All The Way To Reno

According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com – which is the gospel on such matters – California has a greater than 99.9% chance of sending its 55 electoral votes to elect Hillary Clinton. To put it another way: both of California’s candidates for the Senate are Democrats. It’s about as blue a state as there is.

This makes campaigning here, especially in San Francisco (83% Democrat), a waste of time for both parties. The only campaigning I saw at a recent free music festival was by the Greens, a party most famous for providing the self-righteous with a way of electing George W Bush back in 2000.

That is why I spent this weekend in Reno, Nevada on a campaign trip organised by the Democratic Party. Nevada is a much closer race, with Clinton narrowly leading in the polls. The Senate race here is a dead-heat.

The weekend began at 5.15am on Saturday as I was picked up as part of a three-person car share organised by the California Democrats. By 9am, we’d crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains into Nevada and, after stopping to let me pee in a roadside bush, we arrived at a volunteer’s house in Reno. These volunteers, mainly retirees and students, have been working almost thanklessly for well over a year, right through the primaries and the general campaign. They really are the unsung heroes of a democracy that is often perceived as dominated by big-money advertising, large set-piece rallies and televised debates.

We were provided with a list of addresses and jumped back in the car to go and meet the voters on the doorstep. This is a “get out the (early) vote” operation, so all of the voters are supposedly supporters of Hillary Clinton and our job was to remind them of that fact and highlight the availability of early voting in Nevada, which allows citizens to vote in any one of a few dozen public places at any time between next weekend and election day a few weeks later. These face-to-face meetings are also a good opportunity to push the “down ticket” Senate and House races to ensure that Hillary supporters would also help elect Democrats to Congress.

I’d already received a little bit of training in how to pronounce Nevada correctly (Nev-AH-da, not Nev-AR-da). This wasn’t because I am British, but because Californians get this wrong too. As it was, I only used the N-word on the doorstep once, which may explain how not a single voter batted an eyelid at the British guy telling them how to vote. Either that or they’ve finally gotten over colonialism.

The one time I said “Nevada” was in the context of the saddest conversation I had all weekend. A Clinton supporter – a Latina woman – told me she probably wouldn’t be voting because “the people higher up will vote on who wins”. Her friend hovering in the background was furious with her for this combination of disenchantment and ignorance. I broke cover and confessed that I didn’t have a vote, but that she – as a swing state voter – had the opportunity to have a real impact on the outcome of this election. She didn’t want Trump to win, yet she was unconvinced that there was any point voting to help stop it.

There was little evidence of Trump or his supporters around, save for the Trump sign I found in a dumpster and the two cartoonish Trump supporters who shouted “Vote Trump” at us from across the street. Little did they know that I was actually an immigrant who could do no such thing.

After a day of canvassing in the affluent suburbs of north-west Reno, I checked into my hotel in the Circus Circus casino. This had been recommended to me by the campaign, giving a small discount. And I can heartily recommend it to you, if you’re a fan of paying $100 for any of the following:

  • A bed without breakfast
  • A hard mattress topped with a blanket and sheets
  • Easy access to a casino with free circus shows (unavailable until November 2016)
  • Low-grade toilet paper

I’m being unfair. Yes, I could’ve stayed more cheaply at a nearby motel, but then I wouldn’t have received a booklet packed with money-off vouchers for Circus Circus and the two near-identical casinos down the road. It was with this in my back pocket that I stepped out into the pouring rain to seek out my 2-for-1 beer. I drank my two pints of Coors Light (a homeopathic version of lager) in a dingy casino bar while listening to a hen party argue about Donald Trump and Secret Santas.

Remarkably, I was able to have all of this fun, inhale an all-you-can-eat bbq rib dinner and stare at some people playing roulette, and still be in bed by 9.30pm.

Day two of campaigning was a somewhat less pleasant experience. The stormy weather of the previous night had not abated and we were sent to a more challenging neighbourhood. After variously being frightened by loose pitbulls; followed incessantly by a cute (but unrelenting) Bolognese dog; shouted at by a man who didn’t believe a woman should be president; lectured by a self-confessed felon who thinks that Clinton will take his guns away; and coughed at by a sick woman who spoke no English, we finished up and headed home.

The rain made for a slow journey, that got even slower when it turned to snow over the Donner Pass. Thanks to my mum for pointing out that an expedition stuck in snow here in 1846 resorted to cannibalism. I assume this is why the donner kebab is so-called.

For the benefit of those who’d like to know what else I’ve been up to in the two months I’ve been in San Francisco but haven’t bothered blogging about, here’s a non-exhaustive list:

  • A road trip to Santa Cruz, via the coastal road on the way down and the Redwood State Park on the way back
  • A road trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • A gourmet ice cream tasting evening with a group of other people who are new to the city
  • A drinks evening for Brits in San Francisco
  • Occasional games of football (soccer) in Presidio
  • Watching baseball at the Giants’ stadium with work friends
  • A pub quiz on a Monday night that wasn’t as good as the Monday Night Quiz
  • Presenting Mega Seating Plan at the Bay App Festival, following a back-to-school period which saw my app reach 5000 registered users
  • Watching the second presidential debate with the Hillary campaign
  • Learning French in evening classes at my school
  • Attending the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, featuring Cyndi Lawper and a guy from The Eagles
  • Watching some free comedy in Golden Gate Park
  • Writing a bit of comedy, but not getting around to actually trying it out on the San Francisco open mic circuit yet
  • Watching the US equivalent of the Red Arrows – the Blue Angels – pull stunts over and around the Golden Gate Bridge

And so on… I’ve been busy.

Next weekend I’m flying up to see Tim and Jen (and meet Jack for the first time) in Seattle and returning via a long road trip down the west coast. I intend to blog.

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Flat

Despite San Francisco being famously hilly, it has excellent cycle infrastructure, including a route known as ‘The Wiggle’ that eases westbound cyclists home by avoiding the steepest inclines. This afternoon, as my Brompton and I struggled up the final gentle climb of The Wiggle, an overtaking cyclist shouted “You do know it’s flat, right?” to me as he sped past.

The Wiggle

The Wiggle

Naturally, I was rather annoyed by this breach in cycling etiquette. How dare he cast aspersions on my lack of uphill fitness? It may not have been L’Alpe d’Huez, but it certainly wasn’t flat and it came at the end of a series of tiring hills at the end of a busy week. Who was he to judge? Etc.

I continued to stew about this for a minute or two, before my brain caught up and realised what you probably guessed about a paragraph ago: he wasn’t referring to the road, but to my punctured rear tyre. What I had assumed to be an act of cruelty was actually one of kindness, and I rightly felt bad about the less-than-gracious face I had pulled at this courteous stranger.

The point of me telling you this story about a single word that has two meanings is to facilitate a segue (or, if you’re hipster enough, a Segway) into a discussion of single meanings that have two words associated with them. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for the Brit-in-the-USA moan about American English.

Google tells me that it was George Bernard Shaw who first described England and America as “two countries divided by a common language”. This is quickly obvious to British tourists here, as they begin their vacation by unloading the trunk of their automobile onto the sidewalk. It gets more tricky once you start to live and work here.

Last week I moved into a studio in the Sunset district. Like a Thatcherite theme park, over here you have to pay a private company to collect your bins every week and to set this up you have to call the company and request the service. For a Brit fresh off the boat, this call resembles a one-sided game of Taboo, in which the words “bin” and “rubbish” are forbidden, but you also worry that they might think you’re taking the piss if you say “trash can” in an English accent.

But by far the hardest linguistic adjustment I’ve had to make is starting work as a teacher in a US high school. The US system appears to be mercifully free of the never ending catalogue of acronyms that have taken over British education (“Here’s a WAGOLL of some DIRT completed by an SEND student with EBD, ASD and a little ADHD. Is this A* student G, T, G&T or MA? Pass my G&T.”) However, there’s still plenty of room for confusion.

So, on the off-chance that this blog is ever read by a teacher who happens to be transferring from the UK to the US (or vice versa), here is my guide:

UK: Year 10
US: Grade 9 – a.k.a. freshmen

UK: Year 11
US: Grade 10 – a.k.a. sophomores

UK: Year 12
US: Grade 11 – a.k.a. juniors

UK: Year 13
US: Grade 12 – a.k.a. seniors

UK: Form tutor
US: Advisor

UK: Timetable
US: Schedule

UK: Class
US: Section

UK: Late
US: Tardy

UK: Special educational needs
US: Learning challenges

UK: University
US: School or college

UK: Maths
US: Math

UK: Sport
US: Sports

UK: State school
US: Public school

UK: Public school
US: Private school

UK: World history
US: American history

…and I haven’t even considered the French terminology that is freely used at my school.

Anyway, returning to my opening story, I had to take my bike on the bus the rest of the way home to my ground floor flat or, as it’s known here, my first floor apartment. Given I can’t cope with two meanings of ‘flat’, it’s probably for the best they’ve got a separate word to describe my home.

What I did on my holidays (part 3 – election night special)

Tuesday 4th November

Since our arrival in New York there had been a low frequency buzz on the streets about the election. It seemed like every conversation we tuned into on the crowded sidewalks contained snippets of “Obama”, “McCain” or “Palin” (poor Biden). It’s difficult to imagine an election in the UK creating such a level of interest, although I suspect this is no ordinary US election.

Despite this level of public interest, there was actually very little in the way of election publicity in the city. New York is one of the most reliably Democratic states on the electoral map, so neither candidate saw the need to waste money on posters or adverts. A good number of people , though, were walking about with Obama-Biden badges on their lapels (almost nobody had McCain-Palin badges).

One source of these badges revealed itself on our way to Macy’s (the world’s largest department store). A middle-aged black woman had set up a table on a 7th Avenue corner with an enormous selection of pro-Obama merchandise. She was so excited about the prospect of an Obama victory that she told us how she had voted at 6.30am; the Democratic campaign’s message of hope and change had genuinely become ingrained in the desires of people like her.

We bought some badges and headed to Macy’s. It’s basically just a big John Lewis, but it’s worth a visit just to ride the ancient wooden escalators on the upper floors. OK, it’s maybe not worth a visit just for that, but if you happen to be there you should at least take a look.

Realising that we didn’t really have any shopping to do, the Matts and I parted company with Neil, Andy, John and LJ. We headed towards the Rockefeller Center to check out the planned NBC election night party taking place around the ice rink. We’d been tipped off about the party by a news bulletin on one of the LCD screens that have been fitted into the back of apparently every taxi cab in the city.

A map of the country had been drawn onto the ice, which they would somehow illuminate state-by-state in either red or blue as the election results rolled in. NBC had set up a temporary studio next to where we were standing that appeared to be broadcasting live on the big screens above us. On our way out of the plaza, a man with a Blackberry stopped us and said he was looking for good looking young people to sit on the front rows of the following morning’s Fox Morning Show. Clearly, there was a shortage of good looking young people, so he handed the tickets to us; we’d have to be there at 7.30am, but breakfast would be free.

Another option for election night festivities was in Times Square where CNN had set up a big screen in front of the tiered seating that forms the roof of the half-price ticket booth. It was still mid-afternoon, but we took some seats and watched some CNN. They were showing off an artist’s impression that they had commissioned of what the candidates would look like if McCain were black and Obama white. McCain looked a bit like Bill Crosby, whereas Obama looked like a used car salesman.

While sitting in Times Square, a young man approached us with a clipboard and asked if we wanted to watch the Late Show with David Letterman being filmed the following afternoon. We said yes, and he said they were ours if we could answer two “simple” trivia questions. I cracked my Itbox-playing fingers, only to realise seconds later that the trivia was Letterman-related. Despite none of us having ever really watched it, the Matts were able to answer a question each to win us the tickets (for future reference, the bald band leader plays the keyboards and Letterman likes to throw his pen).

Later that afternoon we returned to our vantage point in Times Square and settled down for election night. As the clock ticked towards the first polling stations closing, the steps and the square below filled and the atmosphere began to crackle with anticipation. At 7pm, America reached the beginning of the end of this epic two-year long election when Vermont and Kentucky were called for Obama and McCain respectively. Not a single vote had been counted in either state (the polls had been closed for just a few seconds), but CNN used exit polls and common sense to put the first electoral college votes on the boards: McCain leads by eight votes to three.

Despite McCain’s early advantage, things were looking good for Obama who was neck-and-neck with McCain in Indiana (where votes had started being counted at 6pm), which had not voted for a Democrat in decades. At 8pm, ten more states were called without bothering to count any votes, eight of them for Obama, but it was the Pennsylvania result about half an hour later that reassured the crowd that they’d be going home happy.

McCain’s chance of victory was dealt a huge blow by Pennsylvania staying Democratic, but the celebrations couldn’t formally begin for some time yet. Times Square went wild when New York was called, and indeed every time the CNN coverage switched to our crowd. Ohio also fell to the Obama surge, meaning that it was now just a matter of the world politely waiting for the solidly-Democratic west coast states to close their polling stations so that the networks could push Obama over the magic 270.

That moment came at 11pm EST. The giant CNN screen moved from one of its many commercial breaks to one of their now-hourly countdowns to the closure of the next polls. The crowd in Times Square counted the last ten seconds out loud and, instead of calling any individual states, CNN immediately projected that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States.

To say that the crowd went a bit wild would be like saying that Sarah Palin is a bit thick. All around us was cheering, crying and hugging; if there were any Republicans in the crowd at the start of the evening, they’d either slipped off or converted to Obamania by eleven o’clock. It was beyond anything I’ve ever seen at a football match or a rock concert, this was absolute elation among people who genuinely believed that things would now be different.

Cars around Times Square began honking their horns even more than usual, with Obama-Biden signs held out through their sunroofs. Eventually, the big screen cut to Arizona and John McCain’s concession speech. McCain’s audience looked uniformly unpleasant, a bunch of handlebar moustachioed rednecks and not a single non-white face to be seen.  The speech itself was gracious and humble, reminding the world of the McCain that used to command cross-party respect before he lowered himself to the level of the very worst elements of the GOP. These elements, however, were alive and well in his bigoted crowd who booed every mention of President-elect Obama.

Other than a few initial boos, McCain’s speech was well received in Times Square, receiving the applause it deserved. We did not show the same respect to his running mate: when Sarah Palin’s face filled the big screen, the boos echoed off the skyscrapers. We can only hope that she fades back into the obscurity that she emerged from in August, but I fear we haven’t seen the last of Palin and her brand of anti-intellectualism.

 After what felt like forever, the CNN coverage switched to the massive gathering in Grant Park, Chicago where Barack Obama and Joe Biden walked onto the stage accompanied by the new first and second families of the United States. 800 miles away in New York, our crowd was again going wild, anticipating a fine speech by a great orator. Sadly someone had alternative plans for our evening and as Obama opened his mouth to speak the CNN screen went dead. Thousands of people strained their eyes towards the Fox screen at the far end of the Square, but the subtitles were too small to read.

After several minutes, police began clearing our tiered seating, telling us to go home as the party was over. We followed the deflated crowds down the steps, but as we reached the bottom the screen flashed back into life and we were treated to the final five minutes of a great speech. When the 44th President left his Chicago stage the applause continued in Times Square for several minutes, as much of the crowd blinked tears from their eyes.

Our walk back towards our hostel was slow as we moved through the dense crowds. People were literally dancing in the streets; we saw spontaneous hip hop dancing on a street corner and a man moonwalk across a pedestrian crossing. It remains to be seen whether the world changed on 4th November 2008, but it was certainly a night we’ll never forget.

What I did on my holidays (part 2)

Monday 3rd November

After an overdue lie-in, we headed out into Manhattan in search of a hearty bagel and John’s friend LJ. LJ had survived the marathon on Sunday and would be transferring to our hostel for her last few days in New York.

Filled up with eggy, cheesy, Canadian hammy, bagely goodness, we once again made the long walk to the southern tip of Manhattan, this time to Castle Clinton in Battery Park. The fort was built in the early 19thcentury to defend New York from the British during the war of 1812, although now it is a ticket booth for the Ellis Island Ferry.

The ferry takes a bizarre route into the Hudson river between Battery Park, Liberty Island and Ellis Island, spiralling about in the process to allow the passengers a spectacular view of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skylines.

We had arrived too late in the day to be able to take the ferry to both Liberty and Ellis Islands, but through experience in 2007 I was aware that there is little to do on Liberty Island except pose for photographs in the stance of Lady Liberty. Had we been really early birds and got to Battery Park by 8am we could’ve booked tickets to actually climb the statue, a novelty that until recent months had been forbidden as an anti-terror precaution.

While the majority of the tourists disembarked on Liberty, we stayed aboard for a few minutes more as the boat spiralled into the dock at Ellis Island. Last year, we visited the immigration museum here, but I somehow entirely failed to find the upper levels of the museum, thus limiting my experience to essentially just the entrance lobby. This time I was determined to actually see some exhibits.

First things first, though; five hungry boys needed a snack. We headed into the cafeteria and the smarter kids bought punnets of fries. The fools among us, myself included, ordered cheesey fries. Americans don’t do cheese. We were reminded of this fact as we saw the caterer use a ladle to scoop his liquefied yellow gloop from a vat and onto the unfortunate flesh of our innocent fries.

They were inedible and the foul taste lingered in our mouths right through the hurried visit to the immigration museum. On this occasion I successfully visited the second floor exhibits too, which is certainly an improvement on the last time, but it seems I’ll have to return once more if I ever want to visit the third and final level.

As we queued for the last ferry back to Manhattan the sun dropped below the horizon, allowing the glittering skyscrapers of Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey to cycle through our field of vision as the boat drunkenly looped back to Battery Park.

Legs still swaying, we walked up the east coast of lower Manhattan towards the Brooklyn Bridge. When it was completed in 1883 it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1.825km long. It may not hold that record any more, but a night-time walk across it remains a must-do for visitors to New York. Looking at that glittery cityscape never gets boring and, alongside the Empire State Building and the Ellis Island ferry, the Brooklyn Bridge is just about the best place to see it from.

We took the subway back from Brooklyn to what we hoped was Little Italy. Unfortunately, we were thwarted by the New York underground’s system of Express and Local trains, ending up about ten blocks north of where we planned. Never mind, a good walk would drum up some hunger, we thought.

Little Italy is a Little Disappointing. If there was one thing you’d expect it would be some Italian restaurants, but they appeared few and far between. Eventually we found one in the blurry area between Little Italy and Chinatown, where Chinese banners hang across pizza restaurants. The food was OK, perhaps a little too rich, but certainly not what we’d hoped for in the most Italian city outside of Italy (don’t quote me on that fact, I just made it up).

The final blog

So, we’ve arrived. The cyclists left the motel relatively early, at about 8am, with no complaints or grumbles about the hour or what lay ahead for the day. They all knew that the 48 mile journey from Marathon to Key West would be the last time they would cycle on this trip. About an hour later, I set off along Route 1, counting down the mile markers as I gradually approached zero and stopping only to pick up a bottle of champagne from a liquor store along the way.

I hadn’t passed any of the cyclists along the route, so when I arrived at the Southernmost Point, I had expected to find the cyclists already there. As it happens, they were still some distance away, so I loaded my change into a parking meter, abandoned the monster truck and set off in search of a beachwear shop so that I could finally buy some replacement swimming shorts. Finally, I managed to buy some – from a pharmacy of all places.

The Southernmost Point is a brightly painted bollard indicating that the long queue of tourists waiting to be photographed next to it are at the most southern point of the USA and only 90 miles from Cuba. The fact that one can clearly see other points that are further south did not deter the tourists, nor did it deter us from making this symbolic place the end point of the cycle ride.

I waited by the bollard for the cyclists. Eventually, Andy and Alex arrived in their trip tee-shirts (kindly provided by Armstrong UK), shortly followed by Neil and Leo. Leo’s leg was alarmingly wrapped in bandages, but thankfully it was just a spot of sunburn and not a final day cycling injury.

With everyone now dressed in the trip tee-shirts, I popped open the bottle of bubbly and poured it into some disposable Holiday Inn plastic cups. This attracted some attention from the queue of tourists, so before long we had a rapt audience listening to our tales and taking photos of us beside the Southernmost Point.

When the champagne was drained and the plaudits were subsiding, we sought out a beach on which to spend the afternoon. Most of the ones marked on the map appeared to have been replaced by building sites (presumably to turn them into private beaches for the guests at the expensive seafront hotels), but eventually we found one further to the east. Compared to the wonderful beaches at Myrtle Beach and Daytona Beach, this one was frankly a bit disappointing. The sand smelt of rotting seaweed and the sea itself was murky and shallow. Still, we splashed about for a while before checking into our motel at the east end of the island.

In the evening, we arrived in the main town centre of Key West moments too late to see the famous sunset. We dined at a seafood buffet restaurant where nutcrackers were provided to crack open the crab legs. Neil tentatively attempted to overcome his seafood phobia with mixed results, but found happiness in the ice cream section of the buffet.

On Tuesday we spent a day on another beach which was closer to the town centre, but still not particularly nice as far as beaches go. Determined to see the sunset, we headed to a bar on the north side of the island where the cyclists (i.e. not the designated driver) drank effeminate-looking cocktails. According to the Lonely Planet guide, 40% of Key West is gay, though we’re not sure if this includes the naval base. Even the taxis on this island are pink.

Annoyingly, cloud obscured any view of the sunset, so we moved on to an alleyway claiming to be the smallest bar in Key West. It really was tiny; the drinkers were a combination of people like us who had been lured in off the street and people who had been in there all day. One of the regulars bizarrely warned us to “never get caught pissing on a skunk”, which is unarguably a sound piece of advice.

The following day, it was my turn to see what all the cyclists were making a fuss about. In order that we could leave the car at the free parking of our motel, I dropped the others in town, drove back to the motel and then cycled the three miles or so back in. I don’t know what the big deal was; cycling is easy!

Andy and Alex had signed up for a scuba dive outing, while Neil, Leo and I had paid about a third of the price for a snorkelling trip off the same boat. The scuba divers had spent the morning in the swimming pool and were given detailed instructions and a mountain of equipment on the boat, whereas the snorkelers (the three of us, plus a young Dutch boy and his mother) were simply given a mask, snorkel and flippers and told to jump off the back of the boat. This was fine by us, as it meant we were allowed to swim freely around the reefs for a couple of hours, while the scuba divers had to follow their instructors around.

Apart from a couple of panicky moments when we saw a red jellyfish bobbing towards us, the snorkelling was great. We saw huge shoals of brightly coloured fish swimming only inches away from us; it was just a pity that the overcast weather reduced visibility slightly.

In 1982 the federal government decided it was time to do something about all the drugs and illegal immigrants that were entering Florida via the Keys. They built a roadblock at Homestead and checked every vehicle leaving or entering the Keys, causing severe delays and inconvenience for the residents. In response, the PR-savvy mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, issued a Declaration of Independence, announcing the secession of the Keys from the USA. The Conch Republic was formed with Wardlow as its new Prime Minister, and it immediately declared war on the US, surrendering one minute later. They then applied for $1 billion in aid from the USA which, unsurprisingly, they are still waiting for.

Of course, the Conch Republic was never intended to be anything more than a PR stunt to boost tourism to the Keys, although they did briefly repel a US military island invasion practice with water cannons. More than 20 years later, the Conch Republic and its pink shell symbol live on as a camp tourism trap. The best bit, though, is their motto: “We seceded where others failed”.

On Thursday morning we lay in and missed breakfast, so we went to the Waffle House that was connected to our motel. The waitress warned us as she took our drinks order that they were out of both waffles and orange juice; this made Leo irate. The service was crappy, the food was rough (the hash brown was essentially almost-raw grated potato) and the officially non-existent waffle batter was being splashed across the floor by the staff. In the end, however, it was OK because our waitress was so inattentive that she entirely failed to bill us for one of our meals; she got a $5 tip for this.

We had intended to ride the Conch Train (a guided tourist road train) around Key West, but it turned out to be $27 per person. Instead, we split into two groups: Neil and Leo went off to some pirate museum, while Alex, Andy and I visited Truman’s Little White House. The Little White House was President Truman’s retreat away from the formalities of Washington DC. Even in the face of press criticism, he spent 10% of his Presidency in Key West between 1945 and 1953. Apparently, he got more work done there than he did in Washington, perhaps because of the relaxed atmosphere and the loud shirt competition he forced upon his staff. The tour of the Little White House was given by a woman from London who had a bizarre habit of doing dreadful Churchill impressions occasionally.

Moving along the road, we visited Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home, where the writer had lived during the 1930s. Having never acquainted myself with “Papa’s” work, almost everything the entertaining tour guide told us was news. Interestingly, the house is a home to around 50 cats and, even more interestingly, half of them have six toes per paw. They are all descendents of a mouser that was given to Hemingway by some sailors.

Cultured to the brim, our next museum was the Key West branch of a chain that I’d been pleading to visit for weeks. Ripley’s Believe it or Not began as a series of newspaper cartoons in 1918, featuring weird and unbelievable facts; the museums of the same name feature exhibits and images to illustrate some of these facts. We bought our tickets with our tongues firmly in our cheeks, but left hours later, grinning. Almost to our disappointment, Ripley’s Believe it or Not is actually, genuinely quite good.

Yet again, we tried to watch Key West’s famous sunset, but unfortunately it was once again obscured by the only clouds in the sky. Nevertheless, it was pretty impressive and we watched it until the sky’s darkening was accelerated by storm clouds rolling over. We ate at a Jamaican restaurant where the food was distinctly average, but perhaps we should have considered that the owners of a restaurant called Jamaican Me Crazy may have actually thought of the name-pun before they thought about whether they could cook Jamaican cuisine.

On Friday morning we packed up to leave Key West, stopping only to buy Key Lime Pie (a local delicacy and absolutely delicious) and for Neil to buy Key Lime Wine (a less well-known local delicacy which is apparently “surprisingly nice”). On the way along the Keys we walked a trail in search of the endangered Key Deer; we saw a few through the undergrowth. Our journey was bizarre for two reasons: firstly, we were travelling north for the first time since we reached Toronto six weeks ago. Secondly, we were retracing steps that I had previously driven and the cyclists had already ridden. This was the beginning of the end of our adventure.

Hours later we arrived at the final motel of our trip, just south of Miami in Florida City. We couldn’t get settled for long, though, as we had an appointment in Miami. The previous evening I had checked the baseball listings to find that finally our visit to a city coincided with a game. In this case, it was the Florida Marlins at home to the San Francisco Giants.
After a little confusion as to where the stadium was, we paid our $16 (how cheap is that?) and took our seats in the empty stands at the start of the third innings of a total of nine. Baseball is a strange game; it is even slower than test cricket, but with those awkward quiet moments filled with cheerleaders, mascots and co-ordinated crowd sing-a-longs of unwieldy club songs to prevent any problems with the audience’s attention span.

As far as I could tell, baseball is essentially a complicated version of the British schoolgirl’s favourite, rounders, except a run is scored perhaps only two or three times in three hours. A frequent American criticism of football/soccer is that it is too low scoring; I think maybe they need to look again at baseball.

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the game and I’m sure it can have the same hypnotic appeal as test cricket, but even the atmosphere was a little disappointing. Considering the crowd has literally minutes between moments of excitement, they have done a pretty poor job of spending this time productively by coming up with amusing songs or chants. In fact, they have just one chant: “Let’s go Marlins”, which is shouted repeatedly until eventually three batters have been outed on each team nine times, then everyone goes home without caring all that much about the final score. The following evening the same players repeat the match, and then again the next night and the night after that.

This morning we awoke to the news that Hurricane Dean was unlikely to come close to Florida, but was predicted to strike Jamaica full-on. The newscasters seemed far more concerned about whether Jamaica would take the bite out of the storm before it hits Texas than they did about what would actually happen to Jamaica and its people. I also noticed that despite it being a big island right in the middle of the on-screen map, Cuba is never ever mentioned by weather forecasters or reporters. Dean might well be about to hit southern Cuba, but as far as the US networks are concerned, it doesn’t exist. It’s as though an enormous Communist elephant is sitting off the Florida coast, but nobody wants to admit it.

Andy, Alex and I set off into the Everglades (Neil had been bitten by insects all night, so decided that stepping into a mosquito’s den for the day was not a good idea). At the visitor centre in Flamingo (a town with no flamingos at the far western end of the Everglades road), we saw a rare sight: a saltwater crocodile swimming around the marina. Alligators are very common in the Everglades, but their skinnier, greener cousins are quite rare here, although it is the only place in the world where both live side by side.

Crocodiles and alligators are tough, primitive creatures. They have evolved little since dinosaurs existed more than 65 million years ago, making them just about the closest things to them alive today. It is an indicator of how perfectly evolved they are that they have barely changed in a period of time 250 times longer than humans have existed for.
After being harangued by mosquitoes on a few forested trails, we took to the boardwalks back at the eastern end of the Everglades. In the surrounding marshes we saw several alligators and I was alarmed to see that the source of a loud squawking was a pair of large vultures sitting on the branch above my head.

We returned to the motel to begin the solemn task of emptying the monster truck of six weeks of accumulated crap. After vacuuming and washing the car, we went for our final evening meal in the USA at a seafood and steak house down the road. I ordered surf and turf again, and this time it was perfect. I now do see why people make such a fuss about lobster. To round things off, we ordered five slices of Key Lime Pie.

So that’s about it. Tomorrow evening, we board flights IB6120 and IB3164 (for the benefit of our parents), arriving in Heathrow at 2.45pm on Monday. Six weeks is a long time and we’ve seen so much since stepping off that plane in Chicago back in early July. We’ve witnessed one of the planet’s greatest natural wonders in Niagara Falls, and one of mankind’s greatest ever achievements at the shuttle launch in Florida. Along the way, we witnessed a tragedy unfold as a steam pipe exploded in New York City, enjoyed the theme parks of Orlando and were treated as a novelty in the Deep South, simply for being English.

By the time we reach Miami Airport tomorrow, I’ll have driven my monster truck almost exactly 5000 miles. If you were to drive in a straight line from London, that sort of mileage would take you to Zimbabwe, Brazil or almost to North Korea.
It is a very long way, but it is nothing compared to the 1600 miles or so that the cyclists have pushed and pulled themselves through to get from Niagara to Key West. Every one of them has put themselves through a personal hell at one time or another in order to drag that bike up a hill or along a scorching hot road, so my first thank you is to them for allowing me to tag along on their adventure with minimal discomfort of my own.

Secondly, thank you to our kind sponsors, Armstrong UK, who provided us with free clothing for the trip. Also a thank you to my other college son (the one I didn’t run into in Orlando), Andrew Goodchild, who I believe built the http://www.unihouse.co.uk website, which has certainly made the financial side of the trip so much easier to handle. If you live in a student house, you really should give it a try.

Thanks to everyone who has opened their wallet and sponsored one of our five good causes: your money is going directly where it is needed. Through donations to my nominated charity, Wateraid, there are at least ten people in the developing world who now have access to a lasting supply of clean water. Those ten people would probably be dead without your generosity.

I’d also like to thank everyone who has followed our trip on this website and everyone who has offered us support over the last month and a half. The number of people visiting every day (close to 150) has been way beyond what any of us could have expected. People that we met once along our travels and even people we have never met have been logging on, so thank you for giving all of us an incentive to blog our experiences.

Finally, I’d like to thank America for having us. This country has been surprisingly… surprising. It is easy to feel that one already knows the country, having been bombarded by its culture back in the UK. In fact, it has provided the unexpected at almost every turn, which has made the blog more interesting if nothing else.

Thanks for reading my glorified holiday diary. I’m off to London to get a job and pay off this trip.

Rob

The story in Alex’s words…

The story so far in Alex’s words…So after being sat on a bike for 84.5 hours we have finally made it to Key West and I decided it was time that I wrote something for the website. Arriving was very surreal – we stopped 5 miles outside of the town to change from our rather sweaty lycra into our very stylish Team America T-Shirts so everyone knew what we had done and for a bit of self promotion. The final few miles were slightly hairy as the roads were a little busier, the hard shoulder had disappeared and Andy was trying to film us reaching the finishing post. The plan was to head to Mile 0 on Route 1 before turning left to go to the Southernmost Point of Continental America; we didn’t find Mile 0 as it was further north than we thought and we ended up in a housing estate feeling a little confused so we headed for the sea and found Rob perched on a flowerbed waiting for us by the large red and yellow bollard and queue of tourists that marks the Southernmost point.


For the first time in our 23 days on the bikes Neil and Leo had left without a mobile phone, this was not going to be a problem as we were going to meet them for breakfast just before the 7 mile bridge however they never turned up because they got puncture and decided to push on to get breakfast further down the road. This meant we couldn’t contact them to find out how far from Key West they were so we waited for them to show up hoping they had not broken down or been mowed down! Fortunately they showed up 45 minutes later and we joined the queue to get our picture taken by the bollard whilst Rob nipped back to the car to collect T-shirts for Neil and Leo. He reappeared with their T-shirts and our cooler which contained a bottle of champagne on ice. What a legend! We toasted our success and soon had a crowd taking our picture and quizzing us on our trip. I felt a little bit like a minor celebrity as everyone wanted to know what we had done and what it was like. Very weird considering it had started as a random pipe dream in the bar one night never really believing that it would actually happen. Overall it was just a feeling of massive relief and joy that we had reached our destination and completed the trip.

The trip itself has been fantastic; much better than I thought it would be. The cycling has been incredibly tough – the mountains in the north were long and steep and the days in the south were like cycling through an oven. But we have got to see some beautiful parts of the country and meet some fantastic people. We have had our scary moments as well – dodging trucks on our way into New York, avoiding dogs in the south and trying to distinguish the live snakes from the assorted debris that litters the side of the roads.

I now must say a few thank yous; firstly to Rob who has been amazing throughout the trip. He has done most of organising and booking motel and has not complained once when he has had to go out of his way to pick one of us up or drop something off for the cyclist. Without him we would not have made it and he has put up with the smell of 4 peoples very sweaty kit that has not been washed as often as it should without complaint.

Secondly to all of the people we have met along the way that have been so friendly and supportive. We have been given a lot of free gifts that have helped us along the way; from the person who pulled into the side of the road to offer us some ice cold bottles of water to the lady who gave us a towel after we had been caught in a thunderstorm. All have been massively appreciated and most of them will not know about this website or the journey we have undertaken. I will also take this opportunity to thank all the people who have sponsored us, I know it has meant a lot to Andy, Neil and Leo when they have been on the bikes and helped them to continue cycling towards the finish line.

Finally I must say thanks to the other riders especially Andy who has helped me keep going through some of the tougher parts of the trip. This support has been crucial to keep me going through the tougher days even when he sets off at 23 mph in 100°F claiming it to be gentle pace.

I’m now looking forward to putting my feet up in Key West and not getting on the bike for a few days before heading home. It’s going to be a bit of a culture shock when we get back to the UK but am looking forward to getting a curry.

Alex

The End is Nigh

On Saturday morning the cyclists and I joined US Route 1, the final road of the trip. Route 1 runs from Key West right the way up to the Canadian border in Maine over 2,300 miles away, so this was not the first time we’d come across this particular highway. Before long, we had crossed the small channel between mainland USA and the first of the Florida Keys: Key Largo.

I arrived a few hours before the cyclists, so headed to a water-side park/marina to write postcards in the sun. When the cyclists joined me, we all headed to a local laundromat and properly washed our clothes (including the disgusting-smelling cycling lycra) for the first time since Atlantic City THREE WEEKS EARLIER.

Afterwards, we decided to figure out what Key Largo had on offer. From the highway, it looked disappointingly like the usual identikit strip of motels, restaurants and stores, so we turned off down a side-road in search of the sea. Immediately, we found ourselves among large swimming-pooled houses, private beaches and gated communities. Key Largo is not a place to go on holiday unless you are wealthy enough to either own or hire a beach.

We stopped briefly to look at a bird sanctuary by the sea, then headed to a Cuban restaurant opposite the motel. The customers were entertained while eating by Cuban musicians singing such cultural classics as Pretty Woman and Hot, Hot, Hot. I ordered my favourite Wetherspoon’s cuisine: surf and turf, but with the classy (and presumably more traditional) touch of replacing the scampi with lobster. My first impressions of lobster are that it is nice enough, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

The restaurant’s music (despite the choice of songs) was enough to give me a sudden urge to go to Cuba. After all, once we reach Key West we’ll only be 90 miles away – significantly closer to Cuba than to Miami – yet there are no ferries or even planes that would take us there. In fact, it is effectively illegal for a US citizen to even visit their little Communist neighbours thanks to the various embargos that have been imposed on Castro’s Cuba since the 1960s. Quite why the world’s only superpower is still afraid of a harmless island in the Caribbean nearly 20 years after the Cold War is beyond me.

Coincidentally, we woke this morning to find a film on the TV called Thirteen Days, which depicts JFK’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I had to check out of the motel before I could see its conclusion, but I assume it ends well because I was able to be born a couple of decades later.

The drive from Key Largo to Marathon was more pleasant than the previous day’s, and for the first time I was able to see the sea on both sides of the road. To my left was the Atlantic Ocean and to my right the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the proximity of two different bodies of water, Marathon is surprisingly sparse when it comes to swimwear shops where I might have been able to buy another set of replacement swimming shorts. As it’s a Sunday, the ones that did exist were closed or only catered for women, so I tried a K-Mart (which Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent had warned me about; it sounded like a large Kwik-Save).

K-Mart was as crappy a supermarket chain as it had been when the Lost Continent was written 20 years ago. When I finally found the swimming shorts on a randomly placed rack in the middle of the clothing department, I discovered that the only sizes they had left were XL and XL+3. I was so fed up of searching that I picked up the first minimally tasteful shorts, checked they had a draw string and took them to the counter.

Five minutes later, after struggling to try the shorts on behind the blacked-out rear windows of the monster truck, I returned them to K-Mart. The drawstring appeared to be for show and served virtually no useful purpose, though it wasn’t a wasted trip as I made a $2 profit from being refunded a tax that I hadn’t paid on the original purchase.

By this time, the cyclists had also arrived in Marathon, so we ate lunch and decided to come up with as many hilarious place names featuring the word ‘Key’ as possible. There are literally dozens of possibilities, and even hours later we were still coming up with new ones. My personal favourites were Key Pyupee and Hokeyko Key.

Tomorrow we reach Key West and the cyclists can finally hang up their clip-on shoes. It’s been a long journey down from Canada over the last five and half weeks. It’s difficult to imagine, but it’s actually four weeks since we arrived in New York City and three since Washington. Since picking up the car in Chicago, I have driven over 4,500 miles and the cyclists have pedalled further than I can comprehend, through searing heat and pouring rain, over the Appalachian mountains and across the flatlands of Florida. It’s been the trip of a lifetime for every one of us (not forgetting the contributions of the support car’s support passenger, Ed, who kept us insane through those early weeks), and we’ve got about a week left here in the Keys and the Everglades to relax once the hard work for the cyclists is over.

I’ll blog more in a few days time, but in the meantime I’m going to go all Bob Geldof on you. We haven’t cycled/written thousands of miles/words just for our own wellbeing. If you haven’t already sponsored one of our supported charities, please consider donating whatever you can afford to whichever charity you fancy by clicking here.