For the photo diary of the journey to Yuma from Flagstaff click here
As I sit in a Yuma apartment watching the stars and stripes flutter across the street it seems an apt time to wrap up my journey through this fascinating country. Although recent progress has been slow after my Grand Canyon adventures and two lovely weeks resting up in Flagstaff, I am now on the brink of Mexico and will, in a couple of days, bid farewell to my comfortable old friend the United States of America. Having been in the ‘Lower 48’ for about four months and cycled through the varied States of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Arizona, I can’t help but form opinions on the place, its people and politics. I will indulge some of these below while also displaying some photographs of the six day ride from Flagstaff down to Yuma.
But before I open myself up to ridicule, here’s the route I took through the ‘Lower 48’ and some tour statistics:
- Total distance loaded cycling since Prudhoe Bay: 6007.2 miles
- Total distance cycled since Anchorage: 6677 miles
- Distance of loaded cycling from US northern border to Yuma: 2680 miles
- Longest Day in ‘Lower 48’: 70.6 miles (05/03/11, from Brenda down Hwy. 95 towards Yuma)
- Average daily mileage since Prudhoe Bay: 47 miles
- Average daily mileage in the ‘Lower 48’: 43.2 miles
- Total altitude climbed since Prudhoe Bay: 291,401 feet
- Total altitude climbed in the US ‘Lower 48’: 140, 673 feet
- Most climbing done in one day in the ‘Lower 48’: 4757 feet (02/03/11, Cottonwood to Prescott, AZ)
- Highest Point cycled: 7,438 feet (2,267m) (06/02/11, Desert View, Grand Canyon South Rim)
- Lowest Point cycled: -282 feet (Badwater, Death Valley, lowest elevation in the USA)
- Average daily climb in the ‘Lower 48’: 2270 feet
- Number of days cycling since Prudhoe Bay: 128 (28/07/10 to 09/03/11)
- Number of days cycling since crossing US border: 62 (13/11/10 to 09/03/11)
- Number of days off the bike in Lower 48: 55 (13/11/10 to 09/03/11)
- Number of days off since Prudhoe Bay: 72
- Lowest temperature in ‘Lower 48’: -20.6°C (-5°F) (02/02/11, Flagstaff, AZ)
- Highest Temperature in ‘Lower 48’: 34°C (93°F) (17/01/11, Panamint Valley, CA)
- Punctures: 3
- Number of other cycle tourists seen in ‘Lower 48’: 2
You can see from the statistics that I have been running true to my self-proclaimed status as a traveller on a bike as opposed to a pure cyclist. There has been lots of great things that have colluded to keep my average daily mileage and number of cycling days down. I travel by bike for the freedom it affords and in the USA I have been willingly exploiting those freedoms. In a country boasting an exquisite collection of National Parks, extensive National Forest and millions of acres of BLM land, it is perhaps no surprise that my focus should be drawn away from the bike. The USA is the only country that I had to organise a visa for when at home in London and therefore the only country I had planned a route through. Although I didn’t follow it exactly, I still took in all the sites that I had hoped, memorable experiences lubricated by surprise extras and the extreme good will of the American people.
My first night camped in the USA was in a wet piece of woodland just south of the border in Washington state (above right). How different this dark and damp refuge was to my last stealthy camp, in the dry and baking Sonoran Desert just 25 miles north of Yuma (above left). This contrast typifies the fascinating variation of topography, climate and ecosystem that this incredible Republic straddles. Where as Washington and Oregon were very much like home in the UK, the deserts and highlands have taken me into new and fascinating arenas. And with every change of place has come a change in weather; just a few days riding has taken me from heavy snows up in Flagstaff down to the hot and dry desert around the Mexican border. A change that I experienced before when leaving Yosemite National Park and moving east towards Death Valley. How lucky the American people are to have such a wealth of varied and accessible natural beauty.
I have just managed to ride my bike through a North American winter, a fact that I am proud of, just as I am proud that not once did I succumb to a night in a hotel or motel. All my sleeping was done either under canvas or beneath the roof of one of the countless warm and welcoming people of the USA. I shall leave the US having only paid to camp in Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks, with all my other accommodation being free. One of the reasons that this has been possible is that I have been running out of season and therefore proven more of a novelty to folks. No doubt that the harsher conditions of winter have combined with solo travel and my positive attitude in making me accessible and opening doors into other people’s kindness.
I was led to believe that stealth camping would be difficult in the ‘Lower 48’ but in actual fact it was really easy on account of the vast area of public lands and sheer amount of space available. Then, when I’ve ridden into towns and cities I’ve always managed to luck out with offers of hospitality. People are undoubtedly kind; they’ve given me food, beer, money, warmth, love and laughs. It is the people of a place that gives it a context and makes a traveller stop. I will talk to anyone and everyone and it is that appetite for interaction that has led to many of my positive experiences. People are very open to bicycle tourists and it is no secret that our accessibility and honesty is a major factor in the appeal of moving through societies in the way that we do.
During my whole time in the USA I cannot think of one bad experience involving its citizens, they have all been accepting, gracious and curious. Granted I only get to speak with people who take the time to speak with me and thus cannot claim to have examined a true cross-section of the US population (90% of people I’ve met have been liberal Democrats and certainly not the ‘silent majority’), but I have nonetheless cottoned onto a few of the prevailing social and political themes concerning the American people. Here I shall repeat what has cropped up time and time again in conversation over the last few months: The USA is depressed, its people are uncertain, detached from their Federal government and concerned for their personal and their country’s future. From what I have seen I think the situation boils down to serious deficiencies in the US political system as a whole. The country has grown on an unsustainable ethos of greed and is run by the warped power of money.
When Obama swept into the Presidency on a message of ‘change’ I think that the whole world, not just the US, breathed a sigh of optimistic relief. Finally a man who could dig this mighty country out of an incomprehensible foreign policy and collapsed economy. At last someone who would bring sense into the bizarre money grabbing US health service and perhaps cap the Reagan inspired wave of socio-economic disparity that’s burrowing a chasm between the American classes. I get the feeling that many US citizens had hope, but that this hope has quickly evaporated in the face of the harsh realities of US politics. Obama’s hands have been tied by the political makeup of the houses, curse of lobbyists and power of big business. He’s been unable to do basic things such as quash the cancer of tax breaks for the rich and when he has tried to push through desperately needed policies on obvious issues like health care, the final policy has been so diluted and convoluted it has become simply a burden of wishful thinking.
As I have grown to see it, many people in the US were hopeful with the election of Obama but they have seen this hope fall on the sword of political realities. Their hope for the future has been sapped, replaced by resignation as to the faults and inflexibilities of a political system that can suffocate parties and Presidents. All realistic optimism has gone but the people have too much to lose to take to the streets and do a Bahrain, Libya or Egypt. Instead political activism takes the form of the Tea-Party and racist opinions on the question of immigration (which makes me laugh in a country born to recent mass immigration). And I don’t just say all this as a reflection of my own personal political views, it is what I’ve found as people up and down the country have expressed their concerns for the future of the USA and pessimism for the next twenty years.
There is no doubt about the fact that I love the USA and envy its citizens who, with a bit of work, have the economic and political freedoms to live any lifestyle they desire. If afforded the opportunities and freedoms they deserve (but some don’t get) then US citizens can choose to live any way and where they please; in a cabin in Alaska, by the beach in Florida, the desert in Arizona, the mountains of California or the big cities of the East coast. This country is vast and its people some of the freest in the world. The USA is a magical place but I’ve seen it to have an ego problem: Having spent much of the 20th century as the world Hegemon it is struggling to come to terms with the fact that it is no longer in charge… enter China. The politicians keep telling the people that this is the greatest country in the world and trying to prove it with bizarre foreign wars, and the people want to believe it but the facts are telling them something different. We (the British) used to rule the World until the empire crumbled, but we got over this demise. Its time for the USA to shelve the ego, focus on its own people and just be the best it can.
The more time I spend in the Unites States, the more I get to thinking that the UK has got its shit together: Our politics is much more transparent and since Blairs reforms of the Houses, much more representative, our leaders are more accountable to the people and our media, although not perfect, are generally better versed. Where as broadcasters such as Fox and CNN proliferate the pessimism that is the perceived decline of the USA, the BBC stands tall as an impartial bastion of quality journalism, an institution that we as a nation should really treasure and support. I am proud of the British welfare state and National Health Service and applaud our environmental awareness. Although what works in Britain would not in the USA the fact that I write what I do suggests I’m gaining one of the things that I hoped I would from this tour; a context on and appreciation for how lucky I am in life.
One thing that the US has got right is its National Park system. The landmass that makes up this country is packed full of stunning beauty. On my journey through I have ticked many boxes that have lain waiting since childhood. The Redwoods of Northern California, the big walls of Yosemite National Park, the openness of Death Valley and the unrivalled majesty of the Grand Canyon. These places are world-class icons and just one would satisfy the yearnings of any ordinary vacation. I have been privileged to have cycled to all of them and done so at a time of year when they are not over run by other tourists and when the climate is generally kinder. It is a sign of the natural wealth of this country that I shall leave with regrets at not being able to explore Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, but safe in the knowledge that I shall be back.
And so I say goodbye to the snows and hello to the heat as I leave my comfort zone and enter the first non-English speaking country of the tour. With Spanish so limited it hardly exists and the confidence of nine and a half months touring behind me I shall pack my bags and spin off down the east coast of Baja, into a world of unknowns and the start of the true adventure.