Completed the C&O … and onward

I’m sitting in a fairly non-descript RV park in Missouri, stopped over for a night on my way back home at last, and finally cataloguing all the photos from the bike ride. It has taken three days since we got off our bicycles in Georgetown, Washington DC, just to mentally process the events of that wonderful, epic ride from Pittsburgh to DC.

C&O trailThe early joke of the ride was that by the time we completed it, we’d be in shape to start it, and that certainly turned out to be true. By the tenth day and the 350th mile, we weren’t tired and sore and desperate to stop riding. It felt more like we’d just found our groove. If there had been another 100 miles ahead of us I’m sure we would have been happy to just keep pedaling. Our legs were feeling strong and despite 10 days in close proximity we were all still friends.

The C&O Canal trail was monotonously shady and peaceful. “The first day is the hardest” we were advised (and this was true thanks to rough trail conditions) but no one told us that the first day was also the most scenic and varied. Days 2, 3, and 4 flowed by without much excitement. Traces of the canal were always to our left, the North Branch Potomac to our right, locks and lock keeper’s houses dotting the route occasionally, and once in a great while we’d encounter an aqueduct. Over our heads were an ever-present canopy of sycamore and oak, and ahead we always had the trail.

But not much else. Soon we got to the point where we coasted past locks with scarcely a sideways glance, and I found Bert spending more time photographing turtles and signs than structures. Inspired perhaps by the fall-like weather and the early fallen leaves, I felt like getting off my bike and wandering the forest in search of chanterelles.

C&O Bert turtle

Distinguishing one day from another was mostly possible by the towns in which we stopped, and the restaurants and motels we patronized each night.  Second night was a bit of a low point: a Red Roof Inn that we could only reach after a hilly 3-mile ride along a busy road, and for dinner there was a bad Chinese place (a choice I regretted), a Subway, McDonald’s, and Waffle House. Adam and Susan chose the Subway and I think they made the right call. We saved the Waffle House for breakfast. This, by the way, was their wedding anniversary—a un-memorable night capped off with a few hours of watching HGTV in the motel room.

C&O aquaduct

Bert Adam Susan lock house

Still, I can hardly complain. We had almost uniformly excellent weather for the entire trip (no rain while we were cycling), and on the third C&O night we stayed at a unique resort in Shepherdtown WV called the Bavarian. Not only did the resort feature a beautiful infinity pool overlooking the Potomac, but this little college town turned out to have a sweet & historic little downtown that kept us occupied all afternoon. We also had a fine little detour over the railroad bridge to Harper’s Ferry but be warned, taking your bike over the bridge requires carrying it up a couple of flights of stairs and walking it a long way (we left the bikes behind for this one).

C&O lock house

C&O Harpers Ferry

On Sept 11 I  was also reminded of the privilege we were enjoying. I heard that social media was filled with politicized rants and unpleasant hints of violence or disruption that day, but in our peaceful slice of the world there was nothing to hear but singing birds and friendly banter on the bicycles. It reminded me of the adage, “If you want to hate your country, watch the news, but if you want to love your country, ride across it on a bicycle.” It is very true. Even at points on the trail where the scenery was getting repetitive and I was feeling a bit homesick, I knew that it was a spectacular gift to be able to be out there, healthy enough to do this ride and enjoying the companionship of friends.

The 40-mile legs just kept slipping by more easily each day. Each morning we’d meet for breakfast at 7:30 and be on the bicycles by 8:45 or 9:00. We’d ride 2-4 miles to work out the cobwebs, then do 6-8 mile legs the rest of the ride, stopping primarily for photos opps, water, and “butt breaks” (and we’re not talking about cigarettes here). By 2:00 or 3:00 we’d be at our destination, and we’d find our way to the hotel, take showers, and re-group for dinner around 5:00 or 6:00. If there was laundry to be done, we’d put together a load that combined all our sweaty stuff. Everyone would retreat to their rooms by 8:00 and be asleep around 10:00. I spent most nights splitting a room with Bert, grateful that he does not snore.

I was also grateful that we all get along so well. We ran into other groups along the trail, and some of them were not having as good a time as us. The most common mistake we heard about was groups that planned aggressive itineraries. I thought we were being pretty lazy with the short 40 mile (average) legs each day until I heard from those who were doing 60 to 90 miles a day. They were in shape to ride that far, certainly, but none of them seemed to be having much fun after the second or third day of it. One group of three riders basically dissolved before our eyes after a spirit-breaking nine-hour day of cycling, barely even speaking to each other for the rest of the ride.

C&O Whites Ferry

On the penultimate day of cycling we ended up crossing the Potomac at the famous White’s Ferry (above), and got a shuttle to Leesburg VA. That’s when the only glitch of the trip cropped up. It turned out that the minivan I’d rented for the return trip from DC to Pitt was at a rental location that closed at 1:00 on Saturday. No other rental car agency in the DC area could help us at that point. We got creative for a few hours and tried everything we could think of that might be able to transport four people and four bicycles: Amtrak, Greyhound, Uber, U-Haul, etc. but we just kept getting the door slammed in our faces.

The only solution we could find required me to rent a van in Leesburg and drive it down to DC while everyone else finished the ride. I did this, and managed to drive into DC, park the van near the trailhead in Georgetown, and ride the opposite direction fast enough to meet the group at the 14 mile mark (at Great Falls Visitor Center). To pull this off required an amazing combination of luck with traffic and some fast cycling, so we were all moderately shocked when it actually worked. Thus, I technically did not ride the entire C&O Canal, but I did the last 14 miles twice and ended up with a total of about 350 miles for the entire GAP/C&O through-trip. I’m quite satisfied with that.

C&O Georgetown trail

A note to those who might do this ride. The ride technically begins (Mile 0) in Georgetown if you are heading west but the first mile or so is really not rideable since it passes through the urban landscape and is essentially a pedestrian sidewalk. For us, heading eastward, this meant we had to walk our bikes for much of the last mile, which robbed us of the spectacular finish we’d all envisioned, but it was still great no matter how it ended, and we’ve got the photo to prove it.

C&O finish

Bikes loaded in minivanThe final logistical challenge of the trip was to stuff four bicycles and four people, plus luggage, into a Dodge minivan. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure we could do it. It was more a case of “we have to make it all fit” because the alternative was too awful to contemplate, so we did.

We spent a night in Frederick MD (another place with a great downtown), had a celebratory dinner, and drove back to Pittsburgh the next morning, where we dispersed like a group of kids at the end of summer camp. There were sad faces and promises to plan future trips, hugs and quick reminisces, and then we were all headed in our separate directions.

For me the travel was just beginning. I drove two more hours back up to Tidioute PA where the Airstream was waiting for me, unpacked, stored the bike, did a final laundry, caught up on the most critical emails, and had dinner with JJ & Sandy. I still had 2,135 miles of driving ahead to get the Airstream back to home base in Tucson.

I’ve driven a quick 926 miles in the past two days because I really want to get home soon, and I only stopped early in Springfield MO to catch up on emails and this blog. So now you’re caught up, and so am I.

I’ve been out in the Airstream since mid May, and it has been a hell of a summer. In April I made a four month plan that included Alumapalooza, the WBCCI International Rally, visits to half a dozen friends’ homes, a 10 day bike ride, motorcycling, and many other small things. All of those things have been done, and I made many other wonderful stops that weren’t part of my plan as well (New Orleans, Atlanta, Montreal). The funny thing is, the best parts of the summer were the parts I didn’t plan or even see coming. It’s amazing what happens when you just step out the door and wander around. You might even find a chanterelle in the forest.

Pittsburgh logistics

GAP sample mapAfter arriving in Vermont with the Airstream, I figured life would get less complicated and I’d be free of the logistical challenges that accompany organizing a major event and a traveling store. I was right, for a while. But now it’s time to start thinking about the next steps of this summer, because it’s going to get tricky soon.

The big challenge of the day is the bike ride from Pittsburgh PA to Washington DC in early September. I’m meeting Bert Gildart, and our friends Adam and Susan, and the four of us will take ten days to ride 333 miles together, then shuttle together back to the starting point.

Those of you who are longtime readers of Airstream Life might recognize Bert as a regular contributor to the magazine. He has been writing destination articles illustrated with his own beautiful photography for Airstream Life for 15 years.

The logistics of a trip like this are complicated enough (gear, accommodations, weather) but I’ve got an extra detail to figure out because I’m showing up with an Airstream. I’ve got to find a safe place to stash the Airstream and tow vehicle for 11-12 days, then get myself, Bert, and our two bikes to the start point in downtown Pittsburgh. You’d think this would be easy—just get a campground—but there are no campgrounds close to the city, and finding transportation that will work for us has proved difficult.

This is a high priority adventure. Bert and I have been talking about doing this ride for years, and I think Bert’s experience will eventually become another article for Airstream Life. So I’m making a rare call-out on the blog: Is there anyone in the Pittsburgh area who can suggest solutions (or best of all, offer courtesy parking)?

What’s over the next hill?

Yesterday and today have been full of mixed emotions for me. Being at Alumapalooza temporarily brought me back to a routine that has been part of my life for a decade, and for a while it felt like nothing had changed. I did many of the same things, met many of my old friends, visited places I’ve been to dozens of times. But all along I’ve known that it was the last time for many things, and it’s time to look forward to what’s next.

Lagrange Airstream 2019-06

This is part of a tumultuous change that started for me when Emma turned 18. For the first time in 13 years there was Airstream travel without Emma. That changed a lot of things, as I documented in the blog last summer. Now everything is changing. It is the last Alumapalooza for me, at least as an organizer. This may be the last time I drive these roads and decompress (in the spot pictured above) with dear friends in early June. This year may be the last that I can be sure I will spend the whole summer in Vermont. I do not know what exactly the year 2020 will hold, but I am sure it will be very different.

For many people change is unsettling. They find comfort in routine and stability. I like a little routine but too much is dull and even scary to me. I suppose it might be considered a bit of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) but I always want to know “what’s next?” In that way I share a philosophy with Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, who wrote:

Don’t stop. Keep right on going. Hitch up your trailer and go to Canada or down to Old Mexico. Head for Europe, if you can afford it, or go to the Mardi Gras. Go someplace you’ve heard about, where you can fish or hunt or collect rocks or just look up at the sky. Find out what’s at the end of some country road. Go see what’s over the next hill, and the one after that, and the one after that.

I think of change and exploration as necessary for growth. If you own an Airstream you might share that philosophy. But the necessity of change is easy to acknowledge, and difficult to execute. To get there sometimes you have to prune away tradition and past commitments to make space for what’s yet to come—even when you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.

So when people ask me (as several people have in the past few days) “What do you plan to do with your free time now that you’re not doing Alumapalooza?” I don’t have a ready answer. The pat answer is that I plan to do more writing, but of exactly what I don’t know. I plan to do more traveling, but exactly where I cannot say. Perhaps north, perhaps south, or around the world. Some travel will be with the Airstream, and some without. One must simply take a step at a time and see what happens. I think the unknown factor is the exciting part.

Verona Beach State Park

Today’s travel has brought me from the Cleveland area to Verona Beach State Park in upstate New York. The drive itself was uninteresting but I am at least one step closer to a new set of adventures. I’m taking one night here, and another night in the Adirondacks tomorrow. After that, Vermont for a few weeks, and then we’ll see what happens next.

 

On my last leg

The road is long … too long sometimes. If you’ve read this blog over the past few years you know how I feel about long days on the Interstate. It’s soul-sapping—the exact opposite of what good travel should be. I didn’t get into Airstreaming so I could play at being a over-the-road truck driver, stopping for quick gas-and-goes, eating whatever is convenient, and listening to the shriek of tires on concrete rather than birds in the trees.

But sometimes this is the hand I deal myself. I really should have left Tucson a week earlier so that this could have been a leisurely trip, but it’s so beautiful in Tucson in April and early May that I can never bring myself to leave. The attraction of this season was particularly enchanting and fun, so I delayed as long as possible knowing that I’d pay a price later. The price is 50 hours of drive time, day after day, along less-than-inspiring roads

I vow that next year things will be different. But that’s a topic for another blog. This week I have searched for ways to spice up the trip and you may recall that I opted to add 200 miles to my route (and stay clear of major storms) by going to New Orleans instead of through Dallas and Hot Springs. This turned out to be a brilliant move, affording me one precious wonderful night in the city to break up an otherwise tedious run ever since I left Austin.

I parked the Airstream in Westwego (across the Mississippi river) at Bayou Segnette State Park, and immediately set the air conditioning to “deep freeze” all night in the hope of finally drying out the interior. This strategy worked wonderfully. By morning everything was restored to a normal state of crispness rather than Shrek’s Swamp, and I was no longer in danger of sprouting mushrooms from my ears.

While the Airstream was desiccating, I took the opportunity to go downtown and meet some friends who were just wrapping up work at a conference. We went out for dinner at Galliano’s (excellent) and of course the traditional late-night coffee and beignets with conversation at Cafe du Monde, because that’s what one does. I’ve been hitting that place every few years since my college days back in the [cough] early 1980s. In the past my visits were usually not before midnight, but these days I’m a bit older and I was looking forward to getting to bed.

In my defense, it had been a trying day on the road. A planned 3.5 hour drive from Lake Charles to New Orleans turned into a 7 hour drive thanks to a major accident on I-10. In my experience this sort of “Interstate parking lot” traffic jam is actually better with an Airstream in tow because you at least have access to food and a bathroom, should either of those needs arrive.

I was fine for the 2.5 hours we spent creeping along the Interstate but I was witness to a fellow who was not as fortunate. As I followed his car at 2 MPH, I observed as he dumped the contents of a full water bottle out the window, and then battled his way to the breakdown lane to use that water bottle as a repository, much like Howard Hughes in his later days. I was tempted to offer my bathroom to the poor fellow, but then traffic accelerated to a scalding 5 MPH and his parked econobox disappeared from the side view mirror. Given the extent of that traffic jam, he may still be there trying to get back into the line of cars…

As I mentioned, my weather-avoidance strategy worked wonderfully. While New Orleans was just as humid as everywhere else I’d been lately, the skies were blue with puffy white cumulus as I hitched up in the morning and towed up through Mississippi and into Alabama. I couldn’t ask for better conditions, and I was sort of on Cloud 9 myself. My goal for Tuesday was to log at least 325 miles, and I did easily, ending up at the charming Tannehill Ironworks Historic State Park off I-59.

IMG_0859

I promised myself that I would pay for 30-amp power in order to keep the Airstream dry, and I did but I didn’t really need to. The humidity here, at least, had dropped to a tolerable level and the outside air was cool enough for comfortable sleeping.

IMG_0861

Sadly, the repeated frequent days on the road had allowed a slight backup of work to accumulate. Rather than wandering the park on foot and getting some exercise I spent the balance of the afternoon and evening at my laptop. I don’t recommend this. A person really needs to do something besides sit all day, and give both the muscles and the eyes something fresh to do. With each day of 7-8 hours I find a small deterioration in my flexibility, stamina, and sense of well-being. Four or five days of that and I’m in danger of becoming a tumbleweed.

In my case I’ll have to recover once I get to Ohio. The detour to New Orleans sucked up any margin I had in the travel plan, so there’s nothing to be done but cover at least 320 miles each day until Thursday. I have to be in Dayton on Thursday to pick up Eleanor at the airport, in Troy OH to pick up printed materials that afternoon, and in Jackson Center shortly after to receive about 50 boxes of store inventory. There’s a long list of other pre-event tasks that must be accomplished over the weekend too. Once Monday arrives, there will be little opportunity for anything but Alumapalooza—which is not bad thing, because the event is fun.

One day left of towing … and then I park with a sigh of relief in the Terra Port at the Airstream factory for 11 days. I’ll try to update the blog daily once the event starts, but if it gets overwhelming, forgive me!

Oh yeah, I’m “living the dream”

There’s always a certain temptation among travel bloggers to present an idealized version of travel. They skip over the mundane and the disappointing, and sensationalize those brief moments of peak beauty. The YouTube vloggers are particularly guilty of this and of course I understand why: scenic beauty and an idealized narrative always gets more clicks.

I’ve tried to avoid doing that, in all my blogs since 2004. We’re all grownups and we know life isn’t always ideal, so I’ve written about roadside breakdowns and unsavory dump station accidents. I feel this gives more validity to the great days and fulfilling adventures, since here you always get the good with the bad. And besides, I don’t care about clicks. There are no ads on this blog.

Austin Rich and pupToday was one of those days that people don’t blog about. It started with a feeling of waking up in a swamp thanks to the incredible humidity in Austin. The dewpoint was 72 and the temperature was 74, which means I was close to having fog inside the Airstream. The condensation was getting out of control despite all the fans.

This kind of humidity is not good for the long-term health of an Airstream (or any other brand). It seeps into everything, saturates the insulation, and encourages mold in corners and inaccessible places. Given time and lack of ventilation, the trailer can start to smell like wet dog. Wood can delaminate as glues begin to fail. Even with air circulation all of the paper starts to wrinkle (including toilet paper, laser printer paper, and even cardboard boxes).  I hate humidity, which is a big part of why I live in a desert.

Austin HumidThe best solution would be to turn around and go back to the desert, but given the impractical nature of that idea, the next best move would be to find a campsite with an electrical hookup that can support the air conditioner—and leave it running continuously.

The problem for me is that I have to actually make forward progress. So the only option for me was to press onward. Before leaving I did a load of laundry in my hosts’ house just to try to get the dampness out of the sheets and towels. After baking my clothes and sheets dry, I hitched up the Airstream and headed out of town in the faint hope of a less humid future. Given that I was heading to Louisiana, this was not highly realistic. But at least there was the prospect of spending a few hours in an air conditioned car.

… and that brings up the next challenge of the day. I needed to move forward but not so far that I end up in a massive storm. If I’d pushed hard I could have made New Orleans by nightfall, but NOLA was getting hammered with heavy rain. The compromise ended up being near Lake Charles, 330 miles from Austin, where the rain was intermittent and winding down.

… and that brings up the next choice. I’m here early and there’s not much of interest in the area (plus I don’t want to unhitch for just one night). I’m just going to do some work, have dinner, sleep, and hit the road early.  So: pay for a campsite that I really don’t need and deal with a tedious campground check-in process just to get 30-amp power and run the air conditioner, or park somewhere free & convenient & uncomfortable and make a quick getaway?

I think most people would cough up the $35 or so and get a campsite, but (Rationalization #1) I enjoy taking on a bit of adversity now and then. It makes for better blogs (even though I still insist I’m not a click-whore) and I subscribe to the theory that one should face one’s fears and dislikes. Also (Rationalization #2) I’m traveling in Bachelor Mode, so I can do whatever I want. If I had a chica sharing the damp sheets with me I’d probably be encouraged to look at things differently. And Rationalization #3 is that when I park in odd places “interesting” things occasionally happen: a fire, a tornado, a late-night eviction …

Uh, wait a second, maybe I should get a campground.