Farewell to a friend and cyclist

One never knows what awaits us in life.  And today, we had very sad news that reminded us never to take life for granted.

wpid-Photo-Sep-15-2013-955-PM.jpgWhile on our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour, we met fellow long distance cyclists Robert and Diane Picard.  It was a chance meeting, and the usual trip details were exchanged, but in the few minutes we hovered over our bicycles a bond was formed.  We sensed a common spirit, and 1,000 miles down the road we took them up on their generous offer of hospitality.  They were the ultimate hosts, guiding Photo Sep 16, 5 25 02 AMus through Old Quebec City, opening their home to us, and feeding us well for our continued cycling tour.  We enjoyed long conversations on cycling, grandparenting and retirement with them – all despite the language differences.  We persisted with our limited French to their passable English, and it worked.

Some people talk idly about future plans, but after spending hours pouring over maps together, we left with the certainty that they would come out to Minnesota next summer to cycle with us.  And cycle home again to Quebec!  We didn’t doubt that they would actually do it.  They are that kind of people.  We looked forward to repaying their kindness and spending more time with them, both on our bicycles and off.

So it was with heavy hearts that we learned of Robert’s passing this morning.  His son graciously contacted us, to let us know that he had died swiftly and unexpectedly of a stroke.  The news seemed so implausible, and our hearts go out to Diane and all the family in absorbing this great loss.

Photo Sep 16, 6 57 38 AMRobert’s enthusiasm for life and willingness to share it with others will remain with us forever.  His passion for long distance cycling will continue to be an inspiration, and his and Diane’s friendship will always be a highlight of our Gaspé trip.  It was an honor to know Robert, and we extend our most heartfelt condolences to his family.

Farewell, Robert, and cycle on.

Home at Last

Sixty-four days is a long time to be gone. Between our Grand Gaspe Cycling Tour and the car trip out east and back, that’s how long we were away from home.

Photo Sep 27, 7 06 49 AMReturning to Minnesota we had a beautiful drive, with sunny days and fall color approaching peak. We stopped to visit good friends in Rochester, NY and checking out our old haunts where we first met and dated. We even got back on our bikes and cycled along the Erie Canal – a slow, leisurely ride. But from there, we made a bee line for Duluth. The closer we got, the more eager we were to be home.

It sure felt good to drive into the driveway and reclaim our home. We had to reacquaint ourselves with an ordinary life style at first. It was great to sleep in our own bed, to sip coffee out of my own mug and bake up my morning muffins. It felt strange to try and reconstruct what a “normal” day was. I didn’t expect to falter when looking for kitchen implements – now where do I keep that? And most awkward of all was re-adapting to my PC, after months on my iPad. I kept thinking, “Where is the app for that?” Microsoft needs to get with it. Fumbling through a web browser just felt too foreign.

We were pleased to find that fall was still in full swing in Duluth. Although we missed the height of color in our perennial garden, we have flowers still coming onto bloom as if to welcome us home. The trees continue to change color, and our own young red maples are some of the most brilliant.

IMG_2738Naturally, it didn’t take me long to head out on my bike. I’ve been out re-exploring my old routes and even forging a few new ones. Each ride reinforces how beautiful our surroundings are, and how fortunate we are to live here. Our own Lake Superior shoreline easily ranks up there with the stunning views on our trip. And little can compete with the quiet scenic beauty right at the end of our driveway – Seven Bridges Road excels as a cycling haven, particularly when cloaked in fall foliage.

Photo Oct 04, 9 27 03 AM trimmedBest of all has been reuniting with family and friends. There is nothing like a sloppy kiss and tight hug from a grandchild. Family dinners, cheering kids on in the Twin Cities Marathon events and just spending time together to catch up have filled my heart. Already we are planning holiday time together.

Oh, it’s good to be home.

Blogging on Two Wheels

With a blog focused on “Life and the Outdoors in the Northland,” it was a natural for me to chronicle our latest bike trip, the Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour. I don’t consider it a stretch at all to expand the geographical reach of the Northland concept. The interesting thing is that blogging became an integral part of the trip, and in fact had a significant influence on our daily routine. Since Rich was also narrating the trip on the Crazy Guy on a Bike website, my passion did not create conflicting interests.

While we were cycling, which was most of the daytime hours, my attention was focused on the physical activity, the sights, the meals and the logistics of travel – as it should be. But my blog post was never far from my mind. What might today’s theme be? How best to describe this view? How can I work in this situation?  What would be a good title?  I was often composing as I went.


Taking photographs for my blog posts

Photography was equally impacted. Of course there were pictures of scenery, activities and landmarks that I wanted to take. But I also wove in photos that would illustrate the day’s post. If I fell behind Rich in an illogical spot, he would remark, “You must be blogging again. I didn’t see anything worthy of a photo.” He was usually right.

At the end of the day, our first priority was a shower. But second on the agenda was to download all our pictures. We each brought a nice Canon camera and a tablet, and once we transferred our pictures to the tablets, we’d weed out the bad ones and save the rest. Using each other’s pictures was entirely permissible, as it helped reduce duplication and we could choose from among the best shots. We weren’t fussy about attributing credit to each other as photographer. I just got a little testy when my photos showed up online before I’d even seen them yet.


Quickly publishing a blog post where the campground signal was the strongest

My tablet happens to be an iPad, and Blogsy is my app of choice for blogging on it. It integrates perfectly with WordPress and has the advantage of displaying my post in rich format instead of HTML, and offers formatting tools that are easy to use. Adding photos from my iPad’s native photo app is a cinch – just drag and drop, resize and add captions. Although most motels and even campgrounds had wifi, if I had no connection I could still fully compose my blog post offline in Blogsy. Then it was simply a matter of publishing the next time I found a signal.

Blogging is not a trivial activity. At least not for me. Many a night I’d be up late, wordsmithing in the dark with only the glow of my iPad screen to illuminate my work. Rich was much quicker to compose his posts, and he would shake his head at my obsession for finding just the right tone or phrase. Fortunately, he can sleep through my keyboard tapping.

I fully intended to be more economical about my blogging on this trip. Since it would last two months or more, I reasoned that periodic updates would be adequate. But I should have known myself better than that. I love to capture all my experiences in writing. It’s how they become real to me, by documenting them. So it was no surprise when my posts became nearly daily occurrences. What may have been overkill for my readers was really for my own benefit.

There’s no doubt that blogging on our cycling trip was a big commitment. To say it bluntly, it took up a lot of time. We could have been out seeing the sights of the local towns instead. But to be honest, after a full day of cycling, it was a grand excuse to sit and rest our weary legs and bodies. And I seriously doubt we missed much in the small towns where we stayed. Or so I tell myself.

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.


Gaspé Tour by the Numbers

My analytical brain can’t resist the urge to look at a few stats from our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour. Naturally I kept detailed notes on the trip, and Rich was amazed and amused at some of the obscure information I was able to assemble. Here is a sample:

Days and Mileage. We planned to cycle an average of 60 miles a day and take one rest day a week for a overall average of 50 miles per day. In reality, we weren’t very good at taking rest days, but we did take some “rolling rest days” with short mileage. We also cut back on miles when cycling the tough stretches with hills or headwinds.
  • 54 total days, 2,354 miles
  • 5 rest days with NO cycling
  • 43.6 miles per day total, 48 miles per cycling day
  • longest day 74 miles (rainy ride to Machias, Maine)
  • shortest day 9 miles (finishing day to Exeter, NH)
  • 6 days with rain – only one of those was a rest day
Lodging. We hoped to camp 1/3 of the time, use Warm Showers1/3 and stay in motels 1/3. We were disappointed not to be able to camp more, but cut back when each of us got sick and when the weather turned cold and wet. We were pleasantly surprised how well we did with Warm Showers, given that many areas were very sparsely populated.
  • 7 nights camping
  • 15 nights in Warm Showers homes
  • 5 nights in Inns, gîtes or B&Bs
  • 26 nights in motels
Repairs. We fared extremely well in this department. Our bikes were trusty steeds indeed.
  • 3 flat tires – inner tube replaced (Rich)
  • 1 tire ripped – replaced (Rich)
  • Slipping gears – derailers fixed (Molly)
Weight we propelled. It wasn’t until the night before the last day of our trip that we thought to ask for a scale to weigh our gear. We knew we were traveling light, but had never quantified it before.
  • Molly – 30 lb gear + 27 lb bike = 57 lb
  • Rich – 33 lb gear + 30 lb bike = 63 lb
The fun stuff.
  • 11 lighthouses visited (we saw a lot more than this)
  • 18 ice cream stops (we fell behind on this when it turned cold and we began to substitute soup breaks)
  • 7 coffeehouse stops (lattes for me)
  • 1,045 pictures taken (keepers)
  • 106 blog posts (between the two of us, to date)

Overall rating. No matter how you slice and dice it, it was a fantastic trip.

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


The Final Stretch

Our Progress to Date

Progress to date: 54 days, 2,354 miles

We divided our last 53 miles of the Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour into two days. Not out of necessity. More for the timing of our grand finale.

I will be the first to say the initial leg was not inspiring. Leaving Concord, traffic was heavy and there was not much in the way of scenery or interesting towns. We passed almost 30 miles that way and I found it rather depressing. The weather was beautiful, but I just could not generate much enthusiasm for the ride. It's hard to say what contributed more, the mundane route, the lack of coffee or the impending finish to our trip. I suspect the latter had the most to do with it.

Finding happiness at The Big Bean

Finding happiness at The Big Bean in Newmarket

The day brightened considerably in the second half. Turning off onto smaller roads, we lost all the traffic and wound our way through delightful countryside populated with orchards, farms and pretty towns. The sunshine became warm and the fall colors shimmered in its light. And we mostly coasted downhill. The world became good again, especially when we reached Newmarket in the early afternoon and found a delightful coffeehouse. Re-caffeinating with an excellent latte accompanied by a hummus wrap of equal quality, soaking up the sun and local scene was just what I needed. It's amazing what a salve food and drink can be. And ambiance.

With extra time on our hands before our Warm Showers hosts were home, we meandered around the pretty former mill town. The mill buildings had been converted into condos and eclectic shopping areas, making them an enhancement to the town center.

Mill condos and shopping area decor

Mill condos and shopping area decor

Relaxing in our hosts' yard

Relaxing in our hosts' yard

Our Warm Showers home provided a delightful final night's stay. We were adopted not only by our hosts, Heidi and Cliff, but given a warm welcome by Heidi's mom, Lucy. We shared a birthday dinner for Cliff with their son and long term friends and duplex neighbors. Naturally, they are all avid cyclists and runners, so there was no lack of material for conversation. And as always, we were inspired by their pursuits.

Beginning the last leg of our trip

Beginning the last leg of our trip

With the dawn of the inevitable last day, we had to face it. The last nine miles of cycling. We set off just like any other morning of our trip, but in contrast to the other days, we completed our journey – and our trip – in under an hour.

Before we knew it, we were in Exeter. Where we started 54 days and 2,354 miles earlier. It was a quiet entrance as we meandered across the Academy campus. But things soon picked up. Rich granted another interview, this time for the Academy newspaper. And we stopped to visit with the wonderful staff members in the Alumni and Security offices who arranged the logistics of leaving our car there for two months. The warm welcome and congratulations extended all along the way boosted our spirits and helped ease the finality of our arrival.

A pretty route to enter Exeter

A pretty route to enter Exeter

Interview for The Exonian

Interview for The Exonian

Finishing where we started on August 3

Finishing where we started on August 3

The true finish line

The true finish line

It felt strange to be reunited with our car and load up the bikes. Our daughter left us a voicemail that morning, reminding us just how cars work – in case we'd forgotten. The best part is going up hills, she said. “Just push down on the right pedal – no additional effort required. You just won't have the wind blowing through your hair,” she advised. As appealing as it sounds, I know we'll miss the cycling. We're already contemplating our next cycling trip. Just not right away.


A Day Without Cars

Our Progress to Date

Progress to date: 52 days, 2301 miles

It was time to make our way across New Hampshire. Having successfully travelled south through the river valleys, we now had to get over to the sea coast. The hurdles facing us were Appalachian Mountain ridges in the western half of the state. The solution? The Northern Rail Trail. It offered us 50+ miles of abandoned railroad bed converted to a multi-use trail. And by definition, the inclines were long and very gradual. Barely perceptible, really. It sounded wonderful.

The start of the trail

Indeed, the trail provided protected cycling away from traffic, noise, turns and the need for directions. All we had to do was follow the trail, mile after mile. It followed a beautiful wooded course, over streams and rivers, and sometimes along a lake. Leaves were beginning to turn color, and especially near water we were treated to an infusion of brilliance. It definitely felt like fall.

Bridges and streams
A rocky passage
Beautiful fall colors

Normally on training rides I love the feel of the trail. When the sights are irrelevant or I'm traversing ground I've covered countless times before, I appreciate being able to just cycle through nice countryside. But I've discovered that they don't have the same appeal as part of a cycling trip. While the scenery is pretty, I feel like it is shielding me from the towns and other real sights beyond the trees. And long before 50 miles pass, I'm interested in seeing a little something else.

Before I malign the Northern Rail Trail unjustly, however, I will admit that this trail did have a few scenic sights of its own. At Potter Place, we found an old railway station and a well-kept caboose. It provided a nice diversion and a good spot for a picnic lunch before resuming our ride.

Potter Place near Andover NH

In one area, the locals had populated the trail with stuffed characters at various intervals, a nice break from the solitude of the trail.

Trail side characters

And we did see a covered bridge.

Covered bridge between Danbury and Andover
Pretty but muddy...

As long as I'm airing my gripes, I must add that trails usually lack the smooth fast pavement of roads. And that translates to slower progress. I readily admit that we knew ahead of time that this was not a paved trail. We were fully prepared for a crushed limestone type surface. And that's how it started out. It just didn't stay that way. It degenerated into little more than a footpath at times. Or divided itself into two ruts, like a lesser used dirt road. And occasionally it was muddy. It turned out to be one of our longer days of cycling, with the extra time required to navigate the terrain.

The offending bridge

And then there were the bridges. That's what did me in. The diagonal boards were uneven and seemed to bounce as my tires rolled over them. Down the middle was another set of boards on top, narrowing the path into two sections. I managed to get thrown off balance on one approach, wobble across my half of the bridge deck and ricochet off the center strip. Wham! Bang! Down I went before I could extricate a single foot from my pedals, and lay strewn across the bridge still attached to my bike. Fortunately, I suffered only a few bruises and stripped all the recently healed skin off my knee. My first fall of the trip, so close to the end, damaged my psyche more than my body. I approached every bridge hence with a wary eye and a tense grip.

Fortunately, after 26 miles the trail widened and flattened out into a well disciplined path for the remainder of its length. The slow steady climb we'd been doing reversed itself into an equally gradual descent. And even the bridges improved. My mood followed suit. Although sometimes I think I'd rather just deal with the cars.


Slowing Things Down

With the end in sight, and not wanting the adventure to be over, one way to delay the inevitable was to slow down our progress. Since there was some rain in the forecast, we could also justify our shorter distances in order to beat the showers. And in fact it did rain later in the afternoon two days in a row, well after we were snugly ensconced in our accommodations.

The Connecticut River

The Connecticut River

Adopting a leisurely pace, we didn't rush as we continued along the Connecticut River, still. We stayed in a lovely Warm Showers home that was once an old parsonage and backed up right to the river. There we happily wiled away a good portion of the afternoon with Paula and Tom, relaxing on their porch solving the problems of the world. Paula pampered us with a delicious dinner featuring fresh local produce, and accompanied by a red wine that went down oh so nicely. We were so comfortable, it was easy to linger in the morning before moving on for the day.

Such a welcoming Warm Showers host home

Such a welcoming Warm Showers host home

The site of coincidences

The site of amazing coincidences, in front of the coffeehouse in Hanover

Since Rich went to Dartmouth, it was a natural to spend some time in Hanover, New Hampshire to visit campus. Somewhat of a local celebrity, Rich enjoyed being interviewed by one of the students about our trip for the college newspaper blog. It was in Hanover that we had some amazing coincidences. Standing outside the favorite local coffeehouse, we ran into one of Rich's classmates. Not only that, but he was also a member the rowing team with Rich. While they were reminiscing, a young woman approached us and said, “Excuse me, I think I last saw you on the end of the Gaspé Peninsula.” Sure enough, we both remembered well talking to her, a fellow long distance cyclist. She was traveling in the opposite direction laden with gear having ridden all that way from Vancouver. What a surprise to run into her again in a totally unrelated place!

Rich on the Dartmouth campus

Rich and some current students on the Dartmouth campus

With just about 100 miles to go, there are no obvious detours to take without climbing into the mountains. And we've done enough steep hill climbing for one trip, thank you. So even though I find the 60-mile days more satisfying, I'm willing to slow things down to prolong the trip. The end is coming soon enough.


Vermont Village Life

The Connecticut River continues to be our friend, carving out a valley for us to cycle in between the mountain ridges. Since it forms the border between New Hampshire and Vermont, it was easy to flip over to the Vermont side for the day. We are now far enough south that we are back into civilization again, with pretty New England towns to peruse as we pass through. Many of them date back to the 1700s and are proud of their history.

We had only a short 28 mile distance to cover, so we didn't even start cycling until mid-morning. By then, the villages along the river had come to life. The beautiful Saturday morning brought everyone out, and each village center was teeming with activity. Folks were out gathering in small clumps to talk. Kids were playing soccer on the local field. Girls had a table set up outside the general store for a fundraiser. Yard sales were in full swing. It was a good day for doing just about anything. Even the dogs were out, waiting patiently while their master ran into the post office.

Patient dogs

Patient dogs awaiting their master

In Bradford the church ladies were all set up for a chicken feed. We were a bit early, but the women recognized a good customer when they saw one, and rushed to fill a generous plate for Rich. I didn't think I was hungry, but it tasted so good I didn't hesitate to help him consume the tasty meal.

Great grilled chicken and fixings!

Great grilled chicken and fixings!

Next to that the weekly Farmers' Market was set up. There were some mighty good looking jellies, veggies and crafts there. One couldn't help but feel the community spirit of the buyers and sellers out on the lawn under the fall leaves.

Bradford Farmers's Market

Bradford Farmers's Market

On the edge of the villages, spawning the rivers and streams lie pretty covered bridges. This seems an appropriate place to include some that we have seen over the past few days.

Covered bridges

Covered bridges in Groveton, Lunenburg and Woodsville NH

Indeed, it was a good day to be out and enjoying life. Village life. And cycling.