Archive for the ‘United States of America’ Category

Blown away by Washington State

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

(James) We rode out through the centre of town so we could make a quick petrol stop before leaving Anacortes. Whilst filling the bikes up, we heard a pop and then the horrible (for ‘horrible’ read expensive) sound of my tankbag landing on the station forecourt. Some of the teeth on the zip that holds the bag onto the bike had exploded, ejecting the tank bag on to the ground. Not ideal, especially as my camera and lenses were in it. Fortunately nothing inside was damaged, which was more than could be said for the zip which was beyond our ability to repair. Had this happened just a few hundred kilometres sooner (in Asia), we would have been able to replace the zip for pennies but, typically, it had managed to hold on until we had arrived in the ‘West’  where the combination of higher costs, limited time and our rapidly shrinking budget meant repair was out of the question. However, ignoring my curses as I worriedly inspected the contents for damage, Em rigged an ingenious quick release system for the tankbag with straps and a bungee and we headed off.

Having crossed Interstate 5 (I-5), we continued east along Highway 20 towards the snow capped peaks that make up the Cascade Mountains. We’d originally planned to head due south towards Seattle but so many people, including Yves and Mike on our boat tour in Vancouver, had recommended the Cascade Highway, and with the weather clearing for us we realised it was too good an opportunity to waste. We were sad to be missing Seattle as we’d heard great things about the city and we’d already received several friendly offers of places to stay from locals. Next time!

We were soon starting to gain altitude, and the combination of twisty roads, perfect weather, crystal clear air and increasingly spectacular scenery made for fantastic riding; all too often we were pulling over to admire the views of mountains and alpine lakes. The roads themselves seemed really empty, but we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of such ideal conditions, and at every viewpoint there were dozens of other bikers parked up – it was, it turned out, the first really decent weekend of the summer. However, as we headed further into the cascades and towards the higher passes, things started to become more quiet and the lush greenery was  joined by patches of snow at the side of the road. These patches quickly turned into piles, which were in turn replaced by banks that continued to grow in size until they were several feet high at  the summit. We stopped for a few photos but didn’t hang about as it was pretty chilly – and as I may have already mentioned, we were now pathetically sensitive to the cold.

Our spectacular route continued, down the warmer eastern  slopes towards the small town of Winthrop. What we found as we rode in on the main high street was worth the ride alone. Winthrop really does have the feel of a frontier town and with good reason: conscious effort has been made to recreate the look of every building to attract tourists. Although this might seem odd to some, the reason is simple enough – survival. Winthrop owed its existence to gold but like so many towns it fell on hard times, until the Cascade Highway was built. Needing a way to make passing traffic stop, the town decided to emphasise its old world charms. The shops that make up the small main street are all one and two storey wooden clapboard buildings that house coffee shops, bars, ice cream parlours and shops selling curiosities. The sidewalks are all raised wooden walkways, and the local gas station and auto repair shop look like something straight out of a western –  in fact, so much so that you wouldn’t surprised if the pony express or a couple of cowboys were to pull up outside. On a bench in the street, a couple of old boys were sat just watching the world go by, and were no doubt putting the world to rights. It really is a picture perfect little town and one we weren’t going to pass through without stopping.

The town is obviously popular as part of a route for local bikers as dozens of leather-clad riders were constantly rumbling through on their Harleys. We sat and had an ice cream and chatted with a few friendly  bikers who had noticed our XTs (not hard as they’re fairly distinctive and packed in such a ramshackle way when compared to the locals’ bikes). They were pretty impressed that Em had ridden so far and thought we were completely nuts to have gone through Pakistan (it’s a common enough reaction). They swore to us that they wouldn’t cross the border without their ‘glocks’  (that’s a type of handgun by the way!) which made us laugh – firstly, because it reminded us that we were in a country where so many people have guns, and secondly, because, as we were quick to point out, they’d still have been seriously outgunned! We said our goodbyes, but not before they proudly recommended some must-see places along our route.

We continued on along Highway 20, turning south towards the small town of Twisp, and soon found ourselves riding though the rolling scrubland of inner Washington’s high desert . Our target for the evening had been the town of Leavenworth. Several  bikers had recommended it to us but in all honesty, we didn’t think we’d make it that far. However, after leaving the twisty roads of the mountains, our progress was now much quicker and with evening approaching, we arrived on the outskirts of the town to be greeted by a sign for a campsite. Perfect! We checked in and found our designated pitch up amongst some tall trees. It was absolutely enormous and was clearly meant for some sort of RV, of which there were many… in fact, looking around us, it was clear that we were the only tent.

While Em got on with setting up camp, I popped back down to the office to ask them if they could charge our intercom and phone (the site’s pitches came complete with electricity, gas, water and even cable tv… but you needed an RV to hook everything up to). Upon my return, I found Em standing by our tent, looking very pleased with herself and holding a couple of beers: we must have looked a pretty pathetic sight in the eyes of our neighbours across from us (our tent did look ridiculously small, dwarfed as it was by our pitch) as they had come straight across to Em and just handed the bottles over! We walked over  to the vast RV to say hello and thank them for their generosity and within seconds were being shown a seat. Our new friends were actually two couples, Rick and Pam and Julie and Joel who, it turned out, were vacationing in not one, but two enormous RVs!

New acquaintances we may have been but we were instantly made to feel  like old friends. We ended up spending the whole evening chatting with them; talking about our trip, our plans in the US, their own lives, America and generally putting the world to rights. It was a real eye opener to chat with Americans about social issues, both domestic and international. The last time I’d spent any time in the USA had been more than 10 years before, and much of my opinion about Americans’ views (or non-views) on issues had been based on these experiences. Maybe I’m just older (well I know I am, but you know what I mean) or maybe there’s been a change, but these guys just seemed more, well, worldly. We were able to talk about all sorts of issues from the frivolous to the more serious – issues that I might have expected to have been taboo. But nothing was off limits, and it was fascinating to talk with them as we each gave our thoughts on subjects that varied from gun control and foreign policy to universal healthcare and education.

It wasn’t all serious though, in fact we had a great laugh and the joviality was only heightened by the free-flowing ‘Moose Drool’ (Em: or ‘Mule Drool’ as I kept calling it) and Fire Whiskey (Em: mmmm, cinnamony!). And of course, we also got to have a tour of one of the RVs. They really are huge and come with every luxury you could ever ask for (and quite possibly a few it would never even cross your mind to request…) Toilets and showers? They’ll be in the bathroom. Sleeping arrangements? Two luxury cabins. TV? Yes, four of them actually. It even had a garage at the rear that was big enough to store a sizeable tool set and work bench… plus two Harley-Davidsons!

In the morning, we slowly started packing up our gear (for some unknown reason we were both a little groggy) but before long were greeted by a grinning Joel who handed over a strong coffee – complete with some sort of equally strong liquor! Not long afterwards we were called back over to the RV for an American breakfast of chorizo-scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy (Em: sounds gross but seriously moreish) which we devoured in seconds – it was delicious! Over breakfast, we talked about our plans to explore in the coming days and as others had done already, we were told that whilst the Pacific North West is known for its quietly cool cities like Seattle, and for its rain, it is actually one of America’s best kept secrets – a secret those who live there are keen to keep quiet. It was an argument we were finding increasingly hard to find fault with.

All too soon it was time to hit the road so we said our goodbyes and headed down to have a look around the small quirky town of Leavenworth. I say quirky because the town is known for being a ‘German’ town. We’d assumed that this was because it had been settled by German migrants but that’s not the case. In reality it’s German character is, just as in Winthrop, the result of a deliberate plan to ‘remarket’ itself following the death of its timber industry. Today every home, business, building, and even every signpost is, well, Bavarian; even McDonalds has had a Teutonic wand waved at it. The town’s population have leant to produce and sell traditional goods so kaffee und kuchen (that’s coffee and cake) or a bratwurst are available should you fancy it. Of course, the town wasn’t going to miss out on that most potentially lucrative of German events, so the highlight of every year is Oktoberfest. The change has certainly turned round the town’s fortunes – not quite to the point that the locals now drive round in BMW’s and Porsches but certainly better than it would have been. As quirky as it was, we were both quietly impressed by that altogether American sense of doing whatever it took, no matter how radical or bizarre, to keep these towns alive.

With a fair distance still to cover we set off and were quickly riding, once more, through beautiful and deserted countryside. Initially we rode along the bottom of lush green canyons but soon we were climbing once again, passing high above a beautiful alpine lake on a road littered with waterfalls. Once again the temperature dropped as our altitude increased and by early afternoon we were forced to stop at the top of a pass that was home to a small ski resort. The season had obviously just finished (certainly not due to a lack of snow as far we could tell) but fortunately the café was still open and so we took advantage of a hot chocolate and something from our still untouched packed lunch (Em: Michelle, you made the mother of all tuck boxes there!). The ride down the other side of the range that afternoon was no less spectacular, passing between Mount Rainier and Mount St Helens, but we were soon out of the high hills.

Our target for the evening was still a long way off but now that we were out of the mountains, the roads were less twisty and our average speed could increase. We were heading for the small town of Canby, across the border in Oregon, where we would be staying with a stranger who had generously offered us a warm bed for the night. (Em: Not quite as dodgy as it sounds!) Whilst in Vancouver, we had taken advantage of a great US-based website called advrider.com (adventure rider) which has a fantastic section called ‘tent-space’. A quick click onto any of the US states and Canadian provinces listed reveals the names and locations of bikers (former and current) who are happy to offer a bed or garden to other wandering bikers. It’s a system that replies purely on the generosity and good will of the website’s members. We’d tentatively got in touch with a few of those people along a very rough route down the western coast and mentioned the fact that we might be passing through. Given that we were completely random strangers and that we couldn’t say for definite when or if we’d be passing by, we didn’t have particularly high hopes, reckoning on a one in ten hit rate. So as you can imagine, we were shocked to find that almost every single person got back to us, offering us not just a bed but a very warm welcome to boot, and many promised mechanical facilities, barbecues, beers and even asked us to stay longer than we intended so they could get more friends together for a ride out! (Em: This prompted yet another ‘America is awesome!’ comment – these were spouting forth on a regular basis).

To say we’d been stunned by the response would be an understatement; we were completely humbled by it. Reading the countless emails from friendly fellow bikers, we chastised ourselves for once again having preconceptions about people (when will we ever learn?!) Our trip had taught us over and over again not to judge people by what we ‘thought’ we knew to be true but to wait and see, but I guess we’re all conditioned to do it to some level. We had been sad to leave the incredible warmth of Asia, and although we had been looking forward to the USA and the diversity of its landscape, we had both felt that we knew what to expect. After all, we’d both spent time in the country before at various points. We had assumed that it would be a sort of ‘soft landing’ for a Europe that would lack the open friendliness of Asia. The US, so our reasoning had gone, would be a bit more friendly than home, but it was after all ‘the West’ so ultimately, the people, the towns and the culture would be high familiar to us. How wrong we’d been. Already we’d been utterly blown away by the unexpected beauty of the Pacific North West, and the quaintness of the pretty, small towns we’d passed through, but it was the people, both in Washington and Vancouver, that had shocked us most of all. With our time in the state quickly drawing to an end, we had the overwhelming feeling  that we could have happily spent our entire remaining two months in this area alone. Surely America couldn’t keep surprising us like this?…

Click for photos.

Coming to America: Washington State

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

(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.