Thursday, December 9, 2010
Monday, August 30, 2010
So, we also spent a lot of time talking about our favorite places/ events/ etc. and have generated thew following list describing some of the Best/ Worst/ Biggest/ Most-est things of the bike trip:
Favorite town/city: Aberdeen, MS
Worst town/city: Shiloh, TN
Favorite State/Province for bike touring: Ontario (Honorable Mention: Ohio)
Worst State/Province for bike touring: Tennessee
The "Sasquatch Hands" Award for Smelliest Gloves: Michael
The Perfect Bike Award: Serenity (Rachael's bike), for no bike problems of any kind
Favorite Biking Snack: Corn Nuts
Favorite Biking Drink: Chocolate Milk
Favorite Quote: "You guys must like sweating. I'll sweat to make money, but I won't sweat for free." (Random dude in Alabama)
Thursday, August 12, 2010
The bike trip is officially over. We are back in Pittsburgh and will be focused on putting everything away, getting back to work, and enjoying a non-hobo lifestyle. But do keep checking this space, as I plan to put up some interesting stuff in the next few weeks, including summary info about the trip, a better edited picture gallery, and videos from the footage I have collected.
But for now, it is late and I am tired and still smelly. A shower and my bed await.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
So up here in Canada, they have a whole country of their own, with roads and money and everything. Instead of Dollars, they have Canadian Dollars (which are worth almost as much). Instead of miles, they have kilometers (which are about half as much). And instead of Outback Steakhouse, they have Turtle Jack’s. But there are a few differences, which I sort here into those that I like and those I do not:
-Cars are generally more polite around bikes. While they are willing to pass you, they usually do so in a safer way.
-The baked goods (breads, mainly) at grocery stores are of much higher quality. I attribute this to the French influence in Canada.
-Stores no longer ask “Credit or Debit”, since they apparently don’t have a distinction on the retailer side in Canada. I like this mainly because I have never understood why there is a distinction made on the retail end and the question has always annoyed me.
-Campsites in Canada seem to be generally so high-class (which also means $$$) that you are forbidden to put up clotheslines. You guys need to rein that in a bit.
-The town/city system is absolutely baffling. We frequently are welcomed into towns/cities that are several miles (sometimes dozens of miles) away, on the other side of 2 closer towns. Or welcomed into a city, then into a second city, then the first city again. What is up with this?
-The junk food distribution system is second-class. They don’t seem to have adopted the super-sized gas station model of the US (at which you can find everything from breakfast cereal to donuts). Also, their McDonald’s are lacking some of our favorite things: fruit smoothies and sweet tea.
In the end, the Canadian bit has provided us with some of the most fun and interesting parts of the trip, as well as some challenging biking. Overall, I give the country an “A-“. Work on the roads a bit, get me better access to junk food, and that will come up a bit.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
After 1708 miles and 150 hours of biking, Neil (aka my right knee -- see photo) has decided he is done with this trip, so I am heading home. It started a few days ago (I am still running on bike trip time, which means that I can't quite remember any past dates or times) when the wrong combination of downhill, gravel, pothole, clipped in on a loaded bike and a right turn caused me to wipe out. Eric and Bill slowly siphoned weight off of my bike, until today, when I was riding completely unloaded (Eric was quite the site with all of my bags on his bike, in addition to the 130 pounds he was already carrying, pictures to follow). I'm not sure if it was the pain from my knee or the shame of riding an unloaded bike, but as soon as we hit Painesville, Ohio (no joke), Neil decided he would go no further.
In the spirit of the bike trip, like a real homeless person, I just got a ride to a shower from a cop (and learned that I have no criminal record!), and am enjoying the good will of the people of Painesville.
I plan on eventually completing the final 400 miles of this trip, let me know if you want to join!
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
One trend is that we see more churches than gas stations, a lot of people in Kentucky are voting for Jesus in the local elections. In Mississippi and Tennessee a lot of places were closed on Sundays, and we were told that many places close on Wednesday and Monday afternoons for people to go to church. We didn't experience problems with the latter, but we do make sure we have dollars as Sunday approaches in case the only place to get cold drinks is a rare soda machine. This past Sunday we were welcomed by the Breckenridge Mennonite Church where we stopped to get water and use the restroom. The only store in town- closed.
Biking through small towns is preferable to all the crazy traffic of big cities, but it also gets me to notice the really small things and I find I have a childlike excitement for really little things. There isn't much going on, so anything out of the ordinary is exciting. One day I was excited to see a horse in the pasture trotting along as if to chase or follow us. It was among the highlights of the day. I find myself tickled to see so many butterflies and moths everywhere, everyday (it must be their season- there are tons of them!). I've been 'run into' by butterflies (as well as some less interesting and likable insects).
One nice thing about small towns with nothing for miles in between is that the people there are as interested in you as you are in seeing other humans. Between these small towns are farms, forests, and state parks, and stretches of rural America with lots of hills. As we approach a town I get excited because it often means we'll take a break. The towns are also a good way to measure progress and I find myself excited when I see signs that say "Reduced Speed Ahead" because it means we're a mile or two from town.
I've enjoyed riding through small towns in the South, especially meeting new folks. I find myself really excited to get to Ohio (we cross the border tomorrow). This is my home state. It's not that great, but it does have a special place in UGRR history- especially Ripley, Ohio (which we're skipping in our shortcut but I will go visit later to visit the home of John Rankin). It's true value is a return to what is familiar. I found myself really excited a few days ago just to see an IGA grocery store (there was one in my neighborhood growing up) and as I belted out the lyrics to an IGA add/song and felt immense relief and joy I realized how valuable it is to be in a place that is familiar.
As we travel through the middle-of-nowhere I have come to appreciate Dollar General and WalMart and Gas Stations. These places have what we need in places where we really need them. I find myself excited to hear there is a WalMart nearby, whereas I used to be morally opposed to shopping there. I probably won't shop there a ton when I return to civilization, but I understand why people shop there. I still wish they would change some of their business practices, but I realize that this opinion is a luxury that those of us with real incomes and many shopping options can afford to have.
1. Your discount rate for hills becomes negative. i.e. you would rather bike uphill now, so you don't have to later. In fact, you now hate going down hills because you are throwing progress in the garbage, and even worse, sometimes have to use your breaks.
2. You drink more calories than you eat.
3. You only start to worry if there are more than 3 dogs chasing you.
4. 6 donuts or less is considered a snack. 7 or more is a meal.
5. You are happy to see rain clouds and wonder why you bothered to bring rain gear.
So, you heard it first on the Twitter feed, but wanted to hear it explained.
In Owensboro, KY, Michael had his Mom's friend Amy come out and pick him up from the motel we were all staying at. His Mom (JMN) drove over from Alexandria to take him home.
Big bike trips like this are sometimes hard (and sometimes tons of fun). The real challenge to such an outing is not (as many assume) the physical difficulty of getting on the bike and pedaling each day. Neither is it the obstacles along the way: heat, hills, dogs. The force that enables you to do the bike trip is one of attitude and a general control over your mental state. You have to find a way to accept the things that are happening, not battle them. You have to find a way to push through the bad times, trusting that there are good times ahead. And that is not easy, especially if you are 15 years old.
I have also noted in the past that a lot more people would quit bike trips if there was a magic "Quit" button on the handlebars that would teleport you back to your living room. In many cases, the fact that you don't have any choice but to continue (even in the US, quitting usually involves biking several hundred more miles) is the only thing keeping you on the trip. In this case, Amy was nearby and could pick him up (along with what must have been a suspicion that his Mom would drive out to get him), which provided an exit.
So, yes, it sucks that Michael quit the bike trip. But on the plus side, he did bike 1000+ miles from New Orleans to Owensboro, KY, and that is a pretty impressive feat on its own.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Eric: Age 30, unemployed graduate student, Pittsburgh, PA. Chief bike mechanic -- able to change a rear, drive-side spoke (and true the wheel) in 37 minutes flat, while swearing on the side of the road in 105 degrees. Dog slayer: in charge of pepper spray and knives. Ensures that we look as homeless as possible. Navigator.
Rachael, Pittsburgh, PA: Age 29, high school English teacher (the only biker with a job). Chief dog yeller, mom and historian. Chef. Reminds us that the slaves had to walk this route, with people trying to hunt them instead of dogs.
Michael: Age 15, unemployed high school student, Alexandria, VA. Chief boy scout and doctor. Can distinguish between sweat rash, bug bites and fungus, which is quite handy on a bike trip. Can tell you what kind of tick is on your leg.
Bill: Age 57, retired computer programmer, Nashville, TN. Found us on the side of the road somewhere in Kentucky. In charge of discouraging homelessness. Able to get lazy graduate/high school students to wake up at 5 am to bike. Chief electrolyte supplier.
Shira: Age 26, unemployed graduate student, Pittsburgh, PA. Other chef. Dog bait.
Friday, July 23, 2010
Let me explain: We are on a mapped route, for which Adventure Cycling sells great map sets. Of course, an unknown quantity of other people also buy the maps and bike these routes [as an aside: I am continually curious how many maps they sell and how many people actually bike the routes. In my experience on the Northern Tier and the UGRR, I would guess that there are maybe 25-50 groups on the route at peak season, but that is a WAG.] Thus, while the routes are by no means saturated with bikers (In my experience, only 1 in 3 store/hotel/camp clerks have ever seen people on bikes passing through), there are always other folks out there somewhere. If you get lucky (or use technology) you can run into them.
That is how we ran into Eric (another Eric, not me) and Bill. We found Eric on the internet through twitter (or rather, he found us). Shira was using the Adventure Cycling Underground Railroad hash for some of her posts and he found us through that. We met up with him in Waverly, TN and he biked with us for a day and a half, before setting off for points unknown. (Eric's blog is linked on one of the sidebars to the right)
We met Bill by chance, or something like that. Actually, we were hunting him (and his friend) for several days out of Mobile. At almost every stop we made, folks would tell us that there were two bikers just a day ahead of us (note that in some areas there are very few services, so bikers are pretty limited to particular stops). And each person would give us more information about them: how fast they were going, how old they were, etc. From what we heard, we expected that we would be able to catch up with them in a week or two, but after the first week the scent went cold. Three days ago, we were resting by a road sign on a snack break when Bill rode up. We quickly realized that he was one of the guys we had been tracking. We lost the scent because he went back to Nashville (his home), and lost his friend (who had to go back to work). So now Bill is biking with us, and is a great addition to our team. I'm not sure how long he will want to bike with us, but this sort of linking up by chance is a lot of fun.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Tennessee is full of hills and dogs. Our technique for responding to dogs has improved, and the fear that I carried for the first two days of biking in TN has abated. This fear reminds me of many of the readings I’ve come across in both historic fiction and nonfiction alike. I’ll summarize some of the reading experiences that relate to both dogs and the Under Ground Rail Road.
1. The Slave narratives include a story of a woman (slave) who ran away. She was hunted with dogs, and when she was found the dogs attacked and ripped of her breasts. The teller of this tale goes on to say that the woman was able to have children, but had to have other women feed her children. I remember having trouble believing this story when I first came upon it. No more! There are dogs here on chains (thank god) who nearly choke themselves as we pass by. And the brutality/ferocity of dogs seems to increase as their numbers increase. Dogs have group think too…. The Slave Narratives have a complex history and I recommend anyone interested in reading about them to find the book Unchained Memories.
2. In the time traveling neo story Kindred a free Black woman is caught trying to help her husband (or lover?) escape to freedom. She is nearly killed by the dogs that are sent after the pair, stopped only because a man expresses his desire to purchase the ‘free’ Black woman.
3. Mississippi and other states had laws denying slaves and sometimes free blacks from owning dogs.
The good news is that we have defensive weaponry and are getting increasingly good at anti-canine tactics. Each of us is equipped with pepper spray and bamboo stick (see picture). Of course, we also all are able to shout and kick at errant dogs as well.
As far as tactics, we have started using military tactics to defend. In risky areas, we ride in convoy and look/listen for dogs. When one is sighted (or, more frequently, heard), we call out the vector of attack ("Dog left!"). If we are changing tactics from just biking, such as stopping or engaging the dog, we call that out, too. This communication helps us identify and respond to dog assaults.
As to the exact actions, it depends upon the situation. Most loose dogs don't want to do anything more than run to the edge of the property and bark at you. While this can be a bit worrying, it isn't really a problem. We have also encountered lots of dogs that will chase you down the road and have encountered 1) spots with dogs coming from both sides of the street, 2) areas with continual loose dogs house after house, and 3) packs of dogs up to 10 in number.
Our responses range from yelling (which sometimes helps), stopping (which does a lot to make the dogs less interested in chasing you), taking out the stick and raising it (most dogs really do not like this and will turn around and run away), and the pepper spray (which is effective but difficult to use accurately).
We also spoke with two postmen who both said that dogs were a problem for them, but that pepper spray was very effective. They also both told us that the real problem is the dog that you don't see - that's the one that is going to bite you.
For those biking this route in the future: The dogs start in earnest after Fulton, MS and run at least as far as Waverly (where we are now - I will update this as we go further). I suggest getting a stick (bamboo from a side of the road bamboo stand is good), as this is very effective when combined with stopping your bike as a deterrent.
Friday, July 16, 2010
We are staying in Aberdeen, MS which is a really nice town. We stopped here because they are having a bunch of events, starting with a charity auction/concert tonight, a church is being driven across town tomorrow, and an associated parade (which we will be in). We have met many of the local business owners, as we seem to be located at the center of town, and the newspaper guy wants to write up an article about us. Also, HGTV is filming abunch of stuff about town, including the church moving and parade, so maybe we will be caught on that, too.
EDIT: We have much more to report about how great this town is, but that will wait for a dedicated post tomorrow.
We uploaded some more geo-tagged pictures (check the top of this page), and this hastily made video:
The underground railroad was at first completely unorganized, and made up of free blacks and even people who weren't against slavery but offered food or shelter to a fellow human being in need. The UGRR became organized by the cooperation of free & escaped African Americans and largely Quakers and very devout Christians. From my current research I have come across three heroes of the underground railroad. Harriet Tubman, William Stills and John Rankin. Harriet Tubman decided when her 'master' died that she would live free or die trying. She left her free black husband who was afraid to run away with her. She then traveled between 8 and 19 times back into the South to rescue slaves. She helped free some 100 slaves in order to fight int he civil war. William Stills was a free black man who recorded the stories of the slaves he helped escape (and in the process found his brother!). He was among those who assisted Henry Box Brown. John Rankin was a minister in Ripley Ohio who was among those who helped create the abolitionist movement by traveling throughout the country to speak out against slavery. Hew also publicly stood against slavery on his farm and protected and aided the escape of slaves from the slave state of Kentucky to Ohio and farther north.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Shira: Thanks so much for letting us camp behind the store, we would have been homeless otherwise.
Manager: No problem, but you're still kind of homeless.
At that moment, on day 6 of our bike ride, I knew that we crossed the boundary into the land of the hobos (pictures to follow of the shantytown we put up behind the supermarket, complete with our laundry hanging on a shopping cart). I think we made the official transition 2 days earlier when we spotted a b0x of half eaten Krispy Kremes left in a gas station, and ate them without question. Later that night, the folks camping across from us gave us their leftovers for dinner, and we saved our leftovers of their leftovers for breakfast.
The next day, Michael fell asleep on a bench at a closed gas station.
The other day Eric said this to the rest of us, in all seriousness: "So I got some good advice from the homeless guy outside Wal-mart: non-dairy creamer is good foot moisturizer, corn startch is good for sweat rash". Hopfully we will be able to dispense some good advice soon.
Monday, July 12, 2010
It is day six, and everything that has come before this trip, even recent events like sightseeing in New Orleans, seem so far away. It was at first terrifying to set off from New Orleans with 2,200 miles ahead of us. But now the miles are less daunting and having 300 hundred miles under our belt I feel a lot more confidant and upbeat. We are getting into our routines for setting up camp, cooking dinner, preparing breakfast and packing up camp.
After two or three days of flats, we’ve come to the beginning of the rolling hills here in the South. I decided very early on to enjoy the down hills. It would be very easy to hate all down hills because they demand that I go back up again (always). Finding peace with down hills (&up) is pretty important to keeping my morale up. So far I rocked an awesome hill going just over 35 miles an hour.
Part of the impetus for this bike trip was to gather information about the South, a place I’d never been to but as a Northerner have plenty of stereotypes about. Someone (from Mississippi) on our train ride said we’d find the best hospitality and we’d also find some ignorant people. So far we’ve experienced a lot of the first and very little of the second. I am really enjoying myself here, and I love listening to the accents of the locals.
1. Look at the roadkill: If you see mostly dead crabs on the side of the road, you are probably in Louisiana. Massive frogs means you are in Mississippi and Armadillos are the most common road kill in Alabama.
2. Look at the houses: If they are built on 20 foot stilts, you are on Louisiana. 10 foot stilts is Mississippi. In Alabama they are flat on the ground.
3. The dogs: In Louisiana they are fenced. In Mississippi they are big. In Alabama we have only been chased by Chihuahuas.
Finally, if you can't buy gas because all the gas stations are closed, you know that it's Sunday.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Saturday, July 3, 2010
On that note, our imminent train ride evokes images of Harriet Tubman, a woman/heroine who escaped slavery and risked travel into slave states in the South to rescue family members and other slaves. Despite having a high reward for her capture, Harriet traveled by train on a number of these journeys. And so, on our luxurious train ride, I will pause for a moment to remember this inspiring and courageous woman who risked her own liberty to help others attain their own. She is the only conductor of the UGRR known to risk her own freedom in this way.
Thursday, July 1, 2010
Saturday, June 26, 2010
One more biker/blogger joining Eric and Rachael on this page. I'll be using this font to differentiate my posts.
Eric is worried that no one is worried (see previous post), so I am writing this to allay his fears (after all, if there's anything my people know how to do well, it's worry). I have two main worries: (1) my bike isn't fast enough, and (2) a Southern dog will eat me alive because my bike isn't fast enough.
In order to ease my anxiety, I've decided to spend the weekend making my bike faster instead of making myself faster by doing more biking. I already have a new set of skinny tires on my bike, so there's only one way left (that I know of) to add some speed to my bike: add more flames. So far I have spray-painted my bike black (thanks Rob!), and placed (one rhinestone at a time) one flame on it. I'm going to touch up some of the paint (while trying not to remove excess canal mud) and bling it out with a few more rhinestone-flames, so it will be in good shape to cross the country.
The next step is to shop for the ultimate dog deterrent. It's looking like mace is the winner so far (while my dad's suggestion of a water bottle with some ammonia in it was a close second, I think it is likely to ultimately do more harm to thirsty humans), but if anyone has experience with bike-chasing-killer-dogs, I'm open to suggestions.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
When Jason and I biked across the country in 2007, we referred to the trip as the "Big Bike Trip". That name stuck and I commonly find myself begin long-winded stories with "On the Big Bike Trip...". But now we have a second "Big Bike Trip". What should I call it? "Big Bike Trip 2" (Or "II")? "The Underground Railroad"? "The One With Rachael, Shira, and Michael"?
But now there is another big bike trip, and I feel like a historian in the middle of World War II wondering what to call it. They had already had the "Great War", but now there was another pretty good war. The "Greater War" (note that this still leaves room for the "Greatest War")? Also, why didn't they just go with "Great War II" rather than go back and re-name the previous war?
Before the last big bike trip, you may recall that I was working on a project which was due a mere 24 hours before our flight, leaving me with no time to bike or even think about the trip. Furthermore, you may also recall that I more-or-less had to quit my job. (Or, more accurately: I insisted upon going on the bike trip, which was neither approved nor rejected up to a few days ahead of time, which led to them half-calling my bluff by threatening to fire me if I was gone for more than 2 weeks. Of course, skilled diplomat that I am, I had already negotiated a job with a former office as an escape plan for just such an occasion.) This time things are more amenable with work (I love being a grad student), though I am heading out on Thursday to give a presentation at a conference in Cambridge (the one in England, not Massachusetts). When I get back, I have one day to pack my stuff up into the car and head to DC for The Traverse, and our train departs from DC half a day after that event ends. Thus it appears that in a similar way as last time, this bike trip is going to spring upon me without warning and that feels ok to me.
So we haven't been doing a lot of biking recently, though the DC to Pittsburgh trip must count for something. But I'm not too worried about this. They say (and I agree) that on a big bike trip, you tend to get in shape throughout the trip. Furthermore, we plan to start of relatively easy and work our way up to feats of strength.
Also, the packing for such trips is just too easy for me now. On any given day, I could probably be ready for a 6 month bike trip in an hour or two. So while we are organizing contacts and places to stay along the way and considering the number of rechargeable AA batteries to bring, that is really all gravy.
So while I am focused more on my Cambridge presentation, I am not really worried about the bike trip planning or packing. If the first big bike trip has taught me one thing, it is that problems are meant to be solved on the road.
Monday, June 21, 2010
We'll be leaving for New Orleans in a hot minute. We are gathering gear, maintaining our bikes, and ordering the last minute things we think we'll need. After changing our bike chains (which reinforced the
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Well, I realize that I haven't put any real details about the trip up yet. So here is the plan:
It looks like we have four riders: Me, Rachael, Michael, and Shira. Four is a good number, and I am now not being overwhelmed by girls.
We leave from DC to New Orleans on the train on July 4 evening (maybe we can catch some fireworks from the observation car?). The train was chosen because it provides a relatively cheap way of transporting bikes and gear. For $400 total, I can transport Rachael and I and three checked bags each (the bike counts as a checked bag) from DC to New Orleans. Included in the price is our own little 2-person room where the chairs fold into beds, and all of our meals. Compare this with the airlines, who only wanted $100 per person to take us to New Orleans, but wanted $200 per bike plus surcharges for the other checked bags. The train takes 24 hours to go from Dc to New Orleans, but we should be pretty comfortable with a room, the ability to walk around, and a laptop computer. Shira is taking a slightly different transport scheme and is getting a ride with Kelly, who just happens to be driving through the area at about the same time.
We will probably spend a few days around New Orleans doing the tourist thing, then we will set off for the Underground Railroad Route's official starting point of Mobile, AL. We will follow the official route the whole way up into Owen Sound (see map). As on the last bike trip, we will carry our food and camp essentially the whole time.
The only difference is that this time we plan on going a little slower. When Jason and I went across, we kept feeling the pressure of Time=Money and went quite fast (I recall biking through a Shaker village in New York, but merely slowed down enough to grab a quick picture). The whole trip should thus take us about a month if everything goes well, putting us in Owen Sound around 10 August. Of course, lots of things can change on a big bike trip like this, so don't expect the schedule to be clockwork-perfect.
Monday, June 7, 2010
So let's talk bike trip technology.
Saturday, June 5, 2010
The annual DC to Pittsburgh Bike Trip is now safely ended. 19 people biked the C and O Canal portion and 9 biked the entire trip. We had perfect weather and a good crowd with no slowpokes at all. We did, however, have significant bike issues including: a magically and suddenly warped wheel, one example of extremely dubious rack/bag mounting, another wheel which could not be convinced to stop throwing spokes, and a tire that was so frayed on the sidewall that the inner tube was literally poking out of it. Problems were dealt with as they came up (note to self: buy more kevlar spokes) and we kept right on schedule.