A Tribute to Warm Showers

There is no doubt about it. Warm Showers made the trip. We both agree whole heartedly that our 2-month cycling trip through Maine, the Canadian Maritimes and New Hampshire would not have been as enriching and heart warming without the hospitality of our hosts.

Warm Showers is an association of long distance cyclists who participate in a free lodging exchange. By joining, cyclists agree to host other traveling cyclists in their home or yard, and in return have access to a world-wide network of host homes. Finding a Warm Showers host is as easy as pulling up an app on a smartphone. It uses GPS and Google Maps to find your location, and shows you all hosts in close proximity. By tapping an icon, you can send a message to the host requesting accommodations. As a host, you can choose the level of hospitality that suits you – camping space, beds, food, laundry facilities and kitchen use are some of the options.

Hosting is rewarding in itself. We have met fascinating people traveling through Duluth on bicycle, with a wide range of itineraries and length of trip. And after the wealth of hospitality extended to us on our trips, we are eager to continue to repay that generosity.

All the people that opened theirwpid-Photo-Sep-29-2013-1243-PM.jpg homes to us were so welcoming and made us feel right at home. They not only provided us with hot showers and comfy beds, but let us give our hand laundered clothes a thorough wash in their laundries. And we were so well fed! Other cyclists totally understand the insatiable hunger and need for calories generated by long distance cycling – even if we didn’t quite recognize it ourselves. We ate many a gourmet meal and feasted on local delicacies. Equally enjoyable was the opportunity to use the kitchen and do a little home cooking ourselves for a change.

Because the network is comprised entirely of cyclists, by definition we always had a great deal in common with our hosts. And we knew in advance that they would have values similar to our own. Conversation was easy as we shared cycling experiences. We were wowed by the extensive travels our hosts had completed, and inspired by their destinations and cycling philosophies. As relative neophytes to long distance cycling, we always learned useful tips from our hosts. They were also the best source on local cycling. We avoided bad routes, enjoyed the best scenery and got the scoop on good eateries all through their sound advice.

wpid-Photo-Sep-29-2013-1233-PM.jpgBut the biggest benefit of all was the local knowledge we gained. Had we merely cycled through on our own, we would have missed out on learning about the local history, customs and culture. The in-depth personal perspectives they shared with us were the gem stones of our trip. From understanding the background of the Acadians to getting the inside scoop on developing national geological parks, we found it all fascinating. We watched one host’s lobster boat arrive at the wharf, followed his catch from there to our dinner table and learned about the lobster industry. Our extensive tour through Old Quebec was led and narrated by new local cycling friends. Some hosts drove us to see local sights – places that were not on our direct route, and otherwise would have missed.

We knew that staying in Warm Showers homes would be useful, but in no way did we foresee just how it would shape our travels and enrich the memories of our trip. To all our wonderful hosts – who now feel like good friends – we owe a debt of thanks. And we sincerely hope that they cross our threshold in Duluth one day.

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The Finish Line

Grand Gaspe Tour logo

We're done. We finished. The Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour is over. So how does it feel? I have a myriad of conflicting emotions.

Sad to see it end. That's the overriding feeling for me. It was such a great experience that I just didn't want it to end. We had our cycling routine down to such a well honed process that it felt like we could carry on forever. We still felt strong. We had nothing but positive memories. We loved every minute (okay nearly every minute) of it. But perhaps that's what made it such a good time to stop. We definitely ended on a high point.

A Sense of Accomplishment. We did it! When we were planning the trip, it seemed like an audacious goal. And it was. But in the process of breaking the 2,354 miles down into daily chunks, I saw it more as a journey than a number to attain. Sure the miles mounted up, but upon completing the total it felt less like a victory than I thought it would. The compilation of rich experiences now deposited in my life bank of personal history was far more meaningful than any measure of distance traveled.

Thankful. We have so many reasons to be grateful. The fact that we covered all those miles safely was truly a blessing. We traveled entirely without incident and didn't even have any near-misses. Meeting so many wonderful people was such a privilege. And our Warm Showers hosts truly took care of us during each of our stays. We finished the tour with a plethora of new friends.

Fortunate. How many people have an opportunity to do something like this? I feel so very lucky to have the good health, strong body and financial resources to spend two months on such an amazing adventure. And I am so fortunate to have a like-minded husband who is as gung-ho (some use the word “crazy”) as I am to embark on such a trip. After spending 54 straight days together 24×7, our relationship is stronger than ever.

Ready to be home. Having stopped cycling and focusing only on our day-to-day progress, I have begun to turn my sights toward home. Our calendar for the next few months was a blank slate, but already I have started filling it in. I'm excited to re-engage in the lives of our kids and grandkids. I look forward to getting together with friends. I'm ready to resume my volunteer activities and freelance writing assignments. And I can't wait to cook and bake again!

Eager to do it again. It's hard to let go. And so our thoughts naturally turn to the next cycling tour. This trip has increased our confidence in our ability to cycle long distances and handle tough conditions like hills, wind and rain. We have a better sense of our limitations and how to manage them on such a trip. And we learned a lot about how to plan as we go. I choose not to look at this as the finish line. Instead, I hope it's only the starting line.

Happy cyclists in the Appalachians in Québec

 

Eat, Eat, Eat

There’s no doubt about it. Cycling burns a lot of calories. Especially when that’s what you do all day long, covering an average of 50 miles. For weeks on end. Throw in hills and wind, and the effort and calories required are multiplied.

Take two people who set out on a 2,400 mile cycling trip. Both are already in good physical shape and don’t carry any extra weight. They trained diligently for the physical exertion of cycling. But nothing prepared them for the amount of food it would take to sustain that level of activity.

That’s us. Rich and me on our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour. We thought we were eating enough, but three weeks into our trip we stepped on the scale at our host home. Rich had lost 10 pounds and I’d lost 5. That’s over 5% of body weight for each of us. It was quite a wake-up call. We just weren’t keeping pace with the calories we were burning.

A few days later, we arrived at another host home to find out that they had prepared a huge mid-day meal for us. Having just eaten lunch an hour earlier, we thought we’d never be able to face it. But with one bite, our appetites returned and we thoroughly enjoyed – and did justice to – the wonderful home cooked meal. And we did the same again that evening at supper. It showed us just what we could eat when it was put on front of us. And we probably needed it.

Ice cream stops are our favorite perk

Ice cream stops are our favorite perk

It’s a rough problem to have, right? Needing to eat more and more? I’ll admit that it has its perks. We regularly stop for ice cream breaks in the afternoons, and I don’t feel at all guilty picking up a KitKat bar now and then or indulging whenever I can find a bakery. I’ve never enjoyed breakfast more than the thick stack of raspberry pancakes I demolished this morning.

I’ve had to adjust my eating habits in general. My preferred diet is heavy on fruits, vegetables and bread and low in fat. But that just doesn’t provide enough fuel. I’ve had to adjust to heartier breakfasts and make sure I have snacks. I’m not a fan of energy bars or Gatorade-type drinks. But granola bars work well for me. And I always carry my bagels and peanut butter. Even if my family made fun of me for packing that peanut butter into a backpacking tube.

Squeezing peanut butter onto a bagel

Squeezing peanut butter onto a bagel. Looks funny, but tastes good!

What amazes me is that I wake up hungry every morning. I’m used to working out before breakfast, and even on the days that I don’t, my body isn’t interested in food right away. But on this cycling trip, no matter how big the dinner the night before, I’m ready for breakfast as soon as I’m dressed. And I can eat a lot. I’m sure it is a good coping mechanism kicking in.

Rich has allowed himself huge omlets with all the trimmings and generous portions of French Fries (I still can’t go there). Gatorade is his choice of energy boost, particularly on the hot days when he needs extra fluids. We both find ourselves slathering jam on our toast – something we never do at home.

I’m not convinced we’re winning the war on calories. We haven’t seen another scale since that first one. And judging by the way our clothes fit with nary a bulge, I’m sure we’ve both lost more weight.

What really concerns me, however, is what happens when we finish the trip. No longer will we need the humongous amounts of energy when we scale back to cycling, running or skiing for just an hour or two a day. Will we be able to readjust to our former eating habits? I have no doubt that we will put the pounds back on and return to our normal weight. But hopefully we will be able to stop there. We will just have to remember we can no longer just eat, eat, eat.

Parlez Vous Francais?

An petit peu. A little bit. But it's a lot more than we could speak about three weeks ago! That's when we entered the French speaking area of Canada, and we've been immersed in a foreign langauge ever since.

It's been a long time since Rich and I studied French – high school for me, college for him. And we've only used it a few times on trips to France. But it's amazing what the brain really does retain. We've both been doing our best to use our French, rather than relying on others to speak English. And in some areas, it was absolutely a necessity. Many menus had English translations on them, but not all. And more than once we got tangled up in ordering our food, and had a surprise or two.

The longer we've been here, the more I've gotten used to it. Bonjour comes out of my mouth automatically these days, rather than Hello. While cycling along, I find myself composing phrases in French for things I want to say. Or I replay conversations in my head, reconstructing them in French as I should have said them. That was particularly true after staying with our French-speaking friends in Quebec. I have to say that I'm quite enjoying the experience, and my confidence is growing along with my vocabulary each day.

Rich is quite comfortable with his French, but he's ready to revert to English. It won't be long now, as tomorrow we will cross the border back into New Hampshire. They are not likely to speak French over there.

We didn't have too much call for using our French today, as we mostly cycled through quiet countryside, with few towns. It was a brilliantly sunny day, but with a bit of a fall chill to the wind. We continued along the Chaudière River for about half the day, but the flat farmland gave way to rolling hills and forest. Once we moved away from the river, the hills became higher, longer and more frequent. We certainly got a workout today! Judging by the mountains that now surround us, we will have a lot more hill climbing to do for a while.

Waterfalls on the Chaudière River

Waterfalls on the Chaudière River

Mountain views near the border

Mountain views near the border - might one of the peaks be Maine?

We are now within 4 miles of the border of Maine. We plan to cross further west, so perhaps early afternoon tomorrow we will return to the US. Then we can parl Englais encore. But I'll miss speaking French.

 

Farewell Seacoast

Progress to Date

Our progress to date: 45 days, 1,975 miles

For 44 days we have followed the coastline. Always we have been cycling with a big body of water on our right. That was the whole point of the Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour, to travel the rim of the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and get our fill of coastal views. The sandy beaches, fishing harbors, soaring cliffs, lighthouses and deep blue waters have delighted us for over six weeks. But today we bid them all farewell, as we turned south from Quebec City and head inland. Back to our starting point in New Hampshire.

It also means leaving Route 132. We cycled 650 miles on the same road, first heading East along Chaleur Bay. When we rounded the point at Gaspé, it became 132 West and took us all the way to Quebec City. It was one of the best roads of the trip, with smooth pavement and wide shoulders. Good thing, as there were no alternatives.

650 miles on Route 132

We traveled East then West on the same road for 650 miles!

This is a virtual as well as a literal turning point in this trip. We've completed the portion that was our primary focus. And while the remainder of Quebec province and the length of New Hampshire will be interesting cycling territory in their own right, I can't help but see this leg as little more than our road home.

I'm already feeling resistant to the idea of completing our trip. I'm not quite ready to give up the mantle of Long Distance Cyclists. Already I'm growing nostalgic about the challenges of the big hills, the thrill of camping at the top of a cliff and completing a long day of cycling feeling tired but so very satisfied. We will just have to savor these last few hundred miles.

Today's journey took us along the Chaudière River. It is a large river that winds it's way through rich farmland. Having the river at our side seemed like an aid to wean us from the big water. We were able to follow small local roads, devoid of traffic that provided a silent trip through the countryside. Staying in the river's valley kept the hills to a minimum, and we enjoyed a chilly but helpful tailwind (for a change!). While the weather forecast called for the skies to clear, most of the day we seemed to be outpacing the front that delivered the sunny weather. It finally caught up to us by mid-afternoon, and we enjoyed the warmth of the sun as we rode.

Chaudiere River winds through farmland

Chaudiere River winds through farmland

Pretty farmland

Pretty farmland

Farms right along the river

Farms right along the river

Near the end of the day, we reached Notre-Dame-des-Pins where there is a beautiful covered bridge. It is the second longest bridge of its kind in Canada, and better yet, a bike path traveled right through it! The paved trail continued for the remainder of our day's ride, and brought us right into Saint-Georges with more modern but elaborate bridges. It also passed by a Chocolaterie where we reinstated our afternoon ice cream stop!

Covered bridge in Notre-Dame-des-Pins

Molly waves from the covered bridge in Notre-Dame-des-Pins

Bike trail inside the covered bridge

Bike trail inside the covered bridge

Ice cream time

Ice cream time, once again!

The elements all combined to make this a very easy ride today. We both agreed we could have gone much farther. Funny, that we could cycle 54 miles and think little of it. But it's time to slow down and make the most of our last remaining days of cycling. We've bid farewell to the seacoast. We're just not ready to say goodbye to cycling quite yet.

 

Old Quebec with Local Cyclists

We haven't seen as many other long distance cyclists as we expected on this trip. But whenever we do, we pause and stop to chat if they are so inclined. Some just wave and continue cycling right on by. Others are as interested as we are in swapping stories. 960 miles ago, we met Robert and Diane cycling through New Brunswick. Today, they opened up their home to us and personally guided us through Old Quebec City!

Crossing the St. Lawrence River on a short ferry ride, the buildings of the old city quickly came into view, with the imposing Château Frontenac Hotel towering over it all. Soon we felt we were stepping right into a European city. The narrow streets were lined with colorful awnings and blooming flowers. Shop fronts filled with enticing displays beckoned to shoppers. Sidewalk cafés held unhurried patrons, sipping a coffee and watching the world parade by. Fashionable figures passed us on the street. It was a delightful scene.

Rich with our hosts Diane and Robert

Rich with our hosts Diane and Robert on the ferry

Rich pauses on a narrow street

Rich pauses on a narrow street

Restaurants and boutiques beckon

Restaurants and boutiques beckon

It soon became apparent how Old Quebec was built on a steep hill, as we mounted numerous flights of stairs to the upper reaches of the city. There we could see the ramparts and citadel as well as the old town walls. More streets filled with restaurants and boutiques angled across the hilltop. We also made the rounds of the imposing government buildings, peeked into churches and admired old convents and schools. We even strolled through the elegant first floor of the Château Frontenac. It was wonderful to have local friends to find the best sights for us and fill us in on the history behind them as well.

The plaza behind the Château Frontenac

The plaza behind the Château Frontenac overlooking the river

Old city walls of Quebec

Old city walls of Quebec

Government building adorned with statues and gardens

Government building adorned with statues and gardens

We had mid-day dinner in a wonderful small place on a side street, called Le Buffet des Antiquites. The long line waiting outside was a testament to its popularity and reasonable prices. Robert made sure we knew the dishes that were typical of Quebec, and we enjoyed sampling the local fare.

Happy cyclists turned tourists

Happy cyclists turned tourists

Throughout this trip, Quebec City has stood out as a major milestone for us. It was the gem at the end of the coastal portion of our cycling tour. After miles of pure scenery and only small towns and villages, we knew it would be a cultural delight. We'd never been to Quebec before, and we were excited to explore it. We just didn't know we would have the benefit of having our own personal tour guides.

We spent a delightful evening with Robert and Diane, sharing tales of our respective cycling tours and were treated to a wonderful meal. Who knew that a chance roadside meeting would lead to such warm hospitality? There is something very special about cycle touring. We just experienced it.

 

So What’s in those Panniers Anyway?

Six weeks down and about two to go on our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour. All this time we've been living out of one set of panniers and a handlebar bag each. Plus camping equipment. Even other long distance cyclists have commented on how frugally we have packed. Many carry a second set of panniers on their front wheel as well. But we knew that every pound would count, and didn't want to carry any extra weight. Especially with the hills we'd be climbing.

By this stage, we'd know if we misjudged on our packing strategy. But I'm happy to report that we both feel we nailed it. The only superfluous item is my swimsuit. But it's not exactly weighing me down. I haven't worn my warmest cycling layers yet either, but I'm glad I have them in reserve. (* Items) And I can't think of anything that I wish I'd brought. So what exactly did I pack?

Cycling clothes: (this is on the wear-one, wash-one plan)

  • 2 Grand Gaspé Tour cycling jerseys
  • 2 pair cycling shorts
  • 4 pair cycling socks, 1 pair wool socks
  • 2 running bras
  • 1 thermal quarter-zip top
  • 1 thin cycling windbreaker
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 pair cycling gloves, 1 pair ski gloves
  • 1 pair arm warmers
  • 1 pair running capris
  • 1 pair insulated ski tights *
  • 1 long sleeve ski top *
  • 1 hat *

Civilian clothes: (note most of this is athletic wear as the thin synthetic fabrics take little room and wash and dry easily)

  • 2 running t-shirts
  • 1 pair soccer shorts
  • 1 pair athletic capris
  • 1 long sleeve running top
  • 1 pair knit long pants
  • 2 pair socks
  • 1 pair Keens sandals
  • 4 pair travel underwear, 1 bra
  • 1 swimsuit

Camping gear: (Rich carries our ultra lightweight 2-person tent)

  • sleeping bag
  • 2 sleep mats
  • solar charging panel

Electronics and sundry items:

  • iPad
  • smartphone
  • Garmin GPS watch
  • good camera, with extra battery
  • spare pair of glasses
  • toiletries (in very small quantities)
  • bagels, peanut butter and granola bars

Cycling supplies:

  • 5 spare inner tubes (Rich carries a few more plus a spare tire)
  • extra spokes
  • bike chain lubricant
  • repair tools
  • bike lock
  • 2 water bottles

And here's just how it all fits on my bike…

Panniers and their contents
Handlebar bag
Voila, the total package

Oh, and one more critical item – ziplock bags. Everything is encased in plastic to keep it dry. The first rainstorm proved just how important that was.

That's it. No more, no less. And it's all I need. Wouldn't it be nice if life were always that simple?