Phoenix to LA (March 2004)
Arizona and California
“What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people, and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
“From persons who know the difference between ‘will’ and ‘shall’ but don’t know the difference between a Manhattan and a Martini – kind fates, deliver us.”
“Take your life in your own hands and see what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.”
“My parents have always been there for me, ever since I was about 7.”
**Remembering John Charles, a Leeds legend and a hero to my Dad**
The words “LARGE AND IN CHARGE” scrolled in bold lights across the billboard
close to the border. A fitting slogan as I entered the United States? Perhaps, but it was only an advert for McDonald’s.
After the separate worlds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa,
sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America I am definitely in a New World now. A
few miles from the border I pulled into a rest area to refill my water
bottles. Clean smelling toilets, no litter and nobody saying hello are
certainly not what I am used to. On the road I found myself converting miles
back into kilometers in my head (yet I do the opposite everywhere else in
the world) and bemoaning how much longer a mile feels than a kilometer. With
kilometers your speed sounds higher and the distances tick by. Counting down
miles feels much harder work.
In Tucson I went to a supermarket, to gawp in glee at the heaving shelves,
the individually wrapped tomatoes and the astonishing variety of breakfast
cereal. And nobody stared at me. Paul Theroux wrote that “one of the
pleasures of travel is being anonymous”. A white person on a bicycle in many
parts of the world would have to disagree with him. But here I was
definitely anonymous at last. I felt self-conscious talking in English;
everybody could overhear us and understand our banal discussion about how
much broccoli we would need for supper.
Suburbia sprawls forever in America with miles of identical shopping malls.
Fast food restaurant chains are everywhere and the smell of burgers fills
the air for mile after mile. (For four days I ate nothing except energy bars
I had been given. One is nice, two are OK. Breakfast, lunch and dinner for
four days? Nauseating.) Phoenix was the first city in the world where, after
a week or so, I still had absolutely no idea where we were at any time. It
felt like being in an Escher drawing, with endless, inescapable malls and
bright neon lights of brand logos. Arriving back at the house always came as
Cycling in the US is quite boring – in most places in the world people work
the fields or sit outside their homes or work on the carcasses of old
vehicles. There is always something to look at, always someone to greet,
always playing children to wave at. Street vendors and windscreen-cleaning
boys liven up the city streets. But here nearly everybody is in a car, and
those few not in cars will not catch your eye in case you then decide to
blow them away with a big gun. Finding your way is harder here than in other
places because people waiting for the traffic lights to change will not look
at you and are scared when you talk to them. I have had people refuse to
look at me, quickly wind up their windows and even gun their engines to dart
away from me. I soon learned that when approaching people to ask for
directions it is best to stop ten yards away and hail them loudly from afar
in my best Prince Charles English accent. Otherwise they hurry past,
pretending you are not there, that they are too busy and that you are just a
dirty scary person who is best avoided.
In most of the world I am riding a heavily-laden bicycle and therefore I am very rich. In the USA I am riding a
heavily-laden bicycle and therefore I am very poor. The irony is that once
people realize that I am not going to kill them and do in fact really only
want directions, then they are invariably friendly, helpful and welcoming.
People say “enjoy our country” with a strong pride not found often enough in
England (compare the Fourth of July celebrations to St. George’s Day if you doubt that).
The consumer is king here, and if the consumer is in a car (as he always
is), then he is King with a capital ‘K’. There are Drive-Thru pharmacies,
cash points and hardware stores. Orange juices come with a range of pulp
textures, filtered water has selected minerals added for a pure, fresh
taste. The choices are simply extraordinary and way beyond my capabilities.
In a sandwich shop I found myself actually growing nervous as our turn to
order approached. Bread options, cheese options, sauce options, packaging
options, super-sizing options… So many personal questions bore deep into
your soul. In Starbucks I ordered a latte. (That in itself would be a
glamorous call where I come from: from the gritty Yorkshire north where
coffee is made from coal and people produce children simply to provide a
cheap alternative to turkey at Christmas). The girl I was with looked at me
puzzled, “You mean just an ordinary latte? You can have flavors, temperature
choices, froth choices…..” There are five different kinds of milk to choose
from. All up you can have a cup of coffee a mind-boggling 19,000 different
ways at Starbucks! Now if that is not a sign of success and a comfortable
life then I don’t know what is.
Beneath the excitement and the relief of being here which has not yet begun
to diminish, I have to confess a slight disappointment too. I realize now
with a hint of embarrassment that a small part of me was hoping for the
border crossing to be a Berlin-esque wall, with snarling guards and dogs and
clamoring crowds of poor people being held back from crossing over to the
bright shining glory of the USA. In fact the border was just like all the
others, with scuffed lino floors and grubby faxes taped to walls outlining
petty bureaucratic irrelevancies sent from on high that nobody will ever
read. That the official who dealt with me was grumpy was probably just
because he was having to work the Sunday morning shift.
A small part of me was, I realize sheepishly, also looking forward to small
snorts of derision at the war-hungry, ethno-centric, gun-lovin’ masses. And
whilst I have been delighted to spot a few wannabe white gangsters cruising
suburbia on lowered alloy wheels with black rap blasting and baseball caps
worn sideways, it really is not too different from the Home Counties of
England. I have only just arrived in California and so hopes are still high
of novelty-boobed, excessively blond airheads (and that’s just the guys) as
I ride north through Malibu and Beverly Hills, but the people I have met in
the last few weeks have been disappointingly normal and intelligent. I did
see a ‘God Bless America Barber Shop’ and a huge sign shouting “DON’T YOU
BUY NO UGLY SMALL TRUCK” but my impression of America so far has been of
efficiency, ease of living, quiet cleanliness and very polite people.
I went to visit the Grand Canyon, that most famous of big holes. I knew we
were on the right road because a huge McDonald’s sign told us that we were.
Snow was falling in heavy flakes through the thick foggy sky. I had hoped to
see the highest mountain in Arizona, Humphreys Peak, near Flagstaff but it
was hidden in the slushy clouds. I remember ‘discovering’ Humphreys Peak in
my atlas during a boring geography lesson at school years ago. Atlases were
always a good distraction, as was looking up rude words in the dictionary
(….fart…fiddle…fornicate…) during the tedious Hard Times of English lessons.
We arrived at the canyon to find that it had played an impressive
disappearing act in the fog. I longed to be eight again just to be able to
howl “But you promised we were going to see the Grand Canyon!”
After a couple of hours though the fog began to open in gasps, showing
tempting, tantalizing glimpses down into a billion years of history. The
sheer depths of the canyon and the eternal number of shapes and shades were
mesmerizing. Hurling snowballs into the void and watching them fall, fall,
fall, fall was perfect behavior for all closet eight year olds.
I was fortunate to spend a weekend with Tom Whittaker and his family. Tom,
an ex-pat Brit, is the first disabled person to have climbed Everest. It was a fun weekend, horse-riding, sledging and
drinking Guinness. I have never before met anyone who has climbed Everest
and my over-riding thought from the weekend was of us all lounging on the
sofas, Guinness in one hand, whisky in the other, and me thinking “He seems
so normal, yet what extraordinary levels of anti-apathy [is that a word?]
and dream-chasing energy he must have to have joined that exclusive merry
band of achievers”. And all with one foot, giving him license to tell lame
A group of extremely generous and motivated people in Phoenix clubbed
together and bought me a new bike. It was an extraordinarily kind act and as
I purr down the roads of the world I will forever remember them. But my new
bike is absurdly nice: the $400 rust-bucket with the Peruvian paint-job that
was Rita II has been emotionlessly ditched and now I am cruising. But any
aspirations I may have had towards English Wildman status are now sadly shot
to pieces as I feel like a fraudulent pretty boy on this new machine, with
bomb-proof wheels and Himalaya-ridiculing gears. Hair appointments at
Toni’n’Guy salons surely await. Before, when times were hard, I could always
blame the bike. Now I have no excuses. But I was disappointed to discover
that, even on a very shiny bicycle, 100 miles still hurts. The big decision
now is what name to give her…
I rode one hundred miles a day from Phoenix to Los Angeles, excited at the
prospect of staying with an old friend. Fogie was one of the first girls I
got to know at school and I remember being amazed and extremely grateful
when we first met that she laughed at my jokes. From rural Worcestershire to
driving a soft-top (albeit a very hairdresser’s-style soft-top car) along
the beach boulevards of California her image has certainly gone downhill in
the past few years, but it was nothing that spending some time with a
two-T-shirted hobo and his bicycle would not remedy.
The ride to LA was not
especially memorable and I could not even summon the motivation to detour to
go and see the original London Bridge, bought by America and now sunning
herself in the Arizona desert sunshine. I was too set on racing west towards
California, towards the rich extravagant sunsets and the land of golden
promise. If I have been looking forward to my ride through the USA for a
long time, I was particularly excited about California. Camping at night in
the desert was like being in Jordan or northern Argentina: yellow sunsets in
a smoky sky and the heavy white moon above burning-red rock hills; white
dunes of sand curved around spiky tufts of yellow grass. But what set here
apart was the nose-to-tail drone of non-stop traffic throughout the night.
This is a country on the move and the torrents of trucks are a symbol of a
country producing, consuming, buying and selling.
The desert gradually petered out as I crossed eastern California. The grass
grew greener, the cars sleeker, the houses larger and the palm trees stood
tall and proud. The snow-covered mountains shone. Cycling into LA without
riding on a freeway is almost impossible. I tried so hard to avoid them, but
America is so car-centric that at times there was nothing for it but to
brave the seething traffic. Inevitably getting caught by the police a couple
of times I was saved by playing very dumb (“I didn’t realize that it would
be dangerous to cycle in six racing lanes of cell-phone talking,
coffee-drinking traffic hell, Sir”) and the best plums-in-mouth ridiculous
English accent that I could muster. But just when I was verging on a serious
sense of humor failure I came across a cycle path, thirty blissful miles of
traffic-free pavement whisking me straight through the city to the beach.
The path was wider and better maintained than many highways of the world. It
was a delight. Plus I could get a very immature thrill by overtaking
spandex-clad men on their dainty little racing bikes, giving them a cheery
“afternoon, chaps!” as I zipped by on my beast of burden. Childish, but a
fun reward for 25,000 miles of training. My final act as I neared the
Pacific Ocean and the glamour of LA was to ask three very blond and very
pretty roller-bladers ‘for directions’. As I slowed to a stop beside them I
forgot that my new bike has those fancy clip-in pedals. In a cartoon waving
of arms I wobbled then collapsed, bike and all, in a crashing pile at their
feet. I am not sure whether they were impressed. California, here I am!
A website well worth seeing: www.rwanda2004.co.uk
THANK YOU to A-1 Bikes for their generous and expert assembly of my sexy new
bike. Quality equipment, quality service, quality people. Thank you.
A-1 Bike Center, 3638 E.Southern #C109, Mesa, Arizona, USA
THANK YOU so so much to the kind individuals and to the Phoenix Consortium
who rallied together to buy my new bike. To rise above apathy is something I
admire greatly, and your faith and support really means a lot to me. It is
people such as yourselves who are going to get me round the world.
Cassandra, Dennis, Helen, Jordan, Lisa, Russ, Nate and the Phoenix
Consortium: Thank You.
Recommendations for America: Whilst I am in the US I am trying to discover
what the place is really like (as opposed to the impression portrayed by the
International Ambassadors of Jerry Springer, the Governator and Michael
Jackson!). So far I recommend:
Fast Food Nation ï¿½ a fascinating and revolting book on the fast food phenomenon full of great pub-conversation trivia (“did you know that 30% of
all cows in America are McD’s bound….?” “Really! I didn’t think they even
used beef in the food there…” etc)
Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) ï¿½ a fictional book from the 1950′s, but this
voice-piece for her own philosophy of Objective Realism seemed very
appropriate to be reading here. My disdain for apathy and people unwilling
to be risk-takers may be one reason I enjoyed this book, but her assertion
that man has a moral duty to be the best that he can possibly be, with
productive achievement as his noblest activity and reason as his only
absolute seemed apt in this most achieving and successful of nations.
Bowling for Columbine ï¿½ a darkly amusing and shocking documentary film,
loosely based on the gun massacre at Columbine High School, that doesn’t
preach ‘answers’ but asks a lot of provocative questions about guns, racism,
fear-mongering, the poor in the US, the power of the media and music and the
feelings of self-worth and self-esteem in young people. You may remember
Michael Moore’s speech at last year’s Oscars?
A majestic day that was celebrated loudly over here (by me) was Alan Smith
stealing a point from Man Utd, doing wonders for us and helping kill off
their season! Schadenfreude? Us? But Leeds have got one hell of a fight on their hands still… come on, lads!
I have my home-made lucky Number 17 shirt- what more can I do..?
The best restaurant in Phoenix? Or at least one that is free of neon lights,
super-sizing, two-for-one-combos and trade-marked slogans…. The walls are
scrawled with signatures, there are only about 5 items on the menu, they are
the same every day (but you can always have pie for dessert) and all cost
$8.80. I heartily recommend ‘Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafï¿½‘ near the
baseball stadium in the centre of Phoenix. They also let me autograph their
wall and paid for our lunch! Thank you! Do unto others as you would have
them do unto you….
Approximate Timings and Route for North America
ride Northwards up the coast
ride Northwards up the coast
100km per cycling day
2 weeks spent in each major city
4 days spent at other stops (however, I have no idea how many they may be!)
NB – all dates and routes are extremely approximate and subject to change (excepting the major cities)!