Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The First Thousand

Our rest days have been so busy - with recuperating, catching up on things, buying things, spending time with our hosts, hitting the town, etc. - that it's really hard to justify setting aside an hour or two to blog. That said, I do still want to chronicle our journey in some fashion, and I know that the longer I leave it, the harder it will be to catch up. So here's the "2:30 AM at the Bichell home in Tennessee" version of an update for the first 1/4 (!) of our trip. One to two sentences per day; short and sweet.

Day 0 (6/5): Drove down to Virginia Beach, had the best nachos I've ever eaten (Baja Cantina, in case you get the chance to visit). CouchSurfed with Run Away Bill, a fantastic, hippy-type, 50-year-old guy with a house full of curios and one driving mission in life: to find the best parties, mostly of the festival type.

Day 1 (6/6): Took forever to pack, dip our wheels in the Atlantic, clean the sand off our wheels, and hit the road (at 1 PM!). Spent the day working out kinks, and the night sleeping illegally in a park - only to be woken at 3 AM by some very wary police, who fortunately decided our trip was super cool and that since we were already in the park we might as well stay out the night.

Day 2 (6/7): Biked to an area north of Richmond, where we tried and failed to find the "cyclists only campgrounds" indicated on the map (it helps to read the info on the back, which we didn't find until a week or so later). Had our first experience with southern hospitality when we were lucky enough to run into John, a guy who lived nearby (nearly inside the Richmond Battlefield Park) and was kind enough to stop and offer his front yard as our campsite.

Day 3 (6/8): Had a rough day (tardiness, hills), especially for me (soreness, developing a monster of a rash on my legs, and semi-debilitating bowel problems), and ended up rolling into Middle Of Nowhere (Beaverdam), Virginia as darkness closed in. Stopped at a Baptist church, used whitepages.com to find the pastor's number, and got permission to camp (AND a free shower - and strawberries! - in the morning).

Days 4-5 (6/9-6/10): Undertook the long, hilly climb into the center of Charlottesville after an already-long day (79 miles, our farthest at the time by a large margin). Stayed with the family of my friend Nina, who were so wonderful to us (and we were so sore) that we decided on the spot to take a much-needed rest day.

Day 6 (6/11): Our first day of rain had me worried about drivers and visibility (especially given the road we were on), but there was also a silver lining in that we climbed our first major mountain (onto the misty Blue Ridge Parkway) without too much heat and sweat. Spent the night at Lake Sherando (a campground a few miles off the TransAmerica route) and got to see Olivia, a good friend from high school.

Day 7 (6/12): Discovered that going to Sherando, which involved dropping about 1,000 ft after making a 1,500-ft climb the day before, was a horrible mistake; we had to regain those thousand feet in short order, in a climb that has been the most devastating and difficult of our trip to date. Only managed about 35 miles, ending at the Mallard Duck hostel, where we met a very interesting cast of characters - including Steve, whose parting story to us is so great that it has to be reproduced, below:
"And when this guy tried to sucker punch my friend, it was like he was trying to sucker punch ME! So I clotheslined him. And then I clotheslined him again. And then I said, 'Who's your daddy?' And he said, 'Well, I guess you are.'"

Day 8 (6/13): Biked to little old Daleville, VA, where we once again became the recipients of some southern hospitality: a Mr. Painter pulled up on the side of the road as it was getting dark and offered his back porch for us to camp on. By the time we left the next morning, we had also enjoyed his shower (which had so many knobs and dials that he had to explain "the controls"), a hot breakfast, and a parting gift of blueberries.

Day 9 (6/14): Finished Section 12 of the TransAmerica map (it's labeled for eastbound cyclists) and ended the day at the home of a friend from school, Ian. Enjoyed their hospitality, the decor (his dad had shot a bear in Alaska, and its pelt was mounted in the living room), and the small college town of Radford, VA.

Day 10 (6/15): Took a rest day by biking - literally about a block, as it turned out - to the home of (the aforementioned) Olivia's grandmother. Had the best food of the trip so far (mostly because we really love meat now - and also, blueberry pie?!), and shared some great drinks with our host and her friend (the former had a fully stocked bar).

Day 11 (6/16): Didn't get as far as we wanted (I think we were 3 for 9 on that score by this point), so we had trouble finding a place to camp in the smallish town of Marion, VA (but did get to practice our Spanish at a Mexican restaurant, so, yay). A guy offered us his yard, but he lived 7 miles back the way we had came and it was already dark (and thus a safety issue), so we admitted defeat and spent our first night in a motel.

Day 12 (6/17): During a lovely lunch in sleepy Meadowview, VA, we finally met two other cyclists doing the TransAmerica fully loaded (self-sustained touring, as opposed to with SAG wagons / RVs). We managed some very solid climbs (1,500 and later 1,000 ft) without breaking a sweat (okay, just kidding... but we felt good afterward!), which made this the first day that I felt that I must be getting significantly stronger (or at least better adjusted to cycling), and that the whole "We'll train on the road!" idea seemed to be working.

Days 13-14 (6/18-6/19): After 600 miles or so (the TransAmerica route/Interstate Bike Route 76 is pretty winding, and Virginia is wide), we finally crossed the state line into Kentucky! Rode a rather frightening road (one lane each way, and, coal trucks) to Pikeville, where we stayed at Steve's friend's house, and where I finally got to do what I had been meaning to do all through Virginia: talk to some of the people who run/work at Chinese restaurants in tiny/completely random towns throughout the U.S., and listen to their stories.

Day 15 (6/20): Had a much rougher day out of Pikeville than we could have possibly anticipated, which seemed to be ending particularly well when a guy in an unmarked white van pulled up behind us on the shoulder... and proceeded to tell us about the youth ministry of a church nearby that would be happy to host us. It turned out that the church was no longer hosting cyclists, but by the time we discovered that it was so dark (thinking we were set for the evening, we had taken a detour to get pizza) that we had no choice but to fork over $25 each for the only cycling hostel in town - which nonetheless turned out to be completely worth it when we discovered that the guest tent came with a beer, a hot shower, laundry service, a double shot of brandy, an ice pack, and a breakfast of cake, fruit, and cereal.

Day 16 (6/21): Started our secret detour to Great Britain (aka eastern-central Kentucky) when we pulled into Manchester that evening (in the following days to be succeeded by London, Somerset, and Glasgow). Had a superb dinner, then once again paid dearly for the time we spent at the restaurant: rode the 5 remaining miles to the local park in the dark, chased by dogs part of the way (and I can testify that this is frightening at best when you can actually see them).

Day 17 (6/22): Made it to Somerset just in time to catch the tail end of a monthly antique car show extravaganza (and listen to a pretty great cover band, and buy some pulled pork from the vendors). It was dark and we had no particular place to stay (are you seeing a trend here? we're trying to correct this. I probably shouldn't have gotten that haircut in London.), and the police pretty much told us to take a hike when we asked about campsites in town, but with the help of some friendly people we managed to secure the permission of the venue's security guard to camp just off the parking lot at the site of the car show that had just closed up shop.

Day 18 (6/23): Biked our first century of the trip: 100 miles (or 105 for us that day, to be precise), and it. felt. good. Stayed at a pretty happenin' campground near Glasgow, KY, run by the Army Corps of Engineers - a member of which had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years back and was so happy that we were doing something cool and similar that she brought us hot chocolate.

Days 19-20 (6/24-6/25): Biked just shy of a second century to my friend Rae Ellen's home on the southern end of Nashville, TN. We've had a fantastic time at her house - seen the city, eaten incredibly well, listened to some great live music, met her gorgeous family, even resolved some bike issues - and we're kind of reluctant to leave. Fortunately we're looking forward to a smooth ride down the bike-friendly Natchez Trace Parkway to the home of Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi.

That last thing is supposed to be starting in about seven hours, and it takes us a few hours to get ready and pack each day... so that means I'd better stop with the blogging and start with the sleeping. I hope the format of this was digestible; I'd like to be a bit more thorough, but off-the-bike alone time has been shockingly elusive on this trip.

We'll be taking a rest day in Oxford, Mississippi, where we hope to arrive in three days' time. Until then, I bid you all adieu. Know that I am still alive, still in reasonably good health (though, I'm going to need to visit a dermatologist as soon as I get back to Yale), and pretty satisfied that that's all still true after completing the first thousand miles of our trip.

Love from Nashville,

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Cross-Country Tour: An Introduction

"The town is behind. Its cares are forgotten. If I have left a thing undone, let it remain so; for I have done with the town and all that remains in it, and the open world is before me. Now I care nothing for either time or space, for of both I am absolute master. I scorn appointments, either with myself or with another. I will not end the day in any given spot, but in that spot which pleases me best when the day is near its close. I am king of the road, I, a vagrant, a gipsy, a highwayman if you will, but at all events one who knows and honours the freedom of the road."

 -- Mr. Haydon Perry, a touring "enthusiast" quoted in A.W. Rumney's Cycle Touring (1898, "Price One Shilling")


Hello from Pikeville, Kentucky, and a bike trip that has finally gone interstate. Before I can talk about how we got here, though, a little history is in order.

This trip of ours formally began thirteen days ago today, but a lot has happened over the few years without which we never would have been able to dip our wheels in the Atlantic. When I was in Taipei during the summer after my freshman year, I spent a lot of time exploring: wandering the alleys, cycling into the mountains, trying the food, talking to people I met in restaurants or on the street. It seemed like the best way to take the pulse of the city and the best way to meet its people. The Taiwanese I met were usually just as curious about America as I was about Taiwan; they wanted to know how Americans live, what we eat, what we earn, how we celebrate. I discovered pretty quickly that I didn't have very many answers for them - I could speak for my family, or at times on behalf of suburban Connecticut, but rarely did I feel confident talking about anywhere else in America, let alone the country in its entirety.

When I got back to the U.S., I started wondering why I had never really thought of exploring America, or even New York, the same way I explored Taipei: on foot, by bike, and most importantly in person. So at some point during the winter of my sophomore year (late 2009 or early 2010), an e-mail went out to Steve, a longtime friend and partner-in-shenanigans. It went something like this: "So what if we took a summer and biked across the country?" The reply was characteristic of him, and went something like this: "That sounds great. Let's do it. I mean it."

Over the next year and a half, we kicked the idea around and let it take shape. Around mid-2010, when I had just arrived in Beijing for a year of Chinese study, we settled on the summer of 2012 as our window of opportunity: Steve would be graduating, and neither of us knew what the post-Commencement world would bring, so we figured it might well be our last chance to embark on an adventure of this scale together. In mid-2011, while I was working for a Chinese company in Zambia, we started talking more seriously about logistics, cost, and other considerations. Throughout the past academic year (2011-2012), I spent a large portion of my free time doing research: combing books, blogs, and the local bike shop for clues about what to buy, eat, prepare, and expect. I also applied for but failed to receive a Yale fellowship, saved up some of the money I would need for the trip, and dipped into previous savings for the rest. Most of my spring break in March was spent training, and while I quickly lost the mileage gains I made during those ten days, I did get a lot more comfortable with my new bike and with endurance cycling in general.

Preparing for the trip has involved a pretty serious commitment of time, money, and attention - more so by far than any of my previous summer (ad)ventures - but it's hard to sum up in a word what exactly has motivated me. The main impetus has always been this desire to get a grassroots, worm's-eye view of America, but other elements have also become intertwined in that: rising to the physical challenge, filming some breathtaking scenery, eating some delicious food, cementing a strong friendship, attaining the feeling of achievement that I hope will come after completing an ocean-to-ocean trip, and briefly freeing myself (Perry-esque) from schedules, communication, and obligations.

Given the limited amount of time we have before I need to be back at Yale, it's going to be difficult to balance all of these; just yesterday, for example, we were talking about whether or not we'll be willing or able to maintain a pace that will take us through the deep South, northern Texas, the Great Plains, and Utah, or whether we'll have to take a more direct route to our final destination of San Francisco. We chose our route with the intent to spend some time in as many "alien" regions of the U.S. as time would allow. We hope it will look something like this - http://g.co/maps/naxpd - and so far we seem to be reasonably on track, though with 650 miles down and as many as 3,800 remaining, we'll need to pick up the pace a bit to achieve our goal. You'll notice that we didn't start in Connecticut, where we're both from and where I go to school; we figured that if we're reasonably familiar with any two regions of the U.S., they are New England and the mid-Atlantic, so we (and by "we," I mean "Steve") drove a rental car down to Virginia Beach and started there. (This became a brief point of embarrassment yesterday when we met Stan, a guy from Belgium who had started from New York on about the same day as us. Stan also drinks milk instead of water and may be superhuman, so I think we'll go back to being proud of our daily mileage soon.)

Before I launch into what our trip has actually been like - the subject of the next blog entry, so, hold your horses - I'm going to answer a few of the most common questions we've been asked along the way:

Q: What do you carry with you?

A: Everything we need (or just really want). So far, for me personally (including group gear) that comprises:
  • touring bike (mine is a secondhand Fuji Touring from around 2007, a steal at $400)
  • bike accessories
    • bike computer (which I got for free with the bike! stopped working in the middle of Virginia but started back up again two days ago for no reason.)
    • rear rack
    • panniers (saddlebag-type packs that hook onto the sides of the rack)
    • handlebar bag
    • waterproof map pocket (attaches to handlebars)
    • U-lock and cable
    • pedals (Mine are dual platform, which means that I can ride clipped into my cycling shoes or on a flat platform with regular shoes. We always ride clipped in when we're on the road, which was a big adjustment at first but became second nature within a day or two.)
    • cycling shoes with cleats (made especially to clip into the pedals)
    • water bottle cages (2)
    • bell
    • reflectors (one set per wheel and then a back reflector that I've zip-tied to my rack)
    • front light (1W, blue-white)
    • rear light (Very Bright, red)
    • mini mirror (zip tied to my left drop handlebar)
    • flag (3m fiberglass; fluorescent orange replaced with an American flag, which was Steve's idea with inspiration credit to his friend Marshall)
    • mini floor pump (mounted to the down tube)
    • extra mini pump
    • handlebar mount for video camera
  • Spares and Repairs
    • spare tire (1)
    • spare tubes (2)
    • spare spokes (2)
    • patch kits (includes sandpaper, vulcanizing glue, and patches)
    • chain lube
    • bike tool set (includes Allen keys, screwdrivers, tire levers, chain breaker, etc.)
    • rag (for grease)
  • Cycling Apparel
    • cycling shorts (3x; mine are all mountain bike- esque Louis Garneau Cyclo shorts. I'm allergic to something in them and will probably return to Yale with a hydrocortisone and/or Benadryl addiction.)
    • cycling jersey (1)
    • helmet
  • Other Apparel
    • socks (5 pairs, incl. 2 SmartWool)
    • gloves (1 pair, fingerless leather, courtesy my younger brother Ian. For when it gets cold.)
    • pants (1 pair, nylon-y hiking pants, can convert to shorts)
    • shirts (3: 1 short-sleeved, 1 long-sleeved, 1 short-sleeved Seersucker)
    • belt
    • handkerchief (for sweat)
    • rain shell (cheap, plastic-y, and slowly desintegrating)
    • poncho
    • sunglasses and strap
    • swimming trunks (haven't used those yet.)
  • Technology
    • audio recorder (Olympus; in lieu of a journal/notebook)
    • camcorder (Canon Vixia HF-S10)
    • Seinheisser mini shotgun mic (wish I hadn't brought this. not much use for it.)
    • Sony mini lapel mic (ditto.)
    • portable hard drives (two 1TB drives, FAT32 formatted: one Hitachi Touro and one Western Digital MyPassbook [or whatever it's called])
    • cell phone (Verizon, w/ pay-as-you-go plan)
  • Camping Equipment
    • tent (REI Quarter Dome T2+. Truly magical.)
    • tent footprint and rainfly
    • extra tarp (for the bikes. really another tent's footprint on clearance.)
    • sleeping pad (Thermarest, foam)
    • sleeping bag (Marmot Maverick)
    • camping utensils (mostly for making sandwiches)
    • rope (for use as a clothesline)
    • camp soap (not yet used)
  • Everything Else
    • water bottles
    • hydration pack (Camelback Lobo)
    • Leatherman multitool
    • bungee cords (4) and one adjustable strap (haven't had to use the latter yet)
    • pepper spray (mostly for dogs, maybe for humans? Have had a few close calls with the former.)
    • gaffer tape (wrapped around a pencil stub)
    • zipties (super useful)
    • a book ("How Washington Really Works." Picked it up off a pile in my basement; haven't opened it yet.)
    • toiletries (soap, shampoo, deoderant, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, floss, electric razor)
    • towel
    • first aid (band-aids, Ace bandage, cold pack, alcohol prep pads, Benadryl, hydrocortisone cream, aspirin, tweezers, scissors, gauze, antibacterial cream, etc)
    • sunscreen
    • bugspray
    • emergency toilet paper
    • Adventure Cycling Association maps (TransAmerica from Virginia-->Kentucky and Western Express from Utah-->California)

Q: What do you eat?

A: A lot of PB&J - we try to switch up the jelly to make it interesting, but I love PB&J so I don't mind anyway. Also, a lot of power bars - Clif energy (especially brownie flavor) while on the road and Builders (for our muscle-rebuilding protein fix at the end of the day or after a tough climb).

Q: How many miles do you ride a day?
A: We've been averaging 60 but hope to push it up to 75 very soon. We started out at 65 on flat terrain (near VA Beach), and our max was 80 (the day we arrived in Charlottesville), but our pace quickly slowed [ha!] as we hit the Appalachians - after Charlottesville, for example, we had a 45-mile day,  followed by 35-mile day that nonetheless completely wiped is out. We've been doing some pretty solid climbs recently without much of a problem though, so I think our muscles are finally adapting; a few days ago we had a 1,500-ft climb, followed later by a 1,000-ft climb, and we ended that day (about 65 miles) feeling ready for more.

Q: Where do you stay?

A: So far, it's been a mix of camping (at parks or other campgrounds), staying with relatives or friends (or relatives of friends!), and camping in the yards of folks who have just gone out of their way to be hospitable and make the offer. We've also CouchSurfed once(http://couchsurfing.org/), and had a few more offers but failed to make it as far as we wanted to on that day and so been unable to claim our couch; we hope to do more Couchsurfing in the future, especially now that we have a better idea of our pace and what a realistic daily mileage goal might look like. There's also a site specifically for touring cyclists called WarmShowers, but I've never used it and to be honest I just keep forgetting to check whether anyone's available along our route. We've had to stay in a motel once, and it felt very much like a defeat.

Q: How do you plan your route?

We plan in 3- to 5-day increments. Until yesterday (and except for the first day), we've been largely sticking to the ACA TransAmerica route, which follows Interstate Cycling Route 76 through Virginia and into Kentucky. We've been supplementing that with some Google mapping, either on computers at houses we've stayed at or via Steve's iPhone, but we'll now be deviating completely from the map to head south into Tennessee. When we plan a route, we look for terrain, expected daily mileage, available stops (convenience stores, etc), and places to spend the night (campgrounds, relatives/friends, or CouchSurfing users).

Q: When will you get to San Francisco?
A: Hopefully by August 20 at the very latest. I'd like to spend a few days there before I fly back to NYC/Connecticut (probably August 23/24). But... who really knows? Que sera, sera.

To read about the first two weeks of our tour, check back in five or six days for an update from our next rest stop (hopefully in/near Nashville). Or, for terse but up-to-the-minute information, follow Steve on Twitter! -- http://twitter.com/scubarton.

In the meantime, here's the cliffhanger to my next blog entry, which begins as we drive down to Virginia Beach, bikes stowed in the trunk of our rented Crown Victoria, to meet with our CouchSurfing host for the evening. What I felt can best be summed up by none other than Mr. Haydon Perry, the fellow from 1898:

"What finer enthusiasm is there than that begot of the thought, 'To-morrow I begin my tour?' - what conveys fuller or surer promise of novelty?"

Until Nashville,


Monday, June 11, 2012

all the things I don't have time to say


This is not the introductory post of the trip; this is the pre-introductory post, because in the four fantastic and challenging days that we've been on the road, I really haven't had the time or the facilities to blog. We took a rest day today, which I was planning to take advantage of in order to write the first cross-country entry; but we got bogged down with bike-, food-, and medical- related errands, and the Benadryl I took a few hours ago is doing its level best to knock me out. So, I hope that a few pictures of the beginning of our journey will suffice for now. Voila Virginia Beach:

After dipping our wheels in the Atlantic, we're ready to ride.

Steve, in particular, is ready to ride.

But we already miss Virginia Beach.

More to come the next time we get to stay in a house (hopefully 2-3 days from now).

I hope nobody was really looking forward to a detailed introductory blog post.

America is great. (Ref: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noSo5io0JLI)


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Cross-Country: Post #0

Hey all,
Just a quick note to let you know that we've arrived in Virginia Beach and are staying with a fantastic Couchsurfing host, "Run Away Bill." I want to write a proper introduction, but for that I need some time - and since we're both exhausted, I think it will have to wait until the next stop in our trip with an internet connection. (Which will be...? Hopefully sometime this week; stay tuned.) Tomorrow we return the rental car, suit up, and begin the challenging part of this adventure.