Queen of the Desert

Unleashing my inner Daenerys, I’ve been crossing the vast, open, uninhabited expanses of Utah and Nevada. In the desert, settlements can be 70 miles or more apart, which means carrying all my water and food with me. Temperatures have been in the high 90s Fahrenheit (35+ degrees Celsius) and sometimes over 100. In Nevada, I’ve been climbing at least a couple of passes every day, usually over 7000 ft, and occasionally with strong headwinds as I’m heading west. Good job nobody told me about all this beforehand, as I’m not sure I would have believed I could do it – especially with leukemia – but here I am, halfway across Nevada and doing great! I guess it’s true – you’ve really got to try stuff. Here are a few pictures to give you an idea. I call it “Cycling Elevated”. Enjoy!

 

The Luv Shack

After the Great Plains, the climb to 9000+ ft was tough, especially as the temperature was in the 90s, but it was only really a practice run for the following day when I climbed the Monarch Pass above the snow level to 11,312 ft. As I stopped for the obligatory selfie at the summit, several folks emerged from their cars and motor homes, and came over to congratulate me. Fortunately, there were no other cyclists around, so I had my moment of glory all to myself. No idea why I made out that climbing the pass was no big deal when it was absolutely knackering. Too cool for my own good, methinks.

Even before I reached the summit, I had started to feel like I’m in the west, and the sign at the summit confirmed this. The Monarch Pass is the continental divide between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. I’m not sure what that means, but I’m guessing that water to the left of the sign flows to the Pacific, and water to the right flows to the Atlantic. I briefly considered asking two girls whether their dog would be willing to put my theory to the test, but thought better of it. A far more precise indicator that I’m in the west is that I can finally find a decent sandwich – on crusty bread and bursting with goodness. I’m loving Colorado.

The other problem with mountains is that the weather is all over the place, often with ominous lightning and thunder, and occasionally hail pinging off my bicycle bell. Seeing a blue patch of sky in the direction I’m heading, I check the map for campsites and spot one with cabins. In America, cabins are usually pretty comfy affairs, and with lightning to my left, treating myself to a cabin sounds like a good option. The scenery was spectacular – a red sandstone gorge with lakes – but the campsite was a disappointment: run-down mobile homes perched on the hillside. I brace myself that these are the “cabins”. But no, the cabins are further up the hillside and they are truly antique. I’m guessing they belonged to the miners who originally worked this valley back in the 1800s. The proprietress warns me that the cabins are rustic, and takes me to the “Luv Shack”. (I joke not; that’s what the sign said above the door.) Upon seeing the decoration in the bedroom, my suspicions about the history of this particular cabin seem confirmed: Topless ladies in various poses reminiscent of Ancient Greece. “I love the decoration”, the proprietress commented, rather ancient herself. And to think, I always thought the Americans were coy!

The Russians Are Coming

Crossing the Great Plains, I had just one tornado alert. Ignoring the advice to go to the basement of the Methodist church, I sought shelter at a handy bar instead 🙂

Before starting out on my cycle ride across America, I had joined an organization called Warm Showers. Judging from my apprehension about the name, I’ve clearly lived in San Francisco for too long! The organization connects cyclists with hosts (usually other cyclists) offering a place to sleep in their homes. It’s a great way to meet local people. Especially memorable was the Mennonite family I stayed with in Kansas, and the home-baked pie with mulberries and rhubarb from their garden!

Although the flat terrain of Kansas was very welcome after the Appalachian and then the Ozark Mountains, I was relieved to cross from Central Time to Mountain Time and shortly afterwards into Colorado after days of cycling past endless fields of ripening wheat and, judging by the pong, ripe beef cattle. The monotony perhaps explains some of the more bizarre thinking that I encountered in Kansas, such as Pastor Joe’s firm belief that the Russians are about to sweep down into the state. Hopefully, Walmart accepts rubles.

Apart from the imminent Russian invasion, the biggest surprise of the Great Plains was that I was already at an altitude of approx. 4,400 ft. I always thought the Great Plains were near sea level. With the snow-capped summits of the Rocky Mountains visible on the horizon, it’s a relief to know I already have several thousand feet in hand. Tomorrow, I climb to over 9000 ft.

Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in California Anymore

Apart from the Ozark Mountains, my abiding memory of Missouri is Mrs Redneck cursing Mr Redneck in the most unsavory terms for leaving the gate open and letting the dogs out. I counted at least seven dogs run out. With that many dogs, two hands, and one can of pepper spray, I had switched to stealth mode, so to my delight, she hadn’t seen me approaching. “Bad day?”, I enquired politely, as I cycled past.

Approaching Kansas, the landscape started to level off. At the state sign, I asked the Swedish cyclist I had met the night before whether he had packed his ruby slippers, but since he asked me to repeat the question three times, I concluded the Wizard of Oz didn’t make it to Sweden.

One thing I’m hoping is that Kansas has brighter tortoises. They amble out onto the road from the grassy verges and sit sunning themselves on the Tarmac. Meanwhile, I’ve seen enough tortoises flattened to tortillas to last me a lifetime. I stop at each sunbather, lift it from the rear, gently set it down in a sunny patch on the grassy verge, and tell it that the waiter will be along shortly. “Why from the rear?”, you ask. Well, a particularly large individual clearly did not want to be moved along. It was flatter than the other tortoises I had encountered, and it had a tail. Thinking it was just crotchety, I tried to nudge it to the side of the road with my foot instead. To my dismay, it sank its teeth into my cycling shoe. Recovering my composure, I told it to suit itself (in terms similar to those used by Mrs Redneck) and minced off. Later that evening, I learned on the World Wide Web that it was a snapping turtle and not to be messed with. Special advisory to any gentlemen considering taking a refreshing dip in a lake or river in these parts: Be sure to wear your swimming shorts!

Mississippi Blues

Crossing the Mississippi at Chester, Illinois gave me a tremendous buzz – especially after the previous evening’s flat tire while riding a levee in a downpour. With my head down due to the strong headwind, I missed the Welcome to Missouri sign 😦

With its lush green, rolling landscape, Missouri reminded me of the south of England, but without the quaint villages and tearooms. After the Appalachians in Virginia and Kentucky, I thought I was done with strenuous climbs for a while, so the Ozark Mountains in Missouri came as a bit of a surprise. The climbs were shorter but steeper, and the descents very fast. I reached a record 42 mph in the Ozarks.

Mountains seem to trap bad weather. To get the most reliable forecast, I’ve taken to asking a local, but I guess wishful thinking is why I didn’t ask yesterday. Soon after I set out, the skies darkened, the rain started, and claps of thunder rolled in the distance. Flashes of lightning soon became unnervingly close. I spotted a gazebo near the roadside and rode to it. The three military guys were already sheltering there. We hung around for a bit, but with Pilots Knob just 4 miles away (yes, that really was the name of the town), I headed to it at warp speed

“Give it all you’ve got, Scotty”, I urged myself on. Decelerating at what looked like a cafe, I was initially thrown by the name “The Hustler”, especially given the name of the town. But perhaps it was “The Rustler”. Difficult to tell in the driving rain. Anyway, the military guys seemed to know what they were doing, so I followed them in, hoping that I wasn’t inadvertently entering a house of ill repute. A quick glance at the diners reassured me that it was a family establishment.

The forecast on the TV above the counter spelled more doom and gloom, so the military guys opted to stay in Pilots Knob. But I felt the Force was with me, and after double-checking with the platinum blonde behind the counter, I decided to go on. It turned out to be a good move, for as I was leaving the cafe, a customer pushed $20 into my hand. She had heard that I was cycling across America. I suspect she thought I was too poor to take the bus!

Come In, The Water’s Lovely!

After Berea, Kentucky, things looked up markedly. The strenuous climbs of the Appalachian Mountains gave way to rolling green countryside with beef cattle munchin’ and mooin’. There were no more coal trucks and, best of all, there were far fewer loose dogs. Those dogs that did give chase stopped in their tracks when they saw the can of “Halt” pepper spray in my hand. I’ve not even had to use it yet.

I saw the Abbey of Gethsemani on the map and went to see it. The abbey is a community of Cistercian monks – often referred to as Trappists. To my shame, I always thought the name “Trappist” came about because the monks observe silence at various times of the day, i.e they keep their trap shut. Having been a Franciscan friar myself for four years, I should have known better. They’re called Trappist after La Trappe Abbey in France. It was the perfect place to sit and ponder.

It’s funny how tunes enter my head when I’m cycling along. Today’s “tune de jour” was “We Love Sprinkles” – probably induced by the damp weather. I’d heard this tune at the Sprinkles cupcake ATM in Los Angeles. You insert your credit card in the ATM, select your Sprinkles cupcake, and out it comes in a nice box, accompanied by a choir singing “We Love Sprinkles”. And so the gentleman whose Jeep Wrangler had broken down on a back country road in rural Kentucky will never forget the day when a vision in hi-vis green rounded the corner belting out “We Love Sprinkles”. Shirley Bassey would have been proud.

Despite the bad weather, I’ve been making some great headway. A couple of days ago, I crossed the time zone from Eastern to Central, i.e. the clock went back an hour. Yesterday evening, I crossed the 1,000 mile mark. And today, I crossed from Kentucky into Illinois – my third state.

God Bless America

Throughout Virginia and Kentucky, I’ve been puzzled by the strange panels adorning many barns. Dan told me that they identify an Amish barn. That got me thinking: Is Amish a religion or a way of life? I think the answer is probably both, but according to the World Wide Web, it’s a common misunderstanding that these symbols identify an Amish barn. While some of the designs are inspired by the Amish, they’re properly called barn quilts. They’ve been around for hundreds of years, but it was only in the early 2000s that they started showing up again.

There’s no escaping religion in America. So far on this trip, there seems to be at least one church in every community – usually Baptist, sometimes Methodist, and occasionally Presbyterian. No idea how they differ, but I’ve frequently been grateful to them, as they often have a gazebo where I can sit out a storm or take a break in the shade. Some churches even let cross-country cyclists stay overnight or camp in the grounds. I’ve been touched by their hospitality and warm welcome.

Out front, the churches often have a billboard with a message, like the one I saw today: “Be Ye Fishers Of Men. You Catch ‘Em. And He’ll Clean ‘Em.” (I added the apostrophes to save the pastor’s blushes. Probably just as well I don’t have a red marker pen with me.) Here’s another great one in view of the forthcoming elections in the US: “Donkey And Elephant Not Working For You? Try The Lamb!”