Sunday, July 22, 2007
If you are sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting to hear the two or three golden, glowing nuggets of “life truths” that we mystically uncovered during this trip, then I'm sorry to disappoint. That did not quite happen. However, the trip was indeed amazing, and I have come away from it with great satisfaction and some experiences and learnings that I will not soon forget. Here are 5 general areas that hit me as being important in summarizing the trip.
1) Completing the Goal / The Length of the Trip
Completing the trip, accomplishing this significant goal, definitely feels good. Having done it safely, with only a few minor scrapes and bruises between us over the 2 months of traveling, is a relief. But the scope and scale involved generates a few conflicting realizations.
When we talk with people about the trip, and the amount of territory we covered, it always amazes them. And to be honest, at times it still amazes us too. During the trip, when we were immersed in a place or event that was so obviously unique and far from home, we would jokingly ask each other two standard questions: “Where are we? And how, again, did we get here?” It was our way of verbally “pinching” ourselves, reminding ourselves of how bizarre the situation was. It seems almost impossible, when you look at the map of North America, that we really rode our bikes all that way.
The flip side, though, is that, with perhaps the exception of a few of the most challengingly hilly areas, any given day did not seem impossible at all. It was not a race, not a competition. Just ride your bike for a few hours, follow the map, pay attention to safety and the details, stop for a while if you need to, and you eventually get there. So, like any other large task, if you break it down and take it a step at a time, you do get through it.
And as wild as this trip may seem to some, it is nowhere close to being an extreme effort when compared to what other people out there are doing. We encountered people going from Virginia to Washington (state), from Maine to Oregon, from Vancouver to Newfoundland. All of these trips are easily twice the distance we traveled. We met people out there who were averaging 70, 80, or 90 miles per day on their trips, and read about one who rode the Rockies from the U.S./Canadian border to the U.S./Mexican border averaging 160 miles per day! We were told about the web site of a guy who is biking from Japan to England, following the ancient silk trade routes. This includes biking through the mountains of Asia and through areas of political instability – check it out yourself, it is www.14degrees.org. We have a good friend right here in our neighborhood who is running a full 26-mile marathon every month, her goal to run one in all 50 states of the U.S., and her husband is a triathlete. We have friends that we met on our Antarctica trip a few years ago who have run hundreds of marathons, or who run longer “extreme” runs of 30, 50, even 100 miles. So folks, there is a very wide continuum of challenging activities that people choose to do, and we are nowhere near the extreme edge of it, believe me.
2. Fun & Excitement.
Fun and exciting, it was. For starters, let me refer you back to the blog entry we submitted on June 13 entitled "The Joy of Biking and Traveling". For all of the reasons cited there.... seeing the country and the countryside, experiencing the natural beauty, feeling the physical exhilaration and sense of achievement, enjoying a simplicity of lifestyle, meeting the people..... this was a very positive experience. Sure, there were a few times when I might have questioned how much fun I was having at that moment. (Usually, at those times, a big hill was involved!) But when I step back and look at the whole thing, I know that it was really good.
We've been asked a number of times the question: "What was your favorite/best/most fun/etc. part of the trip. Each time, I’ve struggled to come up with an answer. Joan and I actually talked about it several times, trying to identify for ourselves what those high points were. The list quickly became much longer than what the questioners were looking for. So, our conclusion was that there have been many memorable people, places and events, but that no single one could possibly be promoted to the status of "The Best". Really, the experience is more like a mosaic, in which there are many, many pretty pieces, but the real beauty is in the whole. Sounds like a good dodge of the question, I know, but I think that it is true.
Maybe another way of describing it is that the best part was not so much about specific things, but rather the overall experience, the “feeling” of being out there on the road. Every day, literally, there was the excitement and the stimulation of new places to see, new people to meet. And there was an anticipation of the unknown. You just never knew what the next day, or for that matter, the next bend in the road, had in store. That made life feel very full and interesting every day. And now that I am home, that is the aspect of the trip I miss the most.
This bike trip has been a good “teacher”. For one thing, I have certainly learned (or in some cases, re-learned) a lot of geography! There is no better way to learn about places and their physical terrain than by traveling through them on a bicycle. In addition, you get to experience the culture of the places you pass through. On a bike, you can stop frequently and interact with the people. You are not insulated in the way you are when you travel by car. You hear the accents, you get the local vibes, you learn what the local agriculture, industries and highlight spots are. In some cases, we even learned a bit about the local social network (e.g., who does what in this town, who knows who, who gets along with who, etc.). In a funny sense, we appeared as “safe” people to talk to, and people were quite willing to talk with us about these sorts of things.
Then there was the route’s theme: The Underground Railroad. I learned so much about this subject during the trip. Reading the notes on the bike maps, visiting the historically-significant sites along the way, and reading sections of an excellent book that was recommended to us (Bound for Canaan by Fergus M. Bordewich) all expanded my understanding of this subject, and gave it a human dimension that I had never appreciated before. And as long as this bike trip was, the fact is that 150 years ago, thousands of real people covered all that same ground, under conditions of great personal hardship and with the constant threat of capture, torturous punishment, or death. They were dependent for assistance on a small, secretive and often uncertain network of "friends", who were themselves couragous to offer that assistance, embedded as they were in the broader intolerant or hostile society of the time. As we rode on our latest-technology, 27-speed aluminum bikes across paved, signed roadways, cell phones at the ready if we needed anything, we indeed had it easy! I appreciate all that much more now.
Finally, there were personal learnings. Proving that I could do this physically, and that I could adapt to this unusual nomadic lifestyle for an extended time. Learning that, in spite of my tendency to be a bit reserved in crowds of new people, that it was ok and rewarding to stretch a bit, take some risks, to open up and engage in conversation with people. That was a good thing for me.
4) The People / Inspiration given and received:
Throughout the entire trip, the people we met were wonderful. This was a theme that ran through all of our experiences. Again, look back at the June 13 posting on the “Joy of Biking & Traveling” for some detailed context on this. From Mobile to Owen Sound, in rural areas and cities, across all racial and ethnic groupings, our interactions with the people in the places we traveled were incredibly positive. Virtually everywhere we went, we found people had an interest in what we were doing, and were so free and sincere in offering us good wishes, prayers, support and tangible help. I think if anything, the experiences on this trip helped confirm, and in some ways restored, my faith in the basic goodness of people. I found I derived inspiration from this during the trip.
One interesting aspect was the number of folks we met who had an interest in taking on some similar adventure themselves. Often, we could see that light already shining in their eyes; other times, we may have started a little spark of interest for them as we talked. I remember in particular a couple we saw in Corwin, Ohio, and several people at different points in the trip who were out biking for the day and who rode up alongside of us and started asking detailed questions about the “whats” and the “hows” of the trip – these folks were clearly looking forward to trying bicycle touring at some time in the future. Or the woman near Angola, NY, who had just left her house and stopped her minivan in the oncoming lane when she saw us to offer us water and fresh fruit. When we told her about the trip, a smile came across her face, and she said: “I sure hope I get to do something like that after my kids get older!” Or others for whom biking was not necessarily an interest but other traveling adventures were. I suspect that all these people will make their opportunities whenever the time is right for them. I enjoy the thought that maybe we were able to help inspire in them a bit of enthusiasm for some such positive future endeavor.
Frequently, we would talk to someone who would say something like: “What a neat trip, but there is no way I could do that.” We’d tell them that, well, maybe they could if they start small and build up to it. Or, maybe this type of trip is not for them. Remembering that wide, wide, continuum of possible activity that people can engage in, and knowing that there are people doing things that we could never do either, we’d say: “Well, you don’t have to do a trip like this. Just figure out what would make a good, fun, practical activity or adventure for you, and go for that.” I remember talking with a woman in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in her 70s or perhaps 80s, who expressed appreciation for our trip, and said, “Wow, I cannot imagine ever doing that.” And then she said goodbye with a smile and continued on the very brisk one-hour walk that she does every day. All I could think was that she had nothing to apologize for…. She’d found her sweet spot on the activity continuum, and was very happily and productively living it. More power to her. I hope I do as well when I am in my 70s & 80s.
5) Sharing the Experience
Last but not least, I consider myself very, very fortunate that Joan had the ability, the interest, and the willingness to do this trip with me. Her blog entry “Bringing up the Rear” notwithstanding, the practical contributions that she made on this trip – her planning & organizational skills, her social skills, and her good common sense, were so critical to our success. The “joy of biking and traveling” were all the greater for me because she was there doing it with me. And most importantly, this has become a shared experience for us, one that we will now always be able to look back on and remember together. Someday when we are both sitting in our rocking chairs on the nursing home porch, we will be able to look at the pictures, talk about our memories of “that time we were out on the road on our bikes for 2 months”, and remember with satisfaction that we really did accomplish it together.
So, those are my final thoughts. I mentioned the lists of the “best things” that Joan and I pulled together. Just to have them all in one place (as well as the "challenges”), I will list them below.
Beyond that, we may still come back and add a few odds and ends to this blog, as I know it is being shared with other cyclists now who are considering doing the same route, and there may be other things we think of that could be of value to them. However, for all practical purposes, this entry brings the trip, and the blog, to a close.
One final time, I want to express my appreciation to everyone who over the past couple of months looked at this blog, thought about us, checked our progress, or sent us messages of encouragement. It really helped to know that there was that support out there for us. Anyone who is thinking of doing something similar and has questions, please don't hesitate to contact the two of us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or me at email@example.com.
-Mobile, AL: Sightseeing, the free bus system downtown, seeing the Captive Passages exhibit at the Mobile Museum – sobering.
-Visit with park ranger at Historic Blakely State Park near Spanish Fort.
-The Stagecoach Café in Stockton, AL, and their lunch buffet.
-Hubbard Landing Campground, near Stockton, AL. Great place, and wonderful, helpful people.
-The fried chicken place in Grove Hill, AL. Can’t remember its name and it probably was not that good, but given that we were starving, it was great!
-Coffeeville, AL: The Dairy Bar restaurant near town, and the campground on the Tombigbee River.
-Linden, AL: Getting lucky and being at a service station when the rain hit
-"Gert's Kitchen" restaurant in Epes, AL; Talking with Gert & her husband; Gert's famous Sweet Potato Pie
-Gainesville, AL: The mansions, meeting the Postmistress, and having "Hoop Cheese" from the General Store.
-The Aliceville Museum in Aliceville, AL – Interesting & thoughtful exhibit on the Aliceville camp for prisoners-of-war during World War II.
-Crossing the state line into Mississippi. Actually each state line crossing was an energizing mark of progress being made.
-Getting directions from the couple in the pizza shop in Columbus, MS.
-Seeing our friends, the Herolds and the Chamberlains, in Columbus, MS;
-Biking for a week with the Chamberlains through Mississippi and Tennessee – a very fun time!
-Historic cemetery in Aberdeen, MS
-Bill’s Hamburgers in Amory, MS. Since 1929.
-Pharmacy in Smithville with the “Best Floats & Smoothies”. And nice people too.
-Camping, canoeing, and taking a rest day at Tishomingo State Park in Mississippi
-“That darned car” in Tishomingo and Shiloh (Inside joke about the Chamberlain’s car, which we gratefully had access to during those days.)
-Woman who filled our water bottles with ice water when we were running low near Shiloh, TN, and provided a short tutorial on the history of her farm and the surrounding area.
-Touring the Shiloh National Battlefield Park in Tennessee.
-Main Street Grill, the restaurant in Saltillo, TN
-Seeing the pet deer with the red bandana
-Getting the last campsite at Mousetail Landing State Park (TN), on a holiday weekend. We were quite lucky.
-Successfully conquering the hills between Waverly and Grand Rivers, and feeling strong.
-Seeing buffalo herds in Land Between the Lakes National Park
-The Wood-N-Wave Bike shop in Grand Rivers, KY
-The Iron Kettle restaurant and dinner buffet in Grand Rivers, KY. (Part of the “Patty’s” complex)
-Buffalo steak at Miss Scarlett’s by hotel near Grand Rivers.
-Cave-in-Rock, Illinois: the Ohio River ferry, the historic cave, and meeting and hanging with Chris, the cross-country cyclist
-Starting the hog stampede near Morganfield, KY! The image still makes me laugh.
-Moonlight Bar B Q buffet – Owensboro, KY
-Cloverport, KY: camping on the riverbanks, guest of the town’s mayor; befriended by the ladies at the local pizza shop and getting a tour of the new town playground.
-Conquering the hills past Cloverport, and keeping the locals from getting lost!
-Pleasant surprise: The downhill past Edwardsville, IN to New Albany was not as steep as we had feared looking at the maps.
-Lucky again: Allowed to loiter at a service station when the big thunderstorm hit in New Albany, IN. Nice people there too.
-Fire Department personnel who helped us with directions in Clarksville, IN
-Mary, the helpful receptionist at the Fairfield Inn in Jeffersonville, IN.; Nice river views of downtown Louisville, and good selection of restaurants, from this hotel.
-Meeting 2 southbound UGRR cyclists and visiting with them for a while.
-Madison, IN. Interesting, historic town. Nice place to spend an off-day.
-Trucking to Dry Ridge, KY. Getting there 2 minutes before tremendous thunderstorm. Lucky again! Visit from Tamara at Dry Ridge.
-Touring historic Washington, KY.
-Visiting Zip in Ripley, OH
-Reaching familiar territory, staying in Batavia just before reaching home. Visit from Dave.
-Reaching home, riding down our street to the “welcoming committee”!
-Getting help from our local bike shop (Jim's Bike Shop) to replace the tail lights on both bikes, and to come up with a solution for a mirror for Joan. Huge improvements, thanks guys!
-Lucking out still again – having the park bathrooms available for shelter when the thunderstorm hit, just after leaving home in Cincinnati.
-The great rail-to-trail system of bike paths in southwestern Ohio!
-Visits with multiple cyclists in the Xenia area
-Malabar Farm & hostel, northwest of Butler, OH – great place to visit and stay; Malabar Farm Inn and the Produce Stand: excellent!
-Amish country in north/central Ohio
-Oberlin, OH: Great UGRR-related things to see. (memorial, safe house, quilt at senior center).
-Oberlin, OH: "The Bridge", a technology center run through the public library that provides a great, free service to the community.
-And while on that subject, the public libraries in all the communities we used throughout the trip, and the librarians who welcomed us and made the internet facilities available to us.
-Shaved Alpacas (?) in field. They were interesting, whatever they were.
-Cuyahoga Valley National Park, between Cleveland & Akron. Great bike trails, covered bridge, fruit market. Visits with couple embarking on a new exercise program, trail volunteers and people who know Owen Sound!
-Burton, OH: Don stopping to offer us a place to stay; Linking up with Annette and staying in her RV. Tremendous kindness and hospitality given to us.
-Ashtabula, OH: UGRR sites (esp. the Hubbard House), and seeing Lake Erie for the first time, knowing we'd crossed the U.S.
-Conneaut, OH: Great place for a rest day, on the shore of the Lake. Holiday carnival across the street from our motel.
-The vineyards of PA and NY along the Lake
-Stone lighthouse in Barcelona, NY
-Woman stopping to offer us cold water & fresh fruit
-Crossing the Peace Bridge; the helpfulness of the Canadian customs personnel
-Canada Day holiday celebrations in Fort Erie
-The ride along the Niagara River; Niagara Falls.
-Niagara-on-the-Lake: Touristy, but pretty. Almar House B&B & conversing with the other guests there; seeing the sunset on Lake Ontario; spending the day with cousin Fred & Danette, and seeing the Shaw Festival play “The Philanderer”.
-Vineyards, fruit and flower farms throughout southern Ontario
-Stoney Creek: Man who helped us with directions, and the couple who invited us in to their house for water, snacks and friendly conversation while it rained outside.
-Many cyclists out between Milton and Orangeville.
-Seeing the “Orangeville Special” train in Inglewood.
-Cyclist helping us with the best route to Orangeville after the detour
-Proprietor at the "Atlanta Motel" in Orangeville who went out of her way to clean the only available room, a smoking room, and made us feel comfortable. Very nice lady.
-The entire Orangeville-to-Collingwood day of travel: Great biking, beautiful roads, the wind farm, Dundalk and “The Junction” restaurant, Pretty River Valley Park, great tailwinds!
-The evening in Thornbury with Lou & Gayle Sage, and the jazz concert in the park with their friends Bob and Diane and Don and Shirley.
-Conquering the “Monster Hill” up to Walters Falls. With that, we knew we would be able to say we did the entire route without ever having to walk a single hill – we rode them all !
-The water-driven grain mill in Walters Falls
-Owen Sound…. We Made It !!! Harrison Park and the Black History Cairn.
-Owen Sound…. Dipping our wheels, learning the town.
-Lou, the Greyhound Station Manager in Owen Sound
-Jolleys Bike Shop in Owen Sound
-TJ’s coffee shop in Owen Sound
-The Habitat for Humanity crew in Owen Sound
-The trip around the peninsula to Oliphant and Joan’s aunt and uncle’s cottage. The visit with Aunt Marge & Uncle Frank. The driving tour of the Bruce Peninsula, including Cabot Head lighthouse and Tobermory.
-Making it home with the bikes by bus, with all of the logistics working out mostly as expected.
-The Smiths picking us and our boxed bikes up from the bus station after midnight!
-In general for Joan: not having a working mirror during the first half of the trip.
-Missing Africatown outside of Mobile
-The hills of Purdue Hill and Grove Hill, AL, in the heat and with no food. Having to climb the final hill on fumes, as it started getting dark.
-Speeding logging trucks on narrow highways with no shoulders in Alabama.
-Handlebar Palsy and sore butts early in the trip, as our bodies got acclimated.
-The ant colony that invaded our pannier while we were “stealth camping” in Nanafalia, AL
-Navigating the streets of Columbus, MS -- tough streets during afternoon rush hour, and drivers not used to cyclists there.
-US 278 west of Amory, MS. Scary road with lots of traffic and no shoulders.
-Accommodations at the Saltillo Campground in Saltillo, TN.
-Cuba Landing Road – more potholes and bumps than the moon has craters!
-Panicky anticipation of the huge hills between Waverly, TN and Grand Rivers, KY.
-The hill north of Birdsville, KY, and the hill on Cotton Patch Rd., south of Weston, KY. About the steepest we would encounter.
-Cave-in-Rock Motel: So what did you expect for $28 per night???!
-Headwinds and squalls as we entered Owensboro, KY
-Lost in town, and pulling many hills, trying to find a motel in Brandenburg, KY. (Advice to other cyclists: make sure you have directions to motel in advance if you plan to stay here!)
-Bridge from Brandenburg, KY into Indiana – made Joan very nervous.
-Missed direction cost us 5 extra miles
-Missed seeing the UGRR museum in New Albany, IN
-Entry into Madison, IN via long steep downhill during rush hour
-THE BRIDGE from Madison to Kentucky….. narrow and busy. Anticipating it for a day and a half was worse than actually crossing it.
-Learning that the SB UGRR cyclists we met had crashed and had to end their trip.
-Cold camping night at Kincaid State Park in KY
-Travelodge in Delaware, OH – not the best for the price
-Flat tire on Joan’s bike in Erie, PA
-Detour in Dunkirk NY that forced us to do 10 miles on busy state route 20
-Figuring out the bike path in Buffalo
-Not being allowed to bring our bikes into our hotel room in several Canadian motels.
-Finally getting caught in real rain on the way to Stoney Creek
-Flat tire on Mike’s bike in Stoney Creek.
-Missing Dave’s house in Dundas
-Negotiating the detour before Waterdown, and having to ride the very busy Route 5 for 2 scary miles.
-Major detour at Forks of the Credit Road, on the way to Orangeville.
-The strong winds throughout most of Ontario after Stoney Creek. When they were headwinds, they were difficult indeed.
-The “monster hill” between Collingwood and Walters Falls
-Head winds between Wiarton and Oliphant, while going to the cottage
-On bus trip home, the unexpected charges in Toronto and associated confusion regarding shipping the bikes; the delay (although not due to us or our bikes) in Detroit at US customs
I must say that even though riding in the South proved to be a good experience because the people were so hospitable and the countryside so beautiful, the roads in the Mid-West and North seemed safer for bikes. Paved bike trails, backcountry roads, wide shoulders, and official bike lanes made our travel easier. And, I don’t know where the trucks go in the North, but they were seldom on the roads suggested by Adventure Cycling! OK, there were a few exceptions (especially in Canada) where I wondered who in the world planned this route and would we get off this road alive but the majority of the time, we had easy going, if you didn’t count that darn escarpment in Canada!
Another difference between the South and the North is the level of interest we would raise while riding through a small town. In the South, we were definitely a novelty and many a conversation was started by locals asking where we were going and to question our sanity about biking NORTH. They were truly concerned about us and interested in our story. Leaving Cincinnati with loaded down bikes and obvious strange travel attire, we garnered hardly a glance and no comments whatsoever from the passersby. Of course that was a rainy Friday morning and most normal people were focused on their commute to work – poor things. But this indifference, or tendency to keep to one’s self, or not ask personal questions, continued throughout the rest of our trip. Now if we initiated the conversation, they usually were very interested and open to conversation but rarely were we approached spontaneously (except Don in Burton, Ohio, a fellow cyclist, who stopped his truck in the middle of a busy road to offer us a place to spend the night!). I’m sure that it was also partly due to the much larger number of cyclists out on the road – we just weren’t a novelty anymore. But even the road cyclists out for their morning constitutional (who looked like sleek race horses next to our pack horse bikes), rarely slowed down as they passed us or inquired about our loaded bikes and plans.
And so we traveled on, the weather increasingly cooler and great for biking and all of the hills bearable, or better. I am proud to say that neither Mike nor I walked a single hill. Our bikes did great with their low gears – you just keep spinning with your head down so that you don’t get too overwhelmed at the sight of the hill in front of you!
Now we are home. It feels good to settle in, get back to work, and have regular communication with family and friends. I must admit that I find myself looking at the world in a slightly different manner. I am more aware of how happy I can be with a simpler lifestyle and how easy it is to waste our natural resources without thinking. I want to spread the word about cycling as an excellent form of exercise as well as a way to conserve. I need to bike. A few days ago, I felt an overwhelming urge to get on the bike and sweat. I grabbed Mike and we did some miles on the new bike/hike trail near our home. It felt good. Now, we need to figure out what’s next. I did learn from this long distance trip that a nomadic life would not be good for me long term. I need friends and family and a community and work and a passion to grasp hold of. But I was also reminded how much I enjoy traveling with my husband and how much we enjoy unique adventures and meeting new people. Cycling will continue to be a part of our lives, and another long distance trip (or 2 or 3…) is probably in our future but right now, it is most important to me to focus on “finding home” and that passion or passions that will take us to the next phase of our lives together. Stay tuned.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
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Saturday, July 7: Milton to Orangeville, 43 miles.
We had expected this to be a relatively easy, shorter day, with a few challenging hills, but ones we felt ready for. Instead, it turned into another trying day. It started well, with great biking, great roads, great weather in the morning. Then we started hitting some hills, and some serious winds that would only increase as the day wore on. Much of the time, the winds cut across our path, but occasionally we would turn or the winds would shift and we'd be going headlong into them. I expect that some of the gusts we hit were in excess of 30 or 40 miles per hour. One time in particular, I remember going down a hill relatively fast, and a sudden blast of headwind hitting in such a way that it felt like it was stopping me in my tracks. Other blasts from the side made the ride precarious at times -- such cross-winds bother Joan in particular.
In spite of the winds, we made reasonable progress, until we ran into a detour, which forced us up a large and very steep hill. This was the hardest climb we've encountered since Tennessee/Kentucky. At the top of the hill, we were preparing to follow the detour back towards our route when another cyclist happened by, and stopped when he saw us consulting our maps. He looked at our map, saw the direction we were about to go in, and said that's crazy, it is much faster to Orangeville going this other way. He suggested we just throw that crazy Adventure Cycling map out... at which point I gave out an involuntary cry of "NO! We can't do that!". (That bike map has become in some ways the single most important item we carry!) However, in this case, we were willing to take his suggestions as a better way to recover from the detour. He sent us down a very nice road that went directly to Orangeville..... and he said it would go over a few "hills and dales" to get there. Well, we found that his "hills and dales" included one humongous hill right before getting to Orangeville, but we made it up, and in retrospect, his suggested route was better than what we would have done otherwise.
Once getting to Orangeville, a cute little town, we rode down the main street, and saw a large wedding just letting out of the church, with a bagpipes being played in front of the church. Looked like quite a ceremony. Then we got to the hotel we had planned to use, only to see a "No Vacancy" sign. Turns out every hotel in town was booked up, due to this wedding. But, fortunately for us, the woman said she had just had one cancellation, so we got that last room. (A smoking room, but she made a valiant effort to clean it and make it workable for us.) So, this unexpectedly long day, with more hills, obstacles, and uncertainties than we'd expected, came to an acceptable end.
One last amusing item from the day... on two occasions today, we were asked by curious people where we were going. "Owen Sound", we said. (At this point, we are within a hundred miles of it and everyone is quite familiar with where Owen Sound is.) "Owen Sound???!!!" was the amazed reply. "You're going all the way to Owen Sound on bikes???" Needless to say, their frame of reference opened up considerably when we told them where we had started!
Sunday, July 8. Orangeville to Collingwood, 65 miles.
As opposed to yesterday, this is a day we were expecting to be hard, but which turned out to be great. We were nervous because we knew we had over 60 miles to do, with very few stores or services available in this stretch, on a Sunday when what few shops there were could be closed, a few hills to deal with and a HUGE descent from the top of the Niagara Escarpment at the end. Also, the weather report was that this was to be an unusually hot and humid day, temperatures expected to be as much as 35 deg C. (95 deg F.). But as it turned out, this ended up being one of the best, most interesting and enjoyable days of the trip!
We got a very early start out of Orangeville, on the road by 6:30 am. The weather forecast turned out to be completely wrong. It was cool, cloudy, windy, and threatening rain from time to time. For the first 5 miles out of Orangeville, we were heading due west, and directly into the wind. It was awful. But then the route turned toward the north and stayed primarily north for the entire day, which meant cross-winds vs. headwinds -- a tradeoff we gladly made! We made great time. The roads were excellent biking roads, and in fact we past many other cyclists who were out for their weekend morning rides.
As we neared the town of Dundalk, we passed an immense wind farm. Huge 3-bladed rotors rising up out of the fields, each probably 200 feet tall, spread out as far as you could see. And given the winds today, they were definitely producing a lot of energy! At one point, I tried counting all the ones in view at the time, and counted 26. I know that there were more than that off in the distance. It gave a sureal appearance, these futuristic structures turning smoothly and silently, towering over traditional farms and 150-year old farm houses. It was as if giant aliens from another galaxy had landed!
The other thing that we noticed in this area was the building style of the homes. Almost all of them were red brick, 2-story structures with a relatively square footprint, and white bricks placed in patterns along the building's corners or in stripes across the face to give decorative flair. Most had a single chimney coming out of the center of the roof, probably connecting to numerous fireplaces on the interior of the house. Some of these houses and a few churches had dates inscribed in them, and all seemed to date from the mid- to late-1800s.
The farm fields were primarily planted in hay, corn, or wheat, but we started seeing some crops we did not recognize. One was dense plantings of stalks about 2 feet high, topped with bright yellow flowers that turned the field brilliant with color when they were in full bloom. This turned out to be canola. Another was a low bushy plant with white flowers, which turned out to be potatos.
We reached the town of Dundalk at 9:50 am, with the skies starting to darken and threaten. This was the only intermediate town on the route today that had any hope of having a restaurant or service station. As we entered town, we stopped and asked a couple of women on the street if there was anything open, and they directed us to "The Junction", a restaurant they thought opened at 10. Sure enough, we found it, and it seemed to be the place to be in Dundalk on a Sunday morning. People were waiting out on the street for its doors to open. We parked our bikes under an overhang in front of the building, and waited for about 5 minutes, chatting with a farmer who was waiting in his pickup truck, an obvious regular. As soon as the doors opened, we entered with the crowd, and sat down. Five minutes later, a heavy downpour began outside. Once again, our luck with the rains was perfect. Knowing that this was our only restaurant opportunity of the day, we ate well, and by the time we were done, the rain was over.
As we left the restaurant and prepared to get back on our bikes, we had another conversation with a very nice man who gave us some background on the wind farm we had passed. The windmills are only about a year and half old, and there was considerable controversy around their construction. Towns people were worried about their appearance, noise, cost. Local indiginous Indian tribes objected on more spiritual grounds, concerned conceptually about harnessing the wind. But the economics of the project eventually won enough people over. Owners of the properties on which they were built received a generous 1-time payment, plus will receive annual payments based on the revenues in the future. The rotors operate 24x7x365 -- winters cause them no problem. There seems to be almost no noise whatsoever. While the jury is still out on how successful they will be, they certainly appear to be working out very well so far, with all but perhaps the Indians' concerns seeming to be addressed satisfactorily. And it helped us mentally..... if we were going to have to contend with riding our bikes through all this wind, it was good to know that at least someone was getting some benefit from it!
Leaving Dundalk, we headed east and north. Everytime we rode east, the wind was behind us, and we just flew! Then came the big descent. Downhills are normally fun for Mike, but a source of some concern and work for Joan, as she wants to control her speed more and must ride the brakes harder. This particular descent, however, was serious work for both of us. It was so long, so steep, and the road so bumpy and broken in places, that you really had to keep the brakes pumping. We dropped over 600 feet of altitude in the first 3 miles, then another 500 feet in the 9 miles following. We rode long stretches without ever pedaling a stroke. The route took us through the Pretty River Valley Provincial Park, and the scenery was outstanding. At one point, we surprised a large coyote standing in the middle of the road, who just trotted down the road for awhile after seeing us, before bounding off into the brush. Once down the steepest section, we had one flat straightaway to the east, and with the tailwinds, we were amazed to find ourselves cruising at 17-19 mph with practically no pedaling. This was really, really fun biking! If the entire route from Mobile had been like this, we'd have finished this trip weeks ago!
Finally, we came to the outskirts of the town of Collingwood, and it became quickly obvious that we were no longer in rural Ontario. We were suddenly surrounded by million-dollar houses, and soon thereafter, were in a suburban district of gas stations, hotels, a WalMart, an A&P Grocery store, and lots of cars. This is a town that is on the boom as a resort area. A wide array of ski runs (all green right now, of course) could be seen coming down the Escarpment, and resort villages were in place and new ones being built in the valley below them.
That Escarpment, we knew, represented the last really big challenge for us, for tomorrow, our final travel day.... we will need to climb 800 feet of it, 700 of that in a 4-mile stretch, to get to Owen Sound. We found a bike store there in Collingwood and went in to talk with them, to see if there were any locally-known "magic" routes that could help us bypass this huge hill. But no, unless we want to ride on a dangerous, high-traffic route, we are going to have to climb this hill. So we resigned ourselves to that fact.
That evening in Collingwood, we were treated to a wonderful time by Lou & Gayle Sage, parents of Bill Sage, who I used to work for and with at P&G. Bill helped us get in contact with each other. Lou and Gayle took us to their home in nearby Thornbury, and then to a jazz concert in a local park, where we had a picnic dinner, met a number of their friends, and had an absolutely great time. It was also a super way to get local perspectives on this very interesting area. Lou & Gayle, thank you again for your hospitality!
Joan, Lou (seated in the chair) and Gayle (next to Joan) take cover under a tree, along with the Sage's friend Diane, as the rains fall. The live jazz music in the park, being performed from under a covered pavillion, continued without missing a beat.
Monday, July 9. Collingwood to Owen Sound and the end of the UGRR route, 44 miles.
So this is it. What started almost two months ago, on May 12, will be completed today. Rather than feeling the warm, fuzzy glow however, we found ourselves this morning transfixed with apprehension of what the Inaugural Group folks called the "monster hill" that was now facing us. We had actually seen it from a distance when driving with Lou last night, and it did not look that bad. But the elevation profiles on the map clearly show this to be about the biggest single climb of the entire 2100-mile route. Saving the best for last, I guess.
The first 9 miles out of Collingwood were easy, riding along the Georgian Trail, a level, hard-packed gravel trail that paralleled the shore of the Georgian Bay. (By the way, I've been saying all along that Owen Sound is on "Lake Huron". It is, but more specifically it is on the Georgian Bay. The Bay is part of Lake Huron, but is almost large enough to qualify as a 6th Great Lake. Locals identify more readily with the Georgian Bay, and "Georgian" is applied as a regional name throughout the area.) Here is a picture of Joan riding on the Georgian Trail.
From the Georgian Trail, we could look up to our left, and see the summertime view of the many ski trails that run down the side of the Escarpment.
Then we hit Route 40, turned left, and started to climb. We went up about a hundred feet steeply, then the road leveled off, but we could see the big hill off in the distance. It still did not look that bad, but as we rode, we began to realize how far away the hill still was, and that our view of its height and steepness was deceptive. A bit closer, the hill was still in the distance, but we could pick out trucks making their way up and down it, looking like little specs, and lending some perspective to just how big this hill was. Then as we finally neared it, we saw that there was a significant downhill right before it..... which meant that we would just have that much more of a climb to make to conquer this thing. From the base, looking up at the 2-mile stretch immediately in front of us, it seemed impossibly steep, especially the second half of it.
So, as we have done on a hundred lesser hills before this, we put the bikes in their lowest gear, and started to slowly plug away. And as before, we slowly made progress up. We had some headwind in addition to the climb, but somehow we just got through it. Then, just as we hit the steepest section, what do we see coming up behind us but two other cyclists, a husband and wife, out for a morning ride. As they passed us, we had a brief conversation. They live in the area and ride this route frequently. "You do this on purpose?? For fun????" Of course, they were not carrying loaded panniers like we were, but I was still duly impressed. And they seemed to appreciate the story of our trip as well. They went on and soon disappeared over the hill ahead of us, but their "visit" had provided some nice conversation and encouragement for us, and eventually we crested the hill ourselves, and then stopped to rest. Looking back the way we came, you could see the hill we'd just come up, and far below and in the distance, the blue waters of the Georgian Bay. A beautiful spot. The photo below shows Joan reaching the top of the hill. Because you really cannot see down over the crest in this photo, it really does not do justice to the steepness.
At this point, we knew that the last really big obstacle on the trip was behind us. We still had some ups and downs to navigate through, and some wind to deal with, but it was now just a matter of time before we would be done. We stopped for lunch at the town of Walters Falls, and did an impromptu tour of a grain mill there that we were told about at the restaurant. It was built by a resettled African American in the 1800s, and still operates today on 100% water power, following that original design. Very interesting to see.
During the last miles into Owen Sound, it was a very strange feeling, knowing that the end of the route was close, and trying to wrap our minds around what these moments meant. As we entered the town of Owen Sound, it was sort of like coming home to a place we'd seen on maps and thought a lot about, but had never been before. We looked for a "Welcome to Owen Sound" sign to take a picture, but to our disappointment, never saw one. We just suddenly found ourselves in the southern outskirts of the town, and then soon after, at Harrison Park, where the route ends. We entered the park, which is quite big, and had trouble at first locating the Black History Cairn, which is the official end point of the UGRR route. We did find it with the help of a nice woman (from Dundalk -- yes, we know that place!), and read the associated signs and markers there. We intercepted a nice couple, Don & Mary, out for a walk and they graciously agreed to take our picture there. (Included in our posting on July 10.) We talked with them at some length about the trip, and then..... we captured the final statistics from our bike computers, reset them, and headed off into town to find a motel. For the first time in almost 8 weeks of travel, we no longer had a defined route to follow, nor a specific point to pick up from tomorrow. That part was now over.
Our bikes at rest, at the end of the UGRR route:
Tuesday, July 10. Owen Sound.
The traveling of the UGRR route was over, but there was much still to do. This day would be one of some sightseeing and taking care of the practical arrangements for getting home.
-We went to the Greyhound bus station, and made arrangements with Lou (the fantastic station manager there) for tickets and confirmed the transportation details for our bikes;
-We went to Jolley's, the local bike store (which is excellent, by the way), and they gave us 2 bike boxes to pack our bikes in for the bus ride home. They also provided consulting on the best biking route to take up to Wiarton, which is where Joan's Aunt & Uncle's cottage is near. We plan to make that trip tomorrow.
-We took the bike boxes back to the Greyhound station, where Lou happily agreed to store them until we were ready to actually disassemble the bikes.
-We found our way down to the waterfront, and did our wheel-dipping ceremony, our front wheels into the Georgian Bay. No one can say that these bikes did not make it all the way from Mobile Bay to the Georgian Bay now! Tegan, a sailing instructor who was doing summer classes for kids along the shoreline there took the photo. (See July 10 posting.)
-Went to find the BME (British Methodist Episcopal) Church, which dates from the 1850s and served the needs of the founding black community in Owen Sound's early days. Unfortunately, the church is closed, and may be about to be moved. But we took pictures in front of it to capture the moment.
A block away from the church we found a tent erected that was serving as the headquarters for a Habitat for Humanity build that was taking place down the street. We started talking with the staff and volunteers there, and had a really great time with them. They asked us lots of questions about our trip, and gave us some excellent perspectives on the real-life logistics of doing the fine and meaningful work that they do.
The day also included a number of other errands, and by the end we felt we knew a little bit about this town first hand. Then it was time to go back to the motel, and prepare for another travel day -- to the cottage.
Wednesday, July 11: Owen Sound to Oliphant, 43 miles.
Joan's Aunt and Uncle have had the cottage in Oliphant for over 50 years, and Joan remembers visiting it as a young child. We had several route alternatives to choose from to get there from Owen Sound. (Now that we no longer have a bike map to follow, we need to make all the basic routing decisions ourselves!) We chose to take a longer and more scenic route going, essentially doing the circumfrence of this roundish part of the peninsula, following the coastline all around. On the way, we passed a house with a series of trees out front that had that most amazing and intricate carvings of faces in them. Definitely worth a photo stop!
As we got further away from the town of Owen Sound, we could see the mouth of Owen Sound Bay, where it opened into the Georgian Bay.
It was a very nice ride most of the way, albeit with a climb up a part of the Escarpment again. Getting tired of seeing pictures of us climbing hills? Well, too bad, we had to climb them, so we're putting them in the blog! :) Anyway, I like the Georgian Bay in the background here.
Then, near the end of the day, we once again had to head due west, and into headwinds. Some of the gusts this day were as strong as any we'd seen. Coming across some of the hilltops and directly into the wind, it was almost as hard work as it was climbing some of the serious hills. Finally, though, we reached the western coastline, turned south, and rolled down the road to the cottage. And thus began what would prove to be an absolutely delightful visit with Aunt Marge and Uncle Frank.
Sunset, July 11, as seen from down the road from the cottage:
Thursday, July 12.
Absolutely NO bike riding to report for this day! We were treated by Frank and Marge to a wonderful car tour of the entire Bruce Peninsula, during which we went up the east side of the Peninsula, stopping at Hope Bay, Lions Head, Cabot Head (where we toured the old lighthouse), and then drove up to the town of Tobermory at the northern tip of the peninsula. This was a very picturesque boating/fishing village, and a lot of fun to see. Had we wanted to continue on to northern Ontario, it would have meant a 2-hour ferry ride from this point. Returning to the cottage, we came down the western side of the peninsula, so by the end of the day, we'd been around the whole block there. A great day!
Lighthouse and lighthouse keeper's quarters at Cabot Head:
This was an amusing sight..... this rocky little "vacation island" was apparently claimed in the name of the Queen!
And this was a lucky photo shot. This was in Tobermory. Just as I was snapping the picture of the ferry, bow lifted to unload the cars, a sea gull flew into the field of view, and is seen superimposed in flight in the foreground.
We pose with Joan's aunt and uncle in Tobermory:
Friday, July 13. Oliphant to Owen Sound, 31 miles.
Now it was time to get down to the business of getting home. Uncle Frank and Aunt Marge graciously offered to drive our gear back to Owen Sound for us and meet us there, so we simply had to ride our unloaded bikes back. We did so following the more direct route the bike store had recommended. It was a great route, and with mostly eastward travel we had wonderful tailwinds. We made it back to Owen Sound in just 2 1/2 hours. We rode straight to the Greyhound Bus Station, retrieved our bike boxes from Lou, and then, after a moment of thought and a deep breath, started taking our bikes apart enough to fit them into the shipping boxes. After all these weeks of depending on these bikes, and having them deliver for us so well, it just seemed kind of wrong to do this. But sentimentality aside, the time had arrived. We turned a corner of the bus waiting area into our workshop, and had lots of people come over and inspect, express interest, and offer help. Before long we had 2 packed boxes, and no longer had our bikes to ride. We left the packed bikes with Lou overnight, and Joan's aunt and uncle met us there, took us to do some final shopping for the bus trip home, and then dropped us off at our motel. A couple of times that night we looked around our room and momentarily panicked when we did not see our bikes there! Then we would remember that we were in the "end game" now, and that it was ok.
Saturday, July 14. Owens Sound, ON to Cincinnati OH. Nearly 1000 miles in one day!
We took a cab from our hotel to the bus station at 7 am, stopped at TJ's, the local coffee shop for an english muffin and hot chocolate, and by 8:30, we and our bikes were on the bus and heading for home. Along the first part of the trip, we crossed roads and intersections that we remembered being part of our route days before, and we could not help but look at them in fond memory. We changed busses in Toronto, then crossed into the U.S. in Detroit. (Customs officials had a fair amount of interest in our bike boxes initially, but then satisfied themselves that they were what we said they were, and we were allowed to pass.) We made it home to the Cincinnati Greyhound station at about 12:20 am (Sunday), and were met by our good friends Dawson and Tamara, who had brought their pickup truck. We just loaded our bike boxes into their truck, and they drove us home, bringing this odyssey truly to a close.
One of the main streets of Owen Sound, shortly before we boarded the bus home. The ribbons are decorations that have been put up in advance of the 150th anniversary celebration that the city would be celebrating the following week.
We arrived at the Cincinnati Greyhound station a mere 17 hours after leaving Owen Sound. Our friends, Dawson and Tamara, were good enough to make the midnight run to pick us up! Our bikes, packed in their boxes, are loaded in the back of the pickup.
Home a day now, we pose with the still-boxed bikes, just prior to setting about the task of unpacking and reassembling them.
The bikes are now unpacked, and back to their old selves. Here we are, just returning from our first ride around our neighborhood. We are thinking about how good it feels being back on the saddle, and wondering what the next bike adventure will be!
Scenes from our relaxing off-day in Conneaut, Ohio on June 29:
Back on the road, traveling through the Pennsylvania and New York shoreline areas off Lake Erie, much of the land was devoted to vinyards, supporting a significant wine-making industry there.
While we went through areas with a lot of economic vitality, we also saw signs of businesses from by-gone eras that have not survived. Below, a drive-in movie theater and a failed shopping center, both abandonned to overgrowing weeds.
Our bike trip goes international. Mike, crossing the Peace Bridge from Buffalo, NY to Fort Erie, Ontario.
Posing with Niagara Falls as the backdrop, as millions before us have done.
Mike's cousin Fred and his wife Danette, from Rochester NY, paid us a July 4th visit in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Here they are in front of some of the many flowers on that city's main streets.
The wine industry appeared to be very strong in Ontario as well. This vinyard was just west of St. Catharines, Ontario.
On the edge of the Escarpment, overlooking the cities of Hamilton and Stoney Creek.
In Dundas, ON, we thought we'd lost our way for a time. We were supposed to turn left off the road and onto a bike trail, but could find no easy way to the trail. We saw only this set of stairs that led up to the bike path, which ran on an embankment 20 feet above the roadway. Then someone pointed out that there was a groove alongside the staircase that you were supposed to wheel your bike in to get it up to the path. It worked, but the designer was obviously not thinking about people with heavily-loaded bikes when he or she conceived of this!
One of the big surprises for us was how large the flower and fruit growing industries are in southern Ontario. We saw many, many groves and plant nurseries like this one as we rode through the countryside.
For those familiar with the U.S. TV program "The Beverly Hillbillies", they will remember the opening of the program where the family is shown in their old jalopy truck, moving to Beverly Hills. All their wordly possessions were packed onto the truck, which was loaded to the brim, pots and pans, etc. just hanging off the back of the truck. Well, we often felt that way on our bikes. Here is a typical morning start. Still-damp clothes that we washed out in the motel sink the night before are fastened by bungi cord to the back of our bikes, along with a baseball cap and an extra bottle of gatorade here. On mornings such as this, we would hit the road humming the Beverly Hillbillies theme song!
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
We finished up yesterday at about 3:30 pm at the "Black History Cairn", a monument located in Harrison Park here in Owen Sound. This morning, we have ridden through the town, and down to the waterfront, where we did our front wheel dipping ceremony in the waters of Owen Sound Bay.
Our plans from here are to do a bit more sightseeing around Owen Sound today, and then tomorrow to ride on up to Joan's Aunt & Uncle's cottage near Wiarton, Ontario to visit them. We think it will be perhaps a 30 mile trip. We plan to be back in Owen Sound on Friday, and will take the bus out on Saturday, transporting our bikes and ourselves at unbelievable speed back to Cincinnati in one day!
So, how do we feel? To be honest, a bit numb, kind of like when we had arrived in Cincinnati after the first leg of this trip. But there is a sense of completion that we are now beginning to realize, and that feels very, very good.
We will take some time between now and when we return to Cincinnati to pull our thoughts together, and will post some final messages then. Mainly, though, we wanted to post this message to let everyone know that we did make it, and were still well and in one piece!
Thanks again for all the continued support!
Posing at the Black History Cairn, the terminus of the UGRR bicycle route.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
We have only limited time tonight, but mainly, I just wanted to post the note now that we are well, had an absolutely excellent day of biking today, and that in spite of some final massive hills tomorrow, we are now within striking distance of our final destination. More details to follow later.
Friday, July 6, 2007
Today was a much tougher day than we'd anticipated. We started out in Stoney Creek, and ended 53 miles later here in Milton. To begin with, we slept in later than we'd planned. Then, I found that I had a flat front tire as we were getting ready to leave the hotel. So clearly, we got a later start than we had expected.
When we did leave, we rode up the escarpment and out of Stoney Creek on the only really viable road, which was very busy with morning car & truck traffic as we trudged up the hill. But there was just enough shoulder on the roadside to allow us to do this, and we made it up, feeling strong going up the hill, and were back onto the quieter roads that made up our route in that area.
We stopped at a bike store in Ancaster and bought a replacement inner tube for the one I'd used to repair my flat. As we were leaving, two guys pulled up with loads on their bikes that clearly identified them as long distance travelers, and we struck up a conversation. They are going from Maine to Oregon.... a trip far longer and more aggressive than what we are doing. Fun talking to them.
Then we reached Dundas, and this ended up bringing a whole string of frustrations. First of all, we wanted to try to find the house of Dave, the person we'd met at the B&B in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We found his road, in fact, it was right on our route, but we could not find his house..... it was as if his address had been skipped. We may have misinterpretted, but were disappointed not to be able to find him. We did, however, have the opportunity to go down and up the escarpment again. Oh boy! Then, we found that a key intersection on our route was closed due to construction, a possibility we'd been warned about, and so we needed to find our way around it. We did a modified alternate route from what Adventure Cycling had recommended, from the point where we had been looking for Dave's house, and found another very steep part of the escarpment that had to be climbed.... by far the hardest climb we've had to do since before arriving in Cincinnati. At the top of the hill we found a nice shady spot in a little country cemetery, and rested there.... an odd image, but it was calm, peaceful, and rejeuvenating. And we needed that, because the next part of our alternate route was to ride a couple of miles on an extremely busy high-speed highway, with only narrow shoulders. Emotionally draining, but we did it with great care, and soon found our way back on our route again.
The rest of the day.... about 20 miles worth.... was spent on roads that varied from nice country to busy 2-lane rush hour traffic-filled. They also varied from the occasional nice, smooth riding roads to the more frequent bumpy, broken surfaces that I imagine the freezing weather every winter causes to happen around here. By the time we reached our hotel, we were tired, and our bodies felt pretty jostled.
But, that is all behind us now. We've had nice showers, a nice dinner, and are about to get some sleep. Tomorrow we really head into rural Ontario, destination Orangeville. If all goes well, we hope to be in Owen Sound in 3 days now.
More updates as time and computer access makes possible.