Hello and welcome to the sixth edition of the Hungry Cyclist newsletter, or as they say below the border...
"Hola y recepción a la sexta edición del boletín de noticias hambriento del cyclist"
With the remaining crumbs of Thanksgiving turkey and last resilient glob of cranberry sauce wiped from my chin (see Thanksgiving notes) it was time to get back to the day job of intercontinental pedal powered culinary research - What ever that is?
The festive binging was over, at least until Christmas, and I had some riding to do in order to burn off the acres of pumpkin pie that I had consumed in the last weeks. The bike was loaded, my bags were packed and all that remained was to slip back into the ever fetching spandex shorts.
"No- It can’t be"
"They must have shrunk in the wash"
"But I haven’t washed them?"
“I’ve cycled almost 5000 miles on an overloaded bicycle -I’m an athlete."
The bathroom scales never lie and as I glanced down over a well rounded gut I came to the embarrassing realization that I must be the first person in history to cycle across the American continent and gain wait.
A few quiet words of reassurance to convince myself that a man pedaling the world in search of the perfect meal should be a little soft at the edges, and that a decent bout of "Montezuma's Revenge" in Mexico would get me into beaching condition, I set about working off my excess baggage. The sunshine of California was still a long way away and I needed to start putting in some miles to get south. Bored of the cold nights and early evenings, the wet socks and cold fingers, I longed to be sleeping under the stars and cooking my supper on a cosy camp fire. I wanted to ride in my t shirt again and nap under a tree in the long afternoons. I was longing for warmer climbs and the only person holding me back was myself. I needed to up the milage, get south and get back in shape.
My first night back under canvas, after a three night thanksgiving rest, was a stark reminder of how cold it was. As the sun disappeared behind the hills of central Oregon the biting cold that plagued me since Vancouver returned. Camped in a waterlogged field in the run down logging hamlet of Porter Creek I pitched my tent and decided to take a few hours refuge in the general store glowing in the distance.
Your typical small town American store it sold large amounts of beer and little else. A lonely tin of ravioli , a dusty packet of Fig Newtons, tent pegs and a jar of non-descript florescent pink objects claiming to be pickled sausages. But it was warm and open for another three hours and so to the dull hum of the beer refrigerators I drank cup after cup of over brewed week coffee, wrote my journal and chatted to the elderly owner.
"There's things in my brain they don’t want people knowing about" he announced proudly.
"Oh yea?" I replied with a ounce of intrigue.
"I designed the program that locates every nuclear submarine in the US fleet..."
"Wow, how does that work? I mean..."
"I might have to be whisked away and flown to a nuclear submarine to fix their circuit boards at any minute."
Half expecting to woken by the whirr of rotor blades I returned to my tent, put on my beloved knitted socks and did my best to get warm and sleep, ready to take on the hills that would lead me back to the Pacific coast and Highway 101.
I would only have to endure one night under canvas before I would be taken under the warm, dry wing of some more generous locals. “Umming” and “Arrhing” as to what campfire delight I would rustle up I got chatting to a young couple in the que at the super market in Myrtle Point. Knowing that more heavy rain was imminent I put to work my tried and tested charm offensive for the possibly of landing a bed for the night.
Smile sweetly, best English accent, look a little forlorn and then ask if they know of anywhere to pitch a tent.
I must be losing my touch or perhaps I just needed a bath.
Ready for another cold night I rode out of town as thick grey clouds gathered in the valley ahead but no sooner had I left the city limits the couple from the supermarket pulled along side.
"If you would like to come for supper and stay the night with we only live a couples of miles back in town."
Naomi and Ian could not have been more welcoming. Extremely well fed (see pecan pie recipe) I was woken in the night by the rain beating against the bedroom window. A brief moment of thanks giving for not being out at the mercy of the elements I pulled the covers back over my head and returned to my dreamful sleep. The unquestioning kindness of strangers had once again come to my rescue, and in this case a whole lot more.
Ian worked as a waiter for a french chef who had a restaurant in the coastal town of Coos Bay. Setting off the next morning, on a healthy bowl of Grape Nuts, I rode in the wonderful knowledge that, that evening I would dine at the home of Christophe and Paula Gaul Baudry.
A wet morning and I was back on the coastal road and as the miles ticked over and the calories evaporated I began creating the glorious feast that awaited me. A steaming bowl of french onion soup, or maybe a souffle and moules marinière? Perhaps a crème brule followed by cheese, oh I how longed for good cheese.” Thanks to an unkind head wind darkness soon fell and in a howling gale that threatened to blow me into the path of every passing logging truck I limped into the Baudry’s driveway ready to be fed.
Sadly none of the above was on the menu but I ate extremely well none the less. Christophe was from the old school. A chef at Maxims in Paris he could not have been anymore like the Francophile gastronome he was. Built like a French rugby prop forward he was a daunting figure. Smoking heavily and with a stubborn French accent that had defied years of change he had all the wonderful mannerisms you expect from the French. The man was made to cook and he was a pleasure to watch and listen to.
The Baudry’s were a foody couple. Christophe’s wife Paula also owned and ran a bistro in the nearby town of Port Orford and I knew I had to eat in at least one of the restaurants. Offering my services of hanging the Christmas lights and helping in the kitchen I was given bed, board and food for two happy nights.
Put to work in Paula's kitchen prepping salads, laying up plates I couldn't have been happier. Ok this was no fast paced eatery in the West End, putting out hundreds of covers a night but working in Paula’s kitchen I felt the happiest I have in a long time. The energy, the production the heat and the smells, it was totally addictive and not for the first time my imagination played with the idea of hanging up the helmet and staying. But once again the following morning I had to say goodbye to new friends and continue with the project at hand. It is always tough saying good bye but leaving Port Orford I rode assured that I had been given a glimpse of what the future might hold for The Hungry Cyclist.
Two nights and two storms after leaving the Baudry’s I had had enough.
Smelling like a post-rugby match laundry hamper and soaked to the bone I spent an exhausting morning riding up the merciless hills of the Oregon coast persuading myself that for the third time on this trip a motel was in order. Checking in just after lunch my motel -routine took on the same format as my two previous moments of weakness.
Trying not to put too much thought into the previous occupants form of relaxation which, from the smell of the room involved large amounts of cigarettes and the channels at the upper end of the spectrum, I laid out every wet possessing, including my tent , took a long hot soak in the bath tub designed for a Hobbit, and sat back with a six pack of strong, cheap beer, a large pepperoni pizza and the remote control.
Over inflated girls in bikinis swallowing cockroaches, over zealous news reporters, a never ending football game, I drifted in and out of sleep in front of Americas finest entertainment and awoke the next morning feeling as refreshed and ready for the long awaited state line of California
Other than cycling 15 miles uphill in the wrong direction there is nothing more sole disheartening than climbing into a wet tent at 5.30 in the afternoon knowing you will be confined to the same moldy space until sunrise the next day. Cooking in the tent goes some way to dry things out, and those funny-pocket-warming-teabag things offer some sort of comfort, but while in Patrick Point state a park I found the perfect solution for keeping cosy on a freezing California night, and for the first time on the trip I would not sleep alone in my little tent.
Having shared supper and stories with a young couple in the camp next door we decided it was simply too cold to continue our conversation and we retired to the warmth of our respective sleeping bags. Zipped up and beginning to slip into some kind of sleep a voice whispered into my tent.
"Hey Tom - you awake ? "
"Umm Yea - kind of? "
"Are you warm enough in there?"
"Um? Yea - kind of. Why?"
"Well if you want to warm up a bit, you can sleep with Chubaka for the night?"
To disappoint those of you who perhaps thought this tale was leading to a steamy night of passion with a JEDI, Chubaka was in fact a glorious 200 pound Newfoundland.
Snuggled up to his thick black hair he filled the tent with warmth and apart from having rather unsavory breath and dribbling on the pillow he made the perfect companion and gave me one of my most comfortable nights under canvas. Not for the first time my one-night-stand left in the morning without so much as a word and with freezing cold fingers I was left to pack up alone and get back to the road.
5000 miles was always going to be mile stone and on the 4th of December the digital four that had been with me since Vancouver transformed into a magical five.
On a good day you ride as if there is no chain on the bike but on other days every gram of the bike and her heavy load works against you, and leaving the coastal town of Crescent City for California, the day began with one of those climbs that sap what little energy is left in your legs. Wishing I had pulled in for a caffeine injection to stimulate body and mind I had no choice but to keep my tired legs turning and climb into the dark forest of giant Redwoods that lay ahead of me. Climbing higher and higher as the giant trees towered overhead I cam to a clearing above the ocean. Looking to my right as far as the eye could see was the stuning coast I had just ridden and to my left the coast that was to come. A Reeces Peanut Butter Cup, and an apple I celebrated my achievement and sparred a quick thought to what the next 5000 miles would hold.
Ronald Regan once said "when you’ve seen one Redwood you’ve seen them all" but I think he must have been forgetting something.
Used to the occasional big oak tree back home I was in for a shock. The trees that line The Avenue of the Giants are bigger than you could possibly imagine (see photos). Withstanding generation after generation of natural and human disasters they have towered over Northern California for thousands of years. Making the battle of Hastings look like a recent spat the age of some of these giants is hard to comprehend. America may not have any buildings of great age but her trees are staggering. As wide as houses, indeed some have been carved as such, and disappearing into the canopy, riding through these wonders of nature makes you feel blissfully unimportant and I highly recommend it.
Even being so bold as to shed my “child of Thatcherism roots” I was found on occasion wondering through the giant trunks dishing out the occasional hug. Dam, if you’re going to hug a tree, it might as well be a giant redwood.
Now I completely appreciate that some of you reading this have no interest in hearing about how I faring mentally, so do please skip to the next paragraph form tales of sleeping with dogs and the such. But for those out there who want to feel sorry for me or perhaps sadistically revel in my unhappiness read on.
For five days while I rode through the dank, dark overbearing atmosphere of the redwoods I came the closest yet to throwing in the towel, and if I had a towel I probably would have thrown it in.
Tired and dirty after six months on the road? A come down from the elation of reaching 5000 miles? A lack of sunshine? There were 101 many reasons for my decline in spirits but I didn't have one answer to my problems. Cycling can be therapeutic for riding away the blues but being alone with your thoughts for so long, it can have the opposite effect and I was soon questioning the whole validity of this trip.
" I could have a career, a relationship, a home"
"I can’t write a book,what I am thinking?."
"Why did I rush into this foolish venture?"
With no answers to the questions I was asking my mood sunk. I rode alone through the dark days and at night vivid dreams of friends and family entertained me while I slept, only to be smashed into a hazy confusion when I awoke. For a few blissful seconds I was home again, life was normal but staring up at the stale interior of my damp tent I was reminded where I was and what I was doing. I could have stayed zipped in my sleeping bag forever.
Mustering up just enough enthusiasm to unzip my tent to a new day I would stand exhausted and stare at my loaded bike wondering how I ever got into this mess. Another day of up and down beckoned, Like the day before and the day before that. The only human contact I would enjoy would be asking the disgruntled bearded local in the gift shop at the worlds largest redwood something or other if I could use his rest room. What was I trying to prove and what was it all for? Charity, pride, vanity. Cycling a loaded bike uphill is hard enough and now I had a heavy heart to add to the burden.
My last day in The Redwoods Forest was marked with a very important occasion. I had made it to the world famous drive-through-tree. The wonder of the world that has wowed classrooms across the globe for generations stood in front of me and with one more push of the pedals it would all be over. Taking my turn after an entertaining van load of Mexicans who hadn’t quite appreciated that their van was bigger than the hole, I made my way through the famous trunk. Only in the gas guzzling wonderland of America could they charge their public six dollars to drive through a tree.
Riding through the great tree, six times in total, seemed to act as my gateway to happier times. After a long satisfying climb to the top of the Leggette hill I came out of the darkness to see the glistening mass of the Pacific Ocean. I had missed the water and as I took to the hairpins of the ten mile decent like a fearless child a broad smile found its way back onto my face.
The sun shone over the coast line for the next week and once again on this jaunt I felt an over powering pull to a magical place. I had fallen in love with the Northern Coast of Californian. The gentle power of the ocean, the relaxed way of life, the dramatic coast line and the quaint Victorian towns, built on a once booming logging trade, could easily have tempted me to stay forever. But my quest for the perfect meal meant a trip inland was in order. I was fast approaching California's wine country and my picean spirit would have to make do without the ocean for a few weeks while my taste buds went in search of fine wine and the food that accompanies it.
After a restful stay in Mendicino I would head west into the Anderson valley. Close enough to the coast to enjoy the cool air the valley's vineyards specialize in the Pinot noir grapes and Rieslings. Once the sun had burnt away the morning mist I was presented with vine stripped hill sides and wineries that were only too happy to lubricate my aching muscles. For three days I wobbled from vineyard to vineyard developing quite a nose for the local produce.
Never a wine buff before this trip, but more than happy to drink the stuff, I had the place to myself and was soon found muttering such words as "hints of cinnamon" and "traces of blackcurrant". I'm sure the county sherif would disagree but cycling and wine tasting make wonderful partners, but after a few near misses with merciless truckers I decided I had better make better advantage of the spittoon.
Saying goodbye to the idyllic Anderson Valley the road led me into the affluent heart of American wine making ,The, Napa valley. As if by magic, rusty pickups morphed into European sports cars, lumberjack shirts were replaced by designer labels and the weathered faces of Humboldt county were replaced with unnaturally smooth complexions. This was wine tasting Disneyland and I wanted to dine with Mickey, who in this case goes by the name of Thomas Keller.
The French Laundry is the American culinary Mecca and Thomas Keller is God (head chef). The finest restaurant in the USA, if not the world, reservations need to be made months in advance but having cycled across the continent I believed I had made my pilgrimage. A long day spent speaking to the various people who needed to be spoken bore no fruit but the charm of The Hungry Cyclist didn’t quite drew a blank. Deciding that the only way to kill the time while waiting for a cancellation was to taste as much of the local grape as possible I bumped into Mo.
A wine expert and former restaurant owner in San Francisco she took me home for dinner
and I couldn’t have been happier. Sure The French Laundry would have been a highlight of the trip but how fun can sitting down alone for a $200 be? Instead I dinned in a beautiful kitchen on perfectly roasted chicken, roast yams and persimmon salad (see recipe). We drank superb wine late into the night and I left with an invitation to spend Christmas with Mo and her bar owning restauranteur friends in San Francesco. And that sounded like too much fun to be missed .
So for my first Christmas away from the nest I was in San Francisco. After a quiet few days resting in the relaxing surroundings of Berkeley I made my way into the city for a taste of a San Francisco Christmas. For lunch Dim Sum replaced turkey and sprouts and in the evening was the feast to beat all feasts. Albacore tuna tatar,(see recipe) Dungeness Crab, and Blood Orange Salad (see recipe) were followed by a huge prime rib of organic beef. All washed down with wine of a quality I am unlikely to ever drink again I had a blissfully happy Christmas.
Coming to some kind of sense a couple of days later the pillars of the temple were starting to wobble and I decided to make my way out of the city in a hope of redeeming some of the damage before it all began again for New Year.
A man cycles into a bar- ouch
2006 got off to a smashing start with my first certified crash of the trip. Riding out of Santa Cruz, the morning after the night before, and feeling a little giddy, I completely failed to notice the cast iron barrier blocking my way. The bike understood exactly what the barrier was there for and came to dramatic halt, I however shot over the handle bars landing in an ungraceful heap a few feet beyond. A dented pride and badly bruised knee were my only ailments and I limped into 2006 ready to take on another year of adventure on the road.
A cocktail of historic bad weather and picturesque locations meant my route beyond the Golden Gate Bridge introduced me first real taste of the intriguing world of “hostleing”. Affordable, dry and providing the priceless commodity of warm showers they were too hard to resist and I was soon a fully fledged, food labeling, ear plug wearing hostel homey.
The only problem was tha other than damp English cyclists the festive season in Central California brings some pretty interesting creatures in from cold. Having a roof over your head for the night is luxury indeed but having no power over who you takes the bunk below you can make for an interesting nights sleep or lack of it. Over enthusiastic middle aged women, with perhaps one sherry too many inside them, a paranoid young Mexican claiming his wife had kicked him out and an elderly polish man whose snoring made the windows shake made interesting room mates, but perhaps my best find was Amir.
Six years in the Israeli Navy, (I didn't think they had one either),he had had enough of boats and life jackets and decided to hang up his beret and cycle from San Francisco to Panama.
My policy so far had been he who travels alone travels best but the coincidence of meeting Amir was simply too strong. His six structured years in the navy held comparisons to my previous years working in London and he provided me with a well needed shot of enthusiasm. I had almost forgotten how exciting life on the road can be and the permanent smile and badly sung Hebrew songs that resinated from Amir put some well needed wind back in my sails.
So The Hungry Cyclist, plus one set out from Santa Cruz pushing south for LA and the southern border with Mexico. I relished the new company. I had been alone for so long and now I had a partner in crime to practicing my broken Spanish on and most importantly to cook for. All the camp fire recipes that I had been carefully developing could be put to the test and they got an official Israeli Navy thumbs up. (coming to the site soon)
The storms that battered the California coast finally subsided and we made quick time of the artichoke fields (see recipe), manicured gardens and multi-million dollar villas of pebble beach and Carmel before we took to the cliff top roads of Big Sur. We were blessed with blue skies and sunshine the whole way and the Redwoods and pine trees that I had ridden with for months were replaced with palm trees. The waterproof outfit could at long last go back to the bottom of the panniers, the sunglasses could come out of hibernation and the redundant sun cream could be put back to work.
It was as close to perfect as cycle touring can be. Ridding hundreds of feet above the ocean on windy roads that hug the cliff side the morning sun would burn away the sea mist to reveal stupendous views of the coast. One of Americas most beautiful roads I had it in perfect conditions and relished every sweeping decent. The roads of Central and South America would not be so kind and with my breaks released I screeched down each hill as if it were my last.
Deeper into Southern California the Hispanic influence stood as a constant reminder of the world that lies across the border. My trip in the safe, clean, fair,comfortable United States of America is coming to an end and the well advertized culture of Mexico and Central America lies only a short ride away. The cactus, blue skies, arid landscape, taco vendors, colorful new products, Spanish signs, vibrant music and different faces of Southern California have already got me hooked on the new world I am about to ride into, but the dangers of the world I am entering have also been well endorsed..
"Your riding a bike through Central America ?"
"Be real careful in Mexico man, there’s some bad sh$t going down"
"Don’t drink the water."
" Watch out for the Federales"
"Theres been a lot of kidnaps down there."
"How’s your Spanish?"
My excitement now fights a constant battle with a fear of the different world ahead.
In ten days life is going to be very different indeed and my role as the rather charming, blonde haired English cyclist, riding his bike around the country in search of interesting recipes will be over. My new role as the white, misunderstood gringo, riding his expensive bicycle, alone will begin.
I will say a sad goodbye to a country that has been home for eight months and a country I have come to love. Like anywhere else America has her problems, and her current administration is not in good shape but history will look after those at fault and important lessons are already being learnt by this young country. But I’m not here to bore you with politics I'm here for the food?
Only bettered by Great Britain in bad culinary reputations the USA has been unfairly judged. How could a country made up of so many diverse cultures and with so many natural resources fail to produce good food. The all too familiar strip malls with their all to familiar fast food chains do let the side down but the beauty of cycle touring is that you find the those culinary gems that lie in between the people that go with them.
Yes North American food can be a little basic but this is a pioneer continent built on the endeavor of loggers, cowboys, farmers, fishermen, miners. of hard work and much of her food represents this. The pizzas of New York, the pasties of Michigan, the Fleischkeuchle of North Dakota, the sublime steak suppers of Montana, the Hangtown fries of Oregon and the burritos of southern California are designed to fill you up and keep you working. They may be basic recipes but they are part of the history that built America and for this they deserve recognition.
So what does the future hold for The Hungry Cyclist?
Tacos, Burritos Tamales, food poisening, sun burn, white beaches, deep jungles, Mayan Temples, cold cervezas, mosquitos, more punctures, new cultures, a new language and new friends. All the joys of life on a bike. I have already had the adventure of a lifetime and if my trip ends tomorrow by getting run off the road by a Mercedes driving blonde with blow up breast (they are ten to the penny here) I would go home a happy cyclist. In a country I arrived into as total a stranger I leave behind many new friends. Central America will no doubt take some getting used to but if I am made to feel half as welcome there as I have been in North America I am in for a amazing trip.
To all out there who have, taken me into your homes, cheered me on, emailed me support, showered me, clothed me,beeped your horns (nicley) and most importantly fed me, I thank you and now ride in your honor.
Adiós Amigos and God Bless America.