Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Things I have learned

Snohomish, Washington to Saint Augustine, Florida.  Google maps says it's 4,488 miles, but I think I can safely claim 4,500 and not be accused of lying.  One hundred and fifty-seven days ago, Jen and I  said a tearful goodbye to my folks and started an adventure that I will cherish in my heart, and God willing remember, until the day that I die.

Florida is flat, and when adequately motivated a fella and his lovely bride can cover quite a bit of ground in the Sunshine State on a daily basis.  After parking our posterior's on a bicycle seat six to ten hours a day for the past five months, the comfort of a bed,  a hot shower and a home cooked meal provided all the impetus needed to propel us our last five hundred miles to the East Coast.  On Friday the 6th of December, under a warm blue Florida sky, Jenny and I parked our bikes on the boardwalk of Varn Beach in Palm Coast, cracked a cold one and plunged our dirty bodies into the calm cool waters of the Atlantic.  We sat in the sand, taking in the expanse of the Ocean and began to wrap our heads around the meaning of this journey as a sinking sun painted the wispy clouds orange against the endless horizon to the east.  A few miles away, my friend Jeff's parents welcomed us into their home with open arms.  Phil and Penny tried their  best to kill me with the size of the steak they served for dinner.  In my glutinous celebration, I ate half of Jenny's dinner as well and chewed the bones clean; my Mother will rest easy knowing that I refrained from licking my plate at the table.   Both Jen an I slept better than we had in several weeks six feet apart in the same room and I now understand the phenomenon of married couples sleeping in separate beds.  I lovingly jest my wife about trading in our queen for two singles at home, but in every joke there lies a seed of truth.

On Sunday we saddled our creaking steeds and pedaled a foggy thirty miles north to Saint Augustine, the oldest European settlement in the continental United States.  The sounds and smells of the ocean eerily cut through the hazy gloom as we made our way north at a blistering 5 mph.  It felt really nice to know that I could loaf all day and not have to worry about finding a safe place to pitch the tent before dark.  Bob and Jane Bond, old friends of our Aunt Sue greeted us with hugs, champagne and a wonderful meal of salmon, rice and salad; foods foreign to my tortilla and peanut butter based diet for much too long of a time.

Yesterday, without the faintest hint of separation anxiety, I wrapped two bikes, a BOB trailer, and over sixty pounds of gear in enough packaging tape to immobilize an elephant and posted it back to Snohomish.  I am a little embarrassed about how much shit I hauled across the country and it feels good to be traveling a little lighter.  If you are looking for advice on ultralight or ultrafast bicycle touring, you have not come to right place, but I think I can provide some useful bits about keeping your wife reasonably happy on a five-month bike tour.

In many ways, I don't know how to begin to articulate my feelings as this journey draws to a close.  Before I left on the this trip, I spent more than my fair share of the time surfing on the interweb reading about the fabled 'magic of the road' that bicycle touring is reputed to summon.  It is out here, and I have found it, but not in many of the ways that I expected.  I have learned more than a couple valuable lessons about myself, my marriage and this great and unique country in which I reside over the past months.  I have gained a much better understanding of the the role that bicycles will play in my own future, and that of our country.  I am not the same man who left my Northwest home a few months ago.

As Jen and I leave our wheels behind, I must say that this journey has affirmed my belief that bicycle touring is one of the most amazing and profound modes of travel one can embark upon.  You see sights, smell smells, and meet people that you couldn't traveling in the oppressive confines of an automobile; this is a fact.  Without reservation I encourage others to find a way to explore their world on two wheels as I will continue to do in my future.  At the same time, I must admit to myself and my readers that touring many of the roads in this country really isn't all that safe.  Bicycle infrastructure, awareness and acceptance is progressing in many places, but make no mistake, America is a car country and nowhere is that more true than the South.  It is best to remember this before rolling into traffic anywhere in this nation as you can be right in a battle with a car, but you're still not going to win the war.  The highlight of many day's on this epic tour was the minute I pulled off the road, dismounted my bike for the day and rested easy knowing that the incidence of campers being run over by texting drivers is pretty low.  There is simply no way of getting around the fact that you are an extremely vulnerable user who is at a gross disadvantage in the whole car versus bike equation.  I don't for a minute regret undertaking this adventure, but I am relieved to have made it here safely.  Above all, and more than ever I sincerely believe that communities which embrace the bicycle as part of their culture of transportation are physically, socially, economically and spiritually more vibrant than those that choose not to.

Without a doubt the most profound and enduring sentiment that I will take from this trip is that people of this country are generally pretty good folks.  If not indifferent to your presence in their community, people are overwhelmingly polite, generous, helpful and in many cases over-the-top hospitable.  It is not the places from this journey that will form my lasting memories, but the people that I met along the way who opened their homes and lives to us like we were family.  I am forever grateful and look forward to the day I am able to my pay my gratitude forward.

Jen and I are taking the Amtrak up the coast this afternoon to have a little look around Savannah and catch up with some cousins' of Jen's in Atlanta before moving on.  We'll be among family for the Holiday's and I am more excited about this than I have been in a long while; I miss home and the people that I hold most dear.  We have a couple one-way tickets to New Zealand and not much of a plan outside of that at this point.  I have a feeling that bikes are going to be part of the adventure, but then again, we might just walk from here.

Kloshe konaway
Kloshe nanitch


Fired up about Florida

Just because Florida is sunny doesn't mean it is warm. 

Share the road has a little different meaning Florida.

Never heard of a Christmas Reef myself, must be a Southern thing. 

Banana's must be thawed prior to being sliced into the the legendary peanut butter breakfast taco.  

Folks take their golf carts really seriously in Florida.

The Great Ray Charles was raised in Greenville, Florida and a life-size statue stands in his honor at the city park.

Nobody does a sandwich quite as good as my lovely wife Jenny.

Cavemen would have eaten banana cream pie for lunch if they would have know about it.  I'm totally paleo except for my six cheat meals a day.   

 Malt liquor is fortified, so it is kind of like a vitamin.

I heart rails to trails. 

Although Jenny biking on sandy roads at sunset makes for good photos, it really is very fun.

Miles of kale in Northeastern Florida. 

The best thing going on in Palm Coast; Phil and Penny Lord.

Saint Augustine hosts extraordinaire, Bob and Jane Bond!

How could I say no to Ashely Cooper's fresh baked Pumpkin Cheescake at the the Saint Augustine Beach Farmers Market?  If you are in the area, check our her Caribbean Sol Cafe for a taste of the local cuisine.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Southern Hospitality

The glamorous lifestyle of a touring cyclist.

The  muffled chime of my watch alarm chirping through earplugs at six am announces the start of another day.  The strong southeast wind blowing against our nylon and aluminum doublewide rudely proclaims what awaits us for our day on the road.   Eventually I emerge from the warm, albeit somewhat rank embrace of our shared sleeping bag and face the gray skies of the southern Gulf Coast.  I rush to fire up the stove and brew two cups of hot dark motivation as Jen packs up the bed and prepares for yet another long day in the saddle.

Try as I may, I can no longer deny that summer has come to an end.  Fantasies of warm riding under  sunny skies have been progressively crushed by the persistent headwinds and ever-colder days of the Gulf Coast November.  Daylight is at a premium, and the undeniable lack of it requires a disciplined approach to cover the sixty miles a day that will get us to the Atlantic Coast on schedule.  No more ten am starts or mid-day beers;  for better or worse, riding has become a job and I must admit that many days the stoke is a little hard to muster.

Out of New Orleans, Jen and I followed wide, trash cluttered shoulders over the bayou formed between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Saint Catherine under sunny skies.  New houses built on 15-foot concrete stilts tell a story of a people who who understand the risk that living a few feet above sea level entails,  but choose to make their stand here anyhow.  Black clouds on the eastern horizon and strong gusts announced our soaking an hour before we rode into it.  We crossed the Pearl River into Mississippi soggy-cold and pushed hard to reach Waveland by nightfall.  Marine fog swallowed the night as we searched in the dark for Buccaneer State Park.  Murphy's Law mandated a flat tire and my lack of motivation to wrench in the dark on a shoulder-less road required pumping every quarter of a mile to keep me rolling.  The hulk knocked loudly on the door of my psyche, but I managed to keep him in check.  We pitched our tent in the primitive site at the park nestled conveniently inches from the railroad tracks; you get what you pay for I guess.  I neglected to zip the tent up completely and woke to a swarm of mosquitos buzzing around my head.  None escaped my rage, but the pint of my own blood smeared on the inside of our tents among their body parts made the execution a little superfluous. Revenge, however made me feel a little better about the fresh track of bites along my receding hairline.

The morning dawned cold and dark and we continued east along the white sand beaches of the Mississippi Coast.  We blew through Bay Saint Louis, Gulfport, and Boluxi Mississippi riding 40 miles of concrete boardwalks that separate the beach from Highway 90.  Casinos, fishing boats and a plethora of seafood restaurants tell of an economy dependent upon tourists that have been slow to return since Hurricane Katrina decimated this coast with sea waves over 55 feet high in 2005.  We cut the day short at Ocean Springs and arrived at the Gulf Island National Seashore Park just before dark.  Raccoons helped themselves to our food bag while Jen and I showered; at least the dirty little bastards didn't get to the whiskey.

A new day and temperatures in the low forties invited the opportunity to wear every stitch of clothing we own.  We stopped for a minute to watch the Brown Pelicans feed in the Davis Bayou on the way out of camp and I spotted a 10-foot alligator basking in the sun 50 feet from where we stood.  She didn't respond when I called her to come closer nor when I offered to feed her my cute wife; no wonder the dinosaurs went extinct.   It is funny how the small things lift your spirits and seeing one of these giant reptiles in the wild renewed my excitement for the unknown road ahead.  Back on wide shoulders of Highway 90, Jenny and I pedaled into the wind towards Pascagoula on the quite Sunday morning.  We passed a man  parked along the side of the road blaring music from a huge stereo in the back of his truck into an empty field.  He spotted us riding by, turned the speakers towards the highway and cranked God Bless America and pumped his fist into the air as we pedaled past.  Some things you just have to see to believe.  We crossed into Alabama in the afternoon, turned south and caught a rare tailwind covering the twenty miles to Dauphin Island in Mobile Bay as the sun sank low over the Gulf and the biting chill of a clear night set in.  Morning welcomed with the nylon of the tent slapping violently in the east wind.  We packed up in anticipation of starting the day with a quick ferry ride over Mobile Bay to the town of Gulf Shores and reaching Florida by nightfall.  We pedaled across the street to the ferry terminal and were welcomed by a "Ferry closed due to high winds" sign across a locked gate.  My heart sank as I realized that we were going to have to bike 100 miles around the bay to cover the distance that a two mile ferry would have delivered us.

With stoic resolve we reversed our direction and pedaled back into a stiff crosswind towards the urban center of Mobile, Alabama.  Navigating in and out of cities is my least favorite aspect of touring across this country, and Mobile is not a cyclist friendly metropolis.  Busy four lane roads void of shoulder and frequent stops to navigate on the iPhone got us north of the city, back on Highway 90 and crossing the mouth of the Tensaw River in the late afternoon.  The inevitability if being caught in the dark weighed heavy on my shoulders as Jen and I did our best to power against the strong eastern wind and the substantial rainfall promised for the night.  With a sinking heart, we passed our campsite for the night and headed into Spanish Fort to buy groceries.  A huge storm brewing off the coast and 100% chance of heavy precipitation in the forecast for the next two days required restocking of supplies for an inevitable day hanging out in the tent.  Jenny pedaled hard, but I could tell she was not having fun; to tell the truth neither was I.

Darkness fell as we arrived at the grocery.  I waited outside, feeling, and no doubt looking quite dejected.  After nearly five months on the road,  the life a vagabond starts to lose it's appeal a little.  As I sat planning the best route back to camp, a man dressed head-to-toe in University of Alabama apparel approached in a motorized shopping cart.

Bottom's gonna fall out'a the sky here in anotha' hour or two, where y'all staying tonight,  Brad inquired as he motored out of the grocery store.

Down at the State Park by the bay, I responded unable to even recall the name of our intended home for the next couple of days.

Brad frowned, Hell, that sounds miserable.  Y'all be gator bait down there.  How many of y'all are there?

Just my wife and I sir.

How would you like to take a hot shower and sleep in a bed?

I felt pretty safe accepting the invite without conferring with my lovely wife and soon Brad was drawing me a map to his home on the outskirt of town.  Within the hour Jen and were settling into our room with a queen bed and drinking beers by the fire with Brad while his wife Saundra cooked us hamburgers.

We slept in this morning and ate eggs with toast for breakfast. It is 40 degrees and raining outside and Brad has extended our invitation indefinitely.  Jen is roasting a chicken for dinner and we will celebrate an early Thanksgiving tonight and head out again tomorrow under a clearing sky.  I cannot express in words the gratitude I feel towards folks who open up their doors to complete strangers such as Jenny and I.  As much fun as this journey has been, the road can wear on you a bit and weaken one's resolve to finish what was started.  The kindest gestures of hospitality; a warm bed, a hot shower and a home-cooked meal refuels my soul with determination and reminds me of the goodness that runs throughout the core of this country.

Onward to Florida and what tomorrow may bring.

Kloshe konaway
Kloshe nanitch