Author Archives: Frank Burns
Unlike many memoirs of long journeys, Tim Moss’s narrative of cycling around the world with his wife, Laura, is a real page-turner. Long journeys, by their very nature, provide a lot of material of a repetitive kind, so finding your voice as an author and keeping the reader plugged in is a fine balancing act. The narrative needs momentum, it requires twists and turns, and variations of speed……just like a bicycle ride in fact, except that the really interesting things often happen off the bike, in the variety of vignettes that pepper the journey, giving us an insight into the lives and personalities of the travellers themselves, as well as a flavour of the terrain and people they encounter en route.
Being a long-distance cyclist myself, I know what it’s like to be 8-10 hours a day on the road. During those long lonely hours your mind is filled with inconsequentials like: ‘how far till the next stop, where’s the next foodstore, will this hill never end, should I sleep in this wood or look for the grounds of a temple?’. Your attention, in fact, is entirely focused on survival……which in itself doesn’t make a great story. It’s when you stop thinking about yourself and survival, and turn your attention outwards…..that’s where the real story is, and Tim has created a narrative that keeps you turning the pages.
A great read, for both cyclists and non-cyclists, and a great 5 minute trailer below.
The ultimate in self propulsion is not the bike, but putting one foot in front of the other…..and for me, it’s a pace I have to adapt to…..but the rewards can be rich….especially in the Peak District, hiking the Dales….
From meadows (and mud) and a riverside trail along the Dove, to a rocky stumble up Biggin Dale and the sheer slopes of Wolfescote Dale, this had a bit of everything….including being besieged by a yapping pack of hunting hounds that seemed to materialize from nowhere.
Add to all this an unexpectedly cloudless day (which in Derbyshire is akin to a drought), and you have all the ingredients of a perfect ramble….
In Derbyshire, if you can’t see the hills, it is raining….if you can see the hills, it is about to rain.
And of the Derbyshire born person, it is said: “Derbyshire born, Derbyshire bred, Thick in th’arm, Thick in th’head”. Don’t tell Jenny that…🙃
Waresley Garden Centre cafe, where I met up with one of my mid-week groups, has the best scones in the area, and today they were offering an unusual raspberry and chocolate variety…..but I resisted the clotted cream…..don’t ask me why….I must have been on a mission to appear virtuous.
And the quality of the cafe offerings was matched by the perfect autumnal weather, the countryside bedecked in the orange, gold and crimson of a soon to disappear seasonal feast. Carpe diem…..
Ah, the familiar highways and byways of home, and remembering to ride on the left…..
You see, we Brits know we’ve got it right by driving/riding on the left, but most of the world just doesn’t agree with us. I mean, did you know that riding on the left owes its origin to ‘dexterity’ (right handedness)? Approximately 85% of people are naturally right-handed….so, if you were a knight in medieval times travelling the country, which side of an oncoming knight would you pass? Of course, to their left, so you could defend yourself using your right hand.
So my question to the rest of the world is….how do you defend yourself if you drive/ride on the right? Learn to be ambidextrous?
The evolution of words like ‘superb, fab, cool, wicked, dark…’ is fascinating. Here is the latest iteration in southern California:”You just rode from Vancouver? Really? Bad ass….!”
Vancouver to Mexico: the statistics
No. of cycling days: 34
Rest days: 3
Average daily distance: 80km/50 miles
Longest day: 105km/65 miles
Shortest day: 35km/22 miles
Nights camping: 23
Warmshowers overnights: 11
Monastery overnight: 1
Motel nights: 3
Best parts: the giant redwood forests of northern California, and the dramatic coastline in Big Sur.
Least interesting: endless managed fir forests in Oregon.
Toughest climb: Mt Tamalpais 2,500ft, average gradient 7.4%, maximum slope 15%.
Best navigational tool: Google maps
Worst phone service provider: T-Mobile
Mechanicals: 1 new chain, no punctures, replacement lock.
Items left behind and recovered: 3 (barbag, lock and phone)
Items lost: 1 (gilet)
Rain: 2 hours on one day, once overnight. Amazingly dry.
Days of sunshine: 30+
Wildlife encountered: harbour seals, spouting whale, elephant seals, pelicans, egrets, cormorants, kestrels, hawks, foxes, racoons, skunks…should I go on?
Bananas eaten: about 80
Cliff bars eaten: about 60
Beers: about 30 (give or take….)
Worst coffee: French vanilla
Longest ride to my first coffee of the day: 26 miles
Longest stretch without services: 55 miles
Spontaneous assistance from passers-by: numerous occasions.
Encounters with traffic cops: 1….🙃
And as a postscript, if you have been following this journey via my webpage or Facebook, thank you for your company. My blog logged up over 10,000 hits during the journey, which made the effort of writing the posts so worthwhile.
Yesterday was the last gasp. A final fling to get to the San Ysidro Transit Centre was met with an impenetrable wall of security, on this the busiest land crossing in the world. I coincided with a change in shift, passing hundreds of border security guards on their way home, all wearing bullet-proof vests. No way could I get near the border crossing and expect to retrace my steps back the way I came. So getting this shot standing next to the nearest sign was all I could expect.
But….the job is now done, time to relax, have a few beers, eat a few tacos, burritos and enchiladas, and pack the bike for the homeward journey.
On long cycling journeys, I love to camp. It’s simple, cheap, convenient, sociable, and it adds to the sense of adventure, especially when you pitch your tent in remote rustic spots. However, that is not to entirely eschew the comforts of a bed, a shower and a home-cooked meal…..because there is a worldwide organisation called Warmshowers, where cyclists host cyclists in their own homes, and the only payback is to open your own home to passing cyclists who are full members.
So far on this journey, I have been hosted 7 times, by 7 very different people, with different backgrounds and circumstances, but sharing a common love for cycling, whether competitive, triathlons, off-roading, commuting, or long distance endurance. In one case, my hosts rarely used their bikes, but just love the company of travelling cyclists.
In the last few days, I have been hosted by Weej (Louise) and her son Jack in San Clemente
…and had my arrival caught on camera (oops, haven’t learned how to switch it to portrait)
…then in the morning, was accompanied by Weej for the first 20 miles of my route.
The following night, I was offered a bed and pasta meal by Gregg
…a man thoroughly informed about local and national affairs, had cycled around the world in his 20s, and was busy building a computerised irrigation system for his back garden. Fascinating.
Then today, I was met by Julie, 20 miles into my ride…
…and she rode with me on the last leg to her condo in Pacific Beach (San Diego), and again I was caught on camera, this time struggling to the top of a long climb. And no, that is not a smile on my face, but a grimace of pain!
I pretty well had a guided tour of the beaches en route, and over lunch, she introduced me to the art of craft beer appreciation….especially of the variety of local IPA beers….and what an experience that was!
Julie is away on business next week and has kindly offered to let me stay in her condo until my flight home on Saturday.
Believe me, the combination of camping and Warmshowers make perfect ingredients for the long distance cyclist.
Check out: http://www.warmshowers.org
Well, the wink and smile from the campground host last night meant what I thought it had meant….I got a 100% discount on the $55 fee. I had pitched my tent behind his palatial RV, on a spot that overlooked the ocean….and the sunset (no, I won’t bore you with yet another sunset shot…).
But the campground had several prominent alerts posted about rattlesnakes in the area….and guess what was uppermost on my mind as I got up in the night for a pee…..? Just as well there had been a full moon to light the way…
Despite the heat during the day, the dew was extra heavy last night, so I spent a lazy hour talking to other camp residents this morning while my tent dried. But as I set off mid-morning, the temperature was already in the mid-30s, and as I tumbled through Laguna Beach, I was ‘bullied’ by this sign…
into stubbing out my cigarette (no, just kidding!)….can’t ever remember going through a smoke-free city before….I wonder, does that just mean smoking in public places?
Tonight, I am being hosted in San Clemente by Weej and Chris Baggely (both keen off-roaders) and their son Jack, and as I arrived (having toiled up a 5 mile climb to nearly 800 feet) I was given a beer and ushered to relax a while in their backyard……..
…could it be any better?
Last night I got back from LA after dark, and walked the 2 miles from the metro station to Ken’s house, through unfamiliar neighbourhoods. Ken had given me a key to his house, so when I got back, I opened the door, only to see a little boy on the other side. I was very puzzled, then I heard voices, and then shouts, and the phrase “call the police” rang out resoundingly.
Damn, I’d just tried to enter the wrong house! And now they were going to call the police…… The father came out, a tall strong looking chap, and mother opened the window….I pleaded my case, told them it was a genuine mistake, ladled on the English accent, told them I was a simple confused Brit, and, magically, they calmed down, and even started to make moves to help me….if I’d prolonged the subservience, they might even have invited me in for a beer…. Phew, another neat side step out of trouble.
The next morning, I rode with Ken for a couple of miles, he on his way to work. He is a therapist, with a speciality in helping victims of addiction, and he put me on the road to visit the old Queen Mary, docked in Long Beach harbour, and now serving as an event centre and hotel. I asked one couple who were coming off from having spent the night on her, what it was like. The unadorned answer was “Well, it was another thing to cross off the list”. The ship had been decommissioned in 1968, and from the outside, it certainly looked old and tired.
On the last lap of this epic ride, I am winding down the pace, cruising along beach trails, along endless beaches….
…past artificial islands that had to be built to mask the unsightly oil drilling platforms put there in the 70s….
…and when I got to Crystal Cove campground, to be told that tent camping would cost a whopping $55 a night, my jaw dropped to my knees. So, summoning up, once again, all the Englishness and old school refinement that I could, coupled with an expression of genuine shock, the camp host paused….then said: ” Go to site 30 and pitch your tent behind my RV”.
Did I detect a wink and a smile when he said that….?
Even when you stop pedalling for a day, your whole body remains in constant motion forwards. Ken, my host and his partner, have very kindly let me stay a second night, so that I could catch public transit to downtown LA for the day.
When you look at the sheer size of LA, and how far apart some if the whiz bang attractions are, you have to ‘trim your cloth’, and plan something less ambitious. So I took the metro to the most central station and explored the square mile at the very heart of the city…..and I was not disappointed….in fact, I did rather well.
A guided tour of the Central Library was a gem, including exhibitions in the Getty Gallery, followed by a spectacular interactive journey up to the 70th floor of Skyspace,
and a chance to grow wings for take off….
This was followed by another guided tour, of The Broad this time, the LA museum of contemporary art (absolutely fascinating…and free!),
and this was literally next door to the Guggenheim-esque Walt Disney Concert Hall….
And all of this within a mile of my station, when the majority of tourists would be out at Universal Studios and visiting the Walk of Fame and such, leaving these central gems quiet and largely unvisited.
Over two days, along this largely flat coastline, I was able to forge ahead, sharing time on the road with people like Tim, from Norfolk
who has done a series of long rides, like the TRANSAM when he was 17, and the 5000 mile route around the coast of Britain.
And Mack, from Oklahoma, on the other hand, was doing his first major ride, and found himself getting stronger and more confident as the ride progressed, but had yet to find out that riding on sand requires much fatter tyres to stay upright….!
Breaking the two days of riding was an overnight at Sycamore Canyon campground, largely deserted, and enjoying a primitive remoteness that I liked. Coming out of the campground shortly after sunrise, the light and the mist played eerily on the ocean…
and we followed the beach’s winding cycle trail for miles till I found myself at the doorstep of another cycling host, who gave me a very warm welcome.
Tomorrow, I will take a day off the bike, and take transit into LA, and discover some of the wonders and quirkiness that normal trippers find in this vast city.
This was a timely reminder in a rest area off the highway as I dropped back down to the coast near Santa Barbara.
Did you know that a rattlesnake can still administer a lethal bite some time after it has been beheaded? Best to do the Clint Eastwood thing and just shoot it…
Some of the bridges have an extra layer of security for cyclists. By pressing the button you trigger the lights that tell the traffic to give you a fighting chance of getting across safely….and some will very considerately refuse to overtake until you have crossed. Very impressive…
And should you ever exchange your tent for a motorhome, don’t forget to take your car in tow so you’ve got something to get around with while the bus is parked up in an RV park. I mean, we wouldn’t want to see you walking, would we?
After a fairly tough 88km, that included a long climb to 1100 ft, and a rip roaring descent of 2 miles…
….I stopped in Santa Barbara to be hosted by Antoine, from Grenoble, but seconded by his company to work on a project that incorporates the use of lasers in fibre optic technology. Now that this brief summary has made me sound very knowledgeable, I want to make special mention of Antoine’s home made pasta…..supreme!
But, of course, only to be expected of the modern Frenchman these days…they are all Michelin starred, aren’t they?
I decided to delay my start this morning to do my laundry in the campground laundromat, when two gentlemen came in clutching their own bags of laundry. They eventually decided to share the same machine, and when I heard their accents, I said: “You’re not local lads, are you?”.
One, in fact, was a Kiwi and the other an Aussie, and they were on a rental motorhome holiday together. I expressed my surprise to see that an Aussie and Kiwi were that friendly, when the Aussie commented:”We’re not that friendly really, especially on the cricket field. This lot are just a bunch of Sheilas on the cricket field”.
The Kiwi came back with: “Yeah, but when it comes to rugby, the Wallabies are just a bunch of prissie Wannabees”
“You see why I hate him” said the Aussie.
As they overtook me down the road, they gave me a friendly toot on the horn…and I reckon they’d been sharing a few jokes about stupid pommies, especially ones that ride bikes wearing lycra.
On my way to Lampoc, I stopped to rest in Guadalupe, and a lady called Dorothy, in a wheelchair, came up and said: “You stopping or just passing through?”.
Within 2 minutes I had a full description of her extended family, then she remarked: “Of course, I can walk, I just need this (wheelchair) for longer distances”.
I replied: “Yes, I too can walk, I just need this (pointing to the bike) for longer distances”. She liked the humour of the comparison….
When I got to Lampoc, after a fairly tough 80km, the only campground had closed its section for bikers like me, and forced me into a motel room. Bring a humongous RV or motorhome, and they’ll let you stay…..but no, not a one man tent, even if you pay the price for an RV site. Is this unsubtle discrimination?
I had a strong wind in my face, when I saw this in a turn out (layby) for the second time….
Eddie claimed to be destitute, and was asking for the public’s prayers in a typical Californian way. I said: “Can you say one for me? That this wind will turn in my favour. “Lord” he began “turn this wind to Frank’s back..” Amen, I said to that…. But here’s the rub….by early afternoon, it did turn to my back……but then, mysteriously, the Californian wind always seems to be from the south in the morning, and the north west in the afternoon…. No, Eddie couldn’t turn water into Californian merlot, nor find himself a job.
Another spectre wafted into the campground last night, in the form of Stuart…..
who had just ridden 206km in 10 hours of the most challenging coastline in the country, and all he was carrying was a sleeping bag….yep, he slept directly on the cold damp ground, and was hassled by a bunch of racoons in the night. I tell you, California is full of nutters…
10km after my first stop today, I pulled over to check Google maps to see if I should be riding on the freeway and, damn (and double damn!), my phone wasn’t there. As I walked my bike off the freeway, Peter, a former commercial airline, turned private jet, pilot pulled over to ask if he could help, and he offered to run me back to the café in Cayucos, where I had been chatting to Jenny on WhatsApp. Then he took me back to my bike…in the opposite direction to where he was going. That’s kindness for you.
In San Luis Obispo, I found a cycle shop to tune up my gears and put a new chain on the bike, and now she is just purring…..enough to tackle any Californian headwind that Eddie can’t miracle away….
…and to keep up with this ‘peloton’ of likelies in Cambria’s scarecrow festival week….and, yes, they are turning those pedals….believe me.
After 93km, I arrived at Pismo Beach to discover I’m the only hiker/biker on the site…..which obviously means I have ridden the others into the dust….😊
I’m currently 250 miles north of LA, about 500 from the Mexican border and, strangely, I feel I’m on the finishing strait…a bit premature for that really.
My stopover at the Hermitage last night was one of those rarified experiences never to be forgotten. High up in the mountains, it is a place of deep silence, where people go to refresh their spirits and renew their inspiration, for whatever reason. One lady, a landscape artist, needed some isolation for the sake of her creativity. The place may be summed up by this image…a place to sit, overlooking the ocean, in quiet contemplation
…then I met myself going down the mountain…..oh dear.
Down the road, I was encountered two series of roadworks, 14 miles apart, still repairing major landslips from 2 years ago that cut off the intermediate community for 4 months. Because the highway is the only road of access, they had to helicopter all essential supplies in, and people couldn’t get in or out. They were effectively marooned on a desert island…I wonder what eight records they chose?
And Matías, from Santiago Chile, another cyclist who just bunged his backpack on the back of his bike, set off from LA to ride the 500 miles north to San Francisco….but he wasn’t sure where he was, nor did he realise that entering the Big Sur, he was going to be facing 74 miles of continuously challenging hills. At least he was going north (and not south)…
Then I came across this beach that was thick with elephant seals, all wallowing in their blubber, scratching their underbellies, and giving off an impressive stink….it may become the next offering from Chanel…
And this is an ingenious way of solving the gender confusion….
but does that now cover the ‘questioning’ gender?
I continued this 74 mile stretch of winding rugged coastline…
minding my own business and having the odd photograph taken…
when I heard this “Hey, d’ya want some water?”. Thinking it had nothing to do with me, I ignored it and continued. The same question was hollered again, but this time with greater insistence, so I stopped and looked round: “and maybe some cheese and crackers, some fruit ..whatever you want”. “Hi”I said “well, if you insist”. “I do” he said “come and sit down”.
So within minutes, at a vista point with immense views of the coastline, Rex and Heidi had me sitting in one of their chairs and served me a platter, with two iced bottles of water. A small act of generosity, but a huge gesture of kindness …
My night’s accommodation was going to be a retreat centre in the mountains. An old school friend, who is following my journey south, had been in contact, and suggested I made contact with the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a place he had stayed at back in the mid 80s just outside of the tiny hamlet of Lucia.
I was proffered a warm welcome by one of the Brothers, but the sting in the tail was what is euphemistically known as a 2 mile scenic drive up to the Hermitage……cyclists (and only cyclists) see the following footnote on the notice: ‘Be prepared, this will be your Calvary’. One switchback was so steep (I guess in excess of 35%) I could hardly push the bike up it, let alone ride it.
And I’m dying to find out the properties of a ‘holy granola’.
Whatever the height above sea level, and I guess about 1000 feet, the views are huge and expansive, especially of the sunset.
The superlatives are in danger of hyperinflation. When I think I’ve already had the best day of the journey, along comes another day that is jaw-droppingly ridiculous. The ride out of Monterey along Cannery Row (of John Steinbeck fame), then along 17 Mile Drive was so immaculately beautiful that it is no surprise that the rich and famous have converted it into a getaway ghetto for….well, the rich and famous.
I stopped to ask Rory about a foodstore nearby, and our conversation ranged from his Dublin upbringing, to his education at Downside to life in the US, till eventually ‘where’s the nearest foodstore’. My question was never really answered, but who cares? We had an entertaining fifteen minutes.
Then I fell into conversation with Clay coming out of a Safeway, a competitive long-distance sportive rider, who had completed the TRANSAM in 28 days, but who was feeling annoyed with himself for recently packing in during a 600km sportive. He said he had never done a DNF (Did Not Finish) in his life. He saw me as a sympathetic listener, and just let it all out. But I couldn’t believe it when he said he actually enjoyed doing TRANSAM..he’s a nutter. I told him he needs to back off from the testosterone induced head-banging rides….and I can hear Jenny, my wife, shouting “Practice what you preach”!
The final 26 miles to Big Sur was a stunning rolling route following the rugged coastline, with such captivating views that people came from all over the world just to stand and contemplate….as I did far too often. Every five minutes presented a Kodak moment, with cormorants, seals and pelicans adding to the entertainment.
At the Big Sur campground, I met up for the fourth consecutive day with Chris, a food operations manager, doing the southern half of the tier…..so we may be seeing more of each other.
Then as dusk settled, in wafted this crazy spectre called Aurora, from Taiwan.
She is spending 6 months here, and spent the first 4 months hiking the high elevation Pacific Coast Trail for 2500 miles, then without any planning bought herself this city bike with a shopping basket on the back, stuffed her backpack in it, turned around and started cycling back from Vancouver to Mexico….another 2000 miles. She has put both Chris and me completely in the shade….she had just done 90 miles in the day, what we had taken 2 days to do…..are all Taiwanese as crazy and determined as that?
Time to start stamp collecting, methinks…..
My addiction to coffee on this trip has become a reality. I only realised it when I had to cross a ‘coffee desert’ this morning and do 25 miles before my first dose of caffeine. Maybe I should carry a syringe and begin the day with an intravenous…. When I got to my first stop, all my devices went on recharge because the last campground had had no plug-ins. I now have a USB multiple device charger, which means they can all be charged simultaneously on the one plug-in. Oh yes, I’ve thought long and hard about dynamo hubs and mini-solar rechargers…..but just think of those extra grams of dead weight…. life’s too short…
I was passed by several pelotons of cyclists….or should I say, I let them pass me… One was in a race with motorcycle escorts, the second was a big group of charity riders all sporting the same shirts, and they too had a couple of support vehicles.
The third was a local club, including a tandem, and when I caught up with them as they regrouped by the roadside, we had 10 minutes of the usual cycling banter, when one of them asked: “So, tell us about your journey. You’re travelling light but I can see you have a tent”.
The scenario for replaying an old joke on a new audience was being laid and was too tempting. “Oh, from Vancouver to Mexico” I replied. “Whoa, that’s a long way” he said.”Is it?” I said “I wish someone had told me before I started.” Thinking I had had the last word on that one, he added spontaneously: “Well, I could have, but you never asked”. Boom, boom..I said to myself, as he raised his hand in a high five.
The campground tonight is the Veteran’s Memorial Park, at the top of a 400ft climb in Monterey, and at 10pm precisely, the last post was played, to be heard across the whole town and, as ever, it was a plaintiff and moving piece of music.
I picked up a much needed coffee at a Mexican Taquería, and I’m now finding myself surrounded more by Hispanics than whites, who come to these parts to work the strawberry harvest….amongst many other back-breaking jobs…
I asked to taste the strawberries, and because I asked them using what they regard as quaint old world Spanish (ie. as spoken in Spain), they smiled and proffered me one of their boxes.
I was waylaid mid-ride by Pigeon Point, a famous lighthouse in these parts, built to reduce the number of shipwrecks (after one of which the lighthouse is named), and the landing area is associated with contraband and shoot-outs. It is now an International Hostel, whose commitment to those age-old values is now, sadly, being overwhelmed by the brutality of global politics
…talking of which, I met some cyclists a couple of days north who live in Santa Cruz, and he said: “Watch your bike, it’s the bike-thieving capital of the world”. I made light of his advice by saying: “No problem, my bike is English, and it’ll only go on the left”. And he replied: “We could all do with going on the left in this nation of ours”……..hmm, interesting response.
Oh well, let’s get back to some of the uncontentious things in life, like Halloween
I mean who would argue with the glorification of scary images, suggestions of ghoulish violence, and even death in all its macabre glory?
Pass me the candy please…..
Talking of things ghoulish, is this the shadow of my former self….?