Friday, 27 November 2015

Surviving La La Land

Let me preface that by saying I'm not including all the amazing, friendly and welcoming people we've met and had the good fortune to share this trip with, but on balance, the good old US of A has more than it's fair share of quirks and it takes a little getting used to. I'm also generalising wildly of course - we've seen little more than a fraction of a percent of this enormous country and the vast majority of that experience has been great.

So I should probably back track a little. When I last wrote we'd hit a bit of a road block with our problems crossing the border in Victoria, BC. When Evan got turned away on our first attempt, we spent a couple of weeks in Vancouver making plans to either store or sell our bikes and bought flights to Mexico with the intention of buying different bikes in Guatemala. Luckily we could stay with my old housemate from Toronto, Laura, who now happens to live in Vancouver. We spent a week with her and her lovely roommate Monica and then went to a dual sport bike camping weekend in Abbotsford with a tentspace guy we met, before going back to White Rock on the outskirts of the city when Monica's boyfriend John very generously offered us his apartment for a few nights. The kindness of strangers never fails to amaze me.

It was here that we randomly met Martin, a guy from Germany riding a BMW who has been on the road for five years now. Unbelievably, the previous day we had been talking to someone who had told us about him and then we walk into a random Tim Horton's in a random Vancouver suburb and there he is, on the day he'd arrived back in Canada after spending some time in the US. Without us even asking or telling him about our situation, he told us stories of the hassles he'd had at various US borders and his tactics for dealing with them. It seemed like an omen of sorts.

It was while we were in White Rock, a few days before we were due to fly to Mexico, that Evan's mum called to say some key papers that were supposed to take 6+ weeks to come through had arrived. She posted them to us next day delivery and they indeed arrived the next day along with Evan's driving licence that he didn't realise hadn't been returned to him when he was asked to provide ID for a motel room back in Calgary. I should mention here that that was thanks only to Evan's elderly relative, Doris, driving across town to collect it and then post it to us because the motel refused to. Thanks Howard Johnson, very helpful of you and great customer service!

So, papers in hand, we decided to go back to a different, small land border - Pacific X-ing - and try again. This time we encountered only lovely, helpful border staff who applied common sense rather than asserted power and after a bit of a wait we were clear to go. The woman who processed our papers suggested Evan should carry them with him in future because other border officers we might encounter in the future might be assholes. Just goes to show it's the luck of the draw. Or maybe it was the haircut and shave that Evan decided on last minute to look more 'respectable' that did it, we'll never know, but I'd like to thank the people we dealt with at that crossing. They did indeed treat us with the respect and dignity that their posters claim and were capable of exercising a good dose of common sense. Hell, I even had a relatively lengthy discussion with the guys who processed me at the border about how best to deal with getting another Esta visa waiver on the way back and they also neglected to ask me any questions about my travel plans or to fill in the green form, as I discovered later when I tried to leave the country.

My first impressions of the USA were good, my only observation was that many things are more than a little behind the times. It was like stepping into the UK around ten years ago. Miles instead of kilometres, signatures rather than chip and pin for card transactions. Most of these quirks were just a bit baffling, like the lengthy instructions on the back of bathroom doors about how one should not only wash their hands after using the toilet, but then use toilet paper to turn off the tap and to hold the door handle to open it to avoid contamination, or dark beers being served ice cold, but one thing repeatedly drew expletives - not being able to pay for gas at the pump unless you can enter a zip code. Five digits. No pin numbers, god no. Zip code or else you have to guess how much gas you need, get off your bike and go inside and pre-pay, fill up and then go back and get a refund for the difference. Really? You can't just use chip and pin??

The first night we were lazy and still somewhat shell-shocked at suddenly and unexpectedly finding ourselves in the US, we opted for a cheap motel just outside Seattle. You know that kind of motel room that the bad guy on the run in old Hollywood movies always stays in? That's what this place was like. 70's dark wood paneling, that hooker-and-stale-smoke scent, toilet that doesn't flush, there were even some glow in the dark stars stuck on the ceiling left by what was no doubt a longer term resident. In fact that wasn't all that had been left - when we pulled back the sheets we found the bed had sweet wrappers and loose change in it. Not a great start.

Things quickly picked up though as it sunk in that we could continue with our original plan. Luckily for us (although not for the poor people of Puerto Vallarta) the hurricane that was beating down on the southern coast of Mexico on the weekend we had booked flights we now no longer needed meant that we were given full credit for our flights rather than losing a hefty cancellation fee. Every cloud, as they say.

So how is America on a motorbike? I have to say, I noticed a big difference from riding in Canada. For a start, the roads through much of Washington State were very poor. Potholes patched and re-patched, studs dividing lanes, a ton of sealant on the cracks. Not much thought was given to motorcycles when a lot of these roads were laid out. In many places I noticed permanent fixed signs which said 'Motorcyclists take care on our shit roads'. Ok, maybe that wasn't the exact wording but it was what was being inferred. Obviously fixing the bad surface or problem was a lot more trouble than putting up a sign to tell you to be careful. Another irritation was the tendency to deeply groove the road surface on faster roads. I'm sure this is great for grip for other vehicles but not good for bikes. When my first set of tires were near their end this made for some squirly cornering, especially in the wet. In terms of other road users, it's not much different to driving back home - fast, arrogant car and truck drivers whose need to get to their destination is far more important than yours.

Talking of signage, this was also something that made me smile many times. All the warnings written on the roads are backwards. This means you have to either read things as if you are Yoda or learn to turn your brain around. CLEAR KEEP! AHEAD STOP! And my personal favourite, especially in Venice Beach - BIKE YOUR WALK! It's like someone has used Google translate to run a phrase through several different language conversions before settling on something random.

The USA has been great though. We've met and stayed with some lovely people and for a time always seemed to find exactly the right help when we needed it. We still had a few things we wanted to do or fix on the bikes before we crossed the border into Mexico. When I needed tires we just happened to find ourselves staying a couple of nights with a guy in Boring, OR who not only had exactly the tires we needed, but also the means to change them for us. Evan's fork seal on his pitted tube gave up the ghost while we were staying with a guy in Bend, OR who just so happened to have a fully equipped garage and a buddy who could sand down the tube on his lathe, saving us a fortune on having to replace it. Those are just a couple of examples, there have been many more, but synchronicity when you're travelling is a truly amazing thing.

We've spent most of our time either camping or finding cheap motels and I have to say, we've enjoyed camping a whole lot more than I thought we would. Many times we've got to a stage where we've looked at each other and said 'let's find a nice camping spot away from everything tonight'. We've used a combination of sites listed on, Tentspace and in the absence of a suitable spot on either of those, campgrounds and RV parks. They range from great to downright shocking in terms of value for money. Some don't have tent pitches generally but most have found us a spot somewhere when we've asked. Toilet and shower facilities vary, showers are usually an extra cost, a few minutes for a dollar. Or more precisely 'exactly 30 seconds less than you need to rinse the soap off properly'. In one place I was told I would get nine minutes for $2. Nine minutes is a very long shower for me, so I scratched together exactly two dollars in change and managed to shave exactly one and a bit legs before the box refused to give me any more water despite happily eating my money!

And so we made our way down through Washington State, Oregon and into California. California is a state of two halves. We spent a few days riding down Hwy 1 along the coast and it's stunningly beautiful. Winding roads, breathtaking views and some beautiful camping spots. We took a detour out to Folsom to meet up for lunch with Ita and had undoubtedly the best pizza I've ever tasted. I liked northern California a lot.

As luck would have it (that synchronicity popping up again) my friends Helen & Guy, who now live in France, happened to be visiting friends a little south of San Francisco, so they very kindly invited us to stay too. I was excited to see some more of the city having spent a short time there some years ago so the timing couldn't have been any more perfect. As it panned out we ended up rolling into Montara on Halloween evening in the dark and heavy fog, only to run into hundreds of ghouls and ghosts, not just kids, but adults too. It really was unlike anything I've ever experienced before. What followed was an evening spent at various local parties, followed by a couple of days exploring San Francisco, first by way of Tony's wonderful driving tour (in a Volvo 940!) and the following day via BART with a visit to Alcatraz and riding the cable cars. We've met some wonderful people along the way, but I'd like to say a special thank you to Joanne and Tony for welcoming us into your home. It was one of my favourite stops on this trip so far and I hope you'll come and meet us somewhere further down the road!

Then we hit southern California and it was a complete about turn. It's funny how different parts of the same state can be so polar opposite. Remember in 'Into the Wild' when McCandless lands up in Big City, California after spending time in the wilderness and just wants to escape again? That sums up So Cal pretty well. I guess it's just like 'cat and dog people', I just didn't like much about it at all. It was vaguely interesting to see LA, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Hollywood, etc but not enough to make me want to go back there ever. Before anyone gets upset, I'm obviously not including every single person we met in this sweeping generalisation, but I found people to be rude, fake and thoroughly disagreeable on the whole. Drivers are just a bit angrier and more aggressive than anywhere else we've been. Campsites were full of inconsiderate drunk twenty-somethings who continued their self important, competitive and very loud attention seeking into the small hours. Customer service advisors on several occasions looked at us with clear disdain when we wanted they help because it meant we were interrupting their conversation with each other.

The only reason we went anywhere near LA at all was because Evan wanted to get a tattoo at a shop in Hollywood that had a special significance to him. While he was being tortured I spent a few hours walking around the Sunset strip and Hollywood and happened upon the Solutions wall quite by chance, so that was kind of cool. Finally his tattoo was done and such was our desire to get the hell out of that city that we ended up leaving LA late Friday afternoon at the start of rush hour, headed east. Two hours it took us to crawl less than 40km. We ended up riding until gone midnight that night before we go finally found a remote campsite at Salton Sea.

That was also the only night on this trip that I have felt unsafe anywhere. In our search for a place to stay the night we'd considered a couple of possible camping places at Desert Hot Springs. A brief stop at a 7eleven as we arrived in town quickly changed our minds though. A group of black teenagers hanging out in the parking lot eyed us up as soon as we rolled in and, while Evan was inside buying drinks, one of the girls made a point of walking past me closely as she said very loudly something about 'that white bitch getting what's coming to her'. Another girl did try and engage me in conversation and seemed harmless enough, but she was too drunk or high to make much sense. We conceded to our gut instincts and left town as quickly as we could. Later we had more than one person look at us like we were crazy when we said we'd been to that town. It was a good reminder to always be aware of our surroundings wherever we are.

The good people we've met have far outweighed the sketchy ones though. In one place we walked into Burger King and a guy who was impressed with how far we'd ridden gave us some vouchers he had for free burgers, told us to help ourselves to whatever we wanted. People in cars stopped next to us at traffic lights often ask where we're from and where we're going to, or we get a thumbs up out of a window as people see our plates and realise we're a long way from home. We've been reminded many times too not to pre-judge a situation. One that sticks in my mind is a young homeless kid who stopped us outside a laundromat in a suburb of Tuscon, AZ. He sounded upset and asked if we had a phone he could use because he'd just left his wallet in a taxi and he wanted to call the cab company to try and get it back. We declined, having heard of this phone theft scam multiple times and as he walked away we raised our eyebrows and shook our heads. Ten minutes later we walk outside to see him talking to said taxi driver on a phone he'd borrowed from another kid, overjoyed that they had his wallet and would turn around and bring it back to him straight away. It made us feel very uncomfortable to not have helped him. Just goes to show how wrong appearances can be.

It was while we were waiting for our laundry that I had my second funny encounter of the morning when I popped over to Walgreen's to buy shampoo. While ringing through my purchase the white, middle-aged American woman on the till asked me 'Where are you from hun?' I replied 'England'. She then asked me 'Oh cool! So, what language do you speak there...German?' On telling her we spoke English, she looked confused and said 'Oh, I didn't realise you spoke English there too!' You really couldn't make it up.
From California we headed into Arizona and then New Mexico, on a bit of a mission to be in a couple of different places by certain dates. The first was a great evening spent in Apache Junction with John Downs at his sister Susan's winter home, arriving a little later than planned after we ran out of gas ten miles short of the next gas station on a particularly sparse section of the I-10. John is the guy from Nebraska whose ride report detailing his trip to South America on a little 250cc Super Sherpa with not much money was instrumental in shaping our ideas for this very trip. It was great to meet him and we talked into the night and for much of the following morning. From there we set off east and John set off for the airport to fly back to South America to continue his own motorcycle adventure.

We visited various places in the days that followed - the Pima Aircraft Museum (home of the famous 'Boneyard' plane graveyard in the desert), Tombstone and the Space History Museum at Alamagordo - before turning back west and heading for Las Vegas. I liked AZ and NM a lot. The desert was harsh and endless in places and very cold at night but the scenery made up for it. One of my favourite places here was the White Sands dunes in New Mexico. Visually one of the most stunning places I've ever seen, it was fun to ride our bikes through them.

The sand, being gypsum, solidifies under the surface when water permeates, creating something akin to plaster of Paris, so they are quite easy to walk on, unlike regular sand dunes. Amazing place. Our furthest point east was Roswell and it was on our way here that we were stopped by the New Mexico police for speeding. Seems they are a little more reasonable than they would have been had we been stopped for the same thing in the UK and after running our licences the officer very reasonably all let us go with a warning to slow down.

We left ourselves three days to get from Roswell to Vegas and our plan was to do this via Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon and the Grand Canyon, but sadly the weather turned on us just as we were least expecting it. We spent a couple of days debating what to do, disagreeing about weather forecasts and generally staring each other down before I got tired of the whole thing and reluctantly agreed to just make a straight run for it down I-40 back to Nevada. I still think the route further north taking in those places was the way we should have gone, with favourable temperatures to the route we took, but I guess we'll never know for sure.

As it turned out we had the longest, coldest and scariest ride yet that day. With temperatures barely above freezing as we left Gallup, NM in the morning we never really warmed up despite wearing numerous layers. When we reached Flagstaff, altitude 7,300ft, the rain turned to snow and we spent a tense hour or two pressing on and hoping it wouldn't settle. For our final push into Las Vegas it was dark, wet and the road was badly lit. The wind had also picked up to what we later found out were gusts up to 60mph as we came past the Hoover Dam. It was downright scary, feeling so invisible and having what felt like so little control, but there was nowhere to stop. We got through it though, talked on the radios and didn't admit until we were safely tucked up in our surprisingly-nice-for-less-than-$30-a-night motel room in Fremont that we were both terrified for that last part of the ride.

Fremont turned out to be a pretty cool area despite all the warnings not to stay there. The motel was the best we've stayed in, the area provided more than enough great people watching opportunities, especially as the annual Rock n Roll night-time half marathon was in full swing as we rolled into town. If we thought we had it bad riding in that wind, imagine what it did to those poor runners!
It wasn't until late the following afternoon that we went down to the Strip to see what all the fuss was about. The winds were still strong and it was bitterly cold, so there were few people out and about, but still we caught the Deuce bus as far south as we could and after walking down to the iconic 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas' sign, we walked back all the way to Stratosphere in the north.

I was surprised by how Las Vegas made me feel. It was as very different place to what I had been expecting. I have always visualised Las Vegas to be an extravagant playground for rich people that constantly has you thinking WTF?! But it's not. Or at least that's not what I took away from my time there. I found a depressing and overrated city, smaller and far less glamorous than I expected. We walked through casino after casino hoping to find something that ignited that spark, but all we found was excessive prices, bored looking staff and sad people sat for hours by their chosen machine, desperately waiting for that big 'win'. We talked long into the night that night, trying to make sense of the place, but we really couldn't. As Evan said, it's just like Robert DeNiro said in his monologue at the end of Casino, the era we imagined had long since passed.

That's not to say our time in Las Vegas wasn't enjoyed though, far from it. The following day we spent with Suzie and her friend and Linda & Tam as they renewed their wedding vows at the Elvis Chapel. Bizarre? Yes. But totally wonderful and wacky at the same time, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was lovely to catch up and a perfect end to our time in the States.

I guess one of the biggest things I'll take away from my time in America is the polar opposites that we've experienced here, both good and not so good. This trip has had so many twists and turns and extremes. One day we've been camping in the parking lot of a seedy motel in a run down area cooking packet pasta on our little stove, the next we've found ourselves wandering around Googleplex in the heart of Silicon Valley, visiting NASA and staying at Stanford University and eating at very nice restaurants. We've seen some amazing things - elephant seals laying on the beach, Joshua Trees, humpback whales. I also got to ride down Hwy 216 in Oregon, something I've wanted to do ever since I first saw My Own Private Idaho when I was about 16. Despite the hoops we had to jump through in order to do so, I'm extremely grateful that riding through the USA has been a part of this trip after all.

So have I enjoyed every minute of this trip so far? No, I haven't. There have been days I've questioned what the hell I'm doing, but those times have been rare and few and far between. Slowly I've learned my daily limits, which are usually less than Evan's. Wind fatigue gets me eventually. Six hours is fine, but after that I start to tire. Seven or eight hours and I'm a passenger. It has also been interesting to experience peoples attitudes to what we're doing. Something I wasn't so prepared for was the number of passive aggressive male bikers whose attitude towards me is that I'm unwelcomely encroaching on their world in which I'm not 100% welcome. Not that that bothers me, and it's certainly the minority I'm referring to here, but nonetheless the attitude exists and that's kinda sad.

I've also learnt a lot about what I enjoy and don't enjoy. For example, dirt roads and packed gravel is fine - sand, mud and snow not so much so. I also (to the shock, horror of most bikers) would pick straight roads over bendy ones if it means I can look at the scenery rather than having to focus on the road. I always knew it would be, but it's certainly proved to be a huge learning curve for me and a voyage of discovery in a completely different way to backpacking using buses.

Now we're in Mexico, heading down the Baja peninsula and everything has changed again. That's what I love and about travelling like I do. No two days are the same and with no plan I never know what will happen next. I'll keep you posted (hopefully a little more regularly!) as we head south, but in the meantime I'm gradually uploading my photos as and when I have wifi so check them out here Also, Evan's ride report is here and is updated every couple of days
Right now though there are fish tacos to be eaten and 30p beer to be drunk as we sit and wait to see what becomes of Hurricane Sandra. Life is pretty good, I have no complaints.

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