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Memories of the trip so far: Weeks 19, 20 and 21
Tylor and Kyle outside a McDonalds in Iowa

I walked away from my last ever exam at university with my friend Stew. We discussed the exam questions and our answers until we reached the edge of campus. Then, silence as we walked out into the big wide world with no further commitment to study.

With some friends, a companionable silence would have continued all the way to the pub, but Stew was always one to ask the obvious question; 'what do we do now?' he said. I tried for a reassuring tone; 'We go to the pub.' 'Okay' he replied, 'Which one'. This was about the most stupid question he could ask as the main student pub was 5 doors from his house and right opposite mine - but it was also a genius question; it highlighted the infinite world of choice now ours to navigate, and encouraged a rejection of the assumed option. Such a great question demanded a top class answer. I thought fast. There are famously twenty two pubs within the old Roman walls of the city we studied in, and many more close by I could have named.... Where would I REALLY like my next pint? Inspiration struck: 'Stew - if you're prepared to drive - the Clachaig Inn!'

30minutes later we had all our outdoor gear and were heading to Glen Coe, Scotland. Home to a great pub, mountains, and midges. We drank and climbed, and returned to party with our Uni' mates telling stories of adventure on the Aonach Eagach ridge.

Kyle and Tylor reminded me of that moment in my life. I met them in a McDonalds in Iowa. Exams finished, an imaginative impulse had put them on the road - deliberately poorly equipped and unplanned so they could see what happened, where fate would take them with buckets for panniers on bikes that clearly wouldn't make it. Great lads rapidly learning about their country and the ways of the world. Heading west like pioneers of two centuries before, they'd been taken in by Amish to experience their famous food, they'd hidden from lightning beneath a bridge and been lucky not to be drowned instead, and they'd ridden through the night just to see what it felt like.

Chance meetings with people like Tylor and Kyle are one of the best experiences on the road.

I'd not planned to spend long in Iowa, a state right in the middle of the USA, so I should never have met Tylor or Kyle, but it was a beautiful and easy place to navigate and a radical change of plan meant I needed to put some miles in exploring the area.

My original optimistic plan had been to clear the USA in time to transfer to South America before their winter really kicked in, and travel over a high pass through the Andes. Time and tough conditions had overtaken me though, and my South American adventure might now be impossibly hard; so with the help of my wife and sister we worked out how to cover the extra distance in the USA and save Chile and Argentina for a future Great Bike Ride. The change was approved by Guinness World Records on the day I crossed the high pass bringing me to the east. I started meandering through the states towards the Great Plains of the 'mid-west'. I now had to get another 3500mi out of a journey east to the coast. I could really see the place.

I was actually very lucky to receive the news of GWR's approval for the route change in time; very little mobile phone signal was available in rural or mountainous USA. I received the text message of approval and directions to turn south for New Mexico just a few miles before I needed to do it.

Going south before I'd properly cleared the Rockies took me into an amazing valley on a huge scale. It had a flat bottom 20mi or more wide and hundreds of miles long. Giants of the Rockies walled the sides and the altitude was still high but the climate was warm and dry. Waters from the surrounding mountains irrigated crops and sustained many horses in this dramatic setting. I followed the valley south, encouraged regularly by farm dogs who enjoyed some sprint training with me American Flyers style.

Approaching New Mexico I crossed the Rio Grande as the landscape became harsher and dryer. The wind was also harsh on me, steadily strengthening and in perfectly the wrong direction. Motivating images flashed by to compensate; ghost towns, mule deer wading in a river, and long empty roads ahead.

My sister had taken charge of my route, but due to communication problems I found myself taking best guesses at directions as the valley floor expanded ever wider. When I found a mobile signal I got straight on the phone begging for news that I'd be turning out of the headwind soon. The news was good, there was a way east ahead and then I'd swing north-east and have a tailwind, but 'it might be a bit hilly'.

Hilly was an understatement, I was back in serious mountain country. The road wound beautifully along valleys which I would never have associated with New Mexico. The passes were high and cool, the people friendly, and the food great - New Mexico is to be highly recommend! Eventually I descended past the USA's largest Scout camp into a town which sported the slogan 'where the mountains meet the plains'. Next day, 100mi further north, I passed another town which had exactly the same slogan... But I suppose it was true here too.

I flew north with renewed vigour, and a tail wind. From New Mexico I crossed into Colorado while a Golden Eagle watched from the sky, then on to Nebraska, and into South Dakota averaging 140mi/day. The roads were beautiful and mainly quiet, as were the few small towns on route. Accommodation and food was a big problem in these remote rural places. Local people were extremely friendly though, giving me food and suggesting places to camp. After one long day I slept on a picnic table in a park, then next day after another 150mi I slept on a trampoline in a garden.

I started heading east again in Sioux territory. The conditions reminded me of what Iíd seen in Aboriginal Australia; people seemingly completely without aspiration for improving their squalid situation. Depending on your viewpoint this is either hopelessness or contentment. I was in one of the poorest areas of the USA with a stark history; the hamlet of Wounded Knee was the scene of battle in a famous massacre in 1890 and an armed rebellion as recently as the 1970ís.

I headed on generally east but wove north and south with the winds. Route 44 took my fancy for a while as it skirted the 'Bad Lands' where the super soft rock has been eroded dramatically. Even more dramatic than the land here was the sky; severe thunder storms and tornados were likely. All TV's in burger bars and hotels were tuned to the Weather Channel.

The weather closes in on Vin Cox in South Dakota Fighting into the wind late in the evening I was losing hope of reaching the next town for the night when I crested a hill and admired the view: Lightening dancing all across the horizon and a steady electric glow among the swirling shapes above. I skidded to a halt and swore in awe and panic. Logic and instinct said 'run!', so I paused only long enough to choose the direction for best chance of safety. I continued toward the melee above, descending beneath the dark hart of the sky. After a mile I found a spot to make an emergency camp. I lashed my tent and bike to thick fence posts, made sure I was not too close to trees, checked that no flood would flow through the tent, and quickly got my gear inside to protect it. As I was about to climb into the tent a pick-up pulled up and a guy ran over 'Tornado warning! Do you need help? Can I take you any place?'. I couldn't accept a lift without ending the world record bid, and I thought I was well set up for anything but a direct hit. I said I had it under control so needed no help, but I thanked him for stopping and checking on me.

I had a rough night of violent shaking, dampness, and booming thunder. The tent stood strong, but the pegs were tugged out several times forcing me to get up and re-pitch. I slept late in the calm of the morning after the stress of the night.

Schwalbe tyres are one of my sponsors, but after thousands of miles on rough roads Iíd warn out the back tyre and the spare, so I bought replacements and had to settle for a different brand. This might sound too much like an advert, but I promise itís true; Whereas the Schwable could do around 4000 miles on the back of my bike, a rival brands tyre wore out and popped after just 1250 miles, thatís 10 days use! Thankfully a resupply of the Schwalbes was near.

I headed south despite strong wind and rain coming straight at me. Averaging 130 mile days here was some of the toughest riding as the effort and soggy conditions affected muscle, skin, and mind. Iíd run out of the flexibility to alter direction with the weather and had to make a rendezvous with my old Friend David Piper in Jefferson City Missouri. David had been instigator, motivator, and mentor for the Great Bike Ride, and now fortunate timing synced his holiday tour with this stage of my ride. He was carrying a few spares for me, including those new Schwalbe tyres. My front tyre had done over 10,000 miles and I nursed it to the rendezvous with puncture repair patches stuck over the threadbare areas of tread.

Seeing David was brilliant. He was riding east too, so we cycled together sharing stories and experiences built up over many solo miles. The wind relented, the sun came out, and we rode the traffic free ďKaty TrailĒ for a whole day to St Louis. The imperfections of the day (sweltering humidity and mosquitoes made it a no stopping day) were balanced by the many good things.

St Louis Missouri is home to a great arch on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Itís sometimes called the gateway to the west, but for David and me it was the gateway FROM the west. At dawn on the 8th July I passed under the arch and into the east of the USA.

Vin Cox