Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Big Smile to the End

On the last night before I left Maggie and Gaby’s in San Rafael, Albert had mentioned that he wanted to see some of the USA’s National Parks. I said that if he wanted to join me for a while, on the way back into the lower 48, I was planning to hit a few National Parks and make the most of my annual pass. I must admit, it came as a bit of a surprise, when I got an email a couple of days beforehand in Prince George, checking to see if I was up to meeting and going together to Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore. It was great news to potentially be riding with someone again, even if the extra weight over big distances would make the riding challenging.

After I woke up this morning at the Columbia Icefield to three degrees, (I don't mean the ones liked by Prince Charles), I spent all day riding downhill for more than 800kms, into the summer warmth of Montana, crossing the border into the Big Sky State and from winter to summer. I cruised on into the evening and camped in the lovely Glacier NP. The scenery and the warming, evening sunshine was spectacular, although there was little evidence of the eponymous glaciers, or of the grandeur of the north. I had a relaxing evening by the fire and started getting up at 5am, surprised to find just a glimmer of light in the east and sharp, clear morning stars and a setting crescent moon to meet me. Clearly my rapid south – east trajectory had dramatically shortened the length of the days. I hurried to pack up and was off to meet Albert at Missoula airport for 10.30am. On the way out of the National Park, one of my pannier – boxes disintegrates after the hinges break (again), which really pisses me off, as it requires yet more time -wasting strapping, whilst my fingers refuse to move with any dexterity in the early morning chill.

Still I make it to the airport in time to meet Albert, dressed in a mischievous smile and his flat – mate’s borrowed helmet and jacket. He’s also brought 2 fairly large bags with him, including his laptop from work, so after some more macramé on my part, the bike is strapped up. With Albert on board, the bike loses it’s adventure, over - lander height, and starts to ride and handle like a Harley Davidson low – rider. It also sounds rougher than normal and I have realised over the past few days that another set of tyres will be required before long. It is fine at speed as soon as we get out onto Interstate Highway 90, but stopping and cornering involve a lot more wallowing from the suspension and hauling around from my arms and shoulders. Nonetheless, despite being loaded up, we are in good spirits and off to Yellowstone. Riding with Albert around Butte, Bozeman and Coeur de Alene on my newly Harleyesque bike reminded me of the final chapters of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, although I am no Phaedrus and Albert is no Chris.

We pass signs for Cache Tete Jaune on the way to Yellowstone and a yellow colour theme seems to be developing, as I remember the calcium chloride, looking and smelling like mustard powder and compare it to the yellow wildflowers growing in the summer meadows being browsed by bison as we cruise by. Once again, we have dramatically under – estimated the distances involved and it is getting late into the afternoon as we rush through the randomly named “towns” of Phosphate and Anaconda before entering the Park. Yellowstone is the jewel of America’s National Parks. We are greeted by greater than average scenery Boo – Boo, almost immediately seeing elk, bison, nesting bald eagles and an osprey on the way over to Grant Village campsite from the west gate. We stop at the Paint Pots geyser area and get a dose of hot spouts of eggy steam. Apart from being packed full of great scenery and wildlife, we are slap bang on the continental divide, hence all the geological activity.

We pitch camp in our forested lot and then we are off, two – up, to the Lakeview Restaurant for beers, pizza and pasta and a good old yak. We chug back as it is getting cold and dark and are rapidly approached by Chuck from Fargo, North Dakota, riding a Buell Lightning. He did the trip, through the Badlands, in one day, which was quite a feat for a 59 year - old. He was a chatty old dog, who wanted to share our massive plot after having been told by the Boy Scouts that the campsite was full. He had waited until he heard a bike arrive and then made his approach. We shared some beers and he took some vodka from his hip – flask and mixed it with a bottle of Gatorade. We chatted for a while, but the chill and the long ride, without the draw of a fire, meant we were getting sleepy. He gave us some good tips on what to see on the way to Mount Rushmore the next day - e.g. the Devil's Postpile and recommended we get there for the dusk lightshow at the mountain. We left him putting up his tent in the dark and crawled into our tight little pocket of a tent.

Next day we were up at 7.30am after a cosy night together in the tent to find Chuck already gone. Apparently, he was off to compete in a sailing competition somewhere equally distant by midday, which was very impressive for an old – timer on a notoriously uncomfortable bike. We head off to get some breakfast and then check the schedule for Old Faithful and get there just in time to see it spout, as it does every 92 minutes, regular as clockwork. Back to the campsite and we are late for the 10am check out as we pack up and discuss whether we will make it to the appropriately named Mount Rushmore. The rangers stop hassling us to leave as a large male grizzly wanders into our campsite. There are about 6 ranger / shepherds for every bear, which seems a ridiculous proportion, but is the result of them having a restricted population of human - habituated, semi - tame bears. This is partly the fault of the National Park itself, which until the 1970's, acted as a pseudo zoo / wildlife park and used to organise public feedings. Anyway, this frisson of excitement is heightened on the way out, when we see a cluster of RVs and 4x4s clogging up the road ahead, mother grizzly and two cubs feeding by the lake.

We zoom around the lake and head through the still – snowbound mountains, through the east exit to Cody and Sheridan and onto Custer. Already the sun is lowering over the wind – rippled, golden sea of grass that surrounds us. We have to pass the Devil’s Postpile without stopping, which is a shame as the igneous column of lava from an ancient volcano whose softer cone has been totally eroded by wind and water sounded really interesting. Instead, we go straight through Custer without booking a motel and head straight up to the mountain in the chill dusk, just in time to see the impressive video and light display about Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Tired and dazed by the long journey, we head back to Custer and are lucky to eventually get the last motel room in town just as the night porter was shutting up the office. I quickly zoom around town and pick up some pizzas and beers, once again counting my blessings that I am in the US of A, possibly the only place so far where I would have been able to get bed and fed at such short notice this late at night, even here in the boondocks of South Dakota.

After greedily attacking our pizzas and slurping our chocolate stouts, we chat for a while and then succumb to slumber. Next day looking at the map, it is clear that to get to Denver airport by 8pm for Albert’s flight, we have some serious distance to cover, easily making more than 3,000 km in our 3 days of riding together. I am also concerned about the parlous state of my luggage, with every accursed plastic hinge and lock broken or cracked and needing daily lashing and re-lashing. My oil leak seems to be getting progressively worse and my tyre is getting seriously worn. I resolve to give my bike some much needed TLC tomorrow, as soon as I have dropped Albert off at the airport and I get myself settled somewhere. First, we zoom back to Mount Rushmore to use our 24 hour car park pass, see it in the daytime and take advantage of the well – provisioned canteen which has a great view of the Mountain. I must admit to having mixed feelings about Mount Rushmore, mainly about carving human faces into a mountain. But concerned about being too extreme about such things and not wanting to be accused of identifying with the Taliban, I conclude that it is the result of America’s need to create a cultural mythos that is missing? It doesn’t have the equivalent to an ancient Bamian, Petra, White Horses or Nazca Lines of other cultures. This attempt in the 1930’s, to fill this cultural void, at least from the dominant white, European elite of the USA, should be seen alongside those of other cultures in relatively early stages of their development of their own distinct identity.

We get back into Custer and check out before heading south through the shimmering green of the Great Plains, crowned by the rich blue firmament of a crystal clear sunny day. I entertain myself with the question as to where is the real West that I grew up with as a kid? Apart from the obvious answer of between north and south and to the left of the East, I had always assumed that it was further to the south and west, but here seemed more genuine for some reason. Was it the signs for Shawnee, “elevation, 4325 feet, population 1” or “Fort Laramie”, or the herds of bison on the plains or having been close to Deadwood, Wounded Knee and Sundance the day before that led to the feeling that we were riding through the true heart of the American West. We had also noticed over the past 3 days that the weekend – warriors we saw at truck stops and gas stations sporting Harley fashion (if that is not an oxymoron), formed a tripartite structure composing either a cowboy, a pirate or trying to look like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”. In a lot of the western states, helmets are not mandatory and we had seen a lot of harley riders wearing cowboy boots, chaps, waistcoats and cowboy boots and we couldn’t work out how they managed to get their floppy hats to stay on. The second “style” was following the pirate motif, with bandana around the head, skull and crossbone T-shirts revealing lots of tattoos and body piercing. Finally, there was the classic biker look, a la Marlon Brando, with leather jacket, blue jeans and cap with chain, but actually ending up looking like the biker from the Village People, a la Jean Paul Gaultier.

Once again, as the sun was getting lower, we chugged through Cheyenne and onto Denver International Airport. We stopped for a farewell drink after buying a cheap bag for Albert to take some more stuff back for me to San Francisco, including my stinking motocross boots, which were becoming way too hot in the western summer heat. It had been great to have Albert’s company for a few days and we had been to some great places, but I was resolved to take a day to give my bike some TLC and then take a nice steady pace over the following 4 days to meet up with Lena in Houston. Knackered and finding it difficult to focus, literally and metaphorically, as I rode into the setting sun out of Denver, I pulled over before reaching Colorado Springs into a non – descript roadside motel. I was glad to get off the corrugated highway, unclear whether the vibrations were due to my rough – running bike or the road surface itself. The motel had a pool, so after a refreshing swim, I collapsed in my bed and took a long, deep draught from the chalice of slumber.

Next day, I topped up the leaking engine and gear oils and was shocked to see that my buckled wheel from Ecuador was not only making the ride uneven, it was also wearing the tyre unevenly. On the way to drop off Albert in Denver after 3,000 kms, 4 states (Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado), 2 visits to Mount Rushmore and one night's camping in Yellowstone, they were definitely worn on the section I looked at. However, the section that I didn't look at until I spun the wheel really shocked me. The metal banding was clearly visible and even that was worn badly. So the rest of the day involved removing the wheels, hiring a car (one of those wannabe ZZ Top PT Cruisers) and getting new tyres fitted. Performance motorcycles seemed to be the only motorbike shop in Denver open on a Monday, where I was able to pick up a pair of Metzeler Tourances, fore and aft and Woody's Wheel Works down the road not only fitted them for 20 dollars each, they had a second hand rim available to replace my buckled old one which we agreed on for 250 dollars (I thought this was a good deal). Immediately the bike was running so much better it was difficult to imagine how I had been able to ride from Ecuador, through Central America and up to Alaska on what were one step away from comedy, clown wheels.

Made a cone from a sheet of newspaper and poured in half a bottle of hypoid gear oil. These small mechanical victories, may seem trivial to those of you with a more mechanical bent, but they are major steps forward for me in vanquishing fear. I also knew that I needed to clean the air filter as there was a rattling sound coming from it when accelerating. My upbringing, without a father in the house and without ever having a motorised vehicle in the house, meant that I was a mechanical novice. This was always going to be Neil's role and I was going to take the role of Spanish - speaker and blog writer, I guess those roles my upbringing in a female dominated household prepared me for.

Next day, I was quickly through Colorado, clipping the north – east corner of New Mexico and into the Texas Panhandle, during which time the plains and the mountains were left behind and I was back into the red rock and sand of the South - West. I went through the town of Shiner, (population 207), where I recognised the brewery of the same name. It’s Bock beer was one of the best on the trip so far and it was great, if a little odd, to ride through the small, dusty desert town that produced it. Where did they get there water from, let alone their hops and barley to make the beer? I was on my way to Amarillo, with the helmet – iPod playing the eponymous Tony Christie song, which seemed apt not just because of the geography, but also because I was well on my way to my rendez – vous with Lena – “every night I've been hugging my pillow, dreaming dreams of Amarillo and sweet Marie who waits for me”. There was a sign at the New Mexico - Texas border, which said “Drive Friendly, the Texas Way”. I saw another sign, this time of the God fearing attitude of the locals. Indicating a clear concept of right and wrong, based on the concept of sin, Texans seemed happy to adapt the word of God to their personal and social needs. On the side of the road, I saw a sign outside a church saying "My Way IS the Highway - God".

I was soon into the unremarkable outskirts of Amarillo, over a large hump – backed, steel – girder bridge and out again. Having made good progress, I stopped at another roadside motel that doesn’t warrant description and ate a pizza in front of the satellite TV screen. It was the first time I had spent an evening in front of the goggle – box for a long - time and I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the constant talk of recession on CNN (“issue number one”), revealing another great American fear, that of being poor. According to the American Dream, America is the land of opportunity. If you’re talented and hard working you can do anything. Every boy or girl could be president, get rich or fly to the moon. The flip-side of this belief is less beautiful. If you are poor, it must be your own damned fault. I think this is why it is so hard to combine the best part of America's economic and social system (openness, opportunities, meritocracy, etc) with Europe’s social safety net. In Europe, the well-off feel guilty about the poor. In America, the guilt is thoroughly laced with resentment, so a proposal to give the federal government another ten or twenty percent of GDP to string a safety net under the economy would be political suicide. Take the health-care example. In Europe, all but the most extreme right-wing parties support universal health care underwritten by taxpayers. In America, it seems more like the domain of lefty ideologues. To Margaret Thatcher, universal basic health care was a no-brainer; to Ronald Regan it was a non-starter.

Regardless of the why's, the facts are clear. Most poor Americans had poor parents and most rich Americans had rich parents – just like every other developed western country. Intergenerational transmission of income inequality is the jargon for this. Plainly there may be some natural selection component. Tall, strong and beautiful people tend to have tall, strong and beautiful kids; smart people tend to have smart kids, etc. And all these features are associated with higher incomes. However, the research shows that even controlling for a person's observable features, a parent’s income is a strong predictor of their children’s incomes. If we are ever going to get beyond the "your own damn fault" reasoning, we will have to illuminate the social mechanisms that perpetuate income inequality. From my evening’s viewing of CNN, it was also clear that Barack Obama was doing the best job of articulating this fear, but he really didn’t seem to be half as clear about what he was going to actually do about it. This view also affects the US approach to luck too. Good luck in life is due to your own personal efforts whereas bad luck in life (investments, health, even relationships) is the subject of litigation to ascribe fault to someone else. Luck in the sense of random chance has to be experienced, which is why gaming is so big in the United States.

Up and out the next day, I met Mike from Indiana on his new Triumph Bonneville. He clearly wanted to travel together that day, but I ignored his suggestions as I wanted to make good progress, was focused on meeting Lena in 2 days time and was enjoying riding solo after the great weekend company of riding with Albert. I had noticed since making it back into the lower 48 that the only people who come up to me to talk are either from out of State (Chuck, Mike) or Canadian. No - one locally comes to talk with me, they just stare at me intently from the safety of their car. When I stare back and nod, they look away and ignore me. Not since that other oil - rich, conservative state (the Islamic Republic of Iran) have I felt like more of an outsider.

Not wanting to linger, I headed to Lubbock Texas, which I thought sounded more like a 1970's police show than an actual place. It wasn’t until lunchtime, when I passed through Big Spring, that I stopped for a BBQ, my first meal of the day. It could have been the heat or the lack of anything but America – Generica fast – food outlets that meant I didn’t stop before. As soon as I got into the air – conditioned, family – owned place and had washed my hands and face, that I realised I was HUNGRY. Texan BBQ is made with beef brisket and sausage, and mine came with pinto beans and fried okra on the side too. I really enjoyed this rib – sticking meal and was looking forward to comparing it with the Southern BBQ made with pork ribs instead of brisket when Lena and I would be travelling together. Riding through the sleepy afternoon heat, I kept going until Boerne, just outside of San Antonio, attracted by the alluring combination of a motel and a UPS store visible from the road. The motel allowed me to have a scrub and wash up, even going so far as to trim my scraggly beard, all in preparation for meeting Lena the next day. The UPS store allowed me to reluctantly send off my bike documents at the insistence of the shipper in New York who was going to send my bike home in a fortnight’s time.

I was up early the next day, keen as mustard to get going in the cool hours of the morning and take in The Alamo before heading off for the few hundred kilometres to Houston International Airport to meet Lena at 4.25pm. I got to the surprisingly small Mission at the heart of the Alamo, it’s white stone façade, still pock – marked by munitions looking golden in the early morning light. Unfortunately the romance was destroyed by the posters all around proclaiming, “The Alamo - the price of freedom, IMAX experience, relive 13 unforgettable days of history”. Well I only had a couple of hours, so that was out of the question. The romance was also crushed by the blurring of the history surrounding the battle and it’s subsequent use as a propaganda tool, from the Battle of San Jacinto right up to the modern day. In 1836, after becoming President in a military coup, General Santa Ana suspended the Mexican Constitution of 1824. The northern provinces of Mexico, principal amongst them Zacatecas but including Texas, rebelled. Santa Ana went north to crush the rebellion and had done so successfully until he reached Texas. James Bowie was the rebel leader at the Alamo, when he fell ill, William Travis took over. Davey Crockett was also famously there - all the major Norteamericanos from outside Texas, Loiusiana, South Carolina and Tennessee respectively. Juan Seguin was a Tejano and a courier, along with Toribio Losoya, who was a native of San Antonio de Bexar as the town nearest to the Mission was called. What is interesting is that at that stage the rebels were protesting at the suspension of the 1824 constitution and not to secede from Mexico. Only later once the Alamo was used as a propaganda tool by Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto some weeks later.

Eschewing the opportunity to buy a raccoon – tailed Davy Crockett hat and a replica flintlock musket, I got on my bike and headed due east towards Houston, feeling the heat and humidity as I rode parallel to the Gulf of Mexico littoral. The Sam Houston Parkway ring road was a massive 12 – lane highway in parts, interspersed with toll – booths and speeding car – drivers anxious to get home in the mid – afternoon on the last working day before the Independence Day holiday weekend started. Taking longer than expected, I eventually parked up and got into the arrivals area. Waiting for Lena in the airport with flies, rather than roses, in my teeth, I realised I was pretty smelly too as all my clothes had been mashed in the bottom of the shower or in various rivers since the start of the journey and were no longer getting a proper clean. All these silly anxieties melted away as I saw Lena come through the automatic doors and immediately all was in place for the end of the journey. Lena had brought 2 holdalls with her, and with these strapped to the top of the panniers and the best pillion passenger in place, we went against the busy traffic into the downtown and up to the door of the Hotel Zaza. Lena had been busy on the internet booking some great places for us to stay in, normally at discount prices and the Zaza was no exception.

It was the sort of hotel that you felt immediately at ease in and after a long hot shower and lounging around in the complimentary robes, we were in for the evening. In the morning, we went out into the sultry heat of the Museum District of Houston and just about made it the 12 blocks or so to the Breakfast Klub before we melted. The large portions of soul – food were great, especially as they were served in a lively atmosphere with some powerful AC. The rest of the day was spent looking around the Mark Rothko Chapel, Sculpture Garden and the Museum of Fine Arts - Houston amidst sultry weather and thunderous downpours. At one point in the afternoon, we got stuck under the entrance porch of an apartment building in some of the hardest rain I have ever seen. Then we went back to the hotel and enjoyed one of my favourite things – swimming in a pool during another heavy downpour. The rest of the evening was spent on our balcony enjoying the 4th of July fireworks, with a great view of the flat, griddled city spread out before us.

Next day we went to the Houston Space Centre, which was great to see the sheer size and power of the Jupiter Rockets up close and the mission controls and artefacts too. Some of the iMax films were also great too, although it was really hot and humid there as it is right on the Gulf Coast on the way to Galveston. It was also odd that you had to wait to travel around on a plodding diesel tram between locations in a place dedicated to interplanetary travel and were short enough to walk in between as well. Welcome to America! There were also lots of exhibitions to mark the 50th anniversary of NASA, an organisation which shows the best and the worst of the USA. It was clear in the display about “America’s next 50 years in space”, that the USA wants to develop a permanent base on the Moon and / or Mars, mainly as a means to exploit the potential mineral wealth of those celestial bodies. After having been in Alaska less than a fortnight before, the American approach to land and nature is all about taking wilderness and exploiting it. The concept of long – term land stewardship that we are so aware of in Europe in particular, seems absent in the USA. Now that virgin land has effectively run out, apart from a few areas that are now under pressure (e.g. Alaska), the US plans to do the same in space. I think this is worrying on a number of fronts, in that it is the ultimate example of the use it up and throw it away approach to economic consumerism as well as undeniably leading to neo – colonial competition between the superpowers and continued environmental degradation for those of us who remain on Earth.

After another quiet night where Lena said goodbye to her jet – lag, we packed up the bike, said "laissez le bon temps rouler" and got ready to head off to New Orleans (N'awlins), the Big Easy, home of jazz, the blues, its own great cuisine and the most celebrated and most northerly of all the great Caribbean cities. Before we left, the 2 Peruvian doormen noticed the stickers on the bike, seemed amazed at the distance and the roads travelled and had lots of questions for us. It was great on a number of counts. Firstly, it was great to see Lena get involved in some of the conversations I had along the road so far – friendly people wanting to talk to you about your bike and your journey. Secondly, it had been a long time in North America since I had met people with any detailed knowledge of their neighbours to the south at all, apart from the misconceptions generated by fear – “did you get robbed?”, “did you get sick?”, “how bad were the roads?”, etc. Thirdly and finally, it was great to converse in Spanish again. Although it was little more than a month since I had crossed from Mexico at El Paso, my Spanish was very rusty, and it was great to have a laugh with these fun Peruvians in their own language, must to the consternation of the gringos within earshot, who really didn’t seem to approve of me speaking Spanish.

Anyway, we were soon zooming east I – 10, through Beaumont, into the big “L” shaped state of Louisiana, past Lake Charles, Lafayette and the State Capital of Baton Rouge parallel to the Gulf Coast. It was hot and sticky all the way as we rode through sugar cane fields and then over increasingly common elevated sections across bayous, lakes and swampy jungles. We took the interstate highway because of the heat, thinking the extra speed would keep us a bit cooler. This was probably true, but it was still horribly humid and we had to stop three times along the way and dive into little oases of air conditioning and to release the pressure on my bladder as I was drinking loads from my camel back. Firstly just before the Louisiana border we stopped for breakfast at a tacky but enjoyable family – owned roadside diner. Then near Lafayette, we stopped in a Popeye’s fast food fried chicken place, luckily just for a cold drink. It was the most filthy food establishment that I had eaten in, possibly since the truck stop in Penientes outside Mendoza in Argentina. There was food and rubbish strewn around the “restaurant” and persistent flies to accompany it. The toilets were full of unmentionables too but none of this seemed to put off the mountainous customers who eagerly tucked into buckets full of fried chicken, grabbing fleshy fistfuls of fries. This was our first encounter with so many consistently enormously obese Americans, an experience that was like walking into a surreal Beryl Cook painting and one that was to be repeated throughout the South in particular. Although I had to queue up for 15 minutes to get our drink, a flower – vase sized receptacle, but we were hot and thirsty and it was worth it.

We were soon on our way and zooming over and through the Big Easy on the elevated highway past the New Orleans Superdome that we recognised as the scene of the riotous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina some 3 years ago. Lena had booked a great motel on the internet a few days before, which ticked the 3 “C” criteria – central, clean and cheap and had the "Lagniappe", a little bit extra, of having a swimming pool too. We literally and metaphorically chilled out in the plunge pool, with a few Abita beers, the local brew, where we met some interesting people. There was a couple of ladies, who had driven overnight straight through from Milwaukee, pale and drawn skin, covered in tattoos and body - piercing and some great black kids who were busy bombing and jumping into the pool whilst their Mum and their auntie sat by the side, fully dressed in their bright Sunday Best, munching on fried chicken from big polystyrene buckets.

After we had chilled out, we went out in the late afternoon for a promenade around the Latin Quarter and alongside the Mississippi levee. We stopped frequently to enjoy more Abita, with its Belgian – style raspberry ale, “Purple Haze” being our favourite, and music. We also stopped for a few in the Old Forge bar, an allegedly genuine old blacksmith’s forge in the heart of the Latin Quarter. It was a great people watching spot. We also noticed, that unlike most of the rest of North America, N’awlins (and Memphis and Nashville) allowed you to walk in the street with a drink. N’awlins also had a loud and proud gay community, unlike Texas, and there were lots of Peruvian flags on display. Then feeling chilled in the approaching evening, we promenaded along Union Street, enjoying the street theatre atmosphere and music joints spilling onto the sidewalk, even though it was Sunday night. We ended up at the Red Lobster and shared a gumbo and a fried catfish. It was great to be out with Lena and sharing all the sights, sounds and food together. The gumbo was good and Leon our waiter, helpfully explained "Gumbo", where okra (from the West African kingombo) is used as a natural sauce thickener. We took our time over our meal, catching up on news and enjoyed our PPP (post – prandial promenade) through the city, still booming on Union Street and darker and quieter on the side streets.

Next day at breakfast, we had a motel – style breakfast and unsatisfied by the food I was annoyed intensely by an ignorant American sitting opposite. I listened, mouth agape, as he lectured a polite family of Germans, that Ronald Reagan was personally and solely responsible for the destruction of the Berlin Wall because he said "Mr Gorbachev, tear that wall down". Before I could say anything, Lena pulled me outside and we walked through the city, visiting some cemeteries, cafes and an interesting museum. I learned the origin of the word "Zydeco", one of my favourite musical styles, which comes from the verse of a famous cajun song - "Les Haricots n'est pas sale". Said repeatedly in a cajun accent, it gives you the word zydeco – try it. Then also the word "Dixie" was also interesting. It comes from the ten – dollar paper money printed in both English and French in Louisiana, the French being the most common, leading to the term Dixie for the South being used by Yankees. Lena also bought some great clothes from some of the unique little boutiques, most memorable was the Voluptuous Vixen. There were a lot of attractive women in New Orleans, whose confidence and assertiveness with themselves was one of the most attractive things about them and it was great to see Lena following the local fashion.

The afternoon heat had soon driven back to the hotel and to plunging into the pool for relief. On the way in, a couple of people were looking at my bike and one of them, cigar - smoking Dick from New Orleans, was the most engaging. He was a local who was living there because he had an argument with his wife and had been thrown out of his house. He rabbited on about some hare – brained internet business that he was investing in, as well as rattling through a raft of conspiracy theories. His skin was thin, tanned and papery, like the Cuban cigars he was smoking, especially stretched across his shaved bald head. Anxious to get out of the heat and back to Lena in the room, I made it know that I needed to move on and we parted with Dick saying, "come up and see me Dave in two - teehn, when you are free". I never did, and so missed the opportunity to share his cigars and more of his conspiracy theories. After a bout of afternoon cooling off, we headed out for more atmospheric and alcoholic promenading, ending up in a fantastic side street bistro for dinner. It had a d – shaped bar projecting like a prow into the room and an automatic piano, all decorated in pre – war shades of brown, from sepia to tobacco. I had the most enormous and delicious pork chop and Lena had a lovely seafood jambalaya, all washed down with some Californian Zinfandel.

Next day we were up and out heading along Highway 55, following the designated evacuation route north. We pulled off to take in a piece of the Natchez Trace Parkway with the heat and humidity hanging so heavy and solid in the air it felt like we were riding through the swamp itself. The parkway was lined with trees, bearded with hanging creepers and moss. Even in the daytime, it was very eerie and would have been even more so in the evening with swamp mist hanging across the road. I was happily singing Paul Simon's Graceland in my helmet iPod - "I'm going to Graceland. Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee, I'm going to Graceland. The Mississippi Delta lay out before me, shining like a national guitar...". Before long, having negotiated Jackson, Mississippi, we had gained some altitude and speed back on the interstate highway and were entering the outskirts of Memphis. Slowing down and chatting to each other about what we had seen, we both remarked at how many cracked windscreens and ragged burst tyres we had seen along the way. We pulled into the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, another place that Lena had found and booked ahead a couple of days ago. It was the old grand hotel of Memphis, but was most famous for its resident ducks. Every morning, they paraded from their “palace” on the roof, into the lift and down to the lobby area, across a strip of red carpet, past crowds of residents and visitors, standing 5 – deep and snapping wildly, and on to a day’s splashing in the fountain. Hilarious.

Still giggling, we walked through the afternoon heat to Beale Street, where we enjoyed some fall off the bone BBQ pork ribs at the Blues City Café. The service was as good as it normally was in North America, although we both noticed that it was rougher and more direct here than we had seen in Texas or New Orleans. Stuffed, we then walked to the Lorraine Motel, where on the 4th April 1968, Martin Luther King was shot. The instantly recognisable cream and turquoise motel front had been turned into a museum, which was shut. We hauled ourselves back to Beale Street and refreshed ourselves with some cool Shiner Bock. The people watching on Beale Street was brilliant. So many fatties were on parade in a bizarre array of stretchy, baggy, flappy and strained clothing that we were entertained for several more rounds of beers. Ironically, the favourite form of footwear was pretty consistently trainers. We were also entertained by some brilliant street acrobats, somersaulting and cartwheeling down the street. The young black lads had their shirts off and their taut, skinny muscularity contrasted with the puffy, flabby, slack bodies of their audience, staring under the lurid neon.

The next morning as we were leaving, we saw Robert Plant in the lobby of the Peabody, looking dazed and confused by the duck parade. We were loaded up and headed to Graceland, a surprisingly normal looking suburban villa from the outside. We parked up and stored our stuff in a locker before starting the tour. It wasn’t as tacky as I though it would be, although it was clear that Elvis had bad taste and, even worse, the money to indulge it. We stopped in the diner and had a banana and peanut butter grilled sandwich as the heaven’s opened, in the heaviest rain of the whole trip. As we waited for the storm to blow over, we noticed a small boy who had chosen to emulate his hero and was wearing a replica Las Vegas era Elvis jumpsuit. Or more correctly his grandfather's hero, who must have been the person who had bought it for him. We thought this must have be considered as tantamount to child abuse to foist your preferences onto a small boy who couldn’t know any better, although people do this all the time as far as religion is concerned.

The rain had passed for now and so we left and headed off to the I 40, the Music Highway, towards Nashville. We noted again the profusion of tyre debris and cracked windscreens on the side of the road as we made slow progress through the periodic rain and heavy traffic. All of a sudden, Lena started digging me in the ribs with more gusto than I had been digging into the delicious BBQ pork ribs the night before in the Blues City Cafe on Beale Street. Her Burberry Bag, (Posh New Bag was it’s name, as we have a tradition of naming all our luggage) had come free from its lashings on top of my panniers. Lena reported looking over her shoulder to see it bouncing rhythmically along the Music Highway as I throw the anchors overboard, taking a surprisingly long time to come to a stop in the wet on such a heavily laden bike. Running back along the hard shoulder, it was clear that it remained intact remarkably well and was being dodged in the outside lane by trucks and pick – ups. That was until just before retrieving it, a double articulated lorry, who was already overtaking, ran over it rather than sacrifice themselves to the central reservation. This sent Lena's pants scattering over the greasy tarmacadam. Fortunately, all fragile, expensive and technical items were still securely fastened the bike in the waterproof protection of the ortleib bag, so after several forays across the Music Highway, like a riffing plectrum across a bluegrass banjo’s fretboard, all was retrieved. As I waited for the next foray, standing in the grassy median, clouds of large crickets sprang up ahead of me, disturbed by what must have been an unusual human intrusion into their territory. We returned to the bike with our jetsam and came across a sad tortoise with his shell cracked on the side of the road and secured the tattered remains of the bag to the bike with a medley of zip ties. We stayed outside Jackson, enjoyed Zinfandel and a Domino's pizza delivery in our motel room as we re-jigged our luggage.

We quickly made it to Nashville, “Music City” at the end of the “Music Highway”, and stayed in the Best Western. Lena wore her country belle top from Volumptuous Vixen, went into The District and Broadway. Nashville is not only the “Music City”, but it is also the State Capital of Tennessee and so has much more of a big city feel. Buoyed by the success of withdrawing 400 USD from the First Tennessee Bank in the ATM lottery that had been going on throughout the USA, we went into a Honky Tonk and soaked up the atmosphere, once again helped along by some cold, cold Rolling Rock and Shiner Bock. After a while, the band, who took requests for every song they played, which was pretty impressive, lost their allure and we headed out again into the humid evening, with the neon on Broadway shining waxy in the moisture – laden air. We enjoyed a pulled pork dinner in a bar cum restaurant cum casino and then enjoyed a PPP tour of the terribly fascinating tacky gift shops, followed by more beers and bed.

Next day, feeling the worst for wear in the heat and humidity, we went to the surprisingly well – done Country Music Hall of Fame and returned via the First Tennessee Bank, only to be refused cash this time? The cashpoint lottery was really odd, but throughout North America, my ATM card worked once at any new institution’s hole in the wall, but never seemed to work twice at the same place!? At least I was getting the opportunity to visit some pretty obscure financial institutions. Since visiting the Graceland gift shop, there was also another added bonus every time I reached into my jacket for my wallet. Lena’s colleague and friend, Sally, liked to collect fridge magnets from around the world, and, of course, there were a fine range of that domestic art form available at such a sophisticated place. We were obviously interested in only the classiest musical varieties and after a lot of sampling and discussion in the shop, opted for the “Suspicious Minds” one, over the “Jailhouse Rock” and “Teddy Bear” options. The only problem was that I stored the said item in the only waterproof pocket I had in my jacket, along with my wallet. Every time I reached for my wallet, to pay for petrol, checking in at a motel, paying the bill at a restaurant, etc, the King started playing the 30 second climax verse from this classic track. Lena and I then felt obliged to explain that it was a gift for a friend and that we weren’t really Elvis fans and so on, to which we always received knowing looks. We were packed up and out way before the 12 noon check – out and on our way past Cookeville, Lebanon and Knoxville to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains, allegedly the USA’s most visited National Park. In a moment of weakness on the telephone months before, Lena had submitted to my pleas to go camping together for one night, something she wouldn’t normally entertain. I was glad that as we gained altitude and started to enter the hills and mountains, carpeted in thick forest, the heat and humidity subsided as we entered Pigeon Forge and, luckily, just missed the entry to Dollywood.

We were hungry by now and Lena pointed out a great Italian restaurant, where we enjoyed “salad” for the first time in the week or so we had been together, along with other culinary luxuries that we wouldn’t be getting, whilst camping. Fully satiated, we went onto the GSMNP and through the horrible Gatlinburg (full of mechanised fibreglass models of animated bears, hillbillies, banjos, moonshine stills, etc) to a nice campsite at Elkmont. We quickly set up camp and I went back into town, to fetch some supplies for the evening, where I had 2 encounters worth remarking on. Firstly, in the General Store, I was served by a skinny man, wearing a stained vest called Cletus, according to his name - badge. We ended up having quite a long conversation, as I couldn’t understand him much and he couldn’t understand me in return. After some gesticulation and interpretation from other customers, I gathered that the gist of the conversation was about my bike. Firstly, he wanted to know if it was good for attracting “females” (I assume he meant of the human species, but couldn’t muster enough resolve to try to clarify) and then, secondly, he wanted to buy my bike from me because he ain’t gone to see many of them there motorcycles round these parts afore, he’ll be darned.

Again, reluctant to explore his kind offer further, I left the shop, anxious to get back to Lena as soon as possible. Just as I came into the campsite, I was passed by the Park Rangers in a patrol car, who evidently turned around and followed me in amongst the trees and tents. Putting their flashing lights on, I stopped and was confronted by 2 Rangers in Boy Scout uniforms, circa 1921. Suffering from a bit of windrush deafness and pulling my helmet off to better engage with them, I found once again that I couldn’t quite get the gist of what they were saying. Trying to sound like a friendly buffoon, I smiled and explained that I was from Dubai, handed over my Dubai driving licence and all seemed to be going perfectly when they started scratching their heads and started talking about “a warning is all”. Then I made the mistake of putting my hands in my pockets, which led them to reach for their holsters and shout at me to “cease and desist”. Now, my Mum had always told me that it was a bad habit that I had got into when I wanted to get my hands out of harms way during awkward moments, but I never realised that this had been criminalised in the USA. Withdrawing my hands slowly I automatically found myself putting them in the air and jokingly saying without thinking, what did they think I had a gun or something, ha, ha, ha, which of course clearly they did. Anyway, things calmed down after that and after they had looked at the 2 bottles of wine, beef jerky, pork - scratchings, milk, bread and cheese I had got for our supper, I got off with a warning after promising not to reach into my pockets in public again, which seemed to please them.

Making it back to Lena and our tent after being away for a couple of hours by now, we sat by the fire and had a cosy evening with our picnic, before retiring for an even cosier night together like two peas in a pod in the deceptively spacious tent. I was gallantly using my motorbike jacket as a sleeping mat so that Lena could have both, which led us to get periodically serenaded by Elvis singing “Suspicious Minds” from Sally’s fridge magnet. Initially this was hilarious, but after the fifteenth time, we lost our sense of humour and it was lucky to survive the night. Then we were up early, getting packed up in the Smoky morning mist as I enjoyed making camp cappuccino coffee with my little espresso maker and the milk I had bought from Cletus the night before. We were out onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, which according to our new AAA map of “The East”, led us almost all the way to Washington DC. The Parkway was a lovely road, consisting of winding mountain switchbacks across the forested ridges and valleys. I was really enjoying myself in the sunny, crisp mountain air, playing “Take me Home Country Roads, West Virginia, Mountain Mama, Oh Take me Home, Country Roads” on my helmet iPod as we left the Smoky Mountains and headed North – East along the Blue Ridge through the Mount Rogers area and the Shenandoah Valley towards Roanoke and Lynchburg. The only problem was that it became increasingly clear that I was suffering from map scale delusions again. The new map was half the scale of the old one. So stopping for a sandwich at the next petrol station we decided to head for the main road, heading towards Bristol, Tennessee, which also took us ages and it was getting seriously dark when we rode past the Pentagon, largest office building in the world, and entered Washington DC at approaching 10pm.

Luckily in one of the most dangerous cities in the USA, we didn’t get lost and knew exactly where we were headed. Lena had booked ahead again at the Hotel Rouge, and thanks to the logical grid layout of Washington DC, with it’s lateral alphabetic avenues and perpendicular numbered streets. Dedi and Mehmet, the Sudanese doormen, met us and were very interested in the bike and its Dubai registration. They were cousins who had other members of their family working in Dubai, which led to a long conversation, some of it in my broken Arabic. As a result, they waived the cost of parking in their underground car – park for us, helping me unload and also letting us order from their kitchen, even though it was officially closed by that time.

The next morning we were out walking in the bright sunlight to see the Whitehouse, The Capitol and the Mall of the Americas – which Lena was disappointed to learn wasn't a shopping centre, but the central promenade on which the main memorials and museums were based. We stopped for brunch at the Native American Museum Canteen, for some brilliant indigenous American food. The smoked oat salad, cornbread, bison, salmon, wild rice and berry ice cream was lovely and quite different to anything else we had eaten so far. By the time we left the Museum, the weather outside was scorching and so we headed back to the hotel for a siesta before coming out again to do the western half of the Mall of the Americas. Those Freemasons clearly got everywhere in the USA, with the Washington Memorial, the tallest building in DC, standing at 555 feet and 5 inches. It is also noticeable in Washington DC that there are no McDonalds or other fast food anywhere and very few Starbucks in the central areas and consequently less fat people and litter than we have seen recently in the Deep South.

Torrential rain is on the way after ominous thunderclouds overtake the bright sunshine. We got soaked to the skin, but the views were very atmospheric at the Lincoln, Second World War, Korean and Vietnam Veterans memorials, before stealing ahead of another sodden couple to grab a taxi back to the Hotel to dry off and get ready to head out again for the evening. Turning back, once in the taxi, just in time to see Lincoln lit up in his rainproof, classical bus – shelter as the light switches on as it passes 7pm. Nonetheless, the Korean War memorial was my favourite, not because of the quality or artistry of the sculpture, which is actually not very good up close, but because of the design where you are placed amongst a platoon of soldiers on patrol for a uniquely insightful and originally unheroic perspective on war. All the neo - classical architecture we have seen during the day reminds me of the pre - classical aspirations of Mount Rushmore, and how the founding fathers clearly were concerned with the creation of a classic past for the new federal capital, especially designed to replace New York and Philadelphia. This clearly indicate a cultural need for the European elite to re-create a pseudo – European architectural heritage which patently did not include the indigenous natives of the USA, with the Native American Museum as a late twentieth century afterthought.

After recovering from getting soaked on the outside, we get a taxi to Scott Circle in order to get equally soaked on the inside. The Brickskeller Bar is in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest selection of beers in the world, allegedly with more that 1, 300 available at any one time. Whilst it was clear that some of the beers on the menu weren’t always available and some were mis-classified, with the sole Serbian beer actually being from Montenegro and some Welsh beers being ascribed to the English section (heaven forfend), I was like a pig in shit, poring over the menu. It was actually quite a nice place - not pretentious or fake, really it was enough of a dive to make me feel comfortable. Apart from being able to retrace the steps of my journey so far in ale with Lena, we ended up concentrating on some of the excellent American microbreweries. Bar Harbour Blueberry Ale from Maine was excellent – strong and fruity, as was HighRollers Wheat Beer from California – fresh and light, ideal as summer beer. Two more of my favourites were Brekenridge Oatmeal stout from Colorado and Buffalo Bill Brewery Orange blossom Cream Ale from California, which we both thought had a startlingly tangy taste. Each beer was ordered from a menu and brought up from the cellar a few minutes later, and we ordered some bread and cheese to go along with it too. The last ones I remember drinking were the Pyramid Apricot Ale from Washington State, which was very well balanced beer and claimed to be unfiltered, so we can expect active intestines tomorrow and a Woodchuck Dark and Dry Draft Cider from Vermont. Despite concluding that we could both drink the cider all night long, we walk through the glassy, wet streets to an empty Thai restaurant for some floral Singha beers and spicy food.

The next day, we checked out, put our gear in storage and went on a fantastic Smithsonian Institute exploration - starting at the stunning Air and Space Museum, with an extremely fragile looking Eagle Lunar Lander, looking for all the world like it was made from dustbin lids and golden foil, followed by the far more elegant Wright Brothers Flyer and the Spirit of St Louis. Lots of hanging rocket exhibits hung around the main entrance, with the work of Von Braun featuring strongly. Both his devilishly ingenious V1 and the V2 doodlebug bugs, produced during his work with the Nazis in WW II and his subsequent work with NASA during the Cold War Space Race was also on display. It reminds me of a quote from Khrushchev, who said when asked why America seemed to be winning the Space Race after Russia’s strong start that simply it was because “your German rocket scientists are better than ours”. Then we went to the Hirschorn Art Gallery with a great video installation and then onto the brilliant natural history museum. We had spent all day visiting museums of such quality that we weren’t bored at any point.

We got back to the hotel around 4ish and started unpacking and loading up. Checking the map, I could see how diamond - shaped DC, originally carved from both Maryland (east of the Potomac) and Virginia (west of the Potomac) now only consists of the eastern portion after Virginia took the donation back in the nineteenth century over the right to continue slave trading in a pre - cursor to the issue that split the nation in the Civil War. We rode on out of Washington DC and soon made it past Baltimore to stay in another roadside motel. Watching CNN it seemed that Black Americans were on a self - destructive path in the run up to the presidential election later in the year. Despite the fact that he is the front runner, Barack Obama is being criticised by some self – elected black religious and community leaders for being an "Oreo", i.e. black on the outside and white on the inside. The history of blacks and their fight to gain freedom from slavery and prejudice is well documented, perhaps too well documented. Compared to the similar economic and social plight of other immigrant groups or the holocaust faced by Native Americans, blacks don't seem to have a future orientated self - image that is easily able to deal with members of mixed race backgrounds who don't fit a pre - defined stereotype.

Next day we headed up the last leg of the journey to the Big Apple and were due to arrive well before my bike documents, which had still not arrived from San Antonio to New York, via UPS. Cursing sending them off in the first place, I wished I had kept them with me so I could hand them over myself directly to the shipper. We were soon past signs for Philadelphia and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, where we stopped at a service station for a drink, with Manhattan clearly in view across the Hudson. We stopped to have a conversation with a trucker who was from Guatemala and wanted to chat about our journey, the first of lots more people in New York who also stopped us and asked questions and came to chat to us about the bike. It seemed that Americans on the east and west coasts were much more geographically aware than their hinterland compatriots. We headed into the Lincoln Tunnel, with Lena continuing to take care of the toll booths from her pillion seat and all of a sudden we had zoomed up into the traffic and pedestrian chaos of Manhattan. New York City is the only place in the USA where people don't slavishly follow the directions of the walk / don't walk signs, so we had to negotiate crowds of people, along with stereotypically demonstrative taxi and lorry drivers. Our big smiley loop across America together was complete, as was my whole journey from Dubai just over a year before. I was overwhelmed by the thoughts of where I had been, what had happened and who I had met, along with all the emotions that went with it. Switching between wanting to cry and wanting to laugh, as soon as we got to the hotel and giving Lena a big bear hug, I reacted in the only way I knew how and lay down on the bed and had a lovely afternoon nap.

1 comment:

lena said...

I really enjoyed this last chapter of the trip and although I am sure I am biased in the exteme absolutely think its worth writing up as book.
Some repetition to be taken care of and areas that are really interesting to expand on, also for outsiders especially the sections that are more personal rather than geographical
I would buy it for sure!

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