What's this then?

This is a journal (aka "blog") that I'm keeping while on the road on my motorcycle from Vancouver to Toronto, via the southern US states (including California, Texas, Arkansas and, hopefully, Florida) so that interested friends and relatives can track my progress. But hopefully it will be an interesting read too as I record impressions and experiences from my trip.

Journal Entries

Tuesday, May 20, 2003
Toronto, Ontario

Well, I got safely to Toronto on Friday evening, so I should write this final journal entry before I forget the details.

Friday was a long day. I left Charleston at around 10 in the morning and got into Toronto at around 9 pm. The drive north through the Appalachians went through pretty, late spring scenery. After skirting the western outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which looked quite scenic despite its reputation as the Steel City, I got caught in rain which continued on and off to Toronto. East of the city of Erie, en route to Buffalo, New York along the southern shore of Lake Erie, I fought a strong, gusty southern wind that really bounced me between the lanes. Getting into Buffalo the rain turned into a downpour and after extracting one last toll from me to cross the Peace Bridge into Canada, my long journey through the U.S. was over. Given the weather it was something of an anti-climax, and seeing the foggy, bleak mid-spring southern Ontario landscape made me think more than once of turning around and heading back to Florida. But I pulled off at the first Tim Hortons I saw and ordered a medium double-double coffee, which warmed me up somewhat for the final leg to Toronto and provided some consolation for having returned to Canada.

When I finally got to Toronto it was in a driving rain, just as when I left Vancouver. Given the late spring in Ontario, even the trees are in the same stage of budding as they were five weeks ago when I left BC. If nothing else, the less than warm Ontario welcome was ample validation of my decision to go via the southern States.

Some final statistics:






Dates on the road:April 15 - May 16, 2003
Total distance travelled through U.S.:13,500 km
Speeding tickets:0 ;)
Breakdowns:0 (Go Honda!)
Longest day's ride:1100 km (New Orleans, Louisiana, to Clearwater, Florida)
States travelled through:Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York




Friday, May 16, 2003
(Written on Thursday, May 15)

Charleston, West Virginia

Yesterday morning I spent about an hour exploring the "Castillo do San Marcos National Monument", the fort that the Spanish built to defend St. Augustine from attack. It is well preserved and maintained and the displays inside gave a good overview of the history of the fort and the role it played in the Spanish and English colonization of North America. But I thought the $5 admission was a tad high.

After that I made my way north from St. Augustine on I-95 to southern North Carolina where I stayed with friends from the days when I was at Sakeji School in Zambia. Taking the interstate the whole way was dull, but I made reasonably good time.

This morning I decided to leave behind the tedium of I-95 and headed north-west to the Appalachians. In almost perfect symmetry to the beginning of my trip, it started raining (the first rain I'd seen since leaving Arkansas) and I was dodging thunder showers as I climbed the foothills of the Appalachians. Between the heavy showers and low hanging cloud I caught glimpses of some very pretty scenery, and was able to lean the bike into quite a few curves, although not quite as fast as I might have wanted to, given the wet roads. Even the interstate that I took here to Charleston, I-77, was scenic, tunnelling twice through mountains and giving good views of the famously rolling woods of Appalachia. Just south of Charleston I passed a couple of large coal mines, brightly lit up as if to brashly advertising the energy that coal produces, despite its dirty reputations. It's clear that the Appalachians are worthy of further exploration. Hopefully I'll have time over the summer.

As to the weather, it was too hot to wear my leather jacket from New Orleans through Miami, but I put it on by the time I reached St. Augustine and this evening I had to put the fleece on underneath it to stay warm in the rain. While the temperature was in the mid 30's in Miami and the Florida Keys, I see that the forecast for Toronto doesn't call for anything above 20 degrees for the foreseeable future. But no doubt I will be complaining about the heat when it arrives there too...

I hope that I'll be able to make it to Toronto by tomorrow evening. It's fitting that this, hopefully my last journal entry on the road, is written from a cheap motel right next to the interstate where I can hear trucks, laden with goods for the biggest consumer market in history, growl as they gear down and the whishing tires of the vehicles of my fellow travellers as they continue their journeys to destinations unknown to me. I think it's fair to say that, more than any other country, roads, and what they make possible--suburbs, RV's, big-box stores, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, McDonalds and its myriad imitators and competitors--and what they can help destroy--community, distance, history, individuality--have made and help to define what the modern USA is. (Cheap gas helps too.) Canada is really too big and relatively under-populated for roads to have had the same impact on the national psyche (its cities are too far-flung for the roads to be much more than bridges between isolated islands) but here in the U.S. there is always the promise that something better can be found (and something else left behind...) at the end of an easy day's drive.


Wednesday, May 14, 2003
(Written on Tuesday, May 13)

St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine is the oldest city in the U.S., having being founded by the Spanish in 1565. It's refreshingly civilized and very picturesque makes one wonder what this part of the States would have become had it stayed in Spanish (or French) hands. I'm staying at the Pirate Haus Inn and Hostel which is very nicely appointed and only a block away from the central square of historic St. Augustine. Highly recommended.

I left Miami at lunchtime today, making good time on the fast but dull interstate I-95, taking a detour into Daytona Beach for supper. Daytona Beach was underwhelming: mile after mile of high-rise hotels cutting off the beach. My preference is definitely for Clearwater Beach.

To fill in since my last entry: I left Homestead for Key West on Saturday morning, taking my time and getting there at around 1 p.m. The ride there was very worthwhile, with lots of great views of the famously azure Caribbean water from the bridges between the different keys. One of the first things I noticed is that Key West is infested by packs of tourists buzzing around on rented scooters. And many of them appear to be suffering from sun-stroke, judging by the antics that they get up to. I saw at least two twits talking on cell-phones while riding their scooters. Another guy seemed to think he was on a dirt-bike and was jumping the curbs. Needless to say, none of them were wearing helmets since Florida has no helmet law. Otherwise there wasn't that much that interested me in Key West, since the downtown is a typical tourist-trap. But I did get my picture taken at the official southernmost point in the continental U.S.

I had signed up for a sunset snorkelling cruise on a catamaran which was fun (not least because the cat was also a licensed bar), if a little crowded. It took about an hour to get to the reef, then they gave us an hour to snorkel over the reef. I've been spoiled by snorkelling and scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia which was a lot more colourful than the one at Key West (although in fairness, the reef is apparently better closer to the Florida mainland nearer Key Largo) but I did see a fair number of tropical fish around the reef and was especially lucky to see a sea-turtle, which I was able to follow for a few minutes as it meandered around the reef.

I was chatting with an English fellow at the hostel in Key West when another guy walked in completely covered in silver body paint. I'd seen guys like him in Sydney, Australia, who are street-performers that freeze into statue-like poses. Apparently that's what this guy does for a living, and he was living at the hostel. After scrubbing off the paint in the shower, he cursed bitterly at the hot, humid weather in the Keys (and it was well into the 30's) and talked about moving his act to California. What a life!

I left Key West on Sunday for Miami where I stayed with Ben Jacob, whom I had met at Christmas in Vancouver where he was visiting his parents. (A word to the wise: Miami drivers are bad, probably even worse than the ones in New Orleans.) Yesterday morning Ben, with another friend of his, gave me a tour of Miami's famous South Beach district, one of the most exclusive areas in the U.S. I'd say that the beach itself is overrated (too wide and no palm trees for shade) but I suppose the point is go there to see and be seen.

Yesterday afternoon I went to the Everglades Alligator Farm, which is about half an hour south of Miami (in Homestead, where I stayed on Friday night). It was good, clean fun and very much worth the price of admission. They had an alligator show where two young college-age fellows gave the usual biology class spiel on alligators, whilst they harassed two largish (6 - 8 ft.) alligators in the enclosure with them by dragging them by their tales and demonstrating how the Seminole Indians captured wild alligators (jump on their back and lift up their snout). The gators were surprisingly passive. (Crocodiles are much more aggressive, although I was told to bet on the alligator in an alligator-crocodile fight since alligators have shorter, much stronger jaws.) I also learned the interesting factoid that alligator brains are apparently the size of a peanut (which is probably about the same size as the brain of the guy in Key West talking on his cell-phone while riding his scooter). After the alligator show we were treated to a ride in an airboat, so called because instead of the usual submersed boat propeller it is driven by a big, loud airplane-like propeller, thus needing only 4 inches of water. After starting slowly so as to be able to spot wild gators, we were given a high-speed tour through the water channels of the everglade, complete with a couple of 360 degree spins. Good fun. Since the everglade was covered in grass and small trees except in the channels that the boat had worn, looking away from the boat it was almost as if we were driving through African grassland. Or maybe that's just me.


Friday, May 09, 2003
Homestead, Florida

Leaving Clearwater late this morning, I got here at around 5 p.m. and decided that rather than continuing and riding along the Keys into the setting sun, I'd stay in a motel and continue to Key West tomorrow morning. The town of Homestead is more substantial than its name might suggest; it's the southernmost town in Florida and is about halfway between Miami and Key Largo, the first of the Florida Keys.

The ride today was uneventful, but hot, with the temperatures into the mid 30's C. I took the interstate south then came east along a smaller highway that skirts the top of Everglades National Park. I saw a couple of relatively small alligators in a pond at a rest stop. Although I suppose they'd have looked bigger if I was in the water with them...

Incidentally, today is the day that I passed the 10,000 km mark since leaving Vancouver. I can be thankful that so far, apart from the nail my tire picked up in San Francisco, I've had no problems with the motorcycle, and the weather has been good, especially considering that some of the states I rode through have been hit by tornadoes in the past couple of days. So thanks for the prayers!


Clearwater Beach, Florida

I thought earlier that the over 900 km I covered in one day from El Paso to San Antonio would be the longest day of my trip, but I was wrong: on Wednesday I rode just over 1100 km from New Orleans to here in Clearwater, Florida. At least the scenery wasn't as monotonous as the desert of western Texas. I rode parallel to the beach on Mississippi's Gulf coast for a while before rejoining the interstate at Biloxi, and from there through Mobile, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle then down through Tampa, which is about half an hour north of Clearwater.

The hostel here in Clearwater is part of a motel which has a pool and is just two blocks from the beach. Now I see why Florida is a haven for sun-seeking Canadian snowbirds. The beach is soft white sand and the water temperature was perfect. The air temperature gets up to around 30 C during the day and is humid, but the breeze from the Gulf of Mexico is cooling. Yesterday I just relaxed after the tiring trip on Wednesday, doing some chores (laundry and shopping), attended to emails, went to the beach and rode the length of Clearwater Beach, which is a spit of land just off the Florida mainland.

To backtrack to the day I spent in New Orleans. Going by the brochures at the hostel, there seemed to be a lot of emphasis on various tours to New Orleans' cemeteries, and mumbo-jumbo about voodoo and various ghosts said to inhabit the city and environs. I decided to opt out and after a quick ride through the French Quarter I rode south east of the city to the southernmost point in Louisiana, along a rode that paralleled the Mississippi before draining into the Gulf of Mexico. Towards the end it was as if the road had been dropped onto the swamp as the water came right to the edge of the road, and in a couple of places the road was partially submerged. It was obviously an incredibly rich wetland with herons every couple of hundred feet and water-flowers and trees coming out of the water. If only I had had a boat to explore it further... After reaching the end of the road, and having my picture taken by a fellow tourist to prove I had made it, I turned and returned to New Orleans. I stopped briefly at the somewhat bedraggled Fort Jackson, the counterpart to Vicksburg and conquered by Union forces during the Civil War enabling them to control the mouth of the Mississippi.

Today I'm planning on going south to the southern tip of the Florida mainland then across the Florida Keys to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental U.S.


(Written on Monday, May 5)

New Orleans, Louisiana

I'm writing this at the youth hostel here in New Orleans. It's actually a complex of three or four buildings. Too big for my taste, but fairly centrally located. Anyway, I have some catching up to do.

After saying goodbye to my cousin Kyle last Friday morning, I did the short drive down to Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas. Stopping by the visitor centre I chatted for a while with one of the volunteers there. I asked him about the Bill Clinton Library (properly the "William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park") which he pointed out to me. It is still under construction on the banks of the Arkansas River, and, according to Lloyd, a penthouse for Clinton (aka "Slick Willy") is being built on top of the centre. I can't comment on the truth that Hillary's apartment is separate. Anyway, I took a couple of pictures of the work in progress for posterity. From the visitor centre I went down to the nearby river-front pavilion which was quite rowdy as seemingly every elementary school and special-ed class in Little Rock was down there. But they were appreciative of my motorcycle so all was forgiven. It was a pleasant enough place to have lunch on the banks of the river. A five minute walk away was the Historical Museum of Arkansas. The actual museum itself was nothing to write home about (dedicating an entire room to the origin and evolution of the Bowie knife in frontier Arkansas) but outside there was a restoration of one of the first compounds in the community of Little Rock of which I was given a personally guided tour. At one point my tour guide was able to take a break and watched as I interacted as best I could (I played the part of an abolitionist from Canada) with a young black actor playing the role of the often-escaping printer's slave Henry. I've been quite surprised at the various museums at how frankly slavery in the South is recognised. After the museum I made a quick visit to the still-functioning Little Rock Central High School which became famous in the late 50's as the first high-school in Little Rock to be integrated (previously all schools had been either black or white). Architecturally the school is imposing, so it's not surprising it became such a powerful symbol of the civil rights era.

From Little Rock I took the interstate, dropping down for a while to a quieter, parallel highway, to Memphis, Tennessee, getting there at about 7 p.m. While there I stayed with a friend of mine from Ontario. Of course everyone knows that the must-see attraction in Memphis is Graceland, where The King himself, Elvis Presley, lived and died, so Dave and I went there on Saturday. After forking over US$16.25 for the basic guided tour, we lined up for the minibus that would take us across the road to Graceland Mansion and checked that our audio tour guide machines worked, all the while being treated to classic Elvis caterwauling over the loudspeakers. Graceland Mansion itself was quite remarkable as probably the most bizarrely decorated house I have ever seen. Mirrored staircases (yielding the perennial favourite infinite reflections effect), green shag carpet on the walls and ceiling of the "Jungle Room", an early 70's time-warp. The tour guide machine intoned gravely that, since it had been his private quarters while he was alive, the upstairs of the mansion was still off-limits "out of respect", which seemed a little disingenuous given the kitsch on sale in the many gift shops (Elvis food seasoning, "As original as the man himself"). Anyway, the tour continued through various out-buildings and past myriad awards, costumes and the detritus accumulated by Elvis before his untimely death at the age of 42 from "heart failure". Yes, I expect that that is what a drug overdose will do to you, but the commentary was sugar-coated since Graceland is managed by his heirs, and was partially narrated by Elvis' daughter, Lisa-Marie (also known as the ex-wife of Michael "Wacko Jacko" Jackson). The tour ended in the garden where Elvis, his parents and I believe his maternal grandmother are buried. Most of the others on the tour just seemed to be curious tourists. No obvious "Elvis lives!" types, although I did see a portly couple in wedding clothes being shepherded through the grounds with a frail photographer trailing them.

Yesterday morning I went with Dave to the small Brethren church he goes to. By some curious miscommunication I was welcomed as a visitor from Uganda of all places, but once I had cleared up that misconception they were very friendly. I left Memphis at around 3 p.m. heading south on the interstate before moving south-west to highway 61 and getting to Vicksburg, Mississippi, around 8. Yes, Mississippi, henceforth "MS". (Surely the one state that everyone knows how to spell.) I believe MS is the poorest state in the U.S. but evidently not so poor that some money cannot be found to trick out classic American cars with suspension that can lift the whole front end of the car off the road while it's in motion. "Wow, that car is actually hopping down the street." Which reminds me that I have yet to master the art of wheelies on my motorcycle... Vicksburg is just south of the MS Delta, flat, rich fields that once presumably grew cotton but now grow rice. Vicksburg is notable for being the site of a Union siege during the American Civil War that ended in a Confederate defeat, thus giving the Union control of the MS River and helping to lead to an eventual Federal victory. I toured the large Vicksburg military park this morning. Lots of monuments, cannons, busts of bearded men etc. The large cemetery was a sobering reminder of how many were killed in the battle for the town.

After Vicksburg I continued my way south on highway 61 then picked up the Natchez Trace parkway through swampy MS forest to Natchez and on to Baton Rouge and then finally here to New Orleans. By all appearances New Orleans is built on a swamp. The highway to the city is essentially a low bridge over the swamp for many miles. Quite remarkable. Trust the French to pick a place like this to build a city. I drove by a cemetery on the way downtown and all of the tombs were aboveground, to prevent the coffins from being flooded during rains. Not a terribly uplifting thought to end this entry, but there we are.


Sunday, May 04, 2003
Memphis, Tennessee

To continue chronicling my time in Arkansas: my Aunt Cindy had Wednesday off so graciously acted as tour guide. After spending the morning in Fayetteville doing chores, and a very filling lunch at a real Mexican restaurant, we drove up to Eureka Springs, a resort town in the Ozarks. While there we drove up the nearby "Magnetic Mountain" to see the somewhat oddly proportioned Christ of the Ozarks Statue. (Although it might be apocryphal, the story is that after they had built it, they had to shorten it to avoid flight hazard laws requiring flashing warning lights etc.) The Statue was on the same property that hosts The Great Passion Play. The set and open-air amphitheatre was quite impressive, and apparently the drama itself, with a cast of hundreds, is very well done. The actual set buildings were well done, although a little eclectic, as were the other attractions, such as a big chunk of the Berlin wall and what appeared be a full-scale section of a gate and wall section from the temple in Jerusalem plunked down there in the middle of the Ozarks, straining my ability to suspend reality.

The town of Eureka Springs itself was very quaint and had several intimate public parks built around the springs that lend the town its name. The streets were very narrow, and much of the architecture dated from the original building boom in the late 1800's. The shops were fairly typical of resort towns, art galleries, expensive coffee shops, off-colour T-shirt shops etc. We extensively browsed one gallery that showcased artists primarily from the Ozarks, who are doing a lot of interesting work.

On Thursday morning I said goodbye to my aunt and uncle in the middle of a thunderstorm (which fortunately quickly blew over) and, after cautiously coaxing my motorcycle along the dirt road to the highway, met my cousin Jena, who's an architecture student at the University of Arkansas, for lunch in Fayetteville. That was fun (although it was somewhat disconcerting for me figuring out how many years ago it is that we last saw each other--time flies!) as was been given a guided tour of her finished project (a proposal for a condominium in Manhattan, one of the best ones in her class according to her professors, I might add). In hindsight, I think architecture is something that would have interested me if I hadn't studied computer science.

But I digress. From Fayetteville I took the interstate to Conway, a town about half an hour north of Little Rock, where I stayed the night with my cousin Kyle (Jena's brother) who's a computer science student at Hendrix College, a small university of about 1100 students which apparently has quite a reputation as a hard-partying college whilst also enjoying a reputation for academic excellence. While being given the guided tour of the campus by Kyle I wished Happy Birthday to some hapless fellow who had just been thrown into the fountain, apparently a local tradition. For supper I joined Kyle and his girlfriend and some 20 or so of their friends for a birthday dinner for some girl at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Little Rock. It was fun listening to the many accents at the table, and as is usual in the States, I had more than enough left over from my meal to serve as my breakfast the following morning.

To be continued...


Wednesday, April 30, 2003
Huntsville, Arkansas

This entry is overdue, so I should get it out before I forget the details.

Huntsville is in north-west Arkansas, about 40 minutes east of Fayetteville, in the south-western, and arguably prettiest, corner of the Ozark mountains. I'm staying with my aunt and uncle who have 200 acres of property in the King's River valley. To get here, you have to drive 6.5 miles on a flintrock (i.e., hard gravel) road from the highway. Needless to say, that type of road is not exactly native habitat for my motorcycle, but it survived the journey without mishap, albeit ending up somewhat dusty.

Staying here is a very welcome change of pace and scenery. I'm in a mostly wooden house on the edge of a forest that borders a meadow above the King's River, which is popular with back-country canoeists and kayakers. The valley is bounded by cliffs, a couple of hundred feet high in places. The house animals include two cats (Pepper and Salty, who is very friendly and will accompany us on walks) and the venerable dog Beast, whose days we fear will soon be numbered. Armadillos, cottontails, squirrels and many varieties of birds are among the wildlife. Spring is full sprung and it gets fairly hot (mid-twenties C is my guess) in the afternoons.

I've been trying to make myself useful, and get some much needed physical exercise, by stacking wood and doing some lawn-mowing. (I can't remember the last time I pushed a lawnmower.) Yesterday I went on a short hike to the top of the cliffs that border the valley.

I got up here on Saturday afternoon after continuing east on I-30 out of Dallas, then heading north through rural, eastern Oklahoma and cutting across into Arkansas just west of Fayetteville. There were some nice motorcycling roads over the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma and more twisties here in the Ozarks. I rode by some homesteads in Oklahoma that were evidently inhabited by Okie Hillbillies: rough shacks surrounded by piles of random junk and abandoned cars, with packs of children running around. It was also prime country for armadillo roadkill. Unfortunately I also passed a serious accident. Wear your seatbelts kids!

From here I am planning on heading east to Memphis, stopping en route to visit my cousins, then dropping down to New Orleans and across to and around Florida, then finally heading north to Toronto, maybe going through the Appalachians, where I hope to arrive around mid-May.


Saturday, April 26, 2003
Dallas, Texas

Actually, I'm not in Dallas proper but about 40 miles east just off I-30 in a cheap motel.

On Tuesday I rode just over 900 km from El Paso to San Antonio along I-10. That's the longest ride I've done yet and hopefully the longest I'll do period. But if you check a map, you'll realize that there isn't much between those two cities, so I didn't have much choice. The first half of the trip was through dry, windy western Texas, although the wind was at my back which was nice. Starting out from El Paso it was cool enough that I put my fleece back on, but as the terrain started to get greener, the temperature climbed along with the humidity so that by the time I got to San Antonio, the temperature was 35 degrees C and very humid. I will admit to envying those who were in air-conditioned cars...

San Antonio, home of the Alamo, is probably the most self-consciously Texan of Texas cities. It was also conspicuously part of the "Bible belt" with numerous highway billboards advertising various mega-churches ("Expect to be blessed!") and Christian radio stations ("Now with more power!"). As contrasted to the annual Fiesta celebration (I was given to understand that it is to San Antonio as Mardis Gras is to New Orleans or Caribana to Toronto) which coincidentally is on this week, so I went downtown to see the action. The main square for the festival cost $10 to get into, and looked more than a little kitschy (flashing lights and feathered head-dresses were common) so it was a pleasant surprise to discover the remarkable river-walk, almost a hidden village below the city-centre built around the river which flows through downtown San Antonio and an adjacent canal. At that time of the evening it was at its best, packed with people having supper on the outdoor patios bordering the canal, and entertained by mariachi bands on riverboats on the canal. Inevitably there were throngs of tourists (mostly Americans, by all appearances) crowded into more tour-guided riverboats staring back at their supping counterparts. It felt more like I would imagine Venice to be like than something that could be found in the U.S.

Before continuing on to Austin on Wednesday, I paid a visit to the headquarters of Bible Study Fellowship. (I'm a member of a BSF class in Vancouver.) Which culminated in my being invited to sit down for lunch with some half-dozen middle-aged nice Southern ladies ("belles"?) after doing the grand tour, which included seeing the printer off of which my BSF lessons have rolled. It really is a remarkable, dare I say, impressive, facility. It's situated on very nicely landscaped grounds on several acres of bush. Although the suburbs are encroaching, the BSF facility itself still feels very much like it's in the country.

After my visit to BSF, I visited the Alamo, the "shrine" to the heroes of the Texas Revolution. (Background: in the mid-19th century Texas was a province of Mexico, which invited American immigrants to settle, provided they accepted Mexican rule, converted to Catholicism etc. The American immigrants probably didn't act like the Mexicans expected they would, so the Mexicans cracked down on Texas, sparking a rebellion by the Texans, including many Spanish Texans, which culminated in the eventual defeat of the Mexican forces and the creation of the independent Republic of Texas, which subsequently joined the American Union. Only to vote a few years later to secede and joining the Confederacy during the American Civil War, but that's another story.) I expect that for patriotic Americans, visiting the Alamo is somewhat akin to making a pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims. The actual shrine is in what was the church of what had been the Catholic mission and where the Texan defenders (including, most famously, Davey Crockett) made their last desperate, futile stand ("Victory or Death!") against the Spanish. To me the atmosphere was very much like that of medieval English churches, except the artefacts were bowie knives and muskets. But inevitably there was a gift-shop. Money-changers in the temple courts...

Austin is about an hour and a half north of San Antonio. The hostel there was very nice, situated right on the bank of the Austin river. I hooked up with a German traveller that I had met at the hostel in San Antonio for the evening and we took in some the music on Austin's (in)famous 6th St, since Austin is the self-described "Live Music Capital of the World", due, no doubt, to the 50,000 strong University of Texas at Austin (and home, incidentally, to the infamous tower from which a sniper killed 13 people).

This morning a visited the Texas State History Museum. Very worthwhile, and more balanced about Texan history than what I saw and heard at the Alamo.

Then about a four hour ride north to Dallas (where another sniper shot JFK). After stopping for supper, I continued on here so I could get a head-start for my trip to Arkansas later this morning. Hopefully I'll be hitting some decent (i.e., twisty) roads in the Ozark Mountains tomorrow. The interstates are nice for making time, but are rather dull.


Wednesday, April 23, 2003
El Paso, Texas

I'm writing this in a motel room in El Paso, Texas. Now I realize that "gritty border town" is not just figurative. The dust is omnipresent here. It is blown across the Rio Grande river, which forms the border between Texas and Mexico. I took a wrong turn earlier and found myself on the highway that runs right next to the river, not realizing at first that Mexico was just over the fence. But the difference in the houses, and the seeming lack of any green thing, was quite startling. The actual border fence was not as intimidating as I expected it would be, but there were border patrol vehicles stationed every mile or so. At the front desk of the motel, there was a notice saying that would not knowingly rent rooms to "undocumented aliens" ("...I am an alien from Mars...") and would report them to the authorities. Quite a contrast to the Canadian border which is simply a ditch, but I suppose that the contrast between the lifestyles and incomes of Texans in El Paso and their Mexican counterparts, only a stone-throw away over the Rio Grande, is among the highest in the world.

Anyway, to backtrack and explain how I got here: I left Santa Barbara yesterday at about 8:30 a.m. after a very pleasant stay, albeit too brief, with Jim and Alice Campbell. I skirted the northern edge of LA, going through Pasadena along I-10. There is undoubtedly some decent scenery in the hills north of LA, but I didn't have time to stop. Not too far outside of Pasadena the terrain turned quickly to desert, complete with palm trees. It also warmed up significantly so that by the time I reached Palm Springs for lunch the temperature was up around 30 degrees C and I was able to shed the fleece that I had been wearing for warmth since leaving Vancouver. On the road into Palm Springs I first encountered the strong westerly wind that has been omnipresent even until here. On that same road there were several wind farms, totalling probably several hundred massive wind turbines. Palm Springs itself was a bit of an anomaly: smack in the middle of a barren desert yet there were very tall palm trees everywhere and even lush gardens, ornate fountains and well-watered golf courses. Otherwise it had all the usual trappings of a resort town (restaurants and shopping downtown, car dealerships and theatre multiplexes on the outskirts). Ho hum. The road out of Palm Springs went through the most barren desert that I have ever seen. A good road to be riding a Honda instead of a Harley... But it did have the advantage of a 75 mph speed limit, which meant in practice that much of the time I was cruising at around 90 mph (~140 km/h) so I was able to make good time into Phoenix arriving at around 6 p.m. The desert gave way to more interesting scenery, and irrigated fields, closer to and in Arizona.

Asides:


Phoenix seemed more like an oversized town than a real city. (I was surprised at how many people were Hispanic. I would guess half of those I saw, although it might just have been the neighbourhoods I was in. Although I did see a lot of Mexican agricultural workers in California and have heard a fair bit of Spanish in the fast-food restaurants that I've been stopping at.) Just after sunset (and Mexican food at "Chico's Tacos"), I took a road up one of the local hills and saw the lights of Phoenix spread out below, including airplanes circling to land and taking off. Quite a sight. Compared to most cities of similar size, the air in Phoenix was relatively clear, probably thanks to the wind that continually sweeps through the valley. There weren't too many people staying at the hostel, but those that were were good company.

This morning instead of continuing along I-10, I took highway 70, the self-described "Old West Highway", which went through some nice desert mountain scenery, especially towards the beginning, and several small, isolated towns. It went for some time through an Apache Indian reservation, and from what I saw of the reservation, they suffer many of the same social ills as the First Nations people of Canada. Interesting though that the houses on the reservation land were flying as many, if not more, American flags than other homes, and they seem to have contributed more than their fair share to the armed forces, judging by the pleas, painstakingly spelled out between the links of the roadside chain-link fence, to pray for various members of the armed forces by name. As highway 70 turned south before rejoining I-10, the westerly wind was very strong so that I had to lean the bike into it, and I was glad when I got back onto I-10 and had the wind at my back. The desert and cacti of Arizona gradually gave way to the tough grass of New Mexico's cattle ranches, and finally, as I reached Las Cruces, about 40 miles north of El Paso, to the rich Rio Grande river valley and the pungent smell of closely packed dairy cows.

So that is how this documented alien reached El Paso.


Monday, April 21, 2003
Goleta, California

I spent today very enjoyably taking a breather from my earlier hectic pace. This morning I followed the two brothers I stayed with to Santa Maria, about an hour south of Paso Robles, where we had an informal church service in a home (decorated in the best western tradition, with a wagon-wheel table and several bleached skulls from various animals hanging on the walls) followed by a remarkably tasty potluck lunch.

After that I continued south another hour to Goleta, a suburb of Santa Barbara, where I'm staying for the night with my hosts, a retired missionary couple who worked with my grandparents in Zambia. We've just returned from a get-together with about a dozen other folks for a light meal (including birthday cake for three of those present) followed by an old-fashioned hymn-sing. Good fun.

Alas, I think that the best roads that I'll see on this trip are behind me; it was all highway miles today. Tomorrow I'm hoping to start out early, skirting the north edge of LA and continuing on to Phoenix, Arizona.


Sunday, April 20, 2003
Paso Robles, California

Before continuing south today, I decided that I should see something of San Francisco proper just to say that I've done it. I took highway 101--which apparently sees lighter traffic after the dot com crash--downtown and made my way to Fisherman's Wharf. Parking rates where astronomical (US$15 or $20 flat rate, and no discount for motorcycles!) so it was a while before I found an empty parking space next to a meter. Then I wandered around the wharf for about an hour. Nothing to write home about really, being a typical tourist trap. I didn't have time to go on the boat tours of the Bay or to Alcatraz; maybe next time. A nice counterpoint to the commercial activity were the many sea lions making a racket and playing king-of-the-dock that have taken up residence on docks right next to the main Pier 39.

Then I made my way a few blocks over to Lombard St., the "Crookedest Street" in the world. There was a bit of a circus atmosphere as cars (and one motorcycle...) lined up for at least a block waiting their turn to navigate the famously winding street with family members alongside to record the occasion for posterity. For once I had to keep to the posted speed limit due to the congestion ahead of me.

My overall impression of downtown San Francisco is that it was surprisingly empty of people, and I can see that it would be oppressively hot in the summer with relatively little green space or trees to cool things down. Vancouver definitely has the edge in liveability.

Anyway, enough with the city and back to the road. At around 1 p.m. I made my back to highway 1 by cutting across the peninsula on highway 92 (a nice detour through farms perfumed by eucalyptus trees) to Half Moon Bay. I made my way along the coast to Santa Cruz and around Monterey Bay. That part of the road was so-so. I would have done just as well to have taken 101 and saved some time. But highway 1 between Monterey and San Simeon was much more interesting, with more breathtaking scenery of the coast in late afternoon and some harrowing cliff-edge corners. Being the weekend, there was a fair bit of traffic (although it must be much worse in the summer...) so I was doing the speed limit, or less, more than I would have liked. The front tire appears to work just fine though.

Soon after reaching San Simeon the cliffs gave way to wider rolling pastures. I went inland on highway 46 which is a pretty ride through ranches (somewhat reminiscent of South Africa's Transkei) and vineyards, ending up in Paso Robles where I'm staying the night.


Saturday, April 19, 2003
Saratoga, California

I think I could get used to California.

Yesterday I made my down to San Francisco from the hostel at the Redwood National Park where I stayed on Wednesday night. I started off at 8 a.m. continuing my way through the redwood forest. It was especially nice going through the "Avenue of the Giants" a scenic side-road that runs next to highway 101. With a refreshingly fast speed limit of 55 mph I was able to move at a good clip on the winding road through the giant redwoods, which sometimes came right to the edge of the pavement, leaving little room for error for the (fortunately rare) lumbering RVs. A highly recommended drive for anyone.

Then after a couple more hours of making time along 101, I branched off to where highway 1 begins, and discovered immediately why it is one of the most famous roads in the world. The section at the top of highway 1 is a seemingly endless sequence of tight, hairpin turns that wind through thick forest all the way to the coast. It's undoubtedly the best stretch of road for a motorcycle that I have ever been on (and I have ridden BC's famous Duffey Lake road several times). I was too busy concentrating keeping the bike on the road to enjoy the scenery, although I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that I disturbed a deer grazing. And to top it off, that section of highway 1 had apparently just been freshly paved, so the surface of the road was smooth as butter and I threw the bike into the corners with abandon. So by the time I arrived at the coast, I was almost (almost...) relieved that I could relax since the road straightened out a bit, but of course the views of the surf made up for it.

I continued on highway 1, which hugs the coast almost all the way down, to about 30 miles north of San Francisco then moved back inland through pretty farmland to join up again with highway 101. It took me across Golden Gate bridge at sunset, with a fantastic view of San Francisco Bay and the snow-capped Santa Clara mountains in the distance. (The US$5 toll for the bridge should be in mail to me in BC any day now. ;) I think it's safe to say that the hype about the Golden Gate bridge is justified, and that San Francisco is a worthy scenic competitor to Vancouver and Cape Town. After a couple of wrong turns I finally arrived at my hosts' house at around 9 p.m. in Saratoga, which is about 40 miles south of San Francisco and just outside of San Jose. On the way down I passed by some familiar names: Stanford, Redwood City, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino. Or they would be familiar to anyone as obsessed with computers as I am since this is, of course, Silicon Valley.

But I was pleasantly surprised to discover today that just a few miles from some of the busiest freeways in the U.S. is also yet more delightful motorcycling roads. As it happens, the road off the highway into Saratoga quickly climbs into the Santa Cruz mountains, which form the western boundary of "the Valley", from which I caught views of San Francisco Bay on the right and the Pacific on the west, again when not concentrating on keeping the bike on the road. But all good things must come to an end: when I stopped for lunch I discovered that my rear tire had picked up nail. So I spent most of the afternoon tracking down a motorcycle service shop to get it repaired, but it wasn't completely wasted time as the front tire needed replacing anyway, and for good measure I also had the oil and brake fluid changed.

Tomorrow I'm hoping to see some more of San Francisco proper in the morning before making my way south to Paso Robles which is about halfway to LA. Naturally I'll be taking highway 1...


(Written on Wednesday, April 16)

Redwood National Park, Northern California

Well, today I got more of what I came for. I left Portland at around 9 and headed west to the Oregon coast at Lincoln City. The drive to the coast was nice enough, mostly rolling farmland, with a few vineyards. And then the beach: white sand and big rolling waves. And (given warmer weather) eminently surfable going by the number of surf shops. I was also impressed at the number of kite shops I saw. Evidently Oregonians are people after my own heart... I followed highway 101 down the coast enjoying the many scenic views of the ocean when not distracted by keeping my eyes on the winding road.

The highlight of the day was stopping at the sea lion cave, apparently the "world's largest sea cave". The entrance to the cave was at the top of a cliff 300 ft above the water, in which I could see the sea lions lounging around, with the odd one swimming into the entrance to the cave. To get to the cave itself I took an elevator over 200 ft down. The cave is a natural amphitheatre and was filled with probably several hundred sea lions of all shapes and sizes perched amongst the rocks. The first I noticed was a strong, fishy smell, and then the constant barking of the sea lions which was only drowned out by the roar of the waves as they crashed into the cave. For some reason it reminded me of the Canadian Parliament during Question Period... I took some photos but given that I couldn't use a flash, I don't know how they'll turn out.

Not too far after the sea lion cave I hit the famous Oregon dunes. It would have been fun if I had been afford the time and money to rent a dune buggy, but the road itself wasn't that interesting as it went inland and was fairly flat.

I got back to the coast in southern Oregon and was treated to more nice, windy roads with very nice views of the rugged shoreline. The weather was mostly overcast with the occasional shower, although the sun did break through now and then. Thanks to my raingear I stayed dry and relatively warm, so was able to appreciate the atmosphere that the clouds can give to this type of shoreline. (Not that I'm not looking forward to sunshine further south!)

And then the magic words "Welcome to California". My parents will correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this is the first time I've been in California (not counting changing planes in LA). The hostel I'm staying at for the night is right in Redwood National Park and I really enjoyed the ride just before arriving here through the redwood forest. A fast, twisting road snaking its way through the massive California Redwoods, some of (the?) tallest trees in the world. The hostel itself is only a couple of hundred meters from the beach just over the highway. The room I'm in has a view of the ocean, so I think I shall sleep well tonight. And all that for only US$16.


Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Portland, Oregon

I'm writing this at the Portland, Oregon, youth hostel after having come down this afternoon from Vancouver. The trip was uneventful apart from confirming that the rain gear I bought last week does work, as I rode in and out of several heavy showers. I stayed on I-5 (the main interstate highway) all the way down. Surprisingly there was no line-up up at all at the U.S. border. Tomorrow should be more interesting as I'll be heading to the coast and down to the Redwood National Park in northern California. Unfortunately the forecast is calling for more rain...

Technical addendum: I wrote this journal entry on my laptop using a wireless network card. So despite the fact that my laptop is not attached to anything by wires, I'm still able to connect to the Internet. Gotta love technology!