It was a mammoth journey to get to Chicago from Bristol. We took a train from Bristol to Reading , but we couldn’t cycle to the railway station as we normally would because we’d had to pack our touring bicycles away in cases so they could travel with us on the plane. Our train left Bristol at 05:30 and we were a little uncertain about taking our packed bicycles in a taxi and in any case we wondered if a taxi would be reliable at that time of day. So Matthew hatched a plan to get us on our way. Our early morning alarm went off at 4:00 am and after a very quick shower and breakfast Matthew used one of his other (4) bicycles to go and pick up a van that’s part of our car club pool of vehicles – fortunately it’s parked near Bristol’s main railway station. Once there he put the bicycle he was using in the back of the van and drove back home. At the house, one bike came out of the van and the two packed bikes and their panniers went in. Along with a very bleary-eyed Mike! I spent the time while Matthew was away checking all the doors and windows of the house (again), switching everything off and pulling plugs out of sockets. It’s another of my OCD things.
We drove to the railway station and Matthew returned the van while I tried to collect the train tickets from the ‘Fast Ticket’ machine and get all the bags to the right platform. The Fast Ticket computer said “No” to issuing me with tickets – I didn’t have the right credit card apparently – even though the tickets were bought using a joint account credit card, the stupid machine wanted Matthew’s version, not mine. Bristol Temple Meads was surprisingly busy at 5:00 am, but of course there were not staff at the ticket counter at that time of day *fume*. I sent Matthew a text message about collecting the train tickets himself, hoped that he had the right credit card and made my way to the platform. Fortunately, Matthew was able to get the tickets and we boarded the train. The train manager wondered what was on the bags and why we wanted to store them in the cycle compartment! There were several other cyclists on the train – some in Lycra road racing gear, so I wondered if there was an event that they were going to – but I was too tired to ask them!
At Reading we changed to the RailAir coach – which is just a coach with a name that makes it sound more exciting than it actually is. Also waiting at the bus stop was a young man who was wearing a Nike T-shirt with ‘Running Sucks’ written across it in big letters – seeing as he was quite overweight I wondered if he’d ever done enough running to be able to make a proper assessment. He looked funny in any case!
Virgin Atlantic – the airline taking to Chicago and returning us from Washington is based in Heathrow terminal 3, which has undergone an amazing transformation since I was last there in the 1980s – then it was a 1960s white box with some horrid clashing and glaring 70s and 80s additions. Now it’s all sleek with high ceilings, tinted glass and marble floors.
Matthew had brought along a Sainsbury’s shopping bag with some breakfast food in it – in case we were hungry on the journey and I couldn’t find anything vegan to eat at the airport. So we brought a tub if hummus, some bread rolls, four small pots of soya yoghurt, some vegan biscuits with us. At the checking-in desk and oversize baggage handling I ended up carrying the food bag and it was with me as I went through security. This was a mistake. So, like a lamb to the slaughter I bundled my pannier bag, wallet, keys, iPhone, jacket, and That Bag of Food onto the conveyor belt and walked through the security gate. So far so good. I passed through the gate without incident. But as my stuff went through the adjacent x-ray machine I could hear a deafening alarm going off. “Just come over here for a minute please, sir”, said a member of the security staff … It turned out that the half eaten pot of hummus, (Matthew had had a go at it on the train) and the four pots of soya yoghurt were regarded as liquid and I stood accused of trying to smuggle prohibited items, onto the plane, threatening the lives of everyone on board in the process. I was required to wait at the other side of the security gate and endure a lecture about not bringing liquids on planes and wait for ages while the offending items were tested. If they were going to get chucked out anyway, I didn’t understand why they needed to be tested. Anyway, I was given a choice: did I want to keep the yoghurts and hummus and forgo getting on the flight, or give up the yoghurts and hummus and be allowed to fly? Meanwhile everyone else around me was passing through the security gates with apparent ease and I was feeling a little like a naughty schoolboy being given a talking to in front of the class. I thought that deploying my defence: “This isn’t actually my bag – I didn’t pack these things”, had the potential to get me into even more trouble, so I had to endure the humiliation. I did point out the difficulties usually encountered with getting food suitable for vegans in the kind of places that served food in airports. But he looked at me like I was mad, and said rather wearily “I wouldn’t know about that, sir. But there’s an information desk over there where you can ask.” Matthew, rather wisely under the circumstances, had gone through a separate gate some way off and was also (rather wisely), looking quizzically on from a distance. So the Great Yoghurt and Hummus Security Incident was resolved with my meekly promising that I wouldn’t try to to smuggle prohibited items on the plane ever again. Once in the departure lounge Eat had soya milk, so I could have some coffee and a little pot if fruit. I made Matthew go and fetch it.
Once we we had boarded the plane we passed three men sitting in a row, all wearing identical green polo shirts with a list if names printed on the back. Rich, Ade and Shaun (accompanied by their stuffed toy mascots), who were traveling to Chicago to begin a fund-raising motorbike ride along Route 66 – America’s old Main Street. They wanted to ride on old Harley Davidson motorbikes for 2,451 mi (3,945 km) from Chicago to Los Angeles to raise money for cancer care. The names on their backs were Rich’s parents – both parents had died from cancer in the last two years.
What a bunch of stars they were – and there are so many people doing good things like that. Cancer touches all our lives and I felt sad to think about all the people whose lives it affects but also happy about what they were doing to help others. We chatted about our trips – they were amazed to hear about our journey by bicycle, we are going to be doing it the hard way they told us. We wished each other luck and I went to my seat. By the window! Fab!!
For any geeks out there (well me and Matthew’s dad only probably – possibly Paul will be interested), we’re on a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340-300. A beautiful wide bodied plane, which has four engines. There are 235 passengers and 11 crew on board. The estimated flight time is eight hours. The journey takes us out of Heathrow and across Wales and central Ireland then along 59 degrees latitude coming into N. America over Goose Bay, Ontario the Great Lakes and into Chicago.
I have to admit that I wasn’t all that keen on flying Virgin – I dislike Richard Branson, I think the company is vulgar and their marketing is misogynist. I also think that Virgin take a lot of public money to deliver overpriced and poorly performing services, while still managing to pay their shareholders fat (tax-supported) dividends and afford Mr B a wasteful and excessive lifestyle. Virgin happened to fly into Chicago and back from Washington at times that suited us best, so we didn’t really have much choice (despite what all the low tax, free market capitalists would have us believe). The flight cabin of the plane was boiling hot when we boarded – a faulty auxiliary power unit, apparently. Everyone in upper class and business class were getting cold drinks as we waited to take off, the rest of us in steerage just had to put up with the sweltering heat. Once we were on our way it cooled down and to their credit, Virgin served some nice vegan food – mild vegetable curry with coconut basmati rice for lunch, and chickpea pâté sandwiches (don’t mention the hummus), for tea.
Coming in over Lake Michigan to land at O’Hare airport was fantastic – it’s bright, sunny and very warm in Chicago – but unfortunately there was too much mist to make out much of the Downtown area as we made our descent.
The man at US immigration was funny when I told him that we were cycling to Washington. Apparently everyone who drives in America is either drunk or sending text messages on their cell (mobile) phones – so we should take extra care. The bicycle bags attracted lots of the usual sort of attention as we headed to Bonnie’s apartment in Chicago. She’s our first WarmShowers host of our journey.
A metro and a bus took us to Bonnie’s apartment block. The concierge was expecting us and was really welcoming. Bonnie is lovely and had arranged with her friend, Frank, to have dinner prepared for us. We had a lovely vegan dinner. Did lots of talking about our travels and our families. But I was so tired it was difficult to concentrate – we went to bed at about 8:30 pm local time (about 2am UK time). We’d been on the move for about 22 hours by that time, (on top of only a few hours sleep the night before) – so off to bed and some very much-needed sleep.