Thursday, July 26, 2012

The end of the road

There is too much to be said for the amount of time that I have not written.  The trip is officially over for now, and I am on a bus making my way slowly to Minnesota, where I will work for 3 weeks before heading back to California.

I have more emotion about this transition than I have had about anything in a long time.  I am feeling the effects of the trip in this moment, instead of looking back at what it meant, and feeling it later, which is the norm for me.  I am satisfied with what I have accomplished, and disappointed by what I skipped, and by how rushed I was most of the time.  I am so incredibly grateful to all of the wonderful people who helped me and hosted me and guided and entertained and loved me and adventured with me along the way.  Time has passed, and yet I feel as if I will be going back to life in California just as I left it.  The full strength of what the trip has meant to me will have to come out at another time, but for another quick taste, jump to the entry from 7/22/12. 


Rain, hills, vicious barking dogs, strong headwinds while riding uphill, roads which could hardly be called roads due the the river-boulder nature of their surface, biting black flies, missing turns and 94% humidity when it wasn't raining. And it was still a pretty good time. That was my day yesterday, after waking at 5:45 to catch a ride with Chris back to Belfast, ME. I agreed to stay an extra day in Bar Harbor so that we could go paddle-boarding and hiking, and it was well worth it. In return, Chris drove me out to Belfast, on a section of road which I had already ridden in the opposite direction 3 days previously, so I didn't feel so bad about not biking it again. It was the first time on my trip that I had taken a ride from anyone, aside from the bus trip which I planned and paid for.

Maine is beautiful. Full of natural lakes tucked into valleys of tall, green grass and hills covered in forests of a huge variety of trees. The roads are uncrowded, but drivers seem a little less cautious here than other places I have been. One guy on his cell phone almost hit me head-on while passing the car in front of him, headed in the opposite direction on a two lane road. There was no shoulder on that section of road, and I had nowhere to go. It was a close call.


The highlight of the day was here in camp at Groton State Forest. After finishing dinner, I looked for a good tree to throw up a line for a bear hang (a black bear had been spotted recently in the campground, but they have no bear boxes). A tall birch with a branch sticking out like a saguaro cactus was next to the road not too far from my tent, so I tied a rock to the end of my 35 ft parachute cord and tossed it up. I made it over the big branch on the first try, but the rock had gotten stuck in a small branch, and wouldn't budge.

I couldn't hang my food without having both ends of the rope, so I played with the rope a bit to try and get the rock to come down, but no luck. It became a challenge. I pulled on the line in every direction, walking big circles around the tree and pulling. I tied “bunny ears” into the end of the line so that I'd have 2 loops to grab onto, and I yanked with all my might, despite knowing that the rock could come loose and fly at me pretty fast. I even tied a loop up about 3ft from the ground, put my foot into it, and swung from the p-cord, but no luck. 2.5mm p-cord is rated to hold about 300 lbs, and it handled my weight no problem.
I needed more leverage. I wasn't just going to leave the whole cord dangling in the tree, even if I couldn't hang my food from it. I thought about cutting it as high as I could reach, and at least saving the bottom 8 or 10 feet, but I hadn't given up yet. Plus leaving a cord dangling in a tree is bad outdoor ethics. It occurred to me that this was the first real problem I had had to solve in a long time. I enjoyed the process.

My next idea involved tying the end of the cord to a fallen limb about 7 feet long and 4 inches in diameter. I then braced the middle of the limb against a tree and pushed on the far end, resulting in a lever with a stronger pull than I could do with just my body alone. I pushed so far that I walked all the way around the tree, and ended up wrapping the cord around with it. After the cord had wrapped 1.5 times around the tree, I think friction got the best of it, and it broke the end off of my limb.

My next line of thought went to the vehicle that got me here: the bicycle. I figured that if I could get going fast enough, the combined weight of myself and the bicycle at speed would be more than the p-cord could handle, and at least it would snap. I retrieved my trusty steed, loaded the rear panniers with big boulders (so much so that my rear tire was squashed!), and tied the end of the p-cord around the frame just below the seat post. The bike frame is very strong, but I was worried at first that with a sudden stop, the p-cord might just lift up the back of the bike and send me flying over the handlebars. The other end was 15 feet in the air, after all. On my first attempt, I rode slightly uphill on the dirt road that the tree stood next to, getting only about 12 feet before I felt the force of the line pull me sideways and backward, which caused me to fall over. I laughed and got back up, and this time headed downhill, toward the ditch in front of a water bar which I was hoping to avoid putting my front wheel into, because I predicted it was even more likely to result in an over-the-handlebar scenario. I rode more slowly, but was able to keep my balance when I felt the tug of the line on the bike, and kept going with all the weight of the rocks in my panniers holding my back wheel down. I was glad I had my helmet on in case the rock might suddenly release from the little branch it had wrapped around up in the tree, but instead, the line simply ripped the whole branch right off. P-cord is pretty strong stuff.

I felt victorious, but still had to get my food up in a tree. I found another branch not too far away that I thought might work, and wouldn't you know it, the rock got stuck again on the first throw. It took much less work to get it down the second time, using what I knew of the strength of the cord vs the strength of small dead branches, I was able to get the cord moving like a jump rope and twisted this second branch right off as well. I then said screw it, and called it a night. I hope I still have food in the morning.


 I set out on this trip to learn more about America and Americans. In my mind, I would meet people from all walks of life, talk to the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the African and Puerto Rican and Estonian immigrants, their descendants, and the native people of this land. Who I really ended up talking to, staying with, and getting to know is a much smaller slice of society, made up largely of people who share many of the same qualities that I have. College-educated people in their 20's and 30's, struggling to find a balance between fun, responsibility and freedom. In and out of relationships, jobs, and schools, juggling finances and busy schedules and time for self & friends. Often reluctantly settling for a job which makes money versus a hobby which brings great joy or self esteem. Often trying to figure out how to buy a house in today's economy. Really, the greatest difference between most of the young, smart, socially conscious individuals that I met is simply location.

People become connected to a place, and find it difficult to leave. Or they never saw a reason to leave in the first place. Some always had a dream of moving to a place, and when they got there, they stayed. And others who dreamed of a certain place arrived and found it not as they had hoped, and ended up realizing the joys of home. Many people settle close to their families, others close to their jobs or schools, where they have built a community of friends. I found so many happy little pockets of young people, starting to make a life for themselves, enriching communities with creative and positive energy, good will and economic ingenuity. So many places where I found myself thinking, “Hey, this place is alright...maybe I should spend some more time here.”

Much of that feeling often stemmed from the people I met and stayed with, be they friends or strangers, and the good times that they showed me in their communities. It makes me realize that for me, being happy is not necessarily about being in the right place, but about finding the right people, wherever I am. And realizing that some places definitely attract more of my kind of people than others, making the task of finding like-minded folk that much easier.


The mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire and northern New York were not kind to me.  I spent far too much time on sandy dirt roads, being chased by biting black flies in high humidity.  I practically broke into someone's cabin to get water one hot afternoon.  My knees and butt were unhappy, my crotch chaffed with the constant moisture from the high humidity, and my clothing has all begun to fall apart.  There wasn't even a real grocery store in one of the tourist towns I stopped in!  I had to make a 6 mile detour just to get food.  Access to recycling bins was almost non-existent, save for a few big towns.  It was a good time to be ready to be done.
     Thankfully, I spent wonderful time with several good friends as well.  South of Burlington, VT, Callie lives with her boyfriend Ross, and they both work in the organic garden at Shelbourne Farms.  Callie and I worked together at NAL in the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009, and talked at one point of trying to do "The Amazing Race" together, but it never materialized.  She is full of energy and life and  ideas for a wonderful future.  She and Ross live an active, healthy and busy lifestyle, while maintaining a strong connection to the natural world, and a solid social circle. I admired their lifestyle.  They took me to a BBQ, gave me a tour of their workplace (an amazing old estate), and we made a visit to the farmers market.  I stayed in a timber frame cabin that Callie and a friend had built out of recycled timbers several years ago.  It was ideal.

My last 2 nights, after passing through the Adirondacks, were spent in Dexter, NY with Brandon and Matt.  These are guys that I have worked with for several years now, at Wilderness Ventures and NAL, and both are raft-guiding this summer on the Black River.  I was lucky enough to jump on a boat with Brandon on my layover day, and ride the rapids of a very pretty river right through the middle of Watertown, NY.  We all hung out and talked about women and life on opposite coasts and the future.  I will be happy to see both of them again in the fall.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Turning around

Tomorrow, I head west!

Having reached the farthest eastern point of my travels here in Bar Harbor Maine (next door to Acadia National Park), I am turning around and beginning the journey "home."  My trip will end soon, and my mind has already wandered off to the next great adventure.

Upon passing through New Hampshire and Vermont, I will ride through the Adirondacks of upstate New York, and say goodbye to my bicycle in Watertown, NY.  I will ship it back to California, jump on a bus and visit a few more people and places on my way to Minnesota. There, I will work once again for Thistledew Programs on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Wilderness area or Voyageurs National Park for 3 weeks, followed by Burning Man, followed by a return to California for the fall season at Naturalists At Large.  Next year, I am planning on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail!

My original plan entailed biking all the way back to California as well, which may still happen at some point in the future, but not at this time.  Having accomplished nearly all of the goals that I set out to, I feel fairly complete, even though I have not yet been to Michigan, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma or Texas.  And I will not accept that there is nothing to see in those places, for I have learned that there are wonderful people and beautiful things in every place.  I will be most disappointed to have missed Michigan, which I hear is beautiful, and also has many long bike paths, and also Colorado and the southwest, where I have done a fair bit of travel, but was hoping to see several old friends who I will not make it to.

The last couple of days, I spent in Bar Harbor and in Acadia National Park, being hosted and shown a great time by Chris Strout, with whom I used to work at Redcliff Ascent in Utah.  Chris is now running his own paddle-boarding business here, and is doing quite well in his first summer as a business owner.  We paddled and hiked together, and he took me out for a fantastic lobster dinner - my first whole lobster ever.

On the way here, I stayed in Portland Maine with a wonderful French/American couple who fed me rhubarb crisp, and then called her parents further up the road and arranged a place for me to camp the next night.

I stopped at a rest area on one particularly hot day, and was headed to the restroom to fill up my water bottles when I was flagged down by a group of middle-aged folks who told me the water was no good for drinking.  There were signs up which proved them right, and they offered me 2 bottles of water, a gatorade and a sandwich, all of which I accepted, and sat down to have a meal with them.  They were a group of friends traveling by Harley and car to go see some music in a nearby town.  They had been to Acadia recently, and told me of its beauty.  They applauded my bicycle trip, and told me over and over, "do it while you're young!  No sense looking back and saying "I wish I had...""  They were a bit rough and raunchy and very entertaining and kind.


Martha's Vineyard: I went out to visit Winonah, a friend from high school, whom I had not seen since high school. We were surprisingly on the same plane of thought. She revealed to me that she became obsessed with buddhism and psychology at the age of 12, told me about her daughter and her daughter's daddy, and shared lots of life philosophy. She seemed confident, mature, capable and content. Still the same person, but so much more grown-up.

Martha's vineyard is someplace I never thought I'd go. Where presidents and other rich old white people go to get away from it all. Beyond the multimillion dollar homes and yachts, the clean-as-a-whistle artificial fishing villages and everyone thundering around in their SUVs, Martha's Vineyard still has a quiet side. With trees everywhere, cute old houses tucked into the the hearts of actual towns, sunsets on the beach and the serenity of the ocean, I can see why it has been a haven for so many. The birth place of Carly Simon, James Taylor and other artists, it still holds that peaceful, creative inspiration, and I'm glad I got to see and feel it.

Boston, home of 2 world-class Universities (Harvard and MIT), and probably a dozen others of very high quality, is a town of new and old. Skyscrapers loom over downtown, while ancient ships sit in harbors waiting for tourists to board. Bricks are everywhere, as are Americans. Boston strikes me somehow as attracting more Americans that internationals. It is not quite the melting pot that LA and NYC have become, and has a long history of very American attributes. It was not as easy to bike through as DC, but easier than NYC. I stayed with graduate students, who talked about what it was like to be a graduate student in Boston, where everyone they talked to didn't have a Boston accent. Connor, from Wisconsin, felt that he would be looked down on for talking in a Wisconsin accent.

I jumped into the ocean today, just after crossing from Massachusetts into New Hampshire. It was cool and clear and extremely refreshing. The Atlantic is warm so much higher in latitude than the Pacific. There is no way I'd be jumping into the ocean in Humboldt country right now.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Freedom in the Big Apple


The beach is the place to be on the 4th of July, and New York City is no different. I didn't even know that they had beaches in New York City until all of the people I was visiting mentioned the fact that they were going to the beach. I sort of figured that the ocean around NYC is dirty and cold and rocky and full of metal, but that is not entirely the case. What was the case, however, is that the entirety of NYC attempts to go to the beach on the 4th of July, and it was PACKED.

I found it ironic that on the day that represents independence and “freedom,” people were tucking themselves into an 8x8 foot plot of sand amongst the crowds of towels and umbrellas, plunging into an ocean carefully so as not to run into anyone else, people so thick that you could not see the water from the land side of the beach. It was a bit claustrophobic for me, and after biking 5+ miles of beachfront bike path, packed to the gills, I was almost ready to leave without even dipping my toes in the water, but I'm glad that I did. It was cool and refreshing, and the ocean breeze felt nice. The new friend that I finally managed to meet up with had found a not-quite-so packed area of the beach, and we walked and talked and enjoyed the sunny day.

The other “freedom” irony that I found on fourth of July is that of Americans who call themselves patriots, and then try to pass laws based primarily on religious dogma, in a country which was settled by those escaping religious law. Tomorrow, I will visit Plymouth rock, where the Pilgrims of the Mayflower landed in 1620, after fleeing England in the face of a religious government. I feel that it will somehow mean quite a lot to me.

I sit aboard a ferry to the island of Martha's Vineyard. Yesterday, I kayaked and snorkeled with friends in Connecticut after another ferry ride from the tip of Long Island the day before. I spent a night in the middle of long island with a man who flagged me down on the side of the road, told me that he had a place for me to sleep for the night, and led to me to his home to meet his fiance. They were lovely hosts.

Since I last wrote, my carbon footprint has increased significantly due to a cross-country flight to see my family in California, whom I had not visited since I left last year on July 6. I spent 5 incredible days on the family houseboat on Trinity Lake in Northern California, had a dinner with old friends, and spent some quality time with the grandparents. I then flew to Minneapolis, MN for 5 days, and reconnected with the great friends that I now have there. It was en excellent, fulfilling and jam-packed trip of fun and hugs.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

DC to New York City


On the night of my arrival in DC, Matt made us grass-fed local steaks for dinner. It was the first time I had eaten a large chunk of meat in several weeks, and it tasted very good. 16 oz steak, and I finished it off. I hesitated at first, due to the fact that my on-the-bike diet has been entirely vegan since I left Hendersonville, but my body handled the meat just fine, and my conscience seems to be OK with it too.

On my layover day in DC, I met up with Ren, a friend from work back in California, and she took me to some of her favorite places. Ren grew up in the DC area, and was familiar with some interesting not-so-visited parts of the capitol complex, like the sound dome fountain outside the Canadian embassy, and the US Postal museum. Surprisingly, we spent more time looking at the actual exhibits in the postal museum than in either of the Smithsonian museums we went to (Natural History and Air & Space). We at lunch at Union Station, the cram-packed train and bus transportation hub of the capitol. Ren is headed off to Melbourne, Australia to earn her Master's degree in tourism, starting in July, so I may not see her for another 2 years at least.

Matt decided that he would be able to join me for the ride out of DC, so after getting a new set of rear brake calipers for his bike the afternoon before our departure, he was ready to go. That night, after a fajita-burrito dinner that I cooked up in his one bedroom apartment, we went to a Major League baseball game between the Yankees and the Washington Nationals, a new team within the past 10 years. We walked there through the streets of DC, past rows of old brick houses and brick sidewalks. It had been about 3 years since my last MLB game at the Dodgers stadium for a staff fun day, and about 20 years before that. We sat in seats at the edge of the row, and were getting up constantly due to the fact that there was aisle to walk up on the other side, and all of the people in our row seemed to have to go to the bathroom or drink beer an awful lot. The game was a bit disappointing – Yankees 7 to 1 or some such score. There was one loud, drunk guy trying hard to rub the score into the faces of all the Washington fans. It was a much more hostile environment than I remembered.

Matt rode with me the next day until Baltimore (nearly 50 miles), and then decided his legs wouldn't carry him all the way to Philadelphia, our original plan. He said goodbye, found a box to put his bike into, and got on a train back to DC. Our ride together was very pleasant, switching back and forth between bike paths and bike lanes. At 10 miles out, we met up for breakfast with Courtney, a young woman whom I had met in Jackson, WY on my way through last summer. In Jackson, Courtney and I had connected on travel, environmental issues and generally just got along well. She did a great job of staying in touch until I made it out to DC, where she's been working as an environmental consultant for the past 3 years. We had greasy food at a Greek themed diner, and said goodbye again until our paths cross somewhere else on the road.

Biking through Baltimore was a mixed bag. First, Matt and I were on a long bike path that traversed the edge of the airport, and then we switched to a route that was paths and roads on and off until we got into downtown. Being a Saturday, the harbor area was packed with pedestrians, and the bicycle/pedestrian path was slow going after Matt went his own way. On my way out of town, I passed through some neighborhoods where people were openly cussing each other out on the sidewalks and front porches, and I kept pedaling without pause.


I am now sitting in the Memphis, TN airport on my way back to CA for 8 days, to visit family and friends before continuing on up to Maine. The last 4 days were spent in Philadelphia PA, New Brunswick, NJ and New York, NY.

In Philadelphia I stayed with my friend Calista, with whom I worked at Wilderness Ventures in WY as well as at Naturalists at Large in CA. Calista grew up in PA, not far from where she is living now, and enjoys the city very much. She bought a house there a few years ago when her mother started having health issues, and she is self-employed as a piano teacher. She is a consistently happy, smiley, laid-back and positive person whose company I have always enjoyed, and this visit was no different. We had a small pre-dinner of chicken breast and salad before heading out to a beer garden with her roommate Christine. There we met up with her friends Gideon and Ian, the latter of whom is a sous chef for the place we were at, so he ordered us several more dishes of tasty food as we sipped on delicious German beer on draft. We then made our way over to Gideon's house, and enjoyed more good conversation in his backyard, as he told me about his job as a pilot, and cranked on a toasty propane heater. I left the next morning feeling, again, like I wish I had more time.

From Pennsylvania, I crossed into New Jersey, and immediately found myself on a 35-mile long bike trail which follows a canal from Trenton to New Brunswick, my destination for the evening. The trail was compacted dirt for most of the way, which makes for slightly slower riding than roads, but it was also completely flat and free of traffic. Not to mention that it was surrounded by a green corridor of trees along the canal, which made for very pleasant, if not inspiring, riding.

Upon my arrival in New Brunswick, I was greeted by Michael, my couchsurfing host at his home in a large house own by the Episcopal Campus Ministry at Rutgers University. He is the only one staying in the 4 bedroom house for the summer, so he has plenty of room for guests. He headed to a club meeting shortly after my arrival, so I took advantage of an invitation I had received from another couchsurfer, Mehpare, and met her for dinner. Michael is from Brazil, and Mehpare is from Turkey. Michael had been in New Brunswick for 4 years already, and is working on a PhD in mathematics. Mehpare had been in New Brunswich for 10 months, and is working on dual degrees in physics and economics. Mehpare told me to call her “Moon”, which is part of the meaning of her Persian name. She took me to “the grease trucks”, where we grabbed the most famous sandwich in the city, the Fat Darrell. This sandwich consists of breaded fried chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks and french fries all smothered in marinara sauce on a French role. It was not very good, and not very filling. Later, moon and I went back to Michael's, and I had some pasta with Michael while we all hung out in the kitchen.

In the morning, Moon made us all pancakes and Turkish tea, and I said goodbye to my good hosts. I had some anxiety about riding through the most urban parts of New Jersey, but my fears were alleviated quickly as I nimbly made my way along streets with well-maintained shoulders and uncrowded neighborhood lanes. Though the ride required more attention than I was accustomed to, due to traffic and the many turns I had to make to follow a not-so-busy route, it was flat and the weather was good, and I made it to the ferry terminal across to Manhattan in good time. After a short ferry ride, I rode up the Hudson Greenway along the East side of Manhattan. This is basically a highway for bikes, complete with a double-yellow line down the middle, and wide enough for bikes to ride double-wide in each direction. I made good time up to 44th st, where I turned east and cut right through the middle of Times Square at 4 pm on a Monday. It was absolutely packed with people, but in that situation, a bicycle turns out to be the ideal combination of small size and quick speed to navigate the crowded streets.

After getting keys from my cousin Dylan, I made my way to his Brooklyn apartment through the madness of Manhattan at rush hour. It was a good end to this leg of the journey, and I felt strong even upon my arrival at Dylan's Brooklyn apartment, after crossing the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

That night, I took the subway into Manhattan and dined with Dorothy Le at Ulysses on Stone St, in the heart of the financial district. Dorothy and I went to UCLA together, and were some of the first members of the California Student Sustainability Coalition (CSSC) at UCLA. She just finished a Masters degree in Urban planning at Rutgers University, and quickly got a job doing transportation planning for the national park service, based out of Staten Island, NY. After catching up over dinner, she and her friend Kyle joined me in a short walk to the home of Cuyler Mayer, with whom I attended high school. Cuyler has been living in New York City for over 10 years now, ever since he started college there. We went up to the 50th floor rooftop solarium on Cuyler's building, looked out over the city, and chatted in some chaise lounges while catching up on old times. Cuyler has been working for a large marketing firm for the last several years, specializing in corporate crisis management. In September, he will move to Tokyo to open a new branch for the company; a big honor and responsibility on his part. It was great to see old friends, and feel as though we had not been apart for nearly so long as the reality. Despite my mild anxiety at seeing folks with whom I've not interacted in years, it always seems to be the case that we get along just fine, and I had no reason to worry in the first place.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Shenandoah to DC


     Visiting various intentional communities has prompted some conflicted feelings within me. On the one hand, every time I get to a place like this, I think, “Wow, this is great!” Like-minded people living together with shared values and purpose, taking care of each other, sharing responsibilities and freedoms and making life less about working for money, and more about spending time with the people you know and love. Spending time growing, nurturing and cultivating healthy plants and animals for food, friendship and beauty. I feel like I want to raise my kids in a place like this. Where they can wander through the woods for hours, take in nature, and run into people they know well and live with every day.
     On the other hand, so many of the people I run into who live in places like this seem to have forgotten or shrugged off or just plain don't bother with the outside world anymore. Yes, income is still procured, and for that to happen, everyone must interact with other people in other places at some point. And the place I'm staying now is geared more toward independence than some of the other communities I've been too, but still, I get the feeling that sometimes, this lifestyle is so fulfilling and comforting that it just seems like the rest of the world no longer matters. And I don't think I'll ever feel that way, no matter how good my own situation is.
     My host, Rollie, lived on what he calls a commune for 30 years. The Twin Oaks community, which he speaks of, is a place where shared income and shared responsibilities are required. A large percentage of the folks there work together on producing just a few types of products (hammocks and tofu were the products while he was there), while others work in the kitchen or garden or doing childcare. Everyone works an approximately 40 hour week, but childcare and cooking and gardening for the benefit of the community are all included in that time. Rollie said he thought most people took about 7 weeks off every year, someone did a grocery run once a week, and their needs were all met, so they didn't really need to go anywhere. He was one of the longest residents there, whereas most lasted 7 years or less. 30 years in one place sounds a little crazy for a species that evolved as nomadic hunter-gatherers. But I know there are many people who live in one place for much longer!

     What I really want is this: To travel and adventure for work, climb mountains, navigate canyons, raft rivers, jump off cliffs, slide down powdery mountainsides, spend days on end in peaceful wilderness in utter love with the world and the people in it. I want to conduct an orchestra of lost souls in a symphony of finding their hearts, letting them speak, and coming back into harmony with the earth. I want to spread love and true freedom and time without money and oneness with all things. I want to be able to see and reach and call upon the bigger picture always. We have the power, as a species, to control the future of an entire planet! We have the power to control the future of the human race! We have the power to stop harming ourselves, and our future generations, and instead, focus on the things that matter. Love, community, understanding, sense of purpose.
     I want to raise beautiful, happy children who play outside every day. I want to show them what a wonderful place the world is, and teach them to find meaning and purpose. I want to love them so much that they don't know how to handle it.


     I left Shannon Farms Association this morning in the middle of a downpour. Yesterday, I was able to help out in their beautiful, lush organic garden for a bit before the rain started. Today, I sort of tried to put off my departure for a while, hoping that the rain might let up, but it did not. I packed my things as watertight as I could, ditched the rain jacket due to the warm weather, and pedaled off into the wet. As I made my way back up the 1200 foot mountain I had descended two days previously, the rain continued, and I got soaked through. Just as I was approaching the post office in the town of Afton, VA, the rain let up just long enough for me to retrieve from my panniers the package I had wrapped up earlier in the morning, and send it off to NYC, lightening my load for climb up into Shenandoah NP.
     After a visit to the information center, where I sent off my latest photos and blog post, I started pedaling up the hill from Rockfish Gap into Shenandoah. The rain came on and off as I climbed up, wound around and glided through the beautiful, green curves of Skyline drive. The road is nicely graded compared to some of the small back-roads I had been on a few days earlier, and my legs felt strong after a good day of rest. Then it started pouring buckets. I had just stopped to have a snack, and was opening up one of my front panniers when it hit me like a wave. I was instantly soaked through, and started getting a bit cold, so I got back on the bike and started pedaling; the only way I know to get warm for sure. Eventually, the torrential downpour calmed. I wanted to record the event, but I was afraid to open any of my bags for fear of instant soaking. I ended the afternoon with a nice hike down to a couple of stunning waterfalls on Doyle River.


     Upon arriving at Loft Mountain campground last night, I ran into a guy at the registration booth who immediately asked me about my bike trip, and then revealed that he was on a solo motorcycle journey. Since I was already planning on asking someone to share a site, I asked him and he agreed. Doug is in his early 60's, an ex-navy guy from a small town North East of San Diego, CA. We shared stories of traipsing about the country, the world, relationships with women, and life in general. He was easy, honest company and I appreciated his hospitality. He made us hot cocoa after dinner, and I shared my granola with him for breakfast. We both complained about how hard it was to keep a tent dry, though it sounded like I had been much more lucky with weather than he.
    I hiked another waterfall along the way today, as well as a short loop on a flat trail through some beautiful vegetation. On the second hike, about ½ mile along, I came a across a pair of folks sitting on a bench who beckoned me over. They let me know that they weren't sure they could make it back to the parking lot, and that if I saw a ranger, I should let him/her know. Though these folks were clearly overweight, they seemed in good spirits and certainly not handicapped or desperate. I let them know that I thought they'd make it, there were plenty of places to stop and rest along the way, and that if I saw a ranger, I'd inform him/her of the situation. I walked on, and completed the 1.3 mile flat loop in about 20 more minutes. The pair had informed me that they were driving a red PT Cruiser, which was still in the parking lot as I loaded up and pedaled off. I am still not worried about them, though they seemed awfully convinced that they were doomed.


     Before getting on the highway yesterday, I witnessed a black bear meandering across the road, and then nearly filled my bottles at the closest rest area before reading the “DO NOT DRINK TAP WATER” signs plastered all over the walls. Coliform and E-coli had been found in samples recently. Apparently their supply was a spring that had been getting contaminated by surface water. Blech.
     The ride into DC began with a huge, swoopy downhill out of Shenandoah National park into the “piedmont” of Virginia. I followed minor highways and neighborhood roads through miles of suburbs before getting close to the capitol. It was amazing to me that even at 50 miles out, houses were so packed together that no one had a yard to speak of. At about 25 miles out, I got onto a bike path, and stayed on bike paths all the way into the heart of DC. I saw the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington monument from a great distance, from the path that I was on, and it was all quite pretty. There are so many more trees here than I had envisioned!
     My ride to my friend Matt's apartment took my right through the middle of the capitol complex, so I stopped and snapped some photos while I was there. Matt and I met through my first girlfriend in college, Shelli. He was good friends and study-partners with one of her roommates, so we all hung out together. Later, I convinced him to join the ultimate frisbee team, and we had a great time tossing a disc and drinking beer. After UCLA, Matt immediately went on to grad school at Cornell, and I haven't seen him since...until last night! Now we works as a Post-Doc doing research for the Navy on fire-suppressing foams, after earning his PhD in electrical engineering. A smart guy, for sure, but what foam has to do with electrical engineering...neither of us can say.
     Today I will visit a few of the vast myriad of free exhibits in the town, starting at the Smithsonian ones.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Wonderful Ways of Appalachia


     I left Boone this morning after yet another wonderful couchsurfing experience. My hosts, Elissa and Jenny, live right next to a creek in a house with interesting, open architecture and mellow vibes. Jenny left early on the second day of my stay, heading out into the wilderness for a week at her new wilderness therapy job, and Elissa finished the last day of her first year as a middle school science and Spanish teacher while I was there. Elissa has done some long-distance biking, and happened to be hosting another cyclist while I was there, who was heading in the opposite direction on a short trip from West Virginia to Atlanta. I could easily have spent several more days in their company at their cool house.
     Today was perhaps the most physically challenging day of the trip so far. Not the longest mileage, nor the longest time pedaling, but the most vertical climbing I've done all trip. With my legs still fresh from 4 months of weightless riding, a bit of running and a few short hikes, I almost wondered if I would make it to my destination here in Galax, Virginia. The themes of the day, other than hills, hills and more hills, were ride-on lawn mowers ( I must have seen a dozen in operation, and another dozen sitting ready to go), ground hogs (which ran into the bushes upon my approach so often that I stopped looking), and Christmas trees. I must have passed a hundred Christmas tree farms, growing multiple varieties of beautiful conifers, covering the hillsides in neatly trimmed rows. Because of the hills, the vistas were beautiful, and big, puffy white clouds filled the sky, making for some incredibly picturesque scenes of farms and pastures. Happy cows dotted the gloriously green hillsides, and old homes sat proudly against a backdrop of thick, dark forest. My body is tired, and so are my eyes from looking so hard at all the beauty all day long.
     To finish the day, I began the New River Trail, a bike path running 57 miles from Galax to Pulaski, VA. It is flat, well-maintained crushed stone, following a river which gives life to all of the big, leafy trees along its banks and makes for a shady, green and easy ride. I look forward to finishing the rest of it tomorrow, knowing that there are no hills for another 50 miles!


     The days are flying by! After nearly a full day on the New River Trail, I was ready for some hills once again. The trail was definitely flat, and also very beautiful. For most of the trip, a crumbling rock cliff covered in mosses and lichens of a dozen varieties stood on one side of me, while the New River, brown and slow with a small rifle here and there, lay on the other. I passed dozens of other folks on bikes, all out for day trips from the nearest parking area. Near the end, the surface of the trail became softer with gravel, and I was happy to be back on asphalt again once the trail ended.

     Over the next couple of days, I paralleled Interstate 81 as it heads northeast through the valleys of Virginia. I stayed on minor highways and back-roads, and ran into the first other cycle-tourists I have seen on this leg of the journey. First I met Tom, who left from central Pennsylvania a few weeks ago and is traveling the ACA (American Cycling Association) Trans-America route, which roughly traces the path of the settlers who followed the “Oregon Trail” when our country was first being settled by Europeans. Part of this route overlaps with the bicentennial bicycle route, which has large signs all over around here with a “76” on them and a bicycle underneath. I need to read more about what this route means.
I then met a Dutch couple who have been cycle-touring for 15 years, and were also on the same route at Tom. I get the feeling that if I stuck more closely to ACA routes, I would be running into touring cyclists several times a day, now that it is summer.
     I also ran across a couple of middle-aged guys holding a large sign outside of a planned parenthood which read “180.” I stopped and talked to them for a while about the film they are promoting, which compares abortion in America to the regime of Nazi Germany during WWII. The one of the pair who did all of the talking then asked me several specific yes/no questions about my beliefs, and genuinely tried to convince me that I would go to hell if I didn't come to God. I kindly let him know that I didn't believe in hell, and that I didn't believe that a loving God would send people to such a place even if it did exist, especially for the types of “sins” he was condemning mankind for (lying, stealing, lust). It was not a very productive conversation, as I don't think either of us was going to convince the other of anything, but we were both amiable throughout our interaction. I admired his passion, and I let the guys know that I approved of their first amendment rights to freedom of speech, and I moved on.

     Yesterday, I happened upon perhaps the most beautiful random lunch spot I ever could have hoped for. On the edge of Jefferson National Forest, between Vesuvius and Buena Vista, VA runs South River Road, with a small river right next to it for most of the way. I didn't catch the name of the river, but at one point, I saw a white patch through the trees at a turnout, and upon closer inspection, a magnificent waterfall appeared. Pulling my bike off the road onto a small path, I changed into my swim shorts in the bushes, and had a glorious swim in the cool, clear water right below the falls, where a hole of at least 5 feet deep made for excellent swimming. I climbed and swam closer to the falls to inspect, and realized that it was carrying and depositing minerals on the mosses that grew all around it, making for some very interesting, growing, changing formations in and around the falls. After climbing over the 3 ft high falls that fell directly into river, the next falls up were 20 ft high, followed by another 2 falls at 10 ft each, making for a total drop of over 40 feet. I was able to climb up everything that I could see from the river, and when I got to the top, more falls awaited. I felt as though I had found a hidden treasure, and no one else was around to see it. It was a marvelous way to cool down and reinvigorate myself for the rest of the ride.

     Today, I am couchsurfing at Shannon Farms Association, an intentional community south of Afton, VA. The ride here made me somewhat anxious because, after climbing to 1850 ft Rockfish Gap, I then descended 1200 feet in 8 miles to arrive here, and I know that I will be biking back to Rockfish Gap before continuing on into Shenandoah National Park. Some of the hills I descended were very steep, and I am not looking forward to the ride back in the opposite direction.
     Upon my arrival here, I met Rollie, my host, who put me in a very nice, spacious guest room with wonderful natural lighting due to windows on 3 sides. He had alerted some others in the community of my arrival, and while I was in the shower, several folks arrived and we all chatted about my trip and others like it that had been attempted by some of them. We then packed up some food and headed to a small potluck an a piece of their property (520 acres in total, with about 100 residents) on a ridge where an old building had once stood, and had recently been demolished. A large bonfire had been made from the pieces of the building that were deemed not to be reusable, and a half-dozen folks were sitting around on upturned 5-gallon buckets eating the delicious offerings that had been brought by several folks. I filled my plate twice with more greens and beans and tastiness than I had seen in several days, and finished it off with some delicious watermelon.

Every so often while I'm riding, I will pass some kids doing a car-wash fundraiser. Without exception, they always think it is the funniest thing to wave their signs at me, then laugh and give each other high-fives.

The wildflowers are going off everywhere! Day lilies grow here like poppies in California, dotting hillsides and the edges of forests and roadside ditches with bright orange, deep and intricate coloring, mildly sweet scented flowers. Yesterday I passed an area where a variety of yucca, with its creamy white torch of flowers, grew mixed with day lilies and something purple in the pea family, spanning the color spectrum in the bright sun. I stood in the road on a blind curve to get a few shots, but no photograph could do that hillside justice. The countryside continues to be gloriously pleasant to look at.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Happiness, Magical bugs and Green

The updating begins again in earnest now that I am back on the bike!  In the column to the left you can find links to my new videos (including the sky lantern ceremony, which was awesome!), my current location and photos of the whole trip.  In the column to the right, you will see my updated trip statistics.  I am also working on updating my route, which you can view by clicking on the "Route & Itinerary" button above.

Two more days of biking in the hole!  Lots of new photos from the past week, in two new albums which can be reached by clicking on the thumbnails above, or by clicking here


Happy people are too content to be worried about helping the rest of humanity. This is what I realize about myself after having several weeks of utter contentment here in North Carolina. If you are happy and well and cool with the way things are going, then you probably aren't thinking too much about the way things are going for the rest of humanity, because that makes many of us depressed. Success and satisfaction don't tend to motivate us to reveal our strategy to those who are struggling. Doing well simply encourages us to keep doing whatever it is that we are doing that makes us feel like life is good. Imagine if all of the happiest people in the world were to jot down their thoughts and advice and suggestions for how to be content! But simply giving them that assignment might add to the stress they feel, therefore no longer making them the happiest people. Sometimes I feel like I am one of the happiest people, like I should somehow reveal my strategy to those who are suffering or stuck in a rut. But when I am honestly and fully content with life, I usually don't feel motivated to write something that I intend to share. I usually don't feel motivated to write at all, but instead, to keep doing whatever is is that is making me happy.

I watched a couple of movies in the past few days that made me wonder about the happiness of the people who wrote them. Both films were filled with longing and misplaced love and meaningless action and misunderstandings. They made me realize that the folks who took the time to write such stories must not be all that happy. I often feel that artists and authors and musicians seem to be some of the unhappiest people, and that their unhappiness is what helps them to be so interesting and successful in their careers. Sometimes, I ironically find myself jealous of their unhappiness, which seems to be a key part in helping them to write good songs or stories. Perhaps happy people are destined not to be as good at the arts simply because they get to be happy instead.

When did people start worrying about the entire rest of the world? When did the first person realize that their actions affect the rest of humanity, as well as all organisms that reside upon this planet? Certainly there was a time when most people were unaware of the size and complexity of our planet. There was a time when people could not travel around the world in a day, when most folks were only aware of their small communities and had but a vague notion of the world “beyond.”  Did the limited ability of people to travel great distances increase their desire to take care of their local communities?  Is this factor still in play today? 

Now, it is not unrealistic for me to set a goal of spending a night in every single country in the world before I die. Even on a bicycle, I could conceivably do this. Has anyone done this? Is there still a “first” left in the world?  


     Last night, I witnessed one of the most beautiful, inspiring and rare natural phenomenon on the planet. At the hint of a friend the previous night, Jessica and I modified our travel plans to head to Elkmont campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After finding a campsite (yay for camping on a Wednesday!), we took a smooth, brisk hike through the woods, stopping to take a dip in the Little River and get photos of waterfalls, wild roses and interesting fungi. Winding our way through all manner of green, the forest was alive with springtime.
     After returning to our camp just as the light began to fade, we grabbed some layers and the tools necessary to cook dinner, and headed up the hill to an old cemetery at the end of the campground. There, we sat and cooked and waited for darkness to set in so that we could witness the event that we had come for. And soon, slowly, it started. A little light in the woods, followed by another, soon became a symphony of brilliant sparkles, dancing to a silent rhythm in the dark forest. Synchronized fireflies only exist in one place in the world, and this is it. Their show baffles scientists and thrills tourists, like us, as they blink their way into the hearts of all who witness their magic.
     When I first heard “synchronized fireflies,” I thought of the light shows in Las Vegas, with bulbs blinking and water splashing and flames shooting up, but the fireflies are not showing off for money. They are doing it for love! And the light they produce is incredibly efficient. As we watched and moved around to get closer to the displays where thousands of flies blinked, I tried to pick out patterns or predictability, but their really was none. The flies don't all blink at once, but several hundred blink at the same time, followed immediately by several hundred others, scattered across large areas, giving the impression of tiny, synchronized strobe lights at a dance hall, lighting up in waves and vibrating to the beat. But there was no music; almost no sound whatsoever. And then they would all go dark at the same time. The forest would look as if there was nothing there until a few started up again, and then, on cue, the hundreds would start all at the same time, but in new locations, with new rhythms, and new timing. We watched for nearly two hours, and in the final spot which we chose to sit and watch, we were the only humans around. We could not see or hear anyone else. Only the dark of the forest, and magical sprinkling of pulsating, living insects surrounded us. It was a spiritual experience which I will never forget, and which we hope to go back again and watch tonight!

In addition to the intense emotion that this fabulous display inspired, earlier in the day I also moved out of my room at Mountain Trail Outdoor School. Lots of hugs, positive emotions and a few tears preceded my departure. It was a wonderful season, filled with excellent people, beautiful surroundings and great experiences.


     I've just finished my first full day back on the bike in nearly 4 months, and I'm exhausted! After a couple of nights in the Smokies, Jessica and I headed to the Unitus festival outside of Gruetli-Laager, TN. With a theme of “camping, connection and consciousness,” Unitus brought an interesting crowd. I was a bit disappointed in the organization and turnout of the festival, which is only in its second year, however, it was still a wonderful experience. Great musical acts from bluegrass to rock to electric violin were high quality and a welcome variety. Also, an electronic DJ station set up in the forest made for a good atmosphere to dance and socialize.
     The highlight of the festival was the sky lantern ceremony on Saturday night, which was facilitated by Dixon's Violin, a one man electric violin act which moved the crowd with every song. Chinese sky lanterns are like miniature hot air balloons made from rice paper. They have a bit of fuel (cloth dipped in oil) attached to some strings across a hoop at the bottom of the balloon, and once lit, they take to the air quite happily. Every festival attendee was given a lantern, and they were all lit and released in a short span of time, with Dixon guiding us to let go of something in our hearts or minds that we don't need anymore, making space for something new. As hundreds of lanterns filled the sky, I almost started to cry. I took many photos. It was incredible.

I have never been anywhere more green than western North Carolina. The trees of a thousand different varieties, the grass, the flowers, the vines growing on everything; all green. I saw so many little homesteads with big vegetable gardens, farm animals wandering around, and a cozy home tucked into the edge of a forest. This would really be an ideal place for a small-scale organic farm, with so much beauty and so much water. The riding was pretty hard, considering I pedaled 3670 vertical feet (cumulative) over the course of the day, but never got above 3000 feet in altitude. Up and down was the name of the game, and with a full load fresh from the grocery store, my legs let me know that I am not in the same shape I was when I arrived in North Carolina.