I was fortunate to speak to one man, who I will not name, who is a principal engineer on the front line. He told me that although the oil industry tries to portray an image of safety and environmental care, it is far from the truth. The formula of the material pumped into the ground in western North Dakota in order to extract the oil, is a type of sand and "other" chemicals, the constituents of which are a closely guarded industry secret. Given the number of companies drilling and the vast numbers of people involved, I cannot help but feel that this is flannel and an attempt to cover up the pollution being created. I posed this question and the reply confirmed my suspicions, with the added note that a blind eye is turned because of the demand and urgent need and that the oil industry deserves all the bad press it gets.

Watching this smash and grab approach in the desperation to extract as much black gold as fast as possible, in an effort to make as much money as fast as possible, is in direct contrast to just 100 miles to the east, in the town of Minot. Here was a town on it's knees desperate on financial support. The contrast and irony of the situation in such a small geographic area did not escape me.

The face of western North Dakota is changing forever. 5,000 oil rigs today will become 25,000 in a few years. Should the oil price fall then everyone will down tools and walk away, leaving a graveyard of ugly drilling rigs and nodding pumps across a vast area. North Dakota has seen more than its fair share of face lifts in tis history, with the Native American being squeezed out and lands stolen, its empty landscape then being riddled with hundreds of nuclear missile silos, to finally being stripped of its valuable mineral deposits. The oil will run dry one day and what will remain will be a toxic wasteland.

The vast plains of Montana certainly deserve the famous tagline of Big Skies, but again big just doesn't seem the right word. For the first time in crossing North America I witnessed vast areas of land not being used across this, the 4th largest state in the US. Not that long ago this land would have been populated with Native Americans and millions of migrating bison, described by one Native American as "the supermarket of the Indians", due to the fact everything they needed came from this big beast. The demise of the bison, thanks mostly to the indiscriminate slaughter by the encroaching white man, was therefore bound to lead to the destruction of life as they knew it for the Native American. In terms of passage of time it still surprises me to remember that it has only been 120 years since they were conquered and pushed into ever decreasing reservations.

The final nail in the coffin of the Native American's way of life, and the start of colonisation of these great plains by the white man, was of course, the railroad. First the Union Pacific then later the Pacific Northern, connecting Chicago with Seattle, completed in 1883. Through Montana we follow the original line of this significantly important railroad and it is not difficult to imagine a time when the gigantic diesel trains of today were steam locomotives bringing new settlers from Europe to start a new life on land once dominated and cared for by a nation that had lived here for thousands of years in perfect balance with nature.

But thanks to the big changes that have taken place over the past 150 years, we will never see it's like again.

Bigger is not always better.

Monday, 1 August 2011

When Neighbours become good friends

Don't worry, I'm not about to write a blog about a popular Australian soap. In the past few days I have experienced a range of emotions as I came into contact with people who had literally lost everything in a recent flood that destroyed parts of a North Dakota town called Minot.

It was a privileged to meet and interview three residents that had been directly affected by the recent flood. The house of one man had withstood the rising waters and remained structurally sound and he felt "fortunate" that he was in a position to repair his home. A neighbour just two doors down had not been so lucky and his home was earmarked to be demolished due to the collapsed foundations, On the other side of town I visited homes that were over 100 years old and met one woman who had lost everything. Not surprisingly she was in total shock, just sat on the steps of what little remained, staring at the ever growing pile of rotting debris as her damaged house was torn apart. I heard heart-wrenching stories of dramatic rescues once the waters rose, not least of which was those involving pets, stranded helpless on the roofs of their homes. Happily reunited with their owners it is now they that need rescued.

It's unlikely to come from the insurance companies as I've heard they are not going to pay out. Now there's a surprise. In their opinion this flood was man-made.

And there's the rub.

The Souris River originates in Canada, flows south to Minot then turns north back into Canada to drain into Lake Winnipeg. The flow coming south can be controlled by a series of three dams, but I've been told that poor management of these dams resulted in a larger than usual volume of water accumulating, much it from a late melting snow pack. This volume was released with the knowledge it would flood Minot. The people had very little time to evacuate and save their belongings and when the waters hit more than 10,000 people were displaced. Property and possessions were lost but so too were hopes and dreams. The question remains what is to stop this happening again?

The affected people of Minot have been offered just one third of the financial aid that the displaced New Orleans people were given. The biggest difference could be said that no one died in Minot. I then ask the question, do we live in a world where someone has to die before we do the right thing?

The governments of Canada and America are wasting time, most likely stalling over who is to blame and who is responsible. They'll no doubt open an expensive inquiry that in five years time will present very few answers. Too often I hear the excuse that it's complicated. Well hello, of course it is, but you're forgetting, this is your people and you are both equally responsible. You need to put aside your differences and learn a little compassion. Real people with real lives need your help.

Take a leaf out of the people of Minot's book. Neighbours that just simply knew each other before now have a bond of friendship that wild horses could not pull apart. Any differences that may have existed before have been eliminated and they are pulling together to rebuild physically and emotionally.

As I've cycled across America I've been met with nothing but kindness and generosity. I'd like to think that the governments can extend that to their own people. or are they too busy solving other countries problems?

So forget about your pointless and petty politics across the borders and join hands to do whatever it takes to rebuild lives and prevent this ever happening again.