Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bike Camping Durm-style

Sometimes (read that as "always") I tend to get caught up a little too much in my day to day activities.  You lose track of any larger picture, going about your daily routine and before you know it, a day/month/decade has passed you by.  That's when it's nice to interject a small interlude into your week.  And that's where a bike camping overnight comes in.  I won't waste my finger strength blathering about why you should ride a bike, etc. because it's self explanatory.  What I would like to do is showcase an overnight bike camping trip my friend, Jon, and I took in the Durham, NC (pronounced "Durm") area yesterday in hopes that others will be inspired.

If there ever was a dependable and eternally enthusiastic friend, Jon is it.  I have frozen my ass off on subzero ice climbing trips with him, shared a tent for a month during which neither of us showered, and tied into the same climbing rope innumerable times.  We shared a whole lot of other times together that I will abstain from entering into the written record for fear of later legal ramifications.  Jon can be bleeding profusely from both shins due to ill fitting mountaineering boots, be looking at the kiddie box of raisins that constitutes his day's rations and flinching at the sound of bus sized seracs falling off a mountain and he'll still muster a big smile and say "Let's do this".

Of course when I mentioned to Jon on Wednesday that I was planning to bike from Durham to Jordan Lake the next day and spend the night, he was immediately on board.  Sometimes I have to be skeptical about Jon's enthusiasm because he currently works the third shift on some odd rotating schedule.  It would render almost anyone continually sleep deprived.  Jon can sometimes appear zombie-like in his motions after long work stints.  (And he usually smells like rotting flesh just as a zombie would, but that's an entirely different matter)  We both needed to work Friday afternoon, so Thursday evening was prime pickins for a camp out.

If you have yet to bike or walk on the American Tobacco Trail, then you are certainly missing out.  It served as a comfortable and convenient route out of downtown Durham for us.  The trail begins adjacent to the Durham Bulls baseball park (no... not the original of movie fame, but that one still stands fairly close by) and runs through urban neighborhoods about 7 miles south to where Interstate 40 currently interrupts it.  A dedicated overpass for pedestrians and cyclists is under construction and should hopefully be complete sometime this spring.  With all of the construction delays that have happened in the past though, we may be seeing winged bacon before we see the overpass.  Fayetteville Rd parallels the ATT and so you can ride on it for a couple of miles to cross I-40, but keep in mind that you're going through several stoplights with on/off ramps and passing Southpoint Mall.  Not impossible, just be careful.  From there you can reconnect with the ATT and ride another 13 miles south to where it ends.  There we switched over to very quiet country roads that wind their way west to the man made Jordan Lake.

Being model citizens for once, Jon and I elected to camp in a designated campground of which there are about 6 or so circling the lake.  Some shut down for the colder months, but two are open year-round.  Of course the campground was a ghost town this late in the year, but the hot water was still running in the bathrooms so who cares?  We were able to scrounge some free firewood abandoned by a previous camper and build a cheery fire to combat the low of 32 degrees that night.  Most folks that we talked to in the area considered it stupid or suicidal to camp out in such temperatures since it doesn't get much colder than that this far south.  (My friends in Pennsylvania are currently laughing...)

The night passed quietly and we both slept soundly despite everyone's concerns.  The brisk morning air called for a quick breakdown of camp so that we could start moving about and riding however.  One gas station on US 64 advertised breakfast starting at 5:30 am and that was a siren song to our wind nipped ears.  After a few breakfast sandwiches, Jon and I decided to go our separate ways.  He would retrace our route back up the ATT to Durham and I would take Fearrington/Farrington/etc. Rd across the lake and back up to Chapel Hill, NC to work later in the day.

This trip is a great ride for anyone living in the Triangle.  Once the overpass for the American Tobacco trail is completed, I think that even a novice cyclist would feel comfortable riding the 30 mile stretch that we did.  There are plenty more opportunities for overnight bike camping trips in the area and I'll continue to post them as well as the biking friendly routes that I take.

It being his first bike tour of any kind, Jon is double checking the list outside his apartment.  Gummi bears?  Check.  By the way, he lives in a renovated toy factory.  I'd say that suits him.

The American Tobacco Trail starts as a paved trail in downtown Durham and includes several bridges over busy streets.

Once you cross Interstate 40, it gets a little bit more rural and has an unpaved shoulder as well which is presumably for horses.

The southernmost 7 or so miles of the ATT are not paved but are so firmly packed that any road bike can still easily travel on it.

Jon is smiling even though his Brooks leather saddle is still hard as a rock.

We arrive with even some daylight to spare... but not much.

With all of the leaves having fallen, some beautiful views of Jordan Lake are available from the campsites.

Jon has just finished telling me that his touring bike is now "one of the five best purchasing decisions" he's made in life.  Even I am afraid to inquire as to the other four.

The water in the bathrooms is absolutely scaldingly hot.  I guess to handle peak tourist season when it gets diluted.  Instead of going to the trouble of boiling another pot of water, we get the bright idea of just making tea with the water straight out of the tap.  It is hereafter referred to as "sink tea".

The men's bathroom in Loop A of Crosswinds Campground has some pretty sweet murals in it.  Yes, I checked the women's too.  It was a deer.  And an owl.

I admire their detail.

I didn't happen to see any windsurfers out on the lake that day.

Jon taught me how to play gin rummy then promptly kicked my ass.  What a friend.  Incidentally, all of these photos were either taken with an iPod Touch or a smartphone so I apologize if their not up to your standards.  This one was taken with the iPod and a headlamp held aloft for a "flash".

The following morning, hot breakfast sandwiches were indeed welcomed.  For those of you who have yet to sample "country style ham" in the South, you are missing out.  It contains approximately 1000% of your daily recommended sodium intake and would balance any electrolyte/salt deficiency on the hottest of days.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Opening disclaimer:  This event is in no way officially recognized, endorsed, encouraged, or promoted by the Sheetz corporation.  Yet.  Hopefully, the same company that has the sense of humor to erect billboards with the slogan "Grab life by the meatballz" can appreciate the spirit in which I do this and won't send me a cease and desist letter.


On the Randonneurs USA website, we find the following definition of randonneuring:

Randonneuring is long-distance unsupported endurance cycling. This style of riding is non-competitive in nature, and self-sufficiency is paramount. When riders participate in randonneuring events, they are part of a long tradition that goes back to the beginning of the sport of cycling in France and Italy. Friendly camaraderie, not competition, is the hallmark of randonneuring.

Eric and I out on a characteristic 100+ mile ride including lots of gravel forest roads.  We had set out after lunch with no route planned.  Note the setting sun.  We still had 30 miles of gravel to ride and a house party to crash.

As my friends and enemies will agree, this describes my cycling (and running, mountaineering, etc.) habits fairly accurately.  On a day of riding, I like to strike out with only the vaguest notion of where I will end up.  Still keeping the 21st century at arms length, I will shove a paper map or two into a back jersey pocket along with a non "smart" cellphone, a $20 bill, and my ID.  Throw a banana in for good measure.  Top off your water bottles and ensure your headlight is charged and you're set.  Now all that is left is to pedal 60-100 miles in an indeterminate loop.  Any appealing side road, inviting diner or friendly local is a welcome diversion.  A day without a plan is one ripe for new discovery.

Some folks just call this "riding a bike" and don't need the benefit of a definition.  But in an age where many cyclists I talk to are on specific training regimens for their next "tri" (or triathlon) and question me on what cycling app I use, I am heartened to see a side of the sport devoted to getting out, riding a long distance just for the hell of it, and having fun.  Randonneuring is the neighborhood pickup football game of cycling.  Except instead of only playing one game at a time, you're playing three in a row.  Or twelve.

For those of you living in the mid-Atlantic United States, especially central and western Pennsylvania, the Sheetz chain of gas stations needs no introduction.  For those of you who are still unawares, Sheetz is a chain of gas stations.  The thing that sets them apart is that they have a smorgasbord of made to order food that tastes divine.  While some may argue about the healthiness of some of the items on the menu, no self-respecting long distance cyclist is going to think twice about devouring one of everything.  Especially not this string bean cyclist.  The company began in central Pennsylvania and now extends into several neighboring states.  I can remember twenty years ago, going into a Sheetz and writing down my submarine sandwich order on a paper slip, which was one of maybe three offerings on their menu.  Now you stroll in and their touch screen ordering systems has about 100 different options for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My bicycle gets 20 milez per donut.

It should come as no surprise that when I lived in Pennsylvania, these stores were a favored stop on my long bicycle rides.  Early in the morning, I would stop at one closest to my house and pick up some breakfast Schmuffins and coffee.  (Sheetz adds the "Sh" prefix to many of their foods' names and pluralizes with the letter Z as in "Would you gentleman like some donutz along with your coffeez?")  Later in the day and 50 miles into the ride, you could get a sub or whatnot.  And of course when you're still riding well after dark and fighting off exhaustion and sub-freezing temps, you can fill the gas tank with hot chocolate and some fryz.  Don't get me wrong, I like to stop in small local eateries and try new places, but nothing beats seeing the red awning of a Sheetz down the block and knowing that you can dependably refuel.


While I am content to blithely ride about the countryside with nary a plan, it's hard to get other people to rally around this concept.  This is where the idea of a brevet comes in: a predetermined ride of 200+ kilometers with checkpoints, but in the spirit of randonneuring where everyone is self sufficient and enjoying one another's company.  There are preexisting randonneuring groups in the Durham, NC area where I now currently live with annual events as there were in Pennsylvania.  But what I am interested in is a really low hassle, low cost ride that everyone can enjoy.  And Schmuffins.

For these events you must check into a control at certain spots to make sure that you're on course and sticking to certain time restrictions.  Since I don't want to bother with any volunteers at control points or officials (or bother with anything really) I realized that some place (e.g. Sheetz) could serve that purpose for me.  When you order food at Sheetz, the receipt that you get is time stamped.  Voila!  Obviously you're going to want to eat every so often when you're riding 120, 200, 600 miles.  Order some scrumptious edibles, save your time stamped food receipts and present them at the end of the ride.  While I didn't get this idea off of the ground when I lived in the Pennsylvania heartland of Sheetz, I realize that my dream can still become a reality with their empire now reaching the Triangle area of North Carolina. 

If you are interested in participating in such an event in the greater Durham/Raleigh/Chapel Hill, NC area, send me an email at tfmrotek AT gmail DOT com.  Time and date have yet to be determined.  I have one 120 mile route that I am going to scout next week as a possible first event. Categories for awards or prizes have yet to be determined.  Actually nothing has really been done yet beyond writing this inane post.  So if you wanna get in on the ground floor of this, let me know.  The first ride will be around 200k/120mi travelling through both rural and urban areas and hopefully include some gravel portions just to annoy folks on really skinny tires.  Steel bikes and alter egos are always encouraged.

P.S.  For anyone who thinks that Wawa warranted even an honorable mention in this post, just go home.  No one cares.  Sheetz rules.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The List

Yesterday, I went climbing indoors at the Triangle Rock Club with my friend, Jon.  Okay, before we go any further, here's a picture of Jon so y'all know what you're dealing with:

Climbing with Jon may seem rather not remarkable, but in a way it is.  You see, Jon and I met in college in Pennsylvania and climbed together during our formative years with the sport.  We used to live and breathe climbing, travelling with one another and friends around the continent in search of new challenges.  But now for one reason or another, neither of us have really climbed much in the past year.  And both of us find ourselves living in Durham, NC of all places.

The climbing session went by without a hitch.  Our hands tied the necessary knots without a second thought.  We efficiently belayed one another with movements firmly ingrained in our muscle memory.  The two of us fell into a casual banter that reflected our comfort with one another borne from years of climbing in infinitely more committing situations.  And we slightly sucked at climbing.  The technique, the footwork, the movement was still there.  Endurance and finger strength had obviously ebbed over time.

By the end of two hour's worth of climbing, my forearms were inflamed.  I found my hands hardly able to maintain grip on the bulbous holds of a 5.6, a route I could have done blindfolded and in clown shoes in previous years.  Jon and I resolved to get stronger and get out of doors.  We began reminiscing about previous exploits in the mountains.  We even ran into another climber we recognized from our haunts at Seneca Rocks, WV.  The three of us parted ways promising to explore the vertical bounds of North Carolina together.
Just today, I was cleaning out my wallet.  Movie stubs, receipts, stacks of women's phone numbers... anything but money of course.  That's when I came across a list that I wrote to myself back on the eve of a new year entitled "GOALS FOR 2010".  I cannot remember the exact circumstances under which I wrote it, but from knowing myself all too well, I must have been feeling particularly unmotivated at the time.  The list was comprised entirely of climbing goals and would make for a busy year.  What really stands out for me is that out of eight goals, I think I only accomplished one that year.

The year 2010 was the last year that I really devoted to climbing.  It was a great year.  I led some of my hardest routes.  I earned a Single Pitch Instructor certification from the American Mountain Guides Association.  But boy oh boy did I majorly fail in terms of the goals I set for myself.  Looking at the list, I slowly remembered the reasons (or excuses) that made me miss each.

MOJO - Mojo is a classic bouldering problem at a climbing area in central PA called Hunter's Rocks.  It is an overhung prow of rock with large bucket holds along the underside to a height of 10-15 feet, whereupon you must climb up a vertical face and finally mantle the finish at about 20 feet off of the ground.  I think it is rated a V0 at Hunters.  It would probably be rated a bit harder at other areas, but who knows.  My weak upper body strength combined with the problem's reputation of twisted/broken ankles for those who botch the top out always had me worried.  In truth, I had climbed the route a couple of times before 2010.  I distinctly remember the first occasion, pulling up onto the vertical face, scared, and realizing it was safer to finish than to try and back off.  My friends Brandon, Kim, and Erin cheered me to the topout.  I can only guess that I put it on the list just to scare myself once again.  That or I meant to climb the "second pitch" of Mojo, which some argue is especially fun when bolstered with certain herbal supplements.

Me.  Bouldering somewhere.  With a sweet afro.

5.10 SPORT ONSIGHT - My partners and I typically only climbed trad at moderate grades, so this should have been a pretty good goal.  Unbeknownst to me, I had already ticked this box as well in the past.  Jon actually reminded me of it yesterday.  In a neglected corner of the Lower Quarry at the Bellefonte Quarry, there lies a short, dirty, overgrown limestone slab.  On each square yard of its surface emerges a polished limestone orb which led my friends and I to refer to it as "the Boob Wall".  If we were more PC than juvenile at the time, we would have called it the Knob Wall or something.  I'm just reporting history here.  There I led a 5.10 sport route named Buried Treasure, a reference to the amount of cleaning the first ascencionists performed before climbing it, no doubt.  But, as the sole "goal of 2010" that I actually completed, I also onsighted a 5.10+ in Birdsboro Quarry within the year 2010.  Kevin and Denise watched me lead the seemingly holdless face of Welcome to Safe Harbor Direct.  Whenever I attempted to repeat the feat on toprope however, I was as mystified as them.

TRIPLE S ONSIGHT - Triple S is actually an acronym for Shipley's Shivering Shimmy.  The only guidebook for Seneca Rocks where this notorious and difficult 5.8 corner crack is located lists the name in all capitals: TRIPLE S.  So, you can always tell a newcomer to the area when they say they're "just gonna go climb a 5.8 called 'Triples'."  Invariably you see that same climber later, completely cowed, having been shut down on "just a 5.8."  I have always wanted to lead the route onsight and turned down many offers to follow it.  In 2010, I had climbed most of the classic 5.7s.  On a ridiculously hot day with my friend Aaron belaying, I onsighted The Burn and Discrepancy, both softer 5.8s.  I should have gone for Triple S right then, but I didn't.  On the drive back home, both of the front wheel bearings in my truck blew out.  I don't know if I drove back to Seneca that year.

I'm sexy and I know it.  Ellingwood Arete emerges directly from behind my head like a giant dunce's cap.

ELLINGWOOD ARETE - The Ellingwood Arete is a classic multipitch 5.6 deep in the Wind River Range of Wyoming.  In fact, it is one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America.  It is a knife edge ridge that continues straight up for about a thousand feet.  On my first trip into the Winds, my friend Jeff and I planned to climb it.  We took a rack of hexes, some cams and nuts along with us.  Those never saw much use since we stuck primarily to 3rd class and snow climbing.  Since neither of us had climbed a multipitch rock route before, perhaps it was better that we didn't get to the Arete.  On my third trip to the Winds, I hiked to within sight of it on a rest day when I went trout fishing in Indian Basin.  On my second and fourth trips to the range, I climbed in the Cirque of the Towers, 40 miles to the south.  I didn't even get to the Winds in 2010.

If I ever do get to Rainier, at least I already know what altitude sickness feels like from climbing Pico de Orizaba in Mexico.

MT RAINIER - Um, I didn't get to Rainier either.  The closest I had even gotten to Washington State was the year before when my boss and I tried to climb Mount Hood on the tail end of a business trip.  Two days of whiteouts led to us poaching lines at the Timberline Lodge on our backcountry skis instead.  In 2011 I was offered a job guiding on Rainier for the summer by Alpine Ascents International.  Stupidly, I turned the job down.  In 2012 as I biked down the Pacific coast, I finally saw Mount Rainier for the first time from about 50 miles away.  It is big.  I wanna go back.

Coming off the Columbia Icefield and down the Athabasca Glacier.  Jon is behind me.

N FACE OF ROBSON - Mount Robson is the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies.  Its North Face is another route included in 50 Classic Climbs in North America.  Back in 2007, I went climbing in the Canadian Rockies with my friends Jeff and Jon.  We climbed Mounts Athabasca and Columbia in preparation for driving 50 miles or so north to go tackle Mount Robson's North Face.  At the Athabasca Glacier, a ranger told us that no one had climbed Mount Robson by any route that year because of dangerous conditions.  We went to the Tetons instead.  I have since returned to Canada in order to fish for northern pike, but alas no mountaineering.  I still have my passport.  I still gaze longingly at pictures of the mountain.

GLASS MENAGERIE - I'm not even sure which Glass Menagerie I was writing about here.  Was it the Grade 4 ice route at Roadside Gulley in Lockhaven, PA?  Or the multipitch aid route on Looking Glass Rock in western North Carolina?  I actually led the ice route, Glass Menagerie, the following year.  I was pitifully slow.  Now that I am living in NC, I'm a lot closer to the other route.  Too bad I gave all of my bigwall gear away whenever I divested myself of belongings to bike across the country...  I guess I will have to work on that.

This is pretty par for every ice climbing trip I've taken to New England.  Sleeping in a parking lot after driving until 4 am.

3 GULLIES IN A DAY - This refers to climbing three different routes in Huntingdon Ravine on Mount Washington of New Hampshire in one day.  I really thought that I was going to get this one since I was familiar with a couple of routes.  I had already climbed Pinnacle Gulley with my friend Seth as my second ice climb ever.  On another trip, I climbed Odell's Gulley with my friend Ieva.  That would be the same one where George, the eccentric caretaker of the Harvard Cabin, kept asking her if she wanted to spend the rest of the winter there with him.  Each time he asked, she would barely suppress her laughter while I tried to divert his attention with Oreos and Wild Turkey.  It worked.  Barely.  In early 2010, the ice season was terrible.  Even so, I managed to finally organize a group to head to Baxter State Park in Maine and climb Mount Katahdin (another longtime goal).  On the approach to the mountain, I caught a ski edge on some ice and fell while wearing a 100lb pack, dislocating my arm.  No more ice season for this guy.
My day of thrashing at the gym and the surprise unearthing of my list from 2010 make me want to dust off my climbing gear and get back out into the mountains.  But even more than that, it highlighted the importance of conspiring with old friends and setting goals for oneself.  Whether they're written down or not, I always have several goals on my mind.  All are outdoors related.  Sometimes I achieve them.  Sometimes I fail big time.  But they always serve to sustain me.  Motivate me.  Challenge me.  Right now I have undocumented ideas that propel me to keep trail running, riding and tuning up my bike, paddling my packraft, and perhaps even trying to remember un poquito of my high school Spanish...  We'll see what comes of such ideas.

I wonder what others set as goals for themselves.