Vermont smells of maple syrup

Going West is the wrong way and the right way to cross North America. It’s the right way for us as it was the shortest flight from the UK and also feels more explorer-y to travel the same way as the pioneers and settlers, moving west, finding the Rockies, finding the Pacific. It’s the wrong way because of the prevailing wind, which could make the Midwest in particular very tough indeed. But winds can change, the other things can’t, so we are sticking to the plan.

Lots of churches, almost as many pointy monuments

There are so many wonderful things about visiting the USA. Almost all of them can be summarised to the fact that it does so well at being American. New England could not have been more New England-y. There were towns full of immaculate wooden buildings, white clapboard churches, pristine lawns. Tree covered hills stretched as far as we could see. You can see why people say to visit New England in the fall a the colours must be incredible. For now there were mostly bare trees. The sun shone and we picnicked outside Louisa May Alcott’s house. We even saw a beaver, his lodge and dam.

Plenty of rest stops

We had planned in some shorter riding days to get used to having all the kit on the bikes again. This gave us plenty of time for important pastimes like snack stops, surveying the random stuff in the road shoulder (early winner, children’s shoe/NH overtaken by broken homemade banjo/NY), number plate spotting and counting political signs. In Massachusetts Bernie had the most signs. In New Hampshire it was Donald, though the election signs were clearly outnumbered by ‘no pipeline’ boards. That evening there was much celebration at the Fitzwilliam Arms open mic night because it had been confirmed that the new pipeline was not to be. Locals were relieved that a huge volume of woodland would now be left undisturbed.

Our first state line. NH has an alarming slogan – live free or die

Short cycling distances also meant we had time for a hike up Gap Mountain before our ride to Brattleboro, VT. The views onwards to Vermont and back to Monadnock were fantastic, but we could see that crossing the green mountains the next day was going to be tough. Even though there is nothing like the height of the Rockies several cyclists had warned us that they had found crossing the Appalachians extremely challenging.

view of Monadnock on Gap mountain descent

After stocking up on snacks at the excellent Brattleboro food co-op we headed uphill in the rain. As it got heavier we sheltered a couple of times but as it showed no signs of stopping soon decided we would have to get wet to get anywhere.It was the slowest of slow progress. The first 17 miles were all uphill. There at the top of Hogback we had our gourmet food co-op picnic,a fantastic view of three states and worried slightly that it was 2pm and we had only. done about a third of the distance for the day. Other tourists did not reassure us, with much talk of the steepness of the next climb etc. They weren’t wrong, it was at times brutally steep. Often these slower sections coincided with a narrowing of the shoulder bringing us very close to (fortunately considerately driven) trucks.

Double whammy. It stopped raining and there’s a giant chair. Hogback Pass.

Handily we found some stray rhubarb and custard sweets in my handlebar bag and powered up the second pass. Apparently in the civil war men dragged cannons up and over that route, probably without dessert-based sweets to help them.
The downhill to Bennington was amazing. The type you don’t really get in Europe where there are far more twists and steep gradients. This was relatively shallow, straight-ish with a wide shoulder and mostly good surface. Plenty of time to enjoy the view and avoid any road hazards (roadkill, clothing items, half a pizza). An often cited benefits of cycling is that you are really in touch with your surroundings, not separated from them as in a car. This is definitely a for better, for worse situation – that green mountains day had it all. Pouring rain, too-close traffic on a narrow road, the air rushing past and great views opening up on a fast descent, the heat and smell of truck brakes as they roll down the hill.
The next day we entered New York State and crossed the Hudson. Cue head filled with songs mentioning the famous river that runs all the way to New York City. Have you got Billy Joel? It was a beautiful day, we rode mainly through farmland aiming for a different waterway, the Erie Canal, which we could follow almost to the Canadian border.

They love these things round these parts. Rubbish for pooh sticks though.

We didn’t make the canal that day, but our camping experience in Bruce and Sandy’s backyard was further demonstration of how kind, welcoming and enthusiastic everyone we had met so far had been. That is the most wonderful thing about being a visitor here, over all of the other things, and it has been my experience every time I have travelled in this giant country. I said earlier that America was good at being American. The overwhelming majority* of people seem to be good Americans too. Oh, and did I mention that Vermont actually smelled of maple syrup?

Thanks to: Julie & John, Hiel & Susan, Dot, Ellen, Bruce & Judy (drinkers of the best beer in the world), Bruce, Sandy and Champ.

*Excluding the guy who shouted F*** Queen Elizabeth at us on her Birthday. She’s a 90 year old Great Grandma, let’s be respectful.

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Plains & Rains in Spain

We are in North America right now, but there’s still a little catching up to do from the European tour. In the last post we were heading East in central Portugal…

Back in Spain there were immediate cycling improvements, better surface, shoulder to ride in, kinder traffic. We were on roads that had previously been the main road, but were now secondary to the expensive newer auto pistes. The two ran almost completely parallel and there was hardly any traffic on either. On the high plains we could see for miles, mainly flat but occasionally snowy mountain tops were clear in the distance. 

Sunset riding on an empty highway
 
The sun took ages to set, we had 360 degree orange, and arrived at the campsite in Ciudad Rodrigo in the dark. Unsurprisingly there were no other tents. The walled city looked magical lit up at night, a great back drop to our quickly-eat-before-it-gets-cold dinner. The campsite had a bar which steadily emptied as we were cooking. We went in for hot chocolate and saw the debris of a rip-roaring Saturday night. Napkins and cocktail sticks littered the floor. Some serious tapas had been eaten that evening.

After a painfully frosty tent pack up we rode up to the city and around some of the walls. The Parador (state-run hotels in Spain) was very impressive and had lots of suits of armour in. Back on the road to Salamanca the no traffic plainness continued. We entertained ourselves with classic road games, such as:

Which direction will the next car pass us in?

How many minutes/kms until the next field of cows?

How many cars will pass us before the village of some saints head?

When the excitement got too much we returned to naming songs by a group/artist until you can’t think of any more. 

  

Visiting the cathedral included an outdoor walk up by the towers
  
 Fortunately when we finally saw Salamanca it looked awesome. Even from a distance it was clear there were plenty of impressive buildings. Most of the city centre was made of similar stone, sandy coloured and very well maintained. The Plaza Mejor was super-fancy – probably the most pleasing of all the squares we had seen. The city looked great by night and day, helped by blue skies and sunshine. Our amazing hosts Javier and Pedro showed us some great tapas places, and the mystery of the debris on the floor of the tame campsite bar was solved, this is what you do with your Pinchos litter. We also caught up with our Christmas presents via Catherine from New Zealand whose month studying in Salamanca coincided with our visit. 

The best square of the trip?

Salamanca seemed a very liveable Spanish city. The downside is that it is still a long way from anywhere. This was particularly important for us as weather reports showed that cold was about to get colder and more unpleasant in every way. Snow storms were forecast for Northern Spain, with much snow above 300m in the region that separated us from the coast and our ferry home. As we were still over 800m with some passes to ride over before dropping down, it was time to get a shift on.

Inquisitive and adorable

For the first time in Spain the wind agreed and we rode the easiest fifty miles of the trip. We arrived in Medina del Campo in time to look at the castle and enjoy relaxing at Paco’s with two very cute cats. The weather was not to be our friend for long, the rain heavy and the wind strong. It was clear that to get to Bilbao safely we needed some help. Cutting out some of the distance with a fifty minute train journey gave us a 50km ride to the end of Bilbao’s commuter rail line. Unfortunately the 50km included a 500m+ climb and the most technical descent of the trip in rain and fog. Not far from Bilbao, the descent we did has been a climb in the Vuelta.

 

A dash up a pass in the rain
 
 
Spot the hi-vis jacket
  

Never has a warm house been more welcome than that Friday night. The rain was relentless and continued until all weekend. Being stubborn we went for a soggy walk but the deluge made it difficult to enjoy the sights. Cycling to the ferry we experienced a very unique bridge. It had been included directions given to us by a local cyclist, who described it as ‘not usual’. Definitely not, but I won’t spoil the surprise if you haven’t been. The rain began again as we rode through the endless port area and we were very relieved when the ferry staff waved us straight onto the boat and out of the rain on Sunday afternoon.

  

I’m not sure I can fully explain the relief and relaxation of a long boat or train journey after a lot of moving around. You know exactly where you will sleep. You have packed yourself an excellent and extensive array of picnic food. You have books to read, and if you are lucky (we were) the ferry has board games so you can spend an entire day playing scrabble. If you are really lucky you can speak to people in your own language who think your cycling trip is really interesting (thanks Brits on tour). If your luck is at maximum you have some family who live close to the port at the end of your journey for food, sleep and great conversation (amazing stay in Hampshire). Home time!

Thanks for this ride to: Javi & Pedro, Paco, Raul, Rafa & family, Shelagh, Joss, Emma & Alex.