World by Bike: Lake Huron to Chicago - New Challenges
October 3rd - October 9th
Successfully through US immigration, off the Blue Water Bridge and back on street level, I paused, realising the expanse in front of me. There were over 2100 miles already behind me, but 2500 to get down to Los Angeles - the next major milestone on the journey having ticked off Madrid, Lisbon, and London (ON). I don't care who you are, 2500 miles is a long way. Meanwhile, the gusty wind, a strong southerly push-back as I headed south, was a complete switch from the north westerly wind I'd had whilst heading west in Canada. The changing wind, twinned with the long straight roads and lack of a major milestone for the next 6 weeks, weren't doing much for my morale.
Looking on the positive side though, the roads did make for easy navigation, and I'd only arranged to do a shorter 60 mile ride on my first day back in the States. I followed 30 mile road south, then 26 mile road west then arrived a friend's place on the outskirts of Detroit, having heeded advice to avoid Detroit lest I get shot. Seemed like reasonable advice to me. I had a great evening hanging out with Austin and his roommate as they showed me a little of the Rochester Hills, and showed me the first Harry Potter movie where they dub out 'Philosopher's' Stone for 'Sorcerer's'. It’s very unpleasant to watch J.K. Rowling's work be butchered like that. Austin, who'd I'd met on a London-to-Paris-in-24-hours sportive ride back in 2015, was incredibly generous, and it was great to see a little of his life in Michigan, having mainly stayed in contact just through observing his monstrous triathlon workouts on Strava and Instagram. I appreciate the hospitality, mate. Hopefully, once I'm done with this trip, we'll see each other again in a few years at the Hawaii Ironman World Championships - he's given me some good Ironman triathlon motivation for when I'm back, although I'm not sure I should be planning post-trip activities already.
The next day was a similarly short day to Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan and the Big House stadium. It's crazy how big university level sports are here. The stadium is the largest in the Western Hemisphere at 114,000 seats. It's a sell-out crowd almost every week, and cheapest tickets are around $100. From 40 miles out of Ann Arbor people are wearing the college apparel and showing their support for the team. Ann Arbor itself was alive with music from the college band and dance troupes getting ready for the big game at the weekend. We have nothing like that at university in the UK. Our largest event is probably varsity sports, and the biggest game is probably the rugby where a majority of the crowd are just watching whilst they kill time waiting for the field to become available so they can play their football or lacrosse match. When discussing the stark contrast in pride, passion and community spirit about non-professional sports teams, one Michiganite (?) asked me why students even bother playing sport if no-one goes to watch. Even high schools regularly get a thousand people at their basketball games, apparently, using school cheer squads, and school bands to add to the production value of the games. It's wonderfully refreshing to see people that proud of something and collectively invested in something, irrespective of whether you think watching 16 year-olds run around a gym is a waste of time, or you think it's too much pressure on young people. I think it's brilliant. That being said I'd definitely struggle to stay as energised about it as people do here, or get through a game without ripping on the team by making sarcastic comments. That's cultural differences for you though, I guess. Plus, dry humour is much easier that being super-hyped 24/7 so I'm not sure I'd find it easy to be American.
The best part of Ann Arbor though was getting to spend a little time with a young woman I'd met on a couch-surfing website (Warmshowers.org). She'd recently completed an Alaska to Florida, 8 month bike trip with her sister-in-law. It's not my story to tell, but their motivation for the trip and some of the stories were truly inspiring - I probably have said that too frequently on this trip, but it was a privilege to get a little glimpse of the adventure. She showed me around her workplace at Google - it's just like the movie The Internship with Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson, great movie - gave me food, and gave me route advice, including a recommendation to head to Austin, Texas should I get the chance (funny how that worked out - see next blog entry). She really seemed like someone living the adventure, rather than just working for work's sake, forever longing to be elsewhere. I could be way off, but it was cool to meet someone around my age who at least appeared to be living that way, even if our encounter was brief.
From Ann Arbor I decided to head west towards Chicago to avoid storms brewing in Indianapolis to the south. I cut through empty farmland to Kalamazoo - yes, it's an actual place - through Indiana and an unnerving night in a forest cabin, all the way to Lake Michigan, avoiding the industrial slum towns in the wake of steel plant closures, then round up to Chicago.
These few days around Lake Michigan were an interesting episode in the series that is this ride across the States. You may already be aware that for most of my accommodation I'm trying to use couch-surfing networks or bike-touring networks to find accommodation and so far I'd been pretty successful with it. Part of this adventure is meeting new people, gaining perspective, and on a deeper level for me, testing my faith in Providence, with a capital P. The few days leading to Chicago really tested that faith, as I'd had the worst response rate to messages asking for accommodation, and I didn’t like the idea of camping as the weather had been less than ideal - very cold and wet to be honest. For example, in my first night in Indiana, I hadn't had a response from around 10 different people I'd contacted, and those that had responded said they were out of town. The only positive response I'd had was from a couple who had said that despite them being away, I could use their cabin located in some woods about 100 yards behind their house. It was a generous offer, but I can't say I was perfectly comfortable sleeping in a cabin with spiders I couldn't identify as poisonous or not, and the sound of howling coyotes in the dark woods, with no lights and just a Swiss-army knife to defend myself. I eventually got a little sleep, thinking back to Bear Grylls Born Survivor episodes to try and remember anything about dealing with wild animals, but could only gleam from memory unhelpful information, and I didn't think drinking my own piss would deter hungry predators.
Surviving the night - probably not a big deal for a seasoned adventurer, but for me it felt like a test beyond the foxes you contend with back home in Surrey - I headed to Chicago. Again, I'd had little-to-no response on the accommodation front, with camping not an option in the city, and all hotels booked up as it was Chicago Marathon weekend. However, it was Sunday and I felt like I should try and get to a church. Not because I had to, but I wanted to and I interesting seeing the different issues affecting the global church, and how each church serves its community.
I'd been told that south Chicago was an area to avoid but due to some poorer weather earlier in the day I was coming into the potentially sketchy south, south-west Chicago area at dusk, with my only accommodation lead being a space on the floor of a guy who lived about 5 miles uptown and who wasn't available to 1am. This would have meant hanging around downtown Chi-town for several hours at night - could have been interesting. However, still hoping and praying for an alternative place to rest for the evening, I pulled up at Willow Church, Chicago the only evening church I'd been able to find in the area - potentially due to how dangerous parts of Chicago can be after nightfall. I think I'm correct in saying the Chicago has the highest death toll due to gun violence in the US, with a recent, nearby shooting being referenced during the church service. The Welcome Team at church let me wheel my bike inside and showed me to the washrooms so I could get changed out of my Lycra. Feeling nervous about a lack of accommodation options I continued to pray throughout the service that something would turn up.
During the church meeting they announced that they were kicking off their student/university-age ministry that evening with food at someone's house nearby, and that anyone of university age was welcome to attend. This was the first in a series of incredibly fortunate / blessed / lucky events that night, depending on your worldview. I was invited back to a nearby apartment for pizza, for a discussion about struggles at university and to share any cool stories where our faith had helped us through challenges at university. We also reflected on the preach at church where the message was to help the community, providing food to the hungry, and a bed for the homeless - not exactly my situation, but I could certainly relate - another fortunate coincidence.
In amongst our discussion I got talking to the senior pastor of the church and explained what I was up to, and my situation that evening when they asked where I was staying. I didn't want to ask if I could crash on their floor, but they were worried about me lingering around town until the early hours of the morning, so asked me to drop them a message when I arrived safely at wherever I was staying. This is where Ben, a fellow Brit as luck/deity/statistical improbabilities would have it, asked if I needed to somewhere to stay as he happened to have a spare bedroom. An incredibly generous offer and a quick call to his very accepting wife later, I was on the subway across town to their apartment - a subway ride which he generously paid for. It was great to spend time with Ben and his wife, hearing about how a British couple was adjusting to life Stateside, and spend time with people who understand my sarcastic sense of humour, or just people who spell humour with a 'u' to be honest. It was from Ben that I learned that it was just for this weekend that church was holding an evening service, and how coincidental it was that I turned up on marathon weekend as they'd moved church from the morning to work around the marathon. Ben and his wife let me wash clothes, provided me with more food, a shower, a lovely bed and to top it all, proper British tea. It was outstanding. I feel indebted to these two servant-hearted people. They really helped me out in a tight spot and saved me from the possibility of standing out in the rain trying to avoid gunfire until the early hours. Thank you, both.
I'm struggling to find a neat lesson or take way from all of this, but I think as a whole I've strengthened my trust in Providence, or (for more secular phrasing) that everything happens for a reason. Maybe to keep trusting that things will work out, and roll with what comes your way. I don't think it’s a call to be passive, but to be proactive in your own capacity and reactive to things beyond your control, being flexible enough in your methods to get achieve the desired, or the overarching goal, even if it’s in a way you hadn’t expected, not being discouraged by a change in your expected plan. Moreover I think there's lesson in here about not being too prideful to take help when it's offered, but to embrace it, take heart from it and importantly, to be grateful for it.
The next day I took some time in Chicago, seeing some of the sites and eating my way around town. The rain had finally stopped and it was a 30°C day, with clear blue skies. Chicago is a really cool city and I'm very glad the winds blew me that way (figuratively of course, the literal winds were actually pretty miserable), and I feel very fortunate to have met Ben and Charlotte, and the people who helped me out across Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. From Chicago it was time to pick up Route 66, all the way to California!