Oh Baby, Another Cycling Tour

Two Timing Texas Tour JerseyWe’ve on the cusp of another cycling tour, but first we have more important things to attend to.  Right now we’re on baby watch.  Our daughter, Karen, is due to have a baby boy on April 1, which given her past track record could mean any time now.  Gathering up our cycling gear, packing our panniers, and pouring over maps have taken a back seat.  Instead, I’ve been baking cookies, preparing freezer meals and wrapping kiddy presents in readiness for my upcoming Grammy duties.

Once the newly-expanded family gets back on its feet in its new 6-member configuration, Rich and I will head to Texas for a month of warm spring cycling.  In a nod to our previous swing through that state three years ago, we’re calling this one the Two Timing Texas Cycling Tour.  Just like last time, we will set off from my brother Bill’s house in Granbury.  And like before, we expect to enjoy plenty of warm weather while Duluth suffers through mud season.

Two Timing Texas map

Although we’ll revisit a couple of favorite spots like the Davey Crockett National Forest and the Hill Country (hoping to catch the bluebonnets in bloom again), for the most part we will explore new territory.  The route looks firm on paper but in fact is quite malleable.  In general, we expect to cover about 1,000 miles in the month of April.

It feels like a long time since we last bike toured, when in fact it was only last July.  I’m primed and ready to start pushing the pedals again.  Almost.  First I need a fix of that new baby smell.

Tucson on 2 Wheels

The good news is that Tucson has an extensive network of bike lanes.  They go everywhere, are well marked, and respected by cars.  The not so good news is that there is a lot of traffic.  Even out in on the fringes of town, in the Catalina Foothills, the roads are heavily traveled and cars whiz by constantly.  Hailing from Duluth, I am just not used to that level of population.

The Loop by Rillito Rivery

Enter The Loop.  The 55 mile loop that circles the city has just been completed, but it’s much more than that. It is a network with 131 miles of wide, paved, shared use trails that run across vast portions of the city.  Most legs run along “washes” – dry river beds that fill with runoff during the rainy season.  In fact, The Loop grew out of the 1983 flood disaster.  Realizing the need to reinforce the banks of the major washes, the county took the opportunity to create river parks and trails atop the new soil-cement banks.  It has become one of Pima County’s most popular recreational features.

It’s not often that bicycle trails are truly vehicle-free.  But great pains have been taken to shelter The Loop.  The trail dips under streets and bridges cross over side washes.  Many stretches are landscaped with gardens or simply feature desert environs.  Railings carefully guard users from the steep banks that dip into the wash.The Loop going under a bridge The Loop going through a bridge

The nearest entry point to The Loop is 4.5 miles from our condo.  It is worth navigating that stretch of bike lanes to reach carefree cycling.  So far, I have covered only about 50 miles of The Loop, but have returned to some sections multiple times.  Coordinating a ride with Rich one day allowed me to venture further afield, from our place all the way out to Catalina State Park – a good 30 mile stretch.

The Loop TrailThe Loop is open to any non-motorized use, and just in the last two days I have seen all types of transport gracefully coexist on its paths.  There were plenty of cyclists, runners and walkers of course.  I also passed strollers, scooters, recumbent tricycles and dog walkers.  The most unusual was a woman on a standing elliptical bike, doing her first 50-mile ride!  It is cycling at its easiest – level with good pavement and well signed.

Molly with bike at Sabino Canyon

Despite the appeal of The Loop, sometimes challenge beckons.  Then I return to Sabino Canyon to climb into its depths during cycling hours.  Or I find my way onto smaller local roads.  Inevitably they rise and fall.  We are in the foothills after all.

It was well worth the long drive to bring our bikes on this trip.  I’ve spent many hours in the saddle this week, exploring Tuscon on two wheels.

Owning the Sabino Canyon

I’ve traded tall pines for stately saguaro cacti.   A frozen creek for dry riverbeds.  Cross-country skis for my bike.  Winter storm warnings and deep snow for sunshine that warms my bare limbs. A woodland park for a desert canyon.

Sabino Canyon 1

It’s this last trade-off that feels significant.  We bought our lot across from Amity Creek for its proximity to nature, the convenience of the trails, the white noise of the waterfalls at night.  Living next to Lester-Amity Park is a statement about who we are, and what we like to do.

Seeking a mid-winter warm-up, Rich and I chose a condo on the outskirts of Tucson, nestled in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains.  Within minutes of unloading the car, we set out exploring, and Sabino Canyon Recreation Area – just a mile away – quickly became our neighborhood park.

Sabino Canyon 2

The park has one 3.5 mile road that snakes up into the canyon. The road mostly winds uphill.  There are undulations to provide a bit of climbing relief, but the pitch is reasonable – at least until the last half mile.  It travels through dry mountainsides populated by the mighty saguaro, prickly pear, barrel and other abundant cacti.  Mountains rise in every direction, rocky angled faces dotted with small bits of vegetation.

Pedestrians walking Sabino CanyonFrom 9-5 daily, open air shuttles own the road, carting hikers to their trailheads or sightseers merely wanting an easy narrated tour.  Pedestrians are allowed on the road, but bicycles are restricted to the park hours before 9 or after 5.  It doesn’t take me long to discover that those are the prime hours anyway.  The golden hours.

Sabino Canyon sunrise

Early mornings are my favorite for cycling or running the road.  I have plenty of company, as a whole generation of gray haired hikers seems to be striding purposefully up and down each morning.  It’s brisk out there, with temperatures  registering in the 30s and the canyon still in the shade of the mountains until well into my workout.  The sun gradually finds its way onto the hillsides, illuminating select bits of the landscape as it works its way above the opposite mountain range.

Sabino Canyon morning

Numerous stone bridges mark my progress.  Having arrived in town following a 3-day rainy spell, the normally dry riverbed is still brimming with flowing water.  As designed, the current flows right over the bridge surfaces, and I follow the example of the hikers who plow right on through.  It’s a cold, wet sensation.  Even on my bike, it’s deep enough to splash my feet.

I save the afternoons for less strenuous pursuits.  A hike on one of the many trails or a slow shorter bike ride up the road still gives me access to the day’s fading light.

Hiking Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon sunset

Proximity is everything.  We’ve explored and enjoyed other parks and wilderness areas here, but this one easily keeps calling us back.  It’s our own park away from home.

October Lightkeeping

What a difference a year makes. Last October we occupied this same spot, performed the same lightkeeping duties and camped in the same tent. But the similarities end there.

Last year five days of mostly cloudy skies, a fair amount of rain and temperatures in the 40s left us shivering despite our winter jackets and long underwear. Our down sleeping bags were our saviors at night. Dark skies challenged the solar power system, which drained away from lack of sun and struggled to regain any power from dim bursts of sun. The challenges did not diminish our love for this gig, nor did it deter us from signing on for another year. But we felt rather foolish for choosing another stint in October.

Fortunately, history did not repeat itself. Far from it. We have enjoyed five days of sunshine, moderate temperatures on the 50s-60s and Lake Superior in her finest blue. I happily resumed my early morning writing sessions on the beach.Molly writing on beach Rich raising the flag Crisp Point wavesOur visitor count is up considerably over last year. We welcomed over 200 guests. All who come lend a new perspective. They hail from as far away as Wyoming and Beijing. Others have local ties and have been coming since before any restoration began in 1998. They know more of the lighthouse’s history than we do, and we love hearing their first-hand experiences. They especially appreciate all the work that the Crisp Point Light Historical Society has put into preserving and enhancing this site. Newcomers never fail to be impressed.
Lighthouse in setting sunWe marvel at the folks who come merely at the suggestion of a lighthouse on a new highway sign. Little do they know the conditions of the dirt road approach, but all agree it was worth the journey. They buy our best selling sticker, “I survived the drive to Crisp Point Lighthouse.”

Thinking that the week could not be more ideal, we are treated to a grand finale. We witness a deep pink sunset from the beach. We have the biggest blazing bonfire yet. Two classic ore boats parade by, illuminated stem to stern with white lights. We watch a glowing sunrise from the lighthouse tower. And the day is balmy and warm.
Lighthouse pink sunset Crisp Point bonfire Sunrise from lighthouseSuddenly October doesn’t feel like such a crazy choice. But just for kicks we signed up for August next year.

Lightkeeper’s Haven

Perched high above the shoreline I own the landscape. Lake Superior relinquished her pounding waves overnight leaving mere ripples on the surface and gentle pulses kissing the sand. Long shadows cross the beach and the neighboring trees are bathed in the glow of the low sun. The water’s sound competes only with the wind as it whistles through the open doors to the catwalk. Morning’s cool fresh air contrasts with the warmth of the sun on my back.
View from lighthouseIt is a rare privilege to claim a lighthouse for one’s own, even if only for five days. From 10am – 6pm we share this beauty with others seeking to explore her, acting as light keepers and welcoming visitors. But the early morning hours and evenings are ours.

My morning began while the stars still dominated the sky. Emerging from our tent, wet with an overnight ground fog, the intermittent beam from the lighthouse was the only source of illumination. I could barely make out the rocks on the beach as I picked my way down the waterfront while the eastern skies took on their first rosy glow. On my return the orange hues crept up around the lighthouse to meet the velvety dark blue above.
Lighthouse sunrise reflectionWalking the opposite side, I took in the handiwork of the lake, reconfiguring the shoreline even since last year. The high water level has eaten its way up into the dunes, carving off the front slope to reveal multi-colored sand strata in its new vertical edge.

Once more my return yielded new views of the lighthouse. The sun embraced its red cap and glass face, walking gently down its elongated white body. Soon only the shadows of the nearest trees remained and stubbornly lingered.
Sun on lighthouseThe morning’s light show complete, it is time for my final retreat. Ditching my usual spot on a driftwood seat on the beach, I climb the lighthouse, coffee mug in hand, writing tools at the ready. Here I sit, sheltered from the wind with the world at my feet. The moments are precious. I do not take my keeper’s privileges for granted. Soon I will relinquish my private haven – the public awaits.

Hello Again Crisp Point

The road is a test. On a good day its 18 miles of dirt merely dissuade the meek. The bumps and sand require patience and slow travel. No one reaches Crisp Point Lighthouse by happenstance. You have to really want to come here.

On this day the road challenges have been multiplied. Two days of heavy rain have transformed the sandy surface into mud and littered its length with water hazards. To call them puddles would be an injustice. Approaching each of these seas raises the same question, “How deep is it?” A certain technique evolves, starting with a prayer of thanks for all-wheel drive followed by a confident burst of speed through the most promising spot. With splashes and waves in our wake, another satisfied sigh, “Oh, pretty deep.”

It is our fourth time returning to Crisp Point Lighthouse on the far western end of Lake Superior as volunteer lighthouse keepers. Arriving early in the morning for our five days of duty, the lighthouse greets us bathed in early morning sunlight. It is like seeing an old friend. Rapidly, before visitor hours begin, we reacquaint ourselves with every inch of the site.Lighthouse on arrivalLighthouse close-upLake Superior churns against the sandy pebbly shore. Remnants of the recent winds, the waves curl in white foamy regularity, its thunderous noise filling my ears. Fall colors are peaking; yellows and reds pierce the more prevalent pine landscape against the shore. The sun lends a welcome warmth to the near freezing air.Waves from tower Boardwalk and beachOver it all towers the lighthouse. Freshly painted it stands determined against the shore, daring the waves that now crash at its base. Those waves have already eaten away 12 of the original 15 acres that once surrounded this light and buffered it from the greedy lake. A new layer of boulders has been added to the line of defense, a constant battle waged by the dedicated volunteers of the Crisp Point Light Historical Society.Lighthouse defensesOur campsite awaits, a single spot reserved for the keepers. Our home away from home with all the amenities – sandy soft tent site, fire ring, barbecue grill, picnic table and Lake Superior views.Campsite from lighthouseOnly the mud-caked car reminds us of our journey to get here. We aced that test and this is our reward.

A Google Guest

We met through a Google search using two terms, “Lake Superior” and “ferries.”  The second result yielded my story in Bicycle Times about our Lake Superior Half-Tour using the Isle Royale ferries to cross the lake.  From there it was an easy leap for Tony to find us on Warm Showers.

If that all sounds a bit like gibberish, you are probably not a touring cyclist.  But to those of us of that cult, it all makes perfect sense.  In fact, it’s the epitome of traveling by bicycle – meeting great people in the most unexpected ways.

Tony is in midst of a cycling trip across the US.  In the spirit of his easy going nature, he makes up his route as he goes, taking advantage of opportunities as they arise and dealing with what nature delivers. By the time he reached northern Minnesota, he had heard enough about the dangerous section of the Trans-Canada Highway above Lake Superior to know he wanted to avoid it.  Hence his Google search.  And my story.

A quick check on the Warm Showers app confirmed his suspicion that we were indeed members – part of the cyclists who hosts cyclists network that exists world-wide.  A few keystrokes later, it was all arranged.  Tony would cycle 90 miles and stay with us the next night.

Living in Duluth, we are not on a heavily traveled cycle route, so we have cycling guests only a few times each summer.  But the routine is always the same:  Provide a bedroom, offer up shower and laundry facilities, serve a bountiful dinner to replenish their depleted calories, and engage in lively conversation about where our respective cycle tours have taken us.  It never fails to be an entertaining evening.

Evening Arrival under the bridgeThat night, Duluth provided a perfect summer twilight.  Not only was it still warm, but the lake was unusually calm.  Best of all, a boat was headed for the Aerial Bridge.  We were able to give Tony the ultimate local experience.

We sent Tony off with a big cyclist’s breakfast in the morning.  But he didn’t get far.  A broken spoke turned out to be evidence of more serious wheel damage, and replacement parts would not arrive until morning.  Tony took it in stride, and we took Tony back in.  Another evening of sharing, a walk along Amity Creek and good vibes of friendship ensued.Tony FossatiIt’s always a pleasure to welcome cyclists to our home.  Countless others have done the same for us.  No matter how we find each other.