Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Adversity Becomes Adventure


(Photo credits: Joe Insalaco)

(Published in SPOKES, May 2006)

Being a natural born list maker I made up a list of 101 things that I wanted to do before I die. One of those 101 things was my dream to bicycle across the country after I retired. While May 5th was the official start of my journey, in reality the journey started almost a year earlier when I began looking for a touring bicycle. I read several years of Adventure Cyclist magazine articles on touring bicycles and visited bike shops in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. In September I ordered a Cannondale T-800 but soon realized that I had many more decisions and purchases to make. Little did I know that getting the touring bike was the easy part.

Because this was my first tour, I needed to obtain every thing that I would need on a 3-month self-contained journey. Since, I am compulsive and introverted I searched the library, bookstores, and Internet for help. In addition to my stash of Adventure Cycling magazines some other excellent sources included Donna Ikenberry’s Bicycling Coast to Coast, Rob Vander Plas’ The Bicycle Touring Manual, and Adventure Cycling Associations’ Before You Go: A Handbook for Adventure Cycling’s Self-Contained Tours. These sources and recommendations from family and friends led to several lists of all the things I would need on the trip. My purchase list was long, including a sleeping bag, clothes, tubes, tires, and spokes. To keep from being overwhelmed I also read David Lamb’s entertaining book, Over the Hills. I felt like an Olympic Athlete compared to David Lamb’s preparation and fitness for his cross-country trip.

I gathered a truckload of things that I would need for my trip. This led to my next pre-departure challenge. I needed to pack all my "necessities" on my bike. The first time I packed, I felt that I had done a good job of limiting myself to the essentials. At least I thought they were essential; thus leading me to my first lesson. Lesson #1: pack the sleeping bag. Besides not leaving room for the sleeping bag I also had not allowed room to pack my share of group gear. Back to my research, I found that the nighttime temperatures in the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains required that I take my sleeping bag. Therefore, I had to re-figure out what other necessities would become nonessential. After hours of juggling and re-packing lots of stuff to fit on my 25-pound bike, I ended up with a 75-pound bike and lists of items in each pannier.

I was sure I was nearly ready to spend 3 months cycling and camping. The next step was to train with all my gear. I found the volume and extra weight manageable. My longest training ride was 75 miles and I logged 800 miles in the prior 4 months. I felt that this training was adequate for cycling the anticipated 55-mile average day. While my camping experience was not as current--I camped as a Boy Scout and later with my young children--I felt that it would be easy to transition from my very comfortable bed to tent camping. After all, my Boy Scout experience included some serious backpacking wilderness trips. But I was much younger then. I now know how time alters memories.

Eight months after retiring at the age of 55, I started my cross-country journey from Williamsburg, VA. There, I joined an Adventure Cycling tour with 17 other cyclist. I was heading west to Florence Oregon on a 4,500-mile journey of a lifetime.

As the trip got underway, I quickly realized that I was not as prepared as I had thought for either the cycling or camping. I have lived in Virginia for 30 years and knew the state. How did I forget the wet spring weather and the Appalachian Hills? I did not mind cycling wet. However, I wasn’t sure whether my resolve to cycling wet was because it was warm or whether it was because I could not get to my rain gear. Lesson #2: pack the rain gear for quick easy access. I had packed my rain gear inside plastic bags in one of my panniers (at least my rain jacket stayed dry). By the time I got off my bike, dug in my panniers, and extracted my rain gear I was soaked. Eventually, I learned to strap my rain gear on the top of my panniers when rain was expected.

However, staying dry at night was a real challenge and important for a good night’s sleep. I must have forgotten everything that I learned as a Boy Scout. An early journal entry captured my frustration:

“It rained again last night and in the morning I packed a wet tent, adding a few more unwelcome pounds to my bike. When I reached Mineral, VA, our next campsite, I set up my tent and was pleased that it dried by 5 p.m. However, it rained again, soaking my tent and bedding. I had a miserable night trying to get to sleep.”

Lesson # 3: ask for help. After that night, I swallowed my pride and asked the experienced campers lots of “how-to” questions. I learned that even flat campgrounds had small rises that were better suited to setting up tents. Next, I learned that while pitching a tent on tall green grass makes soft bedding, it also attracts moisture. I also learned to vent my tent to reduce internal condensation that was a big problem in the humid east. If the Boy Scouts only knew what I forgot, they would take away my scouting badges.

Lesson # 4: how to camp with a small tent. My tent was a gift from my daughter who bought me the smallest and lightest tent she could find. While cycling with a small light tent was a big plus, it provided cramped quarters at night. My small tent was the brunt of many jokes; often being called my “body bag.” It didn’t take me long to learn to keep my gear packed on my bike and in plastic bags when not in use. This kept my gear dry and allowed extra room inside my tent.

Lesson #5: don’t forget to train on hills. My cycling lessons started as soon as I reached Virginia’s many steep hills. Peddling up those hills I realized that I missed a major element in my training. Most of my pre-trip riding was on the relatively flat trails and roads in Northern Virginia. Cycling through Virginia and Kentucky I climbed a total of 36,000 feet (about twice what I would later climb going over the Rocky Mts.) which about wore me out. The extent of my preparedness for hills was evident when Ben, Camie, and their 11-month-old baby passed me. All 3 of them were cycling across country with 2 bikes and 2 trailers. We were all climbing up the hill to The Cookie Lady’s home in Afton, VA. While the baby was well behaved I whined about the hill.

Going through Kentucky, my daily rides got longer—in the 70-mile range—and I still had to contend with plenty of hills. I was beginning to wear out. Lesson #6: pick your riding companions based on skill level, not just on friendship. I finally began to realize that my weariness might not be due to my lack of training but rather to the fact that I chose to befriend and ride with one of the strongest riders on the trip. Joe and I were both early risers and usually the first out of camp each morning. While Joe never pushed me, I pushed myself so I would not slow him down.

Approaching Berea, KY I found that I did not have the strength to keep up with Joe and I could no longer cycle up the hills. Lesson #7: pride is easy to swallow. Although I cycled 40 miles that day, I still had another 20 miles of hills to reach camp. At a rural intersection I flagged down a pickup truck and asked the driver for a ride. Typical of the folks that I met on this trip the driver was willing to go out of his way to help. After only 700 miles I wondered if I would be able to continue my cross-country ride. Lucky for me the next day was a layover day and I stayed off my bike. The rest did wonders for my body and mind. I was again ready to cycle westward.

Lesson #8: there is a reason the Wizard of Oz was set in Kansas. Because of the weather (including tornado warnings) we were evacuated from our campgrounds four of the seven nights that we spent in Kansas. Furthermore, we had strong head and cross winds during the day that made cycling very difficult. Our first stop in Kansas was typical of the weather we encountered in that state. We stayed at a city park in Pittsburg, KS. The second night there a storm slowly descended on us. As time passed the storm got more severe with strong winds and lightning. I got very nervous as the water level rose in the campground. Before I could decide if I should seek shelter elsewhere, a loud explosion sent me racing to a nearby pavilion. I wish I could move that fast on my bike. I am not sure my feet touched the ground. The storm toppled a large tree that fell into our campsite and pulled down power lines and poles in both directions. The storm passed and I soon returned to my tent for the rest of the night. I was relieved to find that the inside stayed dry. Unlike some of my fellow cyclists, my tent was pitched on a slight rise in the ground. A lesson well learned!

In Colorado I finally realized that my compulsive nature was not serving me well. I needed to learn to stop more often, rest longer, and not feel that I had to be one of the first riders to get to camp. Lesson #9: stop and “smell the roses.” I took time to watch the prairie dogs dart out of their holes and race along the highway. I rested on a suspended bridge thousands of feet above the Royal Gorge. I gazed for days at the approaching Rocky Mountains. I got off my bike and enjoyed the birds and wildflowers that were new to me. I even enjoyed my slow climb over Hoosier Pass, the highest pass on the trip at 11,542 feet.

I was now determined to enjoy ever minute of my trip. Cycling into the Teton National Park was one of the most scenic days of the trip. While I was among the first of our group into the park I soon slowed down and was one of the last to leave. (Joe must have had an epiphany because he stayed with me.) While in the park I hiked around Jenny Lake and up to Hidden Falls, and then took the boat back across the lake to the visitor’s center. I did not mind spending hours off my bike and arriving at camp in the late afternoon. Stopping to smell the roses seemed like a lesson well learned.

I continued my laid back ways for the remainder of the trip. I played the tourist. I saw as much as I could in Yellowstone National Park and rested at the top of McKenzie Pass where I saw miles upon miles of lava that stretched as far as I could see. I took lots of pictures and mailed the undeveloped film home. Lesson #10: don’t rely on the regular US Postal system to deliver important items. Somehow the postal system lost two rolls of film. While I have the memories, having the pictures would be the icing on the cake.

The final day’s ride from Eugene to Florence was both exciting and depressing. I was glad because I made the trip, had many positive learning experiences, and would soon be going home after three months on the road. I missed my wife, family, and comfortable bed. However, I was also sad that the trip was over and I was leaving my friends and the adventures we shared. At Florence we performed the traditional wheel dipping ceremony in a very cold ocean. I was wrapped in a sweatshirt and jacket but some of my fellow rides were so happy that they stripped to their bike shorts and went swimming. Not me, I learned my lesson, I was frozen and wanted a hot shower and warm clothes.

While some parts of the trip were not as much fun when they occurred, our guide had an appropriate saying: “Adversity becomes adventure after two beers and a shower.” I have had enough beers and showers to know that I had a wonderful adventure. I also know that there will be another trip, perhaps along the Lewis & Clark Trail. The lessons learned will not be forgotten. I now have my list of 10 important lessons packed away with my camping gear.

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