Monday, August 29, 2005

A Quick Jaunt

Laurie really wanted to take some sort of bike tour this summer. A tight schedule had reduced it from a week to three or four days to an overnight, but we were going, no matter what.

I took my first tour in September 1980. It was a leisurely three weeks from San Francisco, California to Eugene, Oregon. The woman I rode with was still in school, doing a year at the University of Oregon on an exchange program.

Almost a month on the road really spoiled me for anything shorter. The fact that I was out of school, essentially homeless, gave the trip a serious feeling my companion may not have shared. I also thought I was working up to a transcontinental tour. I did not know that the transcon would keep falling through for the next several years until I put it aside in favor of other activities that seemed more important, and other forms of recreational homelessness that seemed more rewarding.

So there I was, loading the Surly Cross-Check for this micro-tour, this Cub Scout sleep over of a trip, when I realized that my panniers, my bar bag, my Bleuet stove, even the Blackburn rack on the bike itself were 25 years old.

In 1980, two cyclists rode about 700 miles without a flat tire or a broken spoke.

In 2005, two cyclists rode less than four miles before hearing the angry hiss of a punctured tire. Or did we? Still in the first few shakedown miles, still in our own neighborhood, we pulled off the road to see whose bike had suffered what.

Both tires of both bikes felt firm thumb pressure. The hissing noise had ceased. We remounted and continued.

We’d gotten a bit of a late start. You need just about as much gear for an overnight as you do for a week or a month. What seemed easy in the mind was a bit harder to find and stuff into a pannier. But decades of camping experience helped. We could still make the short hop to Sebago Lake before sunset, even if we barely averaged 10 miles per hour. I wasn’t going to assume I could set any records, riding with a load for the first time in such a long time, coming off a full commuting week, and barely emerging from a very busy couple of months in the repair shop.

The route is mostly flat, through the glacial plains of the Saco River valley. There was just one climb, on Route 5/117, heading over from Cornish to pick up Route 113. It’s not too long, but it’s almost steep. It wasn’t too bad. Aside from that we just had a few rolling grades on 113.

We arrived at Sebago Lake Family Campground by 5 p.m., checked into our site, pitched the tent, stacked the bikes and walked back over to the lake to scout out the nearby store and take a little swim. The water was surprisingly chilly for late August, but the bottom was clean sand. The nearby store had some welcome items to add to dinner, as well as beer for the evening and coffee available in the morning. Life was good.

The campground was almost eerily quiet. A lot of the sites clearly belong to regular residents. They weren’t tremendously outgoing, but then neither am I. Our site was tucked back into the woods a little bit, so we could just settle back against the forest and enjoy the quiet. ATV tracks went around a gatepost right at the corner of our site, but no one drove by. The trail was probably used by the maintenance crew.

The idea of trying to have a relaxing getaway while sharing the highway with impatient motorists had made me think that only an epic trip would be worth the aggravation, so I was really pleased, though surprised, when the peace of self-propelled travel kicked in right out of the driveway. The trip instantly took on the timeless quality that makes self-propelled travel so rewarding.

Bike touring has an advantage over backpacking, because you can do a lot of it in civilized areas. You can sample local delicacies, buy necessities, shop for groceries each evening, rather than carry absolutely everything in your bike bags for every possible circumstance. The disadvantage, of course, is that you share the road with people who may not respect your choices, no matter how courteous you attempt to be with them. No one ever honked, yelled or threw anything at me when I was hiking a remote trail in the mountains. But then again, they don’t always do it when I’m riding. You just get that edge of anger and anxiety after it has happened a few times. You wonder when the next unprovoked attack is coming. But that seems to be the pattern of modern life now, doesn’t it? You might as well be doing something you enjoy when the brick or the cruise missile comes at you.

The first night out in 1980, I felt very far from home as I stretched out on the cold, hard ground without even a sleeping pad. I’ve slept on the ground many times since then, but I have to say that camp nights can be weird. I get a little claustrophobic in the tent sometimes, so I felt really trapped when Laurie zipped the tent door. Her tent only has single-slider zippers on the door, and they stop on her side. That left me looking out through the mesh with no handy escape hatch in front of me.

After a couple of long hours, Laurie asked if I minded if she opened the door to admit more air.

Did I mind? Whew. No more dreams of entrapment. That was fine until I started thinking about disease-ridden mosquitoes and hungry raccoons and skunks sashaying in.

The eerie quiet of the campground extended to insects and animals as well. We heard a bit of light scurrying in the woods, but nothing ever came close. There weren’t even any bugs after the early evening mosquitoes. Maybe the place is built on a toxic waste dump. At least it keeps the critters down.

Dawn was welcome. Not only could I crawl out of the tent and stretch my kinked joints, I could also stumble down to the store and pour a steaming cup of fresh coffee into my brain cells.
The kinks gave way to a feeling like the aftermath of a deep massage or a really aggressive stretching session. The combination of the mellow ride the day before and the firm sleeping surface left me feeling remarkably rested and well aligned.

Going over the bikes to get ready for the day, I discovered that Laurie’s tire really had been going flat. It felt a little soft to thumb pressure and hissed sharply when I pushed the valve stem sideways.

Using some spare cord from the tent, I tied a line between two trees. Hanging the nose of her bike saddle over this I could suspend the bike to work on it. The cord was nearly invisible.

Laurie devised some tasty food that required minimal refrigeration for supper and breakfast. Grilled vegetable and havarti sandwiches on ciabatta rolls we could heat in aluminum foil over the fire for supper. Precooked sausage and egg sandwiches we could heat similarly for breakfast. A soft cooler with a cold pack fit easily in a pannier with the light load for a quick overnight. We also had some carrots and celery for salad.

After breakfast we set out for the leisurely ride we didn’t have the day before. With time to spare, we diverted from 113 onto Pigeon Brook Road, to River Road, coming onto Route 5/117 right next to the Saco River. River Road turned out to be dirt, but that’s why we have Surlies.

Laurie doesn’t get to ride every day, or even several times a week, so doing more than 30 miles a day, back to back, tired her out a bit. We stopped several times, but that’s one of the major pleasures of touring, as opposed to performance riding, whether officially racing or not. Sometimes it’s fun to ride without stopping, but it’s also fun to stop and check out things along the way. For instance, we had never found time to stop in Cornish when we drive through there, but on the bikes it was easy. We didn’t have to block traffic or find a place to park a full-size vehicle. And the same was true for riverside overlooks or enticing side roads.

I doubt if another quarter century will pass before I load up the bike for another tour. I have a lot of catching up to do.

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