The Building of Silver Stage 1-Strip Out and Windows

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It’s been about a month now since we brought (Son of) Silver home and during that time we have been very busy planning, ordering and doing. In between van stuff we have had many lovely visits from our local friends and a visit from my family, some trips out on sunny days to Llandudno, Llangollen and Chester as well as putting in work on the vegetable garden. All in all, this retirement business is pretty amazing. The only disappointment is that Dave’s family are in local lockdown in Lancashire and we have not been able to see them yet.

We are getting used to owning a van as our primary vehicle. It is massive but actually quite easy to drive, although I haven’t tried reversing it yet. It takes up two whole spaces end to end on a carpark and we are already developing an intimate knowledge of where we can and cannot park in most towns within a 30 mile radius.

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There’s a lot to be done to turn the van from an empty silver box into a comfortable and functional home that we may well live in for 2-3 years or more. We started by stripping out the lining back to the metal and removing the bulkhead to allow access from the cab into the back. What I am learning already, is that regardless of how many tools you have in the garage, you seldom have the correct tool in the right size to complete the job at hand. We have become regular visitors to a range of tools shops that I call Machinemartfixstation-those of you who are into tools will know the shops I mean. Fortunately, we have all the major tool shop chains within a 20 minute drive, which in rural North Wales is considered to be “around the corner” or “just down the road”.

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One version of Machinemartfixstation

The removal of the final bolts that secure the bulkhead required the only size of a particular tool, of which we had many sizes, that we did not have, so my first experience of working on the van comprised of spending an hour undoing a load of bolts, only to have to do half of them up again to resecure the bulkhead so we could drive to Machinemartfixstation to acquire the right tool. I suspect this may become a familiar pattern.

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With the bulkhead

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Without the bulkhead

In his previous life, Silver was a Mercedes lease van working for a contractor to the NHS and he came with a heavy, steel ramp to load wheelchairs into the back. We were able to sell this on Ebay for a few hundred quid and enjoyed an hour in the company of Compo and Clegg from Last of the Summer Wine who arrived from Sheffield to collect it. Dressed in baggy singlets to make the most of the sunny weather, these septagenarians regaled Dave and our visitors with their tall stories, while they drank tea at an annoying leisurely pace before setting off for the four hour drive home. Having lived abroad for 20 years, I love these incidental encounters with people who speak the same language (well almost), that I really missed.

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The ramp in the rear doorway

It is unfortunate that when converting a van, one of the first jobs you have to complete is one of the trickiest, fitting the windows. Many “stealth” vanlifers who park up in towns each night forgo windows to maintain the appearance of being a normal, commercial vehicle. This means light sources are limited to the windscreen and any roof fans or skylights that they install. We decided to install windows in the sliding door and barn doors at the back. We ordered these from Van Pimps at a very reasonable price and decided to fit them ourselves as most vanlifers seem to. We spent a few days watching as many Youtube videos as we could of both professionals and vanlifers fitting windows. There is no one right way apparently so we decided on a scheme of work combining the best of what we had learned. We were a bit thrown when we discovered that our Van Build Guru, the ever sensible Greg Virgoe, did not fit his own windows but engaged the services of Glass4Vans, but we rallied and pressed on, after getting a last minute quote for professional fitting of 300 quid.

The thought of cutting a hole in the side of your van is pretty scary and I must admit that the stress of the day actually made me quite ill and almost spoilt the celebratory trip to the chippy that evening. However, I rallied when I saw that our lovely chippy man had given me free batter bits, or scraps as they call them up north to go with my chips, peas and curry sauce.

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Our first local chippy since 2005

Although Dave and I have been a couple for 26 years, we have never built something together, so we are experiencing something new. I am glad we waited until now as we are older, calmer and more patient with each other than we were in the past. Back in the early days, we couldn’t even put a tent up together without a blazing row and even to this day, Dave erects the tent on his own while I unpack the rest of the gear. It seems we have mellowed though and we got through a whole day of window fitting without a harsh word spoken. Now that is progress.

Vans come with recesses where windows are intended to go and the glass sits on top of those recesses, bonded to the metal, so it is not a question of cutting an aperture to the exact size of the glass, where 1mm could make the difference between the windows fitting or not. Once I realised this, it seemed less scary. However, we are both keen to do a good job. We want our van to look professional and not like a product of Odge Bodge and Codge Ltd. so we took our time, hoping to get it right. We started with the side window as the back windows, although smaller,  have to be done as a pair, to ensure they line up correctly.

The first stage was to remove the metal reinforcement from the window recess with an angle grinder. This involved a lot of noise and sparks and a quick cycle down to the builders merchants after 5 minutes of trying to cut using a grinding disc, to buy a cutting disc (see my earlier comment abut never having the right tools in there garage).

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Once the reinforcement was off, we made a rough cut of the aperture with a jigsaw.

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The hard part is getting the final cut the right size, as the recess that guides you is on the inside of the van but you have to cut from the outside. Professionals use special tools like electric shears that allow them to work from the outside while following the recess on the inside, while amateurs tend to create a template that they draw round on the outside of the van with a marker pen and then follow with the jigsaw. We came up with our own, more accurate, method which was to drill a number of holes from the inside following the line of the recess and then join these holes up with a marker pen on the outside. We drilled more holes around the curves to ensure they were accurate. This worked really well-mostly.

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We then applied Hammerite to the cut edge to rust-proof it and had some lunch while we waited for this to dry.

Once the final cut was done, we thought the worst was over but this was not the case. There as more stress to come. We cleaned the window and used what is called Window Activator-no idea what this is or what it does but it comes as a little wipe in a sachet with the fitting kit. The best part of this stage was lying a large sheet of bubble wrap on the kitchen floor to receive the window and then walking over the bubble wrap in heavy boots. What a great and terrifying noise it makes – try it. We then had to apply glass primer to both the edges of the glass and the metal. This dripped a bit in a way that it did not on the professional videos and got all over our hands as we stupidly did not use the plastic gloves provided. Ridiculously we made the same mistake again when we fitted the rear windows three days later.

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The glass bonding comes in tubes and is applied using a mastic gun. When Dave pierced the tube with a screwdriver, he did not pierce the whole thing and consequently struggled to squeeze the bonding out of the tube onto the metal-rookie error. We thought this would be the easy part-the professionals make it look very straightforward-but it was actually really hard to apply the bonding all around the large aperture in one smooth line.  Dave’s arms were aching from squeezing the bonding through the inadequate hole. Although we knew that the bonding does not form a skin for an hour, there was a sense of panic to get it done as quickly as possible.

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Finally, we offered up the window to the aperture and pressed it on. I was left holding on the window with both hands while Dave, seemingly at a snail’s pace, cut and applied the tape to hold it while it dried.

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It looked great and we felt really proud of our work…briefly.

From the outside it looked amazing and completely professional. Inside was a different story though, We realised on closer inspection that we should have cut the aperture to be completely  flush with the inner skin of the window recess. While we had done this on the most part, some areas of the aperture had 2-3mm of extra metal that should not be there. We presumed this would be covered by the rubber trim that had been supplied for this purpose. However, when Dave came to apply the trim it would not go on evenly over both skins and definitely had an air of Odge, Bodge and Friends about it, with a wavy finish. We removed the trim and found it went well over just the cut edge of the inner skin leaving unfinished edges on the outer skin where we had removed the reinforcement with the angle grinder. We decided to call it a day and take a walk to the chippy. Tomorrow was another day.

After 24 hours of recriminations about the standard of our finish, I remembered watching our hero Greg Virgoe applying his window trim, after the professional fitted his glass, so I went back and rewatched the video. He refers to using 9mm trim to ensure it goes over both skins. We had 6mm trim. My superior and obsessive internet search skills came into play seeking out a trim that would work for us. We ordered some and waited but sadly when it came it didn’t fit.  However, I realised when examining photos of other vans on Pinterest that most people build a window frame around their windows to give a nicer finish so the trim does not show. So I have moved on and stopped worrying about it. We took the weekend off in between fitting the side and rear windows. The weather has been great so we enjoyed the rare Welsh sunshine and moved on to discuss the next stage of the build. On Monday we returned to window fitting, older and wiser. This time we were faster and it was much less stressful. We used the right disc on the angle grinder, made sure to cut the apertures flush with the outer skin, we pierced the bonding tube properly and found that the trim went over both inner and outer skin to give a perfect finish as there gap between the skins is less on the rear windows. However, we did apply a bit too much bonding on the offside window, a bit too close to the edge so we have some trimming to do with a Stanley knife when it is completely set. No harm done though.

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It’s great to have the windows in. They look so cool from the outside and they bring in much-needed light inside the van. So next we focus on installing the electrics and solar and gas systems. We have a heavy shopping list of expensive items for this. We also ordered the roof fans yesterday which are out of stock till the end of the month due to the huge demand. It seems the world and his dog are building a campervan this summer.  We also have to make a decision about the canopy/awning, which needs to be installed before the solar panels go on the roof. I am still in disbelief that a wind-out canopy costs around 700 quid, campervan accessories are so expensive but more about that next time.

 

 

 

 

 

Sawthingsclearer Reborn with a New Trusty Steed

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Many of you will recall the trip we did 5 years ago across the USA and Central America on our Triumph Tiger 955, Silver. It was without doubt the best experience of my life so far. Since then we have been living and working in the pressure cooker of Hong Kong. We have managed a few shorter motorcycle trips including two weeks on the North Island of  New Zealand in 2016 on a rented bike.

A month in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada in 2017 also on a rented bike…
…and quick trips to Ireland and Northern Spain/Portugal on our Triumph Tiger 800 bought in 2017 to fill the gap left by the sale of our glorious Silver.

The work-focused life in Hong Kong combined with some health problems has caused us to reflect on how we want to spend our future and a year ago we took the decision to retire from work this summer, buy a campervan and spend a few years travelling around Europe looking for the right place to eventually settle and buy a forever home. While motorcycling will always be part of our life together and we still have our  Triumph Tiger 800 here in the UK, we have found that long days spent on the bike and nights spent in a tent are taking an increasing toll on our middle-aged bodies and impacting negatively on our enjoyment of travelling. We always knew we would move over to a campervan one day but imagined that would not be until we were into our 70s. However, we find we want to travel and sleep in more comfort and be able to camp all year round, in all weathers, so we took the decision to move to a campervan and keep the bike for shorter jaunts.

The original plan, conceived a year ago, was to buy a professionally converted van. We had our eyes on a Swift Select 122. We love how light it is inside and the rear lounge layout, which allows you to lie on the sofa with the barn doors open, admiring the view. We spent the winter months in Hong Kong (yes they do have a winter there) obsessively checking Autotrader, fixating on vans generally and watching van life videos on Youtube.  We planned to purchase a Select 122 as soon as we arrived back in the UK in June and spend the first few weeks visiting family and friends before heading off for the continent. Then COVID 19 hit and the realisation gradually dawned upon us that this might not be the best plan. Back in March we were not sure how quickly borders would open up and we are still unsure about whether there might be a second or third wave that could cause borders to close again. I have a health condition that makes me more vulnerable to complications from the virus so we want to be as safe as possible. At first, it was a huge blow to acknowledge that our plans would have to change but like everyone else during this time, we have adapted and come up with a new idea.

Dave and I agreed that the safest option would be to return home to the UK for a period of at least 6 months to wait things out. We have not lived in the UK for 15 years so that was a big decision. At some point, and I cannot remember exactly when or how this happened if I am honest, we decided that, rather than buy a professionally converted van, we would build our own. Our reasons were threefold- firstly, it would give us something to do while we were waiting out the virus; secondly we could spec the van with higher quality components than you usually get in a shop bought vehicle, such as lithium batteries, bigger solar panels, an oven and a better fridge and finally, we could build a van with a fixed bed in the back which allows for a lot more storage space underneath than that offered by a Select 122. This will allow us to take all kinds of shit with us to enhance our life on the road, including an electric guitar and small amp (yes really).

So the decision was made and the next stage was to spend the remaining weeks of self-isolation in Hong Kong researching the kind of van we needed to meet our needs. A simple task you would think but nothing is ever easy in the world of the campervan when one of you is 192cm tall. We eventually realised that, in order for Dave to be able to lie flat in bed, we would have to position our bed along the length of the van rather than across the width, which means that, if we are to fit in a shower and kitchen, we will need a long van- what is called an L4. Also, in order for Dave to stand up in the van (or almost stand up) we would need a tall van- what is called an H3. While Mercedes Sprinters are the vans of choice for most larger van conversions these days, we were initially considering investing in a brand new Fiat Ducato or Citroen Relay as there were many bargains to be had during the lockdown in the UK, placing them around ten thousand pounds cheaper than a new Sprinter.

It was only by chance that one day less than a month ago I happened upon a vanlife forum post that referred to the impossibility of registering a right hand drive commercial vehicle on the continent of Europe, due to the sliding door being on the wrong side for safe use. We realised that, sadly but unavoidably, this van we plan to convert cannot be our forever van if we eventually move to Europe. When we move, we will need to sell the van either as a campervan conversion or deconstruct it and sell it as a van with windows and then possibly build another left hand drive vehicle for future use. It is just too risky to invest so much cash in the base vehicle if we are not going to be able to keep it forever and if there is uncertainty about how much we will get back on it in 3-4 years time. We did briefly consider sourcing a left hand drive van but it proved to be too complicated and expensive, so we pivoted again and decided to buy something secondhand to reduce the potential loss on resale.

The advantage of deciding to buy something used is that a Mercedes Sprinter was now on the table. They are generally considered to be much better vans than pretty much anything else on the market so this quickly became our first choice. On returning to the UK three and a half weeks ago, we had to wait out our quarantine before we could start looking. Our first trip out was to view a selection of ex-police vehicles at a dealer in the Midlands. Although they only had one Sprinter, we had high expectations and set off with Jason for a five hour round trip on a gloomy British summer’s day. We stopped for socially distanced tea and toast along the way as cafes in England are now open both outdoors and indoors. Our hopes of buying the first van we saw were dashed by the general poor quality of the vehicle which had clearly lived a hard life. It did come with a cell in the back though.

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We were almost tempted to the ambulance but it had done 250,000 miles already

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Jason in his special car inspection outfit searching for rust

Over a very late fried breakfast at a classic greasy spoon, we identified a place nearby that specialised in selling on Sprinters that had been used by a courier company. The rain poured down as we were shown around a huge yard full of vehicles in the process of having liveries removed and being tarted up to sell. They were all in need of a lot more than a bit of TLC. We were shown one van covered in dents, with a partially ripped off front bumper and damaged rear doors. It came with no service history but the promise that damaged doors and bumpers would be replaced if we were interested. On the drive home, we decided we were not, the price was good but the van was not.

Fortunately, within a couple of days we located a dealer in Manchester that sold on ex lease vehicles for Mercedes Benz, most of which had been used by the health service. We viewed four Sprinters, none more than 5 years old, all in decent condition and chose a 2015 Silver Sprinter 313 cdi LWB. We drove it home that day.

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Dave managed to clip the van on his right with the back end as he pulled out. Not a good start.

So there we are, we have a van. It is sitting on the drive of our rented house in North Wales waiting for us to start work on it. We have taken it out for a drive today to do some chores and it seems great.

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Man in his van

It is big but Dave says it is easy to drive. I plan to have a go myself in the next few days. It is full of potential and the holder of our hopes and dreams. I can’t wait to get started but more about the next time.

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Son of Silver or “Silver” to his friends

 

NZ December 2017 Days 1 and 2-Auckland to Coromandel

We spent a quiet day in Auckland city centre after our flight arrived. Dave has been ill for a few days so it was a case of conserving energy and resting up.

Randal from Auckland Motorbike Rental came to collect us from the lovely Skycity Grand Hotel this morning and drive us 45 minutes to the coast to collect the bike. He was a friendly, chatty guy with more than 10 bikes in his garage. We were well prepared and managed to load up the bike in 30 minutes, with all the camping gear fitting in very easily, almost too easily. We have rented a Yamaha Super Tenere this time,as Dave wants to try it out with a view to trading in the Ducati in Hong Kong for something Japanese that is cheaper to maintain.

It was a brilliant blue sky day. The temperature was perfect. We rode along the coast from Maraetai to Thames, at the foot of the Coromandel Peninsula, where we stopped for tea.

The people were amazingly friendly and welcoming. Everyone raves about the road to Coromandel Township and warned us about the narrow, twisty bends. The road hugs the coast, right alongside the beach. It was really beautiful but we experienced a heavy shower and the sea turned grey for a while.

As we ascended up the mountain, the views down to the coast where stunning. It reminds me a bit of Ireland but the weather is much better and the flora is very different, in fact, unlike anything I have seen before.

The campsite at Long Bay is right on the beach. We pitched our tent about 15m from the water’s edge.

It became quite busy in the afternoon with locals swimming in the sea and relaxing. The atmosphere was good but much improved when only the campers were left at the end of the day. We cooked and fell asleep in the sunshine.

The time difference compared to Hong Kong, at this time of the year, is 5 hours, which works out well for us as the jet lag means we are able to stay awake till 10pm or later and get up as late as 8am. Like normal people.

First day review of the bike. Dave thinks it lacks power and is too heavy. I think it sounds like a tractor but it’s very comfy for a pillion. It is hard to get on when the side boxes are fitted though. Not very dignified.

The first night in the tent was not great as my body has to get used to it. I kept waking up with painful shoulders and turning over. I do love being in the tent though. There is something magical about getting into you nightie and snuggling down into the sleeping bag, while hearing the sound of the sea outside.

We went into town for a big breakfast, rather than cook and made contact with the internet.

We had planned to have an active day involving a walk but the weather closed in and it rained most of the day. It was fairly warm though. We stayed around the campsite reading and cooking and Dave had several naps.

Just as it looked like a totally uneventful day, magical happened just before bedtime. The sky began to slowly turn orange, then more orange and then some more (no filters or photoshop).

Seeing Things Clearer-USA, Mexico, Central America 2015-16

This is my final post of this trip. We left Berlin on 10th July last year, riding to London and flying from Heathrow on 17th July to Boston. We then rode 28,000 miles across the USA, Mexico and Central America to Panama and then back to the US border and onto Houston. 9 countries and 30 US states. It is good to get some perspective, a month after returning,to see the whole thing in its entirety. I can honestly say it is the best thing I have ever done in my life. It still feels painful to remember the best times. If I came into some money unexpectedly, I would go back and do it all again tomorrow, without a moment of hesitation, possibly indefinitely.

People have asked about the best places so here is a quick rundown and in no particular order.

Memphis, Tennesseegrace 1Big Sur, CaliforniaSAMSUNG CSCIdyllwild, CaliforniaSAMSUNG CSCBaja California, Mexicocropped-20151016024740_sam_1496.jpgGuanajuato, MexicoSAMSUNG CSCThe Highlands and Antigua Guatemalawp-1450816699515.jpgSAMSUNG CSCGranada, NicaraguaSAMSUNG CSCCosta Rica Beaches and WildlifeSAMSUNG CSCArizonaSAMSUNG CSCUtahhelen canyonlandsApart from these places, the things I loved the most were waking up feeling excited; the sense of incredible freedom; meeting friendly people (especially in the USA); speaking Spanish (badly); being outdoors all the time; going to sleep in the tent, in the darkness; riding through amazing landscapes; seeing creatures and of course, sharing it all with Dave. We have been together over 20 years but our bond is now stronger than ever.

The things that have left the biggest impression on me include the spring sunshine in Arizona with endless clear, blue skies and the fresh, mountain air at 6000 feet and above. I fell in love with one place above all-Idyllwild, California. The place where pine cones are as big as your foot and the town is thick with hippies. If a visa was possible, I would seriously retire there to a log cabin on the mountain. I can definitely see a future where we spend part of the year there. I can also see us driving an RV with a motorbike strapped to the back, spending winters in Arizona. I cannot imagine we will not go back to the USA. It is now part of me.

What have  I learned? Everything is possible if you plan and work hard at it. The countryside is where I am happiest. I am very lucky (but I knew that already). I am excited to return to this lifestyle eventually. I now know what retirement will look like but before that I have to go to Hong Kong and make some money. Until then though, I am definitely seeing things clearer.

The Last Leg-North Carolina to Houston 14th-21st May 2016

It is over a month now since we left the USA and flew to Hong Kong and then back to the UK. We have been briefly to both Berlin and Lanzarote since then and have travelled across England from London to Burnley and stopped over in North Wales for a night. It has all been a whirlwind and a hard transition; going from living like vagabonds, wild and free to assimilating back into a normal life. It is great to be able to catch up with so many people and also to rest. I only realised after the trip was over, just how exhausting it was.SAMSUNG CSCOur trusty steed Silver arrived back yesterday, having been on a ship for a few weeks and so it seemed the right time to conclude the blog; charge up the camera to retrieve the last few photos and draw a line, very regrettably under the whole thing.

We did not lose momentum during the last 10 days, we hung on to every last minute. We dipped into South Carolin and then North Carolina, spending a night in Asheville. A hip city that seemed very liveable. We stayed in a cute Airbnb and sat out on the porch in true southern style listening to the cicadas and enjoying the warm evening air.SAMSUNG CSCThe Great Smoky Mountains are the oldest mountains in the world and they are stunningly green. It was sad to leave them.SAMSUNG CSCWe managed a last night of camping at another stunning lake.

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Then we headed to Savannah, Georgia. What a great place this is. The residential architecture is very unique and in many places quite run down but there is loads of atmosphere and the people are very friendly. We stayed in another cool Airbnb.

SAMSUNG CSCThe city was astonishing though in that is was so reminiscent of London. I felt the historical presence of the British more than I have anywhere in the USASAMSUNG CSC

SAMSUNG CSCWe spent a couple of hours in the evening wandering around the stunning squares of amazing architecture against a backdrop of oak trees dripping with moss.SAMSUNG CSCWe then move onto Jacksonville, Florida for a couple of nights. The city is nothing special but we had tickets to see one of our heroes, comedian and political commentator Bill Maher. It was great to see him in the flesh. We then headed to New Orleans. We had hoped to arrive there earlier and spend more time but we had spent so much time in the Deep South dodging thunder storms and time ran out. However, we spent one night and saw a fair bit as well as enjoying 2 or 3 bars.2016-05-16 21.17.39-2SAMSUNG CSCNew Orleans is extraordinary and is a place I would like to return. The buildings in the centre are stunning and the place has a party atmosphere, even on a Monday night.SAMSUNG CSCSAMSUNG CSC2016-05-16 22.51.19What I liked more though was the residential area where we stayed, about 15 minutes walk from the French Quarter. The streets are lined with shotgun shacks, painted in bright colours and there are plenty of cool bars and cafes to sit outside.

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The roads are full of potholes and the place has a shabby feeling (it is not that safe late at night) but the atmosphere is unforgettable.

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And so we set off for our last, long ride from New Orleans to Houston-about 350 miles. We stopped at our last Starbucks. We must have frequented more Starbucks across the USA than anyone else over the last 10 months. We have enjoyed their free WiFi and English Breakfast Tea and they have always been a port in a storm-sometimes literally.

SAMSUNG CSCHouston is a massive city. It felt quite overwhelming.SAMSUNG CSCWe made it to our accommodation safely, feeling very relieved.

2016-05-17 21.55.06We had booked an apartment for 4 nights where we could have easy access to shopping malls and hairdressers to enable us to transition into school teachers for the visit to Hong Kong.SAMSUNG CSCWe rode Silver to the warehouse and waved him goodbye.wp-1463690132432.jpgAnd so it was over. 28,000 miles, 10 months, 9 countries. A trip of a lifetime.  I will blog a final summary in the next couple of days and will save my closing comments for then.

 

Silver Home! 

Weeks ahead of schedule but still not as soon as the England team.

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Somehow, we passed first time.  wheels are a bit out of line (rear is pointing north-west), back tyre isn’t great and there’s play in the suspension linkage.  Apart from that, ta-daaaa, no problems.  Not even the usual to-do with headlight alignment.

The Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee-May 6-9th, 2016

So after much doubt and hassle, we finally made it to the Great Smoky Mountains. We were rained off here last August and it felt like unfinished business, plus this is one of the best places in the country to see black bears. So it was worth a visit and a last attempt to see bears before we leave. Dave managed to fix the surging problem with the bike, although it was touch and go and we nearly turned back towards Houston. We passed very near the other Birmingham (Alabama) on the way, which felt strange.

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It has been a busy weekend, due to Mother’s Day but we had booked the campsite in advance and they gave us by far the best spot, right on the river. Although all the gushing did keep us awake at night.

SAMSUNG CSCAlthough the mountains here are pretty small, I cannot remember ever having been anywhere greener (and that includes North Wales).

SAMSUNG CSCThe mountains are impressively forested.

SAMSUNG CSCSo what you all want to know is did we see a bear? The answer is no. We saw 7!! We waited till after the weekend rush and rode up into the national park this morning. As we approached the car park at Cades Cove, there was a crowd of people on the grass verge, all looking into the forest. I jumped off the bike and joined them. I saw three bears, two climbing a tree about 50m away. Three rangers were trying to keep the people at a safe distance and sounding horns to scare the bears away. The bears were quite small and very black. We rode on, scanning the meadows (seen in the photo above). We saw a few wild turkeys. Two or three cars in front of us then stopped and seemed to be pointing to the right. I couldn’t see anything and we nearly drove on when Dave pointed to the undergrowth on the left, literally only 5 feet away from the bike, there was a small, brownish bear, tucking into what looked like clover. He was so intent on what he was doing and did not seem to notice us.

SAMSUNG CSCHe looked just like Paddington (I know he is a Spectacled Bear from Peru), with very tiny eyes, that made him look quite vulnerable. It was really thrilling.We followed the same three cars for the next 8 miles, painfully slowly, scanning the meadows and trees. We saw some deer.

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Just before we arrived at the end of the loop we saw a group of cars parked along the road and people with cameras. There in the forest about 20m away was another group of three bears, what looked like a mother and two large cubs. They were walking towards us. We were safe in the knowledge that we could ride away on the bike but everyone else was on foot, probably stupidly close (all the signs tell you to stand at least 50 yards away).

SAMSUNG CSCSo we were really lucky. After several near bear encounters last year, we finally saw bears in our last few days. I remember the day I saw a wild tiger in India, like it was yesterday and I know I will remember this day forever.

Jackson, Mississippi to Huntsville, Alabama1st-6th May 2016

It has been an odd week with little achieved, due to problems with the bike and the weather. We ended up in Jackson, Mississippi for 4 nights while Dave sorted out a change of the steering head bearings and we waited for thunderstorms to pass. We moved from the scary downtown area to a posh part of town to the north and got a good deal on a hotel suite where we could cook. We watched lots of TV and cooked lots of curries and got a lot of sleep.

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Dave did well with the bearings, sourcing a similar bearing  that is used in a Toyota car from AutoZone and changing it on the carpark in the pouring rain. He managed to get it in with the help of a shed load of grease.

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We moved on to a wonderful campsite on a lake in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in northern Mississippi.

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This must be the furthest away from traffic we have camped the whole trip. There was no distant car noise and at night the place was truly magical with only the sounds of owls in the trees and fish jumping in the lake.

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It was also a great place for yoga.

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We managed out cheapest day of the trip at $37, including the cost of doing the laundry.

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The next day we travelled via Tupelo to visit Elvis’s birthplace. Tupelo is now a huge town and it was hard to get a feeling for what the area would have been like when Elvis lived there but is was good to see the shack he grew up in and get a feel for what his life was like as a child.

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I particularly enjoyed reading accounts of people who knew him back then, describing him as shy and also recounting how, when he received his first guitar for his birthday, he really wanted an air rifle. We both got to sit on the swing on the porch. I am sure it is not the same swing but it was still fun. SAMSUNG CSC

Unfortunately, the weather turned bad again and we had to seek refuge in a hotel for the night in Huntsville, Alabama. The rain poured down, in a tropical fashion, while we stayed cosy indoors and ordered takeout food from the local Chinese restaurant. I love the fact that it is the normal thing here to order food into your hotel room. All rooms also have microwaves for heating leftovers.

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This dog enjoyed barking at us as he drove past

Yesterday we left on the final leg of the journey to the Great Smoky Mountains. The bike has been “surging” for a few days and Dave has been trying to sort it out (suspected transmission problem of some kind). After 40 minutes on the road, he decided it was too serious to continue and we had to head back to Huntsville and check into another hotel. Another takeaway meal, a few episodes of Masterchef and a bottle of wine helped to ease the disappointment. So today, we have to make a decision about whether we are going to make it to the mountains or not. The journey back to Houston (where both us and the bike depart from), via New Orleans, is about 800 miles but if we head to the mountains and then back it is 1600 miles. The weather is set to be great for the next few days and whatever decision we make we will try to make the most of it. Just 17 days till we fly out.

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Steering Head Bearings

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Steering still notchy despite slapping in the spare (easy) top bearing I’ve been carrying the whole trip. Great people in Jackson, Mississippi, got me a close enough fit from a Toyota transfer box so I can change the lower bearing. Peanut butter is shown for scale. I’ve bought another hammer.

Later:

  • Bearing changed in pouring rain; I felt a bit like Henry V.
  • Chain tightened; it went about 20,000 miles without needing anything then fell to pieces all at once.  I’ve now tightened it three times in the last few days and it finally feels okay.
  • Horn wires broke so I’ve recrimped them.  I also had a look at an exploded diagram and rearranged the horn and hanger to better reflect Triumph’s ideas instead of my own.

Tiger now rides well; notchy steering and a slack chain made it a bit depressing to ride.  It’s also been surging but I’m hoping I’ve sorted that by doing a 30s reset.