Thursday, September 25, 2008

Criss-crossing the Country

Since our last blog, we've gone 250 miles by bus to NYC and then 3700 miles on Amtrak to LA. Apparently jealous of those numbers, the luggage we sent ahead spent 11 days on the move, with the bike (in its 2 suitcases) logging 6000 miles from Ithaca to LA to Denver and back, and the box with our panniers and helmets won the mileage contest with Ithaca-LA-Ohio-LA. In fact, they almost missed the boat.

It seems that FedEx and us had a misunderstanding about the "hold for pickup" feature they offer. They don't allow it for FedEx Ground, but didn't make that overly clear on their website, and then took our luggage knowing we wanted it held. Well, the genius at the receiving end not only didn't hold it, he decided that what we really wanted was for FedEx to ship it back to Ithaca - without bothering to phone us to check. Three days of frantic calls to three FedEx employees only showed us how much further from the boat our stuff was getting.
Finally, a desperate plea to be connected to someone in the corporate office got us to someone who ordered the intellectuals in the shipping dept. to climb in the shipping containers and pull out our stuff for airshipment to LA. All ended well, as you can see at the Long Beach Kinko's, but it cost us some restless nights, you can be sure.

The bus trip to New York was nothing like the ones we recall from our college years, between NY and Boston for Jeff and Boston to Ann Arbor for Louise. Those bring back all the nostalgia of an overbooked airplane trip on Thanksgiving weekend, but with weirdos from the bus terminal thrown in for color. The Cornell Campus To Campus bus, however, had more comfortable seats than we have in our condo, with WiFi and electical outlets at each seat and free coffee, soda pop and pretzels in the kithchenette at the rear of the bus.
It did give us a view of traffic jams we haven't had for months, but then dropped us off in front of the Cornell Club in the heart of NYC, a short walk from Louise's brother's apartment.

We had a relaxing weekend with Richard and with Louise's son Brian and his wife Ardith, highlighted by an outdoor brunch on a busy Brooklyn streetcorner
and then a stroll through Prospect Park.

We found an affordable apartment in NYC through Craig's List, a fellow who takes off to his parents' place upstate on the weekend when he can get paying customers for a few nights. It was a little weird being in someone else's apartment, but it worked and it was a convenient location.

Amtrak was the usual adventure. For those of you who have not enjoyed an overnight trip, we've put in some photos to show you how comfortable it can be.

We had a deluxe (i.e. larger-than-closet-sized) sleeper for both legs of the trip, NY - Austin and Austin - LA. The trains are a bit different east and west of Chicago, with single-level trains to Chicago then double-decker cars beyond. But the sleeper room was similar, a wide sofa on one side of the room and a single upholstered chair facing it, plus a sink and toilet. The toilet can function as a shower room, but there's also a separate shower room with adjacent changing area down the hall that worked better.

Sleeping accommodation includes meals in the price, and the diner cars were attractive and the meals after Chicago were actually cooked on the train and about the quality of Denny's. Alas, the train from NY to Chicago had microwaved meals. Not too bad considering, but nothing to get excited about.

After Chicago the double-decker train also had a lounge car where we spent a bit of time enjoying the scenery while reading or, in Louise's case, knitting. Among the sights were this abandoned railroad bridge over the Hudson that is being converted to a bike trail, due to open next year; the Chicago skyline, including the Sears Tower; the Rio Grande River, with Mexico just beyond that house on stilts;

the canyon of the Pecos River; mountains, in southern New Mexico; and Palm Springs, with its windmill farms.

Ours was the last car on the train, so occasionally we went to the back window to see the scenery disappearing behind the train.

We stopped for four days in Austin to see Jeff's daughter Becky and her family: husband Sean and his two daughters Ivy and Zoe. It was Ivy's 8th birthday, so we joined Ivy and Zoe and a few of their friends for a roller skating party -- that's Jeff with Ivy and Becky with Zoe -- and a birthday cake back at their home. We also got to visit Becky in her lab
at the University of Texas, and watched her do an analysis of some algae for her research that we later found out was a first success in something that might prove to be a big deal, if all works out.
And, of course, we paid a visit to "Mellow Johnny's," Lance Armstrong's new and very impressive bike store that gets its name from the way his Texas friends pronounced maillot jaune, the yellow jersey the leader of the Tour de France gets to wear. On the wall were seven maillots jaune from the seven Tours he won.
And in one corner were a few pieces of off-beat art, including this machine for the Tour de Lawn.

After four great days in Austin we had a final meal at an Ethiopian restaurant and then got on the train, waved goodbye one last time from our sleeper room,
and were off to LA. We actually arrived 30 minutes early in beautiful Union Station, had dinner that night with
Jeff's college friend Jerry Reilly, and were at the Volendam the next morning for the next stage of the adventure. Talk to you next from somewhere in the Pacific!

Friday, September 12, 2008

It All Fit!

Looks like the puzzle from hell: how to fit that eight-foot-long tandem into those two suitcases. We'd seen it come out of the suitcases when R&E Bikes in Seattle, the folks who made our bike, cut the packing pads and took it apart to demonstrate it for us. But actually doing it ourselves was a bit nerve-wracking.

Well, the disassembly of a thousand parts starts with one pedal,
so off we went with just these tools and the stack of velcro pads you see
(the plastic parts in the case are "compression members" that we inserted at the end of the process in the center of each case to help protect against sideways squeezing of the cases in transit, plus two black plastic axle protectors for the second wheel).

Pretty soon we had an impressive pile of parts, small ones in plastic bags and all the larger ones wrapped in form-fitted velcro pads.
Once the bike was stripped clean of everything removable we got out that large funny-looking wrench and loosened the S&S couplings to turn the frame into suitcase-sized pieces.

The next photo is the whole bike wrapped and ready to fit into the boxes.

With the help of some very detailed instructions emailed to us by Steve and Janet, our friends from Seattle who have an identical Rodriguez tandem, we knew which part to put in which box
and in what order, and it all fit! In fact, fit so well that we were able to add our bike shoes, a fair amount of our biking clothes that we obviously don't need while the tandem is indisposed, and extra books for the many hours we'll have on the Volendam.

Yesterday we dropped off the two grey cases with the bike plus one more box containing our panniers, bike helmets and more bike clothing at FedEx, to be held for us at a FedEx place in LA. We'll pick it all up en route to the ship. Another three more cartons of things that we don't need until Seattle went off to Steve and Janet's for storage -- thanks goodness for good friends! -- and we're now down to Amtrak-travel-mode, one suitcase and one medium-sized soft backpack each until we reach the cruise ship 13 days from now.

It's been so nice reconnecting with our family in Ithaca,
Lisa and Ray and our two precious grandkids. Now off to more family in New York City and Austin, then next April our final family get together with Matt and Akiko and baby Tyler in Tokyo. You know you have quite the global family when it takes 8 months and 10,000 miles of travelling to see them all!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Switching Gears and Summing Up

Well, we're finally back to Ithaca, 5,270 miles from the start of this part of our journey in Florida last January. Our last 200 miles from Rochester were highlighted by 3 nights in Penn Yan and one in Seneca Falls, plus two small towns in between.

Penn Yan's odd name comes from its settlement in roughly equal numbers by Pennsylvanians and Yankees, i.e. New Englanders, and we stayed at one of the oldest homes there,
the charming Wagener Estate B&B, dating back to 1794. Downtown Penn Yan looks much like other small cities in upstate New York,
but nearby is Lake Keuka, the third-largest of the Finger Lakes and by far the most fun to cycle around, as the route was relatively flat -- at least no big climbs -- and frequently right along the lake or next to houses on the lake. We viewed it that way on a 43-mile ride,
then the next day from individual kayaks. This was our first experience with individual kayaks and,
despite the paddling-coordination issue, we decided we both prefer a tandem. Guess we're just dyed-in-the-wool tandemers! BTW, Keuka Lake has one of the most unusual shapes of any natural (i.e. not dam-created) lakes we've encountered, due to the glacial reshaping that occurred about 10,000 years ago in upstate New York.

Seneca Falls by contrast was an old friend, as was the B&B there, Van Cleef House, built in the 1830s by the first settler. Seneca Falls was in the heart of the "Burned-Over District" of upstate New York that "burned over" with religious enthusiasm in the 1830s and 1840s. In that era religious enthusiasm was a politically liberalizing force, not the right-wing domain it seems to have turned into in recent decades. Temperance (originally indeed about tempering, not abolishing, liquor consumption), abolitionism, and women's rights were among the more influential movements that grew there, and the first Women's Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls in 1848 (that's right, the same year as the Year of Revolution in Europe). The National Park Service runs the National Women's Rights Museum downtown and gives tours of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton home in town, both of which we've previously done. On the banks of the Seneca River is this statue of
Amelia Bloomer introducing Ms. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to each other in Seneca Falls a short time before they joined forces to call the 1848 Convention. BTW, the town no longer has a falls on the river, as it was flooded 90 years ago to create the Erie Canal extension to Seneca Lake, with several blocks of the old town now buried under the small lake you see behind the statue. Another point of interest is the connection of Seneca Falls to the Christmas movie we've all see half a dozen times, It's A Wonderful Life, where Bedford Falls is supposedly based on Seneca Falls.

In any event, our wonderful life on the tandem came to a temporary pause on September 3 when we biked those last familiar miles into Ithaca. So far
we've given more than a few hugs to the grandkids (here's Hanachan doing her first bike slalom event and Issei taking one of his first steps),
gone through 3 months of mail, done a major rebuild of the drivechain on the bike, made some last-minute clothing purchases for the next parts of our trip, and done a lot of packing and repacking of clothes. We had three clusters: what we carried on the bike the past 8 months; what we used last fall; and what we took to Tokyo and then shipped to Austin and on to Williamsburg in suitcases. After a lot of sorting, mixing and matching, we'll end up with a very similar batch of clothes for New Zealand, a box of things to send to friends in Seattle for our eventual return next May, and what we'll take with us for our trip across the US and then across the Pacific.

So as we change gears to 6 weeks off the bike, it seems like a good time to sum up the last 8 months. Here are our answers to some of the most-asked questions:

How far did we bike each day? It varied from a few where we did under 20 miles, to two days where we rode over 60. The bulk of our rides were 30 to 50 miles, since that was far enough to be in a location with new things to see.

How hard was it? Not generally that hard, except for two days of ferocious headwinds and cold on the Outer Banks, and the hills before and after the Delaware Water Gap before we lightened the load from four panniers to two. Remember, it was so flat for the first four months, from Florida to central New Jersey, that we only used our granny gear three times, two of them on large bridges. This was not so much a bike trip as a trip by bike. The focus was on seeing America up close by bike and on foot and by kayak and canoe, not just from a bike seat whizzing by.

How fast did we go? We averaged 14.4 mph, but that's from a "bike computer" that measures every time the wheel is in motion, including walking the bike down hotel corridors to our room or up steep hills. Adjusting for walking, it's about 15 mph when we actually rode. If you take out times we were slowed down by traffic lights and stop signs, by narrow bike paths, or simply by the desire to go slowly through neighborhoods gawking at the mansions of south Florida or the Victorian architecture of small mid-Atlantic towns, we did 16-19 mph on the open road if it was relatively flat. Hills and of course head winds slow down the average, but tail winds sometimes had us doing 20 miles in an hour of cycling -- not often, but boy those moments were great!

Did we lose weight? No, Jeff lost maybe 5 pounds and Louise picked them up and put them on. Our combined weight is precisely where it was on New Year's Day.

What roads did we ride on? We balanced interesting places to ride versus traffic, with terrain another consideration once we got into the hilly northeast. We were never on an interstate, and went maybe 10-20 miles on the shoulders of smaller limited access roads where we had to. Occasionally we found it necessary to ride down busy multilane roads, where we took a lane. Drivers almost always got the idea to pass us like they would a slow-moving Amish buggy, but occasionally we'd have to give hand signals (hand, not finger ...) to get them to move over a full lane to pass us. If the road was two-lane and shoulderless, we would ride in the center of the lane if it was dangerous for a vehicle to pass, and they almost always understood. We had no close calls, and relatively few vehicles (fewer than one a week) that passed close enough to make us comment to each other about that person's likely Wechsler scores.

How do we find our routes? We spent so much time in Florida, we bought the DeLorme map book and cut it up for the parts we were biking to, and found some great back roads that way. After that we used AAA state and local maps and for almost all our route-finding. Once we hit the hills, we found it useful to use the "terrain" view on google to see elevations, and that saved us from going over more than a few roads we would have regretted had we not checked them. We generally look for a route that will take us through an interesting area, then identify what towns might have lodging and restaurants, then use to find specific places to stay. Before contacting a place we'll often use the "search nearby" feature to be sure there's a restaurant within a mile, plus ask on the phone when we call for a reservation.

What did we do for internet access? We have a Palm Treo smartphone that gets the internet through a phone connection, and a Palm TX handheld device that gets the web through WiFi when that is available. The TX is preferable because it's faster and has a much larger screen, but WiFi is a sometime thing, whereas the phone almost always came in. When the weather was threatening, we went to and its radar maps a lot using one or the other device, and kept on top of email quite well.

But both devices have limitations, such as being unable or unwilling to access financial info that has to be checked from time to time, like credit card bills and the checking account. We're always a little nervous about using a public computer for these, but so far the anti-hacking features of those sites seem to have protected us. We also needed public computers to update this blog, and about 1/3 of them have had plug-ins blocked, keeping us from uploading pictures. At times it's been a challenge to keep you informed and entertained!

What were our favorite and least favorite places? Too many favorite places to list, but we agree that the most amazing experience we had on the whole trip was our kayak trip through the Everglades with a very knowledgeable naturalist. Our favorite photo was the alligator mom with four babies on her back, taken from our kayak. Our two canoe trips down the Batten Kill in southwestern Vermont/eastern New York were also right up there as special. We had many great bike rides through places throughout the trip, too many to list. We also really enjoyed meeting many new people and meeting up with two pairs of old friends, Steve and Janet who joined us with their tandem for the Outer Banks and Jim and Nancy who walked all over Williamsburg and other parts of historic Virgina and Washington DC with us.

That said, we are also in agreement on the worst place, at least the worst state: South Carolina. They do not like bicycles, either when the state builds the roads or the citizens drive them. Narrow shoulderless roads or busy shoulderless roads were generally the only options. The only exceptions were Hilton Head Island itself (but not the approaches to Hilton Head, which are suicidal and which we avoided by using the Dafuskie Island ferry and a lift by car off Hilton Head), and the Myrtle Beach area near North Carolina. However we did that section in the off-season, and it's probably a different story in mid-summer.

How many flats and other bike problems did we have? For the first 2 weeks in south Florida we had about one flat per day. After that we had a flat about once a month or less. That may have been because we threw out the Mr. Tuffy liners which were pinching the tube and causing flats from the inside, and also switched to a heavier tire, a 26x1.5 Armadillo. But getting away from south Florida was probably the main thing. Why so bad there? No bottle return laws and little recycling may be part of it. Some other cyclists blamed the large number of transient farmworkers. Probably never know for sure why it was so much worse there than elsewhere.

We had few other problems except for the rear rim that started to show stress cracks and had to be replaced at the end of June. But parts do wear out, such as chains and derailleur cables, not to mention $40 tires (we get about 1700 miles on rear tires, maybe 2400 on front ones), and we spent $1,200 total on bike maintenance and parts, about 3 1/2 percent of our budget.

Any injuries or illnesses? All our injuries were from furniture -- Jeff badly stubbed his toes three times on dressers and beds, and Louise had a drawer front panel pull off from the rest of the drawer and drop on her foot, almost putting her out of commission. Painful but not enough to stop us. We had remarkably good luck with no serious colds, flu or the like, though each of us thought once or twice that we were about to come down with something that never fully developed.

Where did we stay overnight? Almost 30% of our nights were in B&Bs, almost 30% in chain motels, and the rest divided up between independent ("Mom and Pop") motels, country inns or resorts, and free lodging. Five nights we stayed with Hospitality Hosts we found through the Tandem Club of America, ten nights with new friends we met alone the way, and a few nights in the middle of the trip with our family here in Ithaca. We also accumulated enough "frequent sleeper" points with various hotel chains to cash them in for three more free nights.

How expensive is a trip like this? Much cheaper, way cheaper, than joining a group like Adventure Cycling or Vermont Bicycle Tours, where it's frequently $125-150 per night per person for camping accommodations and $200-300 per night per person for mostly B&B lodging. Our budget was $170 per night for the two of us, and we stayed under that. Lodging was the largest expense, at just over $100/night if you don't count the free nights, with food the next-largest part of the budget at $56 per day for the two of us. We could have kept the costs lower of course with more motel nights and more supermarket meals in place of restaurant meals, but we found that in many small towns the only lodging is a B&B, and that home-cooking was hard to do since it's not safe (or legal) to cook on a camping stove at a motel, unless there's an outdoor picnic table or the like nearby. Half-way through the trip, we left the cooking equipment in Ithaca to save weight and space on the bike, as we weren't really using it much. And of course some of those more expensive places were worth every penny, because of their quality and/or location and/or sheer historical interest. At least three dozen places we stayed at were standing when Lincoln was President, and a few were even there when Washington was! There's something very exciting about that to two folks with such strong ties to the UW History Department as we have!

Our decision to rent out our condo in Seattle and to sell off the car of course went a long way towards making the trip affordable. We found great renters, that has gone very smoothly, and the rent covers the condo expenses so we're not having to pay those while also paying for a motel or B&B each night. Then there's the car: when we sold it we totalled up what it had cost us in the prior 9 years, and were shocked to find that we had actually spent about 90 cents a mile when depreciation and everything else was factored in, nearly $5,000 a year! We are seriously debating whether or not to have a car when we return, although the absence of a bus stop near us -- the closest one is a mile away -- makes it hard to envision life without a car out in the parking lot. Well, at least we have another 9 car-free months before that has to be resolved. Even though we've rented a car three times since January -- to get to Amtrak from Ithaca, then to go from Key West to Naples with the tandem in the trunk, and finally to pick up our friends Janet and Steve when they flew in to the Outer Banks -- we've still spent very little on cars, maybe $400 on rental fees and $60 on gas since the first of the year.

Thanks for following this part of the trip. We'll write
next to let you know what it was like to travel across the country by Amtrak, plus visit family in NYC and in Austin, then we'll have to see how often (and at what expense)
we can get on the internet to share the cruise experience with you. Gee, Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, ... stay tuned!