The Penny Drops

Looking back now, I realise what was missing from our route across the ‘States and come to think of it, since Southeast Asia – it was the ancient history.
From our outset we traveled across Europe progressing through, for us, more alien countries reaching a climax in India or perhaps Sumatra. Once in Australia much of the awe and wonder was lost. Having spent nearly 8 months in New World countries it has been quite an awakening to return to ancient history again. Even though we both spent part of the trip reading Guns, Germs & Steel , and other interesting works, the impact is greatest when the past is physically present.
Cycling down through Australia we weren’t wowed by Victoriana. Frequently there was just a plaque notifying us that some Victorian house had once been there. It’s simply far too plentiful in our own home town. There was a rare nod to the Aborigines ancient cultural history – an occasional sign informed the reader of the importance of a site or even once or twice a museum, but there was little evidence left by these societies. Neither of us can even recall any rock or cave paintings in Oz, although we’d seen them in India and the USA.
The celebrated – by some – Captain James Cook made several appearances on plaques and information boards. The town Seventeen Seventy is even named to commemorate his historic landing date, but that brings us into New World history. It’s interesting for sure, but not as awesome as Romans, Mughals or King Midas.
Equally in the USA, the Wild West was thrillingly different with, vast space, saguaro cacti, cowboy hats, boots, belts, team roping and the occasional fort or Spanish Mission. The 19th C forts in the west defended settlers from Indians while as we reached the southern coast it was the 18th C French and Brits who were the problem for the Spaniards.  But as we cycled further east, in Gid’s words, ‘It’s the same dish with a few different spices.’ The fabric and cultural background was similar to our normal home lives. A few cliff dwellings in the desert hills hinted at more ancient cultures, but weren’t actually, so old.
Lots of places were delightful, NASA in Houston, New Orleans with its hip culture and wrought ironwork balconies a la Francais, the Keys with the island hopping despite large areas of hurricane damage around the Marathon area , the Everglades with its wonderful wildlife, Miami Beach with its 1920-30s Art Deco and bronzed beauties, to name a few.
But now in Lisbon we are back to ancient history in every direction you look – starting with bronze age,  stone walls and mosaics from the Roman times, 400 year old tiles still adorning some houses, ancient narrow cobbled lanes winding up and down hills, a city center rebuilt after the great earthquake in 1755 . A Moorish castle, with breath taking views in every direction, built over ancient remains which were then rediscovered in 1938, providing yet another turn in history.  Our cameras are drawn, cocked and firing every which way.
To be fair we did visit one monastery and chapel in Goliad, Southern Texas, dating from around 1700, and in the deep south there are wooden shacks which housed the cotton pickers and workers for other local industries but wooden shacks aren’t going to last centuries. It had never really dawned on me how rich Europe’s history, and Asia’s is, in comparison with the New World.
Yet for all the fascination and wonder of these ancient cities and palaces, I – this time Gid – think back also to the wide open plains and wide open country towns of Australia and the USA – and find these Iberian cities claustrophobic. It’s wonderful everything is close together and walkable via tiny lanes and steps. But one can’t take two steps without swerving around an old buffer or a fashionista or wandering tourists, there’s people everywhere, never mind the tiny, uneven sidewalks. Where do they build anything new? Why are all the rooms so small? I think home is going to feel exactly the same. Oh dear. Should I emigrate, or at least, move to Northumberland, the least densely populated county in England, with only 62 people per square kilometre, and Roman remains?

Places to Go, Things to See – Tourists in Florida

Turning down into southern Florida we had the wind ahead of us yet again but our spirits were high as we started to realise we had made time to spare. Shedding the extra layers as temperatures rose up into the eighties was also delightful.
Camping in comfort for three nights with Warm Showers host Jim, put us back in tourist mode as we visited Tallahassee in neighbour Jethro’s car. Despite being the capital of Florida, Lonely Planet is fairly dismissive of the city saying a couple of days is plenty. We found one did the trick – In the Museum of Florida History I was fascinated to learn that ‘dug out’ canoes were in fact burnt out and the trees initially burnt down – coaxing the shape out of the wood with mini fires and scrapping out the charcoal. None of this sawing and chopping malarkey for these Indians. The museum also laid out some of the ebb and flow of peoples across what became Florida. Our second stop was the Florida State Capitol.  The one building houses all the political part of Florida’s government, but, wisely, they only meet for politics for about 1/4 of the year. The panoramic view from the 22nd floor was unusual due to the nearby abruptness of the city limits whereafter the tree line went as far as the eye could see.
Wakulla Springs, as the name suggests, has a fresh water spring, that’s notably warmer than the winter sea. Many creatures are tempted to enjoy this, indeed it extends the northern limits of manatees and probably other species too. It’s been a peaceful spot for many years, the beasties have lost their fear of man, and don’t run away. Viewing the manatees from a tower and a boat tour,  which also gave us our first full on experience of wild alligators, introduced what became very special in Florida – the wildlife. Manatees, turtles, wading birds, iguanas, armadillos and, did I mention alligators?  were all exceptional. A few days later, at Crystal River, we paid our tourist dollars for a chance to swim with manatees.

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 There were so many herons they can have their own panel!
And that’s leaving out the pelicans, ibis, spoonbills and storks, the other leggy, beaky, wady things. To be fair, bird watching opportunities had been superb pretty much since Galveston, south of Houston. The flat country was often wetlands, which always attracts birds. But in Florida the birds were tamer. Alas though, we never spotted the rare American Crocodile, only alligators.
Turning down south, accommodation prices rocketed and that was when you could find any. RV parks greeted us with, ‘There used to be tents here, but I haven’t seen any for … years‘.  Pitch late, strike early and the ever present dog walkers are none the wiser of our camping if you’re prepared to take the risk.
We stumbled through to an emergency stop in Fort Myers with Warm Showers hosts Dennis & Divina. After a day of reassurance there, they were encouragingly suggesting something would turn up and we’d find places to camp as we cycled along the Keys, we decided to hop across to Key West, on the assumption that it would all work out.. The Florida Keys are one of the region’s big attractions, so we boarded the ferry from Fort Myers, full of anticipation, with the intention of sneaking up on Miami from the south.
In Key West we got the T- shirts before yet another search for somewhere to camp. As luck would have it we got a space for two nights at our second try for a mere $69/night. Later at Key Largo the warden at John P State Park stated they tried to help get bikers and hikers off the road at night. We couldn’t have a regular site there, they’d been all booked up months ago, but they could let us on the group camp site as it wasn’t being used that night. Although there were no immediate  facilities, except a tap with, to our surprise, a three foot long iguana staking it out, the full amenities weren’t far.  Actually, it was so nice that we begged to stay for another night – allowing us to hire their kayaks for a potter. Another time, a very friendly Chinese man offered us some scrubland, we bought supper at the grill next door – who agreed to leave the back loo unlocked – and that was another night sorted.
Finally, WarmShowers saved the day near Miami with the spacious grounds of Steve’s church. After a good nights sleep, having been disturbed only by his resident peacocks, Steve grinned when we said we were going on to Miami Beach. Bit of a party town he chortled. And verily, our hostel was a bit unhappy about our bikes while selling  pub crawls to topless nightclubs to the rest of the guests. After a day there, one suspects it should be called Miami Breach as frequently areas of flesh broke free from their defenses. In some items of clothing elastic triumphed over gravity in its effort to hold back the wobbling flesh. Tho I do believe there is a beach.
But before heading into Miami and boxing up the bikes, we were keen to see the Everglades proper and so with the prospect of more alligators we headed inland again – especially as we’d managed to book a campsite! The wind on our backs made the excursion, together with the 15 mile lap round the Shark Valley gator trail, delightful.
The trail, along with the frequent sightings in the stream by the roadside, took our gator count well up to the one hundred mark in a day. A kaleidoscope of birds: storks, cranes, ibis’, a wide variety of herons, and the egret family, all flying up in alarm as we cycled past. Trucks and cars they don’t mind, but bicycles must be unfamiliar on Hwy 41.
On the next day, our last cycling day in the USA, we’re back into the headwind. On this occasion it also rained for a while, although more like Thailand’s warm monsoon than Texas’ freezing rain.  Bank holiday, roadworks, big city, with added Cuban machismo – Gid recorded three near misses on the Miami approach. We found a crack in Clare’s worn rear rim – outlasting the other rear rim by a mere 3000km or so. And Hailey told us our dear old cat had died. Quite a day!
Besides the beach at Miami Beach, there’s a little bit of culture too. They’re very proud of their art deco hotels and buildings, and make a bit of a them of it. Like El Paso’s unexpectedly Victorian mansions, it reminded us of home, a mix of Brighton’s hedonism, Shoreham Beach’s geography, and Worthing’s architecture: But writ large, spacious, and so much sunnier!
We’ve had a great time in the USA, it’s another country where the permitted visit length (90 days) isn’t really enough. We’ve seen so much, and been aware of so much more we’ve skipped. Plus, we were crouched down as far south as possible, to avoid the cold. But now, after the wide open spaces and newness of Australia, New Zealand and the USA, we’re back off to Europe, perhaps appropriately to one of the cities that first sent forth European adventurers to claim the New World, Lisbon.

Although we used Warm Showers a little in Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand, it was in the USA where we used it most. Here’s our complete USA thank you list, there were a few others we had offers from but missed (starting with the nice Californian  lady we met back in Pushkar). Thanks to all, and we’d love to accommodate you back in Sussex.
  • Oscar – LA
  • Dan & Pat – Phoenix
  • Hal, Jay – Safford, and the history tour
  • Deborah & Clayton – Duncan
  • Nick –  Silver City
  • Bonnie, Lake Roberts, not actually WS, but so kind she must be an honourary!
  • John & Donetta – Las Cruces
  • Greg & Cindy, Matt – Victoria – and good luck with round-the-USA later this year!
  • Ryan – Houston
  • Mike & Peggy – Crystal Beach, and again in Port Neches
  • Melissa & Elvin – Grand Chenier
  • Will & Kathy – New Iberia
  • Martin – Inlet Beach
  • David – Blountstown, who remembered a friend from Worthing, Tim Lezard, who cycled round the world a few years ago.
  • James (and Jeffro) – Medart
  • Divina & Dennis – Fort Myers
  • Steve- Kendall near Miami
  • Max – for advice in Miami Beach

Knuckling Down

With the mountains and chill behind us, combined with dodgy tummy and tourism stops, we needed to turn around our pitiful weekly average of under 400km or our American dream would be over. At our current rate we’d never manage the coast to coast across the Southern Tier let alone reach Miami with a couple of days spare to visit the crocs and ‘gators in the Everglades.
We pored over the map, calculated where the time had gone and the progress we needed to make each week to achieve our goal. The hills, and headwinds cutting our speed in half, together with the bitterly cold sunrises where we delayed going out in the -5C temperatures, had all taken their toll. True enough it’s the journey not the destination that’s the key thing but we had always assumed we’d actually reach the destination.
The new plan was good. I’d divided the distance to go into weekly achievable chunks. Just hit our targets and we’d get there. We’d already managed over 600km across southern Texas in the first replanned week.
Houston was our first stumbling point when our fabulous Warmshowers host, Ryan, suggested a whole heap of things and places to see, plus the NASA museum that we had penciled in. That’ll be one extra day then. Ryan pointed out where, a while back ,his neighbourhood was flooded a yard deep. This time, Houston had a different trick up it’s sleeve – freezing rain. A new one on us – the rain freezes as it reaches the ice cold ground. Roads were closed due to the ice, others looked like a guaranteed tumble with fully loaded bikes as sections of ice stretched across the carriage way.  What, no gritting machines? Apparently not. Houston rarely gets weather like this we’re told. There goes another day enjoying Ryan’s hospitality again.



Our whistle stop tour of Houston’s eccentricities was only capped by our sitting in the auditorium and gazing in on Mission Control at NASA. Six photos, we were told, was the computer power with which men were sent to the moon as we gazed in at the control panels, electronic screens and large computer room downstairs.
Gid clearly remembered staying up late in 1969 to watch the moon landing at whatever o’clock in the morning. Not so Gid’s Dad says – he was asleep in bet, as a six-year-old should be.
On week two of our knuckling down program we were already two days behind schedule and then the headwinds kicked in. Our weekly mileage was back to being pitifully low.
I’d already declared that 80% of the time we were up against headwinds but Gid thought this was an exaggeration. Checking the wind direction over the next ten day forecast it was clear that I was wrong. It was 90% headwinds! Where were those favourable winter westerlies?
Having spent thirty odd minutes tapping away on his phone, Gid announced in a melancholy tone that we couldn’t easily catch a bus out of here either. The Greyhounds had always been our fall back plan but they were about as awkward as shipping bikes on airlines, it seems! And where were we going to get bike boxes from in the tiny towns we were passing through? Yet, we’d have to reach the Atlantic Ocean before trains would help us out. We were stuck with endless days of headwind. Plan A – knuckle down and grind out the miles.
We found camping in this area difficult. Wild camping isn’t very accepted, and there’s little unfenced, never mind unclaimed land. Wild camping in such areas, besides being a little nerve-wracking, also requires the hunt for a stop to being maybe two hours before sundown, which isn’t helpful when trying to churn out good mileages. RV sites would increasingly refuse us as we approached Florida. Cheap motels became scarce, then vanished altogether in southern Florida. And – alas – we also find that at our advanced years, too many days crawling on the floor does our backs no good. Yet some of the campsites were lovely, especially Florida’s State Parks, rich in wildlife, though an alligator bellowing 30 metres away from the tent is a little unnerving.


Fortunately, WarmShowers gave us a string of prearranged cosy overnight stops providing us with some respite from camping, and more hours to pedal in.  It’s been the kind people who put us up who have made the highpoints of the trip from Texas into Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and into Florida.

And finally the headwinds eased.