Onto Kalamazoo

Chicago is a little over 500 miles from Toronto, via Detroit. My original plan had been to break the journey with a stop-over in either Detroit or Ann Arbor – both cities in Lonely Planet’s Rockin’ the Midwest trip – Detroit is after all Rock City, at least according to Kiss.

Coming into Detroit, I must have taken a wrong turn. I got myself on to a minor one-way street with no signage as to where I was heading. Block after block the houses became more and more run down – many becoming derelict. I felt very conspicuous – everyone turning to look at me as I rode past or stopped at traffic lights. I’m sure 99.9% of those folks were upstanding, friendly people, but I was feeling less and less comfortable, especially when I had to stop at traffic lights. It was time to get the hell out of Dodge – or at least Detroit. I managed to loop around and approximately retrace my steps on a parallel street. As soon as I saw the entry ramp for the I-94, I took it.

Ann Arbor is a big university town about 50 miles west of Detroit – home to the University of Michigan. I pulled into town around 4pm. It was obvious something was happening here – State Street was closed off and the side streets were full of cars. It looked as if some enterprising individuals were selling parking spaces on their drives. I pulled up as close as I could get to the action. I ended up being in front of what was almost certainly a fraternity house – a group of young guys were sitting outside drinking beer and listening to pop-punk with a couple of Greek letters displayed above the door to the big old house. Further on down the street, a group of girls were sitting in bikinis on folding chairs in a paddling pool. A sign in front of the them declared “You Honk! We Drink!”

I made my way on to the closed off State Street. The street had been turned into a huge street fair – covered in stalls selling crafts and refreshments. The whole event looked pretty big and I doubted I’d get a room in town that night for a reasonable price. I think it would have been a fun night in town, but I was still feeling jet-lagged and a bed in a few hours was what I needed more than a wild night. Jeez, I must be getting old!

After soaking up the atmosphere a little longer, I made my way back to the Trooper wondering whether I would be able to make it all the way to Chicago that evening. Riding out of town I honked and the girls raised their glasses and drank!

Now I was in the States, one of my first objectives was to get myself online – if nothing else Google maps was going to be extremely useful. I thought I had this base covered before I left the UK. My good friend Saurabh had offered to exchange a Motorola Xoom tablet he no longer wanted for a Sonisphere ticket I had spare. It seemed an ideal way to keep me online whilst traveling as the small tablet size would save on precious luggage space.

Saurabh, like Max, has a heart of gold and is generous to a fault. In his own way, he is also a party animal – he can be found in Lulus late most nights. I feel real fortunate that my best friends are such generous, fun-loving people. I just wish Saurabh would pick a better venue.

Saurabh and I had been trying to arrange the exchange of the Xoom since we got back from Sonisphere, but everytime we’d managed to meet up beer was involved and thoughts of exchanging the tablet evaporated.

We finally managed to hand-over the day before my departure. I hadn’t had a chance to try the new toy before I set off for Glasgow airport. I tried putting a quick update on the blog from the airport hotel before I left the country, not knowing when I would next be able to get online. In writing those few paragraphs, I nearly throw the thing out the window. Cool it may be, but it’s still an overgrown bloody phone and trying to type on it’s imprecise touchscreen was driving me to distraction. Sorry Saurabh, the Xoom didn’t go out the window in Glasgow but it would have somewhere along the trip. It went back to Edinburgh with Doreen and I needed to find a notebook PC with a real keyboard to get online. Finding that was my next objective.

Riding along the I-94, I came across the town of Jackson and decided to drop in for a visit, hoping to find a shop selling computers. Downtown Jackson turned out to be a rather quiet affair. I may have been better trying to find an out-of-town mall – but downtown did have a pawnbroker which a sign outside proclaiming it bought and sold computers amongst other things. Worth a look I thought. I picked out the smallest specimen they had and managed to talk the price down from $300 to $270. Score.

All I needed now was a hotel with Wi-Fi. I left Jackson shortly before 6pm. It was still a long ride to Chicago. I doubted I’d make it all the way but I’d see how far I could get.

I made it as far as Kalamazoo – the name appealed and I’d ridden around 500 miles since getting off the plane, so it had been a fair day’s ride. After a day’s riding, I like few things more than a cold beer. I checked into the first hotel I could find and asked for directions to the nearest place serving food and beer. Old Burdicks is was – a sports bar next to an (ice) hockey stadium. They served a good selection of proper beer – I was happy. And my first meal in America? It had to be a burger! And damn it was good.


Crossing the border

The Blue Water Bridge from the South along the...

Blue Water Bridge - image via Wikipedia

I set off early Saturday morning from Toronto and headed straight for the border. I wanted to get that over as soon as I could. I still had niggling doubts about them letting a vagabond like me in. If I was going to be refused entry then I wanted to know about it sooner rather than later.

Now that Heavy TO was off the cards, I wanted to hit Chicago by Sunday. Max had emailed me to tell me that the Wicker Park Street Festival was on and that his friend Jason would show me around.

Since I wanted to move quickly, I decided to take the Interstate and its Canadian equivalents. I’d had problems navigating around Toronto the day before, but this time the signage took me straight to the 401 and I was heading for London, Ontario.

Riding on a motorway is rarely interesting on a bike, and my mind kept coming back to the possibility of being refused entry to the US. When I next stopped to fill the Trooper’s tank, I took another look at the map. The obvious route was straight down the 401 and across into Detroit, but there was another smaller crossing at Sarnia and across into Port Huron. I figured this smaller crossing might be less busy and I’d get an easier entry to the US, so at London, I turned off on to the 402 and headed for Sarnia.

It’s a $3 toll bridge crossing from Sarnia to Port Huron. On the far side of the bridge the traffic was tailed back for the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) check. The noon sun was relentless. Stop-start for 30 minutes in a leather jacket and helmet was a sweaty business.

When I got to the border check, the CBP officer explained that the ESTA application I’d paid $14 was useless for a land crossing – that was for flights only. Instead I needed to fill out a green I-94W. He said it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes and directed me to secondary screening. The queue for secondary was plenty more than a few minutes, but the act of getting the form stamped seemed a mere formality. The CBP officer was very pleasant. He asked a few questions about my trip and what my occupation was, then stamped my form and my passport, and wished me a safe ride. It seems America did want me to visit after all, and my fears about being sent home had been completely unfounded. I’m still surprised that I found the American border guards much more welcoming than their Canadian counter-parts. I had expected the opposite. Perhaps this trip would be full of pleasant surprises.

When I got outside to saddle up, 3 CBP officers were stood around the Trooper. My bright yellow British number plates were causing some interest. They asked where I’d come from, how I’d got the bike across and about the rest of the trip. One of the officers pointed out his immaculate Soft-tail across the parking lot. When I mentioned that I was heading for Sturgis, he said he’d love to go one day. It seems that the Trooper, being a Harley, was going to break a lot of ice in the US.

As the Trooper and I rode on to the I-94 heading for Detroit, I had a massive grin on my face. I’d been let in. Let the adventure begin. America prepare to be invaded.

Toronto – I’ll be back

When I’d been to Sonisphere a couple of weeks before the trip, I’d picked up an Anthrax t-shirt. The first time I went to put it on, I noticed from the tour dates on the back of the t-shirt that they were playing Toronto the night after I arrived. Two nights in Toronto wouldn’t be so bad, so I started checking out getting hold of some tickets on the internet. It turned out it wasn’t just Anthrax playing. Toronto was having a metalfest – Heavy TO – with many of the other bands from Sonisphere playing, but best of all Rob Zombie was playing. I’d had tickets to Rob Zombie’s Edinburgh show at the end of June – it had been one of the shows I’d delayed the trip for. But that gig had been cancelled. This seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

Rob Zombie

Rob Zombie

I spent my first few hours in Toronto on the hunt for a ticket, but to no avail. It seemed that it was impossible to get a ticket for collection on the door. I could have taken the change of finding a tout outside, but the organisers seemed to being strict on controlling tickets, so I decided to hit the road the next day – I still had all the bands at Sturgis to look forward to. I didn’t feel I was short-changing Toronto – I’d be back for a couple of days at least at the end of the trip.

I’d been up since 5am UK time, and I hadn’t slept well the night before – too excited. Toronto was 5 hours behind, so by the time 7pm rolled around it was midnight at home. All I needed was a couple of Molson local brews and a beef rib, then bed! I’d booked into an airport hotel before leaving the UK. This was the only accommodation I had booked in advance, because I needed a first night address for the shipping forms.

The next day I woke early – 4am local time – my body not yet adjusted to the time difference. I made coffee and spent an hour on notes for the blog and re-packing my bags to try to reduce the volume. The quick re-pack I had done at the airport cargo area meant both the Trooper’s saddle-bags were full, and I had a dry-bag strapped to both the luggage rack and across the pillion seat. I’d have to reduce this considerably when Doreen arrived – she’d need that pillion seat and some luggage space of her own.

I threw out all the extraneous packaging I could, and packed things tight – but it still looked as if I’d have to lose half my t-shirts and underwear somewhere along the route. But I could cross that bridge when we broke camp after Sturgis. For now, it was only me and the Trooper, and it would do.

With the bags packed, we headed for America. 


Let the invasion begin

The advice from Glasgow airport was to check in 3 hours before departure – that meant a 6am check-in on Friday morning. Being so early, I decided to spend the Thursday night at an airport hotel, and Doreen decided to come to.

The Thursday had been Doreen’s first full day of training on a 125cc bike, and I’d been to see Iron Maiden the night before, so we were both tired and hungry when we arrived at the hotel at 9.25pm. There was a queue for check-in, so I tried to get a table in the restaurant, only to be told that I couldn’t as the kitchen was closing in 5 minutes. “Right” says Doreen “you’re not closed yet, so I’ll just sit down and order now.” I love her take-no-crap attitude.

We hit the airport check-in the next day just after 6am, having had not much sleep – too much excitement I guess. It was a good job we did arrive early, since the check-in staff were trying to convince people to fly the following day as the flight was over-booked. ‘Not a chance’ I thought ‘the Trooper and I go together’.

I was taking all the camping gear for both Doreen and I, together with all my luggage for 3 months. I’d followed John McKay‘s lead and had packed all the luggage into a big, cheap suitcase so that I could move all the luggage to the bike and dispose of the suitcase on the other side. The £40 excess baggage charge for being 4kg over the allowance stung when the Trooper was 25kg under.

Doreen and I said our farewells before securirty. It was only going to be 2½ weeks before she’d be joining me at Sturgis. Then I was off through security and on my way to find a good bottle of single malt to take with me. A good whiskey is a great way to break the ice when camping, as Sonishphere proved. I chose a Bowmore.

On the flight I ended up sitting next to a young man named Euan, who was nearly 7. I usually dread sitting anywhere near children on flights – especially long haul ones – after an experience flying to the Maldives years ago. I’d had to sit 2 seats over from a little monster that cried, screamed and kicked the seat in front for almost the entire 11 hour flight. But that was not the case with Euan. He was a pleasure to fly with. I chatted to him and his mum for much of the flight, we played Stone, Paper, Scissors, and I took away a signed drawing of Sponge Bob Squarepants to keep the Trooper and I company on our journey. Rock n’ roll.

On arriving in Canada, I decided to keep my jacket on as I queued for immigration control – some people can be very judgemental about the tattoos and I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. But I still wasn’t especially surprised to find out that I’d been sent for secondary screening. After an hour of standing around and queuing, I was allowed into Canada, only to find out that I then had to have a bag search.

It seems as if it was my very short length of stay in Canada that caused the extra questioning. The Canadian immigration officer just didn’t seem to get why I had flown to Canada in the first place when I wanted to ride straight across the border. Once I realised that this was what he was struggling with, I explained that Motorcycle Express only arranged shipping to the 4 Canadian destinations, and that Toronto was the closest to Chicago. That apparently satisfied him, because he let me in.

The cargo area at Toronto airport is about a mile from arrivals. With all my luggage, it would be next to impossible to walk, and I set about looking for a taxi. The heat hit me as soon as I left the air-conditioned arrival building. Large parts of Canada and the US had been having a heat wave. The temperature felt well over 30 degrees, and humid to boot. I was lugging nearly 30kg of luggage, a helmet and an armoured leather jacket. A taxi was definitely the right decision.

Despite the heat, my initial welcome to Canada wasn’t that warm – secondary screening and a bag search – and then ripped off by a taxi driver. $21 to be taken the mile to the cargo area was near extortion. I thought about arguing the fare, but decided I just wanted to get the Trooper and to hit the road.

After my less than warm reception, I was delighted at how easy it was to retrieve the Trooper. I waited in a short queue at the Servisair desk. The documentation that Tracey had sent me had traveled along with the Trooper, and I was given this and told to take it to the customs office in another building and get it stamped for release. I was grateful they let me leave my luggage in the Servisair office – I had no desire to drag it across the car park in the heat.

At the Canadian customs office, all I had to do was to hand in the shipping documents, show my passport and answer a couple of questions. The officer didn’t seem very interested in my temporary registration document or bill of sale. All he really wanted to know was that I was planning to take the bike out of the country, and whether I had been off-roading and had mud on my tyres. I’m glad the Trooper had had a clean after Sonisphere. But that was it. The form was stamped and I was back at Servisair to be reunited with the Trooper after paying the $80 release fee.

I transferred all the luggage from the suitcase to the saddle-bags and dry-bags. The Trooper was fully loaded, I’d have to look at cutting back on things when Doreen arrived, but for now it would do. One of the guys at Servisair kindly agreed to dispose of the suitcase for me and then called his buddy over to listen to the Trooper roar as he charged down the ramp and out on to the open road.

Countdown to invasion

One week to go and everything seemed to be in hand.

The days of the final weekend were spent gathering the last bits of kit – dry-bags, lightweight camping gear and a new intercom for the bike. The evenings were spent in the good company of the Edinburgh crew for impromptu food, drink and music.

I should mention the guys in the wrenching department at Edinburgh Harley-Davidson have been great. I must have been into see them at least half a dozen times since I’d bought the Trooper – for the saddle-bags to be fitted, little bits of extra kit and advice, and a service. They even arranged a last minute fitting of the intercom system on the Monday morning before the Trooper was dropped off at the airport. So thanks Simon and Rob.

Dropping the Trooper off at the airport proved to be a more interactive experience than I’d anticipated. I’d expected to just turn up, disconnect the battery and go. I was a little surprised to find out that I had to ride the Trooper up makeshift wooden ramps into the x-ray machine. I wish I had caught the guy’s name at Servisair who handled checking the Trooper in. He was a fellow biker and was extremely helpful in getting everything sorted. I felt as if I was leaving the Trooper in safe hands.

One thing that was a little disappointing was that it seems that I could have sent the Trooper over with full saddle-bags. The pallet the Trooper traveled on was booked by weight – 330kg. The Trooper was 25kg under as I had left a buffer for luggage. From what the Servisair guy told me, attitudes toward flying a laden bike may vary from airport to airport, and I guess that Gail in her instructions was being cautious. But at Glasgow it seems as if it wouldn’t be a problem and it would have saved me a £40 excess baggage charge when I checked in my bags 4 days later.

All that was left now was to pack my bags and to head off to Glasgow for a fitting send-off – Iron Maiden! I went across with Alex Rattray from Tribe Tattoo, and we met up with Erik Tricity and some of his Orcadian buddies who’d flown down for the gig. The Irons were on top form and I was right at the front when the distinctive opening of the Trooper blasted out. The crowd went wild. My send-off was complete!

Trooper, are thy mine?

One last snag occurred before the Trooper and I could start the invasion.

When we got back from the Sonisphere festival, Gail sent over the shipping documents with a detailed set of instructions about dropping the bike off at the airports, how to prepare the bike for shipping and what documents I would need at the airport.

My vision of being able to ride the Trooper to Glasgow airport, get on the plane and ride away on the other side was quickly dispelled. I had to drop the Trooper off at cargo 2 days before departure for security screening. My hope to be able to send the Trooper across with saddle-bags and luggage rack loaded was also quashed. The bike apparently had to travel unladen and with empty saddle-bags.

Gail also included with the shipping documents a contact for a shipping agent, PBS International, who could handle even more paperwork and shipping formalities in the UK.

On the same day as the shipping documents arrived, I had an urgent email from Gail telling me that the Department for Transport had just issued a new directive on security screening, which included a 24 hour air sampling. This meant that the Trooper would have to be dropped off 4 days before departure. This gave only 2 working days to get the extra shipping paperwork and formalities sorted on this side of the pond, and she urged me to contact PBS immediately.

I called PBS as soon as I read Gail’s email and spoke to Tracey, the 4th of the wonderful ladies. Tracey managed to get all the necessary documentation turned around that afternoon and it arrived by courier the next day. I needed to take all this documentation with me when I dropped the Trooper off at the airport.

When I was talking to Tracey, the final potential snag raised its head. In order to get the Trooper through customs at the Canadian and US borders, I would need to the registration (or title) document to prove I was the legal owner. I had only had the Trooper 3 weeks at this point and I hadn’t had the new registration document back from DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency). DVLA say they will send out the new document within 2 to 4 weeks, but I couldn’t be sure when Edinburgh Harley-Davidson had sent off the change of ownership details. I had the bill of sale from Edinburgh Harley-Davidson, but both Tracey and Gail thought that there was a risk of hitting problems with customs. The last thing I needed was to fly all the way over, and then not be able to get the Trooper out of customs.

As it turns out, the solution to the problem was much simpler than I’d imagined. I phoned DVLA and spoke to someone really helpful who told me that DVLA can issue a temporary registration certificate for vehicles that will be temporarily exported within 4 weeks of purchase. It does involve a trip to the local DVLA office, but that wasn’t a problem for me as there is an office in Edinburgh. The Trooper and I zipped over there and I paid my £3 for the certificate.

By the Friday afternoon, I seemed to have all the paperwork I needed and was all set to drop the Trooper off the following Monday at Glasgow airport.

If anyone is considering undertaking a similar trip, I ought to mention that I have encountered extra charges at nearly every stage. In addition to the $3,990 paid to Motorcycle Express for the shipping, I paid about another £270 to PBS, mainly for the security screening but also a fee for preparing the documentation. And I had to pay about another $80 (CAD) to retrieve the Trooper from customs in Canada.

The wonderful ladies

When I called Motorcycle Express, the lady who dealt with shipping bikes was taking the Friday off work and the following Monday was 4th July – a national holiday in the US. I left my name and number, and was promised a call back the following Tuesday.

Time was getting short and I still had no confirmed flights to the States. I was beginning to get nervous and was wishing I had found Motorcycle Express sooner.

Sure enough, Gail from Motorcycle Express called early Tuesday afternoon UK time. I explained to her what I wanted and I was completely thrown when she told me that they arranging shipping to any destinations in the USA. It took me a minute to recover, and Gail went on to explain that some of the destinations are seasonal (and indeed it does state this on their website) and that they were currently flying to only four destinations in Canada, one of which was Toronto. The big poster map of the USA came in handy at this point, a quick glance showed that Toronto was close to the US border and only about 500 miles from Chicago – I could do that in a days ride. Toronto it was then. I agreed to email Gail details of what I wanted to do.

All my subsequent communication with Gail has been by e-mail and I’m impressed by how painless and efficient it has all been. Gail promptly emailed back a cost for the shipping – $3,990 – and what I needed to do to go ahead.

The first thing I needed to do was to book myself a ticket to Toronto with the airline, Air Transat, that would carry the Trooper. Gail put me in touch with Julie at Tourbec, a Canadian travel agency. I emailed Julie and she quickly came back with a flight on the day I wanted and a price of $1,032 (CAD). Next thing was for Gail to check if there was space for the bike on that flight. There was. The Trooper’s mission to invade America was on! Julie booked my tickets for me. Gail booked the Trooper’s shipping.

Motorcycle Express also offer temporary insurance for the US and Canada, plus various other packages such as medical insurance. I may have been able to get some of these cheaper by hunting the internet, but the convenience of getting it all from a one-stop shop was too tempting.

Gerri, Gail’s colleague at Motorcycle Express, turned around the temporary insurance within a day at a cost of $960 for the 3 months. I also took out medical insurance and roadside assistance, just in case.

I’ve been really impressed by how efficiently and quickly this has all been arranged, and Gail, Julie and Gerri guided me through every step of the process. I would like to thank these 3 wonderful ladies – whom I will probably never meet – but without whom my adventure would not have happened. There is a 4th wonderful lady to add to this list – Tracey at PBS International – but we’ll come back to her soon.

So with everything apparently in hand, it was time to give the Trooper through his paces and off to Sonisphere we set.