Back in Durham

Friday was scheduled to be a semi-rest day, with nothing but a relatively short cycle (35 miles) planned for the late afternoon. In the morning we drove to the nearby city of Durham, County Durham and headed for their tourist information office. They recommended we followed a walking route through the city, but it turned out to be rather dull. In fact, Durham seemed to be a bit of a ghost town: there was almost nobody in the streets and nothing happening. After eating a good Southern lunch served in a basket, we got back into the car and drove out to Durham’s university: Duke’s.

We parked at the Sarah P Duke gardens where Andy and I sat down in the shade with our copies of Harry Potter and set to work. After finishing the book (nice end, shame about the epilogue) I walked around the lake and watched some turtles basking in the water. Duke’s Students’ Union is a little more impressive than the English Durham’s; some of the branded clothing (’stash’, for Durhamites) was manufactured by Nike and the Union building contained a McDonald’s and several shops. To be fair to English Durham, it’s a little harsh to compare the facilities at a campus university to ones at a collegiate town university, but Duke’s still gave off an air of wealth and quality. English Durham may have Palace Green, but Duke’s has some stunning 1920s architecture (including a very cool chapel that would make a pretty impressive cathedral for any English city) as well as facilities that don’t feel like they’re on the losing side of a battle against degradation.

While buying postcards (sadly, they all said “Duke’s” and not “Durham”) I mentioned to the shop assistant that we were from Durham, England. She didn’t seem able to care less. Assuming she must not have understood the gravity of what I was saying, I told some random passers-by who had mistakenly asked us for directions. They also couldn’t have given a monkey’s. I’m sure if an American told me in Durham, UK that they were from Durham, NC I would at least pretend to be interested in their home town.

We left Durham with our illusions of uniting the twin cities shattered, and I set out to drop the cyclists just to the south of Raleigh to start a 35 mile drive to Benson. Then it started raining and lightning bolts shot dramatically across the sky. This was accompanied by a massive traffic tailback, so we decided it wasn’t worth putting the cyclists out in the middle of a storm and drove directly to Benson. It took three hours by car, so they’d have probably been quicker on the bikes.

On our return, I received an email from Durham Alumni telling me all about the trip that I was on at that moment. How odd, I thought. Not for long though, as it turned out that Neil had sent them an article a couple of weeks ago. The message, and link to this website, was sent to thousands of former Durham students around the world, and I had already received a reply from a former Mildertian Engineer who was now based in Rochester. Thanks in part to the email, the website is now receiving hundreds of visits every day.

The Prison Highway

The road between Roanoke Rapids and Raleigh (the sister town of Durham, but more on that later) was largely unremarkable, so I decided to leave the interstate and instead followed signs for an unspecified historic site. It never materialised, although some signs did indicate that the highway I was on was in some way historic, though in this country that could just mean that it’s at least 40 years old. In fact, the road just seemed to lead towards a prison and a stretch of it was actually sponsored by the local correctional institute. I’m not sure why a jail would need to advertise to passing motorists, maybe the crime rate has dropped too low in North Carolina.

These roadside sponsorships have been commonplace in every state we’ve passed through (and that’s a lot now: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia, North Carolina and the Canadian province of Ontario). The oddest was in New Jersey, where an environmental group had sponsored a stretch of highway, but down here most sponsorships seem to have been purchased by college fraternities and sororities with strange names consisting of three letters of the Greek alphabet.

Things are definitely warmer in the South; the temperature was still 93F (about 34C) at 6.30pm, so the best time by far for cycling appears to be in the cooler mornings.

Burger King: 92.5% clean


On Wednesday, we awoke in Richmond to the sensational news that somebody had been thwarted in an audacious attempt to smuggle two blocks of cheese and some wire onto an aeroplane. Every news network was taking this security breach very seriously, apparently afraid that the cheese attack was a dry-run for smuggling something a little more deadly onto a plane: Dairylea, perhaps.

After dropping the cyclists to the south of Richmond to begin their 90 mile ride to Roanoke Rapids, I followed in the monster truck. The border crossing between Virginia and North Carolina was notable, as the speed limit on the motorways increased by 5mph to a heady 70mph, the first such limit since Michigan. In order to enforce this limit, the NC authorities did not promise speed cameras or radar; instead, they warned drivers that speeding would be enforced by planes. I didn’t see any of these planes, so I could only guess as to how they might work. Maybe they’d all been grounded by the cheese alert.

I pulled into a Burger King for my daily infuse of fat, salt and sugar, helpfully provided for me in three separate containers: burger, fries and Coke. The restaurant proudly displayed a notice that their sanitation rating is 92.5. Presumably this is out of 100, so I wondered which 7.5% of the restaurant was insanitary. In the car park a school bus had been painted white with bars across the windows and text along the side to indicate that it contained prisoners who’d been let out for the day in order to maintain North Carolina’s highways. One of the guards was inside buying food, though I hope he wasn’t their only guard.

I couldn’t check into the motel for a few hours, so I drove to the nearby town of Weldon. They had a grand, airy old Post Office, where I bought stamps before going for a wander around the town. Like most US towns, the economic centre had shifted from the town itself to an identikit strip of chain stores, motels and fast food restaurants on the outskirts of the town, so the town centre was disturbingly quiet. The high street looked to be struggling to attract custom (though the supermarket was taking orders for whole pigs), yet somehow supported two tax reduction offices – although one had branched out into low-cost loans.

I followed a canal trail out into the suburbs (where every other house seemed to be a church), but couldn’t find either a canal or a trail, so I headed back to our motel on the identikit strip outside of town. That evening, we went across the road to a buffet restaurant. Just as she was about to seat us, the waitress asked how long we planned to spend on the buffet as they were closing soon. We asked how soon and she said 9pm; the time was 8:56pm. We decided against a 4 minute buffet and settled for a nearby Pizza Hut instead.

The cycle so far in Leo’s words…

So far we’ve had ten days of cycling, well over 800 miles, countless punctures, a load of hills, lots of sun, some amazing sights, plenty of road kill, a few live animals, a lot of swearing, a pile more sweating, our fair share of rain and even the occasional bit of fun!

I can honestly say, for me, this has been the hardest thing I have ever done. I am really not sure if it is for me, but after three weeks the short hair is finally feeling like mine! But seriously the cycling has been so very tough and a massive challenge, I’m sure I have already done more exercise in the last three weeks than I have ever done in my entire life! I also have these strange growths on my legs – I’m told they’re muscles….??

From the first day, when we were getting used to the bikes and the heat (and the torrents of rain) we have had our problems (punctures) especially with a certain someone’s bike, and coupled with the either mountainous terrain (we did manage to pick the hills out of all of the flat of America!) or extremes in weather we’ve had it fairly tough (this isn’t just a jolly!).

However I have been enduring, sorry enjoying, the trip immensely and have found cycling a really interesting way to see the country so far. We have been through some amazing countryside seeing so much variety including small (rather ‘cletus’-esque) towns with proper family diners with THE friendliest and kindest waitresses serving masses of cheap food, stretches of rolling countryside with maize fields, blueberry bushes, peach trees and a whole host of wildlife, forests where you can smell the pine in the air as well as cycling beside and over rivers and lakes.

Two things I have been surprised about are how friendly and welcoming everyone has been (with the exception of some immigration staff) and the amount of cyclists we have seen about… although the South has had considerably less. The majority of car and lorry drivers have been really good to us, although we have been lucky enough to experience the lovely driving skills of the New Yorkers….. and have found out generally avoid the bike routes as they only give the nice roads to vehicles with engines.

The hardest day so far for me was the other week when Neil’s bike broke big style (he was very lucky not to be hurt) and I had to cycle with Andy and Alex a very long way up some very high hills. Not only did I not have Neil to keep me going but the quicker pace along with the weather and terrain made quitting feel like a very easy option several times throughout the day. Then and at many points during this trip I have struggled but the thought of what I am achieving personally (and the fact I am able enough to do it) along with the money I am raising for people who have a far tougher time than I ever do while cycling – which is difficult enough (although I will need a lot more to get me through future days) – keeps me going.

So how would I sum up cycling in America so far? Early mornings, late nights, horrible energy food/drinks, being able to eat lots of food (yes!), sweaty sweatiness, ridiculous sun tans (although the fingerless gloves have stopped the blisters), aching, triple whopper super dupper sizes, quiet scenic roads, smelly busy cities, short hair, friendly people, punctures, getting lost, smells…, fun fast down hills, painfully steep up hills, and basically so far an amazing and unique adventure.

Well that’s all for now, but will try to give some more cycling updates soon – feel free to now click the ‘Sponsor us’          Leo   Xx               (P.S. missing everyone at home lots and lots and can’t wait to see y’all again soooon – and will try harder on the postcard front!)

Five Northerners in the South

On Tuesday morning Ed caught his flight towards Mexico and I dropped the cyclists off in the town of Bowling Green, just south of Washington; it is in the state of Virginia, which means we’re actually in the South now. As if the geography wasn’t enough to confirm this, the waitress in one of the town’s two cafés insisted on referring to us as “y’all” and the town’s war memorial took me a little by surprise. This area is riddled with battle sites from the Civil War and on reflection I shouldn’t have been in the least bit taken aback to see a memorial to the dead soldiers of the Confederate States of America, an army which was effectively fighting for the right to keep black people as slaves. I don’t know what I felt was wrong with this; maybe they should have put a little sign up saying, “By the way, we were the bad guys and slavery is wrong, mmm-kay?”.

Another slight oddity was that my burger was served with chips. Completely normal in the UK of course, but here in the States, ‘chips’ are crisps; in this case, crinkle-cut Ready Salted flavour. The drive was rather uneventful, and the cyclists arrived quickly after a relatively short day’s cycling. Entertainment was provided for me that evening in the form of writing the first batch of many postcards, while the turning of Harry Potter pages could be heard all around.

525 miles per gallon?!

Our second day in Washington began slowly, after realising that we were long overdue a lie in. Eventually leaving the motel at about noon, we ate lunch in the massive food hall of Union Station. The station is more like an out of town shopping centre than a railway terminal: it has countless restaurants, shops and even a multiplex cinema. It was here that we left Neil and Leo to watch Harry Potter 5, while we wandered towards the Capitol in order to find out what the city was like on a weekday.

We saw that the Supreme Court was open to visitors, so wandered inside and took in the surroundings. The chamber at the rear of the building that we got to peer inside has been the scene of many dramatic rulings, including the effective legalisation of abortion in 1973 and a decision that arguably awarded the Presidential election to George W Bush in 2000. Downstairs were portraits of various justices of the Supreme Court, most of whom had lived surprisingly long lives – perhaps making constitutional rulings has a similar effect to doing a daily crossword.

The Congressional Library was also open (and very worried about security – only one person at a time was allowed in the security area just beyond the main doors, and the guard would get very excitable if anybody held the door open for a second longer than necessary), so we went inside and had a wander around. The walls of the building were covered in deep philosophical statements about how important libraries and science are to the world, but unfortunately these were pretty much the most interesting things in the building. They even beat the exhibition about Bob Hope that was on downstairs, which spectacularly failed to explain why anybody ever found him entertaining.

That evening, we ate dinner in a restaurant that claimed to be a brewery. On the way there, we came across a Chevrolet concept car, accompanied by a demonstrator and a security guard (”look but don’t touch”).  It was an electric-hybrid car, but instead of being accompanied by any vital statistics or interesting facts, was entirely described by print-out quotes from the media. One of these claimed that the car could do up to 525 miles per gallon of petrol, which is massive compared to the shameful 17.8 mpg that the monster truck is managing (car adverts here brag about efficiencies of 25mpg – the bar is really very very low). As interested engineers, we decided to ask the demonstrator how the car could achieve these claims; immediately, he went on the defensive (up until this point, he’d been fielding questions about whether the car comes with 22in wheels as standard, and whether the fancy lights are just for the demonstration) and started to deny that Chevrolet had ever claimed it could do 525mpg. Apparently, the Chicago Tribune had pulled these figures out of the air. To cut a long (and boring, if you’re not an engineer) story short, the demonstrator knew almost literally nothing about the key selling point of the concept car he was standing in front of.

The fancy lights were only for the demonstration, in case you were wondering.

Memorials and lost Subways in Washington DC

Shortly after arriving at the motel in Washington, Andy, Alex and I had all independently been conned out of a dollar or so by a beggar masquerading as a stranded motorist. He was not the last example of homelessness we’d meet in this city. They were moving from customer to customer in the local McDonald’s, both inside and in the drive-thru queue, asking for change. Two things appeared to connect the beggars: firstly they were all old, or looked it, and secondly they were all black.

The next morning we walked to Capitol Hill via the sprawling Union Station and gazed up at the magnificent Capitol Building. Often confused in the public mind with the White House, the great domed building is actually home to the two houses of Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Unfortunately, the rear is mostly blocked by a construction site; they are building a three-storey underground visitor centre, which according to our guide book should have been finished last year.

Walking around the building site, we were able to see the Supreme Court and the Congressional Library, both sited immediately behind the Capitol. All of the buildings in the area are built in the classical style out of white stone, yet the ages of the buildings vary widely. The Supreme Court was actually only built in 1935, while the Capitol Building is over a century older. In fact, until it got its own building the Supreme Court used to sit inside the Capitol Building.

We headed around the other side of the building and suddenly, catching us by quite some surprise, we turned our heads and saw the National Mall, sweeping for almost two miles towards the Lincoln Memorial at the far end. Standing proudly about halfway down is a simple but effective obelisk, the Washington Monument, standing at 169 metres high. The first third of its height is of a slightly different coloured stone to the remaining two thirds, a product of its construction period being interrupted by the Civil War and financial troubles, dragging it out for 36 years.

The Mall is mostly flanked by various branches of the Smithsonian Institution. It was founded in the 19th century after the US government was bequeathed around $10m (in today’s money) by British scientist, James Smithson. Smithson had never visited the USA, so it remains a mystery why his fortune was willed in this way. We visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, stepping inside beneath the Spirit of St Louis and the first privately-funded manned space plane, the SpaceShipOne. Everywhere we turned we ran into pieces of America’s space and flight history, including the splashdown module of Apollo 11 and the original Wright Brothers’ plane.

Beyond the Washington Monument were the national memorials to World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Completed in only 2004, the WWII memorial struck me as being over the top and keener to celebrate the power of the American military than to commemorate the lives lost in the war. In contrast to this, the Korean and Vietnam memorials were smaller and arguably more respectful. The Korean memorial is also fairly modern, serving as a reminder to visitors of the 36,000 US deaths in a war that is so often forgotten due to its historical proximity to World War II and Vietnam.

The Vietnam memorial is the simplest of the three, being a long marble wall with the names (in chronological order of death) of every one of the 58,000 US soldiers who lost their lives for essentially no purpose in a country far from their homes. Some of the names were accompanied by a photograph and profile to commemorate a particular anniversary. The striking thing was that only two of the seven profiles were of soldiers older than me, and none was older than 28 years old. I also couldn’t help trying to imagine the size of wall that the Vietnamese would have to build to commemorate the 5 million or so of their citizens that were killed by the war.

Majestically seated at the end of the Mall, Lincoln overlooks the war memorials and the grand reflecting pool of the Washington Monument. His memorial is, as Neil described it, more of temple. In Britain, it would look an extravagant deification, but here in America where every highway is named after some Senator or other, anything less than a temple for the President that fought against slavery and saved the Union could’ve looked insufficient (although he does have his face in the side of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, which must count for something). Engraved in one wall of the memorial is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (”Four score and seven years ago…”) and facing it is his re-election speech (made just weeks before he was assassinated in 1865).

Moving back along the mall towards the Capitol again, we took a left towards the White House. Unlike the Capitol, it is too far away (due to the big security fences) to feel dramatic and imposing. Instead, it just sits there, partly obscured by the surrounding gardens, looking a little embarrassed to be in such company. This is strange, given it is the seat of the most powerful person on the planet, and a little disappointing for a West Wing fan.

Unable to get any closer, we instead visited a tat shop down Pennsylvania Avenue in which politicos could purchase bumper stickers, badges, tee-shirts and pretty much anything else you can imagine, each emblazoned with either a fiercely liberal slogan or an equally fierce conservative one. We didn’t buy anything (although Neil insisted on being photographed in a baseball cap with the Presidential seal on; Leo followed this up by posing in a pink First Lady cap), but my favourite items were the range of sweets available on the counter. These included ‘Impeach-mints’ ‘Indict-mints’ and, best of all, ‘National Embarrass-mints’, each of them with a picture of the President on the front.

Exhausted after a day’s wandering, we headed back towards our motel, stopping for a drink at the McDonald’s on the corner. The same homeless people as the previous night were unashamedly doing the rounds, asking each customer in turn for change. I’m not sure whether we were targeted more frequently because we look like rich white boys (except Neil, who is unable to keep his tee-shirt or his face free of oil or dirt for more than five minutes at a time) or whether every customer got the same treatment.

A poster in the window did, however, go some way towards explaining the dreadful, slow service from the McDonald’s staff. The restaurant appeared to be a participant in a DC community service programme, leading us to assume that the staff may well not have been working there of their own free choice.

Still tired, Neil, Ed, Leo and I took to the monster truck after informing Alex and Andy that they had a choice of takeaway from McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Subway for their evening meal. We hadn’t actually seen the Subway, though we had passed a sign on the way back from downtown advertising it; Alex and Andy chose Subway, while the rest of us followed Ed’s recommendation of Wendy’s. Deciding to brave my first ever drive-thru (if you don’t count the unsuccessful on-foot one in Flint), I drove the car up to the little microphone and immediately the confusion began.

Washington is seen as the border between North and South, and consequently the accent is that little bit further away from British English, causing no end of confusion as I attempted to communicate with the girl at the other end of the crackly microphone. At one stage, she mistook “that’s everything thanks” for “I’d like some chicken nuggets, please”. When we moved to the window to collect our order, things didn’t improve hugely. Most people employed in the service sector in the US insist on following every “thanks” with “you’re welcome”, and indicate the end of a transaction with a “have a great day”, or similar. Not this girl; her response to everything was to make a confused expression and say “uh-huh”. Eventually, when I finally accepted that we weren’t going to be wished a pleasant evening, we drove off in search of Subway.

Following the sign, Neil said he remembered seeing a Subway nearby from his cab, and insisted on navigating us there using his failsafe method of turning left at every junction. After a few of these he decided that, since he was now in America, the rule should be adapted to right turns at every junction. We soon agreed that we neither knew where Subway was or, for that matter, where we were. This was probably the first time I’d taken the car out without our TomTom (we were only going down the road, after all) so we drove around, trying to find our way back to New York Avenue.

Eventually, we called Andy and Alex who used Google Maps to guide us back to the motel. Unfortunately, knowing left from right is not Al’s strong point and we ended up heading the wrong way along New York Avenue, towards Annapolis. Finally, we got back to the right area and returned to Wendy’s to get food for Andy and Alex, as well as some hot food to replace my chips that had gone cold over the course of the previous hour. This time, not wanting to brave the drive thru again, we went inside to order. In contrast to the McDonald’s across the road, there was not a single beggar harassing the customers. Strangely, there also seemed to be a race divide between the two fast food outlets: almost every McDonald’s customer was black, while over in Wendy’s almost every customer was white.