Friday, September 17, 2010

USA - 2700km West Coast hire-car road-trip - David

Los Angeles
Despite being in LA for more than long enough to have witnessed a drive-by shooting, Paris & Kim driving the big white bus on a street corner, or random Hollywood celebs doing their thang, we were, surprisingly, out of luck.... While there, we stayed in a couple of slightly affordable motels that really looked like they might double for those low-rent crime-scenes you often see the team photographing bloody corpses and dusting for prints etc in the seedier parts of town on an episode of something macabre like CSI or Law&Order

Some people wear Superman pyjamas.
Superman wears Chuck Norris pyjamas.
Only in the US ! An iPod vending machine in an overpriced mall on Sunset Blvd...
Santa Monica, on the coast north of LA was just like out of an episode of Baywatch. Along the path right beside the sand were bazillions of cyclists on beach cruizers, rollerbladers, joggers, and strollers. And elsewhere gymnasts on the public monkey-bars, and folk practising capoiera, yoga, and stuff. Despite the superficial body-beautiful image, it was great to see people keeping fit and in shape.

San Francisco was really cold after the sweltering Florida & Georgia, prompting us to get some disposable warm clothes at a Thrift Store (op shop) just to stay comfy. The Galleries there were great fun, and we caught some of the July 4th festivities down by the harbour.

Something that has really shitted me for years is the way in which "sculptors" behave like architects and don't get their hands dirty, preferring that real professionals almost anonymously realise the work. Above is a life-sized porcelain rendition of ol' MJ and his monkey - actually made by an Italian studio I think...
On the coast road north of LA we met a German cyclotourist - he'd been gone only a couple of months and had already covered several thousand km's through quite a few countries, including Japan and NZ..
A German cyclotourist on his way round the world much
faster than us...
Dozens of elephantine seal-things sleeping on a freezing
windswept beach on the way to San Fran.
Golden Gate Bridge

Walking the path by the Golden Gate.

Clambering out of the hollow centre of a massive fallen tree.
Resting, up t the top of the Bridal Veil falls in Yosemite.
Hopefully Gaby will  put something meaningful here . . .

Death Valley

Death Valley was somewhere I've really wanted to viit ever since reading the 'blog of a bloke who cycled through there on a unicycle some years ago, with an "I NEED WATER" sign pinned to his back. He was on an old Schwinn 24" - WITH PANNIERS and armrests !! Apart from being rather desolate, Death Valley is 85 metres below sea-level, at its lowest point, and most notably had the most ridiculously hot public toilet I've ever experienced. The concrete bunker was well over 50 degrees C. It didn't smell all that great either.

Furnace-hot sub-sea-level toilet bunker.
Apparently the sub-sea-level and the surrounding mountainous terrain has some odd effect on air-flow and greatly keeps the heat in. The surrounding hills and salt flats, where borax was mined and refined ages ago by Chinese labour, come in a variety of colours – from pink through turquoise – and make for an odd sight indeed.

Knee-deep in the mega salt crystals of the Devil's Golfcourse.
Las Vegas, baby !
The smoggy 'Vegas skyline - we stayed in the hotel/casino
below the needle on the right.
The stratophallic $tratosphere Hotel/Ca$ino.
In Las Vegas we stayed in a cheapo motel right beside The Little White Wedding Chapel where Elvis, Britney and others  somewhat less famous got hitched. We successfully avoided the Casino-based stoopid-peeple-tax, but spent a decent wad on the Bellagio's watery Cirque du Soleil production "O" which was just abso'feckin'lutely amazing...

One of the 'Vegas Ca$inos has an indoor Venetian Canal, complete passenger-bearing electric gondolas with singing gondoliers - though at $60 a pop for less than 10 minutes, maybe not...

Above the Sector 7 Hoover Dam
Halfway between 'Vegas and the Canyon we crossed the Hoover Dam. They're rather security conscious there - no trucks, buses or bombs allowed - and it's just amazing how thoroughly Sector 7 managed to repair the dam and all that crazy damage that the Deceptacons wreaked while freeing Megatron kinda recently, as we saw in that stirring Hollywood documentary with Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox.

The Grand Canyon
Not surprisingly, it's a really big hole set into an even bigger chunk of rock. We managed only one day there, and really enjoyed the interesting 'Interpretation Centers', breathtaking vistas and funky sunset.
Just a few feet behind us was a good drop...
After the jaunt to the Canyon we flew back to Atlanta and the bikes from the airport in 'Vegas. At returning the hire car Gaby was more than a little skittish - the flight was not much later, and the tank had been flashing empty for the last 30km or so.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The US East Coast - Miami, Florida >> Buffalo, NY

Florida & the Keys

Entering the US at Miami airport was way less hassle than I'd expected – previous experience some years ago had me envisaging a sadistically puritanical redneck cavity searching twist on the Spanish Inquisition of old. But no – we just did the paperwork and that was it. Kinda anti-climactic actually.

For the Keys we hired a Dodge Grand Caravan minivan to get us and all our goodies off along the overseas highwaytowards Key West.

7 seats - big enough for whatever...
I'm not interested in motor vehicles at all beyond the minimal move-my-stuff level, but that van was actually a funky thang comparable to a decent James Bond'esque pocket knife.

Until that point our accomodations had been in the $4/5 in SE Asia to 300 Mexican pesos range, but Key West was just astro-bloody-nomical... A single double bed (motel rooms in the US often have 2 queens) in the only Youth Hostel was a whopping $ 88. Elsewhere in town we were offered the bargain discount of a room for a mere $ 169 + tax. We were just appalled. [Washington, DC was far worse it later turned out, and Niagara too – thank Gahd fer rinkydink Mom'n'Pop joints]

To the SW of  Miami we visited a 'gator farm right on the Everglades. Besides all the standard stuff in cages, pools & tanks, we went on an Air Boat tour which was great - if a little shorter than we might have liked. There was a big storm on its way in and ours was the last craft to get out and back before they pulled the plug on the tours for the day. For some reason the Park was reluctant to allow 10foot high steel and aluminium boats zooming around in the lightning...

Northwards from Miami - Pahokee, Fl – Beside Lake Okeechobee

This tiny lakeside town seemed nice enough - if a little poor – and everyone we met in the store and by the side of the road was perfectly friendly - however according to the several cops we met it had a particularly discouraging murder-rate, and would we please like to get a move on asap, before dark, please. I should mention that (with the exception of the town Pharmacist) all of the friendly locals were black, and all of the dozen-odd cops were very white.

2nd lunch, on the trail along the levee.
Anyway, we found a decent cycle trail along the levee bank and made good time to somewhere a little paler further north. When we got to a worksite on the levee, after dodging the signed gates, and doing a bit of name-dropping of some of the cops we'd met - hey presto !! - we got personally escorted the three km or so to the other end by the site Safety bloke...


As cloying as American bible-bashers here can be – particularly the tele-evangelists hereabouts – in Florida we were approached a few times with a an outstretched hand bearing cash, and always accompanied with a polite "God bless you". Weird. The generosity is nothing new - in Thailand passing motorists often gave us cold drinks, and in Mexico much the same, along with fruit and candy – but never before had we been given ca$h...

The haul in Florida:
$40 from a missionary couple with 6 ½ kids – in a car-park by the beach.
$5 from two 20-somethings while eating yesterday's pizza left-overs outside a backroad general store
$22 in a paper-clip from a bloke who just pulled alongside me on the highway and then sped off again.

Saint Augustine

Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorer and admiral, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, St Augustine - on the East coast of Florida - is the oldest continuously occupied European-established city and port in the United States. As such it's a pretty cool place to see funky stuff - particularly at the Ripley's - Believe it or not, the old Fort, the Piratical MiniGolf joint and at the Lighthouse.


As seen on a bumper sticker somewhere in the South: ARE YOU AMERICAN or a democrat ?


While in Atlanta - and the main reason for passing through there in the first place – we stayed with old friends I met years ago in Paris. He's a Chef, she's a uni French professor and, besides the 2 toy dogs, they have a cute li'l six-month old podling named James Henson M. after the bloke of Sesame St & Muppet fame. The food, hospitality, and company was great, and general vaudeville slash pirate ambience lovely.

Something for which I'm particularly appreciative was that Michael & Kristina were the main clearing house for many of our bike parts. Rather than buy basic stock bikes at astronomical prices locally in Sydney, I opted to build the two completely from scratch. As regards price and choice, the US is the winner hands down. So I made dozens of separate orders from eBay, Amazon and other online retailers - many of whom refuse to ship internationally - and had them delivered to my friends' place. M&K then sent the packages on to me in Australia from time to time, and always with a declared value at just under AUD $1000 so as to avoid import duty with Australian Customs. For the paperwork, organisation & packing M&K were just outstanding.


As an indication of what one can save internationally, with a bit of online research, consider Gaby's Surly Long Haul Trucker bicycle frame - just the frame & fork - which we purchased from a store in San Diego for a reasonable USD$405, plus $80 in shipping to Sydney - which came to a tad over $500AUD. The same frame (if the distributor had had any more in stock that month) would have cost AUD $800, or in Germany a ridiculous 3,200 Euros. Just for the frame !

The Jim Henson exhibition at the Atlanta Centre for Puppetry Arts was very nice, and displayed both sides of the stage / camera. Some of the animatronics were rather budget, but the magic they could make was truly wonderful. On display there were items from Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, Sesame St and various ad campaigns.

From Atlanta we took a 2-week jaunt over to the West Coast but more on that in a separate 'blog post soon enough... 

Washington, DC

In DC we stayed in a boutiqe anachronism of an "olde worlde" hotel close to the centre of town whose receptionist took pity on us for arriving clueless in the middle of the night, and offered us a much more affordable rate.

Thanks to a trail all the way NE from DC via Cumberland, MD to Pittsburgh, cyclists and hikers can enjoy 522 car-free kilometres in the shade on pleasant graded dirt.
From DC the trail to Cumberland, Maryland is on the old tow-path of the largely-overgrown Chesapeake & Ohio Canal – now a National Historic Park – and then the trail follows the route of the old Great Allegheny Passage train track. Heading West there's a negligible 605' rise in elevation – and a few reconsstructed locks to look at - until a short mildly steepish bit from Cumberlad up to Frostburg and the top of the Contintal Divide; and then it's all a slight downhill as far as Steel City.


The ubiquitous for-the-masses Waffle House has generally been our el cheapo diner of choice, and occasionally the somewhat classier IHOP (the artist formerly known as International House of Pancakes), both of which provide brekky foods 24 hours a day
Either way, we've been living on 3-egg veggie omlettes with toast, pancakes, hash-browns and nigh-endless soda for last 3 months. Hardly all that healthy, I know, but they're affordable, friendly and open at otherwise inconvenient hours – and often by the highway on the edge of town. Best of all, they have huge windows along 2 sides, so when we tether our steeds outside, beside the door and adjacent to a free booth, we can keep an eye on them; whereas at Pizza Hut or Denny's etc that isn't really possible.

Update – that was written 2 days ago, before we visited the local Naigara Falls IHOP outlet - where the prices are abso'fu*#in'lutely outrageously extortionate! Whereas at any store in the US one can get a veggie omlette with toast, pancakes, and hashbrowns for $8.49 – here the same dish goes for 17.99 !! Admittedly that's in Canadian dollars, but a 5% conversion hardly goes that far... We didn't eat there.

Free refills & obesity

As I sit here, having brekky in the comfort of a diner in Niagara Falls, Canada, I can re-appreciate the goodness that is charged-refills. In the US when one purchases a Coke, Coffee or iced tea for example, the waitress – who really wants a tip – will top up your glass repeatedly for no extra payment. While cycling, the extra calories are great, but in general I think it's one of those practises that has really fostered the ambient morbid obesity so endemic in the US. So while I kinda begrudge having to pay for that second drink here, at least I'm not voting with my wallet for such a socially-destructive mindset. The surrounding lack of fatness here has been encouraging. Go Canada !

The Route etc from here on:

After a few more days swanning about in a campground somewhere nearby we'll be off to Toronto to pick up Gaby's mum – who's popping over for a three-week sojourn as of next week. With the bikes in storage for the duration we'll hire a car and do the sights from here to Quebec City and back.
Then it's back onto the bikes for the trip NE to Halifax in Nova Scotia and a flight on to Europe. At that point I'm sure we'll need work, as the cash, credit and savings dried up ages ago. Maybe in Germany, I guess, or the Netherlands, or even England somewhere perhaps if we're short on alternatives...