Thursday 25th May 2017, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
I arrived in Vancouver in the middle of March. My original plan had been to cycle The Rockies before dropping into the US somewhere around Glacier National Park. Naively, I thought it’ll be springtime by the time I get up into the mountains and maybe a little cold, but not impassable. That proved to be laughably optimistic. Had I given it any serious thought at the time of booking my flight to Vancouver (which I had to do as a condition for entering New Zealand) I would have realised this and started my North American adventure in warmer climes.
As is so often the case though, mislaid plans open the door to serendipity. In Vancouver, I was hosted by a delightful Swiss-Canadian girl called Ingrid. I needed to stay a few days to organise my US visa, but I ended up staying a couple of weeks at her apartment in the trendy East Van neighbourhood. There were half a dozen microbreweries within walking distance of her place. A welcome change from the expensive and unimaginative brews available in NZ and Oz.
Despite incessant rain at this time of year, I liked Vancouver a lot. Eminently liveable, with everything you’d want from a cosmopolitan metropolis as well as mountains, nature and ocean on its doorstep. As with all the Pacific Northwest cities I visited, very bicycle friendly too.
All of western North America had had a long harsh winter this year with double the normal levels of precipitation from Vancouver down to the Californian Sierra Nevada. Spring had not yet fully sprung, so my new plan was to ride to Seattle, island hopping the Canadian Gulf Islands and American San Juan Islands on the way. From Seattle I would take a train to Portland to visit some friends there, before taking another train to San Fransisco from where I would start my west to east traversal of the North American continent. If it had been a little later in the year (and less rainy) I would have been tempted to ride all the way down the coast to San Fransisco, a well-ridden and popular route. I decided I would come back again one day to ride it at a more relaxed pace than I had time for now.
I began my journey southwards by riding to Gabriola Island with Ingrid, where we camped for a couple of nights and explored the island by bike. Gabriola is a small and pretty island, no real town, just a few roads crisscrossing it, some provincial parks and miles of scenic coastline. The few locals who live there seem to be wacky, liberal, arty types, whose houses are recessed in quiet alcoves in the ample forests that cover the island.
From Gabriola, we caught a ferry to Vancouver Island where Ingrid and I parted ways. She to box up her life after 16 years in Canada, embark on her own cycle trip and relocate back to Europe; me to head south to the US, a country I’ve been to many times, but mainly for work with a few tourist trips for skiing or visiting New York. The prospect of seeing it from the saddle, meeting Americans from all walks of life (not just the professional classes I’ve known from my working life), observing life flowing through its smaller roads and towns, feeling the pulse of its cities, immersing myself in its manifold landscapes and slowly stroking their contours, all felt like a long overdue rite of passage.
Of course, we all think we know America. In The West we are saturated with its culture; its myths and values are well understood if not entirely shared. This kind of familiarity only goes so far though. Like many Europeans, I have a myriad of strongly held feelings about America, some gleaned from experience, some preconceived and some inherited. Although I’ve spent time there and have worked for a couple of American companies, I wanted to remain unblinkered by received ideas or tempting superficially informed prejudices. So it was that I made my way, deliberately pushing aside expectations, receptive to whatever my journey would offer up.
I rode for a couple of days south along the coast of Vancouver Island. A pleasant enough but uninspiring ride. I’m not really sure what to think of Vancouver Island. What I saw didn’t really recommend it as a cycle-touring destination, but then I only saw a tiny bit of it and I’m guessing it was the most trafficked and populous part, so I reserve judgement, perhaps it would reward a more thorough exploration on two wheels.
I first rolled onto American soil as I disembarked from the ferry to San Juan Island. I had three days there exploring the island. It’s famous for whale watching, particularly killer whales, so I went on a whale-spotting boat tour. It’s hit and miss whether you see them, but we were lucky that day and rendezvoused with a pod. It’s hard not feel a thrill seeing these graceful animals at close quarters. We also saw eagles, dolphins and huge Stellar sea lions (pictured below). Sorry, no photos of the orcas. I wasn’t going to distract myself from the moment by trying to take photos of them that would inevitably be disappointing given I only had a compact camera with a short focal length available to me.
Another couple of ferries and couple of days riding via Fidalgo and Whidbey islands brought me to Seattle. Another pleasant city, where I spent five days. I stayed with Malissa, a girl I’d met a year and a half previously in a hostel in Dubrovnik. As always, having a local to show (and drive) me around and recommend places, allowed me to get more out of my visit than I could have done on my own. I did lots of the standard touristy things which I won’t bore you with, but worth a mention for the outdoor enthusiasts among you is a visit to the REI store there. I think it’s their original one. Anyway, it’s breathtakingly big, including a climbing wall and an outdoor track to test out mountain bikes. I’m a bit like a kid in a candy store when I visit outdoor shops, so I was proud of myself for wandering this palace to the accoutrements of adventure for a full hour and successfully resisted the temptation to buy anything.
Next up was Portland. I had a few reasons for visiting. It was on my way to San Fransisco anyway and nicely broke up the otherwise very long train journey. I could visit and stay with my ex-work colleagues and friends Dhara & Ryan and I could take a few days to cycle the famously scenic Columbia River Gorge.
Portland is most famous (at least to me) for its love of the bicycle, craft beer and being unashamedly hipstery. I can report that all of the above is true and I must confess I fell for it. It’s the kind of town I could see myself being happy living in. I didn’t realise this before, but it also has mountains and plenty of hiking and biking to do in the vicinity. It has America’s largest urban park. It’s small enough that everywhere is accessible by bike, but big enough to have everything you’d want in a city. It’s liberal, progressive and laid-back. The residential areas are low rise, spacious and pretty. Beer lovers, coffee addicts and foodies are all well catered for. The hipster vibe resonates palpably but doesn’t appear to take itself too seriously. Check out some youtube clips from a satirical sketch show called Portlandia for a peek. The only downside seems to be the long, dark and rainy winters, which are common to all Pacific Northwest towns.
The Columbia Gorge cycle was enjoyable despite a lot of rain. It led to some great viewpoints over the river and a bunch of spectacular waterfalls along the way. Much of it is on dedicated traffic-free cycle path. Unfortunately, you can’t really make a loop of it. Either you go back the way you came or you have to take the highway back. I opted for the latter which at least had the saving graces of a generous shoulder and being entirely flat. Better still, I had a generous tailwind to whisk me back to Portland where more great beer, good company and home cooked food awaited me. Dhara, a Brit of Indian extraction, makes a splendid curry (comfort food for Brits and Indians alike) and Ryan makes home-cured meats and sausages. I was treated to a full English breakfast with his homemade bacon which puts to shame anything you could buy in a supermarket. One taste and I was already planning on getting my own smoker when I eventually find myself living between four walls again.
From Portland, an overnight train journey brought me to San Fransisco. It was my first visit to the iconic city. Alongside New York, it’s the US city that’s always interested me most. The five days I had there weren’t really enough to get more than a glimpse of the city. I wandered around its landmarks, cycled through some contrasting neighbourhoods, attended poetry and book readings and people watched from café windows.
On one of my days, I cycled out of town over the Golden Gate Bridge up to Muir Woods and walked among the giant redwoods there. The woods and the walking trails are carefully managed under the aegis of the National Park Service which can make walking there feel a little staged at first, but the awesome trees soon shunt aside such quibbles and I’m glad they receive the protection they deserve.
From San Fransisco, I made my way across California’s Central Valley to the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Park. The valley is farmed intensively and my abiding memory of cycling there is of endless dead-straight rural roads and fences. Wild camping wasn’t really feasible without trespassing. Something I’m not prepared to do, particularly in a country full of people with personal firearms and an irrational fear of each other. So for a few days I was forced to use official campsites which are usually mainly geared towards RVers and are egregiously expensive for a cycle tourist, ranging between $22-$46 per site. The sites are big and the cost would be reasonable if it could be shared between a few people, sadly that didn’t help me and there were no cheap hiker/biker sites like there are on the coast for people travelling by bike.
The campsites in Yosemite itself are booked up weeks in advance so I was forced to camp outside the park at an extortionate price and get a bus in. At least it saved me around a thousand vertical metres of climbing on a narrow and heavily trafficked road. If I’d had a car I could have easily driven to nearby National Forest or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, where wild camping is legal and free and then driven into the park each day. On the bike though, given the terrain and distances involved it was unworkable. All this is to say I could only actually spend one full day walking in the park. Given the 4 million visitors it receives each year it is necessarily well organised with free shuttle buses running between different trailheads. There are plenty of short walks, so it was possible to get a decent feel for the place in a day. Cycling on the trails isn’t allowed, nor would it really be possible to get very far anyway. The real way to get the most out of it would be to obtain a wilderness permit (they’re free I think) which would then allow you to hike with a backpack for a few days into the wilderness and get away from the crowds.
My original plan had been to cycle through the park and over Tioga pass to cross the Sierra Nevada. However, that road was still closed due to snow as were most of the nearby passes. I was forced to backtrack a bit and then skirt the mountains to the northern end of the range where I could cross at a lower elevation via Lake Tahoe. Even then I would have to climb to 2600m where everything but the road itself was snow covered. I stayed in the foothills as I headed north where I had the advantage of being able to find wild camp spots.
Just before turning east into the mountains for what turned out to be a three-day climb, I stayed with Kathy and Michael, some lovely Warmshowers hosts. They weren’t cyclists themselves but had a 21-year-old son who was and had persuaded them to host on Warmshowers. I was their second guest. They took me out to dinner put me up in a cosy cycle-themed guest room and packed me off with loads of edible treats. After a few days of camping and riding in sweltering heat, getting cleaned up and sleeping in a proper bed hit my reset button and I felt ready for the few demanding days that followed.
The ski resort town of Lake Tahoe spans the California-Nevada border. On the Nevada side, I got onto Highway 50, the so-called loneliest road in America, which would take me almost all the way across the state.
Nevada is mostly high altitude desert with many mountain ranges running north-south across it. The highway circumvents the mountain ranges as much as it can but there’s still a lot of up and down. So far, I can say from a cycling point of view this has been my favourite part of America. It reminded me a bit of the Nullarbor in Australia with the addition of mountains. You have to plan food and water because the distances between resupply points are large and the road traverses an arid area with no natural water sources to fill up from. For that, you get huge scenery and a very quiet sealed road where you can often be completely by yourself in the middle of a magnificent landscape stretching to the horizon in every direction. Sometimes I would pedal for long periods, the road scrolling beneath me, but nothing I could see would get any closer or further away. It’s almost as if time were paused in the external world while I continued to exist alone in some liminal temporal space; pedalling, breathing and thinking in a temporary eternity. It was surreal and spellbinding.
It took me eight days to reach the small town of Wendover on the Utah border. As much as I enjoyed Nevada, by that stage, I was relieved to descend to a lower elevation and warmer nighttime temperatures. I’m not really geared up for sub-zero temperatures, with only my summer sleeping bag and sandals. I was so cold at nights I was wearing everything I own including my rain gear inside my sleeping bag.
A few more days across the Utah salt flats brought me to Salt Lake City.
I’ve been here a few days and so far I really like this town. It’s a little liberal island in a deeply Republican state. I was expecting it to be super conservative given its Mormon foundations, but that was a misconception. There are some mildly restrictive liquor laws and my Warmshowers host tells me her workplace dress code is a little over the top (no bare shoulders), but these are minor quibbles compared to what the city offers its citizens (Mormon or not). The main thing here is the mountains and the fantastic skiing they provide. Great hiking and biking are available starting from right inside the city and stretching out into the mountains that surround it. The surrounding area also offers unique climbing, attracting climbers from all around the world. Many people move here just for the outdoor scene and others come for other reasons like studying and then stay for it. The city itself is very well organised, with free public transport, wide cycle friendly roads and greenery everywhere.
While here I visited the point of origin in the city, Temple Square and learnt as much as I could about its history, the Mormon story and their beliefs. It’s beyond the scope of my blog to get into all of that, but I did find it interesting. The temple and its many surrounding auxiliary buildings are filled with ‘missionaries’: young women from all over the world who buzz around the place ostensibly as tour guides, but with a subtext of gentle proselytisation delivered in the manner of overly earnest air hostesses. My interest in their doctrines only went as far as wanting to understand what it is they actually believe; of much more interest to me were the personal stories of these young women, which were more varied than you’d imagine and which they seemed happy to share with me.
Lastly, I wanted to include the few photographs below, which will probably seem wholly unremarkable to my American friends, but to my British and European compatriots, they are quite surreal.
Although the original reasons for the inclusion of the right to bear arms in the constitution is now an indefensible anachronism, I suspect many Americans’ attachment to it has its roots in the core of their sense of identity. Similarly with their love affair with the automobile. The gun and the automobile are both symbols of freedom and instruments of self-determination. Whatever the gun advocates say, it’s not that anyone really needs a gun, it’s more that they feel their right to own one, their ‘freedom’, is sacred and inviolable.
At heart, I’m a libertarian too, but I feel that here, the sanctification of personal freedom at the expense of collective wellbeing has become a cultural pestilence. It seems to me that many Americans have a greater sense of loyalty to the abstract idea of their country and attachment to their sense of freedom than they do to each other.
Although I am glad to live in a country without guns, I can understand (but not share quite as wholeheartedly) the fetishistic pleasure people here derive from them. It speaks to the boy that still lives inside every man. (I’ve yet to meet a female gun nut, but maybe they do exist here.) Weapons and the ability to unleash destruction stoke an intoxicating delusion of power.
Utah is a haven for gun nuts. I met a guy here who excitedly invited me to come shooting with him this weekend. I had other plans, but I can’t deny the idea appealed to my inner boy. I’m sure it would have been fun, but it’s a pleasure I am more than happy to forego and put away with other childish things for the sake of living in a safer society.
Tuesday 30th May 2017, Salt Lake City
I was going to end my post there, but I’ve had a fantastic last few days with a bunch more photos to share and this may be my last opportunity to update my blog for while.
I’ve wanted to visit Utah for a long time, having seen some stunning photos of the landscape here. Now I’m here, I’ve realised that most of that is in the southern and eastern part of the state which I won’t pass through on my route north and would be too big a detour if I’m to cross the entire country. It was going to have to be postponed indefinitely and added to my (long and growing) list of things to come back for.
But then, I had the huge luck of staying with Carolyn (my Warmshowers host) just as she was organising a float trip down the Green River near Moab (part of the area I wanted to visit) for Memorial Day weekend. She kindly invited me to join her and sixteen of her friends for three days of gently floating down the spectacular river canyon. We floated, we drank beer, G&T and a shocking pink ‘spooky punch’, we jumped in the river to cool off throughout the day, we camped under the stars on the river bank, ate great camp food cooked by a couple of Carolyn’s friends and told stories around a campfire. Carolyn’s friends (all twenty-somethings) were a convivial bunch. It was a real pleasure to meet them all. The scenery we passed through was everything I’d hoped for. Without a doubt, this has been the highlight of my time in the US so far. Here are some pictures of our frolicking…
I didn’t take very many photos myself so I’m including some taken by other people in the group below. The ones below are from Katie and Miguel…