0030: The American Dream (and the power of old Women)
"I am not going to reset your visa and if you want to extend it, you need to make a formal application in writing"
Well, that was it.
10 years of dreaming and over 2 years of planning completely destroyed in one sentence by a very stressed, overweight and slightly smelly immigration officer, at the Niagara Falls crossing.
Since exiting the USA at Beaver creek in Alaska, I had a niggling doubt in my head I would have problems.
The officer there, refused to stamp me out of the USA for reasons I am still not sure of.
I clearly explained that I was not following the usual direct south path back into the USA, but would head east into Canada.
Which is what I did. I left the USA and entered a different country.
I don't understand, as I have kept to my plan and intended route and been completely honest in my intentions regarding travelling through the Americas.
How is it that so many cyclists can make this journey annually travelling between the USA and Canada, but I just happened to be the unlucky one that got the officer on his off day!
I don't really remember leaving the border office and cycling the 10 or so miles north to Lewiston.
I was in a bit of a daze.
I should have headed south to find the Erie Canal at Tonawanda.
Stunned by the unfortunate re-entry to the USA and I headed in completely the wrong direction.
Arriving in affluent and upmarket Lewiston, I tried to find a campsite, but missed the tourist office closing by about 20 minutes.
I sat on the Niagara river waterfront and asked some locals about accommodation in the area.
They glanced at me with curious but suspicious looks.
Is this how it is in America?
Then they mumbled 'no sorry' and walked off.
I looked at the opposite riverbank. Less than 200 metres away was Canada and I knew that had I been on that side the Canadians would have bent over backwards to help me find something.
Eventually a man pointed to a house on the hill a short distance away.
"Its a bed and breakfast" he said, "Has been for as long as I can remember. I've lived here all my life" I thanked him and pushed my bike up the hill and knocked on the door.
" No, this is not a B&B" proclaimed the owner "It never has been. We have lived here for over 30 years" George, as he introduced himself could not think what the other man was talking about?
"There is a hotel across the road, but it ain't cheap!" he said cheerfully. I could not afford that. I told him.
He laughed. "Most can't"
Then he remembered a motel around the corner.
"Check there. It's reasonable I think. The fishermen use it a lot." "OK, great. Thanks a lot." "No problem" he replied. I turned to head off.
"Oh wait, are you camping? Why don't you set up in my yard." "Well that would be perfect" I said. " I'm self sufficient if I can just fill up my water bottles. Can I set up now?" "Well, yes" his face changed. "But I CANNOT let you have access to the house!" he said with all seriousness. "OK. Just two bottles, from an outside tap?" " I CANNOT let you have access!" he said somewhat angrily. I had no desire to enter his house or invade his privacy but something obviously spooked him.
"Well, I would only need to access the toilet once before bed, unless you have an outhouse" "NO!" he replied bluntly. I don’t know what suddenly changed his mood, but I knew this would not be a comfortable place to camp so I thanked him made my escape.
The motel was expensive but they gave me directions to a campsite a few miles up the road.
Arriving here, I could smell gas, thinking one of the Camper van residents might have just changed a bottle. But the smell was too strong and lingered too much.
I asked what the problem was.
"It's the processing factory next door. Sometimes the wind blows the smell over here" Great!
Tired, I set up, with no appetite I didn't eat and struggled to sleep wondering how I could salvage my plans.
The strong smell of propane gas in the air didn't help my already fuzzy head.
I thought there must be an immigration office in New York City so resolved to make a second appeal there.
Eventually I slept, but fitfully.
In the morning it was raining again.
After a breakfast in a cafe a few miles down the road I felt better but the heavy mist and rain dampened my mood further.
The seasons are definitely changing.
I cycled to Rochester and sent out an emergency request to Warmshowers hosts, as the person I arranged to stay with had to cancel at the last minute.
Norman and Sally came to the call and I was soon resting in the converted apartment at the back of their house.
Oddly, Steve, another Warmshowers host who I contacted but was not available happened to walk past at exactly the same moment and it was a very odd but pleasant conversation between 4 people who had never met.
I was following the Erie Greenway.
A derelict canal towpath that was slowly being converted into a multiuse path. It will be good when it is complete as the route is flat running between the hills of the steep Adirondacks in the west.
I made a detour to my next hosts in Skaneateles on the top of the beautiful (and affluent!) finger lakes wine growing region.
Pronounced "Skinny-Atlas" Hattie and Pete were planning their own adventure to Florida so we had a good conversation about my journey.
They made some suggestions about an office in Albany so I thought I would try for that first.
They gave me clear directions to avoid the hills of that region, but I must have missed a turning and ended up climbing several big hills, eventually stopping for a tea break in a very posh looking village called Marcellus.
I ordered my drink and several old Women started questioning me about my journey.
I relayed the events of the past few days.
"Oh I used work in immigration. I used to organise the speeches,” She said, referring to the speech given by new immigrants to the USA.
"There is an office in Syracuse too" she continued.
"Do you have any contacts there still?" asked another lady.
"Pass me a phone book! Go enjoy your tea and I will see what I can do! I'll come and find you"
Stunned, I sat outside in the sun with the first flicker of hope.
The two ladies and a third contributing, now searching through phonebooks and on the internet to find out where and who, I needed to speak to.
15 minutes later, the lady came out.
"I have an address for you and some phone numbers" She beamed. I thanked her, called the number but could not get through to anyone. I tried again. Nothing.
I didnt get their names, but did pass one of my little travel cards. Should you be reading this, thank you all!
The kindness of strangers is truly a little miracle in itself.
Syracuse was a further 10 miles down the road so I cycled directly to the office.
It had actually moved premises, but only to the next street, so I made an appointment and cycled up a steep hill to the Youth Hostel.
Which was closed for the season! With no notice except a scrap of paper on the door.
Back down again, I booked into a cheapish motel for a night and ate pizza and chicken wings.
The immigration appointment was not much help.
I am still no clearer why I was denied but the man there at least gave me application forms for the extension and also went into my records and printed off several papers he knew I would need, but would not easily be able to get as I was cycling.
"Send these off to Dallas with a cheque for $290 and keep your fingers crossed. It can take up to six months for a confirmation or rejection" I left somewhat despondent and now thought about revising my route.
I thought about heading directly south.
The only reason for visiting New York is to fulfil a promise I made, to visit a friend who I met while I lived in Spain.
As well as to experience the city of course.
I followed the canal to New Hartford where Linda, Mike and their friend Judy hosted me. Then well and truly fed me up with a HUGE meal of perfectly grilled chicken, pasta and vegetables.
Linda had an appointment the following day so offered me a lift 20 or so miles down the road.
This made my day much shorter and as I have not slept well the past few nights meant a more relaxed day.
I was headed to Schenectady and my next host, Dan.
By chance I bumped into him as he was cycling home along the canal.
At least I was forewarned that he lived at the top of a big hill.
And at the end of a long tiring day it was certainly HUGE!
With his wife Anita, we had an excellent meal and conversation. Dan is a teacher, but also owns a small farm so there was plenty of home grown produce on the table including my favourite, home produced honey.
It was excellent!
One difficulty of travelling on a bike alone is not being able to pick up things like maple syrup, honey and other things.
As they are often sold in quantities too big for a single cyclist to carry or use.
The canal ends at Albany and I switched to the river Hudson running south to New York.
The road is variable travelling between industrial petrochemical sites, farmland, huge mansion houses and riverside villages.
At Hudson I sent out a plea and was rescued by James. I slept the night in the field next to his caravan with inquisitive cats, kittens and his 3 chickens trying to get into my tent.
The next night I spent in a motel in Croton.
I only planned one night, as the next should have been in New York City itself.
However, for the past couple of weeks I have been sending messages appealing for a bed for a week to try to reorganise my plans and route. As well as relax and enjoy the city.
I think most people are intimidated by someone who wants to stay for that length of time, so responses were few and far between.
I had to stay an extra night in the motel, as I had nowhere to stay despite many appeals. Finally I resorted to expensive phone calls using my UK SIM card to find a host.
And bingo! Tim from Brooklyn responded, "YES".
I was a little bit intimidated by cycling into such a great city but fortunately my arrival on a Sunday meant the traffic was lighter.
The Hudson Greenway is a cycle path that runs along the river edge the entire length of the city also made it easier to enter.
So now, I am up to date with my blog, writing from Brooklyn and the flat shared by Tim, Siji and her cat Pumpkin.
I have a week here to organise my onward journey and decide on a route through the USA before heading on into Mexico.
For now though, rest and enjoy New York city.
I have 6615.8 miles/ 10,647.098 kilometres under my tyres and my legs need a good long rest.
Equally importantly I fulfilled a promise I made 5 years ago to visit my friend Melanie if I ever came to visit the USA. So I was pleased we managed to meet and spend some time catching up.
I guess I better go see the sights and dip my toes in the Atlantic.