Landing at Gatwick on time at noon - London time - we retrieved our bike boxes, worried about the obvious battering they had endured: the hand-holds were torn to twice their original size, puncture wounds to the sides of the boxes were airline travel scars, and yards of strapping tape around each box were frayed. These were not good predictors of a rideable bike inside. We loaded the boxes onto a large cart, and queued up for Customs and Immigration.
Our challenge: How To Get To London From Here. Muddled foreigners mingled like sheep, shuffling forward in confusion. Brits stepped lively, heels clicking purposefully on the granite floor. We tried to emulate them, but...we muddled, huddled, mingled and baa-ed with our tourist brethren.
Thus began our relationship with Tourist Information (T.I.) offices with whom we were to have many pleasant interactions over the course of our three week visit. I queried the friendly gentleman behind the counter about getting our bikes to London, and then on The Tube to Euston Station. He didn't know about bikes on The Tube, either in boxes or out. But he did sell me a phone card - a debit card which works in about 50% of the public phone booths. What a convenience over carrying a pocketful of change! I cannot understand why ATT hasn't adopted this approach to public phoning.
We hauled and cajoled our bike boxes onto the Gatwick Express train bound for Victoria Station. Ensconcing the bikes in the guard van (cargo car) at the end of the train, we took our seats in coach. I still didn't know the condition of my bike. Another passenger wheeled his bike on.
Knowledgeable Biker informed us, guiding his bike, "You could have taken the boxes off back there."
Impatiently we wrestled apart the boxes at Victoria Station. Our anxieties peaked. Adrenalin flowed. As battered as the boxes were, we still had a difficult time getting into them. We snapped at each other, and teamwork vanished as we each pried out our own bike.
The final pieces of cardboard lay on the ground. With rousing "high fives" we laughed away our apprehensions. Each bike emerged whole and unscathed.
Under the stare of curious onlookers, we aided each other in reconstructing our bikes right on the boarding platform...reattaching front wheels and pedals, straightening handlebars, replacing saddles, and settling panniers firmly on their front and back racks. Rufus Touring Bear, dressed in his royal blue jump suit, neck beribboned with neon pink and royal blue - the colors of my bike and helmet, was given his rightful place behind my sleeping bag to watch the places we'd been. He lacked only a small helmet to complete his randonneur outfit. Rufus T. Bear is a 12" scruffly (sic) looking teddy bear purchased before our trip. He has been on all of my training rides, one leg casually dangling over the back rack dangerously flirting with the spokes, generating conversation from other bikers, and providing quiet encouragement during clamorous climbs of shifting derailleurs, heavy breathing and impatient imported cars growling in low gear behind me.
We had wheels and were on our way. We were free!
Off toward Euston Station, to catch the train to Inverness. To preserve body, if not soul, I began a silent litany as I crossed streets, "Look RIGHT! Look left," mimicking the stencils on the curb. We pushed our bikes across London, wending through pedestrian traffic, gawking in horror at commuter cyclists wearing gas filter masks while weaving through honking taxis and determined double-decker buses spewing black clouds. It was a bizarre sight, reminiscent of grade "B" nuclear war movies. We could almost chew that polluted air.
The temperature was comfortable, the sky blue; thick white clouds banked along the southern horizon. No foggy day in Londontown this afternoon.
Raucous Picadilly Circus beckoned with its eye catching multi-colored neon lights. At Buckingham Palace we participated in the Tourist Stare, a slow, walking maneuver executed by new visitors. Queen Elizabeth was not in residence, as evidenced by two, rather than four, Beefeater Guards at the palace entrance.
A 54 year old ex-Irish military drifter stopped to chat with us while we were flopped on the grass at Green Park across from Buckingham Palace.
"See me bear?" he asked, fingering a two inch green teddy bear lapel pin. "I saw your bear there on your bike."
I scooted slightly backward toward the tree, unused to strangers approaching me in this manner. Tracy and Earl moved a little closer.
"I got it during the war."
I had no idea which war he meant. World War II? The "troubles" with Northern Ireland? Desert Storm? (No, not Desert Storm. He was too old for a recent war.) A dilapidated loden green sport jacket hung crookedly off his shoulders, the right pocket stretched around a flat pint bottle. His dingy white shirt, open at the neck, gaped around a missing midriff button exposing his fleshy belly. He chatted on while my mind wandered.
Across from Euston Station I stumbled through ordering a bar meal and beer. This was my first opportunity to work with British coinage. I felt like such a dolt. I had no clue what denominations were what, nor how they looked and felt. A £1 coin is gold colored, and quite heavy. That was easy. The other coins I could distinguish neither easily nor quickly. I actually had to read the amount on the coin before I could count change. Embarrassing. The bartender picked the right amount out of my palmful of change. It seemed right. And he seemed friendly and honest. When I now encounter visitors to the U.S., they will received greater help and empathy from me because of this humbling experience.
We boarded the train for Inverness. The economical chair car we booked was in keeping with the tight student budget we were on. Our reserved seats faced each other with a table between. Settling in, we discretely surveyed the folks around us while trying to get comfortable.
Thumps, bumps, bangs and clangs of steel, red and white flashing lights, engines snorting - all at two in the morning - signaled our arrival at the Scotland border as BritRail metamorphasized into ScotRail with new engines and crew. Our car was cold (in stark contrast to our flight), the lights were never dark, and many passengers were restless, unable to settle down.
One late boarding group at three a.m. spent a half hour arguing about specifically reserved seats, while another couple slept cozily intertwined in the disputed seats. The conductor straightened out the unpleasant mess, but not before the entire car of passengers was awake and grumbling about the racket.
First light came at 3:45 a.m.; sunrise at 4:30 a.m.