Friday, July 29th
Today was a false start. A quarter day if that. The shortest of this trip by some distance. I’m going to sleep just 20 miles or so from where I woke up. It never really took off the ground, which made it easier to accept the decision to end it when the opportunity presented itself.
I think I wrote something back in Korea when I first started cycling, about how I found that when backpacking so much of your time is spent fussing around with all the things which surround travel, rather than the travel itself. One of the reasons I wanted to try cycle touring was it felt like being on a bike less time would be spent packing and repacking bags, booking accommodation, or making sense of public transport. Most of this is definitely true, apart from the packing.
It’s probably because I’m carrying things which are still a hangover from when I left New York eight or nine months ago, or even from when I left England almost a year ago. I still have the leaving card from my old job tucked in a zip up Muji bag filled with other sentimental tokens. I know I have too much stuff, despite mailing multiple packages home.
But whatever the reason, whenever I have a slightly extended chance to stop inside, at a motel, or like last night at the hostel, everything inevitably ends up coming up of my panniers and on to the carpet where i’ll spend at least an hour or two reorganising, re-stuffing things into the various sacks and bags I have, trying to rationalise what I have and what I need, and then finally finding the optimum way to Tetris it into the two panniers.
Another inevitability is that this process will repeat whenever I stop again.
So I woke up this morning with this task half-finished which is why despite waking up at 7 I wasn’t on my bike until 10.30 or 11. By which point it was already unbearably hot. When I had walked out on the balcony after putting the coffee on, right after I woke up, it was reasonable outside. Not exactly cool, but a pleasant amount of warmth to ride a bike in. Now it would definitely be unpleasant until well after sunset. But I had to keep moving.
I cleaned any mess i’d made and left the comforts of the hostel behind. As I loaded my bike I anxiously watched the rear tyre sag slightly with the weight. I’d pumped it up as much as I could with the cracker-present quality plastic pump I had. I couldn’t do any better.
I aimed for a sports shop in town which would hopefully have either a pump I could use or buy and I began coasting downhill. Things weren’t looking up. I glanced back at the tyre and the rim ran dangerously close to the ground as the tube lacked the pressure to support my freshly rationalised but essentially still very heavy set of belongings.
I stopped and tried to pump harder. But more air came out than in. I coasted another quarter mile and things went from bad to worse as the remaining air drained from the tyre. I pulled to the side of the road. A car approached and I waved it down right away, looking for a lift into town. The guy was friendly, but was hauling two large German Shepherds in the back so had to leave me there.
I happened to be right outside someones house and just after the car pulled away out came the owner, Brian. He didn’t look like the sort of guy who would be in possession of a bike pump, let alone a good one that would fit presta valves but he went back to his house and to my surprise returned with a floor pump. We talked as I removed things from my bike and took the wheel off. He was recently retired and interested in bikes, he’d done the Seattle to Portland ride not long ago. His questions to me were direct, a little sharp, it turned out he worked as a federal agent, something to do with control at the Mexican border, which might explain his direct questions.
The last time i’d tried my hand pump I must have ripped the valve right off the tube. Air was rushing out when I gave the tyre some air, so I replaced the tube. Brian helped the tyre back on. I wheel my bike over and leant it against a large flagpole on his grass. He had four dogs behind a wire fence who were interested in what was going on.
I put my stuff back on the bike, and gave the tyres another pump to make sure. I could pick up some new spare tubes in town. It was around this time Brian asked me some question about Muslims in London. I can’t remember the phrasing exactly, but it was weird. Then half jokingly I asked if building a wall to keep Mexicans out was a good idea and he said yes.
It wasn’t what I what I was expecting from a middle class, apparently educated and compassionate guy who was interested in racing bikes and kept several geese and one duck. But I was begin to get used to the fact that what I consider extreme points of view are exactly the opposite in some parts of this country.
For the second time in a week i’d been helped out by an apparent Trump supporter. This made me feel conflicted, but on both occasions they’d really saved me. It kind of summed up how i’d been feeling about American lately, a relationship which was very much love/hate. For every little local shop, like the Montana Valley Bookstore in Alberton, where i’d walk in and end up getting to know the owner or learn something about their life or the area, there’s a Walmart where i’d walk in and die slightly inside as I surveyed the 315 different types of sliced cheese on offer. For every beautiful park or monument, there’s be 15 different fridge magnets to choose from in the gift shop. And so on. This isn’t exactly a startling revelation to me or anyone else I imagine, but it has really crystallised in the last week for some reason.
But I can’t deny that thanks to Brian I was able to get back on my bike and ride into the town, Colville, when half an hour before I was swearing at the asphalt.
I went to Clark’s Sporting Goods. It sold more guns and knives than bike things, but I was able to pick up two spare tubes and a better pump – at a price. But with several more mountains ahead of me I couldn’t afford to be cheap.
Outside the shop I attached it to my frame before heading to Walmart on the edge of the town. It seemed an unremarkable but pleasant enough place stuck somewhere between small town America and Starbucks America. The Walmart was huge but i’d at least got to know their layout well enough now to quickly find what I need and get out quickly.
With things packed again, and tyres holding air, I finally began cycling again. It was around one or two and I was baking.
I turned off the main road after a few miles and bump into a tour group cycling in the other direction. They’d come over the mountain pass in the morning after leaving at 7am from Republic. That was where I was aiming for tonight, but there tour leader looked at me like I was mad when I told him this. Perhaps he was right. He refilled my water bottle with ice and water from their support van and let me study their maps for a second.
I decided to just see how it went and continued around Kettle Falls, a nice descent towards the Colville twitter, then a crossing over it on a old trestle bridge which gave a good view down the valley and the Columbia River. I stopped at a gas station at the junction on the other side.
An old guy approached me and said he could watch my bike if I put it around the other side. ‘Sure’ I said. He was collecting money for local food banks by selling raffle tickets with a woman. His t-shirt said ‘American and Proud’ and had an eagle and a flag on it. His hat said something about him being a veteran and he told me that he was stationed in England during the Korean war.
I went inside to fill up on water and bought an ice cream. I continued talking to the pair of them outside as I weighed up my options for the day. Eventually I decided to camp this side of the pass, at a campground 7-8 miles away, then tackle it early in the morning. It was crazy to cycle in this heat.
When I stated my plans the older guy, Tom was his name, said I could stay with him. I hesitated for a second but agreed. It meant going back into Kettle Falls a few miles, having an even shorter day and leaving myself more to do tomorrow, but he seemed like an interesting guy and I didn’t really know what i’d do for 5 hours in a campsite anyway.
They packed up their foldable chairs and table and put the money and things in Tom’s car and called it a day. I got Tom to show me where he lived on GoogleMaps on my phone and I set off.
He drove behind me on the bridge, making sure no traffic could pass (there was no shoulder), then waited around a bend for me a couple of miles on to make sure I was heading the right way.
A mile later, up the hill, I turned into Ponderosa Drive, a hillside culdesac with large bungalow houses which looked toward the river.
Tom got me to wheel my bike right into the house. The walls were covered with old paintings and photos. On one table was a jigsaw puzzle about one third complete, on top of an old piano was a flag from the 1988 Super Bowl.
He told me to make myself feel at home and I took a shower.
The rest of the afternoon we spent in his living room. Sitting and talking as the large TV blared away. I found out he was 84. He was incredibly sharp and lucid for his age, and most definitely anti-Trump. He talked more sense than most people i’d met half his age.
I wish I could remember the details of all his stories but even as I write this at the end of the day many of them are fading.
He was based close to Norwich for a couple of years around 1950. He showed me a photo album with a hand-painted cover. Inside were black and white photos of his friends in the army at the time, most of them barely 20. There were photos of family and old lovers, though these had mostly been removed by his first wife. He was married twice. Both his wifes had passed away. His second just last year after a long battle with alzheimer’s. He was independent but his son lived with him now, though I didn’t see him. In a couple of the photos were two dome shaped shelters which apparently housed atom bombs. He was one of very few people to have this information at the time.
We watched boxing on the tv. There were other stories about good friends who’d died, his two heart attacks, and multiple eye and back surgeries, all of which the army paid for. In his photo album were also shots taken in Germany, in Munich. Buildings still showed the scars of WWII.
He talked most fondly about England. Which is probably part of the reason he took me in in the first place, but he said it was because he thought i’d get eaten alive by the mosquitos at he campground. Around 7 or 8 he cooked us steaks, big large t-bones grilled outside on his deck, served with two large potatoes sliced down the middle. It was the first home cooked meal i’d had in a while. Afterwards he fed me more cake and showed me his collection of cowboy memorabilia.
I enjoyed just sitting and listening. He’d led a long interesting life. I asked him what the secret to that was whilst he was turning the steaks and he quickly replied ‘Don’t worry’. He said that the doctors say he has a brain tumour. But he said he’s going to let them worry about that. Just before I went to sleep he checked his answerphone messages and there was one from the hospital he’d missed a couple of days ago about an MRI scan. It seemed the future was a little uncertain, but I didn’t doubt that he had the resilience to see it through.
Today I was going nowhere. And, for the first time, i’d almost completely forgotten about the cycling. I’d pick it up again tomorrow, early, inventiably. But for half a day it had been nice to just be in someone elses home, look at their photos and mementos, and hear their stories.
‘See you tomorrow buddy’ he said and with that we both called it a day.