Ah, my soul sighs – back on the road. I left Richmond on a chilly November day, after a few weeks of downtime, ready to hit the docks in Norfolk to find a freighter or sailboat that I can hitch a ride with. I was so ready to be back on the road, the cold weather (a definite step colder than when I rode into Richmond) didn’t even bother me. Besides, I know how to keep warm while biking; how long and when to break, how many layers to wear to balance core temperature with perspiration levels(sweaty shirts are not warm), etc. I am from Wisconsin, after all.
The ride was pleasant; nice and flat along the James River, a crisp mix of Autumn-colored swampy woods and the rolling fertile cropland of Virginia. That first day I rolled past a line of cars waiting to cross a bridge, and realized it was a drawbridge – the kind that rotates horizontally when allowing ships to pass, instead of your run-of-the-mill castle moat-style drawbridge. And drawbridges meant ships…. A good sign. That night I found a county campground situated right on a large tributary, the Chickahominee, about halfway to the Virginia coast. The high school kid in the park office waved me through without a fee when I told him I was on a bike tour, and I rode all the way back to the ‘basic'(no electricity) campsites on the riverfront and had the entire place to myself. It was uplifting to be making camp again, out on the road, and as the temperature dropped I busied about happily. I was alone; I rested my muscles, wrote a letter, drank a beer, and cooked on a nice warm fire – “Yep, I’m bike touring again.” But wait, isn’t the downtime, like my break in Richmond, actually just a different part of the bike tour? Weren’t the last two weeks bike touring too? And wasn’t I headed directly for another stretch of time without distance, in Norfolk? Let’s keep this in perspective, here, Charlie…
Day Two was pleasant as well; I took the car ferry from Jamestown to Scotland on which, without a busy-busy hurrying car, I was treated as a second-class citizen. I did see my first wild bald eagle though, serenely surveying the river from a perch on a river pylon. Then through some more beautiful rural Virginia, into the suburbs of Hampton Roads, as it’s called; “the Seven Cities,” including Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Hampton, Newport News, and Suffolk. I rode through Portsmouth, fully urban now, as it was getting dark, and found the Jordan Bridge over the Elizabeth River in the orange ambience of industry factories and coal yard floodlights. I crossed that long (draw)bridge in traffic, and then realize there’s a toll for two-axle vehicles – “They’re not really going to group me in with all the cars, are they?” Yes, they are… the lady at the booth told me I’d have to go back and cross the road to the sidewalk to avoid the toll. She was anxious of ‘just letting me through’ on camera, so I ended up having to lift my bike and all its attached weight over the guardrail during a break in the traffic. Not an easy task. But not a task I’ve had to try thus far, so I guess it’s good to know that it’s possible. Oh, but it’s heavy…
Then I was in Chesapeake. I had a map to a place I could stay – a friend of Evan of Richmond Re-Cycles, Mike, had told me on the phone that I could camp in his yard. Thanks again for the hook-up Evan!
But it was dark, and I realized, now that I was here, that I should’ve printed a more detailed map. And I could tell right away that Berkeley wasn’t the safest hood to be lost in. I stopped at a mini-mart for directions, and stood there for a spell watching people cash checks and buy forty-ounce beers, nodding at the folks on bikes and drawing looks from everybody, before seeing someone I could approach without a hassle. My map corroborated her directions, and I was on my way out of Berkeley into South Norfolk. I finally found the address about two hours after sunset; it’s a little house at the very bottom of a street that dead-ends into the train tracks, with a yard, a deck, a driveway stenciled with silhouettes of bikes, and a detached garage. I found Mike in the garage/bikeshop/chillspot drinking Southern style sweet tea and working on his track bike. We hit it off talking about bike touring, bike components, bike crashes, and underground bike events. He’s a member of an East-Coast bike crew called the Cutthroats, and rocks his orange laces and orange bandana whenever he rides. He told me about East-Coast events like Bike Kill and Slaughterama, where his triple-tall bike with the rainbow Frankenstein chain and his triple-BMX-frame chopper bike had been featured(and crashed). He recommended a velodrome in Pennsylvania and an Appalachian mountain path called the Creeper Trail. I heard about a couple of crazy bike stunts I had never imagined, and saw some videos of bike polo crashes I’d never want to have. His coffee table was one of those where you can write or draw whatever you want as long as you can find space, and his kitchen was bare, with an empty fridge(not even condiments!) and a single pot to cook in – a true bachelor pad. Often during my stay there, the little neighborhood kids would stop by to bug him and show off their ramshackle bike projects and jumps. Most of them were riding bikes that he had fixed up and given to them, and he always had a new trick or a piece of advice for them. Once we taught a six-year-old how to skid his little BMX bike – thankfully I have experience racing bikes with 16′ wheels. Thunderjet!
His back yard was a secluded spot, far from any action; a nice safe spot to stash my stuff while I tracked down passage. It also turned out to be a sanctuary for the stray cats of the neighborhood. All the adjoining yards were homes to barking dogs; annoying, belligerent beasts with negligent owners; but they pretty much steered clear of the cat yard – I surmise that they’ve all had a run-in with a cat, and once on the nose with those sharp kitty claws is all it takes. There were numerous strays that could be glimpsed running away, and there was even a fox that would wander through every once in a while. One stray was friendlier than the rest: “KitKat.” Though she was still very cautious, she came around for the food Mike would leave out, and sometimes was brave enough to take a few winks on the arm of his couch. Eventually she got to know me well enough to come around the tent when the temperature would drop below freezing, meowing to be let in. I’d leave a little hole open in the tent zipper, and she would come inside, pad down a comfy spot, and curl up on my legs to get some real rest in a safe place. Two stray cats lookin’ out for each other, me and KitKat; it really felt like a good spot for me.
I arrived on Friday, November 10. I told Mike that he and KitKat wouldn’t have to provide for me for any longer than six weeks, no matter what happens – bike tours do have to be about biking, after all, and if I can’t make anything happen for me in six weeks, it’ll probably be time to move on anyway. An arbitrary deadline, to prevent myself from getting sucked into city life, and keep things fresh & moving. To gather no moss, as the saying goes.
That first weekend was spent acclimatizing myself to the city. Mike and I rode our bikes downtown and around, and he showed me some bike paths and cool local spots. Norfolk is a big place, with skyscrapers and stadiums, ghetto hoods and fancy shopping districts. I located the public libraries between Mike’s house and downtown, and found a fair-trade coffee shop that reminded me of home, called Elliot’s Fair Grounds, across from Starbucks in the Historic Ghent district. This would prove to be a major waystation for me on my quest, with a free internet computer, for those without Wi-Fi like me, a bulletin board for local events where I was allowed to post a bike-tourist-seeking-passage collage flier, and a host of genuine clientele, many of whom I met and became friends with.
My spirits were high – for someone looking to get on a ship, it certainly appeared to have the potential. There’s evidence of freighters and steamships all over the city; the cranes of the huge containership terminals can be seen from any waterfront boardwalk or across any of the many rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. I’ve seen about five different kinds of drawbridges, huge constructions in daily use to allow truly impressive ships to pass in from & out to sea. Railroads are in heavy use all over; some places there are twenty tracks coming together at the shipyard. Norfolk is also the home of the largest Navy presence in the world; “squids” with high-and-tight buzz-cuts are everywhere, and they have the decommissioned U.S.S. Wisconsin on display downtown next to the Nauticus cruise ship terminal.
That first week of investigating my options gave me confidence. Everyone I talked to agreed that Norfolk was a good place to try and get on a ship. The shipping industry and Navy bases are such a big part of the commerce and employment pool of this city, that everywhere you go there is someone affiliated in some way with sea travel. I was hoping for a quick hit; someone to tell me exactly where to go or which company to contact.
I started at the beginning, with the Hampton Roads Visitor’s Center. The ladies there were impressed with my endeavor, and very nice. They gave me a free map of the Seven Cities and referred me to the Virginia Maritime Association. On my way there, I passed the headquarters of the Virginian Pilot, Virginia’s most-read newspaper, and decided to stop in. The receptionist was helpful, and I was able to talk to an editor on the courtesy phone in the lobby. He said he’d ask around and see if there was a reporter free to interview me, and could he have my phone number… and here I was presented with one of the many limitations to doing business while on a bike tour: no phone number. I gave him my email address with fingers crossed. I wondered what people up in the newsroom will think when they read ‘black_leopardstealth’ and ‘crazyguyonabike.’ Whatever; I am who I am, weird and scraggly.
The woman at the Maritime Association was very interested in my journey, and generous with the information she had. I received a shipping schedule of all the ships coming into port in the next week, which terminal they’d put in at and when, which country the ship came from, and the shipping agent in charge of each one.
In my other various efforts, I stopped by the Seafarer’s Union and got a referral to another shipping agent, I walked into a navigation instrument and map store and was recommended to try the marinas around town, and made friends with the bartenders at a bar called Cruiser’s, right outside one of the terminals where foreign ships call. I learned that there weren’t many cruises coming in this time of year, and the ones that do are just heading south to Florida and the Caribbean. My quick hit wasn’t going to happen, I realized; things take time, especially crazy things that are rarely attempted anymore. So far the average answer to my queries had been “I know it’s possible, but I don’t know how it’s done.”
After about a week of such investigation, things took a bad turn. I’d been putting miles on the bike in town, averaging about 17 every day. Then I started to notice a thunking sound every time I used my rear brake – the rim on my rear wheel was failing! At first I thought it was a dent from some bump or another I’d ran over, but after I started using my front brake, so as to not exacerbate the problem on the rear, I noticed the same problem on the front wheel! Both rims had started to bow out dangerously, both in the same exact spot, where the rim connects at the seam. What a blow! I mean, I can handle a lot of hardship; I know I can make it through anything, because I’m self-sufficient enough to be able to simply get back on my bike and keep going. But when my bike breaks, suddenly that freedom is taken away.
The wheels weren’t totally dead yet, and I was able to ride around town still, as long as I didn’t load all the gear onto the weakening rims. But they were bad enough to need replacement, and until I got new rims, I was stuck in this town. I immediately began the process of solving this issue, emailing the guys at the bike shop back home, researching effective rim diameters, and contemplating a complete wheel upgrade versus a simple rim swap. Eventually I came to a final decision with the help of Erik and Ranulf back home, and placed the order for all the parts.
Shortly after I realized my rims were failing, I get back to Mike’s one evening, and he’s got his right arm all wrapped up; he had laid down his motorcycle in the ditch out on some highway and totally messed up his wrist. It was a gnarly injury – the x-rays and photos he posted on MySpace were so graphic that the administrators took them down immediately. The next day, he had surgery, and came home with four pins and a steel bar apparatus sticking through his arm. No bike riding for ten weeks!
So we both were feeling a little sorry for ourselves, I think. He was suddenly unable to do anything active or productive, and my own world had been rocked badly enough to postpone my passage investigations until I was sure the wheel situation was being solved. I didn’t want to find a ship that could take me, and then have to decline because I was waiting on the wheels, or didn’t know when they’d be here. Ah, more up-in-the-air uncertainty, for a situation that’s already practically based on uncertainty.
With no solid leads on passage as yet and a broken bike, I was pretty shaken up; I found myself questioning my own integrity, wondering what the hell I’m doing out here, wondering what I’m doing wrong, considering giving up on alternative transatlantic transport and hopping on a cheap flight to Rabat like any other normal world bike tourist would do. I’ll tell you, it was rough. I spent plenty of hours in my tent trying to sleep, paralyzed with depressing thoughts, alone out here without anyone that really knows me or has stock in what I’m doing. I had to deny the phrase “Me against the world” from entering my mind…. It would have helped I think, at least temporarily, to batten the hatches and close myself up behind mental walls, but I can’t. I can’t be against the world, I have to be part of it, with it, loving it and taking what it gives me.
I knew that confidence was essential to my success. If I were to go into some shipping office and plead in a weak voice, with a tear in my eye, for someone to please help me, I’d never get anywhere. Truly, I must help myself. Be proactive like I never have before; participate relentlessly in my own fate. But the psychological fortitude to maintain that isn’t always easy to come by. I did a lot of brainstorming on strategies for bolstering myself, so I could go out and effectively employ my strategies for getting across the ocean. Getting drunk didn’t really help. A sleep-over with the cute chic from the bar was fun, but distracted me. Sitting on the couch watching reruns with my invalid benefactor really didn’t help. Chopping off my beard and destroying three razors on the way down to my face helped a little bit – changing one’s appearance is an age-old freshen-up. Meeting new people always raises me up; it tends to remind me that yes, indeed, you are doing something amazing. As long as I can actually do it. As long as I actually find a way across that ocean, then yeah, I deserve all the raised eyebrows, impressed looks, and excited interest. But what if I can’t do it? What if I fail? Am I really still so amazing? And what about the people I already met, a week or two ago, who now look at me in surprise and say, ‘Are you still here? What’s the matter?’
Somehow I came back from that dark place. I’m sure the couple of calls I made to my mother helped, as did the email correspondence with my peeps. Even writing letters, without getting a response, has a centering effect on my psyche. Thinking about that kick-ass wheelset that was on its way helped too. And I surprised myself to confidence by realizing that my determination really hadn’t suffered at all. My resolve has actually strengthened. Never did I contemplate drastic measures such as going home, or second-guess the true feasibility of my goals. Hell or high water, damnit.
A couple of weeks in, I finally received a message from the editor at the VA Pilot: they had declined to pursue the story. But before this latest blow could totally destroy my confidence again, I got a message from the woman that runs the Co-Pilot section of the paper, a sort of “Readers Write” section, published on submission three times a week. I met with her and agreed to compose a piece, which was subsequently printed, complete with a photo of me and my bike, describing what I am doing and artfully asking for reader assistance. The publicity was nice, but unfortunately none of the emails I got in response to the article were offering advice or leads on getting across the ocean.
Nevertheless I continued beating the streets every day. One night I went down to Cruiser’s, looking for sailors(Yes, I know how that sounds), and Ji Ji pointed across the crowded bar of karaoke revelers to a group of young Philipinos playing pool. I approached them brazenly, ignoring the activist chic that had been hitting on me. In broken English they told me that yes, they were currently on shore leave from a steamship anchored down the street at Lambert’s Point. They were headed for Belgium next, and would be leaving either tomorrow or the next day. I was excited, saying “Take me with you!” But they didn’t seem to know quite how to react to that, except to buy me a beer. Finally the quiet kid, who apparently spoke the best English, came up and said that for them to help me get on the ship would be illegal. I’d have to go through the shipping agent; he gave me the card he was carrying with their phone number and I grudgingly left them to their pool game, and went to hang out with some DJs at the activist’s apartment.
The next day I left a message with the shipping agent, which was based in New Jersey, and tried to find their non-existent website. No luck there, and after a few days that ship had surely sailed; yet I had learned first-hand that the people with the power to get me on the ships weren’t the sailors, or the captain, but the administrators at the shipping agent offices. I had already searched out several of these, and had a huge list of all the agents that operate in town. Narrowing my search now, I discovered about half of the companies on my list had gone out of business or moved. I was told “No” at many offices, in varying degrees of politeness. I sent out dozens of emails, most of which remained unanswered, the rest of which were all dead-ends. Finally, after riding the bronze elevator to the 20th floor of the Bank of America skyscraper and presenting my scruffy road-worn self at the offices of Mearsk Lines, Inc.(one of the biggest agents around) I connected with someone who was willing to help – their Senior Vice President. He certainly knew his way around the industry, and after looking into it for me(even he didn’t have an answer right off the bat) he explained the various obstacles in the way of a civilian seeking passage on a steamship. Primarily, since 9/11, Homeland Security has stepped up protection of the terminals, and the Coast Guard has added a lot of restriction on who can get on a U.S. Flag ship. There have also been changes in the labor unions making it more difficult than ever. In the end he told me it would be easier to try a foreign company, and hooked me up with my most solid referral yet.
Now I had a big name to drop, and an option that came straight from someone who would really know. Something told me that his information would lead me somewhere; I sensed that I was getting close. Still waiting on the wheels, and running low on other leads to try anyway, I held off for a few days. When I showed up at these most recently discovered offices, I wanted to present the best first impression possible, come prepared with every weapon I could muster, and be ready to embark immediately if it ended up working out in my favor. But I also knew that it was bound to take some time to deal with logistics, so after a few days, I went for it.
I got on my bike, armed with professionally printed business cards to help me get past the receptionists(thanks again Auntie!), a new Planet Bike t-shirt labeling me as a ‘Global Cooling Machine'(thanks to Dan Powell!) and a copy of my Virginian Pilot article(thanks to Marian Anderfuren at the Co-Pilot). It was about twenty miles out to the office park where the local offices of CMA CGM, a French company, were located. I locked my bike to a tree amidst the perfectly manicured landscape, walked around the parking-lot gate, and into the huge glass office building. Inside there were gold-plated statues of globes, and the elevators were protected by high-tech security turnstiles. The receptionists were surprised to see me, of course, but ended up being quite helpful, calling around until someone upstairs agreed to come down and meet me. Tracy, their Port Operations Manager in Norfolk, greeted me kindly, and after listening to my story and gathering what it was I wanted, she went back to her office to print out some information. Yes, CMA CGM offered passenger services, but all such services are dealt with through their HQ in Marseilles, France. She pointed out the email address of the woman I needed to contact, and I realized I had already emailed her several weeks earlier in my previous efforts! Obviously, I hadn’t received a response. I told Tracy that, and she agreed to help me get through to this woman and perhaps put a little pressure on her from within the company.
So began a saga of email back-and-forth, with Tracy trying her hardest to help me, and Marie from France taking her sweet time replying and choosing to answer only a select few of my questions each time. During this time I kept looking around elsewhere; at a ship-builder’s shop, a marina I hadn’t tried yet; I even got kicked out of a fancy yacht club, despite making friends with one of the caterers beforehand.
What was taking so long to get these bike wheels, anyway? I inquired with the guys working on it for me back home, and learned that there had been complications; Mavic(rim manufacturer) never even got my employee order, and the rims weren’t going to be available until late January! Pow! Take that, confidence! So much for a new wheelset for Christmas…. I backpedaled on the specs we had decided on, and chose some different rims, ones that were already in stock. Ranulf got on it quick, bless his soul, but it was too late. My six week time limit was going to run out, and I’d still be stuck here.
Then I finally received a solid response from France. The only passenger service they offer was designed for tourists that want to experience a freighter; there’s only one option, and it would take 74 days to get to France and cost over $9000. It only goes West, toward the setting sun.
My optimism leaked out of me, dragging confidence and excitement with it, leaving a hollow shell that reeked of embarrassed failure. If I could’ve left town that day, I would’ve, to heal my aching soul with the solace of the road. But I couldn’t. My bike was still broken.
When six weeks came around, I packed up my gear and said goodbye to Mike. If I couldn’t leave town before my deadline expired, I could at least mix things up. I loaded the failing wheels down with everything I own, and pedaled eight nerve-wracking miles to Ghent, where I was sure I’d find someone that would let me crash at their place until my wheels arrived at the UPS store. I made it without breaking down, barely, and after a few hours of sitting at Fair Grounds and watching my bike and gear like a hawk, I ran into Nathan, a fellow vagabond bike mechanic I’d met a few weeks earlier, who thought I’d probably be able to crash at the same apartment where he had been couch-surfing, right down the street.
As the Christmas season rolled around, my list of leads on passage pretty much dried up, and most industry businesses were going on vacation hours anyway. Now I was really feeling stuck, and began to anticipate the arrival of my wheels like a helpless refugee hoping God will rescue him. I had been invited to a holiday family dinner, but the thought of all that good food and relaxing comfort left a bad taste in my brain – ‘I’m supposed to be riding, not slipping farther into a comfort zone!’ I declined, and spent Christmas eating General Tso’s chicken, trying to clean off the moss I’ve gathered here, and making up my mind to ride down to Miami as winter sets in on Hampton Roads.
So that’s the plan: fix bike, ride bike. Try another six weeks in the Deep South. It’s a long way from here to there, but I look upon it as another stage of my journey, full of opportunity and experience. Delays happen; I grab them and shake them like an Etch-A-Sketch until my slate is as clean as it ever was; redesign them with the power of perspective; take a step back from all the deliberate single-mindedness and realize how rich this world really is.
The Universe opens itself to those that remain open themselves. I invite you to sit with me here, free of fear and gently supported by the smiling heart of compassion. Walk with me in the community of the spirit, empty of worrying and full of love. Here, no distance separates us. Here, time flows on for us all.
Until next time,
With Love and Joy,
-Charles Ilsley Brigham IV
Black_leopardstealth at yahoo dot com