Sunday, July 29, 2012

Tom's Guide to Camping in Town Parks

When one is riding any of the Adventure Cycling routes and using their maps, finding places to stay for the evening is usually pretty easy.  Besides campgrounds and motels, often times there will be a note that cyclists can camp in a town's park.  For the thrifty traveler (I try to be thrifty but then my pancake and omelet binges wreak havoc on my budget) these are just the ticket.  Now while you may think it's as easy as throwing down your sleeping pad and getting some shuteye, there are a few guidelines or tips that I would like to share with you.


I can't believe that I need to state that, but you would be surprised.  Most parks explicitly state that they are closed after dark.  It sucks being woken up by the police at 2am.  It sucks having parents think you're a potential pedophile or something.  If the notes on the Adventure Cycling map says "check in first with police", check in with the police.  It not only makes what you're doing legal, it shows courtesy on the part of cyclists.  I have met cyclists in Kansas who had not once checked in with the local authorities since leaving Boston.  My only exception to this rule is if 2 or more townspeople tell you "Oh, it's just fine to camp in the park, honey."


In the above photo, you will note that I am camped on dead grass.  "What a jerk," you're thinking.  "He's just gonna kill the grass further."  There's a reason there is dead grass and lush green grass: automatic lawn sprinklers.  I lost count of the number of cyclists who recounted being woken up in the wee hours by a sprinkler shooting water in through an open tent door.

Of course if there is a pavilion, then you're set.  Just don't yardsale your stuff all over the place.  Citizens of the town may want to use their park as well.  This saves you the hassle of setting up your tent.  Sometimes conditions warrant setting up the body of your tent anyway.  Like the time I saw a skunk moseying around the pavilion at twilight.


Is there a bathroom?  Is it unlocked?  Did you check in with the police who will gladly unlock it for you?  Is there toilet paper?  These are all important things to reconnoiter before you should need to utilize the facilities.  I travel with a spare supply of toilet paper just in case.  Which reminds me- Is it general practice in Mexico to provide your own toilet paper?  The first few days of travelling there I found myself being rather inventive til I caught on...

Sometimes you will luck out and there will be a shower at the park.  Many times if there is a public pool, you can go up to the counter and the teenage girls running the joint will take pity on your state and let you shower for free.  Check in at volunteer fire departments too.  Or just forgo a shower.  The clerk at the 7-Eleven wasn't buying any of your pickup lines anyway.


Is there a water source around?  Are you capable of actually filling a water bottle from this source?  Don't laugh.  If you only have tall 24oz bike bottles, you may encounter water fountains or faucets that completely foil you.


Now that you scored a free shower, you probably want to break out your hair dryer and do some styling.  Or you need to charge up your iPod so that you can listen to Kenny Loggin's Danger Zone on repeat tomorrow as you mindlessly drift through Kansas.  The best place to find some power outlets would be around a pavilion or inside a bathroom.  2% of the time the power will actually be turned on.


If there is any possibility of critters getting in your food or a bear being attracted, make some attempt at hanging your food out of reach.  Much of the time you can easily clip it to a pavilion beam or sit it on top of a bathroom roof but you may want to carry some cord if you need to hang food from trees.  Locals will assure you that there is no need to do anything with your food.  You will acquiesce because you're tired from a long day of riding.  You will meet the resident raccoon that is the size of a German shepherd that's opening your panniers the hard way.


Do not camp anywhere near a ballfield.  Ever.  It may be late and you'll think, "No one could possibly start a game this late."  They will.  You will believe that you have been transported to Williamsport, PA for the evening- the home of the Little League World Series.  They will turn on the spotlights that transform night into day.  There will be an announcer.  You will not sleep.

Stay away from standing water.  Standing water breeds mosquitoes.  Despite my best efforts, last night the mosquitoes were tapping so furiously against my tent fly that it sounded like it was lightly raining outside.  If you camp at the Mormon historic site in Sweetwater Station, WY you needn't worry though.  They run around camp on an ATV with an industrial mosquito fogger on it at 6am.  I wish I were kidding.

Stay away from the playset.  Believe it or not, there are parents that will allow their children to play unattended well after dark.  It may not matter.  One night in Ellington, MO I had kids concealing themselves behind my tent during a raucous game of Hide and Seek.  If any parents are chaperoning their kids while you set your tent up next to the playset, they may mistake you for a vagrant and then call the police who you forgot to check in with earlier.

Stay away from the swings.  Unless you really want to hear two 14 year old girls describe just how much they hate their parents and learn why Johnny Cooper is the cutest boy in school.  Then lie back and relax.  It's sort of like a juvenile podcast I guess.


Treat everyone that you meet with respect.  The townspeople are the ones paying local taxes that keep the park open and the water turned on.  It is by their good graces that they allow you to camp there.  Clean up all trash, even if it isn't your own.  Close doors and gates.  Don't make a lot of noise where there are nearby houses.  Think of it this way: if you weren't riding a bicycle and doing something that they think is awesome, the local police would lock you up for being a homeless bum and parents would pepper spray you for saying hello to their kids.  Don't screw it up for the rest of us.
Hopefully you have found this short guide to be helpful for camping in parks along your bicycle journey.  It's typically the cheapest legal way to spend the night and affords you the opportunity to meet new folks all of the time.  Also, a community welcoming strangers into their park in order to fulfill that cyclist's dream of riding cross country truly warms my soul.  In an age where we are conditioned to fear one another and be shocked and awed by the news every morning, it's nice to see regular folks helping one another out.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wind watchin'

Crossing into Wyoming, one discovers the truth behind all of the rumors about the winds.  Sure I had ridden through the pancake flat Kansas where nothing exists to interrupt the wind.  Very often there was breeze coming from the side or directly in front.  An annoyance for sure, the winds would contribute to a slow pace.

Wyoming has redefined the term "headwind" and "crosswind" for me though.  Yesterday, I rode about 115 miles from Walden, CO to Rawlins, WY.  I was blown about in all directions... except from behind much to my disappointment.  Most of the day it was a consistent headwind that held me to only 11 mph where I should have been averaging 15 or more.  After a truckstop dinner in Sinclair (of gas station fame) I encountered far more.  A crippling wind hit me from the side that made a straight course virtually impossible.  When the road turned into the wind, I would struggle to make 6 mph in the easiest of gears.

Although painfully slow, I made it into Rawlins, WY.  It's more or less a giant truckstop on I-80 which I had the pleasure of riding for a dozen miles yesterday.  Since I was feeling under the weather for much of yesterday despite regular intakes of orange juice and adding to it the energy sapping mileage I racked up, I stuck around Rawlins today.  There was no way I was getting an early start.  But I have studied the forecast and readied myself to wake up extra early to try and avoid the strongest winds and steal 125 miles up to Lander tomorrow.

I love the irony of a sticker criticizing an esoteric sport being pasted on an equally esoteric bike.  I want a snowbike so bad.
Steamboat Springs, CO is equal parts ski town...
and cowboy town.
One night was spent bar hopping with my friend, Kim, in Steamboat.  In her case, it truly was bar hopping since she had recently chipped the end of her tibia in a mountain biking crash.  She stole my bike to coast from bar to bar.  I really need to work on my action photography.  Jeez.
Bear spray.  Bug spray.  Don't confuse the two.  The clerk at the store really didn't appreciate when I asked if I could save money and use the bug spray for both applications.  Some people have no sense of humor.
I have been in an avocado desert for so long.  I finally found avocado on a menu in Alma, but when I ordered it , they were sold out.  Steamboat finally delivered.  That reminds me of the time that I received a suspicious USPS flat rate box in the mail from my friend, Jeff, who lives in southern CA.  It turns out it was stuffed with 5 lbs of avocados that he had gleaned from the tree in his yard.
Like I said, I hadn't seen avocados in a while.  At brunch following a night on the town, it was understandable that I had the best appetite.
For those that care, my Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tires are still holding strong after more than 4,700 miles of riding.  There are a few small cracks from sun damage like what you would expect on a car tire, but otherwise they look unblemished.  I hope that I haven't horribly jinxed myself before heading into the barren regions of Wyoming.
Thunderstorms and the sunset vie for attention over Steamboat.
Well this looks like trouble.  Except for the Fig Newtons.  That's a whole unopened package sitting back there.
Wyoming:  Forever West & Forever Manhandled by Air Currents

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Refuge in Steamboat

I don't have a whole lot to report to y'all, but I wanted to check in nevertheless since I passed a psychological and physical milepost by riding into Steamboat Springs, CO yesterday.  My uncle, Mark, lives in Steamboat Springs as well as a couple of friends, Kim and Cat.  When leaving my brother's place in Washington D.C. about a month and a half ago, I knew that Steamboat would be the first place I'd come to where I had preexisting friends and family (as I have made many friends in between on this trip).  It sorta boggled my mind and I only half believed that I would actually get here.  But after a 100+ mile day yesterday that included another climb up and over the Continental Divide, here I am.  And as I was approaching town, my trip odometer turned over 3000 miles.  Whoa.

Steamboat looks like it will be the perfect place to take several days off.  My uncle readily offered up his house as a base of operations.  I already have a couple of friends in town and am bound to make more quickly, what with my ravishing good looks and charm.  There's an awesome, funky bike shop, Orange Peel Bicycle, that is going to replace my broken rear shifter that admittedly did hold together admirably for 1000 miles longer.  But I don't want to tempt fate...  There's plenty of free concerts, events like the rodeo, shops, restaurants and a gigantic adjacent national forest to keep me busy.  I think the only problem with the town is that from the moment I got here, everyone started an intense lobbying campaign to convince me that it was inevitable that I would never leave town.  Everyone tells me "I came here X years ago for just a visit and never left".  My uncle was telling me that he picked up two hitchhikers in Kansas who were trying to get to Steamboat Springs.  That's how he arrived here some 30 years ago and never left.  I'm hoping that I can maintain forward momentum after a bit so that I can still visit the west coast.

Almost there!  This was my first crossing of the western Continental Divide by bicycle.  Eric Durante and I biked over the eastern Continental Divide last fall on a rail trail.  It's always very difficult to ascertain the grade of a climb from a photo.  So far, the climbs of the Rockies are quite gentle, they just go on for a really long time.
Look who's sitting on top of the Continental Divide.  Some other cyclists are really disturbed when I show them the laptop I am carrying, or the three books, or my giant bag of trail mix.  It ain't stopping me none.
To go where others have boldly gone before.
Thus begins the descent down into the heart of the Rockies towards Breckenridge, I-70 and really expensive houses.
Yes.  The road actually does what the warning sign is telling you.  That combined with incessant SUV traffic and loose sand on the roadside is why you check your speed down from 40mph occasionally.
I met Geff and Mary Anne in Vesuvius, VA when I was just beginning my ride and they were nearly finished with theirs. When they invited me to stay at their house in Frisco, CO I couldn't comprehend how I would ever actually get there.  They were terrific hosts and welcomed me into their home with a warm shower, warm food and plenty of welcome conversation about our experiences on the road.
Another cyclist passing through, Anna from Sydney, Australia, found their info on and spent the night too.  Here she is next to our identical blue Long Haul Truckers.  She was lamenting about how much stuff she was carrying since she was encountering Hoosier Pass the next day.
So I left Frisco and once in Silverthorne, I checked my phone.  There was a message from Lauren Reed, an old friend, saying she and her friend were arriving in Frisco that night on a thru hike of the Colorado Trail.  So, I turned around and rode back.  Killing a day in Frisco, I spent part of it at a pavilion at the trailhead, looking for Lauren and Brandon.  This photo does not do justice to the afternoon thunderstorms that sweep through with fierce rain, thunder, lightning, hail and a 20-30 degree temperature drop.  I felt bad for the two of them out on the trail.
All throughout the Rockies, I've been seeing the effects of the mountain pine beetle.  They have been killing off massive numbers of trees.  Then the Forest Service is forced to cut down the dead or dying trees.  In this clearcut field, someone went to the trouble of building cairns on most of the resulting stumps.
Here's Brandon running the Low Heat/Tumble Dry cycle  at the deluxe in-room laundromat.  They had been fairly well soaked by the storms that I was able to sit out in town.
I hadn't seen my friend Lauren in about a year or so I think.  She lives in southern Utah.  It was utterly random that we both arrived in Frisco, CO within one day of another- she hiking and me biking.  Awesome!
The Breckenridge/Frisco area is quite bike friendly with many bike paths.  There are also some longer distance paths that parallel I-70 that can get you over to Vail and elsewhere.  This morning (when I left Frisco for real) it was 46 degrees.
You're only riding on bike paths for about 0.1% of the time though.   Out west, I've been finding more instances of 4 or 6 foot wide shoulders, but very often the shoulder will be about the width depicted if you're lucky.  For long stretches though, there's no shoulder whatsoever, which I'm thoroughly used to.  Many other cyclists are not and they would warn me about upcoming sections.  It's certainly a valid concern when traffic is doing 65-70 mph on two lane roads.
F. M. Light & Sons is this awesome Western wear shop in downtown Steamboat Springs which I can't wait to visit again.  I almost forgot about it.  Except for the fact that between Kremmling and Steamboat Springs, there are approximately 100 signs advertising it along US 40.  Keeps things interesting at least.
Another climb up and over the Continental Divide to get to Steamboat Springs.  At this point, I was deviating from the official TransAmerica route.
Another view of the same spot.  Since it was about 2 p.m. the requisite thunderstorm was approaching fast.  Right as I snapped this photo I realized that I was photographing a thunderstorm while I stood on top of the Continental Divide next to a 25 foot tall metal sign.  I guess everyone's concerns about my intelligence level are justified after all.  I quickly got out of there and made the 25 mile screaming descent to Steamboat.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The whole "not drinking thing"

I rode my bike over the Continental Divide this morning.  I was really, really proud of myself.  The normal yardsticks of success like having ridden 2,800 miles over 7 weeks and blah, blah, blah weren't what made me proud.  That was all secondary.  What made me proud was that about 7 months ago I told myself, "Self, if you don't quit drinking for real, you're never getting off your ass and certainly not riding your bike over the Rockies."  And here I was at over 11,000 feet, seeing my commitment to sobriety paying off.

I don't know why this was my motivator to quit drinking again, but Hoosier Pass delivered.

Living in State College, PA (the home of Penn State University), a drinking problem can go easily unnoticed.  The vast majority of students and a lot of residents are out every evening getting drunk in an attempt to sleep with one another.  I started out drinking innocently enough since it's somewhat of a rite of passage when you're in college.  What my friends and I didn't realize is that it quickly went beyond that.  Over the years, I cannot recollect the number of nights that I was blackout drunk and have no idea what transpired.  I can't recall how many people I pissed off or friends I turned ugly on during my drunken periods.  There are plenty of conversations, people that I was introduced to and odd events that were drowned out by my drinking.  What I can remember is sitting at work many days, thinking about when I could start drinking that day.  I can remember having my roommate Clay talking sense into me when he found me sitting alone in the dark with an open liquor bottle more than once.  And I can remember feeling worse and worse about myself for drinking so much and then trying to quell those feelings with more alcohol.

One morning, waking up with the omnipresent hangover, I finally had enough.  The only thing that I could remember from the night before was that I had gone to several bars and a party on a night that I hadn't planned to drink at all.  Friends clued me in to the facts that I had been a complete ass, I crashed my bike attempting to ride home at some late hour, and a whole host of other troubling things which I won't recount.  This was the first time that I saw my drinking affecting others and I had to stop lying to myself.  I wasn't a social drinker because I either drank alone or drank with others in order to make me not look like an alcoholic.  I didn't "like the taste of beer" since I regularly would drink the cheapest thing I could get ahold of be it beer, wine or liquor.  Drinking didn't make me more social since most times I would drink myself into a sort of tightening "tunnel vision" where all I paid attention to was the drink in front of me.

I quit cold turkey.  Oh man was it hard.  I didn't go to AA.  I only had the support of a couple of people close to me.  At first I thought it would help by avoiding situations where I would encounter people drinking, but quickly realized that this impact on my social life would just make me resent sobriety and not succeed.  I took to drinking bottled root beer as a placebo.  Sometimes I would drink non-alcoholic beer but since it tasted so close to the real thing, I was afraid I might accidentally switch to the real stuff.  At bars I would drink enough Coca Cola or ice water to drown a fish.  At some parties, I would take shots of just water in order to be part of the crowd.  I'm glad that people like my friend, George, humored me in this way.  Other times I would go running or biking to take my mind off of wanting to drink.  I can remember several Friday and Saturday nights running through town in the snow while drunken frat kids chucked beers bottles at me as I passed by.

After almost two years of maintaining my sobriety by tooth and nail, I unfortunately fell off of the wagon.  I had decided to make a life change and go on a long roadtrip to go mountaineering and exploring.  Accordingly, I had given my notice at work and was preparing to sell my house.  With the accompanying stresses and uncertainties, I started drinking while away from home at a trade show with none of my support group around me.  And it continued for a year.  All of my great ideas about leaving town and touring North America largely came to naught since I was drinking again and not looking at life clearly.  I feel like I wasted yet another year of my precious life in this downward spiral.

One night about seven or eight months ago I was sitting alone, drinking beer, when I had a sudden realization:  I was never going to do shit with my life if I just kept drinking.  I would just shuffle along making the motions of living.  And I would probably never ride my bike over the Rocky Mountains.  (For some reason, that thought stuck in my head)  So, once again I was resolute in quitting drinking.  I wavered several times, once going so far as biking to the liquor store until I dangled the image of the Rockies in my mind.  I turned home and drank some tea instead.  I won't tell you that it was easy.

But now that I have been riding my bicycle across the country, I have been enjoying every moment of every day.  I meet new and interesting people and see terrific new places.  I know that I want to be able to spend all of my remaining precious life exploring these things and not stuck inside of a bottle.  Since leaving on this trip, I haven't once felt like taking a drink.  Another cyclist that I met on this cross country ride who is also a recovering alcoholic, agreed with me on this point.  Whitney's plan is similar in occupying her mind with biking and living instead of drinking.  Check out her blog, My First Sober Summer.  I vow to never drink again and let it come between me and enjoying life.  I know it won't be easy, but as long as I can remember what life can give me (like riding my bike over the Rockies) I think that I can do it.

This is not meant to be a commentary on people's drinking habits.  There's plenty of folks who can handle their booze and it is enjoyable for them.  But for some, it is an incredibly negative thing.  If you know of anyone who is staying sober or struggling to become sober, please support them in any way that you can.  It makes a world of difference knowing that there are others out there backing you up.  And if you yourself are trying to get sober or remain sober and need someone to talk to, please contact me.  I don't care if you don't know me from Adam- it's important to have someone to talk to that cares.  Feel free to forward this along to anyone, share it on Facebook, print it out and glue it to a duck, or give my contact info to someone that needs it.

For a much more well written piece on this subject, please read Brendan Leonard's "The Toughest Thing".  I realize that my story follows a lot of what he writes and I do not intend to plagiarize him in any way.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

To the mountains!

After about 1000 miles of riding flat terrain and something like 2000 miles of not really hanging out with any other cyclists, I was probably starting to get a little batty.  Fortunately both of those things changed.  From Pueblo, CO the terrain turns from flat into the foothills of the Rockies.  Go a little further and you're then in the thick of it with 14ers all around you.  Today I rode about 70 miles and it was pretty much all continuously uphill.  Yeah.  Think about that for a moment.  Tomorrow is the big payoff when I crest the Continental Divide and get to ride nature's roller coaster.

Also in the past few days I have run into more cyclists and gotten to hang out.  Think about this:  in 2700 miles and 7 weeks, I think that I shared breakfast twice, dinner once, and a campsite perhaps twice with other cyclists.  That leaves a lot of time to talk to your imaginary friends.  The first day that I tried leaving Pueblo, I ran into two eastbound cyclists, Whitney and Promise, about 25 miles from town.  Since they had me laughing uncontrollably within the first minute of meeting them, I quickly decided it was worth backtracking to ride with them into Pueblo and even take a rest day.  Hanging out with them was a great recharge for my travelling spirits.  Then in Royal Gorge I shared dinner with a father and son, Jerry and Chad, from Lancaster, PA.  I was able to talk to them at length about how to connect the TransAmerica up to Lancaster since that sounds like what Chad is going to do.

In the next couple of days, it should get even better!  I will be reuniting with Geff and Mary Anne in Frisco whom I met in Vesuvius, VA when they were riding eastbound.  I was hoping to intercept my longtime friend Lauren Reed who is currently hiking the Colorado Trail, but I am not too sure that it will work out.  And then I am detouring off of the TransAmerica route and heading up to Steamboat Springs to spend several days with my uncle and a couple of friends.  I'm certainly looking forward to all of that!

Jon, I stand corrected.  Marmots are not the most annoying thing on earth.  Prairie dogs are.  Pueblo, CO
The foothills of the Rockies are finally within sight!  This was the first time that I left Pueblo.  I turned around shortly thereafter.
Whitney and Promise were a blast to hang out with and also quite inspiring.  This was their first bike tour of any kind and were steadily eating up the miles.  In fact, Promise bought and rode a bike for the first time only three months ago.
Blue Surly Long Haul Truckers are a tad popular amongst cyclists on the TransAm.
When I mentioned I was going to try and get a haircut, Promise offered to do it.  Since this was her first time giving a haircut and using paper scissors from the motel front desk, she was a little apprehensive at first.  If she had ever seen the haircuts I regularly gave myself she wouldn't have worried.  She and Whitney were concerned that a bad haircut could "ruin my chances with the ladies of Colorado".  Don't worry, I will ruin my chances regardless.  The haircut turned out great by the way.
I rode Route 96 through Kansas and Colorado for approximately 450 miles.  Without making a single turn.  I kid you not.  This junction marks the moment I finally got off of it.
I stopped to take a picture of what I first thought were sheep for Ieva.  The llamas are probably better suited for this terrain.  Which reminds me- Ieva, the next time we go into Tittycomb Basin to eat Cheezits and drink Wild Turkey, we're totally getting pack llamas.
A wild dork in his natural habitat.  Royal Gorge, CO
Surprisingly I did not notice any "No Trespassing" signs around this property.  I think this skull on the front gate is sufficient.
The reason that you can't see many of the high peaks around me is because of the numerous storms that are also surrounding me.  The last 25 miles of this day were riding into a strong headwind, uphill, with continuous rain.  It will come as no surprise to those that know me that I was enjoying myself.
This was the first time on the trip that I wore both a rain jacket and a long sleeved shirt over my jersey.  It was around 80 degrees in the morning but when the storms arrived, the temperature promptly dropped by 20 degrees.  Apparently it is in the forties in the mornings at these altitudes.
I wimped out and decided to stay in a hostel in Alma, CO since I didn't really know where to legally camp.  And I was tired.  And wet.  And cold.  Sue me.