Archive for February, 2012

The road to Atitlán

February 27th, 2012 by Ian

Guatemala marks the beginning of the Central American bicycle tour and just over the halfway mark in terms of miles. Although one of the poorer countries in terms of economy, it’s far richer for the people and its landscapes, the latter dominated by some truly striking but testing mountains.

The two day ride from San Cristobal de las Casas in southern Mexico’s Chiapas state to the border with Guatemala seemed to have more visual and aural diversity than a week’s worth of riding through any other combination of the country’s states. Whilst I chugged up 100m climbs and coasted similar descents, I was happy to be a passing onlooker to the life of the natives who call these mountains home. Beautiful, brightly dressed and intricately patterned women made their way to market and utterances of native languages were heard from fruit vendors, mechanics and others touting ceramics and crafts as I slowly pedalled by, all the while employing evasive manoeuvres against wreckless combi buses hurrying people from one country town to another. Initially disappointed that I hadn’t taken more time to explore Chiapas, it soon evaporated as the abrupt and verdant mountains of Guatemala appeared in the distance. Excited or frightened, I wasn’t quite sure.

Entry to Guatemala, or should I say, exit from Mexico was more of a hassle than I cared for at 4pm on a sweltering and sweaty evening. Never a fan of border towns, I aimed to cycle at least 15km into Guatemala for a hotel and big meal away from the chaos that often surrounds these often unpleasant places. However, it turned out that I hadn’t my receipt for the Mexican entry stamp, although I had the magic little green card that proved I paid for it in Tijuana. And I was in their system as doing just that. 2 hours waiting, bargaining and offers of “Es possible para mi pagar una multa aqui para usted” (Is it possible for me to pay a fine to you here) i.e. please let me through and I’ll throw a nice Andrew Jackson at you, didn’t work. I decided to cycle into Guatemala anyway, hoping their officials wouldn’t notice, nor care, that I was leaving Mexico with a 1500 peso fine on my head if I decided to return for lack of the exit ink. Ten out of ten for Guatemalan Border Control. The hefty, sullen looking man behind the counter supplied me with a fat new stamp and a shiny country map and with that, I was on my way. Dark, humid and a little dodgy looking I checked into the first hotel with the roulette offering of agua caliente (hot water) advertised at the La Mesilla crossing.

Guatemala is made of the most incredible and soaring mountains. From the get go, it has been heavy climbing, the average ascent total being around 1800m per day. However tough, there is something about mountain cycling that really brings you back to basics. When all that matters is getting to the top, there is often little time to think of much else but turning the pedals and looking forward to the clothes drying downhill on the other side. In that sense I’ve found that climbing is a meditation all to itself. Whilst planning the trip, it seemed there was always a worry over something – a phone call that needed to be made, a meeting to be attended and an inevitable stress involved with preparing that I unfortunately brought upon myself. Climbing in these hills is the complete antithesis to that ‘part’ of the trip. Taking on a 10km, 12% mountain grade at 8am in the morning focuses the mind so much that any clutter of external thoughts become irrelevant and the simplicity of one pedal stroke followed by another becomes the most basic and important of actions necessary. A proper kick-start to the day.

My first stop was to be Huehuetenango, pronounced way-way-teh-nango, a bustling mid-sized town lying in a grand, open valley. I soon found out that the town has the unfortunate association of being the birthplace of one of Latin America’s most violent dictators, Efrain Rios Montt who served in office from 1982-83. In this short term, he oversaw a military campaign against anti-government guerrilla groups and one of genocide against indigenous Mayans whom he suspected harboured sympathies for them, many of those whom live in the immediate area. It’s tough to tell how long it takes for scars to heal on a population like that, or if they ever do, but from the smiling faces and warm welcomes I received chatting to locals in the town, you could barely imagine such atrocities occurred in the tranquil hills surrounding.

My push on leaving Huehuetenango was the couple day’s ride to the volcano lined Lago de Atitlan, a place that English novelist Aldous Huxley famously called “the most beautiful lake in the world” and “too much of a good thing”. I knew the high gradient road was to be lung-buster, switching between dirt and broken pave on the back road sections where climbing was to be the day’s sole occupation. As I cycled though, I noticed again and again the most common form of English language communication between Guatemalan’s and myself – the constant shouting of “Goodbye”, coupled with a wave as I rode past. The children especially don’t seem to have any other word and when I’d say “Hello friend” or even “Adios” (hinting at my prowess in Spanish to the locals) I got a customary blank, disappointed face that would only be cured with the reiteration of the English farewell. All good though as “gringo” seems to have made way for it for the first time in over 2 months.

The road out from the smoggy and unattractive crossroads town of Cuatro Caminos led well uphill on the day I made Lago de Atitlan. It was a spectacular rise, the road curling around the side of one obviously fertile mountain and flattening out after 15km to a scatter of villages and roadside farmsteads. There was a smell of wood-smoke across the hills and clay dried outside houses while women could be seen washing and drying clothes in the back by open wells. According to my route profile map, I had a serious downhill coming up and boy, was it down. Switchback after switchback, brake pads pushed to the max and aching hands from holding the brake levers in place, I needed to stop several times to allow everything to cool down. Every now and again, men and women, machetes in hand would break suddenly from the bushes on the side of the road chopping wood from the forest, almost frightening me into the closed human sized pot-hole. Eventually and to my pure excitement, the lake was next to jump out from behind a corner and the volcanoes emerged to the south, guarding over the waters and the towns at their bases.

On the descent I began to consider a recurring thought from the cycle. I’ve found that the more you travel and inevitably then, the more you see, it can often be difficult to appreciate new landscapes fully at the first instance of gazing upon them. I guess constantly changing scenes and at times becoming saturated with beauty for long periods leads to that happening. And therefore, sometimes you need to wake yourself up to a place so that you really appreciate the fact that you’re there. However, Lago de Atitlan just didn’t fall into that bracket this time – it is in a world of its own and definitely reaffirms Huxley’s statement. Picturesque villages lining the sides, calm waters and almost claustrophobic mountains made for a striking scene I was about to join.

Unfortunately for the 2 days I’ve been here, I’ve been in bed with food poisoning. Dodgy Bombay Curry as usual. Feeling a little better now despite the all-night hippy bongo players next door, I’m going to take a boat across the lake this morning and head out from Panajachel, the biggest town on its shores. Apparently the road around Volcan San Pedro here is quite dangerous so will opt for water over gravel this time. All going well, still morning waters should lead to some spectacular views back across and within an hour I will have cycled up and out of Lago de Atitlan and be on the road to Antigua.

Total miles/km: 8822mi/14,197km

To the ends of Mexico

February 17th, 2012 by Ian

With the 350South website having been hacked and deleted over a month and a half ago, there has been a severe dearth of blog activity. Not to worry though, we’re back in action! A lot has happened in the intervening time too. I’ve moved right the way through Mexico and am now in the magnificent Chiapas mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas – for me, the most beautiful city I’ve visited in the country.

Since the last blog entry, I’ve slowly meandered my way through central Mexico, getting high up into the mountains and then proceeding to navigate the endless sprawl of Mexico City before shooting on south to Chiapas via the coast and Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Now, I’m within 2 days of Guatemala.

Looking at the map of Mexico in San Diego, it was easy to compare to Canada and the US as regards timescale to pass through. 2 months seemed doable and a nice round target to set plus it gave enough time to get a definite sense of place. However, this country has proven so difficult to escape – and not that you’d want to. Around every corner, past every mountain and behind every door there is a story that draws listening to.

Although I felt attracted to the landscape of mainland Mexico upon arrival, it wasn’t the most stunning or remarkable I’ve seen on the trip. With Baja quite barren too, it was refreshing to be within agriculture and hills again. However, what really caught the attention were the people of this new geography. More colourful than I had ever imagined and with so many dynamic cultures, it was obviously the real Mexico to explore. And although this is a country and nation by title, it is far more than that label for what’s inside. The collection of so many ancient indigenous groups, Mexican on the passport, but Tzeltal or Tzotzil, Mixtec or Mazeteco in identity was going to make for an interesting time here.

Southern Mexico and in particular the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas seem to me some of the most diverse in terms of culture and indigenous groups. In Oaxaca itself, there is more linguistic diversity than in all of Europe. And for a state slightly bigger than the island of Ireland, that really is an immense level of variety. Although the cities are a decent litmus test for levels of indigenous populations, the rural landscape is really where the raw face of them is to be seen. On the 2 day descent-ride from Oaxaca to the Pacific coast, myself and a Spanish cyclist Jorge (http://bicibirloque.blogspot.com/) passed through numerous small towns where the local brightly coloured dress was the first indication of steeped tradition and society. As an outsider constantly moving, you will rarely see beyond these simple visual exposures but nonetheless appreciate the intriguing past and unknown present of their lives.

The complete antithesis of this seemed to occur in Mexico City a few weeks before. To my surprise, it was extremely cosmopolitan and the Centro in particular was a mix of slick business types, Abercrombie & Fitch wearing youth and smatterings of travellers. Some love it and some hate it but for me it was something that needed to be taken in.

On the ferry crossing from La Paz, Baja California to Mazatlan, Sinaloa I met an American English professor named Bob who offered me his home for as long as I wanted in the city. Undoubtedly a lover of the metropolis, he repeatedly referred to Ciudad de Mexico as the ‘pulse of the nation’ and to know the country itself, a visit was essential. Even the Aztecs believed it to be the centre of their universe so on that alone, it needed a few days poking around. The Zocalo (pictured top) – the city’s huge central square – is the spot where the Aztec people witnessed the eagle atop a fruit bearing cactus devouring a snake, fulfilling a prophecy that made certain to them this was to be the heart of their civilisation.

With my bicycle resting in San Juan Teotihuacan north-east of the city, I was glad to shuttle in. I had wanted to visit the Museo Antropologia (Anthropology Museum) for a while as it would give an historical background to the indigenous peoples of Mexico and at least lay some context for the next few weeks cycling. But that place was far too big to take in in one sitting. Head sore from history, I knocked back a few beers and considered next moves. It turned out that next moves aren’t always easily planned when staying with someone. I spent the next few days just having coffee with Bob, meeting his friends and staring out onto the busy Isabel La Catolica street by night. And that relates strongly to one more facet of the bike touring life I’ve noticed recently.

When I was young on holidays with the family, we always tried to see as much as possible in a day or the few weeks travelling. And it was precisely because of the fact that we just had a few weeks that this was necessary. Now though, with a bicycle as means of transport and almost endless time to spend in one place or another, it’s quite easy just to take it supremely easy. At times I’ve found it quite difficult to just sit around in cafes, watching the world go by as my younger travelling education has taught me different. But I’m beginning to realise that this is a very lucky thing to have. At the moment I feel like I’m giving my body and mind enough time to rest after days in the saddle but also feeling energetic enough to grab as many museums, parks, attractions as possible.

This has probably skirted the most dominant thought in my mind for the past few months too – What is the best way to travel? I often find myself battling between the experience of family holidays, the restrictions of my bicycle life (namely, distance and finances) and the ideas of others. On the sight or place-seeing side, for me, not visiting one place or region that was temptingly close used to be a major frustration as I wished to see as much as possible. However, I think Chris Case, a friend from Denver put it best when talking over it a couple of years ago. “No matter where you go, you’re always going to see something new”. I think they’re a solid few words when one hits a fork in the road and doesn’t know which way to go.

Now, I look forward to pastures new and countries rapid. Central America has many of ‘em packed into a tiny space. I see crossing El Salvador taking 3 days, Honduras 2 and Nicaragua 10. That’s less than a sixth of the time I’ve been in Mexico so I better get to the Currency Exchange quick fast! The southern part of Mexico has also been pretty enjoyable as I cycled in the company of Jorge from Madrid for 4 days. It’s been a while since meeting other cyclists but as the land mass gets thinner, more are packed into a smaller space. By that reckoning, I should be in a peloton by Costa Rica.

Reserva Mariposa

February 16th, 2012 by Ian

After a few months of waiting, I finally made it to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Reserva Mariposa, straddling the borders of Michoacan and Mexico States. Spending the morning in the company of millions of Monarchs was an unforgettable experience.

The road to the Reserva Mariposa and in particular the El Rosario reserve section reminded me of the Michael Palin programme “Himalaya” years ago. At 3400m, everything looks a little different. There was a pale green colour to the grass and it was extremely short, moss-like in appearance. Farmsteads were built into the hillsides and there was no direct indication of town centres but just an agrarian sprawl on the hillsides that blanketed my view for 360 degrees. It’s exactly what I imagined communities on the Tibetan plateau or Pamir Mountains of Central Asia to be like. And I thought about the comparisons to the Michael Palin programme for the entire ascent in the back of my Combi bus from the tiny town of Ocampo, 12km from the reserve.

The Reserva Mariposa was given World Heritage Site status in 2008 and that, according to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) deems it to be of “Outstanding Universal Value” – something of importance for all humanity and not just immediate communities or the country it’s within. I’ve always had a particular interest in UNESCO World Heritage Sites as my Masters degree was called World Heritage Management and was organised in Dublin and Cottbus, Germany with the support of UNESCO themselves. One question we always asked in class was whether the designation was good or bad – did it help protect the environment because of important accreditation or was it negative, driving tourism and potential degradation to the site.

In the early hours of a cold and wintry Saturday morning, you wouldn’t suspect you were on the verge of a truly incredible experience, approaching a line of souvenir huts and taco stalls. At this hour (9am) the sun has barely peeped over the mountains the butterflies are all huddled together for warmth in densely populated areas of the forest. Their story is truly remarkable. Each winter, hundreds of millions of Monarch Butterflies set out from the US/Canadian border and southerly US states on a voyage up to 4,000km in distance – undoubtedly one of this planet’s most spectacular animal migrations. In late March, they fly from Mexico to the north again, females laying their eggs in milkweed, dying shortly afterwards and their young then preparing to make the massive return to the Mexican highlands once again.

My guide for the morning, Juan, did his best to explain the history and biology of the Monarchs in Spanish that I could comprehend. Fortunately, I could understand enough to piece the story of the butterflies together. We walked a round trip of 5km, passing through Pine forest and mountain meadow, walking slowly behind some other morning travellers who were finding it hard to move at altitude. The thinness of air was definitely felt and put into perspective the different types of fitness one can acquire while riding a bike. Although the distance has been great from Alaska, I still don’t think I could run down the street without losing breath. And up here in the mountains, it caught up with me on occasion. All the while walking, individuals and some pairs of Monarchs whistled by franticly fluttering at a speed I never thought capable of such tiny and delicate creatures.

Watching closely, their movement in the air was almost like watching a sparrow or other small bird. A quick waving of wings, followed by a glide for a few metres in the air and pick up of that fluttering wing action again was the pattern on show. At that speed, I could almost comprehend them travelling thousands of miles for habitation in Mexican forests.

Perhaps the most memorable moment was entering a grove of trees that was marked “Silencio”. And now I know why. On coming up to this opening, I saw people scattered on the hillsides looking curiously into the grove. Although tourist numbers can reach 8,000 a day here, I was lucky that it was early morning. Staring into the trees, the most magnificent sight greeted the viewer. Tree branches stressed to the max by thousands of butterflies hanging on tight. Light from the newly risen sun sent beams onto the ground covering brush and the sprightliest butterflies took to the air and opening their wings to receive the first strands of morning heat. Within half an hour, the bushes, forest floor and sky in between were littered by the orange and black wave of Monarch wings. Being a voyeur to their world felt like it lasted an instant. When everybody was quiet for just a few seconds, the sound of wings flapping sounded like light rain on a window at night as millions swirled around the trees and came to rest somewhere vacant and in the morning sun.

By the time I headed back to the gates, the numbers of tourists were already up. Children shouting and their parents as loud in retort blanked out the noise of butterfly wings. I had read that this reserve was perhaps one of the busiest and therefore was thankful for the silent grace of a Saturday morning. While waiting for the Combi bus to return I also thought about the setting and selling of such places. No doubt seeing such a spectacle could move almost anyone but it’s a shame when human presence infringes upon the natural order of the forest and the Monarchs as the last few moments of my visit did. I just hoped the butterflies didn’t really notice us and it didn’t affect their behaviour. However, for other species, maybe they wouldn’t be so lucky – for instance the Mountain Gorillas of East Africa. I thought back to World Heritage class in school and the management of places such as Reserva Mariposa – the unfortunate clash between designating a place as remarkable and in need of preservation for all humanity but at the same time, increasing threats to it by inadvertently encouraging heightened tourism. Of course, this isn’t the case for all places of such beauty and nature – but it happens. I left on the descent, a little tired and drifting in and out sleep, but all the while watching those tiny butterflies follow the path of the bus downhill and into another world.

Guadalajara

February 16th, 2012 by Ian

I experienced a fair bit of relaxing in Guadalajara in the fine company of Isis and Marcus – who I met by a Taco stand in La Paz (as you do) – and their friend Jose Juan. A city I had been told could be worth skipping was in fact a city never to be missed.

I remember about 4 months ago, on the side of a sun baked road up near Kamloops, British Columbia a guy pulled up to myself and Lee to enquire what all the bicycle fuss was about. A few tuna bagels later, we witnessed a verbal rampage about the dangers of Guadalajara – the drugs, the gangs, the explosions on the street etc etc etc. It’s funny how you paint a picture in your mind.

Perhaps one of the greatest parts of travel, no matter how you do it, is that it opens your eyes to a great many things. It may be seeing how others live or how relationships are built and maintained within cultures and/or nations. It could be the importance of ritual or religion, handshakes and hospitality. Mexico has defied all the odds and preconceptions in my mind and I’ve learned to take comments such as those heard months back with a large handful of salt. Educating oneself about others on a journey such as this is perhaps the single most important thing you can do and realising that the scare stories are mostly written by those on the other side of the border goes very far in understanding how some places, such as Guadalajara, have gotten a bad rap.

Guadalajara is an entertaining and beautiful place, from artsy suburbs to a colonial centre. Mexico’s second city, it’s big in modern business but laced with an interesting history. It attempted a founding several times, moving from pillar to post in search of water and then agricultural land, weathering every denial to its beginning. I was lucky to have Marcus from Italy and Isis from Mexico as hosts and then tour guides for 2 days in the city. Everything from the twin-towered Cathedral to old man pubs of the Centro Historico were visited. It was so nice to hang around and get to know two residents of the city and have the comfort of their house to base city explorations for 48 hours. I was also introduced to Jose Juan, a Puerto Rican but now firm Guadalajarian medical student and the four of us hung around eating and drinking for most of the weekend.

On Saturday night last, I was also fortunate to partake in one of Guadalajara’s most cherished street arts – Canary fortune telling! In front of the two-toothed fortune telling man (and you know they’re good when they look like that!) lay a cage with several canaries that came out on the promise of seed and chose square papers randomly from a wooden box of hundreds. Depending on the colour of paper and their arrangement, a story can be ‘accurately’ read about the punter’s past, present and future. All was pretty standard i.e. I see a shanghai job in your future, you plan to travel oversees etc until he revealed that I have 2 women in my life. So apparently there’s another girl (apart from Aine my girlfriend) who is toying with my feelings and just wants to hurt me in the long run, reports my teller. Said lady was difficult to extract from a poor short term memory but I was told that for only, ONLY 10 more pesos, I could find out more about her and her wicked ways. Shocking!

Leaving Sunday also meant experiencing one of the coolest and revolutionary street events known to man. Guadalajara, each Sunday, turns pretty much all of its downtown and surrounding suburban main streets into a bicycling extravaganza. The city shuts down major transport routes and allows 2-wheeled junkies to reclaim the roads along with dog-walkers, hula hoop dancers and middle-aged Mexican muscle men. Myself and the 3 amigos cycled over 20km uninterrupted with visual and aural inspiration before seeing me off towards Mexico City. Guadalajara was a proper Mexican city experience and not for the first time in this fair land.

High hills and a road less travelled

February 16th, 2012 by Ian

What a difference a day makes. Unexpected journeying in the countryside of Nayarit state has again revealed the kindness and warmth of the Mexican people and encouraged me to take the road less travelled.

Leaving Tepic just over a week ago, I decided it best to head off the relative comfort and safety of Autopista 15 (it’s got a mighty shoulder!) and make haste for a countryside not tainted by the noise of hurtling trucks and cars. The decision of where to hop off was made all the easier by several recommendations that the less frequented road from Ahuacatlan over the mountains to Barranco del Oro and through Amatlan de Canas was a stunning and quiet rural ride that took in 3 volcanoes, hot springs and fields of every crop the fertile soil of Nayarit and Jalisco states have to offer.

However, in the end, it was the people of these states that I’ll remember most. It began with Andres, the owner of the La Quinta del Real Hotel in Ahuacatlan who invited me for coffee the morning I left. He told stories of local archaeology, native tribes and Mexican politics and gave me a real sense of what this almost hidden part of Mexico was all about. His hotel also had a history of hosting wanderers like myself and Andres was proud of the international guestbook he was rapidly filling up. He had recently hosted Tony Mangan, an Irish ultrarunner who is currently jogging the planet (www.theworldjog.com) and was someone Andres obviously looked up to for the sheer endurance and magnitude of the feat. To have another Irishman human powering himself a considerable distance visibly excited him and I suspected it was a reminder of his own past in which he was a state marathon champion. On later thought, Andres’ enthusiasm perhaps also stemmed from the fact that he always wished to journey for a time but responsibility of family and business never permitted. A warm welcome, all the coffee you could drink and best wishes to travellers on the road was enough for him now.

On leaving Ahuacatlan, Andres organised a police escort to the top of the 14km, 1000ft climb outside of town – then subsequently chased me up it to return my fee for the room the previous night, pronouncing it the least he could do to support. Although the tianjin escort was not entirely necessary as the road was extremely quiet, I appreciated the thought of the local officers. I felt sorry for them on the ascent however, baking in the afternoon heat as I travelled at a leisurely 5mph to the sound of their engine overheating behind me. At the summit, I was surprised to see another escort from Amatlan de Canas (the next town over) waiting but a broad smile broke across my sweat soaked face as they handed me a couple of Gatorades for the descent. On the local President’s orders, I ate for free, drank for free and was given snacks for the road – all on the generosity of the people of tiny Amatlan. After blagging my way through a local press interview in broken Spanish, meeting Mariachi performers and getting a tour of the hotsprings, the remainder of this mile-starved day was on offer.

However, the next hours were pure torment and a fine kick in the backside from the karma police as I broke my number 1 rule – no cycling after 2pm. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that. Arriving at the base of yet another mountain stretching 1200ft into the sky just before 4 o’clock, I realised my own bleak fate in advance. Two police cars, one in front and one behind chugged lamentably slow into the sunset as I struggled to find a morsel of energy to drag myself and bike up the mountain. Well after dark and with Sirius piercing the eastern sky I hauled over the Nayarit/Jalisco border only to be greeted yet again by the local Federali. They assured me it was all downhill from here and using the beams from their headlights I hurried down to the bottom avoiding the sudden potholes and rumble strips crazy Mexican road engineers like to place at the most random and inappropriate points on the surface.

Tired, drunk on Gatordade (I was given 4 more bottles that evening) and regrettably fighting off the interested and chatty residents of San Marcos’ town square, I fell into the sweet reprieve of sleep at 9pm – well after my bedtime and nursing a couple of painful saddle sores. Although it had been rough in terms of travel, it was the most incredible in terms of people. Heading off the comfort of the Autopista may have to be tried again.

Sea to Sky in Western Mexico

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

Heading out of La Paz last Tuesday marked a new beginning to this journey. For the first time in over 6 months, I was truly out on my own with the remainder of one continent to cycle through and a whole other at my feet.

Although myself and Lee had cycled the US West Coast separately, there was always the mental comfort and safety net of knowing it was a temporary phase and permanence to the situation never entered the equation. Plus, the US was the easy part with the mother-tongue spoken, services within reach numerous times every day and relatively safe roads to roll on. And not that Mexico is in any way intimidating or a completely alien world, but there was a slight apprehension accompanying this new departure to Mexico’s mainland.

Thankfully this was washed away in some sense on the overnight Ferry ride across the Sea of Cortes to Mazatlan, a city hugging the western coast of Sinaloa state. I was distracted from any more anxious thoughts by Bob, a professor of Portuguese in Mexico City and an extremely interesting guy to natter away an evening with. Without realising it, 3 hours passed up on deck as we talked of everything from Riverdance to UFO’s. Bob reliably informs me that the mountains around the capital city are notorious for alien abductions and many of the locals will swear they’ve seen more than a few flying saucers in their time.

Mazatlan itself is an energetic city that has come out of a pretty vicious year of drug-related violence, according to locals. You wouldn’t think it from the large migratory gringo population hanging about the Zona Dorada or the sleepy old town squares. Wanting to stay longer but trumped by the lonely looking Brook’s saddle on my bicycle, I was pretty excited to ride through a new landscape after a couple of weeks in the Baja desert.

Out of Mazatlan, there is nothing really to write home about. As usual, I needed to give myself an extra hour in the morning to navigate urban sprawl and the account for the possibility of taking a few wrong turns. However, I was delighted to find myself on the smooth, shouldered and quieter than expected toll road (Cuota) leaving the city. I had long believed that bicycles were prohibited and as I tried to beg the toll operator that it was muy peligroso (very dangerous) on the other route he just waved me on quickly to prevent the impending whine!

As Sinaloa state turns to Nayarit, so does the flat to mountains and the heaving slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental sweep down from the east. An 85 mile day into Tepic was accompanied with dehydration and a headache on a 14 mile climb I won’t forget. Not realising I had to climb over 2,500ft after lunch (thanks Lonely Planet for the head’s up!) I was short on water and lacking in any energy, a fact clearly displayed on my speedometer with an average of 4.6mph to close the day.

Tepic was the perfect tonic. It’s not well known, it’s not Top of List, nor even half way, in many guidebooks and the recently referred to Lonely Planet even comments that the city “can seem dreary in the considerable heat of the afternoon”. It eventually moves on to kinder words but I think it’s a gem in the hills. There was something subtly homely about the place and an atmosphere born out of youthful energy and old time charm. I also met some fantastic people including Jarco, Victor and Sentana – local guys who I talked football with in Cafe Diligencias downtown and later was invited to dinner with their families on my first night. It was another situation where language not need be a barrier to making friends or having a good time (the Tequila may have helped) and was one of many experiences in Mexico where the hand of hospitality has been outstretched to a complete stranger.

As for now, I’ve located myself in a little town called Ahuacatlan which lies in the shadow of the mighty Volcan Tepetiltic! Looking to avoid noisy roads for the next few days, I’m going to cruise through the sugarcane and tobacco plantations that these fertile soils have on show and make Mexico’s 2nd largest city Guadalajara in a couple of days.

Separate Ways

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

With the New Year comes some pretty big changes to the 350South journey. After chatting last week in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico we mutually decided that it is time to head our separate ways and experience individual journeys to Ushuaia and the bottom of the Americas.

The decision comes after a while of pondering but is one that we both completely agree upon. After 6 months on the road, we have discovered that we are working with different wants for the cycle and also under different timescales, or as it turns out, none at all. Ian is planning to finish the trip sometime next September while Lee has decided to meander about at a slower pace and has no definite time to finish within.

We leave the joint adventure on great terms and with a wealth of magnificent shared experiences. The past 6 months have been some of the most exciting and unique of our lives and we are so glad that we had the opportunity to experience them together. However, we realise that in some sense, going it alone is the only way to truly experience this trip in a manner that fits our own ideas for it. Whether that be slowing down to shoot some individual documentary film in Costa Rica (Ian) or stopping for a month to learn Spanish in Guatemala (Lee), it’s a path we must cycle alone. Often the real physical and mental tests and the discovery of new aspects of oneself are achieved when one forges his own way and that’s something we both understand.

We will be in contact all the way south, no doubt emailing and Skyping about the best local beers that shouldn’t be missed or the most secluded and hidden beaches en route. Who knows, we may end up cycling for a part of it together if time and routes cross.

Ian will continue to update 350south.org, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr pages and the trip will now focus on his journey south to Ushuaia. Lee is planning to start a blog of his own in the near future and will let you know once it’s up and running.

And before we go, we’d like to thank you for supporting us every step of the way so far. Over the course of the year we hope you’ll still be following our individual journeys and look forward to sharing all the Americas has to offer!

Night of the Spines!

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

The Night of the Spines! December 28th shall go into lore as the day in which the desert defeated Ian. After one single night in the desert outside of El Cien, Baja, a burst water bladder, a deflated Thermarest, restless night’s sleep and a flat tire were the consequences of a poorly chosen camping spot.

With the daylight dwindling and a healthy 75 miles on the clock, I decided that it was time to bed down for the night in the southern Baja. So, after dismantling a roadside fence by a telecommunications tower and scuttling into the sandy desert I reckoned I’d won. A little cover from the road and enough of the day left to cook dinner, it was the ideal situation. Well, isn’t it always? Unfortunately for me, I had planted myself in an area full of prickly, nasty cactus spines – hidden under the sand and on every tree and bush I had the privilege of dragging my bicycle through.

The executive decision resulted in me re-dismantling the fence and –mantling(?) it again. After an hour walking around amongst cacti and then finding out I wouldn’t be sleeping there at all I was pretty pissed off. No more than 45 mins of sunlight remained as I headed off down a hill and into another stretch of unknown, hoping for a break in the fence that had consistently lined the road for over 100 miles with periodic openings and therefore jeopardised any attempt I could make to break through. On more than one occasion I drifted into John McClane (Die Hard) mode and imagined myself sweeping away swathes of barbed fence on my Surly as plumes of dust rose up behind me, sweeping into the night.

Unfortunately, instead, in Ian style, panic set in. I’d prefer not to camp late when there’s the opportunity to set tent in the dark, eat in the cold by headlamp and rummage around for an hour just to find your toothbrush. This thought alone encouraged me to hurry down a track I spotted by the side of the road, heading into the hills and to a place called San Ramon de Dos Abril. However, close to sunset and tempting fortune, I looked to the offer of a campsite free of cactus spines that would surely do damage to my tent and gear.

I should be so lucky. Although treated to a spectacular sunset in a remote and noiseless location, it was the most costly camping of the trip so far. A cactus spine had pierced my water bladder containing the 7 litres of water needed for breakfast and cycling the next day; my Thermarest sleeping mattress had also succumbed to spines during the night and I woke up flat on the ground with 120 bobs of equipment down the drain unless I can fix it and the first flat tire of the trip. It wasn’t the best news as I hopped into the tent all set up to watch a Christmas flick on the laptop as I’d saved enough battery from the eve before to make that a possibility. I will say that “Miracle on 34th Street” is still a classic.

With the clock striking 8am the following morning, I replaced the tube and picked the last spines out of the tire with my teeth. I successfully patched the bladder with masking tape enough to hold water in for the day and filled any plastic bottle I had for extra security. I think I know what my New Year’s Resolution will be. Up and out a little earlier and less time in the saddle.

Back on the Baja

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

With a week spent in San Diego waiting for my rear wheel to be rebuilt, I can finally breathe a sigh of relief as the rubber has touched the road once again and the wide open desert is home for the second time.

Waiting for the rear hub to be stitched into my rear wheel was a tiresome process. Not for the actual process itself but because I had returned to the US and it truly felt like taking a step back on the journey. It wasn’t altogether a bad thing; in fact, I had an amazing time catching up with friends and making new ones but the convenience of what seemed another life was put to the past the first time we crossed over the border.

San Diego Mark II was made all the better that I managed to attend the Irish Network Christmas Party. Only one week before that the Network were kind enough to bring this eternally hungry Irishman to dinner, some travelling miles from out of town to greet me and welcome into their community. When I left San Diego at that point, I realised how lucky I was and how sometimes it takes just the smallest effort to influence your entire experience altogether. Frank Cassidy of the Network had posted a Facebook message on our Wall months before offering support and well-wishes. At the time it seemed so far away that it can be difficult to know if you’ll ever be the recipient of the generosity for real. In San Diego I was – and met so many interesting, fascinating, hilarious and humble people I’d never be able to thank them all. In particular Rob, Ryan, Frank – his lovely wife Fiona and those who I chatted to at the party offered me – oh god, I’m about to say it -  a hundred thousand welcomes (Cead Mile Failte)! We even kept the bar open at the end with Rob leading the session (see photo for evidence).

With a new wheel and the spirit for travelling rekindled, I trudged a slow 20 miles to Tijuana (being off the bike for a week seizes the knees, as I’ve found!). From there it was gesticulation time once again and I eventually found myself on a bus headed south with my bike in pieces as per the instruction of the driver. I actually would never have been allowed on the bus had I not had another chance encounter at the station on Ensenada. Alex, a Mexican man who knew aSurly touring machine when he saw one! – engaged me in conversation while I looked nervously for my bus. Upon finding, he then engaged a very grumpy driver and convinced him I needed to be on that bus with my bike (they didn’t fancy carrying the bike – too big they reckoned) and I also needed to be dropped off at Chapala, an indiscriminate point on the road but nonetheless the furthest point I reached the first time round. With some verbal pushing and some brown envelope pesos he agreed.

4am came round soon enough and I found myself watching the ABC Super Plus, air-con, extra leg room, all the movies you want bus pull away into the night as I lay cold and almost lightless beside my three piece bicycle in the Baja desert. Not feeling sorry for myself at all (yeah right), I stuck up my tent in the freezing night with a dim head torch but powerful moon to give guidance. 2 hours and 40mins of sleep later I was up with the sun for fear of being spotted lazing in the scrub by a passer-by or perhaps the family whose land I may or may not being camping on. Their dog didn’t seem impressed I was there for one – reason enough to go, move, shift!

The two days since have been a re-acclimatisation to Baja and cycling life. I even managed to come across my first Irish touring cyclist – Neil from Cappowhite, Tipperary, not too far from half of my family who are also Tipp natives. Today I bumped into Salvatore from Granada, Spain (pictured) who has been cycling the world for the last 6 years. Starting in Spain and moving through Europe, Central Asia, China, Japan, up and down each coast of Africa and now doing Alaska to Argentina – he had some experiences to relay. We even chatted for a while about the lifestyle that accompanies that and the manner you begin to appreciate things such as beauty and new landscapes when you’re lucky enough to see it almost every day. Thinking of our odyssey and comparing to his, we really are just at the tip of the iceberg. However, not so long ago we hit 10,000km. That in itself, is a start!

The Truck

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

The machine: An 18-wheel, Eaton-Fuller Transmission born rough and ready right out of Reseda, California. The load: 85 boxes of Roma Tomatoes, 50 of Sweet Peppers. The Mission: Tijuana by morning for some serious export (and get Ian to the border before nightfall in the city)

Little did I know of the experience about to befall me as I hobbled in Chapala, Baja California last Thursday morning. With a rear hub failure, empty stomach save a mashed up Twix and 800km left to navigate north and into the US once again, spirits were a little downtrodden. The only option would be to hitch a lift from one of the holidaying Baja gringos back to San Diego for what I believed would be a step back in our journey, just as I was becoming accustomed to my new Mexican lifestyle. Or so I thought.

Hanging out for an hour on a glass filled lay by and with a distinct lack of northbound gringos (La Paz & Cabo San Lucas being the usual destinations at the southern tip of Baja California), I decided my only option was to gesticulate wildly and mumble broken Spanish to any Mexican who was brave enough to listen, in the hope I’d at least get on the road to somewhere. Success! My saviour came in the form of a 27-year old chain-smoking, trance lovin’, uninsured, Sinaloa native called Jesus Orlando Ibarra, bound to Mexico’s coolest Ray-Ban truckie.

Jesus informed me that before we could go north, we needed to travel to Vizcaino, around 160km south to pick up the load – tomatoes and peppers bound for the US and perhaps some of the Subway sandwiches I’ve gorged on since here. On a quick tangent, travelling with him also put into context the need to buy local. In 24 hours we filled a truck tank twice and hauled vegetables over 500miles, burning countless fossil fuels for an amount of food that would take less than a day for a middle-sized suburban neighbourhood to devour. This is just a minor chapter in a larger story and granted, we can’t grow pineapples in Ireland but when a foreign potato comes up against a healthy looking Kerrs Pink in Tesco when I get home, I might just think back to the smoke I saw propelled from the back of Jesus’ truck.

The next day’s travelling was a little surreal for more than many handfuls of reasons. The notion that the lack of a common language should spoil our fun was blown out of the water. We managed to string a handful of sentences together solely from road signage and everything up to page 8 in my Collin’s 10-Minute “You’ll be Fluent in Spanish” guide! In no time I learned that Jesus walked the Arizona desert over 4 searing days in the hope of change once upon a time. He did say that it wasn’t mere necessity but a condition perhaps of the human spirit, to experience something new, see how the other side lives, and something for many Mexicans – a land which lies just a few miles away over an imaginable line in the sand. Deported and trucking it for a living,I got the feeling that he would never want to leave Mexico again anyway. “Life’s too good here, nobody is in a rush, under pressure, like America is sometimes”.

He was also treated to some horrific news that night too. In Vizcaino, while waiting for the truck to be loaded, Jesus learned that one of his fellow truckers and friends had died when his livelihood tumbled over a cliff edge only 100km down the road. Jesus explained that the Baja Highway 1 is the most dangerous trucking road in all of Mexico because it was built with cars in mind. I can testify to this. Over half of the trucks at the depot had no left side wing mirror because the vehicles pass so close that they often take each other’s clean off. We even drove ourselves off the road a couple of times to avoid passing trucks and rapid shifting of the steering wheel takes precedence when passing. Jesus even refused to speak to me when another truck was coming, such was the concentration needed.

Being in that truck must be akin to what a sardine would experience should it be graced to see the inside of its container. A “Butterbox” as my mother would say. A cracked windscreen, door that slipped open unannounced when conquering potholes and the seemingly jack-knife hungry trailer became minor worries over time. I don’t think I felt as out of it as when Jesus put on his bubblegum, trance/dance Mexican pop music as we hurtled out of Guerrero Negro and into the night. We cruised a lightless and lifeless road at 2 in the morning, skirted the edge of visible potholes, blew out a back tyre and passed through police and military checkpoints with 200 pesos on hand to bribe the officer as the 18-wheel road monster was eternally uninsured. You almost couldn’t hear yourself think with this – Americano song – blaring from the crackly front speakers!

24 hours later, bags as big as panniers under my eyes and temporary hearing loss, I was at the border crossing. And as I said before, or so I thought. Maybe one does need some level of another language to get the message across. Jesus dropped me at a crossing a little ways away from the trolley I needed to get back to San Diego. Some late afternoon haggling with a sympathetic cabbie and I was almost to destination. It’s one of those experiences I think is best left to memory, for joy and fear alone, and I may just opt for the speed and safety regulated Mexican bus system next time. A huge thank you to Jesus though for picking up one sorry looking cyclist.

The Baja Desert

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

A place of true aridity, incessant winds and dearth of the usual services, the Baja California desert is not your typical cycling hotspot. However, 350South found it’s something special and travelling through on bikes was a big ol’ bag o’ fun in this dry and silent landscape.

Mexico has been the perfect tonic to the past 5 months of relatively comfortable riding. As for Alaska and northern Canada, we’re out of the reach of daily services again, including your food and water and the planning caps need tight positioning on our heads. Our first introduction, the first hundred miles or so down Baja California Norte, were pretty much a continuation of the coastline we’d be previously travelling. A stretch of housing developments, dotted surf shacks, restaurants and knick-knack trinket sellers lined a pleasant Pacific Coast. Even our lord made an appearance to welcome 350South to Mexico!

However, when you climb up and out of Ensenada and twist your way through the ever drying hills, it starts to get interesting. Even a (slightly inebriated) prosthetic limb builder named Angel in the small hamlet of San Vicente told us the Baja desert would be “hot man, so goddamn hot, but beautiful”. He followed this by offering to cut our legs off and make us new ones. Ten four Angel, ten four. He was spot on though about the desert. It may not have been as hot as mid-July but the landscape is something to be marvelled at. At first it doesn’t really feel like a desert either. It’s just hardy, scrubby plants stuck in the red earth for as a far as the eye can see. Gradually over a day or two, the cacti started to appear and the vibrantly coloured soil changed to grey as rocks provided the bedding for some seriously water-hungry vegetation. It hasn’t rained in some parts for decades, we’ve been reliably informed by Lonely Planet.

Cycling there was made all the more difficult by an incredibly incessant head and cross wind south of El Rosario. The desert was well and truly upon us and this was an absolute (insert cuss word) to get through. With an 815am start and a 315pm finish one day, 40 miles in between was a poor showing. We were thrown about like rag dolls in the wind, gusts knocking us ungracefully from the bicycle a few times and the gung-ho Mexican truck drivers another obstacle to battle as you were dragged into their slipstream when they passed while the wind decided you should be going the other way and punched you sideways again. There’s no shoulder on Highway 1 south either and many sheer drop offs so concentration is on overdrive all day long. Mentally as well as physically tiring.

Even though frustration loomed because of the pure man vs wind battle, the cacti forests either side of the road were some pretty awesome sights for the cyclist. They could have fit in as well in a Western and you’d be forgiven thinking some of the rock formations were actually props for John Wayne and the crew. Climbing to three times the height of us and with pricklies as long as our baby fingers, they were almost Jurassic in size. Wish the photos could do it justice.

The best part of it all though was the camping. We were lucky three nights in a row to gain spectacular tenting. The first was nestled in off the road between two perfectly sized molehills so the drivers of the night wouldn’t see us; the second was with our friends the cows in a grove of trees and sheltered from the wind and the third was a dry river bed that had the softest rocks ever to sleep on. Off the bike by three, eat by four, bed by 5 and read til 7 made us proper happy campers! Thursday 8th did not however. With a busted rear hub and not wanting to sacrifice a single centimetre of rubber on the road, Ian hitched a ride back to San Diego on a Mexican tomato truck. On the way were blown out tyres, bubblegum Mexican trance/dance sing-a-longs, a thousand and one military checkpoints and 800km of memories with Jesus Orlando Ibarra, the coolest Mexican Ray-Ban wearing truckie. Next blog shall reveal all!

Question Time – San Diego

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

We asked you a few weeks back for any questions you had about the 350South journey. It was a veritable Santa’s postbox and here is a selection of the questions and answers. Thanks again to all who submitted!

What do you miss most from home? – Maire Comerford

Lee: I miss a reflection of myself that exists in other people that I am closest to, pints and dinners with close friends, skiing, climbing and hiking.

Ian: I miss my family and friends alot. Now that it’s almost Christmas I really am getting nostalgic for meeting up with the chaps in town for a few festive pints. I miss my girlfriend Áine most – but technically she’s not at home, Tajikistan being the location! I also miss Brennan’s Batch bread smothered in Kerrygold butter.

What’s been your favourite beer on the travels so far? – Conor Hogan

Ian: A fine, fine question. For me I’d have to say I have two. Number 1 is a little gem called Widmer Brothers Ale. Akin to a pint of Bass – 99c worth of canned quality – it has been a smooth, sleek and sumptuous staple of my beer drinking habits on the west coast. Fairbanks Larger, the first beer we had on the road has a special place in the heart though.

Lee: My favourite new beer that I didn’t know before the trip would be Fairbanks Lager. A favourite I knew already is Bear Republic Racer 5.

How often do you manage to change your underwear? – Maire Comerford

Not as often as we’d like. The thing is we don’t really wear underwear and not because we’re adamant commandos but cause the cycling shorts are all we need. Underwear washing comes in cycles from anything between 1 and 3 weeks whenever we can find a machine. Clean underwear and clothes alike are one of those small joys we like to experience as regularly as possible on the road.

How do you motivate yourself to keep going when things get tough? – Alice Lacey

Lee: Often when things get tough I just chant uno, dos, tres, quarto, cinco, ses, siete, ocho over and over again and try to think about the philosophy of dance. When you chant it at the appropriate speed you can coordinate it with your pedal strokes and the mantra becomes an interesting rhythm. If gumption still escapes I just give up on the thing and say there’s always tomorrow. Lack of gumption is typically related to lack of food or sleep so you can clear things up along those lines also.

Ian: Often I stick the Ipod in my ears and listen to some Christy Moore or music that has motivational characteristics in the lyrics and sound. I’ve been known to fantasise about scoring a winning hat-trick in the World Cup Final to the sound of Joxter goes to Stuttgart and Put ‘Em Under Pressure… and it was an excellent hat-trick, three goals, all with the head! Usually though, motivation is not the problem, it’s down spirits so anything to take your mind for a stroll is good.

After your trip, will the bear spray go on to fight crime and injustice? – Kevin Curry

Doubtless it will. Protecting us from bears is just one chapter in this canisters fascinating story. I’m sure the Universe will guide said spray into a glorious and wondrous future. We must remember that the threat of the Replicators has not yet subsided and Earth is still at grave risk.

Who decides when and where you camp each day. Is it planned the night before? – John Lacey

We don’t really plan the night before but usually we set a round-a-bout target of a general place to stop. With a couple hours of daylight left, we both keep an eye out for a spot with cover from the road, a nearby water source if needed and shelter from the wind, if that’s an issue. So far we’ve had everything from dry river beds to people’s back yards to camp in.

How numb do your man jewels get on the cycle? – Owen Kirwan

Terribly. Well, a slight lie. At the beginning an unnamed member of 350South used to forget they were even there after weeks in the saddle. However, with some slight manoeuvring it IS possible to regain some feeling whilst on the bike. Close one.

Does the cycle get easier or harder as you travel on? – Simon McCormack

Lee: I think the cycling often stays similar but the psychology changes. There are always going to be hills and hard days but they pass easier when you don’t get discouraged by things outside of your control (wind, hills, rain, sun etc). With some experience and time under your belt it becomes many times easier to get the job done. So it often gets easier, but sometimes not. We’re non-committal on the subject.

What are you going to do about the Darien Gap? – David Finnigan

For anyone who is unaware, there is one point on the road where rubber will leave the road. The Darien Gap – separating southern Panama and northern Colombia – is a 160km long area of swampland known to be a hideout for FARC rebels and guerrillas. As we can’t pass through there (and wouldn’t want to for the dangers) we are contemplating what to do. We could fly (don’t want to do that either) or get a passenger ferry but we’re looking into the option of crewing on a sail boat and skirting around that way.

How was The Post Ranch Inn? – Lorena Silva

The Post Ranch Inn is a hotel and restaurant perched on the highest point of the Big Sur coastline in California. I was offered the most generous accommodation after leaving Monterrey and decided to take the staff up on their offer. Everything about Post Ranch was spectacular – the food at the restaurant that night, the sunset and the friendliness of the staff. I’ve promised I’ll be back and can’t see a reason why it won’t be soon!

What’s the plan for Christmas Day? – Damien Carney

It looks like we’ll be in La Paz, Mexico. We plan on taking the day off and Skyping home – maybe even open a few presents with the families. If we can source some mince pies though, that’d tie the whole day together.

We saw you pumping water from a river/lake – is it for drinking and can you purify it? – John Lacey

When we were in Alaska and Canada we needed to filter our own water almost every day for drinking, cooking and cleaning – maybe 6/7 litres each daily. Generally the filter took care of all the purification as we didn’t have to worry about viruses as the rivers were amazingly pure. On the north slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska we didn’t even filter as the rivers were just that pristine and the water tasted unlike anything else we’ve tasted. However, from now on if we can’t access bottled water and decide to filter we’ll be adding Chlorine Dioxide tablets just to make sure.

Where do you poo on the road? – Thomas Fennell

I would almost have considered this an intelligent question, had it not come from Thomas Fennell! We use a trowel, dig a cat hole and do it the old fashioned way. Often, on cold winter’s mornings, just as the sun peeps out from behind the hills, and if the rays catch some distant bushes just right, you may find 350South squatting and beholden to the call of nature.

San Diego

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

After 4 months of hardcore cycling, ahem, we’ve finally laid siege to San Diego. Leg 1 is complete and the North American continent sufficiently explored by the 350South boys…. bring on Mexico and Central America!

With a healthy 5789 miles on the clock, last Friday’s balmy evening saw 350South’s Irish half enter San Diego and finish roughly the first third of the trip. Lee had already ploughed through California’s west coast the week previous with Bound South to meet friends Derik and Mark in “America’s Finest City”.

When we first caught glimpse of Vancouver just over 2 months ago, it was a pretty spectacular feeling. It was the first major metropolis we’d come across since leaving Prudhoe Bay 80 days earlier and signalled an important cycling milestone for us; but now 138 days in, this feeling may have outdone the previous. Looking at the antiquated Rand McNally map on the wall of my hostel last week – retracing our steps back up through the US states and into British Columbia, The Yukon and finally Alaska sent a few shivers down the spine. Nostalgia for the frontier towns of Watson Lake, Tok and Fairbanks crept in and in my memory at least they don’t feel that long ago. With that you also come to the realisation that the 350South journey will be over in the blink of an eye and it’s important to soak up every last moment you can. It’s kind of like an education in travel – knowing that this is all just temporary and you’ve got to make the best you can of it all.

So, since our last blog way back in San Francisco, it’s been a thrilling ride! I had driven the Big Sur coastline of California many moons ago and was completely captivated by it. Try it on a bicycle, however. Although pretty testing on the legs (it’s just up and down, up and down) it’s well worth the pedal. One thing immediately noticeable is its unique local climate. One minute you’re sizzling like a pasty Irishman in the sun and the next a great mist envelops the shores for as far north and as far south as the eye can see. And that just isn’t very far either. But when it breaks, as it inevitably does several times a day, the sun fires up the Pacific waters and craggy headlands break your line of sight for miles ahead. Travelling at an average of 10mph through that hilly terrain means you don’t get too far anyway. And would you really want to? Camping out at Plaskett Creek 30miles south of Big Sur village was one of the best night’s tenting I had on the trip. Mild weather (it had been freezing at night – brrrr), a gorgeous sunset and a seemingly raccoon-less State Park to sleep meant a 10 out of 10 experience. I also finally got to finish the Kite Runner which I’d been carrying since Whistler, bursting through 230 pages that eve after a 5.15pm sunset. I don’t think I’d been that affected by a book in a long time either and the next day felt a little low. I’ve also come to realise that more time in the tent = more reading and missed that after 8 days in San Francisco and a spot of motel lodging.

The Big Sur experience was short but very very sweet. Soon towns and cities started to reappear and this probably marked the last piece of relatively quiet coast in the US. I was lucky to have connected with people in the initially big and scary LA. I was extended the kind offer of a bed, meal and company by Brenda Skelley and her husband Dave in Westlake Village, near Thousand Oaks in Los Angeles. Thanks to the power of social media and a small “What’s Hot and What’s Not” piece in the LA Times (the jury’s still out!) Brenda invited us to stay. After a particularly nasty and unannounced hill, I arrived at nightfall, very tired and particularly smelly. It was a definite LA night though. Dave is a screenwriter for the TV show HOUSE starring the well accented Hugh Laurie and his show was kicking off at 9pm. With friends in tow and a few bottles of celebratory wine, we watched one of the best episodes of HOUSE I’d seen and got a behind the scenes low-down on what it takes to create. With an invite to spend Thanksgiving together, I unfortunately had to move on knowing I had to pick up some miles and get myself to San Diego.

The next morning was one of those “sliding doors” moments I won’t forget. 5 minutes earlier or later and you’ve missed it. Stopping for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on my way to Malibu, I was approached by a guy called Darren who was interested in where I was going. We chatted a bit and he told me he was eco-renovating a school just down the road called Muse School which has an educational structure set so the students can direct their own learning. Darren asked me to come see it and 10 minutes later I was rolled into an auditorium with perhaps a few hundred parents and children giving a speech on the 350South adventure and environmental advocacy! Not what I had planned for my morning’s ride but I got to meet so many interesting and inspirational people there, not lest Darren who was totally committed to shaping the school grounds as a model for a sustainable community. I also had the pleasure of meeting James Cameron’s (of Avatar and Titanic) wife Suzie who is helping the school get up and running. These type of happenstance moments are what they trip is all about and wish my writing could do justice to the people I met that day.

And so San Diego is home for a couple days. And it’s a fine city. Yesterday I was even immersed in the US sports culture for a few hours as I saw our boys the Denver Broncos take out the San Diego Chargers 16-13 in overtime. I had been lucky my great friend Juli in Denver could get some tickets for the game and I turned into a Tim Tebow (the Quarter-Back) fanatic to boot.

Mexico is next up so myself and Lee are about to get planning. Cue copious amounts of coffee today as we whittle down our options for the best route forward. Stay tuned for more news soon!

Total days: 135

Total miles: 5786

A week by the bay

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

I rode into San Francisco with the idea of staying 2 days. I ended up spending 8 there. Although there was a hint of laziness to the whole affair, this colourful city was up there with the best on this trip and provided a safe haven to eat, drink, be merry and watch Ireland kick Estonia’s ass in the European Championships football playoffs!

The road I took into San Francisco was an absolute tart. At Point Reyes, a bright and happy hippy town around 25 miles north of the city, I opted for the scenic over practical route and ended up scaling the Marin Hills in the hope it would provide an idyllic vista point for the Golden Gate Bridge and the town that lay beyond it. Instead, for every passerby to view, a grumpy, sweaty and foul mouthed touring cyclist climbed up to 2,500ft and then down…. and then up again. And then down and up again. I kid you not. For the first time on this trip, I couldn’t have cared less about the stunning scenery and rocky coastline that lay precipitously below and in front of me. The romanticism of the cycling life was dead for the time being. To top it off, I arrived at my Hostel after dark and with a definite case of whiplash and a thumping headache from the torn up city pavement – the worst I’ve seen in a city since we started.

Thankfully, the rest of the stay wasn’t coated with the anger of that Friday evening…. nor its layers of sweat. I really did love this time in San Francisco. The thing is, I didn’t do anything different than in Vancouver, Seattle or Portland but there were a collection of factors that probably proved conducive to having a splendid time. The first is that I had a free bed for a few days right in the city centre in the HI Downtown San Francisco Hostel. The second was the notion that this was probably the last city I’d be relaxing in until Mexico came round. And the third was that I had prearranged to meet some people there and was shown around the most intriguing parts of town. Yes yes, there’s a fourth! I had the company of Buff3y – the Hardcore Aussie touring cyclist and Rob Fletcher – the Welshman I had the pleasure of cycling with up the coast and as far back as Whitehorse.

San Francisco has many faces. The streetscape can dramatically change from one block to another and not always in the most fortunate ways. An example was through the huge homelessness and drug problem that lies abutted against the Hilton’s, Marriott’s and Macy’s of the world. On a five minute walk from the seemingly affluent downtown to Buff3y’s hotel in the Tenderloin district, I saw someone urinating against cars as proud as punch, a woman getting attacked by a guy and was offered crack twice. Just dandy I thought. The locals will tell you that this isn’t just in a few areas either but stretches across the city.

On Sunday last, I was treated to a tour of the Mission District with bicycling journalist and bike aficionado Elizabeth Creely. Sometimes you just scratch the underbelly of a city when you’re on your own, but there’s nothing like a local to open a place right up. We strolled about the murals instigated by the Chicano Art Mural Movement of the 1970’s, which still continue to be painted today, and this brought a greater appreciation of the struggles and social justice issues of immigrant and non-immigrant communities. We also saw some pretty cool bicycle lanes (lay off!) and street parks, as well as funky dinosaur hedge sculptures.

The rest of the week was largely spent hanging out with Buff3y and Rob. Checking out bicycle shops and the local bars were top of the list as per usual, but I had one other engagement planned. I had previously arranged to meet Barry O’Brien, Vice Consul in the Irish Consulate San Francisco. I wanted to get the real scoop on Mexico and safety issues. Things in the border region are incomprehensibly bad at the minute and it’s not confined to cartels, with passers-by unfortunately caught in the conflict, according to Barry. However, this is at great odds to experience of just about every touring cyclist we’ve met or talked to. In San Diego, myself and Lee have decided to mull the situation over and consider options. On the plus side, it looks like we could have another 2/3 cyclists to join us. Will strength in numbers tip the scales?

After that difficult news, myself and Buff3y took a trip to the isolated penal island of Alcatraz, where some of America’s most dangerous men were once locked up. That’ll lift the spirits I thought. Personally, I was pretty excited to see where Stanley Goodspeed and John Mason thwarted the rogue US marines preparing to launch a chemical weapon attack on San Francisco back in 1996. I thought that would be the pinnacle of its history but the audio tour kept talking about this Al Capone guy who chilled on the island for a while back in yonder year. Obviously a mistake on the tape. To be honest though, for a place with such an extreme and dark penal history, you would expect to feel that eerie past emanate from the jail cells and watchtowers about the place. However, that’s nigh on impossible when cameras are flashing and you’re playing bumper cars with the hundreds of people squashed into its halls. The only moment I got a sense of the place was when I found an opened solitary confinement cell and closed my eyes for 10 seconds. Because we were on an audio tour, the place was deathly silent and devoid of chatter. I almost had pity for the tax evaders, bank robbers and kidnappers that once resided in those blackened rooms after that.

The last and final thing on my to-do list was Bessy. She was in need of some serious servicing. A cracked rim, wobbly back wheel, torn bar tape, busted shifter, creaky 5,000 miler of a chain and squeaky bottom bracket were in need of fixin’. I had a feeling for a couple of weeks that my Surly beast was in ill health and setting on her out today proved how right I was. After the trials and tribulations of 5,000 miles of road it was nice to have a speedy and clean sounding machine back – the man/bike relationship has been repaired to boot.

As I sleep under a lighthouse tonight in Pigeon Point, I think I’ll pick up my Spanish phrasebook for the first time. Lee must be practically fluent at this stage as he’s been reading since Fairbanks so I’ve a lot of catching up to do. That’s in a geographical sense too. I’m 250 miles behind after my holibob in San Francisco so there’s big mileage to be done. Catch ya on down the dusty trail….

And everything seemed just fine…

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

With just a score of miles under the 5000 on the clock, it seemed fairly remarkable that not one single problem had occurred with my courageous and intrepid Long Haul Trucker. Ah… how wrong one could be.

For almost 4 months now, Bessy has been put through the ringer. The gravelly Dalton Highway tested her straight off, bumping and banging the heavily loaded beast around the place without mercy. Then came some nasty patches on the Alaska Highway with potholes as big my head… and I’ve a big head mind. Every now and again we’d hit construction work too with some honestly offensive torn up pavement that makes Irish backroads look like sleek German Autobahn. On top of all that, there’s the sun and the rain, the heat and the freezing cold. Sure enough, Bessy marched on as proud and as sturdy as she could be through it all, never complaining, just spinning her wheels round and round to get me to camp each and every night.

So, with Mexico looming in the next few weeks, it was high time to get the little lady a service and a cleanup. A makeover if you will, not just to put my mind at rest, but to make her feel special and wanted again – a chance to powder her nose so to speak! After the truly gruelling ride into San Francisco over the Marin Hills on Highway 1 and the subsequent obstacle course of this horribly hilly city, the bell hath toll – she was to be seen to. This morning I dropped her to Mike’s Bikes in Downtown and reeled off the list of things I needed done. Small issues such as replacing the bar-tape, truing the wheels (making them spin evenly) and putting on a new cassette were all on this list. Pretty standard procedure for a vehicle that’s travelled so far and so long.

Happy as a lark-bunting, I strolled off into the city for my big day out only to get a call about an hour later with the news. Somehow, the entire inside of my rear rim (the circular metal piece that forms the wheel) has been utterly destroyed. In Marcello’s, the bike mechanics, own words “I’ve never seen anything like this damage in my life”. A sound assertion I guessed from a pretty experienced guy. I started to wonder maybe I had eaten too many pies, or maybe I shouldn’t have been fist-pumping to trance and dance so heavily while cruising down the coast. Maybe I didn’t need all that weight of gear too – I mean, are five pairs of gloves or enough books for the entire journey really that necessary. I think not. And a shattered rim is not something that happens too often so you question whether it was dumb luck or something human induced. It could have been too many wallops from the road or too much weight. Most likely, it was a combination of both.

I also wonder how I hadn’t known about this. Why hadn’t Bessy told me or indicated there was a serious internal problem that could’ve endangered herself and/or me? Maybe I’m too demanding as her owner and too proud for her to let me down. Rob Fletcher, our Welsh cycling friend can’t bear to change his Rohloff powered bike even though it won’t move into low gears because he’s so attached to it. Felix and Karl – some German PanAm-ers spoke for over 20 minutes alone about the ceramic inserts into their apparently bombproof machines. I think this pride thing is a condition of many touring cyclists though, the love for the steel and the componentry that has carried them so far. They are not just a collection of materials anymore, but become more of a person with characteristics. If you could only hear some of the conversations man has with bike! I’m just glad my problems can all be taken care of before Mexico as supplies and parts are pretty tough to come by down there. And let’s hope Bessy gets well soon, lord knows she deserves it.

The Redwoods

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

Nothing can adequately prepare you for the Redwood Forests of northern California. They are a landscape all to their own and one that deserves huge respect and protection.

I can still remember the first time I heard about a Redwood tree. It was back in primary school, probably 3rd class in a Geography or Nature lesson and the teacher showed us all a picture of this gigantic tree, one with a curled bark that stretched upwards forever towards the sky. Those type of memories remain because they focus on an object or thing that seems almost unimaginable, especially to a 7 year old. When I cycled down the Avenue of the Giants this week, I wasn’t surprised that the same wonder came flooding back to me as I meandered in through the groves of the tallest species on earth.

When I say a Redwood deserves respect, it kind of does. A single Redwood tree can live up to 2000 years old and grow to a staggering 380ft. With virtually no sap and a robust bark, they are almost completely fire resistant. Tannic acid in the tree makes them impenetrable to many diseases also. Even though human impact has sought to fell these sleepy giants, they still stand – but at only at 2% of their historical maximum. This is why it’s so remarkable that they are still here and on show for people like me to experience.

The best part of this short Redwood adventure was the fact that one of the main roadways through the forest was closed due to tree fall when myself and Rob Fletcher arrived this week. Sneakily, we passed our bikes under the “Do Not Enter” barrier and took off down the Newton B. Drury Scenic Byway. For 11 miles, the only sounds were of the natural kind. The wind, birds singing, the Coastal and Giant Redwoods creaking in the late afternoon breeze – only the occasional sound of our chains clicking punctuated a striking scene. I came to the conclusion that it would be nice if cars were restricted to these special places more often, such was the joy of having the entire path to ourselves for over 2 hours.

Although it was getting surprisingly chilly for a Californian afternoon, it didn’t bother us as we stopped every five minutes to take some photos of the really tall ones or those with their insides carved out. There was even room for me, myself and Surly inside one! And I know you’re wondering, but yes… of course we hugged some. Maybe it was the fact we were completely alone in there, or that the sun was golden against the trees in the quiet, but you could almost feel an energy. Maybe I just hugged one too many, but that’s where you felt like a 7 year old once again. New memories that’ll stay for a long long time.

And what better way to top off the Redwood experience than to have a party smack bang in the middle of them. At Burlington Campground on October 31st – Hallowe’en night – there were 10 touring cyclists, including 5 Pan-American attempters taking it easy for the rest of us sinners. With the unpredictable nature of touring, it wasn’t likely that so many would be together at one point but fortune smiled and we had such a great night. Buff3y, the Australian I hung out with in Portland brought 2 bottles of whiskey to compliment the copious amounts of beer present which could never have been a good idea! I even met up with Felix and Karl, two Germans Lee and myself camped with in Tok, Alaska over 100 days and 4,000 miles ago. And true to form, it was the Irishman, Welshman and Aussie left standing last at the end of the night. And last up the next morning, naturally.

The touring mind

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

Along today’s 91 mile ride from Portland to Lincoln City, Oregon I got to thinking once again about the life and times of the touring cyclist and compared it with the life that I originally imagined it would be. The magic, the excitement of being truly free on the road, choosing the path less travelled and perhaps at the end of it – ‘changing’ forever – were all playing on my mind. Trying to marry this imagined experience and the realities of day to day routine is still an ongoing experiment.

We’ve come a long way since Prudhoe Bay, Alaska – that strange oil town nestled on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. It seems so long ago and perhaps because of that I feel I now have the right to write about early touring in a relatively honest way. I had a very idealistic view of riding my bicycle the length of the Americas before I left Ireland. I knew it would be tough – there would be painful mountains to climb, rainy days and sore bones – but I reckoned the majority of it would harmonise with the many beautiful images and videos I had seen from previous touring cyclists. I understood that sleeping under the stars and cooking dinner on my mountaineering stove in remote wilderness areas would bring me just a touch closer to our natural world and allow me appreciate its wonders more than I ever had before. In most ways, it definitely does and those moments of lucidity you couldn’t trade for all the money in the world.

There is however the more common world of the touring cyclist – the one that can occupy the majority of your time and the one that very often throws all those former ideals out the window. Like considering where you’re going to sleep that night? Do I want pasta…… or pasta for dinner? How will I dry these soaking wet clothes before morning? As we’re only 3 months in, I can never speak with complete authority but I imagine some things don’t change. And the question is would you want them to if you had the chance? Often touring just isn’t that fun. I mean, who would really want to set up a tent with the rain pouring down and then juncture to get in to a sleeping bag that smells unbearably of feet, every night? And there’s a certain pressure you put yourself under just because you’re on a bike. Cycling 30 miles in a day can bring on a terrible guilt when you originally planned for 60 and now the schedule for the rest of the week is thrown off. Also paying for that coffee when you could’ve just boiled your own water and mixed in some pitifully poor instant substitute brings with it a feeling of cheating yourself, because touring is supposed to be enjoyed on a budget, right?

Well, the challenge thus far – for me anyway – has been in mixing the pre-imagined ideals from paragraph one, with the realistic hum-drum of paragraph two. Finding a balance between both is not easy but is something that you may settle in to without very obviously knowing. And end up loving without very obviously knowing either. One thing I do realise is that every day is a new challenge and one that brings with it the chance for new experiences – the chance to learn and educate yourself. Living on the road means surviving on that road. Nothing produces a sense of personal achievement such as taking care of yourself does, especially on your own… and even when it’s in the continental US. And the truth is we are very lucky to be doing this and won’t forget that. Hell, I’m very lucky to be writing this from my complimentary suite at the Liberty Inn Motel in Lincoln City – now that’s what they call surviving!

This blog was partly inspired by an article written by the creator of Crazy Guy On A Bike – a popular bicycle touring website. Rob Fletcher was good enough to send on to me and it struck a chord. Here’s the article pasted below – it explains better than I could!

Now, in the comfort of your home, especially when you’re sitting at work, bored out of your skull with the everyday inanities of office life, “life on the road” can seem pretty romantic and ideal. I mean, I had visions of stopping whenever I wanted by the side of the road, next to some beautiful meadow or cornfield perhaps, and sitting under a tree, just listening to the wind and relaxing, before heading off down the misty road to some new adventure.

Well, yeah, it can be like that. But when you tour, you soon get the rude awakening – wind, dust, flat tires, rude drivers, hot sun, cold rain, long miles, big hills… basically, you are exposed to all the elements. Especially if you are camping, this can be compounded – at the end of a long day in the saddle, probably the last thing many people want to do is to stay outside, set up a tiny tent and cook a basic meal before slithering into your sleeping bag, still caked with sweat and dried salt.

Not to say it’s all like that – one of the main things to realize about bicycle touring is that it’s a lot like life – only more concentrated, and with all the same kinds of highs and lows. During my TransAmerica tour, I frequently thought I was going crazy in the sun and heat. Around Carbondale, Illinois I actually had to take a few days off in a motel just because I was actually starting to lose it. So, “crazy guy on a bike” was really pretty accurate.

So Why Do It?

Personally, I see bicycle touring as freedom. There is quite an amazing feeling when you are traveling along, knowing that you have basically everything you need to live right there with you on your bicycle. Ok, so you’re still dependent on civilization. Nobody is an island. But for the purposes of your immediate future, you are on the road and nobody knows exactly where you are – you are independent, you can go down this or that road as you like, and you have, to an extent, opted out of the modern day culture of complete connectedness. You are free.

Also, you are traveling completely under your own power. If you get up that huge hill, it’s because you did it. Nobody else did it for you.

There is certainly a spiritual component as well, where you begin to see yourself and the world in a slightly different light. When you get to the top of the big pass in the Rocky Mountains, for example, you earned that in a real way. On my travels I often times felt distanced from the other people who stepped out from their cars at such places. They somehow did not participate in getting to this place.

In addition to getting much fitter, you also have the opportunity to become much more self righteous and holier than thou, which is something we all need to do on occasion. Your aura of smugness will increase exponentially the further you manage to get, until people become blinded by your purity of spirit… and your smell.

Seattle to Portland – to the sea!

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

Leaving Seattle was the start of a new but soon to be brief chapter of 350South. Lee and myself had decided to ride alone for a while and take touring at our own pace, meandering down south with a view to meet in San Diego before a probable nervy entry into Mexico. On the ferry from Seattle to Bremerton – a town directly across the Puget Sound – a clear anxiety came across me for the first time in our 90 odd days on the road. It was most definitely down to the fact that I was completely unaccompanied for the first time on the trip, although it seemed mildly irrational as I was around every comfort I could want and it was a far throw from the isolated days in the Yukon or Alaska.

There really isn’t much to write home about the first few days out of Seattle. Rain showers were a dime a dozen and I repetitively went through a pattern of waterproofs on, off, on, off all day long for 2 consecutive days. It didn’t help that my supposedly waterproof and Gore-Tex lined shoes had sprung a leak; water slowly spreading from my toes up towards my heel until my entire right shoe was sodden. Although I want to exercise the generous lifetime return policy of that gear to REI, it may be a worthless exercise as California and warmer weather beckons in just a few weeks. I might also feel a tad guilty of asking for my money back after 3 months of wear and 4000 miles of cycling! The weather started to pick up just after Olympia, Washington – a town I had been looking forward to for a long time as it was billed as a musical, political and outdoor powerhouse that punched well above the weight of its 40,000 strong population. Arriving late and not having enough time to explore a place will always do it an injustice and that’s perhaps what happened in Olympia. After a few quiet drinks and expecting the next Kurt Cobain (he’s from Aberdeen, WA – just a few miles west) to come on stage, I retired back to the hostel where I was sharing a room with Bob and Gene, two 40- and 50-something guys who had innumerable stories to tell of their US travels over the past year. Both had served in the armed forces too – Bob in the first Gulf War and Gene in Korea – and they had this strong desire to show me just how good the American military was. We spent over an hour looking at YouTube videos of F35 and F15 fighter jets breaking the sound barrier, demonstrating their unique ability to avoid detection and their long range missile prowess. This was juxtaposed with Bob’s love for Irish music and the pagan spirituality contained within. Shortly after I witnessed a jet destroy military targets on the ground somewhere in the Middle East, we were watching a female group called Celtic Women sing The Voice (a former Eurovision winning song) and the sounds of the Mummar’s Dance reverberated around the walls of the tiny hostel. Bob reminded me strongly of Com Meaney’s character in ‘Intermission’ – a man in love with Celtic mysticism but able to cause some damage if needed!

The next day made me quite nostalgic for Ireland. Leaving urbania proper, I followed the Seattle to Portland cycle route which took me off of the main roads and out into the countryside. The landscape changed quite dramatically to an agricultural scene with farmers aggressively tilling fields, cows grazing on the rolling hills and the smell of a working landscape was in the air. It was also the first day that I could trace the sun across the sky without it breaking once. No clouds, a temperate day of 16 degrees and beautifully paved roads made for a perfect introduction to the rural side of Washington State. The next section of the ride was perhaps the most surreal yet. Late in the day, with darkness setting in I was forced to stop in Longview which is a city bordering the Columbia River along with its sister town, Kelso.  A few miles outside the city I could get the scent of industry and saw white plumes of smoke powerfully rising from chimneys in the distance. Stopping at a gas station on the border between the two cities, a checkout girl told me Longview was prettier for sure and had more of an ‘historic’ feel to it than Kelso. Oh how mistaken she was! The first thing that set me off to its odd nature was the guy who eyed up my bicycle outside the supermarket and definitely had the minds to take some of my stuff. He snaked over to it quietly when I went inside and had a check around to see if anyone was looking. Realising the inevitable fate of what would happen if I left it; I brought the bike inside the store and wheeled it to the customer service area, then quickly picked up dinner and got out of there.  Everybody else I met in Longview seemed to have this strange disposition to them as well, almost like folk from a backwater town in a Stephen King novel. It was unnervingly eerie that’s for sure but this writing no doubt does the place a biased injustice.  And for safety, as well as the stupidity of cycling at dark, I stayed at a motel and waited the night out, escaping early the next morning on the road to Astoria.

The Oregon coast has been one of the most anticipated sections of the journey. Since Alaska, people have told us we’ve got to ride 101 south and stop off at every little beach town en route. Although I’ve only travelled 30 miles of it so far, I’ve got to admit folks are right. The coast is stunning. Seaside, Oregon was my first taste of the Pacific Ocean so far (not counting inlets and sounds to the north) and the salty sea breeze that greeted me outside of Astoria was reminiscent of a Sunday stroll and a ’99 in Courtown, Wexford back at home. Cannon Beach was definitely the major highlight of this brief coastal stint however. The famous Haystack Rock – a massive rocky hill jutting out of the sea – acted as anchor to the expansive vista and waves crashed up against its sheer walls as tourists strolled along the wide, sandy beach that lined the shore behind it. I could’ve cycled on from Cannon Beach as I had only pedalled 22 miles that day, but thought there could be a spectacular sunset that evening. Almost missing it because of a baseball game, I got down to the beach just before the sun started to flirt with the horizon. Sea birds waded along the water in front of me as I watched it disappear and a hundred shades of gold lit up the sky and sand in all directions.

Almost longing to stay another day at the beach, I dragged myself away from its allure and shot inland towards Portland on an 82 mile day – equalling the longest myself and Lee have cycled so far. I have also been lucky to receive an offer of a complimentary stay from the Northwest Portland Hostel too who have given me a huge double room for two nights, right in the heart of the city. Still nursing severely bruised ribs from Seattle, that bed is the proper tonic! It was also the best place to chat to Tom Dunne on NewsTalk yesterday morning at 3.30am – albeit I was disgracefully groggy and out of it after the previous days ride. For now, it’s time to explore the town and meet up with some friends of friends. I plan on leaving tomorrow and head back to the coast where I reckon the route will remain by its side into California.

Oh, and check out our first webisodes of 350South here – http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFE99910BB80230A9 We’ll be adding more as we travel along and they have the best (and worst!) bits from our journey.

Parting ways

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

After 91 days on the road, 350South is now about to undergo a brief, temporary change whilst exploring the western US.

With 3,900 miles on the clock and many many more to go, we are temporarily going our own ways to explore the western seaboard of the USA as we both have specific things we want to do during the next month and a half. Not only does it give the chance to meander about in any which way we like, but it’ll also provide double the story to report on too! Our routes will vary alot but we will still be primarily following Highways 1 and 101 south towards San Francisco. In mid-November we’ll be meeting back up to head into Mexico and continue on together through Central and South America.

In the meantime, we will both be updating the website, blogging and posting photos. As we will be travelling a pretty similar route, there is also a high probability that we will hook up for a few days at a time and cycle together where our paths cross.

If you would like to see the first in a long line of video footage of our voyage, have a look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOGMCN_tjXE&sns=fb. This is the Promo Video of 350South and more video diary pieces will be live on the website very soon. So… check back and don’t forget to tell others of our journey!

Seattle

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

Subtle is not a word we would use to describe the change from our wilderness experiences to the world we’re now in. With a bang, we’ve found ourselves riding on three lane highways where the noise of cars and trucks almost drown out our own thoughts and the ‘remote’ cycling experience seems to be a distant memory.

Vancouver really did provide an excellent haven to recharge our batteries and psyche up for the next leg of our journey, however we’re already in Seattle and city life threatens the progress south once again! The cycle down was pretty uninspiring to be honest, especially on day one as we slowly pedalled our way out of the mass urban sprawl on a drizzly and slightly polluted morning. The US border was our first stopping point and our procession was unusually hassle-free, the only drama being a bored border guard warning us not to cross rows of traffic at the entrance huts. The road out from there was Interstate 5, a deafening and heavily trafficked route that runs south to Seattle, often carrying Canadian day-trippers looking to take advantage of the cheaper US prices. In fact, Bellingham which lies about 30 miles from the border is a city that may not exist in the state today were it not for this cross-border business opportunity. In that town the generosity of strangers was evident once again as we were pretty fortunate to meet a character named Bill at the grocery store who offered us his back garden to rest our heads on a night that sprung heavier rain and a chill in the air.

The next morning we expected another day of Bicycle Vs Car on the Freeway but were encouraged by locals to take the alternate coastal route of Chuckanut Drive. The route is an absolute gem and hinted at the sights to see along the Washington and Oregon coasts. A small and winding road, Chuckanut was covered by overhanging trees and coloured by shades of faded green and brown as fall has been quickly ushered in to the area. The drive also traverses Larabee State Park, the oldest in Washington and one of many we’ll have the pleasure of camping in over the coming weeks. Unfortunately, the Interstate crept back into view after a couple of hours of riding and was to be our primary path into Seattle which we hoped to reach by 12pm the following day as Ian’s sports addiction meant he was dead set on catching the Ireland vs Andorra football match and the Ireland vs Wales rugby.

We arrived into Seattle pretty much on target after another urban ride down from Everett, 27 miles north. The previous night we were very lucky to find a camping spot in a guy named Alex’s back yard. After a couple hours of asking around about potential green spaces to set up tent, our last resort was the Irish bar where Lee suggested I go use my accent to find a home for the night. Sure enough, the barman at The Irishmen was Irish and he asked around the pub for some help which quickly came in the form of Alex. After warning us that he and his brother’s computer zombie killing games could keep us up all night, we trucked it to his house and hit the hay after 2 beers and a whiskey provided by the guys knocked us to sleep.

Seattle has already thrown up some great experiences in the short time we’ve been here. Straight off, we’ve been given complimentary shanghai accommodation for 2 nights by Lee and Nancy of the 6 week old Hotel Hotel in the hip and organic Fremont neighbourhood. Despite what the name solely suggests, the place is actually a cross between funky hostel and boutique hotel. The area also has a wholly distinctive charm to it with galleries, artsy coffee shops and organic markets melding with the strong social and environmental consciousness of its people – at least that’s what it seems like a first glance. We even went on an art walk last night, meeting two cool girls – Sherman and Hallie – who we became moustache buddies with by the end of the night.  That proved even more fortunate as Lee is now off camping in the Cascade Mountains after rock-climbing with some of Sherman’s friends. Ian on the other hand is nursing some bruised ribs and a grazed right side of the body after a nasty bicycle fall on the way to the Ireland rugby game. The disappointment of that didn’t help matters either!

7 days in Vancouver

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

We’ve been here a little longer than originally anticipated but it’s hard to leave this city once you get a taste of it. Our Vancouver experience is one shaped by the people we’ve met and people may be the best way to explain it.

We arrived into Vancouver on a warm, breezy Tuesday evening as the odometer clocked a healthy 3500 miles and commuters rushed pass us in the opposite direction towards the sprawling suburbs. What seemed like an everlasting golden sunset guided us over the Lion’s Gate Bridge and into downtown, providing a perfect backdrop to the completion of Leg 1 on our journey. Personally, I thought that getting to Vancouver would be an anticlimax as it would just be another city, a resting point before moving on again but the feeling riding into the metropolis was one of pride as I realised what we’ve accomplished so far. And I suppose the accomplishment is only minor considering what we’ve still got to do, but just looking at the map and tracing the line south from Prudhoe brings with it a certain realisation of achievement.

We had been lucky to receive a few offers of couches to sleep on in the past few months as fellow travellers and ramblers were migrating back to the city. However, we decided to stay with Dave Wodchis, another touring cyclist who has completed some epic rides in the past including Lhasa to Everest and Ushuaia to Peru. What can we say about Dave? Well, in short he’s a legend and we couldn’t repay him enough for the last week holiday camp that is his house! On arrival, beers were chillin’ in the fridge (always a good sign by the way) and he showed us to our individual rooms (an even better sign!) which are decorated with photographs and ornaments from his wanderings throughout the world. Dave has pretty much done it all… a gardener now with his company Elemental Designs, he has also flirted with acting and theatre which we were treated to a snippet of last night as piano renditions of Tears in Heaven, Your Song and Clocks wiled away the evening. There is also something to be said about the advice gained from those who have travelled before you and I think we’ve picked up some invaluable nuggets of wisdom that only a seasoned traveller like Dave could actually communicate. It will be tough to depart from such comfort and friendship tomorrow morning but this will be a familiar constant on the journey. And with Dave not out of the saddle just yet, there is plenty of time for our weaving paths to cross once again.

Vancouver has also encouraged engagement in another huge feature of 350South – meeting the Irish diaspora out here and documenting their stories on film. Armed with Jon and Ben, two camera guys from the city, we set out to track down the Irish hiding out here. Thankfully, we had our research done and already set up some interviews with Irish folk including Sean Heather of The Irish Heather pub in Gastown and the Irish Sporting and Social Club who won the North American Championships Intermediate Football title this year in San Francisco. Both admitted that Irish emigration is huge here as there almost seems to be a surplus of work compared to the labour force. Historically, the Irish influence has not gone unnoticed either. The impressive Lions Gate Bridge was partially funded by the Guinness Family and generational Irish have played a huge role in the Vancouver Irish Regiment with the Canadian Armed Forces, especially during World Wars 1 and 2. With the independence struggle permeating Irish history itself, perhaps it’s in the blood to join the fight, wherever we go.

We were also quite fortunate to be linked up with a great guy called Kent Williams and had been in touch with him before about the Moving Planet Action Day he organised in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. The day revolves around people to get out and go beyond fossil fuels by walking, marching, cycling, running or doing anything that doesn’t leave a carbon footprint. Unfortunately we were late for the party but Kent caught up with us in the city for a pint and a cycle, in the spirit of the occasion. A man with a belief in the power of the individual and all the small things that we can contribute to a greener, cleaner world we were definitely inspired by his outlook and ideas on change for the better. His ideas also resonated at the same frequency of many others here too. Vancouver has the air of a progressive city about it and one that can lead the way in a “green” movement with cycling being one string to that bow. The city is as friendly as you can get for the cyclist, with properly designated cycle routes and you receive more of a community feel through the bikers on the road, one often lost in the modern cityscape. We even managed to play bicycle polo on Sunday with some of the folks who organise Velopalooza here, a cycling extravaganza with all sorts of crazy and fun events once a year. I can testify that Lee is deadly with a mallet and ball – I suppose it’s the only way to win when you can’t stay on your bike though eh?!

There were a million and one other interesting people we met while here and wish we could tell of all their stories. We would really like to thank Catholine and Tom from the Celtic Connection too who are running a piece on us for the October edition. Their hospitality in the form of ham sandwiches, cakes and beers was much appreciated when we first arrived and in true Irish fashion, it proved pretty difficult to leave their conversation. It was also fantastic to catch up with Barry and John, friends from back home but now true Vancouver-ites. Beers and the Irish rugby victory over Italy were well celebrated!

We’re planning to cross over into the US tomorrow so let’s hope we can escape the pull of this entertaining and intriguing city. The road leads south and with 85 days and 3600 miles up, there are plenty of travels to get on with.

Out of the mountains and into the desert

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

Leg 1 nearly complete! We are now on the excitable final descent into Vancouver after 3400 miles and 70 days of furious pedalling since leaving Prudhoe Bay on July 16th. And we really couldn’t have asked for a more interesting and changeable landscape to herald our arrival.

The last time we wrote, Banff provided a cosy shelter for us, tucked away quietly in the Canadian Rockies where the mountain peaks rose sharply outside of town and a cool, sunny climate meant we could laze about the area all day long. Things have changed quite alot since that 6 day holiday and we now find ourselves riding through the semi arid desert that stretches out from Kamloops towards the coast.

One of the most stunning rides of the trip came straight out of Lake Louise as we turned west and summated the mighty Kicking Horse Pass, with our path taking us through Glacier National Park – the lesser known cousin of Jasper and Banff National Parks directly to the east. Perhaps it was the weather… or the mood we were in… or even just what we had for breakfast but we both agreed this was one of the trip’s hidden gems and equally as beautiful as the heavily marketed Icefields Parkway located in Jasper and Banff. On our descent from the Pass we stopped for photos as the rains broke and allowed in a tiny chink of light to the distant valley – the vegetation and river lit up for miles with the afternoon’s golden rays. If we had passed five minutes earlier, or five minutes later we wouldn’t have witnessed that unique, momentary beauty of the valley which otherwise may not have caused the batting of an eyelid. The remainder of the park didn’t disappoint either. Illecillewaet Glacier, Mt. Revelstoke in  the middle distance and the winding, narrow mountain roads gave visual inspiration for hours as we passed through one of Canada’s most remarkable protected areas.

The other unsung joy of being out here is the ability to camp almost wherever we want. Technically “wherever we want” can potentially bring a hefty fine, or at least a slap on the wrist, especially in the national parks which we’ve learned Canada is particularly protective of. On many occasions we haven’t much of a choice and the next pull off or closed campground has got to be home for the night. Just last week, after what can be described as the worst days weather wise thus far, we were forced to stop and camp at a picnic area in Glacier NP as night approached. Generally when the light is falling, it’s already too late. That means setting up your tent and eating in the dark, which is fine on most occasions but not when accompanied by torrential rains or bitter cold. We were at our grumpiest that day and the next morning, especially when I found my right front pannier bag containing all of my clothes had sprung a leak. Even my waterproof socks were wet! And it really ain’t fun cycling in your wet gear the next morning while waiting on the sun to rise over the hills and dry the gear hanging from the back of your bike. However, most of the time it’s the converse situation. If we’re lucky, we’ll find a secluded site off the road or one of those closed campgrounds to pitch in and with the weather the way it has been, there’s often a scattering of snow on the ridgelines the next morning as winter approaches.

The last two days have brought about a huge change in temperature, landscape and terrain. As we dropped down out of Revelstoke, we experienced the last swansong to the previous two weeks. A magnificent, effortless ride by finger-like lakes and roadside waterfalls was the last we were to see of the inland mountain climate we’d become accustomed to. When those mountains changed to hills after 40miles of cycling, a hot, dry heat blasted us and we were dropped into a scene that could equally be at home in Arizona or Texas. Although not that western looking, it did quickly transition to a brown and grey scrub landscape dotted with sandbanks and some cacti. We even had the mile long Canadian Pacific locomotives drumming by for company. As molehills replaced mountains, it didn’t bring a complete respite in climbing for and we are actually facing one of the more testing sections of the journey on Highway 99 which guides us west from Cache Creek (where we now sit) to Lillooet and down towards the ski town of Whistler. The people have also changed too, surprisingly enough. We’ve noticed that there is an older population here, one devoid of much youth and was particularly obvious in Salmon Arm and Chase which were a day’s cycle back. Perhaps most leave here for work or study in Vancouver which is a mere 350km away but the observation has been confirmed by the locals too who really didn’t seem to mind too much. There has also been a character or two along the way who have made us laugh… and almost cry a little! Yesterday at lunch in the “Lakeside Community” of Savona, we met a guy called Seamus who claimed a strong Irish heritage and I wasn’t to argue after gaping at the huge green Celtic design tattooed on his arm and shamrock on his hand. He told he was just back from fishing and after selling his catering company for $115 million he planned on that alot more now with retirement coming at the healthy age of 46. With flailing gesticulations and stories to tell us about the dangers of Mexico and the stupidity of US border control (who he had particular beef with after a very innocent shopping trip) he sped off in his Royal Canadian Mounted Police car, bought recently from a police auction. After the lacklustre day we had up to that point, we were jacked on his energy and sped the next 30miles. It really is the characters that make the memories up here. And with that, it’s time to vacate… there’s miles to be done and hills to be climbed. Let’s hope this wind that just picked up is at our backs!

Whitehorse, Yukon to Goat River

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

Well, it’s been a while! Despite the lack of a blog entry in at least 3 weeks, plenty has happened on the 350South trail and we’ll do our best to fill you in on it in a very condensed few paragraphs.

Firstly, where are we? Well, right now the beautiful (but crazily expensive) mountain town of Banff, Alberta is providing a home for us while we overcome the first major technical difficulties of the trip. 2 days ago Lee had the bad fortune to discover the rim (the metal piece that the brakes touch) of his back wheel had picked up a naughty little crack and that brought a halt to our Rocky Mountain adventure for the time being. Fortunately though, the discovery was made at a small service station called Saskatchewan River Crossing which was the only settlement for 50 miles around and we holed up there for a night in some sponsored shanghai accommodation at The Crossing Motel to decide on next moves. After much deliberation, we decided to chance our arms and hitch a lift to Banff where we found out that a guy could rebuild the wheel in 3 to 4 days. That saved the otherwise lengthy trip to Calgary where the part may or may not be residing in one of the many bike shops the provinces capital has to offer. After a day of thumb waving at pick up trucks, the National Parks Service came to our rescue and we found our way here on a spectacular Monday morning.

The past few weeks have been quite incredible in terms of scenery, wildlife and people. It also saw us complete the 1400 mile Alaska Highway, which runs from Fairbanks, Alaska to Dawson, Creek, Canada. Initially not the planned route, we’re kind of glad we chose to ride this section of road as it seems far less travelled by bicycle tourists and also offers a few gems to discover. The decision to take this route south over the more popular Cassiar Highway was made by Lee in Watson Lake whilst ‘spracked’ out of his mind on a few too many coffees after our indecision started to frustrate. One thing we’ve realised about each other is that we’re both pretty damn easy going – to the point where perhaps decisions are never made with much conviction. Maybe they don’t have to be though, as we had been riding one road for over 20 days so coming to these crossroads was the first biggy we needed to discuss. The Alaska Highway winds its way through a very changeable landscape of river valleys, marshes, wide open flats and soaring mountain peaks. One of the main reasons we ended up cycling down there was Liard Hot Springs, a hidden traveller’s haven where the smell of sulphur wafts out onto the passing highway. Initially delayed arriving there by the appearance of 5 black bears in a 1km stretch just outside, we were over the moon to get a soaking that night and the next morning – muscles rejuventated for sure!

One of the major surprises was that there was a severe dearth of cyclists down the Alaska. In fact the last people we met for a long while were straight out of Whitehorse which seemed to be a magnet for all cyclists in that region. And it was there that we happened upon one of the most interesting characters of the journey thus far – Rob, the Welshman! Rob first appeared to us in downtown Whitehorse telling of his misfortune at being kicked off his campsite in the middle of the night because he was there illegally. He also told us about his unique tactic of bear defence – throwing rocks at them when they got too close and erecting an electric bear fence at night around his tent. Rob left Anchorage in mid July, heading for Ushuaia like us but two days in his cycle partner decided it wasn’t for him and packed up for home in the UK. Rob will openly admit he knows nothing about bikes, had the trip arranged for him and stops too often for a cigarette along the road which makes his ongoing adventure now even more challenging and amazing. We all hit it off and have decided that we’re going to link up again and meet before Mexico, not just for safety but for the companionship along the way on a very different leg of the journey.

3Fiddy South has also turned big time in the last few days! On Tuesday last, Anna and Ross arrived from Ireland to begin filming the documentary. This is the first time the crew has been out and we hope not the last as it was some of the best fun we’ve had since leaving. Ross particularly got the short end of the stick. A couple weeks ago, myself and Lee began to build up and imaginary relationship with Ross despite never meeting him before and we eagerly agreed that he was to be our new best friend. Maybe the lengthy time 350South has spent alone together has done funny things to our heads but Ross didn’t disappoint! Whenever we were mic-ed up, Lee’s repetition of “Ross Ross Ross, come in Ross, paging Ross” got out of control to the point where I’m pretty sure he took the headphones off for quiet time. He and Anna were also privy to the strange conversations we have on the bikes and the fact they still remained was a good sign! With the crew here, we also got to fulfil another of our goals along the way which is to meet Irish people wherever we land. In Jasper, Helen and Gerry Kelleher not only met us for pints but also allowed to tent up in their backyard and made us the biggest Irish breakfast I’ve seen in a while the next morning – the hospitality never dies no matter how long you’ve been away it seems. With the footage of mountain vistas, braided river channels and struggling cyclists captured, the guys left this morning for Ireland but we’re hoping they come back soon for the promised ManWichs!

As the coffee shop closes up here, we’re gonna have to cut this blog short. From now on we’ve planned to manage the limited internet access a little better and update to a more frequent level. It’s been pretty tough to access a connection for long but we are getting into more built up areas now so things should prove easier. We might even get another blog out this week!

Delta Junction to Whitehorse

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

With almost a month under our belts, we are well and truly into the swing of the bicycle tourist’s life and have settled in for the long haul to Ushuaia, Argentina. Since leaving Fairbanks, the scenery and landscape has taken quite a large leap from that on the Dalton Highway and services have also finally started to appear at more regular intervals, meaning we don’t have to overload ourselves with provisions for extended periods of time and are starting to meet some interesting characters.

The terrain in eastern Alaska and the Yukon Territory, Canada – where we now are – is one that has been pretty generous to us after the climbing fury of the first couple of weeks. Out here, the mountains always seem to roll along beside you but don’t cross your path too often and cause us to shift into those granny gears for the big climbs. For the last 11 days, we’ve been following the Alaska Highway – a road measuring 1,400 miles through Alaska and Canada, but built in just 8 months. Riding this route, you really come to appreciate the massive effort that it took to carve out this ribbon of road to the north. It was constructed as a military necessity after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1942 and the military efficiency evident in its build time is something to marvel at considering the rolling landscape it passes through. Our first rest stop along the Highway was Tok, Alaska – a small town of just over 1,000 people but big enough for us to stay occupied for a day. And when I say occupied, I mean eating! On our day off, we moseyed down to Fast Eddie’s Restaurant on the east side of town just to have breakfast. 4 hours later, we were finishing up lunch and about to pass out from the ridiculous amount of coffee refills we were drinking. The madness had to stop so we quickly picked up a 6 pack of Fairbanks Lager and headed to camp to consider next moves. Needless to say, that alone was the death knell to the day but we did manage to get some laundry done as the smell of feet from our clothes was getting a little stifling to say the least.

After Tok, there was very little in the way of interest. The landscape was as flat as the pancakes we had for breakfast the previous morning and towns were few and far between. The one positive was that Lee broke out his Ipod for the first time and we had some proper tunes to cycle by. It still makes Ian laugh when he thinks of no hands dancing on the bike to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” while pedalling alongside the Alaska Range and singing out loud that “Sun kissed skin, so hot will melt your popsicle”. Out here, there’s nobody to tell you you’re tone deaf either!

On Day 19 we finally crossed over the border to Canada at Port Alcan. Security on the Canadian side was far more easygoing than the US, which had cameras at every vantage point and intimidating looking security vehicles dotting the road. Declaring that we didn’t have over $5000 in cash with us and informing the customs officials that we had 6 more beers in our pannier bags, we tipped slowly to Beaver Creek a few kilometres down the road. Beaver Creek is the typical type of settlement we run in to out here, having just a small mini-mart with a few aisles, a restaurant/saloon/RV park/motel all in one and a gas station. To say these places are sleepy is an understatement but for us it can mean a luke warm shower, a bottle of pop and some shaky internet access. You can’t imagine how excited we get for these types of things after a while alone!

The one thing people have continuously asked us about from home and out here on the road is about bears. Have you seen any? Are they really that big? You think that Bear Spray is gonna do you for protection? Well, it wasn’t until three weeks in that we had our first proper encounter and one that was too close for comfort. We had just powered over the 1000 mile mark and were coasting towards Destruction Bay in the rain when out of the corner of our eyes we saw mother grizzly bear and her two cubs about 10 yards away on the opposite side of the road. This is one of the worst situations you can be in – all alone, exposed on bikes with nobody else around and spotted by the bear. Nervously unlocking the bear spray, we hastily decided we should cycle on slowly and hope she doesn’t deem us a threat. I mean, we were pretty miserable looking standing there in the spilling rain and wrecked from 7 hours of cycling. Just as we moved, the grizzly stood up on her hind legs and stared us down with an intense glare. The adrenaline rush was an amazing but altogether sickly feeling when it got going. The next move for the bear is usually to sit back down or charge at you so we were pretty relieved when she sat back down and returned to business. Being around mother and children is a bad enough situation to be in but  I suppose she felt sorry for the dishevelled and rain soaked  looks we had and decided we weren’t worth the charge. Ian’s legs continued to shake until we reached camp that night in Destruction Bay – this turning out to be a roasting hot hotel launderette. The rain was so bad we decided not to set up camp and instead baked ourselves in the most sauna-like laundry room ever that remained active with hotel staff during the night. Cue grumpy morning bicycle tourists with a 70 mile day ahead.

This all but takes us to Whitehorse, where the rain is battering the fly sheet of our tents. Just before we arrived here though we had “Very Random Trip Experience” No. 1 and 2! They day we set off for Whitehorse, we were having breakfast at a pull over on the side of the road. Randomly, out of one of the long drop toilets walks Robson Green, the actor who starred in Casualty in the UK and had a number 1 single with Unchained Melody back in the day. As he got back into his car, Ian had to ask “Are you da fella off da telly?” and sure enough it was. He was even happy enough to pose for a photo before heading off into the backcountry fishing. Only a couple of hours later, we were stopped on the road by 3 brothers from North Dakota who wanted to know if we were 350South. Word of our noble quest is finally getting out we thought! It turns out the guys are cycling from Anchorage to Ushuaia and recognised Lee’s face from the website. We had a lively chat for about 30mins and hopefully will bump into each other as we make our way south.

As we said, we’re now in Whitehorse and have enjoyed a few days of down time which mostly consisted of eating expensively, hanging out in coffee shops and even catching a film. We’re going to leave in the morning for perhaps one of the most isolated stretches of road we’ll experience and need to be stocked up on supplies for the days and nights alone. The planning comes next for that. In a month, we’ll be in Vancouver when it all gets a little easier but we really do enjoy the greater isolation that Alaska and The Yukon have brought. Let’s hope for more of the same in the coming weeks!

Dalton

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

This blog was written from Mexico City after the website had been hacked and deleted and so recounts some experiences from the first week of the journey

The 9 days spent on the Dalton Highway, or Haul Road, as known to those who work it was an eye-opening experience as it marked the christening of our trip and also brought home the realities of bicycle touring.

The road from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska (Deadhorse) to the junction of the Eliot Highway, 72 miles north of Fairbanks is a masterful piece of engineering but a demon introduction to the bike touring lifestyle. The road itself is built north-south and crosses an east-west topography that was in no part an easy ride. The first 3 days from Deadhorse was predictably flat and time was spent gazing at herds of caribou, swatting mosquitoes and getting used to the extreme weight of the bicycles that carried perhaps too much gear and also 14 days worth of food.


The Dalton is isolated. It was constructed for heavy vehicles to transport machinery and supplies to Deadhorse at its most northern end, where thousands of oil workers tirelessly worked to get the ‘black gold’ moving through the Alaska Pipeline and to Valdez, southern Alaska. The pipeline, also known as the Alyeska pipeline is another masterful stroke of engineering and is the only reason a population actually spends freezing winters and mild summers at the top of the world.

For us, we didn’t want to start there just to be at the very top (although this was in our mind), but we knew that the Brooks Range and southern slope of it was an area of exciting beauty. The water is so clean on the north slope that you can drink direct from the clear and shimmering rivers. The treeless landscape is almost fairytale and not something I have ever come across before. The wildlife is abundant – caribou, wolves, bears – all inhabiting what is perhaps one of the great untouched areas of the United States.

I have never seen such greens as there. The Brooks were resplendent by night as the sun still lurked high in the sky and cast shadows over a grassy and ancient landscape. Kettle ponds from glacial activity were everywhere and were a reminder of the power of ice and the planet as a whole, to carve a special and unfamiliar terrain at the far north of the world and our imaginations.

Our first real test in cycling terms was to be the Atigun Pass, the highest road in Alaska. Approaching this, it swept high to the sky, one curve and another until light broke through a pass and heralded a gravel downhill of immense proportion. Lee topped it first, Ian following 45mins later after 2 or 3 hours of climbing. It’s funny how time mattered in a different sense once climbing heavily and also as the sun never set. We would often ride until 10pm at night and eat by a low-lying sun. A land of true wonder.

The camp station at Coldfoot was the most exciting part of the Dalton in many senses. This truck stop had a buffet, beer and a wreck yard to pitch a tent. After 4 days, that was all that we ever wanted. Thinking back to that simplicity now in Mexico, it’s easy to take cheap Posadas and Hotels for granted. A wreck yard would always be enough.

The last 3 days of the Dalton were rough. The road continuously changed from pave to gravel and the mountains rose a dime a dozen. For 2 people not exactly experienced and not in any way fit to tackle them, they pushed to the limit. We finished our Dalton experience on the dawn of the 9th day, at 11.30pm at night. Up and down huge gradients with a baking sun, torrid mosquitoes and a dwindling energy supply – we were glad to have ridden this ribbon of road.

Even now, thinking back on my favourite memories, the Dalton perhaps ranks highest. It was where the education began and as I always say now, those days that are most difficult are the ones that you remember most. I’ll never turn down a mountain anymore!

Gearing Up

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

It’s hard to believe that in less than two months we’ll be standing in the pretty nippy summer air at Deadhorse, AK, USA ready to take off and clock those first miles off the huge 17,000 target. Time has flown so much in the last while, that it really does make you realise how important the last 7 weeks will be in terms of preparation and planning but also in spending time with those closest to us.

In terms of that preparation, I think we’re starting to feel on top of things now. With so much time initially between thinking of this trip and the actual set off date, it often became easy to spend much time reading around the necessities but not actually getting them – well, for me anyway (Ian)! In my own mind, I felt that we would always need the best, high quality gear to make life easy on ourselves and cut down on maintenance and repairs on the road. However, it is possible to do this trip without breaking the bank and splashing out a little more for those extra comforts. It’s been nice to see some stuff dribble in through the post box too and I’m gathering a small pile in my room that grows larger every day. It’ll be amazing to see how all that equipment can actually fit inside four pannier bags and one bar bag.

Bikes

The most important immediate pieces for the road however, are our bikes. I had thought about writing a complete blog on just them – and maybe a little later I will when they’re fully built – but for now, we are very happy with how progress is being made. We are both taking Surly Long Haul Truckers with us which are the only workhorses to drive us southwards. They’re big, made out of the strongest of strong steel and can carry incredible weights which we really like (who’s to say we won’t stop for hitch-hikers?!). Lee’s bike is being built by Velosoul in Denver, CO and the guys are doing a fantastic job in shanghai on making sure it’s as ready as it can be before July 15th. I’m working with Hollingsworth Cycles in Dublin, a shop that’s been around for quite a while and knows what it takes to build up a fine machine. We have alot of similar componentry on our tourers but some pieces will vary depending on preference – the componentry being all the pieces that do the work while the frame is the spine and strength. The trick is cutting down on weight without losing durability. We are both running Phil Wood Touring Hubs for the wheels which’ll help us roll really smooth and I have a Shimano XT (44/32/22) crankset (the arm that converts our leg power into forward motion) while Lee has chosen a Sugino XD600 (46/36/26). The rest of the beast will be described in a later article!

Camping

On the Pan-American Highway, we expect to be carrying around 25kg of kit which will include everything from camping gear, cooking equipment, clothes, electronics (incase we get lost!) and personal items. This all totals up to about 70 items each while we’ll share the rest to cut down on weight. The priority for gear is in staying warm, dry and comfortable. It sounds like a pretty easy thing to prepare for but for a journey such as ours, we really need to cut down on the heavy stuff if we’re going to pedal over mountain passes in Central America or the Altiplano of Bolivia. We’ve taken different sleeping bags, one goose down and one synthetic, which is always a major bone of contention in choosing. Down has better weight to warmth ratio but if it gets wet, you’re in trouble as it loses all its insulating power. Synthetic is heavier and slightly harder to pack away but doesn’t have the risk factor association with it. I’ taking a Mountain Equipment Titan 450 while Lee has gone with the Mont-Bell Super Spiral Burrow Bag #5 – must be top stuff with a name like that! As for tents, MSR just make great living space and we’re taking a Hubba and a Hubba Hubba which are set up using just one pole – a nice feature for me considering I could barely put up a 2 pole tent at the Oxegen Music festival a few years back! Finally, we’ll be cooking up a storm on the MSR Dragonfly stove which has the nice ability to simmer and this is bound to come in handy should any of us turn into a proper chef overnight.

These really are the essentials to get going and the rest is falling into place. We’re going to carry a SPOT GPS Connect system too so we can log our position on the www.350south.org map and it also allows us to update our Facebook and Twitter. This will tie nicely into the fact that where internet is available, we will also upload the latest photos and videos for anyone following. For communications, we’re still deciding over whether to take a satellite phone or just a regular unblocked smart phone so we can maintain contact with everyone although it seems like the latter may be the better option, price-wise at least. Part of the adventure is being that bit away from it all but there may be no substitute for calling home on a reliable basis now and again.

In the next while, Lee will be writing about his Wilderness Survival Training (Ian will read carefully) and also will outline some more details on the equipment coming with us. Stay tuned for more and as ever, if you want to support us on our journey please donate at our MyCharity.ie fundraising page.

Dundrum Day

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

As I made the tea and toast for breakfast last Saturday, April 30th, I couldn’t have been happier to see the rain clouds move over the house and moments later witness the skies opening in front of me! Weird? For most maybe… but not today, as I was hoping this would drive some more happy shoppers inside Dundrum Town Centre on the Bank Holiday and encourage generous giving to the Carer’s Association through our On the Spot Cycle.

A few months ago, I broached this idea to Dundrum Shopping Centre and they were only too pleased to have a local resident hop on a bicycle and pedal up a 58 mile on the spot frenzy for three and a half hours. This mileage would be the average we would travel each day in the Americas and was a great story to hook Saturday’s cycle around.

It really was a fantastic day and even in times when people are watching their spending as wisely as ever, we didn’t notice any relaxation in charitable giving. From the very start, people approached us unsolicited to give, intrigued by the 350South adventure and the work of the Carer’s Association of Ireland. It was also inspiring to experience the sense of community that existed between people that we’ve never met, even in the country’s largest shopping centre. Having young and old come up and wish us well on the trip and offers words of encouragement was really amazing to see.

To incentivise giving, we were also very lucky to have shops within the centre to offer gifts for a prize draw for anyone wishing to donate. This not only helped encourage people to throw money in the buckets but also allowed us to pounce on those unsuspecting shoppers admiring the table full of prizes! The team on the day were also the best that we could’ve asked for. My parents John and Emilie were up and chatted mostly about the trip and how to follow us on social media, of which I was surprised they knew so much about! My girlfriend Aine was also there with friends Eileen and Brian who shook buckets until the day ran out. Emma Murphy, the national fundraising manager for the Carer’s also came by and everyone was delighted with the €644 we raised in total for the day.

A special thanks must also go to Shouting at Planes, a band who just started to busk for the us to raise more money for the Carer’s Association on the day. We also did a small radio interview with 2FM who were about the centre and added that little extra bit of exposure for the trip and cause.

Thanks also go to L’Occitane, McCabe’s Pharmacy, Tesco, Butler’s Chocolates, Milano and China Buffet King for donated prizes on the day.

The Carer’s Association

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

Cycling the length of the Americas is a massive challenge in itself but raising €100,000 for the Carer’s Association is another feat altogether!

For those that aren’t entirely sure of who a carer is – a carer can be anybody, young or old, who delivers high levels of care usually to family members that are in need of almost constant physical and mental support. They look after a wide range of people with various needs such as frail older people, those with severe disabilities, the terminally ill and children with special needs. Their work can easily be described as 24/7 and often lead a life governed by the needs of another.

The Carer’s Association are the national voluntary organisation who supports family carers in the home. They lobby and advocate on behalf of family carers, who are often forgotten in government policy and in a social justice sense. They also provide an in home respite service, run training programs for carers and provide information on carer’s entitlements.

When I went to meet with Emma and Annette at the Carers for the first time last November, I could really see the positive but oftentimes difficult work they do. It was also a reminder of the time I spent as a part-time carer for my grandmother along with my mother for many years and immediately it took me back to the tough life that came with being a carer, especially for my Mam.  My gran Lily lived with us in a compassionate environment as she was at home and no doubt this contributed to her long life. I’m sure without the comforts of living at home and the understanding of her needs that came with being amongst family, she would never have lived to the age of 90.

The thing is, we all have a chance of either needing care or giving it at some point in our lives. For those who end up needing, the choice to live and receive care at home with their family is often one they have no power to make. However, those who decide to give can make this a reality – but with high levels of personal sacrifice.

We would really appreciate even the smallest of contributions to the Carer’s Association of Ireland and help us reach our fundraising target and it’s a big target! We’re confident we can get there though, if enough people decide to take 5 mins and donate towards this great cause.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”

-          Winston Churchill

Because it’s there

February 15th, 2012 by Ian

Welcome to the inaugural 350South blog entry! For a while now, I had been thinking about what to put in here, what people want to know or how best I can describe what we are doing. Still with absolutely no clue how to go about that in the space of a few short paragraphs, I’ll just put pen to paper and see what comes out!

The natural question people often ask when I tell them about the trip is “Why are you doing that?” At the beginning, this was very simple to answer and I’d usually say something that closely resembled what George Mallory declared when asked the same about climbing Everest -“Because it’s there”. And that’s still very true now. For both Lee and myself, I think there is a sense of adventure engrained in both of us and there was a want for one big trip, something that would be physically and mentally challenging in a way that could show us some of the world and shape us for the better. There was also something pretty damn cool about looking at a map, picking out two extreme points on two different continents and deciding to cycle between them! Having the set target of Ushuaia is also pretty settling and a dream to work towards from Day 1.

As we planned however, usually over too many Guinness and one dollar tacos in Denver last year, it was obvious that we should attach a charitable cause to our journey and really make an impact on other people’s lives as well as our own. The Carer’s Association was a very easy choice to make when we decided upon this, particularly through my connection as a part time carer for my grandmother a few years back. We hope to raise enough money and help them carry out their massively important work. Seeing it firsthand myself, it’s just one more reason to drive us to succeed on the road south.

Although it can be pretty scary sometimes just to consider the distance and the time, it’s really going to be about taking it one country, one week or even one day at a time we reckon. And there’s comfort in knowing others have finished it too – often in crazier circumstances than us. Just last night, two parents and their two children known as Family on Bikes completed their odyssey from Alaska to Argentina after 2 and a half years on the road, covering over 17,000 miles and homeschooling the kids all the way! Piece of cake eh….

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