November was a month of little cycling, well lots of cycling but most of it without my kit exploring a lot of Los Angeles and a little of San Diego.
A great friend and fearsome captain of the mighty bow young prince Will’s sister Mary was living in Malibu and agreed to put me up in a healthy slice of luxury. She was staying with a friend Stacey and two of the biggest dogs I’d seen. I attempted to show them I was harmless as I approached the gate, reaching to put my arms through the before Mary insisted I keep my arms attached to my body and try a slower introduction. The house sat above the Pacific coast highway I had been riding since Oregon. Just over from the beach, next door to Clark Gabels offspring, who showed me their new drone and bullet proof Baja rally car they used for their own explorations of Mexico. Mary showed me Malibu taking me to a superb music studio where she used to work, in the hills complete with views spanning the whole of the bay of Los Angeles. A garden full of exotic fruits and medicinal herbs stretched down the canyon. I spent a few days hanging out with Stacey and Mary relaxing, with a daily intake of incredible smoothies and awesome home cooked meals. We walked the dogs with the Malibu dogs club, watched a bit of softball, hot tubs and steam showers as well as great conversation.
I headed down in to the city of angels as I was eager to see a mate Matt who was in town and also try to arrange some volunteering. I got lucky when a driver cut me up and I almost skidded under his absurdly large truck. I gave him the finger and he lobbed his 400 buck digital camera at me in retaliation. After wanting a new camera for a while I was most grateful for this gesture of distain. Ilan, a warm showers host (couchsurfing for cyclists) invited me to stay in the flat he had moved to in a lively neighbourhood a few miles west of downtown. A bit of a change from the stillness of Malibu but Ilan’s neighbourhood had a vibrancy I really liked. He took me mountain biking, right after my health insurance had expired in the Santa Monica mountains on this – http://youtu.be/o5K-HMz01z0nd . Needless to say I “ate shit”, excuse the cycling expression, a few times. He also treated me to some abalone, a shell fish that you’re not actually allowed to buy. He had courteously dived for this from his secret spot and had the good manners to apologise to me that he couldn’t find any lobster. We hung for a few days and he gave me an awesome whistle-stop tour of Downtown. Ilan had a great enthusiasm for biking and had just toured Mongolia solo. He hit me up on all the good spots and special dishes of his Mexico trip and planted a seed of growing excitement.
Darren, a lovely chap from the community bike kitchen, effectively social services for bikers, took me in after Ilan’s and we shared his studio floor for a night. Darren didn’t have a bed so we both camped on the floor. I felt kind of at home in this set up and he told me all about the interesting geography and short history of the city. I then moved to Culver City where Angie had me over for a couple of days that turned into a week. She took me up to the snowboarding resort and we formed a good friendship. Since LA had such a huge homeless population I spent a week volunteering with various homeless charity’s on Skid-row. A stones throw from downtown, 10 blocks or so of tents and camps, home to 4000 people cast aside by an unforgiving American mentality to misfortune. It was pretty shocking to see such a huge social problem in California, the richest state of the richest country in the world. I was put to work cooking meals, washing feet and was even given the opportunity to run a group session. It was interesting to see the inside of the systems of support on offer which were mostly faith based. They did a great job of containment but to be part of any long-term rehabilitation program required a commitment to a very strict faith regime which I found demoralisingly exclusive.
Robert and Tara, friends of a friend incredibly generously handed me the keys to their apartment for a few days as they took off and I explored Korea town, a slightly hipper neighbourhood, complete with 5 a five story driving range and incredible food, there I bumped into Nima took me on footballing jaunts with his Argentinian friends after which I spent the entire night in a Korean spa trying to mend my failing limbs. I completed my tour of LA with stops in Pasadena a wealthy suburb with Joe, who was housing sitting for a friend and then Carl, in the more industrial long beach. After a couple of weeks in LA the city had charmed me more than I expected. “Purple nights and yellow days, neon signs and silver legs”. The flashier side of LA impressed me little, in fact I couldn’t understand why those with money would choos to live there. I could see why it’s a hard place to warm to, horribly congested, completely dominated by the car with virtually no parks or public space but the diversity gave it an edge and life that I found engaging. I found Mexican Cowboys, dressed up on Sunday’s riding their horses down the canals that cut up the city, the best street food I had had in the states and a more diverse subculture than elsewhere on the west coast.
The road south to San Diego was only 150 miles which I took over three leisurely days, the coast line of orange country comprised of more perfect beaches, flanked by uninspiring modern coastal towns. The ride was easy, biking felt like no effort at all, very beautiful hugging the last of Americas Pacific an ocean I felt well aquatinted with by now. The weather a perfect 20 degrees. On my arrival to San Diego, Merle, an amateur gold prospector gave me the keys to a casita in the bottom of his garden he had built especially for bikers. I worked my bike up for Mexico where there would be less opportunities for this. I took another four days off as Emily, who has been a great support and constantly interested in my trip came down from Seattle to see me and an old friends baby. She hired a car and an apartment and we spent time chilling on the beaches reading some David Foster-Wallace, attempting unsucessfully to eat cacti fruits and took a side trip up to LA to see my old time cycling comrade, the eternally youthful Doug.
After nearly six months in North America I felt very much ready for a culture change. The vastness of the landscape was incredible to ride through, I had met so many welcoming and incredibly generous people, now good friends and had a lot more fun than I expected to have on what is essentially a pretty gruelling bike ride. Still the Latin American influence in Southern California gave me glimpses of what I was excited about and was probably the biggest draw of this bike ride for me. I spent quite a few of my reflective moments trying to understand America as a whole but the more I tried the less it made sense to me. I’d definitely only had a certain slice of the American experience, sticking to the “liberal” west coast, the new world in the truest sense. My experience was coloured by a huge range of experiences and extremes. Incredible generosity was coupled with an idea that nothing should be free. A striking sense of entitlement coupled with a notion that if you want it you earn it. Incredible personal freedom but little philosophical ambition. A definate push towards sustainable living in a society who’s infrastructure was completely built around oil, the availability of cheap fuel being a commodity no one would argue against.
I enjoyed the sense of encouragement that came my way in following my dream, so many people supported me through this but I think my situation made me the exception. The new / novel or any process involving change appeared to be something valued above all else In the America I had experienced and as an enticing and attractive as this was I also found it exhausting. In speaking with a friend he described America as a nation of communities divided by concern. I had been shown a great time, met so many brilliant people and experienced a level of opulence I had not encountered before but I felt the lack of collective drive made it sometimes a lonely place to be. The homeless situation I found troubling as it didn’t make sense in the richest nation in the world, especially on the more left leaning west coast. The common rhetoric was that some people chose to live like that but the availability of accommodation for people who had found themselves in difficult situations was almost non existent. The lack of a public healthcare system struck me as a huge driving force behind rampant capitalism and I could see first hand through the anxieties of new friends that the capital needed to secure a healthy future drove a need to keep earning and earning. At the risk of sounding too heady, for all the freedoms that come with full blown, unadulterated capitalism, this undertone to both action and interaction of what am I getting / what are you getting was one I was tiring of. I found that under the surface the west coast was less relaxed than it seemed and the anxieties of progression and mistrust bubbled under a shiny surface that to me felt inauthentic. For me this is the joy of travelling in the truest sense, it gives you an opportunity to not only witness but immerse yourself in different ways of living and develop your own ideas and ideals of how you choose to see the world and where best to position yourself in it.
Merle came to see me in the morning I planned to ride to the border and told me of a storm that was blowing in, hail and the like. He advised that me and Ian, who was also staying in the casita to hold it out another day. As much as I didn’t want a storm to add to the drama of entering Mexico my feet were itching more than ever and I hit the road. The storm effectively blew me to the border, barley having to move the pedals. I stopped at one last bike shop to find Tom a Cornish fella, who gave me a coffee and a pump I’d been looking for all over San Diego for free and wished me well. ” Your gonna like Mexico, it’s like England” he told me. I didn’t have the foggiest what he meant. Cycling parallel to the river, ordained with huge spotlights, that separates Mexico from the US I was filled with a great mix of excitement and anxiety. The sinister weather added to the drama as I rolled my bike to the border centre. The border between the excessively wealthy California and northern Mexico is often talked of as one of the starkest contrasts on the planet. Trying to squeeze my bike through the steel border gates, my new addition of a guitar and kit got wedged in the barriers and a que formed behind me as a family of Mexican kids pushed me through. The infrastructure and ease of west coast biking was strikingly no more, my paperwork was done (I hope) and I rolled out onto the pit holed streets of Tijuana fuelled by a renewed sense of adventure.