Planned Route – Week 13

Day 86 – Fri 27 Sep – Petersburg, VA to Lewes, DE (via Virginia Beach and Ocean City)
Day 87 – Sat 28 Sep – Lewes, DE to Sharpsburg, MD (via Gettysburg)
Day 88 – Sun 29 Sep – Sharpsburg, MD to Parkersburg, WV (via Harpers Ferry)
Day 89 – Mon 30 Sep – Parkersburg, WV to Louisville, KY
Day 90 – Tue 01 Oct – Louisville, KY to Bloomington, IL
Day 91 – Wed 02 Oct – Bloomington, IL to Chicago, IL
Day 92 – Thu 03 Oct – Chicago, IL to Chelsea, MI
Day 93 – Fri 04 Oct – Chelsea, IL to Norwich, ON
Day 94 – Sat 05 Oct – Norwich, ON to Toronto, ON

 

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The first day on the road

After a few cold beers in the Pearson Pub beside the hotel, I crashed around 9.30pm, which was 2.30am according to my British body-clock and I hadn’t slept well the night before. As expected, I was awake early, 5am. That’s the trouble with long-haul travelling, it takes a while for the body to adjust.

Mother nature was trying her best to deter me from an early start. And it worked. After the heat of yesterday in Toronto, I had woken to a wet, miserable day. I decided to see if I could wait out the rain, and tried updating the blog a little and re-packing all my luggage into a better riding configuration.

The Trooper loaded and ready for action.                      From Michigan, July 2013

As well as crossing the border, I also had a shopping mission for my first day. I needed to get a US cell phone for my time here, to avoid the massive call roaming charges on my UK mobile phone. What I was actually shopping for, was a replacement for UK phone, one that I would be able to swap the SIM card on and use when I was back in Blighty. Since getting my first MacBook last year, I’m becoming a late convent to Apple fandom and I’d decided to replace my old, dysfunctional Nokia with a nice shiny iPhone 5. The cost should be cheaper in the US than back at home. I also desperately needed to replace my boots.

There's a hole in my boot

There’s a hole in my boot

These are the boots that had taken me around the US the last time, but were now badly worn and the holes in the bottom let in water. I hadn’t really worn them since returning from the last trip, but I had worn them out this time with the idea that I would dump them as soon as I got a replacement. I could have bought replacements from Edinburgh Harley-Davidson before leaving, but again I figured they ought to be cheaper this side of the pond.

By 10am, the weather was showing no sign of letting up and I knew I would have to bite the bullet and ride in the rain. I packed up the Trooper and pulled on my waterproof over-pants. This was the first time I had packed the Trooper with the full set of luggage and it wasn’t a quick job. I’m sure that I’ll get the loading time down with practice, and I’ll get plenty of that as I’ll have to do it nearly every day for the next 3 months.

The ride to Sarnia on the Canadian side of the border was miserable. It rained on and off for my entire journey in Canada, with some heavy downpours in places. The Trooper wasn’t enjoying it either. During some of the heaviest downpours, he was spluttering and threatening to cut the engine out, and the indicators decided to stop working for a while. The Trooper has never been happy in the rain. He’s been into Edinburgh Harley-Davidson several times with water-related complaints, but simulating true wet riding conditions in the workshop isn’t possible and they’ve never really got to the bottom of the problem. There had been a recurring problem with the side-stand sensor coming on in the wet, even when the stand was up, and that stopped the engine being able to start, but I had had that sensor replaced just before coming over and it now seemed to be holding up to the wet conditions. Still the Trooper was clearly not happy. Fortunately all his woes seem to be intermittent and stopped before I reached the border, but I’m going to mention them next time he is in for a service, and see if anything can be done easily. That service is going to be pretty soon. He has come over to America with nearly 29,000 miles on the clock and is going to need a service around the 30,000 mark.

Crossing the US border at Port Huron was almost a pleasure. I always seem to get very anxious about the border crossing because I know that under the Visa Waiver Program, an individual CBP officer can, at his absolute discretion, refuse entry and there is no right of appeal. My friend Lissie had posted on Facebook just the day before that she had been refused entry to US. Lissie is a bright, young Brit living and working in Toronto (and I’ll be meeting up with her when I get back to Toronto in October), what possible reason could there have been for refusing her entry?

But as I said in my post I ♥ Port Huron CBP, they did let me in. The adventure was on. The Trooper and I had been allowed to invade America for the second time.

As soon as I crossed the border, the sun came out. Off came the waterproof over-pants. My first mission now that I was in, was to get replacement boots. The wet weather in Canada meant that both my feet were sloshing wet inside the boots and the loose bottom of my riding jeans had soaked up water way past my knee (I must remember to tuck them in my boots when I put the over-pants on). My jeans would dry out easily in the hot sun and wind as I rode, but my feet wouldn’t. I headed for Motor City Harley-Davidson in Farmington Hills, pretty much a suburb of Detroit.

From Michigan, July 2013

Motor City H-D is a big dealership. Plenty of bikes and accessories. The tattooed girls that showed me their boot range where very helpful and I do love a tattooed woman (yes, Doreen does have one). They had lots of boots, but unfortunately not the waterproof Hustin boots I wanted. That mornings ride in Canada had demonstrated once again the importance of waterproof boots, and living in Scotland means that waterproof kit is doubly important. Despite the squelching coming from the boots I was wearing, I had to leave it and try a different H-D dealer somewhere else down the route. I rode out of Farmington Hills past rows of wooden houses still festooned with Stars and Stripes, and bunting, from the July 4th celebrations the previous day.

My next destination was the Apple store in Ann Arbor – very efficient. iPhone 5, tick, about £140 saved compared to UK price. Then the AT&T store to get a pre-paid SIM – not nearly as efficient. As a walk-in without an appointment, I had to wait nearly an hour to be seen, but I got the SIM card, and I could now phone Brian and let him know what time I would be arriving.

It was now around 7pm and I was feeling guilty for not letting him know before, but  without the phone to contact him and the without the chores on my list ticked off, I really didn’t know what time I would reach him. Thankfully he took it in very good grace and gave me directions to his house.

  The Trooper parked up for the night                                          From Michigan, July 2013

Brian lives down a dirt road, which I never like doing on the bike. I just don’t trust the gravel. I’d largely managed to avoid unpaved roads on my last time, with no more than a handful of exceptions, but this time I didn’t have a choice. I rode slowly along and found Brian waiting at the bottom of the drive in his pick-up truck. He’d come out especially so that I didn’t miss the turn off. That is just one small example of what wonderful and considerate hosts Brian, and his partner, Roo, are.

        Brian and Roo                                                     From Michigan, July 2013

Brian lives with Roo on her old family home on 40 acres just outside Chelsea, MI. They’d made curry, but had eaten their’s already, since they hadn’t known when I would arrive. We chatted as I ate mine, and then went and sat out on the porch for the rest of the evening.

Peace and tranquility are the first two words that spring to mind. In the brief lulls in our conversation, all you could hear were the crickets, and the fire-flies were at the peak of their mating season, their brief flashes of light gave a never-ending display across the fields the porch over-looked. Good conversation flowed easily, and before I finished one beer, Brian had another out of the fridge and ready for me. Roo and Brian are incredibly good company and perfect hosts, and both have lead interesting lives with plenty of tales to tell. Whilst both Brian and Roo had grown up in Michigan, both had travelled widely. Roo got her nick-name from her travels to Australia and Brian had been a fisherman, among other things, in California and Alaska.

   View from the Roo’s porch                                           From Michigan, July 2013

I felt so comfortable in their company, that I even broke one of my cardinal rules of travelling in America which is not to talk about politics or religion. Both subjects got an outing in our wide-ranging conversations, and we still parted the best of friends in the morning.

Thank you so much, Brian and Roo, for all your wonderful hospitality, and as I said, you’ll always have a warm welcome, cold beer and a place to stay in Edinburgh.

Roo’s gnome garden                                               From Michigan, July 2013
Zombie gnomes                                                     From Michigan, July 2013

 

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.

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.