Friday, September 28, 2012

Simple joy

I spent this spring and summer riding my bicycle around a bit of the United States coming across many beautiful natural and urban scenes.  High elevation, low elevation, no elevation, forests, plains, streams, ocean, cottages, skyscrapers... I saw a lot.  But as the old saying goes, "There's no place like home."

Unbeknownst to me, it would take over two weeks to get my bike shipped from the Oregon coast to Pennsylvania.  Two weeks of me wandering around town, not getting more than a handful of miles away from my friend's house where I was crashing.  For many of you, this confinement would be similar to having your car in the shop for two weeks.  But at long last, I received the bike and quickly reassembled it.  The beginnings of autumn in Pennsylvania awaited me.

Yesterday, I took the opportunity to ride up to Black Moshannon State Park carrying my Alpacka Raft Denali Llama packraft on the rear rack.  My plan was simply to ride up some big hills to the park which sits atop a plateau and paddle around in the bog area there.  As I have tried to advocate before, stuff doesn't have to be complicated to be fun.  The simpler the better.  Certainly biking around the country is great, but there are still magical experiences to find in your backyard.

Consider the day:  Meet a friend for breakfast, talk about fishing and drink enough coffee to leave us shaking like a leaf in a hurricane.  Ride twenty odd miles along quiet, damp back roads under overcast grey skies.  Shoot the breeze for a bit with the park rangers as one of the few weekday visitors.  Paddle through acres of bog, complete with lily pads and old stumps, in complete silence save the dipping of paddle blades and the occasional frightened fish.  Contemplate incoming storm clouds after hours of paddling and head for shore.  Ride the asphalt roller coaster of ridges back home to a hot shower and fresh burritos.

Simple joy.

This.  This is exactly what I love the most in Pennsylvania.  Quiet back roads in the fall.  Whether its for fishing, hunting, climbing, biking or whatever, I never get enough of them.  Riding up Beaver Road towards the top of the Allegheny Plateau
My able vessel is inflated and ready to go.  Their website mentions this, but it warrants a reminder.  The floor is just a single sheet of material so it is well worth padding and insulating with something like a 3/4 length self inflating sleeping pad.  Which you'll obviously already have with you on your backcountry overnight packrafting adventure.
Out on the open waters as the only boater in sight.
And the not so open waters of the bog area.  As you paddle through areas of lily pads, they make a faint rushing, scratching sound below you.  At any pause in the paddle stroke, the vegetation grabs at the hull, gently bringing you to a halt.
Looking out across the acres of lily pads, water lilies appear here and there like errant ping pong balls scattered about.
The bog awaits all those that care to visit.  Make sure that you do.  I would certainly welcome company the next time that I go.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The "Not So Great" Divide

It's been less than a week since I returned to State College from riding across the country on my bicycle.  In an effort to reduce expenses and my carbon footprint, I decided to take a bus from Newport, Oregon which is on the Pacific Coast all of the way to Pennsylvania.  Most people will shake their head and laugh at how stupid I am to choose a three day bus ride over a antiseptic, quick flight.  Greyhound buses have the advantage of maintaining stations in many small towns that you bike through and accepting any sort of items as luggage.  My bike is still in the process of getting shipped back, but I could easily throw things like a camp stove, a knife, etc. into my bags with nary a second thought.  Also, the more relaxed schedule and pace of travel by bus doesn't create the anxieties of TSA, tight connections and enclosed airline cabins that flights incur.

A cross country bus trip is not without its odd occurrences though...  For brevity's sake, I will only recount incidences of police being involved and leave out all of the other strange stuff:

Saturday 9pm Boise, ID  An extremely drunk passenger had repeatedly tried to open the emergency escape windows.  He is arrested and led off by the police.

Sunday 8:10am Ogden, UT  A man misses the bus when it stops at the station.  He catches up with the bus on a freeway overpass, drives in front and blocks the bus's lane.  After several minutes of standing outside demanding to be let on the bus, the police arrive and cuff him.

Sunday 11:45am Evanston, WY  Two state police SUVs are awaiting the bus at the next scheduled stop.  All passengers are ordered to exit the bus.  The police search the bus with dogs for drugs possibly left by a passenger that was arrested the night before.

Sunday 8pm Denver, CO  A guy yells across the bus terminal, "Hey!  That's not your f**king bag!"  The target of his outburst is an extremely drunk man urinating directly onto the first man's luggage which sits out in the middle of the terminal.  The urinater is put in an armlock by security, taken away and arrested.

Monday 2am Colby, KS  A woman starts verbally abusing the bus driver because she wants to smoke another cigarette before the bus leaves.  The police are called and they escort her off of the bus with her two children.  Some other passengers are irate over her treatment, however it was observed that the woman had loudly told her kids earlier, "I can't wait til I get you two home so I can go out and get drunk."

Despite these disruptions, I still made it back to State College safely and surprisingly on schedule.  After only approximately 12 hours, I started getting edgy.  After a day, I knew that I needed to give myself a new all encompassing goal to focus on and work towards.  I made the mistake of watching Ride the Divide, a documentary about the Tour Divide mountain bike race.  The race entails riding approximately 2,750 miles along the Continental Divide from Banff, AB to the Mexican border in New Mexico.  The route follows Adventure Cycling's Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.  The current course record is something like 15 days which works out to about a 180 mile per day average.  During my cross country ride this summer, I had paralleled the route on pavement for over half of it's length and I had often thought about riding the Divide.

I decided to (try and) race it next year.

Do I know what I'm in for?  No.  Am I in shape for it?  No.  Do I have the gear for it?  Nah.  Is this going to completely destroy me?  Yep.  Am I looking forward to the biggest challenge ever?  Yes.  Do I expect to place on the podium?  No.  Am I going to try and have fun with it?  Certainly.

The Great Divide Basin is one of many, many long desolate and lonely sections that the race takes you through.  I had the pleasure of riding through it this summer on the few paved roads that cross it.  So I have some idea of what I'm signing up for.  Scratch that.  I have no idea what I am signing up for.

I am calling my effort Not So Great Divide 2013.  The route is great mind you.  It's my style of riding it that will probably be "not so great".  But that's the fun of it.  Picking a seemingly impossible challenge and working towards it and hopefully making it look a little less impossible.  I will strive to document the process of starting from scratch, getting my equipment together, detailing the planning and logistics and training harder than I ever have before.  Actually I don't train for much so this will be a new experience too...

So join me for the fun and games.  It's gonna be a long, bumpy ride.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The final finest miles

I decided to end my tour today.  This may sound a bit abrupt, but it was not induced by a sudden panic attack or anything.  I was never quite sure how long I would continue riding.  Truth be told, I had been entertaining the idea of riding down the Pacific Coast and then riding back to Pennsylvania for months.  But as I cycled through the early morning fog of the Oregon coastline on Highway 101, I realized that the tour was over for me.

Initially my concern was that I would be disappointed with not riding an even greater distance, even possibly back to the East Coast.  But I realized that I achieved what I set out to do and that is bike across the United States under my own power.  The challenge for me was really a mental one when I look back on it since I've biked around plenty and new my capabilities there.  It was keeping myself motivated and cheerful day in and day out and not let my anxieties get to me.  Those of you that know me well know what a challenge that was for me.  But after leaving Seattle (which had been my earliest stated goal) I just couldn't honestly drum up the same gusto for travel.  I rode to Newport, OR today and realized the mental fire wasn't stoked anymore.

That's not to say that the riding along the Oregon Coast was disappointing.  Not by a long shot!  You can ride miles along the coast within sight and sound of the booming surf.  The scenery is out of this world and a post card photographer could make their living within 20 miles of shoreline.  In the midst of this beauty, I really wanted to be sharing the experience with someone else.  After riding 5,000 miles largely alone, I knew that I needed to be around a friend or two to add the spark back.  Sure there was a chance I might bump into someone to tour with, but I really didn't want to ride on that notion for more days, weeks or months.

With this trip's success, I am not hanging up my bike touring hat or my adventure hat either (they're both sweet looking hats by the way).  I learned a whole lot more about long distance bike touring and about travelling with myself for company.  This knowledge will help in future plans and adventures.  Which I don't necessarily want to do alone, that much I know.  But for now, I am content to return to State College where I know plenty of folks and the Pennsylvania countryside where autumn is approaching.  I dropped off my bike at Bike Newport to get shipped back and booked a three (yes, you read that correctly) day bus ticket back home.  Three days on a bus may sound utterly horrible to some of you.  But consider that I spent 100 days on a bicycle seat covering the same route!

The Highway 101 bridge leading out of Astoria was cloaked in fog.  This is where bright clothing and reflectors come in handy!
The first beach that I came to in Orgeon, Arcadia Beach, was similarly clad in fog.  I took my shoes off to walk through the sand and saltwater.  The sea was far colder than I expected.  All of you who where hoping for skinny dipping photos will be disappointed.
Yeah, definitely don't skip pushing the button.  It sets off flashing lights at either end of the tunnel that alert drivers to the fact that some idiot is riding their bike through the dark tunnel.  Regardless, you may still be passed by a semi.  Or a logging truck.  Or two.  And they are louder than heck in a tunnel.  A little unsettling, but all in a day's ride!
When you're not riding right down by the ocean, you will find yourself riding up over a cape and gaining a high, scenic perch.  This is looking down at the beach at Manzanita.  Somewhere down there is a guy kite surfing.
Upon arrival at a city campground in Bay City, OR, the campground host handed me a freshly cooked crab leftover from her dinner.  Said crab did not survive for very long.
Scenic Route.  Always choose the scenic route.  Except this time the scenic route included multiple 800' climbs in the cold fog to panoramas that were entirely obscured by dense fog.  Okay, so maybe you shouldn't always take the scenic route.
Did I mention there was fog?
Holy smokes!  In Pacific City, I was able to reconnect with Henk and Marja, my Dutch cycling companions.  The last time that I had seen them was in Berea, KY approximately 4,000 miles ago!  We had been playing a game of cat and mouse with them trailing me by approximately a day until I headed north in Missoula.  They continued west to complete the TransAmerica route and this resulted in us riding into one another on the coast.
I love this sign.  The road is closed, but someone thought it was necessary to add "No Way through for Bikes or Cars".
Necessary indeed if you look closely.  I probably would have tried to ride through too.
Watching the pounding surf at Boiler Bay, I realized that I was content with how far I had come.  The Oregon coast is a terrific place to cycle.  I want to return in the future with a friend to share the experience.
And then I rode through more cold, damp fog.  Are you sensing a trend yet?  I'm told that it isn't always like this.  Maybe.
I have come to the metaphorical end of the road for my trip.  Except for right here where the edge of the road crumbles off a thirty foot seacliff.  That's more like the physical end of the road.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Coastest with the Mostest

Right now I am listening to The Final Countdown by Europe, a favorite glam metal ballad of mine, so excuse me if I write like a over caffeinated schizophrenic who's rocking out.  Because I just finished several cups of coffee too.

The past several days were spent forging my way through western Washington and to the coast of Oregon.  Between Bremerton, WA and Astoria, OR the Pacific Coast route (as mapped by Adventure Cycling) keeps you well inland with no hint of an ocean.  The terrain made me think of Pennsylvania with its continuous rolling hills and small farms.  That and the dogs.  One day around Centralia (it's a coal mining region, like the one in PA) I was chased by at least 7 dogs and nipped by one.  It felt like I was back in Kentucky for a moment.  Mostly unscathed though, I plowed on to Oregon and the coast.

Well, to be honest, I still haven't even made the true coast.  I am at the port town of Astoria, which is in the mouth of the Columbia River.  But tomorrow, I'll be taking US 101 south and have the ocean off of my right shoulder.  Whooo!  Still, with its huge container ships and seagulls and sea lions it feels much more like the coast than when I visited the beach for the first time at Anacortes.  More or less every cyclist that I have spoken to has said that the Oregon coast line is the iconic, archetypal, best riding of the whole route.  With that overwhelming expectation in my head, I'll continue south.

There was a small moment that I thought I may not make it any further however.  Up in Bremerton, I had an anxiety attack suddenly consume me.  For those of you that have never experienced one, basically with no warning or justification whatsoever, anything that has gone wrong in the world and everything that can go wrong in the world manifest themselves in your mind in unison.  It can scare you shitless and it can also preclude you from any meaningful thoughts about what's actually going on around you.  For me this is usually accompanied by a bit of depression too.  So up in Bremerton, I have the sudden chain of thoughts, "What the heck am I doing/Why am I doing this/I'm wasting money/Where am I going to sleep tomorrow night/I miss my friends/Whoa that car passed really close!"  This resulted in me sitting down and researching bus and train tickets home and trying to remember why I was sitting on my bicycle in the middle of nowhere.

At times like these, I just have to laugh, take a deep breath and pull my head out of my ass.  Years ago, a psychiatrist prescribed medication to stave off this sort of thing, but I prefer to employ the "snap out of it" method instead.  Once I get myself moving again, all of the negativity leaves me and I remember why I quit my job to aimlessly ride my bicycle around the country by myself.  Because it is fun.  And why to I bother to tell you about this mental jibber jabber of mine, dear reader?  I dunno.  It's all part of my trip.  It's not always sunshine and roses for me, but keep the pedals turning and I'll find them again.

A good day indeed.  Really, what is there to worry about?  I'm riding my bike around for fun.  I ate yesterday and I will eat again today.  I won't get shot, robbed or thrown in prison for no reason either.  Great.  Now I am talking to a bar of soap.
When leaving Bremerton, a stranger named Scott felt absolutely compelled to give me directions despite my polite refusals.  He took about 20 minutes to draw an illegible tangle of lines on a piece of paper, make random markings on my road map, and mutter incomprehensible cues under his breath.  I made no attempt to use the fruits of his labor.  Sorry, Scott.
One thing that western Washington does have are really big volcanoes.  I was riding along through farmland and minding my own business.  Imagine my surprise when I looked over and saw a snowy Mount Rainier dominating the skyline!
From the same vantage point, Mount Saint Helens, of explosion fame, was also visible.
Riding a bridge over the Columbia River onto Puget Island.  Cathlamet, WA
And then waiting for the ferry off of Puget Island over to Oregon.  I had to wait for about 40 minutes for the next ferry service to run.  It was really hot.  In order to feel less sorry for myself, I tried to imagine how Lewis and Clark must have felt when they finally got to this point.
I was amused to see that once in Oregon, I would be riding US 30 to Astoria since it runs within about 5 miles of my childhood home in Pennsylvania.  It felt weird to be riding on the same road all the way out here.  Toiling up a few 600' climbs on Route 30 made me feel like I was back in the Laurel Highlands for a couple of hours.
Upon arriving in the port town of Astoria, I heard some mysterious barking sounds echoing around the piers.  I strained my eyes to locate the source of the noise.
Are those what I think they are?  I had to get out on the pier to confirm my suspicions!
Yep, it's a bunch of sea lions lazing about, soaking up the sun and making an awful racket.
I know what Bon Jovi's next album will be titled.
Container ships hanging out for their turn at the mouth of the Columbia River.  Astoria, OR
Astoria is billed as the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies.  Much of the downtown has been preserved in a 1920s era feel.  Which means there's a lot of old storefronts and signs for me to admire.  I spent the evening in the Norblad Hotel, which now operates as a hostel.
Despite all of the ship and vehicle traffic present, forests of old rotting pilings hint at some amount of industry lost and overtaken by tourism.
US 101 beckons off in the distance.