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.

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