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Cycling the US - A series in 5 parts about a trip from Boston to San Francisco

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Descent into hell through walls of water

6700 kilometres in two months biking across the USA of my own accord: an adventure journey against rain and storm with a small "life saver" from Styria.

Stefan Micke on a lonely road in South Dakota
Picture by T. Micke

Water. It runs off your helmet into your face, drips from the tip of your nose onto the handlebars, runs in small streamlets from your chin down to your throat, channels its way through hours of long hard legwork into the neck of your tightly fastened waterproof jacket and somehow finds its way from there to your socks.

Yes, these great special socks, which we bought two weeks ago in a bike-shop on Boston, where all of our equipment originates from. They are water tight, swore the salesman, and they meet the highest requirements. Even in winter, you won't get cold feet with these amazing things. We bought them off him because the happiness of our feet on this journey was important.

But the salesman didn't lie. Our socks are waterproof. So waterproof in fact that after three hours in the pouring rain a small warm-water aquarium had formed inside, and our feet were swimming in it. But not a drop of water had penetrated from the outside; it just ran down our legs and into our socks and stayed there, at a push, until it overflowed. . . This summer, the Eastern part of North America suffered the heaviest rainfall and flooding for 20 years, and we were there to witness it at the start of our journey! Baseball pitches and children's playgrounds invited swimming. Ducks were diving for water plants in front gardens. And every juggernaut that met us at 75 mph on the highway became a threat. As if we didn't already have enough problems.

You can hear these trucks long before they appear out of the grey mist that lies between the sky and the road with their giant chrome muzzles. Many drive without their lights on and the rare blow of the horn that the powerful turbochargers give, when they accelerate out of a bend, is carried away by the wind.

A wall of water a good fifteen metres thick rolls towards you on your side of the road each time one of these big freightliners thunders past. After the third or fourth, you gladly claw hold of the handlebars in silence, sink your head (almost in supplication) before the steel monster, so that at least the truckload of water and mud doesn't land directly in your face, and try hard not to be pushed into the ditch by the blast of the water. A ride from hell. Even with the best of intentions, it simply cannot get any worse and so we even managed a wet laugh during a cereal bar break in a fire department garage. If the people at home could see us now!

That evening, when we stopped at a supermarket soaked to the bone after 130 kilometres, an old man spoke to us in broken English. He himself was a hobby cyclist, and proudly showed us his French racing bike. He wanted to know where we were going and where we came from. Austria? He looked surprised and almost let his bicycle topple over out of excitement. His wife Flora comes from Austria, from Styria. And he was born a Croat.

Drago took us back with him to his house. We absolutely had to try his home-made wine and Floras home-baked dried-pear bread. And we were even able to stay the night with them and stay for 2 days, so that we didn't catch a cold in this beastly weather.

The word "Kletzenbrot" (dried-pear bread - an Austrian speciality) made us homesick for the first time. American bread simply cannot be compared to Austrian bread. We jokingly call it "accordion bread", because you can easily squash a whole loaf into a few centimetres.

Stefan Micke repairing tyres in the USA
Picture by T. Micke

Drago was sent from above, because, in search of sheer adventure and to save on weight, we had brought no tent with us. America is known for having hot and dry summers. In wild romanticism, we wanted to spend the nights in a sleeping bag beneath the open sky, and we had packed two thin plastic tarpaulins as emergency roofs. And now we had two beds and a hot shower. We could hardly believe our luck!

Flora came from a family of mountain farmers in the Seetaler Alps. Her brother Toni owns a bed and breakfast in a mountain pasture there. She showed us the photos of the barn and after the last tedious rain falls we feel very much at home.

Chance has become our tour guide. After fourteen days on our bikes we bought ourselves a small compass, which sitting on my handlebars would point us westwards from now on. In the morning we didn't know where we would be sleeping that evening, how many kilometre we could do that day, what kind of people we would come across, and more than once we flipped a four-dollar coin at a crossroads, to decide which road we would take. It was a feeling of freedom, but at the same time of instability, that we had never known before. The one obligation we had was the date of out return flight home, which lay deep at the bottom of our saddle bags, dozing in one of the very few dry corners. Two whole months remained until the end of our adventure.

< Read part 3 of this series: The lawn-mower epidemic

© A report by Tobias Micke (30-09-96) – Contact