MicroPost – We’re Home, we made it!

Just a very short “news” post. We had a final couple of days trundling across Brittany, and exploring St Malo (thanks to our last WarmShowers hosts Muriel in Loyat and Jean-Yves in St-Malo). This was something of a relief, as the last few weeks up the west coast of France have been some of the hardest – endless rain, everything closed, expensive, surprisingly bad drivers, and our emotions all over the place as we approached the end, and worse, real life. France gave us a final quick drenching as we left Jean-Yves place for the ferry terminal (5 minutes away!). Finally, a comfy overnight ferry to Portsmouth and a short day’s ride back home.

  • No rain, some sun
  • Oh, a cycle track out of Portsmouth
  • Unexpectedly mostly prudent & considerate drivers
  • A ginormous supermarket with reasonable prices
  • Hello everybody we missed.

Maybe South East England isn’t too bad after all.

We’ll do a last one or two real blog articles in due course. But in brief, here’s the final statistics:

  • 722 days (16th April 2016 to 11th April 2018)
  • 35085km ridden according to the bike computer (21800.8 miles). Well, a few of them might have been pushed up hills or through mud or sand!
  • 24 different countries excluding the UK, three to five of them twice, depending on how you count.
  • Two antipodes – places on opposite sides of the globe, near Wellington and Madrid.
  • Hundreds or thousands of wonderful people.
  • Six flights, and five ferries longer than river or bay crossings, four coach rides en route, three truck lifts, one train ride (these en-route, not counting side trips).
  • One visit home for a family funeral (five extra days and four extra flights).
  • About three sets of tyres and eight chains each. Two on the road welds, one fork replaced. One of the original wheels made it home, three were replaced.
  • Approximately 200Kg of souvenirs and redundant clothes sent back to home.

The End, for now.

Rain, Rain, Rain

We’re having a drought.  Haven’t had any rain for months. The Roman cistern is so low due to the lack of rain,’ were the cries we heard but the streets were jammed full of umbrellas: doorways blocked by umbrellas, umbrella stands packed with umbrellas, street sellers brandishing umbrellas, eye level – a sea of umbrellas.
I’m a cyclist too,’ explained one fed-up man cowering in a tavern. ‘Five days this week I’ve been soaked to the skin,. Today I’ve walked. So many months with no rain and now we’ve got it all at once.’ he exclaimed, arms flailing wildly.
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Bayonne

In amongst the armies of umbrellas were the two silver cyclists dressed from head to foot in water proof cycle clothes. Well nearly, I’ve only got sandals and I’m not sure my waterproof socks work anymore. ‘At least you’re properly dressed for the weather,’ said a Lisbon museum curator, as we wandered through his rooms, but he was clearly pondering over my ‘choice’ of footwear. Suitable it certainly wasn’t: In Segovia, spotting a Decathlon near our hostal, I dived in and upgraded back to boots for my off-bike footwear. It was Gid’s idea (back in Phoenix) to use sandals – and waterproof socks if necessary – off the bike, since he’s done the whole trip riding in sandals. But somehow, he didn’t ever actually do it off the bike; I enthusiastically took his lead. Oops.
Sporting our newly purchased rain hats, we were pretty water resistant in our cycling gear. With a slight bit of modification the hat fits under our cycle helmets adapted to allow the all important helmet mirror to work. Sun hat, rain hat, come what may, one-hat-does-all. One minor catch is that the brim is so good at stopping the rain from penetrating the fabric that a river flows off it when you tilt your head; on several occasions, nearly tipping a deluge of water into our bar bags as we looked down, cracking a hole under the lid, to sneak something out.
Walking around town, with very little exertion, the rain kit is perfect but for an entire days cycling all is not so good. Flying into Lisbon we had plunged full-on into hilly country. Whilst we’ve had a couple of flatter days hills dominate the terrain.
And as we got higher, the rain turned to snow or hail. Here we are in the minor range of mountains between Madrid and Segovia. You might see a skier or two in the background.
Cycling up hills in rain kit results in massive amounts of perspiration inside, soaking the clothing and lining the garments. Attempts at venting the attire allows the rain in. Gid seems to stay dryer is his relatively new jacket with arm pit ventilation while my, again newish, rain legs seem to do the trick. But older kit is showing signs of being beaten. Design flaws are exposed too – Gid’s Endura  jacket keeps him dry, but the “waterproof zip” front pocket actually is more of a bucket – after a day in the rain everything in it is awash as rain gets in, but not out. Amazingly, the waterproof sock system works pretty well. At least, it does for Gid. Clare’s are shorter, and older, and seem to leak – mind you, she has darned them (eh?). The Ortlieb and Carradice panniers do pretty well, but Gid’s rack bag and bar bag – both a decade old when we started – have wear holes, which inevitably leak.
Although our cased-up maps, and outdoorsy Garmin Edge work irrespective of the weather, the same can’t be said of the phones. We tend to use the phones especially for finding accommodation as we approach or search in some place (the Garmin doesn’t really do this level of detail). But arriving in Caceres, that went horribly wrong. Raindrops confuse the touchscreens, and torrential rain confuses them utterly. And as we tried our few pre-planned hostels, we realised the town was full. It was so wet it was difficult moving around the city or talking. We really needed those phones to work to show us the places to try. Eventually, old school, one helpful hostel owner, who couldn’t offer us accommodation, rang round the others to find us a space. Gracias Senora.
Our tent, which held off riverlets and heavy torrential rain several years ago in Alaska, is one such casualty. While crawling into the vestibule with weight on the groundsheet, water oozed up. I moved our foam mini mat over the offending area and tried to ignore it but by the morning water had seeped up through the inner tent leaving a soggy mess. Our aim that day was to crack a challenging mileage to make a major town. Helpful Warmshowers host Fernando had told us he could do the trip by lunchtime. With the Garmin set, off we went, panniers full of wet camping kit, up the nearest hill. We’d forgotten to tell our future host that we were actually not quite in the fortress town we’d told him but, in fact, we were the far side of the mountain it stood on!  It took us 1 1/4 hours to cover the 10km in pouring rain. The Garmin, repeatedly trying to take us on short cuts up one dirt track or another, finally succeeded as we took off on a short linking track to get us back on course. The start was fine but in the 1.5 km we had to cover at least half of it was steeply down some farmers lane with, in this rain, deep cut rivulets and wet rocks.
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Once back on our future host’s nice smooth, nearly flat road we limped into the newest town with a hostel to cancel the rest of the day. Achieving merely a third of our target distance we draped the room with dripping tent, sleeping bags, mattresses etc.
All part of the adventure it seems. It’s good to read accounts of trips 20 years ago, before any of this electronic nonsense or longer, before breathable waterproofs and English being the universal travellers’ language, and then consider ourselves as lucky.
We had better note, that after some of our previous weather-related moans, so far in Europe, we’ve only had one day of bonkers headwind. Mostly winds have been light and/or on our backs. This may change as we approach France’s Atlantic coast.

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?
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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.

What a difference a day makes.

I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. With temperatures in the low thirties both of us had been cycling along in T-shirt and shorts all day – of  course we could camp tonight.

I’d declared a week or so ago that I wasn’t camping in sub zero temperatures. I really didn’t feel we had the kit to cope with it and yet, here I was again. We woke up to the tent bulging in on top of us. Despite the guy lines pegging it out the bottom was lifting up two or three inches as the wind tunneled underneath.

Another morning of -5.6. Today, the added factor of wind chill made it feel much colder. And where was the golden orb with warming rays?

We ate breakfast huddled up inside the tent but sooner or later we’d have to brave the bitingly cold outside. I soon decided that full rain proofs, as a wind proof layer, on top of all my other layers, was the only way to go. Even so trying to pack and undo the bag clasps was proving nigh on impossible with frozen unbending fingers. Gid wasn’t managing much better. He’d borrowed my spare buff and was wrapped up with nose and eyes peeking out. He came to help but we had to agree that neither of us could undo my knot of the previous night on the plastic bag covering my handlebars, so ripped it off.

We tried to huddle, whenever possible, in a teepee standing vacant some metres away. Gid had told me hot drinks were available at the site office but getting them was proving difficult. It was too cold to sit outside and tend to our stove.

By 9:15, with not a ray of sunshine in sight, we were in the nearest cafe with a hot Mexican breakfast and tea/coffee ordered. Sitting in the warmth we decided to press on but we hadn’t got far, pedalling into the biting cold and headwind, before reassessing that decision. I suggested cancelling the day on the grounds of it being too cold. Hide in the nearest motel was my idea but Gid was keen to press on. ‘We’re managing,’ he said.

Well, yes, managing, in a manner of speaking. 10kph – Ugh. And our circulation was still moving.

3 hours later feebly, the sun came out but it got no warmer. The services ahead were a welcome sight – shop, drinks machine, restaurant, the lot. Well, no motel, but no objection if we put up the tent out back, then cower in the restaurant for the rest of the day. And, they say, the next service centre, at our turn off the interstate, closed down five years back.

We huddle in the cafe, slurping hot drinks. The News declared 63 inches of snow fell in a storm in Erie, USA. New record. After careful consideration, we buy a Texan hat and a saddle. Key rings.  And another hot drink.

It’s only lunchtime, if we stop now, the next comfy accommodation is much more than a day further on, so that’s two more nights rough camping.

“Where ya goin? Did you come through the fog?” A customer asks us. Fog? Turns out it’s ahead of us. Another joy as we set off.  Headwind still holding us to 10kph.

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Ahead the highway pulls alongside a low beige hill, and vanishes. It’s a wall of low cloud. Fortunately it’s not that dense, road visibility is fine but it’s freezing, We start passing bushes loaded with hoar frost. Really loaded. Fog, doesn’t cohabit with wind, and sure enough, the headwind’s gone. So for that matter has the incline. We whizz, toes, noses and fingers still numb.  At 3:45pm the temperature was  -2.5 degrees and dropping by then. I doubt that it got above freezing.

Kent: The cycle route information says “no services”, so did the garage staff. Map shows a few streets. The services are bricked up, the other four buildings are deserted, boarded and/or on their way to ruin. But hey, behind a wooden wreck is a patch of clear land, out of sight, sheltered from the easterly if it kicks up again, even old carpet to sit on.

And wood. Gid, sitting outside to cook, made a camp fire. The first on this trip and definitely a first time ever when it’s needed purely to keep warm.

 

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Our night in a ghost village is not too bad really. Clare slept like a log. Gid was a bit disturbed by all the extra noises a decrepit building makes. And the interstate. And – the trains – HOOOOOOOHH! HOOOOOOOHH! HOOOOOOHH! – followed by about an hour of rumbling and ground shaking as the mile long brute crawls past, shipping containers stacked double on massive wagons.

Next morning – fog’s gone, hoar frost is gone, sun’s shining. Still cold, but the rays warm the day up. By 2pm, climbing into the Davis Mountains, Gid’s shirtless. What a difference!

Yeeh-Ha ! More Western Adventures

Cycling through Arizona and New Mexico has been a bundle of surprises.
The Wild West seeps out of every corner with frequent sightings of Stetson hats shading a rough hewn face, cowboy boots, and decorated belts holding up the faded denims. Straight out of the Western movies holsters and leather chapps are readily available too. Out on the street, the soundtrack is in Español and V8 rumbles..
We had to make a short visit back to the UK, for which we booked flights from Phoenix. This gave us a little spare time before Phoenix. So just before Thanksgiving, we pitched up in Wickenburg, treating ourselves to a motel. On wandering into town, after spending  hours in the fine museum, we discovered we were in the world capital of Team Roping. And, oh dear, rather a lot of souvenir or western gear shops. All closed of course, so we extended our stay. After a curious camping stove cooked Thanksgiving dinner, and a comfy night’s rest, we hit both the town’s attractions. As we’d read online, “heeling” proved a lot harder than “heading”. Well, a steers horns are a fine hook to lasso, whereas it’s hind feet definitely point the wrong way. Maybe half the teams managed both.  Saguaro cactuses adding to the Wild West feel.

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Dotted between Fort this and Fort that are Indian reservations. The Navajo reservation was followed by Hopi reservation and then came the Apache reservation. The latter is probably the biggest reservation we’ve been through. They are quite notable for their lack of development. But unlike the Australian aborigines the Native North American Indians have held on to some of their sacred sites and banned mining on their land. They do run a few casinos though. If you want to see the historical life of these original Americans, you have to visit a museum.
Cycling down through the Tonto Basin we came across the Tonto National Monument Cave Dwellings. Abandoned in about 1450 AD the Apache Indians were the original suspects for driving the occupants out but current opinion is that the Apaches didn’t arrive in the area until 1500 AD.  A little later we cycled over a double peak to reach the Gila Cliff Dwellings set in the Upper Gila River valley.  Claimed to be 80% original it gave a fascinating insight into Indian life back in period around1270 where again, for a relatively short time – approximately 30 years – the cliff dwellings were home to a community. In both cases it’s nothing like “cavemen”: The inhabitants built their usual adobe (mud brick) buildings inside the caves – shady and defensible places –  it seems a sensible thing to do.
Our distances are, as always, influenced by where the next shower is. Here, we are finding that progress is slow with small distances between accommodation or camp grounds followed by unmanageable distances to the next one. Neither of us are that keen on wild camping. We’ve done it a number of times and are always fretful about the prospect of being disturbed; on one occasion receiving advice that we shouldn’t contemplate wild camping in this area as the local reservation residents are prone to excessive drinking and unruly behaviour.  But sometimes we have to stick the tent where we’ve got to. It is, at least, often common and legal, until we reach Texas.
Warmshowers has been a fabulous organization providing a means by which to contact local people who will offer a free bed to touring cyclists. Often, they’re touring cyclists themselves, or were. Making arrangements is naturally a bit hit and miss, but it’s great to have a shower, share a meal or two, natter or go out, and retire to a comfy bed.
Our Safford Warm Showers hosts Hal and Jay filled us in on a lot of local history, and took us on a jeep tour of mountain back roads south of Pima. In an area steeped with history we saw where the Apaches ambushed a wagon train, and where the local Mormon settlers robbed the pay wagon crossing the pass from the south.
The landscapes have been delightful. Sweeping views held in with mountain peaks, at times volcanoes. Blue skies dappled or streaked with white cloud formations provide contrast to the expansive desert and savanna. The desert and mountain plants can be lovely red, whites and purples, beside the expected yellow and green. It looks especially dramatic in low afternoon sun. The short days of winter do make it easier to grab dramatic photos, but they also limit available cycling time, clamping down with dark and cold.

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The temperature has fluctuated radically. Whizzing down the California coast we were frequently nudging into the 30s. We were repeatedly told the temperature was high for this time of year. Further tales suggesting this winter was to be a mild one were warmly accepted. Then, wallop; up a few mountains and the temperature dropped radically. By the time we reached New Mexico’s Gila Cave Dwellings, we’d been over 2267m or 7440 feet. So it was chilly as well as dramatic. One morning, crawling out of the tent greeted us with -5C degrees. On another it was -3C but each time it rose to 20C/70F odd by lunchtime. Then came the big freeze -13 degrees Celsius (9F). My water bottle, filled with fresh water indoors, rattled a couple of hours later when I rather rashly tried to have a drink. I’d already had problems with condensation freezing on the inside of my glasses forcing me to scrape it off in order to see the road ahead. The forecast threatened 2 inches of snow in the first few hours leading to decisions to be made – sit tight, despite our dwindling food supplies, or try to bum a ride out.
Well, the snow came and we sat tight for a couple of days helped out on the food front by our cabin hostess Bonnie who kindly cleared out the depths of her freezer for us, coming up with unwanted meat items as she’s vegetarian. The weather warmed up as forecast, and our escape was to divert down south, off the official route, to avoid the highest mountainous passes and the prospect of more snow.  We end with a rare huge-progress day. From Faywood to Las Cruces was a 143km blast, dropping 365m, pretty evenly, with a tailwind. For a day we believed we were fast! The next day, we crossed the New Mexico/Texas border, marking the one-third point of our USA journey, and a big culture change.