I woke on Monday morning with a knot in my stomach – tremendously excited but apprehensive as I was unsure exactly what it is I was getting myself in to.
The first stumbling block of the trip came as early as the check-in desk at Gatwick where it quickly became apparent I hadn’t done my research properly on travelling to the US. After being asked a series of routine questions, the man behind the counter continued,
“Are you travelling with an ESTA or visa?”
“Have you booked a return flight?”
“Not yet, no”
“They won’t let you board the plane without a return flight”
Flustered, I racked my brains trying to calculate where I could realistically make it to within a month frustrated that my plans for a flexible itinerary had been scuppered. However, when I explained my situation to the service desk they suggested I buy a fully-refundable ‘flexifare’ ticket which can be cancelled as soon as I arrive. This apparent loophole was perfect and I returned to the check-in desk content that the power was back in my hands.
A short while later, one nice surprise came just as I was about to start walking onto the plane when Old Edwardians George Edwards and Florence Coath appeared out of nowhere. The pair, off travelling the Americas for the next six weeks, also happened to be sitting on the seats just in front of me.
Once the ten hour flight had passed, the process of formally entering the US was ridiculously long-winded as it involved mugshots, fingerprints and X-Ray scans of luggage. What was quite pleasant (if not slightly bizarre) was when the man who checked my passport engaged in a 15 minute conversation with me about my trip showing no intention of appeasing the queuing masses behind me. He gave me one or two very good recommendations before we shook hands and parted ways.
Taking the first step out of the airport was very sobering indeed as the heat and humidity caused me to work up quite a sweat just standing still waiting for a taxi – even at half 10 at night. I had been warned about the climate before flying out and, given the nature of my trip, it was a concern but if I look after myself it shouldn’t be a problem.
The Tuesday (or ‘Day zero’) was planned as a day for acclimatising, assembling the bike and gathering supplies but it took an unusual turn. Once happy with the state of the bike, I wandered down the street to a Domino’s for some lunch and on the way back spotted a bar called ‘Dive Bar’. Parched, I popped in a drink which soon became two on account of a buy one get one free offer. Before long, a man of about 60 came in and took a seat on my right and we got chatting. He was a South African who’d been living in US for the last 25 years and had a voice strikingly similar to that of Tony Greig. After about an hour I asked if he was retired – to which he said,
“What is it you do?”
“I’m a photographer”
“On what kind of theme”, I probed
“Pornography. I’m a pornographer”
Having never met someone in this line of work I was awash with questions to which he was only too happy to answer. His name was ‘Jack Flash’ and he works for Grooby Productions – the largest transgender pornography company in the world. He also mentioned (with more than a hint of pride) that every year for the last eight years he’s been nominated for an award at ceremonies in LA where he’s had the chance to walk on a red carpet. He clearly loves his job and didn’t care an ounce what others thought of him. At one point, he swivelled round in his chair and pointed to a pool table on the other side of the bar and said he’d shot a video there.
Two beers turned to four which then turned to six. Once we’d exhausted the topic of his job, we traded stories and chatted away for a few hours. Unfortunately, largely due to having grown up in Apartheid South Africa, he holds quite racist views and he later revealed in a hushed voice that he was a Trump voter. When I asked where the nearest supermarket was, he offered to drive me. Despite having witnessed him knock back about six glasses of wine, I reasoned that the odds of him crashing on a journey that short were in our favour – so I accepted. Slurring his speech as he drove, we said our farewells as he dropped me off.
I spent the evening drinking and eating pizza by the pool with three or four other hostel members. The hostel’s atmosphere was good and it made it hard to leave. That said, I couldn’t wait to get cracking.
I woke early on the Wednesday and packed up the bike slowly. After a few farewells and photographs, I mounted the saddle started pedalling. Unfortunately, I had to stop after just 1 km to let a torrential downpour pass over. Even more frustratingly, I had to stop again after just 4 km for another heavy shower.
Itching to get going, I ploughed on and soon found good rhythm. The kilometres ticked away nicely as I ploughed North up the A1A. However, the added weight was a clear hindrance. With flat terrain, smooth tarmac and fresh legs, I should have been flying. In reality, I could barely break 25 km/h.
By the time it got to about half 1, it was getting bloody hot and I was beginning to wilt. This was concerning as I hadn’t passed a shop for a long time and I was soon cursing my decision to fill one of my three water bottles with dry pasta shells. Luckily though, I soon came across a town called Palm Beach. As I cruised through, I scanned in all directions like a meerkat on the lookout for somewhere that sold fluid. When I eventually found a petrol station, the Diet Coke I had has never tasted so good. I made it a fairly long pause as the heat of the day raged and I made use of the town’s free wifi.
I then wove my way West, crossing a huge bridge before spending more or less the remainder of the day on the US 1 Highway. I pulled over at a McDonald’s about an hour from the campsite I was heading to for a large Sprite and a little break from the sun. It was in fact the first time I’ve gone round a drive-thru on a bicycle. A group of construction workers were there working on the restaurant and two black guys approached me – drawn in by my heavily laden bike. When I explained what I was doing in America, one exclaimed,
“Wow man that is badass”!
“It is rather, isn’t it?” I replied, sounding whiter than freshly laundered bed linen. I’ve seen a whole range of different reactions when I’ve told people about this trip but I enjoyed theirs the most.
I soon found the campsite and was allocated a pitch in between an alligator-infested swamp and an arguing couple with brilliant Southern accents. In fact, the wife’s voice sounded identical to the accent which Reese Witherspoon’s character adopts in naughties chick flick Sweet Home Alabama. It was an absolute pleasure to eavesdrop.
Unfortunately, the site didn’t have a shop selling food and camping supplies as I anticipated. I had the food and I had the stove. What I lacked was a fuel to burn since I was talked out of taking my gas canister on the plane. I really couldn’t face a four mile cycle back the way I came to buy food and I daren’t ask my neighbours. Instead of helplessly staring at dry pasta shells and a jar of ragu, I demolished a massive bag of Starbursts, wrote my diary and crashed at about 10.
On account of the humidity and rather gravelly surface of my pitch, it will go down as one of the most uncomfortable nights of my life. Nonetheless, I packed up and got going quickly satisfying my stomach at a cafe. It was one of those places you see in the films where waitresses mill around the shop floor saying “More coffee, sugar?”. I almost considered taking up coffee just so I could be asked this. Ravenous, I ordered a double cheeseburger with chips. Naively of me, it arrived with potato chips – not chips chips, but in the end it didn’t matter. The burger was about the size of a baby’s cranium and by the time I finished it I had to admit defeat for fear of chundering everywhere.
Fit to burst, I carried on North for a little while before swinging by a Post Office to send some clothes home as I had over packed slightly. I rammed five items of clothing into a massive envelope and handed it over the counter to be shipped. To some, this would have seemed like an unrewarding way to spend $34. But over a four-and-a-half week tour, I reasoned that losing three pounds of weight would aggregate to a smart move.
I cracked on on the US 1 – nipping off occasionally for fluid. The brilliant thing about the road was that it had goods and services the whole way as well as a generous cycle lane. What it did lack however was a sea view.
After about 70 km, I came across a gun shop and couldn’t resist popping in to have a look round. Unfortunately, the owner caught me urinating just to the left of his building and he came outside with a furrowed brow and a 9 mm on his hip.
“Not the place to be taking a piss, dude”
“Sorry – I was desperate”.
Despite this shaky start, I came inside and we ended up having a really good chat. Fascinated about America’s gun culture, I bombarded him with questions. He explained how the process of buying a gun works and insisted it was water-tight. In truth, I’m yet to be convinced that it is. Debates sparked off about whether police should be armed as well as gun control in general and we were completely at odds. He argued that if you’ve got a terrorist running at you with a machete, having a gun will solve the problem. But I think if you introduce guns, a terrorist is just going to opt for that weapon and wreak even more havoc. He spoke scornfully about Democrats, liberals and in particular Hilary Clinton. In fact, he said that the ‘online loophole’ which Clinton pledged to close was nonsense as the purchase still goes through a supplier like his and the same background checks are run.
After one or two route suggestions as well as a shooting range apparently worth visiting, he wished me well and I pedalled off.
After about 80 km, I headed East over an enormous bridge out to the barrier islands to get back on the A1A. Unfortunately, after a little while heading North, a shop owner informed me that I wouldn’t find a motel up the road for a very long time. Keen to stay on the coast, I called it a day earlier than planned and back-tracked a mile South to a Hoilday Inn. When I got to the hotel’s reception, I asked,
“How much is your cheapest room?”
“$130”. I winced.
“Does that include breakfast?”
“It doesn’t, no”. I winced again but reasoned that I’d had three very inexpensive nights and I was due a comfortable night.
The room was lovely to be fair and it was a great opportunity to wash kit and catch up on correspondence.
The evening took an unexpected turn when a man of about 40 approached my table when dining in the restaurant. He introduced himself and asked if I remembered the girl who showed me to my table. He then dropped her telephone number onto the table in front of me, shook my hand and said, “Welcome to the States”. The girl, Peyton, popped round to my room after her shift and we chatted for a little while. Surprisingly, her knowledge of US politics and US geography was worse than mine. What’s more, despite being a female of student age, she voted for Trump last November. Florida was a fascinating result on the election night – shifting back and forth between Trump and Clinton before Trump edged it with 49.0% to Hilary’s 47.8%. I wholly expected to come across more Clinton supporters on this trip and that Trump voters wouldn’t wish to reveal themselves for fear of embarrassment – but so far this was certainly not the case.
Perhaps more alarming was when Peyton said she believed in aliens and that the government was hiding it. When I told her “you’ve been watching too much Men In Black” she said she’d “seen something in the sky one time”. She then conspired that the government deliberately puts carcinogens into food to kill off sections of the population to avoid overcrowding. After a while I gave up trying to talk sense into her and just humoured her.
After she left, I did a bit of writing and crashed.