141 miles, 13 mph average30 Jun 10Day 1
Pueblo to Grenada

Out of the Rockies

Pueblo means village in Spanish but Pueblo, Colorado is anything but that as it spreads itself out over miles of semi-arid land. Known as the Steel City, it is one of the largest steel producing cities in the USA, I’m sure it must have some hidden charms, but it’s the kind of city anyone would be glad to leave.
A warm wind blew along highway 50 and as it had already been dark for an hour, I settled on the first place I found right on the intersection. The receptionist had the kind of face only a mother could love, the hotel boasted a swimming pool like a two man Petri dish, and thirty three dollars bought me a large room complete with fag burns on the sheets, curtains and lamp shades plus a lobby full of chubby working girls with insipid complexions and bruised thighs. They didn’t seem to have a very brisk trade and clearly thought that a shabby weirdo with a bicycle wasn’t even worth asking. Things seemed to pick up during the night judging by the banging and crashing but had settled down by 4am at which time I snuck out as noisily as possible.
I headed due east once again down the Arkansas River and along the Santa Fe Trail through the Comanche Grasslands, reassured that by following the flow of the river I would be loosing altitude with each mile. At Rocky Ford I stopped to take a quick snapshot of a cute white chapel which I then found had been converted to a cracking little diner that served up the classic All-American breakfast of eggs over easy, crispy bacon and hash browns. The two old dears that ran the place were curious about my travels but had no idea where England was in relation to mainland Europe and the elder of the two had never seen the ocean. They were of course totally content with their lives but it did serve to remind me that I was now more that 2000 miles from the nearest coastline. The place was virtually full and I soon became the main event with the usual questions and out of politeness asked if I was on the right road for Bents Old Fort. A furious row erupted between the old timers, including claims that my maps were inaccurate, and even though there were only two roads for miles around they seemed to make the whole thing highly complicated.

I reached Bents Old Fort National Historic Site, on the only road available and following the clear sign posts, and had a look around the site that features a reconstructed 1840’s adobe trading post on the mountain branch of the historic Santa Fe Trail where traders, trappers, travellers, and Plains Indian tribes came together on peaceful terms to do business. Back then this was the border with Mexico, although that is now more than 300 miles south as after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the United States had acquired almost half of Mexico's lands, including what is now southern Colorado, southern California, parts of Arizona and New Mexico. Trade and military freighting on the Santa Fe Trail boomed, with firms and individuals obtaining and subcontracting lucrative government contracts.

During the afternoon the temperature and the wind rose up and I spent the afternoon wrestling along what should have been an easy road rolling past young corn plants, acres of soya, wheat, vegetables and the regional speciality cantaloupe. It was so windy that at lunch my plate was blown right off the table splattering chicken and biscuits in gravy all over the pavement. My average speed dropped dramatically as dehydration added to my troubles with a splitting headache, weak legs and no sign of habitation for mile after mile. After an empty stretch where a prison was the only sign of habitation and thirty or so miles east of Lamar I spotted some farm workers adjusting one of the many irrigation culverts that along with tons of chemical fertilizer have produced crops in what was previously a desert. Neither spoke English but my disoriented state and stuttering Spanish were clues enough for them to show me the fresh water tap, where, much to their amusement, I covered myself in the cooling water before glugging down a couple of pints. Most of the hard labour on the farms of the plains is undertaken by Mexicans whose forefathers may have owned the land they now toil just four or five generations ago.

USA East
118 miles, 11 mph average1 Jul 10Day 2
Grenada to Dodge City

The Great Plains

Just east of Holly I passed into Kansas and at Kendall I crossed the 110th Meridian that roughly divides the US into east and west and lost an hour as I changed from Mountain Time to the Central Time Zone , the only advantage to me being that the breakfast cafés were open earlier. I stopped at the only place in 50 miles and asked if it would be OK to bring my bike inside, to which the owner replied, reassuringly “No one will steal your bike there, its still early”.

The Great Plains were formed 500 million years ago when it was an inland sea. Sedimentary rocks were laid down with a rich array of ancient fossils and formed the fossil fuels that are extracted today, and a series of ice age glaciers scraped their way south from Canada depositing the rich pulverised soil that is now farmed so intensively.

Bucolic small towns, wide open spaces and distant horizons threaded out on a road as straight as a Pawnee arrow and as flat as a well ironed billiard table. Monotony became déjà vu as each mile resembled the next. The embodiment of all-American ideals of independence and self-sufficiency, the Great Plains are rooted at the centre of the American psyche. As wholesome as the Little House on the Prairie itself, but when a place like Garden City prides itself on being home to the world’s largest hairball, you have to wonder...

Whilst city dwellers of the east and west coasts tend to deride their country cousins for their lack of sophistication, the locals pride themselves on old-fashioned lifestyles and traditional values. It’s still law here to teach children the Biblical version of creation in science lessons over evolutionary theories. I found that some of this traditionalism overlapped with political views that could be described as somewhere right of Genghis Khan. The looks of utter horror that met me when I deliberately bated folk with tales of cycling through Islamic countries, visiting mosques and taking tea with Imams, were priceless. There is, I think a degree of paranoia about all things unchristian here.   

The wind was against me all day once more (as were the giant trucks) and built up tremendous force in the afternoon, so to reach the magic century mark and find a place to stay I was in the saddle for more than 14 hours with the last ten miles taking two hours, in between bouts of vomiting brought on by heat and exhaustion.

USA East
137 miles, 12 mph average2 Jul 10Day 3
Dodge City to Sterling

The Santa Fe Trail

The Wild West’s two most colourful characters, lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson earned their tough reputations in Dodge during its brief but boisterous heyday in the late 1800’s, when the town flourished as a high plains buffalo hunting, cattle driving and railroad centre. The Boot Hill museum recreates the infamous Front Street strip of saloons and burlesque houses that earned Dodge City the sobriquet ‘Hell of the Plains’. I’d always thought that Dodge was a mythical place bourn out of Wild West, Cowboy & Indian movies, but it’s real enough, and today milks the tourists instead of the cows. I rolled into town at 5am to find it much the same as any other mid west town. The same strip-malls; the same fast food and motel franchises. Reveille was at 05.30 and it was time to get the hell outta Dodge only the city’s folk don’t  say that anymore, this being Bible belt and ‘Hell’ being a swear word, so they say ‘get the heck out of Dodge’ instead.

I was now back now on the Sante Fe trail and had a look at the preserved ruts from the old wagon trail itself at Fort Larned which was held by the US army to protect those earlier travellers and pioneers. Even with its romantic history, the road was pretty dull and I passed the time imagining how conditions must have been for the early wagon trains passing through these barren grasslands. After the Trail came the railroad (the two still run parallel with themselves and the river) and with it organised hunting trips where the ‘hunters’ took pot-shots at the bison herds from the comfort of their carriages, almost wiping them to extinction in a few short years and destroying the Native American way of life forever.

At Kinsley I stopped at a petrol station for a microwaved mush of breakfast, provided by a cashier so fat she might be seen on Google Earth. Kinsley is, as the crow flies, midway between San Francisco and New York but, so it seems, a long way from any form of education for my hapless cashier. I should have guessed as much after I’d asked how far it was to the next town, she already knew I was cycling but let me know it was about an hour and a half anyway. Then when she found out I was riding to the Atlantic she said, “So once you reach Washington DC, I guess you’ll just turn right around and head back wont ya?” She didn’t just mean doing a double loop, she actually thought you could ride overland from England to the USA.

The road took me north east through endless plains of wheat, reminiscent of the Spanish meseta, but instead of a tall church dominating the horizon at the end of each road, there would be a massive grain silo. That’s the beer and bread sorted, then came the cattle stations that provide the millions of burgers that form such a large part of the USA’s diet. Acres of pens, stretching as far as the eye could see baking in the intense heat, and humidity so high I felt like I needed an aqualung to breathe. Giant double articulated trucks bring them in, then into the factory they go and frozen meat patties come out the other end. There was something eerie here, this could almost be bovine Auswitch.       

At Larned I switched from ancient Santa Fe to a modern-day equivalent; the Trans America Trail. The Trail was established for Adventure Cycling's celebration of the U.S. bicentennial in 1976 whilst at that time, the organization was called Bikecentennial Route, a name many still associate with the TransAm Trail. This is still the greatest and most used bike route crossing America and for me it promised quiet roads and the prospect of meeting other riders. I’d deliberately chosen not to follow it religiously from coast to coast as it is primarily designed with American riders in mind with an assumption that they will have already seen many of the ‘must-see’ attractions.  

My first stop on the TransAm was the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, wetlands established as a stopover habitat for migratory birds. I think I would have appreciated it more on fresh legs or on a day when the headwind hadn’t averaged 25 mph. At least being so utterly ruined, I was stopping at 5 mile intervals to rest and see the variety of birds as well as a multitude of frogs, beavers and turtles.

USA East
124 miles, 12 mph average3 Jul 10Day 4
Sterling to Strong City


I have never been so happy to see rain on a ride as I set out in daylight for the first time. A lovely cool drizzle enveloped me in a misty cocoon, such a calming relief from the intensity of the sun and the suffocating humidity. Perhaps I looked a sorry sight when I dripped into a diner in Nickerson, or perhaps its just a local tradition of hospitality, but one of the local farmers insisted on paying for my breakfast, leaving me feeling totally surprised and quite choked-up.

To allow for the agricultural development of the Great Plains and to house a growing population, the US passed the Homestead Act in 1862 permitting settlers to claim up to 160 acres of land, provided that they lived on it for a period of five years and cultivated it. Hundreds of thousands of people claimed such homesteads, but many of them were not skilled at farming such dry land, and failures were frequent. However, some of the European settlers were Mennonites (Germanic Russians) who had previously farmed in familiar circumstances in what is now the Ukraine, and were far more successful. They also brought with them a love of quality coffee & delicious cakes, and their descendents still run village pastry shops that kept me fuelled between meals. 

The story of the Mennonites unfolded at the museum in Goessel, complete with replica houses of the era that looked just like my gran’s place. Its really hard for us Europeans to think of history as something almost within living memory rather than a forgotten era hundreds of years ago, but every farmer I met had German or Russian roots and grandparents who could recall the early settler days from stories told to them by their forefathers. There is hardly a land rush going on here today, but with the right criteria you can still get a building plot for free, however farming is in decline and the exodus to the cities continues.

After so many miles of flat lands it was good to see the shaggy, rolling Flint Hills, even with a few impromptu diversions over ploughed fields due to closed roads. At last a change in cadence and a view that changed with every bend instead of a road tapering into a never ending vanishing point. I crossed one of the last remaining parcels of virgin tall-grass prairie, and as the rain lashed down, I sang out loud in a state of euphoria for now for the first time in days I was just cycling, not pushing into a constant barrier of hot air or having my energy sapped by my body’s cooling system working overtime. Now I could just pedal and take in this new world.  I was enjoying the rain so much that I hadn’t stopped to make sure my maps were in a waterproof bag and when I found a place to stop for the night they were in tatters.

I took an unmarked road through wooded hills to Cottonwood Falls, but there was no room at the only inn so I rode on past the red-roofed limestone Chase County Courthouse that is the oldest still in use in Kansas as it sits imperially at the head of an olde worlde main street that attracts visitors from all over the state. Back on the main road there was a scruffy motel with a truckstop café that sold food only available in various shades of beige.

USA East
134 miles, 12 mph average4 Jul 10Day 5
Strong City to La Cygne

The Flint Hills

I found my clothes hadn’t dried at all overnight as I squelched into gear wetter than an otter’s pocket, whilst outside the air was hot and sticky and I was praying for more rain or a thunderstorm to clear the oppressive heat. The back roads were even more deserted than usual as I rode the rolling hills past Dutch barns and Handsel & Gretell houses with names like Kramer, Schroder and Ullrich on the mailboxes. The houses were all in various states of repair from immaculate to totally dilapidated, but no matter how poor or even abandoned some appeared, they all curiously had neatly trimmed front lawns.

I rounded the John Redwood Reservoir and had planned to take a quick dip but the waters were muddied from the stormy weather and the lake was overlooked by the Wolf Creek nuclear power station. However the surrounding area forms the Flint Hills National Water Reserve and as the use of some agricultural chemicals are restricted, I saw for the first time since Yosemite, wild flowers blooming at the road verges.

It was a day lacking in energy once more and even when I finally turned north east to get the benefit of the wind I didn’t really pick up any speed until the relative cool of the evening. However, my own lethargy was nothing when compared to some people I observed at one busy burger joint. All these places allow you to help yourself to as much fizzy pop as you can guzzle. However, the small cup is half the size of the medium and that is half the size of the large which holds about two pints – containing so much sugar that, if downed in one, go might overload your pancreas and hence render you temporarily diabetic. Obviously the large cup is more expensive, but if you wish you can visit the font with a small cup as often as you like. I was the only customer with a small cup.

I couldn’t resist calling in to Plymouth, Kansas, as Plymouth (UK) is the town of my birth and the embarkation point of the Pilgrim Fathers. As a lad I’d spent many happy hours fishing for crabs off the Mayflower Steps, largely unaware of the Step’s significance to modern day Americans. Links with the Devonshire town are strong and there are more than eight Plymouth’s in the USA, the most famous of which is that in New England near the Pilgrim Father’s landing point in Maine. Plymouth, Kansas was a mere speck on the map without any clear reason for an association with the motherland.

In a lovely ironic twist I was near Plymouth for the celebration of the day when the Pilgrim Fathers are somewhat overlooked in celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776. The 4th of July is a day of feasting, fireworks and flags. Curiously the yanks spend over $4million a year on flags, almost all of which are imported from China. The Stars & Stripes is everywhere in the US and their numbers multiply for the national holiday when patriotic fervour runs even higher than usual. Flying the star spangled banner also carries a deal of responsibility as there are some strict laws to be obeyed. The flag must always be in pristine condition, it must not touch the ground, it should always fly at equal or greater height than the flag of any other nation displayed in the same place, and it mustn’t be worn as a garment. Naturally I wore my Union Jack cycling shirt all day, and even though it says ‘Great Britain’ in bold italics front and back, on more than one occasion I was asked where I was from.

USA East
134 miles, 14 mph average5 Jul 10Day 6
La Cygne to Boonville

Western Missouri

The hammering of the rain on the tin roof woke me and elicited the cyclist’s Pavlovian response of pulling up the sheets and rolling over. Cycling in the rain at home usually means getting very cold, very quickly even in the height of summer, so I was conditioned not to venture out in the dark at 04.30 with the distant rattle of thunder sounding a death knell. Within minutes I was soaked through but having a ball. Empty roads, rain flooding down like a warm power shower, yet I was mercifully cool, energised by the leftovers of gas-station forecourt pizza I’d not finished the night before.     

Even before the West was won (or stolen, depending on your point of view), French traders and fur trappers explored this region naming the waters they navigated such as the Marais Des Cygnes (swamp of swans I think). Where the river crosses into Missouri there is a National Wildlife Reserve and Massacre Park. Hmm…massacre and park, not two words that you see together every day. On May 19, 1858, approximately 30 men led by Charles Hamilton a proslavery leader, crossed into Kansas from Missouri and captured 11 free-state (anti-slavery) men, none of whom were armed. Most of the men knew Hamilton and apparently did not realize he meant them harm. These prisoners were led into a gorge where Hamilton ordered the men shot and fired the first bullet himself. The massacre outraged the nation and was a further catalyst to Civil War.

After 40 empty miles my belly was about to declare civil war, but I’d barely passed a town let alone anything like a shop or diner. Rural Missouri was even more remote than rural Kansas it seemed. I diverted to Ballard with hopes of hot coffee and fresh bacon rolls. The sign said it all, ‘Ballard, Population 17’. (Who keeps count? Does he have a book of little white sticky numbers to change the sign whenever there’s a change?) So no hope of food, but there was an agricultural merchant, and although I wasn’t looking for a handful of millet seed for breakfast, the owner might know somewhere down the road. “Food? Sure, well I have some of my daughter’s home made brownies for sale” I couldn’t believe my luck and wolfed down half a dozen whilst sat on his mouse-eaten sofa between two tractors, exchanging yarns the way that we real country folk do!

“I don’t suppose you see too many cyclists coming past these parts do you?” I ventured.
“Oh sure, we see plenty of bikers, there was a guy just like you passed through just two summers ago”

Did I say ‘remote’?

I cut through the northern reaches of the Ozark Mountains and onto the Trail of Tears. As Europeans settled along the east coast, some indigenous tribes migrated west onto the plains. The most tragic mass migration took place in 1838, when the Cherokee Nation was forced to relinquish all land east of the Mississippi in exchange for land “As long as the grass grows and the waters run”. More than 4000 died on the journey dubbed the ‘Trail of Tears’.

At least there were no tears for me, as in Missouri as had been the case in Kansas everyone waved a warm welcome as they passed wide in their cars, and when I stopped, everyone I met was happy to go out of their way to help. This was the ‘real’ America I’d been hoping to find. Mom & Pop diners with Mom & Pop values. Absolutely charming folk.

More evidence of this kindness came to light when I reached Clinton, a little worn and weary, but not as weary as my back tyre that had worn down to the carcass and switching it to the front hadn’t slowed the process. I passed a chainsaw service centre and asked if they knew of any bike shops in town. It turned out that in their workshop they also tinkered with lawnmowers, power tools and amazingly bikes. I was looking for something a bit special though – like a 700c Kevlar reinforced 25mm. To my amazement he produced the exact spec German tyre from his own bike, and in less than a minute he fitted it and threw in a spare tube. It was hardly used and mine for less than half price. With such good luck on my side I was beginning to wonder if I had some kind of magic Genie watching over me.   

After several hundred miles of asphalt I was ready to get off the road and knew that at Clinton I would find the start of the Katy Trail, a 265 mile bike path (the longest in the USA) stretching across most of the state of Missouri, meandering through peaceful farmland and small-town Americana. The trail follows a disused railway line and the nickname "Katy" comes from the phonetic pronunciation of 'KT' in the railroad's abbreviated name, MKT (Missouri – Kansas – Texas).

I was in bike heaven. Tail wind, sunshine and the track all to myself. My shorts were still wet from the earlier soaking and with 30 miles to the next town and not a soul on the path, I decided to hang them out to dry, and rode along as nature intended!

USA East
62 miles, 12 mph average6 Jul 10Day 7
Boonville to Jefferson City

The Katy Trail

I’d really enjoyed Katy’s company for the first 70 miles, but at Boonville I fell in love. Just when I thought she couldn’t get better, she took me for an early morning spin along the banks of the Missouri and I was smitten. Who would have thought that environmental-bad-ass America could do a bike path so very well? OK so its only 1/10th the distance of the Donauweg, but pretty darned good for a first attempt I’d say.

Katy charmed me with her secrets and showed off the menagerie of scarlet cardinals and blue jays flitting through her branches. Squirrel, rabbits and white tailed deer complemented a vision of perfection with the mighty Missouri surging ever east in full flood as a backdrop.

At Hartsburg, we had our first falling out. She wanted me to stop (as women inexplicably tend to do) but I wanted to go on. Of course she got her way in the end by setting a trap of ankle deep mud that seized my wheels completely and had me carrying the bike a few miles along a bayou and stumbling through a swamp with all the grace of a drunken 'gator, and into a village where yet another friendly native lent me his pressure washer to free the wheels up and hose down the inch thick layer of gunge that covered me.

I thought it best to sleep in a separate room to Katy that night and turned off into Jefferson City. I’d been pounding out the miles in order to get to ‘Jeff’ in time to meet my old friend Vin who is riding across the USA as part of a record breaking world tour.

USA East
121 miles, 13 mph average7 Jul 10Day 8
Jefferson City to St Louis

Jefferson City was originally called Missouriopolis, hardly a name that trips off the tongue, but one that at least gave a clue to its location. All the rivers I’d been following since the Rockies are tributaries of the Mississippi, but none so great as the Missouri itself. A vast tract of thick, brown muddy water, not depleted in the way the Arkansas had been by the need to siphon off its waters for irrigation.

Vin and I set out to explore the Missouri following it downstream, spinning out the miles on the trail, and catching up on his epic five month journey. Among the first Americans to explore the river were Lewis & Clark whose expedition took three years from St Louis to the Pacific, and at Jefferson City part of their route is now preserved as a section of the Katy Trail along the Missouri River. President Jefferson initiated and funded the expedition (hence the link to the city’s name), prior to the Louisiana Purchase as at that time the US was unsure what it was buying and the French were unsure what they were selling. As things turned out the Americans bought a whole lot more than swampy Louisiana, and gained control of New Orleans (and hence the Mississippi trade routes) taking on what is now nearly a quarter of the entire USA.

I’d not seen Vin since he set off around the world in February. Back then he was battling ice and snow in France, now it was a very different but equally challenging situation in the musty steam-heat of a Missouri July. Wetness pervaded. When it rained we were soaked and when it stopped raining everything stayed wet in 100% humidity. Feet and hands became macerated, sores opened on weak, chaffed skin and the mosquitoes set upon us with a vengeance.

We pulled over to a small-town, one-store sort of place, where a bunch of old farmers were taking coffee. These are tough places, populated by tough people who have lived off the land and seldom had clean finger nails. Vin and I strode in looking like the world’s smallest gay pride march, to many a raised eyebrow and an intimidating snarl from the boss-lady, so cold that if you tried to kiss her, you’d get an ice-cream headache. She was none too happy about us leaning our bikes against her window and less so when I spilled my coffee over her counter. I tried to diffuse the situation by saying, “We’ve not made too good a first impression have we?” “Just siddown an’ shuddup!” she snapped, to stifled sniggers from our farming friends.     

After being spoilt on a car-free route for two days, I was growing nervous about returning to the roads and wasn’t exactly looking forward to the St Louis traffic, but as that son of St Louis, T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity”, Vin and I set about creating a route into the metropolis that sits on the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi in readiness for an early start.     

USA East
112 miles, 14 mph average8 Jul 10Day 9
St Louis to Chester

Mississippi River Trail

I have never taken any exercise except sleeping and resting.

Over a thousand miles of riding done and should have been time to take Mark Twain’s advice, but we had a schedule to keep and for Vin to be back in the UK in time to take the record we had to press on. His mastery of technology saw us safely into the centre of town in the early hours, and later we found the Mississippi River Trail, following in the footsteps of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, taking us south on a course parallel with the river but rarely catching sight of it.

St Louis is not as you might think in Louisiana but in Missouri in the same way that Kansas City is also in Missouri, and the city of Washington is about as far away from the state of Washington as it can get. Along the Mississippi waterfront we passed the 192 meter tall St Louis Arch that is also known as the Gateway Arch symbolising the city as the gateway to the west, and is dedicated to the spirit of the pioneers who passed that way and settled the American West after the Louisiana Purchase. It is the tallest monument in the world and I’d seen it on TV many a time barley taking any notice, and yet it is one of those sights that can only be fully appreciated in the flesh. Slender and elegant, a real engineering masterpiece, that even contains a type of funicular that can be ridden to the top.

As we were admiring the view of the Arch and the riverfront complete with replica and restored paddleboat steamers, we were approached by a group of lady evangelists who were here from the Deep South on a ‘mission’. This mission seemed to include saving all souls they encountered, including the sweaty ones on two wheels. You have to admire their conviction and dedication and they clearly gain great spiritual satisfaction from their faith, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be exorcised of demons and allow the ‘Lawd Jeeesuuus’ into my heart at six in the morning. They were all charming ladies but so persistent in their preaching. I thought I’d divert their attention by asking them to pray for cooling rain and a tailwind for the rest of our journey, but this only made them worse and it was almost impossible to break away. It was becoming more like a hostage situation than a prayer meeting!

St Louis is also home to the world’s largest brewery. The Anheuser-Busch brewery was founded in 1860 and still produces 2.3 million bottles of Budweiser to quench the nation each day. As beer is about 95% water it struck me that a bottle of Bud is pretty much a bottle of muddy Mississippi river water – I mean, where else do they get all that water from? They run a free tour that takes visitors through the process of brewing, mashing, fermenting, lagering, filtering and packaging. I had a vague idea how beer was made but the lagering business (the secondary fermentation over woodchips) was new to me and yet the word ‘lager’ is so commonly used but I’d never even wondered where it came from.

Within a few hours it started to rain, drowning the intensity of the sun that had been exhausting us, then a mild tail wind followed but we wondered if perhaps we should have repented our sins when lightning crashed all around us with no gap between the flash and deafening roll of thunder. It was a full 50 miles before we had cleared the vast metropolis and 50 soggy more before we crossed the Mississippi river into Illinois at Chester, home of Popeye.

USA East
131 miles, 13 mph average9 Jul 10Day 10
Chester to Cave In Rock


With a cool, damp start a high mileage day was always on the cards and there was the added natural challenge of riding ‘coast to coast’ across the whole state of Illinois from the Mississippi to the Ohio River. It was a day for pounding out the miles and helping Vin secure the record, speeding past forests of oak and beech, orchards of apple and peach along with the occasional vineyard. The roads were quiet and the few drivers that passed always gave us room on the road.

Further evidence of Native American habitation was abundant in the rugged unglaciated hills of the Illinois Ozarks sometimes known as Little Egypt where the Ohio River separates the State from Kentucky and where the forested ridges and sprawling hollows of the Shawnee National Forest made for some challenging riding through sandstone towers and boulders in the Garden of the Gods.

Our first big climb came at Alto Pass with its famous view of the crucifix at Bald Knob (honest!). There seemed to be more churches than houses in this area and Vin asked at the village shop what the turnout rate for a Sunday service might be. “Oh that’d be just about everyone, around here is mostly Christian” came the reply. “What about other religions, are there any people of other faiths living here?” he enquired. “Only the Catholics”…

Vin had been searching various hardware stores and garages in vain for a specific bolt that had been getting rounded off with wear, but he’d had no luck, and we joked that what we needed was to meet a proper old chap in overalls who had every sized bolt ever machined organised in tiny jam jars just like our fathers did. In Buncombe an elderly gent stood bent over a shining vintage car, and I knew our quest was at an end. The car he had been working on was a priceless 1951 Studebaker V8 and Jim had a total of six garages and each one held a work of automotive art, some of which he’d built and restored himself, along with collection of classic motoring memorabilia. We had stumbled on a private museum where Jim was more than happy to show two wide-eyed schoolboys around and regale us with stories, facts and figures. 

At one of the many forest parks, I spotted what looked like a class of students, all dressed identically in white shirts and red shorts, on what seemed to be a field trip of some kind. I waved and shouted ‘hi’ as I sailed by only noticing the armoured vehicle parked beside them with ‘Illinois State Penitentiary’ emblazoned on its side after I’d made some new friends of the less desirable kind.

Thirteen hours after leaving Chester we made Cave in Rock just before sunset and in time to catch our breath sat above the banks of the Ohio, another tributary of the Mississippi, and overlooking the ferry that would take us across to Kentucky in the morning.

USA East
127 miles, 12 mph average10 Jul 10Day 11
Cave in Rock to Falls of Rough

West Kentucky

We had to delay our start until the decadent hour of 6am as that was the earliest ferry and as soon as the sun burst through the banks of mist shrouding the Ohio, it was clear it was going to be red hot with hardly a wisp of breeze and no sign of shade anywhere to be found.

Kentucky came as a surprise as we were still able to find quiet roads with some of the most patient and polite drivers anywhere in the world. The riding was fabulous through short hills and twisting roads, past pristine pastures and native woodlands. Deer skipped gaily in the meadow, eagles soared on thermals above, and some of the largest, brightest butterflies I have ever seen committed ritual suicide by flying straight into our wheel spokes.

As beautiful as the country lanes were, there was an almost complete absence of sign posting and it became frustrating having to stop and ask for directions especially as so many times someone who had lived in a town all their life seemed unaware of the way to the next two towns. Frustrating that was until the time I got caught out:

Me, “Good morning, can you tell me the way to Raywick?”
Hill-billy, “Cant say I’ve ever heard o’ that playce”
Me, “OK, how about St Mary?”
Hill-billy, “Nope”
Me, getting irritated now, “You don’t know much do you!”
Hill-billy, “Well, I do know I’m not lost!”

USA East
110 miles, 14 mph average11 Jul 10Day 12
Falls of Rough to Springfield

Lincoln’s Kentucky

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

I’m not sure that Abraham Lincoln was talking about cycling when he penned those famous words, but there can be few things in life so defining of liberty than riding around a lake and bowling along a quiet country road in the sunshine.  So it was that I spent the early hours of Sunday morning, admiring the views and waving at the country folk on their way to church to give their thanks for living in such a green and pleasant land as Kentucky surely is.

Kentucky is all about horses. Horses and fried chicken. Horses and fried chicken and Abraham Lincoln. If a state has a link to a president, it shouts it loud and if that president has been held in high esteem then the shout is louder still, and no esteem could be higher that of old Abe himself. Hodgenville is the focus of attention being the great man’s childhood home, where 56 steps, representing the years of his surprisingly short life, lead to the granite and marble memorial that surrounds the very modest log cabin in which he entered the world, and a few miles down the road is the farm that became his boyhood home.

At Hardin Springs we lost another hour passing over into the Eastern Time Zone, and as I was already flagging from the pressure of maintaining Vin’s record pace, we came up with the idea that he could ride around in a U-shaped loop whilst I took a direct route and had time to visit the various Lincoln memorials and museums.

I’d noticed travelling east since Colorado that the land had become increasingly lush and fertile and the population correspondingly wealthier. Thoroughbred horse breeding is a multibillion-dollar industry, and horse country has a stately English countryside ambience about it. Poplars and ponds, mansions and miles rolled by. Acres of lush pasture that bloom with tiny azure buds earning the state its Bluegrass moniker. About ten miles to my north, Lexington is known as the horse capital of the world. It’s also home to the federal gold bullion repository at Fort Knox. I could have viewed the outside but random tourists aren’t allowed inside to see the gold so it seemed a pointless diversion and we pressed on ever eastwards.

We cut a few miles south of Bardstown, the self proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World and site of one of the world’s largest distilleries and the world’s largest Bourbon Barrel (and oddly the largest crucifix). I can’t stand the stuff myself, even watered down and sweetened in a mint julep, but the traditional distillery at Maker’s Mark is Kentucky’s oldest, where corn, malt and rye are aged in charred white oak barrels and had to be visited. We turned up after closing time hoping only to catch a glimpse of the distillery and an opportunity to recharge our water bottles, but our ‘cycling celebrity’ status once again saw us good and we were treated to a bespoke whistle stop tour.

USA East
107 miles, 14 mph average12 Jul 10Day 13
Springfield to McKee

Civil War & Shakers

Always a land of contrasts, Kentucky didn’t disappoint, as the very next county to Bourbon was Mercer where New England families relocated two hundred years ago bringing with them a sparse, utilitarian style of furniture making and an even sparser celibate, tee-total Christian doctrine. These folk are the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing better known as the Shakers due to their spontaneous dancing when possessed by the religious spirit.

Whiskey in the jar in the night before with prohibition Pepsi with lunch, but on the upside the Shaker’s puritan neighbours, The Amish, cooked some great organic food in their country restaurants.          

“Dry County, can't find no spirits here
Dry County, run for your life out of fear
For things that you cannot find
Across a Dry County line”    

The words of the Blackfoot song echoed through my brain as alcohol-free Baptist towns followed more alcohol-free Baptist towns, and the thought that another sticky fizzy drink at dinner would be sat where my quenching ice cold beer should be sat, was bringing me down.

In December 1860, the state of South Carolina, having grown rich on slave labour, declared itself independent from the rest of the country, fearing that the growing anti-slavery movement in other parts would affect them. The other south eastern states of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee soon joined the rebel cause, but Kentucky was divided as followers of the great reformist Abraham Lincoln backed the north and those of the confederate Jefferson, the south. The civil war that ensued lasted four years with Kentucky very much on the front line.

We made the battlefield site at Perryville just after sunrise but having diverted off course and used a busy highway we were disappointed to find just a plaque to commemorate such an important battle. This was particularly galling for Vin as any miles he back tracks don’t count toward his record tally. His mileage had now built to the point where a direct ride to the airport, followed by 1800 or so more in Europe and back to the Greenwich meridian at his sustained pace would secure the prize. Riding with Vin had been a joy, I’d struggled to keep the pace but his easy company had made every mile a pleasure and when we came to part, I needed to make a quick job of it before the lump in my throat choked me. I headed south whilst Vin was going north, and although I’m used to riding solo, felt at once lost and lonely.

USA East
107 miles, 13 mph average13 Jul 10Day 14
McKee to Hindman

The Appalachians

I turned up onto the Cumberland Plateau and the Daniel Boone National Forest named after the legendary pioneer and fur trapper. The dense forest is protected and shelters over 35 endangered species including red-cockaded woodpeckers, big eared bats and bald eagles. It was Daniel Boone that first explored and charted Kentucky in the late 1700’s, and his pioneering work made it possible for the early settlers to cross the Appalachians along the Wilderness Road on which I now rode. I can think of no good reason why its called a plateau as the road swooped and dived through broadleaved woodlands like an arboreal rollercoaster that was all the more enjoyable for having fresh legs.

The road was notorious for Native Indian attacks and ambushes by highwaymen and criminals, but today law and order has been established after a fashion. Few people live in these hills and those that do follow a simple pastoral way of life, keeping themselves to themselves. Some call it inbred country. Some call it Deliverance country. A place where those extra fingers could come in handy for a spot of banjo duelling!

With cooling rain and engrossing hills I surprised myself by arriving in Hazard at lunchtime with 75 miles already on the clock. The town of Hazard is nothing to do with the fictional county of Bo, Luke, Daisy and Uncle Jesse but it certainly felt like the Dukes might be at home here in hillbilly central. Plaid shirts, Confederate flags and multi-tone car horns were de rigueur here. It’s a mining area and I rode through small oddly named towns such as Chavie, Dwarf, Fisty and Belcher so I wondered if this was an alternative fairy tale land and if a sinister version of Snow White might suddenly appear – perhaps she was down at Beaver Bottom?

A few hours later I was in Hindman wondering if I should call it a day as the next place with certain accommodation was more than fifty miles away. The town seemed large enough to have some kind of accommodation, but the motel on the highway was closed and several enquires left me with a sinking feeling that I’d be riding late into the night. One last passer by to ask and I’ll get on the road, I thought to myself. The lady in question knew a place, and after a steep climb I arrived at the Knott County Historical Society. David answered the door and explained how things worked. It was camp-bed & breakfast. David was as camp as a field full of grown-up boy scouts himself and I was to camp in the garden in a tent that was already in place, complete with double airbed and sleeping bags. Perfect, if somewhat eccentric. David spent the evening feeding and entertaining me, even producing a few iced beers and some homemade moonshine.        

USA East
112 miles, 11 mph average14 Jul 10Day 15
Hindman to Rosedale

West Virginia but not West-Virginia

When British, Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their Elizabethan ballads, rhythms and instruments to the area, they fused their styles with fast fiddling, yodelling and laments on the rigours of early-settler life. Thus country, western and bluegrass music was born. The east of Kentucky is famed for its music and has given us such artists as Billy Ray Cyrus and Loretta Lynn, but its not all bad news as the Everly Brothers are also from these parts.

The Appalachians continued to delight, if not with the music then with the views at least, but the hills were becoming steeper and longer now. Occasional run-down settlements dotted the road, all feeling the recessionary pressure that has closed some of the open-cast coal mines here. At one of my many stops I got talking to a young man who works the coal face with a $3.2M excavator that can do the work that over one hundred men did fifty years ago. He showed me a photo of him barely reaching as high as the giant’s axles, but even with this level of investment and the coal virtually falling off the mountain, they are no match for cheap Chinese coal and the future of his mine is now dependent on government subsidies.

In one wooded glen I decided it was time for my morning constitutional. I found a nice private spot in the trees and did what comes naturally. After cleaning myself up, I sat on a rock by the road gathering my thoughts for the next big climb, when a local drove over in his pick up and asked if I was OK, adding “You might wanna take care, seein’ as how I moved a couple of big ole rattlers from under those rocks just yesterday!”

In the Jefferson National Forest at the stunningly beautiful Breaks Interstate Park I crossed into the western corner of the state of Virginia, which naturally enough lies south of West-Virginia, this is America after all. The hills were proper mountains now and when I left the Appalachians after a monster climb to Honaker, I was treated to a very different, more alpine view and the fear that the climbs would be even higher and longer tomorrow.  

USA East
107 miles, 12 mph average15 Jul 10Day 16
Rosedale to Galax

The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia

The weather forecast was for scorching heat again, so the day began at 4am with a climb up the Clinch Mountains and over to Hayters Gap that is often referred to as one of the most arduous ascents on the TransAm. 

For the second time on my world tour I was on the road to Damascus. Not the Syrian capital this time but that on the Smoky Mountain Tennessee border and gateway to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in the Iron Mountains. It’s a hiker’s paradise and access point of the Appalachian Trail, the 2,000+ mile walking path that stretches from south of here to the far north-east in Maine. My epiphany on this road to Damascus was the realisation that I had been travelling from north-west to south-east whilst the mountain ridges followed a path perpendicular to mine. No wonder I was suffering, but on changing direction I found the gradient easier and the miles passed by as the morning sunlight streamed through tall trees draped in Virginia creeper.

By lunchtime I was passing Virginia’s highest point in the Mount Rogers National Recreation area, but several days of relentless climbing were beginning to take their toll, so at Galax I had made my century and decided to call it a day. The local tourism office pointed me the direction of a handful of sterile chain motels on the outskirts of town, but Galax looked like it had a little soul, the State barbeque championships were in town and I really needed some proper grub instead of deep fried fast food. A few minutes later the lady from the tourist office had me following her car downtown to the ‘Doctor’s Inn’ B&B. Not only is the house listed as one of Virginia’s historic buildings, but Brenda is the perfect hostess. I was invited to lounge in the pool-sized hot tub, then loaf about checking emails and so on, whilst a supply of cold beer and sandwiches (ingredients fresh from the garden) materialised as if by telepathy.

I thought I’d need a bit of pampering as the next two days I’d scheduled to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway, but due to the hills and lack of facilities en route, I was having serious second thoughts. Brenda to the rescue again. I could pick up the New River Trail (another Rails-to-Trails project) for 57 miles north east, reconnect with the Trans-Am for the second half and then still get to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway the following day. A perfect compromise.     

USA East
124 miles, 13 mph average16 Jul 10Day 17
Galax to Roanoke

The New River Trail

Just like the Katy Trail I’d ridden in Missouri, the New River Trail follows a disused railway line, but this time with an added advantage; I could have all the joy of the mountain scenery without the hills to climb. The shade of the trees kept the heat off and even though the trail was little more than a bumpy single track in places, the views of the river were always spectacular .

I didn’t want the Trail to end and after those blissful miles it was with a face as long as an undertaker’s tape-measure that I turned back onto the road. I soon cheered up when I found the old Wilderness Road that linked a few early settlements and was one of the main migratory routes for the pioneers. This was also on the TransAm bike route that was now clearly signposted as Virginia is the only state to do so.

When I passed a pizza shop in Christiansburg with three fully loaded bikes leant up outside, I knew I’d meet some fellow ‘trans-Amers’. They were heading west and by a stroke of fortune had just finished with the very set of maps I needed, as my water logged set were also of an almost useless scale. The New River Trail had left my rear tyre in a battered state and needed replacing, but the only bike shop around was 10 miles off my course. That’s when my Genie stepped in and helped me out again as the waitress overheard our conversation and pointed me to the Huckleberry Trail.

An hour later I arrived in the university town of Blacksburg having enjoyed a traffic-free and asphalt surfaced bike route all the way, and with a new tyre fitted I was climbing up some gradual slopes into an area of outstanding beauty. It reminded me of an idealised version of Scotland – warmer, drier, quieter. A place where even the deer seemed tame; a gorgeous blend of untamed forests and lush meadows. Virginia was looking after me very well. 

USA East
123 miles, 13 mph average17 Jul 10Day 18
Roanoke to Afton

The Blue Ridge Parkway

A lovely cruise between the mountain ridges continued and breakfast #2 came along at Buchanan in the utterly authentic Buchanan Grill. In a world of fast food and neon, this place was a delight of 50’s kitsch.

Next stop was the Natural Bridge which is a limestone arch with a span of 90 feet and a height of 175 feet, formed by an underground stream originally flowing through a cave. The rest of the roof of the cave collapsed, leaving only the arch remaining. It claims to be one of the seven wonders of the world which is nice because I can add it to my list of twenty three other wonders of the world that I’ve seen on my travels. Sadly the area has fallen victim to spin off tourist traps like petting zoos and as you might expect a life sized polystyrene replica of Stonehenge.

Virginia was spoiling me with so many treats and Lexington was yet another sweet southern town filled with charming townsfolk. The heavens opened when I arrived so I took refuge in the fire station admiring their five highly polished trucks. There were only two firemen at the station. Lexington was one of the headquarters of the Confederacy and still retains an aura of Old South gentility, as well as a fine collection of Civil War generals (General Lee and Stonewall Jackson in particular) depicted in bronze posturing heroically. I was curious to see these statues as I could imagine their equivalent in the UK would have been destroyed in the name of political correctness, but it was still somewhat unnerving to get the distinct impression that some of the attitudes to equal rights had not really moved on. I asked the opinion of a few passers-by if they thought there could be any comparison to say a hypothetical statue of Field Marshal Rommel (widely regarded as a brilliant tactician but a Nazi nonetheless) in his home town of Ulm. My provocation was lost in translation. History tends to absolve itself, the only question that remains is how long ago is acceptable?

I met a few more riders heading west and each one that stopped to chat warned me of the last big climb over the mountains to join the Blue Ridge Parkway, but when I got to it, the cool of the evening had arrived and the fantastic views at every turn took away its sting, although I couldn’t help feeling that a pair of vultures were eyeing me optimistically. The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches for 469 miles along the crest of the Appalachians but I joined it for just the last 28 miles. It was built in the great depression of the 1930’s to create employment but not completed for another fifty years. Split-rail fences, old farmsteads and historic structures complement spectacular views of distant mountains and neighbouring valleys. It’s at it most popular in Autumn when the leaves are tuning the colours of Fall, but in July there were phlox and campion in flower, mountain laurel, oak, hickory, American elder, mountain ash and rhododendrons all combined in a botanist’s cornucopia.

The oncoming riders had also told me to look out for ‘The Cookie Lady’, in Afton. June is in her 80’s now and a Transam legend as she has given over her second property for the exclusive use of passing cyclists. There’s a pantry that’s kept well stocked but no charge, and only a cookie jar to accept donations. The house itself is somewhat ramshackle but is home to a fascinating collection of cycling bits and bobs that folk have left on their way through. So it was that I crashed out on the couch and went to bed on Walton’s mountain. G’night John-Boy.

USA East
114 miles, 14 mph average18 Jul 10Day 19
Afton to Richmond

My day began with a slight mishap. I was riding along minding my own business when a scruffy pick-up swerved toward me and the driver, a late middle aged, thick set man in dungarees and no shirt, bawled, “gerr oo t rtoood!”. He then pulled over at a wayside diner. About turn.

“Excuse me”, I said, “But I didn’t quite catch what you just said”
“Ah saayd, get awff the road!”

I loathe and despise the kind of attitude that makes anyone think they have a higher right than another, and although this type of altercation isn’t that uncommon elsewhere, after being shown such courtesy and patience from all of the other American drivers, this outburst seemed all the more offensive.

“Well, OK, but where would you suggest I ride?” I was in full-blown provocative-blighter mode now.

The ‘snake man’, as his pick up declared him to be, turned and walked into the diner. He really was not expecting a skinny cyclist to follow him in.

“Hey!” I shouted, “So where exactly would you like me to ride?”

With his dungarees and my black spandex it must have looked like the circus had just come to town, but I was so incensed there was no way I was going to let it lie. Perhaps one thing that cycling 2000 miles gives you is an overblown sense of self confidence, but it was then I caught the eye of the lady behind the counter. The last thing she needed was a brawl in her coffee shop, so with the moron’s back still to me I turned and walked away.

Charlottesville was the first real city I’d seen since St Louis. Its also home to the historic houses of Jefferson and Munroe. Very cosmopolitan, very middle class, very red brick. Very nice. People out jogging; I hadn’t seen that barometer of affluence for a while.

The sun was out in its full force, beating down on the ripening tobacco fields like those the original settlers first planted when they realised there was no gold in them thar hills, but instead Golden Virginia perhaps? A feudal aristocracy grew out of tobacco farming, and some of the gentry scions became Founding Fathers, including native son George Washington. The baccy trade has long been tuned in to the cash till’s ring of success and has funded many of the mansion houses I passed, each complete with swimming pool and sun deck. In the sweltering heat of a southern July I’d expected to see a few bathing beauties gracing these pools but the answer to the absence of bronzing bodies beautiful I found out later was that it was just too hot. When the locals complain about the heat, you know it really is hot.

As it was Sunday I didn’t mind diverting through central Richmond’s downtown and business districts whose empty streets led me to that wonder of wonders, the British Pub. Sweaty, hot and smelly I was an instant hit with the Anglophile regulars and fuelled myself to the finish for the day with a pint of very palatable Virginia cider.

USA East
94 miles, 15 mph average19 Jul 10Day 20
Richmond to Yorktown

Country road take me home, take me home country road.

I was really on the way to the coast now, but too bad so were the behemoth camper vans, the size of double-decker busses with their septuagenarian drivers slipping between senility and sleep. These vans are massive, fully loaded, cost a fortune to buy and cost the earth to drive. They are the new-age, new-money hobos hitting the road and hitting it hard with a Hummer hooked to the tow-bar. But the road was flat, there was a tail wind and from time to time a bike lane took me away from the traffic between poplars and pines.

Only 23 more miles to go, I could almost taste the ocean, then disaster struck. A broken spoke on the drive-side of my highly specialised back wheel is one repair I can’t do, and the wheel had buckled so badly I had to disconnect the brake in order for the wheel to move at all, wobbling down the road as ungainly as a one-armed man trying to catch a balloon. I knew that I couldn’t ride far before the whole wheel could collapse and that similar repairs at home had taken weeks before the parts came from France. For one final time I called upon the Genie of the Bike Ride to grant my wishes and lo and behold as I diverted through Williamsburg’s out of town malls, the aptly named Spoke ‘n True bike shop hove into view. As ever the American can-do spirit prevailed, I had lunch across the street and the bike was rolling again in just a few hours. Magic! 

I span my pedals out along the Colonial Parkway, across the James River and into a perfect, if Disneyfied, replica of Colonial Williamsburg. John D Rockerfeller funded the work in setting up a living museum where people in period costume portray the lifestyle of the original blacksmiths, silversmiths, cabinet makers and bakers.

Jamestown and Yorktown are almost neighbours geographically but share contrasting histories. Over four hundred years ago Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the US and a recreation of the town, fort and Indian village are laid on for the American tourist to learn how their heroic predecessors paved the way for the colonisation of America.

Meanwhile, across the peninsula Yorktown’s museums, battlefields and exhibits show how these same ancestors were finally defeated in the decisive conflict of the American Revolution (war of independence) just 174 years later. This was going to be fun. My Yankee-bating skills had been finely honed over the previous weeks and I was ready to do battle. Ready to defend my nation’s honour. Armed only with my Union Jack shirt and a rapier wit, I pretended to take great exception to the way in which my fellow Brits were described as ‘brutal monarchists’, ‘oppressors’ and ‘tyrants’, especially as we let them win even though our plucky away-team was impossibly outnumbered. The jokes came thick and fast as my colonial cousins laughed along with me.

But none of that really mattered to me today, what really mattered was the sight of the welcoming Atlantic ocean, sparkling in the sun, inviting me to dive straight in. I’d made it. It had taken thirty one days of hard riding, with a year to rest in the middle, but I’d ridden coast to coast at an overall pace on a par with the world record for bicycle circumnavigation, and I was physically and mentally ruined.

When the Victory monument rose up before me signalling the end of the trail, there were no flags; no fanfare for me. I’d rehearsed in my mind how it would feel at the end, but when the time came there were flags and there were fanfares. Not for me but for the generosity, care, openness and courtesy shown to me by the people of America. Of course there are the funny stereotypes and the crazies, but the silent majority, seen but never heard, will reign in my heart. God bless America. I fuckin’ love you man.

Total mileage             2296
Daily Average            120.8
Average speed           13
Centuries                   18

© 2008 site by mjrcreative
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