“As of 2012, bicyclists are no longer required to keep at least one hand on the handlebars”.
Right, this is my chance to set a new world record……..do the whole of the Florida Loop (850 miles) with no hands on the handlebars! I may lack a certain level of security regarding other traffic, but I will certainly bask in the secure knowledge that I won’t be fined by a traffic cop, or used as target practice by any bored law enforcement agents.
This will be my route. A total of 850 cycling miles, with a 3.5 hour ferry crossing from Fort Myers to Key West, where I will pay homage to the memory of Ernest Hemingway by sampling his favourite drink, vermouth (not mojito as many believe) in his favourite bar, Sloppy Joes.
The route will take me up the largely urbanized east coast of south Florida, to the old colonial city of St Augustine, then across the peninsula through national parks and swampland, to finish with a 120 mile stretch along the Florida Keys. In terms of terrain, there are no real hills to speak of, apart from gentle inclines, but there will be long stretches of remote countryside as I bid to cross the hinterland.
and this is the boxed bike which, the Virgin Atlantic website assures me, will travel free of charge in the hold. I will go armed with a copy of the airlines regulations, in case the check-in staff are a little unclear.
A cycle journey across the Great Divide
Some books engage you in the first few lines, others take a few pages, and yet others never make the grade. I have a simple rule of thumb: if a book does not engage me within the first 50 pages, I consign it to the heap of the ‘great unread’.
Be brave, be strong by Jill Homer, however, had me intrigued from the first few pages. I had heard about the reputation of the Great Divide Race which, unlike the RAAM (Race across America), is a north to south adventure, following the upper levels of the Rocky Mountains, crossing the continental divide several times en route. This relatively new adventure (it’s only be going for about 15 years) starts at the Canadian border in Montana, and heads down to the Mexican border. The route that Jill Homer tackles has a 270 mile extension, starting in Banff (Alberta), following high altitude tracks for 2,740 miles, and frequently climbing over 10,000 feet.
Of the 42 starters in 2009, only 16 managed to finish, the fastest taking under 18 days, and a couple on a tandem taking only 14 hours longer. Jill Homer was the only solo lady to complete, and she set a female course record of just over 24 days. If you do your maths you will see that she averaged over 100 miles per day on rough mountain tracks, climbing over impossibly long ascents and ploughing through some of the worst weather imaginable.
The story of her derring-do is set against a backdrop of her recovery from frostbite on an earlier adventure across the frozen Alaskan plains, her uncertainties of leaving a secure job behind, and the break-up of her 8 year relationship with Geoff, a fellow-adventurer who had been her life-support system on previous escapades. Alongside her battles with self-doubt, anger, exhaustion, appalling weather and injuries, we see a person pulling through and completing the course, triumphantly arriving at the Mexican border where her parents are waiting for her. This is not a venture that commands the attention of the world, nor even the attention of anyone other than a small band of Great Divide enthusiasts, and there are no prizes other than the self-satisfaction of completing the course………. and being able to tell the story afterwards.
This is a great read for anyone (even non-cyclists) who loves the spirit of adventure. I read the Kindle version, which cost less than £2.
At a recent gathering at Little Gidding, we celebrated the memory of Nicholas Ferrar the man who, along with several members of his own family, established a Christian community at this remote spot in west Cambridgeshire. Amongst the many reflections and readings, I offered a highly speculative view of a possible chance encounter in the early 17th century. The story goes as follows:
During Tudor times, my home village of Kimbolton was dominated by the Wingfields, a family who had found favour with Henry VIII and were granted the estates of Kimbolton Castle and its surrounds. One of the Wingfield descendants, Edward María Wingfield, inherited the dissolved properties and estate of Stonely Priory nearby, and went on to distinguish himself by being elected as the first President of the Council of Jamestown, the first successful British colonial settlement in the US. Not only that, but he was also the only shareholder (and principal financial backer) of the newly founded London Virginia Company to accompany
the colonists on their venture. The said company suffered major reversals in its short history, and many who had invested heavily in its fortunes paid a heavy price for their speculation. One such family was the Ferrar family. It is well documented that Nicholas Ferrar, politician and businessman, was so affected by the declining fortune of his family, that he gave up his life in London and retreated to the relative calm of the Cambridgeshire countryside, where he established a quietly retiring Christian community far removed from the hustle and bustle of the capital.
My speculation was this: had Nicholas Ferrar and Edward María Wingfield ever met each other? Were they even known to each other? If not, were they to have met, I wonder what they might have said to each other?
I reckon there is a ‘talking heads’ dialogue somewhere in this.
Was the first skirmish of the American Revolution really prefaced with the shouted warning “The British are coming”? Highly unlikely. Everybody was still ‘British’ at the time, including the colonists. It has been the hindsight of later historians who invented such anecdotal events to lend realism to the events leading up a Revolution that would make the ‘pond’ a
more definitive frontier than it was.
Stereotypes abound with any regional group. New Englanders are frequently seen as snooty, impatient, elitist and clever, and
the NE of the USA has the greatest agglomeration of WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon protestants) on the continent. Whatever the truth behind stereotypes, it was immediately evident to us that the New Englanders were different from other Americans. More reserved, quieter presence, conservatively dressed………….without the accent, they reminded me of the gentle folk of the Western Isles of Scotland.
Our introduction to the fascinating history of the area began with a guided
tour of the Freedom Trail: a walk through town that took us to the principal sites connected with the uprising that led to the Revolution, and ultimately to the declaration of independence. The Trail takes you past the golden dome of the State House (the blueprint for the Capitol in Washington), the Old Granary Burying ground (burial site of notable patriots), the site of the Boston Massacre (where, in fact, only 5 were killed), the house of Paul Revere (famed for his midnight
ride to alert colonial troops of the arrival of the British), the Old North Church (whose tower was used for hanging the famous two lanterns to warn the patriots) and finally to Bunker Hill, whose obelisk marks where the first pitched battle of the Revolution took place. Even though the whole route is only 2.5 miles, you need a whole day to take it all in, and a pub to revive your drooping spirits afterwards!
In the form of culinary experiences, I did tremendous violence to a lobster as I worked my way through the crustacean with what look like a pair of nut-crackers! I discovered that ‘ziti’ is a type of pasta and ‘zuchini’ is what we call courgette, and Sunday brunch was taken to new heights in Boston.
We decided to celebrate our 35th anniversary a little early by ‘brunching’ at the Top of the Hub (the 52nd floor of the Prudential Tower), and our menu included yoghurt and granola, ginger pancakes and maple syrup, salmon with avocado, duck, all followed by naughty desserts and coffee. Just take a look at some of the aerial views that frequently distracted us from what was on the table!
Of course, our final city-visit of this tour had to be concluded with a tandem ride (this time, with a beach-cruiser style machine), which took us down the length of the Charles River as far as Harvard. But on our final Sunday, given that churches would be open for services, I decided to have a ‘mini-binge’ and visited three, staying for the duration of two services.
The first was a Congregational Church with the most extensive collection of Tiffany windows (and lantern) of any church in the USA; the second was Trinity Church (Episcopalian) reputedly voted one of the ten finest buildings in all America; and the third was the Mother Church of Christian Science (not to be confused with Scientology) whose form of worship took the form of commentary on readings from the teachings of their founder, Mary Baker Eddy. America is a place where you can detect many shades of the Christian message. Sometimes they evolve like mini-enterprises
with pastors who strive to develop communities with their own identity. Sometimes you can drive many miles along an avenue and see upwards of 20 little churches dotted along the verges, almost like a row of commercial outlets, each with its neon signs and digital advertising billboards, beckoning you to come and save your soul next Sunday (and pay your tithes!). Of the three I visited in Boston, Trinity Church was by far the best attended by its devotees, whereas the Mother Church of Christian Science itself could only muster about 40 in its congregation, some of whom were merely visiting, like ourselves.
And so our transcontinental trip across the Americas came to a close. Unlike
the early settlers of the 17th century, our orientation took us from west to east, from the oyster stews of Vancouver to the lobsters of Boston; from the fresh snows of the Athabasca Glacier in the Rockies to the soaring glass towers of New York; from the ‘heartland’ of mid-west America and its warm welcome to the monumental grandeur of Washington DC. When you travel coast-to-coast, you gain a perspective not only of the geographical expanse of the continent, but also of the motley varieties within communities as you travel. A truly remarkable experience, and one that I would heartily recommend if you enjoy a bit of adventure touring.
Have you ever wondered how New York came to be called the Big Apple? There used to be a theory (now discredited) that it derived from a prominent brothel in New York whose madam was called Eve! The truth, however, is a little more prosaic. It seems to derive from the prizes that were awarded at horse-races, which were known as ‘apples’, and John Fitzgerald, a prominent journalist of the 1920s, adopted the name for the city in his articles. An old saying in show business went as follows: “There are many apples on the tree, but only one Big Apple“, contrary to what Tim Rice proclaimed in his song ‘Eva, beware of the city’ with reference, of course, to Buenos Aires.
The smooth, swift Amtrack service whisked us up the coast from Washington in less than three hours. As we pondered over underground maps on a hastily-caught subway train, we suddenly found four of our fellow passengers giving us interesting, but often conflicting, advice as to which stops and changes to make. We warmed immediately to their friendliness, but we were left puzzled about directions! When we eventually arrived at our lodgings in Harlem, whatever little worries we had about their location, they disappeared in a trice. Despite any notoriety the district carried, we found it pleasant and welcoming, and appreciated why this part of New York had once been popular with the
gentry in the late 19th century.
Arriving in a big, brash city like NY can be a little unnerving, especially if the biggest tower block in your own community at home is no more than a three storey town-house! But to meet up with a former student and his partner, who had only recently moved to NY, made the first few hours of our visit very special. Richard and Rachel treated us to brunch(that peculiarly American phenomenon of breakfast and lunch
together) in one of the nicest restaurants in town, and then we made our way up to The Top of the Rock, on the 70th floor of the Rockerfeller Centre, to enjoy the panoramas of the city. Why not the Empire State Building, you might say? Well, it’s not as busy, the views are equally excellent, and you actually get to see the Empire State as part of the deal! But watch out for the high speed elevator. At 1500 feet per minute (15 mph straight up) it’s quite a shock to the eardrums!
When you are in the Big Apple, you simply have to visit all the iconic venues:
Grand Central Station, Times Square, 5th Avenue, Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island ferry, South Street Seaport, the United Nations building and the New York Public Library. But sometimes it is the little known places, that don’t feature in the guides, that really catch your attention. The High Line, for instance, is an elevated walkway that runs down the east side of Manhattan, which has been developed from the old rail tracks that used to connect warehouses with port-side. You can saunter along, enjoy the views, stop for a coffee, and feel free of the hassle of the city.
And what should the gastronome look out for? Being Halloween season, I had to try a pumpkin latte; brunch just had to include fruit pancakes with maple syrup; and go to any food court for lunch and you will be dazzled with the international variety on offer. But try to buy a bottle of wine in a grocery store and all you will find is a light, fizzy, alcohol-reduced look-alike. To find the real stuff, you need to hunt for a liquor store (not always easy to find), and if the storekeeper likes the look of you, you may be allowed inside the fenced-off area where you will find a small selection of very average wines. The laws governing the sale of alcohol across the US are unbelievably varied, many states and counties preserving a total ban on its sale, despite the 21st Amendment of 1933 which repealed the federal laws of prohibition. In New York, only wines and spirits are sold in carefully controlled liquor stores. If you want beer, you go to the convenience store. To
prevent the development of chain stores, each liquor store must have a single owner who lives within the vicinity of the store. All this is a far cry from the light, airy, inviting environment of a Waitrose or Tescos where you can browse a truly international offering of beverages, and where the labels beckon you….. come on, pick me, pick me!
I enjoyed a long conversation with the landlord of our B&B and, amongst other things, I asked him about American humour
and jokes. He said “there are an awful lot of American jokes. One just entered the White House!”. Then I was ‘entertained’ to a long diatribe about the failings of the Obama administration. I once got chatting to an elderly (white caucasian) male in a museum, and he asked me directly what I thought of Obama. Well, not having any political axe to grind, I said I liked the man: he speaks
well, he’s not short on dynamism, and he seems determined to get his policies through. “Yeh?”, he told me “d’you know what I think?” (whatever I said, he was going to tell me anyway!) “he’s the worst accident ever to happen to America! What d’you think of that?”. If I had been prepared with the facts, I might have regaled him with ‘Well, Obama did win over 52% of the popular vote. Didn’t look like an accident to me”, but he had disappeared amongst the exhibits. There went another lost opportunity!
“If you are carrying any food or drink, throw them in the trash can over there”. Such was the welcome to the United States Capitol, the ultimate place to visit when in Washington DC. So we emptied our bags begrudgingly, but the guided tour (which was free of charge!) around the old Senate Chamber, Hall of Columns and the National Statuary Hall made it a small price to pay. The new Visitors’ Centre has opened up the Capitol to the general public as never before. And as we made our way through the Capitol chambers, I caught sight of a small plaque on the floor that revealed the spot where John Quincy Adams (6th President of the US) had had his desk when
he was a Representative in Congress. Why should this little plaque have tweaked my interest? Well, his ancestors hailed from the tiny hamlet of Achurch, of some 20 houses, just a few miles from where I live in the UK (click here), a historical fact that gives this diminutive community disproportionate importance in world history. But fascinating nevertheless.
Washington is a monumental city. There is a plethora of memorials, state buildings, museums and beautiful open spaces to discover, but in this city of national government, there are always threats to national security, real or unreal. In the few days we were there, an internet messaging board put out that the Capitol was occupied by terrorists, and hostages had been taken, and all this was supported by video-clips and photos. It was quickly revealed that it was a hoax, but it had been expertly staged. But not so the threat by a Boston man who had designed a remote-controlled model plane to deliver high explosives to the Capitol, to give a well-deserved ‘jolt’ to the enemies of Allah (click here). This was not a hoax, but had fortunately been nipped in the bud at a very early stage.
A fascinating piece of entertainment throughout our four days in Washington were the ‘abseilers’ on the Washington Monument. The east
coast of the US had suffered an earthquake, and worrying cracks had appeared in the monument, resulting in its closure till safety-checks had been carried out. So enthralling was the drama that TV crews were on permanent stand-by to film the proceedings.
The Capital Bikeshare scheme was just too tempting to ignore. “One day membership only $5” is what I read, but the small print (which I ignored completely) said something quite different! You
can tell what an urban bikeshare virgin I was! When I checked the credit card statement a few days later, I’d been charged a whopping $35 for my 5 hours of fun. But, without question, it was a lot of fun, and worth it. I would recommend it to anyone, but remember swap your bike every 30 minutes to avoid the charges!
Even better was the tandem ride along Pennsylvania Ave, with Jenny ‘wowing’ with delight on the back. Unbelievably, the cycle lanes run up the middle of the Pennsylvania Avenue, and as we proceeded from the White House towards Capitol Hill, we were not only privileged with the perfect view of the Capitol ahead of us, but we could wave ‘presidentially’ at the excited crowds lining both sides of the street as we progressed statesman-like on our ‘limousine-bike’. Can you imagine it?………;0)
We learned so much more about life in the capital (and in the US in general) from a former student of ours who is currently pursuing an accelerated Masters at Georgetown University. Quite a change from a small village environment in the UK!
We mused about visiting some dear friends in Michigan, and calculated the distance from Banff. Little more than an inch on the atlas (I surmised), but Googlemaps shattered our illusions with a more accurate calculation of over 2000 miles, and would require 35 hours of driving (which for us would translate into 4 days, at least). So much for atlases! So the idea of a rental car was quickly ditched, and the services of Delta (aka Air France) were called in. But before I go any further, I have an issue regarding merged companies. Let me share it with you.
When you rely on yourself to do all the research and bookings,
you have to watch out for companies not masquerading as themselves. Take this as an example: I booked our outward flight to Vancouver with Air Transat, at the airport Canadian Affair handled our check-in, and
we found ourselves flying with Thomson Airways! Given that the deal was struck through Lastminute, I have no idea who I was actually doing business with. For our flight to Detroit, I booked with Delta and Air France made the deduction from our credit card account. So, if you are ever puzzled by a possible fraudulent transaction on your credit card, it may simply be a merged company that hasn’t declared all its credentials.
But our ‘diversion’ to Michigan was a priority for us. Reconnecting with friends from the days when I did a Fulbright teaching exchange back in 2005 was going to be a highlight of the trip. (See Letters from America here). With a very warm welcome from my former hosts, Ed and Libby, we were guaranteed a weekend of many delights and surprises: from the history of Motown music to the buzzing energy of a Motown revue as
we dinner-cruised along the Detroit River (check out the Prolifics here); from a journey through American history at the Henry Ford Museum to an all-embracing tour of the beautiful laid-back liberal city of Ann Arbour (with our dear friend Olivia, who bravely exchanged jobs with me back in 2005); from a brisk 40 mile cycle ride with Vince (a former semi-professional roadie) along the beautiful Hines Drive to a relaxing dinner with old friends from Stevenson High School. Four days were far too short a time to be with such good people, but they had their work schedules, and we, on the other hand, well………………what can I say? Retirement is, indeed, a privileged status.
Next stop Washington……………but how to get there? Believing we are never too old for such things, we took the
plunge and booked overnight tickets on the Greyhound Bus, despite the looks of astonishment and words of caution coming from various quarters. That’s the “peoples’ transport” we were told, and a New Zealand couple gave us the worrying details of an experience they had had a few years back. The outcome was, to our relief, far better than our expectations. In fact, one of the coaches was evidently new, air-conditioned, with wifi and leather reclining seats. What more could you expect for $49? And it meant that we entered Washington DC as the dawn was breaking…………