USA Part 8: Build The Wall! (Washington DC to Portland, ME 17/09/17-06/10/17)

I felt very chuffed having reached Washington DC. I hadn’t quite cycled my bike to the water but it was as good as my coast-to-coast complete.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had no plans to visit the capital until very recently but I’m glad I made it here. DC is a very cool place to explore as a tourist. I stayed with Muriel, who’s daughter Tenley I used to play percussion with in the UK. Muriel took me for a walk around the National Mall and it seemed I’d arrived at a fantastic time. The ‘Build The Wall’ protest was in full swing and the crowd was singing along to the catchy lyrics: “10ft, 20ft, 100ft tall, build the wall!”. I’m not entirely sure what they were protesting about and I’m not convinced they did either. Their public speakers just linked up a bunch of dramatic sentences and meandered from slagging off Whole Foods to complaining about immigrants in a rather incohesive manner.
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I was feeling proud of myself for having cycled so quickly across the country until I reached the White House. I may have been busy the last 3 months but I have achieved nothing in comparison with a certain Donald Trump. Ah, did you think I could navigate this entire country and not comment on that twitter-mad satsuma?

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For some reason I thought the White House was at least twice the size…

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I have made friends across this country who are both Trump supporters and those who hate his guts. So, because I don’t want to upset anyone: if you are in the former category please read the following paragraph without noticing the slight sarcasm. If you are in the latter category please read the entire thing as completely sarcastic.

I had to think about how much Trump has achieved over the last 3 months. It’s certainly impressive:

He marched the country out the Paris deal, which is great because as we all know – climate change is a myth.

Imposed a travel ban to stop people from certain countries entering the US. Trump was actually trying to protect people from those countries as the Americans are very busy shooting themselves at the moment. Domestic terrorism is a great danger to potential visitors from abroad.

Ripped up Obamacare. Instead of replacing the flawed plan with something more intelligent, Trump offers an even greater mess of a plan. Just remind poor people about the American Dream. If everyone just works harder and gets richer then they can all afford premium health care. Who needs a welfare state if everyone pulls their weight?

He’s spent a good while under investigation now over the Russian collaboration scandal. What’s wrong that? Putin is a lovely to chap who just wanted to teach Trump how to pose in hunting photos.

Trump has fired an astonishing amount of people from the White House. Sometimes he just forgets he is the president and thinks he’s still hosting The Apprentice. He just hires idiots so that nobody really minds when he points his finger at them and yells “you’re fired”!

Trump has successfully escalated the North Korea situation to thrilling levels of tension by tactical playground name-calling. What will ‘Rocket Man’ do next? How exciting! My generation feels left out for having missed the Cold War and we desperately fancy a nuclear show-down.

After the Charlottesville riots, Trump chose not to condemn the alt-right but to to remind us all that everyone has a good side and that they weren’t ‘all bad’. What a sweet sentiment.

Then, when the NFL players started their hateful protest, Trump called protesters ‘son-of-a-bitch’. Those pigs wanted to raise awareness for social equality. How dare they! Did someone say black lives matter?

I could write pages on Trump but I’d better not get carried away. I think you and I, dear reader, probably agree on the matter. In fact, for once, we probably also agree with Kim Jong Un. The man is a ‘deranged dotard’.
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Amusingly, the greatest turn out in The Mall was the juggalos. There were probably about 10 times more juggalos than build-the-wall-ers. “But what are the juggalos?” I hear you ask. Well, that’s a long story. They’re fans of the hip-hop group Insane Clown Posse and have become a very peculiar cult that dress like demented clowns and listen to awful music. I learnt a lot about them years ago because I found their sub-culture fascinating and incredibly odd. A few years ago the FBI labelled them as a ‘gang’. Now, years on, they’ve decided to protest that title and march around DC in their silly clothes. The juggalos are not a gang. They’re just a bunch of social mis-fits who are welcome to dress the way they like and listen to what they want. It’s a free country. And with my free speech I am allowed to say that that lot are a weird bunch. Type Clown Gathering into Youtube and prepare yourself for some strange shit.
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From DC I cycled out of town along the lovely C&O canal pathway. Soon I was out in rural Maryland, where the fields rolled gently below the wall of the Appalachian mountains.
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I continued up into Pennsylvania, where the Amish didn’t get the memo about us all having arrived in the 21st century. In fact, I don’t think even think they realise we’ve reached the 20th century . Jokes aside, I was intrigued by the Amish lifestyle. It is something I knew nothing about before coming to this part of the country and I had no idea how many of them there were around.

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I saw them out in the fields, working in straw hats under the afternoon sun tending the land by hand. They still farm corn and soy but there’s also tobacco and vegetables which makes a nice change.
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Let me share a little of what I learnt in Amish country, in case you knew as little as me. (Forgive me if I get some of my facts wrong!)

The Amish are not the only bunch who live a traditional life out here, or ‘plain’ as they would call it. There are the Brethren – who I know nothing about – and the Mennonites, who’s practises vary a little more than the Amish. Some of the conservative Mennonites are hard to tell apart from the Amish but at the other end of the spectrum they can be hard to spot in regular society. The liberal ones drive cars (although usually black because they have to be ‘plain’), have mobile phones and dress normal (although usually pretty smart).

The Amish also vary from place to place but usually follow the same codes. The blokes have long beards but a shaved upper lip. The women all wear full length plain dresses with their hair tied up under hats. They have big families because they stay to work on the family farm. The kids go to special school but not for very long and then they resume the simple work life. At something like 18 they go off to live in the ‘normal world’ with all its dodgy temptations before deciding if they will return to their community.
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I used to think that the Amish communities were completely separate from normal America but they are not at all. They live out in farmhouses, not in towns, but they still travel around by horse-drawn buggies on asphalt roads. They are much more self-sufficient than the rest of us but still need to go shopping from time to time. The Wal-mart supermarket even had stables outside for the Amish to park in!

The Amish don’t have electricity, cars, or phones. Sometimes there are grey areas though. For example, they may have a phone for business. They are great trades people and work for themselves outside the Amish community.

It was strange to see them working the farms without machinery. I stopped at one Amish stall to buy some veggies. The family talked Pennsylvania Dutch. When they pack up, they transport their stuff home by horse-drawn carts. Apparently it’s quite dangerous for them to be sharing the roads with traffic. Just two days before I arrived in one village there was a crash with a buggy and a car. One of the Amish family died and the horse was put down. Someone showed me the news article with a picture of the wrecked cart. It was not a pretty sight.
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The countryside was beautiful. Soon the Amish disappeared and I headed up towards New Jersey. I passed the time thinking about the Amish way of life. One one hand I thought it totally bonkers. On the other hand I wondered if they weren’t a little smarter than the rest of us. By removing themselves from the temptation of technology the Amish probably live a more wholesome life. I constantly battle with the technology around me. I love having a phone in my pocket that connects me to the world but usually I am most happy when I am camping where there is no signal and only the moment to be enjoyed in its present form.
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The towns I passed were cute. All of them had English names like Lancaster and Reading and looked much more British. They were not laid out like the towns out-west which were made for people with cars. Here they’d have corner shops and cobbled streets. It was more populated and I’d often cycle through a town or two during the day.
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On the way out of York I met the first aggressive anti-cyclist driver in the country. I was riding out of town with Paul, who’d hosted me the night via Warmshowers. We cycled up the inside of the traffic waiting at a red light and this driver lost his shit. I still have no idea what ticked him off. I always overtake on the inside when cars are stopped at a light and I don’t believe it is an illegal move. I do it because I can’t be bothered to wait but more importantly for my own safety. In the US they have this silly rule where you can turn on a red light, which is not helpful for cyclists. I usually try to position myself in front of all the cars so everyone can see me and knows that I am there.
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Anyway, this guy was not happy. He rolled down his window and started yelling “you fucking asshole” blah blah blah. He was so angry his eyes were bulging and he was practically frothing at the mouth. I didn’t know how to react to such a comical sight, so I just started giggling whilst looking straight at him. As you are probably aware, laughing at an angry person is not a great way to calm them down. This chap drove over closer and yelled a bunch more stuff I won’t repeat here. In any other country I’d have told him precisely what I thought was going on. Not in the US. I’m convinced that everyone has a gun and I’m terrified of confrontation. This guy was wearing a camo shirt and driving a battered pickup. He looked precisely like the sort of person who has a gun in the car. It’s not worth it. I backed up and waited for him to pass.

My gun fears are not unfounded in this country. I have met people who carry guns in their cars. I know a guy who carries a gun to church! I won’t risk a confrontation in this country. Perhaps that’s an argument for legal firearms being a good thing!
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I can’t leave this country without commenting on the crazy gun laws. It is one thing that baffles me more than anything else and after that awful shooting in Las Vegas the other day (that happened when I was in New Hampshire) I can’t leave without making this rather obvious point. Guns kill people! Why on earth would you not want them all to be illegal. You have twats like Roy Moore (who recently won Alabama’s Republican primary) in positions of power and wave guns around on stage. The other day I stayed with someone who gave me a rifle to hold. Are they called automatics? It was one of those ones where you just hold the trigger and shoot a zillion bullets in a minute. I know nothing about firearms but I think that’s the kind of one Paddock had in Vegas. Why on earth are people allowed to have those things?

I could regurgitate a bunch of firearm stats about death rates in this country but I don’t need to. Common sense should suffice. I have tried shooting a coke can and I have chopped up many aubergines in my life. With that wealth of experience I can tell you that I would find shooting someone I didn’t like in the head far easier than stabbing them. Guns scare the shit out me. When I held that unloaded rifle my heartbeat tripled and I worked up a sudden cold sweat. I don’t need a coffee in the morning, I could just hold a gun for 10 seconds and it would have precisely the same effect on me.
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Gun laws here bother me a great deal but they don’t even come close to bothering me as much the wretched sales taxes in this country. I have never been in a country that adds the tax to something when you reach the counter. As a result, you never know how much something costs until you actually go to pay for it. I understand that tax varies from state to state, but we are all paying the same price for a burger in one cafe so why on earth would you not include the full price on the sign? I’m slow with the coins here, so if something costs $4.80 I’ll take a minute to get my change together before I get into the busy queue. Then, when I’m ready to pay the cashier says “$4.93” and I have to fumble about trying to count out another 13 cents of copper while everyone waits behind me. It is the stupidest thing ever and the reason I am most looking forward to get back to the UK.
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Across most of the US my days had been fairly tame. Simple cycling, no drama. Until one afternoon…

I had reached the Delaware Water Gap, dividing Pennsylvania with New Jersey. Google Maps wanted me to go the long way around to cross the river but I thought I could outsmart it by riding a couple of miles on the interstate highway and save myself a longer detour. This bad idea was the start of a whole series of unfortunate events.
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Usually cycling on a motorway isn’t that bad. There’s a wide hard shoulder so you are not even close to the traffic. I ignored the ‘no bicycles’ sign and slipped onto the highway. The road quickly narrowed and cut in against the mountains along the river. There was barely a meter of shoulder and on the side was a brick wall. The shoulder had big gaps over drainage pipes so I had to ride along the road while cars flew buy at 60 mph and beeped their horns at me. It was terrifying.

I pulled off at the next wide section and scolded myself for being such an idiot. Now there was no way out but there was a gap in the fence to my right – a pull-off into an overgrown patch of forest. A gate was open and the sign saying something like ‘no hikers’ was rusty and hanging at an angle. I cycled in and saw an overgrown path along the telephone poles. I was less than 2 miles from the minor road junction I was trying to get to and I thought the overgrown path might be an old service road following the poles. I headed into the forest, hoping it would lead me through. I didn’t want to do a 10 mile detour back on the highway!

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Wallkill Valley Rail Trail

The trail became more and more overgrown as I cycled into the forest. Suddenly my pedal caught and the wheel jammed. I looked down. The derailleur had gotten tangled up in weeds and had bent into the spokes. Shit! Now what? I left the bike are trekked further into the forest to see if there was a way through. It just became thicker and thicker so I gave up after a while and returned to the bike. I positioned the derailleur so it was loose and walked back to the gate by the highway.

When I got back I discovered, to my horror, that the gate had been locked! I was now trapped in the forest with a 10ft barbed-wire topped fence separating me from the road. I had no idea how I could get out. Inside the locked off area there was a house set about 200ft back from the road but it looked overgrown and abandoned. I walked a short way the other direction along the fence but it was unscalable. I returned to the bike again and at that moment a fancy car pulled over. A well-dressed man stepped out and eyed me suspiciously. “What are you doing in there?”

I said I’d screwed up and told him what had happened. “You’re lucky I came here” he said. “Otherwise you’d have had to to camp out until tomorrow. We come in and out occasionally”, he said as he put his keys in the padlock. I noticed that his car said ‘US Government’ on the number plate.

“But what are you doing here?” I asked. “There’s nothing in there!”

He returned me a knowing look. “Oh, there’s not ‘nothing’ in there” and withdrew his wallet to flick open and show me his government badge. It was like something out of an FBI movie. He wouldn’t tell me was what was in there and I didn’t want to know. I was just happy to be out.

“Be careful out here” he warned me. I could hear a real New Jersey twang in his accent. “There’s a lot of big bears in these forests right now. Someone was killed by one around here a couple years ago”.
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My derailleur was damaged but not wrecked. I kept it in the higher half of my cassette and nervously cycled the final mile of the motorway before I could slip onto the Old Mine Road heading east. As I rode through the forests I couldn’t help but think ‘what on earth was hidden in those locked-off woods? Was there something in that abandoned house?’. That had been some Area 51 shit.

That night I stayed with Scott & Tiffany via Warmshowers. I put the bike up on Scott’s stand and we tried to fix the derailleur. It was slightly bent but it seemed to be moving OK and wasn’t getting too close to the spokes. The next morning I cycled barely 5 miles before I heard a crunch and my pedal jammed again. This time the derailleur was completely mangled. That was the least of my concerns because now the hanger was badly bent. I was in big trouble.

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I walked a few miles back across the river, into Pennsylvania and to the bike shop in Milford. If you have been following this blog from the very start you may recall that hanger causing me troubles as far back as Germany, when it first bent into the spokes. It also happened in Czech Republic, barely a fortnight later. But the real troubles with it were in Kyrgyzstan almost two years ago. The threading wore through and I had to get some Russians to weld it on. Now I can’t actually get the derailleur off. If I was lucky I’d be able to get a new derailleur that might fit the old bracket ordered to the bike shop, go and camp in the woods over the weekend then try to get it fixed. If I was unlucky, the hanger could snap after being bent so much. Then I’d have to find a frame builder somewhere to cut the part and weld on a new piece. That would cost me both time and money.

Amazingly, the guys in Action Bikes and Outdoor managed to help me out and attached a new derailleur to the part welded on. I now essentially had two hangers. It didn’t line up and I couldn’t get into all the gears but that didn’t matter. I was moving.
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The further I headed north the hotter it became. It was now late September. The days were getting shorter and more of the leaves were starting to turn but it was still hot and humid. When I cycled into Hudson valley in New York it was 92F!

The hills were evil. Out west the roads were well made for cars crossing the mountains but here the gradients were awful. I had run myself to the ground. The local rag weed has given me the most awful hayfever but now I had caught a cold and felt like crap. I think I had just cycled too much. Once again I had cycled a whole month with only one day off.

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Massachusetts started looking like the New England I had seen on my visit here 6 weeks ago. There was less farm land and more forest. When people were farming there was no soy anymore. Now there were apple and pear orchards and tomatoes. Many farmers were selling straight from their gardens and in some places I could pick peaches and apples straight from the trees. It was a very lovely part of the country.
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I also cycled past endless pumpkin patches. It’s that time of year. America has successfully whipped itself into a frenzy more than a month before Halloween. Houses here are decorated with as much creativity as for Christmas. I even saw supermarkets selling Halloween merch back in mid-August. This is consumerism at its very finest. American Thanksgiving – which I had the pleasure of celebrating last year in the Australian Outback – strikes me as a far more wholesome celebration. At least then the turkeys actually get eaten. I reckon less that 5% of the pumpkins grown here ever end up consumed.
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Despite feeling under the weather I pushed on, eager to get to my Aunt’s in North Hampton. I crossed over the state border from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and continued riding east. If you have been reading my US blogs you’ll know that I visited here on my fortnight break last month. I wanted to take a break around familiar faces. I desperately needed to fix my bicycle properly and I needed to plan where and when to leave the continent.

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New Hampshire’s rather dramatic slogan

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I stopped in Exeter Cycles on the way to the coast. They had ordered in a new ‘shadow’ derailleur for me and managed to install it OK despite all the mess from the weld. Hurray! Crisis averted (for now). I was thrilled. I picked up a beer from the shop, cycled over to the beach and had a celebratory drink to mark my arrival at the Atlantic coast.
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There have been many landmark moments of this trip at coastlines. I remember crossing the English Channel at the start of this trip and bidding farewell to my home island. I remember reaching the Black Sea having crossed all of Europe. I remember spotting the sea in Myanmar after so many land-locked months on the road. I remember looking out to Australia on the southern coast of East Timor. I think reaching the Atlantic will be the last such moment but it is up there with the most special. It has been a long ride from San Francisco these last 3 months.
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My family live just a mile from the coast and it was lovely to stay with them for a few days. I certainly needed a rest. There’s my English aunt Jenny, her American husband Guy and their daughter Eleanor. It’s a strange feeling when you cycle through so many miles of unfamiliar  scenery before suddenly popping out somewhere you recognise. It ‘s a strange but wonderful feeling too.
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The flights I’d been eyeing up to get off the continent had shot up since I last looked at them. I wanted to cycle all the way up Maine into Canada and then over to Nova Scotia but there wasn’t time if I wanted to get a flight that wouldn’t cost silly money. Instead I booked a boat from Portland to Nova Scotia so that I could catch a flight within a fortnight from Halifax in Canada.

I visited Eleanor’s school to do a little talk for her class and then packed up my bags, squeezing in the winter gear I’d posted ahead from Nevada. It was time to crack on. I cycled my final 65 miles in one uneventful day from North Hampton to Portland, Maine.
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Here’s another small world story for you:

In Portland I stayed with Peter and Coco, an American/Italian couple I met two years ago in Tajikistan. Pete and Coco had just completed the Pamir Highway when we met in Dushanbe, during their cycle from China to Italy. Coco just happened to be visiting for a few months so I got stay with them both for a couple nights in Portland. It was lovely, as it always is, to see old friends on the other side of the world.
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I had one last thing to do before catching my boat. I nipped up the road to Freeport, home of L.L. Bean – the outdoors/clothing company who have helped me out a great deal on this trip. It is thanks to them that I am safe in my tent at night, dry in the rain and comfy when I sleep. I owe them a very big thank you! I now also have a new sleeping bag that shall keep me warm this winter. It’s going to be a cold one where I’m heading!

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Me & Coco at L.L. Bean

America – it has been a blast. I have had so much fun here. I could talk forever about this place. Eight long blogs hasn’t been enough to get half of it off my chest. It is so wonderfully bonkers and I say that as a compliment.

Some of the cycling out west was out of this world. I’d go back there in a heartbeat. Wild landscapes are important to me on this trip but just as special as human interaction. Even in the most boring parts of this country the American people have incredibly good to me and I will never forget the hospitality of the folks over here.

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The ‘Bean’ car

Americans do this odd thing where they say they are from the country that their great-grandparents emigrated from. For example, someone might say “I’m Irish” and I’ll ask them “where are you from in Ireland?” Then they’ll tell me they were born in America, as were their parents, as were their parents’ parents. Turns out their grandad once drank a Guiness and now they are Irish.
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I am actually 1/8th American. I had never given that much thought before but now, having cycled across this country, I am most definitely proud of that little eighth. I am not American but I have a connection to this country and I am glad of that. The American people are some of the loveliest I have met on this trip. In the UK we say “have a nice day”. The Americans say “have a great day”. That’s the difference.
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That said, being in a country so similar to home often makes me more aware of the cultural differences. Things like bacon and maple syrup are just not right together. America makes me miss home and I am ready for my return to the UK now.

But first, one final excursion in North America. Next stop Canada!

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