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The main purpose of this blog is as a permanent record of my adventures throughout the Americas by motorcycle. Feel free to comment or ask me any questions - I'm an open book.

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Monday, 25 June 2012

Chicago to Mexico

After the Second City show, I finished my pizza, put on my riding gear, and started heading south. I had chosen at this point to go all out for the border, just hoping that Isabella wouldn't leave me stranded in the middle of nowhere. New camshaft installed, she seemed to be riding well (the new final drive system installed in Hemmingford meant that we could cruise at lower revs, which helps).

Anyway, I had also resolved to stick away from the interstate system whenever possible. As far as I'm concerned, the interstate shoud really only be for truckers, and those who really need to cover long distances quick (I had over 700km to do in an afternoon to get to Niagara falls). Otherwise, you should check out the side roads, especially as a tourist. Small towns are the interesting destinations of any roadtrip, and interstates often miss them completely. That said, they are the fastest route and sometimes necessary to put some serious kms behind you.

Heading out of Chicago took over an hour, but once out of the metro area, it was smooth sailing from then on out. I stopped in a small town called Greenup, IL and quickly went to bed.

Small town USA lives and breathes on the fortunes of its local high school, and it makes sense. Whereas cities may have professional sporting teams to barrack for, the athletes of the local high school hold the spotlight for these towns. Consequently, each town proudly advertises the past successes of the local teams. Bigger towns tend to follow college level sports - a striking example of the popularity of college athletics is that the Superdome, home to the New Orleans Saints NFL team (and famous refuge during hurricane Katrina) is the second largest stadium in Lousiana. The largest? - Lousiana State University's football stadium in Baton Rouge (by more than 30,000 seats!).

Typical small town pride

I stopped in one small town and visited a historic village, where they recreate what life for pioneers used to be like, using either the original buildings or replicas. It was interesting seeing how these literal trailblazers lived. It is amazing how comfortable our lives have become, and how difficult they once were. What is even more amazing is that these particular pioneers chose this lifestyle - to reach Illinois, they had to pass through several established cities and states. I'm not sure I could have done it, knowing what lifestyle and sacrifices lay ahead.

After stopping in Paragould, AR for dinner at Sonic (by far my favourite takeout joint, sadly missing outside USA) and a quick overnight nap, I headed for Louisiana.

The bonus of this new route - I had no idea what to expect. I passed through dozens of small towns, only to chance upon a tourist destination. And so I passed through the birthplaces of the Jackson 5, Johnny Cash, Paul 'Bear' Bryant and Karl Malone. It was always a pleasant surprise, and a welcome relief from boredom (and backside soreness) to stop at a local destination.

I stopped in Shreveport, LA for the night, and headed into town for two things Louisiana is famous for - Cajun cooking and Jazz. I managed to find some delicious Cajun-style food and a local beer or two, but sadly no jazz. Shreveport is also known for its casinos, located on riverboats on the bank of the main entertainment distict.

It should probably be noted that I have been travelling through some of the most dangerous cities per caipta in the US, completely by accident. Like most places, I've found that exercizing common sense will generally keep you safe. Golden rule: if its dark, and you feel you shouldn't be somwhere, then you probably shouldn't.

Leaving Shreveport in my rear view mirrors, I headed over to the home of the American Rose Society, and apparently the world's largest rose garden. Unfortunately, it seems the society is understaffed, as a large proportion of the garden has fallen into disrepair. Rose maintenance is a constant process, and without proper maintenance, a rose garden can look horrendous. Overall disappointing, although there were some parts of the garden with well maintained and visually appealing specimens.

I've always considered Texas to be a desert state (and the southern areas certainly are), so it was a nice surprise to ride through East Texas and be surrounded by pine forests. I had lunch in Davy Crockett National Park (which gave Isabella her first true off road experience), drank at the Crockett spring in the town of Crockett, before the trees finally gave way to ranches and desert. It should be noted that Davy Crockett and the Alamo is important in Texas. For those who don't know, Texas was part of Mexico, until it split and formed a separate republic, only to join the US later. Hence, a large part of the history of Texas involves the struggle for independance, and subsequent joining of the union.

After spending the night in Brenham, TX, I passed through La Grange (made famous by the ZZ Top song) and visited monument hill, a tomb for soldiers killed in a battle with Mexico. A German immigrant had originally made his home on the bluff now occupied by the tomb, and being German, had naturally built a brewery nearby. Using a mountain stream to not only supply the brewery with the necessary water, but also power the process and cool the brewery is an example of the kind of pioneering spirit that is so impressive in this land.

I decided a while ago that I wouldn't ride through the country at night, so as to avoid interacting with wildlife at speed. The number of wildlife that I have seen crossing the road so far only serve to reinforce that riding at night is dangerous. The wildlife count so far: moose, deer, eagle, groundhog, armadillo, turtle, a couple of cyotes and feral cats, and one very lost daschund in Texas.

Anyway, after travelling through the desert for seemed an eternity (including stopping at as gas station that sponsors a hunting competition), I came upon Laredo, TX - the US border town connected to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. I briefly considered staying in the US for one more night, but decided to cross the border and relax on the South side. As it turns out, crossing the border into Mexico couldn't have been easier- the US had an automated system where a dozen cameras took photos of me (useless with my helmet on) and Isabella's licence plate (less useless). On the Mexican side, I queued up in the declaration line, cursing the fact that I hadn't thrown out a banana I had planned to eat for lunch. But the boomgate wasn't working after a few tries, so the staffer told me to back up, and go through the 'nothing to declare' aisles. After passing by a broken down car (seriously), I got to the gate where i gave the officer the banana, my passport, and the medicines in my bag. She couldn't care less. There's no stamp in my passport, and I didn't have to open my bags. I traveled through a pretty rough area, but found a cheap but decent motel to stay at. And that's how I made it to Mexico. 

Hemmingford to Chicago

After the repairs and other delays, my time allowed in the USA was down to ten days. US Immigration was not sympathetic to my cause either. Unfortunately, this meant that I couldn't see any of the friends that I had hoped to see. The new route came easy - the fastest route out of here. I had to stop in Grand Rapids, to pick up and install a new intake cam, so the new route became: Hemmingford,QC->Niagara Falls,ON-> Grand Rapids, MI-> Chicago,IL-> Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The idea being that if I ran into trouble in Michigan, I could turn back to Canada and spend more time there, before flying to Mexico. If you want to see the exact route, use Google Maps to plot a route between the above destinations, avoiding highways or tolls where possible.

I left Hemmingford with some trepidation - Québec has become somewhat of a second home to me, and the thought of spending 6 months on my own is not one I particularly enjoy. After heading through country Québec, I quickly joined the Ontario highway system. The first notable thing about the system - the ONroute stops. Complete with showers, wifi, shops, restaurants and gas stations, these areas set the bar as far as highway convenience is concerned. The second thing I noticed: a semi barreling past me, with smoke billowing out of the back. I tried to signal to him, but his speed let me know he was on fire. Literally. despite my recent problems with Isabella, she hasn't caught fire. Yet.

The bar has been set by Ontario

Toronto is a cosmopolitan city, home to a large immigrant population and the diverse life it inspires. It is also home to Young (or Yonge) st, once claimed to be the largest street in the world. So I took a quick detour off the then 24 lane expressway (North American freeways are something to behold) for a quick trip down the road. This detour meant that I was a bit behind schedule, so I didn't get into Niagara falls until after dark.

Yonge st at peak hour - not exactly moving

I have resolved to stay in motels or cheap hotels/hostels when practical, as it means I can park the bike close by and still stay near the cities, rather than camping on the outskirts of the city. The fact that it often rains at night might have something to do with it also. Cheap motels can be found in almost every city, usually a fair distance from the sights, which isn't really a problem when you have your own transport.

Anyway, I found a motel for less than 30 bucks. What it lacked in neighbouring restaurants, it made up for in local strip clubs. Seriously, the club across the road had enough customer parking for a shopping mall! But the motel was cheap, and I don't get hotel rooms for their decor - if it has a comfortable bed and a shower, I'm sorted.

The next day, I Visited the falls. I've often been told that the Canadian side of the falls is the most spectacular, and after witnessing it myself, I have to agree. I felt for the people on the other side (because of geography, the only viewpoint on the US side is from the top of the falls - consequently, you wouldn't be able to see most of the falls).

After Niagara, I headed for the border, crossing over a bridge between Ontario to Michigan. As I did, the rain started coming down, so I took refuge in a local McDonalds. Before I got there, I saw a roadsign giving directions to Flint, Michigan which reminded me of Michael Moore and several of his films. It was a massive coincidence then that I met a couple in the McDonalds who could have starred in some of his films. The man used to work for GM before being layed off. Since then, he and his wife have been living in an RV, struggling to pay for his medication. It was slightly depressing, but reaffirmed my belief in a strong public health system.

After entering Michigan, I headed towards Grand Rapids, where I had an intake camshaft waiting for me. I made it about 10 mins before sunset - I was making good time along the interstate, when another motorcyclist recommended a better and smaller parallel road.

What you find when you leave the interstate

For those of you who don't ride, motorcyclists around the world are like members of a secret club. Whenever you pass another biker, you wave hello. Whenever I stop at a gas station or restaurant, other bikers are always the first to say hi. On the ferries to and from Newfoundland, I made friends with other bikers. It makes me feel at home, no matter where I am.

Once in Grand Rapids, I checked into a cheap motel and the next day picked up the camshaft. I had to visit a garage to remove and install a bolt (I don't carry a vice with me!) but apart from that, it was smooth sailing. I get the impression that by the time I finish this trip, I will have accomplished a few things - I should speak pretty fluent Spanish, and be able to completely rebuild a KLR 250.

I can pull Isabella apart, and put her together again in about an hour now - if it keeps like this, I'll be able to do it while on the move!

On the weather front, it has taken a serious turn to the hot & humid. While the humidity will change (Texas and Mexico proved to be bone dry), the heat (around 35 DegC) has been constant. In short, I got sunburnt in Michigan, and have been quickly getting my tan back.

I made a quick stop in Grand Rapids to visit the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Ford succeded Nixon, so it proved to be an interesting exhibit on the circumstances in which he rose to power, and the way he handled himself while in office. From all accounts, he was a humble and hardworking man who made the hard decisions his country needed him to make at the time, regardless of how it would affect his popularity in the short term.

Not the most popular president, but did what his country needed him to do

From Grand Rapids, I headed towards Chicago via the lakeside. Lake Michigan is one of the largest lakes in the world, large enough that I would almost count it as a sea (you can't see one side from the other, which helps). I've found that North Americans sometimes refer to stretches of rocks on the edge of a lake as the beach, but for me a beach requires 3 S's - sand, swell and salt water. Lake Michigan lacks the last, but loks pretty close, and most of the villages along its banks resemble the seaside towns of the southwest - beach shacks, a slower paced life, and tanned people everywhere. The twisty roads were a pleasure to ride on, and before I knew it, I reached Gary, Indiana - probably only known as the birthplace of the Jackson 5, and their most famous member.

Lake Michigan

There is not much to see in Gary, and I quickly passed it by for Chicago. The one thing I'll say about Gary - atrocious roads. If I hadn't been riding a dual sport, I'd have been in trouble. I swear I saw holes that would swallow a moped rider whole.

After paying a few tolls, I reached downtown Chicago. For those people in Perth - never complain about rush hour again. In Chicago and Montréal, it starts at 3pm. Lanesplitting is illegal here, but I was really tempted. I got the obligatory Route 66 photo, and headed off to my hotel. Once settled in and showered (my favourite part of the day after a long, hot ride), I caught the elevated train (or "L") into downtown Chicago, for pizza and sightseeing.

I saw the Sears (now Willis) tower - the tallest building in North America, and 3rd in the world, as well as a few of Chicago's famous theatres and Union Station. Chicago is also known for it's deep dish pizza, so I gave it a go. I can safely say I don't have a Chicago sized appetite - the small (1 serving) pizza served as a large dinner and the next lunch! more on that in the next gastronomic adventures post.

The next day, I packed up and visited the Second City Theatre. This theatre is ground zero as far as comedy is concerned. Its list of alumni reads like a who's who - Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Dan Aykroyd, Stephen Colbert, Fred willard, Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Eugene Levy, Mike Meyers, Chris Farley - the list really goes on. As I had limited time, I could only catch an imrpov show aimed at kids, but it was funny regardless. Who knows, I may have seen the next lineup for SNL or sitcom!

As for Chicago's nicknames, they're not what they seem: It's called the second city not for New Yorks prominence, but for a fire that burned the first Chicago to the ground. It's also called the windy city, not for the weather (which can blow a motorcycle across the road at times), but for the local politicians, and their tendancy to talk alot and generally be full of hot air.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Repairs

So, after the breakdown in New Brunswick, I had to hit another gear to keep the trip on track. After leaving Isabella in New Brunswick, I caught a bus to Montréal to organize a new cylinder head. This turned out to be quite difficult in Canada - the KLR is not a popular bike up here and parts all seem to be on backorder, requiring up to 2 weeks for delivery. In the end, I managed to get the parts shipped from Oregon to New York. Another bus, and I was back in Hemmingford. Mat very kindly drove over the border to pick up the part and brought it back. After an enjoyable weekend in Ormstown for the annual fair (see the other posts), I headed back into New Brunswick via Montréal.

At this point, the bike hadn't moved in a week. Needless to say, I was anxious to get going. But that wasn't to be. I had let the mechanic (cylinder head installation is not in my roadside repair repetoire) organize the gasket. Big mistake. In the time it took me to travel across state lines, organize a part to be shipped across the US, pick it up and come back, they couldn't order a gasket. Then the wrong gasket was sent. All up, it took a week and 3 days to do something which would take maybe 2-3 days in Perth. Meanwhile, I was staying in Edmundston, NB. There is NOTHING to see here, so I spent most of the time in the motel, making plans, etc.

However, they did find out why Isabella sh*t herself: a missing oil pressure valve, meaning oil wasn't properly reaching the top of the engine. Whoever changed the oil before myself removed it and didn't replace it. I changed the oil before setting off, but didn't even think to check whether it was there or not, so it was partially my fault as well. In the end, it restored my faith in Isabella - how many vehicles do you know could run for over 4000km without oil in the head? I'm surprised I even made it out of Québec!

After the repairs were made, I rode back to Montréal, and Hemmingford.

Anyway, the intake camshaft was also damaged, so I ordered one from Grand Rapids, Michigan. For how/if I got there, see the next post.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Hemmingford to Newfoundland, and back (almost!)

After years of dreaming, planning and saving, this entry marks the official beginning of the trip of a lifetime.

Isabella with all the gear

I left Hemmingford, QC on Saturday afternoon for Montréal to spend the night with Eric & Co. At less than 60km, this segment is comparatively just around the block, and I got there with a minimum of fuss, only deteriorating bridges and impatient proved obstacles, albeit minor ones. I was looking for another night out in Montréal, and everyone was keen to make it a big Saturday night. After saying goodbye to everyone, I headed East on Sunday morning, excited with the prospect of riding through some of the most beautiful and remote countryside Canada had to offer.

So excited, that I didn't pay too much attention to where I was headed. I wouldn't say I got lost, as that's hard with a GPS telling you where you are to the metre, and pointing the way you should have gone, but I definitely missed a turnoff or two. I was initially angry with myself, but quickly got over that as I found a road that ran parallel to the intended road, but was far superior. I am trying to avoid taking the interstate road system wherever feasible. The alternative country roads cut a far more interesting path, running from small town to small town and following the lie of the land with bends, twists and dips - just the right combination for a great motorcycle trip.

That been said, sometimes the interstate is unavoidable, and I eventually had to leave the Route de Richeleu (following the Richeleu river), and the throngs of fellow motorcyclists for the interstate to make up for time lost spent sleeping off a hangover, and poor navigating skills. Unfortunately, I had to blast past Québec city, but made a mental note to stop by on the trip back.

It is around here that I had to make an intentional detour from what I had initially planned. I hadn't established how the bike would cope with the rigours of the new section of gravel in northeast Labrador, and an area like that isn't the kind of place to find out. So I decided to attempt the loop in the opposite direction, from Québec through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to Newfoundland and beyond. Talk of wildfires in the Happy Valley - Goose Bay area may have influenced my decision slightly.

Anyway, I kept heading East, eventually pulling over just before Rivére du Loup. I should mention my GPS has a number of useful features, besides just giving me my location. It also keeps a record of my distances, speed (helpful as the bike's speedo is in mph) and time spent stopped. Another feature I've been using is the countdown till sunset. And so, about 30 minutes before sunset, I pulled over to the side of the road near an exit, and set up my Hammock/Tent. My sister Lisa and I created this useful bit of equipment, resembling a hammock with attached mosquito net. However, when no trees of adequate size  can be found (like that night), it can be pegged down like a tent, and the mosquito net suspended by tying to the trees (or in this case, Isabella). I quickly made camp, got in the sleeping bag, and with earplugs in to block out the traffic, I promptly went to sleep. I should mention that sunset is around 9pm, and sunrise is around 5am, so if I'm to have any real sleep I need to be asleep as soon as it gets dark.

My camping situation - more comfortable than it looks

The next day I passed through New Brunswick, the only truly bilungual province of Canada (Québec being officially French only). Hartland, NB has an unusual tourist site - the largest covered bridge in the world. Bridges were often built with surrounding walls and roofs to protect the functional part of the bridge, thereby extending its usable life. At 391m long, the Hartland bridge isn't massive by today's standards, but in 1901, it would have been really something.

Hartland Bridge

New Brunswick and Nova Scotia passed by pretty quickly in the race to the port of North Sydney, for the ferry to Newfoundland (and away from the impending rain). The only thing I really noticed on the way there was that road signs were now in English first, and Gaelic. It turns out that Nova Scotia is REALLY Scottish, in appearance, language and culture.

After an overnight ferry, I arrived in Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland. The first thing I noticed - the local accent. Before loading onto the ferry, I overheard some truckers talking, and tried to place their accent. Arkansas? Louisiana? Then something they said sounded like they'd come directly from Edinburgh. I was confused. Then I noticed some of the staff on the ferry had the same accent. I finally put two and two together when on the island. For those of you playing at home, it sounds a little bit like Boomhauer from King of the Hill mixed with Billy Connolly. It's difficult to understand. They are truly wonderful and friendly people, but not the most effective communicators.

The second thing I noticed was the scenery. Newfoundland is SPECTACULAR. Vista after vista, azure lakes surrounded by tree covered hills in a kaleidoscope of different greens making every turn on the highway into a potential postcard.

Just some of the beautiful roads and views in Newfoundland

I also ticked off something on my list for Canada - a proper Moose sighting. about 90km from Port-Aux-Basques I rode over the top of a small crest and saw a large brown shape on the side of the road, about 50m ahead. As soon as I recognised what it was I pulled over and got my camera out. It seemed to be confused as to whether or not to cross the road, but then suddenly decided to go for it, clumsily dashing across into the bush opposite, before I could get the photo. Moose are not native to Newfoundland, but 4 introduced animals eventually became the approximately 150,000 that currently inhabit the island. This are no ordinary feral creature though - they can stand over 1.9m at the shoulder, and a car crash usually ends with the death of the driver & passengers, as well as the animal. Huge fences line most large highways to prevent interaction between Moose and machine (tunnels allow for access across the highway). Therefore, I chose early on not to ride at dusk or dawn, and especially not at night (when even trucks pull over).

At this stage, the fires up North were contained, but not out. Considering that leg of the journey involves ¬300km of gravel road in complete isolation in that area, I wasn't keen on risking everything so early. So I decided to go as far north as Gros Morne National Park, and then head back to Montréal approximately along the same route.

I reached Gros Morne National Park in the early afternoon, and was quickly stupefied. The park is full of fjords and mountains, bisected with one of the most exciting roads I have ever had the pleasure of riding. Sublime.

The ride back was less than pleasant however, as the rain that had been chasing me the whole time finally caught up with me. Riding through the drizzle, to beat the sunset countdown is not an experience I want to repeat very often. But I made it back, and beat three BMW riders in the process (I hadn't got a ferry ticket yet, and didn't want to miss out).

Leaving North Sydney in the morning, I headed to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum. Well known as the inventor of the telephone, Bell made significant contributions to the fields of powered flight, hydrofoils and deaf communication (ironically the primary rationale for his most successful work in telecommunications). A great man who significantly improved the world of his time.

I also stopped by the grave of Angus MacAskill, possibly the largest man to ever live without a growth abnormality. At 7ft 9in, he was easily the largest man in the area, and legends of his strength are incredible. As a true giant with an 80" chest measurements, feats beyond mere mortals were daily chores for Angus.

The rain started to come down hard near Moncton, New Brunswick and so I decided against camping that night, and instead decided to stay at a local motel. While basic, it seemed like heaven, and I took full advantage of the free breakfast and 11am checkout.

After checking out, I headed to the Bay of Fundy, and Hopewell Rocks. The shore experiences an incredible change of tide of up to 14m. The 'flowerpot' rocks perfectly demonstrate this. From this, I took the 915 coastal drive through the Fundy National Park, a road that ties with Gros Morne for the most scenic drive of the trip so far.

Hopewell Rocks - the tide can sometimes cover that rock behind my right shoulder

However, all these detours meant that I had some serious distance to catch up on. So I headed back onto the Transcanada highway, and sped off towards Edmunsdton. As sunset got closer, I settled on the town of Perth as my eventual destination. A couple of kilometres out, disaster struck. A sudden loss of power, and a rapid overheating of the engine were my only clues. As it was almost dark, I made some bush mechanic repairs and limped into Perth, looking for the campground. To rub salt into the wound, the campground had been flooded in March and so was closed. But a helpful gas station attendant suggested I could sleep on the lawn outside the medical clinic, and so that's what I did, albeit with a foreboding feeling.

The morning was tough for both myself and Isabella. We limped across to the next large town Grand Falls, where I stopped at the local hardware store to buy the necessary tools to take her apart and do (what I then thought was necessary) a valve clearance check and alteration. Unfortunately, as I opened the cylinder head cover, I was faced with carnage. The rocker arm clamps had come loose, and partly melted. There was a lack of oil, something that wasn't a problem back on Newfoundland. Basically, it was beyond my capabilities. After a quick curse of the gods, I went to the neighbouring auto parts store, CarQuest, for help.

The damage

I have found that times like this often make the best stories. While you may not enjoy them as they happen, you often meet the best people when you really need them, and things will eventually turn around for the better. The people in CarQuest couldn't have been more helpful - although they didn't do repairs themselves, they called everyone in the neighbourhood that possibly could. As it was Saturday, there weren't many candidates. We also quickly established that a new cylinder head would be required. However, the owner Michel agreed to store the bike in his garage for me so that I could catch the bus up to Montréal and locate the parts. Eventually, I agreed, and packed my stuff up, and headed off to watch a movie (MIB 3)and forget my troubles. After a beautiful dinner prepared by Michel's wife, it was time to catch the bus to the big smoke and make the necessary preparations.

This delay has had several repercussions - mainly, I had to streamline my journey through the US, and miss several destinations and friends. While this is disappointing, this won't be my last trip to North America by any means and I will have a chance later to catch up and see these people and places.

Once in Montréal, I moved in with Bonnie, another friend in Montréal, and set about sourcing parts and making other preparations. So far I have organised the part, and have contracted a mechanic for Monday to help me do the install. Wish me luck.