|This trip was completed in 2002. I'd bought a couple of old motorcycles and a tent and then made my way through America, the Canada Rockies, Mexico, Guatamala and Belize. My first bike, a Kawasaki Vulcan 750, lasted two weeks and then died in Death Valley. My second bike, a Kawasaki Ltd 440, completed the 20k mile trip without a single complaint. The stories below are what I brought back from the trip :|
Land of the freeMay - New York airport
For such a free country it seemed remarkably difficult to get into. I had to return three times to the American embassy clutching all sorts of documentary evidence to prove I existed here in London before I was finally given a six month visa to enter the States. Then on the aeroplane there is another form to be completed with the aim of catching any undesirables that might of slipped the net at the embassy. I'll admit the questions were a bit simplistic though:
"Are you a terrorist?"
you wonder what kind of simple minded criminals they were planing to catch.
"Do you have AIDS ?"
the questions seemed to be getting a little discriminatory now.
"Do you intend to undermine the constitution of the United States?"
I'd actually heard of one English guy who had answered "Yes, sole purpose of visit" to this question and was fined 2000 dollars and sent straight home! I loved the guy's answer but I couldn't afford the consequences so I just wrote no to every question and eventually found myself walking towards customs.
The customs guard was interested in my six month visa and I had to stand there clutching my motorcycle helmet and shoulder bag while I tried to explain to him what I was up to. What was I up to? I'd given up work, abandoned everything and was now planing to buy a motorbike, a tent and a sleeping bag and then just travel until I ran out of money. It didn't sound convincing even to me.
"Did I know anyone in the USA?"
I gave him the address of my wife's friends, Rob and Beth, who lived in San Fransisco. I was hoping he wouldn't ask me too much about them as I'd never met them.
"Did I have enough money to last 6 months?"
In all truth I probably didn't but I tried to explain that I preferred to travel cheaply and that my plan was to return when it all ran out.
"Did I know I couldn't work on this visa?"
I almost shuddered at the thought of working, it was the last thing I wanted to do. I just wanted to buy a bike and live the dream. He still seemed unsure about me and so I started to tell him of my planned itinerary. I'd spent most of the past month looking at picture books of the national parks and the great outdoors so I could be fairly descriptive about what I wanted to see. I described a big loop around California before riding up into the Rockies and on into Canada. I then spoke about coming back down the Pacific coast road and into Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. The aim was to come back into America through Texas, cross the Rio Grande and then follow the Mississippi down through the southern states. I noticed he didn't seem to be listening to me. He just seemed to be following my route in his mind. Had I slipped up and got some of my states mixed up? Was I going to be thrown out before I'd even started? I stopped talking and patiently waited for his decision.
"Hell, that sounds like a great trip".
I was in.
OptionsMay - San Fransisco
I'd given up looking for motorbikes, I was worn out, pissed off and in desperate need of a coffee when I walked into the cafe. I felt almost as if I was intruding, the barman, an oriental, eyed me warily and only seemed to relax when I asked for a coffee. I sat down at the bar and watched him brew a fresh pot before returning to his post beside the door.
We both sat and listened to the quiet bubbling of the percolator, it was a complete contrast to the chaos of the mission area outside. After a few minutes the doors swung open and the sound of sirens, cars and voices rushed in then slowly receded as the door swung shut leaving a crazed youth in the entrance like driftwood. He said nothing but stared wildly about the room. I sipped my coffee while the barman quietly but firmly took him back outside. Another wave of noise as the door opened and closed.
Every few minutes another face was washed up in the entrance, some quiet, some shouting, each one returned to the street. I asked the barman why he worked there. "It's my cafe" he proclaimed proudly and then perhaps because trade was rather slow he sat down beside me and told me his story.
He was born in Vietnam, though he was now an American and up until his teens his father had taught him to work and study hard to succeed in life. His father ran a grocery store and had worked hard to build his business up. One day he had been out playing on the outskirts of the village when jets had flown overhead and "Whoosh" the whole village was gone. Later soldiers had picked him up and eventually he found himself back in the States. He'd worked hard through school and college and was now running his own cafe.
I was a little surprised he'd stayed in the States, all things considered, but thought it impolite to ask. Instead I asked why he worked so hard, after all his story seemed to have an obvious moral.
"What other options are there ?".
Nothing but a windstormMay - California, Mono Lake
As I paid for the gas the attendant asked where I was going. Over the mountains towards Mono lake I replied and, seeing as neither of us were pushed for time, told him about the rest of the trip. Rather than the enthusiastic response I'd come to expect he just stood there shaking his head and my itinerary petered out before I'd even reached Nevada. He explained no one was going over the pass today because of a windstorm, he suggested I should camp outside town until tomorrow.
What the hell was a windstorm I thought? Anyway, I didn't care, I wasn't planing on stopping for anything as innocuous as the weather. I thanked him for the advice and set off for the mountains.
The road was practically empty and the weather seemed calm. Any anxiety I may of held gradually evaporated in the sun and the breeze. Nearer the peak of the mountain I could see a truck turning round in the road and heading back towards me.
The first doubt started to fester in the back off my mind. As I passed the truck it began to flash its lights but I continued on regardless and into a thick brown fog that was coming of the side of the mountain. Jesus! The wind came from nowhere, it was like stepping out onto a balcony in the middle of a hurricane. The brown fog was built entirely from rocks and gravel blown horizontally from the ground. I managed to protect my face with my arm but then lost control of the bike. There were two lanes up the mountain and two lanes down, I was using all four as the wind threw me from one side of the road to the other. It didn't seem to matter, no one else was stupid enough to be on the road at that time.
I was crouched low over the tank and wrestling with the bars, the speedometer had dropped to 30 mph but it felt like 130. I kept muttering to myself "Mike you're insane" until I started to laugh and therefore confirmed the fact. I only stopped laughing when a stone hit me full on in my face and broke my safety goggles.
Eventually it was quiet, the storm was behind me and Mono lake stretched out below me. Even from up here I could see the strange salt formations that stood out from the surface, the loose salt on the shore was being blown up into the sky into thick white clouds making the lake look as if it were on fire.
I was eager to press on and get through the Tioga pass and up into Yosemite National Park, I drove through a small village and took the turn off for the pass. It was closed. There was a large red and white barrier across the road and a sign that cheerfully said "Deep snow - closed till June", it was early May for Christ sakes !
I headed back to the village. I found a ranger who told me of another route, the Senora pass, which would be cleared tomorrow by snow ploughs. He also suggested I stay around locally because of the wind storms which were blowing up in the mountains. This time I took the advice.
The path cleared by the snow plough left ice walls 10 foot tall on either side of the road, it was like riding along in a freezer compartment 20 miles long. I was frozen and trying to wrap myself around the engine to keep warm, and, when a wall dropped away to reveal stunning views across the mountains, I even forgot how cold I was.
The desire for spaceMay - Yosemite
Yosemite National Park is 270 miles from San Francisco, to get there you must fight the hustle and bustle of city traffic, endure 5 hours of monotony on the freeway and then queue forever to enter the park itself. Eventually you find yourself in, what must once of been, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I met an old man on one of the back roads that ran behind Yosemite, he told me he had been there all his life and of how it had all changed after World War II. He told of how the troops who had served in the pacific had disembarked on the sparsely populated West coast. They saw how beautiful everything was here, they stayed, started businesses and made their homes on the shoreline.
Since then the numbers arriving at the gates of the park have been steadily increasing. The traffic now runs nose to tail around the valley loop roads. The park authorities are now thinking of applying traffic quotas to restrict the flow. Some of the cars never stop, the occupants never get out, why should they when there are hundreds of miles of scenic drives to explore? Even the camp ground inside the park advises people to book in writing two months in advance and then, when you arrive, you're camping shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of others all staring out at the same empty wilderness.
Visitors see the park through the zoom lenses of camera and videos, scanning every tree and rock, anxious not to miss that special moment and, in capturing through the camera, miss it all the same. A million feet shuffle around the valley floor where special walkways have been built to save the ground from erosion. They look up at the valley walls, at its waterfalls and forests yet so few people ever leave the road. People from the cities come here to see the wilderness but they want it partitioned by roads then sign posted and separated into zones for afternoon walks.
Death valleyMay - Death Valley
My bike had been overheating badly and I'd decided to take it back to the garage I'd bougt it from. Rather than go back to San Francisco by the simplest route I decided to cover a bit more of California while I was out this way. I looked at my maps and decided to head across Death Valley to the coast and then follow route 1 up country.
Death valley was quite pretty in an empty sort of way, it was 10am and it was already a little to warm for comfort but everything was going to plan and it seemed like I'd be back before midnight. Suddenly the engine just went silent and I coasted to a halt at the side of the road. I tried the starter but there wasn't a peep from the bike. I began to think that my route was probably a little bit stupid considering the overheating problem. I was lucky though as I'd passed a very small town only a mile or two back down the road. I stripped down to a pair of shorts and started to push. The man in the garage told me my stator had blown - whatever that was and that the bike couldn't recharge its battery. He suggested I stay overnight while he recharged the battery and I found myself a motel and a bar.
The bar was as memorable as the motel was forgettable. It seemed to be a cross between 1970's disco and 1890's square dancing. Underneath the flashing lights men dressed as cowboys were kicking their legs and shouting Yeeha. Stetsons were flying through the air and knocking glasses from tables. I guess any fashion looks ridiculous if you're not wearing it yourself.
The next morning I was told that if I was real careful and only used the battery for sparks I might get back to SF. I disconnected all the lights from the bike to save power and push started the bike up the road. Ever tried to push start a 750 cc bike which is piled high with luggage ? She started, eventually, and I put her straight into top gear (fewer sparks!) and started off on the 500 mile trip back. I just about made 80 miles when an O ring on the side of the engine disintegrated, and oil began to pour out the side of the bike. I just sat at the side of the road thinking sod the bike, sod the trip, sod the USA.
I'd been sitting at the side of the road for about 10 minutes, still with my head in my hands, still drowning in depression when a big sports car pulled up alongside me. The guy driving leans out and asks if I have a problem. I explained I was stuck, "Hell, I used to have an old Harley, happened to me all the time" "Hop in and we'll find some tin foil and elastic bands!" - the guy was obviously a lunatic but anything was better than just sitting there. We found the tin foil in a trash can and the elastic bands around some letters in a guys mail box. We went back to the bike and damn me if he didn't fix it.
I was back on the road again with 400 mile to SF with no lights or indicators of any kind, with the bike permanently tilted over at 45 degrees to help keep the oil in, riding at 45 mph to keep the engine cool and knowing that if I did get stopped by the police it would look even worse when I had to push start the bike to get moving again. As I passed through the fields of windmills before entering SF it was difficult to not think of Don Quixote.
Eucalyptus forestMay - San Francisco
I spent the night on the outskirts of San Fransisco camping in a Eucalyptus forest. This type of tree was originaly found in Australia where it grew slowly and produced fine wood. Fortunes were then spent planting Eucalyptus forests here in the US but the trees grew too quickly and this sapped the wood of it's orignal strength making it pretty much useless. In actual fact it was worse than useless as it was now a fire trap. I didn't mind as forest looked and smelt beautiful to me.
I parked up at a free campsite inside the forest and laid my tent between a VW camper and a large family tent. It felt good to have abandoned a well paid job to just follow a motorbiking dream and to have the freedom to just ride off into the sunset like some modern day cowboy. I felt perfectly in tune with the deadheads living in their VW nextdoor who were following their hereos from concert to concert. It was refreshing to think that there were still people in the US who weren't afected by commercialism.
I didn't get to talk to the family on the other side of me until the next morning. I was packing up my gear and about to leave when I noticed a young guy reading a book outside their tent. We got talking and I eventually asked him how long he had been camping there and he replied he'd allways been there. I was a little stumped and decided to ask the question slightly differently but he hadn't misunderstood me, he had been born in a tent on this campsite.
Families growing up in tents in, what's supposed to be the worlds richest economy, brings you down to earth with a bump.
Cold WelcomeMay - Pacific coast
I must of fallen asleep and woke up aware of movement around me, the other campers must of returned. There were few places to camp along the coast and all of them cost money but I'd found this place by following an old path up to the top of a cliff where I found a couple of ancient tents half hidden in the trees. I opened my eyes and found myself staring at two large dogs both straining on leads attached to their owner.
I looked up at the man and forced a smile "Hello, I'm British, I'm just passing through". Normally most Americans relax at this point and ask you if you know their second cousin Bob who moved to Coventry 20 years ago. This guy didn't say a word and his dogs were dripping saliva over my shirt. "Do you mind if I stay here one night, I'm on my way down the coast" He relaxed his grip on the dogs and they inched forward towards my face, their slow growling emphasising my position in the food chain. Still no word from the owner but I figured the answer was no!
"No problem, I'll just pack up and be on my way"
He still didn't say anything but moved the dogs back to let me get up. I moved over to my tent and pulled out the cool bag and opened it slowly so he could see inside. There were four beers from the last supermarket I'd passed and perhaps turning a little tepid now
"Do you fancy a beer"
He grunted - contact! I passed one to him and he told me I could stay one night but I couldn't light a fire.
I wasn't all that sure I wanted to stay now but it seemed impolite to refuse that type of hospitality. He told me he'd been living there for twelve years growing vegetables and soft drugs and working whenever he could. He talked for quite some time while I just sat and listened. The dogs just sat and stared at me. I guessed he didn't have a television but eventually we retired to our respective tents.
I woke up in the half light to the sound of dogs barking, I started to panic thinking that the dogs were loose but there was something wrong, it sounded like a large pack of dogs and also the noise was coming from the base of the cliff behind me. I cautiously looked over the edge and could just make out row upon row of seals. How the hell could anyone live with that noise for twelve years? I packed up before the sun had risen and pushed the bike quietly down the path and back onto the road. There didn't seem much point waiting to say goodbye.
Long ride to VegasMay - Las Vegas
The pacific coast looked like the edge of the world, the ocean could go on forever, the waves roll in and crash on the beach send the spray high into the air. I took one last look before turning left for Vegas, 500 miles away in the desert. I passed Hurst castle and turned left on route 46, through the lost hills and on towards Nevada.
The heat was rising steadily and the landscape became more and more yellow as I left the coast behind me. Occasionally a large rectangle of lush vegitation would spring from the desert, irrigation pumps spraying water into the dry air. Soon the temperature made riding intolerable and I pulled off to rest at lake Isabelle.
Mobile homes were parked at the edge of the water, lizards crawled around in their shade, old men with fishing lines sat at the shore, their brown skin hung from their bones like drying leather. I parked behind a rock face and slept in the shade. At night the temperature began to drop and I set off again for Vegas.
It was pitch black in the desert, it seemed as if the world consisted of the bike, myself and the small oval patch of road lit up by the head lamp. Distances were deceiving in the dark, head lamps would approach and I would dutifully dip my own lights and then wait, and wait.... perhaps 10 minutes later a truck would pass me, I would be blinded by the arrays of lights then crushed by the wind in its slip stream before being left in a darkness even deeper than before. It was also freezing, I begun to hug the gas tank to escape the wind and draw as much heat as possible from the engine. I rode for hours like this, half asleep on the tank, watching the white lines stream through my vision.
Up ahead I could see a city of lights, castles and minarets all built from coloured neon. It seemed unreal, a mirage in the middle of the night. Perhaps I had fallen asleep after all. As I drove into the city, it simply disappeared and was replaced by the darkness again. Had I really dreamt it? I looked back in the mirrors but the city was still there, its turrets blazing in the night. The whole city was only one lane wide, stretching out along the border between Nevada and California. A gambling town.
A few hours later Vegas lay in front of me, a nebulous glow of lights. I drove down the main strip, it was 4am and the streets were teaming with people, their faces reflecting the glow of flashing neon lights. Considering the time it was hardly worth paying for a motel so I raised my tent in a truck stop and fell asleep instantly. Two hours later I was woken by the truck engines as they shuddered into life and the bright sunlight pouring in through the tent.
Las VegasMay - Las Vegas
I came to see gambling tables and tuxedos, to listen to the quiet click of cards as they fell on the table, perhaps even the violent rattle of the roulette ball and the silence surrounding it. Instead I found slot machines and baseball caps, a whirlpool of flashing lights and accompanied by the deafening clatter of a million coins.
It was easy to see the wonder in peoples eyes, they knew they would never win but all that mattered was to have a chance no matter how small. Glittering prizes stood on pedestals surrounded by slot machines. I watched the mechanical movements of gamblers as they placed money in a slot, pulled the lever then stared at their reflection in the chrome wheels of a new sports car. The flickering lights shone in the eyes and eventually died, signalling the whole process to begin again.It seemed like a punishment for desire from Dante's inferno?
In a shopping mall within one of the casinos I tried a massage chair. Outside people were gathering round a set of statues while dry ice swirled at their feet. Slowly the statues came to life, speaking and moving, enacting some forgotten piece of history. The audience stood transfixed watching every move. I sat still in the chair letting its rollers massage my neck and spine watching while the animate traded places with the inanimate.
At night in a small casino near the outskirts of town I found an old man who'd lived in Vegas for twenty five years. He bought me a drink and told me it was no longer the sin city he had known in his youth. It was a city built on pleasure then, a compact diamond in the desert that shone at night. Now houses and gardens had blurred its outlines and mosquitoes bred on the watered lawns. He told me they were even thinking of building a Disney land here. "Imagine it. Vegas - bring your kids!" He spat on the ground and finished his beer.
He was mourning a city that had gone while I was mourning one that had never existed.
DinosaursMay - Flaming Gorge
I woke up in time to see the sunrise, its rays were already setting fire to the red earth and rocks, by the time my coffee had boiled the area was living up to its name of the flaming gorge. By the lake, even at this time, there was a couple of old men fishing, they stood staring silently into the water, their skin brown and wrinkled from the constant sun.
That morning I moved down river to the Dinosaur National Park, where they had constructed a museum around a rock face in which geologists had uncovered massive bones teeth and claws. It stands there like some grim relief sculpture, not yet finished. I found it difficult to imagine these creatures living, breathing, possibly drinking water from the same place I'd washed that morning. I noticed a small sign giving information about a campfire talk by a ranger at the local camp ground that night and decided to go.
I was late to arrive and people were already sat circled around the ranger, he stood with his back to the river and talked about an ugly fish, a living dinosaur that was quickly becoming extinct. He explained about the dams that had been built to stop the flooding of all the farmlands down river, about the fresh water that was supplied to the area, about electricity, about new fishing and recreational uses for the water. The problem was that no one wanted to fish for this strange fish so they poisoned the water in the reservoir behind the dam and then populated the water with bass. The poison was slowly leaking down stream and continuing to kill more of the fish. Not only that but the yearly flooding had provided breeding areas for these fish. The dams tried to provide smaller controllable floods but this only served to release more poison into the water.
Perhaps just the introduction of the bass, a more modern fish, would have spelt the end for these creatures in any case. The talk finished and I sat listening to the water, wondering how long it would be until the remains of this fish would join the exhibition of bones within the white walls of the museum and another form would be lost forever.
Endless roadsMay - Nevada
I think everyone goes a little strange on long journeys - it's as if everything inside your head reorganises itself and you see the world slightly differently. Here in Nevada there wasn't much to get confused about though, everything just seemed to be painted yellow - from the dried grass to the dried lizards that seemed asleep in the dust. Only the road stood out, a thick black line stretching from horizon to horizon, cutting the world in two. At the brow of each hill a new landscape would reveal itself, identical to the last, an endless repetition of rolling hills, yellow grass and road. In this landscape even distance itself seemed to lose its meaning as everywhere looked exactly the same.
My mind started to wander to other places, other times, anywhere but here. Here was like a horizontal version of that dream where you fall forever but never land. Soon only the hum of the engine seems real, a metronome, marking time as the road unwind. A grey gas station appeared every hundred or so miles, perforating the landscape. Between those there was nothing, no cars, no houses, nothing.
Occasionally you'd arrive at a cross-roads, each road stretching out to nowhere through the same featureless landscape. There were no signs for what could they say in a place where anywhere seemed infinitely far away. Perhaps that road has no destination, perhaps it just circled round the world and, after months of travelling, I'd pass the same spot again. Would I realise and stop or would I press on, determined to reach an end?
They read those in CaliforniaJune - Montana
It had been raining all day and I'd decided to stay in town until the bad weather moved on. A bed and a bath would be luxury even in the cheapest motel in town. I was also about to finish my last book and staying over in a town would give me some time to buy some more. After dumping my staff at the motel I wondered off to explore the town.
I discovered two book shops, the first selling bibles and Christian books, the other a second hand book store selling used bibles and Christian books. I decided to go back to the motel and relax in the bath.
That night I found a good bar where I could play a few games of pool and listen to the local gossip. The place was full of life and by the end of the evening I almost felt like a local myself but eventually people started to leave and I settled down to finish my book, Jules Verne's "20,000 leagues under the sea". I was just coming to the part where the nautilus submarine was being sucked down by the maelstrom when a girl appeared at my shoulder and asked
"Are you Californian?"
I guessed she'd seen the plates on my bike and I was about to explain when she continued
"They read those over there..."
the conversation had now taken a weird slant, but then after my experience of looking for a book shop, perhaps not.
"...to pick up girls"
I laughed but she stared straight back at me. I couldn't work out whether she was trying to pick me up or maybe just put me down. Then she turned and walked back triumphantly back to her friends.
I felt a bit like captain Nemo.
Camping in rain forestJune - British Columbia
It seemed like a great idea, camping in a rain forest, surrounded by lush green trees and hanging mosses. Of course I didn't stop to consider the rain and by then it was too late. It could almost of been magical with the low cloud and mist tumbling through the forest but with a tent and a bike it was crap.
The damp pervaded everything. It was difficult to tell whether the rain was falling from the sky, rising from the ground or had simply been floating there since time began. It took an hour to set up camp, searching through the mud, more vegetable than mineral, for a patch of ground firm enough not to sink under the weight of the tent. I soon abandoned searching for firewood, it wood of been easier trying to set light to the mud.
I resigned myself to a set of peanut butter sandwiches and sat down inside my tent and stared out at the hoards of mosquitoes that were now crawling all over its surface. I hunted and killed them as they found their way in, squashing them with my thumb against the fabric of the tent, a small patch of red blood marked every kill but knowing the blood was my own diluted the victory. I woke feeling stiff and rheumatic, it was as if I'd slept fully clothed in a cold bath. Outside it was still raining and the mosquitoes were patiently waiting for me. I packed quickly, wrapping my bags in plastic before tying them to the bike. Climbing aboard I turned the key and was met with a small puff of white smoke rising up from beneath the saddle, it signalled it was going to be a bad day. I guessed there was water in the electrics, there was water in everything else.
Forest of spikesJune - Baja Mexico
I was jammed up against the window of the bus with sweat running down my back, wondering whether the discomfort of travelling across the desert by local bus was worth the money saved. There was no air conditioning and opening the window only produced a blast of hot air, dust and swearing from the seats behind.
The windows had started to shake as we laboured up another series of steep hills, we were climbing into a forest of cacti. Each green waxy cylinder had two branches stretching up to the sun as if surrendering to the heat. Hanging a sombrero from a branch and placing a bottle of tequila at the base would produce everyone's photo image of Mexico. As we careered down the other side of the hill a new species appeared, clusters of thick tentacles reaching twenty feet into the air, as if a giant octopus was trapped beneath the sand and was desperately search for moisture. Some of the tentacles had failed, died, and were now turning brown while slowly curling back towards the sand.
Each hill seemed to introduce a new species, we were now surrounded by conical cacti, six foot tall and ringed with spikes like a medieval suit of armour that had been abandoned in the dust and left to rust. Next there were squat brown trees with red leaves, their misshapen branches like the pods that grow from old potatoes. Then there were bunches of great thorny leaves, each bunch arranged around a tall brown stem from which hung a yellow chandelier of flowers.
The species kept changing, growing more and more bizarre when suddenly, in a small clearing, I saw five fresian cows standing in the shade and staring back at me as if from a painting by Magritte. Then, just as suddenly, they were gone and I was left wondering whether they had ever existed at all. I found it difficult to accept the forest as it was, it either seemed to belong to the far future, in some post apocalyptic world where nothing else would ever grow again or to a distant past, before the first creatures had crawled from the shoreline to see what lay in the dryness beyond.
NowhereJuly - Baja Mexico
One road runs through Baja and on either side of that there is nothing except mile upon mile of empty scrub land. Through the windows of the bus I saw a small village of shacks, built from large boards nailed together with holes for windows and doors, their view unbroken by trees or cactus, only the heat haze hiding the horizon. A dust road stretched still further into the dust. The place looked like nowhere, purgatory.
I wondered what these people did, what could they do to separate their days? Did they see their future stretching out before them? A straight line through the dust. Did they come here by choice? Did they have some special need, like camels searching for a desert? What would it be like to live in a place where there is nothing? Nothing to compare your life to, no possessions, no envy, no desires. Only your own life just standing there, naked in the dust.
A mild dose of GangreneJuly - Mexico
I'd heard from a number of folks about how easy it was to loose a wallet in Mexico and so I'd a bought a colourful, hand made, belt bag that would fit on the inside of my trousers and hold my wallet. It seemed to work perfectly until I actually need to get money out and then it became a right royal pain in the ass. Nevertheless what little money I had seemed safe.
It was only the next morning when I was getting dressed that I noticed I had a rather nasty blood infection. I felt fine but all the veins in my thigh had gone a vivid purple. I should mention at this point that I'm diabetic and had been taking my injections around this area and this was also where my new belt bag was hiding so I guessed that something in the bag had infected an injection site. It didn't look good.
Looking at my leg made me feel a bit queezy and Clare was going into panic mode, checking out our insurance and asking about local hospitals. I just couldn't believe I could feel so fine while my leg looked like it needed amputating. I decided to have one last shower before making our way to the hospital.
In the shower my severe case of gangrene simply washed away and my leg went back to looking quite normal. The dye in my colourful new bag had obviously ran and, for some strange reason, the colour had followed the pattern of the veins in my leg. Perhaps it was the heat of the blood? I felt quite relieved.
One coffee pleaseJuly - Los Moches Mexico
The air conditioning in the cafe was bliss, but how long can you stay there with one cup of coffee? I had been fending of the waitress for the last two hours. We would follow the same little dance, she would walk over and wipe my table while I clutched my cold and empty coffee cup, then she would offer the menu followed by the bill while I shook my head trying to pretend I was still deciding. In the end I'd had enough, I paid for the coffee and left.
Opening the door to the street was like opening an oven door, the sudden blast of hot air almost melts your clothes. I headed back to my room, to the transitory luxury of a cold shower, knowing that the hot air would dry me in a moment and that a minute later I would be damp with sweat. It was also possible to order ice cold drinks but they were always warm before the end of the glass. I was told the temperature was in the high forties, it gave me grim satisfaction to think that if the temperature doubled I might literally boil.
It didn't feel any cooler at night, I switched the overhead fan to maximum, the giant blades whirred hypnotically, swirling the hot air around me while I slept on the bed dreaming of flying aeroplanes low over the jungle. In the morning I untangled myself from the damp sheets, showered and staggered out into the heat. I was stunned to see children playing football in the street, I just stared at them from the shadows. They weren't even sweating. I shook my head and walked back to the cafe, trying to keep out of the sun. The same waitress came over to me as I opened my book, I smiled at her
"One coffee please."
Straight linesJuly - Creel
How much time do you need to explore a given country ? Could you construct a formula based on land mass, the number of places to see and the distances between them or is there never enough time as time is always limited whether to two weeks, six months or a lifetime. Guide books narrow our view to the most interesting sights but these places will always be full of others all admiring the same green valley or cathedral. We come away from a country believing its only commerce revolves around ice creams and T- shirts. We met an Italian in San Rosalia, Baja, he had stayed for the festival and was then travelling to Los Mochis and Creel by train.
We were following the same plan and decided to go together. The train ride was breath taking, we seemed to be travelling through some lost continent that belonged to another age. We all lent out the windows looking at the rock formations and sheer canyons surrounding us while the train clung to the sides of mountains and valley walls. At Creel we separated, he was off to go trekking through the local forests while we were heading South for Mexico city and the colonial towns.
A week later at 2 in the morning, on route to San Migel d'Allende, our bus stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. We decided to have a coffee to keep warm and sat at a table in the local bar. At the next table was our Italian friend on his way to Mexico city. He only had 5 minutes before his bus departed and he quickly traded stories of forests and valleys for ours of hidden courtyards and roof top gardens. Then again we said our good byes and continued on our separate ways.
In the weeks that followed we slowly made our way through the colonial towns and towards Guatemala. We were staying at lake Atitlan, a beautiful lake in the jungle surrounded by volcanoes. We spent our days exploring the markets in the morning sunshine, escaping to our room to avoid the late afternoon downpours and then passing the evenings in the cafes watching the lightening storms that lit up the lake. One evening we spotted our Italian friend again, he seemed amazed our paths had crossed again. I suppose our lack of time draws us in straight lines between the places of interest until travelling a country becomes a simple game of join the dots. What pattern does each country produce and was this its true signature?
CirclesJuly - Creel
"So how long have you been travelling?"
Seven years! What would that be like? To set off on a trip and never return. I wondered how long I would last before money, apathy or guilt dragged me back. He told me how he'd been around the world a couple of times and that he preferred the Sahara with its empty landscapes to almost anywhere else. He was once even going to write a book on the area but another author (curiously one with the same name) had produced a similar book first. He went on to say that he'd learnt that water and friendship are the only essentials in life.
He continued on how every conversation he had ever had followed a similar pattern - where had he been, what was his favourite place and how did he afford it. I made a mental note not to ask him about funding and instead asked about the local canyons. He surprised me by saying he hadn't seen them but had seen many others in his time.
I wondered whether seeing so much had made everything that wasn't extraordinary seem plain to him, as if the world would seem flatter after seeing the Himalayas. Was there a saturation point in travelling? in life? Is there a point when nothing more can make an impact? When each new mountain seems like just one more in an endless series of mountains. Does the memory of that first mountain become crushed under the weight of succeeding mountains. Does the world become just an endless sequence of repeating patterns. I wondered what would happen when the whole world was covered with his footprints, would he finally stop and walk home or was he already in a form of orbit, destined to circle the planet forever, seeing everything but never quite touching down.
Was he really telling the truth? Could anyone keep travelling for year after year? At first it sounded wonderful but, the more I thought about it, the more alien it sounded. Not having a home, not having any permanent friends, permanently having to move just to justify your existence.
On the other side of the hillJuly - Creel
We were standing at the bus stop waiting for the morning bus. The scenery around Creel is probably the most spectacular in Mexico. Nearby are the copper canyons, even larger than the grand canyon, beautiful waterfalls, cliffs with cave dwellings that are still inhabited by the local Indians and looking down on fields of rocks shaped like giant mushrooms.
The town seemed quite tranquil with its cafes and squares though you would occasionally see small groups of soldiers sitting in the local bars. It seemed a strange place to defend. Then I was told that they'd shot a local last week though no one seemed to know why. Everything here seems geared towards tourism, each street had shops selling arts and crafts or advertising local tours. I was passing time looking at a small collection of wooden carvings arranged on the pavement. An Indian trader speaking perfect English was trying to interest me in a carving of a horse but his sales talk was drowned by a helicopter flying overhead. I watched it fly of towards the nearby hills and presumed it was for richer tourists wanting to get a better view of the canyon. He told me it was the army and that they were dropping agent orange in the hills, he wasn't sure why but assumed it was against the drug growers. I noticed there was a little wooden model of a helicopter amongst his carvings.
That night in the hostel we had some surprise guests in the hostel we were staying at. They had been staying in the nearby village of Batapilas but they told us an armed riot had began that evening. I couldn't imagine anyone rioting with the army and police around here. Then they told us it was the police that were rioting firing their guns at buildings and demanding foreigners to leave. It seemed like a wise idea and we packed our bags to head South.
A Mexican cafeAugust - Mexico city
We pushed our way through the crowd repeating "Por fabor" at groups of mustachioed Mexicans, who would never turn but perhaps move a fraction of inch, allowing us to press on a few more feet. I hopefully asked "excuse me" to the back of a tall blond man, dressed in denim, a foreigner. He turned, surprised at the use of an English phrase and seemed disappointed that the purity of the atmosphere had been diluted further.
Eventually we found a table near the back of the cafe and sat down to watch the continual stream of people pouring in from the street. Locals would enter and carefully search the tables, each of which seemed to trade a different commodity, gold chains on one, silver earrings in boxes on another. Soon they would be bargaining with a trader, their arms waving in the air, their hands framing the pained expressions on their face until eventually a price was reached and the man would disappear back into the crowds outside.
Hawkers paused outside, eyeing the waitresses warily before approaching their first table. They would empty their pockets of digital watches and toy police cars, demonstrating each function, each set of flashing lights, to eyes that never moved from their coffees or their wallets. Undeterred they would gather their things and repeat their performance at each new table.
Suddenly, with a crash of sound, a band of buskers entered the cafe playing their music on painted guitars and silver trumpets and dancing from table to table. Nobody watched them play, nobody met their eyes and, if their empty cap landed on a table, those around would look up with surprise as if aware for the first time that a band had entered.
A continual stream of beggars flowed around the tables, barefoot children with wasted figures thrusting their deformity into each new face. Soon a wrinkled old woman was standing before me, wrapped in an ancient fur coat that seemed to be dying painfully for a second time. Her face was caked in cheap makeup, a child s first attempt, she looked like a characture of herself. She was speaking to me but I didn't understand, or didn't wish to understand, what she wanted.
The figures circled continuously, like a carnival parade before a bored and disinterested audience. Even the waitresses, in their stiff white uniforms wore a look of apathy as they meandered through the crowd, they never asked for anyone's order and no one ever volunteered one.
Climbing volcanoesAugust - Guatemala's Fuego volcano
We were trudging up a mountain made entirely from mud, all held together by a thick covering of jungle. We'd just passed a tiny village, the incessant rain drumming against the tin roofs. A young girl in wet rags smiled as we passed, her sorry looking cows stood knee deep in mud chewing the vegetation. Why on earth would anyone live here ? A shanty village perched on the side of a live volcano in the middle of a permanent rainstorm and where armed guerrillas are known to roam the area. Perhaps she'd join the guerrillas, there was nothing else.
The guerrillas in this area had earned themselves a reputation for robbing and raping at gun point those who climbed the volcano. Our guard was armed with a rifle though it looked like a flint lock from the 1800's and was suffering badly from rust. You'd have to be insanely brave to pull the trigger of such a weapon and, if it was to fire, I'd guess the bullets would be more likely to kill someone from infection than impact.
As we climbed higher into the cloud line the jungle slowly thinned and disappeared and the mud slowly turned to gravel. Large rocks that had been spat out from the volcano were littered around us, strangely they were almost weightless and had razor sharp edges not yet eroded by the weather. We were sitting down taking a break when the guard told me that a few years back, a dozen or so people had been killed in just this spot by a chance shower of lava. I was too tired to care.
View stunning as climbed out of the clouds. A sea of cloud stretched out around us with the peaks of two volcanoes pushing through like islands. Final peak above us, picnic ,ground warm streams lava plus explosions in air, more used to erosion than creation . as night fell brighter , glow above in high cloud like sunrise . finally coming down in darkness, through clouds into torrential rain. Bus slid of road, crashed into trees, 2 hours back on road 4am back at rooms, flight at 5am to Flores in centre of Petan jungle. Desperate for a drink of water, but no bottles on offer so had a cold beer. Fell asleep fully clothed and woken up by the alarm an hour later and feeling like shit.
bus came off the road in the downpoor and slid into jungle thunder above clouds
Changing bordersAugust - Tical
Flores is placed on an island in the middle of a lake in the middle of the jungle. This jungle stretches to the horizon in all directions. We came by plane to avoid the exhausting 12 hour bus ride, it also avoids the 800 or so guerrillas who make their base here while pursued back and forth by the army, who in turn provide an excuse for all the army excesses.
The village of Flores covers every inch of the island while a single causeway connects it to the shore. More and more people are coming here on route to Tical, the ancient Mayan city. To cope with this influx of tourists Flores has expanded beyond its natural boundaries back to the shore and into the jungle.
Tical itself was deserted over 700 years ago though no one knows why. Once the occupants were gone the jungle soon reclaimed the land that was originally it's own, swallowing whole temples and palaces, hiding them under layer upon layer of dead leaves until trees grew above the stone work. Even now it is a struggle to keep the cleared building free from the encroaching jungle. The heat and humidity combined with the deafening sounds of insects presses down on you where ever you are. In comparison the island of Flores seems peaceful and unchanging but the rains are getting heavier each year and the lake has no natural outlet. The turtles and small crocodiles that inhabit the lake watch the village as the water level rises. The owners of lakeside houses build new floors on top of old ones that are now submerged, even a large hotel built only a few years ago is now flooded and disused
TicalSeptember - Tical
Tical sits deep in the Petan jungle, its ancient temples towering high above the tree canopy. You instinctively walk quietly along the jungle paths, tiptoeing over piles of rotting leaves out of which might sprout a banana tree, a giant millipede or a small lizard with diamond eyes and yellow scales.
The jungle though is not a quiet place, it seems as if the very trees are shouting at you. A kaleidoscope of toucans suddenly surrounded me, loudly squawking
"who are you?"
before their bright colours disappeared into the foliage. Searching for them I found a 6 inch grass hopper in a tree, is sat there silently staring at me as if wondering
"why are you here?"
and then its gone, a mechanical whirr accompanying the beat of its purple wings.
Only one percent of Tikal has been uncovered with most of the structures still buried under half a millennia of fallen leaves. The leaves have since turned to dark earth from which sprouts still more trees, more leaves. Walking past sharp hills I wonder what mysteries they hide, palaces or temples, but then perhaps after months of digging I'd find it was only the hill it pretended to be.
Trying to guess the purpose of every mound and hill only emphasis the fact that everyone left here centuries ago. I continued down the path through a cloud of butterflies, their large blue wings danced in front of my face and then suddenly disappeared like some magicians trick. Next I'm climbing over a stream of ants carrying bright green leaves above their heads like opal crowns. Up above a troop of howler monkeys scream a warning to me before retreating through the branches. Everywhere I looked I was surrounded by plant life, trees growing out of the undergrowth, thick mosses and vines hanging down from their branches, flowers and fungi filling every available gap. It seemed as if the jungle fed on space itself. If I stood still, how long would it take for the vines to twist around me, for leaves to bury me and for red toad stools to sprout from my hair? Less time than it took to swallow a city?
I walk on and came to a row of uncovered stones, ancient slabs that mark the festivals that once happened in the main square and are now a graveyard of memories. High above me in a tree, a monkey hangs upside down, its eyes staring at me
"why are you back?"
Seeing is BelizingSeptember - Belize city
The title comes from an advert by the Belize tourist authority. The country nestles underneath Mexico and is mostly jungle, partly swamp, a few lovely islands and Belize city. We asked around for a cheap hotel and were directed to a wonderfully decayed old building. A parrot stared at us from the balcony and the stairs seemed to be guarded by what appeared to be an ant eater.
We were given a tiny basement room but it had two fans and a curtained window. The view from the window was of a brick wall 2 inches from the glass, it was impossible to even open the window but as there was no fly screen that was probably just as well. Before we had even sat down the guy staying next door called in, he said his father was Dr Heroin, that he was a stock broker and would be flying back to the UK early tomorrow, he said a lot of things. He also apologised in advance for his radio and that if it disturbed us then we should give him a knock.
We lay back to have a quick sleep but were immediately serenaded by a mixture of reggae and English pop followed by the news. There were three violent deaths that weekend and another guy washed up on the beach who died from an overdose though the police weren't certain whether it was self administered. I tried knocking on his door but he must of fallen asleep, or passed out, anyway we decided to go off for a walk.
The houses here are mostly built of wood and raised up into the air on stilts. All the windows have bars or shutters, paint slowly peels from the walls and bags of rubbish stew on the pavement. The population either listen to music in the bars or swing from the hammocks that hang from every tree and balcony. Frigate birds float in the air like kites while tiny fish swim in the guttering by the side of the road. Under one house I caught a glimpse of rats and crabs fighting over discarded food.
The place seemed like New Orleans but without the money, more "in your face". I loved it. In the evening we choose a bar at random, the place was full of characters who seemed to have escaped from some Hemingway novel. A guy at the bar told me of his life in the army, postings in far away places, small wars. I guessed none of it was true but knowing what people want you to believe tells you more about them than the truth.
A woman came in finely dressed but painfully thin with addicts eyes. She ran from table to table begging for money and pursued by the owner, a women 3 or 4 times her size. She managed to escape and ran out into the night laughing and shouting then, before the door could stop swinging, in walked our neighbour from the hotel. He was staggering now and using a walking stick, he had the complexion of a corpse long dead in the sand.
Walking home I was stopped in the street by a man who tried to sell me his sandals, then grass, then cocaine.
"Hey man where you from?"
"Hell man I've been there, London Buckingham palace"
Looking at the sandals I guessed he must of walked.
The next day we settled our bill and were leaving for the islands when I noticed a small advertisement in the doorway of the hotel for a stock broker. Could he really of been telling the truth or was it all in the past now and drowned in rum or perhaps he too had just seen the add and become someone else for the day. As we left I found our neighbour half asleep at the base of the stairs still out of it from the night before and his radio was still playing reggae.
Wasting timeSeptember - Arizona
Instinctively I looked up at the clock as we pulled in to the bus station, though with six hours to wait for my connection to San Diego it hardly mattered whether the bus was on time or not. I took my bag and walked through the swing doors into the waiting room. As the doors closed behind me the sound of bus engines faded to be replaced by the sound of gun fire and squealing tires from the slot televisions fixed to the waiting room chairs. Bodies lay slumped in the chairs, their faces shinning an almost luminous grey in the light of the screens. Along the wall a row of arcade machines pumped out their own brand of daydream aggression.
An announcement came over the intercom, a bus was leaving for Tucson and a group of people stood up and moved towards an exit. I took a freshly emptied seat and listened to the sound of their luggage scrapping along the floor, pushed by their shuffling feet. Their diamond shaped bodies stood in line, each face had the lustre of porridge. Each wore a uniform of training shoes, slacks, fake gold and a baseball cap. I looked at my watch, ten minutes had passed, five hours and fifty minutes to go. I picked up my bag and walked out through the swing doors and into the afternoon heat of Phoenix.
I eventually found myself in the Arizona centre, a large shopping mall with cultured palm trees and great bronze sculptures of frogs leaping out the mist, real mist. The same mist was hissing out above all the walkways perhaps to make the whole building an extension of the sculptures down below, it made the mall seem like a giant green house. I expected to see tomatoes and orchids growing behind the shop windows.
I spent three hours wandering from shop to shop, picking things up, putting them down, wondering what they were for. Eventually I found a bench outside a bar and settled down to read. There was a continual stream of women in neon dresses and men in check shirts and jeans, clutching cowboy hats and tottering about in cowboy boots. There was even the occasional clink of spurs. I stayed there until it was time to head back to the station.
Back in the waiting room I found my watch was wrong, it seemed I'd gained two hours since leaving Belize, two hours I would rather of lost. I settled down in my chair and closed my eyes, listening to the sounds of gunfire and star ships exploding.
Rattle snakesSeptember - California, Mt. Polamar
I'd been laying in my hammock fighting a loosing battle with my latest book "The letters of Francis Bacon". His letters read more like lecture notes and I wondered what sort of friends he sent them to and did they look forward to them or did they dread the postman knocking on the door. In the end I gave up the unequal struggle and fell asleep.
An hour or so later I was disturbed by a movement behind me. I turned round carefully to find an old man leaning on his walking stick.
I guessed he owned the land and I was about to receive a polite request to move on.
"Should be careful camping round here, rattlesnakes every where"
Maybe this was just a subtle way of suggesting I should leave, though thinking about it, I had heard something behind the logs that could well of been snakes. The old man was still talking...
"they get into your sleeping bag son, attracted by the warmth, you turn over and ..."
I could just picture that happening to me and was wondering how to blockade the entrance to my tent when he continued
"make good eating though, head and tail them, skin em, chop em and fry em. Catching them is a problem though !"
He laughed and started to wander off , I thanked him and picked up my book again. The noises behind the logs started up again and I thought about the mushroom soup I had planned for dinner that night and the boredom of Bacon. I could do with a little excitement and went over to the tent and pulled out my sleeping bag. It was already warm from the sun so I just threw it over behind the logs to see what I could catch.
Two hours later I warily approached the sleeping bag with a large stick, I was wearing my boots and bike gloves, I even had an old newspaper I kept for lighting fires wrapped around my leg for extra protection. I wondered how fast they were, were they big, would just one be enough for a meal? I thought about trying to kill them inside the bag but thought that would make an already dirty sleeping bag disgusting. I figured on trying to gently coax them out and then crack them with the stick as they emerge. Five minutes of gentle coaxing brought nothing followed by another five of very wary unzipping.
There was nothing in the bag. I guess my sleeping bag was an affront even to rattlesnakes. I put the mushroom soup back on and settled back down with Bacon, shame really.
I ain't never been to MemphisSeptember - Arkansas
Most Americans have never left America, many have never left their home state. It seemed strange to be in a frontier society that had run out of frontiers, perhaps that's why the space race was so closely fought, at least till they ran out of funds.
In Washington I met a guy who said he'd always wanted to come to Europe but the cost held him back. He told me he worked hard and played hard. He was currently drunk in a bar and ordering another pitcher of beer even though his current pitcher stood untouched and forgotten behind him. Curious I checked the prices at a travel agent, $99 one way to London, probably a couple of nights drinking to him.
Maybe it was lack of time, Americans always seem to be working, paying the next instalment on their car or house, perpetually trying to keep up with the Jones or their own expectations. Many people had two or three jobs and found it difficult to understand the concept of leisure, of not doing anything. Many companies do not give holidays until the second year of employment and many people don't take that, fearing they'll not have a job to come back to.
It could also be a simple lack of curiosity, in a cafe in California I asked the waitress for the time difference between there and New York, she seemed amazed their was a time difference. In another cafe in Arkansas I asked the waitress if there was an interesting route to Memphis, the nearest large city.
"I ain't never been to Memphis"
but she was kind enough to ask the others in the cafe, it appeared no one else had either. Perhaps it is because America is so large that it never seems necessary to go anywhere else. In Montana I was asked
"Where you from honey?"
she looked a little mystified so I was a bit more specific
"I knew you were from out of state"
Welcome to MemphisSeptember - Memphis
I was riding the freeway into town, I normally avoided the freeways like the plague and hadn't been to a city since San Diago. Up ahead I could see an old Harley parked at the side of the rode and a bearded guy just standing there passing the time. I couldn't make out whether he'd broken down or was just stopping for a cigarette, he wasn't waving or anything but thought I ought to stop and ask.
It turned out he'd run out of fuel. So why didn't you wave?
"hell I saw you coming miles away, I knew you were going to stop"
I was always running out of fuel on my bike so I carried a little plastic tube to "borrow" petrol if I got really stuck. We syphoned the petrol into a beer can we found at the side of the road then syphoned it again into his bike but using a bandanna to filter the fuel. We did this twice, I figured it would be enough to get him to the next station and any more and I'd be running out myself. I said I'd ride alongside just to make sure he made it to a station and as we reached cruising speed he reached into his tank bag and pulled out a beer, opened it and passed it to me before opening one for himself.
In the US I knew you couldn't drive with any alcohol in the car at all, even a sealed bottle in the back seat was viewed as a crime. I was pretty sure that any police we might me would take a dim view of two hairy bikers riding side by side down the freeway and drinking beer as they rode along. But I suppose it's important to try and fit into the local way of life.
We reached the station and he stopped me before I rode off to ask if I needed a place to stay for the night. He was a bit of an odd one but I figured it was a fair offer and accepted. We pulled up in front of a small clapboard house and his brother opened the front door. The brother was even odder, it wasn't just that this one was bigger and had a longer beard, it was because he was standing in front of a big gun rack and was dressed just in long johns.
They were decent folks and I was even treated to some good grub but I still felt uncomfortable fell asleep on the sofa with my Swiss army knife open and ready under the pillow!
A restless night on Key WestSeptember - Florida Keys
I had been riding out into the sea for the past two hours, steadily circling the gulf of Mexico. Its waters lapped up against the right hand side of the road while the Atlantic leaned against the left. Using a series of bridges the road leapt from island to island until finally ending 130 miles from the mainland at Key West. The road had allowed the twentieth century to invade the islands and things had changed a great deal since the filming of Key Largo.
As I arrived on the island I could see that camping was going to be a real problem, every inch of the island was covered with bars, restaurants, hotels and night clubs. The only greenery I could find was the hedge alongside the road but I was tired and wanted to sleep so I set up camp. It played on my mind that eleven tourists had been killed in Florida over the past two weeks, including campers like myself. I found it difficult to close my eyes. A few hours later I heard a car pull up quietly outside the tent. I leapt out the tent, my Swiss army knife hidden in my palm, hopefully ready for anything. It was the police.
I dropped the knife quietly behind my back and smiled at them. I was informed that camping anywhere on the keys was illegal and that if I was still there in 10 minutes they would take me in. I started to pack as their car drove off but there was no where better to go. As the car disappeared I tore a hole in the hedge and dragged my bike and tent into the space I'd created then sealed the hole behind me. I crawled back into the tent but couldn't sleep, there was something scratching around behind my bags.
I fumbled around for my torch, found it and switched it on. Its little beam put the spotlight on a black scorpion around five inches long or it would of been if its tail wasn't curled up over its head. I don't mind large animals but little poisonous ones terrify me. I couldn't take my eyes of the stinger, my hand had to search blindly in the darkness of the tent for one of my boots. I tried not to think of my hand discovering another scorpion in the darkness. I found a boot and a moment later the thing was dead. After minutely searching the rest of the tent and making sure there were no holes in the tent I laid back down. I didn't sleep.
By dawn I was keen to move on and thrust my head out of the tents doorway and straight into an enormous spiders web. The dew made the web seem as thick as string and, as I tried to brush it out my hair, my hand felt something solid on top of my head. It was the spider. It crawled down the front of my face, its legs holding on to either side of my jaw. It was the size of my hand and stripped yellow and black, before I had time to scream it fell to the ground and ambled off into the undergrowth. After that it took me some time to recover and when I next appeared I was taking no chances, I was wearing my helmet with a scarf wrapped around my head, the motorcycle jacket and gloves, and had my jeans tucked into my boots. I must of looked a strange sight crawling out of the hedge that morning.
EvergladesSeptember - Everglades, Florida
Why on earth build a road through a swamp for 40 miles? Well, whatever the reason I was on it and it was beautiful. It was difficult to say just where the beauty lay, it might of been the emptiness of the flat marsh land that stretched out unbroken to the horizon, it reminded me of pictures I'd seen of African savannahs. It might of been the stillness, the only movement came from the great white birds that rose from the water as I rode past. It could also of been the silence, I felt that if I stood and screamed then the sound would quickly radiate out and fade to nothing leaving me in silence with not even an echo from the slender trees that seemed no more solid than the reeds.
I rode past Flamingo City but the birds are gone now and the town is far too small for the name they have left behind and after all how many people wish to live in a swamp. I rode into the everglades campsite and found it completely empty, not even an attendant. I wondered why as I rolled to a stop and received my answer in almost biblical proportions. The air became black with mosquitoes and I began slapping my arms, face and neck. Within the 15 seconds it took to start my bike and set off up the road I had been bitten perhaps 40 times.
I couldn't camp there but what else could I do? I was almost out of fuel and the garage would only open in the morning, I was surrounded by 40 miles of alligator infested swamp. There was however one hotel but I couldn't afford it. I headed for the hotel hoping to find an outside toilette where I could lock the door and sleep inside. Instead I found a large open air swimming pool surrounded by mosquito netting.
Pretending to work at the hostel, I carted in my luggage and hid it behind some sun chaires. I then changed into swimming trunks and pretended to be a guest. I alternated between swimming and reading while watching the hours slip by until the last of the staff had gone to bed. I climbed into my sleeping bag and fell asleep staring at the stars glad to be on this side of the mosquito netting.
At 3 in the morning I was awoken by two bear like creatures digging around in my luggage - raccoons. They had smelt my cereals and managed to get through the netting. My food bag was totally ripped apart by the time I'd chased them back out the hole in the netting. Oh well at least there was no more food to steal and I laid back to sleep.
I'd barely closed my eyes when there was a buzzing all around my face - the mosquitoes were coming in through the hole. I tried to cover my face but I could already feel their little needles piercing my skin. I decided to put up my tent alongside the diving board and hide inside. I guessed I was never going to escape a night outside in the glades. I woke early in the morning to pack everything up and clean away what the raccoons had left of my breakfast. It was still early when I pulled out the gas station and it seemed the best time to make the return drive through the glades.
free drinks, trip east west by horse
Florida funSeptember - Florida
I had breakfast in the nearest town, eating omelet and toast while watching the news on TV. It seemed that killing European tourists was now pass� and the latest thing was now to kill old age pensioners and then set light to their homes. The old man I shared a table with told me it was all part of the Florida fun. I just blamed it on the heat and the mosquitoes and headed off North through the centre of Florida, aiming to see Daytona beach and Cape Canaveral before heading inland into the backwaters of Florida.
It was fascinating to see all the old rockets standing to attention outside the space centre but none were scheduled to go up for a few weeks. It was a shame as I'd love to have seen a launch. Daytona beach was different, tanned girls in bikinis riding monster sports bikes across 15 miles of sand. To fit in here I would have to be wearing Speedo trunks, lie in the sun for a year while training all night at the gym and then wear a pair of sun glasses as if they were my personality. As it was I felt like a tramp so I headed off inland.
Slowly the roads became smaller and smaller and the towns poorer and poorer, eventually I admitted I was lost and stopped at a garage to get some fuel and check my maps. The owner came out to help and said I was on the right track "just keep straight on and don't stop anywhere or they'll rob you". He didn't say who they were but I thanked him for the advice.
A few miles later I was distracted by a flapping sound and turned to see that I'd left my luggage flap open. I stopped and took of my helmet, it was good to get some fresh air and allowed me to search my bags to see what I'd lost. At that moment a large black car with shaded windows came tearing round the corner, it pulled of the road and screeched to a halt behind me. A man jumped out the car and reached with both hands for something off the passenger seat. I didn't want to know what. I jumped on the bike and took off, I left the helmet behind on the ground and just lay as low as I could on the bike. I turned to see what was happening behind. The man hadn't pulled a gun from the car but was instead waving my maps in the air. Oh dear, how embarrassing. I turned around and headed back slowly while desperately trying to think of some excuse for my behaviour. He laughed and then kindly treated me to lunch at his place nearby. It just goes to show.
Trailer ParksSeptember - Florida
To Americans driving is an expression of freedom while your car is an expression of your personality, your politics and your wealth. Everyone here drives or wants to drive. Young children (like anywhere else I guess) stare at sports cars and limousines, even the tramps push shopping trolleys along the side of the road. Pedestrians are just a quirk of a few modern cities where parking has become too expensive.
In a country with such a short history and where everyone is mobile, people don't ask who you are but instead want to know where you're going and where you're from. Some have abandoned all pretence at roots, they've sold their homes, bought RVs and now wander forever following guide books and the weather. The mountain roads seem full of them, migrating flocks of white Winebagoes. People have nicknamed them the "snow birds".
Driving has become a religion here, something to connect the known world together and protect us from the unknown. The comfortable peace provided by a steel shell has become their church, the freedom from thought (and anxiety) that allows us to keep to a single lane for 500 miles. The road itself pierces the heart of an endless stream of small towns, each town mirroring the last with a Texaco, a K-Mart and a Denny's. Out the side windows the country side slowly changes from open plains, to rolling hills to mountains and all the time the sun is slowly falling until at last it's gone and you realise you could be anywhere in the darkness. Sometimes I pass trailer parks, fields full of mobile homes anchored to the ground by electricity cables and sewage outlets. Tables and chairs in the grass where neighbours sit, eating supper and talking about where they've been.
Hot tubsSeptember - New Mexico
I read the sign for the camp site quickly as I rode past. I was weighing up the charge of $8.50 against the lure of showers and hot tubs. It was finally the thought of a good hot bath that made me stop and ride back.
It amused me how the Americans will rename everything, a toilette becomes a restroom, or maybe a bathroom (though it would never contain a bath) or, my favourite, a comfort station. I opened the rather ordinary looking wooden door to my first comfort station expecting to find a warm wooden seat, pastel colours, the smell of citrus fruits, perhaps a magazine stand and gentle soft music. What greeted me was the same white enamel toilette that you meet everywhere and it betrayed no hint of comfort.
At the camp site I pitched my tent and set off in my flip flops in search for the hot tubs. I found two of them, both filled with water and sunken into the floor of a large wooden bath room. Though the bathroom looked attractive it lacked all privacy, there was no lock on the door and a large floor to ceiling window ran along the length of one wall. Obviously they were a little less prudish over their baths over here than we are in England. I stripped off and was about to test the water of the nearest bath to me when a couple walked past the windows. I jumped straight into the water and immediately realised my mistake.
My feet were the first to touch the near boiling water and no matter how quickly they recoiled I knew gravity would win in the end. I didn't scream and even managed a weak smile at the couple as they ambled past. They chatted amiably to each other as my features slowly melted and ran down my face. Eventually they were gone and I crawled out feeling like a half cooked lobster escaping from the pot. I was a little more careful with the second tub but the water was fine this time.
I hadn't washed properly for well over 3 weeks and the water felt great. I washed my hair and then using the brush I use to wash my pots and bike started to attack my skin. Soon a few weeks road grime was floating on the surface and I felt I could finally relax. I was half asleep when I started to hear voices, my eyes were only half open when the bathroom door swung open. Two couples walked in dressed in swim suits and talking loudly to each other. I thought perhaps it was a little like Sweden where mixed saunas are common and no one seems surprised by nakedness. I was starting to feel a little of a prude so I smiled and waved hello. They stopped talking, their mouths hanging loosely open, their eyes staring straight through the scum on the water as they retreated back to the door. I guess they'd never been to Sweden and I began to feel a little under dressed. Same language different words.
Chasing AutumnOctober - Blue Ridge Mts.
Four days ago it had been summer on the southern tip of Florida. Now, 500 miles further North and high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was huddled around a steaming cup of coffee and trying to keep warm. It seems that just as the hours change as you move between East and West, the seasons change as you travel North and South. The altitude also affected things making the temperature drop as I climbed higher into the mountains. Yesterdays morning dew was now replaced by frost.
I'd read somewhere that if you climbed even higher and out into space, away from gravity and seasons, that time itself would start to change and pass slower than down below. Was it possible to build some strange kind of compass to plot these changes?
But for now all the lush green of Florida had been replaced by a collage of Autumn where each tree, each leaf, was a sculpture in gold, bronze, copper and rust. A few isolated trees were still fully clothed in green leaves as if barely noticing the passing of seasons while a few others were completely bare as if already gripped by the depths of winter.
What would happen if I continued riding North, out of the Autumn that was all around me, through Canada and up into the ice caps where the only season is winter and a night can last for months on end? What if I continued riding on around the world and back into spring and summer - how long would a year be then?
Perhaps I should just of started at the northern edge of this mountain chain and waited for that first day of autumn. Could I then travel slowly South, following the new season, and each morning watch the first leaf fall?
Niagara fallsOctober - New York state
I stood at the edge of Niagara falls, too close to really appreciate its beauty but perfectly placed to witness its power. Up river the water moves steadily on until reaching a point where it seems to realise its destiny, flowing faster and faster, accelerating towards oblivion, glory? Just a few feet away 75,000 gallons of water race past every second. Yet the only thought that runs through my mind is jumping out into the water, that desire to do the forbidden, the ultimate leap.
I wondered what went through the mind of that guy in the barrel as he headed towards the edge, doubt? I'm standing at the edge with a family of four, all dressed in identical blue raincoats and arranged like Russian dolls. The spray was coming up like rain returning to the clouds while down below birds circled in the rainbows. I was told that at the base of waterfalls there are circular currents that can trap and hold you for hours, maybe forever. I looked down and wondered if there were bones of ancient animals, smooth as marble, circling round and round.
In the water and close to the edge like reluctant suicides were trees stuck in the current, the water stripping them of bark until no strength remains and they finally fall into the abyss. I wondered if there were fish this close to the edge, must they always swim? And what happens when they become too weak? As they edge closer to the drop are they curious about what happens next on the other side of the falls? Are their bodies carried out to sea or do they stay entombed in the rolling currents alongside the failed barrel men, polished trees and disheartened lovers?
(sound pervading everything - people never no silence 2nd para flow 3rd in the water on edge failed barrel men dinosaur )
Cold nightsNovember - Adirondak Mtns
The mornings were freezing now, I would wake up to find the bike and tent covered in ice. The nights came sooner now and lasted for longer, far longer than I could sleep for and the monotony of a 13 hour night was even worse than the cold. I tried to delay sleeping for as long as possible, starting small fires and feeding them as slowly as possible, twig by twig, creating a little oasis of light and heat. The flames would fight the darkness for a time and then eventually fade, leaving the cold to resume its advance and forcing me to retreat into my sleeping bag.
It was worse if there was no moon or stars to watch as I would be left in a darkness that was slowly populated by my imagination. The night never seems to be silent, the trees creek and groan in the darkness and then there's the metallic whisper of insects that never seems to stop. Why couldn't they just sleep or did they hate the silence to. I would eventually fall asleep cocooned in my sleeping bag, the hood tied tightly around my face, my arms pinned to my sides and unable to move. What would happen if I died, would I be discovered in the future, frozen and preserved like some Egyptian Pharaoh.
I'd always wake well before dawn, it seemed to be colder then, when the last remnants of warmth from the previous day was gone and the new dawn was yet to come. Huddled in my sleeping bag I would try and pack my things in the darkness, moving only to keep warm and avoid the boredom of lying still. An hour later, in the half light of dawn, I would begin folding my tent, my breath frozen and trapped within its folds. Starting a new fire over the old, I would fan the embers until the air was thick with the smell of coffee and toast, only then would I relax and watch the red glow of the sun push its way through the trees turning their shadows to silhouettes.
[frozen milk , sleeping in the back of an estate car outside bar, time to come home]
42nd StreetNovember - New York
Walking from the bus terminal towards Times square I found myself in the old cinema district, their entrances overhanging the street and covered with hoardings that once advertised films that were ringed in lights. Only a couple of the cinemas still survived, one proclaimed "Enjoy large screen and stereo sound" and gave a short list of the latest films, the other simply stated "4 hot sex films" but didn't supply any titles, though a pair of giant red lips projected onto the entrance described their attractions.
I wondered what ancient films would be listed on the hoardings of the deserted cinemas and was surprised to read "You are trapped on earth therefor you will explode" and "Laugh hard at the ultimate evil". The words read like a mixture of prophetic graffiti and religious fever. I began to ask shoppers about the origins of the sayings but the shoppers just shrugged and continued to stare at window displays of dance music CD's, fast food and soft porn. I tried inside but the owners seemed unaware of the messages. Eventually I was given an answer by the girl in the ticket booth beside the moving red lips, she sat there in a blond wig and leather dress and told me "its a city art project - to make you think".
I wandered off down the street past groups of city suits and down and outs, each group warily eyeing the other, wondering who had the money and who had the knife. Looking up I read that "Categorising fear is calming" and that "Murder has its sexual side". It seemed that the hoardings were just captions on whatever happened below.
On the other side of the street a woman sat down awkwardly on the pavement, pulling cardigans and shawls around herself before arranging her children around her feet like baskets of fruit at a market stall, her hands held outstretched to each passer by. The hoardings around her read "Go where people sleep and see if they're safe" and, further up the street, on a cinema with old wooden boards nailed across its doors "Mothers shouldn't make too many sacrifices".
The road between us held four lanes of yellow taxis, each jostling for fares. A stretch limousine glided serenely past, its shaded windows hiding the passengers from the world, or vice versa, or perhaps there were no passengers at all and the world would stare enviously at no one at all. The car seemed to ignore the taunts on the hoardings as it passed below "People who don't work with their hands are parasites" or "Any surplus is immoral" and then the car, like its occupants, disappeared from view.
Now a new sign caught my view, not a hoarding this time but a string of fourteen flashing digits representing the national debt at that precise moment, the last four digits were a blur of climbing figures. I stood there staring at a number so large that it seemed to have life of its own.
"WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IN?"
A tramp stood in front of me, his wild eyes staring into mine, his beard exploding from around his mouth and merging with the fibres of an ancient jumper. He wore a raincoat that flapped in the wind around him, I felt he could of flown away if he hadn't been holding quite so tightly to the trolley that seemed to contain his life. He grew impatient for an answer and shuffled off, shouting back over his shoulder
"BELIEVE IN LIFE ITSELF"
I looked up at the signs for comment and found "Alienation produces eccentrics or revolutionaries" and, more worryingly "Deviants are sacrificed to increase our solidarity", I wondered if he ever read the signs himself.
PS - I found out years later that the sayings were by the artist Jenny Holzer.