Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wonderful Vermont

We've gushed before about our route through southeastern Vermont in July, and again in our last post about our return to Vermont through the so-called Northeast Kingdom. Well, it has remained beautiful as we've continued on there, and if we were to pick a favorite state for this trip, Vermont would be it.
The roads have been mostly good, and this past week have been exceptionally low-traffic. It's a hilly state, but we've found routes that have generally kept the climbing manageable. It is a particularly verdant state, with a dense tree cover and occasional patches of bright green cow pasture climbing a valley side.
It has proved to be a friendly place, and in one small town when we found out from a local couple that the library was closed that day, they invited us into their home to use their computer to do some things that couldn't be done on our handhelds.

We didn't get their picture, but here are a few views, starting with a last look north into Canada across Lake Memphramagog from Newport VT,
about 5 miles below the border, and a shot of a group of Canadian cyclists riding around "Lake Mem" with Jay Peak in the distance. After Newport we took Highway 100 one hundred fifty miles through Stowe to Killington, about 3/4 of the way south.
Here's one shot of some typical Vermont undulations, and another of Mount Mansfield, tallest in Vermont, scraping the clouds.

Highway 100 is famous among cycle tourists as a great route, and sure enough we met some at the
Waitsfield Inn from, of all places, Ithaca! In fact, we met one of the six last winter when we attended a Finger Lakes Cycle Club meeting! South of Waitsfield we passed this nice waterfall and some classic mountain and valley scenery,
then rested overnight in a beautiful Comfort Inn near Killington Peak that rents for about 1/3 as much now as it will in January, when they make their real money in central Vermont.

We spent two nights in Stowe and mostly enjoyed goofing off and doing some minor bike maintenance in this quiet resort town, then another two nights in tiny Dorset in southwestern Vermont, where we did even less on our rest day. On the way into town we passed this former marble quarry --
Dorset is dotted with dozens of abandoned ones in remote parts of town. This one was right on the road into town,
and it was the sort of place Norman Rockwell would have hung out at had it not been an active quarry when he lived in Arlington VT, about 20 miles from here, prior to his move to Stockbridge MA. We were not really tempted to join the locals, however, as the water was somewhere in the 40-49 degree range, nor did the 20-foot leap into the quarry strike us as our kind of fun (click on the photos to enlarge them and see how much fun it is).
BTW, on the walk into town for dinner, we noticed that all the sidewalks in Dorset are made of marble!

Surprisingly, this postage-stamp-sized town has a nice playhouse built in 1928 with wood from colonial-era barns, where they have been doing live theater ever since. They claim to be attempting to stage all the plays of George Kaufman, but since he wrote 79 of them and they're so far only doing one per season . . . Kaufman actually teamed up with others for many of his plays (most famously with Moss Hart), and this one, June Moon, was cowritten with Ring Lardner, which gave it some real bite. It wasn't profound theater, but it was good fun.

It's only a few miles from Dorset to the Batten Kill River, and we rode up to the Batten Kill Canoe Company, switched out of our bike shoes into our Gore-tex walking shoes, and got taken (along with a 17' canoe) to a put-in 3 miles away. Off we launched into one of the finest adventures of this entire trip. The Batten Kill is a clean, clear river that alternated between quick water stretches and class 1 rapids, exciting but not overly dangerous places where you whooshed between rocks and the shoreline.
Now you could do some real damage to yourself and/or your canoe if you didn't know what you were about, but fortunately Jeff remembered enough from his class 2 whitewater canoeing days 40 years ago to keep us out of serious trouble. We did 9 1/2 miles in a little over two hours, and it was so much fun, we came back the next day (we had found a motel 5 miles away) and did 13 miles in 3 hours, this time passing under a second covered bridge.
This was a very special part of our trip!

After much debate, we finally decided on a curious route to Ithaca. We followed the Batten Kill and Hoosic Rivers to the Hudson, rivers that cut through the Taconic Mountains that we struggled over two months ago fifty miles south of here. This time we saw the mountains but never felt them as we followed the rivers downstream. Once we hit the Hudson we were in canal country again --
this is a lock on the Champlain-Hudson Canal that Jim and Anita (remember them, the boaters we kept meeting coming up the Atlantic coast?) locked through en route to Canada in June. We turned left and rode along the Hudson to Albany, where we boxed up the bike at the Amtrak station and took the train to Rochester. This took us through 350 miles of territory we've biked twice before and positioned us 100 miles west of Ithaca and poised to visit Keuka Lake, the last of the larger Finger Lakes that we have not yet explored by bike.

Now we've had a few remarkable coincidences on this trip, such as running into the sister of one of Jeff's former clients in the Adirondacks; then someone in Florida who attended not only the small NYC high school as Jeff but also the same college; and most amazingly, the former wife of someone Jeff worked with for ten years at the University of Washington. Well, we had another one in Rochester. There are two people we know in Rochester NY: Jeff's former law clerk Cecily and her husband Rob. We spent one night in Rochester and went to a nearby coffee shop next morning for breakfast, and Jeff saw the day's newpaper sitting at an abandoned table so picked it up for something to read. And there, right on page 1, was a photo of Cecily! Once a month the paper has been doing an article on religious groups in Rochester, and this was the day to write up the Buddhists. Cecily and Rob are very into zen Buddhism, and she was one of a dozen folks the newspaper wrote about and pictured in the article. Those of you who know Cecily (and that would be a good chunk of Jeff's office where Cecily worked 5 or 6 years ago) will understand why they chose her for page one -- she is a delightfully alive person, and the reporter probably really enjoyed interviewing her.

Rochester, some of you no doubt know, is the home of Kodak since it was the home of Kodak's founder, George Eastman. We had booked an easy day out to a B&B near the Erie Canal, and on the way took time to visit George Eastman House.
In recent years they've done a marvelous job bringing the house back to its glory days just before Eastman's death in 1932, and a dozen years ago added gallery space where they have exhibits of interesting photography and also display some early and unusual cameras, including these two, one that looks like a gun (gave new meaning to "shooting a picture of someone") and another concealed in the handle of a cane.
And you thought that sneaky little webcams were something new!

We have one week more on the road, and then we're in Ithaca. We have a busy week planned, getting ready for what follows. On Sept. 12 we take off by bus for New York City, where we have three nights in an apartment we found on Craigs List and one night visiting Jeff's cousin and wife. While there we'll see the sights and reconnect with Louise's son Brian and his wife Ardith, and with Louise's brother Richard.

Meanwhile, our bike and a box or two will be en route to Los Angeles by FedEx. That could be interesting -- it will be the first time we completely disassemble our bike and put it in the two suitcases it supposedly fits into. We leave NYC on Sept. 16 on Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited, then change in Chicago for the Texas Eagle, getting off in Austin for four days with Jeff's daughter Becky, her husband Sean and her two stepdaughters.
After that it's back on Amtrak for the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles. The cost for a deluxe sleeper all the way across the country? Free -- courtesy of the Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card! We are BIG fans of it! Of course we did have to spend a few dollars on motels, restaurants, canoe outfitters and the like . . . but we were going to do that anyway, right?

And from LA, what then? The Holland American Volendam,
which will take us in style to Auckland NZ on a 29-day cruise with stops at 3 of the Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, and a few other spots. No jet lag, and lots of time to read the 15 guide books and 25 maps of New Zealand we've accumulated!

Not sure when or from where we'll next write, but stay tuned -- the adventure continues!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Canada at Last!

4,780 miles from our start in Florida, we've finally arrived for a ceremonial "wheel dip" into Rock Island PQ from Derby Line VT. Google maps says it is 1,811 from Key West to Derby Line -- guess we took the long way, eh!

For a while we thought we'd have to call this entry "Swimming to Canada." NH had its 2nd wettest July on record and the first half of August kept it going. We had 15 consecutive days with rain, starting with the last day of the tandem rally. Amazingly we only got drenched once more, but only because we spent a TON of time looking at weather radar on tv or on our handheld devices, and timed our travel between downpours. The rain also cancelled two days of canoeing on the Saco River, as all that rain made the river too dangerous, and the canoe rental places had to close up during prime time.

Other than that, we made the best of it. The day after the tandem rally we went all of 11 miles, which was just fine -- we were tuckered out. We stayed in South Berwick, with the 1774 home that author Sarah Orne Jewett later lived in setting a colonial tone in the heart of its little downtown. We toured the campus of Berwick Academy where Jeff taught for 3 years in the 70s, and were amazed at the number of new buildings. On the way north the next day we dropped by the home of Jim and Di Dean
for a quick hi, the friends we had dinner with last week in Portsmouth. And with rain filling in much of the remaining time, that was about it for sightseeing the first week.

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, right? Our route took us right through the outlet store capital of New Hampshire, North Conway. Now as a rule, we never buy anything unless we can eat it -- books excepted. But these were not just any ole outlets, these were L L Bean, Eastern Mountain Sports, Louis Garneau, Pearl Izumi ... Suffice it to say we replaced one pair of bike shorts and one helmet, in both cases with the same model so we could keep this identical-matching-bike-outfit thing going.

On a rest day after all that shopping we timed a 7-mile walk between rain storms and saw rivers looking much livelier than they usually do in August. Then came the biggest challenge, getting through Crawford Notch with a 60% chance of thunderstorms predicted each day.
The weather held for the 1200 foot ascent, and the road was particularly nice for New Hampshire, as you can see. Near the top of Crawford Notch we got a view to Mt. Washington, maybe 15 miles away here.
It doesn't look that foreboding from here, but some of the coldest temperatures in North America, and the very highest wind ever recorded on earth (231 mph) were recorded here. 14 years ago we biked through here and took the famous cog railway to the top. It was in the mid-70s at the bottom, about 40 and extremely windy at the top!

Our climb brought us to another Appalachian Mountain Club lodge at the very crest of Crawford Notch. This is a new facility, built with ulta-green technology, but very attractive and user-friendly.
From comfortable perches on the third floor we took photos before the rain arrived and just as it was about to hit.

Fortunately we were able to get out and hike down to a nearby beaver pond and admire
the mosses and lichens along the trail before then.
We also took a shot of the view to the Mt. Washington Hotel, the large white building in the distance, then again the next morning when rain continued from the middle of the night until about 2 pm, when we made a break for it.
Partway down a beautiful descent we hit the brakes to catch this closer-in view of the Mt. W. Hotel. This is where leaders of the Allied Powers met during WW II to draft the Bretton Woods Agreement creating the International Monetary Fund. It is still a grand hotel, and when we stayed there 14 years ago they loaned Jeff a sports coat (several sizes off for 6' 4" Jeff) so that we could eat in the dining room. Just one of those things we hadn't thought to pack on the bike ... .

Our next highlight was St. Johnsbury VT, where we stopped for a factory tour at Maple Groves, the largest maker of maple candy in the world and the largest bottler of maple syrup in the US. With free samples, of course!
St. J. is a favorite place of ours, a small city with beautiful homes, the attractive Estabrooke House B&B
we stayed in,
a century-old school now recycled as office space, and an old hotel
now serving as senior housing two doors down from the "Atheneum," a combination library and art museum. While walking down a back street we came upon this octagon house now inhabited by
two octogenarians, one of whom stopped rocking on the porch to tell us about the house, the only octagon house in Vermont. It's 140 years old and they're only the fourth owners!

Next was Lake Willoughby, where we stayed in Willoughvale, a small but grand hotel down the road from a cabin community that Jeff's family came to every August for over 15 years in the 1960s and '70s. Lake Willoughby is one of the prettiest lakes in the US in our humble opinion (and that of a lot of Vermonters), and we'll let this shot of Louise
in the front end of a Willoughvale canoe with Mt. Pisgah (left) and Mt. Hor (right) in the background help you decide.
BTW, the road comes along the shore underneath Mt. Pisgah, and these two shots hopefully convey part of the fun of biking through here with granite cliffs towering 1000' above you as you ride along.

And then the border. We selected Derby Line VT as our northern destination for several reasons, Jeff's familiarity with the area among them. But more important was that Derby Line is one of the most interesting border towns in the world.
Did you notice that attractive building behind us in the first picture of this blog entry? It's the Haskell Opera House and Free Library, and the US-Canadian border runs right through it! That's the black line in the reading room and in the hallway (notice the flags?),
and upstairs the international boundary runs right through the theater, with 1/3 of the audience and all of the performers in Canada, and the rest of the audience in the US of A!

And, luck of luck, we were able to time our visit for a production on the US-Canadian border of a British musical about Japan -- of course, The Mikado! For those driving, as long as they parked on the side of the border they came from, they could go to the theater and leave without going through customs.
However, the audience was reminded before the perfomance that anyone who found a parking spot on the opposite side of the border had to go through both customs after the performance or be subject to a $5,000 fine. Yes, there is a limit to this international spirit of Derby Line. And when we went to dinner on the Canadian side, we had to check into Canadian customs beforehand and US customs after.

For 8 1/2 months, we've been answering the questions we get every day about where we're coming from and to with "Key West to Canada." OK, been there, done that. The next day we answered "Canada to Ithaca NY," and the questioner was sufficiently impressed so we left it there. So on we go to Ithaca, which we hope to reach right after Labor Day. We'll tell you about that journey and what happens after we reach Ithaca in our next blog entry.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

ETR 2008

Well, the 2008 Eastern Tandem Rally is now history, and unlike a lot of history, there were no wars, famines, or regime changes, and half of the people it was about were women. OK, maybe it wasn't really history. It was also photography, and thanks to several other teams, we have a better-than-usual selection of images, including some rare shots of us "in action."

Our rally site was the New England Center at University of New Hampshire, a conference center set in the midst
of a dense forest. Tres cool. About half the 120 teams that were registered arrived Thursday night, and we gladly accepted an offer to join some Maryland tandem friends for dinner that night at Newick's
where Jeff is about to enjoy "tandem" lobsters, two 1-pounders. On Friday about half of the early arrivers joined us for the long-route-option group ride out to the New Hampshire coast.
We did 56 miles, about 10 of which were roads along the Atlantic that we rode a week ago en route to Portsmouth,
but they are so beautiful that there is no problem riding them many times. If we had more time, we'd head back there again! We had mid-70s sunny weather, mostly gentle hills and relatively low-traffic roads. Add in seaside views and several dozen tandems, and what more could you ask for?

By Friday evening all the teams had arrived and many took advantage of the indoor parking (we estimate there's about a quarter million dollars worth of bikes in that room!), and we had an outdoor ice cream social with bicycle-blended milk shakes. Check out the 10-speed mixmaster and the motor on the front of that machine.
Incidentally, she's 9 and the stoker on a tandem with her 12-year-old brother, the youngest tandem team at the rally. At the Saturday banquet they had teams with high combined ages stand, then raised the bar 'til they eliminated all but one team with a combined age of 150! Wow, hope we're still coming to tandem rallies at that age!

During the day Saturday we rode out to the Maine coast on gently rolling back roads, again with fairly light car traffic except for a short stretch where we joined the tourist crowds in York Beach. We had a rest stop at Maine's most-photographed lighthouse at Nubble Point, then a picnic lunch on Gerrish Island at mile 30, where we were well taken care of both in the main course and dessert departments.
As we reached UNH the bike odometer again read 56 miles, with Jeff feeling better than the day before and Louise feeling the combined miles a bit more, but still within acceptable limits. We both needed to do a bit of stretching to recover, and on Sunday morning in fact they had a stretching class that Louise joined and enjoyed.

Sunday's ride was a 50-miler which took wide loops out into the countryside to get 30 miles to the Flag Hill Winery and 20 back, a place that is not quite 10 miles away as the crow flies. But they were wonderfully green roundabout miles through forest and along meadows stretching down to saltwater, almost devoid of cars.
The winery has an outdoor covered eating area where we had another good lunch, but almost as soon as we were on the road again, rain moved in. Once you get over being a little wet, what's a little more rain? And then a bit more, and more, and more... OK, it didn't rain the whole way back, but enough to warrant throwing everything in the washing machine at the conference center as soon as we got back. On the other side of the coin, the roads were so quiet that it was actually enjoyable experiencing the outdoors with the subdued sound and enhanced smells that rain brings.

In the past 7 months we've literally seen only 5 or 6 tandems, so it was quite an experience to be in the company of over a hundred. The tendency in group rides is for the riders to sort out into little clusters of riders who ride a similar pace, and so we did each day. Add to that Jeff's tendency to see other tandems like a greyhound sees a rabbit, and we kept up a good pace with our 40-something and 50-something companions, about 17 mph on the first two days and almost 18 mph on the final day.
That might not seem very different than our usual daily average of about 15, but it feels a lot faster, enhanced by the hypervigilance one needs to ride with 4 or 5 other long bikes barreling down the road at that speed, a few inches away from your front or rear wheels. There is a distinct energy in rides like this that is unlike anything else we've done in the past 8 months, a sporting event not just exercise and transportation and a neat way to see the scenery.

As the "Eastern" Tandem Rally, of course, most of the participants were from an area stretching from Virginia to Maine and from Ohio eastward. However, we met up with one team who are members, like us, of the Evergreen Tandem Club in Seattle: Luis and Trudy from Burnaby BC.
They have family in the Seattle area and come down for rides with our club, though we had not previously met them. ETC President Randall Angell is one of our regular blog readers, and told them to look us up. We hope to see them next year back in our native Northwest, perhaps at the Northwest Tandem Rally in Victoria BC next Fourth of July (which promises to be a terrific ride: check out their website at

We also spent lots of off-bike time talking with folks. We were something of a discussion topic among fellow-riders. "Oh, you're the folks who biked here from Florida!" Our reputation preceded us through the crowd. A few couples looked like they might want to reevaluate their own retirement plans after hearing about our adventure, but perhaps more looked at us with the sort of awe one gives to the first person to skateboard from coast to coast (no joke, we've seen that guy's blog site!) or created the nation's largest bobblehead collection. We also got to hear about other branches of our sport, such as one couple who told us about biking off-road in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, where they shrugged off hitting the deck as many as seven times in a ride with the observation that they were only landing in sand.
Ouch, those are rides we think we'll pass on, but it was interesting to hear about them from actual survivors. Speaking of survivors, check out this tough stoker who took a tumble on Friday and wasn't going to let that stop her from riding every day!

Now it's back to our jaunt north. We have a recovery day, with only 11 miles to ride to South Berwick Maine, then we'll head up to Fryeburg ME to do some canoeing on the Saco River, cross New Hampshire via Crawford Notch, and head up through the NE corner of VT to kiss Canada. More about that next time!