Location: Freeport, Grand Bahama, The Bahamas
Subject: Finding Fred Birchmore.
I was swapping stories with my Miami family, Nico and Josette with their dog,
Jazzy, in their favourite place; out back of their house, under the stares
and 1/4moon, at their glass-topped, iron-work table, drinks at hand (vintage
OJ for me) and an incident came to my mind from the deep (don't laugh)
recesses of my brain. Back close to the beginning of my journey, I, a
young, gullible and wide-eyed man (now I'm only gullible), rode through
Egypt. This land captivated me for 40days and 39nights. On the way up-Nile
is Luxor, gateway to the Valleys of the Kings, and of Queens, and bequeathed
with an astonishing array of gargantuan antiquities. One of the jewels
in Luxor's crown of ancient stone, or maybe a crown of itself, is a vast
complex called The Temples of Karnak: a forest , though practically shadeless,
of pylons, obelisks, colossi, pillars, statues, tablets, blocks and monoliths.
Neck sore, face burning, foot-weary and jaw unhinged, from gazing upwards
and what could have been miles of leg-work....I paused in my writing here,
because Jazzy had gone racing up and down the fence, barking after a mouse;
good exercise....miles of leg-work not paying attention to where my sandals
struck the stone and sand, I spotted a dark inviting passageway between
huge block walls somewhere in the outer maze. I was able to pry a locked-but-loose,
heavy, rusted iron gate just wide enough to slide my dehydrated self sideways
through, breathing out, and I gained access to a silent, pitch black chamber.
Yards of stone slabs supported over ahead made it almost chilly in there.
As my eyes became accustomed to the dark I found I could see. A slim beam
of sunlight was descending vertically from an orifice in the ceiling and
illuminating only one thing: a black figure, about 6 or 7 feet tall, with
an oversized head. It was a statue of the goddess Ptah, if I remember
correctly. It was spellbinding and eerie. I had stumbled upon this at
the precise moment the sun was positioned perfectly to display it as intended
by its creators thousands of years before!!
I stood still. And time seemed to do the same. My spine tingled; a sure sign of a special happening. Eventually I dragged myself into the modern world and set my camera to take a long exposure of this event (though my secondhand, manual camera was not exactly modern). With no tripod, I had to hold the camera firmly against a corner of the wall and remain motionless for the two or three seconds the shutter remained open. I repeated this for a few frames, counting under my breath to different times to try and maximize the chances of getting a visible, non-shaken image. Then I peeled my self away, squeezed out of the gate and braced into the impact of heat and dazzling glare ricocheting from every sun-bleached surface outside. I paused to become accustomed to it. I heard something above and I gingerly squinted upwards. A man in the usual flowing Arabic robes was up on the roof of the temple, repositioning a mirror (or mirrors) which he had oriented to shine the sun down the shaft onto Ptah, in exchange for baksheesh from a group that had gone in a little before me (and I guess that they didn't think tourists were thin enough to slip through the gap at the gate! It must have been my dysentery.)
I felt let down.
But hey! I still felt the magic!
What this has to do with the present, is nothing, or has yet to be revealed. I'm now in a dormitory in Florida City.
Florida City, Florida, USA 27th April '04
The wall fan is labouring to skim a few degrees off the sticky air. I'm waiting
for the Cycle Wizard to conjure up a new rear wheel for me, or at least
have the perfect one delivered. The old one, which was actually new by
about 3weeks, started popping spokes. Anyway, even my supplier at Araya
said I couldn't be able to get a 36spoke wheel around here and so I should
get a 'Mavic' brand. Funnily, the Wizard likes to call them "Maverick".
And he likes to call eDeore' hubs, "Delore". After contemplating my
alternatives, which were few, I ordered the wheel. So I might either get
something very good or a total fake. In half the other countries I've
passed through, I'd be betting on the latter. But this is America, right?
: let's see if I can find someone to ask; ...Hello! Excuse me..."No English."
But..."No English." I guess I'll have to learn some Spanish.
It's almost the end of America for me, with 27 states visited. And I'm bound for Key West, which I hear has a mound, or something, labeled "End of the World," which, of course, it isn't. I could segue into how the baseball competition here is called the "World Series" even though only US teams are involved, but I won't.
It would possibly be more accurate if it said," End of the Free World," depending on which end it meant. But that's still to come, I hope not.
To get to Key West I have to ride a stretch of road which is notorious for having the greatest concentration of cyclist deaths per mile of any road in the USA. I go tomorrow. A cyclist was killed down there today. Hopefully, god's taken his quota for this week.
7th May '04
Back a little less south, skimming away from Cape Fear and the snake house of my previous report, I skirted the Great Smoky Mountains and pushed inland, across a corner of South Carolina and into Georgia. The demographics had long since begun to indicate that I was in the deep south. At times I had found myself the only white in a restaurant full of black African Americans. It was interesting to feel that minority feeling again. Not intimidating, but not the curious attention as in other, poorer continents, either. Nor the unnecessary deference borne out of perceived financial separation. I don't think that it was disdain that I detected; more, ambivalence. The feeling of my own lack of importance. In a way it was reassuring. This was the way it should be. My mind touched upon what it must have been like to be a lone black person in a crown of whites. Things have improved over the last fifty years or so. This was a point dramatically brought home to me by a visit to the Martin Luther King Center in metropolitan Atlanta. It's amazing to think that, had he not been assassinated, he might still have been alive, and I might have been able to meet him. What a waste! Though even his death has resulted in its own tragedy being turned upside down to produce immense good.
Along the lines of change, a well-known ex-peanut-farmer, Jimmy Carter, has been devoting a lot of his resources to assisting peaceful, democratic change at his Carter Center, also in Atlanta. He's sending election observers into other countries. I'm told that quite often they have been asked in letters, to observe the home elections also. Apart from the non-neutrality of Carter (being a Democrat) in the first place, the criteria for providing observers stipulate that the elections are presumed to be free and fair; which excludes America!!!
The Old Curiosities in Athens.
Having once been a total R.E.M.-junky (and I still need a fix every now and again), I knew that this rock band had its origins in Athens in Georgia. That made Athens a target for me from the outset, more than thirteen years ago! I bullseyed it on the approach to Atlanta, crossing undulating farmland waking with accelerating Spring. Spring warmth finally brought with it the assurance of a days ride without losing the feeling in my fingers and toes. But it also brought putrification of the occasional dead stuff by and on the road, and nasal assault of a variety of evil stenches; deer, cats, dogs, raccoons, turtles, opossums, birdsc..and many out of sight.
I saw a woman in old-fashioned clothes; black, long-sleeved dress, cinched at the waist with voluminous skirt down to her shoes, and hair up under lacey bonnet, taking a photo of a long, dramatic driveway, lined with fifteen-or-so trees on either side, leading to a farm house. Each tree supported an explosion of heavy white blossom. I had passed many such trees and wanted to know the name, so I stopped to ask her. "Bradford Pears," she stated. "Beautiful, but they stink terribly!" I inhaled and then realized that a lot of what I thought had been hidden dead animals, had indeed been this Bradford Pear blossom. I just hadn't made the association. She was taking the picture for friends visiting with a view to buy the property, in a couple of weeks, by which time the brief display would be over. If only she could have bottled that pong, too!! And perhaps upload it as a digital file attachment; not gif files, but whiff files. [Please forgive the techno speak].
Athens sprang out of the ground like some kind of hill fortification, with steep, twisty lanes and carved with ravines and gorges. Its moat was a multi-lane, highspeed gyratory expressway deathtrap, which I briefly got vortexed into on my way in. But inside, it was a peaceful little university town where everyone knows everyone else (excepting the transient student population) and the taxis are shared with whoever else is going that way.
Having matured a little (I think) I wasn't too interested in seeking out R.E.M. or their trivia any more. What was concerning me, as usual, was finding a place to rest my head and my mount. Also, since three people separately asked me if I knew Fred Birchmore, on the day I rolled 80-odd miles in to town, I resolved to find him.
I had tried to telephone the friend in Athens of a friend in Seattle before, but had only left messages on a machine. On arrival day, I finally managed to talk to someone. But it was the wrong number; one digit wrong. I spoke to a lady called Judy; Troubadour Judy; and she corrected me. It wasn't a wrong number, it was meant to be. She often put up guests in town for the likes of the annual Twilight Ride, and foreign exchange students, and she invited me to stay over if I needed. Wow!! The luck of the journey continues to amaze me! And of course Judy knew Fred Birchmore, who, even at 92, hates to miss Judy's opera nights.
So I had a telephone introduction to Fred and I arranged to meet him. And, equally, to meet his wife Willa Dean.
If you haven't heard of Fred Birchmore, you should have. No apologies for saying that. He must be the oldest man alive who has cycled around the World. He did it between the World Wars, in 1935 and '36. Subsequently he and Willa Dean cycled Cuba in 1940! His book, "Around the World on a Bicycle" is a classic read and beautifully written. He donated the last remaining editions to the YMCA in Athens, for sale. That's where he regularly goes for yoga sessions!!! Boy! That man is still a human dynamo! But he just can't slow down ?even if it is for his own health. His doctor advised him not to lift anything more that 20lbs, but he ignored that and heaved "two tons of fertilizer" to stack it in his garage! He thinks he perhaps "overdid it a little" because he subsequently had a heart-stoppage. But I saw the twinkle of pride in his blue eyes. And he was trying to conceal his frailty. A tracksuit, some stretches and a few sprightly steps, did a good job of that.
But he's also proud of now having survived seven heart stoppages, where most people survive no more than two! The stoppages have definitely taken their toll, and his "young" wife, at 84, is looking decidedly stronger than he is. I jokingly called him a cradle-snatcher.
I hope he makes it to his 100th birthday on 29th November 2011, but I fear he will never slow down and his heart stoppages unfortunately will keep occurring, until his last breath. And, indeed, I phoned him recently from Florida, and he was recovering from his eighth heart-stoppage. He almost didn't manage to get the "nitroglycerin" under his tongue as he suffocated, and he almost didn't make it to hospital as he was slowly drowning with the fluid build up in his lungs. But he did. And very soon afterwards they had to kick him out of hospital as a "bad influence" on the other patients because he was already up and doing 5 mile walks along the corridors and the nurses didn't want the others thinking they could also do that!
When I cycled up to their place, Happy Hollow, Fred and Willa Dean firstly took me on foot a little way along a nature trail, named after him, which skirted their property and wound around a shady area of woodland and plunged into a gently ravine. We didn't go that far, though. We mainly examined the perimeter wall of Fred's garden; The Great Wall of Athens! Even in his 70's Fred, though classified as disabled, had been rebelling and swimming against the current, and he built, almost without assistance or mechanical aid, an enormous wall around 3 sides of his land. Between 3 and 4 feet wide at the top and about twice that at its base, and varying between six and twelve feet high, it's an imposing structure. It is held together by its own weight, and only the top is cemented to allow comfortable walking along the top. And I joined a set of notable people ranging from Scout and Guide troops to the President of Hungary and his bodyguards, by doing so.
The wall seemed out of Fred's outgoing character, but he built it to keep his dogs in . And the natural shades and hues of the uncemented, uncut stones and boulders used, are pleasant to the eye, especially in the soft, early evening light filtering through the woods.
Fred explained how he had had to hyperventilate in order to lift some of the 200lb rocks! One of them was so long that when he put it in his car, he couldn't shut the doors on either side! When driving along, a policeman in his cruiser had stopped him, saying it was dangerous and he couldn't allow him to proceed. Fred said he could break it up with a sledge hammer if the officer would just help him to get it out of the car. When the policeman tried to move one end and couldn't, he asked Fred where the other people were who had helped him put it in there. Fred told him how he had done it alone, and the officer relented and just escorted Fred home with the lights flashing.
I took a couple of photos from atop the wall, of Fred down below. Then we went inside their old house and Willa Dean gave me delicious, home-baked cookies and orange juice.
There were stacks of mementos, photos, souvenirs and gifts from extended lifetimes of taking on the World and taking in the World's visitors. For instance, I got to try on an old Soviet Army officer's cap. And there were shields, trophies and plaques. And they told how they both piloted and delivered planes to Europe during World War II, which was after she had "carried him 600miles across Cuba on their tandem". However they largely spoke of more up-to-date matters; the prowess of their son and daughter at tennis, and the possibility that Fred might be able to meet Lance Armstrong during the upcoming Tour de Georgia.
I recommend all who can, to visit this larger-than-life couple. They know a lot about how to do life beyond limits.
Returning through town I spun along an avenue of youth, through the university district. Here, at last, the Greek symbols of the "frat" houses and "Sorority" houses seemed appropriate (well almost), emblazoned high on the pillared porches of these antebellum villas (villae?) They all had small herds of rocking chairs chained to the pillars and balustrades; apparently a sign of welcome [the rocking chairs, not the chains]. The villas to my right glowed brilliantly creamy white in the full-on beam of the lowering sun.
I asked a couple of students if they knew of Fred Birchmore. They didn't.
The three curiosities of Athens are; a tree that owns itself; a double barreled cannon and, yes, Fred Birchmore (according to a guide brochure). The oldest house is the information centre. The Candy store sells fashions.
I mention the latter merely because I finally did get my digit right (out) and Candy is where it lead me; to artist and cyclist Michael. Thanks for arranging my last night's digs and for showing up at my farewell Indian meal, Michael. Thanks too to Kirsten, for popping along to that, even though we'd had no contact since September 1990 in Switzerland, as I started this journey.
I heard it said of Georgia (and one or two other southern states) that the reason they throw so much trash on the side of the road is to give the inmates (of the prisons) something to do in the summer.
As I passed these road gangs, I wondered if they considered and compared my simple freedom awheeling along, to their own lives. Or would they just imagine me a slave to the cogs?
And I pondered Fred Birchmore's incredible life.
The CNN headquarters are in Atlanta. I visited, but I couldn't get them interested in the story of Fred meets Lance, or trying to make it happen.
[And, sadly, it didn't happen. I phoned Fred yesterday.]
My welcome to Atlanta was in a different form. An African American eman of color' called to me to stop as I rumbled the last few thousand yards of the main drag into north-central Atlanta just after nightfall. Sodium lights; semi-industrial sector; stranger; a combination that would probably have most people not even think of obliging, and more likely quickening their pace. But I didn't sense danger, and I had a feeling that I shouldn't just ignore this other human out there. The guy drew level and propositioned me in graphic, gay terms!
You've got the wrong guy. Goodnight!
Ironically that main..er..drag was Rue Ponce de Leon.
Welcome to Atlanta!
Besides Carter and King, I briefly inhaled a quick mix of rock, ballet and rap and headed out.
Kim and Beau; wholesome, homely, hospitable, decent, good, southern souls and sweethearts; were just as they had been when I met them in Nairobi in 1991, with the addition of three darlin' children, Kayleigh Sky, Brighton and Custis, now in Macon, Georgia. That accent (acceyunt) had been distinctly uncommon amongst American travelers I'd met. All credit to you guys! Thanks for the apple pie!
A strong wind blew me to Savannah, and I saw my first Armadillo on the way; unfortunately, roadkill.
Savannah; Real Spring and tree tunnels hanging with Spanish moss.
Little Crow's Feather was a Lakota Sioux Indian with a feather in his plaited pony tail, who I met at a place called the Hostel in the Forest, in Brunswick, Georgia. He had walked all the way from Arizona to this nowhere place and was about to begin the same journey in reverse. Not only that, but he had gone through a number of tests, including being hung from spikes pierced through his chest fro twelve hours and going without food or water for three days, for the privilege of being chosen for this mission. A mission, I think, to take healing and peace out to the World.
I'd been told about the hostel in unfavourable terms so I was pleasantly surprised to find a place of secluded tree houses, a lake and a swimming pool, packed with energized, interesting, unusual and friendly people, pulling together to make it a positive, rewarding experience to stay there. It was full moon; time for a Native American style sweat lodge; a ritual of meditation, cleansing and thanks within the pitch-dark cocoon of a low, skin tent, at the centre-pit of which were placed faintly-glowing, hot, riverbed pebbles from the fire pit outside. Aromatic water was sprinkled on the pebbles, which made it like a sauna.
Earth my body
Water my blood
Air my breath
And Fire my spirit
As the last of the hot rocks have up its life-force, monochromatic moonlight flared the steam pouring up from glinting skin as bodies splashed into the cool lake, skimmed by a thin veil of wood smoke. An enchanting, timeless scene. Fully aware of my tingling skin, though having forgotten my nakedness, I washed away the impurities of the sweat.
I took an extra day at the hostel. Little Crow's Feather instructed me on potting a banana tree sapling and explained how to conserve moisture in soil using pine needle mulch, in the hostel's vegetable garden. I also contributed some of my urine to the fence, to keep the deer out. No electric fences here.
We shared the forest with a large number of chickens and I collected some eggs from their coop one morning. Also I glimpsed a LIVE Armadillo one night, scampering under one of the boardwalks through the trees.
After only two nights in that forest, getting back on the rude road in the anxious, aggressive world beyond was quite a thump. I was tempted to turn around and disappear back in there.
And to my 27th and final state; Florida; Past the ***weiser "beer" factory in Jacksonvile, whose smell took me instantly back to the brewery in my hometown of Sheffield. And where Orange juice was so expensive you'd have thought it was the money , not the oranges that grew on trees. But Florida oranges ARE tasty.
Florida; the South American state, as in Latin; no longer The South. Peopled with people from everywhere but.
A kuhl, female, German cyclist, called Heike, whose solo path crossed mine at THAT hostel, hooked me into her network of accommodation and friends from 22months of north American cycling. I am thus grateful to Jacksonville Tom and Ila Rae, for trusting Heike's judgement and giving me a home for a night
Really the oldest city in the USA is Spanish, touristy St. Augustine. It has a well preserved fort and furnace for heating up cannonballs to set fire to besieging ships. I plundered the Pirate Haus hostel of pancakes there.
I met another solo, female cyclist, free-spirited Suzanne, with whom I free-camped a night amidst mangroves and sparking fire bugs. She showed me the procedure for turtle road-rescue; carry them close to the ground to reduce stress. Then she demonstrated how to eat the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, which coloured my teeth like Dracula, or like some old, betel-chewing untouchable in India. That finished, we turned to find that the turtle had snuck back across to our side of the road again. Perhaps it hoped for another flight.
We watched starfish mating in groups exposed by the rock-pools of a beach of different colour layers according to the tide-level-dependent eco-systems.
Suzanne turned inland to curve back north and I sped southwards to the condominium canyons of Daytona and onward. At Daytona Beach, across the hard-pack, drag-strip sand where cars drive, I took my first full immersion in the Atlantic in many years.
I missed out on Orlando's Disney and tracked the coast which took me by NASA's Cape Canaveral launch site. It has an expansive secure zone around it, which has been given over largely to wildlife. I saw a few Armadillos, one of which I tried to stalk for a photo. The way they jump along when startled is hilarious. But more hilarious is that apparently they are not native to this area, and it is thought that they jumped a train to get here! They thrive eating the local turtles' eggs, which, of course, aren't so happy about that. I hope with the tightening up of transport security because of the "terror-" [should be terrorism-] threat, they'll nab a few illegal Armadillos too.
I really didn't expect to, but it was a great joy to see a group of rare Manatees (Sea Cows; like seals with round paddle-tails), without going too far out of my way, in a lagoon close to one of the many causeways across the Canaveral area. Manatees are so slow and have such poor eyesight that they are frequently getting killed by boat propellers. There are conflicting reports as to their numbers, and whether they are declining or rising, so there is a bitter battle raging between the developers and boat-owners and wannabes, on the one side, and the conservationists and manatee-lovers on the other. There are very low, boating speed limits and line-fishing restrictions to help increase their numbers though.
I did see a satellite launch from C.Canaveral; a great, tumultuous spectacle like an oversized firework. But since the last Shuttle disaster there won't be another Shuttle launch till March next year 2005.
Florida also famously equals Dolphins. But I didn't realize that they will sometimes swim upside down hunting fish in shallow water. That they swim fast, is not surprising. Just how fast, is very surprising. I watched a couple from a pier on the Intracoastal Waterway near Daytona, as a lone Pelican also tried to get lucky as the fish frantically tried to escape the Dolphins.
More people and places to be eternally obliged to for saving me from cheap-, or
worse; expensive- motels. Melbourne; Marshall and family. Del Ray; Ray
and Geraldine. Boca Raton; Chip and Lisa. Fort Lauderdale; Philip, Michelle,
Kory and Emily. Miami; Nicolas, Josette and Christine. The WetBuffaloes.
Maia, Matt, Bernie, Joe...
And in the time it's taken me to write this, I've ridden clear to the "Conch Republic" (aka Key West) and its 90miles-to-Cuba buoy and celebrating its independence day from the USA!! Just one day in 1982. In reality only a few minutes!
Then back to Fort Lauderdale. So twice I survived that "most-dangerous" road and was never bitten by a Cottonmouth either.
But I was intentionally side-swiped by an SUV pickup truck coming into Miami. But just one of those great people I listed above easily outweighs that one a*****e.
I shouldn't end up on that ...er...person... so I'll just mention that I left
the USA by sea a few days ago and am now in the Bahamas, land of their
excellencies Greg and Patty, who are the only people I've ever heard say,
"The dolphins who live next door are in this movie."
Readers, please make any incantations you can to help halt the run of breakdowns of the yacht that is about to take me to Cuba from here.
Now to conquer the Caribbean..
Till next time, Live Strong!
PS I can't believe that I wrote all this with barely a mention of the fantastic Everglades. Sorry, maybe next time.
Phrases I've heard a number of times:-
"Canadians know everything about Americans, but Americans now nothing about Canadians."
"You can die for your country at war at age 16, but you can't have a beer in your country until you are 21!" (the country being the USA)
Please click to:-
to find what champion for the transplant cause, Greg Loftus, is doing
with his new kidneys. He's a hard-living man I met in Kenya and then up
in the taiga landscapes close to the Arctic Circle in Yellowknife, Canada.
Still biking, kayaking, and trekking furiously.
www.Gripple.com to find out what a gripple
is. This link is a kind of thankyou to Chicago Michael and Jo, even though
you did date my sister when we were in our teens, Michael.
Nuff for now.
Sometimes the magic of a moment
can be taken away afterwards. But you still felt the magic.