The other America

The image of the USA that we’re fed in Europe is often very far removed from the experiences we have when we cycle here. The news and cinema footage would have you believe that Americans are all red-neck, gun-touting, inward-looking, aggressive people who drive giant cars and who are stinking rich. It’s true that their cars are generally the size of small British houses, but they drive much slower than maniac UK drivers and the roads are much wider so you feel quite safe on a bike. The people we’ve met on our trips dispel much of the conventional stereotypes we’re fed in the UK. All the Americans we’ve met have been generous to a fault, extremely interested in our travels and to hear about the UK and Europe and have much more progressive political views than many media commentators back home would have us believe. As for being wealthy, yes there are lots of well off people, but there is also a lot of poverty too. You notice this travelling on a bike where the broken down and boarded up houses stand out amongst the neatly trimmed lawns and white picket fences. In some of the small rural towns we’ve travelled through its been quite stark to see the poorer neighbourhoods and closed down shops on Main Street whilst on the outskirts of these places are miles of sprawling retail sheds and fast food joints. Some parts of the ‘American Dream’ are clearly not working for everyone. Cycling along I can hear the voice of Matt Fry (former BBC USA correspondent now at Channel 4 news) talking about ‘the other America’ – the poor America that is plain to see in the richest nation on earth. Rich or poor however, Americans are warm and hospitable, if this could be translated into cash they’d all be wealthy.

Groundhog Day

It turns out today’s riding was a bit like yesterday’s with more miles of great Rail to Trail routes – although we weren’t awoken by the sound of Sonny and Cher singing ‘I got you babe’. We did, however, become a bit wiser about local wildlife. Yesterday I mentioned that we had been in a close encounter with what we thought was a beaver, well it turns out we were wrong. Clearly I wouldn’t know a beaver if it hit me in the face – or in our case ran parallel to us for 100 feet. Whilst talking to a group of women visiting the Wright brothers’ Heritage Centre in Dayton earlier today we described our close encounter with the furry friend. They knew instantly that this was not a beaver – silly us – but rather a groundhog! These women clearly know their beavers from their groundhogs better than us. Of course now we know it was a groundhog we’re kind of wishing we stopped and set it some kind of test to predict the weather for the remainder of our vacation. Sadly not only are we not beaver spotters but we’re not Bill Murray and Andi McDowell either!

High speed (t)rails

There is a great discussion in parts of the UK right now about the government’s proposed second high-speed rail route. The first phase of this line would pass through some very picturesque parts of the country such as the Chiltern Hills. Driving transport links through beautiful countryside isn’t a new thing, we’ve been doing it for centuries. In the 1700s when the canal boom got going the routes tended to twist around, following the contour of the land and avoiding the need for expensive tunnels and locks. Of course the canals were soon to be superseded by railways, which were built in much straighter lines and were faster. There lies the crux of the matter with high-speed rail. High-speed trains need very straight rails and building long straight tracks is hard to do without hitting something (such as the Chilterns). This clearly wasn’t an issue for the builders of the Ohio and Erie Railway, part of the route that we cycled on today. The route felt as if someone had drawn a straight line on a map from a to b and that was the line of the railway. The track stretched out ahead of us for miles and miles only twisting slightly when we reached roads.

The straightness of the trails and the fact that they’re fairly flat makes it possible to really pick up speed, at times were cycling along at 25 mph. Our thanks go to those earlier railway pioneers, without you we wouldn’t be enjoying the ride quite so much!

London calling

It’s been a British kind of cycling day today – first the customer service at the Dayton Grand was very British, (in a not very helpful sort of way) and not what we’re used to in the USA. Then we cycled through London, not our London clearly, but a very pleasant town just over halfway between Dayton and Columbus. It didn’t look very British – rather quintessentially Midwestern USA, lots of timber buildings with pretty porches, but they had a fab welcome sign as the trail entered town, we had to stop and take pictures. The thing that really made it feel British today though was the weather. It was in the 80s again for most of the day but at about 65 miles as we approached Columbus a storm broke and boy did it rain. Fortunately we had rain coats and lights so a quick stop to don those and we carried on. It’s always a bit nerve racking riding in the rain after a long warm spell a) the roads can be quite slippy so you can fall over and b) often bits of glass and metal get floated to the surface making punctures much more likely. We were lucky that neither happened. The rain continued pretty much all the way to Columbus but unlike British rain it was very warm and so a bit like cycling in a warm shower. I did ponder stripping off and doing a mini naked bike ride into town, but my British reserve kicked in and I refrained.

Summary – day 06 – Muncie to Dayton (Tuesday 25 June)

Estimated mileage: 86 miles actual: 86.69

Avg. speed: 15.4 mph

Cumulative distance: 300.77 miles

We left the Hampton Hotel and headed into Muncie, to pick up the Cardinal trail which is part if the Rails to Trails network and would form a big part of our route today

Our hotel was on a junction taking a fairly major road over to the airport. We were just outside the hotel and waiting at a red light when Matthew pointed to a group if about 8 or 9 little ducklings that were scurrying about on the other side of the road. They were obviously frightened – darting about and changing directions – all on the road at the junction. Cars were stopping and slowing down and trying to drive around them. Cars coming across the junction from the other direction couldn’t see the ducklings, so they were whizzing past. The ducklings were running underneath the cars and I just couldn’t look any more. I wanted to go and do something – but the traffic made it impossible to get over the road on red, even if I’d managed to reach them – what would I do? Try herding ducklings off a main road with traffic thundering by? Where would I take them? Once the lights changed we had to move forward and with a very heavy heart I passed by on the other side – well actually it was worse than that, I passed by on the same side but still failed to help. I felt quite guilty and kept hoping that in one of the cars that were manoeuvring around the ducklings would be someone who would know how to rescue them. I imagine that they’re all dead now :(

Muncie – is a nice-looking little town. We passed Ball State University, where there seemed go be some kind of sporting event taking place with lots of competitors warming up. We rode into the centre along the river, where there was a beautiful park and cycleways. We saw a big sign for the Muncie Orchestra Concert – that’s a good sign to see! There was a huge, nice- looking bicycle shop, but no time to visit, unfortunately.

For any sociologists out there, you may be interested to learn that Muncie was chosen as the site of a series of in-depth anthropological studies of typical US Middle-American town life from the 1920s to 2000, was known as ”Middletown’. In 1929, Helen and Robert Lynd published ‘Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture’; they returned to re-observe the community during the depression and published ‘Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts’, in 1937. A third study by Theodore Caplow followed: ‘Middletown Families’ in 1982 and in the following year ‘All Faithful People’. In 1998 Capliw began another study: Middletown IV, which i think was made into a tv documentary, but I’ve not seen it.

As we were heading out of town, two boys on bicycles came out of a side-street and made to race with us. They had big grins on their faces as they bent down to pedal furiously to their impossible task of keeping up with us. It’s an amazing aspect of the human spirit I think – often we’ll do something even though we know that we’ll fail. I asked them where they going on their bicycles today – and they said that they were just biking around. When I said that we were riding to Dayton, one asked rather incredulously, “Dayton Ohio?”. I laughed, “Yes – Dayton, Ohio!”.

On the outskirts of Muncie we rejoined the Cardinal Greenway bike trail, (www.cardinalgreenways.org). We were really looking forward to this part of the ride – almost half of today’s journey was on this beautiful and quiet off-road bicycle track. The Cardinal Greenway is the longest rail-trail in Indiana and stretches 62 miles from Marion through Muncie to Richmond in East Central Indiana. We cycled through the morning and took the trail to Richmond. We saw some amazing animals on the cycle trails – Matthew’s writing about those in a separate blog entry

We passed a fellow riding in the same direction as us and wished him good morning. A little further on was a rest area where we could refill our water bottles and I could stretch out a bit. While we were there the cyclist we passed pulled in and we had a chat. He was called Gary, he lived locally and said that he rode on the trail most days to keep fit. He thought that the trails were not as well-used as they could be – we had to agree with that! Gary was retired, but had worked in automobiles, “All those jobs are gone now.” He said, ruefully. I asked Gary about some of the animals we’d seen, he didn’t know what the birds were called, but I described the little furry animal that looked a bit like a chipmunk, Gary said ‘That is a chipmunk!’ Now I should know exactly what a chipmunk looks like because when I was a little boy we had one as a pet – named Harry. Harry lived in a tall tubular cage and I remember he used to go crazy running round and around the cage – much to our amusement, but the poor little thing was probably desperate to get out. I’ve no idea how or why he arrived, or how long he lived – Mum, maybe you can tell me and everyone else all about Harry in the comments section.

We arrived in Richmond and it seemed to be a rather faded place. There were dozens of empty shops on Main Street. This is becoming a familiar sight since we left Chicago – businesses closed, empty stores and lots, people holding ‘yard sales’ in their front garden. It’s obvious that the recession has really hit this part of the country very hard.

I called in at a lovely old book shop ‘A dying breed’ the owner said, for advice about where to eat. He struggled to recommend anywhere, so we stopped for lunch at Kroger’s supermarket. They had a garden table and chairs for sale outside, and we sat there to eat. On the way out on the east side of Richmond were some very grand houses and Glenn Millar Park, with a very nice rose garden. Not sure why the park is named after Glenn Millar.

Just east of Richmond is the border with Ohio – so we’ve cycled through Indiana! We had a really fast ride to Dayton – apart from a section around Trotwood where we couldn’t find the continuation of the cycle track – so we used Garmin to get us in to Dayton and the (not very) Grand Hotel.IMG_3925

The hotel was a disaster, really. There was no laundry and the laundry service collected at 8 am then returned at 5 pm. Well that was never going to work for us! We were told that we could walk 5 blocks to a laundry. I asked about soya milk for breakfast, (I wouldn’t expect this in a remote, out of the way hotel – although some of these do routinely stock it – but in a large city-centre establishment it’s pretty standard nowadays). Well the answer to that was no, too. We could go to Kroger’s – about a 15 minute drive … we were standing in the lobby wearing Lycra and with BICYCLES – did they think we’d just pop out and rent a car? When the absurdity of driving to Kroger’s was pointed out, some other smaller local grocery stores were suggested. I had absolutely no confidence that any of these would stock soya milk. Also, I do sometimes resent -in effect – being asked to pay twice, once when we book out hotel where I assume I’m subsidising all the people who eat animal products and save the hotel money by not eating very much. Then I pay again for soya milk that I buy for myself (a lot of this gets poured away because buying small quantities is nigh on impossible in the US).

I was too tired to argue – we were paying to stay there – if we had a reasonable request like a laundry or soya milk I didn’t think it was appropriate to send us off somewhere else – especially after we’d cycled so far.

In our room on the fifth floor we started to unpack. Matthew undressed and went into the shower. There was no hot water. This place was turning into Fawlty Towers! Matthew had to get dressed again so the maintenance man could come up. He who told us to try turning the taps the other way or running them for longer … duh! Then he concluded that we should be moved. So we had to repack and wait for someone to come and move us. Our new room had hot water.

We’d not eaten so we headed out to get something to eat and go see if we could find a laundry. We never did find a laundry, but we did find an excellent restaurant: Roost in the historic Oregon district of Dayton. They were really friendly and completely unfazed by my asking for vegan food, which they seemed happy to prepare especially for me. It was a real treat. We thanked and chatted to the proprietors as we were leaving, told them about our journeys and the blog. They looked up the blog straight away – and had left a comment by the next morning!

Back to the hotel to wash our jerseys in the bath! A cup of green tea and bed!

Not so grand

As with previous US cycle trips we’ve been splitting our accommodation between Warm Showers (WS) – the network of touring cyclist and friends of touring cyclists (some hosts are not even riders) and hotels/motels. The WS hosts have been great without fail, we’ve met some lovely people. The hotels on the other hand have been hit and miss. The first hotel in Rochester was OK, fairly basic but clean. Their laundry room closed at 10 pm for some inexplicable reason. The only exception to the cleanliness was the advertised pool, which clearly had a serious problem with the filtration system. Hotel number two in Muncie was actually nice. Unfortunately, hotel number three really bummed. The Dayton Grand sounded so promising, I had visions of an old downtown hotel in a traditional style. What we got instead with a lot of faded grandeur with dodgy pipes, (they had to move us to another room with hot water), Wi-fi that kept cutting out, no in-hotel laundry and no soya milk. The staff were equally hopeless sending us on a wild goose chase to find a laundry that we never found. The problem with booking hotels online in advance is that the pictures can look nice, but the reality is sometimes far removed. On things for sure my TripAdvisor comments on the Dayton Grand will not be positive!

What we (didn’t) know (until we looked it up) about Ohio

Ohio is the seventh most populous state in the union with 11.5 million people living here.

Ohio’s population growth lags that of the entire United States, and Caucasians are found in a greater density than the United States average.
The largest ancestry groups (which the Census defines as not including racial terms) in the state are: 26.5% German, 14.1 Irish, 9.0% English, 6.4% Italian
7.6% from the other Slavic countries.
It has a Republican Governor, 1 Democrat and 1 Republican senator and 8 of 12 congressman are Republican.

The state capital and largest city are Columbus – where we’ll cycle to today.
Ohio is known for its status as both a swing-state and a bellwether in national elections – hence you may see a lot of TV reports from Ohio during US presidential election campaigns.

The manufacturing and financial activities sectors each compose 18.3% of Ohio’s GDP, making them Ohio’s largest industries.
The headquarters of Procter & Gamble, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, AK Steel, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Wendy’s (national restaurant chain) are all based in Ohio.

The state bird of Ohio is also the Cardinal.

Famous Ohioans include Orville and Wilbur Wright (aeroplane inventors), Neil Armstrong, Dorris Day (worth knowing as I cycle along singing ‘Secret Love’!), Paul Newman and Rob Lowe.

Blog widow

There is a familiar phrase that is heard in our house – a phrase uttered almost exclusively by Michael. It goes something like this ‘you’re always glued to your iPad/iPhone’. It’s a fair-cop, I admit it. I cannot sit still without having something to do – these devices give me the perfect opportunity to multi-task. However, I think that the next time this phrase is used on me I will be whipping out the holiday snaps I’ve been taking. So much for quiet moments together sharing our thoughts of the days ride. No chance. Every opportunity he has, Mike is blogging – recording in meticulous detail the events of out trip. I hope the attention to detail is appreciated by you, dear reader, and perhaps by some Hollywood scout on the hunt for the next road trip movie idea!

Animal manic

Riding at around 15 miles an hour is the perfect speed to take in not just the scenery but also the wildlife – and there has been lots of it! On our first ride of this trip (just after the incident with the chasing dog) we passed a stream besides a wood. The light was dimming, but stood in the water, it’s silhouette clearly contrasting with the water was a beautiful deer. A little further along the road we saw another deer, this time leaping through the corn fields. Today we have seen a lot of wildlife – some of it with a death wish. Not long after setting off from our hotel this morning we came to a six lane highway interchange where a family of ducklings (no mum or dad to be seen) we’re waddling their way through the traffic. Most of the cars were slowing down but it was terrifying to watch. We contemplated for a moment whether we should intervene – but though we’d probably make things worse. We crossed our fingers for the ducklings and pedalled off. Once on the Cardinal Greenway we were surrounded by nature. First there was the startling red Cardinal birds (the state bird of Indiana) that kept darting along the path in front of us. Next there was the chipmunks who seemed to be playing a game of chicken with us as they hurled themselves across the path in front of our wheels. We didn’t get any, but it was a close run thing. Then there was the thin black snake coiled up on the edge of the trail, (it moved out of the way quickly), followed shortly after by a turkey that strolled across in front of us. However, the most extraordinary wildlife event of the day was our close encounter with a Beaver. I say a Beaver, we’re pretty sure it was but as neither of us have much experience in the Beaver dept, we could be wrong. It could be a muskrat. Anyway, as we approached we first thought that there was a rock on the path, as we got closer the rock started to move – but not to the side into the undergrowth but straight on. Before we knew it we had formed a Peleton with a Beaver. Mike on one side, me on the other and our gnawing friend in the middle. Thankfully we soon outpaced him and left him to chew on some logs . Hopefully we won’t encounter any more kamikaze animals on this trip.

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A Cardinal shame

In a country with a serious weight problem building in ‘active travel’ solution (as we call them in the UK) is a ‘no brainer’. Good quality walking and cycle routes, close to where people live is a good way to get people exercising, which is why it’s good to see so many fantastic rail to trail routes. Yesterday’s Nickel Plate Trail and today’s Cardinal Greenway are just two examples of hundreds of miles of well maintained Tarmac routes in Indiana alone. What is completely shocking though is that these treasures are virtually hidden from local people. On all the trails we’ve ridden so far we have barely seen a handful of other people using them. On the Cardinal Greenway today we saw 10 people in 35 miles and two of them were maintaining the path – not cycling! Until you actually reach the trails over here there is absolutely no signage telling people they are there. In the UK most long distance cycle routes will have signed directions from nearby streets – but not here. We only found out about most of the routes we’re riding thanks to the marvellous Google Maps cycle route planner, (although it’s annoying that they don’t pay their taxes). When we’ve been a bit uncertain about where the trails start we’ve occasionally asked a passer-by, even though they’re local, none of them (without exception) knew there even was a cycle trail! A serious lesson in signage is needed – I feel a letter coming onto several US city Mayors, maybe I’ll take to the top and write to the state governor. It’s a shame that these routes are barely known about and used.