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Superlatives

6 Oct

[Just like the high school yearbook]

Best State: Idaho — Gorgeous scenery, unspoiled for thousands of acres, incredible climbs and descents, beautiful camping, cool riding

Worst State: Kansas — friendly people but insane cross and headwinds, tortuous scenery, incredible heat

Most Underrated State: Missouri — Ozark National Scenic Riverways, friendly people, great city parks, rollercoaster riding

Most Overrated State: Montana — The Last Best Place? Why so many strip malls, trucks, unfriendly cops, run-down cities, and overcast weather then?

Most Hospitable State: Kentucky — We didn’t pay for food or camping a single night.

State With Strongest Bicycle Presence: Virginia — Bike Route 76 marked at every intersection. Cyclist sign-in books at cafes and restaurants. Tons of cyclists out on the weekends and in the evenings.

Most Memorable Climb: (Tie) Hayter’s Gap (VA) and McKenzie Pass (OR)

Most Memorable Descent: Unnamed pass between Richland, OR and Halfway, OR

Most Challenging Day: McKenzie Pass (22-mile, 4500-foot climb complete with dehydration)

Least Challenging Day: (Tie) Dillon, CO –> Breckenridge, Co and Williamsburg, VA –> Yorktown, VA — only 12-15 each day, on bikepaths or unpopulated roads

Most Memorable Scenery: (3-way tie) )Land-locked sand dunes, Oregon, Pacific Coastline, Oregon, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Most Memorable Overnight: Philips-Thurman House, Sonora, KY

Least Memorable Overnight: Intersection of CR 56 and Blue Ridge Parkway, Vesuvius, VA — in the frigid, pouring rain

Best Camping: Dillon Lake Reservoir, Dillon, CO

Worst Camping: CENEX Gas Station, Muddy Gap Junction, WY

Most Memorable Meal: (Tie) Rosh HaShana Dinner, Eureka, KS, Fajitas, Mineral, VA

Longest Day: 126 miles — Mineral, VA –> Williamsburg, VA

Shorteset Day: 13 miles — Dillon, CO –> Breckenridge, CO

Most Frustrating Day: 19 miles into other-worldly headwinds, south of Four Corners, KS

Wisest Decision: Perfecting cooking on a camping stove

Dumbest Decision: Eating tortillas covered in leaked propane fuel

More to come …!

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(Mis)Adventures in Cycling

7 Sep

There are five things that every cyclist would put on a list of their least favorite parts of the sports:

1) Hills
2) Headwinds
3) Flat tires
4) Riding in the dark
5) Road construction

This is Kansas, so cross the first one off the list.  But please bold and underline the last four to summarize what our experiences on the bike have been over the last few days riding across the High Plains.

Headwinds are probably the most frustrating annoyance out of all of them.  Early on in the trip, the milesformeals.net team tried to save its easiest gears, for psychological purposes, for the Rocky Mountains.  These are appropriately called “Rocky Mountain gears.”  So it’s not surprise that when you’re going downhill, at 3 mph, in desolate Kansas, and it’s 95 degrees, and you’re in a Rocky Mountain gear, you are going to feel a little different about biking than you would if you were flying down from an 11,500-foot Continental Divide pass while the sun sets over majestic peaks on a lush Colorado valley. 

Now, what if after riding at a snail’s pace for 5 hours you got a flat tire with a few miles left?  And what if after you put that new tube on and the wheel is back on the back, the tire went flat again?  And earlier in the day you had already changed the tire — twice?  In times like these, the fact that this trip is an incredible opportunity to see the country, the adventure of a lifetime, seems to become more curse than blessing.  If it weren’t David, who was about a thousand times more patient and sensible in this situation than I was, I might still be patching flats and fixing tires two days later.

After we fixed the tire once and for all, there really wasn’t a lot of time to celebrate because the sun had set.  On the TransAmerica maps, there are special panels where the kind editors notify you that there are “no services” for the next x number of miles, sometimes as many as 50 or 60.  We happened to be in one of those situations, with little water, little food, no more spare tubes, and no safe place to camp, still 15 miles out of the next town.  Earlier on in the trip we met three British guys, who between not wearing helmets and stopping for ice cream every half hour, explained to us the joys and technicalities of riding at night.  It sounded beautiful to me — quiet roads, stars everywhere, the only question was when (and if) we were going to be able to do it.  Now we had no choice.  Per the Brits’ advice we strapped on the headlamps and mashed it as hard as we could to Larned.  Yes, both of us later admitted to flashes of fear — but it really turned out to be everything we expected.  Seeing the Milky Way, a sky full of stars, and even a flying star or two while barely being able to see to road in front of you is an experience best described by David as “trippy.”  I would also add: Beautiful, contemplative, and extraordinarily memorable.

Briefly, today we also experienced 15 (?) miles of heavy road construction into Buhler, Kansas.  Riding through sand and dirt and sometimes mud, especially when the road can give way quickly and you’re not fast enough to unclip from the pedals, is hard and embarrassing if that inability to unclip in time means falling very ungracefully into the gravel.  But at what other time is the cyclist treated to a completely private road free of roaring semis?  And besides we are committed to this route planned for us by the ACA so extremely that we’ll endure bad road conditions just to say, at the end, that we rode the whole thing, the entire time. 

Our pace has slowed in the last few days, but the challenges of the last few days have put a completely new spin on this trip.  If the trip was paved, flat, and free of bike repairs and bad winds it would still be great but maybe also a little boring.  Challenges are when things get interesting, and since we stayed safe through all of them, they certainly made us better riders.  Will I be happy, even ecstatic, if I don’t have to change another flat?  Of course.  But if it does happen again, and we have to ride in the windy dark afterwards, I’ll also remember that these challenges are also part of the adventure I was hoping for.

Goodbye, Mountains

2 Sep

Some milestones the milesformeals.net teams is celebrating right now:

1) For the first time in 2100 miles, we are actually heading directly east, instead of zig-zagging up and down like we did in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

2) Flat roads without tremendous climbs, or blazing downhills.

3) Not paying for camping the past three nights, and not planning on it anytime soon.

Numbers 1 and 3 really are cause for celebration.  But Number 2 is a mixed bag.  We’ve heard about it from every other cyclist we’ve met going the other way and learned about them in American geography when we were kids, but ever since leaving Pueblo, Colorado, David and I will be riding through endless wheat and cornfields until the Appalachian foothills.  There are a lot of words to describe the facts of this leg of the trip: Flat, straight, desolate, windy, and infinite.  Right now, they seem a little boring too.  No huge climbs to conquer mean no big challenges and no speedy downhills, and it’s a long way from the lush forests, wildlife, and other scenery we’ve enjoyed over the first half.  Looking around and seeing nothingness, with no change in elevation and hardly any signs of life, is enough to make you miss those Rockies and their passes.

But this road is different and despite only being one full day into it, I’m beginning to appreciate how long, straight, and flat doesn’t necessarily mean boring.  With few cars and trucks and good riding conditions it’s very, very easy to get in that “zone” I wrote about many weeks ago climbing the Blue River out of Eugene.  Cycling without distractions offers a whole new world of concentration and opportunity to do some serious thinking.  Yes, it’s lonely, but this road is also one that I would call meditative because it offers a sense of peace in its consistency that we haven’t seen elsewhere. 

This peacefulness is reflected in the slight changes we’ve made in our routine.  Since we’re out of the mountains and back down into 4000 – 4500 feet above sea level, it’s going to get hot again in the middle of the day, which means no more sleeping in and 10 a.m. starts.  Instead, we’re up at the crack of dawn, literally woken up by the roosters on farms surrounding where we sleep, and on the road just as the sun peeks over the horizon.  It’s a nice feeling, being up this early, and biking seems to be much more energizing than more sleep could ever provide.

Less scenery means less to write about, but I think it also means more to think about.  This is the heart of our country, after all, and I’m trying to convince myself with some degree of success that it is just as majestic as those mountains we’ve left behind.

Pitfalls Of The Easy Life

24 Aug

Today we are taking a well-earned day off in Kremmling, Colorado.  After cycling more than 170 miles in two days, here are some the luxuries we are enjoying: Internet and other forms of technology, air conditioning, enormous meals of unhealthy food that don’t come from cans and we don’t have to prepare, cook, or clean dishes afterwards , sleeping in, a campground without rocks, thorns, and gnats, and a whole day of free time.  All the makings of “the life,” right?

Not necessarily.  All these luxuries have gotten me thinking about the way our society shapes conceptions of “the good life”.  You should work hard all day so that afterwards your life can be as easy and comfortable as possible.  Think about the way the ultra-wealthy live: They might work 14-hour days, but afterwards, life means going out to dinner all the time or having a cook and kitchen staff in-house.  Maids, butlers, drivers, au pairs/nannies/tutorers, and personal shoppers take care of annoying things like doing laundry and raising children.  Even those who can’t afford such extravagences try to make room for things that make life “easier,” like dishwashers and thermostats — in an ideal sense, to make more time for perhaps more important things, like reading, making music, or discussing ideas, but more often than not, to do nothing.

I’m not criticizing our entire culture or anyone who enjoys downtime.  As someone who is coming out of arguably one of the most stressful jobs around, I understand the value of comfort, relaxation, and anything that will allow me not to have do anything for awhile.  But as I try to evaluate what this off day is doing for me, I realize that I’m mostly bored (because I am so used to riding 6-8 hours every day and taking at least an hour to prepare and eat each meal), tired (because of over-sleeping and lack of exercise), restless (because there’s only so much you can do on the Internet), and hungry (because there’s a cafe around the corner that serves all sorts of delicious foods that would require nothing on my part other than eating and paying for them.  Usually one cup of oatmeal for breakfast, a canned fish sandwich for lunch, and a cup of beans and rice for dinner, supplemented with some Clif bars is more than satisfying for an entire day).

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that our culture has taken relaxation or “the easy/good life” to an extreme.  For example, think about the way America has structured working life: Work incredibly hard for forty or so years so that you can spend the remaining part of your life in “retirement” i.e. not working.  In a far-flung way, today’s day off is like that as well: We have worked hard for two days battling hills, headwinds, and big miles and have “earned” the right to avoid that for awhile.  In both examples, doing things that might be difficult are viewed as “burdens” while avoiding them is a well-earned luxury.

Now, yesterday I got pretty demoralized after a wrong turn meant 31 grueling miles battling winds and yet another climb to the Continental Divide.  However, that feeling was only because I thought those most difficult days were over.  When we were in Wyoming, where we had been warned of such difficult riding conditions, I often found myself yelling to no one, without any exaggeration, “Ha ha, is that all you got, wind?  I’ve seen hills bigger than this!”  And like a madman, I would smile and begin to laugh at what was supposed to be “difficult”, and the harder it got, the more I enjoyed it.   It was the same way when I was teaching sometimes unruly and disrespectful first- and second-graders.  Everyone thought I was nuts when I said I enjoyed it more than college.  But I meant it.

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that our ideas of difficult v. easy and burden v. luxury are all wrong.  Perhaps our definitions for each should actually be switched from what they are now.  Working and exercise and washing dishes are the things that help us remember what make us living, breathing human beings, aware of the things that we have to do to survive.  And like David mentioned in a post a few days ago, there is meaning in everything, especially in the things that happen all the time or that we might take for granted.  Then again, I could also be entirely wrong about everything, and when the sun cracks tomorrow morning and we have to wipe dried bits of oatmeal off plastic containers with a single piece of toilet paper while the wind howls and morning cold numbs our entire bodies, I’ll probably be wishing I was right back here, typing in a quiet library.  Or maybe I’ll say, “This isn’t the easy life, but I still love it.”

Perspective — at least this day off has given me something.

Setting Goals, Reaching Them

24 Aug

(note: this post is now two days old due to lack of 3G service in Wyoming and Colorado)

This trip is all about setting goals, from the small to the large.
Sometimes these goals have to do with our routine, such as 50 miles of
riding by lunch.  Some involve our fundraising, namely, our hopes to
raise $5000 by the end of the trip.  Others are a little less
important, like finding milkshakes or a grocery store.  But for me,
the most important part of the whole trip, with all its points of
focus, is the riding, and therefore the riding goals are the ones that
stick the strongest and demand their successful completion.
Today Jon broke away from the group to meet his aunt in Boulder,
Colorado.  Looking at the maps afterwards David and I saw Colorado
within reach of Rawlins, Wyoming, where we were, and wanted to make
it.  There is no camping, shopping, or a town anywhere near there, and
it was 93 hilly, headwindy, and lonely miles away.  Moreover, we had
no reason to do anymore than the 45 required to get us to Breckenridge
on the 26th.
Irrational goal?  Challenging goal?  Yes.  But pointless goal?  No way.
David and I like to push each other, and there’s nothing better than
setting a ridiculous goal and then finishing it together.  Today 50
mph winds forced us to use our easiest (highest? lowest? I’m never
quite sure) gear for a lot of the time … going downhill.  And we
were still riding in this barren desert.  But nothing was going to
stop us from getting to Colorado.  Why?  Because it’s the fifth state
on the TransAmerica Trail.  End of story.
As we approached the border, it started getting very dark, a little
colder, and wet.  We had some idea of where the border was but not a
very good one. Just as we were starting to get seriously tired, there
it was: Welcome to Colorful Colorado.  We stopped in the rainy dark
and attempted to raise a smile for some pictures.  After our grueling
day, this was not the easiest thing in the world.
I’m writing to you from a rocky, scrubby renegade campsite sometimes
swarming with gnats and mosqitos and without water or electric.  But
it’s in Colorado, 93 miles away from where we started, which makes it
the best one yet.  Goal accomplished, and now onto the next one.

Sadness in America

19 Aug

There is always so much joy and so much sadness.  Yesterday we rode in Lander, Wyoming, feeling super strong and pumped up that we had made our biggest day yet, 96 miles.  We were excited to be staying for a little while in a town we had heard so much about, and camping in a beautiful park full of ammenities only made things that much better.  To cap it off, our trip earlier that day to the supermarket meant fresh and canned vegetables for one of our classic delicious stews.

Then things got … interesting. And very, very sad.

Before we knew it, we were sharing our food and our table with four Native Americans, some local, some from out-of-state.  All four claimed to be related, but the lineage may or may not be distant.  Conversation at first was easy — telling each our our stories, sharing parts of our respective cultures, and breaking bread.  Soon enough, though, their real stories began to come out.  Tales of dead siblings, parents, children, and close friends.  Alcoholism.  Meth addiction.  Relatives in prison.  Homelessness.  They wanted to tell us, for sure, but to tell it all at once seemed to be too much, so the sad story was drawn out over many hours.

Later on, I foolishly left my handlebar bag full of possessions for just a minute.  The other riders and our new friends were still at the table, listening to sweat lodge prayers on one of the woman’s cell phones.  When I came back, all my possession were gone, along with two of the Native Americans.  We found the bag, now empty, at a nearby campsite, and after quickly searching the area, called the police to report the theft.  By that time, the two who had taken the bags were long gone, and despite having their phone numbers and full names, the police officer said it would be difficult to track the items down.  I went to sleep knowing that it was only material objects lost, but still extremely frustrated at myself for allowing this happen and sad that my pictures would be gone forever.  When the two women who were still hanging out with us found out that their own family members had stolen important items from people who had shared their very food with them, they began cursing and yelling and nobody in particular.  Another small tragedy to add to the seemingly never-ending list.

The next morning, through a complicated story, we ended up finding everything, and by that I mean everything, including the cash in the wallet, in a messy pile elsewhere in the park.  Although I had checked the area many times hoping to find the items dropped somewhere, either I missed finding them the night before or they had returned late at night because they knew the police had been called.  I didn’t ask too many questions.

We shared a little breakfast with the two who had stayed in the park and actually helped us find the items their own family had stolen.  Their stories kept getting more and more sad.  They left the home they were staying in because the men there were making them feel uncomfortable.  They were planning a visit to their cousin in a halfway home who had just gotten out of prison.  They had to move their tents because they had reached their three-day limit in the park and didn’t have anywhere else to go.  The awful packaged ham and cheese they had to live on went bad overnight.  They were hungover from drinking all night.  Sadness upon sadness upon sadness.

As we were leaving the park, a drifter tried to make small talk with us.  We’ve met lots and lots of people, all men, like this.  Perhaps it wasn’t this particular man’s story, but generally these men are divorced, unemployed, and extremely distant from their children.  One man we met hadn’t seen his own flesh and blood in close to 40 years.  Another barely knew where his old family lived anymore.  This man was all by himself, didn’t have a lot to say, and sat at a nearby table doing nothing, just staring off into space or maybe at the playground where children were running around and playing a gigantic xylophone.  I had all the things I feared were gone forever, so I should have been happy.  But when you come face-to-face with such unbelievable sadness as we did the night and morning before, it’s hard to focus just on yourself.

Culture Shock

13 Aug

Anarchists, homeschoolers, prophets, Tea Partiers, religious fanatics, hunters, militia sympathizers, farmers, and outlaws have become our best friends on this trip. It’s going to
be hard going back to the ‘normal’ worlds we left in New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco. Some might even call it culture shock.
All throughout our lives we have been told to think critically, outside the box, question what people tell us, be independent, and not judge. So what of the mother who refuses to send her kids to public school because they teach evolution and serves her husband and stands in the background, not making a peep. So what of the excommunicated Mormon who has ‘deprogrammed’ himself by creating a new religion. The intellectual world says these are nutcases … Right?
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon when we meet these kind of people. They start talking. We listen out of respect and interest. They keep talking. They start saying interesting things. Such as: What we need most is total economic collapse and no government. All organized religion is a lie. We are merely peons of the corporations with no will of our own. The public schools have robbed us of God’s word.
Maybe it is because they present their case with such conviction or maybe it’s because they are feeding us — or maybe it is because we don’t have the guts to speak up — but two things always happen. We start to agree. Then, when we are out of their presence, we say, Wow, they were nuts! Try explaining to someone else. It’s as hard as counting the stars in th sky last night, because explaining it makes us seem like nuts ourselves.
Hearing ideas like these is a totally foreign experience, even after our college degrees and unique
work experiences. Part of is the sheer excitement of meeting people so different from us, yet, I’m going to suggest that there is a grain, maybe even two, to the ‘crazy’ ideas we are hearing along every mile. Or maybe we are the crazy ones. It all depends on what your perspective is. And being raised the critical thinkers we hope to be, don’t we owe everyone the same intellectual respect without writing them off?
It is not an academic question open for debate. In this case, the answer is yes.

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