UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, 15th – 21st August 2018
The three of us approached the United States border, each with a sense of trepidation. Alex because he had already entered the US in Alaska, and he was worried they weren’t going to reset him back to the full 90 days permitted to stay in the country, me because I knew there might be questions asked about my varied travel history, and Dea because of the foul stench of decaying lettuce emanating from my basket.
We rolled up to an intimidating looking border guard, a serious look on his face, gun on his belt, sense of humour firmly left at home. He asked us some questions about where we were from and where we were going, and studied our passports carefully.
“How long did you say you were planning to stay in the US?” he further questioned Alex.
“But you’ve already entered the US. You have to make a meaningful exit before you can come back and get another 90 days. Do you know what a meaningful exit is?”
“Erm,” gulped Alex.
“It means you go back to your own country!” barked the guard.
It doesn’t actually mean that, it just means you have to leave North America, but this part of the conversation didn’t involve me, and I thought it best not to chime in.
“I don’t know if they’re going to give you another stamp. You’ll have to ask inside. Now, do any of you have any narcotics on you?”
“No,” we all shook our heads in unison.
“Do you have any weapons?”
“Do you have any meats, cheese, fruits or vegetables?”
“Oh, yes, I have this lettuce,” I said, cautiously holding up the offending item.
The guard was looking at me with disgust.
“Is there a bin here, or…”
He began shaking his head. If it was up to him, I don’t think any of us would be entering his country.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said, motioning for me to remove the rotten vegetable from in front of his face. “Lean your bikes up over there and go inside, all of you.”
The border officers inside the building were thankfully much nicer, but sadly for Alex they nevertheless refused to give him a new entry stamp, and he was left with just 21 days in the United States. As for Dea and I, we appeared welcome to stay for 90 days, so long as we could fill in our I-94 forms without complications, and by ‘complications’ I mean ‘ticking the box next to the question about Iran’. We both managed to do this, but were soon holding our breaths again when my new passport was scanned and the man doing the scanning stared at his screen for a long time. But it was only because his computer had crashed, and it eventually came back online and we were welcomed into the United States of America.
We spent our first American night camping in the park in the town of Eureka, just a few kilometres miles over the border. It was a nice spot, where people are welcome to camp by the river for a voluntary donation, and there was even wifi and free showers available at the nearby visitor centre. But Alex was in a solemn mood that evening as he munched on his tin of cold beans. He’d been looking forward to the USA, now he was going to have to rush through it and probably take a bus across most of it. It would also sadly mean the premature end of our time cycling together. Perhaps that was why he decided to spend the first of his few days in the States with us, one last day together for Team Spirit as we took a day off together in Eureka. We made the most of the rest day too, playing games together and inventing a new one that would go on to become one of the greatest games ever invented ever. It involved the three of us standing in a triangle and laying down T-shirts on either side of us, standing between them as if in a goal. One player would then throw a tennis ball from behind his or her T-shirts, with the intention of hitting one of the other players’ T-shirts. The player guarding the attacked T-shirt would of course have to defend, trying to deflect or catch the tennis ball. Points were scored for a direct hit of a T-shirt, or for a clean catch. The rules of this new sport, to become known as Eurekaball, would evolve further over the weeks and months ahead, and I’ll be sure to tell you all about that in ensuing blogposts don’t worry, but for now, here is a diagram I’ve made to help you understand the basic premise of this truly awesome new sport.
The next morning Alex was already gone. He’d decided to try and cycle the whole way to Mexico, an ambitious undertaking, and had made an early start having said farewell to us the night before. And in the two weeks that followed we would get occasional updates from him as he made incredibly fast progress south, making it to the Mexico border not only on time, but well ahead of time. A truly remarkable achievement, and a superb advertisement for the benefits of adopting a whole food, plant based diet. Alex attributed his success to the cheap coffee available at American gas stations.
So despite having seen and spoken to many other cyclists in Eureka, it was just the two of us that finally departed town together to begin our American dream. Most of the others that we spoke with were skipping the next section of the Great Divide route, preferring to take the quick-and-easy option of the highway to the next town. But Dea and I were here to ride the divide, and ride the divide we jolly well would, at least until we got bored of it. So we left the highway and rode off into the forest again, up, up and into the mountains and nature and all that lovely stuff. We met one other cyclist, an older solo female named Deanna, heading our way but preferring to ride alone. It would not be the last time we’d meet.
The road was a remote one and the following day we saw only one car, a four-by-four driven by a 67-year-old hunter named Hunter Mann (pseudonym). Despite his murderous hobby Hunter Mann was a nice fellow indeed, and he forewarned us of trouble ahead. This was forest fire season, and a recent blaze was now closing off a road we needed to take to stay on the Great Divide route. He suggested we could turn back for the highway, but backtracking isn’t something we like to do, not even in the face of burning forests, and we decided to continue. It wasn’t long before we met Deanna, retreating, leaving us as the sole remaining hardcore cyclists who were going to ride the divide, come what may.
This philosophy carried us only as far as the intersection with the closed road, where we of course resisted the irresistible temptation to cycle into a forest fire. Instead we took an alternative paved road that skirted the edges of Glacier National Park. This probably would have made for some lovely views were it not for the unfortunate fact that a much bigger forest fire was raging in the park, and smoke blocked out everything. We pulled up our buffs and battled on through the smoke. For thirty kilometres or more it stung our eyes and impregnated our clothes with the stench of burning wood. These forest fires are a natural way for the forests to regenerate, they create space for new plants to grow, wonderful habitat for deers and all that, but they sure are awful to ride a bike through.
We rejoined the divide route at Columbia Falls on a wet morning. The rain was good news for the fires and not too bad for us, as it gave us an excuse to hide in the library, where we met another cyclist, a young Canadian named Adam. Once the skies cleared Dea and I headed to the supermarket to do a bit of shopping. As I was waiting outside a man approached me, an older man dressed in a check shirt with a tremendous moustache and a giant great cowboy hat on his head. It really was a magnificent hat, the kind of hat only an American could wear. He asked me where we had cycled and where we were going, and upon hearing our story he said, in his wonderful American drawl, “I take my hat off to you guys.”
I waited expectantly, but he didn’t follow through on his promise.
South of Columbia Falls we rode on flat paved roads, surrounded for the first time by Montana’s ranchland, the hills far away on either side of us now. We were unsure of where we could possibly camp out, for everything in this open landscape was private property, when we were stopped by a man on an ATV. His name was Wes, and he told us he was planning to make a place on his property where cyclists could sleep. We waited to see if he would offer us a place to sleep this night, but evidently it was a no-go until this special place had been made, as no invitation was forthcoming. But as we were stopped talking to Wes, three more cyclists came along. One was the aforementioned Adam, the others a couple named Craig and Gloria. Now this was a fortuitous turn of events, for they happened to know of a couple who had already made a special place that they offered to cyclists for camping, and they called it their yard. So the five of us now rode on together a few miles until we arrived at the home of Tom and Pat.
Tom and Pat sure were lovely people. Now in their older years, they’ve been hosting cyclists in their yard since 1980, and have lost none of their enthusiasm for it. They didn’t bat an eye at seeing the five of us show up, offering us cold beers and drinks and showing us around their property where they’d grown the biggest courgettes I’d ever seen in my life. There was a bench for us all to sit at, and it soon turned into a tremendously tremendous evening of tremendousness as we chatted the night away together.
Adam left early the next morning but we managed to leave with Craig and Gloria. With them being a younger couple from Australia/Spain we got along well with them, and we thought it would be nice to roll along together for a while. It was too, apart from getting out of breath trying to chat and keep up with their pace at the same time, and by the first turn we realised we weren’t going to be able to keep up with their pace, and said our goodbyes. So far every single southbound cyclist we’d met had been overtaking us, but Dea and I were slow and steady, and we hoped we’d get where we were going in the end.
Not long after saying farewell to our two cycling buddies, we had two new ones. These were Tony and Chris, who were just out for a morning ride but pulled alongside us to ask us what we were doing. I was chatting with Tony, the older of the two, while Dea rode behind with his son-in-law. We had a good old chat, did Tony and I, as we rode along together. He was on a super light racing bike and I think, I think, he might have been holding back with his usual pace in order to cycle alongside me. I was impressed when he told me that he did Ironman triathlons, and also interested, as I’d recently decided that an Ironman would be the first big challenge I would set myself to complete once all this cycling malarkey comes to an end. So we had plenty to talk about, and when we came to Tony’s holiday home and the end of our ride together, he invited us in for a sandwich, and it was an offer we could not very well refuse.
Tony and his family are actually Canadian and live in Calgary, but they all come down to stay in Montana in the summers and holiday periods when they can. Inside the house we were introduced to a great many family members, including Tony’s wife, his daughters, grandson, a cousin, his daughter’s husband’s brother, and his daughter’s husband’s brother’s girlfriend. “This is nothing,” Tony said, “you should have been here last week when we had a lot of people here.” Everyone was very friendly, and the tomato sandwich was top-notch, so it was already turning into a great day, even before Tony told us they were all going out on the lake in the afternoon and we were welcome to come along and join in with some wake surfing if we wanted to. I didn’t need much persuading.
We went out on Tony’s boat on a nearby lake, this whole crowd of family members on board, Tony at the wheel. A young guy jumped off the back to demonstrate how to wake surf. He lay in the water, feet on a board, hands on a tow rope, and Tony slammed down the accelerator. The guy was pulled to his feet, and surfed along on the wake directly behind the boat. Before long he threw the rope into the boat. It was no longer needed, he was literally surfing on the wake created by the boat. It looked seriously cool. And not that hard.
Then it was my turn to get in the water and have a go. It turned out to actually be a bit hard. The first time the boat yanked my arms half out of their sockets as I flew along like Superman through the air behind the boat. After a couple of seconds I realised I’d left the board behind and was doing it all wrong, and I let go off the rope and got a face full of water. It was not to be the last time. Again and again I tried, never quite managing to get to my feet as the boat lurched forward, and repeatedly face-planting the water. After a dozen or so attempts I retreated to the boat and took a seat alongside Dea, who by now had decided the sport of wake surfing was not for her.
Throughout the afternoon other members of our merry crew took their turns in the water, each of them showing me up further with their wake surfing skills, until it was once again my turn. Once again I tried my best, but once again I found myself unable to stand up, repeatedly being slammed down into the water. But I do have a tendency to not give up on a challenge, and I kept on trying and trying, until eventually, in one magic moment I rose to my feet behind the accelerating boat. I was doing it, I was wake surfing. Admittedly not with the grace of those that had gone before me, and certainly not without the rope, which instead of casually tossing back to the boat I held onto with all my might as it tugged me violently around as if it were the leash of a tyrannosaurus rex. Inevitably it wasn’t long before I found myself drinking lake water through my nostrils again, but once I’d got the knack of standing up there was no stopping me. It was easy once you knew how, and I managed several more successful wake surfs, including more than once when I rode up over the top of the wave and onto the wrong side of it, something which is apparently very difficult to do, and something that I did quite naturally, and involuntarily.
That was not the
end of the fun, however, as Tony also took me out kneeboarding behind
a jet-ski, something I was much more talented at, perhaps because I
wasn’t required to stand up. And we were of course also now invited
to stay overnight. Back at the house we were made to feel like part
of the family, and it really was the most incredible big family. As
we enjoyed dinner together and played cards, more and more people
stopped by. Neighbours and friends would just wander in and out of
the house. It was quite impossible to keep track of who all of these
many people were, but it was wonderful, it really was. We felt so
lucky to have been invited in to share all this with these wonderful
people, it was really special. Then a family came by, a mother and
father and their two teenage sons. The eldest son, a 19-year-old
named Hunter (not a pseudonym), was here to say farewell to everyone.
“He’s off on his mission tomorrow morning,” Tony explained.
“We’re Mormon, you see,” he revealed, for the first time,
before explaining that Mormons go on missions for two years when they
are young to some place in the world. “But that’s not why we
brought you here,” he stressed, “we probably wouldn’t even have
mentioned it if Hunter wasn’t here.” And that was surely true,
Tony and his family were just good people. “To us it’s not so
much about the church, to us our belief is about the family. Our
family is the church.”
And looking around at all of the happy faces, the sound of excited chatter from every corner of the room, the wonderful atmosphere, and the amazing experiences of the day, it was easy to understand Tony’s point.