From Ecuador to the USA. From a motorbike to something very different. Geo and I each make a concession: Geo goes kickbiking with me and I am okay with starting our tour in Georgia. Back in Ecuador I spend lots of time connecting off-road routes to tracks with small town roads towards hidden gems in Carolina and on to the Appalachians.
I put effort in finding Warm Shower hosts in Atlanta and New York City. Our first hosts are Justin and Sarah in a higher class suburb in Atlanta. Justin and Sarah go out of their way to help us. Sarah says: ‘This is your kitchen, use whatever you can find’. They cook us food and bake banana cakes.
Geo and I are frantically busying ourselves with buying gear so we can start our kickbike tour. A new mode of transport for us. As soon as we land, Geo assembles both kickbikes, which were send to Justin’s house, with the tools available in Justins toolbox.
Battling with the tiredness which has me in a fog, two nights without sleep leave me zombie-alike, in a situation where is no place for recuperation. In 2 days we do what is absolutely required, needles to say this is not a fun way of preparing our equipment for the kickbikes, let alone a pleasant manner of getting things done. Totally frustrated we set of.
Never tried kickbiking, we start at the Silver Comet trail, where Justin and Sarah bring us to. The large city, its incomprehensibility, and our vehicles resembling the tower of Babel, confusion does indeed reign.
We bought what was available but failed to get all we needed. Without a car the USA is pretty hopeless and so we start our tour without even the most of basics: water-bottle holders.
The plan: Alabama Skyway, Underground Railroad, Southern Tier, Atlantic Coast, The Palmetto Trail, Trans North Georgia, Appalachian Gravel Growler, Trans WNC and perhaps the Croatan Gravel Vanish.
The Silver Comet trail should bring us straight to the beginning of Alabama Skyway. It goes well, kickbiking on a former railway track. I love it from the start, though my set up changes every day, I know that after a few days this will settle itself.
Our first night is a characterless stealth spot just a little above the Silver Comet Trail. We face a golf field, witnessing through the bald fir trees where no undergrowth could hide us, white carts zooming over the field. It is a cold, below zero, February evening. The most memorable recollection is that we are better organized than on our South America motorbike tour. I can prepare chai on a gas cylinder and pour hot beverages from an actual tea kettle.
Well, we are better organized than our South America motorbike tour if it comes to preparing tea and coffee. But that’s about it.
I admire the Kickbike. Finally, the long wanted new mode of vehicle has come to fruition. Truly happily I kick the Cruisemax over the flat asphalted surface, knowing that soon we will have more challenged paths to cross.
But that is welcome, even wished for. Of course, it would’ve been better to kick through California, Arizona, New Mexico or Utah in winter but at least in the more developed states we have plenty of chances to stock up on food and water and distances are relatively shorter for that to do.
I think we will see beauty eventually. Not the second night though. Our camp is alongside the train tracks, cargo wagons thundering past like a bullet, yet more tedious than slow motion. We camp in between built up areas, houses plonked in the woods, streets connecting them with bigger lanes, connected to roads, connected to highways, leading the big SUV’s to huge shopping malls, mega supermarkets, food chains and everything else that shows so little character, so much consumerism.
It rains all night. And all day. To sit alone in a tent while water falls down in large quantities is one thing. To sit with two in a tent is a whole other thing.
Mist has her arms closely wrapped around us, the wetness of it clinging to our down jackets and -sleeping bags. Barking sounds from nearby houses, lamps shining dimly through the fog reminds us we camp practically within suburbia.
We decide we want sunshine, no rain. Warmth, no cold. And since the weather has been bad for too long and will continue to be for the time to come, we opt Florida.
Florida hasn’t been on our list of places to go to, ever, but the sun is beckoning. And the Greyhound brings us cheaply (though bicycles are $75 each and boxes $15 each). Nothing else comes cheap in the US though. We even managed to buy tomatoes priced $2 each.
We kickbike back to and through Atlanta, a dreadful city with smiles places upside-down on gray faces, even when those faces are only Afro-American black in the suburbs preceding the big sprawl. The only colorful scene is in the waiting room for Greyhound, as if the actors for an average movie production are waiting to be called on the film set. Though the movie undoubtedly is rather a sad one.
As soon as we enter Florida the sun ought to shine but we arrive very early morning. With a sleep deprivation we kick in darkness through industrial grim-feeling areas, passing heroine junkies and a foul-mouthed Afro American swearing at the Burger King ladies for not being open yet. It feels warmer, a little bit more like South America even. I see palm trees which make my heart leap a little. The sight of Waffle House soothes me well, the colors matching the sky a welcoming palette.
Then we are off to a woody area to catch up sleep.
And after 3 hours of sleep, and some dry white sugary bread with warm pepperjack cheese, we set off to another woody patch. We hoped for large forests but the sprawl of Jacksonville continues. We camp right behind the Aldi.
But we know we are safe since the average American, living in a newly assembled plywood villa, will not venture out in patches of wood designated to be bulldozed soon to add more plywood twin suburbia.
Here we finally catch our breath. Let our bones, albeit imaginary, soak dry. Have our senses settle, though I am jumping from eagerness to continue our kickbike journey.
Upon continuing we can not ignore the fact that we push the asphalt very, very little. By the time we have packed the tents and rearranged the packs and bags and straps and buckles and Velcro’s it is about lunch time.
For lunch we stop at one of the countless food chains, always impersonal with more often than not, uninspired staff. People we encounter have skins pale as paper or dull as blackboard.
We kick past residential areas, all of them with a fancy fence and flamboyant entrance gate, except when it is a black suburbia. Big shiny cars seems to be like a business card to each house owner, some don’t fit the garage they’re standing in front of. Music blast out of open car windows and all give way to us, watching curiously to a sort of bicycle without pedals. I can tell by their frowns and lifted eyebrows.
We kick over uneven pavement, broad wooden beams carrying lights standing right in the middle of the path, or else, sidewalks suddenly coming to a halt. Over roads without a shoulder, cars slowing down behind us. It is all of such a beauty that I don’t want to figure out how to make the composition more attractive from behind the camera.
I am in charge of the route and choose the most woody regions. However green the patch is on Maps.Me the reality is always different. We kick past closed-off military grounds. Forego woods with houses planted hidden from view. Precede rickety sticks of pine ‘for future generation’ and lakes without access for those who do not own a villa. After a day where we truly pressed ourselves, over a stretch so boring that it reminded me of Uruguay, we choose a camp between thin limbs of rotting pines. However much I try, only images of ourselves are mildly interesting.
Another camp spot is away from the road, at an abandoned place. Eerie with an unwelcoming feeling. We wonder what the story has been here.
Only when we get away from the busier outer ring of Jacksonville, coming closer to where the city of Gainesville starts, do we get to eat a delicious pizza with a cheerful atmosphere, save for the caged bird. The place is not filled up with weighty, instead a Harley Davidson lady offering us a short ride. Her truck is so big, all our gear fits easily.
In Melrose at Williams we buy groceries, Geo sitting on the ground is offered a $5 bill by a child, taken for a homeless. He declines the offer, explaining to her dad he is not in need. Out of the blue, another person tells us we can sleep at Swan lake, a Christian mission. Both looking forward to a shower, after 9 days without, we try our chances.
The simplicity of a warm shower, the essentials to wash oneself with, who would not savor it?
On to Gainesville, via Hawthorne State Trail. Beautifully set between creeks, prairie land, wetlands and woods, I finally feel we have arrived somewhere remotely resembling beauty.
I spot my first American gator. It reminds me of the Paraguayan Chaco and how much more adventurous and harder that ride was. Though, I might be wrong, as a few days later I will be knocked off my feet, quite literally.
An hour before closure we get to the town-hall in Gainesville. A big sprawling city, with wide avenues sporting multiple traffic lights bobbing in the breeze, dangling on lines above the wide open crossings. Poor looking men with card boards in their hands, trying to gather coins. The oddest of Afro Americans trotting past, while seated in yet another fast-food chain. A white man, outfitted in worn out, dirty jeans, a scruffy appearance and a somewhat anxious approach ask us where we from, ‘I admire your travel’ and he sets of on his shiny white, single speed, immaculate bicycle.
I have found an American flag and tie-ripped it on to the back of my Kickbike. Just as I did with the Cameroonian flag. For no particular reason. A few weeks later I take if off, seeing no particular reason whatsoever to have an American flag.
By now, I am limping.
We take a rest for 3 full days. In a patch of forest, a patch that was able to survive the sprawl of a city. Where Wallmart is, where people shop. So many sort of different humans combined, making up an atmosphere that makes my heart ache, pulse and race with discomfort. The vigor in many a Walmart is of such a power that it makes us needing to get out of the building, away from it premises, gone from the people and their problems, diseases, discomforts and sicknesses.
It feels like a curse. On his way to another supermarket, Geo finds a gun, laying out in the open. Perhaps fallen out of someone’s pocket. Small enough to do so. Yet, it is a real gun with serious ammunition.
I walk with difficulty and pain. Both my ankles hurt. I stay in the woods while Geo cares for supplies.
The pain in both ankles had itself announced, would I have listened to the indications softly whispered in my mind. One after another, pangs and twinges telling me to stop, to rest, to stretch before the ride perhaps? I simply did not recognize the several signals and here I am: injured.
After three days I want to go on. Geo wants to move too, as the neighborhood is scruffy, according his observations. I have blissfully been surrounded by trees only and have no clue about the outside of the little cocoon I dwell in.
The bubble has been kind, sealed me off from all I can do without. The day we exit the bright green wrapping I am, as always, surprised to step into the world. As if being able to step out and in as I please. To enter the sounds, the activity, the ongoing, being able to witness the life of others.
We kick on, 15 kilometers further and I am unable. Both ankles are so swollen, so hurtful, so not in order. We find a spot, far out of the surroundings of Gainesville, nearby the start of Southern Tier.
‘I can’t. I won’t. I need a rest of at least a week’, I say, almost in tears from pain and frustration. And so we move camp a bit further back into the patch of woods which has been able to keep standing among the ‘health parks’, that are private hospitals and care centers, emergency’s, fast food chains and pricey pricey supermarkets.