Thursday, 28 July 2016

Back in the Land of the Free

Despite our best intentions to be up and heading for the border at the crack of dawn, I think the slight apprehension that we were both feeling at the thought of re-entering the US slowed us down. As did trying to physically find our way out of Mexico. In what turned into a hilarious charade we literally couldn’t figure out how to leave. We found our way to the Aduana easily enough and the process of stamping out and cancelling our TVIP’s was simple enough, but then we couldn’t find the bridge to the States. Or rather we could, but we were turned away at the last hurdle by a Mexican official who seemed very sure that that wasn’t where we wanted to go and made us turn around! So we rode round and round the roads near the border before eventually deciding that the toll barrier had to be the way out. Upon our return the border guard didn’t say a word to us, charged us a final few pesos and lifted the bar for us to head back into the US. We were sad to be leaving and it seems Mexico wasn't keen to see us go either.

Heading across the bridge we were met with huge signs warning of all the things that weren’t allowed. For the Land of the Free there are certainly a hell of a lot of rules. No pedestrians. No selling anything. No mobile phones. It amused us to see that the Mexican hawkers and windscreen washers broke all of these rules, but only to the halfway point on the bridge where there seemed to exist an invisible barrier that no-one dared cross. We were both a little anxious about getting through the border given our previous problem with US border control, but we needn’t have worried. Evan went first and he was straight in without even a second glance. I followed and was asked only two questions. 'Was I with him?' (coupled with a slight gesture in Evan’s direction) and ‘Did I live in Canada?' Yes and No respectively. I handed the officer my UK passport, he glanced at the photo page and told me I was free to go. No stamp, no green form to fill in, no visa waiver. For a second I considered questioning this, but not wanting to rock the boat for any reason I decided to simply ride away, back into Texas where we promptly headed for the nearest burger place to celebrate.

I’m not sure that I mentioned it before, but by the time we left Merida my chain and sprockets had worn to the point where it sounded like I was in fact driving a tractor rather than riding a motorbike. After spending a few days searching local bike shops in Merida for replacements (thanks Suzuki for deciding to use an uncommon chain size on those particular bikes) it had become clear that the only options were to a) pay three times what they’d cost in the States, b) and/or wait a few weeks for them to arrive from the States or c) venture back into Mexico City to look for them as we headed north. Of course, I went with option d) cross my fingers and hope that I didn’t throw a tooth on the way back to the border, at which time I’d find them easily and cheaply in Texas.

This meant that our first task after crossing the border was to locate said chain and sprockets. Which of course, being the USA, wasn’t as simple as you’d think. San Antonio? Nothing without waiting for shops to order them in. Houston? Nope, same here. Despite our searches, we constantly drew a blank. So figuring that they’d already made it over 2000 miles past the point at which they needed changing, we continued on our way with my bike snarling at me in protest.

With our money situation pretty dire by this point, we decided to fully embrace the Tentspace network and set off for Seguin and the home of Andy, a great guy who himself was about to set off on his own bike adventure in the direction we’d just come from. We stayed at his recently sold house and ate some great southern BBQ at a little Mom & Pop place down the road. We talked bikes and trips and the meaning of life, and the following day once again we set off on our way towards Houston. At this point the luck we’d had as far as rain was concerned turned full circle and we found ourselves riding through torrential downpours. Houston was suffering from widespread flooding by the time we arrived at the home of Tentspace host #2, in a rather lovely suburb, a welcome relief after suffering what proved to be some of the most horrendous roads anywhere on the trip. Toll roads quickly bleeding us dry every few miles with their random charges to ride through so much congestion, that in places it would have been quicker to get off and walk. To add insult to injury, bikes pay the same price as cars, something we haven’t found anywhere else. Welcome to ‘Murica, have a nice day!

Tentspace #2 turned out not to be Robert, the guy with whom we'd been communicating, but his rather lovely parents, also bikers and physical proof that good ‘ol southern hospitality is no myth. We spent a great evening chatting with Brenda and Tom about our trip, about their lives, about bikes and most interestingly about Tom’s involvement with the Patriot Guard Riders. I’ll admit, I wasn’t entirely sure what they were and when he first started talking about carrying flags and military funerals I had visions of having to smile politely while he gave us a patriotic sermon, but as he explained more I found it challenged my ideas on patriotism. I’d always thought of the American obsessiion with flag waving as something very over the top, often pushing the boundaries of acceptable, something stereotypical of American’s who’ve never travelled further than their own shores, but what Tom told me made sense and made me reassess the way I looked at these things. The Patriot Guard Riders are a gathering of bikers who, at the request of families of fallen servicemen, attend ‘missions’ (the funerals) to provide a flag guard, honouring the deceased person and providing support for the grieving relatives. They originally formed in 2005 in Kansas to shelter and protect grieving friends and families from the vile Westboro Baptist Church who picket the funerals of fallen servicemen claiming that their deaths are retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. The Patriot Guard Riders hold flags to block the WBC members from view, and sing and rev their bike engines to drown out their chants. Tom’s passion and dedication affected me in a way I wasn’t expecting and it was something I thought about many times over the following days.

I don’t think we could have stopped in Houston without a visit to NASA's Johnson Space Centre. We’ve been to a few space museums on this trip including the rather disappointing NASA site in Palo Alto and the rather wonderful Pima Air and Space museum in Tucson, Arizona but this one was the mother of all space museums. This is where all those difficult to fathom space shuttle launches over the decades have been controlled from. It’s where the devastating images of the fated Challenger mission were broadcast from, where the Apollo 13 mission’s problems were resolved and where jubilant controllers of Apollo 11 punched the air as Armstrong and Aldrin took those first giant steps on the moon in 1969. So many things in that place blew us away – seeing the original Saturn V rocket for example – but nothing as much so as sitting in the seats in the Mission Control Centre and imagining the events that had taken place there over the years. During a brief talk by a retired member of the control team we learned that the entire moon landing control, including communication and broadcasting, was run with an entire data capacity of just 2MB!

On our way south at the start of the trip we were both far less comfortable with the idea of staying with random strangers for free every night. Being the start of the trip, we had more money available to us so tended to take the easy option more often. We had days when we were cold and tired after riding all day and craved the luxury of a motel, or we didn’t feel particularly sociable and wanted to enjoy the simple pleasures of cooking a steak on a campfire before curling up together and falling asleep in the tent looking up at the stars. In hindsight I have no doubt we missed many amazing encounters. Luckily by the time we re-entered the US we were ready to fully embrace these opportunities. It was exciting to know nothing about the person who had, until the point we knocked on their door, been only a dot on a map. We came to look forward each day to meeting whoever it was that would open the door that night and invite us in with a smile.

Tentspace host #3 was one of my favourite stays of the trip. Late in the afternoon we pulled into the driveway belonging to Harry in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Harry lives with his twenty-something year old son in a large workshop out in the countryside. As we entered through the front door we discovered ourselves in a huge space full of motorbikes in various states of being stripped down and put back together again. Model cars adorned the shelves alongside piles of remote control vehicles and planes and other gadgets. In the corner was a kitchen and living space. Harry very kindly cooked us some dinner and we spent a wonderful evening talking with him about all sorts of things. Sometimes you meet people who are on the same wavelength and the conversation just flows. This was one of those evenings. When we eventually got too sleepy to keep our eyes open any longer we retreated to our tent and slept under the stars.

It was truly refreshing to meet Harry and his son. Having come, from previous experience, to expect a certain level of passive aggressiveness from male bikers, Harry was a breath of fresh air. He welcomed us with open arms, wanted to be a part of our trip and didn’t once pass judgement on anything I did or said. He’d had his challenges in life and was possibly the most genuine and open person we met on the entire trip. He told us about his life, both the ups and downs, and how he cared for his son who has severe epilepsy and learning disabilities. He welcomed us as if we were old friends. Spending time with Reece, his son, was wonderful too. He showed me his golf buggy and his classic car that he was working on restoring. With a wry smile he showed me the huge dent in the side of his dad’s car caused when he’d had a fit while racing around in his golf buggy. Here we met two people who truly understood the meaning of living each day to its fullest and we were sad that we’d only planned to stay for one night. Reluctantly we continued on our way the following morning, but I think we’d both have been happy to stay longer if time had been on our side.

Our next destination would be New Orleans, but we had a stop to make in Morgan City first. Harry had told us about Mr Charlie and straight away he sounded like a character we had to meet. With his top towering some 80 odd feet above the harbour ‘Mr Charlie’ is an oil rig that worked from 1954 until 1986 in the offshore wells off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, in his retirement he is home to the International Petroleum Museum & Exposition. Whilst that sounds very grand, in actual fact what we found at the entrance was a sign which suggested we’d missed the one guided tour of the day some hours earlier. A little disappointed, as we turned to leave a guy appeared on deck in his boxer shorts and shouted down to ask us if we wanted a tour. For the next couple of hours he showed us around the rig and I’d love to be able to say I now know all about how a rig works, but amusingly he chose to focus his commentary on how much he got paid, how much he loses in tax along with an intricately detailed description of the dinner buffet, including the location of which tray each dish can be found in – all in exchange for some cash to buy smokes. Honestly, I don't even know if they guy really worked on the rig. After a couple of hours of this, slightly bemused and with time getting on we eventually managed to excuse ourselves and continued onwards towards The Big Easy.

Our hosts in the city were Ben and Jen, who conveniently lived only a couple of blocks from the St Charles streetcar line that runs straight downtown. Mentioning New Orleans usually conjures up images of Mardi Gras and of the terrible flooding and devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Today the downtown areas of the city have mostly been rebuilt, but in the Lower Ninth Ward in particular we were told the devastation is still evident as homes remain derelict, its residents still struggling to rebuild their lives.

We only had a couple of days in the city and we filled them to the brim. Our wonderful hosts treated us to dinner on the first night. New Orleans is all about the food, so I had Pecan-crusted Drum and Creole Potatoes with BBQ butter, Evan had Shrimp and Grits and it was delicious. The following day we made an early start and took the streetcar to the French Quarter while our hosts took on the slightly tougher challenge of a 60 mile bike ride. Alighting at Bourbon Street, immediately we were plunged into tourist town. Known as a 24 hour party city the street was full of people drinking frozen cocktails from large plastic cups as they walked at 10am on a Sunday morning. It was difficult to tell if they were just starting out or whether they were the last ones standing from the night before. We walked, took photos and soaked up the atmosphere as the city got busier. We drank soup and ate Roast Beef Po Boys dripping with thick gravy for lunch. We walked along the harbourfront and looked for stickers for our panniers in the tackiest of souvenir shops.

Eventually, all walked out we returned to our hosts’ house and were promptly scooped up and taken to a crawfish boil at the home of one of their friends. For those who have never been to a crawfish boil, think ‘tiny lobsters’ boiled in a stock made to each family’s secret recipe in a massive dustbin-sized pot along with sausages, sweetcorn and mushrooms. When cooked the entire contents of the pot is tipped out onto a huge table and everyone gathers around to break open and eat the crawfish tails with their fingers. It really was unlike any BBQ I’ve ever been to. This isn't my photo but it gives you an idea of what it looks like!

It was a constant source of amusement to us to keep finding ourselves in such bizarre situations. Here we were at a gathering where everyone else there had been friends for many years, as guests of people that we’ve never even spoken to before only 24 hours earlier. And this happened to us again and again and again. Day after day we showed up at the houses of random strangers chosen based on a few lines about themselves and obviously their location and not once did we ever find ourselves anywhere that we looked forward to leaving. As clich├ęd as it sounds, most times we left with new friends, people that I genuinely hope we cross paths with again someday.

The following morning we wrenched ourselves away yet again, but not before taking Ben up on his very generous offer of taking us flying over the city. Ben, an F-15 pilot with the USAF as well as a pilot for Delta, also has a 1968 Bonanza 36 plane. That morning we took to the skies over the Mississippi River delta and suddenly everything was thrown into perspective. From the ground it’s not obvious just how much water surrounds the city, but from the air it’s all too clear. Flying over the city and surrounding areas it was sobering to imagine what this same place must have looked like ten years earlier. Evan very kindly let me take the front seat, which gave me the opportunity to take the controls for a short while – another first for me. For the rest of the day we had huge grins on our faces, still not really sure how we’d come to have quite so many amazing experiences in random places that we’d never planned to be.

Our journey up through the US, that had started as somewhat of a final push tinged with a sadness that the adventure was coming to an end, had continued to throw us into all sorts of fantastic situations. Our next stop would be Birmingham, Alabama and finally, a new chain and sprockets for my poor bike.

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