The Rest of the West

Sunday 20th August, Toronto, Canada

I’m writing from Canada, but this post will be about my time in the US, from Utah through Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and up to the Canadian border in Michigan.

From Salt Lake City I rode north, towards the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, which I’d long wanted to see.

On the evening of the second day, I turned down a short bumpy track to the shore of a reservoir, looking for a place to camp. There were a couple of vehicles there already so I turned tail and rode ten minutes to the other shore to see if I could find a more secluded spot. As I dismounted to take a look around, I noticed that the drybag that’s usually bungeed to my rear rack containing my tent, sleeping bag and mat was missing. I was 99% sure it had fallen off on the bumpy track the other side of the reservoir so I hastily backtracked to retrieve it. It was nowhere to be seen. I rode that section of road back and forth several times, scouring both sides of the road and the lakeshore for any sign of it. Had it been there, it would have been fairly easy to spot, but there was no sign of it. I rode back to the last place I had stopped before the reservoir, a village around 6km away. There was no sign of it there either.

I had to accept that in all probability it had been dislodged on the bumpy track and the occupants of one of the vehicles there had seen it happen and nabbed it after I had ridden away. By this stage, the vehicles had gone and it was getting dark. I had to make the best of it and hunker down for the night without shelter. It was a warm night, warm enough to fall asleep outside, but dark clouds coalesced and loomed, threatening a wet and possibly thundery awakening. I found some planks of wood and arranged them on the ground to lie on, donned a couple of layers for warmth and put on my rain gear.

Just as I was tucking myself in under the ominously humid air, a guy arrived in a pickup and parked near me. He sat in his vehicle for a while, talking on his phone. Meanwhile, I wondered why anyone might be driving to a reservoir after dark on their own.

After a while, he got out and started unloading a bunch of things from the back of his pickup. We acknowledged each other with mutual curiosity and started chatting. He was your typical rural Mormon. Friendly, talkative, big family and worked a farm nearby. It transpired that he was making some preparations for his nephew’s 18th birthday party the following day, which was to take place there, at the reservoir. He was setting up a parachute as a marquee. When I told him my story he invited me to sleep under the parachute and pulled a fold-out cot from his pickup. As if that wasn’t enough, he drove home to the village I had come from and back again to deliver me a sleeping bag! I think I slept better that night than I would have done in my own tent! I was all the more grateful when it started to rain a few hours later. He even posted a message about my lost drybag to his local Facebook group in case anyone had come across it, but it yielded nothing, corroborating my suspicion that someone had made off with it.

The material loss had made space for me, once again, to be visited by an act of unsolicited kindness from a stranger. The dismay I’d felt in having been the victim of an opportunistic theft (the first in over two years on the road), was within a couple of hours usurped by yet another affirmation of human benevolence (the latest of a countless series of them in over two years on the road).

Luckily, the next day I was only a 30km ride from the nearest town which had several camping stores from which I could replace my lost kit. The town was large enough to have a friendly Warmshowers host who welcomed me with cold beer and warm conversation.

I rode for three days across the southeastern corner of Idaho. Here’s a photo of a camp I made by a lake. The track to get to the lake was rough, too rough for ordinary cars. That’s always a good bet when looking for secluded campsites. In this case, I had the entire length of the cove to myself so I could jump naked into the lake to swim, cool off and wash.

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It’s common in North America, particularly during the busy summer season, for commercial or state-run campsites to be managed by a camp host who lives on site. I stayed at one such campsite while passing through Idaho. The camp host saw me arrive and took an interest in me and my bike. We chatted for a while before I went off to set up my tent and cool off in the nearby lake. When I returned to my tent I found that she had left me some containers of home cooked food. Later that evening the campers next to me offered me a fish they had caught earlier that day in the lake. Another couple camping nearby saw the bike and came over to bring me a beer. I can’t count how many times I’ve been given beer by strangers at campsites in the US. From this, I’ve learnt two things: One, that Americans are very generous and two, they always carry beer (at least when they’re camping).

I’ve wondered how much of this is because of the bike. Certainly, it is often a catalyst for conversation, particularly with people who themselves like to cycle in one form or another. I’ve no way of knowing for sure. Maybe if I turned up in car people would still find other things to talk to me about while sharing their beer. In the end, I can’t help but feel that the bike does make this sort of thing happen more often than it otherwise would.

From Idaho, I followed the snake river into Wyoming as it wound its way up to the Cowboy and ski town of Jackson.

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Snake River

Jackson is also the gateway to the Grand Teton National Park. Even if you’ve never been there, you’ve probably seen the Tetons immortalised in the iconic black and white landscape prints by Ansel Adams. As in all the national parks in the US, you can’t simply ride your bike wherever you want. You mainly have to stick to the paved roads with a few minor exceptions where there is a section of dedicated bike path. So to really ‘get into’ the park, one needs to hike. I didn’t do that, making do with some short walks instead, but even from the road, the views are splendid.

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Grand Teton National Park is separated by a small strip of land from its more famous big brother, Yellowstone National Park, where I would spend five days. It’s not great for cycling because its roads are so busy and there is often no shoulder to ride on. That said, I have no regrets. The natural vistas and geological and biological diversity are impressive. It’s a very active geothermal area and has one of the highest concentration of geysers and hot pools anywhere.

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The park spans a wide range of elevations, higher up there was still quite a lot of snow, even in the middle of June. The roads were clear but I did get snowed on and had to camp on snow one night.

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Yellowstone is famous for its bears but I didn’t see any myself. You’d think they’re everywhere given the number of warning signs and advisories you see, perhaps I was just unlucky. Even way outside the park, one sees signs stating that it is mandatory to secure food as a precaution against the bears.

As I favour wild camping, I’ve had to learn quite a lot about bears since being here. I was quite paranoid at first. I learned that bears have one of the acutest senses of smell of any animal, seven times as sensitive as a bloodhound. Given that they are omnivorous, any ‘edible’ smell is interesting to them. You don’t want to give them any reason to be investigating interesting smells in your tent, particularly while you are asleep in it. So it’s become routine for me to cook and pee away from where I sleep and to hang my food and toiletries high up in a tree, also far away from my tent. That said, in the US, grizzly bears only live around the Yellowstone area and some parts of Montana that I wasn’t visiting. Apart from those areas, the only bears you will find are black bears, which are much less of a threat to humans. They tend to be shy of us and are more likely to run away as soon as they sense our presence, which in most cases they would a long time before we would even know they are there. One still needs to take some precautions, particularly against surprising them or getting between a mother and her cubs, but I’ve been able to relax a lot more about bears in black bear country.

Although I haven’t seen any bears yet, I did see plenty of bison, elk and deer.

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At this time of year, all the mammals in the park have young cubs or calves with them. The bison calves were particularly amusing. They would prance about frantically, like transmogrified kittens on catnip; while the adult bison, who look like prehistoric cows, would munch grass languorously, barely moving. Apparently, if motivated, they can run at 35mph. Never having seen it, it’s hard to imagine they are capable of it, or that they would ever be bothered to, even if they could.

While riding around Yellowstone, I met quite a lot of other cyclists. The Adventure Cycling Association (of America), maps out long rides all over the country. One of their signature great rides is the TransAmerica Trail, running west to east right across the US. Part of this ride goes through Yellowstone. Every cyclist I met there was following it. While it’s always nice to meet other cyclists, I did feel pleased that I was charting my own course. Although I gratefully followed a mapped out route for a couple of months in New Zealand, it’s not something I like to do too much of. I don’t want to feel like I’m on a conveyor belt through someone else’s idea of what a ride should be. Following instructions along a predetermined route detracts from the sense of freedom, exploration and serendipity that is available by plotting one’s own course, guided by whatever whimsical fancy seems appealing at the time.

From Yellowstone, my path turned east. It will more or less remain that way until I make it all the home again. When I set out, east was synonymous with the exotic, the unknown; the direction of the rising sun, of promise, of adventure. Now when I see a sign denoting east, it is the direction of home, of completion, of the familiar, of friends and of a reacquaintance with long missed intimacies. Now I ride towards these things with as much gleeful anticipation as I rode away from them, over two years ago.

I remember it rained heavily the day I left Yellowstone, but the scenic descent of around a thousand vertical metres more than made up for it.

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After a couple of days I reached the Wild West town of Cody, named after Buffalo Bill Cody of whom they are very proud and whose legacy makes this small town a tourist destination on anyone’s Wild West pilgrimage. That’s not me, but I did enjoy the hospitality of a wonderful Couchsurfing host and his wife. He was another example, I’ve met a few, of how age needs be no barrier to most things so long as one can keep alive one’s curiosity and enthusiasm for life. He’s 70 years old now and since retiring has trained in and worked as: A masseur, a natural therapist, a chef, a photographer, a radio/tv/film producer and a voice actor. As if that weren’t enough he is also a tirelessly active Couchsurfing host (with over 100 references) and an unofficial hiking guide for anyone who’s staying with him en route to Yellowstone.

After descending from 2700m in Yellowstone, I’d been enjoying the relative warmth and flatness of the plains. It was short lived though. A day of flat riding out of Cody and then I had another long ascent back up to 2700m in the Big Horn National Forest. I was happy to be travelling this bit west to east. The climb was on a small road with lots of switchbacks at a generous gradient. Picturesque and perfect for slow gradual climbing. The road would probably have been too narrow and the switchbacks too tight to freewheel at high speed. Conversely, on the eastern side there was a non-stop 1700m descent on a very wide, beautifully tarmacked road with great sweeping turns and a wide shoulder. You could safely coast the whole glorious descent at high speed. The Big Horn (named after the Bighorn sheep, but could be named for something else too) descent has to rank up there for me as one of the best downhills of the whole trip. There were some great lookout points along the way but I was having too much fun to stop and take photos. I only have a couple of photos from the way up…

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The next couple of hundred kilometres were all fenced off ranch land. A taste of things to come on the prairies. There was nowhere for me to camp without trespassing on someone’s land. Towns were few and far between too. So when I finally reached a village towards the end of the day and spotted a patch of grass behind the village store I asked if I could camp there. They suggested that I ask at the village church. The church was open, but no one was to be seen. I wandered around for a while and was about to leave when a man appeared. The pastor, as he turned out to be, must have lived in the house opposite the church and seen me wandering around. I explained myself and asked him if he would mind if I put my tent up behind the church. Instead, he invited me back into the church, produced a fold-out cot and said I was welcome to set it up anywhere I liked inside. The church had a huge fully equipped kitchen which he told me I was free to use. He asked if I had food, I did and didn’t need anything, but had I said otherwise I’m sure he would have invited me to help myself from the well-stocked fridge. Next, he gave me a towel and showed me to a shower room. Having hoped for nothing more than permission to camp on a bit grass, I was overwhelmed with the luxury of it all.

We chatted for a while and as he was about to leave he asked me if he could pray for me. Of course I said I didn’t mind and he proceeded to put his hand on my shoulder and pray. I suppose that’s quite a natural thing for a pastor to do, but it gave me a bit of jolt and made palpable for me the omnipresence of religion in the life of this man, no doubt everyone else in his small town and indeed the majority of Americans. My American readers will take this for granted, their country is normal for them. But for me, coming from secular Europe, it’s quite surreal. All the more so, because of the superficial similarities between our countries in so many other regards. It’s like a strange parallel universe where everything is the same except for one thing which changes everything. For example, imagine a developed democratic country in which only children under the age of ten are allowed to vote. That’s how strange a modern religious country seems to me. By religious, I mean people really taking it seriously. Many people in Europe call themselves Christians but are not religious in any meaningful sense. For them, it’s an identity or a cultural tag. Although I don’t share their beliefs, I do admire the earnestly religious for their intellectual honesty compared to the hypocrisy of the nominally religious, who often act as if they’ve never given a single thought to the implications of the doctrines they profess to be subscribed to.

 

Later that evening as I was taking a look around the church, I found a notice-board bearing flyers and personal messages. I wrote a little thank you note to the kind pastor and as I pinned it to the board I noticed one, then two, then several more such notes from other cyclists! It appeared it was quite the thing to stop here. I was surprised because as far as I knew this little village wasn’t on any mapped cycle route, nor was it really near anything of interest to a traveller. Yet, I found myself just the latest in a succession of unwitting cyclo-pilgrims, adding my note of gratitude, my prayer-on-a-post-it, to one man and his church.

A few days east of the Big Horn mountains I came to Devils Tower. A cylindrical, monolithic butte, rising nearly 300m from its base. When you get up close you see that it’s composed of vertical hexagonal columns. It’s these columns, or more specifically the cracks between them, that make Devils Tower a Mecca for climbers from the world over.

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You can see lots of prairie dogs around Devils Tower. They are intensely social and live in huge subterranean ‘towns’. They’re super cute and fun to watch. If you’ve never seen them, they look and behave a bit like meerkats, although they are a completely unrelated species.

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Prairie dog

I camped at a climbers’ lodge nearby. Frank, the guy who owns it, is an old hippie turned climbing instructor. Having done a long bike ride across the country many years ago, he welcomes cyclists at his place. He’s created quite a special little community, it felt a bit like a commune, around his lodge. He has paying guests of course, but then there are all sorts of waifs and strays he’s picked up along the way. I met a bunch of interesting characters there. For example, one young lad who was hitchhiking around the world on $5 per day. Frank had picked him up one day and he’d ended up working there for a few months, helping out around the place and saving a little bit of money to continue his travels.

From Devils Tower, I crossed into South Dakota and the Black Hills National Forest. I passed through the historic Wild West town of Deadwood, which you may know from the HBO series of the same name. Until I saw it on the map I didn’t realise Deadwood was a real place. It turns the characters in the TV series are based on real people who lived there too and as much as is known about them was weaved into the show. As you’d expect the tourist town now cashes in on this big time and the place feels a bit like a theme park. I get the impression it was already quite a popular tourist destination before the show, but it can only be that much more so now.

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The main reason for me to pass through Deadwood was that it marks the beginning of the Mickelson Trail. A gentle 100-mile rail trail through the national forest, reserved for hiking, cycling and horse riding. The owner of a bike shop I’d been in the previous week had told me about it. Not only did it sound like a worthwhile ride, it wasn’t even a detour for me, I was heading that way anyway. And very pleasant it was too…

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On the Mickelson Trail

I didn’t ride the trail all the way to the end but turned off it in order to visit my next destination, Mount Rushmore. It wasn’t so much the iconic sculpture I was desperate to see, as an excuse to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of American history and flesh out the characters of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. Which is not to say I was unimpressed by the sculpture itself. All the more so once I gained an appreciation of how it was made. The deliberately colossal scale appropriately reflects the American love of all things big.

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Descending from the Black Hills marked the beginning to almost 1000km of prairie which I had to cross next. When discussing my route with people I met in the US, many advised me against riding across the prairies. It was dismissed as a long, featureless, boring, hot ride, with large distances between nondescript small towns. I did consider taking a bus or a train across that section, which would have afforded me more time on the more interesting and varied East Coast. However, the more people told me I should avoid it, the more determined the contrarian in me was to ride it. Even if it was boring, it would be worthwhile as a contrast to the surrounding land. It would give me a fairer, more holistic impression of the country, rather than cherry picking only the brightest pieces of the puzzle and trying to deduce an image of the country from those alone.

As I set out into an expanse of ranch land, overlaid with a lattice of long perpendicular dead-end gravel roads, I expected finding a spot to camp would be difficult. The empty uncultivated land would be enclosed in fences stretching out to the horizon in every direction. I didn’t have any choice but to take my chances if I wanted to continue east. “Something will turn up” I thought to myself, “something always does”.

As I suspected, I remained fenced into the road all day and didn’t see a single opportune spot to pitch my tent. Even pitching right at the side of the road in between the fence and the gravel wasn’t really an option because it would be too narrow, essentially not much more than a steep-sided ditch for water run-off. As I felt evening draw closer, I started to consider my options. I’d been thinking for no more than a few minutes when I saw a sign for Buffalo Gap National Grassland. National grassland is like national forest in the US, you are legally allowed to camp pretty much anywhere you like, so long as you are out of sight of any trailheads. “Something always turns up”, I thought to myself, something always does.

A few minutes later I found myself well away from the road, looking out over this…

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and a little while later…

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Before venturing out for my uninterrupted slog across the prairie there was one more spectacular section of topography to cycle through: Badlands National Park. An otherworldly landscape of pinnacles and eroded buttes with exposed layers of ancient soils and volcanic ash, stacked up in vivid multicoloured striations. The main road through the park mostly stays on a kind of tabletop of mixed prairie upon which wild bison, Bighorn and Pronghorn sheep graze and prairie dogs scamper.

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I spent a couple of nights camped in the park. On the second night, there was a terrific lightning storm the likes of which I’d never seen before. Although it came within a few kilometres, it didn’t quite reach the campsite so I could sit for several hours outside my tent watching it. The sky was lit up as if by a marauding mob of celestial paparazzi at a disco. There was rarely an interval of more than a few seconds between luminous detonations. This was to be the first of many such storms I would find myself in as I crossed this part of the country. They would often arrive in late afternoon or early evening and unlike this one, usually only last a couple of hours. The lightning, rain and thunder would be accompanied by fierce winds that would run riot around my tent. The Big Agnes tent I have now is wedge-shaped and if you can face it so the narrow end into the wind, it will do quite a good job of deflecting it. But the capricious winds around these storms swirl around in every direction and for this, my tent had no defence. The poles never broke, but often they would become deformed to such an extent that the roof would press against my face and body. I spent many hours with my outstretched foot or fist buttressing the tent poles against these violent gusts.

It took me around another ten days or so to reach Minneapolis. The prairie in South Dakota was rough and dry and mostly only good for ranching. As I got closer to and into Minnesota more and more lakes appeared and the land became flatter and greener. There, I saw industrial farming on a scale we don’t have in Europe. I would pass road signs with family or farm names on them followed by grid references to their location within vast expanses of fenced-off square fields.

One night I camped by a small lake used for watering cattle but with some public access for boating too. By morning I’d run out of water, so I had to fill up on lake water which I sterilised with a UV pen. It was thick with algae of some kind, not to mention effluent from the cattle. Although it wasn’t going to make me sick it still tasted so foul that I could only bring myself to sip tiny amounts at a time. As the cloudless, searing 40°C day wore on, I started dreaming about fresh cold drinks. Most of the towns I rode through in the prairies were really just small farming hamlets, but that afternoon I would pass through quite a big town called Pierre. As I was starting to feel quite dehydrated and was dreading having to drink any more of the vile lake water, a pickup passed me and pulled into a driveway a short distance in front of me. A large middle-aged man got out and as I passed shouted to me “Hey! Wanna cold drink?”. I didn’t need asking twice and regarded him as if he were a guardian angel sent in my hour of need by a benevolent deity who had been silently watching over me.

In the back of his pickup he had a cooler full of cans and bottles from which he invited me to help myself.

“Why d’ya talk funny?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m from England” I replied apologetically.
“Well at least ya talk English” he reassured me.

And on that firm footing, we chatted for a while. He told me about a park I could camp in for free in the town, gave me enough fresh water to last me until I got there and even offered me use of his workshop in case I needed to do any work on my bike. It turned out he was in the fencing business, both selling and installing them. “A good business to be in around here” I mused while being struck by the irony that my guardian angel was, in fact, a purveyor of what was to me a much-resented impediment to my freedom of movement. As we parted ways he gave me his card offering to come and pick me up if I had any problems camping in the park. The card was so good I had to take a photo of it…

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In the town of Pierre, I met a Dutch cyclist who was around my age. He was living a lifestyle that I’ve been considering for myself after this trip. That is, working in ski resorts in Europe in the winter and doing cycle trips in the summer. He was also riding across the US, but in the opposite direction to me. We camped together in the city park and stayed up late drinking beer. At one point we were joined by an affable native American guy in his fifties who had spent the majority of his adult life in prison for a series of misdemeanours. I’d really been wanting to cycle through an Indian reservation and meet some First Nations people but had so far not done so, so I was glad he found us.

As I rode through Minnesota I was passed by Amish people in their horse-drawn carriages a few times. I was curious to have some contact with them, but they only barely acknowledged my salutations, so I was left to wonder about them.

I stopped in Minneapolis for a few days staying with a congenial couple I found through Warmshowers. She (the cyclist), was a well-travelled journalist, writer, storyteller and performer. The previous year she’d created and performed a one-woman show at the Minneapolis Fringe Festival. While I was there, she was working on the production of a new show she’d written, this time being performed by a group rather than herself. Her partner was an ex-software engineer like me, but rather than travel the world had gone back to school to do a doctorate in physics that involved research into materials potentially of great utility in the renewable energy sector. I had a lovely time with them and explored the city a bit which left a good impression on me. It’s famous for its many lakes and parks, which at this time of year were full of life. I visited an outstanding sculpture park outside one of the main art galleries which hosts a giant cherry on a spoon that has become an unofficial icon of the city.

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From Minneapolis, I continued across the green rolling hills and farms of Wisconsin. One morning I was loading up on groceries when an old guy started talking to me. He had such a thick Midwestern accent that it took me a couple of sentences to tune my ear to it and understand what he was saying. It’s only since being here this time that I’ve come to recognise what an accent from the Midwest (at least the upper part where I’ve been, not sure how different it is further south) sounds like. It’s also happened a few times that people have not been able to understand me on account of my accent. Usually yokels working in gas stations or grocery stores. It was surprising to me at first because when I’ve travelled in non-anglophone countries I’ve often been told that I am especially easy to understand. Then I realised that’s probably because in those countries I make an effort to speak slowly and clearly, whereas it hadn’t occurred to me that it might also be necessary in the US. Apparently, in some parts it is.

Anyway, the friendly old guy was very talkative, like most Americans. I had to suppress a wince when he turned the conversation to the subject of abortion. In the same way that it is shocking for a secular European like myself to see the prominence of religion here, it’s astonishing to find the legality of abortion is even a subject of debate. Of course, the two go hand-in-hand, it is only a subject of debate because of religion. I’ve often passed huge billboards extolling the sanctity of life, commonly illustrated by smiling mothers cradling cherubic infants. Sometimes they come at it from the other angle, decrying pro-choicers as child murderers who will burn in hell. That was more or less the line taken by my new friend. He likened all of Europe to a Nazi concentration camp (yes, that old favourite) where babies were being slaughtered in their millions. I tried to explain, gently, that we don’t believe in murder in Europe, we’ve even gone so far as to abolish capital punishment. I explained that I could understand how he thought it was murder if he believed in a soul that enters the body at the moment of conception, but most people in Europe don’t believe that. For them, abortion is more like preventing a possible life from developing before it has started. A cluster of foetal cells is alive, but they are alive in the same way that a plant is alive. The cells take in nutrients and multiply and so on but that does not make a sentient being. It has the potential to become a human life, but so does a single sperm or an ovum, yet we don’t accord those things any moral consideration. I didn’t take the argument quite that far with my new friend.

I moved the conversation on to less emotive topics and had a very pleasant interaction with the old fellow, after which he wished me well on my trip with a customary “God bless you”. I got on my bike and I felt genuinely blessed.

The US is a country of extremes. Right now with reason and common sense confined to the fringes of public discourse, crowded out by identity politics, it can feel like the country is tearing itself apart. Yet, when you meet individuals, they are unfailingly kind, generous and friendly no matter which side of the political divide they fall on. Perhaps as an outsider and a guest in the country I’m particularly well placed to see this. I hope the people here can show each other the same kindness and acceptance they have shown me. God bless America and God bless the American people.

One thought on “The Rest of the West

  1. I sigh, I gasp, I giggle and guffaw throughout the course of reading your posts. You give the reader a thorough and thoughtful journey, Dosh. I've not missed America so much as now in quite awhile. That strange home. Bless.

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