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Memories of the trip so far: Weeks 17 and 18

A gadget on my handlebars frequently estimated my daily calorie expenditure to be over 10,000 kcal, so I was eating constantly to maintain energy, strength, alertness, and moral - running low on fuel made me feel physically and mentally awful. I could eat anything and everything in huge quantity, and stop for more soon after.

Breakfast was a meal I made a habit of having early and often each morning of the ride. A couple of lunches, ice creams as snacks, and a big dinner at the end of the day would more than occupy all the waking hours not spent cycling.

The Golden Gate bridge and San Francisco in the background behind Vin

Roadside farm fruit shops always got a visit, and I kept a lazy eye on the verges and hedgerows for foraging treats as I rode. New Zealand had teased me with fruit trees and berries just out of season, but San Francisco welcomed me to the USA with a carpet of tiny, sweet, wild strawberries. I stopped and gorged myself, while two other cyclists I'd just caught up with also stopped; one to watch me and the other to fix a puncture.

I made friends with the riders and was invited to dine with them in downtown San Francisco. Jay, the one who hadn't punctured, managed a famous restaurant where George Lucas filmed American Graffiti in the 1970s. It was such a good start to the USA, beautiful riding, wild fruit, friendly fellow cyclists, iconic locations, and a quality 'burger - all for free!

San Francisco is a city which grew from tiny town to big city in a gold rush, was flattened and burned after an earthquake, then rebuilt and grew on. It's the setting for hundreds of movies and TV shows with steep hills, trams, beautiful bay, Alcatraz island, and the imposing Golden Gate Bridge. I headed over the bridge and around the north of the bay on cycle paths then east for the gold fields.

Chinese Camp was the name of two towns I passed through; one a gold claim, the other a shrimp fishing base. In both cases Chinese Camp was evidence of some tough times when the European migrants treated the Chinese migrants hardly any better than they treated the Africans. The camps were places the Chinese were forced into, but somehow managed to make work. The Chinese probably counted themselves fortunate compared to the native American people; forced of their land to starve or shot resisting. I thought of the opening minute of the movie Blazing Saddles, a great parody of racist attitudes in the days of cowboys and Indians.

After rounding the bay I picked up a route mainly devised by my friend David Piper for his own trip a year earlier. This was gold too; heading east through Yosemite over the Tioga Pass, then through Death Valley, to Las Vegas Nevada, over the Hoover Dam into Utah, past the Grand Canyon, down Monument Valley, and crossing the Rockies in Colorado over Monarch pass.

I had to improvise and do things differently to David's route at the entrance to Yosemite Park. The Tioga pass was blocked by snow, so I took a long hilly detour around the north to tackle Sonora pass instead. Just 300ft lower, and steeper, but open despite 15ft snow banks roadside! Such snow amazed me in June.

As well as snow warnings, I was consistently told to watch out for bears. I was in really wild country where I could easily startle a bear on a quiet road. My best hope was to make noise as I approached sharp corners so that any hidden bear would hear me and retreat before we met. I'm pleased to say that singing and shouting my way up and down mountains worked; no bear stories. I did enjoy other wildlife; rattlesnakes, gophers, lizards, birds, etc.

The climbs were tough, but I enjoyed the rhythm of moving up them, the wildlife and views beside the roads, and I loved the descents. I caught motorcyclists descending the twisty Sonora, and on the long smooth straighter hills beyond my confidence grew until I was leaving off the breaks right up to the 55mph speed limit.

Death Valley, 300ft below sea level, is reached via two high passes and sweeping descents which take the breath away. The lower the altitude the higher the temperature, and as I came down the hill I withered and had to consciously force myself to breath the air which scorched my nostrils. The hotel was 20mi across the valley floor on a hot day, I drank all 3 litres of water I had well before I reached safety. Running out of water in the place that averages out as the hottest in the world is something I don't recommend, but it was part of the adventure!

Climbing east in the less hot dawn took me to Nevada. I enjoyed the history and quirkiness of route 66 as it took me on again into Utah and the Grand Canyon. Words, photos, films, etc; none communicate the scale of the canyon or the feeling as one is overwhelmed by the view. It's somewhere you just have to go. Over a distance of hundreds of miles, the Colorado River has cut 6,000ft down through bands of rock. Eroding its way down just millimetres per year, the river must have been flowing practically forever. I needed to cross the river that evening, so I continued east and descend. In my head I twisted Tennysonís beautiful words to suit my situation:
ďAnd out again I curve and flow
Vin Cox riding down Monument Valley To join the brimming river;
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever."

Next day, at a general store in the Navajo lands, someone started asking me about my bike and we had a brief chat. Then they said 'the RAAM solo women's race leader will be here in about 30mins'. I was shocked. The RAAM - race across America - is a non-stop coast to coast cycle race, and I suddenly knew there were kindred spirits approaching. It was exciting and emotional to see the leader go by and then to ride down Monument Valley ahead of the race.

Warm sunny weather systems accompanied me across the desert areas, but when I reached the mountains of Colorado bad weather blew in. A day after hot desert riding in Utah, I was freezing cold in a thundery hail storm high on a mountain. My body rejected the whole idea and I collapsed in a cafe so dramatically that the local fire and rescue team were called out to revive me, but I made a full and quick recovery with coffee, food and warmth.

There are places scattered about the world where touring cyclists are funnelled together and naturally meet one another. The passes through the Rockies are such places.

Many cyclists use the Wolf Creek pass - the RAAM riders had headed for it - but the more crazy adventurers head further north for the 11,312ft Monarch Pass. Itís obvious where I had to go, and I was not alone; I caught a guy called Scott on one of the many approach passes and got chatting. He was among a scattered group of disabled war vet's riding coast to coast, or 'sea to shining sea' as their ride - and the song - titled it. His war wound was in the head; he'd had a traumatic brain injury in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan which had killed most of his comrades. I admired him and the other riders with varied handicaps who were working their way east like me. I oiled his squeaky chain, he gave me a new lip balm branded with his logo and s2ssbikeride.com, and then I rode on toward the big one; Monarch.

Monarch Pass is of course actually the low point between mountains, but its altitude is similar to many high alpine summits. At 3Ĺkm high the thin air is no joke; it can make anyone normally adjusted to thick sea-level air quite ill. I was lucky enough to have had many practice passes on the way, so felt no effects beyond the strain of a very long beautiful climb.

Halfway up I briefly picked up a phone network and received a text message: 'change of plan, turn south after monarch for extra miles'. My sister was taking charge of my route to ensure I'd ride far enough for GWR. I hadn't thought about what lay beyond the Rockies, so I didn't have any feelings about the news except that it could so easily have not reached me in time. I headed on for the summit with a burgeoning interest in the flat lands of the 'Great Plains' to come.

Emotionally this was a significant point. Not only the highest pass of the whole tour, this pass marks the continental divide; the watershed point where rain falling to either side of the pass drains in opposite directions heading for different oceans. Crossing to the east of the Rockies I would join water heading for the Atlantic, which gave me warm homely thoughts. I had left the Pacific West of America.