Andy’s story so far

Andy’s perspective: Right, so we’re down in Florida (the last state), and having not written anything yet I think it’s about the best time to start.

Having completed the hilly sections of our tour I am now at liberty to describe (what I’m sure you’re all dying to know) which is quite how hard this task actually is.

Consider a Sauna – well the temperatures circle around that of a Sauna about 93 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Now consider sitting in a Sauna for between 4 and 7 hours a day and consider that as many as 6 of these hours in the sauna will be spent on a cycling machine. I think you’ll understand quite how tiring this is, and I neglected to mention the first five days were through the Appalachian mountain range.

Further to the Sauna point, one might also assume that the task would become easier the further south we travel as the land becomes flatter and easier to navigate, as well as the fact that we will benefit from a “cool” sea breeze. Alas, no. Sadly the further south we go the more humid it gets, with humidity in the region of 70 to 90%. Now I don’t quite know what it means (I should, having done a small part of a module on it in second year), but I’ll try to describe it. Do you know when you have a cold and you’re trying to clean out your sinuses, so you shove your head over a bowl of boiling water in the hope that it dislodges that tremendous amount of gunk you’ve got up there. It feels kind of like that. When you stop cycling you’re not quite sure whether it’s your sweat, or the water particles that you’ve managed to pick up on your way dribbling down your back.

On top of all this there’s the hazards of local wildlife with snakes, insects and even squirrels causing us to swerve on several occasions and this is neglecting to mention the dogs that seem to spot bikes from thousands of metres away and then proceed to chase them at break neck speeds along the roads. These dogs often require an intervention from the nearest moving car to get rid of them, needless to say there is a lot of road kill in America, I get the feeling they don’t take kindly to wildlife here.

However having complained somewhat about all the things that are hard about this task I think I should run through the things that are bonuses.

The Locals

The locals are very interesting, they honestly cannot understand how anyone could do this much cycling, then again they can’t understand much! (although I’m sure many of the people back home are in the same boat with regards the cycling). They love the English accent – Alex actually managed to turn a lass weak at the knees (literally) just by saying… “Yes I am English”, it was quite a sight to behold, and its not just the women it has an effect on. So far it has got us a free towel, water, several beers, a tour of Washington (which we didn’t follow up), free maps, several offers of places to stay and lots and lots of advice however that usually involves “take the interstate”. They don’t quite understand we’re not allowed. This may be due to the fact that so few people do cycle.

The food

People often complain that America doesn’t have enough variation on food. It’s not true. Admittedly its hard to find, but it is out there. Sadly we try to avoid finding it, but thats for good reason. With quality family restaurants like Mc’y D’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and KFC on every street corner who would eat anywhere else. We have strayed away from these places occasionally, mainly in pursuit of Neil’s perfect steak; his aim is to have his photo on the wall of a bar somewhere for completing a true American steak challenge.

The Cycling

Admittedly this may contradict a hell of a lot of the stuff that I have mentioned earlier, but it has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Admittedly it can get hard, and it does make me sleep at least an hour and a half every afternoon, but there is so much fun in between. On top of that the opportunity to see a country so rarely investigated in any other guise than its tourist hotspots, on a mode of transport that I’m not sure the Americans have even discovered, has given all of us the opportunity to see areas of the East Coast (if not the east coast as a whole) from a perspective that I suspect many of its inhabitants will never experience. In short, to date I have no qualms or hesitation in saying that this trip has lived up to everything I expected and more. …Perhaps my only regret is having not bought a softer saddle earlier in the trip.

However we’ll hold the final judgement to Key West, which I believe will be in just 3 cycling days time.

Andy

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Happy Floriday!

Our journey through North Carolina continued early on Tuesday morning as I drove the cyclists inland towards the town of Hemingway. A journey directly along Route 17 (the coastal road) to Charleston appeared too busy with traffic for the cyclists, so I was dropping them inland for an equivalent cycle ride. On the way, we passed through a drive-thru bank. In the States, almost every type of outlet has been converted to allow Americans to obtain a service without leaving the comfort of their car. As well as drive thru restaurants of every type (donuts, ice cream, burgers), there are drive-thru pharmacies and banks. If somebody one day invents a drive thru that doesn’t require the user to wind down a window and inflict fresh air on the car’s occupants, America will have one more millionaire.

It is easy to assume that the South is made up solely of backward little towns with a gas station and general store, but in fact the coast of South Carolina and Georgia is scattered with wonderful little cities, dating back almost as far as modern American history will stretch. Charleston was founded in 1670 as Charles Town, named for the newly restored British monarch, and it was twice attacked by the British during the American Revolution. After South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union in 1860, the first shots of the civil war were fired from Charleston at a Union ship entering the harbour. Nowadays, the city is an attractive coastal town with a long promenade fronted by grand Georgian buildings.

On Wednesday morning we once again set off early in the monster truck towards a suitable spot for the cyclists to cycle from. The roads into Savannah were not at all conducive to good cycling, so in the end a 45 mile ride from Hampton to Hardeeville was planned. On the way to Hampton, we stopped for breakfast at a diner. The US immigration service should make foreign visitors aware on arrival of all the possible ways that an egg may be served, to save embarrassment for both customer and waitress. Earlier in the trip, Neil had been caught out by this issue when he asked for his egg to be “fried” – he got a withering look and was asked whether he wanted it sunny side up, easy over or on his face. This time it was my turn. Having ordered an egg and sausage muffin, I attempted not to repeat Neil’s mistake and asked for my egg to be sunny side up (I think this means they serve a fried egg with the yolk on the top; why you’d want it the other way up, I don’t know), but the waitress looked confused and asked me if I wanted it hard over or something equally baffling. I nodded to the first option and sank into a pit of simple-egged embarrassment.

Without wanting to sound like Ed and talk about food the whole time, my sandwich was served with cheddar grits. A grit is a bizarrely (though not entirely inappropriately) named dish served in the Southern states and is basically identical to porridge. The previous evening Alex had been served some with his restaurant meal and now I was being asked to eat it with my breakfast, except mine had been enhanced with cheese. Cheesey porridge is not a dish anybody should eat for breakfast.

Savannah, like Charleston, is a classy harbour town with a long sea front and oodles of history. If I may once again stray into the territory of food (if only to demonstrate to my parents that we don’t only eat fast food), we ate lunch in a little wrap café. We could choose any items off the menu, any meats, any salads, any dressings, anything, to put in our wraps. There were no complicated rules about what combinations I could make, they just made my wrap. What’s more, it came with a bag of crisps (or a pasta salad) and a bottomless drink from the soda fountains. A few minutes later, the welcoming couple brought our wraps right over to our table and even gave us advice on what to visit in Savannah. I find this kind of service so contrasting to typical operations in Britain, particularly with respect to soft drinks. British cafés, restaurants and bars will charge a fortune for a glass of Coke, whereas here the waiters fall over themselves to top up your glass every time you take a sip, they never flinch when someone orders tap water and sometimes they don’t even charge you for the soft drinks at all.

That evening we turned on the news to learn that a bridge had collapsed in Minnesota. Over the next two or three days, the rolling news stations covered literally nothing else, and continued to claim it was breaking news for nearly 24 hours. For the first 12 hours they reported a death toll far higher than the actual one, and repeatedly compared the bridge collapse with 9/11, while at the same time saying that there was no reason to suspect terrorism. At least when the steam pipe exploded in New York, filling Manhattan streets with debris and plumes of steam, it could’ve actually reminded people of the terrible scenes they’d witnessed in 2001. The reason the media reported for the bridge collapse being like the WTC attacks was that “there were emergency services everywhere”.

The following day we continued through Georgia to the town of Darien, just north of Brunswick. After heading to Wal-mart to take advantage of a tax-free weekend on selected items, we settled down to a quiet evening in the motel. On TV we watched a brilliant film called Little Miss Sunshine: I recommend it to everybody – it was the funniest thing I’d seen in ages. That was basically the most exciting thing that happened in the whole of Thursday, so I’ll move on…

We awoke early yesterday to violent thunderstorms and decided to go back to sleep as the cyclists weren’t going to get far in that weather. Apparently, the rain was the end of a long drought for Georgia, so pretty much everybody else was pleased to see it. For us, it meant that the conditions were far too dangerous for the cyclists (I could barely see other cars, the visibility was so poor) so the 75 mile journey across the border into the Sunshine State was made in the monster truck.

Appropriately, the rain eased and eventually stopped as we moved further into Florida to the city of Jacksonville. While returning the cyclists’ TomTom to a Radioshack store, the shop assistant pointed at my tee-shirt and told me that he had the tattoo. I looked down at my shirt, unsure which one I was wearing, only to find that it was the Yankees shirt I’d bought in NYC. I had to admit to the guy that I knew literally nothing about baseball and had just thought it was a cool tee-shirt.

We spent the afternoon and the evening doing wet weather activities (even though the weather had actually brightened up a little). First up, we played three games of ten-pin bowling. It was incredible to see the skills of some of the people playing in the lanes around us as we guttered the ball. We then went to the cinema to see The Simpsons Movie; highly recommended – the first half in particular was hilarious.

This morning I drove the cyclists to the coastal road, the A1A, so that they could cycle the 60-odd miles down to Daytona Beach. The scenery along the road was great, with palm trees swaying on one side and the Atlantic Ocean glistening on the other. Unfortunately, the sun was beating down temperatures in the low 90s Fahrenheit (mid-30s Celsius) which made the experience a little unpleasant for the cyclists. On the other hand, for me it was another opportunity to work on my trucker’s elbow; my left arm is now a significantly darker shade of brown than my right.

For the first time since our unforgettable experience in Flint, Michigan, we had not booked a motel in advance, so I drove along the coastal road through Daytona Beach with a book of motel vouchers and decided to try my luck at a Travelodge. As it happens, my luck was in as for $85 (about £8 each) we ended up with an enormous suite with two bathrooms, a bedroom, a lounge (with sofa bed for our fifth person), a kitchenette and a balcony with a sea view (if you lean over it and look left).

We all went for a swim in the sea (better waves than Myrtle Beach, but not as warm) and splashed for about an hour until Andy yelped after being stung by a jellyfish. Anybody who has seen the Friends episode ‘The One with the Jellyfish’ will be aware of the treatment for jellyfish stings, which Andy bravely performed on himself.

So anyway, that mammoth blog brings you right up to date. Tomorrow the cyclists are riding to near Orlando, then we’re driving back out to the coast to visit the Kennedy Space Center before spending three days with the attractions of Orlando. On 8th August we hope to see a space shuttle launch, though we won’t be surprised if it’s postponed again. Don’t forget to keep sponsoring the cyclists for the pain they’re going through and I promise to bring you Andy’s view of the trip so far in the next day or so.

Myrtle Beach

Monday had been scheduled as a rest day, so we were all looking forward to a lie in and a day on Myrtle Beach. You can perhaps, therefore, imagine our annoyance as we stepped out of the motel room into a torrential rainstorm; if so, you’d be entirely incorrect. The rain was so warm it felt like a hot shower and splashing through the puddles was like wading through a hot spring. Since we were all dressed for the beach, it didn’t matter so much that we were almost immediately soaked to the skin, though we probably did look a bit daft loaded up with inflatable rings and bucket and spades. There was a slightly hairy moment when I stepped into a gutter and my flip-flop was swept away, but fortunately Leo was standing downstream and was able to recover it for me.

We spent a showery afternoon at the beach, though we were disappointed to be told by a lifeguard that our inflatables were not allowed in the sea. The lifeguards were later seen telling off the parents of small children for allowing them to play with little inflatable duck-shaped rings. As Ed would probably put it: fascists. Anyway, we swam and sunbathed for a while until eventually the lifeguards went home, then we got the inflatables out and quite possibly violated state law. Meanwhile, Neil, Leo and occasionally Andy had been working on what started as a sand castle and eventually became an enormous complex of citadels, with bridges, moats and towers.

Lumberton to Myrtle Beach

Americans really love the English accent. They just can’t get enough of it, although too many of them think that every English accent is a London accent. In Lumberton on Saturday we went out to a steakhouse for dinner and caused something of a stir amongst the staff, simply because we were from Britain. Lumberton is a small town which clearly does not get many visitors from beyond the county line.

After eating a big juicy steak each (accompanied, as always, with a ’side’ salad which is actually served as a starter and would, in normal circumstances, suffice for a whole meal), we walked back to the motel via a branch of Office Depot. For Neil, the chance to browse an Office Depot was not to be passed up, so we wandered around for a while and on the way out the checkout girl actually used the phrase, “What an evening; I can’t believe I’ve met people who are from England”. For the residents of this particular sample of small-town America, we might as well have been from Narnia; it was as though England (or perhaps Europe in general) is a historical themepark too far away for them to ever visit.

Reaching Myrtle Beach across the state border in South Carolina could not have been much more of a contrast with Lumberton. The motel car park was full of cars from as far away as Ontario and New York, and the moteliers were clearly concerned about the behaviour of some of their guests. We each had to put up $50 cash as a damage deposit because we were under 25 (for some reason they weren’t happy just having my credit card details like every other motel we’ve stayed at) and they told us repeatedly that under no circumstances should we jump off the balcony into the swimming pool; they even threatened to call the police if we did.

After assuring the receptionists that we hadn’t come to Myrtle Beach to trash a motel room and cliff dive into swimming pools, we headed to the beach. It’s years since I last swam in the sea and I was rudely reminded of how horrible it is to get salt water in your eyes, nose and mouth, as well as how irritating sand can be. Still, it was great fun trying to catch the waves as they broke and the water was warm enough to remind us how close to Florida we now were.

In the evening we found a crazy golf site with “two 18-hole championship crazy golf courses”. We opted for the Lagoon course over the Jungle course because it promised water falls. 18 holes later, Andy had narrowly beaten Neil (though Neil claimed a moral victory by holing-in-one the final hole and thus winning a free game token).

Myrtle Beach is a bit of a tacky seaside resort, although it’s not as bad as Niagara Falls, and at least it is actually at the seaside. Consequently, it is full of tat shops selling beach towels and inflatables, as well as the usual flow of tee-shirts, key rings and postcards. We stocked up on inflatable rings to play in the sea with, and Neil bought himself a bucket and spade.

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.