"The land of the free and the home of the brave" as the anthem goes. I'd planned this ride for years; who wouldn't want to fulfil their California dreams, visit Vegas, stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and climb the Rockies? These were just some of the highlights I'd built into an epic route that promised to burn me, freeze me, exhaust me and fill me with such immeasurable awe and wonder that words and pictures could never express a fraction of just how fabulous a trip it was. As well as the sights, I was looking forward to meeting the people. No more the stinted conversations in hurriedly learned foreign tongues; no more the sign language requests for food and lodgings; no more the bewildered looks and misunderstood directions. I was going to miss some of those logistic challenges, but this ride brought fresh challenges and rewards. Thar's gold in them thar hills…

USA West
141 miles, 15 mph average1 Aug 09Day 1
San Francisco & Gold Rush Country

430 years ago my fellow Devonian and circumnavigator, Sir Francis Drake called into the bay of San Francisco to repair his ship. Being busily preoccupied with raiding Spanish treasure fleets he failed to see the strategic importance of the bay and sailed on northwards, and it wasn't until two hundred years later that the Spaniards established a fort and mission here. The mission was named after St Francis of Assisi, and even though the city that bears his name has endured Mexican rule, a gold rush, earthquakes, the hippie movement and the AIDs epidemic, it is now the 12th largest in the USA.

It's traditional for every coast to coast ride to start by dipping the wheels into the Pacific and to take a few moments to ponder the thousands of miles ahead before dipping again into the Atlantic, so I duly did my duty and set out over the Golden Gate Bridge. It's perhaps the most iconic symbol of San Francisco and, as it heads north, it wasn't even on my route, but I just had to ride over it and back again for the sheer thrill of it. At 1.7 miles it was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was completed in 1937; it is still the 7th longest in the world today and carries 41 million vehicles every year. The bridge is made of enough steel cable to encircle the earth three times and its construction pioneered the use of safety nets and hard hats for the workers.

From the bridge I could see across the bay to the equally well known island of Alcatraz. One time home to Al Capone (imprisoned for tax evasion but not for being a gangster), Machine Gun Kelly (imprisoned for kidnapping but considered a model inmate), and the Anglin Brothers (the only successful escapees).
Click map to enlarge

Today's San Franciscans I found to be very friendly, open-minded and liberal. It's the kind of place where people say 'good morning' and mean it. In some parts of town a slim chap in skin tight cycling apparel is made even more welcome! With a great climate and a setting to match, who could be miserable in such a place? The street sweepers whistled a happy tune, and the crazy down and outs seemed content with their lot in life. The Toyota Prius: V8 monster pickup truck ratio was looking good as I made my way from my fabulous Victorian B&B amongst the downtown skyscrapers and trams to see the sea lions that laze about by Pier 39.

As usual I wanted to get an early start, but the east bound Bay Bridge isn't open to bikes, so I had to 'cheat' and use the BART underground railway to get myself out of town. I headed inland through the fertile but intensively farmed mono-culture fields of the central valley, dodging huge double-articulated lorries (known as the 'mater freighters) overloaded with freshly harvested tomatoes some of which fell into my path. In fact the road was so littered with red pulp that my bike and legs were splattered by the time was ready to climb out of the valley.

In some of the shabbier farming towns I passed through, I had to use my stumbling Spanish to get by. The Southwest USA clearly has a two tier economy, with Hispanics, mainly Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, doing all the labour intensive work and being paid a pittance for it.

It was getting hot now and I pushed up to the area where, in 1848, James Wilson Marshall discovered gold in the hills near Columbia, sparking the gold rush that saw more than 300,000 fortune seekers descend on the area in the following year, and the highway that runs NW - SE through gold rush country is still known as the "49" after the 'forty-niners'. Many of the prospectors would have taken a route similar to mine; heading east from San Francisco having arrived by sea from as far away as China. After the gorgeous Tulloch reservoir (where I took a quick dip to cool off) I came to the tiny town of Chinese Camp named after the oriental gold diggers who had been forced south of the major lodes by the other miners, but their fate was nowhere near as bad as that of the native American Indians whose hunting and fishing lands were taken over such that many starved to death or were massacred by the miners.

USA West
145 miles, 14 mph average2 Aug 09Day 2
Yosemite National Park

Uphill and into the Sierra Nevada I headed. Home to the USA's 2nd highest mountain, its tallest waterfall and the world's biggest, oldest trees, going large is what it's all about and at its heart is the 1200 square mile Yosemite National Park. It's a Unesco World Heritage Site that packs in so much jaw-dropping beauty that it makes Switzerland look like God's practice run, and was the first natural area to be protected in the U.S. To simply ride through the middle seemed like such a waste in a place where I'd love to spend months exploring the byways, tracks and paths.

I knew it was going to be a long hot day so I was off two hours before dawn and even though the Park Ranger had assured me that it was safe, I couldn't help thinking every shadow was a hungry black bear waiting to pounce on me. Dawn broke to reveal soaring granite towering above me arranged in spires, domes and ridges. It really is a place of breathtaking beauty.
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Squirrels, chipmunks and chickarees scattered through the undergrowth, mule deer grazed in the meadow, but there was not a single bear to be seen. Just as well really as they can run at 30 mph, and I can only do that downhill, so I kept on going up, past giant Sequoias and magnificent lakes, working harder and harder as the air thinned. I was stopping at three mile intervals now and my recovery time was getting longer at each stop until I finally reached the 3031m Tioga pass, higher than I had ever ridden before, so high that it is closed due to snow for up to nine months of the year. But after every climb comes the reward, not just the awesome views and the sense of personal satisfaction, but that downhill rush of freewheeling with the wind buffeting your face and the buzz of the sheer sense of speed. The ultimate high; the apogee of freedom. I hit 53mph and took a couple of stereotypical Harley riders on one of the switchbacks. These bikers are everywhere in California and I'd befriended a whole gang earlier in the day when I'd stopped for some fruit and a diet Coke at one of their biker bars. With my choice of diet, compared to their burgers and beer, and my lycra clashing with their leathers I blended in like a nudist in a mosque, but we shared the camaraderie of two wheels and love of the open road.

The valley was reached all too soon and took me past the alkaline and hyper-saline Mono Lake. It's twice as salty as sea water and is only capable of supporting the unique brine shrimp that in turn attract grebes and phalaropes to its shores. But it wasn't long before I was climbing again, this time up the Pumice Valley to Deadman's Summit at 2450m, gruesomely named after the decapitated body found here in 1868, and then down into the long volcanic caldera towards Bishop. After the rigours of the day, I was ready to quit, and a sign showing I'd badly miscalculated my mileage and it was still another fifty to my planned stop for the night, didn't help my morale one bit. But I'd banked the gain in altitude and now it was payback time! The road gradually declined for pretty much the whole way to Bishop and a belter of a tail wind shoved me along at a furious pace.

USA West
126 miles, 12 mph average3 Aug 09Day 3
The Eastern Sierra Nevada

With the high Sierra parks of Kings Canyon and Sequoia beyond the impenetrable wall of the mountains to my right I headed south along the arid Owens Valley, past Mount Whitney and down to the dry Owens Lake. This was the land of the big sky and the long shadow.

The water that drains from the mountains to either side is channelled by aqueduct to Los Angeles - its construction dried up the lake, devastating the ecosystem, ruining local farmers and starting the Californian water wars as epitomised in Roman Polanski's movie 'Chinatown'. Southern California has an ongoing water crisis that the local authorities hope to solve by various measures including providing grants to rip up the front lawn and replace it with less thirsty indigenous desert plants.
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I was out of water myself and pulled over at Keeler expecting a shop or petrol station, but all I found was a shanty town of trailer homes and ramshackle sheds. It was as if the life had been sucked out of the whole town. In the still of the desert I heard a low growl and turned to see an old woman sat on her front porch with her equally ancient dog at her feet. I'm not entirely sure which of them had growled, but I had to have some water, so I asked about a shop from the safety of her gate. "I don't know", she said in her croaky old voice, "Everyone's just gone away and left me here". Was it true, I wondered, was she really the sole survivor of the water wars? After a good deal of confusion I made my point and she directed me to the garden hose, where I filled up with nasty sulphurous water that only tasted worse with the addition of a few drops of purifying iodine.

These were the classic desert roads that stretch away forever into the distance, until the shimmering heat haze makes them indiscernible from the surrounding scrubland. Away on the horizon I could see two black shapes that seemed to be moving at the same pace as me. To my amazement there were some other cyclists foolish enough to be out in this roasting, barren hinterland.

Darren & Becky were loaded down like I've never seen before. They were moving house - by bike!! Not just down the road either, they were going from north of Vancouver to Montreal in a massive 6000 mile U-shaped loop coast to coast through the US. What great company they were, swapping stories from the road as we tapped out the miles under the blazing sun. In spite of their excess baggage they were hardly slow either, and I never felt held up by their pace at all. These two were proper athletes, I could make all the excuses I wanted about my age, aches, pains and pot-belly, but there was no getting away from it, these guys could really ride! After an initial misunderstanding (as it's not your everyday type of job) I gleaned that they were both professional acrobats working with the Cirque du Soleil. Having seen some of their incredible performances I was now star-struck, and yet a more modest couple you could not hope to meet. As if their epic ride wasn't enough they were visiting organic farms along their route and promoting sustainable agriculture through their excellent website

The road was empty and silent with the white desert dotted with Joshua trees that only grow within a certain window of altitude, reminding us that although the temperature was in the high 30's, we were still high up and it was only going to get hotter. Then came an almighty five-mile plummet into the Panamint valley, where the temperature soared into the 40's. Halfway down we stopped for some photos and I realised that braking had caused my rims to become red hot and the tyres were in danger of overheating and bursting, so we blitzed the final miles and switchbacks without touching the brakes.

There was a motel in the valley so we stopped in the shade and sipped huge jugs of iced lemonade and contemplated the heat and the massive 3 mile climb that blocked our route into Death Valley. To climb it in the heat of the day would be suicide and the temperature wouldn't ease until gone midnight, there were no busses passing this way and so the only way out was to cheat again and beg for a lift from a kindly passer by.

I bagged my ride first, and felt awful to leave Darren & Becky stranded, but they were soon to hitch a ride in the back of a pickup. My new chauffer wanted to take me all the way to the next hotel (where I'd made a booking), but I was determined to keep the cheating to a minimum, so hopped out at the top of the hill, 18 miles from my final destination on the valley floor. I wouldn't have believed it could have been hotter than Panamint Valley, but of course it was and having filled up my bottles with ice there, I drank two litres of water that had turned to the temperature I'd drink tea at by the time I was done. The hot air roared into my face, scorching my skin, making my eyes run and my nose bleed. People in passing cars waved and gave the thumbs up - what is it that makes folk appreciate this kind of insanity?

So, here I was in Death Valley. The name itself evokes all that is harsh, hot and hellish in the deserts of the imagination, a punishing, barren and lifeless place of Old Testament severity. The highest ever recorded temperature measured here was 56.7 degrees centigrade, only 1 degree short of the Libyan world record, and based on year round average temperature it's the hottest place on earth. It was 46 degrees in the shade when I finally made it to Stovepipe Wells at sea level. Some say you can add at least another ten to that for the temperature under the sun.

USA West
128 miles, 13 mph average4 Aug 09Day 4
Death Valley & Nevada

It's the hottest, driest, lowest place in North America and its largest National Park. An amazing desert of streaming sand dunes, high mountains, multicoloured rock layers, water-fluted canyons and 3 million acres of wilderness.

Interestingly it's not a true valley but a basin formed by earthquake fault lines. The rock formations were created by geological events that occurred as long as 500 million years ago. Extensive faulting and fracturing has allowed some of the oldest rocks to be visible on the earth's surface, when normally they would be hidden deep underground. Limestone and sandstone were formed on the seabed and slowly lifted by movements in the earth's crust, the rock strata were bent, folded and cracked as converging tectonic plates pushed mountain ranges up and the valley floor down to its current lowest point at 85 meters below sea level. A sobering thought was that from here on I would have to finish every day's ride at a higher altitude than the day before until crossing the Rockies. Ouch.
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To leave Death Valley meant a climb of at least 1000 meters to start the day. There was no way I could tackle that in the heat of the day, so I rolled out into the still of the night at 3am, lit up like a council house at Christmas time. The hot, thick air was still above body temperature, and half a moon illuminated the road. I rode over 30 miles before turning left out of the valley at Furnace Creek to climb from below sea level, making Zabriskie's View right on schedule at dawn.

As soon as the sun rose, I was wishing I'd started earlier, as even the gain in altitude did nothing to relieve the heat. Slumped over the bars, I followed the black ribbon of tarmac that flowed out into the desert and kept riding until I staggered into the saloon at Death Valley Junction, and gradually came back to life after two coffees, three pints of iced water and by sitting directly under the air-conditioner in clothes I'd soaked in cold water.

After climbing through the Funeral Mountains (this area had a real fixation with death) I crossed the white desert into Nevada, plugged myself into some trance music and paced out the miles until I found myself in Pahrump. At first Pahrump seemed to be a bit of hum-drum kind of place; that was until I spotted the signposts, "Sheri's Ranch", "Mabel's House" and the "Chicken Ranch" where the west was still wild. Apparently. Pahrump is the home of the closest legal brothels to Las Vegas, and even if you don't want to indulge yourself you can go on a sightseeing tour and even visit the brothel museum. Yee-har. The whole place seemed somewhat at odds with a country that, according to popular urban myth, is so prudish it once edited 400 lines of Romeo & Juliet that were deemed too explicit and banned the Encyclopaedia Britannica as it contained instructions for home brewed beer.

USA West
97 miles, 12 mph average5 Aug 09Day 5
Las Vegas & The Arizona Desert

Little did the earliest Mormon settlers from Salt Lake City know what would become of their sleepy backwater. They travelled to Las Vegas to protect the Los Angeles-Salt Lake City mail route in 1855, but by 1890 railroad developers had determined the water-rich Las Vegas Valley would be a prime location for a station stop, then according to legend, the day mobster 'Bugsy' Siegel rolled into town and erected The Flamingo - a glamorous tropical-themed casino - was the day modern Vegas was born. Today's Sin City is one of 24/7 hedonism, two-fisted debauchery and bacchanalian revelry floodlit by blinding neon.

There are hotels that recreate the Pyramids, Paris, New York and even Venice. Why ride around the world when you can come to Vegas? After the tranquility of the desert it was all too much for me and I beat a hasty retreat.

35 miles south east of Vegas, along the shores of Lake Mead I crossed the Hoover Dam on the border between Nevada and Arizona. When completed in 1936, it was both the world's largest electric-power generating station and the world's largest concrete structure, creating Lake Mead from the Colorado River to its north. It has occurred to me how forward thinking the politicians of the age were, creating thousands of jobs during the great depression (when one in five were unemployed) and providing billions of watts of clean power. When President Obama reads this he will of course take note.

A new bridge is under construction to relieve the traffic bottleneck, and it looks like this bridge will be almost as awesome a feat of engineering as the dam itself.

For the first few miles in Arizona I caught glimpses of the Colorado River winding its way south through chocolate coloured mountains, but it was a long, hot crawl up to Kingman not helped by a roasting head wind straight from the fires of hell and a lack of shoulder to ride on. I spent most of the time looking over my own shoulder trying to make hand signals to the heavy traffic to give me a wide berth. I breakfasted on a pint of Coke and a choc-ice, pretty much all that was on offer from one of the few service stations along this road, and felt thoroughly sorry for myself.

By mid-afternoon I'd had enough and the lure of a motel with a pool was too much of a temptation even though I was just three miles short of my century target.

USA West
110 miles, 15 mph average6 Aug 09Day 6
Route 66

At breakfast I met a charming retired couple, who had been travelling along Route 66 as her grandparents and mother had been amongst the 200,000 people who migrated to California along Route 66 to escape the despair of the 1930's dust bowl and crop failures in Oklahoma and Kansas caused by drought and over-farming. Theirs was the story of a journey along the 'mother road' as immortalised in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

This well preserved section of Route 66 takes a loop north of the interstate following the railway through the Hualapai Indian reservation, and is almost devoid of traffic, save for the Harley riders, some tourists often driving vintage classics, and a guy named John I met who was walking from Wyoming to Texas! It's the spiritual home of the American road trip, no matter what your mode of transport it seemed. Riding bliss, great scenery, and at last manageable temperatures as I'd now made a steady climb into land above 1500m. I passed the time counting the wagons on the trains of the Santa Fe Railroad as they trundled past. Some were two containers high, up to eighty wagons long and had to be towed by three engines, blowing their horns with spirited abandon. Getting stuck at a level crossing could be a headache as some of the trains are over a mile long.

Route 66 is all about nostalgia - diners, motels and even petrol stations evoke a bygone age. Some of the locals seemed to be stuck in a time warp of cowboy fantasy with their ten-gallon Stetson hats and monster pick-up trucks drinking ten gallons a minute. That Prius to pickup ratio wasn't looking too good out here. The average US citizen earns almost twice that of his UK counterpart and with costs of living so low (petrol is 1/3rd the price) there is little financial disincentive for them to drive their behemoths.

Near the town of Nelson, the dry Grand Canyon Caverns lie 230 feet below ground level. Dry caverns form less than 3% of the world's caverns, and being so dry stalagmites and stalactites are rare (no drips), but strange crystals form in cotton wool and cloud formations, whilst even bacteria and viruses cannot survive in the desiccated air.

I got chatting to a couple of more 'normal' local guys who could remember the days before the Interstate highway and how its coming had taken such a toll on the local economy (this was the inspiration for the Pixar movie Cars), but they were upbeat about how tourism was now bringing in a few bucks. I asked about agriculture as there were such enormous swathes of apparently unused land, and since Kingman I'd seen only a handful of cattle. They explained that the land was so poor, it took 40 acres to support one cow, and that any form of arable farming was out of the question except a few pistachio trees in the lower valleys. They also gave me directions to Williams along one of the original, now disused and disrepaired sections of Route 66 that I shook and rattled along until it petered out and I had to clamber over a few fields and a barbed wire fence to get back onto the main road.

USA West
138 miles, 13 mph average7 Aug 09Day 7
The Grand Canyon & The Painted Desert

Cleaving a mile deep into the earth and averaging 10 miles across, the Grand Canyon defies superlatives. The surrounding desert and forests are majestic enough but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of the Colorado River snaking along its floor; the river that has carved out the canyon over the past 6 million years and exposed rocks up to 2 billion years old - half the age of the Earth. It's massive. It's overwhelming.

Perhaps what was most surprising to me was that the approach road, a long, dull 67 miles due north of Williams, was slightly uphill through otherwise flat country, and as I came closer the land was covered in a dense forest of tall ponderosa pine, making the impact of the abrupt canyon rim even more dramatic. After a battle of conscience over the economic and environmental impact, I had to agree with the many that have done so before and took a helicopter ride (52Mb) over the edge and into biggest canyon known to mankind.

The road west follows the Canyon's south rim for about 25 miles and is less commercialised affording plenty of opportunities to take in the incredible views in splendid solitude. On the road back down to Cameron I met Kevin, a local cyclist who had been camping and mountain biking for a long weekend in the wilderness. We cruised downhill from the high forests and over the gorge of the Little Colorado River. He knew the area like the back of his hand and was a font of knowledge and great information to help me through the miles that lay ahead. He'd warned me that the road north of Cameron would be busy as any traffic heading north or south would be funneled around the Grand Canyon here or have to head west to cross the Canyon 250 miles downstream where I had crossed previously at the Hoover dam.

Further to the north-east I entered the Painted Desert, riding through the area's brilliantly coloured shales, marls, and sandstones, which are banded with vivid red, yellow, blue, white, and lavender. This was now a part of the Navajo nation and the clocks went forward an hour. This whole region is socially and economically deprived and as the Navajo people have a predisposition to alcoholism, they have decided to impose prohibition on themselves, so it was looking like it might be fizzy pop instead of my usual beer with dinner.

Checking into the only motel in Tuba City I'd noticed a vintage motorbike and sidecar with an Alaskan number plate in the car park. Two Brits, Mike & Alana, were in reception wearing white Evil Knievel overalls so it had to be their bike and we bonded at once as they thought my cycle tour equally as mad-cap as their journey from Alaska to Argentina. On their way they were meeting and talking to people about love and relationships as a study they are making into a documentary and blogging at In Alaska they had investigated how love can survive in a region where men outnumber women twenty to one; in Utah they had interviewed people in polygamous Mormon marriages, and in San Francisco had met a gay couple who had successfully adopted a son. The sidecar was loaded down with beer cans packed in ice and I didn't need a second invitation to join them to put the world to rights under the stars until way past my bedtime. Once again my bike had proved to be a passport to meet fascinating people.

USA West
100 miles, 14 mph average8 Aug 09Day 8
Navajo Nation, Utah & Monument Valley

The Navajo Nation encompasses the land, kinship, language, religion, and the right of its people to govern themselves. Members of the Nation are often known as Navajo but traditionally call themselves Diné which means 'Navajo, people, human' in Navajo. I kept a keen eye open in case of ambush, but on the whole the indigenous folk were polite but reserved.

Having lived in relative isolation for so many centuries, the Navajo language is complex and unique, and this was used to great advantage as a secret code during the war with Japan, with Navajo Indians taking part in every Pacific mission by the U.S. Marines between 1942 and 45. I was surprised to hear it spoken so widely amongst young and old and it was good to know that this part of their heritage at least was being kept alive.

Within the Navajo lands is the Hopi reservation. The Hopi have cultivated the seemingly barren land for thousands of years and are thought to have been the first people to have grown corn from a hybrid of two grasses. They worship the spirits of plants and animals known as kachinas meaning 'life bringers'. The term also refers to the kachina dancers, masked members of the tribe who impersonate kachinas in religious ceremonies, and kachina dolls - wooden dolls representing kachinas which are given as gifts to children. I'd always imagined all American Indians to be nomadic people, following the bison during their seasonal migration, but these tribes had been far more settled prior to the arrival of Europeans, often living in stone built dwellings rather than the wig-wams of those western films I'd been brought up on.

My entry into Monument Valley was every bit as dramatic as I'd thought it would be and it appeared to me as perhaps the most enduring and definitive image of the American West. The isolated red mesas and buttes surrounded by empty, sandy desert have been filmed and photographed countless times over the years for movies, adverts, and posters. Ever since I'd seen those posters depicting lonely stretches of road, I'd fantasised about cycling on them, and now here I was although I was sharing the road with bus loads of other tourists, snapping away just like me. I arrived in the nick of time as that evening a wild sandstorm blew up almost obscuring the monuments from view.

The valley is not a valley in the conventional sense, but rather a wide flat, sometimes desolate landscape, interrupted by the crumbling formations rising hundreds of feet into the air. The landscape was created as material eroded from the ancestral Rocky Mountains, and was deposited and cemented into sandstone. The formations in the valley were left over after the forces of erosion worked their magic on the sandstone. A geological uplift caused the surface to bulge and crack, wind and water then eroded the land, and the cracks deepened and widened into gullies and canyons, which eventually became the instantly recognisable scenery of today.

John Ford filmed no less than ten westerns here and is now a part of the landscape himself as one of his favourite viewpoints is named in his honour. Later directors too couldn't resist the landscape; 2001 A Space Odyssey, Easy Rider, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Eiger Sanction, Thelma & Louise, and the list goes on…

As I was now in the State of Utah, that is ostensibly an area under the influence of the Mormon Church, there was no beer available at dinner.

USA West
121 miles, 14 mph average9 Aug 09Day 9
The Four Corners

A few miles out it started to rain. Rain in the desert, just my luck! I'd got so used to being boiling hot, day and night, I'd almost forgotten what it felt like to be chilly. Thunder clouds loomed low and ominous on the horizon as I shot down into the red Martian landscape of Mexican Hat and the Valley of the Gods. The origins of the latter's name is quite obvious - an inaccessible range of startling cliffs and valleys, quite like nothing I'd ever seen. The former is named simply after an odd rock formation that is said to look like a sombrero.

The ground changed from deep red to ochre to cream coloured sand. Lizards scuttled away at my approach and prairie dogs darted for the cover of their mounds from which they admonished me indignantly with their squeaky whistle-like voices. It was open, rolling country, but still unique in its own way.

At the old fort town of Bluff I joined the San Juan River, marvelling at the sight of its green waters carving an oasis through the pale arid land. Its always heartening to the cyclist when the road follows the course of a river as it usually means no harsh gradients either way.

The Four Corners is the only place in the United States where four states (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) come together at one place. Here a person can stand in four states at the same time. Well, you can't really stand on the bronze disk that marks the spot with a foot in each corner, its more traditional to do it doggy style!

Once again my hopes of a cold beer over dinner were dashed, this time because the restaurant called itself a 'family restaurant' and therefore didn't serve any alcohol. I don't consider myself an alcoholic and I've never started a barroom brawl, but no beer for me nonetheless.

USA West
140 miles, 15 mph average10 Aug 09Day 10
Colorado & The San Juan National Forest

Riding north out of Cortez seemed like entering another world. Where there had been desert just a few miles down the road, now were lush well irrigated fields. Cattle grazed, ponies frolicked. Then it dawned on me; all the land lower down the valley was part of the Ute Indian reservation, and all of the water flowing down from the Rockies was either siphoned off upstream or diverted to reservoirs for the exclusive use of 'the white man'.

The ride up into the mountains wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be as the air was cool and it didn't feel like I was sucking in through the business end of a hairdryer for the first time since leaving the ocean. Highway 145 is also known as the Million Dollar Highway, as the bedrock gravel used in its construction was rich in gold and because it cost so much to build in the first instance climbing sixty miles into the Rockies to Lizard Head Pass at 3116m (about a third the height of Everest), breaking another new altitude record for me. The oxygen depleted air at that altitude didn't bother me anywhere near as much as it had done in Yosemite as I'd spent the previous week above 1500m, supercharging my haemoglobin.

After the jagged peaks of the pass came the lovely alpine Atlas Lake and what is now a ski resort at Telluride. Once the very heart of the wild west, Telluride saw Butch Cassidy steal $24,000 in his first bank raid here in the days when the town was rich from mining gold, silver, zinc, lead and copper. At one point the town had 26 saloons and 12 whorehouses, not bad for a population under 4,000. Some say the town got its name from tellurium which is an element often found in association with deposits of gold, but I prefer its old nickname "To Hell You Ride". I'd got chatting to a couple of mountain residents in a coffee shop earlier in the day and as well as offering the usual warnings of bears, freak August snowstorms, yeti's and anything else they have fun scaring tourists with, they told me about a free gondola ride that would take me and the bike up to Telluride cutting out a mile or two of climbing. This was one tale that wasn't a tall one and I rode in style without any cost as the whole project had been funded by local millionaires (including celebrities like Sylvester Stallone) who wanted a shortcut to their favourite ski runs. Not only has the cable car system been built on a philanthropic basis, they had the forethought to power it with electricity from a wind farm. This was typical of the America I was growing to love, there seemed to be pockets of such environmental excellence and small groups of folk who had real concerns and yet that ignorant majority in their pick ups were giving their nation a bad name. Some call them red-necks, whilst I had now coined them Billy-Bob-Joes. On the other hand, almost everyone I met was helpful, polite and loquacious, and I hardly saw any litter at all, so perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to judge.

It had been raining gently on and off all morning but never terribly cold and after so many miles in the desert sun, it wasn't bothering me at all. Up ahead the skies were inky black, striking a contrast with the red rocks and emerald trees basking in sunshine from where I was admiring them. Suddenly a fierce wind blew, lightening cracked and I was in the middle of the most ferocious thunderstorm I had ever encountered. I was high on the mountain, feeling very exposed and vulnerable as there was no counting the seconds between each flash and the ensuing thunder as it was directly overhead. Rain pelted down soaking me within seconds - I learned on the news that evening that there had been as much rain that afternoon as is normal in a whole month and that the higher peaks had seen a storm with hailstones the size of golf balls. Dozens of Billy-Bob-Joes drove empty pick ups past me but not one stopped to see if I was OK.
At Ridgeway I turned north and downhill out of the mountains, with a fine tailwind pushing me all the way to Montrose along a road that gave me two punctures the last of which I couldn't fix as I couldn't hear the air escape over the din of the traffic, so I walked the last few miles to the refuge of yet another dull chain motel.

Dinner was at a very reasonable Chinese, but again no beer. This time because the restaurant was within ½ mile of a school and couldn't get a licence. In desperation for a quenching ale I tried the 24 hour supermarket, where the shelves were stacked high with the amber nectar. But even here you had to prove age with ID if you looked less than 40 years old. Land of the free…

USA West
78 miles, 15 mph average11 Aug 09Day 11
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
& The High Rockies

After a series of early starts and long climbs I had real difficulty dragging myself out of bed, but at least the lie-in gave me chance to enjoy some breakfast. One feature common to these motels was their use of polystyrene plates and disposable plastic cutlery. This stuff is going to take centuries to decompose and causes goodness knows what harm in production, yet none of the staff or guests I spoke to seemed to recognise this as any kind of a problem. In Europe we are critically short of space, and issues of waste disposal, land-fill and recycling are high on everyone's agenda, but I got the overwhelming impression that the average American takes the vast open spaces, and fabulous environment they are blessed with completely for granted. The U.S. as we know it has only been colonised for a few hundred years and if they keep up their abuse at the current rate, they won't have much left by the next few hundred.

After the previous night's descent, I knew the day would hold more uphill struggles and I trudged along in a stupor, unable to raise any real energy. I turned left off the main road and took the switchbacks up to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Another great thing about America is their National Park's Service - all the parks I visited were excellent, well organised, informative, and spotlessly clean, and the Gunnison was no exception. The unique and spectacular landscape was formed slowly by the action of the Gunnison River and the rocks it carries down from the mountains scouring through hard proterozoic crystalline rock, and no other canyon in North America combines its narrow opening, sheer walls, and startling depths. The Black Canyon is so named on account of its steep sides which prevent sunlight from penetrating into depths of the canyon, and as a result, the canyon walls are almost always in shadow, causing the rocky walls to appear black.

The hills kept on coming and I needed to rest more frequently than usual, but at least that gave me more of a chance to take in my surroundings. I'd thought that covering so many miles of wilderness might be boring, but I never found this to be the case over the ever changing and fascinating landscapes. Even though my maps were large scale (a whole state would fit on a dining room table), every town was marked, but as was often the case, a 'town' turned out to be a settlement of just a few houses. Such was the case at Cimarron, where there were two houses. One was derelict the other served as general store, post office and single pump petrol station. Just who called there was a mystery. The elderly lady at the counter told me she'd lived there since 1940 and when I asked her what changes she had seen in so many years, she thought a while and then said, "Well, they improved the road a bit in 1970".

I rejoined the Gunnison further upstream, where the canyon gave way to the Curecanti National Recreation Area; a series of lakes, each slightly higher than its western neighbour. Each lake seemed to have a different personality, whilst each shared an inky blackness under stormy skies. The wind had picked up in my favour, flushing me along the banks of the lakes and then along the river itself. It was the time of day for osprey to go fishing for supper on the river. What magnificent birds these are. Instantly recognisable from the bald eagles I'd spotted earlier, with larger areas of white under their wings. They swept gracefully above me, eyeing the water for trout or salmon. Very much at the top of the food chain.

My own supper brought its reward in the form of the first beer that had touched my lips in days.

USA West
132 miles, 16 mph average12 Aug 09Day 12
The Monarch Pass & The Arkansas River

The previous evening, Dave from the Rock 'n' Roll bike shop in Gunnison gave me a free water bottle and advised me that the mountain winds always blew up the hill in the afternoon but downhill from about ten in the morning, so the only way to be sure of a climb without a headwind would be a super-early start, as leaving it until afternoon would give me no chance of making up enough miles in the day. I'd forgotten just how cold it can be this high up at five am and my attempts to warm up by riding harder were thwarted by the thin air. Even though I'd been over a mile high for a week now, I'd not been able to adjust to these new heights.
Click proile to enlarge

My hands and feet were painfully numb by the time dawn broke after following the Tomichi River upstream to Sargents. It was just approaching the end of August and already they were gathering in the harvest as the first heavy snowfalls could be expected within a few weeks, and a hard frost already clung to the ground. This was the first proper town I'd met, thirty miles east of Gunnison and I was desperate for a coffee and a warm up. I hugged my hot mug and tried to respond coherently to a group of local hunters who thought the idea of cycling up the Monarch Pass was more than foolhardy. I'd met responses like this about the Monarch throughout my journey and it was beginning to play on my mind. The top of the climb was almost another kilometer higher than Sargents, over ten miles long and I was already panting at the slightest effort.

Just as I was beginning to contemplate begging a lift to the top, Ryan came into the shop. I'd passed Ryan the previous afternoon as he stood by his broken bike hitching a lift. There was nothing I could do to help fix his ripped tyre and he'd leapfrogged me on the road when he got a ride, bought a new tyre and was now getting set to make the same climb. Ryan was not exactly a well prepared cyclist with his borrowed clunker of a bike and no proper cycling kit. If he could do it, then I could too, I thought or at least we would both die trying!
Click map to enlarge

Off we set climbing higher and higher. Ryan's company and the spectacular views helping to take my mind off the pain in my weary legs. Higher and higher still until we finally reached the Continental Divide at the 3,448 meter Monarch Pass, one of the world's highest paved roads. Any rivers I'd passed previously were heading to the Pacific, and now they would flow east to the Atlantic - downhill all the way and I was on my way home. Bring it on!

Literally exiting the high mountains at Salida we descended along the Arkansas River that tumbles its way east for 1469 miles before joining the Mississippi. I've always lived close to the sea and this statistic suddenly made me feel terribly homesick and somehow disoriented, realising how far inland I was. I'd not expected anything special from this part of the ride but the clear, green river carved a beautiful gorge, wide enough for the road on one side and a disused section of the Rio Grande railroad on the other through pink granite mountains.

Seventy miles into the day Ryan's lack of kit hadn't impeded his progress one bit and I was beginning to wonder if all the money I'd spent on fancy bike gear had made any difference at all. A short detour took us to the world's highest suspension bridge hanging 300m over the Royal Gorge. Built in 1929 at a cost that today would exceed fifteen million dollars, the bridge has only ever been a tourist attraction and also attracts so many suicidal visitors that special park rangers have to be employed to keep a round the clock vigil for would be jumpers. A fee of $25 was enough to dissuade us both from crossing and we rode all the way back round again in disgust.

At Canon City the river became wider and flatter as the landscape spread itself out into the Great Plains. Canon is notorious for its 14 prisons, and even has a prison museum. The largest penitentiary is known as the 'Federal Correctional Institute' where they have their own special way of 'correcting' people. They were executing inmates here as recently as 1967 and they still have their own death row. Perhaps one of the prison's most poignant stories is that of the local doctor and the prison's first female inmate. Mary Solander was convicted in 1872 after three trials and being bailed by the townsfolk. The young and attractive doctor had performed an abortion for a woman whose pregnant condition had complicated to the extent that it was threatening her life. As the prison had no female accommodation she was forced to share the open cell block with 39 men for five months until the locals managed to successfully petition the governor for a pardon.

My last few miles of the journey were very nearly my last few ever. Ryan and I were breezing along with the low evening sun on our backs, chatting about travels in Italy as we were passing through a town called Florence, when Ryan gave a shout, "Look out!" A pickup had turned left across our path, and was heading right at me. There wasn't time to brake or accelerate and I instinctively unclipped my foot and fended myself off the front of the truck, smashing his radiator grille to bits, bunny-hopping sideways out of harm's way but somehow remaining on two wheels. The driver stopped, tried to protest his innocence, but a small crowd had come across the road from the saloon where they had been enjoying a cold beer and a grandstand view of the events as they unfolded. From their angle, it looked far more serious and they'd seen the errant turn, seen bike and rider disappear and heard the blood curdling crash. They were shaping up to form a lynching mob! With all my limbs still functioning and the bike unscathed, I could see how, looking into the sun, we would have been virtually invisible. Ryan said I'd turned a pretty cool move, and as it was my last day I thought it easier to put it down to experience, although I'm sure some smart lawyer could have coined in a few bucks for emotional trauma or some such tosh.

© 2008 site by mjrcreative
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