Friday, June 27, 2014

Final Thoughts

Okay, this is it. I am finally down to my final thoughts about my six-week, 1,822-mile tour of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route from Mobile, Alabama, to Niagara Falls, Ontario. In no particular order...
  • Wow. This is a vast beautiful country. I had flown across the country before, so I knew it from that perspective. It's a whole different thing, though, to see it on the ground, up close and personal, mile after mile, out in the open air, talking to locals along the way. Before this trip, I never had any yearning to see the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. I am now so pleased that I have seen them. Every state has beauty in its landscapes and in its people. Over and over during the tour, I would think, "I could live here!"--which surprised me. I now realize that I could live in lots of different places; it opens up the world for me.
  • If opossums and turkey vultures join forces, they could take over the world. Just sayin.' (I did not know before doing this trip that every state has a whole lot of opossums and turkey vultures.)
  • Was I happy with how much Underground Railroad history I learned on this trip? Yes and no. I think the trip leaders should have been given a notebook of information about the Underground Railroad and about the related sites and history along the route. That would have made it easier to know and take advantage of everything there was to learn and see along the way. So much of our energy was used every day to bicycle the miles and take care of the basics (setting up camp, cooking, doing laundry, etc.) that we didn't have much time and energy left over to do a lot of research. Also, we missed seeing a number of museums and sites because we hit them when they were closed. All that said, though, I think we saw an amazing number of sites along the route. I figured out after I got home that, by ending the trip at Niagara Falls instead of the route's official end point (Owen Sound, Ontario), we missed a whole slew of historical sites in Canada. Apparently there are more than 30 sites in the Owen Sound area alone where black settlers lived, worked, and were buried. I guess I might have to plan another trip... 
  • I discovered that, if I just keep pedaling, I can cover a lot of ground. I now feel like I can bicycle anywhere. I'm not too proud to walk a super-steep hill every now and then. Walking stretches out my sore feet, saves wear and tear on my knees, and doesn't slow me down all that much; I still get where I'm going.
  • Even though I did not think that I needed a confidence boost, this trip definitely gave me one anyway. Successfully navigating 1,800-plus miles, and riding most of those miles by myself, was empowering. I feel like I can accomplish anything I choose!
  • I have always had good gut instincts but, too often, I have ignored them or second-guessed them. I worked hard during this trip to pay attention to my gut instincts and trust them. This worked well for me; it's a skill I hope to continue to hone.
  • Having now spent six weeks without TV or movies, without constantly listening to music, with minimal phone calls, and with limited Internet access, I think normal life is cluttered with over-stimulation. I think multi-tasking is bad for our well-being and adds unnecessary stress to our lives. Now that I am home, I am making a concerted effort to limit my exposure to the normal bombardment of daily stimulation, focusing on fewer things at one time.
  • I love bicycling! Yes, even after bicycling all those miles, and even after suffering the consequences of overdoing it a bit. (See next bullet item.) A week after I got home, I rode the 62-mile route of the Maine Women's Ride, sponsored by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine every year in early June. That route kicked my butt; it was a very real reminder that Maine is hilly! It was a gloriously beautiful day, though, and I saw more scenic wonder (sweeping views of the rocky coast, pastures, farm animals and fields, mountains, hills, and trees) per mile than anything I saw during my UGRR trip--which was a nice reminder of why I love Maine so much.
  • I learned the hard way that it is, indeed, possible to overdo something I love, to get too much of a good thing. I said in some blog posts during the trip that I had learned that I am not a 60-70 mile-a-day rider because riding that many miles turns a pleasurable thing into a bit of misery. Well, it's actually worse than that. Riding all those miles day after day did a bit of nerve damage. My two big toes and the heels of my hands still have some numbness. Riding 62 miles on the Maine Women's Ride (see previous bullet item) exacerbated this problem; when I finished the ride, I couldn't lift my hands above my shoulders. Not good! To try to turn this situation around, I am seeing a chiropractor three days a week. I am also limiting my rides to much shorter distances--6 to 25 miles at one time. 
  • Other than the nerve damage, I am in better physical shape now. I am 40 pounds lighter than I was in early January. I lost most of the weight while training for the tour, but I continued to lose weight on the trip (and afterwards too). My legs are amazingly strong now. I need to get back in the gym to continue toning my arms and abs. Strangely, I don't feel that different than I did before, which makes me think I will have to be vigilant to make sure I don't pack the pounds back on.
  • Was buying the fat bike worth it? A resounding "yes!" to that one. It not only gave me a way to get some pre-trip riding in, it gave me a physical activity that I enjoy doing outdoors during the winter. I had the best winter in many years. I have continued to ride the bike some since I've been home, and I am looking forward to riding some trails that my road bike would never be able to handle.
  • Did I have any great insights during the tour about what I might eventually do for paid employment? Not exactly. I had a lot of fantasies and entertained many partially-formed ideas. I would definitely like to find something high on the love scale and low on the stress scale. Thankfully, I'm not feeling anxious about this, and I'm not currently looking for work. I have some other things to focus on first. (See next bullet item.)
  • What's next? I am back to working on building the house I began years ago but let sit untouched for three years. I will be updating my blog about that project soon. I am doing shorter bicycle rides two or three days a week.
  • Will there be any more long bicycle tours in my future? Maybe. I will either have to find a tour that plans fewer miles a day and more layover days, or I will have to design my own. I did a mini trip to Camden, Maine, this week that worked well. I camped overnight at a state park and did a 28-mile loop ride in Camden on a perfect day for bicycling. It was a hilly route but doing fewer miles gave me lots of opportunities to stop to take pictures, eat snacks, visit parks, take rests, etc. It was fun and didn't tax my body too much. (As a bonus, I got to visit with two of the UGRR riders who have started riding the 4,407-mile Northern Tier route from Bar Harbor to Seattle.) Here are photos and a route map from my Camden ride:

Downtown Camden is quaint, with great views of the hills...

and harbor...

Sunday morning is when a lot of the schooners leave for their week-long cruises...

Many years ago, I spent a week on the Mary Day...

Kayak tours leave from here as well...

Many years ago, I brought a group of teenagers to an evening performance of a Shakespeare play in this outdoor theater.

Bay View Avenue (miles 4-5) has many estates and, occasionally, a glimpse of the water...

Further inland (miles 6-22), there are great views of the Camden Hills outcroppings...

...and lots of freshwater views.

Nice town park in Lincolnville (mile 15):

Ocean view (mile 23.5):

Ocean views from the Shoreline Trail at Camden Hills State Park (mile 26):

Thursday, June 12, 2014

About Those Dogs

If you have followed along with my blog for the entire trip, you know that we were plagued by loose dogs that terrorized us along the route by charging and chasing us...through almost every state. Leash laws either do not exist or are not enforced in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Sometimes we were charged by an individual dog; sometimes we were charged by multiple dogs, up to eight at a time. By the time we were halfway through Ohio, the dog problem became rare. Most dogs from then on were leashed or fenced, or were under voice command.

Anatomy of an Attack:

In the photo below, I'm at an intersection of two roads in Ohio. (The intersection is behind me.) I have stopped to study my map and directions. Looks like a nice day and a nice road, doesn't it? There is even a small shoulder on this road.

Look again. See who have spotted me and are getting ready to "greet" me?

While I hesitated to move forward, these dogs set to barking incessantly. I got lucky this time; the owner of the dogs came out of the house and called the two dogs inside. Phew! I was able to cycle forward without being molested.

What usually happened: The dogs would get wound up into a frenzy by watching my feet spinning on the pedals, and they would charge out into the road, barking and leaping. The particularly vicious ones would snarl, bare their teeth, and act like they were going to bite. A few of the other riders, particularly the men with deep voices, could occasionally yell "Go home!" or some such thing and have that stop the dogs. I found that yelling mostly did not work for me. Oftentimes, if I talked sweetly to them, I could get them to calm down. What I said didn't matter, as long as I said it in a sweet, friendly voice. ("Hey, good dog. I'm really not that interesting. There's nothing for you here. Aren't you a good dog! You can go home any time now...") The one thing that universally worked for me was to stop pedaling. Every dog would stop charging if I stopped pedaling. I pretty quickly figured out that, if I stopped pedaling while they were still far off, they would stop charging before they were on top of me. If I thought I could out-run them, I'd pedal hard--boosted by the added adrenaline. If I was headed downhill but they were gaining on me, I stopped pedaling (which stopped their charge) and coasted out of harms way. If I was headed uphill, I would stop pedaling...but try to resume pedaling before I lost all momentum. The tenacious dogs would resume their charge as soon as I started pedaling again. Unfortunately, that meant I sometimes had to get off my bike and walk. If I was lucky, I wouldn't have to walk too far before the dogs would lose interest and I could get back on my bike and pedal. In one case, I wondered if I would have to walk the whole route. A pair of large, particularly-vicious-sounding dogs charged me and forced me off my bike. When I had walked about 30 feet away from them and was starting to think about getting back on my bike, one of the dogs would charge me again (and his buddy would join in). I stopped walking and turned around to face them, and they would stop charging when they were about ten feet from me. I resumed walking, would get about 30 feet away, and they would charge again. Over and over. Scary.

Other riders tried more aggressive deterrents--squirting water, kicking, or squirting pepper spray (or other toxic substances, like ammonia). My concern about these methods is exactly what they teach the dog. Will the dog learn to stay away from bicyclists? Or might the dog became more hateful, and work harder at getting the jump on the next bicyclist that comes along? When on a tour, that next cyclist would be one of the other riders in your group.

Where were the dog owners? Mostly nowhere around. On the rare occasion, the owner was in the yard or came out of the house because their dog was barking ferociously, but this usually did not help. An owner might yell out, "Don't worry, he won't bite!" but this is not at all reassuring; these people really have no idea how crazy dogs go for pedaling feet. Of all the owners who attempted to stop their dogs from charging, only two were able to do so.

What is Bicycle Friendly?

Prior to this trip, I thought that making a community or state bike-friendly was all about the quality of the roads. I now know that a state that allows dogs to terrorize people on bicycles cannot be considered bike-friendly, regardless of the roads. It would be nice if dog owners valued keeping their dogs safe from charging out in traffic and making sure their dogs don't terrorize bicyclists. More important: Enforced leash laws are key.  

How the Riding and Cooking Worked

While on the tour, it was all I could do to post at least once a day to my blog about where I was and what I had seen along the way. I kept thinking I would find the time to explain how some of the trip logistics worked, but I never did. Sorry about that. I will explain a few things now, after the fact.

The Riding

A number of people expressed concern that I rode alone every day on the tour. Especially after I got lost. Surely being on a guided trip meant that I would be riding with other people, right? Actually, both things were true.

Every night after supper, we met as a group to review the route for the following day and to learn specifically where we would be spending the next night. (Sometimes our destination would be off the official route by several miles.) In the morning, after breakfast was cleaned up and we had packed our lunches on our bikes, everyone's personal gear was loaded in the trailer, and the group gear was all packed up, riders could choose when to start riding. I got in the habit of being on the road no later than 8:00am.

It was each rider's responsibility to understand the route and to navigate the route to the next destination. Riders could choose to ride together or on their own. Other than the couples, who all chose to ride with their partners, the rest of us single folks all rode on our own. There were stretches where I rode and chatted with another rider but, inevitably, our riding paces would be different and we would end up separated. Usually I saw other riders on and off all day long. Typically, I was one of the first to start out on the road, but my pace was slower than most. Other people put a high priority on finding good coffee and yummy food, so they would frequently stop at local eateries and watering holes. I don't drink coffee and I eat gluten free these days, so eating out has mostly lost its magic for me. I almost never stopped at eateries; I relied on the lunch and snack food I packed in the morning to get me through the day. I stopped at mom-and-pop markets to buy cold drinks or the occasional ice cream. While other riders were scouting out eateries or consuming meals at restaurants, I would mosey on by. Later in the day, those riders would zip past me on the route. I could ride for hours by myself and have the impression that I was alone on the route. Once I stopped by the side of the road to have a snack or eat my lunch, however, it wasn't long before other riders would come along and pass me. As long as I was on the route, I could count on others coming upon me along the route. It was not uncommon for the same rider to pass me three or four times during the day!

Getting lost is a drag, no doubt. The route maps are great but they show only a narrow corridor and they don't identify many off-route roads. Once you stray a little distance off the official route, you risk being completely off the map. With a lot of miles to ride every day, involuntarily riding a bunch of additional off-route miles feels demoralizing. Every night I wrote my own navigational directions that I could read while riding; I positioned these next to the map in the map case that sits on top of my handlebars.

I had two dramatic lost moments early on in the trip, which added miles to those two days. The first time, I kept following Huey when he repeatedly said "Let's go two more miles!" even though I really felt we were going the wrong way; that added up to eight or so extra miles. The second time, I knew I'd ridden too far without finding the turn I was expecting, but I kept on riding anyway; that resulted in riding an extra five miles and over an extra mountain. I learned my lesson after that. I didn't blindly follow any other rider; I made sure I made my own navigational judgments. I also trusted my gut. If I felt a niggling worry that I was off route or about to make a mistake, I would stop and study the map and directions; this saved me making errors countless times!

Note: Other riders did not place such a high priority on staying on route. Some did not seem to mind riding a bunch of extra miles. Others were navigationally challenged and did not appear to improve these skills during the trip. While regularly getting lost or not being able to reliably navigate would make me miserable on a trip like this, others seemed quite comfortable winging it.

The Cooking

We were assigned cooking duty in pairs. Cooking duty involved planning the menu and shopping list for a supper and the following breakfast and lunch. The leader who was driving the van for the day would do the shopping. (This worked well, unless the leader lost the shopping list.) We ate supper at 6:00pm. The cooks put out wash water for everyone to wash their own dishes, and the cooks cleaned up the cooking pots. The cooks would get up early the next day to start heating water for coffee and breakfast. Breakfast was generally from 6:30-7:30am. Lunch stuff was put out in the morning so everyone could pack lunch and snacks for the day.

I think the cooking went remarkably smoothly on our trip. People generally offered to help out, so there always seemed to be enough hands to get things done. People had lots of tasty menu ideas. We definitely ate well.

I brought a bag of foods to use to ensure I ate gluten free on the trip. I brought a lot of dried brown rice and quinoa especially, so I would have a substitute to use any time the group ate pasta. I only used a pasta substitute twice. This was because the other riders were very careful as cooks to ensure that my gluten-free needs were met. What I really ended up eating out of my bag of food was the dried fruits. Next time, I would bring more of those and gluten-free granola bars.

Cooking duty was not without controversy. The leader responsible for creating the cooking-duty roster had no aptitude for this kind of task. The roster never approached a fair and equitable distribution of cooking duty among the different riders. For example, I cooked three times during the trip, but others cooked five or six times. It made no difference that people pointed out these problems with the roster; it was what it was, and I was surprised that people mostly just let go of the irritation and went along with it. Our group was good like that; everyone seemed willing to offer up suggestions for improvements but also were able to go along with things for the sake of harmony.

Nora and me cooking together...

[photo credit: Barb Wade]

[photo credit: Barb Wade]

Tony and Zoe cooking together, and trying to keep things out of the rain...

[photo credit: Barb Wade]

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Did I Take the Right Gear?

I guess I need to put some closure on this blog now that the tour is over. So, upon reflection, did I take the right gear? What different things might I have taken if I knew then what I know now?
  • I definitely made the right choice to take mostly wool clothing and minimal synthetic clothing, contrary to what is currently popular in the cycling world. All the wool shirts were perfect--cooler in the heat, warm even if wet, quick to dry, and basically unstinkable. Wool socks are warmer in the cold/wet and cooler in the heat. The wool arm warmers and leg warmers did the trick, and seemed far more effective than the synthetic ones other riders used. I had never used "warmers" before this trip. I like them! They make it easy to change clothing by the side of the road without getting naked, and they are less bulky to carry on the bike.
  • Taking three pairs of cycling shorts, instead of the recommended two pair, was a good idea. Surprisingly, having a pair of cycling shorts made of wool didn't seem to matter very much; the synthetic ones were fine. I think if we had had more hot weather, the more breathable wool shorts would have been more important.
  • For non-cycling clothes, I took lightweight, quick-drying shorts, pants, and a long-sleeve shirt--all good decisions. On most days, I could hand wash clothes (even the wool stuff) when I pulled into camp, and have those clothes dry in the sun/wind before I crawled into bed at night. I also had a line strung inside my tent--for a little finish-up drying. One trick I learned from a fellow rider: If your bike shorts are a little damp, sleep with them, and they will be dry by morning!
  • I don't think I have the right rain gear yet. I only wore my full rain outfit (jacket, hood, and pants) while cycling on one really rainy day. Otherwise, I made do with my windbreaker because it is lighter weight and dries quickly. My rain jacket is too warm when I'm cycling, even with the underarm vents all the way open. My rain pants are too bulky, and they get too warm as well. Not sure what I would substitute in their place. I have done a bunch of research, but I'm not yet sold on a different solution.
  • I ended up shipping the solar charger home because it became clear that I was not going to use it. I was able to keep enough charge in my phone and backup battery to take pictures and post a blog entry every day, and to use GPS and a position-tracking phone app every day while riding. The backup battery was key because we did stay in a few spots that had limited or no power outlets for charging. Once I rode more than 65 or 70 miles, I had to use the backup battery to add charge to my phone. I should have taken two adapter plugs, though; I only took one, and it meant I could only charge one thing at a time--either the phone or the backup battery--even when I could have been charging both at the same time. (I think it helped that my phone, battery, and chargers were all new; other riders had a lot of difficulty with slow-charging equipment.) Also, the Lifeproof waterproof case I had on my phone meant I could safely use the phone in all conditions and not worry about it drowning.
  • My tent (a Big Agnes UL2 that has since undergone a design change) was perfect. It packed small, was really quick to set up (I could keep it dry even when setting it up in the rain), and kept me dry even when enough water fell from the sky to create a lake around my tent. I used a set of titanium tent stakes that I purchased years ago and they made setup easy; these stakes never bend, and I can put them in any ground just by stepping on them.
  • The ground cloth/footprint (that my son made out of Typar to fit my tent) worked perfectly. It packs a little more bulky than a fabric footprint, but it is far more effective at protecting the tent floor from moisture and abrasion. I used a space blanket as a ground cloth inside the tent; even when the floor of the tent became moist, my gear never did. Space blankets are strong, have multiple uses, and pack up tiny. I'll take more of them with me in the future.
  • I brought a number of things I never used but would bring again, just in case--swim suit, first aid kit, knee brace, bike tools and spare parts, spare glasses, etc. There were some things I only used once but would bring again--rain covers for shoes, waterproof full-finger gloves, etc.
  • I was very lucky on this trip--I did not have even one flat tire. (Others had many!) I had spare tubes with me but, at the last minute when packing, I left my spare tire at home. I should have found a way to bring it with me. I was very lucky that I didn't end up needing it. Look at what another rider's tire looked like before he took it off and put on his spare:
  • I love the sleeping bag I took on this trip! It is a Mountain Hardwear Phantasia 15-Degree Down Women's sleeping bag. My son told me that down sleeping bags had changed a lot since I last experienced them (in the 70s), and he was right. The down in this bag has been treated so it resists absorbing moisture. It packs light and compact, and fluffs up great. Even if it felt slightly damp when I packed it up in the morning, it dried out quickly and never took on a funky smell. I didn't even feel like I had to wash the bag when I got home. I suppose it helped that I used a silk sleeping bag liner the entire trip as well. You might think this bag would be too warm; I mostly used it over me like a blanket, but I was grateful for all that warmth in the below freezing weather we had on the trip. (If you want to buy one of these, look around for a sale; although the MSRP is $500, I bought mine for $350.)
  • I had a great sleeping pad. The pad is a Therm-a-Rest Neo Trekker, which I cannot find anywhere. I think they have since changed their designs slightly. It most closely resembles the one below. The pad is a full 27" x 86", which means my sleeping bag, liner, pillow, and I did not ever touch the tent floor while sleeping. This is well worth the few extra puffs of air it takes to fill the thing; it's more comfortable, warmer, and drier than trying to balance on a skimpy pad--especially for a thrash-around sleeper like me. 
  • I had two pillows with me, and they were well worth it. (At home, I use three pillows, so going with only two was a sacrifice. :-) The first and most important pillow was the Therm-a-Rest compressible pillow. I made a small pillowcase for it so I could feel a cool sheet against my face when sleeping--very important. I washed the pillowcase whenever I did laundry, and I never felt the need to wash the pillow.
  • The second pillow was actually a staff sack (the Therm-a-Rest Stuff Sack Pillow)--nylon on one side, soft fuzzy fabric on the other. Each night, I turned the fuzzy side out, stuffed my fleece jacket in it, and used it as a pillow I could throw a leg over.
  • The ear plugs got a lot of use! They helped me sleep through trains, snoring, thunderstorms, etc.
  • I like my metal enamelware cup and pots and my titanium spork, but I had to work at keeping them from clanging together when I didn't want to wake people up.
  • The poncho I brought as a bike cover worked great--right up until it tore. It packed up really small and was lightweight, and covered the whole bike. What did it in was the ice. The morning we woke up to everything covered with ice (at least the poncho was ice-covered and not my bike!), the poncho tore when I moved it. Thankfully, it was still usable, but I'm looking to replace it with something else that packs as light and small and is made of stronger material.
  • I wore this small waist pack the entire trip. I searched high and low for a waist pack this small (9" x 5" x 3") and sturdy. It carried my phone, IDs, money, credit cards, charger cord and adapter, nail scissors, tweezers, glasses-cleaner cloth, Advil, dental floss, pen and paper, ear buds, etc.--everything I wanted secure and close at hand. This pack worked great. In fact, I'm still using it now that I'm home. So far, I have resisted the temptation to use a top-tube bag on my bike instead of the waist pack to carry these things; I think it's more important to have these vital things secured to my body, where they won't ever be separated from me.

  • I wore a hydration pack as I rode every one of those 1,822 miles. I so appreciated having easy access to water while I was riding that I kept reaffirming to myself that I wanted to carry some water on my back. (I no longer trust myself to use a water bottle while riding without risking injury and/or accident.) Since arriving home, I have ordered a frame pack for my bike and a hydration bottle that I hope will fit in the frame pack. My aim is to end up with the same drinking ease without having to carry anything on my back while I ride.
  • The bike shoes I purchased for the trip were a good choice. Yes, I had problems with "hot foot" and numb toes, but I think those things were a function of the number of miles I was riding every day rather than a problem with the shoes. (I have been using them to ride since I have been home and, for shorter distances especially, they feel fine.) The shoes have good walking soles on them but also enough stiffness to provide the extra support feet need on the pedals. They are well vented, and dry quickly when wet. They held up well to the regular soaking they got on the trip as well.

  • One new purchase since I've been home that will accompany me on rides in the future: Da Brim. I think the added wind resistance is well worth it (after all, I am never going to win any speed records!) to get the added protection from the sun. I was hoping the brim might help keep raindrops off my glasses, but my ride to the polls yesterday to vote (in on-again, off-again rain) dashed those hopes.

  • Overall, I think I took the right amount of gear. I had the two smallest, lightest-weight bags of all the riders on my trip. (That's because I took the gear guidelines seriously.) I had enough to be comfortable over a long tour, without carrying around a bunch of unnecessary stuff. Given the amount of packing, unpacking, lifting, moving, setting up, breaking down...I would not want to bring any more stuff. One thing I would change: I would use slightly larger bags with the exact same amount of gear. That way, there would be more wiggle room in the bags. As it was, I had to pack everything precisely and then wrestle with the zippers to get the bags closed every morning. Gear seems to expand over time. A little wiggle room would just make the endless packing-up process more pleasant.