In previous trips I sometimes made a three to five day planning. "Today I'll drive up there, tomorrow I can get there..." and so on. I stopped planning. "When are you gonna get to Alaska?" I'm asked a lot. "I have no idea - in a month or so." Some people are a little freaked out by that, while others immediately recognize the absolute freedom I'm taking full advantage of.
Why I (still?) drive without a guidebook has another reason: people follow guidebooks. Some compulsively: "You were in Miami but you didn't go to the Everglades?!". I don't need to see all those highlights from the guidebooks. Without a guide I also avoid the travelers who keep meeting each other in restaurants and guesthouses that are well mentioned in their guide. My pleasure lies in travelling and meeting people.
During the preparation of this trip a lot of time has been spent in the equipment, and almost no time in studying the countries I am going to visit. It was unknown to me that the Natchez Parkway is seen by many as one of the most beautiful routes in the US. Still, I 'stumbled' over it, and I'm reckoning that that will happen again.
The food in the U.S. isn't great. I know you can eat very well in some restaurants, but I have to make do with what I come across, and every day. The steak is always fine; fries can be prepared for anyone here. But fix something a client should chew on? They'd rather avoid that. I long for a piece of brown bread for breakfast, a salad with raw bell peppers and tomatoes for lunch, or vegetables that have not been cooked into porridge for dinner.
I bought a "whole wheat" bread and a piece of cheese in Miami, and the bread is (a week later) still not stale. I find that suspicious. I eat the last sticky slices, together with a homemade, garlic-rich salad. The cheese is a disaster. It is fat, as it should be, but it doesn't taste like ripened cheese. It's artificial cheese, poured into a mould and then solidified. It melts in the hot engine case back to what it is: a shapeless lump of fat with flavour and colouring.
"Close enough for a visit," was the subject of an e-mail to Becky. In the past few days we have had a couple of email contacts and today I will leave the park road to go to Roswell. A long time ago Becky worked at a start-up company called IntelliCom. Dupaco was also very young then and that made us like-minded. Becky wasn't a typical techie but she dealt with all technical questions - she's very smart and she's good with people.
"We eat here at home because we thought you'd see enough restaurants" said Becky and John. It's a real success! They'd seen that very well - and Becky was grilling delicious pieces of meat for the four of us (son Mitch had freed himself from the TV).
"Yeah but -" I'll say when we're in the living room later. I'm trying to change the topic of conversation. We've been talking about politics for a long time and that doesn't bore me, but too much is probably not good. Besides, I thought I remembered that John votes Republican, and that's not really my line. "But how did they organize health care in Europe?" My long answer is followed by a new question or proposition. I like it, although we sin against the golden rule not to talk about politics and religion.
Motorcyclists I meet along the way all ask: "Are you going to ride the 'Tail of the Dragon' also?". The first ones had to explain to me what that is and it turns out to be a stretch of road of 11 miles (18 kilometers) long with more than 300 turns. That sounds like music to my ears, because I haven't seen many turns since Miami. And so I go the 25th of June on my way to North Carolina. During lunch I meet a group of Canadians on rented motorcycles. They haven't heard of the 'Tail' yet and I tell them where it is. Together we set off - the Canadians behind me. But I make a navigational error (and they don't) and so we lose sight of each other.
I do notice my mistake (I should have gone west around a mountain ridge) but the little road I end up on leads me straight to my goal. Until ... the asphalt road suddenly stops and the gravel starts. Now my moped and I were ready for a change of scenery, but whether this road will take me to the other side of the mountain or whether it's a dead end, I don't know. Soon I come to a steep stretch with lots of hairpin bends. From the state of the gravel I can see that there is not much traffic here. But stubbornly I drive on.
Suddenly two vultures flee in front of me, who tried to eat the carcass of a turtle. Thousands of flies land on the shell when the birds have flown. Moments later I startled a wild turkey hen with four chicks: at first they tried to run out in front of the motorcycle, but soon they continued flying. Meanwhile I am at the top of about 1000 meters high. And the road doesn't end there: in all probability I will end up in the next valley. To complete the feast of riding in untouched nature I encounter two (small) river fordings in the descent.
Once back on the road I see the motorcycles of the Canadians at a motel. My route seemed more direct but wasn't any faster. I ride on, until I also find a motel, in Robertville. It is quite warm and I think the 'Tail' will be very full in the afternoon. And I've heard that after nine o'clock in the morning the gentlemen of the police also target that part of the 'circuit'.
When the laundry is done and the BBC GlobalNews podcast has been downloaded I leave the hotel looking for a beer. My bike is not the only one anymore! It is almost full of the mandatory Harleys, but also a few machines that can drive through a curve. I have a chat with Patrick, Adam and Mick, who are underway on high-speed machines. "Take one of ours, because this is a dry area!" We're on the bible-belt and they democratically decided a long time ago not to sell alcohol here. "And are you allowed to drink that out here on the sidewalk?" I'm asking. "Legally, we live here tonight and we're in the private parking lot," Patrick explains. The three jail guards and I talk about everything, until after sundown.
At 9:00 a.m. on the morning of the 26th I already covered the 11 miles in two directions, and indeed I didn't see a single policeman. I was seen, by a photographer putting a picture of me on a website.
It's just a small connection to the beginning of the next one: "The Blue Ridge Parkway." And I actually like it better. This road, which runs over the peaks of the Appalachian Ridge, offers beautiful views and many curves. Unfortunately I'm now only allowed 45 miles per hour (72.5 km/h) and I try to keep to it, but I still think it's going too fast. If I go on like this, this 'biker's candy' will be gone in two days.
Ik zet de tent I pitch my tent in a section of the forest where no campers or caravans are allowed (and so the nightly silence won't be disturbed by aircontioners). It's such a nice place that I stay there for two days lazing. I phone Europe, write emails, light fires next to the tent and grill a steak (but Becky's was better).
After the Blue Ridge comes another one: "The Skyline Drive", which I digest for dessert far too fast. Suddenly the views and the curves are over. I get traffic lights and stop signs in return, so I choose the highway to Washington. When I get there it turns out that it is no longer possible to just drive in front of the White House. The place where the journalists do their stand-ups is rendered completely inaccessible.
As I leave town (again via a Parkway, but now four-lane, with traffic jams), a wasp flies against my helmet, which then falls IN my shirt. Apparently the creature is a bit angry, because it stings me in my belly, twice. Moments later I'm on a parking lot removing my clothes like a madman, because I become more and more allergic to insect bites. It is a spot where many remarkably good-looking men are waiting in their cars, who follow my actions with interest. After the wasp has died I get dressed again and leave the men longingly behind.
The considerable swelling in my skin will last for four days.
One of the things I wanted to do was drive over Broadway and 5th Avenue on Manhattan in New York. That turns out to be impossible: 5th runs dead on a park, while Broadway runs all the way to the south of the island. Tick item "Broadway up, 5th down" is a failure, because it is not possible at all. I do see the cyclists and scooters doing something I haven't done since Florida: driving forward between waiting cars. I ask a policeman about the local rules and he looks at me like I'm asking a really stupid question. "Everybody does it, don't they?"
For me, it's the signal to make all of Manhattan unsafe. On the Henry Hudson Parkway (which has nothing to do with nature) I am standing next to a man in his sports car for the second time, who gets through traffic faster than me. "I don't have to teach you how to drive that thing, do I?" he shouts. He says he rides a bike himself and urges me to be careful. I take a picture of him (my camera is hanging around my wrist and I ride without gloves). Together we race on the western highway through the city, until I take the exit on Amsterdam Avenue (in Harlem).
In the end I 'score' two ticks on my 'to do' list: one for both streets, and one for the manner in which: after Barcelona and a series of other cities, I've now crossed NY according to the Kuus method (Menno Kuus and I once 'trained' in Barcelona in navigating through / along / between city traffic as quickly as possible).
I'm getting a little closer to the not unattractive African-American. "Am I too close?" I ask. "No, it's OK". We're in the middle of the Manhattan Bridge, in the lee of one of the pillars. She's wrapped herself in some sort of see-through plastic bag, but I've been surprised by the massive downpour. She walks the bridge when she returns from work to get some exercise. Occasionally our conversation is interrupted by the subway's thundering behind us. "I once was in a natural park and I was freaked out by the silence. Yes, you get used to the noise and the hustle and bustle and eventually you miss it", she says. I can hardly imagine it.
I'm on this bridge because I wanted a picture of my favorite bridge: "Brooklyn Bridge". This 2nd of July I have a dayticket for the subway and I cross the city again, but this time on foot and by subway (during the downpours). I sleep in another state: New Jersey, across the river. There is a Sheraton hotel just next to the harbor of a pedestrian ferry. Many years ago I enjoyed getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city in this hotel. This time they even have a covered parking place for my bike.
The United States celebrates the day they became independent (of Great Britain) exuberantly. This year it falls on a Saturday and (so???) everyone is off Friday as well. A few fellow bar visitors on Manhattan suggested Lake Placid as a good place for a quieter celebration. When I arrive there on the third of July there is almost no vacancy. It was not what this countryboy had imagined. Most people here are also visiting and don't interfere with each other or with me. I still get my rest, although it doesn't look like the celebration in a small circle I had imagined.
The Canadians don't make things difficult at the border in any way: no luggage check, no verification if I am insured, no Canadian version of the EPA.
This is the moment to look back at the United States and its citizens. I think it's a beautiful country. Nature, climate and variety appeal to me very much. I also appreciate the way the Americans treat their natural assets. The people are still young people in a young country. It is nice that they are not 'stuck' to centuries of traditions and customs. On Saturday and Sunday in Alabama and Mississippi, for example, I saw many people dragging large boats behind their big cars - playing with water on weekends is quite normal here.
But things have changed since the last time I was here (in 1999). It has always been the land of legal fine-grinding, but now mendacity has been added. Hotels that have a safe in the room 'for your safety', but charge a price per day for that without saying it in advance. Car rental companies that always charge you for a full tank of fuel, whether you've emptied it or not. Comparison tables of call rates that ignore important acpects in order to lure you to the subscription that is more profitable for the company (and not the customer) - there are a lot of those clever things that are 'just' in the small print. "Your did sign for it..."
It makes people suspicious. Everyone recons that no one speaks their mind. In TV commercials companies attack each other on that dishonesty and lobbyists twist the truth to gain support for their point of view. A little more transparency (imposed or not) would grace this country.
America was the land of freedom, the home of the brave. That's over (since 9/11?). Americans are afraid. When I left my wallet in the care of the clerk for a while whilst taking money out of my luggage in the parking lot, I was told that I could not just hand over the care of my wallet. Imagine: I trust someone, but they don't dare trust me to act in good faith.
Now xenophobia is strange to me and I sometimes dare to judge too quickly, but the Americans have linked their lack of knowledge of the world to a great fear of everything that is non-american. That gives nice things: "If you don't have a dollar, how can you pay?" The question: "Is the Muslim problem in Belgium manageable?" is not so cute anymore. "Let's wipe Afghanistan nuclear off the map and solve the problem at once" is dangerously dumb.
The media play an important role. They give the people what they want to hear: that Michael Jackson's car is being towed away is "breaking news". None of the news channels shows a reasonable overview of what is happening in the world - they all run after the same subject that is 'hot' that day. I get a quality newspaper (WSJ) here and there, I download from the BBC and I read e-mail from the Dutch World-Service Broadcasts: fortunately there are still real correspondents at work.