Wrapping Up

I’ve planned to write some form of wrap up post summarizing my tour across the Northern US since Rory and I reached Bar Harbor on October 10th.  The nearly two weeks that have passed since we dipped our wheels in the Atlantic feel as though they span several lifetimes (and they do separate two distinct ways of living), but better late than never.

In many ways, the final four days of our tour after leaving my parents’ house in Randolph were no more unique than any other four days taken from the past 3 months.  The terrain along the Maine coast was grueling–especially after Rory broke his rear shift lever two days from the end–and my legs could feel the ever present creep of fatigue.  We camped in Oxford (at $40 our most expensive lodging of the whole trip, but we did score a free can of beans), stayed with a warm showers host in Bath, and crashed with family friends in Belfast.  It poured throughout our third-to-last and penultimate days.

While the limited shelter and route options throughout the western portion of the Northern Tier funnels touring cyclists through the same roads and campsites, the eastern portion imposes fewer constraints.  Due to both impending colder weather and our non-conventional route through New York and New England, we didn’t cross paths with many touring cyclists during the post-Chicago portion of our trip.  

The night before we finished, after 70 miles of riding through pouring rain and less than a mile from our homestay, Rory and I ran into two touring cyclists on a foggy pedestrian bridge in Belfast, ME.  Mackenzie and Carson also started their trip in Seattle, though they had taken a more circuitous route which added 1000 miles to their trip.  They planned to finish the following day with another couple, Katie and Jeff, who they met in early Washington but had only recently re-joined along the route.

On the final day the six of us finished within an hour of each other; we ceremoniously dipped our wheels, drank beers on the beach as the sun set over the water, and swapped stories about our best and worst moments throughout our respective trips.  Here are a few of those memories…

Most memorable moments: Riding up the Going to the Sun Road as the sun rose over Glacier and rolling into my parents’ house in Randolph come immediately to mind, though I can also think of a hundred small moments throughout the trip that could qualify.  For instance, waking up in the dark to make coffee and watch the sun rise over lake Koocanusa, riding mountain bikes in Medora, first seeing the western edge of Lake Superior as we descended into Duluth, and meeting my parents in Ironwood.

Worst moments: Realizing that my tendonitis had progressed to the point that I could no longer ride and both emergency room visits were definite low points in the trip.  Any day that we had to pack up camp in the rain also probably qualifies, though we were pretty lucky when it came to weather.  Rory and I also ran out of water and food taking a 100 mile back-route between Nashua and Circle, MT, which included 70 miles of completely uninhabited road.

Worst meal: Once I ate 2 hard boiled eggs so fast I didn’t realize they were rotten until I had already swallowed.

Most memorable meal: Any time we stopped for a 2nd breakfast at a greasy diner, but probably the Hitching Post in Malta, MT.  Also avocado on toast and espresso in Fargo after weeks of riding through the Great Plains and eating mostly peanut butter and cookies.

Favorite campsite: We stayed at a walk-in campsite situated on some cliffs that overlooked Lake Koocanusa in northwestern Montana.

Things I would change: There are a hundred small gear decisions to be made on a tour (both short and long), which are ultimately too boring to talk about at length here.  Not only are there choices to be made concerning which bike to ride, but also the bags attached to the bike.  On this trip I had the opportunity to correct many of my early mistakes when we arrived in Chicago, but realistically most gear configurations work fine.  That said, I would not recommend bringing a bivy sack on a 3 month trip, and high-quality, durable bike parts are probably worth the investment.

Things we (unintentionally) did well: Using warm showers early undoubtedly changed our trip for the better.  Before leaving Seattle we debated whether to buy ACA maps, and they were worth every cent of the $160 we spent.


Life After Touring

I began this post over a week ago–before finishing the trip–so some parts are slightly out of date.  Mostly I’m no longer riding.  Anyway,

Rory and I reached my parents house in Randolph, NH on October 3rd, which for my purposes marks the end of our trip.  I set out from Seattle on July 18th to ride home.  The remaining 4 days we’ll ride to reach the coast are more or less a formality; we only picked Bar Harbor as our destination after we realized (no more than a week before leaving Seattle) that the ACA’s Northern Tier terminates there.

Just as each section of our cross country adventure has been different than those preceding and following, the weeks since we reached central New York mark the first times that we’ve seen friends and family along the way, excluding Ironwood WI and Chicago.  In Hamilton we stayed with Neil and Madeline, friends from Northwestern; in Troy we stayed with Josh, Rory’s former Seattle roommate; in Hanover we stayed with my Aunt and Uncle as well as my Oma and Opa; from Hanover we rode to my parents’ house in Randolph, where we rested for three days.  While the earlier parts of our trip were a constant string of unknowns–road conditions, water and food availability, terrain, and shelter–this section has been largely predictable and comfortable.  Each day I knew the cities we passed through and the people we stayed with each night.

When we set out from the West Coast, people we met asked a relatively standard set of questions: Where do you sleep? (almost a 50/50 split between camping and staying in people’s homes) How many miles do you ride each day? (about 70) How will you get home? (We’ll drive) Have you lost weight? (I doubt it) What do you do when you get a flat tire? (We fix it, obviously).  However, as the end of a trip of this scale approaches, people begin to ask deep, open ended questions.  The most frequent: what do you hope to take away from this trip when you finish?

As I’ve written before, the people we’ve met have been the most consistently memorable parts of this trip.  Standing next to a loaded touring bike makes strangers comfortable asking questions, starting conversations, offering their lawns and homes for the evening, or buying a round of drinks.  While I know that my approachability will disappear when I put away my touring bike and panniers, I hope I can start similar interactions with people in my day to day life and pay the generosity forward that we’ve experienced on this trip.

When I returned from South America during 2012, I stopped blogging and journaling until leaving for this trip 5 years later.  While I find that writing every day results in a mundane, boring laundry list of events, writing somewhat regularly forces me to remember and reflect on the previous week.  If I know I’m going to write, I think more activity about the themes of my day to day existence without getting as absorbed in small–and ultimately trivial–details.  Unlike 5 years ago, I’d like to continue to write in some form after this trip concludes.

During a bike tour only a few things need to happen each day.  I need to ride, I need to eat, and I need to find shelter.  More importantly, it’s only possible to accomplish a few things each day.  There are no appointments to keep; very few items to clean, organize, or repair; and answering emails or texts while riding is challenging at best.  When I return to Chicago and Northwestern I’d like to do a fewer things, better; I’d like to schedule less and concentrate more.  Without becoming a hermit it’s challenging to avoid meetings, deadlines, and stress entirely, but sometimes it’s alright for life to move a little slower.

Leaving Chicago, Going Home

Right up until I started packing–about an hour before we started riding–I was ready to leave Chicago. Sure, I knew I would miss Sarah, friends, cooking, and sleeping in a bed, but I also wanted to finish what I had started two months earlier.

Actually leaving Chicago for the final four weeks of our trip was hard–much harder than I expected–and in the subsequent weeks that we’ve been back on the road I’ve tried to understand why. There were the obvious reasons; those I mentioned earlier. There was also the shift in routine; the day to day of bike touring has some regularity, but it can be stressful, it’s rarely comfortable (putting on dirty bibshorts, anyone?), and it takes time to adapt.

More than anything, even after two weeks of rest I don’t think I fully reset. When we arrived at home I was broken in more ways than one. The tendinitis in my knee was so aggravated I physically couldn’t ride more than a mile. My legs were feeling the slow onset of long-term fatigue. I was constantly stressed about whether we’d make it to Chicago.

At the time we left these factors still worried me. I didn’t want to return to the burnt out stress of northern Wisconsin, and I didn’t want to strand myself a second time in a situation that I couldn’t easily get out of. Why would my second shot at touring turn out better than the first? Still, I had Sarah to push me out the door, Rory to accompany me and to hold me accountable, and family waiting on the East Coast. So I left anyway, despite my inhibitions.

This final third of this trip has been gratifying, but different ways than the first two thirds. The riding is less interesting (though New York has been nothing but gorgeous) and the scenery less striking. Instead, we’ve encountered night after night of welcoming hosts, some from warm showers, some through mutual friends, and still others who are strangers. In Cleveland we stayed with Jay and Daniela, friends of friends through collegiate racing. In Madison we stayed with Tom, who pulled over his van at the end of his work day to offer us a place to stay. In Ripley we stayed with Amy and Mike, and Buffalo we stayed with Leslie and Dwight, all of whom treated us as family. In Middletown we spent dinner and breakfast on Joe and Barb’s boat, with their friends Tommy and Suzette.

As we move east, we’re starting to meet family and friends, which makes traveling even easier. Though we haven’t quite made it to New England, we only have about nine days of riding left. The barn is in sight, but plans for a next trip are already percolating.

The People We Meet

I’ve written many times that the people we meet–not necessarily the places we visit–make 3 months of biking across America worthwhile. This, I think, has become more true as Rory and I make our way towards the East Coast. Throughout the Midwest the scenery is less spectacular than the mountain passes of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and the riding itself is less interesting.

Over the course of our trip I’ve tried to keep track of the many individuals who we’ve encountered along the way–mostly through journaling and Instagram. I’m instinctively uncomfortable taking pictures of people, but I’ve gotten better about asking (and so far no one has refused). That said, I rarely write in longer form about these strangers-turned-friends explicitly, but instead as characters that turn up briefly throughout the narratives of my other blog posts.
So, I’m going to (try to) write about these people that add color and texture to otherwise similar days.

Friday night (9/15) we stayed with Doug and about 20 live turtles in Napoleon, Ohio. Initially he invited us not to his house, but to the bar he’s owned for year and a half. Everyone in Napoleon seems to know Doug–even if he doesn’t know them–and everyone seems to know that he hosts a constantly changing cast of touring cyclists, exchange students, and anyone else who might need a home for a few nights. He also hosts a series of ridiculously popular turtle races in the greater Ohio area. Apparently turtles happily eat cat food.

Tuesday afternoon (9/12) as Rory and I rolled out of Chicago we passed Tony, who is finishing his third trans-am bike tour. We exchanged route information (origin, destination, general route, plans for the evening) and names (an afterthought)–the necessarily things to know about another cyclist. When we arrived at the dunes a few hours later, he had already purchased a campsite for the three of us to share. Tony travels with a laptop and two phones, but no stove.

The next morning (9/13) as we huddled under a restroom overhang waiting out a rainstorm, we met a woman (who’s name I unfortunately don’t remember), touring on a Brompton folding bicycle with a Burly trailer full of art supplies in tow. Cyclists who tour on Bromptons seem to be part of an exclusive club; its members refer to their bicycles using special alpha-numeric codes. Up until now I’d never wanted to own a folding bicycle, but I admit to feeling a small amount of jealousy when she unpacked her small “bike-cube” in under 30 seconds flat.

Sunday night (9/17) we stayed with Phil and Cindy just outside Cleveland. Phil introduced us to orienteering, a sport which seems to involve a map, a compass, and being lost in the woods for 12 hours at a time while trying to find hole punchers hidden in small gullies. There’s also a kayaking version (getting lost in a lake), and a skiing/snowshoeing version (freezing while getting lost in the woods). Obviously I’m intrigued.

For me, writing people is challenging because there isn’t a theme to which they all contribute. Some share their homes for the evening; some provide new, challenging perspectives on how to live; some entertain us for a few minutes; some become friends for an afternoon or an evening. Still, these people (and many, many others) drive the narrative of this trip–more so than pedaling to a new place each day.

The Last Four Weeks

Rory and I have been living at my apartment in Chicago for the past 12 days since we rented a UHaul in Townsend WI and drove the nearly empty truck home (if you missed that story, read my previous post). The first day or two back felt awkward–our first consecutive days of not riding in 6 weeks, existing in a familiar place with familiar people, and still not wearing my normal clothes because I left most of them with Sarah in Seattle. But routines don’t die easily, and settling into my previous Chicago life happened alarmingly quickly. I met with my advisor at Northwestern (twice); I saw friends at coffee shops and bars; I worked on my bike(s); I raced cyclocross.

To be clear, I don’t think that routines are inherently bad, and there are many elements of bike touring that are less than ideal and–at least for me–not sustainable over longer periods of time. By the time Rory and I reached northern Wisconsin I was both physically and emotionally burnt out. Sleeping in outside in a bivy sack, eating food cooked on a camp stove, and riding through days of damp, boring miles had largely lost their appeal. Developing tendonitis only underscored my need for a longer break from what had become a daily grind towards Chicago.

However, touring has made me think critically about elements of my day to day life that I suspect would otherwise go unnoticed. In Chicago I’m less likely to talk to strangers in passing; I compulsively create schedules and to-do lists for each day; I spend more time checking my email; I read less, write less, and take fewer pictures. Throughout our stay I continued to journal semi-regularly, but I found that although I had more to do each day, I had fewer experiences that I felt were worth writing about.

Rarely–if ever–have I taken long trips where I was able to “start over” in the middle. Although a not insignificant part of me wanted to stay in comfortable Chicago life with Sarah, friends, cyclocross, and routines, I’m also ready to start towards the East Coast. In part I just need to finish the trip (who wants to say, “I almost rode my bike across the country, but then I decided to go back to work early instead”), but there are also elements of touring life–particularly the opportunity/necessity of meeting new people–that I want back. I hope that when this trip is over I can more intentionally incorporate those elements into my day to day life.

This time around I’ve swapped my bivy for a full tent, replaced my thermarest with one that doesn’t leak, and swapped from down tube friction to STI shifters; hopefully my touring life will be more comfortable. As it turns out, when packing for a 3 month tour, sometimes comfort should trump my tendency towards ultralite minimalism.

Teleported Home

I’ve been stranded while traveling home a few memorable times in my life. There was the time that I tried to fly standby out of Buenos Aires over Argentina’s winter vacation week after 5 months of living abroad. I spent 48 hours living in the airport until I thumbed a flight back to Santiago, at which point I connected through Atlanta, New York, and finally Boston. There was also the time when Sarah and I tried to drive back to Chicago in my ‘91 VW GTI after living in Seattle for the summer. We were stranded for 3 days while we replaced the clutch in San Jose, only to blow out a tire 2 days later, 50 miles west of Cheyenne WY. The nearest replacements for the GTI’s rare tire size were in Arizona, several days away.

As Rory and I approach Chicago I’ve found myself in a somewhat similar situation, albeit traveling by bike rather than car or airplane. Last Thursday as we rode into Fargo my right leg felt unusually tight and achy, but I didn’t think much of it. On bike tour everything hurts eventually. Two days later (Saturday) as we headed eastward on US Route 2 towards the Upper Peninsula—battling rain and wind–the ache came back, and by the end of the following day (Sunday) I could barely ride. We rested for one blissful day (Monday) in Conover WI, hoping that near complete lack of movement combined with ibuprofen would fix me up just long enough to get us to Chicago.

We left Conover on Tuesday, which is why I spent most of Wednesday sitting outside a gas station in Townsend WI–a small town 80 miles southeast of Conover–unable to pedal further. While traveling by bike is relatively straightforward, traveling with a bike is a nightmare. Townsend’s transportation options are limited to a small UHaul rental or hitchhiking, and Green Bay (the nearest city) is only serviced by bus. Neither hitchhiking nor busing are particularly bike friendly, which left UHaul as the only way out.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s UHaul fleet was at capacity on that particular Wednesday in Late August. After deciding against both waiting 2 days for a small truck in Townsend and taking their available 26 foot truck that day, Rory backtracked 60 miles north to pick up a truck in Iron Mountain and returned to Townsend to collect me. We loaded our 2 bikes and 4 panniers into the UHaul and drove the large, mostly empty box to Chicago. What should have been a 4 day ride took about 6 hours (including a dinner stop in Green Bay) and 34 gallons of gas.

Now I’ve been teleported to Chicago a few days early, hoping that the 2 weeks we’ve allotted to stay here will be long enough to heal. It’s comfortable to be home, but it also feels empty without the usual friends, work, and training/racing. So, what’s the takeaway from this retrospectively hilarious but disappointingly inefficient situation?

Maybe patience. We probably should have taken the day off in Duluth when my leg started to hurt, and probably should have taken more days off in general after leaving Glacier. In Conover I probably should have rested more than one day while we had a roof, a stove, and electricity in order to avoid getting stuck in a place where we had nothing.

Maybe that a credit card and a smartphone are a huge safety net–a “get out of jail expensively” card. I feel disappointed that I used them, but I think I’m ultimately happier than I would have been camping/living in Townsend until the tendinitis disappeared.

Maybe flexibility. By definition adventures will rarely turn out as expected and plans require modification. You re-evaluate, you try to learn, and you move forward. Sometimes you find an elegant solution, but sometimes you take the atomic option and rent the UHaul.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Anyone who’s spent time around me knows that I spend much of my day thinking about, preparing, and consuming food. Perhaps not as frequently as I hunt down and drink coffee, but reaching that level would be challenging. Each day is only so long.  

As an active individual I eat a reasonable quantity of food; rarely in large portions at a single time, but spaced regularly and frequently throughout the day (and sometimes the night). As a competitive endurance athlete I have to consider which foods I’m eating at any given time, and how those foods will affect my performance the next hour, the next day, or the next week. And as a vegetarian who refuses to live exclusively on Cliff products, I have to find or create food that meets conditions 1 and 2, and that is both palatable and meat-free.

Eating well without a kitchen on a long distance bike tour adds a few interesting and challenging constraints, though certainly not constraints that are insurmountable. My non-exhaustive list includes:

  1. Weight: This applies to both the food and the container. Canned foods and glass jars of peanut butter or kimchi are the worst because the food is dense and the container is heavy.
  2. Cooking temperature: Many stoves (mine included) cannot simmer or fry anything and instead create the strongest adhesive known to man between the food and the bottom of the pan, rendering both unusable. The meal must be boiled at high heat.
  3. Cooking duration: Long boil times waste fuel. I’m looking at you, green lentils.
  4. Longevity: Food will be exposed to high heat and/or moisture, possibly for long durations of time.
  5. Order of operations: We only have 1 burner, and because it’s a liquid fuel stove I only want to light it once. Cook everything in the same pot at the same time 

We’ve by no means mastered camp cooking, but compared to most we set a fairly high bar. I have yet to cook a freeze dried meal on this trip, to cook a meal that did not contain at least one fruit or vegetable, or to cook a meal that came from a single package. 

First, it’s important to realize that bike touring–at least this version of bike touring, which is different from my more remote tours like the Oregon Outback–is not the same as backpacking. Yes, we are self powered, self supported, and we spend a lot of time camping. But we can soften some of the constraints I listed above. Whereas backpackers spend most of their time away from populated areas, we pass multiple towns each day and rarely camp more than 20 miles from source of food and water. Furthermore, adding a few extra pounds to a backpack means a lot more work schlepping, but a little extra weight in a pannier rolls just fine. Ultimately we can carry foods that spoil quickly, that weigh a little extra, or that require more than a thimbleful of fuel.

In the future I’d like to start making ultralite and long lasting meals for multi week backpacking and remote bikepacking trips that don’t have to be purchased at REI. Also, it will give me an excuse to use that dehydrator Sarah bought last year. But what do we cook on this trip? Here are a my favorites so far:

  1. Chili: 1 can diced tomatoes; 1 can beans; ½ onion, ½ pepper (spicy or bell); chili powder; salt; pepper. Optional: yogurt, cheese, avocado.
  2. Tacos: The same as chili without the tomato. We cook the mixture in bean juice and water. Sometimes we substitute Fritos for tortillas.
  3. Curry: red lentils and/or 1 minute rice; ½ onion; broccoli, cauliflower and/or peas; curry powder; salt; pepper. Optional: yogurt. Soak the lentils while setting up camp to reduce cook time. Cook the whole mixture until it’s about to stick to the pain, then let it sit with the top on (and the stove off) to cook a little longer.
  4. Epic Salad: 1 box mixed greens; 1 can chickpeas; bell pepper, cucumber, raw peeled beet, tomato, and/or avocado; hard boiled eggs; dried and/or fresh fruit; seeds. Dressing: 1 lemon; mustard; salt; pepper; jam.
  5. Veggie “Burger”: red lentils; couscous; ½ onion; mushrooms; burger buns; whatever else is leftover in your panniers; salt; pepper. Cook the same way as the curry, but let it set for ~30 minutes so it doesn’t dribble all over your sleeping bag. Steal as many catsup packets as necessary from gas stations before getting to camp.
  6. Pasta: 1 box pasta; 1 jar sauce; ½ onion; ½ bell pepper; salt; pepper. Boil the pasta and the veggies at the same time. Dump the water and add sauce and stir for ~30 seconds so it’s not frigid but it also isn’t glued to the pan. Don’t dump the pasta on the ground with the water.
  7. The Pizza Dream: Go out for pizza and beer after a long day.