Sunday 16th-Tuesday 18th August- Arriving in Colorado via New Mexico

The Rocky Mountains really has been our destination since we began 4 weeks ago. The mountains are where we feel most at home (and a major reason for leaving Berlin where it is very flat). Hence the excitement at the prospect of arriving in Colorado.

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After leaving the motel, we crossed into New Mexico almost immediately. All industrialisation vanished and we were left with wonderfully huge, empty plains. We left early and it was cool. It made me realise how suffocating the previous day’s ride had been in Texas. For a short while we turned onto a tiny road that wound through rocky outcrops, very reminiscent of the cowboy films we used to watch when we were kids. It was the most enjoyable riding we have done in the US so far. We saw no other vehicles but we did see a big, shiny, red snake slither across the road.

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Crossing the border into Colorado, the plains became even more empty and beautiful with distant mountain views. This is the first time I have been able to imagine Native Americans living in the landscape. You can see why this land was so important to them. It is now one of the most sparsely populate areas of the USA. It struck me how sad it was that the tribes were driven off when the land snow standing empty and unused. I saw a Pronghorn, an unusual antelope type critter that once was almost extinct and several deer.

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We spent the first night at a state park campground on Lake Trinidad. The nearby town had a hint the old west (as do most of the towns around here). The campsite was baking hot with little shade when we arrived but the cloud soon came over and the rest of the day and night was punctuated with rain and thunder storms.

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I keep emphasising how friendly the people are but really, here in Colorado, they are, almost overwhelmingly friendly. On the campsite, one guy brought us a fresh tomato he had picked that morning and two couples invited us into their RVs when it was raining. The park ranger had a long chat about the benefit of alloy wheels on the Tiger. We met two separate British ladies who are now living out here and chatted with them. We also met a guy on a coffee stop who wanted to chew over the problems of the US education system and recommend an Indian pueblo for us to visit. Even the state trooper who nicked us for speeding was friendly as he doled out the $170 fine (which should have been more but for his discretion).

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I have to say that I am desperate to get to the mountains. We were forced to stop shot, in the town of Monte Vista, yesterday due to a forecast storm. We enjoyed an unplanned hotel night, a meal out at a Chinese restaurant and a comfy bed.

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As you ride west here, into the mountains, they seem to keep getting further away. It is quite frustrating. We should get there today. We are already at 7600 feet though and have been over 8,000 (about 2400m). The altitude creeps up on you here. We have not slept as high since we trekked in Nepal in 1997. I have noticed some symptoms of mild mountain sickness, like fatigue, headache (made much worse by drinking only one bottle of Budweiser) and irritability. They should ease off.The bike is also suffering a little, with both a water and oil leak and it is labouring more with the thinner air. Today we will be riding up to about 9,000 feet (about 2700m) which we have done in Europe, crossing high passes but not for extended periods of time.

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Sunday August 2nd- Thursday August 6th- the Blue Ridge Mountains

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Since we left Maryland, we have passed through West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and we are now in Tennessee, where we will remain for a few days. We are heading to Nashville on Saturday and then Memphis.

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As a child of the late 60s and early 70s I have had a long-held love of The Waltons. I was, therefore, very excited to be coming to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, home to John Boy, Mary Ellen and the rest (and oh yes I can name them all). The first thing I discovered is that the series was filmed in California, but that did not deter me from seeking the perfect Waltons locations. More on that later.

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We really are in the south now and my impressions are as follows

  1. People are super friendly.
  2. They really do say “you’all”.
  3. Every house has a porch with rocking chairs.
  4. The countryside is unspoiled and plentiful and not that different in appearance to England or parts of Wales.
  5. The corn on the cob is not as good here as the East coast, even though it grows everywhere.
  6. There are a lot of churches.

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Our first encounter with a local on entering the mountain area was a friendly black guy on the supermarket car park who bounded up and shouted “where d’you bring that thing from?” pointing at the bike and then engaged us in conversation about where we are from and how we got the bike here. We have since met many friendly people who call us honey, and sweetheart and want to know about us and our trip. They all think it is as exciting as we do. The lovely young guy who checked me in to the motel today, asked if he could look through my passport as he had never seen one before and asked how it worked and if I got it stamped in every country I visited.

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On the first night in the mountains, we stayed at the Shenandoah National Park campground on the top of Loft Mountain. For once we had grass to camp on which was very welcome. Here in the US, it is quite standard to expect campers to pitch their tent on gravel.

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They take bears very seriously on this campground. We were told not to rinse tiny grains of food down the pug hole as it attracts them. In the ladies toilet there was a sign that said “ do not leave food trash in this garbage-bears will enter and become trapped in restroom.” The next morning, after a fitful sleep, I tentatively pushed open the bathroom door and peered inside before going in-no bears thankfully.

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One lasting impression of the past few days is the rural churches we have passed and the messages they display outside. They keep me entertained as I sit with my own thoughts for hours. A few that stick in my mind are

  • The Lord is like tennis-serve well and you will seldom fail.
  • The best cure for sin burn is son screen.
  • Bikers welcome-ride through the Lord.

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We came here to ride the Blueridge Parkway and while that was enjoyable, the 45 mph speed limit means that you have to learn the pleasure of cruising rather than blasting, which is pretty alien to us Brit bikers. The views in places were beautiful. However, I think we have enjoyed the riding that we have done off the Parkway more as there are more homes and other things to look at. One morning, riding back from the campsite to pick up the Parkway, I finally found Waltons mountain. There were so many houses just like the Walton family’s and other smaller homes with white peeling paint and ancient rocking chairs out front. We passed a lumbar yard and then, at last, a general store that could easily have been Ike’s.

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We had been searching for the perfect campsite to take a day off from riding. It needed to have grass and either Wifi or a mobile phone service. Yesterday, we rode towards the Great Smoky Mountains, through North Carolina and into Tennessee and we found the ideal place. Stunningly located on a river with views to the mountains. It reminded me of Tatopani in Nepal, where there are hot springs. The weather was hot but we had a big shady tree and picnic bench, right on the riverbank for $20. We could even overlook the fact that the toilets had no doors, only curtains (!), so idyllic was it.

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We settled back to read and chill. The clouds came over and wind picked up and an hour later we were in the middle of a heavy, tropical-like storm. We were able to take shelter on a porch and watch the show.

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It was unnerving at times but the tent held up and the only stuff that got wet was that left in the tent porches. As the forecast was the same for tonight, we have treated ourselves to a motel for the night. After 18 nights of camping, a private shower, free Wifi and electric sockets is a real treat that we intend to make the most of.

Thursday 30th July –Saturday 1st August-Pennsylvania and Maryland by Helen

We have covered a lot of miles over the last two days crossing from New York State, heading west through Pennsylvania and then south into Maryland on our way to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the Smoky Mountains of Georgia.

Following a realisation of how just vast the country is and how long it takes to get places, it feels good to have those miles behind us, knowing that tomorrow, we will finally be in the mountains. The long ride has tired us out and today we are having a day off to chill and explore a bit.

Pennsylvania is big. The 500 odd miles that we have crossed, all look the same. Like this…

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…and then this

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… and a bit of this…

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That is not a bad thing. The area is very rural and lushly green. Cornfields give way to Dutch barn shaped houses and barns, often painted red. Houses all seem to display a huge wooden or metal star which is a good luck symbol, brought from Germany. A lot of the landscape is uncultivated with woods and fields of wild flowers. The first day we hardly saw a soul as we rode through the rest of the Catskills and wound our way through rural Pennsylvania.

We got wet for the first time and tried to take shelter, against our better judgment, in a McDonalds but the air conditioning was so glacial that it was more comfy to wait outside under the porch. The people in the US are pretty friendly but we started to notice them being more so. A young guy leaving McDonalds greeted us with “ I hope the rain stops for you folks soon”. People also seem to be getting more polite. Rather than just asking where you are from they say “ do you mind if I ask where you are from?” which is cute and reminds me of the Brits who say “I’m sorry to bother you but would it be possible to have another cup of coffee?”

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Entering Maryland the homes instantly looked poorer than those we were used to seeing. Single storey dwellings like large sheds, some with porches and rocking chairs were dotted around. The landscape is hillier than Pennsylvania, being the start of the Appalachian Mountain chain, and thickly forested. This morning we left the campsite early to seek breakfast, as the highly chlorinated water on site was undrinkable. We happened upon a traditional diner in the middle of nowhere. This was our first diner experience. It was exactly as you would imagine and as we had hoped. You could sit at the counter or at tables. The bottomless coffee mug cost $1.50 and the elderly waitress was warm and friendly, offering us a free glass of water and telling us a story about a couple of customers in a soft top car who she worried might have got wet . When Dave let her refill his coffee mug she looked at him and smiled like her was her grandson. Needless to say there was not much on the menu we could eat. Breakfast here is the US revolves around eggs done in 50 different ways. There were also waffles and bacon with syrup. We loved the place so much that we were happy to leave hungry.

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The town of Oakland is a simple place with a few historic buildings and close links to the Civil War. As we walked down tiny Main Street, every single person spoke to us. Even the policeman waved as he drove by. The accents have started to morph into a slight southern drawl too. A lady called out from her car that the railway station opened at tayen O’clock.

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On the campsite here in Maryland, the people are less friendly. Mostly locals, weekending with huge RVs, some as big as a small house and equally large log piles for their campfires, they tend to keep themselves to themselves. One family had a 9 year old boy with a red Mohican. I was impressed with how wholesome it all seemed until we woke up on our second morning to find a tiny, anti-Islamic comic placed on our picnic table overnight. As I went to the shower, I kept looking around wondering who was responsible and the whole place took on a more sinister feel, which is a shame.

Wednesday 29th-Thursday 30th July Woodstock by Helen

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Having been a hippy at heart since I was 17, a visit to Woodstock was a must. I had read that it was now a gentile and funky town full of veggie cafes, wholefood stores and yoga studios, like the Chiang Mai of New York state. The surrounding area is very pretty. Very much like parts of Snowdonia, without the dramatic peaks. The first indication that you are near the town is a sign for the Tibetan Centre (always a giveaway) and then the appearance of a pilates studio. Not many of those in the rural parts of New England where we had come from.

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We had experienced the wholefood store on the outskirts of town, on arriving, the day before. It was very well stocked and full of customers in their 70s who were probably too stoned to find their way home after the festival. It was shockingly expensive though and our normal daily shop cost about 30% more than usual, although we did find some marinated tofu and a great loaf of 8 seed bread. On our second visit we, headed for the centre of town and found a WiFi café for the first hour so we could upload the blog and plan the next part of the trip.

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It was about 33 degrees when we came out about 1pm but the heat was very dry and the left side of the road was in shade. I really enjoyed pottering about and looking at the cute little shops and cafes, some painted in bright colours and some with Tibetan flags or statues of Shiva. The menu of the vegan café looked great and the place was heaving but it was a bit too expensive for us and we don`t generally eat lunch so we did not investigate. The whole place had a chilled vibe and was definitely more upmarket than the town of Glastonbury, which we found quite down at heel a few years ago. If I lived in New York City or Boston then I would no doubt come to the area for long weekends but bliss here comes at a price. It’s more West Village in the hills than Dharamsala.

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Back at camp, I was a bit jumpy after the near bear encounter. Rather than go down to the sunny but lonely meadow to practice yoga, I used a patch of grass nearer to the tent. Afterwards, on my way to the shower, the path suddenly seemed dark and slightly menacing and I could hear a low growling sound. As I walked on, a little perturbed but reminding myself that close up encounters are rare with black bears, I saw a guy flat on his back on a camp bed outside his tent, snoring his head off.

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We bear proofed the bike that night before bed, by wedging it between a fire ring/BBQ and a large picnic table so that it could not be pushed over. Dave also set the alarm this time. We stored the metal panniers, containing the food separately. The night passed without incident. However, the next morning a guy informed Dave that he had just seen a bear near his tent area. He said it was a pretty big one and that they had chased it off. As we were leaving, the park ranger came by in his golf cart and informed us that a small bear had been seen that morning on pitch 25. Mmm how big was the fish (bear)? After availing us with stories of friends of his who had done road trips to Mexico on their Harleys and others who had flown their bikes to Europe, he told us more about bears. Apparently, as there had been sightings of this (small) bear, they would ask the biologist if we he wants to trap him. They will then take blood samples to make sure he is healthy and then tag him. On release, they set dogs on the bear to run him off the area and frighten him, to ensure he does not come back. If this doesn`t work then they might shoot him with a plastic bullet. This is all for the bear’s own sake as, if he becomes to familiar with humans and their food, he might end up having to be shot. He told us how they trapped two massive bears about 5 years ago. One was about 260 pounds and the other about 180. They were magnificent but also stank to high heaven, probably due to having to wear and thick black coat in the middle of a baking hot summer.