Thursday, May 31, 2007

Selected Photos from the Road

Here are a few photos taken from the road during the last 2+ weeks:

The first 2 photos are ones Joan and I took of each other on a rest break, somewhere along the road between Livingston and Aliceville, AL, on May 17.

May 20, Columbus, Mississippi. Our friends Bonnie & Steve snapped photos of Jim, Mary Beth and the two of us, as we get ready to ride off as a foursome:

May 22, between Fulton, MS and Tishomingo State Park. Jim or Mary Beth snapped this one of us together:

Joan has just topped a really significant hill, and still has a smile on her face! May 27, on the way toward Waverly, Tennessee.

Mike, with the rolling hillsides of the Land Between the Lakes area as a backdrop. This was near the Tennessee - Kentucky border.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Photos: Accomodations

When we arrive at our destination for the day, we are lucky when we are in a place that has a motel. We don't require anything fancy, but a bed and a shower and proximity to a restaurant sure is a plus!

If the motel has laundry facilities on the premises, that is great, as we have to wash our clothes at least every other day. If the motel does not have laundry facilities, then we look for a laundromat in the town. This one is in Grove Hill, AL.

When we cannot make it to a town with a motel, then we look for campgrounds. Some are in interesting, pretty locations, like this one outside of Coffeeville, AL, on the banks of the Tombigbee River.

Some are in idyllic settings, like this one in Tishomingo State Park, in Mississippi.

And some are, shall we say, a bit make-shift, like this spot in Saltillo, MS.

Selected photos - Start of the trip

Here are some of the photos we took at the beginning of the trip.

(Click on any photo to enlarge, then click "Back" on your browser to return to this blog.)

May 11, 2007: All of our worldly possessions for life on the road for the next month or so are laid out on the bed in our hotel room in Mobile, AL, the night before the start of our ride.

Here are our bikes, loaded and ready to go.

Here's a look at the maps we use. Purchased from Adventure Cycling, specific to the UGRR route, each map has 14 map blocks, each representing about 30 miles, and show the roads to take, turns to make, major landmarks, locations of service stations, hotels, campgrounds, grocery stores, etc. They are fortunately printed on a heavy laminated stock and weather well, because we find that we are handling them often! The entire UGRR route takes 5 map segments like the one shown below.

The official starting point of the Unground Railroad Route: The corner of Royal and St. Louis Streets in Mobile, where prior to 1860 an active slave market was located.

Upon leaving downtown Mobile, we crossed Mobile Bay, and saw the USS Battleship Alabama, permanently docked as a museum in Battleship Park.

And we took the opportunity to do a ceremonial dipping of the rear wheel of our bikes in the waters of the Bay. The trip will be completed when we dip the front wheel of our bikes in Lake Huron at Owen Sound, the end of the route.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Grand Rivers, KY

We are in Grand Rivers, Kentucky tonight, 685 miles into the UGRR route, with about 775 total miles logged on our bikes since leaving Mobile about 2 1/2 weeks ago.

Since this is our first opportunity for internet access in a while, I will do some catchup in a moment, but a few items are notable at the outset:

a) We have now entered our 4th state on this trip.... we hit Kentucky today.

b) Over the last 3 days, we completed some of the most challenging terrain we've seen so far. Our maps show the profiles of the hills and valleys, and we've been looking ahead to this section just completed for over a week now with more than a little anxiety. The last 3 days have indeed proven to be very challenging, yesterday being the toughest day with 12 huge climbs during the course of the day wearing us down, but we did complete it all. With those sections now behind us, we are feeling MUCH better!

c) On the map segment that we have now moved onto, the top portion shows none other than the Ohio River! What a sign of progress! We've followed the rivers, first the Tombigbee through Alabama and Mississippi, then the Tennessee River over the past week, and now we are reaching the river that signaled the dividing line between free and slave states at the time of the Civil War, and the line beyond which those fleeing slavery were targetting in order to gain their freedom. AND, this happens to be the river that flows past Cincinnati! So, all good signs that we are making progress on this trip.

Now, a quick recap of the days since our last update:

-Friday, May 25, we toured the Shiloh Battlefield with our friends Jim and Mary Beth, and it was fascinating. We then said our goodbyes and thank yous to our friends, and rode a little over 20 miles that afternoon to Saltillo. We found a really nice restaurant there (Main Street Grill), and a "camping" site that was just not prepared for tent camping. They did their best to accomodate us, but it proved to be an "interesting", somewhat loud night, and we were very happy to depart the next morning!

-Saturday, May 26, we rode about 33 miles to another camping area, this a very nice state park (Mousetail Landing). We rode like crazy to get there as early as possible, since this was a holiday weekend and camp sites were expected to fill up. We got there at 1 pm, and were extremely lucky to get the very last available camp site!

-Sunday, May 27, we rode 53 miles to Waverly, Tennessee. This was one of the days we were worried about.... 4 or 5 huge hills on this route, and one section of road that was in terrible repair and bumpy beyond belief, but we started the day early, and got through it.

-Monday, May 28 (Memorial Day) -- this was the most aggressive day in terms of terrain, as described above. We were quite worried about this one going into it. But by taking it slow and steady, using Ken's advice of keeping the stress off the knees (See comments on the "Kvetching" entry), and thanks to a great little shop at the top of the worst hill where we were able to rest and get a nice sandwich, we got through it and made it to a hotel in Dover, Tennessee. Pretty darned tired at the end of the day, but a very big day completed.

-Tuesday, May 29 (today) -- Another day that appeared from the map to be very difficult, especially in the first half. The hills were a bit tough, but this route took us through the "Land Between the Lakes" National Park, and the roads were great, the scenery beautiful, and the traffic very light. All in all, not too bad, but we are REALLY glad to be here in the hotel now, and to know that all of this is now behind us. By the way, there is a good bike shop here in town, and we went there immediately on arriving and got a few things tuned on the bikes. They ride great again!

We plan to stay here 2 days, taking tomorrow as a rest day. Grand Rivers seems to be a cute town, located at the top of the Land Between the Lakes area. If you look at a map, you will see that the two elongated lakes that form this area are actually the Cumberland and the Tennessee Rivers, each dammed on the north side to create the long lakes to the south. Beyond the dams, both rivers continue to flow north into the Ohio River. Understanding this geography, one can then understand the origin of the town's name "Grand Rivers".

I think that after the last 6 days of travel, we'd be happy with a rest day just about anywhere, but this area, this town, and this hotel are all really nice, and will make for a great place to relax for a day.

Speed & Distance

One of the features we have on our bikes are "bike computers". They tell current speed, and maintain basic statistics. The overall odometer tells total distance traveled. Resettable trip odometers, average speed, maximum speed, and biking-time-elapsed are all statistics maintained since the last reset. The computers work simply. There is a magnet attached to one of the spokes on the front wheel, and a sensor attached to the bike frame next to the wheel. Each time the magnet passes the sensor, another rotation of the tire is counted. When calibrated for the size of the tire, the device calculates the distance traveled. To those not familiar with biking, this might seem like a nice little discretionary bell or whistle. In reality, the computer serves as a vital tool as we travel. We could not easily do without them.

Obviously, the computer is the source of the information we have been providing as to how far we've traveled. More importantly, though, we consult them continuously during our rides as we follow our route map. Key landmarks, turns, etc. are all identified on our maps based on distances. The map tells us things like: "From the town of Coatopa, go 7.5 miles, then turn right on Bluffport Rd /Country Route 21." The computer helps us figure out where we are, and when we should be anticipating the next turn or landmark. And since some turns are on roads that are unsigned, if you can't track the distance traveled, you could become seriously lost!

The speed feature of the computer serves as an important calibration point for us as we travel. We have generally been averaging 9-10 miles per hour during the course of a day. We are not particularly strong or fast riders -- others may laugh at those speeds. But the point is that we know that that is us. And so when we have a long stretch moving at 12-13 mph, that signals some pretty good progress. Climbing hills can bring us down to 6, 5, 4 or even 3 mph, and we just learn that that is part of what makes up the average. In general though, knowing approximately how you are doing on speed, and knowing how much further to your destination, allows you to calculate that all-important "how much longer 'til we get there?" number!

(By the way, at 3 mph, you might wonder how you can even stay upright on a bike. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure either. I do know that at that speed, you are going slow enough that bugs land on you while you bike. I guess they assume you are walking!)

Maximum speed is mainly a fun statistic to know. Building up speed going downhill is probably a topic all on its own. The speed may seem very slow and boring when in a car, but when you exceed 20 mph on a bicycle, you are in for a sort of sensory adrenaline rush! Now, we are not into trying to set downhill speed records, especially with our heavily-loaded bikes, and usually we just coast our way down (vs. pedaling like madmen to go as fast as possible). If there is any doubt about our stability, we apply brakes on the way down. Still, at various points along the way, we have each hit maximum speeds into the 30's. It makes up a bit for the fact that we may have climbed that hill at 3.5 mph in the first place!

Finally, and this is more of a facet for me (Mike) than for Joan, but the computer also serves as a source of mental gymnastics to occupy time or take my mind off the pain of a long ride. I find myself doing the arithmetic in my head to figure out distances and times between different landmarks. And on those really terrible days, when I am struggling up what seems like the 50th consecutive massive hill, my legs aching, the mid-day sun baking, the crest of the hill seemingly never getting any closer..... I watch the most detailed distance counter on the computer tick off, ever so slowly, the 1/100ths of a mile. I have even calibrated that to the number of times I crank the pedals in the lowest gear. (Tamara & Dawson, don't laugh!) It takes about 12 turns of the pedal to get me another .01 mile. And so I count my pedal turns: 1, 2, 3, ......, 11, 12 -- another .01 mile (52.8 feet, or 16.25 meters) behind me! This mental approach may not be for everyone, but somehow it helps me get up the hills.

Friday, May 25, 2007

National Public Radio story

Recall that Allison Keyes from National Public Radio rode that one day with the Inaugural Group in Cincinnati. Here is a link to the story she did on the route, and the group who was riding it. It aired, I believe, last weekend on All Things Considered.

Shiloh, Tennessee

It is Friday morning, May 25. We have stayed the night in Savannah, Tennessee, a few miles off the UGRR route from Shiloh, TN. We have covered about 490 miles of the UGRR route so far, about 550 miles overall logged by our bikes.

We are doing well. We have had an absolutely fantastic time biking with our friends, Jim & Mary Beth, and will be sad to say "goodbye" to them when they head back to Huntsville later today. Just a quick recap of the last couple of days: On Tuesday (May 22) we traveled 36 miles from Fulton to Tishomingo State Park, in the northeast corner of the state of Mississippi. We had excellent roads and excellent traveling that entire day, a few impressive hills near the end of the day. A short portion of our trip was on the Natchez Trace parkway, a beautiful road that goes about 450 miles from Nashville, TN to the town of Natchez in MS. The state park at Tishomingo was beautiful, and we had a great campsite on the shore of a small lake there. Jim and Mary Beth had had their car dropped off in advance for them here, so they had their camping equipment available, and we had access to a car to drive around to restaurants, etc. What a luxury!

We decided to take another rest day, and stay in Tishomingo an extra day. We spent the day Wednesday relaxing in the morning, and then went on a really nice canoe ride in the afternoon. In the middle of which we found a place to swim in the river and use a rope swing that allowed us to swing out from the riverbank and plop in the cool water. Lots of fun. Yesterday (Thu, May 24) we traveled from Tishomingo to Shiloh, Tennessee. Joan and I biked it through, a total of about 63 miles. Jim & Mary Beth, drove their car with their bikes directly to Shiloh, left the car there, and started biking the route southbound until they met up with us. We found each other almost exactly at the Mississippi / Tennessee state line. They then turned around and led us back to Shiloh and their car, from which their ferried us and all our bikes to the hotel here in Savannah for the night.

This morning, they will drive us all back to Shiloh. Shiloh, for those who may not know, was the scene of a huge battle during the U.S. Civil War. Over a 3 day period in 1862, 25,000 men died in battle on these fields. Today, there is a large national memorial park, with monuments and explanatory markers located throughout. In biking through just a small part of it at the end of the day yesterday, it appears to be very extensive, and quite a somber place. Jim has been here before, and will give us all a tour of the place by bicycle this morning.

After the tour, we will bid the Chamberlains "farewell" for now. It has been so much fun spending these last 5 days with them and sharing a good part of this bicycling experience with them. And we will then continue our trip north on our own again.

A quick note about the days ahead..... we can tell that we will be having a few days of camping again, as we head up towards the "Land between the Lakes" area of Tennessee/Kentucky. So we will likely have some more days when we appear to drop off the "radar screen". We will do more updates when we can.

Again, thanks for all your comments and messages of support!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Fulton, MS and a major milestone

On Saturday, we had a great time with our Huntsville friends, and then on Sunday, we bade good-bye to Steve and Bonnie and continued to travel with Jim and Mary Beth, as we had planned. We've had two really good days together, last night staying in Aberdeen, MS, and tonight staying in Fulton, MS. We are at about the 400-mile point in the UGRR route now, and have ridden over 450 miles total.

Riding yesterday was the fastest paced day we'd had yet. We had smooth roads, few hills, and a tail wind that enabled us to cruise most of the way. We enjoyed seeing an historic cemetery and some very impressive 19th century homes around Aberdeen. Today was a bit hotter, longer and harder, but still a very good day. We had great roads leaving Aberdeen, but had to endure a not-so-fun heavily traveled road for about 6 miles until we got to the town of Amory. In Amory, we stopped for an early lunch at "Bills Hamburgers", which apparently has been a town institution since 1929. Then, about 9 miles further down the road, we stopped in the town of Smithville at a pharmacy / soda fountain for milk shakes and root beer floats, and had some delightful conversation with the employees there. Fun experiences, and really enjoyable doing this with our friends!

The big milestone accomplished is that Joan and I have reached the end of our first map segment! The Mobile, AL - Fulton, MS map segment is the first of the 5 map segments for the UGRR route. So, starting tomorrow, we will be officially traveling on the 2nd map segment. Sometimes, you just have to celebrate the little things!

We expect to be staying in the Tishomingo State Park tomorrow night, and possibly longer, so we may again be out of touch for a few days. Will add more when we once again have internet access. Thanks again to everyone for their interest and notes of support!

Sunday, May 20, 2007


"Kvetch" is a Yiddish word that my parents would use good-naturedly around the house when I was growing up. To kvetch means to complain. "Oh, quit your kvetching!", my parents would say if I might be whining about something or another. Well, this section is devoted to the aches and pains we've been experiencing on this ride, and readers may well be tempted to say: "Duh.... what did you guys expect if you were going to do a bike ride like this???? Quit your kvetching!" You have every right to say that, and if you are so inclined, you can feel free to just skip this section!

Ok, for those who are still with me, here are some thoughts around our physical complaints from doing this long bike ride. The first thing everyone might think of is that the legs will hurt. Well, surprisingly, legs are generally not the issue for most cyclists. Our legs have been holding up pretty well. They certainly get tired by the end of the day, and the quad muscles can feel a little sore, but basically, our legs are fine.

Of a little more concern might be the knees. Joan's been feeling her knees a bit more than Mike, but it is more like a dull ache at the end of the day, vs. anything more acute. We are both very aware of our knees as we ride, and ANYTIME we feel any sort of twinge of pain, we back off of the pedaling a bit.

A problem Mike has had is with his shoulders and neck. He was fighting some neck pain and stiffness before the trip, and the position of leaning forward on the handlebars, but keeping the head up and looking forward, creates some neck and shoulder stress and some pain, particularly near the end of the day's ride. Interestingly, though, when not riding, his neck is actually feeling a little better vs. before the ride. It may be that the ride is actually strengthening the neck and shoulder muscles, a good thing.

Now, at the risk of getting too personal, let's talk about rear ends for a moment. Riding a bike all day, every day, means that your rear end and the bike seat are going to become intimately familiar with one another, and your rear end WILL feel some pain. One point to make is about the type of bike seat you use. We upgraded the seats on our bikes to be easier on our rears, plus we got seat posts that have some give to them, like little shock absorbers. This has helped us, but has definitely not eliminated rear end pain. A second point to make is that we, like most cyclists doing longer distance rides, use special cream on our rear ends each morning before our ride. A product called, creatively, "Chamois Butt-R", seems to work well, really cutting down on the abrasion you feel. In spite of the above measures, though, we still wind up with pain, especially in the bones of the buttocks at the end of the day. We were told by a couple of the riders in that inaugural group that we should give it 2 weeks. After 2 weeks, they said, that pain will go away. Well it has not been a full 2 weeks yet, and the pain in the rear is still there. But it is something we can live with.

The physical issue that has been most troublesome for us, and which frankly has the greatest potential of causing us to have to end the trip early, is with our hands. We are experiencing what is sometimes called "Handlebar Palsy", and it is actually quite common with long distance cyclists. The pressure of the hands against the handlebars all day, absorbing the road shocks from the ride, has over the last week begun to pinch the ulnar nerve in our hands. The symptoms are not painful at all, but rather consist of tingling and numbness of the ring and little fingers, and a loss of strength in the hand. I feel it mainly in my left hand, Joan in her right. During our layover day on Saturday, we visited a bike store in Starkville, MS, and talked to the proprietor there about strategies for riding so as to take pressure off of that nerve. We also bought new bike gloves to help. We are finding that, with that one day of rest, and then being conscious of riding with less pressure on the hands during the last 2 days, our hands are beginning to feel better. We're hopeful we can manage this and continue to ride. If not, the only real remedy is to stop riding for a few weeks, which will resolve the hand problem, but would certainly change our plans for this trip. We remain hopeful and determined at this stage that we can make it work, but won't ignore this if it really ends up becoming more of an issue.

Ok, that's it for now. I will now quit my kvetching!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Columbus, Mississippi: One Week Completed

We are now in Columbus, MS, in a very comfortable hotel, and feeling terrific!!! This is our first full day off -- no riding today! And today, our friends from Huntsville, AL will be arriving to join up with us. More on this in a moment.

We are at about the 320 mile point in the UGRR route. We've put about 360 total miles on the bikes since leaving Mobile one week ago this morning. Two days ago, Day #6, we traveled from Livingston to Aliceville, and that was probably the best biking day we have had on the entire trip. Absolutely phenomenal roads! Gently rolling hills through beautiful rural America, virtually no traffic on the roads. We stopped in the very small town of Epes, AL, where the UGRR inaugural riders had told us that they had had great sweet potato pie. We found the place, Gert's Kitchen, had a nice chat with Gert and her husband, ordered veggie Omelets and, although it was only 10 am, that sweet potato pie, and it was great! Eleven miles further down the road, we came to the town of Gainesville, AL, an incredibly cute little town where we stopped and had an extended conversation with numerous town residents and the postmistress, and on her recommendation, bought a couple of slices of "hoop" cheese (a local cheddar) along with a fresh bottle of gatorade. This is the kind of traveling we were looking for, and we really enjoyed this. Later in the day, we picked up some head winds which made the biking a little harder, crossed the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway again, and rolled into Aliceville.

Time out here to make a few points. One, the fact that we keep crossing the Tombigbee River is not coincidence. The people who were trying to secretly make their way north along the Underground Railroad were taught, word of mouth, that their best route was to "follow the drinking gourd" (their name for the Big Dipper constellation and the pointers to the North Star), and to follow the rivers to get there. The Tombigbee River was a major route north for them.

Second point, our final approach to Aliceville was on one of those very heavily traveled state roads, SR 17, where we just had to ride in the shoulder wherever possible. Lots of trucks. In particular, lots of Logging Trucks. We have found that the logging industry here is huge. We were told by one truck driver that 60% of the U.S.'s logging needs is met by products coming out of this area. We have passed numerous paper and wood processing plants, and the larger state roads around those plants carry a continual caravan of logging trucks. Trucks filled with huge (50-75 feet long) trunks of yellow pine, extending far beyond the back of the truck, and other trucks, empties, returning for new hauls. We have also passed huge tracks of timber lands, filled with pine, other sections that had already been harvested, looking pretty trashed with the debris of unusable trunks and branches, and still other sections that have obviously been replanted, a young crop of pine trees taking hold. Our most immediate interest in all of this is the awareness of the trucks for the sake of safety, but the bigger picture is quite interesting. By the way, the logging trucks have a reputation of thinking that they own the road, and barreling down the road faster than even the longer-distance truckers. They DO indeed go fast, but we have found them all to try to give us a wide berth when they pass. We do the same for them, and we seem to be able to coexist on the road just fine. But experiencing the blast of wind coming from one of those trucks rushing by you is something that you don't easily forget.

Final point: Our backcountry riding took us past many pastures filled with cows and horses that had obviously never seen people on bikes before, and their reactions have been humorous. They definitely take note. Often, those lying down will stand up, sometimes curiously, other times with a start. I've enjoyed calling out to them, just saying "hello" as you would to a puppy, but they are not sure about us! On a couple of occasions, we found a whole herd go into a mini-stampede as we passed. Yeehaw!!!

Aliceville, AL. On entry into the town, we saw two historic markers, one noting an old Coca Cola Bottling Plant that used to be there, the other noting that this was the location of a camp for German Prisoners of War during World War II. That we found interesting, and decided we'd try to find out more. After a little hassle trying to find a hotel (the UGRR map listed 3 hotels here, but 2 of them are actually in another town 20 miles away! The 3rd one was there, though, and worked out just fine), we rode around the town a little, found the library, and had a great dinner and a restaurant in a historic house that was built by one of the wood company owners in the early 1900's. The next morning, we went to the Aliceville Museum, a large part of which was dedicated to the POW camp, and it was fascinating. Well worth taking an hour out and seeing. The curator there was extremely accommodating and informative, and we learned what it meant for the POWs to be shipped overseas as prisoners, not sure how they would be treated, the towns people, fearful in advance of these prisoners coming into their community, and how the two groups found their own equilibrium in the situation. We saw a video that had been made with first person interviews with people who worked there, and with former German soldiers who were interred there. Very, very interesting.

Day 7 (yesterday) was supposed to be a short, easy day, 33 miles from Aliceville to Columbus MS. It was a beautiful day, beautiful roads, everything was great, except.... head winds. A very stiff wind was in our face most of the day, and really made the biking hard. But we made it in, and now have our day off, and the arrival of our longtime Huntsville, AL friends to look forward to. The plans are that Bonnie and Steve Herold are driving MaryBeth and Jim Chamberlain and their bikes here to Columbus this morning. We are going to take a hopefully quick trip over to Starkville, MS, about 25 miles west of here, to go to a bike shop to get some adjustments made to our bikes, and then the 6 of us will enjoy a visit here today and tonight. All will stay here in the hotel tonight. Then, in the morning, Bonnie & Steve will return to Huntsville, and the Chamberlains and we will load ourselves back on our bikes, and we will progress up the UGRR trail as a foursome for the next 4-5 days. We're really looking forward to all of this!

Friday, May 18, 2007


Given we have a day off today, we have time to share some general musings. Here is one.


I have heard it said that Eskimos have over 100 words for "snow". Snow is such an important part of their environment, and subtle differences in the type of snow has such a significant effect on their day-to-day lives, that those differences warrant different words. It occurs to me that an analogous situation exists for bicyclists regarding the concept of "road".

Subtle differences in the texture, surfacing, and condition of the roadway, which one would never notice when traveling by car, can make huge differences in the comfort, and often in the safety, of your bike ride. Here are some of the examples that we've encountered in our first week, roadway surfaces and conditions which, if we were interested in trying to develop a new dictionary, would qualify for their own separate words.

-Smooth asphalt: generally means a smooth, comfortable ride

-Blacktop: similar to asphalt, but in extreme heat, the tar can begin to liquify and stick to your tires.

-Concrete: Usually smooth when in good condition, but frequently the dividing lines between the concrete blocks cause repetitive bumps as you cross them.

-Composite surfacing: When consisting of small pebbles in the composite, the surface is usually pretty smooth and easy to ride on. Composites of larger stones make rougher surfaces, and cause significant vibrations on the bike and on your body.

-Patched/repaired roadways: These will have different sections that were surfaced at different times, and often make for ridges and bumps when riding from one section to another.

-Roads with potholes or pitted surfaces create their own obvious problems for bikes.

-Dirt roads: We did get a little experience with this a few days ago, on our way to Coffeeville. On some sections of the road, the dirt was tightly packed, and pretty easy to ride on. Other sections had loose dirt or sand which caused our tires to lose traction and stop. Some sections had embedded rock in the dirt, which meant more bumps, but at least stability under the tires.

-Gravel: I'm not talking about gravel roads here, but rather paved roads that have occasional pools of gravel on the roadway. This is a real potential hazard, as the gravel can make the bike slide out of control. We continually look for gravel and give it a wide berth when we can.

-Debris in the roadway: rocks, wood debris (the logging industry is huge here, and the volume of lumber trucks on the roads is incredible. Some roads have wood chips, bark, twigs and sticks everywhere on them.) Broken glass presents another obvious issue for the bike tires.

-Railroad track crossings: Besides causing bumps for bikes riding over them, railroad tracks can present a hazard if they cross the road at such an angle that the bike tire could run nearly parallel to the tracks. Then the tire could get caught in the ruts along the rails and cause an accident. We always try to adjust the direction of our approach to train tracks so that we hit them as close to perpendicular to the rail as possible.

Road shoulders carry their own variations of conditions, and because we try to ride in the shoulder where possible, this has a lot of relevance for us as well.

-The best shoulders are those that are simply extensions of the smooth roadway, separated only by the painted white line. The wider the better!

-Often, the shoulder is made of lesser quality materials, e.g., coarser composite, compared to the roadway, and offer rougher riding. Then, we ride the road when it is clear and move into the shoulder when a vehicle approaches from the rear.

-On most large state roads in Alabama, shoulders consist of rumble strips -- diagonal grooves in the pavement designed to awaken a driver whose car has drifted off the roadway and onto the shoulder. Great idea, but really bad for bike riding. Again, we ride the road when we can, but there were some very busy highways where we just had to put up with the bone-jarring ride on the rumble strips in the shoulder.

-We have learned to expect more debris in the shoulders, especially the concrete shoulders on bridges. I should also note that when crossing a bridge, mounted up on the bike, the bridge railings often look precariously low. We try to not ride too close to those railings, not ride too close to the traffic, and still avoid any debris or broken glass.

So, as Eskimos apparently do with snow, we find ourselves continually assessing and evaluating the road under our bikes. Those road conditions, along with the traffic conditions around us, determine our second by second decisions as to where to ride, how fast, when to stop, etc. Seems like a lot to think about, and it is, but we are finding it is beginning to come second nature to us now.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Livingston, AL

We are now in Livingston, Alabama, 5 days into our trip, and we are doing well. Livingston is just off the published UGRR route, near the 230-mile point of the route. We have put about 260 total miles on our bikes since leaving Mobile. This is our first time having computer access since our last post.

Day 3 (Monday). Monday was as good a day as Sunday was challenging. After that hard day on Sunday, we took the morning of Monday off. Took the time to get a good breakfast & lunch, found a laundromat to wash our clothes, and found the library where we checked email and entered our last blog posts. We biked in the afternoon, altering our plans to do a shorter ride, to Coffeeville, AL. The roads were some of the best we'd seen, beautiful rolling hills, where the downhills more than compensated for any uphills. Very fun riding!!! At one point, we chose an optional short cut which was identified on the map, but which required that we cross 1.5 miles of dirt road. That was a bit of an adventure. Much of it was ridable, but in some places the accumulated sand was so deep we had to walk our bikes through it -- a little tough given the weight. But we got thru it ok. At Coffeeville, we road an additional 4 miles out of town to a campground where we stayed the night. It was a beautiful place on the banks of the Tombigbee River.

Day 4 (Tuesday) (Subtitle: Stranded!) Tuesday brought some renewed challenges. I (Mike) found myself with bike problems that morning, problems with shifting gears. Virtually impossible to proceed this way. (Why the sudden change one morning, I don't know.) Anyway, we spent a good part of the morning at the campground working on the cable adjustments, riding around in circles in the parking lot to test it, etc. Finally got the gears to the point where the bike was, while not ideal, at least ridable. Interesting learning here is that there are NO bike shops anywhere close to the towns we are passing thru down here. (The maps had warned of this... they were right!) Closest shop with a mechanic was in Mobile, which we were certainly not going back to. The next one up ahead is in Starkville, MS, about 25 miles outside of Columbus. Our plan now is to catch them when we meet our friends in Columbus on Saturday. In the meantime, I am ok riding as is.

Because of losing riding time on Tuesday morning, though, we were not able to get as far as we wanted to that night. That meant being in the middle of nowhere for the night. We set our objective for a store at a major intersection on the route, got there at about 5:20 pm, only to find that the store closed at 5! But 2 nice gentlemen there directed us into the small town of Nanaflia, where another store was still open. We went there, replenished our supply of water and gatorade, and got the recommendation from the store owner of a good, safe place to set up our tent, on the grounds of a church just outside of town. It was an excellent place, and we had our first, successful experience of impromptu camping.

Day 5 (Wednesday) was a 50 mile ride to where we are now, Livingston. Some more great biking roads, especially during the morning. We encountered our first rain of the trip that day. Fortunately the worst of it hit while we were stopped at a service station, so we took advantage of eating and talking to folks while under cover. When the hard rain gave way to gentle rain, we donned our rain jackets, packed up our key things (camera, phones, etc.) in plastic, and continued on down the road. This was an excellent first test of our "rainy weather systems", and for the most part it all worked out fine. The only real discomfort was cold wet feet, but that passed once the rain ended, perhaps a half hour later. This also gave us experience riding on wet roads. One clearly must slow down and use extra caution, but it was all common sense, and very workable. At one point during the day (fortunately, the rain had stopped by then), our route crossed the Tombigbee River again, on a very scary bridge with some very heavy truck traffic. Assessing the situation, we quickly concluded that we did not need to risk trying to ride this. We crossed the road and walked our bikes across the bridge in a wide shoulder, facing oncoming traffic. Much better! The rest of the ride went well, although for some reason the hills, while not big, felt a little harder than those in the morning.

So here we are now, in Livingston, at a Comfort Inn hotel, with nice room, shower, an in-house laundromat, a computer in the front lobby, and a Subway and a Burger King right next door. Who could ask for anything more???!! We find ourselves doing well, beginning to feel the wear of hard, successive days of biking, and looking forward to being able to take a little time off. Today our plan is to bike about 55 miles to Aliceville, and then on Friday it is a short 33 miles to Columbus, where we will meet our friends, take care of my bike, and get a little time where we can take a rest from pedaling.

More as we have the opportunity to enter it. Thanks everyone, for your comments and emails -- it is really fun to see those and to have that occasional contact with the "outside world"!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Heat, Hills, and Hunger

We left Hubbard's Landing with goodbyes and thank yous. And thus started Day #2, which by the title of this you can tell brought us some challenges.

This was Mother's Day, a quiet Sunday which we figured would be good traveling on some roads which normally could be busy with some truck traffic through one stretch. From that perspective, this was a good choice. Relatively few vehicles on these roads. On the other hand, we learned that the towns we were going through: a) are extremely small -- more like little crossroads than towns; and b) the few commercial services that exist there are completely closed down on Sundays.

The route we took had many hills, some of them really large, and the temperature was in the 90's F (32-35 C). We found one open gas station / convenience store where we were able to buy gatorade, bread and turkey slices. After 45 miles, we had gone through 4 gatorade bottles and 4 water bottles, and were down to our last swallows of water in the last bottle when we finally pulled up the last immense hill and entered the town of Perdue Hill, where we were anxious to replenish our resources, maybe even stay the night. Sorry, this was not to be. Not only were there no hotels or campgrounds here, but the combination gas station/post office / convenience store was closed. The only good thing is that it had two working vending machines with cold drinks there, and there was a very fine bench under the shade of the gas station roof in front of the store. We got some drinks, literally bought the one machine out of its supply of bottled water, took our shoes and socks off, stretched out on the bench and rested for about an hour. The best closed shop I've ever experienced! Oh the other good thing is that this was the first place we'd been to in the last day and half that had decent cell phone reception, so we were able to phone "happy mothers day" greetings to my mother, and Joan was able to receive them from our kids.

At 4 pm, the temperature was still high, but beginning to drop just a bit, and we dragged ourselves back onto our bikes and set out for Grove Hill. Just another 17 miles down the road, according to the map. We had one absolutely outstanding downhill ride from Perdue Hill down to the Alabama River, but we found that what goes down must eventually go back up. There is a reason that Perdue Hill and Grove Hill have the word "hill" in their names. The hills would have been difficult work anyway, but after the long day we'd already had, and no food besides our little turkey sandwiches and some handfuls of gorp (peanuts/raisins/M&Ms mixture), this was truly a very, very hard 17 miles. Climbing up the last huge long hill we expected to see a town around every bend, but it was like a cruel hoax.... each bend would only bring another bend or small rise (small rises were beginning to feel like big hills in their own right). Finally, as dusk began to set in, we came into the town of Grove Hill. And low and behold there was an open convenience store and a fried chicken fast food restaurant called Chesters. We'd found an oasis in the desert!!!! Quickly, we ordered a chicken dinner, which they boxed and bagged for us, bungee tied it to the back of our bikes, bought 2 more bottles of gatorade, got some extra bags to more securely tie down our food from a nice young man who was there watching us through all of this, and then rode as fast as our weary legs could go down the main street of Grove Hill to the other end of town where we found our hotel, just as true darkness fell. We collapsed into our room, and had the best fried chicken dinner this world has ever known!

Day 2 was in the books, thankfully. Just under 70 miles covered in a mere 7 hours and 33 minutes of biking time. Ugh!

On the Road! (And some philosophy passed on)

The trip has officially begun! We are writing this from Grove Hill, Alabama, after having completed two full days of riding, covering 107 miles of the route so far, and logging an actual 124 miles on the bikes (riding to our accomodations each night, around town riding, wrong turns, etc. mean more miles than what the route actually shows.)

We are doing fine. Compared to the places we've been through since leaving Mobile on Saturday morning, Grove Hill (pop 1438) is a very good sized town, and a friendly place. The first two days of riding have been very different, so I am going to do two separate postings. This one is about Day #1.

We left Mobile at about 7 am Saturday morning, very excited and filled with anticipation. The "butterflies" that we'd felt the previous couple of days were gone... we were just ready to start. The early Saturday AM departure was planned to avoid any heavy traffic on the big city downtown streets and the bridges that cross the bay. Riding was good, but by the time we got out of the city and past the town of Spanish Fort, we started hitting hills. We took a break at Blakely State Park and had a nice conversation with the park ranger there. The heat as the day wore on made riding a lot of work, but we made it to Stockton by 2 pm. We found the most fabulous restaurant, the Stagecoach Cafe. They had a luncheon buffet of great food, and did we eat!! True southern cooked vegetables, pot roast & chicken, desserts, and lots of southern sweetened iced tea. It was great! Super friendly people, too, all very curious about the trip we are doing.

We then went on to the campground at Hubbard Landing, which was recommended by the Inaugural Group riders when we saw them in Cincinnati. The campground is on a lake, and has been owned by brothers Harold and Jimmy Byars since 1950. These folks could not have been nicer. They remembered the first group from a few weeks ago, and just went out of their way to make us as comfortable as possible.

That evening, with our tent set up, we went and sat on the porch outside the campground office and just talked and talked with Jimmy, his wife Frances, and nephew Paul. Fine people. And the primary piece of advice / philosophy given to us by Alvin, the group leader of that first group of riders, came back to me. He said that you can ride the route and be a tourist, or you can be a traveler. A TOURIST is someone who goes and sees and takes the memories and experience home with them. A TRAVELER gives as well as takes ..... gives in terms of the interactions with the people he/she passes. The local people in the towns one rides through are generally friendly and very interested in the bike trip, this route that many have now heard about, and the people who ride it. They truly want to talk and interact. We are making it a point to take the time to do so on this trip, and already it is making the trip all the more meaningful to us.

Friday, May 11, 2007

We're in Mobile

We left Cincinnati yesterday, our bikes and gear packed in a rental van, and had a very smooth trip south. We stopped for the night a little south of Montgomery, Alabama. This morning, we came the rest of the way down to Mobile. We checked into our hotel here, unloaded our bikes and repositioned our front wheels and seats that we had had to remove for the trip down, and returned the rental van. This afternoon, we've been doing a little touring of downtown Mobile. It appears to be a very nice, friendly city. And quite warm, temperature-wise!

We will spend the night here tonight, and then will leave early tomorrow (Saturday) morning, the idea being to negotiate the big city streets and highways of Mobile when the traffic is at its lightest.

The idea has hit this afternoon that we are here now with our only "wheels" being our bicycle wheels, and so the trip is about to begin, and the reality is hitting home.

Thanks to everyone for all of your good wishes and statements of support.... and for your comments that we should be careful. Indeed, we appreciate and have internalized your concerns. Rest assured we plan to take this very slowly and very carefully.

We will write more when we get to another computer, somewhere up the road.

--Mike & Joan

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Inaugural UGRR Cyclists in Cincinnati

Today, the inaugural riders started their day at East Fork Lake State Park, and rode a ceremonial ride to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati. Members of the Cincinnati Cycle Club joined them for the ride, along with staff members from the Freedom Center. Joan and I attended, and rode with the group. (Click on the photos to enlarge. Hit BACK on your browser to return to the Blog.)

In attendance was Allison Keyes, from National Public Radio. She rode with the group today, and will be with them during the ceremonies at the Freedom Center on Thursday. She is doing a feature story on the trail, its purpose, and this group's ride. She expects it to air on either All Things Considered or Morning Edition within the next couple of weeks.

Below, part of the group of riders, taking a time-out near Mariemont.

We stopped at the Harriett Beecher Stowe House on Gilbert Ave., and were given a short tour.

When we reached the Freedom Center, the group pitched their tents on the grounds behind the Center. Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals, is in the background.

By the time we rode home, Joan and I had covered about 26 miles, our final training ride. Now it is time to finish packing and get ready for our departure in the morning.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Visited Ripley, OH & Met the Inaugural Riders!

The UGRR route is a very newly-established route, and the first official group of riders is conducting a ceremonial inaugural ride of the trail right now. These folks left Mobile on April 15, and as chance would have it, they are arriving in the Cincinnati area this week. They reached Ripley, Ohio, on Sunday, and yesterday (Monday), Ripley put on a formal welcoming ceremony for the group. Joan and I traveled to Ripley yesterday for this occasion.

Ripley is a small, very historic town about an hour east of Cincinnati on the Ohio River, and holds a very important place in Underground Railroad history. Two houses in Ripley are especially notable. The Rankin house (shown above) was the home of Rev. John Rankin, who personally assisted as many as 2000 people to freedom during the Underground Railroad days.

The second house was the Parker house (shown at left), home to John P. Parker. He was born a slave, worked to purchase his own freedom, and acted as a "conductor" under very dangerous conditions to help many people cross the Ohio River to their freedom.

While visiting Ripley, we were able to meet the cyclists on this first ride. They were very gracious in spending time with us, sharing their experiences from the ride so far, and giving us pointers about what to expect when we set out ourselves. In addition, since some of these riders were actually responsible for a part of the project of creating this route, we got to hear first hand about the work and the philosophy behind the route, and the partnership that took place between the University of Pittsburgh and Adventure Cycling to make it happen.

At right, Joan poses with Mario Browne (L) and Dr. Stephen Thomas (R), both of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Minority Health, and both active leaders in the UGRR bike trail project. Beyond commemorating an historical heritage, their interest in the UGRR route was in encouraging minorities to adopt healthy, exercise-oriented lifestyles as a way of overcoming today's statistics of disproportionate health issues in the minority groups in this country.

Below is a group photo of all the riders we met. Adventure Cycling provided the tour leaders, Alvin, leaning on the bike (front center), and Joy, 2nd from the left in the middle row. This was a very diverse group. One man is from Japan, a number of others are from the west or east costs. The oldest member of the group is 76 years old!

While at the welcoming ceremony in Ripley, this man and his two young sons came riding up on this triple-tandem bike. They were wondering what the gathering was about. It turns out that they are from Boise, Idaho, on a cross-country tour of their own, and they suddenly generated much interest in their own right!

All told, a very interesting day, and incredibly helpful to us as we try to get our minds wrapped around what is ahead of us!