Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Guest Post: IL to CT Part II

Editor's note: Here's part two of Tony's trip to CT. He joined us for The Eel on Saturday and it was nice to meet him. Since I couldn't get his picture of a map to upload, included is some picture I took of some stuff near NW CT.

Chambana to Connecticut in 16 Days - Part 2

Well you’re back for more. Glad to share and I hope this article inspires others to try a multi-day self supported bike tour. If you missed the first installment, you can get caught up here (insert link). I wanted to start off with some of the things I learned on the trip. A lot of these things are bike tour specific, but there are also some life lessons tucked in there. After that you’ll get the day by day notes as I traveled across Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and finished in Connecticut.

On this slow trip I hoped to learn a little about myself, the people I met, and the new areas I would be exploring. It was amazing how my different types of geography I was able to experience on a simple bicycle trip under my own power. I found that I fortunately had the will to spend day after day in a bicycle saddle without getting overwhelmed or too terribly worn out. My bicycle mechanic skills honed by three years of volunteering at The Bike Project were invaluable. The people I met were supportive, interesting, and welcoming. I stayed with tangentially connected folks on several evenings that were basically strangers, but we had great conversations about my trip, their lives, an the places they lived. All hosts I stayed with fed me without fail and resolutely refused to let me pick up the bill when we went out to restaurants. I had very few instances over 15 full days of riding where a driver honked or passed uncomfortably close, and I was moving slower than usual do to my load and long days. The trip was a refreshing dose of the nice bits of American hospitality and a confirmation that most people are good at heart. The support and friendship I experienced throughout the trip is a important to me as the scenery and physical challenge when asked, “Was it something you’d do again?” My answer is, “Absolutely!”

Critical lessons lessons learned:
A cell phone with reliable coverage and some sort of GPS navigation is critical to light touring. I didn’t have to carry a huge atlas or multiple tour books. I used the cell phone to set up my accommodations along the way.
A touring specific bicycle with a stronger rear wheel and a properly attached rear rack would have been a lower risk for mechanical failures. It would have also been prudent to move some weight forward to front panniers or a handlebar bag.
A hammock with a light sleeping bag is only comfortable down to 50F. At 40F you’re courting hypothermia.
Set up a network of potential stops along the route before you leave. The itinerary my change, and flexibility will keep you in houses and reduce your stress level.
Plan for a conservative daily mileage and achieve what the conditions allow. For me a planning number was 60 miles per day, but I was able to ride 80 miles per day due to favorable conditions.
Stop whenever you see something interesting. An enjoyable tour is not a death march. Take reasonable detours when they look interesting as five miles is in the noise over a multi-day tour.
Carry the tools you will need for basic roadside repairs, and know how to use them. I would have been stranded three times if I didn’t follow this advice.
Bring sunscreen and wear it. Sunglasses and a visor on my helmet were helpful too. The sunglasses deflected countless bits of gravel and insects that could have caused a crash or at least significant discomfort.
If it rains, ride through it as long as you feel safe doing so. Rain happens. Its not that bad.
Bring lights. You’ll probably mis-time your destination at least on day and lights will keep you alive. Your headlight will double as a reading light and camp setup lighting.
Pack light. Don’t bring extra books, food, or more than one change of clothes. If you need more than the basics for an unexpected issue, you can buy it along the way.

And now for the day by day details...

Saturday, Sept 25th - Grapes, grapes, and more grapes. Wine!
After leaving Ashtabula it seemed like I road past countless vineyards right at harvest season. The smell of the ripe grapes filled the air and it was a struggle not to stop at every winery I passed. About ten miles in I noticed my rear wheel had some extra wobble. Stopping at a lakeside park, I took the opportunity to replace the spoke and freshen up in the park bathroom.

My prearranged stop for the evening was just outside of North East, PA where there happened to be a harvest wine festival in effect. I had the chance to taste several wines and try a slice of grape pie. Later in the evening I was treated to dinner by some tangentially contacted friends of friends. I realized that success of this trip was as dependent on the kindness of strangers as my will to pedal for hours on end each day.

Sunday, Sept 26th - Riding on a highway towards Buffalo wings.
Most of Sunday was spent in grape scented bliss along Lake Erie following a signed bike route that hugged Lake Erie. As I approached Buffalo in the afternoon I was excited to see the family of wind turbines on the south side of the city. Unexpectedly my bike route signage evaporated just as I entered the city proper and the street I was on turned into a full fledged highway. Yikes! I jumped off the first exit and weaved through some rough neighborhoods into the center of the city. After perusing some battleships and a submarine at the port, I headed to a the east side of the city to stay at the home of a friend’s parents. We supped on Buffalo wings (Obama ate there) and pizza.

Monday, Sept 27th - Headed for Rochester. Left buttock calls it quits.
Flat tire in the morning from a valve stem failure. I quickly replaced the tube and headed out of town. A conveniently passed bike shop on the edge of town was open early and I snagged a backup tube. Basically a straight shot to Rochester, and not too exciting. The rain started in the afternoon just as I was reaching the city and some heavier traffic. Just as it was getting stressful I came across the Erie Canal path that loops around the SW to SE side of the city. The rest of the ride to a friend’s parents on the SE side of Rochester was scenic and stress free despite the rain and the painfully cramping backside.

Tuesday, Sept 28th - A much needed day off. Butt recovers fully.
After a good nights rest and some lazing about on the couch and several rounds of stretching I got restless with the good weather outside and decided to take the canal path back five miles to the SW side of Rochester to check out Genessee Valley Park. The park abuts the University of Rochester campus and was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead although its not one of his better known works. I found a nice bench and read in the sun and did some more stretching. The short 10 mile round trip was refreshing after nine days in the saddle. Dinner was at Dinosaur Bar B Que in downtown Rochester and was excellent.

Wednesday, Sept 29th - Following the Erie Canal towards Syracuse.
An easy start on the paved portion of the Erie Canal trail that passed less than a mile from where I was staying. Took the path all the way to Newark and then followed the NY Bicycle Route 5 that traverses the state East-West parallel to the Erie corridor. I noticed that most of the preferred cross state route still had legible street markings from the annual bike tour. This was very helpful at I didn’t bring maps or have a planned route. Some folks were surprised that I had done so little detailed route planning, but I think I preferred the approach. I could detour at will, carried less weight, and stumbled across more things than I could have planned to visit. When I was lost or unsure of my route (GPS malfunctioning) I just headed in a roughly northeast direction until I got a better bearing.

After supping at a recommended brew house in downtown Syracuse I headed northeast to a couch surf set up by a Connecticut friend and brewmaster at John Harvards. The home was right on the shore of Oneida Lake, but no one was home and I was waiting for a bit in the dark. Just as the neighbors were about to call me in to the police, Terri showed up with her son and new dog. They’d had the dog for just two weeks and were returning from a first obedience lesson. The adorable dog was a Daschund - German Shepherd mix, and I spent a minute trying to fathom the gymnastics that made it possible. Unfortunately the dog wanted to eat me, and didn’t let up until I had cleared the building the next day. Our hypothesis was that my beard was the reason for the ire, as the dog had reacted strongly to another bearded visitor. Apart from the the unfortunate canine antipathy, my stay was relaxing and the view in the morning was amazing. Couch surfing at its finest.

Thursday, Sept 30th - Sloppy wet. Thank you Tropical Storm Nicole.
When I left in the morning it was raining steadily and it didn’t let up all day. The only variation was that sometimes the steady rain escalated to a wind driven downpour. My target for the evening was Mohawk, but I made a little further to Little Falls, NY due to the focus afforded by the conditions that weren’t ideal for frequent sight seeing and pit stops. Soaked to the bone, cold, and super grungy with trail spray I booked a downtown hotel room for the night. Little Falls was picturesque, even in a stubborn drizzle. After a refreshing warm shower, I dined in the nearby steak restaurant and strolled the historic and hilly downtown and adjacent residential neighborhoods. I put the town into my mental Rolodex of places that would be great for a relaxing long weekend vacation.

Friday, Oct 1st - Smooth sailing to Albany until the rack broke.
Pushing off at a leisurely 9AM to allow the rain to get ahead of me, I hoped to stay dry most of Friday. There were still lingering sprinkles until the early afternoon, but none of the drenching I had seen on Thursday. Looping around Schenectady on hilly paved bike paths, I passed several General Electric compounds. For those that don’t know, I work for Pratt & Whitney, and GE is a formidable competitor of ours in the aircraft and power generation engine businesses. I took the opportunity to relieve myself trail side while facing one of the large GE emblazoned industrial buildings. Rolling through a park in the metro corridor between Troy and Albany I heard a pop while hitting a speed bump. My back wheel stopped turning and I came to a skidding halt. The upper steel strap securing my rear rack had snapped and my rack pivoted backwards acting as a very effective friction brake on the back tire. My first thought was, “Crap! I’m stranded.”

Then my engineer brain kicked in and I determined that I could temporarily support the rack with a tight truss of tent cord running between the saddle rails and the seat tube. After 20 minutes I was back in business, but needed a more permanent fix before taking off for my next leg in the mountains on Saturday. I called a friend who mentioned there was a group of like minded bicycle cooperative folks in Troy / Albany and had them look up a phone number. I left a message at the co-op’s number and proceeded to call local bike shops, all of which were 5 minutes from closing for the day. I was planning to stealth camp just North of the city, and head in for a repair when the bike shops opened around 11AM.

Just then, I got an unexpected call back from Mary at Albany Bike Rescue. They offered to come downtown and open the shop for me. They even had the part I needed for the repair. After a quick repair and lots of great bike co-op chatter, I tried to get Mary and her husband to let me treat them to dinner. They wouldn’t let me buy, but did invite me downtown for grub. We happened upon an unexpectedly large group of cyclists participating in Albany’s First Friday. I settled right in, as these are “my people.” I also figured that someone in the group would eventually offer me somewhere to sleep. After pounding a veggie burger and an absurdly large chocolate cheesecake dessert, I got the couch surfing offer from a friendly guy named Bill. The only drawback was that Bill was headed out shortly and I wouldn’t be able to do much Albany carousing. Now that I’ve seen the bustling First Friday and seen the happening bike culture an Amtrak trip to Albany might be in order.

Saturday, Oct 2nd - Leaf peeping the Berkshires on a bike is a lot more work.
I’d ridden some sizable hills on several days of the trip, but I knew the biggest challenge was going to be riding across western Massachusetts. I thanked various deities throughout the day for a triple front chain ring and a generous rear cassette. Much of the day was spent slowly churning upwards in my easiest gear with ample time to take in the breathtaking views. The rest of the day was careening downhill, faster than was responsible for a loaded touring bike. In the spirit of my unplanned route I spent a good portion of the day on gravel roads, but smooth, packed gravel roads (not evil sucking pea gravel or big unstable rocks). Bombing down a gravel mountain road at 40mph+ is not advisable but I did it anyway, with only one pinch flat as punishment.

The epitome of the hill climbs was would be a grueling 1 1/2 mile climb starting with a long 12% incline. Just as I was starting into the climb a pair of motorcyclists heading down laughed loudly and one said, “He’s got a long haul.” I knew it was going to be a big one. I eventually made it to the Massachusetts-Connecticut border and snacked on the remainder of my goodies for dinner. I had carried a Cadbury Dairy Milk bar and half a bottle of wine (in the extra water bottle) through the mountains and reveled in the luxurious camp snack and instantaneous tipsy feeling. I set up to stealth camp along side a small tumbling river in Granville State Forest. It was going to be a cold night, so I bundled up before crawling into my hammock at 7:30PM. I wasn’t sure how cold because without cell coverage my weather source, Mom on the internet, was unavailable.

Sunday, Oct 3rd - Final day! First time riding NW Connecticut.
Ouch it was cold! Note to self - a hammock and lightweight sleeping bag are not comfortable at 40F. Most of the long night (11 hrs) was spent curled into a fetal position with significant periods of foot rubbing. A pair of thermal tights under my pants or some chemical heating packets might have made this more bearable. I woke up at first light and eagerly started on the relatively short ride into Hartford. Breakfast was a handful of raisins and the dregs in my water bottle. I needed a water stop soon, or I would need to break out the filter I had packed but not yet used.

Two miles down the road I passed a campground replete with a bathroom, warm showers, and camp fires. I had nearly frozen just short of this park amenity. This is the one time when I kicked myself for not planning more ahead of time. After a brief toilet and water refill, I continued my ride into the gradually reducing, but still significant, hills of Northwest Connecticut. Looping the north end of the Barkhamsted Reservoir afforded memorable fall vistas and immaculate new pavement. As I approached the western suburbs of Hartford, the roads became familiar and I put it on autopilot as my energy stores tanked. Rolling up to my current squat in Connecticut, I was greeted by a hearty warm lunch provided Miriam who knew I was arriving. Famished and worn out, I tore into lunch and started digesting the journey. I will do this again.


Billy Hoyle said...

It doesn't sound like you had a backpacking stove, but boiling water and putting it in a water bottle and putting the water bottle in your sleeping bag is my favorite winter camping method.

Brendan said...

I like putting the stove in the sleeping bag.

Tony C said...

Nope. No camp stove. Very light touring without carrying much food and no cooking supplies. I was stopping along the way for food and eating cold stuff when I camped.

Next time if I'm chancing cold camping I'll grab one of those lightweight chemical heat packs. That would have made a big difference.