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Taking the Train Across America: California Zephyr Line

Roger Holmes 2 comments

Train Across America Part 2: Chicago – Reno, on the California Zephyr

This is the second part of a series of blog posts which chronicle the adventure of riding the train across America. Click here for part 1, which recounts the journey from New York City to Chicago on the Cardinal Line.

I boarded the iconic California Zephyr and found to my dismay that I had a seating partner. When riding coach class on the Amtrak lines out of season, you will probably have a double seat all to yourself. I had enjoyed that luxury on the Cardinal line from New York City to Chicago. But now I had a bulky Mexican in the seat next to me. His first action was to take the window seat, close the curtain, and curl up in search of sleep. A 52 hour westward journey lay ahead of us. I lasted around ten minutes before getting up and seeking a better view or better company. I found both in the lounge car.

The beautiful sightseeing car on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

The lounge on the Zephyr is actually a sight-seeing car. The diverse seating arrangements include booth-style seats, fixed seats facing the passing scenery and swivel seats. The car has larger windows, which are supplemented by further overhead panes which curve around onto the roof of the carriage for increased light and visibility. I went downstairs to the little cafe and ordered my now Amtrak staple lunch of cheeseburger and pepsi. Upon returning upstairs, I found that there were no vacant individual seats, so I found a table with just one occupant, and asked if I could join him. The middle-aged man’s name was John, and he was deep in concentration over a crossword puzzle.

John opened our conversation by asking if I was Irish, and when I confirmed that I was, he told me: “I hate Irish men.” Charming. Thankfully, he then laughed and explained himself. John owned a bed and breakfast right on the Husdon River, around an hour north of New York City in a nice little town called Nayak. He had been dating a girl for a few years and had plans to marry her, only for her to suddenly ditch him and take up with an Irishman! We instantly hit it off despite the humorous inappropriateness of my nationality. I only broke off our conversation to walk through several cars to the back of the Zephyr to make a video as we crossed the Mississippi River, and watched as we rolled in to another new state for me – Iowa.

A postcard advertising John’s Bed and Breakfast at Nayak, New York

Evening turned to night, and Iowa turned to Nebraska, but John and I remained deep in conversation at our table in the sightseeing car long after the passing scenery had been swallowed by the darkness. He was such an interesting man. Holding his hands up in admission, John confessed that the relationship breakdown had led him to question the direction his life was going in. So he hired his nephew to manage the bed and breakfast, and had taken to the road. Hawaii aside, he had since seen every state. His experiences were incredible.

John’s primary residence was now his old van, which he had modified to include what he assured me were very comfortable living quarters. It was waiting for him in Denver; their onward destination as yet unknown. “Id say, wherever the wind takes me” John had stated philosophically, “but the wind would then be a factor. I like to be free from any choice factors. I just decide at the spur of the moment and take off.” We both pondered this for a second before I asked, “So you’re freer than the wind?”, to which John replied “Yeah. I like nothing to guide me but momentary intuition.”

John’s wanderlust had seen him stay on farms, in cities, on riverboats, with naturists in the Arizona deserts, with bikers in California, on his own on a Colorado mountain and partake in more spontaneous outdoor parties than a hundred men would encounter in a lifetime. “I want to know America; my home. Only then can I know myself.” John’s final philosophical offering was profound. “I had to travel tens of thousands of miles, through every state in America, to find what was already with me when I set out. Im happy and Im free.”

While contemplating this, I noticed a group of Amish teenagers playing cards at a nearby table. “They are on their Rumspringa John told me, explaining that many Amish and Mennonite communities send their young adults out into the world for a year. When the year is up, they can either return and be baptized into their church, or decide to remain out in the outside world. The vast majority return for baptism. John then laughed before saying, “I guess my Rumspringa is lasting a little longer than a year!”

During this time, another group of conversationalists had taken up residence at a nearby table in the lounge. Their common denominator was alcohol. When the cafe/bar had stopped serving at 11pm, they had remained for a short time before returning to the now silent coach cars to settle in for the night. Around that time, one of the conductors who John and I had greeted when he had been doing his rounds, now came and sat with us as his shift had finished. Soon the three of us were alone in the lounge. It was incredibly relaxing. We had just been considering going back to our respective seats, when a highly animated man came into the lounge, looked around and then told the conductor “You have to do something! My children have just been verbally abused!”

John, the conductor and I looked at each other in disbelief. The train had seemed so peaceful! I felt very sorry for the conductor. Of course, he simply had to take some sort of action given the brevity of the allegations, so he straightened his cap, stood up, and followed the man back to the coach cars. It transpired that one of the drinkers who had been in the lounge – a scruffy looking guitarist (he had bizzarely kept his acoustic guitar draped over his shoulder all the way from Chicago) – had gone back to his seat and obviously taken some more liquor or drugs. He had then allegedly proceeded to walk through the train, stopping at each seat, and randomly asking for sexual favors. As impossible as this was to imagine, it appeared following some hastily arranged investigations that the man was indeed guilty as charged.

Ten minutes later the train had rolled to a stop in a tiny  Nebraska town, and the man was ejected. There wasn’t even a platform. The train had stopped right on a railroad crossing, so he was literally dropped off, complete with his acoustic guitar, on the street. I watched from the window as he staggered around by the side of train, still remonstrating with the conductors, before the street behind him lit up with the flashing lights of a police car. He was immediately taken away by the police, and the train was free to continue. John and I were left to wonder how his fate would pan out, and how the evidence would be relayed to the judge.

It was now time for sleep. Before saying goodbye, John told me “Set your alarm. We get into Denver at around 7am. You will get moving again around 8. Trust me, you will want to be in the sight-seeing car for the first three or four hours out of Denver.”

I returned to my seat, where my Mexican comrade was now completely passed out, and made myself comfortable. Surprisingly, despite being in a car with around two dozen other passengers, all of whom seemed to be emiting one odor or another and in the midst of sounds ranging from talking/snoring while in mid sleep, to coughs and gas, I managed to get a solid five hours sleep.

The traditionally styled, but newly refurbished Union Station in Denver, Colorado

I awoke at six thirty, and had freshened up and sipped some coffee in time to witness the Zephyr arriving into Denver. We were told that Denver’s Union station was a ‘one way in – one way out’ station, so it would be over 30 minutes before the train would finally settle by the platform. I used this time to find a quiet corner of the train, and started my morning meditation. At that point I had been practicing Transcendental Meditation for around a month, having been given the training in midtown Manhattan. It has been one of the best decisions of my life to date. I have felt clarity of decision making, increased ambition, a greater sense of creativity, more patience and an all-round better enjoyment of life since I started using TM twice a day.

Arriving into Denver at dawn

I had finished meditating just as the announcer informed all passengers that we were now permitted to leave the train for up to forty five minutes. I spent the time stretching my legs on the platform, enjoying the fresh morning air coming off the still snow-capped Rocky Mountains, and taking some pictures of the beautifully refurbished Union Station in the mile-high city.

The newly refurbished Union Station in Denver, Colorado

For some, the forty five minute layover was just enough time to walk the few blocks to the nearest herbal  supply store, AKA weed dispensary. Colorado has of course legalized marijuana, and several passengers on the Zephyr were keen to avail of this opportunity. Weed tourism is quite the contributor to Colorado’s coffers, but it is a case of ‘caveat emptor’, as there is definitely some information asymmetry.

Under Colorado law, the herbal store is perfectly entitled to sell a certain quantity of marijuana products to anyone who meets the qualifying criteria. However, it is illegal to take the product out of state. Road-trippers and Zephyr riders often sidestep this little misdemeanor by purchasing and consuming edible marijuana products while still within the state.

A beautiful little house sits all alone, near the top of the Rocky Mountains at Winter Park Ski Resort

After stepping back onto the Zephyr, I heeded John’s advice regarding the sightseeing car, and while many other passengers were still stepping around on the platform, I snagged a great swivel chair by a large window. For several miles out of Denver the morning views were pleasant, but then we gradually started climbing into the ‘Front Range’ of the Rocky Mountains, and I found myself with a front row seat for one of the greatest displays I have ever seen.

The California Zephyr slowly climbing into the frontal range of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Slowly the Zephyr climbed into the forested mountains, weaving one way then the other, sometimes revealing a magnificent view of one or more of the ‘Fourteeners’, sometimes clinging tightly to the rails, right on the edge of a vertical drop into a river valley. Sometimes sheer rock walls passed by, and sometimes complete darkness descended as we passed right through a mountain. The longest tunnel on the Zephyr route is Moffat Tunnel, which is 24 feet tall, 18 feet wide and 6.2 miles in length. It cuts right through the upper peaks of the Frontal Range, so when we re-emerged, we were well and truly in the middle of the Rocky’s.

Approaching the highest point of the California Zephyr line through the Rocky Mountains

There were gasps and wows from all and sundry in the sightseeing car as we climbed through one final valley to Frazer – one of the highest towns in Colorado, and home to Winter Park Ski Resort. The snow was a little worn out looking, but the panorama’s were amazing.

A couple relax while admiring the beautiful Rocky Mountain scenery

After departing the mountain town, we continued along a large upland valley where surprisingly, the locals existed by ranching. The tracks followed the Fraser River northwestwards, and after a few miles there were calls to look out the left side of the train. On the far bank of the river was a solitary and very hungry looking moose. I had never before seen one of these great animals.

Rocky Mountain National Park, as seen from the California Zephyr

From the center of the valley, just past the town of Granby, we were surrounded by the large snowy peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. The size and scale of the United States comes into particular focus in places such as this. I had seen it before, while cycling through the great valleys of northern Nevada. Sometimes the valley is of such proportions that despite moving, it looks as if the surrounding mountains are still no closer or further away. The view up there was beautiful, and having the mostly glass-sided sightseeing car of the California Zephyr to enjoy it from was just such a privelage.

A mountain top delta on the Colorado River

In Granby we picked up the trail of the legendary Colorado River; water source to so much of the American south west, and followed it out of the valley and into the most spectacular gorge canyon which we followed for around an hour. The steep walls of the canyon are so close together in places that there is just enough room for the river, the railroad and the i70 freeway (which sometimes has to go double-decker through here). This section of i70 is said to be the most expensive road construction project ever undertaken.

The sightseeing car of the California Zephyr offers plenty of photo opportunities while passing through Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

As the steep canyon gave way to a more traditional river valley at Glenwood Springs, I suddenly became aware that I was seated right in the center of 6 or 7 people who had struck up a conversation. All had been traveling alone, and all had been sitting in silence for the previous hours admiring the scenery. But now, as we headed for the Colorado/Utah state line, a spark had lit the conversation. This conversation, between a uniquely eclectic mix of people, would last for several hours, and was as surreal as it was stimulating.

To my immediate left was Sarah, a PhD student from Devon, England, who was on vacation from her English Literature studentship position at Northwestern University, Chicago. To my right was Mike; a high-school history teacher who was on his way to Las Vegas. Then there was Peter; an IT worker in the financial district of Lower Manhattan, who was on a cross-country trip to visit his son in San Francisco, and his sister in San Jose.

Stephanie, who was sitting behind me was a self-proclaimed (or self-confessed) clairvoyant, who was a keen proponent of the notion that we are all somehow connected via some sort of energy. Beside Stephanie was without doubt the most intriguing member of the party. Benjamin was a twenty-something year old nuclear physicist, who did not speak too often, but when he did, it was intellectually profound. And lastly, there was Laura, a friendly and attractive young lady whose interest in the conversation quickly subsided, and who retired to her coach seat after around thirty minutes. It was at around this time that the conversation had started to simmer.

Someone had mentioned Trump. There were two immediate responses. Benjamin, the nuclear physicist had declared the president to be “without doubt the biggest fucking asshole in American political history.” James, the high-school history teacher was not amused. While leaving us in no doubt that he had voted for Trump, I think he parked his ideas of pledging further allegiance, having realized that he was in the company of two democrats, and two tourists who had absolutely no intention of becoming embroiled in a heated debate. It was only then that I became aware that yet another passenger was listening in on the conversation, but who at this point had not introduced herself or contributed.

A new kind of trading post in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado

When the train stopped at Grand Junction for an extended break, almost everyone took the chance to wander through the local stores at the small station (some in search of more marijuana). I made sure I was walking next to our observer. There was something about her. She was interested in the conversation, but had no interest in talking. After breaking the ice and introducing myself, I discovered why.

Sarah was the British television network Channel 4’s news correspondent for the US presidential election, and was finally getting some vacation time now that the election and inauguration were old news. She had spent the previous two years following the Donald Trump presidential campaign, the election, and his inauguration. I was fascinated, and asked her as many questions as I could, without being overly pushy. She freely recounted how she had been to all of Trump’s campaign rallies, and relayed some of the funnier and more harrowing stories of journalists jostling to get their questions on the list.

Back on the train, Sarah slipped back into anonymity, and the conversation continued among the others. With seemingly no apparent intro (we had been talking about the election), Benjamin suddenly launched into a verbal account of detailed designs for a perpetual motion magnetic tool for generating electricity. He hoped to patent the design. Im not sure about anyone else, but he was in no danger of me stealing his idea, because he had lost me after about two sentences.

I really enjoyed meeting the unusual mix of people. One of the marvelous things about traveling across America by train is that you get to meet some really diverse and interesting fellow passengers. People you simply would not get to converse with if you were to fly or drive across America.

Beautiful Ruby Canyon reflecting the evening sunlight as we left Colorado and entered Utah

As afternoon turned to late evening, we resumed our silent appreciation of the passing scenery. We crossed the state line into Utah and had a brief stop at Green River. I needed no reminding about how barren Utah can be, having cycled through there. But if anything, it seemed even more desolate from the train. As the day ended, the rock formations caught the low sunbeams and we got first hand evidence of how Ruby Canyon got its name. It was absolutely beautiful.

One by one the eclectic conversationalists returned to their coach seats, and I sat on my own in the sightseeing car. I practiced my transcendental meditation for twenty minutes, before having supper and settling in to write for a while. Taking the train across America offers so much opportunity for relaxation and reflection, and I found it to be a really great environment. Somewhere on the tracks over the Great Salt Lake, I brushed my teeth and settled in to my seat for the night, feeling as content as I have ever felt. The gentle rolling of the carriage soon rocked me into a peaceful sleep.

Early morning sunshine while passing through the deserts of northern Utah

I awoke to bright sunshine coming through the gap in the curtains beside my seat. We had crossed the remainder of Utah and most of the desert in northern Nevada. We were now in Fernley, which acts as a major distribution center, and were soon following Trukee River. I washed, had breakfast and got my things together. My epic 3000+ mile train ride across America was coming to an end. I would get off at Reno Nevada, just before the Zephyr started its climb into the Sierra Nevada, passing by the town of Truckee and Donner Lake, before descending into California.

The reason for my trans-american train ride, was to visit two ladies who I call the Desert Angels. These ladies had given me so much help and encouragement as I had cycled through Nevada on my charity cycle across America.

I would spend a few very enjoyable weeks in their home, before once again riding the train all the way across America to New York City.

 

 

Taking the Train Across America: Amtrak Cardinal Line

Roger Holmes No Comments

Train Across America Part 1: New York – Philadelphia – Washington DC – Cincinnati – Indianapolis – Chicago

Taking the train across America is a great way to test the theory that a journey can be enjoyed as much as the destination. You get an experience on a train that just cannot be replicated on a stressful flight or road trip on the same route. From the train, you are offered a unique glimpse into America’s soul. It is so much more than just a journey from A to B. Taking the train across America unearths a way of life which is somewhat lost in this convenience driven, fast paced world, but which is still hugely enjoyable.

The snow was piled so high in Queens New York, that I struggled to haul my baggage from the apartment building to the waiting Uber car. New York at five on a winters morning is ridiculously cold, but at least the combination of the snowstorm and the early hour on a Sunday morning meant that the streets were a little quieter. Javier the driver, was amazed that I was taking the train across America. He was even more bewildered when I told him I had cycled all the way across America the previous summer. “I suppose you’ll be walking back?” he asked me through the rear view mirror with a grin. Well, who knows!

A blurry image of a departures sign, seen through blurry eyes, at 6.30AM in Penn Station, New York City.

I arrived at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan long before the scheduled 6.45am departure. Boarding the Amtrak Cardinal train in darkness, it was really nice not to feel pressurized by the process or the staff. There were no lines. No security checks. No need for shoe removal, except of course by choice, should you want even greater comfort. A few minutes after choosing a seat by the window, the train began to roll, and soon we were snaking our way through the underground tunnels of New York City.

The Amtrak Cardinal would take me through 10 states, on the first leg of my journey by train across America.

We reemerged above ground in New Jersey, just as dawn was breaking. I took a final look back at Freedom Tower, and settled in to enjoy the start of an adventure. Once out of New York, the train eased to it’s upper speed limit of 79mph, and I watched as the passing New Jersey snowscapes reflected the almost horizontal rays from the rising winter sun. As I do every morning, I then closed my eyes and practiced Transcendental Meditation for around twenty minutes. The gentle rocking of the train on its tracks seemed to make it even easier to get to that beautiful quiet place. I took a deep breath and a stretch to finish, and then pondered the theory that no journey is too long if you are in the right company. Well, I was alone, but comfortable with my own company, so I was feeling good! Taking a train across America really does provide an ideal environment in which to meditate and relax.

The slogan on the Amtrak coffee cup suggested we ‘Change How We See the World’. I couldn’t agree more!

The Cardinal service offers great comfort for the long-distance rail passenger. There is ample legroom (much more than on the average aircraft) on chairs which recline to about forty degrees. There is a footrest that can be extended, charging points, wifi, personal lights, air vents, curtains, and so all told, the coach seats are perfectly fine to relax and sleep on. The next carriage back had a cafeteria, serving hot and cold snacks. If you are feeling flush, you could book a sleeper or roomette, but I was interested in more than comfort. I not only wanted to see how I enjoyed the trip, but I wanted to see how others enjoyed it too. For that reason, I had chosen the more sociable coach class.

Amtrak’s Cardinal line operates on a southern arc between New York City and Chicago

The impressive Philadelphia skyline soon came into view. The city is steeped in history, and was actually the first capital of the United States of America. George Washington and John Adams lived as presidents at the mansion on 6th and Market Streets, while the federal capital was being constructed in Washington DC from 1790 until 1800.

The train slipped through the Philadelphia suburbs, while most of her inhabitants were still asleep. I sent my Irish cousins a message to say that I was in Philadelphia. In the few minutes it took for them to reply, I had already crossed over another state line. I was now in Delaware for the first time.

Crossing the Susquehanna River on Chesapeake Bay, between Philadelphia and Washington DC

We followed the northern bank of the Delaware River for a few miles near highly industrialized Wilmington, before cutting across the head of Delmarva Peninsula. This unusual landmass, which is technically an island following the excavation of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, comprises almost all of Delaware state, and the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia. We quickly traversed the head of the peninsula, going over the Susquehanna River, and onwards along the northern shores of Chesapeake Bay, which we followed through Baltimore and towards Washington DC.

Passengers were encouraged to step out onto the Washington DC platform to stretch their legs and get some fresh air. In just a few hours, I had traveled two hundred and twenty five miles down the eastern seaboard, and in doing so had traveled through four states and entered the District of Columbia at Washington. The land for the administrative and symbolic modern day capital of the United States, had been ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland in 1790. By the start of the nineteenth century the capital and its houses had been constructed, and so, Philadelphia was honorably succeeded as the nations capital.

Having boarded the train in one of the original colonies, crossed the Delaware River, passed through Philadelphia and then onwards to Washington Dc, the journey to that point almost felt like a train ride through a United States history lesson. I couldn’t help but glance at a map of North America, and find my eyes wandering westwards, where I would cut through fur-trapping country, follow covered wagon trails and eventually find the golden treasure of the Pacific coast.

The elongated stop in Washington was welcome, and so I marched back and forth on the DC platform in military fashion, both as a means of stretching my legs and keeping warm. During this time, the train was cleaned and supplies were restocked. Our departure was powered by a diesel engine, as opposed to the electric unit which had taken us from New York City. I wondered if the electric unit was required by law while traveling along the highly populated eastern seaboard.

The passing scenery as we left Washington was just fantastic. The tracks followed yet another river, this time the Potomac, which flows through the heart of DC. By now the sun was well up in the sky, and it was a beautiful clear sky day. Passing by the town of Alexandria, I suddenly noticed that the snow had gone. It had either melted, or had not been so deep here in the first place. It seemed as though spring had suddenly arrived.

The Amtrak Cardinal cuts through beautiful countryside in Virginia and West Virginia.

Once again, the train veered inland; this time permanently away from the Atlantic coast. We had now come as far down the east coast as this route would take us, and were heading for another new state – Virginia. Slowly but surely, the urban sprawl of DC gave way to the forests and agricultural lands of Virginia. At around this time, the man who had been sitting behind me since we had left New York City, began to snore. At first it was not so bad, but the deeper he got into his sleep, the louder his snoring became. After twenty or thirty minutes, he was to be heard by everyone in the carraige.

We approached the foothills of the Appalachian mountains; passing through little villages and farmland. The train made several short stops while crossing the state, picking up passengers and supplies. At Staunton, around a dozen people came aboard, four of whom were notable by their demeanor and attire. Having previously cycled across America, including a leisurely day spent passing through Lancaster County Pennsylvania, which is known as ‘Amish Country‘, I knew that these folks were Mennonites.

A group of Mennonite folks, in their traditional and plain attire.

One of the Mennonite men asked the conductor if he and his traveling party could be seated together, so in an extremely fortunate turn of events, my snoring friend was asked to relocate. The two Mennonite men took his place, and their wives sat just across the aisle. As the agreeable snorer gathered his belongings and shuffled out of his seat, one of the Mennonite men conveyed his gratitude by saying, “Mighty Bliged Sir.”

As we weaved our way through Buffalo Gap in the Appalachians, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between the Mennonite men behind me.

“Now’s it any wonder we’re having trouble when it costs one point six cents to mint a penny? So, every time we make a new penny we’re going another point six cents further down the hole. Even Mr Trump can’t be expected to make those kinds of figures work.”

A short time later, after a lengthy silence during which I presumed both men had been contemplating matters of economics, one man’s attention suddenly turned towards his stomach.

“Im hungry” he announced.

“Well, you got your sand witches don’t you?” replied his friend.

“Yes I do, but I don’t care much for the cucumber ones they packed. Specially since I’m on the train – if you catch my drift.”

“Well”, said his friend defiantly, but with more than a hint of humor, “not meaning to cause you any offense nor nothing, but I’ve caught a few of your drifts in my time and I sure don’t want to catch any now that we’re on the train!” Cue deep laughter from both men, and concealed giggles from myself and the Mennonite ladies.

A little further down the line, we slowed in one of the many narrow river valleys of West Virginia, to safely pass an oncomming freighter train. Approximately ten open-topped cars containing very finely crushed coal, passed by before I decided to start counting. By the time the last car had passed, my count had reached fifty two. This, I considered, was becoming a more and more unusual sight, as the major coal mines were now in a state of decline. The many rivers we followed through the West Virginian Appalachians all had the same appearance; sporadic signs of greater mining activity from yester-year, wild white water rapids, lost villages with moonshine-making credentials, and trees. Lots of trees.

As the light faded, I couldn’t help but think that we had just gone through what many American city-slickers would refer to as ‘Hill-Billy Country’. My eyelids began to fall with the setting sun, and for an hour or so, I fell into a deep sleep. I dreamed of dueling banjos, white-water rafting, hard-drinking coal miners and of Mennonite economics.

The conductors announcement of an extended stop at Huntington West Virginia called me back in to the real world. Before I was even fully awake, I found myself yawning and stretching on the busy platform. Fresh air breaks were not to be missed.

Having left New York City just that morning, where temperatures had hovered in the mid twenties , I now felt uncomfortably over-dressed in relatively balmy Kentucky. Some people took the opportunity to smoke. Others hurried to beat the line for the toilets in the station building. The train staff unloaded trash bags and picked up fresh supplies. The Mennonite wives, who were sporting long flowery-patterned dresses and white bonnets, held hands as they skipped and ran around a little patch of grass in the parking lot. Their husbands stood shoulder to shoulder in silence. I tried to figure out which one was secretly letting go of his long-held ‘drifts’.

A welcome stop and a chance to stretch the legs at Huntington, West Virginia.

Once back on the train, I walked back to the next carriage, where I knew the cafe/shop would now be fully stocked (TIP #1: Always coincide your dining and bathroom breaks with the immediate aftermath of major stops, as you will find the train facilities freshly cleaned and restocked). I ordered a cheeseburger and a Pepsi (“a classic American” as the friendly Amtrak server described it), and sat down at a nearby table to dine alone. After I had taken a few bites and then paused for digestion, a voice from behind me asked: “Pardon me sir, but I was wondering what part you’re from?” I turned to see that it was one of the Mennonite men, who also happened to be sitting alone.

Now I must admit, I had been looking for the opportunity to speak to an Amish or Mennonite since I had cycled across America in the summer of 2016. There really is no easy way to instigate conversation with these curiously simple and withdrawn people, without risking the danger of making them feel uncomfortable. So many tourists come out of the cities on the east coast to Lancaster County in particular, and are quite intrusive in how they approach the locals. This has resulted in the Amish becoming even more withdrawn, like spooked deer in hunting season. I took this unexpected opportunity for communication by asking the man if I could join him.”It’d be a pleasure sir.”

(TIP #2: Embrace the social aspect of travel in the coach class. You can meet some really interesting people)

‘Erik’ and I talked about a range of subjects, including a very interesting discussion about how he was of the opinion that agricultural co-operatives are not necessarily acting in small farmers best interests anymore. To my surprise, upon hearing that I was Irish, Erik asked me if Irish dairy farmers were well off financially. I silently noted that he appended the word ‘financially’ to the term ‘well-off’. To me, this gave an insight into the first notable difference (aside from attire) between his world and mine. His people would consider themselves ‘well-off’ in many ways other than financial. I made a mental note to remember that.

As a dairy farmer who milked ninety cows, and who did not have access to the internet and newspapers as a means of gauging market trends, Erik based the value of his stock on the prices of similar products in the supermarkets. This, I considered, was a simple yet highly effective strategy. Maybe it was a micro-example how how the Mennonite approach to life may be slightly more insular and simplistic, but enjoyable and comfortable none the less.

The product which Erik was referring to was KerryGold, a very tasty Irish butter which is now widely available in the United States. It is generally stocked in small supplies, and at over ten dollars a pound, is perhaps twice the price of other butters. I saw that this had led to Eriks question, and had perhaps spurred his willingness to engage with me in the first place. Erik’s mystery shopping may have given him an indication of market value, but his more paraochial existence deprived him of a more in-depth understanding of pricing factors other than net payment to the producer. I explained that the cost was so high given the addition of international taxes, the federal requirement to comprehensively test overseas farm produce, the inclusion of additional preservatives and shipping costs. There was also scope in the figures to make room for one or possibly two American importers cut. Although he had little way of knowing this prior to our chat, he immediately understood. Mennonites may not be worldly, but they certainly aren’t slow – especially when it comes to food production.

To my greater surprise, Erik then talked about the emergence of driverless cars and drones. It was a very unexpected and surreal twist to a conversation with a man who had no watch, smartphone, newspapers or any other modern ‘conveniences’. Yet, I immediately understood the practical relevance to his curiosity. Neither of us needed to implicitly reference why this new mode of transport should be familiar to me and not to him, but we did discuss it at length. The concept of driverless cars has been known and explored by me for well over a decade, given my background and interest in technology, but Erik’s musings on the matter were owing to more recent and populous developments. Mennonites and Amish may like to live traditionally, but yet, when something new emerges, they will consider it. So long as it does not pose a threat to their way of life, they are open to using it.

Amish and Monnonites will ride in a car provided someone else drives it, and provided the journey is for business purposes and not pleasure. They do not fly. Given that a horse and carriage can only take them so far, and that they regularly meet and visit other similar groups right across the country, they have been perhaps Amtrak’s most regular customers for decades. For the more forward thinking (not to mention business-minded) Mennonite man, which Erik most certainly was, this new form of transport was of interest. It transpired that he was making what was a regular trip between his dairy farm in Virginia and his crop farm in Kentucky. The train worked well, but there was still the matter of getting to and from his farms and the nearest stations.

I found myself reassuring Erik that self-drive cars might indeed be of interest to him. “The mechanics are the same. The appearance is the same. In fact, standing on the sidewalk, you wouldn’t be able to differentiate between a passing driverless car and a manually operated car. The only difference is, you express your desired destination beforehand, much like you do when you buy a train ticket. After that, you simply sit back and relax – just as you do when taking the train.” Again, without confirming that he was Mennonite and I was not, Erik thanked me, and concluded by saying “Well, it certainly seems like it is worth looking in to – when the time comes.” And therein, I decided, lay the main difference between my cultural upbringing and Erik’s.

Regarding the driverless car, he would look in to it – when the time would come. In my world, people spend so much time and energy speculating, disagreeing, and talking about what the future might or might not bring. So much so that we often miss the present. In Erik’s world, he may soon have to face a difficult decision, but he had an entirely different outlook. Easing the burden of travel between his farms, while running the risk of incurring the wrath of his elders for breaking tradition, would be an ethical dilemma. (Actually, I had already decided that Erik was himself an elder. A decision maker. So his decision carried greater responsibility). But, Erik wasn’t going to waste time worrying about this matter. At least not until ‘the time comes’. Brilliant. My mother always offers a piece of advice which says ‘Don’t meet trouble half way’. I smiled to myself as I wondered if she was secretly a part-time Mennonite!

The drone question was addressed full on by Erik. “I’ve nothing against them, but some folks have been flying them over their neighbors properties and invading their privacies. Do you think thats right?” he asked me. I had to agree with him that it was not ‘right’ and that drone intrusiveness was a problem. I pondered what morale code drone users adhere to, and how they decided (if at all) what was ‘right’ and not right. I also felt empathy towards the Amish and Mennonite people, when I considered what it must feel like to see a strange flying machine with a camera right above their yards. Part of me felt ashamed of the outside world.

Erik had a kindly, calm and open personality, and I treasured the opportunity to talk with him. Too often we recoil from communicating with people who are different in some from ourselves, and this non-communication can alienate us and others. I felt so happy to have broken through a boundary, and for the conversation to have been so amicable and enlightening. All too quickly though, we arrived at Erik’s station. We shook hands, wished each other well, and I watched as he departed with his wife and friends. I looked through the window as they stood by their old-fashioned suitcases on the platform, perhaps waiting for local horses and carriages to come to pick them up. Their clothing looked so different, so primitive, yet so clean, smart and tidy. I sat back in my seat as the train rolled along on the banks of the Ohio River, and tried to comprehend how my way of life and Erik’s coexisted. The term ‘purpose over pleasure’ seemed to stick in my mind. I certainly admired the ability of the Amish and Monnonite communities to sustain their place in the world, using such a modest set of guidelines and ethics.

In the shadows of Cincinnati train station, at one forty five in the morning, I slipped off my shoes, reclined the seat, and snuggled up under Jaime’s Magic Blanket. This black and charcoal, intricately patterned blanket, had been a gift to my wife Yesi, from her father Jaime, when she had left Peru to come and live in New York City. After our wedding, when I had arrived from Ireland to experience my first New York winter, Yesi and I would regularly cozy up under this Andean treasure. The comfort of the Llama wool, combined with the sentimental value, meant that within minutes we would be warm, content and sleepy. Hence I had named it ‘Jaime’s Magic Blanket’. It had the same effect on me right there on the train in Cincinnati, even though Yesi wasn’t there with me. She was however with me in my thoughts. Within a few minutes I was content and had fallen asleep. (TIP #3: When traveling on a train across America, consider bringing a blanket and/or pillow for added comfort).

I woke briefly around an hour later, to the sound of low chattering and the wonderful smell of spices. I leaned sideways in my seat to see that a little further up the carriage, a Chinese family of three generations, were huddled around a series of pots and flasks, and were enjoying a midnight feast in the amber glow of a travel lamp. For a time I studied how happy they looked as they dined as a family. The gorgeous aroma had made me feel quite hungry, so I rectified this by munching on some peanuts. (TIP #4: Always have snacks on hand when on a long train ride, but try not to overdo it, as you could get sick with the motion of the train). My semi-conscious food cravings held at bay, I quickly drifted back to sleep and did not stir again until we were in Illinois, around an hour out of Chicago.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well I had managed to sleep. The view now out through y window was dramatically different than it had been when it was last daylight in West Virgina. The landscape was no longer mountainous and wooded, but perfectly flat, and as it was early spring, it looked a little barren. After having a coffee and a cinnamon roll for breakfast in the dining car, I made my way to the downstairs bathroom, and took a wet-wipes shower. (TIP #5: Wet wipes are an absolute must when traveling overnight in the coach class of a train across America). I then changed my clothes and generally freshened up. I got my things together and a short time afterwards we began to weave a pathway through the suburbs of Chicago.

The beautiful architecture of the Great Hall at Union Station, in central Chicago.

When the Amtrak Cardinal finally drew to a stop in the bowels of Union Station, the first leg of my marathon journey by train across America had come to an end. I thanked the friendly Amtrak staff, picked up my bags, and stepped off the train. Before setting out, I had designs on a little walkabout tour of downtown Chicago. I had a four-hour layover before heading further west on a connecting train. However those plans were dashed upon hearing that the lockers in which passengers could store their luggage before boarding their connecting trains, were no longer available (presumably due to terrorism fears). Had I been more clued in to this situation, I could have switched around my bags so that I could have checked most of my luggage onto the next train in advance of its departure, and possibly kept one backpack which could have contained everything I needed on the onward journey. This would have enabled me to leave Union Station and go for a walk. (TIP #6: Organize your luggage by separating the items you might need while on the train ride, from the items intended for use at your destination).

It was not an especially good day for a walkabout in downtown Chicago anyway. The skies were overcast, and a wave of drizzle was creeping in from the shores of Lake Michigan. Whistle-stop sightseeing in Chicago would have to wait for another time. Instead, I made my way to the Great Hall of Union Station, and after having some lunch (Chinese food!), I sat in peace, relaxing and people watching. There is nothing like a train ride to help you work on your levels of patience and on the acceptance of each moment of the journey, whatever it is that each moment may bring.

I could think of a lot worse places to be left guarding my belongings. Union Station in Chicago, and it’s Great Hall in particular, are of great architectural beauty. It is a classic old-style railway station, and so the surroundings really accentuated the authenticity of traveling by train across America. I was happy with my experience so far. But a much longer ride lay ahead, on board the iconic California Zephyr, which would bring me over the Rocky Mountains, and out into the American wild west.

Click here for Part Two: The California Zephyr, from Chicago to Reno Nevada

Trans Atlantic Cycle – The Motivation

Roger Holmes No Comments

As I cycled on The Katy Trail in Missouri, approximately two thirds of the way into the charity challenge of riding across America and Ireland; a new mantra came to mind: See the good in everyone – especially yourself. Thinking about that sentence, and all that it entails, gave me increased awareness of my motivation. From that point onwards, I picked up the pace and put myself in a position where I was able to reach New York City on my target date of August 14th 2016.

Missouri_Sunset

I had a beautifully peaceful and spiritual experience overlooking this Missouri River sunset – by connecting with my motivation

Later that same day, I crossed the great Missouri River. I stopped and stared in awe at the amazing sunset. That led to several minutes of beautiful quiet time, reflection and meditation. When eating my supper later still, I wondered if I would have even noticed that sunset and had that peaceful spiritual moment on the bridge, had I not been thinking about my new mantra. Having the conviction to hold true to a genuine motivation cuts out a lot of stressful and unnecessary thoughts, and opens the door for newer, more beautiful emotions and experiences. You can be self confident without being cocky. When you are sure of your motivation, you can see the world from a different perspective.

When I announced that I was doing Trans Atlantic Cycle to raise funds and awareness for The Irish Cancer Society, I didn’t give too much background, or explain my motivation for doing such an epic challenge. Despite some people telling me that I wouldn’t do it, I shouldn’t do it or that I couldn’t do it; I am doing it. My motivation is strong – because it came from within. I knew that I could do it – one day at a time.

For a long number of years, I bent over backwards to seek approval from others; probably because I doubted myself so much. Sometimes we are our own worst critics. Self doubt is a ball and chain that we must cast off. I was once dependent upon others to grant me happiness and contentment. I was willing to do things that were detrimental to my own wellbeing and peace of mind, in the pursuit of winning approval from others. I now see that for the folly that it was.

Two years ago I fell from an electric bicycle. The injuries were very painful, and the trauma was a heavy burden to bear. I slipped into self-pity which compounded things. It took a long time to find treatment, but I was eventually referred to Philip O’Rourke. During my sessions with Philip, I realized that I had to face my fear and get back on a bicycle. To do this, I had to look deep within myself, and start to build from the bottom up. When I eventually felt better, we discussed the possibility of doing a cycle to celebrate the fact that I was well again. A case of, “hair of the dog that bit you”. I started to think about doing a charity fundraiser. Philip is a cancer survivor, and had been given invaluable help by The Irish Cancer Society during his recovery. It seemed fitting that I should help the charity that helped the man who helped me. It completes a nice little circle of giving.

Cycling alone across America is by no means a decision that you come to lightly. I weighed it up. And then it occurred to me: there are thousands of poor souls in Ireland who are fighting cancer, or grieving a loved one, who would jump on a bike in a heart beat if only it would make things better. The realization that I was blessed and fortunate enough to have recovered from my accident was enough to inspire me to take on Trans Atlantic Cycle. It is a tiny challenge compared to what many others have to face.

When I realized that I could experience peace and serenity by counting the blessings that I have instead of lamenting the things that I don’t have, my view of life changed. Isn’t it funny that when we pledge to help others (instead of trying to impress them), that we actually find peace and contentment ourselves? And when we concentrate only on our own material needs, we oft times encounter discontent and unhappiness? And so, armed with this attitude and motivation, on June 14th 2016, against all the odds, I was standing at the pier in San Francisco with my trusteed Peggy, about to set off alone across the United States of America. I was happy, at peace with what lay ahead, and confident that I would have the conviction to complete what I set out to do.

I meditate every day while cycling. And afterwards I make a point of counting my blessings. Most days, the first blessing that comes to mind is that I have my health, and that I was able to get up out of bed and face another day. In the past, I focused on negatives. Now I count my blessings, and the gratitude that this brings always gives me a good head start to the day.

The quieter you become, the more you can here

I passed this poignant sign outside a a presbyterian church in rural Illinois. Such a powerful message.

I have faced many obstacles during Trans Atlantic Cycle. The Sierra Nevada’s came very early and were too much for my legs. It took three attempts to make it over Echo Summit. I was exhausted and had to rest for two days at South Lake Tahoe. The heat in Nevada caused all sorts of issues. I was dehydrated and had diarrhea in Utah. I was gasping in the thin air near the top of Monarch Pass, the 11,300 foot summit where I scaled The Rockies. I fell coming out of The Rockies. I was faced off by a mountain lion in Montrose, Colorado. I had to ask the police for assistance when it looked like I couldn’t find a place to stay late in the evening in Sacramento. I have had countless tough days. But one thing has been constant: my motivation to do this.

I believe that Trans Atlantic Cycle is 75% mental and 25% physical. I believe that if your mental attitude and motivation are right, you can overcome any obstacle to achieve your goal. There is always a way.

Brooklyn Bridge and Freedom Tower

Brooklyn Bridge and Freedom Tower in New York City. Both of these were difficult projects, but when completed they signify growth, freedom, movement and a bright future. I thought that was a very symbolic thought as I entered Manhattan.

I am writing this as I rest up in New York City, before moving on to Ireland, where I will ride from Letterkenny to Dublin, to the offices of The Irish Cancer Society. I am thinking about a few lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘IF’:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same;

Regardless of whether or not I complete Trans Atlantic Cycle, I hope that I am showing that even from the darkest place, you can find the light of hope. When I was asked to dig deep to find the will to face my fears and get back on a bicycle, I inadvertently found so much more, locked away inside. I am so much stronger than I thought I was. I have goodness within me. I discovered those things by finding silence and calmness through meditation. I learned to be able to give myself a pat on the back instead of flailing myself for no good reason based on what other people might think of me.

Trans Atlantic Cycle has been an amazing journey and adventure. It has been the most spiritual time in my life. I have seen the world from many different perspectives. Perspective is my favorite word. It is the first step in The Paris Method. Getting grounded and finding out about yourself in an unbiased way is a complete revelation.

No matter how fragile you may feel initially, you can build strong motivation to achieve your goals by using fundamental positives as the first building blocks. Rock bottom is the best place from which to build any strong foundation. A little over a year ago, I barely had the motivation to go out to the local shop. Now, I have cycled over three and a half thousand miles across America on my own.

I am not too sure what lies ahead – although I have an idea of what my future will be like. For now, I am returning to that silent, spiritual place which I get to by practicing The Paris Method, and whatever I discover about myself there, I know that it will be genuine, true and in my own best interests regardless of how others see it. I have learned to see the good in people – especially myself. I have been turning a negative experience (my bicycle fall) in to a positive outcome (raising funds and awareness for The Irish Cancer Society). But most of all, I have learned how to find peace. For years I searched frantically for it. I looked for it in other people, through vacations, in material possessions, inside bottles (thats a whole other story), and in many more ways and places. And all the while, it was there with me all the time, deep inside of me. I just had to figure out how to find it, and believe in it.

People have asked me if I prayed during my journey. I most certainly did. But I wasn’t praying for my needs, I was saying wordless prayers of gratitude for being given the time, the health and the energy to do what I am doing. I can honestly say that I breathed in every last drop of what my journey across the United States of America had to offer me. It was and is, a life-changing experience.

Thanks for reading. I hope that Trans Atlantic Cycle is the start of a spiritual adventure of continued personal growth, and I hope that I can continue to do a little bit to help others – instead of trying to impress them. That is my motivation going forward.

Trans Atlantic Cycle – The People and The Emotions

Roger Holmes No Comments

So, I am cycling 3,750 miles across America and Ireland to raise funds for The Irish Cancer Society. Trans Atlantic Cycle has so far been defined by people – great people. I am leaving a trail of new friends across the United States of America. New friends, who I am sure will become old friends. This challenge has also been heavily ingrained with emotions. The support for #TransAtlanticCycle is very much appreciated. I am a lucky man to have such good people around me.

Ray at Huckleberry

Ray Kim, whose expert advice at Huckleberry Bicycles really set me up well for the long road ahead.

In San Francisco, I met Ray Kim in Huckleberry Bicycles, who was amazing to deal with, and still provides support. I stayed with Fabi, Dylan and Brissa – such great hospitality. Tracey Cullen, a talented singer/songwriter, allowed me to use her music ‘First Kiss‘ in the video I made about leaving San Francisco. It is a beautiful song, and it was great being able to use it. It is available to buy on iTunes.

Donna contributed so much in terms of motivation and support, and made a generous donation to The Irish Cancer Society. Then there was Sinead, who went out of her way to help me, and hooked me up with Cheri and Jim in Carson City, where I was treated like a king.

Cheri_And_Jim

Cheri and Jim, who provided great hospitality at their lovely home in Minden, Nevada. They were great hosts.

 

1965 Mustang

Jim’s 1965 Mustang GT, which I got to drive! Not many men would hand over the keys of such a car. Thanks Jim

The Desert Angels – where do I even start to describe their kindness. I met these twin ladies outside of a grocery store in Dayton. When they heard where I was headed, they went home, packed up their motorhome and basically shepherded me all the way across the state of Nevada. I am still lost for words as to how I feel about their kindness, but it was epic, and has remained in my heart.

Desert Angels

The ‘Desert Angels’ M and Liz. These twins really saved me, by shepherding me across the state of Nevada

When all seemed lost after a heatwave swept through Utah, up stepped Grace and Bob. Had it not been for their assistance, I would surely have succumbed to the 110 degree heat in the Canyon Lands.

Things went a little pear shaped in Moab. Trans Atlantic Cycle hit the wall, to borrow marathon terminology. The heat and elevation combined with all of the long cycle rides, finally got to me. I had to remain indoors for two days as I grappled with stomach cramps, diarrhea, and a blip in form. I posted an online update from Moab in which I was a little cranky, but I am so glad that I did it. It is good to share the tough and embarrassing moments as well as the classic Instagram moments.

Once the heat subsided, I scaled the La Sal Mountains, and in doing so, crossed another state line; this time into Colorful Colorado, where I again immediately met some nice folks. Tony, Amanda and their kids were great hosts. While visiting their hillside house and strolling on their grounds admiring the views, I came face to face (around 40 feet away) with a mountain lion!. I back-traked, and once out of sight I ran back to the house. I was both shaken and delighted to have experienced this very rare encounter.

On the eve of July fourth, I met Randy Kerr; a gentleman, and a phenomenal athlete. At 60 years of age, he is competing in (and wining) all sorts of mountain bike races. His fitness, and his commitment to it, are a lesson to any cyclist. Randy doesn’t hear so well (a legacy from his Army service), but it didn’t dampen our conversation. I had the pleasure of riding out of Montrose with him, just after the Independence Day parade, and we rode the very scenic (and very tough) road to Gunnison, where we watched the town’s fireworks display. That was a special day. En route I also bumped into Brad and Chris, and spent a very enjoyable hour on their breathtakingly beautiful ranch in the mountains.

While resting in the homely Wanderlust Hostel, where Amy has created a lovely atmosphere, I met yet more nice people. Mike, who was en route from Atlanta Georgia for a new life in Denver, was a good guy, great company, and a lot of fun. I also met Ron, and hung out with him for a day or two. A retired federal employee, he forgoes luxury to vacation a little differently. Ron hikes. For hundreds of miles. And he hitches rides between trails. I don’t think I have ever met a more humble and genuine man, and that is exactly why he does what he does. The wild country and the low budget experience, remind him of how lucky he is to have his luxuries when he gets back home. Ron, if you are reading this, I think you should write a book – people would love to read it.

Mike_Reno

Mike, who was heading to Denver

Also in the unique Wanderlust Hostel, I met John, a pharmacist from Garden City Kansas, who was guiding his young daughter through a Colorado vacation. Watching how much time John spent with his daughter, ensuring that she was having a good time, was just a joy.

On my last night in the hostel, I met Natalie; a school teacher and adventurer from Cincinnati. Again, conversation flowed. We covered ground from health insurance, to outdoor pursuits, right through to spirituality. It was this topic that has provided a legacy now that I am out on the road again. Natalie, I wish you nothing but success and happiness. I also briefly met Kevin Record, from Tallahassee Florida who is riding across America from East to West. Kevin is also fundraising for a cancer charity. We compared notes and experiences, and although our meeting was brief, we will stay in touch on social media.

Kevin_Record

Kevin Record, who is going the other way across America. If only we had more time to chat. Kindred spirits

After almost settling in permanently at the Wanderlust, I finally made the move that I was preparing for. Monarch Pass had been looming large in my thoughts since I had left San Francisco. I won’t lie, had it not been for keeping some cancer victims in mind, I may have bailed out of that tough climb. My aunt Kathleen passed away in 2008 from Cancer, as did Jimsie in 2016, and those two, along with numerous others, were in my thoughts the entire day. At 300 feet from the summit, the climb was so steep and the air so thin, that I was literally gasping.

I rested for a time, and just like an apparition, along came Kawika Plummer, a trans-American rider from Hawaii, who stirred me up for a final push, and so I followed his back wheel to the summit. Kawika often rides up to 140 miles a day. I hope Im so fit at that age!

Kawika

Kawika from Hawaii, whose wheel I followed up the last 300ft climb to Monarch Pass. Top of The Rockies

I actually stayed on the summit of Monarch Pass for around 2 hours. I was just so happy to be there. Places like this are the Everest of the cycling world. Monarch is 3,500 feet higher than the highest summit on the 2016 Tour de France. I was feeling very emotional, as I remembered those who had been in my thoughts as I struggled up the mountain. It was a strange mix of happiness, sadness, achievement, tiredness and satisfaction. There were a few tears. And that’s ok, and ok to admit to.

sign_man

Top of The Rockies! Happy to finally scale Monarch Pass – Highest point on Trans Atlantic Cycle at 11,312 feet

And that brings me to another defining day. En route to Canyon City, I was riding US50 as it turned and twisted through a deep gorge, which followed the flow of the Arkansas River. The scenery was beautiful, but those steep canyon walls had a little menacing input into my adventure. Some rock fall rolled out in front of me, and there was little that I could do. Thankfully, the split second that I was airborne gave me time to accept what was happening, and I managed to roll with it as i hit the road. Peggy took the worst of the hit. Thankfully, after a few running repairs and a few days rest, Peggy and myself were back on the road. It could have been a lot lot worse in so many ways.

Poor_Peggy

Poor Peggy looking a bit worse for wear in Canyon City, CO

 

Cuts

Road rash after falling between Salida and Canyon City, CO

For my part, I escaped with some road rash and a few cuts. My hip is sore but there is nothing broken. A very nice French tourist (whose name I did not catch) dressed one of my knees on the roadside, and a lady called Diane gave myself and Peggy a ride into the nearest town. From the highs of Monarch Pass, there was a bit of a low that evening as I gathered my thoughts and rejigged my plans. I became even more determined to keep going and reach New York City. I have met too many genuinely kind and supportive people, and have too much support from family and friends to just throw in the towel. There is also the matter of thinking about all of the people who will benefit from the donations which have been made on Trans Atlantic Cycle’s behalf to The Irish Cancer Society.

I called to mind a mantra which I have been using from the outset of Trans Atlantic Cycle – every negative experience can have a positive outcome. And sure enough, after vowing to continue, I finally rolled out of The Rockies and entered the Arkansas River Valley, where once again, the people were friendly and kind almost beyond belief. I felt rewarded for making the decision to continue. I visited two hospices while riding through the valley; firstly Sangre de Cristo in Fowler, and then Arkansas Valley Hospice in La Junta.

Ark_Valley

The staff of Arkansas Valley Hospice, who gave me a warm welcome

It was just amazing to be greeted by these wonderful people who do such amazing work for their patients. These visits had a very humbling effect upon me, and added renewed determination which counterbalanced the hurt I was feeling since the fall.

In La Junta I was given hospitality by John and Kathy, whose caring nature and dedication in helping others less fortunate is quite simply staggering. I completely relaxed in their home, and added a few more names to the long list of great American people who I will be staying in touch with when this is all over. John and Kathy have such a profound impact on the lives of those they care for. Thanks must go to selfless Mary Palmer for the introduction.

John_And_Kathy

Denver Bronco’s fan John Mestas, and his lovely wife Kathy, who made me feel so at home in La Junta, Colorado

I was quite sad to be leaving Colorado, as it has definitely been my favorite state to have visited thus far. The scenery is beautiful and the people are really friendly and kind. So far, Kansas has been Kansas. Some people complain about how boring the landscapes are, but I really like them. The land in places is so flat that the cattle ranches, wind farms and corn fields stretch out as far as the eye can see. I was raised on a farm, so can appreciate the beauty and fertility of this land. It is vast, and it is a wonderful feeling to be surrounded by so much of what others describe as so little.

Corn

One of the many corn fields in Kansas. They roll out on both sides of the road as far as the eye can see.

It has been very hot, even at night time. It is hard to know which is more comfortable; the heat at night, or the rattling of an air conditioning unit. My hip is also still troubling me. But it was good to cross another state line, and in doing so, change timezones once more. I am now only an hour behind New York City.

Kansas

It is always such a milestone when entering into a new state. But I was sad to leave Colorado

If anyone is in any doubt, this challenge is very trying. It is taking a lot of energy and sometimes I have to dig right to the bottom of the tank to find the strength to keep going. But, there is a two-fold benefit happening which cannot be ignored. Firstly, donations are being made to the Irish Cancer Society as a result of the effort that I am putting in. And secondly, I am meeting some truly wonderful people on my journey across America. Sometimes the experience becomes a little overwhelming, but it is all very positive nonetheless. I have spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts while traveling through this beautiful country, and have decided to write more extensively about the experiences after I have completed Trans Atlantic Cycle. There is so much to tell.

To make a donation to The Irish Cancer Society on my behalf, please visit the following page: TransAtlanticCycle

Trans Atlantic Cycle – The Highs and Lows of Cycling Across America

Roger Holmes No Comments

The title of this blog post is something of a misnomer. There are no lows; just calm periods that have the effect of making the highs more enjoyable. Im in Moab; a beautiful cycle-friendly town in south eastern Utah. Many who are cycling across America will pass through this little town. The landscape here is simply amazing, and the place has a real feel-good, laid-back vibe. There are dozens of cycle paths, dirt bike and ATV trails, and some amazing hikes through natural arches and canyons. But I’m just not feeling at my best today, and I’ve learned the hard way that it is okay to have days like these. Tomorrow is another day.

I made this video log when I was feeling the strain today. Its good to talk about this kind of stuff, as opposed to sugar-coating it.

I am tired, my digestive system is a little off, and I am certainly affected by the altitude, heat, and the number of miles cycled since I left San Francisco. In the past, a day like today may have tarnished the good times, but not now. I know it will pass. One of the best (and hardest) lessons I have learned is that when a down day comes, to realize that it is a passing moment, and it will indeed pass. Today, I was able to recognize that I am tired, and off-color, and so I accepted that the feelings I had were temporary. Self awareness is a game winning ace to pull from the deck on a day like today. I know that if I rest and refuel, that today’s worries will just drift away, as a cloud does when it temporarily blocks out the sun on an otherwise blue sky day.

I’d like to thank the girls at Bike Fiend, Moab, for not only cleaning my chain and checking the bike over, but for lifting my spirits when I walked in to their store in a very tired and weary state. I also need to thank Cheri and Jim in Minden, Nevada, who gave me kindness, hospitality, a bed, meals and some great encouragement. I just couldn’t have been treated any better, and that stays with you out on the road.

Cheri_And_Jim

Cheri and Jim: great people who really helped me in Minden, Nevada. That kindness stays with me.

I was also saved in the Nevada desert by twin sisters M and Liz, who I named my Desert Angels. I am still a little lost as to how to describe how far M and Liz went to ensure that I got across Nevada safely. Grace and Bob also extended some much needed generousity. I will be eternally grateful to these amazingly kind people. These were all random acts of kindness by strangers. I benefitted from American hospitality at its very best. Isn’t it ironic that I met such great people, and such good company on the ‘Loneliest Road in America’?

Long Road

It really is ironic that I met so many great people, who helped me so much…on The Loneliest Road in America

Trans Atlantic Cycle is incredibly difficult. It is okay for me to admit as much on this blog. Even if nobody reads this, just writing it helps to get it out of my system and allow that feeling to subside.

People have asked me what music I have been listening to out on the road. So far, I haven’t listened to any music while on the bike. I love music, and play bass and ukulele. But I haven’t played music yet while cycling across America, and probably won’t either. While doing something else (cycling), I prefer to be giving my concentration to what I am doing, what I am seeing and hearing as it passes by. Music would gradually allow my mind to slip from the present. Songs remind me of the past and give me ideas for the future, and thats okay. But right now I want to be aware of the present. I have meditated a lot while crossing California and Nevada. I have let go of a lot of negative thoughts and worries along the way – in a form of emotional littering. I like to imagine that any negative thoughts or feelings just flutter over my head and get left behind on the side of the road behind me. Without casting off some negative emotions, I cannot make room for newer happier feelings.

Rusty_Car

Some things need to be cast off and left on the side of the road. There, they can slowly rust away naturally instead of causing a wreck.

I try not to look too far ahead. All that matters most days is that I am moving. As long as I am moving I know I am working towards something. I need not be concentrating on what that something is, but when the wheels are turning, I am happy in each individual moment.

I have drawn parallels between cycling across America and life in general. When moving uphill, I am aware that my energy is being used at a higher rate. But I am also aware that the top of the hill is coming, and there will be a downhill sometime soon to balance things out. The last time I checked, the Pacific and the Atlantic are at the same level! I started at sea level, and I will finish at sea level, so the hills are balanced. Some days I cycle into a head wind. There may not be a tail wind to balance that out, and that is okay. Sometimes in life we just have to grit our teeth and bear into the headwind. When I happen to catch a tailwind, I make full use of it. The same goes for life. Being aware that things are good, and enjoying them to the maximum is important. Being aware that things are not so good, and accepting that they will pass is equally important.

Someone commented on social media today that after cycling across America, my life will never be the same again. Well, it is already different. Every moment brings change. There isn’t really a goal as such, just the progression towards something, and the awareness of each wheel turn along the way.

A_Sign

A ‘sign’ in a bathroom just as I was finally getting out of Ely, Nevada.

Today was a less than high day. But I still managed to make a little progress by sharing how I feel. And now that day is almost over, and tomorrow is another day. I have been using a few mantra’s during this Trans Atlantic Challenge as I have been cycling across America:
One Day at a Time
Onwards and Upwards
Positive from Negative

The most poignant one is a quote on canvass which I saw in a bathroom just before I finally got out of Ely, Nevada. I really feel that it was a sign, in more ways than one:
”Don’t be so focused on the finish line that you forget to enjoy the journey”.

Learning how to enjoy even the less than high moments is something I am working on as I am cycling across America. Even a down day is richly rewarding.

 

You can make a donation to The Irish Cancer Society on my behalf, by clicking here

Trans Atlantic Cycle – Starting Out in California

Roger Holmes No Comments

Since I began writing on this blog around a year ago, I haven’t often been short of words. But starting out on Trans Atlantic Cycle from California last week changed all that. In a little over a week I have intended writing this blog post so many times, but it became a little overwhelming and I couldn’t quite find the words!

Ive been keeping people at home, and those following my Trans Atlantic Cycle for the Irish Cancer Society updated, but I haven’t really talked about the emotional end of things. Thats about to change!

Firstly, there are not many girlfriends who would be so supportive of a man being out of town for so long, and going on such an endurance adventure. But I am blessed on that front. Thank you Yesita Bonita for your support of Trans Atlantic Cycle – it is greatly appreciated.

We stayed with Yesi’s friend Fabi and her husband Dylan in San Francisco while I rushed around like crazy trying to get a bicycle and supplies organized for the trip. Fabiola, Dylan and Brissa were amazing hosts, and did everything they could to help. They even found time to bring us to a San Francisco Giants game (which the giants won!), and tour us around San Francisco. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me the run of your beautiful home.

San Fran

Posing in Downtown San Francisco!

We had arrived in San Francisco late on a Friday night. Two days earlier I had put out a desperate plea on social media looking for my dream bike that would take me across the United States and Ireland. That plea was probably symptomatic of my pre-tour edginess; something that other cyclists confess to also. My SOS was answered by Raymond Kim, who works for Huckleberry Bicycles out of their recently opened Berkeley store. Within two days of arriving in San Francisco, I was the proud owner of a Surly Long Haul Trucker, and she was saddled up, adjusted to suit me and ready for the road on Trans Atlantic Cycle.

Ray at Huckleberry

Raymond Kim at Huckleberry Bicycles, Berkely. Ray is the wikipedia of bicycle touring

Ray and Huckleberry Bicycles: you have nothing but my admiration, respect and gratitude. I highly recommend these people should you have bicycle needs in the Bay Area, or if you would like to buy online from experienced and reliable people.

I named the bike Pegasus, in the hope that she would sprout wings and fly me forward to help in the battles ahead. I shortened it to Peggy to make her female, and the Y is a tip of the hat to Yesi 🙂

Irish Cancer Society Balloon

Flags and Irish Cancer Society Balloon

I won’t lie – my first few days on the road were troublesome and I felt a bit lonely and overwhelmed. Getting out of the Bay Area and its satellite towns was torturous. I lost count of how many wrong turns I made, how many busy intersections per day I went through, and how many times I felt vulnerable. I wondered sometimes what I had undertaken, and if I would be able for it. Daily mileage was low and it was an error prone, nervous and stuttering outset. Eventually I made it to the California Central Valley, and although my newly acquired GPS sent me on an almighty 80 mile detour, it actually served a purpose. (Theres that positive from negative mantra again). The detour afforded me the chance to experience my first day of riding on wide open roads, and the ranch, orchard and vineyard scenery was amazing. It recharged me and gave me hope that I was actually able to clock some bigger mileage and man up to Trans Atlantic Cycle.

Leaving San Francisco

Starting out on Trans Atlantic Cycle, near the Bay Bridge, San Francisco. June 14th 2016

In Vacaville I stopped by a UPS and mailed 8 pounds of unnecessary stuff back to New York City. I have not missed any of it, and plan to shed another few pounds soon. I draw a parallel with life here. How much stuff are we carrying around that we think we need to carry, but can manage well without if we just let it go? Letting go of stuff is revitalizing and leaves room for growth. I am still carrying more than my body weight in the saddle bags. This may not be a problem on the flat, but as I was soon to discover, it made climbing uphill sections almost impossible. (Another life parallel and lesson).

Following a nervy night in a shady motel in downtown Sacramento, where the police helicopter swooped overhead, and ladies of the night and other hoodlums were circling around, I made it uptown the following morning. I bumped into Dan Donahue, a man in his 60’s who was out cycling. He told me he has clocked over 100,000 miles on two wheels since he first started commuting to work. His grandmother was Irish. A lovely man to meet, and it was a nice start to the day.

Once uptown, I made for Sacramento State University Campus, where I had read that a bike trail originated which would take me to Folsom. I asked for directions and met two absolute gentlemen, Dave Pratt and Steve Huddleston, who work nearby on a state sponsored geology study. They walked with me to the trail head, and we had a fantastic conversation about many things. Dave even gave his phone number should I need it, as he lives between Folsom and Placerville, where I was headed. That made the total of nice gentlemen I had met three, and did a lot to balance my opinion of Sacramento. Thanks guys.

After bidding farewell to Dave and Steve, I got on the American River Bike Trail, which follows the American River all the way to Folsom. It is beautiful, and in the absence of traffic and knowing that I need not waste energy worrying about directions for 20 miles or so, I got some great time to relax on the bike and meditate. Ive always been drawn to water (says he sitting writing this in the Nevada desert!), and I find it easy to relax when I am near it. I just love watching the flow of water, and find it very soothing.

Alas, the relaxed bike ride left me behind schedule, and I arrived in Folsom during Friday evening rush hour. After a quick snack I hit the road again, and a few short miles later started my first ascent into the Sierra Nevada foothills. I had left Sacramento too late, ridden too leisurely and was now struggling to get to Placerville. I wouldn’t use the word panic, but I was definitely worried about getting off the road before sun down. Highway 50 was very busy with California traffic heading up to the mountain resorts for fathers day.

Lake Tahoe

First glimpse of Lake Tahoe

I arrived in Placerville, got my head down at a Norman Bates styled motel and slept for 10 hours solid. I awoke, showered, had breakfast, got the bike checked out with Andrew at Placerville Bicycle Store and hit the road. It was immediately uphill, and I am not ashamed to say that it beat me. I stopped after around 20 miles, and freewheeled back to Placerville. I was feeling very low at this point, and it looked like Trans Atlantic Cycle had failed at the first hurdle. And then a long lost friend appeared! Lyle, who lives in Grass Valley – around an hours drive from Placerville – and who I had roomed with while at college in Ireland, swung by and came to my rescue. His trustee truck, ‘The Red Dragon’ carted my luggage up the hill, and although it took all day and left me completely exhausted, I made it over Echo Summit and down into South Lake Tahoe where I hunkered down for two days to recover. Thank you Lyle and The Red Dragon. She may me from 1993 but she saved me big time. And all while running on salvaged vegetable oil!

Lyle and Red Dragon

Lyle and his Red Dragon truck

When needing to rest and recharge, I could barely have picked a better place. 968 Park Hotel in South Lake Tahoe is the kind of place where you feel like you have arrived at a new home. Neal, who checked me in and told me about his Irish heritage, was a total legend, telling me stories about the local area and giving me tips on where to find everything I might need. His best advice was to hit the hot tub in the hotel, which I did for about 45 minutes and it was the magic cure I needed. I slept well, rested indoors the following day, and was even greeted and given good wishes for my trip by the hotel manager Sean Pratt at checkout. 968 Park is part of the Joie de Vivre chain, and this particular hotel in Tahoe is boutique styled, with almost all of the interior decor made from recycled materials. Very cool, and homely. All of the staff are friendly and helpful, and I would highly recommend it.

Feeling recharged, I cycled my last mile on California roads and crossed over in to Nevada, following highway 50 as it meandered along the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. I stopped at Logan Sholes where I had lunch and the most amazing period of relaxation on the entire trip so far. The view from here is breathtaking – almost heavenly. I really swallowed it in, and it helped to remind me just how lucky I am to be alive and healthy enough to be able to do this charity ride and see the great American landscapes.

Logan_Sholes

Peggy having a rest at Logan Sholes vista over Lake Tahoe

The bear signs by the roadside as I climbed Montreal Canyon to Spooner Summit was amusing! Thankfully, Spooner is at 7, 148 feet, so pretty soon I was descending into Carson Valley at 38mph. That is beyond the pace of even the Usain Bolt’s of the bear world. The scenery was spectacular, and as I descended I could pick out highway 50 AKA ‘The Lonliest Road in America’, as it weaved its way across the Nevada desert. Thats the route I will be following on Trans Atlantic Cycle.

Bears

Oh dear, or is it oh bear?!

As another day ended, I was again on the road later than I had anticipated, but when cycling through such beautiful scenery, I found it hard to avoid stopping to take pictures and being thankful that I was experiencing such wonderful places, while also raising money for the Irish Cancer Society. Those two emotions are very humbling, and in my experience, staying humble and finding time to breathe in the great outdoors is a great recipe for inner peace and happiness. I am certainly feeling those emotions on Trans Atlantic Cycle.

If you would like to make a donation to The Irish Cancer Society you can do so here: Trans Atlantic Cycle

You can follow updates on several social media platforms by using the hashtag #TransAtlantic Cycle

Trans Atlantic Cancer Cycle

Roger Holmes No Comments

Trans Atlantic Cycle

Im writing this over New Foundland and that means that Trans Atlantic Cycle is underway! The charity cycle from San Francisco to New York City and Letterkenny to Dublin is still around 10 days away, but we have managed to raise around 1,600 euro so far for the Irish Cancer Society, which is a really healthy start.

I am undertaking Trans Atlantic Cycle for many reasons; primarily to raise fund for The Irish Cancer Society, but also to challenge myself and challenge a theory. Six months ago I was afraid to even look at someone else on a bicycle – now Im planning a long tour. Thats worth celebrating (thanks Philip O’Rourke for getting me through that). I also want to prove that with the right attitude, amy negative experience can be turned into something really positive.

I have set a fundraising target of €5,000. To generate that amount of money for a very worthy charity, coming off the back of a very negative 19 months, would be amazing, and would go a long way to proving that with positive thoughts and plans, positive things can happen, even when they are born out of a negative.

This is a short little blog post. Soon I will land at JFK, and next week will travel out to San Francisco where hopefully I will meet my bike, which will become my best friend throughout the summer of 2016.

I am nervous, excited, inspired, humbled (by the donations and good wishes thus far) but mostly I am determined to make Trans Atlantic Cycle a successful both for the Irish Cancer Society and for myself and anyone like me. Maybe there is a fine line between determined and stubborn – either of those traits would be welcome once I am out on the road.

Thats it for now. I just wanted to thank everyone for their encouragement and generous donations thus far, and to provide an update that Trans Atlantic Cycle is now a step closer.

You can search for updates by using the #TransAtlanticCycle hashtag. Lets do this!

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