Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Size does matter

Total distance: 4225.7 km

By Sundance:

Hello one and all, and welcome to our latest blog update. Probably the last for the year (but not the decade, since the decade actually begins in 2011. Sheeesh, didn't people get the message in 1999/2000?). As promised last time, we thought we'd fill you in on a few more details of what we've been up to, before moving forward to the stuff we have done and seen since our last, brief blog update.

After arriving in New Orleans to be received by our host Darryl, we headed off to Shereveport, in the opposite corner of Louisiana (by car!) for a couchsurfing.com get-together. The Saturday was spent hanging out, browsing a flea market, and cooking spicy food. The Sunday morning we spent engaging in that traditional Southern pastime of shooting beer cans and trying to get pickup trucks out of mud. We then got in Darryl's car and headed back to NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana), stopping briefly to pick up a Spanish-English dictionary from the flea market. The fellow who promised he'd have one turned out not to, so he purchased one from another stall and gave it to us for free which was pretty nice. We then hit the highway, Yana taking her turn to drive some of the distance and get reacquainted with driving on the "wrong" side of the road. We got back to NOLA safely, but rather late at night. The next day Darryl drove us to the French Quarter and we wandered around looking at  various galleries, shops, old buildings, and sampling some local food including coconut macaroons (yum!). In the evening it started raining heavily, and Darryl came to collect us before taking us to Frenchman street to wander into a bar with a pretty good band (the Jazz Vipers) doing their thing. Actually, as Darryl arrived to pick us up we were standing talking with a busker who had impressed us, but hadn't made any money at all that day, so we gave him a couple of bucks because he definitely deserved better than he was getting.

On the Tuesday Darryl kindly loaned us his car to go driving around town and do some shopping, while he went to the pizza restaurant his is opening with a friend. We picked up some new bike tubes, and then went in search of cookbooks that would make good xmas presents, looking in a few 2nd hand bookstores as well as Borders, before finding some that we liked. This also gave us a good chance to see some of the pretty old buildings and sweeping oak trees growing in the old neighbourhoods of New Orleans. It had been a wet few days, and apparently this December was the rainiest month ever in New Orleans' recorded history, before the month was even half-over. But Wednesday was sunny and we were able to get on our bikes and ride around the main park, then down to the waterfront and catch the free ferry across to the opposite bank, where we looked around at the pretty houses before riding back to Darryl's. When Thursday came we packed our bags and headed out of town, as the rain whipped around us once again, to head towards the town of Houma, where we had arranged to stay for the night via the warmshowers.org website. We stopped for a bite to eat at a cool little Mexican cafe called The Blue Tomato, where the staff were very friendly and impressed with our ride. And speaking of food, Darryl's pizza restaurant is called MRS Pizza, and should be opening on or around New Year's Day, so if you're in NOLA, check it out. Anyway, after lunch we headed towards the Huey P. Long bridge, hoping to cross over to the other side of the river, but it was extremely busy with traffic, and a cop pulled us over before we could get onto the bridge and explained that no bikes were allowed, and that the "no bikes allowed" signs had been taken down while construction work was being done on the bridge. He was pretty friendly about it, and we asked if we could cross somewhere else. He hummed and hawed and eventually told us that the next bridge along (quite some way away) was not much better, but was not patrolled so we might be able to sneak across.

Well we could have gone the other way and taken a ferry, but we've done every centimeter of this trip under our own power, so we really wanted to find a bridge crossing instead. We'd also decided that the attempt to extend out visas was a wild-goose chase, so we just had to get out of the USA before our visas expired, making a crossing to the other side of the Mississippi essential. And although it was raining, we had a tailwind so we rode along the river levee trail until we came to the bridge. An interstate. Crap. We thought about our options, including the next bridge along (about 25 km further upstream), chatted to the folks in the nearby service station who told us that we were just as likely to be stopped at that bridge as this one, and that the nearby ferry had been out of commission since hurricane Katrina, and eventually decided that we had very little choice but to ride across. And so we did. It was a bit scary, but there was a sizeable shoulder on the road, we got to the other side, and pulled into a service station there to ask directions for the easiest way to Houma. Then after steeling ourselves for the rain again, we headed out. Sundance rode into a puddle, which turned out to be a fairly deep hole, but apart from that things were uneventful. And then a cop car pulled us over. Apparently someone driving over the bridge had called the police on their mobile phone (because using a phone while driving isn't illegal!), and the police had been looking for us. The officer in question was very gruff and told us that we shouldn't be riding bicycles in this wet weather, and that we should have found a place to stay for the night and waited until morning instead of crossing the bridge on our bikes. Why? Would a pedestrian footbridge across the Mississippi have magically appeared overnight? Here's a clue Louisiana, if you make it impossible/illegal for people to get from A to B, then people who need to get from A to B will break or bend the law - not because they want to, but because they have no other choice. And before you say we should have found a truck which could have given us a lift across the river, let us point out that that would have been hitch-hiking, which is a violation of federal law, as far as we're aware. So there!

In any case, he said we wouldn't be allowed to keep riding to Houma, so we had to pull into the local hospital, and call our host, Perry, to come and collect us, load our bikes into her truck, and drive us to her house where we met her hubby, were fed chicken curry, and got a good night's rest.

By Yana:

Unfortunately, Perry had other places to be very early the next morning, so we didn't get to chat more with her and her hubby.  A shame, really, as they really seemed like our sort of people.  In the light of all of this, we dragged ourselves out of bed pretty early, packed up our gear, and got back on our bikes.  As Perry had collected us on the previous evening, we had to make our way back to that point in order to connect the lines in our trip - considering the lengths we had gone to the previous night to ride every inch of the way, we were not about to break that clean record only a day later!  So off we went again, riding into one of those familiar stiff headwinds, back towards Luling.  We stopped at a few petrol stations, hoping to find someone with a pick up truck going the same way who would be able to take us there, as it would have been a pretty big extra distance for us to ride the whole way.  We asked a few people, but had little luck, although one nice lady donated some money to the cause of our trip.  That makes her the second person to have done so, I believe.

By early afternoon, we had resigned ourselves to our fate of having to ride all the way back and into that headwind.  Just as we got on the road, however, someone honked behind us - it was our nice lady, who introduced herself as Pat.  As it turned out, the trunk of her car was really quite spacious, so she offered to take us.  We gladly accepted, and with a bit of creativity, we managed to get everything stowed.

Pat dropped us off at the same spot where Perry had picked us up the night before, and we got ourselves reassembled and packed up.  Considering we had now already been to Houma, we decided to go a slightly different route instead.  We still had to head into the same general direction, but luckily the main highway had a smaller parallel road that we could take instead, which was a relief.  We did have to do a few smallish stretches on the big road, but by and large, it wasn't so bad.  As we started to approach the city cluster that Houma is part of, we veered off into Thibodeaux instead, at which point it was getting dark.  It was a bit irritating to note that yes, we had lost a day's worth of travel at the hands of the cop who had pulled us over the previous night, but what's done is done.  We stopped at a petrol station for a rest, pondering our accommodation options for the night.  The young man who worked there (I believe his name was Andrew, but it's a little hard to keep track of every name we come across) offered us lodging, though he was a little out of our way.  Around that time, another fellow wandered in, and also offered us some floor space.  As he was within spitting distance of the petrol station, we accepted his offer instead, with apologies to Andrew, and the promise we'd pop in and say hi before we left in the morning.

Our host for the night introduced himself as Mark, and turned out to be a cop who works in Franklin.  It was kind of a reminder of the fact that for the most part, we have had a very positive experience with the police on this trip.  We actually had a very nice chat with Mark, and he ended up donating quite a few police patches to our collection that we had started since meeting Clint back in Kentucky.  Mark also told us that in Franklin, where he works and where we were planning to head the next day, they would sometimes let weary cyclists like ourselves stay at the fire station overnight.  Very helpful indeed.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, and we got up reasonably early, as Mark and his son Aaron had places to be.  We got ourselves out of the house reasonably quickly, and once Mark had driven off, sat in the sunny carport and had breakfast.  We popped back into the petrol station to say hi to Andrew, where we met a few curious folks.  One of them became the third person to donate to the cause of our trip.  We must be looking increasingly tired and bedraggled, if the monetary donations are becoming more frequent.

We hopped on our bikes, and high-tailed it towards Franklin, which was a respectable distance away.  We rode past various marshy sort of landscapes, which were also thankfully quite flat.  It did pose the question whether it was home to any alligators, though we didn't find out.  There were certainly a lot of vultures around though, happily processing the roadkill.  We certainly see more skeletons and rotting carcasses on the road now, which is somewhat interesting.

Although the road was flat, the road surface was absolutely woeful, in typical Louisiana fashion.  For the most part, we do like the place, as it is very verdant, and the climate is quite mild in winter.  Nevertheless, the nobbly roads are quite hard on the old knees if you're riding a bike.  Still, we made it into Franklin that night, having gone nigh on 100km that day.  Go us!  We also followed Mark's advice about seeing if we could get lodging at the fire station.  It turned out we could, and we gratefully spread out our sleeping bags on the spare beds.  Sure, there was the occasional extremely loud phone call, but other than that, it was downright luxurious by our usual travel standards.

We got up early again the next morning,  with the intention  of heading to Kaplan.  Once again, a fairly long day.  We had more rivers to cross, as you do in that kind of bayou country.  But hey, it meant we continued to have flat roads.  I guess every kind of terrain has its drawbacks in the end.  We got into Kaplan after dark, and during our obligatory petrol station stop, met a fellow named Blaine in a black Chevy Impala.  Like most black people we have met, he boggled very expressively when we told him how far we'd come on our bikes.  Even better, he had a place where we could pitch our tent for the night.  Turns out he owned a couple of properties in the area, one of them being a vacant lot of land, so we had a place to stay for the night.  It was going to be a cold night, but that only  meant that we could be quite grateful for our awesome little tent.

We got up  reasonably early in the morning, as we were once again aiming for a pretty long haul.  As we had expected, it had gotten quite cold overnight.  Not that it had made us uncomfortable, the inside of the tent had remained quite toasty, but when I went to dry off the condensation, I discovered a thin sheet of ice on the inside of the tent fly!  Hooee!

We packed up our gear and had our breakfast at the petrol station where we had met Blaine the previous night.  There were a few truckers having breakfast there too, and we got to hear them speaking in a truly funky dialect, which made it hard to keep track sometimes when they switched from English into French and back again.  At times they would speak predominantly one language, peppered with words from the other, or the other way round.  It is of course the natural thing to do when you speak more than one language and are around people who speak the same set of languages that you do, but it can be a little unnerving when you're not used to it.

We hopped back on our bikes, and rode past some more beautiful trees (if I remember correctly, Perry from Houma told us they were called royal oaks), and over more flat but nobbly roads.  It was actually quite difficult to keep going at over 20km/h for the first hour, as we were riding into a slight headwind, and the wind caused by trucks coming from the opposite direction would always slow us down by a km/h or two.  Still, we took a break in one of those many little towns with names that are hard to remember, and kept our momentum going pretty well.  Blaine from Kaplan actually drove past at one point, and greeted us.  It was kind of nice.

We put some more distance behind us, and stopped for lunch in a slightly larger town (Lake Arthur), and also put up our tent to dry in the sun a bit.  A very prudent move, as it came out of the bag pretty much soaking wet.  We then continued onwards, with the intention of getting to Lake Charles before the day was out.  We stopped briefly in the smaller town of Hayes though, for the sake of a toilet and some fruit juice.  While guarding the bikes, I also got to find out why so many Americans leave their huge whopping cars idling while they pop into shops to do whatever it is they do in there: apparently, they want to cut down on the amount of times they actually start the engine, as the starters for those big diesel engines have a limited lifespan, and are expensive to replace.  While I can sympathise with that, it still boggles my mind though how much that kind of thing must increase America's carbon footprint.

Meanwhile, Sundance got talking with Michael, the gregarious fellow who owned the little general store we were stopped at.  Michael was absolutely floored by our trip, and offered us a place to stay for the night.  That was actually a little bit of a tough choice for us, as the guy seemed really nice, and we figured it'd be great to hang out and chat with him, but at the same time, we had also hoped to get to Lake Charles that day, which was still a reasonable distance away, and we still had plenty of daylight.  In the end, we came up with a solution:  We would continue to ride until it got dark, and then Michael would pick us up from there, we'd stay with him, and he'd then bring us back there in the morning.  Certainly suited us well, so we got back on our bikes and rode on.  It was actually the first day on which we managed 80km before sundown, which we were very pleased with.  Michael picked us up at a petrol station on the outskirts of Lake Charles, and we had a very nice evening hanging out with him and his family. We even got to watch a bit of Forrest Gump on TV, which seemed appropriate since we could sympathise with the simplicity of his approach to running (in our case, cycling) across the USA; "When I was tired, I slept. When I was hungry, I ate."


We had a slightly slower start than usual the next morning, but luckily, we were helped along by a tremendous tailwind once we got back on our bikes.  Michael took us back to the petrol station, and we said our fond farewells, during which he also donated some money to our trip.  He was certainly one of those people who went above and beyond the normal kindness we have received on this trip, and we were very grateful.  Extremely nice guy.  Perhaps if you ever find yourself in Hayes, Louisiana, you should pop by the general store and say hi to him.

We rode quite steadily throughout the day, although the weather wasn't the best.  When we decided we couldn't put off lunch any longer, it was actually raining, and we knocked on the door of one of the places in the tiny little strip of a town we were passing through, asking if we could take shelter under their great big tree while we made our sandwiches.  Continuing in the southern vein, the family who lived there were a very friendly lot.  While their kid, Bryce, tore around the yard showing us his miniature pony and one of their crazy chickens (apparently it is called a "top hat"), which was black with a shock of white feathers on its head.  One of his pasttimes was catching tiny little catfish and perch in the nearby ditch, and he was doing his darndest to keep us entertained.  We also had a nice chat with the parents, Crystal and Brad, who bestowed plenty of sugary things still left over from Halloween on us.  It was one of those times when we suspected that if we had asked, we would have had a turf surf right there.  However, we were determined to get into Texas that night, so we headed onwards.


It was getting quite late as we set off again, but we still managed to make use of some daylight, and went at a reasonable pace towards the Texan border.  It was, however, well and truly dark by the time we entered Texas.


By Sundance:

We pulled into the first service station we found, in Deweyville, and devoured a pizza and some chicken tenders which tasted delicious, although that may have had a lot to do with the distance we'd covered.  We then set about finding a place to stay, by heading to the police station and asking if there was a local campground or rest area we could use. However the police seemed to be elsewhere, as the station was unattended. We did find an open wi-fi network at the adjacent library though, and a quick search of the weather forecast showed we were expecting thunderstorms, so finding an indoor area to stay seemed like a great idea. On the assumption that in a small town everyone knows everyone, we knocked on a door, explained our situation, and asked the person who answered if they knew where the local police/sheriff may be, in the hope that they would be able to arrange for us to stay in the fire station, civic centre, or the like. After a lot of phone calls and chasing back-and-forth, we met the local sheriff and deputy, but eventually were accommodated in a local church gymnasium, and were met by an enthusiastic woman named Brandy who was busy running an end-of-year social dance but took time out to ask us all about Australia. She was very friendly and said she would have loved to talk to us all night. We finally climbed into our beds and awoke the following morning to clear skies, rather than the drizzle and thunder we'd expected, so we decided to make the most of it and hit the road promptly (but not before I tried to shoot some hoops on the basketball court while riding across the court on my bike. Unsuccessfully). A short-cut we'd hoped to take turned out to lead into private roads, so we detoured north and then across through Buna, Evadale and Kountze to arrive that night in the town of Saratoga. We were pretty pooped, having done over 100 km, but we were pushing ourselves, hoping to make it to Austin to share xmas in some way with my friend Peter and his family. The woman at the local fireworks shop rang around while we ate dinner (generously donated for free by the staff of Mama's Cafe), and found us a place to sleep for the night in the parsonage at one of the local churches. We were also able to use some internet access and the bathrooms at another church (as the water was off in the parsonage). We set our watch alarms for a very early start, and retired again. 

The following morning we were up before sunrise. There were flashes of lightning, so we were glad to be indoors, but by the time we had packed our gear and were ready to hit the road, around sunrise, the rain was clearing. We intended to cover a long distance that day, so we set off, into the worst headwind we'd had to face all trip! We pushed on valiantly throughout the day, but the fates were against us. We had not quite made 80 km when my front tyre began to wear thin, the tube starting to poke through a weak spot in the rubber. We were forced to stop and pull into a driveway, and ask the homeowner if we could use his space to pull a bike apart and change a tyre. The owner turned out to be a friendly and welcoming fellow called Dave who persuaded us to stay at his house for the night, drove us into the nearby town of Conroe to buy dinner groceries, and allowed us to set up mattresses in his barn, and get online to use Skype to call our respective parents for xmas, despite the fact that we were accidentally intruding on his family xmas get-together. So we were once again very grateful for our good fortune, for the kindness of strangers, and we got to stay in a barn for xmas eve! 


The following morning we had a slightly special breakfast (Yana got bacon and eggs, I basically avoid eating mammals) instead of cereal, and then bid our fond farewells to Dave and set off intending to reach the town of Brenham, where we had arranged via warmshowers.org to be hosted for the night. It was a less windy, sunnier day than the previous day, but Yana got a flat which delayed us, and we didn't make such fast progress as we'd hoped, so that despite calling our host to update her on our progress, by the time we called her to say we were in range of Brenham she simply said she'd already gone to bed and wished us luck finding a place to spend the night! While I understand our lateness wasn't exactly convenient for her, it wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs for us spending xmas day riding 120 km in near-freezing conditions, instead of spending it with family eating turkey and ham! So in a certain amount of exhaustion, we just knocked on the nearest door and asked the fellow who came to the door (clearly out of bed himself) if we could put a tent up in his yard. By the time we'd started unrolling the tent, he came out fully-clothed and mentioned that he had a spare room in his shed which would be more convenient for us. It turned out he had a sofa-bed and a portable bed/cot in there, both of which were single beds, but we spread the mattresses on the floor, put our thermarests on top, and our sleeping bags, and had a very comfortable night's sleep. We awoke early on boxing day and put everything back the way we'd found it. Then we hopped on our bikes, stopped in Brenham for breakfast at a Mexican place, and then pushed on. I think we were a little afraid to jinx our trip, because we didn't say to each other that we would get to Austin that night, but by the time we'd pushed through the town of Giddings, then Paige, and reached McDade we didn't really want to give up, and had reached a silent agreement that it was Austin or bust. Even though the highway we were forced to travel on didn't have the same generous shoulders we'd grown accustomed to in Texas, after McDade things improved, and we powered on, the lights of Austin eventually spreading out before us. We had to pause briefly when Yana hit a large chunk of wood in the dark, which knocked her wheel out of alignment (but it was easily fixed by loosening and re-tightening the wheel) and finally we made our way into Austin, and arrived at Peter's place (to everyone's amazement) having cycled an epic 160.44 km (by my odometer) since the start of the day. Peter provided us with delicious left-overs from his fridge, a sizeable futon to sleep on, and we attempted to apologise to our legs for abusing them so thoroughly. 


The last few days have been rest days. We've delighted in seeing the food markets in Austin, buying far too many groceries, and cooking up lots of yummy Korean food. Peter and his wife Crystal are foodie like us, so it's been a lot of fun playing in a well-equipped kitchen and sampling each other's favourite recipes.


In a few days we will have to resort to catching a bus, though. Our visas expire on new year's day, and so we don't have enough time to ride out to the border with Mexico. We'll be forced by legal requirements, not frailty of muscle or determination, to break our ride and rely on motorised transport, which is a little annoying. If not for that cop setting us back after crossing the bridge out of New Orleans, or that insane headwind on xmas eve, we might have made it all the way by bike. But for now we will head into Mexico for an indeterminate length of time. If Mexico goes well, I guess we'll travel across to the west coast there. If not, we'll try to return to the USA at some stage and continue our ride to California. The weather in Mexico will undoubtedly be warmer, which is appealing. As usual, we'll make it up as we go along. But we've definitely learned that Texas really is a big place. Distances and travel times are larger than we expected, but on the plus side the shoulders on the roads are also huge. And as you may have noticed, the blog posts are bigger too. Size really does matter, in more ways than one.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

We're still here (wherever here is!)

Total distance: 3525.9 km

By Sundance:

Okay, just a quick update to let everyone who reads this blog (both of you), know that we're still going, even though we haven't updated in a while. Since last time we've spent a weekend in Shreveport hanging out with couchsurfers, then headed back to New Orleans and spent a few days looking around the French Quarter, looking for xmas presents, riding around town on our bikes, riding through a torrential downpour to the area southwest of New Orleans , and we're currently passing through New Iberia, spending a few minutes online in a Tourist Info centre.

The landscape has changed from swamp and bayou to sugar cane plantations, and it reminds me of both Mexico and Queensland. And the weather is beautiful. Simply beautiful!

More details to follow when we have more time to spend online, I promise.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

One small step

Total distance: 3277.4 km


Some days on this trip really stand out as highlights. Days when it all seems like a delight, and the hard work slogging up hills and through bad weather pays off. Thursday was one of those days.

Our night behind the petrol station proved to be a noisy one indeed, but at least we (and the tent) managed to remain quite dry, which is a huge blessing when it comes to getting moving in the morning.  We made sure to get our tent packed up pretty quickly, as apparently the manager of the place didn't actually know about us camping out back, even though the people working there had given us permission to camp.  We spent a little bit of time on breakfast and maps and checking Sundance's newly patched tyre, but still got going fairly promptly.  Luckily, the highway was nowhere near as busy as it had been the previous night, and we had a reasonably stress-free cruise along it until the time came for us to turn right on the supposedly rough and nasty road we had been advised against.

Americans are nothing if not cautious. The "terrible" road was nice and quiet, and with none of the crazy race drivers we had been warned about.  Mind you, we were wise to have waited until daylight to head down this road, because in the dark we would have missed the beautiful scenery. We happily ambled along, enjoying the wonderfully sunny weather and discussing the apparent ethnic divide in people's reactions to us.  Just before we had set off on our bikes that morning, a pair of black girls had come up to us and asked what we were up to.  They were really impressed when we told them, and asked to have their photo taken with us, which we happily went along with.  Now, we have noticed that white people tend to tell us to be safe, ask us if we have lost our minds, point out the discomforts we are courting, and so on.  By comparison, African Americans tend to get really excited and enthusiastic about our trip, and kind of treat us like we are celebrities of some sort.  It's interesting, because we get the feeling that although segregation is no longer enforced, it still seems to prevail in a voluntary form, with black and white cultures viewing and reacting to the world in very different ways.  We have a theory that white people are generally more reserved than black folks, and find their boisterous joie-de-vivre to be intimidating - leading to the (in our experience, completely mistaken) impression that African Americans are dangerous or unruly. With that in mind, it makes us all the happier that both ethnic groups seem to welcome us equally.

In any case, as we rode on, the landscape continued to become more coastal, and after a few kilometres, the bitumen stopped, and we were left with a packed dirt road.  We shrugged and kept going, and found this to be one of our most enjoyable stretches of riding yet.  The road was basically completely abandoned, we were surrounded by beautiful countryside, and the dirt underneath our tyres was getting sandier and sandier as we went along, occasionally riding through large, shallow puddles.  We actually also figured out a way of mounting the camera on the handlebars of Yana's bike, so we have a few little videos of us cruising along that bit.  Might have to see about getting that uploaded sometime.

After a brief discussion we decided to make a detour, in the name of actually hitting the beach and the Gulf of Mexico.  It meant tacking about 16km onto our day, but we figured it would be worth it.  We finished our little meander along the road and past the Katrina-splintered trees, crossed the freeway, and found ourselves back on a bitumen road.  We had a very nice tailwind as we headed for the beach, and upon our arrival, we took our various victory photos, as we had now officially crossed the United States north to south, and not by the most efficient route, either.



Of course, we also made sure to symbolically dip our front wheels into the Atlantic:

 


After a celebratory serving of ginger snaps, and a Moon landing-like footprints-and-photos interval on the beach, we headed back to the freeway, braving a stiff headwind in order to do so.   As we would have to follow the freeway for a while, it was very nice to see that there was an access road on the side that we could go on instead.  Unfortunately, that one petered out after a while, and we had to move onto the real thing.  Luckily though, the traffic was reasonably sedate, and we cruised our way to the Mississippi Welcome Centre, which is where the tours of the Stennis Space Centre start.  This was probably the least welcoming Welcome Centre we've encountered, and it took a little bit of cajoling to get the folks there to let us put our bags somewhere safer than just the front porch, but they ended up locking them away in a little storage room, and we locked our bikes to a railing.  We were just in time for the last tour of the day, actually, as the dirt road and the little jaunt to the beach had consumed quite a bit of time.

As we waited for the bus that would take us to Stennis, we had a look around the little bus terminal building, which, among other things, boasted a roughly 2 metre tall space shuttle made of lego pieces.  Wowie!


The driver for the brief bus ride into and around the Space Center was extremely informative, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of what types of engines were tested where, and when. We got to see the various test stand with flame-pits where every engine that has flown a NASA rocket since the inception of the Apollo program, from Saturn-V engines to space shuttle main engines, to experiemental linear aerospike engines and the engines being designed for the planned return missions to the Moon and then to Mars. Unfortunately they don't have a schedule of when you can see the tests actually happening, since in the past too many people showed up to watch and complained when the tests got delayed by technical factors that it became a publicity issue for NASA. Apparently some people don't understand that a test is a test, not a rehearsed stage-show.

After seeing the various facilities, the bus dropped us off at the on-site museum, where we grabbed a bite to eat in the 1950s-themed cafeteria, then looked around at the exhibits including some office furniture that belonged to Wehrner Von Braun, the command module capsule from Apollo 4, a real chunk of moonrock, and the like. Sundance's favourite exhibit, though, was the real N1 engine (the same kind that was used on the Saturn-V rockets) out the front.

Before too long it was time to re-board the bus and head back to the Welcome Center where we collected our bags and bikes, saddled up and rode off into the sunset, literally. On a few occassions during this trip we've intended to head west, but the cold weather has prompted us to go further south. Having reached the coast, we really do have to go west now, at least for a while, so we'll be heading into the sunset from now on. And what a gorgeous sunset we started this leg of the trip with. We rolled down a quiet back road towards the Louisiana border, through the town of Pearlington, and marvelled at the hues of the sunset on the clouds, the stillness of the evening, and the beauty of the trees weighed down with dangling moss. Photos don't really do it justice, but we can try;



We crossed over into Louisiana, and rode along with a banshee of a tailwind, powering through the 2000-mile mark of our journey, along a pleasantly flat, smooth stretch of road which unfortunately seemed to go on far too long. Eventually we grew weary and stopped for directions and snacks. We wound up at a restaurant in a Vietnamese community to the east of New Orleans where the food was tasty but the service was patronising (i.e. the waitress clearly thought that since we're Caucasian it was acceptable to tell us not to bother with reading certain parts of the menu, brought us western cutlery without asking if we would be using chopsticks, and the food required a great deal of extra hot sauce to make it acceptably spicy). We also received a voice mail message from our couchsurfing host, Darryl, checking how we were going, and discovered that we were out of phone credit so needed to buy some more before we could call him back and let him know our ETA. We stopped at a petrol station, astonished the folks working there with our tales of cross-country bike exploits, and then powered the last stretch of the way into New Orleans, to Darryl's place. There we were warmly received, dumped our gear, showered, and fell into bed, feeling extremely accomplished.

The following day we arose fairly late, and set out with Darryl for the town of Shreveport in the north-west of the state. We're currently at a get-together of local members of the couchsurfing community. The drive took us through Baton Rouge and on to Lafayette, where we stopped to pick up some slacklining gear at a camping shop, and said hello to the staff at the local rockclimbing gym. We had a Cajun meal for dinner, bought some groceries, and headed out to the farm where the get-together was happening. A group of folks were gathered around a campfire, drinking and chatting, so we met everyone, set up our tent, engaged in a drawn-out alcohol-fuelled political discussion, and eventually made it to bed.

The next morning (barely, morning) we arose to a soggy, foggy day. We headed to a local flea market to look around, where Yana bought a bracelet and necklace for a whole $2. Then we returned to the farm, for a yummy dinner of chicken stew prepared by our host Josh. Sundance was feeling creative and made a veggie curry to go with it, and eventually after chewing the fat with the other people present we climbed into our tent and headed for sleepy-land.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Three! Three thousand kilometers, ah-hah-hah-ha!

Total distance: 3159.8km 
By Yana:

We are getting so very close to the Gulf Coast now.  But more on that later.  As we currently have wireless coverage, I thought I'd fill y'all (tee-hee!) in on the last few days.

We left the abode of Rich the Santa and his clan quite late in the afternoon.  It was one of those days when you start so late it seems almost stupid to go at all, especially as Rich and Shan had graciously offered that we could stay another night; however, the weather was just too gorgeous to waste, especially as the next day was supposed to be rainy.

Rich drove us back to the spot from where he had picked us up, and we unloaded our bikes next to the servo.  We said our goodbyes, and then headed out onto the road.  As we realised after a few kilometers, we were actually not taking the one we wanted, but one that was parallel, and would eventually lead in the wrong direction.  Luckily, there were plenty of little connectors, and we got ourselves on track easily enough.

We actually went at a decent speed, considering the reasonably hilly terrain and surprisingly rough bitumen.  I'm sure you've encountered the kind I'm talking about: the kind that seems to basically be small gravel all kind of glued together.  Doesn't make such a difference in a car, but you do feel it on a bike, in terms of speed and effort.  But I can gladly say that although some of those hills were kind of obnoxious, none of them were as bad as some of the ones we braved in southern Indiana and Illinois.

A little before sundown we passed the 3000-km-point of our journey, and paused for a brief celebratory photo, as has become out tradition. We were still a little way away from Columbia, which we had been aiming for, and so a little further on as it started to get dark we decided to try for a turf surf in the little smattering of houses we were riding through.  I knocked on the door closest to us, and was greeted by a fellow named David, who was nice enough to let us pitch our tent.  We found ourselves a decent spot and set up, and David wandered out for a chat.  He showed us his greenhouse, in which he was quite successfully growing pineapples!  That just impressed the socks off us, as we haven't  had anywhere near that much luck with pineapples ourselves.  He also had a banana tree, which kind of boggled us, considering the snow there had been only the day before!  Yow!  Mind you, the snow, as it turns out, was a total freak weather pattern.  Anyway, David also generously bestowed on us a few of the oranges and lemons from his garden before trundling back inside.  We made ourselves some dinner by the light of the greenhouse, admired the beautifully clear night sky, and then crawled into our tent.

As it turned out, the clear night sky had been horribly misleading, and the weather forecast quite accurate.  During the night, it started raining with a gleeful vengeance, to the point of us being very grateful for our new and improved skill at putting up the tent, which stops the condensation from getting inside quite as much as it used to, now that we manage to keep the tent fly and the inner from actually touching.  Still, it made for a soggy start, although we made do with it pretty well.  We actually got going in less than three hours, which is pretty good for us on a wet start. We also put the art of making breakfast inside the tent into practice, which kept us warm and dry fairly nicely - even if it did involve a bit of squirming and contortions to move food and plates in and out of our packs within a very confined area.

Despite the continuing rain, the ride was actually quite pleasant, and the countryside beautiful.  We were still going through hilly terrain, but there were enough trees to keep us sheltered from the wind, but also little enough for us to get some beautiful views as we cruised along the roads.  We stopped in the town of Foxworth (at least, I hope that's what it was called, I'm not quite sure now) for what was meant to just be a toilet stop at the first petrol station/convenience store we found.  Instead, we got waylaid by a friendly local who happened to arrive shortly after we did.  As the rain decided to get heavier at that point, we decided that was fine, and the fellow insisted that we try some of the honey he had brought from his own bee hive, as well as some of the food offered by the store we were in, his treat. 

As it turned out, the place was under new management, and they were very grateful that this bloke was enthusiastically evangelising their awesomeness.  He was certainly very friendly, though we had to stifle a bit of a chuckle when he earnestly asked, "You two aren't treehuggers, are you?" Hee hee!  Apparently he felt quite strongly about the breed of environmentalists who disapprove of cows for their methane production.  We decided to be diplomatic about it, and he ended up giving us the jar of honey  he had brought, which we thought was very nice of him.  Very good honey, too.  Certainly a nice change after the jar we had absentmindedly acquired in Ohio that was more corn syrup than honey.  Ick.  He left shortly afterwards, with our thanks.  He actually offered us a place to stay the night, but we declined, as we hadn't traveled very far yet that day.  We found out from one of the people running the place that he was known as Mr Jean.

Luckily, the rain eased up a little, although we of course knew better than to expect it to stop.  We got back on our bikes, and rode on to Columbia, where we made a brief stop at Walmart for ginger snaps and some more bread.  We then hopped onto State route 13 south, and headed towards Poplarville, where our warmshowers.com friend Steve was waiting for us.  It took some riding into the night, but luckily the rain stopped.  It made for a fairly full day, but we eventually made it into Poplarville, at which point we called Steve for further directions.  We actually ended up accepting his offer to pick us up from there, as he was another eight miles or so further south.  We did hesitate, what with wanting to maintain the integrity of having done the entire trip by bike, but we figured that in the worst case, we could just ride back to the point where he had picked us up, and continue from there.

Steve met us in a nearby park, and after our greetings, proceeded to help us load our gear into the back of his pick-up truck.  We made a quick detour for some groceries, as we had not had dinner yet.  It was a fairly short drive to his place, where we got to meet his wife Tanya and some of the various cats and dogs and other critters around the place.  Tanya and Steve treated us to some wonderful vegetable soup and freshly squeezed satsuma orange juice - they had a tree in their garden heavy with fruit, so their citrus juicer was getting quite the work-out.  The juice was absolutely delicious, by the way, it has left us quite tempted to get a satsuma tree of our own.

We made ourselves some dinner, and crawled into bed fairly shortly afterwards - it was quite late by then.  The next day was planned to be a rest day, as the weather forecast was predicting heavy thunderstorms and the like.  No thanks.  We'd actually had grand plans of visiting the Stennis Space Center from there, Tanya even offered to drive us; but as it turns out, security has tightened, so it has to be done from the Welcome Centre further south.  In the light of this, we decided to just stop by there on our way to New Orleans, and spent the day lazing around, only venturing out in the afternoon to meet the various other farmlife.  Tanya, as it turns out, is the proud owner of several large mules, which she rides.  There were also quite a few goats and chickens, not to mention more cats and dogs than you can poke a stick at.  Tanya's cockatiels also kept us entertained, as they were quite constant chirpers.  On of them, amusingly, is named after Russel Crowe.

That evening, Tanya cooked an absolutely wonderful gumbo, while Sundance and I picked a whole lot of satsumas off the tree to make more juice.  Steve was apparently quite impressed with our tenacity, as it can be a bit of a tedious process.  That being said, we were working in a bit of a production line, so it was all going very efficiently.  In any case, as mentioned, the gumbo was delicious, and reaffirmed our plans to learn to make it ourselves.  We packed up most of our gear, so we'd be able to make a reasonably early start the next morning.  The tent was drying reasonably well, which was a blessing.

The next morning, Tanya treated us to a traditional southern breakfast of biscuits (that's scones, to non-Americans) and gravy, and I showed her how to poach eggs the old-fashioned way.  Apparently, she plans to adopt that method, as it's not as messy as frying them in a non-teflon pan.  The day was promising to be beautiful, all bright and warm and sunny, and Tanya did have the time to drive us back to the point where Steve had picked us up, which was wonderful of her.  It certainly saved us some time.  Even better, we found ourselves riding on a smooth road, with an absolutely glorious tailwind.  We were comfortably cruising at 27-29km per hour!  Absolutely brilliant.  Unfortunately, when we stopped at our first junction for a short break, we discovered that Sundance's back tire had sprung a leak.  Doh!  We got it fixed up, but these things eat up valuable time, which is frustrating.  Still, we got back on the fast track, to the point of the scenery getting that sort of look about it that suggests you can't be too far from the beach now.  We stopped at another petrol station for some directions, only to realise upon our departure that the patch on Sundance's flat tire had come off!  Argh!  By the time that was fixed, it was dark, so we got the permission of the petrol station folk to put up our tent in the back.  It will make for a noisy night, as we're right by a freeway, but hey.  It's certainly very convenient that we have wireless internet here... hooray for linksys!  But it's getting late, and tomorrow is going to be full day, as we plan to go onto a tour of the Stennis Space Center and still make it to New Orleans.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Elf-help

Total distance: 2976.4 km

By Sundance:

Our list of helpful friends just keeps growing, last night we got taken in for the night  - by Santa!

We set out yesterday morning from Hazlehurst, with patches of the night's snowfall peppering the trees and the roadside. It was extremely pretty, as our photos will attest when we get around to uploading them. At the moment our 'net connection is a bit slow so we'll wait until another day. We wound our way out of town along a back road and headed through the countryside along Monticello rd. We stopped briefly to check out Katie's Cake Shop (the thougt of pecan pie was making my mouth water) but Katie was busy having a family reunion and quite impolitely told us the shop was closed. So yar boo sucks to her! We rode on, enjoying the sunshine and the clear blue sky, stopped for sandwiches by the roadside and chatted about our expectations and plans for this trip, now that the cold weather has arrived and we may wind up travelling further south than we initially planned.

As we approached Monticello, a fellow in red trousers pulled up next to us, and asked us where we were travelling. It turned out he had walked across the USA for two-and-a-half years, and would love to help us out with accommodation and showers and food. He was also the Santa for the Monticello christmas parade, so we rode into Monticello, watched the parade, and then loaded our bikes into his and his wife's van to spend the night at their place.

So another wonderful act of generosity and kindness has dropped from the sky - we spent the night in a warm bed, had a good meal (plus french toast for breakfast this morning) and a nice discussion about life, travel, religious and political attitudes in the South, and more. Plus we got to watch a few episodes of 'Meet the Natives USA', a show about some polynesian islanders who visit America to learn about the differences and similarities between lifestyles in the two countries. That was kinda cool, since we are also travelling through the USA, having come from an island in the Pacific.

What's the opposite of "Bah, humbug!"?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Friends in high places

Total distance: 2920.4 km

By Sundance:

This past week we've been assisted by all sorts of helpful folks along the way. Nothing too unusual there, it must be said, but it's interesting and at times amusing that police, churches, Walmart managers, and town mayors have been helping us along our way, rather than just the usual folks we bump into in the street.

As you remember from last time, we had turf-surfed with Charles and Merida on our way out of Cleveland, Mississippi. Before we left in the morning they fed us breakfast (including corn grits, which for the curious is another name for polenta), and gave us numerous fresh eggplants, tomatillos, herbs and chillies from their veggie garden. We set out for Greenville, and unfortunately my water bladder slipped off the panier rack while we were riding, and the rear wheel rubbed straight through it causing a huge leak. That held us up for a little while, as we decanted the remaining water into other receptacles and I berated myself for not tying the bladder in place more carefully. We also figured out that you can crack pecans on bike handlebars, so we gobbled up some of them and then set off into Greenville. After a shopping trip at the local Kroger supermarket (while Yana was inside I bemused passers-by by doing stretches in front of the shop), we found a Walmart which stocked replacement water bladders. Now, I have to admit I don't love shopping at Walmart. The first time I bought something there I could hear a little sucking sound as a part of my soul got slurped out. But I have to admit that when you are just passing through a town it's very handy to be able to find everything in one store, rather than hunting around for a grocery store, a camping store, a hardware store, et cetera. After all this bally-hoo it was getting a bit late and we made our way to the State Welcome/Visitor Info Centre (built into an old wooden paddle-boat parked by the road), where we were able to get advice about road conditions, pitch our tent for the night, and I cooked up a scrummy eggplant and tomatillo curry. Ah, fresh ingredients!

The next morning it was raining, but soon that cleared and we made our way to the nearest bridge into Arkansas, determined to stamp-collect yet another "Welcome to ..." signpost in our photo album. In Arkansas we stopped off for lunch at a roadside cafe/restaurant before heading south towards the Louisiana border. We crossed into Louisiana, rode on into the night a bit, and after deciding that a few of the houses we passed looked a little dodgy (rusted-out cars in the yards, and so on) we pitched our tent behind a church  for the night, and enjoyed another curry.

The following morning we were awoken by a thunderstorm at around 3 am. Since we were right next to a church steeple (those things tend to attract lightning strikes being tall and pointy) we crouched into fetal positions on our thermarests (to minimise our contact with the ground, and hence the risk of shocks from electricity grounding out near us) and waited for the storm to pass. Once we climbed out of the tent we made brekkie on the less windy side of the church building and rode south again, passing the Cotton Museum, which turned out to be fascinating. We saw lots of exhibits about how cotton was grown and picked, and collected many fallen pecans from the trees in their yard. And it was free. Bonus! We then proceeded to Lake Providence, where the Visitor's Centre lady allowed us to make lunch and put up our tent and sleeping bags to dry out. We proceeded on to Tallulah, and found that the Visitor's Centre there didn't have a place to pitch a tent. Plus there were no campgrounds in town. We dropped into the local police station, who called around, and finally got the mayor's permission for us to camp on the oval at the town civic centre.

The next morning, and indignant maintenance guy told us off for camping there, but we told him that we had the permission of the mayor himself. He told us he was going to speak to the mayor himself - and that's the last we ever saw of him. I fixed a flat tyre. We then rode east to Delta, intending to cross the old bridge back into Mississippi at Vicksburg, but found that the bridge was closed. The only bridge we could use was the interstate, where bicycles aren't allowed. The woman at the town hall phoned around and apparently you need two weeks advance arrangement and need to buy insurance to cross the old bridge. Pfah! We were just about to ride back to Tallulah and down to Natchez to cross there, when a local cop offered to escort us over the interstate bridge, so we set out to meet him, and with a police escort behind us, blue lights flashing, we rode like celebrities into Vicksburg! At the Welcome Centre there we were told that we might be able to camp behind the local Walmart, and so we made our way down to the shopping centre, asked the customer service people for permission, who asked them manager, who said yes, and so we set up our tent out the back, bought some fresh chicken and veggies, and proceeded to make dinner. When it started to rain we dashed under a parked semi-trailer for shelter, and thus bas born the dish known as Chicken Sub-Semi (a spicy blend of chicken, zucchini, and spring onions, served on rice).

Next morning we were again confronted by folks (somewhat more friendly this time) asking why we were camped where we were. We told them we had the manager's permission. Friends in high places. Then we decamped, and made our way past the tourist info centre at the other side of town. Here they told us that the roads down to our next port of call were quite busy, without much shoulder. It had also been several days since we'd showered, so they arranged for us to drop in at the YMCA, and use the facilities. By the time we got there and got showered it was getting late, but the friendly folks were more than happy for us to put our mattresses down in a meeting room and cook dinner at in their kitchen. So yes, you can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal... it really is fun to stay at the YMCA. Although we covered a grand total of only about 10 km that day.

It's worth noting that by this time we'd decided to keep heading south, to New Orleans. Our original goal was California, via Texas, New Nexico and Arizona, but the weather is starting to turn cold, so we have been aiming south  more and more.  We'll figure out where to go from New Orleans once we get there. Presumably Mexico. Near the coast, where it's warm. And then cut across to the west coast of the Panama isthmus somehow. Isthmus is such a great word. I love using it. Isthmus. Isthmus. Isthmus.

Having consulted Google Maps we found ourselves a backroad path towards Hazlehurst, which was very pretty  and relaxing. It even included a trip down Fonsylvania rd (just think "Fonzie" and "Transylvania"). Another flat held us up while we fixed lunch by a lake, and then we cruised into the outskirts of Carpenter, where a nice old fellow called Neil let us set up our tent in one of his paddocks.

The following day we could hear strangely human wailing noises through the woods. It turned out to be Neil's herd of goats, who were carrying on while trying to mate and argue over food. After watching them get fed we set out for Hazlehurst once more, but after a little while discovered that Yana's front tyre was starting to wear thin, and the tube was bulging through ominously. We dropped the pressure in her tyre and made our way slowly to Hazlehurst where we obtained a new tyre at Walmart (I see a pattern developing here). While I was inside shopping, Yana got chatting to a woman who was very concerned about us, since it was supposed to snow overnight. She contacted the sheriff, who contacted a local church, and to cut along story short (too late!)  the church wound up paying for us to stay in a hotel room last night. It did indeed snow, so it's nice that we were warm and comfy, but I am a little but put out at not getting to put our nice snow-rated expedition tent through its paces. I'm sure we'll get the chance though. And we should bust through the 3000 km mark of our journey either today or tomorrow.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Gobble gobble gobble

Total distance: 2607.9 km

Irritatingly, we're having trouble uploading images on the computer we're currently using... oh well....  We shall have to update the photos of our exploits  some other time.  In a nutshell, here's what we've been up to:
En route out of Memphis we stopped briefly for a quick photo-op at the front grates of Graceland, which while interesting from a purely been-there-done-that perspective also made us glad we hadn't bothered to pay the entrance fee and look around - it seemed very tacky and commercial. We then continued south and crossed into Mississippi, stopped for dinner and met a waiter named Jesus (so we can say that We Have Found Jesus!) in a Mexican restaurant (he was a lovely fellow), and then headed into the countryside, and a town called Lake Cormorant, where we found ourselves a church yard to camp in. The next morning, we got up at the crack of dawn, and powered onwards through the day to Helena, Arkansas. We had arranged (via the website warmshowers.org) to meet up with Kevin, a local who arranged a place for us to stay for teh night. Kevin and his friend and Bart worked as a team to put us up in a very funky little work-in-progress building, where old window frames are restored. Bart's astructural engineer while Kevin, who works in insurance, has actually worked in politics and been trained by Al Gore to give presentations on global warming. We wound up having a great discussion with him over dinner (Mexican again) about science education, funding, and related topics. Kevin suggested we head to Mound Bayou back in Mississippi, to make use of one of his connections who might be able to help with our visas, so we might extend them for this trip.  So after getting up the following morning, and meeting the John, owner of the Quapaw Canoe Company we went back across the river, and spent the night in Clarksdale, pitching our tent behind the Quapaw Canoe Company building.  The following morning, we made another very early start, and powered into Mound Bayou, where we had our appointment, and we will find out over the phone on Monday what our options are.  It was in Mound Bayou where we were led to a little general store called New Deal by a kid named Jeremy.  We had our first ever serving of succotash there, which was delicious.  Think tomato, okra, corn, onion, and an interesting sort of sweet spicy flavour.  Prior to that, all we knew about succotash was that Sylvester the Cat said "Thufferin' Thuccotash!" a lot.We also ended up getting interviewed by the nearest newspaper, which was kind of fun, and met Julius Voss, a local plumber who offered us some space in his backyard to pitch our tent.  We happily accepted, and rode the rest of the way to his place just outside Cleveland.  As things transpired, the following day was Thanksgiving and Julius took us along to his various family Thanksgiving celebrations. We ate so much turkey it almost came out of our eyeballs, and Sundance discovered that he has a couple of extra stomachs reserved just for Pecan Pie. We truly got to experience Southern Hospitality in all its glory.  The food was delicious, and the company was great, though there were too many names to remember. Even Julius admitted he doesn't remember all his relative's names.

Today, we got a slow start, partly because we wanted to see the newspaper.  As it turned out, we were on the front page, which put a bit of a smile on our faces.  In any case, it was mid-afternoon by the time we actually headed off, so we only clocked another 40km or so, but these things happen.  At least the weather was pleasant, and the scenery was flat, and there was very little traffic.

As it started to get dark, we decided it would be best to find somewhere to turf surf.  After two failed attempts, we came upon the house of Charles and Marida, who were happy to give us a little backyard space. :-)  Speaking of which, it is very close to sleepy time now, so it must be time to crawl into the tent.
Next update next time we have internet access.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Riding in Memphis, riding with my wheels ten feet over Beale...

By Yana:

Okay, time to finally flesh out that last post, and the days that followed it.

Our stay in Hickman was reasonably pleasant, for the most part.  We rolled in after dark, and rode up an absolutely obnoxious hill in order to get to the police station.  There we asked about somewhere where we might be able to put up a tent.  We established that there was a little mini-park with a gazebo within spitting distance, and the cops told us that should be just fine.  But first, we wanted to have some dinner, so we left our bags at the cop shop, rolled back down the hill, and headed towards Hub's, which is basically The Restaurant in Hickman.  Mostly a steakhouse, which was little use to us, what with our not eating beef at the moment.  Luckily, they had other tasty things, and we had some absolutely delicious blackened alligator for our appetiser.  It eclipsed the catfish and fajitas, though they were pretty good, too.

We headed back up the hill, and put up our tent on that little patch of grass, with a nearby dog barking at us all the way.  Eventually, it shut up and we got to go to sleep.  We woke up the next morning to the spectacular view of the bayou over the fenced-off cliff our little patch of grass was on.  We spent quite a bit of time finding stuff out, but eventually headed to the ferry that would take us across the Mississippi into Missouri.  It was a fun little experience, though we pretty much decided not to head onwards on the Missouri side.  We did ride to the next little town, Dorena, which was little more than a cluster of houses and a church.  Not even a general store.  Obviously, religion is more important than physical sustenance.

Just as we were about to get back on the ferry across, Sundance got hit with a flat tyre.  On the other side of the river, we discovered that there must have been spiky seedpods very like the three corner jacks we have in South Australia lying around.  As Sundance changed his tyre, I examined mine and dug out a spike myself.  As it turned out, the spike had actually stopped up the hole it had created, so once I had it out, my tyre began to hiss loudly, and I had to change as well.  Great.  Not surprisingly, that chewed up more time than we would have liked.  It was getting quite late in the day, but we had to grab some groceries.  The sun was getting a tad low as we rolled out of Hickman, but we managed to reach the state border with Tennessee with a little bit of light to spare.  The photo we got of ourselves at the border leaves quite a bit to be desired, but oh well.

We powered on into the cutely named Tiptonville, where we headed back and forth for a bit, trying to find accommodation.  We tried the police station thing, and they made a few calls for us, asking if any of the local businesses would mind us putting a tent up in their backyard.  The awesome folks from the Reelfoot Lake Inn, Ruben and Tina, stepped up and offered a free continental breakfast to boot.  Even better!  We had some substandard pizza at one of the petrol stations for dinner, and then headed to the Inn.  We were warmly welcomed by our gracious hosts, who ended up just sticking us into one of their rooms, on the house.  It's sometimes a little hard to accept that kind of hospitality, but Ruben and Tina were quite firm and left little room for argument, so we had a very comfortable night indeed. :-)  Of course, to show our gratitude, we must spread the gospel of their awesomeness.  Seriously, go see them, they rock.  We actually had a very nice chat with them over breakfast, and they also bestowed on us a matted print of Reelfoot Lake, as a bit of a souvenir.  We will of course treasure it.  We also got to meet their very attractive cats, one of which had six toes on each foot... very intriguing!  Before we left, we all took photos of each other, and as you fair readers may remember, we posted one of our photos of Ruben and Tina in our last post.  They certainly represented their state well in terms of hospitality. :-)

We got back on our bikes, and headed south-ish, first along the shores of the lake.  It was actually very pretty, the conifers had turned a deep rusty red with the approaching winter, and you could sort of see the clubby feet of the trees that were standing in the water.  We got at least one very nice photo there ourselves, which is always gratifying.  We also saw a couple of egrets flying around... it gave us an appreciation for just how big those birds actually are.

Not much further along, we passed our first cotton field, which was pretty exciting.  You hear so much about the south and the cotton farming, and the sordid history attached to it, but it's somehow now quite the same as riding past those actual cotton fields.  Some of them had been harvested already, though there were quite a few fields still heavy with big balls of white fluff.  We actually made a point of stopping to each pick a fluffy pod of cotton.  It would have been so tempting to take along with us, but it's not like the quarantine folks would have let us take it into Australia, what with it being plant matter, and with seeds in it, to boot.  Pity.  Still, it was a new experience.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous, the road was flat, and there was next to no traffic, so it was absolutely wonderful for riding.  We actually went on some slightly loopy bits though, and it turned out in the end that we had taken a bit of an unnecessary detour in order to bypass Dyersburg.  We kind of prefer to circumnavigate cities, as they slow you down like crazy.  We didn't manage to get into Ripley that night, though we were roughly level with the towns of Halls and Gates when we rapped on a stranger's door and asked for a spot of grass to pitch our tent.  We were greeted by a ridiculously cute little lapdog puppy, and some friendly folks who were quite happy for us to pitch our tent.  We did so, then sat ourselves under the carport and made some pasta for dinner.  We were watched by the tribe of cats who hung around the backyard - there were at least seven of them.  One of them had weirdly crinkled up ears, which we later found out was the result of some mites it had had in its ears a while back.  There was another very ratty old fellow who must have been very handsome in his youth.  It's old cats like that which kind of break the hearts of cat lovers such as ourselves, even when they unfortunately sneeze at you.  Poor Sundance found himself covered in cat snot!  At least it didn't get into our food.

We had a fairly comfy night, packed ourselves up, took some cute photos of our various critters, and said our farewells.  We rode on into the town of Ripley, where things were getting significantly  hilly for the first time in a while.  We stopped at a grocery store to get some bread and bananas, and briefly got talking with a lady who was curious about our adventure.  She actually insisted on helping us out with some money, and introduced herself as Joyce Marie Spencer, a nurse.  It was kind of a funny little exchange, actually.  As we spent less than twenty dollars that day, which is how much she gave us, we actually could say that we were so frugal we made a profit!

We powered onwards, as we were determined to get into Memphis that same day.  We had been told by many people that Memphis was a really rough neighbourhood, but then, we'd heard the same about the area in Cincinnati where we stayed, so we weren't that worried, albeit a little wary nonetheless.  As it was, there was no way we'd get to our destination before dark, and we actually found ourself on one horrible stretch of road.  Two lanes, busy, and absolutely no shoulder for us to ride on for long stretches.  At one point, an irate driver honked us off the road.  We did eventually get past the nasty stretch though, paused for some chicken strips at a servo, and then rode to our destination, the DeCleyre co-op, where we could couch surf.  We actually went along a beautiful eight-lane stretch, smooth as anything, well-lit, no traffic, going slightly downhill towards our destination.  Bliss.  It immediately put us in a positive set of mind towards Memphis, although Sundance had a very sore knee from all the pedalling and was literally aching to get to our destination and rest for the night.

We got some tofu at the nearby Kroger, as tofu is a bit of a staple food item at DeCleyre, and then rode the rest of the way to Ellsworth street, where we found the house without too much hassle.  It turned out to be one of those thoroughly charming places, somewhat reminiscent of one of the share houses I lived in once, but larger and more organised.  There were a few people flittering in and out of the front yard, where someone had set up a little campfire in a rusty wheelbarrow.  Very photogenic.  Amusingly, among the various seats around the fire where two wheelchairs and an old backseat from a car.

We met the various inhabitants of DeCleyre, including Lelyn, our moustache-wearing contact.  We got stuck into preparing a communal meal with our tofu, and hung out with people for a little bit before deciding to just pitch our tent in the backyard, as things were still a bit too bright and lively in the house for our tastes at that time of night.  It was actually quite a warm night, the warmest we'd had yet.

The next day dawned bright and warm and sunny, and we gleefully soaked up the warmth and vitamin D in the backyard.  There was actually a hammock hanging in one of the trees in the front yard, which we both tried out.  We also had some social time with the two house cats, a crotchety tortoise shell named Artemis, and a mischievous ginger named Prometheus.


By Sundance:

The day after we arrived, we just relaxed and enjoyed the warm weather, and I made some yoghurt, a pleasure i haven't had since leaving Canada. Although the prospect of relaxing for a whole other day was very tempting, I felt it necessary to get out and explore. So the next day I hopped on google maps, then hopped on my bike and went in search of a phone store where I could get a pre-paid US phone account to replace my old Canadian account. I was successsful at a T-mobile store, since I'd previously found Verizon to be useless in that regard. I also found a camping store where I had to restrain myself from going nuts and blowing our budget completely, and got a new silk liner for my sleeping bag (my old one was getting a bit long-in-the-tooth and had started to tear in places), and a new stuff-sack for my raincoat. I also discovered a health food supermarket and a few other interesting stores, before heading back to DeCleyre.

The following day Yana and I headed in the direction of the downtown district. We came across the other outlet of the camping store I'd visited previously, just in time for Yana to have another flat tyre, so we pulled into the camping store where they had a bike department and Yana fixed her tyre and bought a new,  more comfortable seat while I bought more stuff-sacks, camp-stove fuel, and the like. The folks at the camping store recommended we have late lunch at a Greek-Korean place around the corner, which turned out to be closed, so we went off to a district where we'd heard there were good Vietnamese restaurants, and had some of that for lunch/dinner. On the way back to our residence we found that the Greek-Korean place was open, so we stopped in for a second course of nibblies. 

The following day we returned from a ride, which had turned into late lunch at another Vietnamese place, to meet another couchsurfer, Callum, from Scotland, who was crossing the country on his motorbike.  We chatted for a while, and a bit later, before we turned in for the evening, Callum told us he had been in touch with a local who had a car and could take us for a tour of downtown Memphis, so she came around and we all piled into her tiny car to go for a drive across the bridge into Arkansas, then stopped off at Beale street to wander around and briefly popped into a dreadful karaoke bar because Callum wanted to grab a beer.

The following day Yana and I headed on our bikes down to the waterfront to look around more in daylight. We passed the big pyramid-shaped convention/function centre on the riverfront, cruised down Main street and past the National Civil Rights Museum which was just closing as we arrived. Then we cruised past Beale street and decided to give it a second chance, which proved to be fruitful as we wound-up sampling various foods in a few different pubs/cafes, including seafood gumbo, some crumbed alligator, spicy prawns and chicken wings, a very nice pecan pie and key lime pie. We also heard some pretty good live music.

The following day we got bogged down with grocery shopping, posting some things we no longer need back to Australia, and getting (and installing) anti-puncture tyre-liners for our bikes. The next day we headed back to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is built in the motel where Dr. martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  It was much more extensive than we expected, very informative, and we didn't get to see even half of it. If you ever go there, make sure you give yourself an entire day. It's worth it, and you'll need it.

We've stayed in Memphis much longer than we intended, and today we intend to head out of town, making a quick photo-op stop in front of Graceland on the way, and head into Mississippi. It's an interesting town, and it's nice to be in the home of The Blues, but at the same time I just can't wait to get on the road again.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gratuituous image post!

Total distance: 2317.1 km

By Yana:

This time I swear the actual writing will be in a nutshell, and the majority of this post will consist of various photos we have taken along the trip.  We have taken over 1000 by now, of course, so there's no way we could post all of them, but a few will pop up now and then.

Our course to where we are now has taken us to Hickman, where we crossed the ferry into Missouri, came back, then rode into Tennessee, thus having achieved three states in one day.  It was a tough day, but we did it.  Then it was off to Tiptonville. We dropped into the local police station to ask if there was anywhere in town to pitch a tent, and after some hunting around they put us in touch with the Reelfoot Lake Inn, who's owners said we could put up a tent on their lawn. When we arrived, the wonderful owners Ruben and Tina Rodriguez, instead let us have a room for free as well as a complimentary breakfast. So if you are ever in Tiptonville you should stay with them because they're really nice people. Next morning, we saw our first cotton fields and rode through a lot of flat countryside.  A little bit after it got dark, we turf surfed with a friendly couple and their numerous cats.  The following day, we pushed ourselves to one of our longest days yet (only the ride into Cleveland has this one beaten), and made it into Memphis, where we are now comfortably couch surfing/turf surfing while waiting for our muscles to recuperate, as we're both pretty stiff and sore.  Once we have run a few errands and seen a few sights, we will continue.

Photos!



Clint does the macho thing with a possum that doesn't want to be stroked.

 

Yes, the things one learns on the road...




What can I say?  Huge rusty old chevies are love.



Holiday home?

 

 "Now, how best to navigate across the Mississippi..."

  



A bit of barren landscape that pleases the eye...






An empty little cabin on stilts.  What it was for is anyone's guess.

 

Crossing the mighty Mississippi.




Proof that we were there, even if it was only for a very short jaunt.


Straight-horned bovines.  What sort of evolutionary advantage they might serve is a mystery to us.

 

The light was against us at this point, but there you have it.



She's a master at posing. :-)

 

Ruben's handsome six-toed part-bobcat.

 

Ruben and Tina, in all their awesomeness.  Go visit them, 'cause they rock!

 

Crappie Wireless Internet!  Well, I suppose if it's false advertising, nobody will mind, right?




Pick a pod of cotton!




Cookin' in Memphis.

 

Nice comfy turf surf spot... it's actually the warmest we've been on this trip so far, not counting the times we slept indoors.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chasey with Casey

Total distance: 2001.7 km

By Sundance:

A quick post update here, as we have internet access again. We forgot to mention an amusing aspect of the departure from Cheryl's place at La Center yesterday. One of the dogs who lives at her place, named Casey, decided to run along with our bikes - and apparently decided to come to California with us. It was good to be chased by a good-natured dog, who wasn't trying to eat us, but after more than a mile we decided we'd better call Cheryl and tell her to come in her car and collect Casey if she ever wanted to see her again. That was quite amusing and put us in a very good mood, as we rode along the delightfully flat countryside with a fair tailwind, before pulling into Wickliffe, posting yesterday's blog update, and heading down to the banks of the Mississippi. Here's a couple of pictures of us with Kentucky on the right, the bridge to Illinois in the background, and Missouri on the left.


Around sunset (which is extremely red and pretty), on our way south from Wickliffe we also crossed the 2000 km mark of our journey. Hooray! That made us feel very accomplished.


As the sun had set, and one of our headlights was malfunctioning, we decided we should try to find a place to turf-surf promptly. After being turned away at a place by an old man who said his wife thought we we burglars, we arrived at a house which turned out to be the home of a state trooper, Clint, and his wife Valerie and their daughter Taylor. Taylor was very impressed to meet people from another country, and we stayed up late talking about everything, and being shown her pet hermit crab. It was also nice to meet a young girl who is very smart (doing well at science and maths), as well as athletic and interested in her health. Kids like that make you hope that they get every opportunity for a good education and a bright future. Clint also showed us a possum he'd captured after it had been eating their catfood. American possums are nowhere near as cute as Aussie possums - they're like a cross between a Tasmanian Devil and a ring-tailed possum. Eventually we crawled into our tent (glad to see that it hadn't been shredded by the numerous kittens in the yard who thought climbing up the tent was the most fun they'd had in weeks), and awoke to be greeted by cows staring curiously at our tent from over the fence around their paddock.


For there is surely nothing more beautiful in this world, than the sight of a lone man facing single-handedly, a half-a-ton of angry pot-roast.