Monday, May 1st, 2006

After almost a year of anticipation, the great day came at last.

It was a Czech National holiday and the streets were very quiet as I went with my wife, Lucie, to Prague airport. I had only my helmet and a small hand bag that would easily fit in the overhead locker. Although I had no bag to check in, the questioning at the check-in desks still took an age. I had bought my ticket almost 10 months previously for the direct Prague to Newark flight that was still, at that time, being operated by Czech Airlines. As a consequence, despite having only paid US$280 for my four flight round trip to O’Hare in Chicago, I was duly allocated a Business Class seat by virtue of my then status as a Czech Airlines Frequent Flyer.

It may be important to stress at this early stage that the technological advantages that now aid out lives were largely absent in those days. I had a mobile ‘phone – but, wait for it, the only things it could do were to make telephone calls, send SMS messages and take dreadful pictures with a poor camera. Email on your telephone had not yet been thought of. There was an internet but, as I have already said, it was nothing like what we now take for granted. I had managed to locate Eagle Riders in Chicago on a website and select a bike for my trip, but all the booking had been done by (very expensive) international telephone calls. I had also prepaid my deposit by reading out my card details over the ‘phone. I assumed that, as a Harley-Davidson recommended supplier, EagleRiders would live up to their billing, but I had to take it on trust. As the green countryside of the Czech Republic, dotted here and there the vivid yellow of fields of rapeseed, disappeared beneath the wings and we climbed into wispy clouds, I was very much venturing into the unknown. Not like the explorers of olden times, that is true, but it did possess an unusual level of uncertainty.

Long flights are, by their very nature, fairly boring. I had once had a girlfriend in New York and had done this first part of the trip dozens of times. Nothing was likely to have changed and, after the first meal, I did what I always do and fell asleep.

Immigration at Newark was the usual protracted wait in an endless line before spending an anxious couple of minutes with an immigration official who seemed to see his whole raison-d’etre to be preventing me from going the next ten feet. In the paranoia that followed the terrorist attacks in September 2001, new, higher, security was in place and my retinas were scanned and my fingerprints taken. I was promised that these records would be deleted when I left. Yeah, I believed that ! Anyway, after presenting the usual signed promises not to commit any “un-American activities” during my visit, I was duly admitted.

Thanks to the benefit of Business Class, I was able to wait in a very pleasant lounge for a couple of hours, before boarding my second flight to O’Hare. Again, I was plonked in a Business seat because Continental had some kind of reciprocal agreement with Czech Airlines. The comparatively short, two hour flight for the remaining eight hundred or so miles to Chicago, passed quite rapidly. Again, I had a window seat and I marvelled at the sheer size of first Lake Eyrie and then Lake Michigan as our flightpath took us alongside the first and then over the second. As the ‘plane descended into O’Hare, it was, despite the clarity of the weather, impossible to discern the far side even at 20,000 feet even of its relatively narrow breadth. I was able to spot the Sears’ Tower (now the Willis Tower), where I hoped to begin my odyssey the following morning.

It seemed odd, in an American airport, to just grab my bag and walk straight outside, but it was my first “Domestic” arrival. On the pavement, I quickly found a cab and was taken the nine miles or so, which was essentially just a trip around the airport’s perimeter, to my Day’s Inn motel in the sprawling suburb of Des Plaines (1920 E Higgins Rd, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007). Again this had been booked by reading out my credit card details over the telephone and and was chosen because it was only about two miles from Eagle Riders. It was drab, but serviceable and I guessed it was some time since an Elk had been seen in those parts. All I wanted to do was to sleep anyway because, to my brain it was the middle of the night.