28,500 miles in 10 months and 1 week. The bike is now with the shipping company and we’re preparing for our preliminary visit to Hong Kong.
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.
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.
Although the mountains here are pretty small, I cannot remember ever having been anywhere greener (and that includes North Wales).
The mountains are impressively forested.
So 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.
He 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.
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).
So 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.
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.
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.
We moved on to a wonderful campsite on a lake in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in northern Mississippi.
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.
It was also a great place for yoga.
We managed out cheapest day of the trip at $37, including the cost of doing the laundry.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Of the three days we spent in Dallas, we worked for two of them and at the end I delivered 47,000 words to my two thesis supervisors. I am now applying for permission to deliver my thesis early. Fingers crossed this is granted. On the third day, we went to visit the assassination site of JFK. This was one of only two things that Dave specifically want to do in the whole of the USA. We had a lovely lunch in a great New York style deli and then wandered over to the site. On the way we passed the memorial to JFK. It felt underwhelming.
The first thing that strikes you about the assassination site is how much smaller, closer and compact it is than it appears on the footage. The Book Depository and the “grassy knoll” are just a few metres away from where the bullets struck.
Neither Dave nor I are supporters of the “single gunman” theory or the findings of the Warren Report. For this reason we agonised about whether to go into the museum on the 6th floor of the former Book Depository which, apparently, fails to mention at all that there may be other theories about how the President died. Some campaigners on the internet ask you to boycott this museum. In the end our minds were made up for us by the long queues (even on a Monday).
It is very sad and moving standing there looking at the piece of road where JFK was shot. I don’t automatically feel sad at these kinds of places but I did here. I wondered whether the world would be different now if JFK had lived and likely served two terms. We will never know.
The centre of Dallas reminded me a lot of Manchester close up. There are quite a few redbrick buildings, very reminiscent of the town centre around China Town in Manchester and they have the same tram system. The skyline is quite different though. I found it to be a low key place. We enjoyed our few days there.
We have had to be flexible since we left Dallas as there has been a lot of bad weather which we have successfully dodged. We don’t mind a bit of rain or even a light thunderstorm but we do not want the tent to be blown away in a tornado and we have managed to avoid the worst of the weather using the internet. We did see a great couple of dust devils on the road though.
We are now out of the desert and cannot believe how green it is here. The landscape is just like home. The grass pollen is very high, however, and I have suffered a bit with hay fever.
Over the last three days we have passed through Louisiana and Mississippi. It is very interesting here. There are lots of shacks. Many sell crawfish, catfish and jumbo shrimp but many are also lived in by poor people, mostly African-Americans. The poverty is more akin to what you see in Asia and I have certainly not seen anything like it in western Europe. It is very sad. The people are amazingly friendly though. Everyone is interested in us and I come out of every shop or gas station with a huge grin.
One of the two highlights of the past few days has been Natchez. This is a town on the banks of the Mississippi. The motto of this state is “The Birthplace of America’s Music” which is reference to the blues which grew out of the Mississippi delta.
We crossed the Mississippi back in August when we left Memphis and it was good to see it again.
Natchez was once one of the richest towns in the USA and there are more plantation homes here than anywhere else in the country.
The centre of town is very Georgian looking and I kept thinking I was in Leominster or somewhere similar in the UK.
We had a great night out there, met a few other travellers, had a few beers and a Thai meal. I am very interested in architecture and wanted to visit some Antebellum homes, from the 1830-1860 period but when I researched them I felt a little uncomfortable to see how these houses are visited just for their beauty with no reference to the historical context of slavery, the exploitation from which this great wealth developed. Sadly this has put me off wanting to visit any of the big plantation homes. I did learn in my research that the British were mostly responsible for bringing slaves to the USA, firstly to support tobacco production in the Virginias and later with sugar cane and cotton in the Deep South. The biggest slave owners were mostly of British descent, some owning over 1000 slaves. Three quarters of people who lived in the south did not own slaves, however.
Our best day this week was yesterday, as this was the only day we have had guaranteed good weather and been able to camp. We passed through a town called Waterproof. There was a prison there and the whole scene was reminiscent of The Shawshank Redemption. The area was quite poor and very remote and I was a bit concerned about staying there at first but the campsite was stunning and well used.
We had our own little part of the lake to look out on.
We saw quite a bit of wildlife, including large egrets, red and yellow birds, squirrels and anole lizards that puff their throats up red like they are blowing bubbles with gum. On the road today we also helped a terrapin, the size of a large tortoise that was stranded trying to cross (in British English we have three words-tortoise, terrapin and turtle, whereas Americans seem to only use turtle). I also saw a large dead armadillo being eaten by vultures.
Dave enjoyed the break. Reading his book in various positions.
This campsite is owned by Louisiana state parks and includes electricity at each site, your own water tap, free WiFi and a laundry-all for just over 20 quid a night. We loved it there and felt very happy to be back sleeping in the outdoors.
So finally, we are today in Jackson, Mississippi. We need steering head bearings for the bike and managed to source some here but they will not arrive till tomorrow so we had to stay overnight. The people are lovely but the whole place is slightly scary. Two locals advised us not to stay here, including one skinny guy wearing a camouflage jumpsuit who looked like an archetypal methhead and chatted with me for quite a while outside AutoZone. So we are ensconced in our safe chain hotel the Comfort Inn, with our takeaway food waiting for tomorrow to arrive.
Our plans for the next few days are loose because of the weather but we are heading towards the Great Smoky Mountains. It would be good to be there in three days but who knows?
To celebrate 25000 miles in 9 months Silver has started losing oil past the dipstick o ring. Since returning to the USA I haven’t been able to get Mexican Mobil 1 (5w50) and so I took the bold decision to mix oils and top up with USA Mobil 1 (15w50). Scaremongers and alchemists will say I should do an oil change, and I guess they’re right, but I just haven’t had the opportunity. I’ll try to get a new o ring.
Other problems? The GPS has been blowing 10A fuses every now and then since Guatemala and chose this morning to start immediately blowing replacements. I put a 15A in and stood well back.
Steering head bearings have gone again. I say again, I just rotated the top one last time, in Berlin. I have a spare.
Hugger needs fixing.
Cheap Bridgestones do not look like they’re going to go the distance.
We spent 3 days camping in the desert at two locations in Arizona. First at the Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix. This is right next to Superstition Mountain, so called because of the rumours, going back more than 100 years, of gold in them there hills. Gold has never been found. The Lost Dutchman apparently got lost searching for it.
The area was beautiful, especially as the sun was setting.
It was only 15 minutes ride from the outskirts of Phoenix and we were able to visit the cinema to see Midnight Special. If you have not seen it, I thought it was a very good film. Not life changing but it kept me enthralled the whole time.
We moved on to a very remote location called Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This is only 7 miles from the Mexican border at Lukeville and it felt strange being so close to Mexico again.
We passed through a tiny town called Ajo (garlic in Spanish) but decided to wait till the final town of Why before getting food supplies. Big mistake as Why had only one gas station and nothing else. We decided to ride on to the campground and found it to be very remote and beautiful but we still had no food. We headed to Lukeville at the border, 5 miles away. There was again only a gas station but we did manage to get ice cold Heineken and Doritos and (oddly) cups of instant oats (the perfect camping breakfast for vegans). No dinner though, they only had Spam and Pot Noodles.
After a few beers, we dipped into the food bag and came out with some red lentils and half a bag of wholewheat fusilli. An odd dinner seasoned with some Cajun spice mix but enough to soak up the beer.
We soaked up the beautiful, desert atmosphere. It was very reminiscent of Baja California. Many of the saguaro cacti are in flower. You can see the buds in the silhouette below.
On the way into the campground there is a sign that says “Illegal immigration and smuggling takes place in this area. If you see anything suspicious report it to the Visitor Centre”. No wonder the campground was half empty. On the way back to Tucson, we encountered three road blocks/check points manned by scary looking US agents and about ten different patrol vehicles, hiding in the bushes (it was like an episode of Breaking Bad). We saw nothing like this when we crossed at El Paso a month ago but this area is much more remote and perfect for smuggling. We were glad we had decided to move on.
Today we begin the long journey east. We plan to be in Dallas for Saturday, in time for the Everton v Man. Utd. FA Cup semi-final, being played at Wembley. We have 1000 miles to cover before then. We will go via Roswell, New Mexico.We will spend 3 days in Dallas before heading towards New Orleans. We wanted to see Santa Fe and Taos but it is too cold up there for us and we also need to make progress and zig zagging north to south when you want to go east, slows you down. We will be sad to leave the desert but we only have 4 more weeks before the bike goes off to the shippers and we need to get to the Deep South and see something new.
Well, you live and learn. In the USA, the distilled water used to top up batteries and cooling systems is the same as the water sold for humans to drink. I tried a few auto spares shops before being told to just get it off the shelf in Walmart, along with all the other drinks. I’m pretty sure distilled water is bad for humans and I don’t think my radiator needs a dash of citrus, for taste.
On our last day in Moab we decided to forgo Arches National Park, as it just seemed so congested when we rode past and instead we went on a fabulous ride on Highway 128 to Cisco. This is one of the most stunning valley rides I have ever experienced.
We had the road almost entirely to ourselves. The red rock landscapes just went on and on as we followed the river through the valley.
We thought we would stop for a coffee at Cisco at the end of the ride. We were shocked to arrive and and find it was a ghost town.
There are many of these scattered across the country but I have never come across one quite like this.
It was a major water stop for steam trains in the past and then became abandoned following the building of the interstate highway nearby which bypassed the town.
It was pretty spooky with rotting cars lying around. We had the feeling a few people still lived there and did not want to risk getting off the bike to wander around.
We rode from Moab via Page to Flagstaff, Arizona. It is much colder up in the mountains and we got caught in a full on hailstorm on our way into the town. We loved it there and ended up staying in a motel in the centre of town for three nights. We got lots of work done (I am up to 45,000 words!), enjoyed the local health food supermarket and had a couple of trips out-one for beers and burgers and the other to Lowell Observatory. This is one of the most famous observatories in the world, where Pluto was discovered. We waited for a clear night and were treated to views of the moon through a small telescope and views of Jupiter through the huge, historical Clark telescope. We could see four of Jupiter’s moons and brown stripes on the white surface of the planet. Very cool. We saw a skunk on the way back.
We rode to the famous meteor crater nearby. This is apparently the finest preserved meteor crater in the world. The meteor hit about 50,000 years ago and created a hole a mile across.
Research taking place here has enhanced understanding of meteor craters across the whole solar system. Although this is in the middle of nowhere, the visitors centre is really state of the art.
We had an amazing ride down off the mountain into Sedona from Flagstaff. Oak Creek Canyon is really very special. The atmosphere in the canyon was amazing. It reminded me of the atmosphere at Big Sur.
It was wonderful to be back in pine tree country after a week in the desert. The air smelt amazing. We saw a coyote cross the road in front of us.
The red rocks of Sedona are extraordinary but I really felt the town that they have built and the widened road to serve the tourist industry were big turn offs.
We stayed away from the main tourist area and stayed instead in the Verde Valley on a nice campsite. We got raided by racoons in the night who ate EVERYTHING, including a whole, raw, sweet potato and a pound bag of ground almonds. Lesson learned.
We had a great ride out to Jerome. This was once a thriving copper mining town and then became a ghost town around the 1950s. Fortunately, it has recently experienced a revival being adopted by artists and other bohemian folk and is now a popular tourist attraction. We were lucky that we arrived early in the morning and avoided the crowds which were building up as we left.
We rode through the nearby Mingus mountains, enjoying the winding roads and we both agreed it was the first “real ride” we had experienced in months. There were a lot of other bikers around, mostly on Harleys and the area seems to be a popular bikers meet point.
After two nights in the Verde Valley, we left for the Lost Dutchman State Park, east of Phoenix. I must admit that I thought the ride and campsite would be humdrum. I could not have been more wrong.
The whole route was stunning; mountainous and green at first and then mountainous and desert with huge saguaro cacti everywhere-very reminiscent of Baja California. It was very windy though, making the air dusty and riding and camping a challenge.I was kept awake last night by the coyotes howling but the bird song this morning was wonderful. The desert is so green and full of wildlife at this time of the year.
We are now enjoying a second day on the campsite. I will share some photos of the site next time as it is extraordinary. We will head back to the Mexican border tomorrow to Organ Pipe Cactus National Park. We have come full circle in the last month since we arrived in the USA. Once we leave Arizona made week, we will then start heading east to New Mexico. The USA really is the gift that keeps on giving.
HP Stream 11 lasted 6 months till some idiot lightly knelt on it in the tent. $200 laptops really aren’t very robust so this time I’ve spent $300 and got one that is actually kidproof.
Lenovo 11e Chromebook was ordered but Windows 10 Pro version was delivered (to the campsite!). I think that puts me about $100 up but I was looking forward to exploring Chrome OS. Currently downloading Ubuntu and refusing to trust Windows with any of my passwords in the meantime.