Across the USA (kayak, cycle, backpack) stage 1.

March 17th 1998

I was flying to the USA to replicate a huge trip that I did in Australia; walking, cycling and kayaking. This trip though was for eight months and not a year and it was going to be more like 16,000 kilometres instead of 24,000 kilometres and this time I wouldn’t have a support crew to carry all my gear.

My four main goals were to backpack 800kms on the Appalachian Trail, to paddle the entire 4000km length of the Mississippi River, to backpack the 400km John Muir Trail and cycle about 10,500kms down, up and across the U.S joining these three main goals.

I spent a week in England before flying to the USA. From the plane’s window I was hoping to look out over New York on arrival to the US and see the great Statue of Liberty, the incredible Twin Towers, the Empire State Building and all the other sky scrapers of New York City. Instead the aircraft delivering me to the US flew over swamps, inlets and old buildings in the less attractive city of Newark, leaving those famous skyscrapers to be dots on the horizon. The excitement that had built up in me as I crossed the Atlantic Ocean, was now gone and my anticipation of a spectacular entry into the US had fizzled.

I was one of the first thirty passengers to reach the immigration lines. People had hurried off the plane, all wanting to be first, but now they stood politely in line, waiting for an immigration officer to wave them through. No one wanted to encounter trouble here and I was surprised when two young guys with long hair, looking like hippies of the nineties, moved through without a hitch. Surely this was a good sign for a neatly dressed, 47 year old, with shortish hair like me, to get through customs.

I didn’t know what to expect from the immigration officers, as I had heard varying reports about people being hassled for silly reasons depending on which immigration centre they went through. My turn soon came and despite being confident that I would breeze through, I crossed my fingers, just in case. The officer started to question me. Why was I visiting the USA? My mind raced to give the best reason. “I’m going to cycle across the country from New York to Los Angeles,” I said. I didn’t think it wise to complicate issues by saying I was going to backpack and kayak as well. The guy looked bewildered and wasted no more time interviewing me, he just placed my passport and papers neatly inside a red envelope and told me to head towards a particular door. Oh no! This was not a good start.

I walked forward and was quickly intercepted by an official who escorted me into the room. I sat alongside some of the less tidy passengers, probably illegal immigrants or people who were known to be on the wrong side of the law. One man who wasn’t yet being interviewed kept shouting and insisting he shouldn’t be there and wanted to go out for a smoke. He was repeatedly told to sit down.

There were two immigration officials interviewing. Within ten minutes my name was called out. I walked forward to a desk where an officer started questioning me. “Why are you in the US? What are you doing whilst you are here?”

I told him all the gory details and that I was going to cycle across America and do a bit of walking and kayaking. I was hoping that he would understand what an incredible journey I was going to undertake, take pity on me and allow me through.

“Are you being sponsored?” he asked. Apparently if you get sponsored it’s like working without a work permit and you get thrown out. I answered all his questions trying not to rile him. When he was satisfied with my explanation, he said he would give me a six month visa. I pointed out that my visa on my passport was valid for one year. He then said that consulates issue visas but it’s up to immigration officers to say how long it was valid for. And they only issue three or six month visas, and six is the maximum allowed for tourists.

“But my return flight is booked for November. Isn’t it possible to have an eight month visa?” I politely argued. He continued to tell me that I could only have six months. Eventually our conversation came to a halt. He was not going to be swayed! He was the boss. He stamped my passport and without even a smile, told me to go.

I walked out of the room feeling grateful that he had given me enough time to do a big part of my trip. Then as I looked down at my passport I noticed that he had actually stamped it for eight months. What a beauty, yes, my dream journey was now a reality. He wasn’t that bad a bloke after all.

The 16,000 km self supported route starting at New York City and finishing at Los Angeles.

After I found my luggage, I sailed through customs and into the airport lounge where my wife, Jenny’s sister Elaine greeted me enthusiastically. It had been nearly twenty years since I last saw her. She was then a young 22 year old, who, with her sister Sue and friend had stayed with us in Australia. She had changed little, a little thinner perhaps, a couple of wrinkles beginning to show, but apart from being older she was basically the same. Elaine’s life, like my own had seen changes. She was once a theatre assistant but was now a computer programmer with a well respected American firm in the hub of the New Jersey business sector.

Her small shining maroon RAV 4 X 4 vehicle was waiting in the car park to take us home to Kingston, a small village a few kilometres from Princetown. Never before had I been to the US, so it was going to be a new experience. I remembered when I started travelling in 1972 I met several rich, loud American tourists around Europe. My first impressions were not favourable, so for nearly thirty years I didn’t see America as a place of priority to explore. Over the years though, having explored Europe, Asia, parts of Africa and Australasia, I started to become more interested in the US. TV documentaries showing the wild, wonderful wilderness, and listening to people who had visited the US tell me that the people were so friendly, convinced me that it was time to get over my prejudices and explore this vast country. So I’m here.

Her two-storey house was a welcome retreat near Princeton. The thought of having to organise and start my journey from a campsite or hostel somewhere in New York would have been quite daunting. The weather was particularly chilly, considering I had left a country that was experiencing summer, with bright sunshine and temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius. Here the trees were bare of leaves, the weather unstable, cold and somewhat gloomy, so I really felt the chill. Within a few days of my arrival 125mm of snow covered the ground. Up until then only 25mm had fallen over winter. For a few hours the scene outside was a picture postcard. Everything in sight was covered in white glistening snow crystals. Although it was such a beautiful scene, I was happy to be in the warmth and security of Elaine’s house and not out there in a tent.

Preparing for the trip at my sister in-laws (Elaine’s) home.

It wasn’t the best weather to start my trip.

The local stream had that wintery look.

I was told that my kayak, which I shipped across from Australia, would be waiting for me in New York, but it wasn’t. As I couldn’t start my expedition without it, it gave me time to get a feel for the place, purchase a bicycle that would take me 10,500kms across the country, and time to gather information about my trip.

As the days flew by and still with no kayak, I started to feel a little frustrated that I couldn’t get on the move. On the other hand I was happy to be getting to know Elaine and her partner Craig a lot better. I looked forward to our nightly walks along the towpath next to the canal; talking, watching the ducks, tortoises and Elaine’s dog enjoy his freedom.

The local weir.

The canal and lock near by.

Kingston, where Elaine lived, was about 8kms from Princetown, the nearest town. Princetown was famous for its university and history. There were buses to the town but I found it easier to walk and develop my fitness. Most houses along the way had no fences around their property, which I found hard to get used to. There was no privacy from their neighbours. Even the trees and bushes, that were leafless at this time of year, gave the suburbs an open plan feel. Then there were the mailboxes. They were quite huge, all quite similar and they all had an arm that could be raised so that the postman knew that there was a letter in the box to be collected. It really appealed to me and I thought it a good idea

I was finding several differences between Australia and the US. Never before had I visited the supermarkets after 10.00pm to shop but to Elaine it was the natural thing to do. I couldn’t think of anywhere in Australia at that time where you could do your grocery shopping 24 hours a day. It felt a little bizarre shopping in near empty supermarkets so late at night, but it was great. It was a mystery though how the supermarkets made money from 9.00pm to 8.00am with so few customers to cover staff costs and all the other expenses associated with running a business. At least parking and getting around those huge aisles was easier for the customer.

There were other differences I had to get used to. Just the small task of turning on a light had me guessing for a while. I had to push the light switches up to turn a light on instead of down and it took me two days to realise that the light in my bedroom, did actually work. But it was the phones that I found particularly frustrating. It seemed impossible to ring someone on the other side of the states without going through some complicated procedure or knowing which particular phone company to use. I just about gave up hope of gathering information by phone.

Then there were the four-way stop signs which appeared on fairly major roads. All vehicles coming from all four directions had to stop at these stop signs and it appears that whoever arrived first at the four-way stop sign, or whoever wanted to jump the queue, had the right of way. Every time I came to these four-way stop signs, I made silly comments under my breath. What’s wrong with roundabouts or give way signs and priority roads that are used in Australia and other parts of the world, thus keeping at least one of the roads flowing? I was told that Americans couldn’t get used to roundabouts or give way signs with priority roads, so this was their way of dealing with the traffic flow. Or should I say no traffic flow.

Although I thought the four-way stop signs were a ridiculous idea, they did have a good system at most traffic lights. On a red light, if the road was clear, you could turn to the right (it would be left in Australia). At first it felt strange going through a red traffic light but I soon got used to it. This actually helped with traffic flow and it was great. So far the differences between our countries were increasing, much more than I expected. I was surprised however, to find that there were many key products that could easily be bought in Australia that couldn’t be found in the US.

I started to settle in and get used to the differences or so I thought. One morning, after Elaine had left for work, I walked from my bedroom to the shower. Suddenly the house alarm went off. Had Elaine mistakenly activated it when she left, I wondered? The screech was deafening. I wrapped a towel around me and tried to find a way to turn it off, with no luck. I found the speaker and smothered it with cushions, but the noise still screeched and kept going and going. Eventually it stopped and there was silence and I breathed a sigh of relief. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. As I opened it a policeman and the guy from the old house next door stood there. I was wet with a towel draped around me. What a sight!

They asked me who I was and what was I doing? They were thinking that I was a burglar, and as I stood there trying to convince them otherwise –   how many burglars go prowling around half nude flashed through my mind! Then again, this is America and anything is possible. I didn’t know Elaine’s work number, so I couldn’t call her. In fact I didn’t know her married name either, so I really didn’t have too much proof to convince them that I was indeed her brother-in-law. Eventually and fortunately for me, they took my word and left.

It took me over a week of walking from bike shop to bike shop to decide on the type of bike to buy. In the end I settled on a Trek with pannier racks. Now at least I had some wheels to get around. By the end of the second week my kayak arrived; over three weeks late. Somehow it went to Los Angeles before being transported over to New York. My next problem was to get the six metre kayak from the back streets of Jersey City to New York City and to the Manhattan Canoe Club Boatshed. The task ahead was a daunting one. First I needed Elaine’s nice new car, then I needed a temporary roof rack, then I had to drive to New Jersey to pick it up and into busy New York City to drop it off. Many years ago I had driven on the right side of the road in Europe, but driving on the right in New York City was a much bigger challenge. I set off with a basic road map, not only trying to remember which side of the road I was supposed to be driving on, but also trying to get used to the car’s indicators being on the left, instead of the right. As well, I had to figure out where to go from a map that only showed the major roads.

I arrived at the freight yard and even before I un-wrapped the kayak, I could see the stern was crushed, the rudder bracket had been ripped off and a sizeable hole near the centre of the boat was noticeable. At first it looked as if it was the only damage, but after taking off the entire cardboard wrap, the bow, the cockpit and the deck were also severely damaged. In fact it had stress marks and cracks all along the length of the kayak. Although hugely disappointed that it had been damaged, I wasn’t surprised as it was common for boats to get damaged when shipping.

After I loaded my sad and broken kayak onto the car I found myself heading across the Hudson River to Manhattan Island by way of a tunnel. Once out on the other side several lanes speared off in all directions. Sandwiched somewhere in the centre I searched for an off ramp that went in the general direction to where I wanted to be. I had memorised the map so I just followed the signs the best I could. One wrong turn and it would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Well not quite as bad but you know what I mean! Once off the highway and onto the Manhattan Streets, the roads were jam-packed with vehicles, mostly taxis. The traffic was chaotic, especially at traffic lights and junctions where most motorists were impatient and kept crossing the white line even when the green light changed to red. The cars that had kept going were often left stranded in the middle of the road, which in turn prevented all the traffic crossing the junction from the other way. Car horns and shouts from drivers echoed between the skyscrapers. Pedestrians risked their lives trying to thread themselves across the road at the same time. But it seemed no one cared. This was New York City.

My 6 metre kayak overhung the small Rav4 by over two metres and I was praying that no one would run into it, as I could well imagine the nightmare it would be to deal with an accident here. The longer I sat in the driver’s seat the more confident I became. I arrived at the canoe club boatshed relieved that I hadn’t been involved in an accident. The kayak was certainly over-length and I knew I was breaking the law. Richard, the President of the Canoe Club, who lived a few blocks away, had generously organised to meet me there to open the door and allow me to leave the kayak there, whilst I was doing the repairs and until I was ready to leave. He was very obliging giving me all the help that I needed. I returned to Princetown just prior to the afternoon rush, which really meant that instead of the traffic being bumper to bumper and not moving, traffic was just bumper to bumper.

The following three days I bussed into New York to repair the kayak. Richard lent me a few tools but it was a slow and painful job due to the extent of the damage and because it had to be repaired section by section, inside and outside. The cold didn’t do me any favours either as the resin took a long time to cure, but luckily Richard’s heat gun helped to accelerate the process. Patience was important. When it was fully repaired the kayak looked a little like a Dalmatian dog with patches all over it, but at least I was confident that it would float.

During the repair I went outside every hour or so for a breather, so I would watch over the Hudson River and take in the wonder of the Empire State building and the Twin Towers in the distance. The Hudson River is 504kms long and it is here in New York Harbour where the river finishes its journey from its source in the Adirondacks near the state’s highest mountain, Mount Marcy. A multi-use cycle/footpath beside the river was busy with walkers, cyclists and roller bladers throughout the day, and it’s even busier at weekends. This path was a fitness trail for millions of New Yorkers and when I watched for a few moments I saw the wildest of people, the wildest of hair do’s and the wildest of fashion. I also saw some striking and beautiful bodies, another good reason for enjoying my breaks! When I stood there at night, the lights from the hundreds of tall buildings and sky scrapers became like a million Christmas trees. With the noise and so many sirens, it really compounded the feeling that I was indeed in the middle of a huge city.

The time travelling to and fro and around New York City helped me to get to know it a little better, and gave me the opportunity to check out the sights, including the 843 acre Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers. Although the Empire State Building was not the highest sky scraper in New York, it was the most famous and the one with the most character. At 381 metres high it was the world’s tallest building for forty years. Its name was derived from the nickname for the state of New York, the Empire State. It was opened in 1931 at the time of the depression; it has 102 floors and is located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street. In 1945, in thick fog, an air force aircraft crashed into the north side of the building on the 79th and 80th floors, killing fourteen people.

The US flags flies next to the Statue of Liberty.

On the day that I visited the Empire State Building, the city skyline from the observation deck on the 86th floor, was a little hazy and King Kong was nowhere to be seen. From every vantage point there were hundreds of sky scrapers and buildings below, of varying heights and seemingly packed in like sardines. It was a concrete jungle down there with millions and millions of windows. Beyond the tall buildings I could see the greenery of Central Park which I had visited earlier that day. I was surprised at the size and beauty of the park. It was like being in the countryside with lakes, ponds, lawns, forests and flower beds. The park is 4kms long and 0.8kms wide and has 10kms of paved roads which are popular with walkers, joggers, skaters, cyclists and millions of tourists.

The view from the Empire State Building.

Manhattan Island was surrounded by the grey and polluted waters of the Hudson, Harlem and East Rivers. I can understand why people would want to paddle around it, as I would find it interesting, but why on earth would marathon swimmers like Australian Shelley Taylor-Smith want to swim in the polluted waters around it? Shelley has won the 48km Manhattan Island Marathon Swim five times. I’m sure it wouldn’t be good for her health, as she later found out after suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and Giardia lamblia infection caused by the polluted waters. Shelley, who was born in my home town of Perth, Western Australia, has won many other marathon championships in swimming.

To the south the twin towers of the tall, 440m ‘World Trade Centre’ dominated the landscape. Beyond it, rising up from the water amongst the haze, was the Statue of Liberty. New York City has two business identities, the financial district of Battery Park, which is near the Twin Towers and the business/tourist district of Midtown, where the Empire State Building stands.

On the map, Manhattan Island looked quite small, but after walking the 8kms from Central Park to Battery Point on several occasions, just to save tube fares, it felt a lot bigger. The island is roughly 21kms long and 3kms wide.

Below me, the streets and pavements were filled with cars and people. Garbage collectors, cleaners, builders, lawyers, nurses, executives, and millionaires, they were all down there. It was a bustling city of people, which also included many poor and homeless.

I travelled into New York by bus for the last time. The approach road that led into New York from New Jersey was one of the biggest eyesores that I had ever seen. It was full of swamps, derelict buildings and areas needing urgent attention. When I reached the Downtown Boatshed I walked a little further to visit Richard, who had a home a few blocks from the boatshed. He was a sculptor and lived in an old cheese factory building. Inside, his sculptures and art works were spread from one end to the other. Lifting gear from when it was a cheese factory was still there and it added extra special effects and novelty to his very different home. He had bought it several years ago, when it was an empty backstreet building that no one wanted. He bought it cheaply and it was now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The area around his home had been cleaned up and had now become popular. With his property being close to the most important business district in the world, it was being sought after by young businessmen looking to convert it into trendy housing units. Richard was sitting on a gold mine. But, he wasn’t selling. He was in the city he enjoyed, he had room to work and within a few minutes walk he could jump in his kayak and paddle the Hudson River.

That night after walking around downtown, I returned to the boat shed to sleep. It felt strange sleeping in the middle of New York in the boat shed, the sirens blaring, the traffic screeching and the rats rustling around the building. By first light I was eager to get in my kayak and leave.

On the Water

New York was starting to bustle as I took my newly renovated though battered kayak out of the New York canoe club boat shed. I stood on the wharf alone and moved around in a circle with my boat (an Evolution Classic) on my shoulder and scanned the enormous skyscrapers. I was there, standing in the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world and about to start an epic voyage across the USA. I had no one to wave me goodbye as Elaine had planned to visit a friend in Maine, which had coincided with my departure.

It was March, a little cold and the water in the harbour was murky and uninviting. After three days in the boat shed repairing the kayak, I finally lowered it onto a wooden floating platform and then loaded it with gear and food for the trip ahead. I paused again and had my last look at the city before slipping into the cockpit. My slim kayak moved up and down with the river swell. I struggled to put on the spray deck that fitted around my waist and the kayak cockpit to keep the water out. As I finished fumbling, a man on the wharf shouted, “You know if you capsize you will only last about 30 minutes before you freeze to death.” A comforting thought prior to venturing onto the Hudson River and across one of the busiest harbours in the world. I could just see the headlines in the New York Times – ‘Aussie kayaker dies of hypothermia in the New York harbour on the first day of his expedition’.

Getting ready to leave the canoe club in New York City.

As I thought about what he said, my mind had a temporary loss of purpose and for a slight moment I doubted my own intentions. Did I really need to paddle across the New York Harbour? Would I capsize? Did I really want to put my life on the line?  Was I being stupid and foolhardy? I sat in my kayak thinking for a few moments. Of course I had to do it. This was an important part of my planned adventure. There were dangers but if I pulled out now, how would I cope if it did get tough!

At 8.30am I planted my first paddle stroke in the Hudson River, moved away from the floating jetty and headed across the water to the end of a long wharf. I paused beside the wharf to let a big wash from a passing ferry die down. Leaving the shelter of the wharf I headed into a howling wind and against the fast current of an incoming tide. Although the early morning river traffic was minimal, several barges and the odd ferry sent huge wakes across the harbour. Mighty sky scrapers, some of the tallest in the world, including the famous Empire State Building and the much higher Trade Centre, were behind and over to my left. I wanted to pause, to ponder at those great monoliths from the river, but my boat’s instability and the choppy water kept me on the move. I had no intention of capsizing.

The hustle and bustle of New York was just beginning. The Hudson River, named after Henry Hudson, who had explored it in 1609, was widening as it joined the Upper New York Bay. I made my way across it towards Ellis Island, and the large building where early immigrants were interviewed and processed. This majestic building, which reminded me more of Indian/Asian architecture, was actually French Renaissance style, and is now a museum. Its four turrets that rose above the building’s roof, gave it a more grand appearance. An American flag flying close by the building lifted briskly in the breeze. It gave me a sense of patriotism, a sense of purpose and it wasn’t even my flag. This fine building opened its doors on December 17th, 1900, and it was planned to accommodate half a million arrivals a year, but ballooned to 900,000 at its peak. Then during the Second World War Ellis Island became a detention centre for illegal and criminal aliens that were already in the United States. The facility was closed in 1954 and fell into ruin as vandals, thieves and decay set in. Restoration started in 1983, at the cost of 160 million dollars and was finished in 1990.

At the southern side of the island I met four sea kayakers, who thought I was crazy to paddle across the blustery New York harbour in a racing kayak. I too had similar thoughts when the water got rougher and I was trying to keep upright.

By now the wind had picked up, the tide had increased in speed and the ferries going to Ellis and Liberty Island were becoming more frequent. I reached the nation’s most famous monument, the Statue of Liberty, stopped momentarily, and as I looked up to this great monument I felt honoured to be there. I had visited it a few days earlier by ferry but it was extra special in a kayak. The statue’s outstretched right arm held a torch, the left hand held a manuscript with July 1V printed on it, but my focus was drawn to the spiked headpiece. Donated by the French as a gift to the United States to mark the Centennial of the American Declaration of Independence, the statue is 46m high but with a pedestal and foundation it is 93m tall.

Paddling by the Statue of Liberty.

Impressive highlights were coming thick and fast and I was beginning to feel the excitement of the journey. Leaving the statue, a ferry’s wake virtually swamped me. Ships, barges and smaller boats were steaming around the huge harbour. Beyond them the long suspension bridge, that connected Staten Island to Brooklyn, quivered in the haze. The harbour conditions were testing, but I felt great as I moved into survival mode and pushed through breaking waves and uneven swell. The shore looked a long way off so I certainly didn’t want to capsize.

Nearing Staten Island the wind howled and the tide increased further, as the main body of water narrowed into a channel between the mainland and the island. By the time I reached the channel I was virtually at a standstill, but at least I was closer to shore. A guy in a ramshackle row boat with one oar fished from the shelter of the shore. I exchanged greetings and started to ferry glide across the channel to Staten Island. From afar I could see a huge ship and a barge heading my way. I wasn’t worried as it looked miles away but as my forward progress against the tide was ineffective, I only managed to go sideways so it closed in quickly. Caught in the centre of the channel the vessels neared but a renewed burst of energy prevented me from being run over. Once across, I landed on a shaly beach, surrounded by crumbled concrete and rubbish. As the tidal current and wind increased further, the conditions could get no worse. I could only imagine that progress up the channel was going to be mighty slow and demanding, but I had no desire to stop along this immediate shoreline with its abandoned factories and rundown docks. It just wasn’t a good neighbourhood.

My attempt to leave the shoreline nearly turned into disaster as the wind gusted, whipping my cap off. I reached out in desperation to catch it, but the attempt failed and the kayak turned sideways to the wind and tide. I struggled for several minutes to get the boat back on track and then reversed about 20 metres to retrieve my hat. In the commotion I nearly capsized twice in the rough conditions and I considered myself lucky not to be wet and floating away. For a brief moment I considered stopping until the conditions for paddling became more favourable, but this wasn’t the place to be alone on shore as it looked too seedy. It would be safer to be on the water as long as I kept close to the shoreline. The current was so fast, the only way to make any progress was by using the slacker water and eddies closer to shore. It reminded me of paddling in the Kimberley with its 10 metre tides.

The derelict buildings were home to some weird looking characters. I moved away from the shore when passing them and then moved back in close to get away from the current and gather speed. The shores were littered with rubbish, concrete pylons, and old factories and wharfs. At times I passed a few industrial buildings still in operation. White silos and loading facilities also dotted the river, with some dry docks and yards dedicated for repairing boats, barges and tugs.

The Kill Van Kull channel had thrown out the gauntlet. It had a raging tidal current that made headway virtually impossible and it was one of the most derelict and depressing pieces of water that I had ever paddled on. Having said that however, the paddle still proved to be an interesting experience.

I finally made it to the colossal Bayonne Bridge. As I passed under, the clank of steel echoed above as cars and trucks drove over the steel joints. Beyond the bridge there were more abandoned warehouses, old wharfs and boats left to rot. The mud was laced with shells from the hulls of old wooden boats and hundreds of old timbers jutted out of the mud like huge skeletons. The area was one big graveyard, an eyesore of massive dimensions, a picture of hell. I stopped to stretch my legs on a corner next to a caved-in concrete pier and near acres of rotting timbers that pointed skywards. Huge rats scurried amongst rubbish which was metres thick and lining the high tide mark. I sank into the oozing mud as I walked to shore, rested and took photos of my surrounds. Out in the channel a large barge was dredging.

An abandoned river front.
The patches in the kayak are the cracks made in transport to the US.

Further along I saw rats as big as cats amongst the rubbish.

Further along the river huge cranes loaded cargo onto ships from the few operational wharfs. Other ships stood at anchor nearby. When the derelict buildings ceased to line the shores it opened up to marshland and rubbish tips and it was here I swear that I saw some of the biggest rats in the world.

My arrival at Rossville was welcome as it had been a hard day. Old riverboats, some with smoke stacks, rotted close to the bank. I threaded my way between them. Further on, the river narrowed near Perth Amboy, where houses with green lawns began to appear. I felt like going over and camping on them. I’d had enough for the day and it seemed as if hell was now behind me. The current had weakened for a while, but accelerated again to an impossible speed near the boat club. I struggled again against the tide and strong wind. I had paddled for hours under trying conditions and upon reaching a beach near the Conference House Park, on the southern tip of Staten Island, I was happy to stop. My first day’s paddle had been one of the toughest of any of my expeditions. I had only paddled 40kms in ten gruelling hours, and though I had a sense of relief that my day had ended I also had a sense of excitement that I was now on my way to completing another adventure. My American expedition had really started!

It is often the first day of any expedition that is the hardest to cope with and today was no exception. It is also the ups and downs of an expedition that makes it so exciting and worthwhile. It usually takes me a couple of days to settle into a rhythm.

I found a campsite on the shores opposite a town called Perth Amboy. It seemed fitting to be camped across from a place with part of my home-town name, Perth. It was cold and extremely windy, and when I landed on the beach it was backed by a swamp which had an incredible amount of rubbish littered in and around it. I hated the sight of rubbish, and to top it off rats as big as cats were scurrying around. They moved in and around the bushes with no sign of being afraid. I hadn’t seen rats as big as this before, and when I was a kid, rats were not my favourite pest. I felt safer with snakes, spiders or sharks.

This wasn’t a good campsite, but I knew of no better one, so I soon readied myself for camping on the south-west end of Staten Island not that far from New York City. Memories and advice given to me by people I had met since arriving in America came to mind.  ‘Be careful, there are a lot of scum bags out there that wouldn’t hesitate to slit your throat for a few dollars.’ A sobering thought as I made camp.

For tea I ate dried fruits and chocolate as it was much too windy to light the stove and have a proper meal. Just before nightfall a rat started scratching at my kayak which made me a little uncomfortable as I was sleeping under the stars in my sleeping bag, so as not to attract attention of any nasty people. I could just imagine it nibbling at my ear in the middle of the night. By midnight the dew had drenched me and my sleeping bag so I had little option but to erect my tent to keep dry.

At 1.30am I was woken from my sleep by voices. I peered through my tent window and I could see that the voices belonged to five black youths walking along the beach. My mind raced with thoughts and fears of being attacked, but to my relief they walked by. Sleep suddenly became hard to muster. And though I needed sleep I felt uneasy and I didn’t want to be asleep when they returned.

Sometime later two of the guys returned and walked straight by. I waited and waited and tried not to nod off before the other three returned. When they came by they stopped. I could hear their voices and feel their presence a few metres from the tent, but I couldn’t see them. Suddenly a stone or something landed heavily on my kayak and startled me. Instantly I let out an uncontrolled shout and much to my amazement and relief, the guys ran off along the beach. I sniggered to myself and although I was relieved they had gone, I knew the night was not over and they could be back. Sleeping was difficult and far from restful!

Sunday 29th April

The day dawned and I was still in one piece. No stab wounds, no slit throat; the trip could only get better from here! The wind was light and the estuary very calm. It was a stark contrast from the previous day. I had breakfast as two ships were steered into the harbour. The sun shone on the houses of Perth Amboy and they looked quite tranquil. Before me I had a 25km paddle against the current up the Raritan River to New Brunswick, where I would leave the river and paddle along the Raritan Canal and cross the state of New Jersey to Trenton.

Camped opposite Perth-Amboy.

Once in the Raritan River I soon passed under a railway bridge and three road bridges. I moved by more derelict warehouses, some buildings, a power station, and then housing estates, some with new impressive houses. I moved on into the country, following islands of reeds where huge rats had made their home. The river meandered, rubbish littered the reeds and an old New Orleans ferry and a fishing boat were left lying to rot on the left bank.  Once beyond the New Brunswick bridges, it had been a four and a quarter hour struggle against the current to get to the canal.

Although the river continued upstream for kilometres, I found the start of the canal just after the Memorial Bridge. I was happy to be out of the current, but it proved hard work carrying my kayak and gear up the steep bank between the river and the canal. It was good to be in a new waterway, there was no current in the canal so it was much easier to paddle. The canal which would take me across the state of New Jersey ran next to the Raritan River for a few kilometres then changed direction and headed towards the city of Trenton, 55kms away. At Trenton I would stop kayaking and start my first cycling leg.

The canal was built in the 1830s mainly by Irish immigrants who dug it out mostly by hand. It connects the Delaware River to the Raritan River. It was built as an efficient, reliable means of transporting freight, 80% being coal, between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New York City. This allowed shippers to cut miles off the original route from the Pennsylvania Coal Fields and out into the often treacherous Atlantic Ocean. It was the busiest navigational canal in the US in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1932 the rail system eventually took over, with coal and goods railed across the country, leaving the canals to become abandoned. In 1974, the canal and surrounds were declared a State Park.

It appeared that kayaking the canal was much less popular than walking and cycling beside it. The paths on both sides were once used by mules, which towed barges along it until the steam powered barges came along. With the mules and barges long gone the paths that they used now allowed walkers and cyclists to get away from the hustle and bustle of the towns and cities. People could relax, have a stroll or walk their dogs next to the water.

The canal was full of turtles, many basking in the sun on logs. Most slipped into the water when I paddled by. There were also locks to walk around and fishermen’s lines to avoid. At one lock a ranger had caught three fishermen fishing without a licence. I heard them telling the ranger that they were just looking and not fishing. The afternoon was incredibly relaxing compared with the previous day but with the lack of sleep from the night before I was lulled into a little daze. There was no current, little wind, no ships to avoid, just pretty villages, picnic areas, joggers, walkers and cyclists who waved as they passed by.

After 35kms on the canal, feeling quite chilly and having done a few portages around locks, I arrived at Kingston where Elaine lived, so after walking my gear back to the house, I spent the night in more comfortable surroundings.

I only had a day’s paddle to reach the end of the canal at Trenton. This is where I would finish this particular kayaking leg and start my first cycle leg. I had arranged with Elaine to pick me up at the end of the day and bring back to Kingston where my bicycle was stored.

I left Kingston and was soon passing beside Lake Carnegie, a reservoir that was formed by a damming the Millstone River. The lake is privately owned but the Princeton University rowing club is allowed to use it. Businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated the money for the construction of the lake in 1906.

I didn’t have far to paddle, about 21kms, so I was going to arrive at the end fairly early in the afternoon. My journey finally came to a halt at Trenton, not far from the Delaware River, on the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. As I approached the city outskirts an incredibly violent thunderstorm lashed down on me. Nearing my destination, I was suddenly prevented from going any further by several steel beams spanning the canal. This made it impossible to paddle on. I knew by my map that I had to get out of the canal well before the Delaware River, but I wasn’t expecting to be stopped 400 metres before that point. I just hoped that Elaine, who I had planned to meet at the end of the canal, would be there waiting. With the massive amount of water from the heavy storm spilling from the roads, it was certainly the right time to get out of the canal.

Cold, and in the pouring rain, I scrambled up the bank and out of the canal, lifted my kayak on my shoulder and started walking along the track beside the canal towards the nearest road. The high wind from the storm made it near impossible to carry my long 6 metre kayak. I was being tossed around like a broken windmill and spinning in circles. Somehow I managed to keep my kayak under control, and after seeing Elaine’s car headlights flash in the distance through the heavy rain, I sighed with relief. It wasn’t a good day to become lost. When I was within a few metres of Elaine’s car, I noticed the canal disappear underground, to continue on underneath the city’s streets.

I was so pleased to see Elaine! It was such a miserable afternoon and by the time I tied the kayak onto her small car we were both drenched. The day was a mass of thunder, lightning and seriously heavy rain. The kayak overhung Elaine’s small car by 2 metres so I was hoping that the cars following wouldn’t get too close or they just might have my kayak through their windscreen. We made our way down Highway 1, one of the busiest roads in the States, the kayak shifting sideways as the different wind gusts lashed the car. The windscreen wipers, failed to cope with the rain and the water spray from the cars in front, so it was a nightmare of a drive.

Safely home I stored the kayak in Elaine’s garage as I wouldn’t need it for a few months, until I paddled the Mississippi River. My next leg was cycling 960kms to a place called Damascus on the Virginia / Tennessee border. From there I would walk 800kms on the Appalachian Trail, before cycling several thousand kilometres to the source of the Mississippi River.

Tuesday 31 March

For the next few days I took one last visit to New York city, readied my cycling gear for the next stage of my journey, spent a little more time with Elaine and met a journalist called Bart who did an article about me for the local paper. I spent several hours with him as he had done many expeditions himself, so we had lots to talk about.

Friday 3rd April

Just before Elaine took off to work I thanked her for being such good company and host. It took me the rest of the morning to pack my panniers and ready my bicycle for the long journey, send my walking gear to the Damascus post office, say goodbye to Beans the cat, Dedanan the greyhound dog and be ready to leave. I had been there nearly three weeks and I was becoming accustomed to the good life. I was sleeping in a bed, eating good food, and turning the telly on to watch all the programs that I chose not to watch in Australia. The countryside as well as Elaine’s garden had started to bloom, with yellow bushes, pink blossoming trees and daffodils, all indicating spring was here.

When I pulled the door to, knowing I couldn’t get back in, I felt as if I had been evicted from my home. From now on I was going to be on the road, no base to go back to, only the open country and my tent to bed down in. Leaving the comforts behind, I finally started my cycle trip to my first night’s camp at the Washington Crossing State Park north of Trenton next to the Delaware River. All my cycling equipment was new, my fitness wasn’t great and I had to get used to the road rules, my new bike and the heavy load along the way.

Leaving the comforts of Elaine’s home.

I found a huge camping area in the park, which was empty, but it had signs saying it was set aside for group camping. I sat at a picnic table at 3.45pm eating, writing and waiting for darkness to arrive so I could set up camp. I knew that if I erected my tent before then, someone would come around.

I was right, very soon after a ranger arrived. Too lazy to walk, he shouted from his car, “I hope you’re not thinking of camping here. This is a campsite for groups only.” Although I could see the sign saying ‘groups only’, I couldn’t really believe that he was serious in evicting me. I walked across and asked him what harm could I do, the campsite was deserted. “It’s for groups with permits only, can’t you read the sign?” he said. I uttered a few choice words under my breath. “Well if I can’t camp here can you suggest another camping spot or camping site close by?” I asked. He paused for a while and then said, “No.” He then paused again and then said, “Okay, you can camp here for one night only.” He started his vehicle and left. Soon after I bedded down just as a Scout Troop arrived!

Waiting for darkness so I could camp.

Saturday 4th April

Leaving the campsite behind in the morning mist I was hoping that I would get a better reception at the next camp site. On the main road out of the park I stopped at the park museum and then had a great downhill ride to the Delaware River. Once across the river I stopped at the Johnson Ferry House and museum. The surrounds had a real English feel to them. I asked a few questions about the region but the lady inside the museum got carried away and gave me a good old history lesson. I found it hard to get away from her, though I did gain some interesting knowledge. The Continental Army with 2400 men, led by Washington, crossed the Delaware River on Christmas day 1776 and surprised and defeated the English on the other side. The battles of Trenton and Princeton were the first major victories for Washington’s troops against British Forces and a turning point in the American Revolutionary War. The Johnson Ferry House was likely used by George Washington and other officers before the famous crossing of the Delaware. I knew nothing about the history of America and the American Revolution but I was interested to find out more.

The Johnson Ferry House next to the Delaware River.

Leaving the museum I climbed out of the river valley into the countryside where there were lots of new, huge, two storey houses, on big blocks, in up-market housing estates. There appeared to be a lot of rich people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. All the new houses were being built with huge amounts of chipboard. Something you don’t see in Australia. Very few had fences around their borders and when they did it was a low wire type fence only big enough to stop small children from wandering. There was certainly no privacy.

I made my way across country in the rain to another historic site at Valley Forge. One of the great shrines of the American Revolution, this is the site of the stone house that served as Washington’s headquarters during the winter of 1777-78. Cold and hunger threatened to destroy the Continental Army, but Washington’s willpower and determination held the force together. 2000 men died of sickness that winter. Many of his men were in a terrible condition and had ragged clothing and no boots. With the help of a German soldier, the Baron von Steuben, he was able to bring discipline and drill to the naturally free-spirited Americans. The museum stood on a hill overlooking the river and surrounded by grassy fields. It was a great place to erect a tent but it was too public and I didn’t think the authorities would have been impressed. I had a look around the museum, and on my way out across the open fields I stopped at several small replica wooden huts that were of the type used by the army back then.

Replica wooden huts that the Continental Army would have used during the winter of 1777-78.

It was dark and dismal as I approached my next town. There were no campsites, just buildings and vehicles, and by the time I cycled through Paoli I was cold and decidedly wet. I was overjoyed but tired when I came across a rundown Mobile Home Park. I just needed to stop and camp. I knocked on the caretaker’s van and ask him if I could camp. He told me that the park was only for caravans so I couldn’t stay. My enthusiasm suddenly slumped.

Before moving on I fiddled with my back light to get it to work. In the meantime the caretaker’s wife had called the park’s owner. The owner’s brother had walked across Africa and met some fantastic people that had helped him, so he said the least he could do was to allow me to camp. I was more than pleased to have somewhere to bed down but unfortunately they didn’t have an outside toilet for me to use, so going for a number two was going to be difficult! I walked down the road to find a supermarket and a toilet. It was a wet, cold and draughty night.

Sunday 5th April

As another cold day dawned I cycled 32kms before stopping at a McDonald’s store for a coffee and warm up. Within minutes of leaving my pedal came loose; it had stripped all the threads. Luckily I was only 3kms from a bike shop and the very helpful owner soon replaced the crank and pedal. I was a little annoyed with the bike shop in Princeton. I had only been on the road for two days and my new bike was already coming apart.

As I cycled into the afternoon and through a small town of Atglen, I came across a couple in a horse and buggy. My first thoughts were that the couple were just getting married and were on their way to the church. But after climbing the next steep hill, I took the opportunity to stop and talk to a couple in their garden and ask for water, but they went one step further and offered me a hot drink, which I gratefully accepted. I questioned them about the buggy and they said that I would see many more, further along, as I was now in Amish country.

Housing estates along my path.

The land of the Amish.

It wasn’t long before I was meeting several horse-pulled carriages, with people inside them dressed in black clothes. I was thrilled. It was just like being on the set of the film ‘Witness’ with Harrison Ford. I hadn’t really thought that I would be cycling through Amish country but it was a real treat and the countryside was so different. Their farms, their way of living, their traditional clothes and their transport were extremely enlightening. The smells of cow manure, silage, hay bales and cows and horses feeding in the fields really accentuated that I was in the country.

Memories of my childhood flooded back. When I was very young and before tractors became popular, my parents worked with horses on our farm. We had all the animals, the farm yard, many different crops in the fields, just like the fields around me, although we didn’t have the big silos, but we did have electricity.

My childhood days were great. By the time I was eight years old I was working in the fields, on the farm and I was even tractor driving to earn money to buy my own horse. I had such a good time and although my parents parted when I was eleven years old, I can’t think of a better childhood.

As I cycled up hill and down dale it was as if time had stood still. Many of the Amish cycled, so I felt that I had at least something in common with them and that made me feel good. The countryside was hilly though relaxing with fields, farms and the tall silos being the prominent features of the rolling landscape.

For a brief moment I could understand what made the Amish choose to relinquish the benefits and traditions of the 20th century, and be at peace with a basic and traditional way of living, where values are more important than comfort and financial security. However to carry on those beliefs year after year surviving the hardships and long winters without electricity and extra comforts, they must be both strong and dedicated.

I passed through the small town of Quarryville, and as I struggled up the many hills, the horse and buggies passed me with ease. Although the steep hills had little effect on the horses, my body temperature changed from hot to cold and damp with sweat. Whenever possible the carriages used the gravel shoulders. Even so, they did cause the traffic to build up and angered some motorists passing through the area. Most of the carriages had battery powered indicators and were totally enclosed so as the driver was nice and cosy inside.

A few miles before freewheeling down a steep hill towards the 710km long Susquehanna River, the Amish communities disappeared. I felt a little sad as I was enjoying my new world. Just before nightfall, and with an aching knee, due to all the hills, I found a scenic, tranquil campsite away from the road next to an historic disused bridge on Muddy Creek, which made me feel better.

Monday 6th April

It was a cold morning. Frost had penetrated the tent and smothered it with a layer of ice. I rugged up by donning my down jacket and ate breakfast looking over the shallow but swift clear stream. My tent was perched on a small vertical bank next to a rope swing that was tied to an overhanging tree branch. The swing looked inviting but a little too dangerous for me to give it a go and relive more of my childhood. With the tent being damp I left it up to dry in the first rays of sunshine that filtered through the still forest.

A nice camping spot.

Leaving my little piece of paradise I meandered through pleasant hilly countryside throughout the day passing towns and villages with such names as Shrewsbury, Manchester and Westminster. It was like being in England. Many of the hills were quite steep and my knee gave out a slight twinge when cycling up them. At a small town of Lineboro I moved into Maryland (Old Line State) the state capital being Annapolis, though the largest city is Baltimore. By the end of the day I found a scenic campsite on a grassy hillside overlooking two distant farms, where three grazing deer were equally at home and the birds were free to chatter. I waited for cars to go by and then I lifted my gear into the field. I suppose I was camped in a farmer’s field but I kept a low profile by camping next to bushes. I cooked my meal overlooking an inspiring and comforting view. As the darkness and chill crept in, a majestic bright moon began lighting up my valley and as such, ensured another frosty night. Two deer peered at me, watched for a while and then ran off with white tails fluttering in the air, returning later with another friend.

Tuesday 7th April

The morning dawned with frost on the tent but the day was beautiful. I soon got views of the Appalachian Mountains. It was good to be getting closer to my next destination. At Liberty I stopped at a shopping centre out of town where I sat down in the sun and drank coffee and had a big piece of apple pie. It was great! I continued to take back roads through small villages but the hills were incredibly steep, and at one hill I nearly had to get off and walk but my stubbornness helped me to conquer it. Farmers were out in the fields, rotovating and ploughing, and home owners were cutting their huge lawns with ride-on mowers.

Just after lunch and after some very hard cycling I reached the wide and fast flowing 613km long Potomac River. If I was to follow it downstream, it would take me to Washington DC. I walked across the bridge to watch the water cascade over the rapids. I felt homesick for white water paddling so I called in at an Outfitter Store close by to see if I could hire a kayak, but disappointingly the shop was closed. The road narrowed once across the bridge bringing the traffic and danger so close that I could virtually feel the vehicles shaving my legs. Soon after, the famous Shenandoah River joined the Potomac and a kilometre or so later after following the rapid river, I came to a bridge crossing the Shenandoah. Again I walked across the bridge and watched the water rapidly flow over ledges and rocks. It was another wide river with many different choices to run the rapids. I was excited by the fact that the famous Shenandoah River was running beneath me. I had heard so much about it. I was already singing the song, “Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountain, Shenandoah River,” by John Denver.

Shenandoah River.

Crossing the Shenandoah River.

I cycled into the historic town of Harpers Ferry which was full of heritage preserved buildings, and was situated on the west side of the river, at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Harpers Ferry is now a popular tourist town, although it was quiet when I arrived. It was named after Robert Harper who established a ferry crossing there in 1761. In the early 1800s Harpers Ferry was turned into a United States Armoury and Arsenal industrial centre. Whilst in operation it produced over 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols. The civil war between 1861 and 1865 was disastrous for Harpers Ferry, which changed hands eight times. Because of the town’s strategic location, both Union and Confederate Troops moved through Harpers Ferry frequently. With the high surrounding hills looking down on the town, it was virtually indefensible.

Today, Harpers Ferry is a National Historic Park and it is the home of the Appalachian Trail Headquarters. During the planning stages of my trip I had researched much of the Appalachian Trail. The head office was always mentioned on all literature so I came to think of it as being this huge building with dozens of workers, but in reality it was an old preserved building as big as a medium sized house, with only a couple of workers running it. I left and made my way to the Youth Hostel a kilometre or so away (and it was the only hostel I used in America).

Harpers Ferry.

To the Capital – Wednesday 8th April

With Harpers Ferry being only a one and half hour train ride to Washington DC, America’s capital, I decided to take the opportunity to visit it. I left the Youth Hostel and boarded the early train. The scenery was quite pleasant until we neared the city where an enormous amount of rubbish and old dilapidated homes lined the railway line. It was quite a depressing sight, one that the government seemingly was doing nothing about. My mood changed after arriving at Union Station, the contrast was unbelievable. It was hard to imagine that I was in the same country. The station was clean, neat, with some expensive shops and beautiful gardens. It was like arriving at a swanky hotel. It also looked stunning and impressive from the outside, with its immense front façade. Of course it had a food court inside and good old McDonalds to serve me a pancake breakfast. The station was built in 1908 and is one of the most well-known places in Washington.

Not too far away there was another notable and impressive building, the Capitol Building. It was already teeming with tourists and school children on excursions. The Capitol building, built in 1793, has been burnt, rebuilt, extended and restored, and what started as a modest building, now contains 540 rooms and has 658 windows and about 850 doorways. It was massive. The Capitol Building is where the country’s major decisions are made. I paused to take photographs, watch all the activity and then moved to the western side of the huge building to where the stunning view of the grassy parks of the mall could be seen. Colourful red and yellow tulips dominated the flower beds. Tourist buses stopped and dropped off their passengers, and then went to park up. I soon came to realise that Washington DC was one of the most important tourist places in the world.

Capitol building, Washington.

Most of the tourist sites, monuments and museums were close to the narrow grassy mall that extended for a few kilometres west. This meant that I could see most of the sights by foot in a relatively short time. It was a warm day and the atmosphere was quite relaxed with the mall swarming with tourists on the same mission as me; to see as many sites as possible. Within the tourist area I felt very safe, despite Washington being one of the crime capitals of the country. The history museum, the space museum, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln monuments, they were all there for me to check out. Lincoln’s monument had two pigeons sitting and pooing on poor old Lincoln’s head, but at the Jefferson monument it was more dignified as a band played some relaxing music. At the Vietnam monument wall there were hundreds of names embossed on it. Several people were tracing names onto pieces of paper. With the Vietnam War being more recent, a number of people would know someone who was killed fighting there.

It was really Bill and Hilary at the White House, the official residence and principal workplace of the President of the United States, who I really came to see. The White House was built between 1792 and 1800 and designed by Irish-born James Hoban. This white painted Aquia sandstone building has been the residence of every U.S. President since John Adams. It was set ablaze by the British Army during the war of 1812 but since then it has been reconstructed and later expanded to what I was seeing today.

After reaching the back of the White House, whose grounds cover 7.3 hectares, I peeked through the fence. The gardens were immaculate, but I didn’t get any glimpses of the happy couple, Bill and Hilary. With the Monica Lewinski saga still fresh in their memories, maybe they weren’t so happy! I moved to the front of the building after having a $2.00 Polish hot dog on a side street. Security was tight and in order to see any more of the White House I needed to have booked a tour. Unfortunately I was too late to book. I was surprised to see how close the road was to the front of the building. Surely if someone wanted to use a rocket launcher from the front gate it would be hard to stop. I waited and waved, but not even the ducks swimming in a pond, under a fountain, surrounded by stunning tulips and a beautiful garden, took any notice of me! I moved on taking in more sights of the city. I needed to return by 4.45pm to catch the train back to Harpers Ferry. It had been an enjoyable, rewarding and enlightening day out.

The White House.

Tuesday 9th April

As I left the hostel heading south to Front Royal, I said goodbye to two unemployed Canadian engineers, who were driving south to watch a shuttle launch. It was hard to believe that after a hot, perfect day of sunshine I was now cycling in wet, cold conditions. The hills made me grunt and to make my day more of a misery my back tyre blew as I climbed a steep hill just before crossing the border into Virginia. Richmond is the capital of Virginia, but Virginia Beach, which I had never heard of before was the largest city.

It was cold and the rain was falling in bucket-loads. Cars raced by leaving their spray to linger. I upturned my bike to fix the puncture but it fell over. I couldn’t think of a worse place to break down. Just as I started feeling sorry for myself, a lady stopped and asked me if she could take me anywhere. Being the gentleman that I am, and not wanting to put the lady out, plus the fact that I had to cross the country under my own power, I said, “No thanks, I’ll soon have it fixed.” But I really meant yes please, anything to get out of the rain. The mere fact that someone had stopped to offer me assistance cheered me up.

A puncture in the rain.

Within minutes, although drenched, I had the tyre back on. Then just as I was about to ride away I noticed the tyre had a 50 mm slit in it, which meant that it would be too risky to ride as it could blow altogether. I cursed my luck, but kept a cool head, the weather plainly saw to that! Because I had no spare tyre I had no choice but to push the bike 20kms to a cycle shop in the nearest town of Winchester. It wasn’t an easy task to push the bike on the right when I always push my bike on the left and I was on the side of a busy, hilly road with no shoulder!

By pushing the bike on a side that I wasn’t used to it was heavy and unbalanced and the pedal kept catching my leg. It was an agonising walk. Thank God that the guys at the shop were very helpful and had me back on the road in no time. From then on I always carried a spare tyre.

By now it was night and the city of Winchester was cloaked in darkness, but luckily for me this town had a campsite. All I needed to do was to find it! On my ride to the campsite I passed several million-dollar homes and I was longing for someone to be in their driveway, see me cycling in the rain and then invite me into their home. Dream on Terry, it wasn’t going to happen. The camp site manager was friendly but I got a shock when he said he would give me a good deal because I was an Australian and on a bike, but then he asked for ten dollars. I didn’t think that ten American dollars was a special price for a campsite! But, as I was about to discover, campsites around the US were up to eighteen American dollars, and with the Australian exchange rate being pretty poor, that was nearly thirty Australian dollars.

Friday 10th April Good Friday

I had breakfast in the tent listening to the rain so the start to my day was a late one. It was Good Friday. I left Winchester by way of the old quaint part of the town and soon arrived at another beautiful town, Front Royal, which is situated below the Shenandoah Mountains and next to the Shenandoah River. Shenandoah is believed to have been an Indian word meaning ‘the daughter of the stars’.

At the town of Front Royal the north and south fork of the Shenandoah meet to become one river. It then travels north to Harpers Ferry and spills out into the Potomac River, which eventually ends up going through Washington DC. It is said that on a busy weekend there are often five hundred canoes and kayaks on the lazy, placid South Fork River, most of the boats being supplied by canoe rental outfitters.

The Shenandoah Valley has an important chicken, turkey, beef and dairy industry. It also has cornfields sandwiched between fertile grazing pastures and orchards abounding on the hillsides. But with light industry, chemical sprays and fertiliser pollution, algal blooms have become a big concern in the river. This has been monitored more closely in recent years.

Front Royal was the starting point for my cycle trip along the famous tourist Skyline Drive, which runs 168kms right through the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the Shenandoah National Park, east of the Shenandoah River. There is a speed limit of 56kms per hour and commercial vehicles are not allowed to drive along it, which pleased me. I couldn’t have timed it better. Due to snow and ice the road had been re-opened for traffic that morning. With the severe ice build-up on the trees, followed by a winter storm, tree tops and branches had snapped like matchsticks and littered the road and forest. The damage was quite unbelievable and in some ways, depressing to see.

The Skyline Drive turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway. Commercial vehicles or trucks are not allowed on these scenic roads.

The Skyline Drive is a 169km (105-mile) road that runs the entire length of the National Park Service’s Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, generally along the ridge of the mountains. It has 75 overlooks providing views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont to the east. The drive provides access to numerous trails, including the Appalachian Trail, and it is also used for biking and horse riding. The drive’s northern terminus is near Front Royal, and the southern terminus is at Rockfish Gap, Waynesboro where the road continues south as the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The steep climb to the top of the range had me struggling and just as the slope eased a passing ranger turned around and caught up with me. He informed me that I couldn’t camp on the side of the road and that I had to use a hut at Gravel Springs Gap on the Appalachian Trail. He took out his permit book and then began reading me all the park rules. I listened with little enthusiasm. It was like he was reading me the riot act. He even wrote the rules down on my permit and then, as I was walking away, he told me that the rules were also printed on the back of it. Talk about being officious. Welcome to the National Park, Terry! When I reached the information centre, a Canadian couple took my photo and a different ranger, who was much friendlier, asked for my address and took a photo.

Up on the Skyline Drive.

The Shenandoah mountain range was quite narrow and every few kilometres there were lay-bys on the edge of the mountain sides, called overlooks. There are seventy five of these overlooks on the Skyline Drive. At these points traffic could pause or people could picnic whilst taking in fantastic views of the surrounding areas and valley below. Just out from one overlook, a hawk glided gracefully on the thermals or wind updraught. I could see some fresh green shoots and leaves appearing on the bare trees. Below me there was a mosaic of green fields, tree stands and the forest. I was later told that the leaves of the nearby trees had been eaten by an infestation of caterpillars. At the base of the valley the Shenandoah River meandered and curled like a huge snake across the country, and beyond it, the Appalachian Mountain range stood proudly parallel.

There were no flat sections on the Skyline Drive. It was either steep ascents or steep descents, which either made me too hot or too cold. It didn’t take me long to realise that my ride through these mountains was going to accelerate my fitness. It was tough riding by anyone’s standard and a great training ground. At times, well, many times, I came to wish for a flat surface. Before leaving Perth I hadn’t done much cycle training and it was showing so I knew I had a tough ride ahead.

I eventually reached the track going down to the walk trail and hut where I had to camp. It was too overgrown and rough to ride, so I walked. When I arrived at the corrugated roofed stone hut, I met up with two other cyclists who were on a three day ride. Bill was pretty young and Edward, not quite completely bald, and with a grey beard, was a retired school teacher who now looked after golf courses. They were great company. It was a cold night and near full moon. The guys were soon in bed leaving me to look into the valley on a chilly, clear moonlit night.

Saturday 11th April

Bill and Ed were snoring throughout the night, each making a different tune, and with my own snoring we might have been mistaken for an orchestra. At first light I could hear a different noise coming from outside our three sided shelter. I peered into the mist and saw a deer creeping around, licking the leaking liquid around the toilet. Ed reckons it enjoyed the salt that was in the urine. As we ate breakfast we watched it graze, its short tail bobbed up and down showing the beautiful white of its underside.

A deer licks the leaching liquid from the toilet.

In the morning light, the damage created by the winter storms in the thick forest was magnified. The leafless trees stood like chopsticks; all snapped off down from the tops. Branches and tree ends littered the forest simulating a battlefield or the effects of war. It was a distressing scene. Volunteer groups over the last few weeks had been clearing the trail, readying it for the thousands of walkers who visit the area. Much of the track though was still closed.

Bill and Edward left 10 minutes before me, but I caught them up at the Elkwallow cafe and tourist shop. They were sitting in the sun eating a second breakfast. I ordered a hot egg sandwich and joined them. I felt in a holiday mood so I didn’t bother hurrying. Two hikers nearby had different ideas for breakfast and were tucking into beer, ice cream and crisps. Quite unbelievable!

The guys took off before me again, but I soon caught them up. We cycled together on and off virtually all day. Sometimes I would stop at a lookout and they would carry on, I then caught them again later. They were fun to be with. Two other cyclists, on a day’s training trip slowed to talk to me for quite a while. One guy had seen a bear. I felt envious as I wanted to see a bear for myself. For a competitive cyclist the skyline drive was a perfect road to train on. It was nothing but steep hills, and only tourist traffic to contend with. The downside was that it was narrow in many places, and had no shoulder to allow me to get away from the cars as they sped past.

The Skyline Drive is an important training area for cyclists.

The Skyline Drive was magnificent, always following the mountain range, with many lookouts giving spectacular views of the valley and small towns and villages below. For me, the downside was that I was continually climbing steep hills that reached heights of 1067 metres. It was a very hot struggle going up but cold going down. Cycling up the hills my speed was about 6.4km – 8kms per hour, while going downhill I attained speeds of up to 64kms an hour. My main worry about speeding down the steep hills with a fully laden bike, was the risk of the bike coming apart, my brakes failing or getting a flat tyre at 64kms an hour. A fall at such speed would be a pretty nasty experience.

Further along my new friends and I stopped at the Skyland Restaurant. It looked a bit posh for me to go inside so I stayed out and made myself a tomato, cucumber and cheese sandwich, and had a soggy banana for afters. By the time I had taken off again, trying to catch Bill and Ed once more, many other cyclists on a training run arrived.

I caught up with Bill just before Big Meadows, where Ed was waiting. It was food time yet again so we hit the restaurant. What a day! We were served by a very helpful and efficient waitress, who topped up our coffee and water whenever it was low. I just had chips, but the other guys had something more substantial. Today had been a real social outing. It seemed as if I had spent most of my day eating, drinking and talking and I was hoping for more days like it. Bill and Ed were camping here at the meadow so I reluctantly said goodbye and raced away. It didn’t take me long to reach the park exit 24kms away, and the last bit was all down hill. I loved it.

For the last part of the day I decided to hit the flats at the bottom of the range and I planned to camp in a campsite near the town of Waynesboro. I made very good time on a 48km stretch of flat road that was lined on one side by mountains and the other by farms.

Easter Sunday 12th April

I started my day by visiting the town markets and stocked up with fruit before heading back up into the hills to ride the 750km Blue Ridge Parkway, which was the continuation of the Skyline Drive. At the first overlook a couple, who were having a picnic, offered me some chicken and cheese. I couldn’t resist. After I left them, Kirk, another cyclist, rode beside me for a while. We parted ways near some huts on the mountain top and a popular place for skiing. At another overlook, I sat on a wall watching people climbing and abseiling from the cliffs. With it being the Easter holiday weekend, many families and tourists were taking advantage of the good weather.

I followed the Blue Ridge Parkway for 350 kms before turning onto the back roads to Damascus where my walk started.

The Blue Ridge Parkway meanders 755 kms (469 miles) revealing stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands. Spanning the southern and central Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers an exceptional glimpse of the regional flora and fauna. It is world-renowned for its biodiversity. The views from its ridges are spectacular.

The road had several long steep sections and at the top of one of them a family offered me coke, ham sandwich and coleslaw. As we sat and looked through a gap in the trees which gave us views of farms with pigs and horses, I was thinking how good it was to have Easter with friendly, welcoming people and good food. I was told I would see plenty of wildlife; including white-tailed deer, black bear, raccoons, opossum, squirrel, chipmunks and many other small animals and birds.

The road continued into the George Washington Mountains and National Forest. It was equally as beautiful and equally as tough as the Skyline Drive but with a wider stretch of wilderness. At times it was like the Australian Alps, and instead of looking down into a valley full of people, there were waves of hills as far as the eye could see.

By 7.00pm I had only cycled 83kms, whereas I had done over 134kms the previous day. It didn’t matter as it had been a good day and I found a very attractive overlook at Boston Knob with a good camping area to erect my tent. A large tree beside me, where I hung my food bag, had a resident squirrel that entertained me as it scampered up and down. I sat back looking over the scenic valley and watched the sun setting. Soon there were a million stars in the sky, the twinkle of light from the odd house below me and, by about 9.30pm, a near full moon appeared, becoming brighter as time went by.

A perfect campsite.

It was quiet and I lay on the grassy slope, checking out the stars and watching satellites cross the night sky. It was great to camp on the ridge top and to gaze into the darkened valley. It was the perfect finish to a hard day. And to think that below me, beyond the ridges, people were getting on with their lives, watching TV, having dinner, talking or maybe making love. And where would I rather be? Right here, daydreaming about life on the warmest night of my trip so far.

As the light fades it becomes the perfect evening.

Mon 13th April

From Boston Knob I had a good downhill section with great views of the surrounding mountains. I descended to the Buena Vista crossroads and through Bluff Mountain Tunnel where the road was pretty rough.

Descending a hill and following Otter Creek the forest was lush and the undergrowth became greener the lower I descended into the valley. It was spring at the lower elevation and it was refreshing to see. As the road levelled out, I saw a store ahead and it gave me the opportunity to refill my water bottles and have a pecan flavoured ice cream. Pecan flavoured ice cream ended up being my favourite. I had fun just trying to pronounce ‘pecan’ the American way. When my pronunciation didn’t quite work out, the shop assistants always knew that I was a foreign visitor.

On this part of the road lots of cherry blossom trees grew beside the road forming a beautiful stretch of countryside. Many trees had leaves, suggesting again that spring was creeping up the slopes. As I crossed the James River I was at the lowest elevation on the parkway, 198 metres. From here however, it was going to be tough. I had a steep 24km climb which finished at the highest point on the parkway in Virginia, reaching 1204 metres. Apparently this was also the longest hill climb in Virginia and I certainly felt it. I stopped three times along the steepest sections to drink. At one point a cyclist, on a day ride, passed me, but I later found him close to the top of the mountain, exhausted and suffering from legs cramps. He was drinking water that a passing motorist had given him. He was completely stuffed and had to rest up for a while. When I reached the summit I was relieved, as I had been continually climbing the hill for two and a half hours.

Spring has arrived on the lower slopes.

Workmen were lopping trees at the top of the hill where hundreds of trees had been destroyed by winter snowfalls and severe ice. A big golf ball on a nearby mountain indicated the highest point along the ridge. Further along, at a locality of Peaks of Otter, a very posh hotel situated next to a beautiful lake gave me a reason to rest. Hot, scruffy and self-conscious I felt too out of place to wander around the hotel, so I had my sandwich lunch down by the lake on the grass, watching families enjoy themselves. It was a great retreat for the rich, although a little further along, there was a campsite for those less fortunate or, as I like to think of it, the more adventurous people like myself.

After the huge earlier climb, I was beginning to hope the hills would flatten a little, to make cycling a little easier, but it wasn’t to be. I had chosen to cycle the scenic route, and of course where there is beautiful scenery it is always tough going. I nibbled on baby carrots, bananas and muesli bars as I tackled the hills and by nightfall I was bypassing Roanoke, the largest town along the Parkway. I was tired, my neck was tight and I needed a shop, water and a campsite. There were no shops along my route, but to my delight, there was a campsite near the town, so I detoured and focussed on getting there before nightfall. I hoped it would be downhill, but I just couldn’t shake off the hills and by the time I arrived at the campsite, having cycled nearly 138kms, I was totally spent. I had a stiff neck that really needed a massage, and only one litre of water left. And then, to top it off, the campsite was still closed for winter when I arrived!!

At first I thought it was a bonus as I didn’t have to pay, but there were no water taps on the outside and the toilets were all locked so I couldn’t get any water. I camped on a covered bandstand, which saved me erecting my tent, ate a tomato, some cucumber and carrots and then had some soup, which just about cleaned me out of water, leaving me with only enough to clean my teeth that night and in the morning. So much for the shower I was looking forward to. After dark, and when I had settled in, a cat came prowling around rustling in the leaves and making noises under the bandstand. It was like a small prowling mountain lion readying himself for the kill.

Tuesday 14th April

My neck ache had gone in the morning, which was a relief but with only enough water to clean my teeth I had to skip breakfast. The steep hills had taken their toll on my brakes. They were just about worn out and glazed over, causing them to grate. Before continuing my journey, I needed some shopping and new brake pads, so I cycled into town in the rain. This did mean a near downhill run, but what goes down must come up, so it would be an all uphill climb back up to the parkway. To top off a frustrating morning, the bike shop didn’t open till 11.00am, so I bought my groceries and waited. I still couldn’t find rice pudding in tins, and I never did find any throughout the trip. I bought small cartons of tapioca instead and sat outside the bike shop waiting for it to open, eating and drinking coke and Gatorade. I was trying to rehydrate myself from the big thirst I’d had the previous night.

An elderly couple came and sat next to me and we started chatting. They had been married for 60 years and the women said she wouldn’t change a thing. They had been so happy together and they couldn’t bear to be parted. They were about to go into a big restaurant nearby. Apparently as pensioners they could get a big meal for $5.00, so it meant that they could afford to eat there every day. A few minutes before 11.00am they walked over to the restaurant door and waited. They wanted to be the first inside to get the same table that they sit at every day.

When the bike shop opened the guy wasn’t overly friendly, and when I asked him if he could put my bike brake pads on, he said I would have to come back on Thursday. That wasn’t very convenient for me so I bought them and put them on myself. By the time I had finished my shopping and was headed back onto the parkway, it was 12.15pm. After playing Russian roulette with the cars around town I was extremely pleased to get back on the parkway where there were no trucks to run me off the road. I felt much safer on the Parkway and the road condition was very good. The only downside with this route, apart from the hills being too steep, was the lack of shops. The few that did exist catered for tourists, so if I wanted to buy something that wasn’t an ice cream or a hamburger they were of no help.

An effective but strange fence.

As I ascended and descended I drank coke and felt less than energetic. I had my last view of Roanoke from a scenic lookout and continued climbing and descending, getting too hot and then too cold. The scenery on the parkway was once again striking. It wasn’t the wilderness scene usually found in wilderness areas. It was part wilderness, part touristy, part meadows and extremely beautiful. It was a great area to start a love affair with the outdoors. From the lookouts I could see kilometres of trees, but beyond them in the valleys, buildings were often visible. Life was busy down in the valleys, but up here on the Blue Ridge I could escape from it all.

To an old mill.

Mabry Mill.

When Edwin Boston Mabry (1867-1936) built his water powered mill in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, he had no way of knowing it would become one of the most photographed places in the United States.

The Blue Ridge Parkway differed from the Skyline Drive. The Skyline Drive ran 168kms through the Shenandoah Mountains and National Park. The Parkway ran 750kms along the crests of the Southern Appalachians to the Great Smokey Mountains. Unlike the Skyline, properties sometimes bordered the Parkway and forests intermingled with farming. Many introduced trees and bushes were growing along the road verges, adding extra interest and beauty to the scene. At times cattle grazed in the fields and the occasional farmhouse could be seen. I passed historic grave yards burgeoning with flowers and surrounded by stone walls with cattle grazing and hay bales in the nearby fields. Farm properties were often bordered by incredible zigzagging wooden fences. Some of the properties had been taken over by the government and turned into picnic areas. The Parkway was forever changing; wilderness one minute, pastures and the reminder of farming the next. An historic mill once left to ruin, was now a museum and tourist attraction with a blacksmith shop, a saw-mill, a water wheel, carts, ploughs, old relics and many other exhibits.

Being early in the year there was little greenery on the upper slopes.

One of the graveyards along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Along the way, there was the smell of cattle dung, pine trees, rhododendrons, grassy fields and forests. The varied aromas were a delight to my nasal passages. I enjoyed the sight of deer, racoons and squirrels, and the thought of seeing the illusive bear was always present in my mind, a reminder that the area was still part wilderness. There were placenames such as Groundhog Mountain, Yankee Horse Ridge, Indian Gap, Daniel Boone’s Trace, and Bearwallow Gap. Where else but America would you find these names? For 176kms of the Blue Ridge Parkway and all of the Skyline Drive, the famous Appalachian Walk Trail runs close by.

At Devils Backbone I came across a good camp on a grassed area next to a big tree, and overlooking the valley. As the light faded, a twinkle of stars appeared in the clear skies and a few valley lights appeared below. When the wind died it was another magnificent night.

The views were worth the hard cycling.

Wednesday 15th April

At 825 metres, I was so high that a carpet of clouds was hovering below me in the valley. It almost felt as though I could have walked on them. It was extremely windy when I climbed and descended to Smart View, where there was a walk trail and a picnic area surrounded by a zig-zagging fence. It was an amazing wooden structure that I had never seen before. As I moved on, there was a beautiful smell of pine trees, the smell of cow dung, and another graveyard with lots of flowers on the graves. At Tuggle Gap I stopped at a café/store and bought some bread, a sticky bun, a Snickers bar and a can of Mountain Dew, then sat beside my bike eating delicious fresh bread with tomato and cheese.

I climbed to Rocky Knob at 1089 metres, where I could see the 1210 metres Buffalo Mountain. The camp grounds were closed but I took video of several deer grazing around the park. I saw turkeys, opossums, and rhododendrons on my way to Mabry Mill where I was able to rest and walk around the mill checking out all the relics; ploughs, carts, grinders, and an aqueduct.

At Groundhog Mountain there was a farmer ploughing with an old Massey Ferguson; more memories flooded back to my days on the farm. It wasn’t long before I cycled through Volunteer Gap, Orchard Gap, Fancy Gap and over Highway 77. At Pipers Gap it began raining as I turned off the Parkway.

The Parkway had been beautiful. It was very relaxing despite the hard grind of the hills and unlike the Skyline Drive, the road at times did flatten a little, giving me some reprieve. To think that I hadn’t really done much training before I came, and now my legs were hardening to the physical strain.

Over the last two weeks I had uncovered a little of America. I had seen signs of pollution and poverty, passed through derelict towns and prosperous farming communities. I had seen historical places, beautiful scenes in the wilderness areas, and had been captivated by the Amish traditions. Along the way, I had met both friendly and unfriendly people.

It was now time though, after cycling 180 kilometres on the Skyline Drive and 350 kilometres on the Parkway to leave the security of the tourist trail. I was to head in a more south-westerly direction and miss passing the highest mountain east of the Mississippi, Mt Mitchell 2037 metres, which lay further to my south. My destination now was the small town of Damascus and the start of my walking leg on the Appalachian Trail. It was with a sense of sadness that I veered off the parkway in the pouring rain. It was a cycle trip that I would recommend to anyone wanting a beautiful yet physical adventure.

I soon came to private properties, where camping was going to be difficult, so I stopped at a church to ask the whereabouts of a camping ground, hoping that the vicar would allow me to camp on the beautiful grassed area outside. My wishes were not granted. God had not taken pity on this weary, poor soul. Instead, I had to cycle on in the hope of someone else taking me in. By the time I reached the town of Galax I was still orphaned and although I couldn’t find a suitable camp I did managed to find a room at the YMCA.

Thursday 14th April

My legs lacked energy as I climbed the first hill on Highway 58, which was now to become my home for the next day or two. The road was hilly, narrow and busy and the weather was wet, windy and cold with some dry spells and sunshine. Having no road shoulder to ride on, trucks passed me so close they created wind tunnels, leaving me to sway when they had gone.

Stopping at towns, villages and service stations along the way allowed me the opportunity of meeting some of the local people and listening to their yarns. One guy told me a story about his friend’s son who was sent to New York to live with a relative. He was 13 years old and he didn’t like living there so he cycled one thousand kilometres back home with $5.00 in his pocket.

The rain pelted down and it was hard to see the road so when I came to a village with an old shop and big veranda I stopped and sheltered. The shopkeeper told me that the water that was coming out of the tap outside was the best there was and it had been running non-stop for 50 years. The rain eased and I was away, stopping again for hot coffee at a service station on a road junction. The two girls serving became very excited when they found out I was an Australian. They loved my accent and said they always wanted to go to Australia, but then again, all the girls say that!

The hills became steeper the nearer I got to the Grayson Highlands State Park. A sign saying ‘Not Recommended For Trucks’ appeared at a turnoff. Traffic became scarce, although the familiar big yellow school bus, looking more like a tank chugged up the hills taking kids home from school. The yellow school bus was an American icon. Most of them were exactly the same and were just like you see on TV. When they stopped, traffic coming from behind had to stop as well. I was told that they were reinforced to withstand collisions to keep the students safer. Some of the schools were now buying new, smaller ‘people-movers’ but several accidents had occurred and students have been injured, so there was debate in some states about allowing schools to use them.

Several of the hills were so steep that I thought that I would have to walk up some of them, but somehow I always just managed to find enough strength. Halfway up one steep hill, in the middle of nowhere, I came across an old Mountain Dew vending machine standing next to an old barn. It was covered with cobwebs and very out of place and although I had my doubts that it would work, I was surprised when a can popped out. Mountain Dew was becoming my favourite cool drink.

After climbing the hills to the Grayson Highlands State Park, a few miles from Mt Rodgers (1746 metres), the highest mountain in Virginia, I imagined it would be all downhill to Damascus, but I was wrong. To make matters worse I was headed into torrential rain as the light faded and black clouds, accompanied by a fierce thunderstorm, headed towards me. The rain was so severe that at times I could hardly see, and with the hills being so steep, I nearly had to resort to walking. My pride made me fight on.

The weather and terrain could get no worse, and at last as I began following a downhill stream, I felt that all the uphills were behind me. The stream cascaded rapidly with the recent rain. The road was covered with water, and picnic areas along the stream were flooded, but it seemed the weather hadn’t put off some fishermen. Although I didn’t know it, a tornado was cutting across the country nearby.

The road narrowed at a gorge just before the town of Damascus, which was on the south-westerly border of Virginia. I arrived wet, cold and bedraggled. I had no idea where to camp, so to get out of the rain I visited the local bike shop, which turned out to have only been open for a few days. Within minutes they had offered me a hot shower and a place to leave my gear when I went walking. It was one of the best welcomes I had ever had.

The Trail

I cycled to a hostel a short distance away. It was a big old house owned by the church. There was no manager or caretaker to look after it, so it was left to the hikers and bikers to clean up their own mess. I soon found out that it didn’t always happen, it was often left for others or it didn’t get done at all. When I arrived some parts of the hostel were in need of a real clean. It wasn’t the Ritz but it was cheap, and for a $2.00 donation you picked your own bunk. At the time of my arrival there were about 25 other hikers. Most were exceptionally friendly and I soon felt at home. The majority of hikers had walked 740kms to get there from the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, so they were on a high. Some of them would quit there, but others would go on heading north, tackling the hills and facing the weather.

Now for the 800km walk. Go to the Appalachian Trail Story.