Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Shades of the Eighties

January 8th, 2012

In the corner a small television. Mexican news channel. Police manning a road block, their faces obscured by balaclavas, despite the obvious heat. I joked to the woman on the adjacent table that this must surely be a profession as accident prone as being an Iranian nuclear scientist. Quickly adding I meant those working on their peaceful weapons programme. The sort who seem – not infrequently – to fall victim to drive-by shootings or other unfortunate events. She smiled.

These supposedly random events, I suggested, were a fine alternative to well.. thermonuclear war. Got my vote I said. Grinning. And the Iranians were raising the stakes. Threatening to close off the Straits of Hormuz. Block a sizeable chunk of the West’s oil supply. Shades of the Eighties. The Tanker War. She looked bemused. Left wondering how good a grasp of English she had.

I’d stopped in a small Mexican cafe in Cedar Creek. Small intersection town thirty or so miles east of Austin. Few houses, gas station and a bright white wooden Methodist church. I’d left the city three hours earlier, waved off by fellow cyclist Francis. He’d suggested various routes towards Bastrop, my destination for the night. I’d declined, citing I preferred to stick with what was on my strip map. Retracing my steps from the hostel back to 7th Avenue.

A largely uneventful journey. Brief coffee stop under what quickly transpired to be the busy flight path of Austin’s international airport. And a driver who’s behaviour I found as baffling as it was bizarre. Ample room to pass me on the quiet two-lane highway, not least because I was riding in the adjacent cycle lane. But instead she chose to sit in my port quarter. Pressing on the horn. Presumably wanting me to move still further over. Simply couldn’t oblige. It’d be rewarding stupidity. Which I never did. Ran contrary to Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection.

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Austin-tacious

January 8th, 2012

Austin had been all I’d hoped it would be. For Christmas that is. I’d arrived late on Christmas Eve, cold and wet. A reservation that’d slowly crept right a few days. The hostel had been very accommodating, but I feared they thought I might never actually turn up. Bit like the navigator in The Ascent of Rum Doodle.

There’d been the usual collection of characters you oft find in travellers hostels the world over. I say that with especial confidence now. Youthful individuals, vibrant. A few yet to refine their social skills. Older types. Usually more seasoned. Stoic. Odd one who aspires to earlier times. All very middle class.

Spending much of my life outdoors, I’d found inside to have an attraction all of its own. Cities per se rarely inspire, preferring the smaller places. Exceptions of course. San Francisco for example. And there’d been plenty to do around the hostel before my return to the road.

Finding comfort in doing stuff – a warming sense of accomplishment – I’d joined a few local volunteers help prepare Christmas Dinner in the hostel kitchen. Stacks of calls on Skype to family and friends to wish all a festive greeting. Catching up on the blog. Eager to keep the writing fresh. Perhaps a bit more edgy.

And giving my trusty steed a quick overhaul – just enough to keep her running smoothly until I reach the Florida coast in about fifteen hundred miles or so. If it ain’t broken don’t fix it…. Hard lesson to learn. And a realisation that this’d be the last decent service I’d be doing before arriving back in the UK.

And I was about to start the final push. Complete my traverse of North America, from top left – Alaska – to bottom right – Florida. Over six thousand miles. Fourth continent. Still leaving me a few hundred back in the UK to bring cycling solo around the world to a conclusion. But I was already beginning to smell the coffee. Putting out tentative feelers for what I might do next. The transition back into more conventional living.

I’d made a little list, as I often did, of things to mull over in the saddle. Some straightforward stuff. Amusing statistics from the last few years. Memorable moments. For better or for worse. That sort of thing. And more challenging questions. What had I really learnt. There’d not quite been any Road to Damascus encounters but I’d certainly a few changed perspectives. For one thing, the World is now a much smaller place.

But if I was ever to get too engrossed in self-analysis, a trip to the local supermarket is often a good cure-all. I’d wandered up to the local ’H-E-B Plus’. Intrigued to see a vagrant decline the offer of some small change from a few passing shoppers. Just when you think you’ve seen most things…. Time now to go and sew one of my boots back together. Been waiting for it to dry out…

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Batteries included

January 7th, 2012

Late forties. Maybe early fifties. Fellow cyclist also heading for Florida, albeit a far lesser pace than mine. Funding his travels by buying up used watch batteries from shops and then selling them on to a dealer. Presumably, I thought, to extract the silver or other precious metals from them. But I was reluctant to enquire further. He’d offered to show me the ropes and I’d already struggled to decline without offending.

He was staying in the dorm next to mine in a travellers hostel in Austin, Texas. Friendly enough, he’d invited me to join him at a local church on Christmas Day. I’d declined. Once more. There was dinner to prepare, I’d explained apologetically.

He intrigued me. Never saw him without a jacket of sorts on, even indoors. Sometimes a black quilted affair, often a bright safety vest. And the hats. Either a thin black woollen one, or a bright red Peruvian. Torn between whether this was to mask baldness or an ill-judged grasp at youthfulness. Eager to play chess with the unwary. I’d declined. Again.

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Much reviled

January 7th, 2012

Teasing e-mail from Mike in Australia. I’d stayed with him and his family near Brisbane. The title referred to a much reviled continent. Punctuated with an exclamation mark, suggesting he realised my not infrequent sharp digs Down Under were humour. Mostly. Perhaps a little barbed in places, but that’d be the fault of a brief and wholly unwarranted detention by Border Protection at Sydney airport. My nervousness at opening the note was misplaced. Little annoyed with myself for thinking it might be otherwise. Should have known better. Fellow Englishman.

I’d earlier chatted to a couple of Australians staying with me in the hostel. Finding unexpected camaraderie in tales of blatant profiteering. Sheer greed. And indigenous cultures. Firm agreement that being invaded – the Aborigines often refer to Australia Day as Invasion Day – is part and parcel of history. Get over it. Besides, without it, they’d still be living in the Stone Age. None of us having as much as a modicum of tolerance for blame cultures or blood money. You don’t find me rounding on the French for 1066. Too busy with the Germans.

I’d added that writing, sometimes even discussing, indigenous people can be fraught with difficulty. It’s the ’R’ word, I explained. More a label. One you don’t want. Closely allied with oft-missed irony. For never have I encountered such a bigot-rich environment as race relations. Surprising? Not really. What do you really expect from the likes of positive discrimination? Much better to treat people as individuals. Even garlic munchers.

And those who play the racism card? In tolerant societies usually the hallmark of someone who has to rely on ill-judged emotion to attempt to win an argument, rather than sound intellect or rational thought. Bit like shouting. Vocal manifestation of cowardice.

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Looking for Lance

January 7th, 2012

Actually I wasn’t. Just happened to notice an Austin street map showing the Lance Armstrong Bike Trail. His home town apparently. Told there’s also a bike shop. No plans to visit. Suspect it’s more for the Size Zeros. Whereas my trusty steed’s a more busty lass. Wide child bearing hips and that. With the panniers fitted.

If anything had intrigued me, it was the Texas State Capitol building. I’d noticed it in the teeming rain as I’d ridden in on Christmas Eve as I’d headed up Congress Avenue before swinging right onto 7th Avenue. Reminded me of Capitol Hill in Washington DC.

And it presumably meant that I’d at last found a State Capital I’d heard of. Most are surprisingly unfamiliar. Take Alaska. Anchorage, the State’s biggest city? No. Juneau. Hats off to anyone who can name all fifty without omission.

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Festivities

January 7th, 2012

Christmas day. Travellers hostel in Austin, Texas. Unable to sit on his hands, Ken volunteers to help prepare dinner for fellow guests. Alas, an extraction fan louder than a 747 taking off makes the sound a bit dodgy in places, but that’s not as bad as his contribution to the proceedings – stuffing balls – or his efforts at carving the turkey….

[With a big thanks to local volunteers Susan, Jen, Kelly and Alan, and fellow resident and cyclist Francis]

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Austin at last

January 6th, 2012

Austin, I’d heard as far back as Alaska, was very liberal. Arty. In a State which, I’d a cunning idea, was ever so slightly Republican. I’d also set my soul on reaching a not-for-profit travellers hostel in the city in time for Christmas. Not wishing to spend the day alone. Meal-for-one quite unappealing.

I’d made it. Just. Christmas Eve. It’d been a struggle. Cold and wet. Bearable during the day. But after dark the temperature had dropped considerably, and I’d been slow to don my extra layers. Too eager to press on.

Eventually realising my mistake, I’d spotted a gas station and a chance to use the restroom and reinvigorate spirits. But dismayed to notice an adjacent Laundromat. Often an indicator of the wrong part of town. Quickly spotting a few dubious characters milling around outside. Onward.

Soon in a smarter suburbs, then onto Congress Avenue. Over a wide bridge into the city proper. Skyscrapers. Ahead the State Capitol Building. Majestic under its floodlights. A few miles left. Rain easing a little.

Another gas station. This time better placed. Parking my trusty steed close up by the door. Persuading the assistant to let me use the supposedly out of order restroom. A few purchases. Then removing my wet outer garments in the shelter of the entrance way, donning my fleece for much needed warmth.

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Festive spirits

December 22nd, 2011

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Said I’d be delighted to lend a hand. But had my boundaries. No dressing up as an elf, green not my colour. And definitely no fairies. Being snowbound in Silver City had its positives, the delay meaning I’d be in a hostel in Austin, Texas, for Christmas.

The hostel was laying on a Christmas dinner and I’d offered to help. Infinitely better than the alternatives. Instant mash and dog food – my own euphemism for anything in a tin – in the tent. Or microwave meal-for-one in a cheap motel.

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