United States of Amanchester.
Setting off from Boston, Massachusetts in the rain was the start of my mid-life crisis cure all. The big Honda Goldwing was not mine, but a hire bike collected the day before and with a route of almost ten thousand miles planned and re-planned, it would be my home for the majority of each day as I criss crossed the USA for the next 6 weeks. This was no ordinary ride-out, I was a Manc on a Mission.
The Road 2 Manchester
The list of the 53 towns called Manchester that are scattered across the world, stared at me from the computer screen. My own city was probably the first, named by the Romans and my birthplace and home for 57 years.
There seemed to be an adventure right there, and being a biker the seed that was planted resulted in a Twitter and Facebook page being started in 2008. The pre-text was to create a road trip to visit the 33 Manchester’s that were easy to get to and if the right opportunity comes along, all of them.
Jump forward three years, and though I had written a blog to the effect my trip would probably never happen, only 500 people had ever found it. In February 2011 I had an e-mail from Mike at Bennetts Insurance, asking me to contact him as soon as possible regarding my Bennetts Biker Dream, application in November 2010.
Long story shortened, today I am riding this big 1800 Goldwing on a quest to visit 33 towns called Manchester in the USA and Canada. My ‘Dream’ had been granted.
The previous weeks had seen me doing bike shows, media and press appointments that had me running around Manchester for various newspaper, TV and Radio interviews. Even on the way to Manchester airport on Friday 13th May (great day to fly), I had three interviews.
In the relative silence of my bike helmet I was more concerned with the Wing being under control in the wet conditions on smooth roads. It was May 15th, Boston, USA.
The adventure had begun, and within 500 yards of the hotel, a giant 4x4 truck overtook me and hit a puddle the size of a tennis court, depositing most of it directly at my face and chest. The big screen of the wing helped, but being tall, I was in direct line of a second shower.
After visiting the nearest Manchester by the Sea, and then New Hampshire ,Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, I was heading through New York State for number six and then Canada via Niagara Falls. It had rained for a week, every day. This was like a normal ride in England, surely it cannot get any worse. Wrong!
Just before the next exit from Highway 90, it was obvious that a change in the weather, back to what I had encountered for the past four days, loomed ahead like riding into the night time.
Black skies, with the low slung fog like rainfall underneath was a few miles ahead towards today’s target of Manchester number six. The exit signs indicated that this route to another small town New York , was an off ramp only. From my limited experience of the USA, this meant no motels, no dry shelter, no fast food outlets and probably no way to get back on the freeway once I had added my one piece rain suit over my already bulky riding gear.
Today started with rain but as I subtracted another few hundred miles off the target, the warm humid state of New York promised a change. My thoughts were to abandon today’s ‘ a Manchester per day’ unwritten rule, but it was too late to change the course, the next opportunity to get off this twin lane road was at the opposite side of what was to become one of the worst rain storms I had ever seen, never mind ridden in.
As if by magic, the only bridge spanning the highway for miles was the gateway to hell. The rain hit as the temperature dropped and what seemed like a solid wall of water filled with a million needles reduced my forward speed like falling into a lake.
My riding gear was waterproof, but like many off the peg, multi layered, high-tech specification stuff, there are many variations of water proof . The one piece over-suit was bought for the trip, and I needed it sooner rather than later.
Within seconds visibility was down to a true zero and the cold rain was finding its way through to my neck, up my sleeve and somehow into my right boot. Nowhere to stop, the hard shoulder was about four feet wide and the fact I couldn’t actually see it or any resemblance of a white line, didn’t help. As the only bike on the road, I was between a rock and a hard place. Another 120ft long, 70 ton Peterbilt truck, just behind me in the outside lane, was not affected by the rain or the driver even slightly concerned about my predicament. It seemed he had not bothered to switch off his cruise control and carried on at 75-80 MPH creating an even bigger wall of fog and back-wind that reduced my visibility to the edge of the screen a foot and a half away, and no further. Choices, speed up into the void, or slow down to 25mph and hope that next car or truck can see me in front, before it’s too late. Hazards on, and just go for it. I almost laughed thinking what my fellow road users thought of this mad biker, out in this weather. The union jack flapping around on the aerial should be a clue.
The wide screen on the Honda Goldwing, famed for its protection from wind, rain and flying sheep, worked to a degree, but the area behind the screen has a strange vacuum effect that collects globules of water like a scene from Apollo 13. The water floats in a slow motion dance just in front of your chest, then without warning gets too heavy to glide and hits me square in the face. Add this to the inability to close the visor as it steams up in a micro-second if I close off the airflow, and the needles that pierce my eyes and sting my nose if I glance ahead for more than a second, and the thought passed my mind.
“Which stupid arse thought this trip was a good idea”????
The sun did come out that night. After I had seen the falls and crossed the border into Canada, it rained again as hard as before, but with only a few miles to my hotel, I soon got changed, warm and dozy. An hour later I heard the dulcet tones of a Harley, spud, spudding past the hotel. The sun was out and the temperature 87 degrees. Friday night in Niagara Falls Canada is cruise night, and worth a balcony table, roadside with nice beer and good food.
Next day a 300 miles round trip to visit a gas station, a set of traffic lights and a diner, all that there was in the ‘village’ (very loose term), of Manchester. Oshawa. Oh Well, it’s there so I ride to it !
Heading south again I find a Biker Blessing in Buffalo. Its Sunday and over a thousand bikers get their bikes blessed for the season. I need some devine intervention, so join the party. A short ride out and a barbeque, and then 260 miles to promise of a roast beef dinner, Boddingtons beer and a bed for the night with an English family who found out about my trip on the BBC web site. Result and thanks to Chris and Mel in Maryland. To our surprise, Mels dad is best friends with an old work mate of mine back in the UK. Big Country, small world.
A week later I rode the Dragons Tail, a famous route at one end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, THE must travel bikers heaven. 318 bends in eleven miles, and if I remember NO straights. The road is restricted to 50 mph, but it was Thursday, quiet, early and wet, so limits were reached officer, even around the bends. I enjoyed that road so well, I did it twice. It has to be said, the Dragon is no Alpine pass, but the riders there are plentyful and advise, routes and stories abound. Over to Kentucky and a day off by a pool. The hotel was full, but intervention by a regular meant I got his room for the night as he moved in with a work mate who had a spare bed . Saturday night was a free room, free booze and a great free meal once again courtesy of a complete stranger. I am liking America, a lot.
The regular stops at the Manchester’s, included calling in the town hall, fire stations or in fact anywhere to add my story and some pictures to the blog, which had now reached 6000 visits. The media coverage continued with calls from local papers and back home. Even on the road I was getting known. Imagine a couple rushing over a car park, waving arms and screeching at me. Can we have a photo with you, please. Lynchburg Tennessee and the Jack Daniels Distillery was en route . Sheila and hubby Don, had seen me two weeks ago whilst I was in a gas station. In my route plan that was at least 3000 miles ago. Big country….. small world.
The roads in America are not all straight, at least on the East side. As I ran as far south as Georgia and Alabama, the temperatures reached 118f. I learnt a little about road signs too. The ‘bump in the road’ sign ahead was the umpteenth I had seen this morning, the first few were smaller than expected, and I became aware that maybe they were more as a warning to slow down rather than a real threat. Except this one !
At the top of a long steep hill, the ‘hump’ was unseen until the front wheel left the ground, and as the road dropped away underneath, the wing left the peak and we flew about twelve feet whilst dropping the four feet that the hump had created. The Wing in Goldwing ran true, as the bike hit the ground in a straight line. The suspension bottomed out, and my bottom out-ed too.
Manchester Alabama was the second of two towns with the name in that state. The first was a quiet unassuming place which became the norm, the second was a steel sign, in a forest. Not on my map or sat nav, I knew where it was in theory, but a visit to a bank to ask directions resulted in Mike, a 20-something local taking me most of the way, until he turned off to see his Momma, who had moved into the area recently. I said my thanks and good byes and carried on for three or four miles down a rough road that turned into a track in a thick forest. As the road split into a footpath of sorts, the sign for Manchester was there. Nothing to do but video and photograph the place, and go on. Within a few minutes, the sound of Mikes car coming down the track became louder as in a cloud of dust he skidded to a halt.
“My Momma said you are not safe down here ,Sir, you must leave now”. With that he reversed Starkey and Hutch style, and I was seconds behind him. Down the road a mile, he was waiting sat on the car bonnet. “. There are some real hill billies down there, and they will shoot ya, and you and your bike would never be found.”
Nuff said, I was outta there just as a rusty and battered pick-up truck with bullet holes in the screen came rumbling past. The occupants really did have dungarees and greasy baseball caps. Welcome to the deep south. Tomorrow I head north.
Back up north over the next week, I had covered over 5000 miles and once in Michigan , more invites for B&B, I turned west rather than the return south as massive tornados had wrecked the mid and far southern states. Heading for the Dakota’s, Montana, and eventually Manchester Washington, for another facebook invite, 300 miles,450miles between target towns and then to get from Livingston Wyoming to Manchester WA for that party I managed 748 miles in 13 hours. A couple of great nights with my host Jack and the fine folks of the Manchester Bar and Grill and then on Monday I could head down the Pacific highway.
Manchester California is still over 800 miles south and 180 from San Francisco where I was flying home on June 18th The route is spectacular. The giant red woods stunned me, the scenery mind boggling. I had reached the 25th Manchester at 8.30 pm on 16th June 2010 and as the sun went down. I had done it. In Frisco the following day I recorded 8525 miles in 33 days, and had a new respect for America and the people. My advice, GO to America and take your time and enjoy. I’ll be back, my mission has only just begun.