1. The madness of it all. Few countries that I've visited can compete with the USA in the oddity stakes. I encountered all sorts of the weird and wacky - from an 80-year artist who specialised in Hello-Kitty related furniture, to a ex-commando who took his cat ski-ing (and posted the videos on YouTube); from giant 70-foot roadside dinosaurs advertising shopping malls, to a town modelled on 19th-century Bavaria. Luckily, however, I love this sort of thing! The kitsch, the bizarre, the downright disturbing - it all makes for a great travel experience. My favourite (or at least, the most memorable) was the celebration of Rocky Mountain Oysters in Montana; that is, to say, the 'Testicle Festival'...
2. The marvellousness of it all. It would be unfair not to follow up the madness without mention of the myriad marvels there are in North America. From Niagara Falls to the Badlands National Park to the Big Horn Mountains, I found landscapes that made the hairs of the back of my neck stand up and stay stood. The lesser attractions, I found, often held their own alongside the heavyweights of the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Ocean. The winner, without a doubt - the place that is etched forever deep in the recesses of my mind - is the bubbling, boiling super-volcanic cauldron of Yellowstone National Park. I spent just over a week there, leaving my bike at the campsite and hitching around with other tourists. The best memories I have are of walking through the back country, past steaming mud pools and gurgling geysers, watching our for bears and buffalo roaming the paths....
3. The roads. When you ride a bicycle, you begin to accept, then enjoy, then crave and love the visceral thrill of a really, really good road. Stunning scenery, an interesting route and a good surface are all common ingredients. Enormous scare-the-crap-out-of-yourself downhills also help. The USA and Canada have no shortage of these types of roads. My favourites were mostly found west of the Mississippi, in the winding passes of the Black Hills, or the cathedral-like avenues through the Redwood forests. I'd ride any of those road again in a heartbeat.
4. The people. A journey through North America is inevitably a social experience, and I'm pleased to report that I found mine to be an enlightening one. Passing drivers would stop to give me cold water. One even handed me a 6 pack of beer. Those passing encounters were special, of course, but the times I remember most are when I got a glimpse inside a community. Many nights I found myself taken in, fed and looked after by complete strangers. On a few occasions I stopped in my tracks and spent 3 or 4 days in a village or town, staying with new friends and getting an idea of life in middle America. In Fowler, Michigan - population 1201 - I spent a happy weekend with Handsome Mike and PickleBall Sally - two local characters that no short blog such as this can do justice to. Mike was the life and soul of Fowler, and I must have met nearly every single one of those 1201 residents through his whirlwind tours. My lasting memory is of Mike riding with me to the edge of town on his bicycle (with a homemade 'saddle' cut out of a chiropractors chair) then having him burst into tears and hand me $100 dollars which he said was to help 'make the most of life on this ride, through the greatest country on earth.'
5. The self-development. Although selfish, this is one of the main reasons why I travel. I love the formative nature of these journeys, and I find the challenge, unpredictability and constant need to adapt is very refreshing. It keeps me active, makes me feel alive. Riding through the USA and Canada was my first real experience of this, and it's no exaggeration to say it changed my life. I learned a lot about the world, but I learned so much more about myself. Everything I am and do today (for better or worse!) is in some way related to my experiences riding the road headed west across North America.
My first book - The Road Headed West - tells the full story of my journey across North America by bicycle. You can order a copy here.