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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Saturday 15th August- the Texan Plains

For the last hour yesterday we had started seeing a lot of references to Native Americans, including a weird Cherokee Subway (yes the sandwich shop). Dave had been very keen to visit the site of the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado but the site is accessed on an 8 mile unpaved road, which is hard on a very heavily loaded bike, two-up. We decided on the Washita Battlefield site instead as we wanted to learn more and pay respects.

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The site is part of the national parks service and free to visit. We already knew about the controversy surrounding whether this was a battle between Custer’s men and the Cheyenne or a massacre of Black Kettle, his wife and a hundred others, men, women and children. We watched a very informative 30-minute film about the situation leading up to the battle in 1868 and the massacre itself. We looked at a few artifacts, before riding up the site. It was on a lonely and isolated stretch of road, in a preserved area of grassland, which was really very beautiful. We hope to see more Native American sites as we move around. This was a good start and well worth the effort.

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The rest of the day was a traveller’s dream. Empty roads, strange and unfamiliar landscapes and a real, old school motel at the end of it (as well as some terrible Mexican food in a restaurant without beer.) It took us back to days riding across India in 1996-7.

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The main highlight was crossing into Texas from Oklahoma. The gently undulating plains and red earth immediately changed to become more flat and pale. The roads got worse. It got hotter. We saw our first real cowboys wearing Stetsons, jeans and spurs on their boots. We sat in a diner eating nuts and listening to the new but familiar accents (maybe from old western films, maybe from Dallas on TV).

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The roads were dead straight and you could see for miles along the road in front and what looked like hundreds of miles across the plain either side.

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Hawks soared overhead. We began to see a few oilrigs, small ones, then more, including nodding donkeys.

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The only other vehicles were tankers. There was the odd cattle ranch but nothing else. We saw very few homes in 200 miles. Why would anyone live out here anyway?

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For some reason the speed limit on this single carriageway road was 65-75mph. We bombed along, making good time. Towards the end of the journey to Dalhart, we began to see oil refineries and it became more industrial. At road works, we had a “pilot car” drive in front of us at 5mph so we could follow it through-a bit like the safety car in Formula 1.

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At our destination, we were met by a lovely, old school, Indian gentleman, with a thick Indian accent, who told us he came from London. Later his wife sought us out for a chat about the old country. She told me she was from England and had lived in the US since 2003 but she hardly spoke a word of English. We shared how much we missed Indian food and she told me about how much easier life is here in the US. Her motel is old school, with flowery curtains and walls painted orange but spotless and welcoming.

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Friday 14th August-Route 66 Oklahoma

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For the whole journey so far, the landscape has been familiar. Something you could see in the UK-green, hills, trees, fields. This changed when we hit western Oklahoma. It became drier and flatter. The earth is orange and you can see for miles. The sky became a paler blue to that we witnessed in Tulsa and it went on forever.

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A good introduction to the area was the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum at Clinton. It is still popular to drive the whole route from Chicago to California but much of it has been replaced by interstate highway, taking with it the romance of the 30s 40s and 50s. So many things connected with the Mother Road are iconic-the road signs, the petrol pumps, the motels with their neon and the diners. You spend a lot of time on a road trip looking for these things. They hardly exist today but when you see them it gives you a warm feeling.

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The museum had all of the icons in bucket loads. I also learned a lot about the road. It’s funny that people associate it with a simpler time as it was always commercial. Roadside diners and motels were invented to service consumers along the way. The parking meter was also invented here. I guess for me, it is the spirit of freedom and adventure that the open road represents that makes it so attractive. The USA is a massive country and for the first time, people could drive across it in a car. There is the spirit of the pioneer, going into the unknown.

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The most interesting part of the display was some old black and white images of the dust bowl times in the 1930s, immortalised by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. This is when thousands left the centre of the country for California, forced off their land by a terrible drought. There was an unexpected warmth to the pictures, with families sitting at the roadside eating simple picnics and posing on the bonnets of their trucks. It is not what I remember from the harrowing account of the era in the book.

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Just outside the museum we were able to see the original Route 66 as it runs parallel with the interstate highway for a few miles. It was very narrow. We stopped for a cool photo opportunity. We hope to pick the route up later in Arizona.

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Tuesday 11th-Wednesday 12th August- The Prairies Begin-Memphis to Tulsa OK

We woke up in Memphis to a traditional southern breakfast, vegan style, courtesy of our wonderful host. This included biscuits, which are like very light, spongy scones that are eaten as a staple here in the south. We have eaten very well indeed over the past three or four days, too well in fact but I think that it is normal in the south to feel overfed when you leave. The conversation at breakfast, with our host and another guest, was at an incredibly high level for 7am (at least by our standards) and I am sure was fueled, almost entirely (on our part at least), by the strong coffee. Both the breakfast and the coffee kept me going all day.

The first part of our USA journey has now been completed and we are entering phase two, which involves crossing the flat prairie to arrive in the Rockies in Colorado. This should take up to a week. It is not a relished prospect as the plains are hot and flat but we are planning to make the most of it. As we left Memphis, we crossed the mighty Mississippi for the first time. We will not see it again until we return to the US in the spring. It is just as you imagine, wide, languid and brown. You cross the border into Arkansas almost immediately and the flatlands begin. We rode miles of featureless dual carriageway for nearly 100 miles. There was nothing but potato, peanut and soya bean fields. No houses, nothing. As you approach the north-western corner of the state, bends and small hills appear. There are a few settlements. It all looks quite rundown. Lots of abandoned diners and overgrown junk shops. Rusty cars in the middle of empty fields. Apart from the town of Hardy, which is the closest to a Wild West town we have seen so far, there is nothing remarkable. Sorry there are no pictures but we were keen to make ground.

I was forced to make my own entertainment as when crossing Pennsylvania. The church signs came up trumps again. My favourite were

  • Be a fountain, not a drain.
  • When you can stand no more, kneel.
  • Life without God is like an unsharpened pencil. There is no point.
  • The forecast for today-God reigns and the Son shines- Amen

I also saw a shop called Custum Fitt (I hope that is a joke)  and a hitchhiker with a sign that read Eureka (is that a place or had he been struck with an idea?)

We saw some cool place names. We passed near Pocahontas and drove straight through Bono. We also passed Egypt and we stayed at Flippin.

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The campsite was right beside a huge road bridge, over a river. It is testament to how chilled I am that I will now consider staying next to a noisy road. To be honest, the crickets almost drowned it out. By way of compensation, the site had lots of grass and a huge covered area with comfy seats and electric sockets right on the river, with its resident heron and hawks circling overhead. We tried to get a close look at the herons before they flew off and noticed two deer grazing about 50 metres away from us. When the owner went home, we had the whole site to ourselves. It was perfect.

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I guess the highlight of the day was that I got to post on Facebook that we were only 24 hours from Tulsa. My next Bacharach reference will be in California when I can ask someone if they know the way to San Jose. I have to wait about 6 weeks for that one.

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We woke up to a thick mist across the river. It was really stunning. The journey into Oklahoma was as dull as the day before but we seemed to make better ground. As we left Arkansas, I saw a huge billboard that said “It is not racist to be proud of your people-start here with White Pride Radio.” Just as we were thinking Arkansas was the least friendly and welcoming state we had passed through so far, we had two separate guys come up to us on a car park and strike a conversation about the trip and bikes and their own plans for the summer.

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Sunday August 9th-Tuesday August 11th- Walking in Memphis

grace 1It has been such an amazing 36 hours in Memphis that it is hard to know where to start. This is the most interesting city that I have visited in a long time. A place where even Dave and I, who hate sightseeing, have been prompted to visit museums and tourist attractions and enjoyed each and every one of them.

This is the furthest south we will come until we hit southern California in the autumn and there is a definite feel of the south. The weather is hot-about 35 degrees with humidity making it feel nearer 40. The hospitality and friendliness is ramped up even more from what we have come to expect of the south and accents are even harder to understand. We arrived at our stunning Airbnb pretty tired, after a late night out on Saturday, in Nashville, and a very hot 200-mile journey down the interstate highway. The area, east of the city, near Memphis Zoo and the historic Greenwood District, is full of large 1920s bungalows and houses and is surrounded by trees full of deafening crickets. Our home for the stay was beautiful and homely with original parquet floors and a screened porch to sit out on. The room was luxurious and the hospitality unprecedented.

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We are big Elvis fans and came to Memphis, originally, only for Graceland. This is a must do for us while in the USA. We did not know it was Elvis Week, it being the anniversary of the king’s death on Saturday. We had tickets for the mansion tour at 9.15 and were expecting hideous, hot queues and to be herded like cattle. We were pleasantly surprised. Helped, maybe by a heavy storm at 7am, which may have kept people in, we were only the second group to arrive at the site and collected tickets without queuing. We were put on the first shuttle bus of the day up to the house. Only a small group is allowed in at any one time. The tour is by iPad, which works well.

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Impressions of Graceland

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  1. It is a very moving experience. You can sense Elvis and his family about the place.
  2. It was a real home. It still feels like one.
  3. It is small compared to present day mansions and, while luxurious, is pretty reigned in compared to the homes of other wealthy people.
  4. It is a fantastic retro experience of the early/mid 1970s with everything being kept just as it was when Elvis passed away.
  5. It is a pretty sad experience on the whole- and you are reminded of what a tragedy it was that Elvis died so young.

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My favourite parts were

  1. The mid 70s kitchen. Carpet on the floor. A retro blender. It is the same size as the kitchen in a normal home.
  2. The media room. 3 TV sets, comfy sofas, 1970s Hi Fi with some records from Elvis’s collection. You could imagine Elvis sprawling there.
  3. The racquetball court where Elvis played just before he died and the adjoining lounge where he played piano to some friends following his last match. Very sobering and sad.
  4. The clothes on display that were worn by Elvis, especially a midnight blue suit worn in the film Speedway. It was as if he was still wearing it. The suit oozed sex appeal.
  5. In Vernon`s office, they played a video of an interview with Elvis, from that same office, after returning from the army posting in Germany. Man that guy was magnetic. You cannot take your eyes off him. I watched it through 3 times.

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Buoyed by our great experience at Graceland, we headed for Sun Studios in downtown. It is hard to take in the importance of this site in the history of rock and roll. The transition from blues to rock and roll took place here. The first rock and roll record was cut here (and featured Ike Turner of Ike and Tina fame). Elvis was discovered here as was Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.

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The first great thing about the site is the retro diner they use as a waiting room.

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The tour itself is one of the best things I have ever done. The guide`s eyes shone as she talked you through the transition from blues to the first rock and roll hits and the start of Elvis’s career. She knew her stuff and clearly loved it all. In the museum, before entering the studio itself, she played us snippets of important blues tracks cut at the studios, at a time when black artists could not get recorded elsewhere. She described Elvis’s first visit to record a single in his lunch break, when he was 18, and how he waited a year before he was contacted, as the owner of the studio thought he was a ballad singer. There was some great memorabilia including the DJ booth used by Stu Phillips, the influential Memphis DJ, who helped break Elvis onto the scene and original telegrams sent to Elvis when he rose to fame so meteorically.

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On entering the studio itself, there was initially a hushed awe. This is real hallowed ground. We saw where Elvis sat behind the piano, on the famous Million Dollar Quartet picture, taken with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, in December 1956 . We saw the spot where he stood when he made his first real single, That’s Alright Mamma and we touched the microphone he sang into. It was all tiny and ordinary looking but it oozed atmosphere and history.

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The day was only just beginning as we headed to Beale Street, to see the street where blues artists flocked from the rural Mississippi delta, to play in clubs and bars, in the early 20th century. We found an amazingly authentic diner, serving southern soul food, where we sampled the famous iced, sweet tea. We happened upon an amazing photographic exhibition of stunning black and white images detailing the civil rights struggle and assassination of Martin Luther King. We visited the Gibson guitar factory and pottered around the retail shop and foyer.

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Our last museum of the day was the National Civil Right Museum, located in and behind the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot and killed on 4th April 1968. We were pretty tired by now and could not get the full benefit of this amazingly comprehensive museum but it was well worth the visit even so.

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Impressions of the museum were

  1. The location is brilliant. Being able to visit the room where Dr. King spent his last hours before his death is a real privilege.
  2. The museum does not leave any stone unturned. It is a true record of the civil rights movement and the injustices leading up to it.
  3. While very sobering and depressing at times, the optimism and determination of the campaigners shines through.
  4. It is a real testimony to what people power can achieve.
  5. Although there is a lot to read, you can listen to personal narratives and touch interactive maps as well as board a bus with Rosa Parks, experience a whites only café from the perspective of a black person and watch original footage in several small cinemas.
  6. Looking out from Dr. King’s motel room to the balcony where he was shot is very moving.
  7. There is so much here that you could return several times and see something different on each visit.
  8. Reflections on how segregation and injustice continues in modern day America is very dispiriting.

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Our final stop of the day was The Cupboard, another, more ordinary, traditional, soul food diner. This one served vegan side dishes and we were able to sample two different kinds of beans, turnip greens, squash, cabbage and fried green tomatoes all served with tiny, crispy corn breads (like Yorkshire pudding). The whole thing is like a Sunday dinner in the UK and for meat eaters the traditional main course would include fried chicken or steak. It was hearty, simple and tasty, srved with more iced, sweet tea and we ate every single morsel.

Friday 7th-Saturday 8th July- Crossville Tennessee to Nashville by Helen

After a night in a motel where we charged up the devices and updated the blog, we were ready to camp again. It seems weird sleeping indoors and we don`t like it much. My Vivofit 2 shows that I sleep a lot better in the tent, even with the threat of bears. Having said that, we enjoyed the experience of eating in a restaurant for the first time in the US. The food and service were excellent and the cost was as low as shopping and cooking, which was a surprise. The modern motel experience, on the huge out of town mall,  is pretty soulless though and should only be used occasionally in my opinion.

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We had a huge bag of wet stuff due to the rain so we decided to go for a commercial campground with a laundry. We were cautious about declaring the Ballyhoo Campground paradise as we had done that two nights before, only to be deluged. However, this did turn out to really be paradise. I have seldom, if ever, come across such friendly and caring hosts who tend their site so well. The laundry had a whole waiting room where you could connect to the Wifi, plug in your computer, read from their library or play table football. We managed to get everything washed and dried and it was great to feel clean and ready for the next leg.

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The place was built around a small pond which seemed pretty ordinary in the daylight but near dark was alive with dragonflies and then fireflies as darkness set in. By dark, the sky was completely clear as the stars came out and the crickets were almost deafening. As always seems to happen to us, we were befriended by some animals, a pair of white ducks on this occasion, that waddled about the site.

We set off for Nashville, two hours away, on a hot, sunny day. En route we stopped at McDonalds for a quick coffee and Dave saw a guy with a huge Nazi tattoo on the back of his neck. Nice. The Confederate flag is much in evidence in these parts. It’s hard to know what that means really, especially after recent events in the south. Is it just a show of southern pride or something more sinister and given recent pressure to remove Confederate flags in the south, is it a racist act of defiance or just a determination not to have the flag identified as a racist symbol (just like the Union Jack in the UK is associated with far right groups)?

A year ago, I would not have given a moments thought to Nashville as a city, being a hater of country music, but the TV programme changed all that. I can now almost tolerate some of the tunes and have a hankering for a pair of knee length, black $3,000 cowboy boots as worn by the character Rayna James.  Still not sure about the big hair and rhinestones though. Our Airbnb was located on the edge of East Nashville,  a super hip and very attractive neighbourhood of wooden painted bungalows with big porches, full of trendy bars and restaurants. It is also the home of characters like Deacon, Scarlett and some of the other younger folk in the TV programme . It looks much nicer in real life. Our Airbnb was exceptionally good there. We used Uber for the first time to get into downtown. What a great experience. Easy, cashless, cheap and with super friendly drivers. Our first two bars were pretty quiet. We started at the Riverfront Bar and then moved on to Fleet Street Pub for a great veggie burger and chips and mushy peas. 10 out of 10 for the food.

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We wanted to find more action and headed for Lower Broadway. Like a cross between Pattaya and Blackpool on a Saturday night but with no ladyboys (as far as I could tell) or kiss me quick hats (that reference ages me). Country music booming from packed bars at 5pm and shops selling cheap ($450) cowboy boots. Hen parties everywhere. Nowhere to sit. Tacky as hell.

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Great to see but not our thing these days (not sure it ever was) so we headed to another quiet, cellar bar near the river and then on to an almost empty karaoke bar called Ms. Kellis (!). A beautiful black girl got up, looking very confident with the mike and we thought we were about to the witness the next Aretha Franklin. Wrong. She sounded terrible but exuded joie de vivre and was rewarded when a bunch of drunk southern girls piled in the door and starred singing along and dancing-all before 7pm.

The highlight of the trip so far was the Alice in Chains gig. The Ryman is a truly historic venue where the Ole Opry used to be broadcast until it was moved in 1974. Of course, it started life as a church and still has beautiful stained glass windows and wooden pews.

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It is tiny compared to modern venues, holding about 3000. What a total privilege to see one of your favourite bands in such an intimate setting. We were on the balcony but I could see everything. It was a great gig. The did all my favourites (they always do) and we got to shake our heads, jump around and lose ourselves for two hours. We bought a veggie dog on the way home with sauerkraut. What a wonderful thing to soak up the beer. My neck hurts today and Dave is deaf (not sure how I can hear and he can’t but I think my hearing was better to start with) but at least we haven’t lost our voices. On our way out of the city, we ate a hangover brunch at the popular Wild Cow vegetarian restaurant. Berlin veggie restaurants could learn a lot from this place about how to make vegan food tasty and healthy (photo of Dave’s brunch courtesy of The Wild Cow website).

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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.