Tuesday, 20 October 2009

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine...

It was America. It was America... I didn't have the right voice for it, the right voice had smoked thirty a day through his two divorces, drank too much cheap bourbon, long ago shouted himself hoarse. I didn't have the right voice for it, the right voice would have thought me a faggot, or maybe just a faggit, with my bicycle, and a set of lycra warmers keeping my knees warm. Be that as it may.

It wasn't subtle.. It was there on the toilet door, days after arriving, the fly swat and the rhetorical question;

What do we do with flys? We squash 'em and kill 'em... We don't catch 'em and let 'em go. And that was in the liberal heartland of Washington, blue country... you come to learn that all liberals are Democrats, but not all Democrats are liberals. It wasn't subtle.. it was everywhere, big sleeves with hearts blazed all up and down them... Placards at the roadside 'a fair wage is a strong economy', 'abortion is murder' .. the churches had it going-on too, 'the bible is not yours to take and choose what to defy'.. Then there were the billboards 'Big lifestyle? skiing, hiking, mountain biking, friends, parties, kids, computers? You need a Big House' ... Money was everywhere, the country was painted green... Car dealerships took the trucks the owners could no longer afford repayments on, they weren't afraid to say as much 'we welcome bankruptcies'... Pawnbrokers worked hard into the night, under the sign 'anything of value'... You could get your bail bonds in a fast and friendly service, available 24hours.

It was America... it was the free world, the free market... that thing, invioable and true, pure as life itself... It sought out the greatest efficiencies and answers. You saw it up and down the highways... Adopt-A-Highway... Businesses paid out cash to have their brand on a signpost, and they got advertising, and the highways got cleaned.. it was perfect, perfect equilibrium. It worked in other ways too... A woman had caught cancer, and the free market allowed her to go with her didgeridoo to the farmers market, to play that didgeridoo, receive donations. Regrettably, she was pretty shit on that didgeridoo, but the free market had also provided didgeridoo lessons, so that she might improve, receive more donations, and eventually save up enough money to give to a giant insurance company in return for treatment, and the CEO of that company would take his fair share of the profits and pay a Mexican two bucks an hour to cut back the roses with his teeth and scrub the pool with his fingernails... those Mexicans, they were ruining America.

And so everyone got rich, trickle-down economics... soon enough they'd have to change the name to drip-down, so that people didn't start getting their hopes up... The problem was that nobody had any patience anymore.. It had taken the best part of three centuries for 3% of America, led by a handful of families, to accumulate half of the national wealth... three centuries, and now people wanted it to happen overnight.. it just wasn't realistic, it wasn't America, the American Dream, where you were long-suffering but eventually squeezed through into the money-lined fields of Elysium, where you hit the big-time and got to join that 3% who owned half of the national wealth. That'd be sweet, that'd be swell, and everyone wanted in on it, that 3%... but the problem was that, mathematically, only so many people could fit inside 3% before it became 4%, and even with 4% there would be a lot of people still wanting to reach the top and strike gold.... But that just wasn't it, that wasn't America, that was the beginning of a slippery slope, where one day you might even find 50% of the nation owning 50% of the wealth, and that was madness, a trade of the American Dream for the Socialist Nightmare. I wanted no part in it, and neither did the Americans. They wanted small government, and the social-welfare could be taken care of by Christina Aguilera, who was promising blowjobs, dressed in scarlet lipstick, to all those who gave a dollar to help turn hunger into hope.

But all that was skewed... America wasn't only about money, the Free Market.. America had values too, a notion of values that sat above the importance of any monetary or material asset. They had kinship, brotherhood, friendship, the helping of those friends, sticking together, thick-or-thin, to achieve the best possible results. And it worked too, the FINANCIAL CRISIS (!!!) showed as much.... Hank Paulson, former US Secretary of the Treasury was former CEO of Goldman Sachs, Timothy Geithner, new US Secretary of the Treasury had appointed former Goldman Sachs lobbyists as his Chief of Staff, as his advisers, a whole coterie of the fellows.. And it worked, sticking together like that, even when times got tough... Goldman Sachs had performed better than all their rivals in the face of economic downturn, their large rival, Lehman Brothers, had bitten the dust, a state-negotiated bailout of AIG had included funds that went directly to the repayment of a debt to Goldman Sachs... It was friendship, and you can't subvert something so special as friendship to the free-market, and it didn't pay to do so.

That was the city, or part of it at least, and then you hit the country, and you've seen everything once you've seen a roadsign that has one metal arrow upon it, pointing towards the primary school, and a second one, just beneath it, heading in the same direction, but towards the shooting range. Then there's the unfortunate coincidence, at the turn-off of 101, somewhere in northern California, where you get one sign for the animal shelter, and another, down the same trail, for the juvenile correction facility. It must have been convenient that way.

It was America, and it was the land of prohibition, of Prohibition... they still had a thing for the old prohibition stuff, it was all down the roadside. Private Property: No Tresspassing: Hunting and fishing prohibited... Parking Prohibited... Camping Prohibited... Photography Prohibited... Entry Prohibited, prohibited, prohibitedprohibited... If only some poor Iraqi had thought to put up a little sign saying 'bombing prohibited' ... or... 'It is prohibited to drop 20megatons of explosion upon civilians'... The Americans... they loved history, all down the coast, every bridge, a little sign 'historic bridge #47 - 1935' ... historic bridge #47 was made of concrete, with some little effort at a balustrade, but in general about as utilitarian as Jeremy Bentham reusing his tea bag... Still, it was historic, and that was what counted, for The Americans loved the history, the history of America, the seventy year old bridge made of concrete... over in Mesopotamia they'd come across history too, five millenia old, cuneiform tablets, the earliest forms of written communication. Bang. Looters. Gone. But they loved their history, the historic bridges of the coast.

I rode down that coast, through Washington, through Oregon, through Oregon, through Oregon. I want to ride through Oregon every day for the rest of my life, down that coast. You climb up into the redwood forest. Climb up. Climb up. The road sweeps round, hugs the cliffs, hugs the side of the hills, runs under the cover of the forest, and then you reach the top, and you pick up speed, lots of it, and you pick up more, and then you're sweeping back down the hillside, and ahead the dark of the forest is giving way to the light of the sun, and you sweep out of the forest, and the sun hits everything at once, and the trees are emeralds and the Pacific is sapphire, and it all glows white in the sun, and the Pacific is sapphire, and my god, the Pacific, it's such a fucking good name for an ocean, rocking and fluttering and sparkling away down there, like pages of books and stories and tales and gossamer yarns, and the sand is white, but not as white as the dusty trunks of driftwood, tossed upon the beach like dinosaur remains and whale skeletons. I would ride down those hillsides, and my head would fall to one side, and my nose and the corner of my mouth would lift in inquiry, my eyes would narrow a little. Really? Huh? I think there must be some sort of mistake. I died about five times a day, for a whole week, down the coast of Oregon.

And you hit California... you hit Garberville. Garberville happens all over the world, but it doesn't work the same in any other place. You get them everywhere, in towns and cities around the developed world.. They don't wash their hair, they mess their head with psychedelics, they wear sandals and thrift store clothes, talk in MAN, SAFE, PEACE, DOOOD... but they're standing on a pavement, outside a supermarket, waiting for the bus, they're waiting on the student loan company to refloat their bank's account, or waiting to get round to call their parents in search of the same service. Or they're past all that, and they're waiting on job-seekers allowances to do the same thing instead. I'm not judging, there's good people amongst that brood, but they're living a fiction, and it's obvious. Then there's Garberville... and you come out of the redwoods, and onto the street through town, one street, 250metres, and in the warm evening a couple of guys outside a bar are playing guitar and singing You are my Sunshine, and there's a kid playing sax, and there's an old movie theatre, and a noticeboard with the photo of some local felon with a tattoo on his chest, it reads, 'enjoying it was a good enough reason'.

I got a sandwich at the deli... there's a girl, driving down from Bellingham, needs to raise $500 to buy the car she's taken, or drive it back to Bellingham. There's a guy from Vancouver, was out at Black Rock, Burning Man festival, one week in the desert, dust storms, people walking up to one another in aviator sunglasses and masks over their nose and mouth, Mad Max, acid everywhere. Needs to raise the money to get back to Vancouver. There's a guy from Portland, left town when some propane explosion blew up a house and the marijuana harvest... Needs to raise the money for starting up down in Colorado, where the state just passed a bill on medical usage of marijuana. There's going to be good money to be had. And they're all in Garberville, Humboldt County, where people call one another cats, where it's an epicentre of US weed, local law-enforcement is in on it, and where the harvest needs to have the leaves trimmed off the bud. And so we're sitting around, talking, eating our sandwiches, and some kid comes by, and he's got a pile of thick hair tangling upwards, and he's got cocoa skin and a pair of jeans that are jumping off of his pubis, and he's got a girl in one hand, and in the other he's got a lead that leads up to his shoulder and winds around the neck of a feline that sits up there.. and he carried on his shoulder a siamese cat, and I know where he got that idea.

He asked what we were doing that evening. One of the guys answered

'Just chillin''
'Good... because when you got nothin else to do, there's nothin better than chillin' ... and sometimes, even when you have got other things to be doin'... there's still nothin' better than chillin''

And that was Garberville, and if it was fiction then it was certainly a convincing one.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Some plugs, some pictures, and a date of return.

Good evening people... a kindly Californian cyclist happened across me on the road this evening, invited me home for dinner with the family, and a couple of glasses of really brilliant local red wine later, I'm sleeping in the cottage in the garden, which even has a bottle of Guiness in the fridge.

This is not actually a blog entry in the sense that I'm going to write much of what has been going on, I'm aiming to do that later in the week, and am vaguely planning to write something more akin to the writing that I do as I ride, rather than the functional tone required of this particular post.

So I might as well start by mentioning the photos... we have a diner in the forest, flags of the confederacy and the northwest all about the place, it's the sort of haunt in which I've been taking my meals, and that particular one was run by an Indian fellow who had been adopted by hillbilly folk from Tennesse.. said that he was raised on biscuits and gravy and believes that many of the Indians are snobs who think that the world owes them something... he was also a fan of our monarchy... there's a photo of me up above the redwood forest of northern california... a dope capital of the US.. I've never been anywhere so chilled... Two photos of the Oregon coast... the most beautiful place in the world... don't go there... it'll ruin the rest of your life by making everything else seem bland, stale and ugly. We also have me in conversations with a giant redwood... he said he was 1300 years old and over 100 metres tall, with a life expectancy of another millenium... I said that I was 24 years old and trying to cycle 18000 miles as fast as possible... He said he couldn't understand why, but wished me well regardless.

And so the practicalities... I've had this in mind for some time, but someone asked me what I thought of my Tout Terrain bike, and so this has prompted me to mentioning some of the stuff that I'm riding with (some of which was sponsored, some of which wasn't).

Starting with the ToutTerrain frame... simply... it's sensational. If you ever want to ride a Rohloff hub then the frame is already designed with components that will accommodate the hub without need of a bundle of additional components. The steel frame is bombproof, and weight isn't an issue... once you load up a touring bike with 25kg of luggage then it's never going to be light, so you might as well get the added strength... The inbuilt rear-rack is a masterpiece... Americans call it 'bitchin'', and will think you very cool.. To be honest, they're right.. I've never known anyone to remove their pannier rack from their bike, so building it in makes perfect sense, improves the comfort of riding with the load, and strengthens the frame too. The masterpiece, in my mind, is a tiny collar that stops the handlebars swinging 360degrees and tearing at all of your cables if the bike falls over... As well as being really practical, this just sums up the way in which the bike was designed by people who know about riding and the many eventualities that can arise on the road... If all that still leaves you in doubt, there is also the fact that the bike is produced by a small firm, with manufacturing in Europe, and close contact with their pretty select band of dealers... In the UK, none other than Bikefix.

So what else then... my GPS tracker, from Donald at Adventure Trading Post, the UK distributor. It's called Spot, and, to be honest, it's brilliant... there's no pointless, high-definition screen to drain batteries (I've only had to change them once), the thing is indestructible and waterproof, it continues to work even when the Chinese sever your mobile phone, and for a modicum of communication it's absolutely everything you need, and no tedium over and above that.

Tyres.... Schwalbe... Jesus... I've had about 10 punctures... however... five of them, in the space of one morning, were due to a Chinese puncture repair kit that must have been using PVA glue, a further two were caused, I believe, by a burr of metal on my rim that snagged the tube as I was putting it in. This means that in 12000 miles, loaded with weight, one set of Schwalbe Marathon Pluses were only breached on three occassions by punctures, and one of those was a nail that would have punctured anything. 12000 miles! 3 punctures! That's a puncture every 4thousand miles! They're brilliant, and will save much roadside anguish. Together with the Schwalbes are my Mavic rims... Mavic make wheels for 500quid, or for around 70, and they're always brilliant.. Baker Street in Brighton built mine for me, as they have done all my wheels, be they for couriering or touring... I once had an articulated truck roll backwards onto my front wheel, and it punctured immediately, but the rim didn't buckle... With wheels you have the option of either spending 25quid a time for shit quality, or forking out more money for a wheel that will still be good after five crap ones have started flapping about like kippers out of water.

Ok... think that's that.... My return... is set... yes... I am coming home...My flight from Boston to Lisbon has been rescheduled for November 22nd, which means that I should stop drinking this bottle of Guiness, stop talking to attractive young women in bars, stop talking to cycling hobos at the roadside, and stop doing just about everything that makes travelling enjoyable... I suppose it's not all that bad... I'm looking forward to mixing it up with the deserts again, and there will, naturally, be fewer distractions that way, and the requisite of a different headspace that I expect to enjoy just as much, albeit differently. Reaching Boston on the 22nd should knock a further 8days off my ride time, putting me in Rouen, outside the Cathedral, at around noon on Friday December 4th....a total of around 165days for my troubles. Record breaking aside, I'm as bankrupt as the UK economy right now, and there's nowt like financial necessity to hurry me back to Europe and the wonders of 50quid a day as a London courier.

As my motley crew of followers is comprised largely of retirees, self-employed, unemployed and good-for-nothing students, I expect a good turnout, and if we could have a choir singing La Marseillaise then I would be most cheered and grateful to you all. Let it be noted that Rouen is a very beautiful city, an ideal venue for annual acquisitons of low-cost wines, and also home to a number of grand churches that look a little like Cathedrals... THE cathedral is opposite the (I believe, only) tourist information office, but just check with google maps beforehand perhaps.

Should you be interested in coming along... A few folk are riding there... Brighton to Newhaven is 10miles, it's 20quid for the crossing, and the ride from Dieppe to Rouen is about 25miles and very flat and easy... my brother undertook the task with a fractured forearm and a shit bike, and will testify to its ease. Alternatively, that same ferry crossing of course accommodates cars, there is the option of a Eurostar to Paris and a train to Rouen... Eurostar tickets can be purchased in advance for around 50quid return, and if you should fancy a combination of transport modes, they takes bicycles, with a very efficient service, for a price of 20quid. I am, as yet, unsure about a celebratory shindig in honour of my return, there's only so much centre-of-attention stuff that I can handle in one six month period... and I'm not very used to crowds these days, that said, if people think that it's a good idea, and it probably is, then leave comments in the blog or on facebook noting as much.

So yeah... I now feel a touch drowsy from this here alcohol and that there wine... but, to recapitulate, Friday 4th December, Rouen Cathedral, around noon ... There's a good bakery and cafe just across the way....

Perdition catch my soul but I will be there, and if I am there not, then chaos has come again.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Western World

Well... I'm back in the land of English... feeling quite strange about it all to be honest, not quite as euphoric as I'd expected. The people of New Zealand are an amazing lot, I'd like to think that it's not just down to the fact that there's only 4million of them in a pretty large area, and that people here are simply a bit more in touch with, and trusting of, human decency, certainly moreso than can be said of a place like London... not that that would be hard, London's about as attuned to human decency as a meeting of the interahamwe ... but anyway.

It's quite probable that my uncertainty about being back in the West was clouded somewhat by the weather. In general I went from humidity and monkeys to snow and winds from Antarctica, which was actually fine, as those winds and I were going the same way... that then seemed to change, however, to no snow (which is quite pretty, especially with red berries dotted amongst it) and plenty of rain, wind going the other direction, and blowing generally any way possible so long as it was in my face. I've ridden over some of the most cragged terrain of the whole route, and realised half-way over it that I'd been doing so with my rear brake-pad hitting the disc every rotation... I'm also losing my fingers to the delights of carpal tunnel syndrome, so it feels like someone else's hand is on the end of my wrist, a thing only very seldom useful and almost always discomforting. One way or another, it's been tough, but that's cool, it was never supposed to be wholly easy.

Possibly the biggest single change has been the food, and after the initial pleasures of finding a mediocre Indian restaurant on my first night, and a sensational fish and chips at Lockie's of Hampden (highway 1, south island, purple sign, right-hand side) ... it's generally just been really disappointing to realise that curries, stews and stir-frys, made with fresh vegetables, right in front of me, have been replaced by sausage roll a la plastique and steak and cheese pie a la plastique ... There's also a McDonald's, Subway or KFC at every turn, and, as testament to this healthy diet of us westerners, there are these humungous creatures walking around, and they look partly human, but they've got a great, bubbling bulge that leads them around, and a great, bubbling bulge that follows them around, and they shuffle from side to side in order to move forward, with their facial features obscured by slumping tubes of fat... I haven't seen anything of the like in 16,000km, and think that perhaps it might be some underevolved sea creature that has come upon the land.

This initial woe at the state of my balanced diet turned (with the help of the weather) into a bit of a general gloom about western society. Because in all of the poor countries I've been trapsing through, people seemed to have more time to mill around, people seemed to be happier (I'm sure that there's a complex causative relation between these two points, just can't quite put my finger on the econometrics), people are certainly healthier, more relaxed, it's still warm when it rains, and old people aren't left standing in shops waiting for someone to wipe away the dribble that's rolling down their chin. In the west we've traded all of this for... I'm not quite sure... road safety rules, when driving however you fancy must be quite fun anyway... and not dropping litter, which would often be quite convenient... It's a raw deal for certain.

The kazakhs had a good t-shirt being worn around Almaty, it said 'no money, no crisis' ... and indeed, roll on poverty is what I say, all we have to do is sit back and watch the food improve, and as the governments of the western world have entrusted economic resurrection to the same stellar crop of bankers that have obviously performed so well in recent times, I'm quietly confident that we'll see menus picking-up within five to ten years.

I was also thinking a fair amount about westerners and our peculiar mentality as I rode through the hills, in the wind and rain, feeling about as comfortable as a calf in a veal crate. In short, it was definitely closer to suffering than anything in the miles up to now... it made me think of a guy I saw in China, when the desert threw up some hills and mountains for variety. In China they have a sort of three-wheeled scooter, with a big crate on the back, so that the thing becomes a little like a cart. Some unfortunate chap had had his three-wheeled scooter-cart break down on him, and as I rode by the fellow, who would have been thinking about going to collect his pension had he been born a bit further west, was pulling it up a hill, with his hands on the handlebars, and a strap tied to the cart portion of the vehicle and strapped high around his chest. The poor bastard had a face that looked like it wished it was dead, and an excitable vein in each temple that looked like it might well make his wishes come true come the top of the hill. But anyway, I rode by him, preparing to ride my 100 daily miles through a desert, making my life infinitely more difficult than it would ever need to be, for the sake of pretty intangible things, while that old chap just got on with what was his daily life anyway. There's definitely nothing more weird than a westerner.

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