A short ride later we stand under hot showers sweeping the coldness from our bones in a hotel as bike suits drip water leaving a stream unwinding across the floor. As the pools gather it starts to dawn on us. In a few days we will be home. Home? It no longer feels the same. It is somewhere else than we are used to. It is where we want to be and do not want to be, both at the same time. A confusing kaleidoscope of emotions and images wash through us as a short ride to Los Angeles, just down the road, indicates The End. In a few days we will be back in the UK. It feels disconcerting, strange, and unreal. As these feelings flit through me one factor stands out clearly. Over the last few days my thoughts have increasingly turned to Biscuit, my guide dog. Phone calls have winged their way across the Atlantic to set in motion the timing for an event which leaves me feeling nervous.
The worry involves meeting her again after so long. With these thoughts come the doubts over how she will react. Will she remember? Will she have become so attached to the home and people she has known for the last year I am, somehow, ‘unwelcome’ in a vaguely doggie sort of way? The thoughts leave me unsettled and uncomfortable. I push them aside as there is little I can do. Only time will tell.
Over the following days we discover motorcycle insurance is easier to arrange everywhere apart from the most developed country in the world. To be fair, it is easy if you are a Mexican citizen doing a bit of nipping across the border in a pickup truck. This is even true if the vehicle would be instantly condemned as unsafe by anybody apart from a blind police officer.
Meanwhile for a UK (taxed and tested) motorcycle it proves to be something akin to trying to find an instant solution to the worldwide financial meltdown which rages across the planet leaving ordinary people battered and bruised. The subsequent days pass as we traverse American motor regulations. Hours and hours pass hunting for the elusive piece of paper which will forestall us being hauled off the bike by a mirror-sun-glass wearing, gun totting, deeply tanned Highway Patrol Officer. We role play the:
‘Insurance Officer? Do we really need it? Is there some way I can pay you for it here and now?’ (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
We discuss at great length whether American Law Enforcement Officers collect for their children’s school uniforms in the same way as their Costa Rican brothers, or the Thai Police in their search for retirement funds? In the end we discount such an approach. After three days we solve the problem by paying a ridiculous amount for one month’s insurance (at three times what it would cost an American for a year). Sometimes we long for the countries where insurance is an optional extra as they seem to get by fine without it.
Over our time we discover why America is the obesity capital of the world with planet sized plates being delivered to our tables overflowing with food before we eventually settle on the ‘Over-55’s meal’ as even the children’s menus prove too much for our stomachs.
“Do you want to Super size it?” people ask.
“Could you possibly downsize it please?” Bernard responds while they laugh at our bewilderment with the dustbin lid portions and “Good God man that’s not a drink, it’s a swimming pool” at his first encounter with an American Coke. Meanwhile people waddle back to the dispensers to top up the small buckets as we struggle through the smallest cups they have. Watching some of the people around us Bernard tells me he is putting on weight just being in the same room as them. We make a quick mental note to stock up on cholesterol bashing tablets at the earliest opportunity. We may well need them to keep our arteries circulating precious life fluids.
Wandering into a petrol station looking for maps Bernard tells me that, yes it is true, everything is bigger in America. In nothing like a hushed tone he tells me of the Extra Large condoms in every colour and size imaginable (apart from small and extra-small he points out). My admonishment of the information he is gleefully, and loudly, imparting to me (in a busy garage) leaves him with his innocent little boy voice. He points out he is only describing the display. “America truly is the land of the car. Something for the drive home Sir?” he giggles as we leave the garage quickly with the heat rising in my face.
We sink into the morass of trying to arrange the shipping of Bertha back to London and after ten hours of phone calls and emails it transpires 9-11 has left this country with a serious aversion to shipping things by air. Freighting from such places as Kathmandu we had, naively, assumed the land of the free and the brave would not represent a problem. Particularly, we had thought, when we were shipping an English bike home to the land of green hills and three lions. How wrong we were.
One company wants to put Bertha in a truck and subject her to a four day drive to New York (3000 or so miles) as they say The Los Angeles Customs Officers are unable to stay awake for anything longer than five minutes. The spluttering which greeted the 2500 dollar price tag convinced them it was not exactly what we, or our diminished wallets, had in mind. Across several conversations with Air Freight Companies we also find out the “Not Needed” Carnet (according to US Customs at the border) is indeed necessary if you want to export the vehicle from the USA.
Bertha heads back to the border with this information where the morning is spent office hunting through puzzled officials who are completely puzzled by what we need. During our wanderings we, accidentally, stumble on the reason why a wall of noise is so important to Harley Riders all over the world. It turns out to be an essential Health and Safety feature, according to one officer, with his two-wheeled house parked nearby:
“A car driver can say they didn’t see you when they pull out, but they sure as hell can’t say they didn’t hear you! The louder the better.”
Ah, that explains it then. It seems Harley riders have discovered the answer to a universal sentence which exists in all languages, that of ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you.’
By the time you hear this you are, generally, laying on the ground pulling gravel out of your navel. Lying in a crumpled heap you often press the slow motion replay of the last few minutes before you hit the ground to explain what happened. “How could they not see me?” you ask yourself. Now you know. They didn’t hear you.
Eventually we find our way to the office of Chief Larkins who, thankfully, understands completely. He duly fills everything in while promising to inform his unit that a foreign motorcycle, in order to be exported from the states, does indeed need a completed carnet to smooth the process.
Over the days we meet Vietnam War Veterans, salesmen clutching laptops and people from all over the USA as we wait for the great shipping debate to be resolved. They shake their heads (and our hands) while proclaiming it to be ‘amazing’ and ‘unbelievable’ what we have done; on our own “out there alone” as they put it. Many cannot believe we are having such problems getting home as our enforced stay at the hotel is, by now, demonstrating. Our puzzlement is rising as we can understand the reticence of flying stuff into the states, but not out? Unless, of course, the states are protecting everybody else from a rampaging 20 year old bike with two ageing passengers? Perhaps it’s because we haven’t told them Bernard’s socks are now clean, ready, willing and able?
The land of the free is the worst so far in terms of getting simple things done as our frustration rises at the level of bureaucracy. In Istanbul, Kathmandu, Kuala Lumpur, and Sydney we completed everything inside three days and often it was all solved within a single day. Here it has taken three days to solve a ‘simple’ thing like insurance and it seems a week will pass before we arrive back in the UK.
Killing time, and frustration, we spend lots of ‘quarters’ scrubbing and degreasing Bertha at a local car wash until she looks pristine. Not since she was given a good going over by four Bangladeshi lads in Kuala Lumpur has she looked so well.
Four days pass by before we leave Nogales resplendent with our shiny motorcycle and clutching our new insurance certificate. The shipper we eventually talk to in LA is expecting us in two days time. We cannot wait to cover the 500 miles.
Mentally finished we find the last few days have ground through our system, dragging, never ending. Strange feelings wash over us as we get back on the bike. It is an effort and not what we want to do anymore. We do. But we don’t. Irreconcilable emotions drag our psychology around the mental space inside our heads as we start the final leg. One final barrier stands before us. The Arizona Desert.
After riding through India, Pakistan and the heat of Australia we thought nothing could be hotter than the Atacama Desert in Chile. Then came Arizona. A whole new planetary experience of heat sat waiting for us.
Imagine turning on your hairdryer at maximum heat while holding it close to your face, and every other part of your body. Then imagine turning the heat blast up to 70 miles per hour. Crank up the thought into standing behind a 747 jet engine taking off while you idly smear factor 50 sun cream on any exposed part. Double whatever you are thinking about heat. Now you have something approaching Arizona. It made the Atacama Desert in Chile look like the North Pole.
The heat builds and builds and when you think it cannot possibly get any hotter, more degrees are notched up. The gauge on the dashboard gives up its unequal struggle with accurate information at 50 degrees as the sun hammers down under a clear blue sky. It has run out of puff. No more. Thank you very much. The End. It sits straining against the stop with not a flicker of downwards movement. You have no perception of sweat, no sensation of little rivulets marching downwards due to gravity. If it does break into the open it is instantly gone. Dangerously so.
We pull over at every opportunity to take on board fluids. It doesn’t matter if it is only thirty minutes later when another small petrol station, café or bucket of liquid appears. We stop. At one such place the staff cannot believe we are riding during the day. It seems most bikers travel at night and avail themselves of the ‘specials’ which we see as discounted rates on Motel billboards between 5am and 5pm. So it is that people sleep during the day and travel at night to escape the heat.
“We’re British, we ride in all weathers” Bernard laughs – when he has enough saliva to get the words out. The staff shake their heads and say “Man, you gotta be careful out there. People don’t travel during the day!”
“We’re fine thanks, could we have 345 bottles of cold water please”.
Bertha cools down under whatever shade we can find as you can burn your hand on any metal part it comes in contact with. Even the seat is ferociously hot when you first climb back on. Within 15 minutes of starting off again you feel thirsty. The new water we buy and take with us rapidly becomes too hot to drink as it gentle simmers away in the sun. At every stop Bernard reaches for the sun cream, insisting it is applied to any part it can reach in terms of exposed flesh.
I can feel the sun’s power against my body and the term ferocious does not do it justice. It is beyond ferocious and completely on another planetary scale as the miles pass by. 350 miles later we’ve had enough. Our heads are bursting and little people are inside my skull stabbing their way out from the confines with sharp axes. It comes in nauseous waves. Gratefully we pull into a motel and stumble off the bike dizzily with people gathering and saying “My God, you’ve ridden through the day?”
“Yep” was the croaked word which comes out of Bernard’s throat before two bottles of cold water lubricated him enough to talk properly.
Standing in the shade our body temperatures cool down as further drinks are downed while we hide from the sun and talk in the way of motorcyclists all over the world. People wander past, stop, and then spend time with us. It is based on the common ‘bond’ which exists, irrespective of language, religion or any other national difference. It’s what turns a complete stranger into a new friend. Two wheels.
Later on Bernard peers at me over the top of his plate of food which appears on the table in front of us at ‘Denny’s Diner’. We toast the crossing of the hottest place on earth we have ever encountered. The day would have left Lucifer reaching for his sun shades and looking to turn the thermostat down several notches. We pass out on a bed which envelopes us in its marshmallow softness and drift off to sleep talking of our feelings of how tomorrow will be the last day Bertha will be ridden on foreign soil.
Chomping our way through the continental breakfast in an empty café the next morning it is obvious people have deserted the hotel before the sun came up. We had pondered rising in the dead of night – like everybody else – to take advantage of the coolness but we are not good at early starts. The only time we availed ourselves of this option was in India and it was driven by pure fright and the need to get out of towns before the level of chaos reached Armageddon-like proportions.
Climbing on the bike we soon settle into the normal routine of petrol stops and liquid intakes. Pulling off the highway we stop in Pine Springs. White washed and painted picket fences greet us, War memorials and people lazily ambling along under the brightness. It is all so quiet, so ‘homely’, that it reminds us of picture postcard images of America, even down to the empty roads and ‘have a nice day’ responses. The air settles into noisy stillness with the only sound being the occasional vehicle as we fill Bertha up for her final tank of ‘gas’.
“Where yawl from?” comes from behind the counter in a rich American accent.
“The UK” we answer in unison like two book ends.
“My son went to the UK for 18 months, couldn’t understand a word he said for months when he came back” the female attendant replied laughing.
“His father used to tell him how funny it sounded when he spoke.”
“Do we sound ok?” Bernard asks with a hint of humour in his voice.
“Yawl sound like Brits on the TV, so it’s ok”.
People stand listening as we talk of America, Britain and our journey home as we stand under the air conditioning unit cooling down. I feel sure there must be steam coming from the two of us as we hog the cold downdraft.
“Yawl have a nice day” they chorus in unison as we pay for more bottles of water and head back towards the highway.
The hours pass amongst signs which denote the lines drawn on a long go map denoting where American Indian Tribes could live after centuries of wandering where they liked. A few square miles in small geographic squares (as it must have seemed to them) while huge juggernauts now roll past the rocky and boulder strewn mountainous landscape. We pull past signs which wave in the direction of San Diego. Others loudly proclaim an altitude of 4000 feet while we reminisce of a small Peruvian girl sat on Bertha as we froze above the clouds and waited for the road to open. Small things. Memories of people and places stream through us more now as The End beckons us forward.
Five hours later we plough through 8 lanes of traffic as Los Angeles appears. Signs for John Wayne Airport flash past as people drive at a furious rate, on our left, on our right, but all in their own lanes and with scrupulous discipline. Everything travels quicker than we are used but we settle into the flow, finding our way to meet Rene the agent with whom we have talked while we sat in Nogales looking for a way home.
Reaching the office and climbing off the bike we stand in silence as we realise this is it. The End.
“I can’t believe we’ve made it” Bernard sighs as he reaches for a cigarette.
“Thanks to you” I reply quietly “Thanks to you.”
“I never thought I’d be able to do it” he went on. “With the roads, hassles, borders, language problems, breakdowns and everything else. It seems weird to know we’ve done it and we did it by ourselves.” He stands silent apart from the inhale of nicotine.
I squeezed his arm gently.
Rene sits behind his desk and we arrange to come back a few hours later to start the paperwork for the final freight of the journey. The way home.
The Hotel we book into is within walking distance and once we shower and grab a quick bite to eat Bertha is unloaded of all our bits and pieces. It is a well tried and tested procedure as cameras, laptop and various other bits and pieces are consigned to the two pieces of hand luggage for the trip home. Our heads are saying ‘Home soon’.
Two hours later Rene comes out of his office and he is clearly stunned when he sees Bertha. After travelling for two days to get here the first thing he says is:
“I can send the bike, but nothing else”.
“Yeah, I know, we’ll sort out tickets for our flight” Bernard answers puzzled.
“No, you don’t understand, no personal possessions can go with the bike” he goes on.
We stand in silence.
“What do you mean personal possessions?” Bernard asks slowly.
“Everything but the bike” he answers.
“You mean the panniers and back box?”
“Can’t go with the bike unless they are empty.”
“No, since 9-11. Customs will not clear all this stuff to fly in cargo.”
“Clothes?” Bernard asks
“With you” Rene responds.
“It’s also far bigger than I thought” Rene measures from floor to top of windshield.
“The price will have to alter.”
“The measurements I gave you are the shipping measurements.”
“Can’t be done” our (nearly) new found friend wisely pronounces.
“It’s been done several times in the last twelve months” Bernard goes on, “The windshield comes off, the front wheel is dropped, the back box comes off and is packed left side and strapped onto the foot peg. I’ve done this several times.”
“Can’t be done at those measurements” Rene dismisses the idea as he measures back to front without listening to what Bernard is saying.
“I’ve just told you it has been done, several times” Bernard insists, “It flew from Istanbul to Pakistan, from Nepal to Thailand, from Malaysia to Australia, from Australia to Chile, from Colombia to Panama. But anyway, that’s not the point right now, how do we get our gear home?”
“Excess luggage” Rene suggests “it cannot go as cargo even as a separate shipment. If it’s personal possessions then they have to fly with you”.
By now the conversation is telling us that Rene was not at all interested in providing any solutions or real ideas. He seems to have completely gone off the idea of shipping the bike anyway.
“New York?” Bernard suggests?
“Same as here, it’s nationwide” shatters that idea despite the ‘we’ll put the bike in a truck and move her to New York’ shipper we spoke to in Nogales as everything is ‘easier’ than in LA.
We let the enormity of the information settle in as Bernard’s vision of his pipe and slippers starts to fade. Saturday night premier leaguer football fades along with warm beer and cold rain. The reunion with Biscuit my guide dog is growing fainter as we stand silently. I know Bernard’s brain is furiously searching through options.
“We need some time to think about it Rene”.
Bernard lights a cigarette as Rene disappears back into this office leaving us to ponder. The sun beats down as we stand in the car park and go though our options.
Perhaps we could buy several huge suitcases and pay the excess luggage charges? We work out it would take three or four large cases to ship everything. With the weight of our gear we discount this as it would be prohibitively expensive. Should we ditch everything we posses and empty the bike completely? Not an option really. Back to Mexico and fly from Mexico City? On towards Canada?
We talk about Canada and Bernard thinks it would be considerably easier in many ways (roads, language and costs). Importantly, it suites his mentality. It will be going forwards. Never backwards. He knows about the Toronto option and tells me it is possible to fly overnight; in the USA it will take nearly two weeks to get Bertha home.
Several cigarettes later it is 4.30pm and the options are disappearing one at a time until we are left with only one viable alternative. Drive to Toronto.
“How far is it?” I ask dreading the answer.
“About 2,500 miles” he quietly states after checking the maps.
“God” I mumble “how long do you think to it will take us to get there?”
“On these roads? We could do it in five to seven days. All being well, probably five if we do 500 miles each day. Ten or twelve hour days at an average of 50 taking into account stops, petrol, food and no breakdowns.”
We go back into the office and tell Rene we surrender to the post 9-11 paranoia which has paralysed common sense. We are off to Toronto. He appears a little phased we have chosen to drive to Canada. By our calculations, which we share with him, even accounting for seven additional days of food, petrol, accommodation it will still be cheaper than shipping from LA. He completely losses what little interest he had in us and turns back to his computer monitor wishing us ‘good luck’.
Back at the hotel we sit stunned as our mood drops onto the floor and burrows southwards looking for the end of the psychological freefall we both feel.
I walk up and down the stairs carrying everything back down to the bike, repacking everything into familiar places while dazed. It might sound strange to people reading this. You have to understand neither of us have ‘enjoyed’ the recent weeks hammering through countries. The clock is beating us into submission and all we see is petrol stations, white lines and hotels. There is no real ‘enjoyment’ anymore. It’s true that many people get a real kick out of doing 500 mile or even 1000 mile days. The ‘mileage junkies’ as I call them. They get a ‘buzz’ out of doing mileage for the sake of mileage itself. To me it’s not what motorcycling is about. I’m not criticizing this type of riding, I’m truly not, but it is not for me unless I have to ride like this. To Cathy and me, countries are about people and if all you do is fly past them you may as well not be there. It’s not about watching the milometer notch up tenths of a mile all day. The days have always been about the stops and the people you meet on every occasion. It’s a combination of The Road, The People, and The Differences experienced every day. One out of three does not work for me. A road is a road is a road. Without the other two factors as well, there is little point in continuing. We are now on completely the wrong side of America and the whole country has to be crossed within 7 days to stand any chance of getting home within a reasonable time-frame before we return to work.
Eventually the bike is packed and it is only then we realise the Hotel is organized around all things Japanese. We were so focused on organising the bike and ourselves for departure we had not noticed all the bowing attached to levels of social status. Neither had we noticed the blaring TV in reception full of appropriate programmes for people’s ‘home-away-from-home’ experience. We sit in the restaurant and it dawns on us The Torrance Hotel serves nothing but raw fish, seaweed and Tofu. To be fair, there are a lot of different raw fish dishes but none of them quite hit the spot for us. We make a hasty retreat from the chop sticks and little bowls. Blind people and chop sticks? I don’t think so!
The hotel staff very kindly lay on a car for us when we ask where food can be gathered for two intrepid travellers which do not give off aromatic odours of the sea. It whisks us to a very posh, and expensive, Delhi bar called Jerry’s where burger and chips set us back a month’s food budget in Central America. I always know we are in a city when the increase of asthmatic gasping from across the table tells me the bill has arrived.
In the morning Bernard tries to cheer me up by a constant battery of humour. It does not work. I know he is trying to make the best of it as he does not want to drive another 2500 miles and is as floored as I am. We had never even considered the ‘personal’ possessions aspect and it smacks of the typical over-reactive response to a specific problem. It makes no sense to me when I consider in Colombia they searched every nook and cranny of the bike before pronouncing us ‘fit to fly’. At airports, customs posts, borders, and lines between zones all over the world some degree of investigation into our possessions occurred. In America they just said no. Perhaps we are missing something which a good search of our goods, or thoughts, would reveal. Perhaps we are just depressed.
Los Angeles stretches before us like coiled loops of spaghetti and it is daunting to have eight lanes of traffic whizzing past on both sides as we start the long journey North. Huge semi’s thunder past as we gently work our way through the myriad of roads, underpasses, overpasses, on-ramps and off-ramps. It takes 45 minutes before we see the light of day and the outskirts of the city.
Heading north the I91 comes and goes, transforming into the I605 which takes us NE before the East Bound I210 joins the Northbound I15. We start to feel better as the day passes and remembered lines of songs come through my helmet from him in front as he snatches me from my melancholy thoughts.
“Always look on the bright side of life” is sung with much gusto complete with (deliberate) out of tune whistling to accompany the snippets of the famous “Life of Bryan” film. Before I stop laughing it changes to Billy Ocean’s “When the going gets tough” complete with hummed saxophone solos and deep chesty rumblings as words are exaggeratedly conveyed through the speakers to my ear drums. I cannot help but feel better as the miles mount. We start to talk our way through how many people would willingly change places with our ‘disaster’ of having to ride across America at the drop of a hat. Then off he goes again with wildly exaggerated voices and snippets of songs all demonstrating ‘Can do’ mentalities, over coming adversity and every shade in between the theme of ‘we can do this.’ The world feels that little bit brighter as the miles mount up.
The 25,000 square mile Mojave Desert appears in front of us. Even though it contains the lowest and hottest place in North America (Death Valley) it does not feel as hot as Arizona. No doubt this is helped by the fact we are several weeks ahead of the over 50 degree temperatures which can be reached. The one thing we do know is it is highly unlikely we will need our umbrella to shelter us from rain as the gentle pitter-patter only occurs to the volume of 10 inches a year.
Descriptions flow through my helmet consisting of words such as ‘Burnt’, ‘Desolate’ and every shade of beige colour imaginable. Signs for the Mojave National Preserve pass us by on our quest for mileage as we hustle through the landscape in our new ‘mileage junkie’ mentality.
The Mojave river tracks us on our right and suddenly out in the middle of this burnt landscape Las Vegas appears and we are driving down Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra drive. From beige and gold to green in an instant as if some invisible line has been drawn across the road. Hotels and casinos flank us as we cut straight through the middle of the city. Caesar’s Palace with its Romanesque façade appears and I tell Bernard of the Formula one race track which meanders its way around the grounds. As we trundle through the gaudy town of glitz and tinsel we lament the fact we do not even have the time to let our jaws drop at the OTT buildings. People come from around the world to sample the delights of the city, the razzmatazz, the shows, while we power through it as quick as possible. It is not a destination for us, it is in our way and we have to leave it behind us.
The Moapa Indian Reservation and the small town of Mesquite look more our type of stop if we had the time but we have to eat miles through California,even as the signs for Death Valley appear before us. I can hear the grinding of teeth coming from the front as we pass it by rather than stopping and taking the detour into the most inhospitable place on earth, or so people say. We pull over at a rest area and a man leans out a car saying:
“I thought it was a joke!” pointing to the logo on the panniers which declare “A Blind Woman, Two Wheels and 25,000 Miles”.
“Then I saw the two of you!” he goes on and asks where we are from, where we are heading. He whistles loudly and asks “Had an mechanicals?” as we reel off all the things which have gone wrong across the months. He laughs and comments “Nothing serious then!” We too laugh and have to agree. Nothing serious then. Keeping it all in perspective, it is true. All the mechanicals have been fixable, although tedious regarding time lost in getting the parts.
He smiles and records the web address on the side of the bike as we stand talking in the sun sipping our ice-cold drinks under the blue canopy of the sky. “I’ll check you two out when I get home for sure” as he shakes our hands and sets off back onto the highway. We wander around the rest area and look back to where Bertha draws crowds of people all snapping away at her with their cameras. They clamber off coaches, out of cars and everything in-between to stretch their legs. We hunt shade and settle in the coolness as people stand talking about the bike 60 feet away.
Hours later we pull out of another petrol station where a Sikh attendant is so pleased we know about Amritsar and the Vatican-like centre of the Sikh Religion, the Golden Temple. He tells us of his six months in the UK before he was driven out by the cold and the rain, of how he found himself twelve miles outside of Cedar City in Utah and of the passing of the years as the only Sikh in town. We part as friends and wish each other well even though we have only just met.
Several hundred yards down the road Bertha makes horrible noises from her gearbox and our hearts fall under the weight of the noise. It sounds serious and a potential hammer blow to our schedule with all the heavy mechanical grinding which pours out to our ears; like several parts smashing around in a kitchen blender. The sun beats down as Bernard investigates. Screw drivers are placed to ears and then placed to engine casings to amplify the sound. I too listen, perched on one knee in the dust to hear the whirling, grinding mechanical noises which indicate mayhem about to occur. When the clutch is pulled it stops and Bertha chugs, rocking happily but all this tells us is it is either clutch or gearbox. We ponder and decide to head for Cedar city and stop for the night.
Bernard listens to the noise, the deep metallic rumbling which penetrates above all else as we set off. It stops when the engine is under load and everything sounds normal by the time we pull into a hotel. It is puzzling and worrying at the same time. We keep our fingers crossed it is some mysterious gremlin which has worked its way through. We are not hopeful however as, usually, sounds like this indicate some terminal cataclysmic outcome in terms of whirling mechanical bits.
The next morning Bertha does not have any form of mechanical indigestion; despite the previous day. There seems little else to do but keep our fingers crossed and go on.
The drizzle descends as temperatures fall with a blanket of greyness above us much like an English summer sky. It is not what we are used to. The black clouds threaten a torrential downpour in the dry season of Utah and the local radio stations all agree with our forecast. Rain. However, it was gratifying the America weather forecasters are about as accurate as their British counterparts, including ourselves. It never materialises but merely threatens without ever succeeding.
Breathtaking scenery passes by as canyon after canyon appear with red rock ravines baring the scars of the stone cutting machines which have forged a path through the landscape. Beautiful rock formations appear left and right and Bertha moves in response to my swivel headed rider who seeks to find new superlatives and descriptions for each and every outcrop. Like ‘collapsed packs of playing cards’ is my favourite description of one mountain which shows huge slabs of rock hundreds of feet high tilting crazily in the nothingness of the tinder landscape. Massive rock outcrops with folded and pleated cloth-like shapes, tops of Lego block formations complete with missing pieces where they have collapsed down onto the fold below are described in ever increasing descriptive ingenuity. Small canyons along the route merge into huge areas with magical names such as ‘Devils Canyon’ stretching far off into the distance.
The sky clears and we peel of a layer of waterproofs as the temperature rises on perfect roads which go past at 70mph. Our mood is elevated as now we have come through where we lived for the miles since leaving Los Angeles. Now we are back into ‘the zone’. Even Bertha joins in and does not grumble, or rumble, or cause any missed heartbeats with sounds of chaos from the gearbox. We consign it to the our mental list of ‘another puzzle for another day’. The Gods of Motorcycling seem to be smiling on us. Long may they continue to do so. Please make it so.
Other motorcycles start to appear. Goldwings and Harleys are the bike of choice and you can see them miles before they become distinct due to the layers of chrome which shines from the sun. Glinting in the distance they flash past in the opposite direction with waves and flashing headlights from their riders. When they travel in the same direction they pull along side us and passengers take pictures of the two Brits trying to get home. We wave back and smile in their direction and when the picture is taken with a twist of the throttle they leave us to meander onwards.
Petrol stops are now hurried affairs and we do not hang around. We need to be always further ahead than we are. We stop in Utah where an attendant tells us that Colorado is about 40 miles ahead but ‘there is nothing there but jack-rabbits.’ Everybody laughs. People in New York had said there was nothing in Arizona but rattle-snakes and Lizards. As we settle back onto the bike we recall how each state in Australia said the same about their neighbours. Further a-field Turkey was ‘dangerous’ (according to the Greeks), Pakistan was even more so (according to the Turkish). By the time we arrived in Pakistan people were saying India was to be the next hot bed of lawlessness. And so it went on around the world as people warned us about the next country or made jokes about their neighbours.
Soon Utah is a memory as Colorado leaves us entranced with its beauty. It finds Bernard, unusually, struggling for words. From collapsed mountains to winding gorges with vertical walls either side of us, the Colorado river rushes past on our right throughout the day.
A huge sudden Bertha wobble is accompanied by a loud yelp which leaves me deafened as Bernard tells me he has taken an Exocet missile in the face at 80mph. He pulls over rapidly in a howl of screeching tyres, nearly leaving me sitting on his shoulders. Leaping off the bike he examines his already swelling face in the wing-mirror while retrieving a long barb complete with nether region still attached. The rest of the critter is probably lying on the road several miles back groaning “I can’t feel my legs, where’s my legs?”
Meanwhile Bernard hops from foot to foot in the way of men all over the world as he seeks to convince me that ‘yes, it does hurt.’ He rips off his helmet to survey the damage.
“Imagine how the poor insect feels” I consoled him in my feminine way. ” Worse than you no doubt”
He is not mollified really but content with the fact that running into an English head was the last thing it ever did. “That’ll teach the bugger” he mutters while peering in the mirror and describing how his face is swelling up even as he looks at it.
“You’ll be fine, you still look good to me, have a cigarette and lets get going.”
Sympathy? No, not really.
“I’m deformed!” he grumbles at me. “I look like the elephant man and it’s hardly consoling that a blind woman tells me I look fine is it?” After two cigarettes he feels better. We set off again once he squeezes his huge, so he tells me, floppy head back into his helmet.
We knew America was big but it seems endless as we push ourselves across the miles. We cross state lines and see signs for capitals which involve distances bigger than many of the countries we have passed through.
The weather is glorious and it does not have the blast furnace waves sitting in the wind waiting to mug all the hydration out of you. Day two of the ‘race across the landscape’ sees 542 miles of the map covered in 10 hours inclusive of stops. Over the two days 1000 of the 2500 have disappeared behind us.
Five hundred miles becomes our signature tune with snatches of the Proclaimer’s song occurring throughout the day. With covering such mileages every day we become aware of a mental and physical shift; your aches and pains fade away as the mileage increases. It is like going through a barrier. One minute it hurts and then it does not. We talk to people at gas stations who ask where we have come from. We name some distant town and they come back with “God it’s hard enough to drive a car for 500 miles, never mind a bike” while a second person joins in with “Never driven 500 miles in a day in my entire life!”
People always notice the foreign number plate first when we stop, and then the white stick. Assumptions follow quickly; we have flown into the states and are touring around on holiday. Bemused is the best word which describes their response when they ask, pointing to the stickers on Bertha, “Have you really come through all those to get here?”
Each sticker tells its own story.
“That’s a real long way! Well done to the both of you.”
Colorado becomes the land of snatches of John Denver songs wafting through my ear pieces. ‘Rocky Mountain High’ changes to ‘Grandma’s Feather Bed’ which merges into ‘Fly Away’ in his optimistic voice as the landscape drifts past with an urgency which even Bertha feels; she smothers all sound of grumbling for another time and another place. We tilt and glide our way through the mountains as the Colorado river washes past in its muddy brown way down the hills we follow.
Signs for Aspen appear but there is no snow on the slopes and we coast to a halt at Copper Creek. It is cold and I am shivering. Pulling into an out of season resort Bernard baulks at the 150 dollars plus taxes (of course) for a room for the night and so we move onto Frisco. Here he jokes with the Moldavian receptionist of how 100 dollars is expensive for a snow less skiing hotel.
“Normally it is $190” she jokes back with him in all seriousness.
When we find the room has two single beds instead of the regulation huge double the reception comes to a stop and the staff all laugh when he points out:
“We actually like each other so why would we want two single beds? When we hate each other we’ll have two beds. For now one will be enough!”
Standing outside unpacking Bertha a family come over and talk while asking our thoughts about George Bush. Bernard, the diplomat, says he doesn’t know the man and so he couldn’t comment on him as a person. They grudgingly agree before saying they have had enough of “Eight years of his bull-shit.”
Bernard amuses them with the question every Pakistani asked when we crossed the country “What are your thoughts of George Bush?”
“He has half a brain and his dad had the other half” he always responded.
Often when it had been translated laughter welled from the armed people around us. The people of Pakistan liked the answer. Importantly it forestalled any problems which may have occurred by way of our seeming to agree with the decision of the President of the USA to fire missiles into the North of their country. “When in Rome” Bernard would mutter in his diplomatic way when difficult questions came at him in situations he would define as making us ‘vulnerable’.
Leaving our snow-less ski resort, Colorado fades in the wing mirrors as we cross into Nebraska before the state line into Iowa appears and profound scenic changes occur as the mountains lead to prairies. Miles and miles of green flat landscapes and across which the wind whistles and buffets us as miles continue to mount up. The wind is not the gusting battering type but a constant resistance rather than the sideways hammer blows of times and countries gone by.
We pass, and are passed by, so many Gold Wings and Harleys we lose count. Often they are fully kitted out with everything which can be squeezed on a bike. A wave of music accompanies them through the on-board speakers as passengers recline is luxurious comfort in plush chairs complete with arm rests. Behind them twin aerials attached to suitcase size back boxes flutter the American stars and stripes in the wind. Many of them tow massive trailers behind their 1500 cc six cylinder bikes on the lawn-like smoothness and perfectly straight highways.
Three wheeled trikes are everywhere glistening in the sun with brightly glossed paint jobs and murals of figures clutching huge swords or macabre Halloween type montages. Canary yellows, cobalt blues, deep reds all seem to be the preferred colours of choice with everything on the bike designed around the paint scheme. We look scruffy compared to the glistening and glossy ‘cover paint job weekly’ machines which thunder past us. They trail their left hand out, slightly behind their body in greeting. We wave back in true Brit fashion like two excited teenagers; which we have become recently. After all it is not everyday you get to cross the states is it? We had forgotten this simple fact in our urge to get home. We had lost the faith which declared ‘enjoy each day as it comes’.
The land of consideration and politeness (as America now seems to us) extends to hotels and streets. People often leap out of our way apologising if they have not recognised my blindness within a fraction of a nanosecond. Before we even get to the kerb, the appearance of the white cane leads cars to just stop in the middle of the road. Patiently they wait while we cross and Bernard’s hand crosses to his heart in thanks. They nod back to him as if to say “no problem”. Many times over the days we wander from hotels to cafes, meeting the same patient consideration; even if the traffic lights are on green for them to proceed.
Hotel rooms are spacious and where ever we stay voluminous beds and perfect facilities abound.
Wandering through a local Wal-Mart we move from an isle containing baby goods into one which has enough ammunition to start world war three. Boxes and boxes of every calibre conceivable, or so it seems to us being two gun-shy Brits. High powered catapults, cross bows and automatic air rifles sit next to the camping equipment.
“Bloody Hell” Bernard exclaims “They worry about speeding but sell enough stuff here to start a war!”
It tickles him when he reads a sign by the boxes of ammunition which declares:
“In order to be fair to all our customers, each may only buy six cartons per day.”
By-the-way, each carton contains 100 bullets. Ah well, that’s ok then. Six hundred today, six hundred tomorrow and so on. Should be enough? What do you reckon honey?
America is sneaking up on us and we are really starting to like it.
The people are so friendly when we get out of the anonymous cities. Stopping for petrol we drink coffee while old men talk to us about hunting, fishing and all things family. The weather, grandchildren and cars all figure prominently in the conversations. Huge cartons of drinks are consumed as plates of food the size of Everest gradually become whittled down before dessert is ordered. How they find space for it all is beyond us.
Generally we use three tanks of petrol a day with speeds of 70-80 mph. Twelve dollars a time as 500 miles comes and goes. Our average speed maintains at 60 and sometimes India and the twelve hour days it took to cover 100 miles seem so long ago. When we think of over an hour to cover 6km in Colombia it is another world as the landscape now whizzes past. Another time, another place.
The Iowa wind disappears along with the prairie dust as we pass the boyhood home of Buffalo Bill Cody in the valley of the Wapsipinicon River. I-80 runs not far past the farmhouse which was built in 1847 by his father (Isaac) and Bernard’s teeth can clearly be heard gnashing again at not being able to stop.
After reading about him as a child and seeing so many stories, films and books it was sad we did not have the time to even stop. We put it down for one of things for ‘next time’ as we both surely feel there will be such an occasion. The bug is well and truly in place nowadays. It will be impossible to go back to what we once were. ‘Next time’ has become our motto and it keeps us going when so much passes by on the side of the road. So many opportunities lost. Next time.
The wind blows for virtually the whole day as Iowa changes to Illinois.
In Illinois we pass signs for magical song titles such as Rock Island which spawned the Lonnie Donegan song in 1955. It didn’t matter to Bernard the song is about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad; some distance from where we are. Blasts of remembered words come through the headphones as we travel:
The Rock Island
Line is a mighty good road
The Rock Island Line is the road to ride
The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road
If you want to ride you gotta ride it like you find it
Get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island Line
Every road or sign post seems to trigger a lyric from some song of his past. It doesn’t seem the same somehow in the USA compared to the UK. Imagine the latest band in the UK singing about Warrington, or some small place in the Lake District, the land of eternal water dropping from the sky (well, it is the LAKE Distinct after all). Somehow, we don’t think it would have the same world-wide appeal as singing about New York, New York or Galveston (ok, can you hear the songs in your head?)
We pass signs for Indianapolis as Illinois becomes Indiana and we fly past the location where the famous 500 mile race is held. Huge warning signs insist you pay head to the simple message; if you hit a road worker ‘you go straight to jail for up to 14 years, without ever passing go’. The same severe penalties exist in Australia and people certainly seem to respond to the imposed speed limits!
Petrol stops lead to the handing over of 2.60USD per gallon (about £1.65) and everything is done with credit cards, apart from us as we use cash. Bernard trundles off to stand in the queue, hands over 20USD, comes back, fills up, and then goes back to stand in the queue again to collect the change. It seems such a nuisance after every other country where you just fill up and then pay.
Bertha hums her way along through the days with no sign of the worrying noises and she sits rock steady on her Michelin tyres, discovered by accident in Turkey when they were the only ones we could find. Fabulous things they are and renewed again in Australia. They have coped with everything from India gravel to Ecuadorian mud.
The newly installed 80 USD Radar scanner sits in the dashboard beeping away at signals of Mr Plod’s presence with his mobile speed cameras hiding in the bushes or amongst the myriad of advertising hoardings. The strength of the radar signal determines how loudly it screams and thus how close the ‘problem’ to you is lurking. In the UK they are illegal to use although they are not illegal to buy? Now there’s British logic for you! It’s like saying you can look but not touch, or you can buy a beer but you have to leave it unopened. Yeah right!
The proclaimed thinking of this illegality is it will encourage lawlessness, speeding and general mayhem amongst the car using public of the UK. With average road speeds falling in the UK to the point where pushbikes pass you on both sides due to the congestion it doesn’t really stand up, at least according to my head scratching friend in front. So the law was introduced to stop people behaving like hooligans, barrelling around corners on two wheels while knitting or texting on a mobile phone as they steer with their knees. Bernard meanwhile finds it makes him more aware of the speed rather than less. Personally he thinks it’s unfair the Police can have all the latest toys, hiding behind bushes before leaping out like closet commandos to collect even more taxes for the UK Government. All is fair in love and war, he comments. When we return to England he declares that, of course, he will uninstall the unit to comply with the law. Of Course I believe him. Nearly.
The rain comes in downpours the further north we go and the roads become puddles as we enter Michigan where rivers of water are fired at us by passing cars in sheets of spray. Bertha signals her protest. She stops charging. Again. The voltmeter sits stubbornly on 12v instead of 14.5. So we find ourselves back to Malaysian riding; gear changes instead of brakes, sparing the lights and indicators with the road a grey mush of sheet rain.
Today is our last day before crossing the border to Canada and we are infuriated that, with a single day’s riding to go, another mechanical problem occurs. Splashing our way onwards we nervously ponder the voltmeter readings across the 300 miles still to cover to the Canadian border. When we stop for breaks the engine is left running as each and every press of the starter motor drops the reading by ½ a volt. Every volt is now precious and it leads to hours of careful riding before the bridge spanning the border at Port Heron appears. Canada sits just out of reach over the St. Clair river, at least until we hand over the 1.50 toll charge to enter our 31st , and final, country.
The toll booth attendant smiles and tells us the border formalities are over the bridge which we slowly trundle across finding, yes it is true, the Canadian formalities are there but not the American. We need Bertha stamping out of America and so, after a little negotiation, we are allowed to turn around and head back across the bridge again (paying another toll) to re-enter America which, technically, we have never left.
The queues are huge to enter the states and Bernard ‘innocently’ heads for an empty lane which declares itself to be the ‘Nexus’ rapid entry route. The customs official is not impressed at us using the ‘pre-paid and pre-cleared’ vehicle lane. “Awfully sorry officer” he innocently answers “But the sign posting is unclear and we, you may have guessed, are not even from this side of the world, never mind the bridge!”
Radio signals squawk between the booth and control room before we are let through and directed to a secure customs post. We are descended on by several officers before the wheels have stopped turning. Surrounded on all sides Bernard asks them to step back so I can climb off the bike without the risk of kicking a federal officer. They step back warily but then everybody instantly changes when the white stick appears. In a single stroke we are downgraded from a grade one international threat to two ‘Brits’ on a bike and one of them blind to boot! Carefully and gently shepherding us into the offices Bernard is relieved of Bertha’s keys as ‘it’s standard practice’.
The keys jangle their way to a board full of keys which belong to the dozens of people being questioned about wanting to enter the good old USA. We slowly shuffle forward to meet more officers. When we explain what has happened, including the several bridge crossings, they start laughing and joking with us; receiving us like long lost friends. All the normal questions we have been asked hundreds of times accompany the completing and stamping of forms as we work our way through Bertha’s official exit paperwork. Other people nearby, meanwhile, are not so lucky as they are grilled over hot coals and have their finger nails pulled out. Not really, but some intense questioning is going on in harder toned voices. It is obvious some answers are not well received by the border officials and the people are not going anywhere at the moment.
More officers join the conversation with the two Brits in bike gear as all the formalities are completed before we are lead back to Bertha. Black uniformed border staff mill around us (complete with mirrored sun-glasses) as we are brought back to the compound and keys are returned. We hold our breath as the starter is pressed and she slowly turns over before firing up. Across the bridge we again pay the 1.50 USD to go back to Canada where the officials laugh and joke about our crossing and re-crossing the bridge. They direct us to the immigration offices for another round of paper bashing which are all completed with the minimum of fuss.
Bertha shows 11volts as she starts first time but we know the end is coming in terms of starting on the button. We have perhaps two or three more attempts before the engine will slowly groan over like the asthmatic old lady she is fast becoming. Not for the first time my friend laments the lack of a kick starter on a motorcycle. “A bike without a kick starter is as much use as a chocolate fireguard” he groans as we wonder whether motorcycle headlights are required to be left on in Canada. We set off with no headlight showing and the ready ability, if we are pulled over, to act like two innocent Brits abroad, with me ready to wave my white stick to get the sympathy vote.
Heading for Toronto airport we manage to find a hotel just as systems are shutting down due to the lack of voltage to run them as the battery flattens. Within earshot (!) of the flight paths it is close enough and within easy commuting of the final gateway to home. With some prompting from me Bernard asks the receptionist whether there is a ‘senior’ (over 50) rate.
“You certainly don’t look it!” she answers as we confirm that, yes, our decrepitness is a sign of advanced age and nothing at all to do with completing over 25,000 miles perched on a motorcycle for a year.
The room she shows us to is cavernous and as I orientate, the door opens and closes as Bernard trundles in and out. Wash bags, clothes, computers and anything else we might need are unloaded as we plan our final assault on, hopefully, getting home before we qualify for the advanced ‘severe old age’ discount. We take a taxi to find a solar charger as poor Bertha’s battery has descended into ‘I’m not starting as I’ve had enough and you cannot make me.’ An hour later we are back at the hotel clutching our life giving panel with assorted leads. We pray Bertha will fire up the following day and she does us proud as the sun works its magic by the morning.
Phone calls lead us to Air Canada and eight hours after we turn up all the paperwork is done. Bertha comes in at 330 kg weight, a very nice ‘Dangerous Goods’ certificate is extracted from a lovely man who even came in on the National Holiday of Canada Day to sign off the bike. The petrol tank is checked, battery looked at and he talks Health and Safety to Bernard.
After all the joys of shipping a bike by air so many times on the journey it is apparent we are all talking the same language and he declares himself happy. Our constant companion (the Carnet) is stamped up by a customs officer who tells us how he has always wanted to take his Harley around the world. “It’s never too late to give it a go” Bernard replies “All it takes is the will to do it.” We shake hands and he comments “Jesus, you make it all sound so easy” as he asks about the journey and how we have solved this and that problem.
“It is easy” Bernard replies “If you really want to do it.”
Pakistani and Croatian security staff wander over to talk to us as we ready Bertha for her final flight and they ask how we found their countries. Holding my breath I wait for Bernard to say something like “Head East from England” but he resisted his inclinations and tells them how much we loved them. The Croatian has not been home for many years and he is interested in how his fledgling homeland is developing after the darkness of the war which split families and people along ethnic and religious lines. We tell him of all the hotels and how it is obviously a tourist haven for Italians to nip over the water which separates the two countries. “And Pakistan?” the second officer asks quietly. Of all the countries we have visited this is the one which presents the most questions from all over the world as people thought us mad even going there. Bernard responds:
“We loved Pakistan, we truly did. The people were lovely and everybody, and I mean everybody, was so helpful.”
The officer is pleased with our thoughts on his home country. His voice gave his feelings away. Pleasure, pure pleasure came through very clearly as we talked about where, how and when we had passed through this troubled country. We told him how we wished the Pakistani people and the country nothing but peace for the future and good things; echoed by his Croatian colleague. With a nice touch Bernard finished with the Islamic term “Inshallah” or ‘God Willing’. It is our wish for the ordinary people of Pakistan and for people everywhere in times of trouble.
Three hours later we are standing at Toronto airport trying to work out how to pay for the 11.30pm flight with our credit and debit cards locked out by the UK banks again; the fourth time on the trip so far despite telling them where and when we will be anywhere in the world! “It’s for your own good” they keep telling us before leaving us stranded in India, Chile, Australia and now while trying to get home.
In the end we complete an extremely complicated transaction (losing a lot in the process) with a Bureau De Change. It was probably in the Bureau’s best interests to help us out otherwise I’m sure Bernard would have destroyed their ATM with his frustration. 11.20pm finds us sitting on the Air India flight to London and heaving a sign of relief and we settle in for the way home, weeks late and with a malfunctioning bike (again). We start to reflect on The End. So much has happened to us. Good times, bad times, and every shade in-between float along our thoughts as the plane rises into the sky. It has been a journey of start, stop, go, start, stop go. Periods of both intense activity and inactivity as we looked for ways forward. Ways to keep moving onwards.
We recall shivering for three weeks in Eastern Turkey waiting for the Iranian Visa Refusal saga (Yes, No, Yes) to be resolved and of how my 50+ friend had, somehow, become a threat to Iranian National Security. From bank lock outs (4), to breakdowns (5), with each stop and delay causing the leaking of time and money. The haemorrhaging of finances struck us even harder as the pound went into freefall and the international financial meltdown hit the world. It often left Bernard holding his head in his hands as 20% of our budget disappeared in exchange rates while he ruminated on the chance of it happening right now; after two years of planning and 30 years of waiting.
My thoughts shift between shocking roads through to all the wonderful people we came into contact with. We sometimes marvel, no that’s the wrong word, we are more ‘incredulous’ over how two people can traverse the planet on a twenty year old bike, and seemingly so simply. Barriers which appeared before us were broken down as we encountered them.
As we sat in the UK and planned the journey we wanted to spread the thought that many things are possible if you have the will to face an adventure. Within this journey it cannot be anything else but true that you have to face your own fears, hopes and beliefs. It is also true there can be no sense of adventure without risk. They do not appear by sitting in the comfort of security. If you stay in this zone then it can never show how a blind person, with the right assistance, can be capable of fantastical adventures. The same is true whether disabilities are involved or not. Through it all, the assistance I received from the man on my left (who is now fast sleep) is incalculable.
It is so far beyond most people’s perception of what it involved (and even my own at times) that it must pass largely unnoticed. It is the way he prefers it to be as he shrugs off what has been accomplished. He set out to fulfil a life-long dream, to see if he could do ‘it’. He wanted to find out if he was made of the ‘right stuff’. Now he knows. He is that. Along with much, much more. Only a very small number of people would have ever contemplated this joint venture and many people questioned his sanity for taking a blind woman on such a journey. He shrugged his shoulders when he was asked and merely said “Why not?”
Over the miles we were to become two people blended into one and even as he stressed about being able to fix the bike or his ability to ride the roads we encountered, never once did any thought cross my mind than ‘confidence’. It is a rare state of mind indeed given everything we have encountered.
In all the time we spent together, the 24 hours a day for a year, the greatest compliment we can remember is of how people noticed we liked each other. And more. Much more. Bernard has always said that liking somebody is not the same as loving them. You can love without liking and you can like without loving. We are truly fortunate in that we have both sides of the coin. A year has reinforced these thoughts even more.
My mind replays images as I sit beside my sleeping co-conspirator, feelings and emotions flowing through my mind which sees me climbing elephants in the jungles of Nepal, stroking tigers in Thailand and cuddling Koalas in Australia.
It relives meeting wonderful people from all around the world, many of whom work with blind and partially sighted people and often under difficult circumstances. From Bruno of Swiss Guide Dogs, to George Abraham in India, from ‘Seeing Hands’ in Nepal to Vision in Australia. They all appear in my mind.
Across the miles places have become linked to the everyday people we have spent time with, from Slobodan in Montenegro to Hector in Peru with his ‘Meester Smith’ greetings. Glen in Australia reappears in my head along with the three hours he sat in the dust of the Nullabor as Bertha was repaired. I think of his upset at the end when he realised I was blind. I wanted to hug him and tell him it was alright. Voices echo through my mind in memory of so many of them. Strangers who became friends with our brief passing through their lives. Indians, Pakistanis, Greeks, and people from all over the world settle onto a Scottish wagon driver called Gordon whose advice we heard many times in our heads when we were lost; ‘follow the wagons’.
My legs relive harsh mountain climbs and my body feels events across the world as images continue to flow. The jolt of bad roads, the feel of the bright sun, the dryness of my mouth, the feel of the wind, the noise, the worry, the ecstasy, the fear. All collide in a welter of emotions as I replay and work through what it all means. If that is ever possible.
Our friend Bertha is battered and misbehaving although, basically, she is intact as we wing Eastwards for the seven hour flight. Over the miles only once did we fall off. For that we are truly grateful as we walked away without injury. We have stood amongst the clouds in the mountains of Peru at 15,000 feet while struggling to breathe. Shivering in the snow and gasping in the heat we endured each and every day with humour while travelling roads which have been mud, gravel, rock and tarmac, sometimes all at the same time. Clattering and rattling across landscapes for which Bertha was never built, objects were dodged be they cattle, Kangaroos, chasing dogs or trees which had fallen blocking our way. We have encountered routes blocked due to protests, turmoil, and political instabilities the likes of which we have never before experienced. It is a small wonder many people try to come to our own homeland when you understand how they struggle to live their daily lives while others wonder how they get the latest gadget or ‘life accessory’.
While life is undoubtedly hard for many people in the countries we have passed through we met nothing but kindness across our travels. Even the poorest countries and, in many ways, the poorer the people the greater had been the welcome. It seems to be a universal truth.
The kindness often started at borders where guards helped us through unfamiliar processes while Bernard stressed. The acts of kindness extended to riot police who opened their ranks in a small town in Malaysia to let us through as the protesting crowd fell silent and watched us pass; opening to let us make our way through the events we became caught up in. Little things making big memories. When times were hard or we were frightened we persevered, as people often do. Yes we were both frightened at times and Bernard will readily admit to it as “Only a fool is not afraid, it’s what keeps us alive.” “Let’s get this thing done” was his saying, his motto, his mantra when things we did not want to do, had to be done. Over our time on the road I recall many such sayings as things became physically, psychologically or emotionally more difficult. Other mantras such as “Control the fear or it will control you” is another long remembered voice urging me to tough it out as we crossed India while his own hands shook long after the bike had stopped. He would shout at himself sometimes before setting off again, trying to keep us in one piece, keeping us alive through each day.
Only twice did he have a crises in his own abilities; once in the darkness of Lahore in Pakistan and then again on the road to Gorrakphur as we choked on the white dust and chaos of India. Both these times are burned into his, and our, brains. Such is the way when your self-belief and self-image is teetering on the edge of a precipice; you hang on by your fingernails as you cannot afford to fall. Other people, me, depended on him. He knew that. Times like this, and others, left me like a frightened rabbit for weeks later and it shaped how we both dealt with our fears. Mantras ruled at times as we had little help but only each others support. It was enough. We learned this to be true as we moved on through both time and distance.
My thoughts drift to my late husband Peter, of what he would make of me now. In all probability he would not recognise the person I have become, both with this journey and the passing of time and life across those lonely years. I like to believe he is sitting somewhere saying ‘Good on you Cath, live life, make each day count’ and I have tried to do just that. Nowhere has this been more true than over the last year. If you are reading this then there is something you should remember. You should hold this final thought dear to you.
You never know when it will all end.
It can be so suddenly, unexpectedly, that there is no warning, with no further time to say the things you have, perhaps, never said to those around you. This second, right now, is your opportunity to put the book down and correct that omission. Take it now. You may not have another chance.
The hours pass by in all these thoughts of the 26,385 miles we have covered. Thoughts of life, love, and the people I have known and met. The plane hums and banks across the Atlantic, taking me towards my Guide Dog Biscuit and everything else that life has to offer me in the years ahead. The knowledge that, truly, each day does count is a precious gift which some people understand with startling clarity. They know the days are not infinite but must end eventually, much like our journey through this fantastic world on our friend Bertha.
My reverie is disturbed when I feel him stirring beside me as he slowly wakes, taking in where he is. My hand reaches and our fingers gently squeeze to say hello.
We are going home.