Monday 27 June 2011

Manitowoc, Wisconsin - There's no place like home

We've travelled to our fifth state by badger ... the Steamship Badger, that is!

The SS Badger car ferry plies the 4-hour, 60-mile crossing of Lake Michigan. She's one of the world's few coal-fired steamships still in operation and officially designated a US "national treasure". It's fair to say she's a bit like myself ... built for functionality and lacking elegant lines! Nonetheless, we had a wonderful voyage and even wangled a photo with the Captain!

It was difficult to drag myself away from my uncle’s house in Warren and from the cosy company of family. The house was like a little slice of Scotland. Jimmy Shand played in the background, prints of the Highlands adorned the walls, there were smiling faces and flashes of tartan in family photographs and we laughed at my uncle’s stories of the old days. All these little things were reminders of Scotland … reminders that, no matter how far away you are, there’s no place like home.

We had a surprisingly pleasant cycle away from the environs of Detroit along quiet residential streets then along bicycle trails through woodlands and beside lakes, detouring into the attractive college town of Rochester for coffee. All across the States disused railway lines have been turned into bicycle trails in an initiative called “Rails to Trails”. They make for very pleasant pedalling, though in the lost world of these little green corridors you often end up not having a scoobie where you are! It took us six days to cycle across the state of Michigan through woodlands, farmland, pleasant rural towns and some wild weather! When one storm engulfed us, a farmer gave us shelter in his barn with the dairy herd but the next storm caught us out in the open and in a few minutes we were drookit.

On a muggy day when the temperature soared to 90 degrees and the humidity was high enough to give me painful chaffing in the environs of my butt, we cycled to Sleepy Hollow State Park and pitched our tents. In the evening the warden came round to tell everyone that Shiawassee County had been placed on “tornado alert”. We left our tents pitched but packed up all our kit so we could dash to the safety of the toilet block should a tornado strike. That night an almighty thunder and lightning storm raged and our tents were battered by torrential rain. But there was no tornado. I suppose if I was whisked away by a tornado, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, all I needed to do to return to Scotland was to click my heels and say “there’s no place like home … there’s no place like home”.

New photos on Flickr.


Sunday 19 June 2011

Warren, Michigan – Trailer trash

“Ain’t ya frightened, you bein’ such a little thing, an’ all?” said the Georgian lady in a southern drawl when I told her I was cycling mostly alone across the world. Graham and I had been invited to join her group around the campfire in a trailer park. As we’ve now camped in a few trailer parks, we proudly consider ourselves to be trailer trash!

Since we crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, we’ve spent several days cycling west across the north shore of Lake Erie which Canadians confusingly call the southern shore as it forms the southern boundary of Ontario and Canada. Throughout this long journey by bicycle across many countries, I’ve been met by overwhelming kindness and courtesy. So I don’t know what’s wrong with Ontario but I’ve never experienced so many acts of aggression, just because we’re riding bicycles! Take, for example, the guy who rolled down his car window to shout expletives at Graham or the pickup drivers who deliberately pulled into the gravel shoulder ahead of us to throw up dust into our faces. Then there was the nutter who started screaming at me for yelling at a dog. The dog had come bounding out of a property as I cycled by and was snarling too close to my ankles. I stopped, shouted at it and it scuttled off. But then the next door neighbour appeared screaming at me for shouting at the dog. I had to raise my voice above the wind so, just when I was minding my own business, I found myself shouting at a guy who was shouting at me for shouting at a dog that was trying to chew my leg off! I’m bemused by it all … and glad to be back in America!

This madness aside, cycling across Ontario was quite pleasant, though never wildly exciting. We rolled across a big, flat landscape of brown, freshly-ploughed fields, of seas of wheat waving in the wind and of neat rows of orchards. The vistas were dotted by attractive red barns and dominated by giant wind turbines. The turbines should have given us a clue about the prevailing weather conditions! We fought horrendous headwinds for days, grateful to pull into pretty lakefront towns every now and again for coffee for some relief. It wasn’t until the last couple of days that we picked up a tailwind that sped us to the US border and rocked the little ferry that took us across the narrow but choppy St Clair Channel. On a hot afternoon, we celebrated our return to US soil with McDonald’s milkshakes!

I’ve cycled now to Warren, just north of Detroit, for a special reason – to visit an uncle and cousins that I’ve never met. My Uncle David moved to North America over 50 years ago, raised a family here and worked as a mechanic for General Motors. Despite the years passing, he still has a strong Dundonian accent and still misses Scotland! He is putting us up in comfy beds in his cosy family home. It’s a step-up for trailer trash like us!

More photos and words on Flickr.

Saturday 11 June 2011

Fort Erie, Canada - The kindness of strangers

In America in the early 19th century there existed a secret network of trails and safehouses called “The Underground Railway” that was used to help African slaves escape to freedom in Canada. The last stop on the “railway” was the town of Lewiston on the Niagara River and the place where the slaves finally crossed the water to safety and a new life is known as “The Freedom Crossing”. The Underground Railway was operated by volunteers who risked their own lives to show humanity and kindness to strangers. Graham and I discovered that this ethos of kindness remains strong today in America and in the little town of Lewiston.

Our beautiful bicycle journey along the Erie Canal has now ended and we’ve crossed into Canada. We parted company with the canal at the attractive town of Lockport where we were hosted in the home of a lovely couple, David and Kathy, who we’d contacted via a network of touring cyclists on the internet. They entertained us with scary bear stories and sent us off in the morning with goodies in our panniers. The Erie Canal has been so very special and I will look back on these days as one of the highlights of this whole adventure. We’ve watched boats potter up and down; marvelled at the locks; cycled through woodlands, orchards and pretty canal-side towns; learned lots of history; and met loads of wonderful, kind people.

From Lockport we cycled to the delightful town of Lewiston with its colourful clapperboard buildings and sidewalk cafes. We’d met a great couple, Connie and Tom, a week earlier near Schenectedy. As well as entertaining us around their campfire, they put us in touch with Tom’s niece, Kris, in Lewiston. Kris welcomed us into her home, let us throw our tents up on the lawn, laid on a barbeque and invited her friends round to meet us. We had an absolutely wonderful time!

Lewiston is not only famous for the Freedom Crossing. A few miles up-river is a small water feature that you might have heard of called Niagara Falls! Yes, we donned those ridiculous plastic macs, got soaked in the drenching mists and marvelled at the beautiful cascades of water. We felt so lucky to be able to gaze on one of the most famous natural wonders of the world. But we felt even luckier to have come across so many good people on our travels and the overwhelming kindness of strangers.

Photos on Flickr.

Friday 3 June 2011

Syracuse, New York State - The canal that shaped history

Who says there’s no old stuff in America? Our cycle journey along the Erie Canal abounds with history and a colourful set of characters to share it with us!

A couple of days ago, under a blistering sun and sky-high humidity (it’s not normally this hot until August, we’re told), we cycled across the area known as the Oneida Carrying Place – a short portage area once operated by the Oneida Indians that linked Wood Creek and the Mohawk River, key trading routes in the 18th century. Given its importance it was inevitably fought over by the French and British colonists. When the British gained control they built Fort Stanwix on the Carrying Place, faithfully recreated today on its original site in the modern town of Rome. We’d arrived at Rome, cycling right into the old fort, via the Oriskany Battlefield, site of a key victory for the American Revolutionists in 1777 that halted progress of British troops. Today it’s marked by a tall monolith of rock.

Then take the Erie Canal itself whose 360-mile route we are following west across New York State. When it was completed in 1825 it linked the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers to the Great Lakes, opening up the interior of North America to trade and settlement, and establishing New York City as a key centre of commerce. Prior to the opening of the Erie Canal, most of America’s trade and wealth was weighted in the southern states along the Mississippi. But such was the impact and success of the Erie Canal that it shifted the balance of trade and influence to the northern states. This created discontent in the south and was a key factor in instigating the American Civil War. Then, at a time when the western states were contemplating a split from the rest of the country, the canal provided enhanced communications, trade and travel that cemented the country together. Without the Erie Canal, America may have been a very different place!

Our cycle journey along the canal has been absolutely idyllic as we pootle along towpaths bordered by woodlands and wildfowers and quiet back roads that meander through rural towns and pleasant countryside. At times we are alongside busy, noisy freeways but mostly we are in a different world accompanied by beavers and brightly-coloured birds and a gentle breeze rustling the trees. Today the canal is used solely for recreational purposes and we enjoy pulling over at picnic spots to watch boats come and go. We’ve been enjoying some free camping along the canal at little informal campsites beside some of the locks and even scored a shower from one of the lock-keepers! It was at one such place that we met Nelson who lives on the boat that he built himself, Lost Navigator, which he sails around America’s vast waterways. Nelson told us he didn’t want life to pass him by without having adventures and realising his dreams. We related to that!

Further along we pulled into Fort Hunter on the Schoharie River to see an original cut of the canal called Clinton’s Ditch. While we were here, Bill, a Fort Hunter resident, filled us in on the local history and stories from his Huckleberry Finn childhood. He also told us that the Schoharie River is one of a very small number of rivers that flow from south to north! Cycling on we visited Fort Stanwix in Rome. Next morning we were enjoying a chat with the local characters over coffee in McDonalds when we met Doug who kindly offered us free use of an empty house that he rents out. We accepted gladly as this allowed to dump all our kit and spend a whole day visiting something that we’d really been looking forward to – the Erie Canal Village.

I’m not big on “visitor attractions” but my day at the Erie Canal Village was one of the most fun and fascinating days I have ever spent! The village is a recreation of a typical canal village in the 19th century but all the elements – the steam train, church, school house, canal boat, store, blacksmith, settlers’ houses – are absolutely genuine, collected from across the state and carefully re-built on site. The village is brought to life by Dale the songstress, Mike the blacksmith and Steve the train driver. I even got a ride on a horse-drawn wagon!

The arrival of the railways sent the Erie Canal into decline until it was revitalised in modern times as a recreational resource. The railway lines run adjacent to the canal and today carry Amtrak services and huge freight trains that fill your entire field of view as they trundle by. To date it’s not been bears that have given Graham sleepless nights but the nocturnal whistles of the passing trains!