Sunday, July 22, 2007

Final Thoughts

OK, our bike trip is over, and we have been home about a week. So, now that we’ve had a little time to think about it, what did it all mean? Joan's just posted her final comments, so I’m going to address this from my personal perspective now.

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 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.

3. Learnings.

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, or me at

Thanks again,



The Bests:

-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!

The “Challenges”:

-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.
-Orangeville hill
-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


Tombo said...

Hey Guys, I'm from Madison,In. I see where you show a challange crossing our bridge over the Ohio River. That bridge has been the talk of the town. Can seem to get Kentucky to find enough money to build a new one. If you decide to come our way again, let me know I have a better route. Not sure why Adventure Cycling selected that route anyway. I'm planning to contact them to suggest alternate route.

Mike said...

Hi, "Tombo", and thanks for your note. We were out of town, so did not have the chance to reply until now.

I think we will always have vivid memories of that bridge! We talked to a few people in town who gave us some background on it, and told us that discussions about replacing it have been going on for years, but, as you said, agreement on money was the issue.

I think that if you have an alternate route, it would be great to suggest that to Adventure Cycling, and yes, if it is easy enough to describe, I'd like to know it too, just in case. I know that Adventure Cycling had consulted with a number of experts on UGRR history, and were trying to make the route pass as many historical sites as possible, so that may be one reason they chose it the way they did. But if there is a good alternate that avoids that bridge, it sure should be considered.

The flip side, of course, is that we would be sacrificing one of our best war stories from this trip! :)

Thanks again for your comment,

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