Why old people walk slowly
That's how I was in Sterling. I stayed another few days in the motel and rationed my walks into town - v e r y s l o w l y - because the alternative was to stay in my room and read or write or watch American television. I watched American television only when I could no longer read or write. It's the only time you'd want to watch American television. Watching American television drives you to sleep, which is another excellent way to pass the time.
Over-blessed with shut-eye, I woke one morning at four and resolved to sit on my bike. All felt a lot less swollen down on the dark side of the moon and I had hopes that, albeit with pain, I could maybe ride again. If I could ride an hour and have an hour off and carry that on all day, perhaps I could go further than the group each day and catch them before the Rockies. I desperately wanted that.
But... I could ride only if I hung flop-bot over the side of the saddle. I could make it round the motel car park but there was no way of getting through the day, still less as far as the Rockies. The ride was over.
At the library I found a site to sell me an air fare for a lot less than the $1 800 originally quoted but still a lot more than the return fare I had originally paid from France. I then booked a place on the train to Chicago, which was the easiest and possibly the nearest international airport to be of any use.
The first pick-up to pass my raised thumb fulfilled its name and picked me up. The driver knew not only Hutchinson, where the train would stop, but the bike shop I was going to ask to courier my bike back home. I couldn't take it on the train because, while Amtrak accepts bikes at staffed stations, Hutchinson was unmanned.
The train left in the small hours and arrived in the middle of the following afternoon. I have nothing but praise for Amtrak, other than the bike incident. It is short of money and that shows in a slight shabbiness . The trains roll and judder and travel at only a third the speed of French trains. But the experience is wonderful. I could sit in my upper compartment and stretch out my long legs, or recline my seat to the near-horizontal, and I could watch the mists of early-morning America evaporate in the rising sun as we rolled through woods and fields and past rabbits that looked at us and cows than trotted away without knowing why.
Why so few Americans travel by train, I don't know. You don't do it if you're in a hurry, that's true. You do it for the romance, for the experience, the time to talk to other people, the chance to see an America you'd never see from the interstate. In that, it was exactly like cycling and, in its way, the train attracts the same sort of person.
Chicago I know nothing of but the stations of the metro, the walk to a travellers' hostel, the inside of an Italian restaurant to which I must apologise for a spectacular level of travel-induced body odour, and then the taxi to the airport next morning.
I travelled Air Canada, to Toronto for a six-hour sleep on the floor, then to London. In London I took the bus 60km to the city's other airport and from there I flew to Toulouse. It had cost me a fortune and sending the bike cost almost all the bike was worth. As if that weren't enough, the papers weren't marked "personal effects" and I ended up paying import tax on it as well.
For a week I felt merely tired. It took three showers to get properly clean. My clothes were no better. In another two weeks the injury began to improve and I could start riding again, if with discomfort. I rode to the Semaine Fédérale, a week-long international rally held in a different area of France every summer. There I had a great time riding with 10 000 other bikies but I could never forget that I was supposed to be crossing America.
It hit me hard the day my former travelling companions were due to reach the Pacific. I heard they'd been dancing on the beach. And then it all overcame me. I am by nature optimistic and insouciant. But I became depressed and very quiet. I began to feel I had failed. I forgot the good parts and wished I had never gone in the first place. In that mood, everything had been bad, from the business with the passport to paying tax on my own bike.
But, things pass. After a while I felt happier. I could remember the laughs, the people I'd met, the stories I'd heard, the breathtaking friendliness and warmth of Americans. It is the time for that mood to change that accounts for the gap in finishing this story. I realised I loved Americans, who in their own land are so different from those you meet outside it. I loved much of America, a country not at all like the view its government seems determined to give of it.
I couldn't live in America. It is for me, a European and very much a European, too far from anywhere. It is a giant island which happens to have neighbours. You can travel for thousands of kilometres and speak English and shop at Walmart and watch the same braindead television .
But to visit, it is wonderful. That's why I plan to go back. Not next year because family and cycling projects get in the way. But in 2007 I want to cross America again. I thought about re-riding the TransAm itself. But then I realised that as far as Kansas I'd be passing the same white wooden churches, the same men on motor-mowers, the same gas stations selling weak coffee and sublime if artificial pastries. And then from Kansas, the route would become a challenge, as though each extra day were some sort of darts board on which I had to play an ever higher score until I hit the bull's eye of the Pacific.
So, no. Next time I will ride the Northern Tier. It goes from the same ocean to the same ocean but it has the merit of dodging into Canada. Canada is the only country I have visited without going outdoors. I have a stamp in my passport but I never smelled fresh Canadian air. Forgive me, Canada: I'll do better by you next time.
FINAL THOUGHT: When I entered America it was with an expensive visa that was very difficult to get. The immigration man gave me a slip of paper which I had, at the risk of going to jail if I lost it, to present to the emigration man at the other end. And what happened?
When I left Chicago for Canada, nobody checked the visa, nobody took this slip of paper. Nobody even asked for my passport, still less stamped it. So when one day you hear there are x million illegal immigrants in America, remember to subtract one. According to the records, I am still there.