I was now paddling through the city of New Orleans but I didn’t bother stopping for a peek as I would be coming back after I had finished the river so I kept paddling taking in the city sights. Leaving the sky scrapers I rounded a bend and passed an old US Naval Base where there were several naval ships anchored. Further along merchant ships were coming and going with a few anchored. In no time I was out of the city heading towards the ocean 150kms away.
The city of New Orleans
I paddled through a stunning sunset, a beautiful sight for my last night on the river. I needed to achieve a few more miles so I paddled into the darkness. When barges and ships approached I took to the side of the river and close to the trees so as not to be seen. I nearly capsized when I brushed a low branch. By midnight, though, I’d had enough of paddling and hiding from the spotlights coming from the barges, so I searched for a campsite. Campsites were scarce but at 11.45pm I found a flat area with high wet grass, cattle turds, discarded steel cable and millions of mosquitoes.
My final sunset on the river
It was my last day on the river so I was in a joyous mood. When I reached Venice, the last town on this great waterway that can be reached by road, I knew my journey was almost at an end. It was extremely hot. I turned into a creek and saw a man on shore. We chatted and then Mike said come ashore so I landed at the Wildlife Authority building. He told me they were going through the hottest and longest heat wave in history with temperatures ranging from 40 – 48 degrees centigrade. I knew it was hot but not that hot.
With only 20 kilometres left to paddle on the mighty Mississippi River I had a short break before continuing the final part.
A cattle ramp near the end of the Mississippi River
I had the current with me and to reach the end of the Mississippi River was truly exciting. After 35 days of paddling and 4000kms the latter being in temperatures of 40-48 degrees centigrade I had finished the entire river. The only downside was that I had to turn around and fight the current 20kms back to Venice. It was hot and fighting the current sapped all my energy so I was quite exhausted when I reached the boat ramp at the Wildlife Authority Centre.
Somehow I managed to exit my kayak without falling out. Some men washing down a powerboat congratulated me. Nancy, one of the workers had a cold Coke in an esky for me so I found a spot in the shade of the shed, sat and rested whilst eating honey buns, Snickers Bars and drinking the Coke. I had only eaten a few nuts all day so the lack of food would have contributed to why I felt so exhausted. Eventually I picked myself up, had a shower in the shed and bundled my things together.
I had arranged with Joey to pick me up later that day. Joey was a contact I had made by ringing cycle shops in New Orleans as I needed a place to send my bicycle to whilst paddling the Mississippi River. He kindly offered to store it and to pick me up at Venice 130kms south of New Orleans when I arrived.
With a few hours to spare Mike the Wildlife Authority boss invited me back to his home to rest, to drink, to eat and to ring Jenny and to tell her that I had finished the river. Mike was in charge of patrolling the protected islands and waters of the reserve around the Mississippi delta, checking for alligators, wildlife and poachers.
Joey and his friend Mike arrived at 8.00pm so it was back to the compound to load my kayak and gear on and in his car. It was exciting to meet Joey after only talking to him on the phone. Within minutes we were headed down the highway to New Orleans, and to Joey’s place, stopping at a pizza place on the way. It was sad but the river was done.
Wednesday 29th July
I slept on the floor of Joey’s home on cushions from the sofa. We had a fruit breakfast which was really refreshing after having had cereal every morning for the last few months. A little later I washed all my gear as well as the kayak as it was pretty filthy from all the polluted, dirty water of the Mississippi River.
As I cleaned and put away one form of transport, another was taken out of a box as it was time to get back on my bicycle. At lunchtime Joey and I cycled to one of Joey’s favourite local restaurants and had rice, beans and chicken. On the way back home we called in at the bike shop where Joey worked to see if I could find some cycling shoes and meet Joey’s friend, but they didn’t have any shoes that suited my way of cycling. I didn’t want a pair with cleats as I needed to walk around shops without clanking. I wanted a pair like my running shoes but with a stiff sole which meant I could walk normally.
Joey at home
Back at Joey’s place I packed all the things I didn’t need any more to send home. I had no more paddling planned so all paddling gear could go. All I would need now was my cycling gear and it all had to fit in my bike panniers. After cleaning and packing everything I could relax. The only thing that was left was my kayak, but Joey was going to store it for me and try to sell it, as I couldn’t really take it home.
With all jobs done it became time to be a tourist and have a meal out with my hosts Joey and his partner Marianne. On the way to the restaurant they stopped at a cemetery that had raised graves. With the city being below sea level, the water table being high and flooding occurring, the dead have been put in tombs or above ground vaults since 1789 because coffins buried below ground before then were often flooded and washed away in heavy rains. Every year on November 1st (All Saints Day), New Orleanians pay special attention to their graveyards when friends and relatives of the deceased clean and paint the tombs and decorate them with flowers and other mementos.
A New Orleans graveyard
At the restaurant, which had a French cooking influence I met their friend Johnny and talked over a delightful Cajun meal. I kept hearing about Cajun food and music when I entered the south but it wasn’t until New Orleans (which was founded on May 7, 1718 by the French Mississippi Company) that I started to find out a little about them. Cajuns came to New Orleans in the 1700s. They were French colonists who settled the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the 1600’s. The settlers named their region ‘Acadia’ and were known as Acadians. In 1713 the British took over Canada and expected all settlers, including the Acadians, to defend the kingdom. The British demanded that the Acadians adopt the king’s Protestant religion. Over the next forty years, the Acadians refusal to abdicate became a political and religious threat. The British Government seized farms, burned villages, and expelled the families. Families were separated as British soldiers loaded them onto ships with different destinations. Family members were shipped all over from New York to the West Indies. Some were sent down south to the Louisiana territories. Many Acadians found some acceptance in Louisiana with its strong French background and Catholic heritage.
It was here in New Orleans the Acadians eventually became known as ‘Cajuns.’ Cajuns developed their own distinct lifestyle in the swamps and surrounding areas of South Louisiana. Cajun contributions to New Orleans and Louisiana are said to have been huge and improved the quality of life in Louisiana.
After our spicy Cajun meal and before visiting the well known ‘French Quarter’ in New Orleans, Joey and Marianne drove me into the city via an avenue lined with historic mansions that are still lived in today by the wealthy. We headed for the French Quarter where everything happens. It is the heart and soul of the city, with bars, restaurants and clubs. You name it, and it was there. As we walked around the streets capturing the atmosphere, talking and just having a good time, there were several mules busily pulling carriages carrying tourists and locals around the area.
The French Quarter is the oldest part of the city, but it is also known as the ‘Vieux Carre’, because although founded by the French in 1718, it also reflects the art and architecture of the Spanish era. In the 1850s and the late nineteenth century the French Quarter fell into disrepair but it was saved in 1850 by Baroness Michaela Pontalba who oversaw the construction of two apartment buildings flanking the main square which still stand today. These are the oldest apartment buildings in the US. Fortunately there are still people who see the value in old buildings, as historic preservationists saved them going to ruin in later times.
“Before leaving the French Quarter you can’t leave New Orleans without tasting the famous donuts and beignets, they’re an institution in New Orleans,” Joey said. Without any resistance from me, we walked to Café Du Monde which was established in 1862, and was located in Decature St. The name beignet is a French name for fried dough and it is a kind of French donut. We ate, drank coffee and shared conversation and it was such an enjoyable evening.
On the way home we detoured to see the longest causeway bridge in the world, which goes right across Lake Pontchartrain, the second largest saltwater lake in the US, after the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It is roughly 24 miles from south to north, where the causeway bridge crosses, and 40 miles wide. It has an average depth of 12 to 14 feet.
After barely talking to anyone along the Mississippi River I was certainly catching up with some history and trying to reaffirm some of the things that I had been told or read on my way around the U.S. There were so many things I wanted to know. It was so exciting learning about another country and getting to know more about it than the people who live there.
It was hard for me to believe that you could buy a country but that is what the U.S. did. In 1803 the United States of America purchased 828,800 square miles (2,147,000 km2) of France’s claim to the territory of Louisiana. The transaction was called ‘The Louisiana Purchase’ and the U.S. paid 15 million dollars for the Louisiana territory, $11,250,000 for the sale, as well as the cancellation of debts which was worth $3,750,000.
The Louisiana Purchase was quite huge and a coup for the US and Thomas Jefferson who orchestrated the acquisition. He was uneasy with France and Spain having the power to block American trade access to the port of New Orleans. The sale guaranteed the U.S. the right to sail vessels down the Mississippi River through what was once Spanish territory and unload goods at New Orleans for shipment to the Atlantic coast and Europe. The United States also wanted to possess the entire territory of Louisiana because so many American settlers and merchants were already in the region.
The land acquired included Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, parts of Minnesota that were west of the Mississippi River, most of North Dakota, nearly all of South Dakota, northeastern New Mexico, the portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide, and Louisiana west of the Mississippi River, including the city of New Orleans. The purchase doubled the size of the United States at that time.
The population of the city doubled in the 1830s and by 1840, New Orleans had become the wealthiest and third-most populous city in the nation. New Orleans had, consequently, the largest slave market. Two-thirds of the one million slaves brought to the Deep South arrived via the forced migration of the internal slave trade. The money generated by sales of slaves in the Upper South was huge and amounted to tens of billions of dollars, with New Orleans being a prime receiver.
Thursday 30th July
After another enjoyable breakfast, it was time to go so Joey led me through the streets, zigzagging around the back streets, passing graveyards, and crossing a railway line and following a track that I’m sure we shouldn’t have been on.
After 35 days on the river I was leaving the city of New Orleans by bike. Joey led me to a cycleway close to the river. I posed for a photograph with the Huey P. Long Bridge (a horseshoe shaped bridge) that I had paddled under a few days earlier, in the background. Barges were still busily motoring up and down the river and under the bridge. Joey and I shook hands and said our goodbyes. We had only spent a brief time together but there was such a sense of camaraderie between us that I felt that I had known him for a long time. Joey had become a good friend.
My first day cycling in Louisiana after paddling the 4000km Mississippi River
I followed the cycleway towards the unique Huey P. Long Bridge. I was still quite amazed at its uncharacteristic half horseshoe shape at one end. Completed in 1935, it is the longest and highest steel rail-road bridge in the United States. To allow trains to climb easily and cross the high bridge, the rail approaches have been built with a very gradual slope and extend 4.35 miles long from abutment to abutment on either side of the bridge. It’s not only a rail bridge but it also provides a four-lane highway, two one-way lanes on each side of the double rail track.
As I looked across the river it had only been a few days since I paddled past this point and so I remembered it well. I remember being pretty apprehensive because I was told I could get my throat slit if I camped within the city limits or get run over by one of the many boats. Looking back I had nothing to fear, as fortunately everything had worked out like clockwork. I allowed myself time to reflect on my journey down the Mississippi River, rekindling both the joy and apprehension. For 35 days it had been my life. Now that the paddle was over, I wanted to go back, to do it again, but this time I would do it differently. I would still use a fast boat, but I would stop at more of the local towns and communities on-route to get to know the Mississippi more intimately. I straddled my bike with a sense of pride in having paddled the Mississippi, being one of only a few people who had conquered it from end to end.
I followed the bike path along the river for a couple of miles and then moved across to the major road heading up to Baton Rouge the capital of Louisiana, with a population of 4,500,000 was known as ‘The Pelican State,’ but from what I had seen of Louisiana so far, it didn’t appear to be quite the right slogan. It should have been called something like ‘The Industrial State!’
I passed a lot of industry when I paddled the river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and now I could see the same smokestacks of the chemical plants in the distance, but this time, from the highway. The road verges were littered with glass, metal and pieces of rubbish. This was puncture territory at its best and it was one of the untidiest roads that I had cycled on. It was also hot, stinking hot, the roads were busy and the trucks belched out fumes that polluted the air that I needed to breathe. I felt suffocated every time a truck passed by and I began to wilt under the hot draining sun. The open road was both shade-less and grubby. Swamps or bayous as the locals call them ran beside it. Stagnant water, pitiful vegetation and a few shady trees formed the basis of the countryside, but the temptation to take refuge under the trees in that mosquito infested area was far from my mind. My journey had taken a dive for the worst as my surroundings simulated hell. Portrayed as a land of backwaters and bayous full of alligators and leeches, it had now become a reality, a part of my journey in the Deep South.
The heat radiating from the bitumen drove the temperature higher as the minutes went by. I was really feeling the strain, I felt dehydrated and dizzy. It felt as if the oxygen was being sucked away by some giant vacuum leaving just the pollutants for me to inhale. With each gasping breath I tasted the toxic fumes. All I could think about was reaching a cool place, some service station or a shop which sold cold drinks or ice. Just somewhere, just anywhere!
I eventually reached a service station, which was like an oasis in the desert. Within moments I had bought ice, placed it on my forehead and lay on the warm concrete under the shade of the service station roof. I felt a multitude of things, dizzy, hot and helpless with limbs that were like jelly. As the ice blocks melted, water dripped down my face and onto the concrete, which upon reaching it, immediately dried. It was 48 degrees in the shade, the hottest heatwave in Louisiana and Texas in history. People walked by me and said nothing. I could have been dead and they wouldn’t have noticed. I lay there for two hours before finally rising from the dead and back on my feet. Thank goodness I felt better and back in control of my body, which allowed me to get up and cycle on at least a little further. As I cycled away I almost felt like a new man again!
I stocked up with ice and headed north, but the oppressive heat soon had me reeling. A car full of young people screamed and threw a coke bottle at me as they were driving by, but luckily it missed. I took refuge under a highway bridge and drank water from my water bottle but it was hot and horrid as the ice had melted. Another car full of youths yelled as they sped by, but I was spared the coke bottle this time. I had no choice but to move away from the shady, but hot bridge. I couldn’t relax there as it was just too hot. Even my water, though really too hot to drink quickly disappeared, as I continually drank in an attempt to keep hydrated. Within minutes of being back out in the sun, the signs of heat exhaustion became very apparent. I was feeling dizzy and on the verge of collapsing and I knew I had to cool down, so sleeping on the side of the road tonight wasn’t an option. I had to find a motel to cool down my body’s core temperature. I struggled on to Sorrento and stopped near some caravans and asked where I could camp, hoping they would suggest there, but disappointingly they didn’t.
After five months on the road I booked into my first motel at Gonzales. There were several motels lining the road into town but I chose the very first one. Although I needed to check out the prices, I had less energy than a drowned rat and my mind and body wanted to go no further. I was devastated with the $65.00 price, and the unpleasant women on the desk, but I was desperate to take refuge in an air conditioned room and so I took it. As I made myself at home my body started to repair itself. By 9.00pm when I had taken a lengthy cool bath and recovered from my blurred vision and dizzy symptoms of the day, it was still a very hot 40 degrees Celsius outside. I couldn’t believe how happy I was just to lie on the bed in the air conditioning and watch the Discovery Channel on TV. Being away from the torment of the heat was complete and absolute bliss. I slept well.
Friday 31st July
I so resented leaving the motel early that morning but I really couldn’t afford to hang around. I do hate when I have to pay for a room yet arrive late and leave early and not get the benefit of being there a full day.
Joey had convinced me that I should be wearing cycling shoes to enhance the efficiency of my riding. He was a true cyclist and had done several long cycle trips around the U.S. so he knew from experience. He said, “Without using rigid shoes, power driven from the legs is partially lost. More energy is expanded, but less power is harnessed.” Although I liked wearing running shoes, because it’s so easy to walk around in them, after stepping off the bike, Joey did have a good point. I had already ridden thousands of miles without cycling shoes and hadn’t noticed, but now I thought it time that I moved into the 21st century. I had tried finding the right shoes to fit my size 11 foot in New Orleans without luck, but when I checked a shop in Baton Rouge I found the exact pair I wanted, and even better, they were at half price. I chose a flat stiff sole, without cleats on the sole, which were ideal for walking around the shops etc. So I was happy, and I knew that Joey would be. Like he said, my pedalling from now should be more efficient, but if he could see my big size 11 feet hooking into the pedal straps, I’m sure he would have had a chuckle.
The heat increased as the day progressed. I stopped at service stations, shops and a Burger King to cool down. Burger King and McDonald’s had become part of my daily life on the road when cycling to the Mississippi and now they were becoming part of my life once again. With the Australian dollar only worth about 65 cents American, everything was expensive, so it was good to take advantage of their specials. It was more expensive to buy bread and all the fillings than it was to buy a burger and coke and I also had the pleasure of sitting down in air conditioning to cool off. Also with Burger King having a policy of allowing customers to refill their drink, it was hard to pass one by. I always refilled my drink cup before leaving the store, so I could have a cool drink for the first few kilometres of my journey. I would never have thought in a million years that I could become so attached to a fast food outlet. I did however make a point of still eating fresh vegetables and fruit each day.
I couldn’t help but notice that the employees in the U.S. fast food outlets were a lot older than in Australia but I must admit I hadn’t been in a fast food outlet in Australia in the day time so I may be wrong. Younger workers seemed to give better service than the older workers. The more mature workers seemed to argue amongst each other a lot, the cohesion between the team was fragmented and their manners were lacking. I would often hear them arguing while I ate my meal. I had often heard that the quality of service in the states was very high but sadly I didn’t find that to be the case at many of the Burger King or McDonald’s stores.
When cycling between towns, trees became another form of escape from the oppressive heat. When my energy levels were sapped and the heat became unbearable I took the chance to lie under a shady tree to cool down and to relax as often as I needed to. However it was often hard to be comfortable with ants, flies and other insects pestering me.
Following the road in a north-westerly direction I crossed the Mississippi River by ferry. As I arrived at a small town of New Roads (5,000 people) on the other side of the river the heat in the late afternoon hadn’t waned at all. The Afro-American couple who owned the local shop talked freely and warmly to me. We talked for some time before I moved outside to relax. Customers came and went. They were all Afro-American and extremely friendly. I had felt uneasy when passing through Afro-American areas in the cities, but somehow in this small town it seemed different. For the first time on my journey I felt that I was getting to know a little about Afro-Americans. Of course I was probably kidding myself but at least I was getting to know them a little bit. Nearly all of them stopped and talked and asked me what I was doing. This rarely happened in the white areas. New Roads was established by the French in 1720 and is one of the oldest communities in the Mississippi Valley.
Feeling hot, I moved through the untidy town with two hours to spare before nightfall, hunting for a suitable campsite well away from prying eyes. Finding such a site seemed illusive, but then just as the sun set I found a gravel track that led towards the river. I stopped and waited for all cars to be out of sight before venturing down the track. Then from another track, a soft top 4 x 4 jeep shot towards me and stopped. Two young white males stared my way. In the back were two compound bows and a rifle. I was instantly on my guard. It had been young white well-to-do males that had been shouting abuse from their cars along my way and who had thrown the coke bottle at me. To get control of the situation I immediately made conversation as I wanted to have the upper hand. We talked and they told me they had just been hunting. I pretended that I was cycling a few miles further as I didn’t want them bothering me at my campsite. They said I sounded like Paul Hogan and took off with wheels spinning and a roar of laughter. I was pleased to see them leave.
I cycled along the gravel track for about 600 metres and stopped close to a Mississippi River swamp. There was just enough distance from the road for me not to be seen. It had just been another day on the road, another heat wave and I was feeling totally shattered. The evening was still scorching at 8.30pm. I mustered enough energy to erect my tent inner and crawled inside. I then collapsed on my bundle of clothes and gear and spread my arms and used my pannier as a pillow. The air was stifling, but the night was active with sounds of barges, mosquitoes and other creatures outside my tent and around the swamp. The sweat rolled down my naked body and off my brow in streams. I could do nothing to cool down but just let the perspiration trickle and annoy me. I had neither the will nor the energy to eat that night. As I laid down to sleep, I felt as if I couldn’t care less about anything.
My neck itched incessantly, probably due to the tropical heat. I tried desperately not to scratch it, but it was impossible not to. Fidgety feelings and the itching tortured me. My willpower soon gave out and I had to scratch my neck over and over. It was driving me crazy. I just lay there struggling with the absolute discomfort and without realising it I faded into the night allowing my body to rest completely. I woke at midnight feeling hungry, so I ate nuts and Pop-Tarts before trying to catch some sleep again.
Saturday 1st August
It had been an awful night, but I survived it and I was soon underway, although breakfast wasn’t considered. I cycled on, crossing the Atchafalaya River and flood plain, a tributary of the Mississippi River and which runs 170 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. I later crossed the Red River which spills into the Atchafalaya River and by now it was hotting up. Just after the location of Latanier I stopped at a house, but there was no answer when I knocked on the door. I was extremely hot and I wanted to hose down and although there was a hose there at my feet, I felt that I couldn’t use it as it was private property. I moved on hoping that I would come across another house with people at home. It wasn’t long before I saw one. I stopped, heard noises from beside the house and then saw an elderly man next to a horse. I walked over and asked him if I could fill my water bottles. We talked for some time about a variety of things, including the Red River, which was on the other side of the levee bank nearby. Because of the drought it had become very dry. He had an excavation business with several draglines and excavators.
Before asking me inside his house to give me ice, he said, “People just don’t want to work anymore.” I agreed. “The world has changed over the last 50 years and it’s hard to understand where it is headed,” he said. His 80 year old wife was sitting in a comfy chair in the living room. She was in need of a hip replacement but apparently this was the first time in her long life that she needed medical attention. She said she would put my name in her prayer book and she would pray for me every night. I said my goodbyes to her and went outside. I hosed myself down and thanked the man for the water and cycled off and back into the heat.
The rest and the drinking water picked me up for my ride through the town of Alexandria. The road passed several derelict buildings and rough areas and once I was clear of the town I stopped at a permanent RV Park to see if I could camp. For $6.00 the caretaker directed me to a grassy area inside a fence, where a swimming pool had once been. I had a cold shower and it was truly beautiful. The manager very kindly brought me a rice and meat dinner, probably his left overs, which was great as it saved me cooking. The evening was still very hot so I had another cold shower before going to bed. I hit the sack feeling somewhat cooler and sleep came to me much easier than the night before.
Sunday 2nd August
There was little traffic on the minor road I was riding on as all the traffic must have been on the freeway. I soon arrived at Boyce which was a bit of a ghost town with lots of derelict buildings. The ice machine in the rough-looking service station was out of order, although it did have lots of cockroaches and flies, which I really wasn’t looking for. This town was certainly no holiday destination.
Further, several farms and many houses were vacant or abandoned. Several fields with huge trees, which I assumed were pecan trees because of the notices around the area, had cattle grazing beneath them. Other than the cattle, there seemed to be no other life around. I was in pecan alley but I must admit I didn’t really know where pecans came from, at least not until now. I would have said from a bush or out of the ground but in fact they were from a tree and these trees were indeed Pecan trees. These were big trees but apparently they can grow up to 100 feet tall, with trunks 3 feet in diameter, but some pecan trees have been known to reach 170 feet. They make excellent shade and shelter for squirrels, birds and of course grazing cattle. Pecan pie and pecan flavoured ice cream are a couple of my favourite foods so I was sort of in heaven.
I didn’t realise it but pecans were being farmed all around the New Orleans area, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, right through where I had been cycling and into the other neighbouring states. New Orleans was an important place for redistributing pecans to other parts of the U.S. and the world.
As early as the 1500’s native Americans utilised and cultivated wild pecans but it was during the 1700’s and the early 1800’s, when the pecan became an item of commerce for the American colonists and the pecan industry was born.
The heat wave continued, 45, 46, 47 degrees. I was becoming conditioned to it, but it was still draining. I stopped at Natchitoches, the oldest town in Louisiana, feeling pretty exhausted and ate at Burger King next to a crowd of baseball players. I talked to a family and just ate slowly, and took it easy as the heat outside was still unbearable. I’m not usually slow when I’m eating, at least that’s what I have been told but today was different and there was no reason to rush. I don’t usually moan about the weather but it was truly hot and challenging and sitting there in an air conditioned room was better than bliss.
Before leaving I checked out the older part of town which was across on the other side of the Red River. Natchitoches was established in 1714 as part of French Louisiana and it was named after the Natchitoches Indians who had a village nearby at the time of settlement.
After an unbearably hot afternoon I decided to cycle at night when it was at least a little cooler, to regain a few of the miles I had lost sitting around. I put my lights on before the small community of Armistead and cycled into the dark, but the globe in my head torch blew, and so I couldn’t see all the debris on the side of the road. It then became too dangerous to ride, so upon seeing a grassy area behind a church I made my camp there and away from prying eyes. It was still very hot and my arm was itching, much like my neck the other night and it was torture. I iced it which helped ease it for a while.
I awoke in the middle of the night with sweat running down my body and ants crawling all over me. They must have thought I was dead and were about to have a meal. Somehow they had managed to get into the tent and formed a nest in the corner. I sprayed them and for a minute or so they were scurrying all over and around me. Eventually they died and I managed to grab some sleep
Monday 3rd August
I cleaned up all the dead ants before moving on to Shreveport where I detoured to find a bike shop and bought oil, a pressure gauge and some wheel spokes just in case I buckled a wheel. I followed the river route around the city which had less traffic and a few casino boats. In the early days, when the Red River paddle-wheel steam boats cruised up and down the river, poker players and cowboys fought gun battles over the results of the card games. It is a bit safer to gamble now. Five stationary riverboat casinos and several resort hotels that operate them offer luxurious accommodation, state-of-the-art facilities and cheap dining. It’s no wonder people flock here. I personally can’t see any fun in gambling. It just draws people in and some are unable to stop. I certainly wouldn’t be stopping and taking advantage of the facilities. I also hate cigarette smoke and I can’t stand people who are drunk, so somehow I didn’t think it was the place for me. With a population of 200,000 Shreveport is the third largest city in Louisiana and Bossier City on the other side of the river has 65,000 residents. Shreveport was once a centre of steamboat commerce, mostly cotton and agricultural crops. It also had a slave market, although it wasn’t as widespread as in other parts of the state.
I didn’t get far out of the city before I had to wet my head and hide from the sun by using shady trees. In all the times that I have been subjected to severe heat and exhaustion in Australia, the last few days had been torturous and the worst that I had ever experienced. However, I remember when I was in the Kimberley region of northern Australia ——– The terrain around the abandoned mission was rugged, making my trek far from easy. Finally, peering down from the hills, I could see the old settlement below, an overgrown airstrip, a corrugated iron toilet, old water tanks, a stone fireplace, an old aircraft and derelict walls and fences.
Rounding the northern side of the hill I took a flatter route home, passing the airstrip, a small dam wall and finally followed a trickling creek and noisy mules on route to the coast.
I was hot, tired, millions of flies annoyed me and I couldn’t take a footstep without my jelly legs virtually giving way. Finally I stopped after staggering up a small grade and drank some more water. I had never experienced anything like this before, but with 39 degrees C temperatures and difficult terrain, I think I was suffering from the first stages of heat exhaustion.
Reflecting in the shade on my harrowing ordeal, my legs started to cramp so I drank lots more water and washed, being wary of crocodiles in the ocean to cool my body. Within the hour I was feeling better.
I now had a routine. I iced my forehead and body hourly, I drank lots of water and rested under trees, bridges, service stations and fast food outlets. This routine was all part of my unusual day. From 1.30pm to 5.00pm each day it was like cycling inside an oven. The intense heat was almost unbearable and my body wilted under the sun. It was definitely too hot to cycle, and at times I stopped, but mostly I staggered on.
When service stations were more than 50 miles apart I often drank more water than I could carry and whatever water I did have became so hot it did little to cool me or satisfy my thirst. At these times whenever I saw a remote house with any sign of life, I stopped and asked for water.
I started passing oil pumps and small villages with derelict houses, and there was no hope of getting cool there. By the time I reached the border town of Ida, the sun had again knocked the energy out of me. The local service station was rundown so I moved across the road to the grocery store that looked as if it was still in the 50’s. Two women were smoking inside the store with only fans to circulate the hot air. The shelves were bare and cash register ancient, and they used an antiquated calculator to add up my bill of 2 small tins of beans. I sat outside the store under the veranda on a seat for some time trying to cool off. The shop was so far in the past it could easily have been used as a movie set. A man visiting the store offered me a place to stay, complete with a swimming pool but I just had to move further north. The heat had reduced my distances to half of what I used to cycle and if I was to reach Denver before Jenny arrived in the US I had to keep going. Because I was losing so much time keeping to my original schedule was now difficult to achieve.
Eventually when I had cooled off, I moved on crossing the border into Arkansas, which had the slogan the Natural State. Although I had paddled beside Arkansas when on the Mississippi I hadn’t realised that the capital and biggest city was called Little Rock. I had never heard of Little Rock before. Arkansas has about 2,500,000 people, it was hillier that I imagined and the Arkansas River ran right through the centre of the state and flowed into the Mississippi.
Over the border there was a definite change with the obvious signs of a wealthier state in housing and better roads. It was hilly on the way to Doddridge where I stopped briefly at a service station. A woman advised me not to stay, as there were lots of unemployed people, however with better housing than I had seen in Louisiana it didn’t look at all bad.
I moved on to Fouke where at 8.00pm I took shelter from a severe storm under the eaves of a service station. A man, who reckoned he was Monica Lewinski, started talking to me. Obviously he had a mental illness and I couldn’t help but feel more comfortable when he moved on. The storm had brought the first rain to the town for months and the locals started to go wild. Pick-up trucks were chasing around town and spinning their wheels, as they took off from the service station. There were several young local girls, smoking like chimneys and hanging around the service station being chatted up by the older men. It was a little distressing.
Wind swept the heavy rain under the eaves, so I was afforded no shelter at all and as I turned cold, I had no choice but to put my raincoat on. The thunder and the lightning that was directly overhead was just amazingly loud and powerful, but by 10.00pm the rain stopped, so I started to cycle out of town hoping that the local larrikins didn’t run me down.
There were houses spread for miles out of town, and with the darkness and wet black road it made it hard to find a suitable camping site. My luck suddenly changed when I found an unused driveway between two houses, which just happened to have a patch of sand, just big enough to erect my tent on. I managed to get to bed just after midnight.
Monday 3rd August
The traffic was already heavy when my alarm went off at 5.15am. Ants had made their nest in my sand patch around the tent so packing away became rather interesting to say the least. Once on the road I soon arrived in Texarkana, I circled the town for a bit of a tour and soon found myself crossing into Texas singing the song, Down in Louisana about a mile from Texarkana, in those cotton fields back home. When I was a pretty little baby, my momma used to rock me in the cradle in them all cotton fields back home ……… Now down in Texarkana …….. I just loved singing that song.
There was little change across the border into Texas which was the 3rd most populous US state with 18 million people. Austin was the capital of the Lone Star State, but Houston was the biggest city and I wouldn’t be going near either of them as my route kept me in the north of Texas. At New Boston I stopped to shop in a large supermarket with so many aisles it was hard to find anything I needed. Back in the countryside I couldn’t help but continually sing the song and it took me several days before I could get it out of my head.
I passed a big army base and cycled on a road without a shoulder so I didn’t feel at all safe as I moved into hilly country. By day’s end I saw a billboard advertising rooms at the Kings Motel for $25.00. I just couldn’t resist booking in at that price. I walked my bike upstairs and relaxed in a bath watching a documentary of Lewis and Clarke exploring new lands on the Missouri River and the history of the European War. (It was this documentary that sparked the idea of paddling the Missouri River which I did, some years later).
Tuesday 4th August
I had a wake-up call at 5.15am and was out of the motel by 7.00am so I could cycle several kilometres before the heat became unbearable. Within 20 metres a pannier that I hadn’t tied down properly came adrift and got caught in the spokes of the wheel. A few of the spokes became bent and the wheel slightly buckled, so by the time I adjusted the spokes and got underway it was later than I had planned. Soon after I cycled through the town of Paris, but it didn’t quite have the romance as the Paris in France.
The day soon became extremely hot, and the traffic was congested, but at least the road improved with the addition of a metre wide shoulder that I could ride on. I headed to Gainesville for the night but at Whiteboro I spotted a fairly new clean motel with $30.00 rooms, so I stopped. I was dying to see the second half of the Lewis and Clarke story so I booked in, but sadly I couldn’t find the right channel on the TV to watch it!
Wednesday 5th August
It was another 5.15am rise and I was on the road by 6.50am heading to and through the town of Gainesville. I cycled on through the day unable to find anything along the way to hold my interest. The highway into Wichita Falls was busy and full of advertising billboards. I moved across the city and turned off the main highway onto a business route heading to Iowa Park. It was a much poorer area with several abandoned buildings, a rodeo park and a country road that had no shoulder. I felt quite insecure as it got dark with all the traffic speeding by.
I stopped at a service station at Iowa Park and talked to a man and his son. He owned an oil field but the quality of his oil wasn’t as good as the oil found at the town of Electra, my next town. He had to drill several thousand feet to reach the oil. I left the service station in the dark and joined the highway at 9.25pm. I wanted to make a few more kilometres before camping but with the extra traffic on the highway and the fact that I couldn’t see all the rubbish and steel bits and pieces that littered the side of the road, my night-time ride soon became a little too dangerous and was short lived. When I ran over something hard I stopped just after a road over-pass and camped 50 metres from the road. There were no trees to hide behind but in the dark no one could see me. The traffic noise was bad, but by the time I got to bed at 11.30pm I was tired enough to sleep through it.
Thursday 6th August
Overnight, the traffic continued to be heavy, and it wasn’t until 4.30am that the temperature actually cooled down. At 5.25am as it was getting light I took my tent down. I looked around and I realised that I was in the middle of nowhere with no trees or bushes whatsoever, only fence posts, so I was in full view of the passing motorists. I had to jump the fence and go down the hill to find a place that was out of sight to go to the toilet.
I passed an airfield just as a light plane was dropping off parachutists. Within minutes it was down on the ground picking up other parachutists and back in the air again. It continued to do this time and time again.
The country across this part of Texas was quite uninspiring so I just kept riding, trying to cope with the heat. I reached Electra where there were lots of rigs drilling for oil which was discovered in the area in 1900.
Friday 7th August
The heat had slowed me considerably and played havoc with my schedule. I had hoped to reach Denver before Jenny flew in but with cycling less distances every day I just wasn’t going to get there in time. I had to change my plans. The city of Amarillo, surrounded by huge cattle ranches and 14 million acres of agricultural land, was now my focus. Amarillo was bigger than all the places along my way, in fact it was the 15th largest city in Texas, so I expected it to have several rental car firms. When I arrived in Amarillo I cycled to the airport and could find only one. Budget Rental Cars were a few hundred metres away from the airport so I locked my bike up at the airport and walked to it. There was seemingly little choice in renting a car in Amarillo, so I decided to look no further and go with Budget. However, their rental rates appeared to be a little over-inflated.
Within the hour I was back behind the wheel of a rental car, having picked up my bike from the airport and placed it in the back, and was heading north towards the northern part of Texas, across the Oklahoma panhandle and into Colorado by the way of Pueblo, Colorado Springs and then to Denver Airport. It was a quick trip by car although I was disappointed that I hadn’t reached our rendezvous point by cycle but the scorching days had taken their toll on my ability to cycle my usual 100 miles a day.
I arrived at the quiet Denver Airport in plenty of time for Jenny’s arrival. The airport buildings were made with fabric tent-like roofs which were supposed to represent the peaks and valleys of the nearby mountains. It looked more like a giant circus but it was different from all other airports and gave it a special charm. Jenny’s plane touched down and in no time we were meeting each other after over 5 months apart. It was good to see her. I had booked a nice hotel on the outskirts of Denver so that first night we could relax and catch up with the last 5 months.
Jenny’s sister Elaine had given us the name of one of her friends who lived in Boulder, a city of 100,000 people, located thirty miles northwest of Denver. After a day of looking around Denver we made our way there and what a pretty place it was. At an elevation 5400 feet (1650 meters), it sits below the Rocky Mountains and is regarded as one of the best adventure capitals of the world. The entire region is a paradise for hiking, cycling and rock-climbing and also caters for almost every other kind of outdoor activity.
We spent two nights with Jim and his wife who made us very welcome. We nearly got the opportunity to go gliding with Jim but the day we were going out, it was too windy.
We left Jim and his wife for a few days and headed into the mountains on a circuit drive spending the first night in a tiny cottage at Estes Park where moose roamed the streets nearby. Estes Park was the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and a perfect area for us to take another walk. The high mountain air and the scenery certainly took our breath away. We carried on touring, visiting places like Gunnison Gorge, the Royal Gorge and Canon City and staying in a variety of motels before returning to Boulder for a couple of nights.
Leaving Boulder once again, this time not to return, we drove through Fort Collins, Cheyenne and Laramie. These were towns that I used to see on the cowboy movies and although they had historic value they weren’t especially attractive. From the semi-desert regions we drove over to the mountains and stopped at the town of Jackson Hole in the spectacular Grand Teton National Park. After a scenic boat ride on a lake and a walk in the high magnificent mountain range we moved on to the Yellowstone National Park, the home of the buffalo, grizzly bears, geysers, thermal springs and the amazing Yellowstone Falls and we saw them all.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park
A buffalo in Yellowstone National Park
From Yellowstone we travelled into Idaho and then Utah, where we visited Salt Lake City, Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion Canyon National Park before motoring into Arizona and checking out the spectacular Grand Canyon, taking in both the north and south rims.
The Arches National Park
Zion National Park
Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
On our 3 week touring trip we had seen an amazing amount of America’s best scenery so to finish off a great tour we headed for Las Vegas via the Hoover Dam. Hoover Dam is among the greatest modern engineering projects. The construction of the Dam was started in 1931 and completed in 1935. Damming the Colorado River created Lake Mead. At the peak of construction at Hoover Dam 5,218 people would be working on the Dam at one time. There were 112 deaths attributed to construction; 96 of them at the construction site.
We booked into a hotel in Las Vegas before having a quick look around the city. Admittedly we weren’t very interested in the Casinos as we don’t gamble, we don’t drink, (well just the odd one) and we hate being in places full of smoke. It was time to relax as Jenny was leaving for Australia the following day.
Saturday 29th August
It was our last hours together as Jenny was flying back to Australia on a 4.00pm flight. At 10.15am we went down for breakfast. The gaming rooms and poker machines were already full of gamblers and what a sad, sorry sight that was. The smoke-filled restaurant was full, so they took our names and told us they would ring us when there was a table vacant. Thirty minutes later we were eating eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast. It was so good and cheap that I ordered another plate as tomorrow I would be cycling again so I didn’t feel guilty consuming more grease. Our coffee cups were refilled five times. Whenever it was near empty a waitress filled it up again. For breakfast sweets we had a huge banana split, with lots of cream. It was the longest and cheapest breakfast that I had ever had. The restaurant was full of low to average income earners. I think they had cheap food prices to encourage gambling at the adjoining casino so anyone could afford to eat out. That’s if they hadn’t lost all their money gambling before then.
Our last hour was spent together at a car wash in 108 degree temperatures. It was hot and quite unpleasant. We washed and vacuumed the car, so it was spic and span for its return to Amarillo. When we arrived at the airport passengers were ready to board so we had no choice but to have a quick hug and kiss, and Jenny was gone.
After Jenny’s departure it wasn’t long before I was leaving Las Vegas by rental car and heading back across the Hoover Dam to Flagstaff. Here I filled with fuel and had a baked potato and a drink at Wendy’s. Instead of taking the freeway directly back to Amarillo I took the longer scenic road south to Payson, which would take me through several National Forests and Parks. I camped in the car near Christopher Creek at the trailhead car park at 1.15am.
Back on the Bike
Sunday 30th August
I woke up with a cricked neck and I could hardly move. Sleeping in the car was certainly not quite as good as the tent. Back on the road the country was hilly and scenic, but levelled a bit when I travelled through Showlow and Springerville. I passed the National Radio Astronomy Observatory on a plateau before Socorro, where I stopped for a meal at Taco Bell. At Socorro I took the freeway directly to Albuquerque as it was here that I realised I was running late as my country drive had taken longer than I anticipated. On the freeway I kept a steady 75 mph but when I entered Texas, which had a 70 mph limit, instead of 75 mph limit in New Mexico, a police car with flashing lights pulled me over for speeding. I was doing 74 in a 70 mph zone. They checked my licence and rental car insurance and gave me a warning and then took off across the medium strip.
I arrived at the Amarillo airport at 7.00pm, dropped my bike off at the airport car park and drove a few hundred metres to the car rental depot. After signing the papers I realised that they had charged me for the mileage I’d covered when it was supposed to be on unlimited mileage basis. Because the manager wasn’t there they told me to ring back the following day and the manager would fix it up. It was nearly dark by the time I walked back to the bike, loaded the panniers onto it and was away, heading for a road that contained a few motels. I found a cheap one for $22.00 a night, a bargain, but when I started cooking on my stove outside my room, the manager told me I couldn’t use it because it was a fire risk.
Monday 31st August
I cycled to McDonald’s for a pancake breakfast and then headed towards the town of Canyon. I phoned Budget Rental and the manager said it was in the contract to charge me mileage. I assured him the women had told me it was unlimited mileage. He asked the colour of her hair and tried to weasel out of it. He told me to ring back.
I took the fairly flat Route 60 towards Hereford and Friona. Some of the fields were fallow, some were being ploughed, and others had sorghum crops which were being irrigated by overhead sprays or by irrigation furrows. Cattle feedlots and silos were spread along the road so my ride was quite interesting. However the temperature was 93 degrees so riding wasn’t a doddle. I stopped at Friona at 7.25pm, tried three times to ring Jenny, but the phone was always engaged.
A cattle feedlot
With so much farmland and flat area, camping was a problem, so after checking for a town campsite, which I didn’t fancy, I settled for a $24.00 motel for the second night running. Within a 50 mile radius of Friona there were more cattle in feedlots than in any other location in the world. There were just acres and acres of pens where the cattle were kept until they were fattened up. Each pen had a long trough down one side and the food was dished out by a machine. Friona’s meat packing plant was one of the largest plants in this industry.
After booking in to the motel I cycled down the road and ordered burger and chips at Sonic, a fast food outlet and the manager treated me, which was pretty good of him. However he smoked and the kitchen didn’t look very clean so I wondered how healthy the place was. Despite that, the hamburger tasted good. He was from South Africa and he talked about elephants and game hunting as I ate. Outside there were a number of parking booths so people in cars could pull up, order their meal by microphone and just sit outside in their car and eat it there. Just like a drive in movie.
I rang Jenny several times before I finally got her. She had been talking on the phone to her clients for an hour about work.
Tuesday 1st September
The road west was still good with a wide shoulder and was lined with corn fields and cattle yards, farms and silos every few kilometres. One of the huge cattle yards was said to hold 60,000 cows, which I found to be just amazing. In 1973 I worked at Camballin on a cattle station called ‘Liveringa’, which was in the Kimberley in North West Australia. The cattle station also had a farming division and a feedlot. The farming division grew sorghum to feed the cattle housed in the feedlot. I worked on the farming division. I started as a tractor driver planting and harvesting the crops and I soon became the assistant farm manager. Every large paddock/field was irrigated, and the water was diverted from the nearby Fitzroy River into a dam and then by big irrigation channels to the fields. Because of the excellent black soil, good growing conditions, the heat and plenty of water, two or three crops could be harvested in one growing season. Most of the sorghum that was harvested was made into silage for cattle feed, a smaller portion was grown as grain.
Cattle were rounded up by cowboys on horses or by helicopter from thousands of hectares of land around the Kimberley area. In the dry season across the Kimberley, the grasslands were quite poor for fattening cows prior to them going to the market, so the cattle were brought to the feedlots and fed well before they were shipped to the slaughter house.
On the station the cowboys used to work the feedlots and the cattle station whilst the farm hands used to work the irrigation farm. There was often a little friction between the two groups. Every so often though there would be rodeo practise or a rodeo held at the feedlot and although I wasn’t a very good rodeo rider I used to give it a go. I never did manage to stay on a bull or a horse for the allotted 8 seconds!
I found the work and the area to be very interesting and with my position as the Assistant Manager I had a company vehicle and I got to spend a lot of time hunting and fishing with the Aboriginals. It was a regular thing to be driving along a track with an Aborigine on the back of the ute and then hear a shout to stop. They would jump off and then chase down a big goanna (lizard). When we went fishing they would catch a Sawfish bigger than themselves and this was in the river 80 kilometres from the ocean. It was just great to think back to those times as I cycled along.
Once across the Texan border into New Mexico, the ‘Land of Enchantment’ I rang Budget Rental again and after giving me a hard time, he agreed to give me the money back. I was happy but by the time I checked my visa statement several weeks later, nothing had been refunded. The manager had lied.
I cycled to an information centre in the small town of Texico and caught an elderly couple kissing in the car park. It was a great sight but they were a little embarrassed when they saw me. We started chatting and they gave me a beer, a sandwich, cheese and some biscuits. Buddy and Bev were from Iowa on a trip to Roswell to visit the UFO museum and then they were to visit Albuquerque and a submarine conference. Albuquerque is the biggest city in New Mexico, but Santa Fe is the capital.
Bev wrote to Jenny to tell her how we met…….October 9, 1998
We were approaching the border of New Mexico when we saw this person on a bicycle. It was amazing that anyone could be out in such heat – let alone pumping a bicycle laden down with all sorts of camping equipment! It was 108 in the shade! We decided to stop at the information centre to ask a few questions about the things we had observed along the way – crops, cattle feeding stations, etc. After we set up our table for a picnic noon lunch, here he comes. Parked his bike, took a swig of water and wiped his brow. Naturally we struck up a conversation. After a few words we could tell he had an accent and, upon asking, found out he hailed from Australia. He and Buddy really hit it off and the question / answer session began. Where was he from? Where did Buddy operate during WW11? What is it like now? On and on… it was just a super time! This man had walked the Appalachian Trail, kayaked the Mississippi and was in the process of biking around America. He had done so much more in Australia as well. He is quite a fellow.
He hadn’t heard of the UFO history and would have made the side trip had there been stopping places for him to get water. So, as we left, we gave him homemade cookies, a meat sandwich and a beer. We have had a super trip but it was made special when we met your Terry. May God bless and keep you is our prayer. Best regards Bud & Bev Dunn.
The country further west was pretty featureless. The only excitement of the day was seeing several trains pulling a long line of carriages. They stopped, started and let each other pass. It was a busy rail line for freight and at times the sparse landscape echoed only with the sound of train horns.
Before Fort Summer I passed a sign saying ‘Billy the Kid’s grave.’ If I had been in a car I just might have diverted, but I wasn’t as keen to divert on my bike. There used to be an old town and fort nearby where Billy the Kid was buried, but floods wiped it out so the town of Fort Summer moved to its present location. As I dipped down into the Pecos River Valley, with green fields and cattle, the small town of Fort Summer was awaiting. I booked into the Billy the Kid Motel for $20.00. The owners were very friendly and offered me coffee. After I had cooked dinner I relaxed and read a bit about Billy the Kid and watched three Charles Bronson movies.
It was said that Billy the Kid was born in the slums of New York in 1859. After the death of his father, he headed west with his mother ending up at Silver City in New Mexico Territory in 1873. He moved to Lincoln County, New Mexico in 1877 using the name William Bonney. Lincoln County was in a state of near anarchy. The local native Apache had recently been subdued and the local cattlemen divided themselves into two camps to fight for local power. Unfortunately Billy the Kid had aligned himself to the losing side. Billy worked as a ranch hand for John Tunstall a leader of one faction seeking control of the county. Tunstall befriended the Kid and in many ways acted as his mentor and surrogate father but Tunstall was ambushed and murdered in 1878 by a sheriff’s posse which set the Kid on a path of revenge. Billy’s first victims were the sheriff and his deputy, putting Billy on the run for two years. When he was eventually caught two years later he was convicted and returned to Lincoln to hang for the two murders.
On the evening of April 28th 1881, as he was being returned to his cell, the Kid made a mad dash, grabbed a six shooter and shot his guard. A second guard ran from across the street only to be gunned down by the Kid. Mounting a horse, Billy (William Bonney) galloped out of town and into history.
Pat Garrett, elected sheriff of Lincoln County at the time, was away on county business when the kid escaped. Later he received word that the Kid was hiding out at the abandoned Fort Summer about 140 miles west of Lincoln. The sheriff and two deputies rode out to Fort Summer and subsequently Billy the Kid was shot.
Wednesday 2nd September
I had another late night, this time due to watching videos. The Pecos River on the outskirts of town was running, but it wasn’t very wide or deep. I had 57 miles to ride against a headwind to reach Vaughn where I would find my next water stop. The scenery was pretty flat at first, changing to rolling hills, some of which were quite demanding. A fence line ran for much of the way on each side of the road. There were a few cattle and sheep and the odd house standing well back from the road. There were few cars and considering there was no shoulder on the road, that made me happy as cycling was safer.
I took shelter from the sun and 90 degree heat beside a wall of the derelict post office in Yeso. All but four of the buildings in Yeso were abandoned. The two year old post office across the road only serviced five families around town and seven families in the immediate area. It must have cost a lot to keep it going, but it was only open in the morning, so I took the opportunity to post some post cards to the Snowgum staff. I wanted to lie down in the shade, but I needed to keep going as I had only cycled 23 miles.
It seemed a long way to Vaughn, the road was quite hilly and I ran out of ice about 18 miles from town so I was exhausted. When I saw a sign to Rosswell I became angry at myself for not taking the longer route to Socorro via Roswell to visit the UFO museum. Although I wasn’t interested in UFOs I had been thinking about what Harry and Bev had told me. The alleged incident which occurred in 1947 and the recovery of extra-terrestrial debris, including alien corpses from an object that crashed near Roswell. Now I wanted to see what Rosswell was like but it was too late now, as I would have to backtrack to get there.
Not only was Roswell famous for the UFOs but John Denver was born there in 1943. He was born Henry John Deutschendorf and he released around 300 songs, of which about 200 were composed by him. I would often sing, ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ or ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’, as I was cycling or kayaking along. Sadly John Denver died on October 12th 1997 when his experimental Long EZ plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Pacific Grove, California.
I stopped at a service station to get water. There were several little signs dotted all around the inside of the shop, with messages such as, “Don’t open the fridge until you have chosen” and so on. The service station was a bit of a life saver as the heat had drained me and now I was able to buy ice and other goodies to cool me down and pick me up. Vaughn was far from inspiring though, with many derelict houses and cheap looking motels.
I moved on, later stopping at a service station at Encino where there were more derelict houses and where they were making a new 4 lane highway to transport nuclear waste through the area. The day was still so hot. I bought a light beer and a packet of crisps, which I fancied.
Before leaving I talked to a couple of deer hunters who were dressed in camouflage gear. They were proud to be hunters and were eager to buy some beer and get back out there to do some more hunting. I left and kept cycling until the sun had gone down and I had completed 95 miles for the day. Here deer roamed the countryside but I could see nothing of the hunters, thank God. I found a place to camp at an isolated spot on an old dirt track near a railway line. It was near dark as I erected my tent. The ground was rock-hard so I needed a rock to bang in the pegs. I went searching for one along the dirt track. Within 6 paces I heard the sound of a rattle which instantly stopped me. I hadn’t heard the noise before, but I felt that something was amiss. I froze and only one pace away I could see the outline of a rattlesnake rear up and it was ready to strike. I took two paces backwards and then peered more closely at the reptile, its tail rattling like a baby’s rattle. I was in my sandals, not the best combination to wear when meeting a rattlesnake. I wasn’t at all concerned; in fact I couldn’t believe my luck. I now had seen my first rattlesnake. Most people don’t want to see snakes, bears or crocodiles so closely, but for me I just love to see them. I returned for my torch and camera and then went back and stood close to the snake and took photos. The frightening sound of the rattle continued. I left it to slither away hoping it wouldn’t try to get into my tent in the night. There was a slight moon, a wisp of cloud and the air was cool. I wisely wrote my diary inside my tent.
Thursday 3rd September
At times in the night I felt as if I had camped on top of the train tracks. The train’s horn bellowed throughout the night sending panic through my sleepy body. My morning toilet ritual was a little more interesting, knowing that rattlesnakes inhabited this desolate area. I looked carefully and rustled bushes to warn the snake I was walking around and about to squat. When I heard no rattle back I took to opportunity to drop my pants.
Before the community of Willard, small beautiful salt lakes reflected incredible images of the surrounding landscape. Only metres away along the gravel edges, rubbish thrown and left by passing motorists created a different image and an eyesore for those who appreciated the beauty of the country. I stopped at an old service station store in Willard which was another crumbling town in the middle of nowhere. The lady owner was from California and had moved to Willard to get away from the rat race. She certainly did that. She was new to the grocery business, although I don’t think it was difficult to sell a few dollars of groceries a day. She said she loved it there, the wild flowers were beautiful in season, the desert, the insects and the people were great, she said. She was a rugged looking sixty year old. The shop had no ice facilities so I had no cold water to help me on my way.
Low mountains began to appear as I approached the town of Mountainaire, yet another town with several derelict houses, but surprisingly with a new information centre/museum. The hills and heat increased but once I reached the top of the range I had a great ride down to the plains near the Rio Grande River. As the road levelled I passed a number of 5 acre blocks that were more like vehicle junk yards, rather than people’s homes.
I crossed the Rio Grande, a wide, sandy, shallow river which was barely flowing. At this point it didn’t live up to my expectations. I thought the Rio Grande was supposed to be a great river but it looked very ordinary here. The Rio Grande at 1,900 miles (3000kms) long starts its southern journey in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and heads further south through Albuquerque, New Mexico, and passes the point that I’d been standing and then enters Texas at El Pasa. From there on it forms the border between Texas and Mexico and flows out into the Gulf of Mexico at Brownsville. Irrigators have taken water from sections of the river which, although beautiful in many parts, isn’t the river it used to be.
A little further, just before the freeway I replenished with ice and junk food at a very clean store but with one grumpy owner. At this point there was no other road that I could cycle on, other than the freeway, so I had no option but to take it south to Socorro. Bicycles weren’t allowed on freeways but with no other road I had no choice. Still I was hoping no police would come by. I was cycling into a headwind, and the freeway shoulder had raised cracks every few metres, so I had a difficult and bumpy ride. Only one car blew its horn before I found a frontage road that I could cycle on that ran parallel with the freeway. Once I was on the frontage road, I found it zigzagged, which at times caused me to come to dead ends, and at others to take off in the wrong direction. Keeping to the old road led me around the town of Socorro and into a light industrial area. In front of one warehouse there was a large rattlesnake sculpture. After my close encounter with one a few days earlier I was more interested in the sculpture than I would usually have been. After moving through a more exclusive area with a golf course, a university complex and newer, bigger housing, I found a motel in town for $21 plus tax. It was a double room and it had a bath so I soaked my aching thigh muscles. It had been a hot, hard 100 mile day. I had tea at Taco Bell and then went food shopping.
Friday 4th September
I was becoming addicted to the news and TV whenever I visited a motel. Bill Clinton was in Ireland, a plane had crashed and politicians were involved in more scandals. Watching the news however delayed my progress in the morning as it was hard to rush. I stopped at a supermarket just up from the motel for cheese spread and a phone card. The car park outside the supermarket was full of rubbish that looked as if it had been there for months as it was well faded. All it needed was for a staff member to take 10 minutes to sweep it up and make the place look half respectable.
Once out of town the road started climbing gradually and became steeper near a gorge that was worth a stop to photograph. The climb was slow, but my pace quickened after the road levelled, and the wind blew on my back. It was cloudy and not so hot. I had lunch at Magdalena where I sat outside a shop eating cheese spread rolls and being annoyed by two screaming kids. Eventually I had to move to the cafe where it was quieter and where they had 50 cent ice creams!
The road continued to be hilly with high winds now against me. Eventually I hit the plains of San Agustin where I could see several large white satellite dishes in the distance. Time dragged, but eventually I reached the middle of a grand plain which was scattered with the huge dishes. It was quite a sight.
I paused at an information board and had a snack. A Polish brother and sister gave me coffee and six overripe bananas. I already had some but it didn’t hurt to have more. The plain was like a billiard table with mountains surrounding it. I was surrounded by satellite dishes at the Radio Astronomy Observatory ULA Telescope. This was one of the world’s most important observatory sites. Many of the 27 dishes, which measured 25 metres were in a line. Each weighed 230 tons, and together comprised a very powerful single radio telescope.
Radio Astronomy Observatory ULA Telescope
I cycled on and reached the locality of Datil which was only a few miles away on the edge of the plain and in the hills of the Datil Mountains. I took the opportunity to ring Elaine and then took off to a great campground 2 miles away. The warden and his wife lived in a caravan for the short summer season. They invited me in for a beer and a chat and told me the camp ground was 7500ft above sea level and it felt as if it was, as there was a definite chill in the air. As I moved back to my tent the moon was breaking through the clouds.
Across the divide
Sat 5th September
It was a cool but beautiful morning. The countryside was green and hilly with rocky outcrops and pine trees. It was as if I was leaving the desert areas and cycling into country much more scenic and alive. The road continued to climb from a pass to where the trees thinned and to where I could see the beautiful Datil Mountain Range to my right and Mt Alegros 10244ft above sea level, to my left. The road verges were carpeted with wildflowers and ahead of me lay the Continental Divide. I imagined it being a big mountain range, but instead a sign stood aloft a nondescript hill. I was 7796 ft high at that point. It was here that the water sheds to the east or the west of the continent.
I started to descend and it wasn’t long before I arrived in Pie Town. For the last day I had been thinking about eating a beautiful home-made meat pie. The luscious juices, the tender meat, the crusty pastry, what more could I want to drive me on? Pie Town was a very small community. So small, if I had blinked for more than 5 seconds I could have passed it, and that was on my bike! The old store was sparse of groceries and to my dismay the pies were actually sweet pies and not meat pies. Feeling a little let down, and with the cost of the sweet pies being $2.20 I bought a coke instead and devoured my own food at the nearby picnic table. I was so looking forward to a good old meat pie, my day had been shattered and my taste buds were left wanting. Now I had nothing nice to drive me on to my next town!
The country around and beyond Quemado was quite beautiful and hilly with yellow flowers covering most of the countryside. It had an interesting looking church, several cafes and a phone. It was here that I tried for the tenth time to book a bed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They had a very long message giving out different options and after so much waiting I often hung up. I hate when messages are left and I can’t talk to a person. In Quemado I met up with four other cyclists from Tucson who were a weekend trip. Meeting other cyclists had been a rarity on my journey. They were on a weekend trip.
Back out on the open road and after a 3 mile hill climb, I met up with an old wagon being pulled by three mules. The driver looked like a rag and bone man, and his wagon was in desperate need of patching up. He had items hanging off it, clattering around. The man whipped the mules to get them to go a little faster up the hill. A rainstorm had just passed over so the road was wet and the air had a beautiful fresh smell about it. In a way I felt that I had something in common with this traveller as we were both free to go where we please and to live on the road and camp wherever we chose.
The hills and the wind continued to stretch my physical capabilities. I crossed the Arizona State Line and a few miles later reached a point where the road dropped off the escarpment into the town of Springerville. It was a stunning sight. In town there were several motels and a Taco Bell, which I was getting fond of visiting, but I passed them by and headed towards a $12 camping ground out of town, completing another one hundred mile day.
Sunday 6th September
I rang Jenny four times within a two hour period and each time the phone was engaged. I then rang the wrong number and got a sleepy old man, but just as I was about to leave the phone box and face another day I dialled the number once more, and this time Jenny answered. She was missing me and she was lonely and she wanted me back. The time we spent together touring around had spoiled her but I still had two more months to go before I would see her again.
The hills came back pretty quickly. Away from the road the hills were golden, dry and grassy. As I trundled on, in low gear, up a very steep hill a car tooted twice and then stopped at the side of the road near the top the hill. Was it another keen cyclist, an adventurer or someone I knew! It wasn’t any of those, it was a solid looking black Afro American women. She started talking to me as I pedalled closer. I stopped and she wanted to know where I had come from and where I was going. “Would you like a sandwich and a drink?” she asked as she opened up her esky. Then she said, ‘I’ve just been visiting my husband in jail.’
“Are you married,” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. “You shouldn’t leave your wife at home all this time, things can happen, you know. A woman gets lonely and needs a hug and a bit of this and that, you know what I mean. You should go back soon to make sure she hasn’t done things she shouldn’t.”
I suppose with her husband in jail, she had been experiencing a life of being alone, so after hearing what she said, I imagined that she had been playing up. Was she trying to hint to me that she was waiting for someone to come along? I kept well away from the subject, it’s not what I had in mind. We talked for some time. She was a big lady, her name was Fay and she lived this side of Phoenix. After a while I said I’d better get going and she kindly gave me some ice to keep my drink cool. I left her to finish her lunch and I continued tackling the hill.
Since leaving New Orleans, Joey had given me a solid insulated water bottle that I could add ice to. It meant that I had cold water for some time. I kept it accessible in my handlebar bag and filled it up at every opportunity.
Many cars and several minutes had gone by before Fay flew passed me with a toot on her horn on a downhill stretch. I waved and climbed another hill which was 7550 feet high. After climbing so many hills I was becoming acclimatised to the altitude and with every hill I was getting physically stronger.
The town of Show Low came into view as I climbed to the crest of a hill, and soon after a huge McDonald’s billboard was advertising Big Macs for 99c. I just couldn’t wait to get there and my legs pushed that little bit harder. As I was being served an extremely good looking blonde women started talking to me and taking an interest in my journey. I eventually sat down and ate two big Macs, 2 apple pies, an ice cream, and drank a medium drink and two refills. When I finished my meal I joined the lady and several single parents outside. They were all from Phoenix. One woman had been to Australia four times because she worked for a travel agency. We had a real good natter and I was sorry to leave them. I had been short on conversation just lately, so it was welcome.
I stopped at the Safeway supermarket for bananas, apples and bagels and then cycled on, soon turning off Highway 60 and onto the 260. There were lots of cars because it was the Labor Day long weekend. I was taking the minor roads because the direct route to Flagstaff was a freeway and I wanted to travel through more interesting country. It wasn’t long before I was heading into the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest and as night was drawing in I climbed out of the limestone gorge of Heber and started looking for a camp spot. Three miles further at the top of the hill, where three motorbikes were stopped because one had broken down, I followed a gravel track until I was far enough away from the road not to be seen. A few cars were using the track so I walked with my bike into the scrub trying to avoid getting a puncture. Many of the trees and bushes around were dying. The soil was soft with recent rains. Imprints of elk’s hoofs were embedded in the soil and big black ants ruled the land, so I had to be very careful where I erected my tent. There was a little cloud cover which made it warmer than the previous evenings, and a moon that desperately tried to filter through the clouds. When I decided to retire a huge storm, thunder, lightning, rain, the works ripped through the area. I was sheltered from the strong wind by the scrubby trees. It felt real cosy being inside my tent as the storm lashed. The rain was so heavy my tent seeped a little water through a seam, but it created no problem. Being back in the forest and in bear country I hung my food from a tree just in case.
Monday 7th September Labor Day
I was in Black Canyon Country just outside the town of Heber. I had slept well despite the storm. With the ground being sodden I couldn’t put anything down or it would get wet. The ants were circling me like red Indians on a warpath. The scrub was a lot like areas in Western Australia’s mid-west. A service station near the road junction lured me in. It was virtually impossible to ride past a service station when out of town, as I was becoming accustomed to iced honey buns and small brownie fruit cakes, so it was no surprise that I left it with a few filling my handle bar bag. Nearby, a big sign said, ‘Watch for Elk’ – and a slogan – “to see an elk is a thrill, slow down or it may crash onto your grill,” or something similar to that.
The hills continued and slowed me, but it was the road-works beyond Forest Lakes that slowed me more. It was single file and with a 2 foot drop close to my right. Some of the traffic that passed got too close and nearly forced me over the drop. An impatient ute driver came up from behind blowing his horn and he then drove around me and purposely tried to force me into the ditch. Luckily I was able to control my bike. He laughed and kept going. I just felt like crashing into the ditch to give him the satisfaction.
I kept climbing, eventually reaching the top of the Mogollon Rim, another high point along my way. From here there was a long fairly steep downhill run with scenic views to Christopher Creek. The traffic and an uneven road verge prevented me from letting the bike run wild down the hill. After all the effort climbing, the downhill runs seemed so short.
There was a bit of a market at Christopher Creek. I stopped at the local store for an ice cream and coke. An old lady walked towards the store, her ankles were thinner than my wrists, she had a fag sticking out of her mouth, and she walked as if she was going to peg out at any time. An image of her falling over in the parking lot, legs and arms high in the air stiff as a board, with a fag still burning, flashed through my mind.
Although it was still hilly, I was descending gradually to 5000 feet. The temperature started warming at the town of Payton. McDonald’s were selling Big Macs for 99 cents, so I just had to have two hamburgers with as much drink as I could take in. I didn’t complain, it’s rare to get a big dinner for under $3.00. At Wal-Mart, coke was being sold for 25 cents a bottle, so I bought two bottles, filled my container with ice and poured them in. Payton was quite a tidy modern town compared with many other towns that I had been through lately.
I started a big climb, crossed the Verde River and gorge and headed back up to 7500 feet. Cactus grew on the hillsides. The scenery was welcome but the hard work often had me wishing for America to be flat. The hills opened up giving me great views over ‘The Rim’ just before the locality of Pine. Then the road dived again and rose steeply after a beautiful village. Just after the top of the rise I found a walker’s car park that was slightly out of view of the road and I camped next to a fence. It was 6.40pm and an early stop. The sun set at 7.50pm.
Tuesday 8th September
The hills never waned but the forests were less wooded, so it was interesting being able to peer further inside them. I stopped at Long Valley Township which boasted of having the second smallest post office in the U.S. which was within a service station complex. It was so small you could only fit about three people inside. The people were very friendly, gave me some cycling stamps and were interested to chat. An old big dog sat in the doorway and virtually blocked it.
Two hunters in a pickup truck wearing camouflage gear were filling up as I left. I turned left onto the Flagstaff road and started climbing a hill, passed an upmarket RV Park and watched a snake slither across the road. A little further a number of deer ran and jumped away when they saw me.
Buck Mountain at 7590 feet was to my left, just before the locality of Happy Jack which was suddenly under siege from a big storm. I put my rain jacket on and tried to shelter from the heavy rain. The thunder and lightning was right overhead. The storm swept in with a vengeance and I was caught out in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere to hide or shelter apart from under the trees. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to be under the shade of a tree, as trees are frequent conductors of electricity. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen as I had chosen a small bushy tree and the rain was so heavy in the open, that it was stinging. The thunder continued to be deafening.
When the rain eased a little I cycled on and as I was continuously climbing over 7000 feet with many much higher mountains around me, the cold crept in. At last I started descending towards Mormon Lake where I thought there was a service station but there was nothing but the lake and another hill to climb. I was wet and cold so at the Upper Mary Lake I ate a jam bagel. I was hoping that the last few miles into Flagstaff would be all downhill but it wasn’t to be, it was only the last few miles that became a downhill ride.
Flagstaff created more traffic than any other town that I had cycled through for a long time. Flagstaff was the highest point of the historic Route 66, which was established in 1876 and covered two thousand miles between Chicago and Los Angeles. Many tourists still follow the historic route from start to finish. It was a busy town and because I had driven through it previously I knew my way to the Mountain Sports Outdoor Store where I would pick up my pack and walking gear that I had left there when I drove through with Jenny.
As I was leaving to find somewhere to stay, a cyclist came along and asked me where I was going. I told him I needed to find a hostel. “Follow me,” he said, as he took off on his bike, like he had a rocket up his backside. He flew across the University grounds with me in full pursuit. Pedestrians didn’t seem a problem to him, he wound his way through them as if he was in some sort of serious slalom competition. He then waited till I caught up. I did have a 25kg pack on my back, as well as all my panniers so weaving and accelerating was not that easy. We came to a red stop light, but he didn’t stop, just raced through with his front wheel riding high off the ground. What a nutter! This guy was really on a high and being splattered by a car didn’t seem to faze him. He must be a climber or snowboarder and I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t jump out of planes without a parachute as his day job. I stopped and waited for the traffic to pass. It wasn’t one of my thrill seeking days. We took short cuts through back alleys and used every pavement to go against the traffic, but I managed to get there without incident.
Once at the hostel my guide said goodbye and took off like a lunatic and without telling me his name. No wonder car drivers get annoyed with cyclists. Doing what he did not only put his own life at risk but it also put other people’s life at risk. It’s hard to understand why cyclists blatantly break the law and cause chaos and yet can see no harm in it!
The hostel was $15.00 with breakfast, which was pretty cheap. I talked to other travellers until 1.00am, retired to bed but didn’t sleep too well in a soft bed and a stuffy room.