Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Carolina Whirlwind Tour

Whirlwind, literally!  So, been awhile, I'm still alive.  The past couple weeks I've been rambling round the Carolinas, reconnecting with Stevie and Missy, riding out a hurricane, having the bejeesus scared out of me on some awful North Carolina road (but surviving), experiencing a genuine poo geyser, and, well, hard to name what all else.

Some habits die hard:
Steve and I climb a tree

Let me think back now, I left the ever rainy Charlotte under grey skies that thickened into rain as I climbed steadily into the mountain, Black Mountain specifically, for my visit with Steve.  By the time the rain stopped kidding around, I was was humping it up my first mountain on a gorgeous dirt (ok, mud) road, only to shed that elevation and do it all over again.  Yup, real mountains.

But the reward at the end, well worth it: I arrived to hear Steve laughing before he even opened the door, where upon he explained that he'd told Lisa I was probably going to arrive on an 80's vintage bike wearing wool.  Does this guy know me or what?

He and Lisa, along with Zinnia and Linden, have carved out quite the homestead with an impressive garden, chicken coop, and bee hives that kept me well fed during my stay.  The rain continued, but well, we just went ahead and got wet, with Steve showing me around the land and projects as well as some waterfall (good weather for that) exploration.  Truly a stellar time.
Come Monday, it was time for the three day stint on the road to my southern terminus of Charleston for a visit with Missy.  While I kept hearing how much worse SC would be than NC for riding, with the exception of the true mountain areas near Steve's, I have to disagree.  While the roads certainly aren't designed to accommodate bikes and cars at the same time, the drivers (for the most part), do seem a little more accepting of this fact and were (generally) good about waiting to pass until they could do so safely.
So of course, mixed into this ride, were all the forecasts of impending doom in the form of Hurricane Joaquin, and seriously, it was no joke, but I managed some amazingly perfect timing.  While camping outside Spartanburg, I kept hearing thunder in the distance and later learned that someone died that night in flash flooding.  I had managed to pass through town around 4pm.  Onward to Columbia, I rode in overcast, but clear weather, making it to my warm showers host dry and sheltered for that night's heavy rains.  I had apparently poured in Charleston all day, and Missy was checking in with me if I'd need a ride, or at least had snorkel gear.  Still, this was just the weather pattern before the big storm, and with a pre-6am launch the day, I was able to ride tailwinds into the low pressure system, arriving barely wet by late afternoon.  It poured again that night, and the next day, and the next....
Yes, a sewer geyser.

So, what to do in a new town under heavy skies?  Think like a duck and walk around.  It was fantastic!  Not only did the weather keep the crowds away, there was immediate kinship with anyone I met on the street.  One woman on her way to work at the hospital (heart attacks still happen in bad weather, as she explained) snapped my picture wading knee deep water, and another couple jokingly asked me where everyone else was.  We agreed, it was a great day to see the city.

So, with the rain passed, I took one day of dry but overcast (perfect) skies to expand my exploration of the area by bike before departing Wednesday morning.  Honestly, the rest is mostly tales of busy roads, a few miles of very cool East Coast Greenway bike path, some fantastic sneaky campsites, getting filmed for a sorority scavenger hunt on the UNC Wilmington campus (another great campsite), and meeting Devon, a thought provoking gent without a home who takes fantastic photos.
Devon, good man,
and unfortunately, 
more evidence military service can mess a person up.

And with that done, I rode a ferry and made it back to Virginia, but those tales are for another day.  I'm just into NJ with a few miles to go before I sleep.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Frisco Kid

So, I crossed in to North Carolina on my way to visit Cliff and Jennifer in Charlotte after a overwhelming pleasant Warmshowers night of food, conversation, and sleep with Dick and Janet in Greensboro.  As I travel further south, I'm noticing a steady increase in the number of "No Trespassing" signs and a trend toward horrific roads on the entries and exits to the cities.  Once downtown, these areas feel downright bike friendly, just don't try to enter or leave.

But likely the most telling experience came shortly after entering NC and ducking onto Business Rt220 to avoid the heavier traffic.  Passing a roadside tag sale that advertise tools, I figured, sure, good time for break and if I found anything irresistible, there's always the postal service.


How to describe Frisco without offending his sense of privacy or distrust of law enforcement?  After a few bouts of calling me a damn Yankee (in the friendliest way possible) and double checking my sexual identity (I am, after all, riding through the south with a pink fender on my bike), he insisted on making me a bologna sandwich, never really believing my claim that I had eaten that day.  There are times, I supposed, it is healthier to eat the bologna on white hamburger bun with mustard than to run the run the risk of offending the good Samaritan offer.  That was even before I'd learned about two other dimensions to Frisco's personality: .357" (front waist band) and 9mm (rear).

And he kept trying to give me things: patch kits, tubes, tools, money, I can't remember it all.  I finally escaped with little more than some unsettling meat-product in my stomach and a pair of safety glasses (only to lose and have crushed about 2 miles up the road the polarized lenses I'd dutifully removed to my front pocket in order to don my new gift).  Still, his heart, I suppose was more or less in the right place, even if a strong bit racist.  He sent me off with a hug and made me promise to pay it forward, and "not to no n_______."

Sometimes part of travel is a little discomfort.  It takes us out of our familiar surroundings, and even if we never agree with what we've seen, it can give a fuller understanding of the many forms humanity can take.  So thank you Frisco, you've expanded my experience, fed and clothed me in your own way, and I do plan to do the same for others, even if with a bit more color blindness. 


Maybe I'm just lucky, but I don't recall ever having a bad visit in Virginia.  My first visit to the state came a few years after graduation to visit Shane who was in graduate school at Virginia Tech.  At the time, I was surprised to find the route 81 corridor between the mountains much more open fields and fewer trees than I expected of the state, but after meeting the people and getting further off the beaten highway, well, maybe I'm just lucky, but I've never had a bad Virginia visit.

My first full day (of roughly four) in the state greeted me with cloudy skies which soon gave way to rain, but given no particular rush, I had time to seek shelter as I could find it and wait out the hardest downpours.  I think I covered less than 50 miles the whole day in spurts, riding in bare feet and Crocs to keep my sneakers dry, and I'd say the relative rest did me good.  Of course, the halting pace meant I was still about 15 miles when dusk started to take hold and I discovered my rear light had dead batteries, so I opted for discretion over valor (or any sense of pride--I hear it proceedeth a fall anyway) and ducked under the rt33 bridge over the Shenandoah River where I found a large flat pad by the abutments as a bone dry place for the night.  Hobos know best!

NY doesn't get it,
PA doesn't get it,
but Virgina GETS IT!
This is what a bike route should look like.

But all wet weather must come to an end, and I woke in the morning to wonderfully dry, but overcast skies for perfect riding weather.  Headed for Lexington and a wonderful Warmshowers with Rebecca and Lee on their farm, I was treated to my best day of this tour thus far.  In particular, was the superlatively good rt 608, a quiet little byway running between a river and railroad tracks through a narrow valley.  With a car passing roughly ever 15 minutes, well, yes, this VA bike route is just what such a state recommendation should be.  After learning to avoid other state's routes like flesh eating bacteria, this was just such a treat.  Thank you Virginia!

After a relaxing night on the farm, the next day began with more of the same: good roads, good weather, and a sense of general well being, I even had a sentimental five year reunion with likely the coolest foot bridge I've ever met, although with the day's sunshine, I find the images from this go round a little less ethereal.  Still, I found the return to something familiar surprising touching.

 Five years later, still there,
and still wonderfully wonky.

All those praises said, however, there are still roads in VA that are best avoided, and I found one in the form of rt220 south out of Roanoke.  Egad, high speed winding road with little or no shoulder gave for a bit more excitement than I really needed, but with no other viable option through the mountain gap, I dug in a made as short work of the 10 miles as I could before a return to more peaceful back roads, and some time reflect and enjoy my continued existence in a three dimension state of non-roadkillness.

For years, my truest sign that I'd entered the south
was always the first sight of the eleven yellow squares of a Waffle House.
Guess I've managed some good routes:
I'd been south of the Mason-Dixon for four days
before passing this one to the south of Roanoke.

Still, alls well that ends well, and I was treated to good riding for the close of the day and my last night in the state, camped out near an Army Engineers dam with military aircraft making low altitude valley runs just overhead.  Impressively loud, daunting, and mercifully short lived (in my case) to allow for a good night's sleep, these jets must scar the bejeezus out of anyone who disagrees with the US foreign policy.  I cannot even fathom being in the sights of one.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Out of the dust and into the rain

For now, I've finished my combined stint on the on the GREAT Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal (lagoon?), having headed south from Harper's Ferry.  I truly enjoyed my time on those two paths, and if you enjoy riding a bike away from cars and off sealed surfaces, you owe it to yourself, and the people who made the efforts to realize these national treasures, to go ride them.  I've heard of similar long riverside trails in other parts of the world, but it is wonderful to know we actually manage the same here in the car-centric USA.

Right now, I don't have time to detail my full time on the trail, but I'll list some highlights as they occur to me:
1) The Paw Paw Tunnel.  Not as long as the longest on the Allegheny, but has the attraction, for me, of being unlit.  I like the dark.  Actually, I love the dark.  Sometimes I think I have the opposite of seasonal affective disorder, as there is just too much damn sunlight in summer.  Anyhow, I rode half way into the 3,000+ foot long tunnel, shut off the light, and enjoy the serenity of walking the remaining half in the dark.  Every so often, I like to let my other sense overshadow the dominance of sight.
2) Sticking to the paw paw theme: paw paws!  I discovered this fruit on my last night of trailside camping above Dam #4, a campsite I shared with a Girl Scout troop out of Columbia, MD.  These robust young gals were hiking for two days and carrying more on their backs than I ever attempt.  Miss Pricilla welcomed this lone traveler into the fold and they even fed me smores!  I hope I earned my biker-guy-who-eats-weird-fruit-out-of-the-woods merit badge.
3) A quick hello to Tom for keeping me company with tales and other repartee on our ever-so-fast decent into Cumberland at the end of the Allegheny.
 4) Dust!  It didn't seem that dusty, but it quickly became apparent that any attempt to keep the chain lubricated would be fruitless.  Who knew a day later I'd be passing time under a bridge to let the rain subside.
5) A cave: Last day on the trail, I managed to spot a cave entrance tucked into the cliffs that so often line the C&O canal.  I ventured about 200 feet in until I decided an utter lack of proper equipment meant I should appreciate it at that.  Starting to narrow, it still continued as far as my light would shine.  The quiet was desert impressive.
6) I love the buildings along the canal.  Simple structures with dimensions and proportions that are just right.  Todays home builders could learn a lot here, and maybe, just maybe, stop pasting on all those extra fake gables!  Please, pretty please?

Paw paws!

Thank you again gals.

So, in Harper's Ferry, I turned south on rt340 for just under 60 miles before finding a nice secluded place to camp on state land above the Shenandoah River.  It was a peaceful night despite some random nearby semi-automatic firing in the wee hours (I try not to overthink such things) and finding bear scat on my walk into the woods, which had me hanging my food up high.

Is this a great sign or what?
Get it?
The halo of light was a lucky coincidence.
I think: hanging gardens.

It's a Jeep thing, or so I'm told

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Allegheny Passage Trail, it really is Great!

 Great, it's one of those words, so over used today, that it starts to lose meaning.  We have "The
Great something or other," or "So-and-so the Great," and the list goes on.  But, the Great Allegheny Passage, well, it really is a step above good.  I joined the trail yesterday about 54 miles from Pittsburgh after departing California, PA from my visit with Tim and Nicki.  After almost 500 miles of sometimes challenging, but frequently entertaining navigation (I once used the address on a tag sale sign to confirm a turn in the absence of an actually street sign), no turns!

But really, it is much more than a lack of intersections.  I am finding the trail one of the most relaxing times I have ever spent on a bike, and I am pretty darn comfortable on a bike.  It's not just the 1,600 feet of elevation gain in 60 miles (Did I actually climb?), or dappled sunlight on shaded trail, or actually regularly seeing other touring cyclists, nor the entertaining spur trails and swim holes.  It is all that and more.

Probably the biggest surprise is my reaction to the lack of turns.  Justin rode the full length of the C&O and this trail earlier this summer, and he did comment that at times, it does get a bit mundane, and believe me, I get that.  I'd had a similar reaction to the stint I rode on the Erie Canal Path once west of Schenectady, but something about this trip in general, and maybe the distance I've covered thus far has me loving the tedium.  I wander, I stop, I lose myself in some thoughts, then find myself again splashing across a calm pool of water between sections of rapids.  I have no hosts and therefore nowhere to arrive, and if I like, no need to stop.  Ahhhh!

Also, the path is quite well organized.  For example, I am in Meyersdale.  At the old station, there is a standardized sign with a map of the town and all points of interest and business.  So, without the need to rove, I headed directly across town to the supermarket for lunch fixins, then retraced my route to the public library where I now type.  Once back to the trail, I can fill my bottles from the spigot, bid the town farewell, and continue my climb up to the eastern continental divide, roughly 300 feet above my current elevation.  Easy as can be.

Not that the riding before I reached the trail was unpleasant, oh no!  I made the crossing from State College to California in two full days of riding.  That made for 75-80 miles days, which I'm finding is a, oh heck with it, "great" no-rush pace.  I particularly enjoyed winding along the river that took my to California.  It truly started to feel like western PA, complete with agriculture replacing forests, flaming vent towers, and even a hint of mid-western drawl.

Once in California, I was reunited with my old chums from Hartford Food Not Bombs.  Tim and Nicki were always game to experiment with whatever food we received as donations, and they have only expanded on that in the couple years they've been away.  I was treated to Seitan Phillies complete with homemade vegan cashew "cheese" sauce.  I managed to shed one my habanero for the mix-up, and while I adore hot food and have managed to almost completely desensitize myself, these peppers are still amazing me.  When Nicki started to cook the next day, she couldn't stand over the pan from the capsicum that had leached into the pan.  That's one pepper, no seeds!

Of course, I've been so fond of Tim and Nicki ever since first hearing him tell his H20 too joke (I'll refrain here), and seeing them again was such an unexpected treat, having learned of their return north just a few days before my departure.  The impetus for this trip and its direction was reunions, and I'll admit, there's something so very personally encouraging about being able to just hang around with friends in their mid-twenties and not feel at all old.  Sure, I have 15 years more experience but we both appreciate that, and I would never trade it.  Also, and this might be a hint of the cranky curmudgeon, it is the twenty-somethings with whom I can relate this way that give me hope for the future.

So, as I continue my amble down this road, this path, even this life, and I reflect on my reaction to the Great Allegheny, I've taken to pondering the question: Am I here for the riding, or am I riding for the here.  Especially given my background, it is easy to get caught up in the riding, but I'm blending in a lot more "here" this go round.  I still love the ride, no doubt there, but I'm finding variety a very blissful spice!

And if I were out here solely for the images,
I'd probably have to call it a wrap after finding this one.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

From State College to California

I've said it before and I'll likely say it again: one of my life ambitions is to NEVER ride a bicycle across the United States, but now it looks like I'm headed to California.  Well, California, PA that is.  Today I covered about half the distance from State College and am staying with hosts at the bottom of Mile Hill Road.  The trip back up should have me wide awake by the top in the morning.

Time for photo essay!

Law School building at Penn State

And a view from inside

A white oak in the arboretum

And a view from up inside!

Turns out, it's a pretty poplar place
(sorry, couldn't pass on the pun)

State College: where bikes are as radical as skateboards

The visit with Lora and Dave was and exercise in,
 "What should we make with tomatoes now?"
Aww, gee.

And I couldn't resist a pie made three towns away from where I was raised in CT.
Ok, I'm bad at resisting pie in general.

 A bridge!

And what's left of the RR bridge above it.

 Game of Monopoly anyone?

 Train, and gate, and razor wire, oh my!

 Wind turbines framed by power lines

 Roadside-find sandwich:
dandelions, habaneros, and clover flowers
(yes, someone lost a basket of habaneros!)

 A bridge!

 And RR!
(anyone notice a theme?)

And because we all end up here,
get out and live.
Years ago in the hills of Western Mass, I found a 150+ year old headstone reading:
Ashes to ashes
and dust to dust.
Prepare yourself,
for follow me you must.