Coming to America: Washington State
(James) It was a strange sensation to be arriving at the US border. It certainly hadn’t been part of our original plan and had only been mentioned when, having made it to where the land ended in southeast Asia, we were suddenly faced with the prospect of ‘what next?’ We didn’t have the funds to do the length of the Americas or Africa, and Australia, in the current economic climate, wasn’t letting in as many foreigners to work so that was out. Just shipping the bikes home and flying ourselves back didn’t quite seem a fitting end to such a trip. My attitude was very much that we’d left on the bikes, so we were damned well riding home on the bikes! That left North America, which, rather conveniently, would turn our trip into a ‘round the world’.
As we rode towards the border, we were both excited and yet a little nervous, which was surprising given some of the more dodgy borders we’d crossed to date. We had our visas, and we’d got the required paperwork from the US Department of Transport (DoT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and yet we were still a tad apprehensive. The reason was simple enough – we’d been warned dozens of times , by both Americans and Canadians, about the Homeland Security border guards. Back in the days before 9/11, crossing between the USA and Canada had been a simple enough procedure but no more. Customs and immigration specialists had been replaced by general Homeland Security teams who, we’d been informed, had serious attitude problems. Armed with new draconian rules, laws and powers, and attitudes to match, things had apparently changed for the worse. We’d even heard about a local Canadian who, under the new system, was denied entry to the US on the grounds that he’d been arrested for smoking cannabis as a teenager in the mid-sixties. The fact that he’d since crossed the border hundreds of times as an adult for work, riding or shopping mattered not a jot. He was persona non grata. Now, we’ve got nothing on our records to cause us a problem, but experience has taught us that whenever we relax and assume something’s going to be easy, there’s always a problem.
A long column of cars signalled that the border was somewhere up ahead so having pulled up at the back of the line (no filtering past traffic allowed here!), we turned off the engines and sat and ate our lunch (just as well as we weren’t allowed to take food across the border). Every ten minutes or so the queue would move forward a couple of hundred metres or so and then come, once again, to a halt. We didn’t mind this too much, as it gave us a chance to warm up in the sun – we really had become quite pathetic after so many months in the Asian heat. After about 40 minutes or so we found ourselves down at a set of traffic lights that sat in front of 30 or so booths. When the lights eventually turned green, an unsmiling Homeland Security guard wearing dark shades, dressed entirely in black and clad in enough body armour and weaponry to single-handedly deter Canada from ever considering invading (not likely , I know) directed us a particular line and, having tried and failed to get a smile out of him, we duly obeyed. (Em: It seemed our usual charm offensive wasn’t going to wash here!)
At around 1pm, we finally got to the front and were ushered forward to the booth. The next twenty minutes were, quite simply, awkward, as our utterly unsmiling guard/automaton refused not only to speak to us, but completely refused to answer or acknowledge us in way. There wasn’t even eye contact! For 10 minutes he filled in forms, ignored our efforts to show him our papers and spoke into his radio asking for the code for foreign plates. In the end he gave up trying to enter our details into the computer and ordered us to proceed to building off to the side for a ‘secondary inspection’. Having parked outside the building, we went inside and were ordered by a female automaton to proceed to a specific line where we joined fifty or so others. Every few minutes another person came in and was shouted at by what we decided was the most horrible woman we’d come across to date. At the head of the queue were about 40 desks with computers and finger print scanners. There were also about a dozen or so members of staff all equipped like their colleagues outside, but only a couple at most were ever at a desk dealing with the ever lengthening line of people. The rest just stood about chatting and occasionally would stop so the woman, who it appeared was a line manager, could shout (in a manner comparable to Frau Bischner, for those who’ve seen any Austin Powers films) and scowl at all of us. Some would make the mistake of trying to mention some mitigating fact to her but would only be cut off and met with another order to proceed as directed, and then twenty minutes later she would shout at that person again for not being in the correct line despite being exactly where they had been told to be. People would also be shouted at by Frau Bischner for asking for a toilet (there wasn’t one) or trying to leave the queue to sit down (there weren’t any chairs) for a rest or go outside for a smoke (no smoking or loitering allowed).
It was 1:30pm when we’d joined the queue, and assuming we got through we had an easy ride down to meet an old friend who we were planning to stay with that night. But as the minutes ticked by, it became increasingly likely that we wouldn’t make it to our agreed rendez-vous – his place of work. The whole thing was a bit of a farce, and as we edged at a glacial speed towards the front and got to know our fellow line-mates, it became clear that most were Canadians or Americans just trying to visit a friend or go shopping for the afternoon – a hell of a way to treat your own people! Finally after more than two hours, we got to the front and were ushered to a more friendly older member of staff who having seen that we already had visas, questioned why we were even in the queue at all. He looked at our form and saw that the reason marked was that they didn’t know what code was to enter into the system for ‘foreign plates’. He looked at us with a smile and some sympathy and said “That’s easy – it’s FP. They could have just asked that over the radio and saved you the wait”. (Em: Tongues had to be thoroughly bitten at this point…) With that, we were through – they didn’t even want the EPA and DoT papers we been told were so essential for entry! We were in America!
Our plan, such as it was, was fairly simple. We now had two months to cross the country and to get to the south of France where we would hopefully be going to meet up with Em’s family for a holiday (because we really need it!….) We had a very rough idea of a route and a few places we wanted to visit in the very limited time we had left but other than that we were open to chance, wanting merely to stay off the interstates and highways and just stick, as much as possible, to the smaller, more interesting roads. But right now, we just needed to get to our rendezvous as soon as possible! With that in mind we set off south down the highway way towards the small coastal town of Anacortes and our friends Mat and Michelle. After a windy hour or so we finally reached the exit for Anacortes and headed west towards the coast, then once onto Fildalgo Island we made the turn towards Mat’s workplace at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
Ordinarily, Mat is a navigator flying Tornado fighter bombers for the Royal Air Force – nice work if you can get it – but he’s currently on an exchange program with the US Navy serving as an instructor for aircrews flying the electronic warfare variants of the F-18 Hornet, the EA-18 Growler (Em: James, aka Dork Boy, was very excited about this…) This makes Mat a particularly lucky sod, not just because he now gets to fly in an even better jet than normal but he also gets to live in what we were quickly discovering, as we rode along small tree lined roads, past crystal clear lakes, and across fantastic old bridges that spanned stunning inlets and gave us a glimpse of hidden coves and beaches, is an astonishingly beautiful part of the world. And as if that’s not enough, he’s even done the low fly-bys at NFL games. All in a day’s work apparently.
We duly arrived at the base to find Mat waiting for us and within minutes were being taken on a tour to see his plane. Sadly, our late arrival meant the guard room was closed for the day so gone was the chance to get a photo of the bikes on the airfield. Still, it’s not every day you get to get up close to state of the art jets. I was, I’m not ashamed to admit, a little bit excited! I’d better be brief about the tour itself as that’s probably not what people are interested in (Em: Only dorks like you, James…) So, we were taken into the hangar where several EA-18 Growlers, Mat’s company cars, were sitting before heading out on to the paddock where others were parked up including two in 1940’s colours to commemorate an anniversary of naval aviation. We had the chance to take a few photos but had to be careful about what exactly we photographed as parts of the aircraft are classified. All in all, very cool!
With our tour complete, it was time to head ‘home’ and we followed Mat along yet more stunning coastal roads, passing pretty clapboarded homes and beautiful views. As Matt turned off into side streets, we began giving each other looks that could only mean “He lives here?!” We’d entered what could only be described as as close to Pleasantville as it was possible to get. We rode up beautiful and quiet streets, lined with immaculate large white or pastel clapboarded homes with children playing outside. Men mowed their already immaculate front lawns whilst their wives were, presumably baking, knitting a quilt or something else equally wholesome, and almost inevitably Mat pulled into one of them, and upon getting out of his car was politely greeted by angelic neighbourhood children. We were, to put it mildly, astounded.
Most of our bags would remain on the bikes outside the front of the house (it really was that safe) and so we were ushered inside by Mat’s wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Sophie, and before we knew it were being plied with the most British of drinks (Gin & tonic for me, Pimms for Em) because apparently we poor things must have been having such a rough time on the road! All I can do is promise you that in no way did we try to make out that life had been tough for us. We spent the entire time that it took us to polish off our drinks, oh, and the time it took to finish off the inevitable refills, trying to convince them that we’d been enjoying relative luxury at Laura’s in Vancouver, but Michelle was having none of it. As if to demonstrate that fact, she then insisted that Em go for a relaxing Jacuzzi bath and gave her a glass of champagne to go with it. Em didn’t need much persuading, so I went out in the garden with Mat to do ‘man stuff’, which in this case involved putting an entire half of a cow on his industrial sized barbeque. We were definitely in America!
Dinner that evening was, needless to say both amazing and enormous, and our poor stomachs, used to southeast Asian sized portions, were stuffed to a point way beyond sensible. Our plan had been to just stay the night and head south towards Seattle in the morning but over the course of the evening , in between drinks, we’d somehow agreed to stay an extra day (Em: it wasn’t the toughest decision we’ve ever had to make!…) We loved the idea as life here seemed ideal, but as we staggered up to bed, we weren’t so sure our stomachs would cope.
We were glad we did stay on though as the next 36 hours were spent discovering the incredible natural beauty of Anacortes, visiting view points over deserted coastal inlets, white topped mountains, pretty lakes and chatting with random, but incredibly friendly locals. The weather, despite Washington’s rainy reputation, was incredible with pure blue skies, and with the forecast set to remain that way, we gave into repeated pleas from locals to not head south towards Seattle immediately, but to head inland onto the ‘Cascade Loop’, something that Yves back in Vancouver had also recommended. Apparently the road had only just been cleared of snow (remember this was June!), and that fact, combined with the break in the weather made the decision for us.
All too quickly, our time in Anacortes came to an end, and we had to say a very sad goodbye to our amazing hosts, but not before they plied us with a vast American-style breakfast of pancakes and bacon because “who knows when you’ll next eat”. It turned out the Michelle knew full well, as just as we’d finished loading the bikes she came out with a packed lunch big enough for a family of six! Having strapped it on top of our gear, we hit the road for the start of our American adventure…
For pics, click here.