The Journey Home

The morning after we reached Tokyo, I lay in my hostel bunk listening through an open window to the city street noises muffled by heavy rain. I began to regret the large quantity of celebratory sake that I had consumed the previous evening.

We had put together a laundry list of things to do in Tokyo, the last stop for us before leaving Japan, but for the next few days, most of our energy went into winding our bodies down from the ordeal of the journey.

We did manage to accomplish some tasks, however. We made a pilgrimage to Blue Lug, a famous bicycle shop, and shopped for souvenirs for our friends and family. We relaxed in our hostel and caught up on much-needed sleep.

A few days later, Amy’s cousin Jenn arrived from America on a work trip. A seasoned traveler, Jenn was a fantastic source of the touristic energy required to kick us out of our complacency.

The next day, Jenn, Amy and I began with a tour of the Japanese National Gallery.  I had been excited about looking at the famous katana collection housed in that museum – many of which are considered national treasures. However, I was dismayed to find I responded quite negatively to the cold, unmounted steel blades before me, kept sharp and polished despite their extreme age. Alien, almost identical, I wondered how many people had met their end at the hands of these well-designed obelisks of death. Far more interesting were the painted screens – beautiful arching landscapes of drooping wisterias and gilded waterfalls, and the wood block prints of the late Edo period. The museum was a restrained and focused tour through the history of Japan from the perspective of its art.

After a lunch detour to the famous Tsukiji fish market, we found ourselves walking through the tall cedar trees of Yoyogi park towards the famous Meiji Jingu shrine. The atmosphere here was almost rural; a seven foot long snake poked its head out from under a park bench before scurrying into the underbrush. The shrine was full of foreigners, but like most Shinto shrines, it functioned more as a park for one’s spritual and emotional well being than a mark of belonging, and we didn’t feel excluded as we purchased a wooden block to write a blessing on.

As we walked towards the center of the shrine after ritualistically washing ourselves, we heard the muffled silence of tourists as a traditionally dressed Japanese couple processed with their relatives into a private courtyard, surrounded by preists, on their wedding day.

I looked at Amy and was reminded of how we had grown closer to each other on this trip, which began with our own wedding almost a year ago. It was with a great sense of purpose that Amy, Jenn and I wrote three messages on the wooden block and hung it on shrine to be ritualistically burned the next morning.

We descended from the peace of the shrine to the busiest area of Tokyo, Shibuya.

The crush of people in Shibuya was overwhelming. We headed towards the famous Shibuya Scramble. The scramble  is a huge intersection that is shut down for people to cross in every which way between the multiple train and subway stations under the road.

We joined the crowd and crossed the street to admire the statue of the famous dog, Hachiko, who was kept company by two live, immobile cats perched between his paws. Suddenly, we encountered our friend Justin, who Amy had met in San Francisco, and who had given us many pointers on traveling to Japan. What a strange coincidence to run into a person you know in the midst of the busiest place in the densest city on earth!

The following day was our last before our flight.  This was the day that we had to take our bicycles, which were a method of transporting our worldly possessions, and convert them into two very large, ungainly boxes. Our possessions, and boxes, would then somehow have to get to Haneda airport, which was not reachable via bicycle. We said goodbye to Jenn, and began the all-day process of packing our things.

Our strategy was to pick a location that was walking distance from a cheap hotel, a bike shop (to obtain bike boxes), and an ‘express bus’ line to Haneda airport (which would have the under-cabin storage we needed to transport our ridiculously bulky and heavy bike boxes).  We succeeded in finding a lovely bike shop, who not only gave us boxes, but brought us cold tea, and successfully packed our bikes over several hours. What we didn’t consider was that walking a distance on foot, and walking that same distance while hauling four fifty-pound boxes with no wheels, are two different concepts. Perserverence, and a dolly from the hotel, saved the day, and the next morning we found ourselves at Haneda waiting for our flight.

Both of us felt that it was time to leave Japan. Japan had been amazing, beautiful, and wonderfully kind to us, but we had seen enough, experienced enough. It was time to go somewhere different.

The return back to America was a blur.  We spent a week getting over jet lag and slowly unpacking our bikes while residing on our friend George’s couch in Brooklyn. Next, we took the train to Boston, and spent another week with Joan and Wayne, Amy’s parents, in Bedford, Massachusetts.

Finally, on the weekend of June 10th, we took our bicycles out for a three day tour that we’ve done every year for the past three years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. The ride took two days, and we were joined by a dozen other people. We camped as a group just 
over the Bourne bridge in Shawne Cromwell state park, and again the next night at a campground in P-Town. Some of the riders were old friends, like George, that we’d known for a decade, and the rest were new friends that we were happy to meet and share a bit of scenic beauty, suffering and glory with.

One of the most memorable moments of the ride occurred during the middle of day one, when we had stopped for lunch as a group at a park overlooking a massive wetlands. We watched in horror as a huge snapping turtle (two to three feet long (no, at least five feet!)) emerged from the  swamp and began slowly crawling towards us. Between us and the swamp was a road with a fair amount of traffic. We feared for the turtle, but feared more for our fingers if we tried to move him. Suddenly, an unidentified hero in a baseball hat stopped his truck, grabbed the turtle by the base of its shell, and dragged it out of traffic, as its claws audibly scraped the asphalt.

We reached Provincetown the evening of the second day, and enjoyed a celebratory party with friends new and old.

Amy’s grandparents planned to retire on the Cape in Truro, and they built a small house there in ’70sthat’s still in the family. After a night in P-Town, we biked a few miles back up the Cape 
to the house and parked our bikes. We spent a month relaxing there. Amy painted and baked bread, while I volunteered and worked on projects in the basement. When it was time to leave, we rode much of our trip in reverse, and ended up back in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Osaka to Tokyo, the Nakasendo

Since the last blog post, we made it to Tokyo, and returned from our trip abroad. During the past month, we have been slowly adjusting to a stationary life.

Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. We’re both healthy and temporarily residing in Truro, Massachusetts. Amy is baking bread and making art, and I am working on carpentry projects and reading books from the nearby transfer station.

This will be part one of a three part series.  Today I’ll cover the mad dash to Tokyo in more detail. The next post will detail the journey from Tokyo to Cape Cod. Finally, the third part of the series will be a post of reflections about our journey so far, and the psychological mechanics of returning.

The last blog post ended with us deciding to forego a leisurely few weeks in Shikoku in favor of biking through the mountains at breakneck speed back to Tokyo. This route would take us inland from Osaka, via Kyoto to lake Biwa, through Gifu, and Ena/Natsugawa, through Kiso to lake Suwa, then South and North again around the vertical scar of Mount Yatsugatake to Saku, then east to Shimonita, where we would enter the Kanto plain. We’d cross a large part of the plain to Koga, and then turn south along the Edogawa river levee path to Tokyo. This roughly follows the ‘Nakasendo’, or inland mountain route, used by travelers in pre-industrial Japan to avoid the numerous dangerous river crossings that would be entailed in following the coast.

On day one of the traverse, we crossed Osaka and worked our way inland, via the Kyoto region, to lake Biwa. The first half of the day was a slow urban crawl, then a speed up the river path. The second half of the day was a traverse through endless small cities.  Just as we were approaching sunset, we arrived at lake Biwa, the largest body of freshwater in Japan. We crossed a bridge at a narrow neck of the lake, took a bath at a strategically placed onsen, and set up our tent behind some shrubbery at an abandoned golf course which had been turned into a city park on the shores of the lake.

The next morning, we could see lycra-clad road cyclists shooting past us, as the circumnavigation of Lake Biwa is a popular bicycling challenge.  We joined the parade, and biked north and inland to Gifu. Gifu is famous for its cormorant fishermen, but we avoided the tourist area and stayed at a businessman’s hotel near the train station. After a poor nights sleep in a tent we were happy to have a full nights rest, but for whatever reason we didn’t sleep well, and it was only going to get worse.

After Gifu, we continued our traverse to Ena. at Ena, the elevation really started to pick up. We kept climbing, and despite our already significant elevation, we could see that we were surrounded by great mountains, crowding around us in a great ring. We chose to take route 19, even though we thought it would be a boring and high-traffic ride, since the alternative would have involved climbing 3000 meters in a single day or taking a 15 km expressway tunnel where bikes were explicitly forbidden.

Thankfully we were wrong about route 19. Even though it was a busy thoroughfare, with plenty of ‘japanamax’ trucks, the prefectural authorities had ensured that there was always a sidewalk paralleling the road. Thanks, bureaucrats! I think this had to do with its status as the historical Nakasendo route. Long distance inter city walking is fairly common in Japan, and they decided to make this route available. Given the mountainous terrain, route nineteen followed a steep river valley, first upriver, through a two kilometer tunnel to cut off the summit, then down again.

We desperately wanted to make it to Okaya before the heavy rain that was predicted for the next day at noon, so we went as far as we could on the first day, from just after dawn until after dusk, slept in the corner of a large, dark parking lot, then woke up before dawn, and continued our journey along the same road. It was with a great sense of relief that we beat the rain, which didn’t arrive until later that evening. We were safely ensconced in our hotel room by the time that the huge droplets of water came smashing down against our window, driven by gusts of wind.

Okaya was gorgeous, a mountain lake and the small city co-exist in a sizeable mountain canyon, drawing a lazy cresent shaped shoreline between them. We finally got the rest we had so desperately wanted in Okaya, and woke the next morning feeling refreshed.

The next leg of the journey was around the landscape of mount Yatsugatake, three or four mountain peaks that form a fence between Okaya and Saku. To get to Saku, we had to go south, along yet another river valley, then north again. We spent a lovely evening at the home of Tatsuya, his wife Izumi, and their noble dog Baron. Tatsuya regaled us with stories of his time as a wanderer in south east Asia, where he traveled on a folding bicycle through China, Burma, Thailand, including several months as a Buddhist monk subsisting off of rice alms at a monastery. He undertook this journey in his fifties, which left me with hope that I could be so healthy in my old age. His stories were embellished with home-fermented plum wine, all three of us squatting comfortably on pillows around a portable kerosene fireplace to keep out the alpine chill.

The next morning we climbed up towards the mountain so that we could more easily traverse around it, and restocked at a mountain themed gift shop! There was a mountain bakery with amazing rye bread and curry sandwiches, bento, and a jam station where we picked up some rhubarb preserves. The peak of elevation for the day, and probably for the entire mountain route, took place at a stock farm that was also a tourist attraction. From the southern slopes of Yatsugatake-yama we could see the pastures extending out and down, populated by happy looking livestock in the Swiss fashion. In the distance were the mountains that we weren’t climbing, the Japan Alps, still tipped with snow in late May.

After our lunch, we were propelled by gravity down the river valley almost all the way to Saku, then climbed back through another river valley, filled with enormous blossoming wisteria trees, through a helical series of tunnels to lake Arafune.

The following day was an onslaught of riding across the Kanto plain, through suburban, flat rice fields, for at least thirteen hours, ten of which was probably on our bicycles. At one point in the middle of the day, so tired that we were in danger of falling off our bikes, we lay down on the sidewalk and closed our eyes for fifteen minutes, before continuing. If we hadn’t booked our hotel for that evening, and if rain hadn’t been predicted for the day after next, we would have called it quits at some point in the afternoon. We got to our hotel in Koga at 9:45 PM and collapsed.

In contrast, the next day was relatively easy riding down along a river path to Tokyo. It was such a strange sight to see the skytree rising up out of the rice fields, reminiscent of seeing Austin rising out of the ranchland of central Texas; the city as an occupying force, usurping yet intimately affected by the biome on which it is situated.

We returned to the ‘Space Hostel’, where we stayed at the start of our trip, and the receptionists recognized us! They were happy to see us again, and we were happy to see them. Their warm welcome made our victory over the Nakasendo all the better.


To the South

During the Tokugawa era, there were two rulers of Japan. The Shogun was in control of the army and the executive branch, while the Emperor was the spiritual ruler and nominal head of state. Both titles were hereditary. The shogunate was based in Tokyo, and the imperial household resided in Kyoto. The noblemen and their retinues had to make the journey between these two capitals, along one of several highways. Tokaido was the most famous of these roads. Traveling along it involved fording various rivers, crossing mountains, perhaps being carried in a Kago.

We found a published bicycle route inspired by this ancient route, and followed it all the way to Osaka. There is another road, Nakasendo, that we are planning on taking back from Osaka/Kyoto to Tokyo, at the conclusion of our trip. However, Amy and I still have much we want to see to the west of Osaka; the inland sea area, the Shikoku bicycle bridge, and the Hiroshima peace monument to name a few specific locations. Unfortunately Japan is arranged quite linearly at this point; If we bicycled straight west we would have to bicycle back on a very similar route.

Some of the hardest parts of bicycling occur at inflection points like these. It’s easy to keep going when you have a goal, however lofty, and you can tell you are making measurable progress towards that goal. 

 Without such a goal, however, I begin to doubt why we bothered to leave our home.. just to sit in a youth hostel in Osaka and eat okonomoyaki?

During my research, I noticed a dashed line leaving Osaka across the ocean on google maps. There is a daily ferry from Osaka to Shibushi in the south of Kyushu. A plan began to emerge: we would take the ferry to the southernmost tip of Japan and then spend the next six weeks bicycling back to Tokyo.

The next day, we biked from our hostel over countless bridges through Osaka harbor, a maze of industrial islands, to our ferry terminal. Later that evening we were on a large ferry, with our bikes lashed below decks next to the cars. The ferry was scheduled to take fifteen hours, but there were excellent amenities, including an arcade, buffet restaurant and free public baths; a real miniature cruise. We didn’t see the need to spend extra money for a private cabin, so we were assigned a futon in a large artificial tatami room full of other travelers and went to sleep with the sound of fifty other people gently snoring.

After disembarking the next morning we biked from Shibushi north to Miyakonojo. We were struck by how much more tropical, verdant and less densely-populated the land was. We could smell the smoke emanating from Mount Sakurajima (one of the decade volcanoes).

I’m grateful that we’re back on the road again, with a new goal and general route. In order to make it back to Tokyo along the route we envisioned, we will have to cover more ground per day and take fewer rest days, but I think the mountains and onsen will help us with that.

I’m looking forward to biking through this new mossy volcanic landscape!

That’s all for now,

New in Japan

Like many nerdy people of my generation, when I was a teenager I was exposed to quite a significant amount of Japanese culture, mostly through anime and video games. Even though those hobbies have been supplanted by other interests, for years it has still been a dream of mine to come tour Japan. And now we have arrived here with our bicycles!

Getting our bikes here wasn’t easy, either – it took a lot of airport rental carts.
Our relatively comfortable flight on ANA.

It is in many ways like I was expecting, but in others, more different. There are many things I recognize that have been exported to the West, but so much more that hasn’t been.

Japan is very orderly, and you are expected to behave in a certain way in order to maintain that level of order. I figured Japan might be like Germany, but the desire for order and cleanliness goes beyond that. This means that there are a lot of rules for us to follow – such as never bringing a bicycle indoors 🙂 I thought I was going to give the hotel attendant a heart attack when we wheeled our bicycles out through the airport hotel lobby after very carefully assembling them in our room.

Having seen pictures on Google Street View around here, I was very concerned about the bicycling conditions. I had thought, “the roads are so narrow and hilly, it will be dangerous to bicycle through them.” I was envisioning something like the traffic conditions in Massachusetts, but way worse. So far that has not been the case. The roads are indeed narrow, many of them hilly, but the drivers are considerate, and are used to a much slower traffic speed. As a bicycle you have the option to be a pedestrian at any moment, and all of the streets have sidewalks. It is in many ways like the difference between Egypt and the United States. My guess is that the sidewalks are owned and maintained by the city or municipality here, unlike in America, where it is the property owner’s responsibility to build and maintain them. With the exception of making sure that we follow the rules, the whole feeling of traveling here is quite carefree. The police are helpful and not corrupt, no one is trying to overcharge or take advantage of us, and the streets, even in Tokyo, seem safe for bicycles, which everyone seems to use.

We picked the perfect time to come to Japan as well – there hasn’t been a drop of serious rain except for the evening after when we landed in Narita. The cherry blossoms are blooming, and it seems to be neither too warm to ride comfortably nor too cold to camp. 

The food is inexpensive and delicious (about 50% of what I would expect to pay in America for a similar item), and the lodging is not quite as difficult to obtain as a I had thought.

A fairly large part of our diet has been from the ready-to-eat section at 7-11. They have boxed lunches, hardboiled eggs, and the ubiquitous onigiri, which have a special wrapper to keep the seaweed wrapper crispy.

We have spent the last few days seeing some of the tourist attractions in the greater Tokyo area. The blossoms (cherry or otherwise) are blooming – and all of the streets are lined with otherwise bare trees bearing puffy pink-white clouds of flowers. It is a pretty big deal here; Ueno park was packed with throngs of people taking pictures and setting up picnics on tarps and blankets. Ordinary people are walking the streets, taking pictures of particularly great trees. Supposedly the blossoms in Kyoto are more notable because the trees are older, but the ones we saw in Tokyo were still fantastic.

I’m glad I spent some time studying Kanji and Japanese vocabulary during he past few months, as it’s been invaluable for resolving new situations, but the communication situation is still very difficult. Asking where we can park our bicycle is an evening ritual in pantomiming. (Unlike in America, there are dedicated bicycle parking lots and spaces – and sometimes signs threatening to impound inappropriately-placed bikes.) Sometimes we get deadlocked where we want to communicate with someone but we don’t know what to say! Understanding responses is the most difficult part; our communication is largely one directional.

It took a lot of back-and-forth with the kindly attendant to figure out that we had to pay when we picked up our bikes, not when we dropped them off. But it only cost ¥100 for 24 hours!

Japan seems like has a very 80s aesthetic. Much of the interior spaces have gently natural wood veneer trim. There are rounded edges everywhere. The predominant colors are brick and beige and light-grey and light-blue. There is soothing instrumental music being played everywhere, and a variety of street level buildings and tiny gardens or potted plants. The scale of many of the areas reminds of me of parts of the neighborhood in Cairo I spent my childhood in.

To borrow a phrase from Amy, we’re both “charmed as hell” with Japan so far. More to come later after we bike up our first mountain.

The Desert and the City

Since our last report we’ve made it over the continental divide and traveled deep into Arizona. We have had the good fortune to stay with old friends as well as meet a few new ones, and to experience some truly amazing terrain.

The first town we reached after the mountain pass was Silver City, NM. Silver City was populated by fantastic old hippies. While at a local coffee shop, we encountered a number of people in full costume for an experimental film about recycling set in the distant future. The proper way to tune a Fender amp was being discussed. We met a long distance hiker who used to walk around the desert for up to a week. We stocked up on dried bananas, Turkish figs and fresh-ground peanut butter at the organic food co-op on our way out of town.

After Silver City we climbed up to the continental divide. This was another big geological milestone, equivalent to crossing the Mississippi. After we crossed the divide, we descended several thousand feet in the course of an afternoon. We were able to coast for so long that our legs actually became stiff. The weather became noticeably warmer, too. We’re no longer at significant altitude.

Over the next few days we stayed with two sets of Warmshowers hosts in Arizon. In Duncan, we slept in a teardrop trailer in the backyard of a bed and breakfast, which was shared with a small herd of goats. In Safford, we stayed with two remarkable individuals, Hal and Jay.

Hal is a retired history and educational psychology professor, and great conversationalist. He lived in Egypt back in the 1960s, and his first wife graduated from AUC, the university where my father works. He gave me a biography of Hal Empie – a local artist from the area. The start of the biography had many wonderful descriptions of what life in old Arizona used to be like – wild streams, cows, farming on marginal land in the odd valley that received enough rainfall to be irrigated. 

Hal’s friend Jay took us on a tour of the local desert in his truck. He was very familiar with the area as he used to be a desert beekeeper, producing hundreds of barrels of honey every year from the nectar that the bees could harvest from agave, yucca and aloe. We were very impressed with Jay’s driving skills as he drove us into and out of steep desert canyons on washed-out rocky switchbacks.

Hal, Jay, and scenes of the Gila river valley.

Our college friends Chris and Kira live in Tuscon, so we decided to take a detour off the published Southern Tier route to visit them. We spent a very enjoyable few days playing Dungeons and Dragons, cooking, bowling, and generally enjoying each others’ company, as well as that of their cats and dogs. It was a welcome break to see friends after so long, especially ones who are normally so far away from us.

Playing Adventurer’s League at Tucson Games and Gadgets.

Tuscon itself was an interesting city to drive through after leaving the predominantly smaller towns and desert agricultural areas. The city was diffuse; spread out  too thinly for bicycling, let alone walking. However, the logic of its design started to make sense while being driven through it. The establishments were placed just far enough apart to cater to a casual driver, and each store had a few locations around town, so that no matter where you lived you didn’t have to drive too far. The map seemed to loop around, repeating itself every few miles, like a a cheap movie backdrop. Calling it ‘suburbia’ would be, I think, incorrect, since it didn’t seem like there was an urban core. It’s more like the entire city has suburban characteristics.

The experience of being in such a constructed space contrasted very strongly with the natural beauty of the desert. It seems almost disrespectful to paper over such an interesting and fragile land with such a prosaic landscape. How much water must this all use! Does there really need to be a city here? At the same time, this is the place that people are from, call their home, and this is the way that their city has evolved.

Chris, Kira, Amy and I took Sunday afternoon to visit Biosphere 2, just to the north of Tuscon. Biosphere 2 is a greenhouse large enough to live in, out of a particular kind of late 20th century futurism. It was strongly featured in many of the science documentaries I used to watch in the late 90s and early 2000s.

The greenhouse is situated in the same desert as the rest of Arizona, and is designed to be self contained, with the option to be completely shut off from the outside world for years at a time (although it has been open since the early 90s). Beneath the biosphere is the ‘technosphere’, a bay of various pumps, reservoirs and heat exchangers that augment the natural processes in the greenhouse above, including a particularly elegant structure for absorbing the air pressure variations caused by the daily thermal cycle. Perhaps some similar hybrid approach will enable us to build cities in the desert in a more harmonious fashion.

The next major stop for us will be Phoenix, and then onwards into California.

Thanks for reading,


West of the Pecos

We thought we had reached west Texas when we reached Del Rio, but we were wrong. The scrub we were seeing has gradually given way to cactus and other scenery that was truly southwestern.

The first town out of Del Rio was Comstock, population 475. We went into the general store to purchase some canned veggies and soda. A number of border patrol officers with a giant fan boat were the other shoppers. There were no towns for the next 88 miles. We covered the distance over two nights. The first night we camped at Seminole Canyon State Park, and the second night we camped under the stars on a raised bluff next to route 90 (just short of Sanderson).

This was one of the big crossings that were noted on our map, and we prepared ahead of time by carrying an extra gallon and a half of water on our bikes (in addition to the gallon that we usually carry in our water bottles).

Bicycling through these remote, depopulated areas is not nearly as boring as I had anticipated. The land is hauntingly beautiful, in a way that is difficult to capture with a camera. The vistas here have opened up so much, that in places we can see the blue color of the atmosphere all around us, shrouding the distant peaks.

It’s almost like you can see the planet itself – as an object in the cosmos that we happen to be living on. The road vanishes into the distance, or slowly winds its way into and out of dry river valleys and canyons. There is enough visibility to anticipate what the road will be doing but enough variability in the terrain to make for interesting riding. Cars are infrequent and the road we’re biking on – Route 90, has enough of a shoulder so that we can ride side by side. The air smells dry and clean, but our lips become quickly chapped and we drink a lot of water even though it’s the winter.

With regards to the weather, we haven’t had to worry about precipitation, but we do have cold nights and wind to be concerned with. Most mornings start at around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, but the air warms up quickly – reaching 60 or 70 degrees in the afternoon. We stop frequently to remove various clothing layers.

The sound of the wind is omnipresent. It can be an ally, if at our backs, strong enough to push us up hills, or it can be a severe nuisance, forcing us to dismount and walk our bikes, made uncontrollable in 45 mph gusts, as it was on the final walk to Sanderson.

The flora and fauna have changed dramatically as well. We passed through Sanderson, ‘Cactus Capital of Texas’, and saw dry river valleys filled with prickly pears. The flower stalks of agaves dot the tops of cliffs, sometimes jutting out from mere cracks in the sandy limestone. Yucca plants slowly fold themselves down off of the ground year after year, adding a splendidly Dr Seussian note to the landscape. We’ve seen roadrunners, mule deer and even a collared peccary.

People come to this part of Texas for various reasons. Mining drew people here, then the construction and maintenance of the Southern Pacific railroad. The area is still privately owned ranchland, with wells supporting small populations of cows, sheep and goats, although they seem out of place amoungst the cacti. To the south of us is Big Bend National park. The park is so popular that many towns along route 90 derive a large portion of their income from catering to tourists. We spoke at length with a gas rig worker from Houston who was taking 10 days to backpack in the wilderness. Unfortunately Big Bend is too remote for us consider a detour on our bicycles.

We’ve managed to climb to a fair height already in our crossing of the North American continent. Our highest point, Paisano Pass, reached 5,074 feet. The high elevation and the clear desert air lend themselves to spectacular stargazing. The milky way isn’t as visible as it would be in summer, but we can see every minor supporting star in the constellation of Orion.

We’re also beginning to see a lot more artists that have chosen to come to this area. We stayed on a ranch in Marathon where the buildings itself were works of art, constructed out of paper. Ingrid, an intense fast-talking woman with a Russian accent, lets bike tourists who pass through stay there one night for free. I asked her who built all the buildings, and her response was “People”.

The next town we reached, Alpine, is a small college town with a very active artists’ community as well. We wandered into the opening of a new exhibit of contemporary photography and poetry at the Museum of the Big Bend  (while mule deer wandered through the surrounding university grounds). The artists are certainly adding a new economic vitality to these areas, but like the area outside of Austin, it comes with some negative side effects. It seems to me like part of the point of Prada Marfa, an art installation in Valentine, TX, is that it would almost make sense for Prada to open a store in Marfa. The relationship between art, culture, and money is complex, but it’s especially strange to see that dynamic played out in such a remote place as west Texas.

As we travel further and further into this strange and wonderful landscape, it seems that we have truly arrived in the southwest. I can almost imagine the mountains falling away and descending out of the high desert to the Pacific. We won’t reach San Diego for another month at least, but now it almost seems like we could at any moment.

Thanks for reading,



Happy New Year!

We wish you a Merry Solstice, Happy Holidays, and an excellent New Year! We’ve been enjoying our own, bike-tour-themed holiday season. It’s had the same arc as the usual holidays: the pre-Christmas shopping rush; the post-Christmas fugue spent eating leftover chocolate; and ringing in the New Year with a bottle of wine. It’s been familiar, but made different by the fact that we’re traveling right now.

Ever since we left Pensacola, we’ve been seeing festive signs of Christmas. We’d seen Christmas parades in Alabama and Baton Rouge, and an elaborate light show in DeRidder, Lousisana, synchronized to pop music over a short range FM station. I found myself reflecting more on holidays past – traditions and experiences that didn’t quite seem to translate to the present. People are absent or gone, and the context is different, but the emotional memory remains, and pushes itself to the surface.

Christmas cookies we made with our Warmshowers host in Deridder.

Amy and I decided that a few things were important to us for our own Christmas celebration – feeling festive, cooking and baking, and communicating with our families. We also wanted to explore some new traditions of our own, given that this was our first Christmas together as a married couple, and really our first Christmas just with each other and not with our nuclear families.

We approached Austin from the surrounding ranch country on December 21st. Cities often seem almost like an appartion in the surrounding terrain. Texas’s natural beauty – unpolluted streams and grasslands filled with long horned cattle – extended right up until the Colorado River, where the city proper starts. Often times there are natural corridors that retain the characteristics of the surrounding countryside and approach quite close to the city center. Being cyclists following a route designed to avoid suburban sprawl, we naturally follow these routes, so there is usually that surprising moment when we suddenly realize that we are in a city. Austin was the perfect example of this.

After crossing the bridge from Montopolis over into what we termed ‘Southwanus’ (a portmanteau of ‘Southern’ and ‘Gowanus’), we regrouped at a coffee shop before checking into our hostel, Drifter Jack’s. We spent our first two nights there, near the University of Texas campus. It was kind of fun to stay at a hostel again. The last time either of us had been in a dorm was during our individual travels through Europe. The hostel staff, who were our age, were very friendly and allowed us to store our bikes in their shed for a few days.

Sketch of Drifter Jack’s, over a collaged piece of wrapping paper.

The geography of Austin reminded me of Toronto: with the (Texan) Colorado river taking the place of Lake Ontario, and the city extending northwards with a large university dominating the center of town. In this analogy, Southwanus would be part of the brewpub and condo-rich Torontonian waterfront, with the hostel being located somewhere near Spadina and University. Toronto, of course, is a lot larger and denser than Austin.

On Saturday, the morning of the 23rd, we ate wonderful breakfast tacos and moved to an apartment that we had rented downtown, next to Whole Foods. We wanted to spend Christmas somewhere we could cook and have private space with wifi for Skype calls. We spent most of the weekend doing our Christmas errands – picking up and mailing packages, purchasing gifts, and shopping for groceries for Christmas dinner. We picked out gift wrap supplies at the ‘Center for Creative Reuse’, which sorts and resells donated goods to people who might use them for crafts. That evening, we went on a long walk to see the Austin Trail of Lights and drink spiked cider.

On Christmas Eve, after shopping, we decided to continue one of our own holiday traditions. For the past few years we had gone on a Christmas bike ride. This involved riding our bicycles from our apartment in Brooklyn over the Brooklyn bridge and up Broadway to Harold square, Times Square, then over to Fifth Avenue. Usually we would take a few stops to go see the big tree at Rockerfeller center, drink hot chocolate, and buy a few stocking stuffers at Jack’s, a famous dollar store across from Macy’s. We’d usually time the ride to coincide with ‘Santacon’, a New Jersey tradition in which college-age revelers dress up as Santa, elves and sexy reindeer, drink copious quantities of alcohol and be generally belligerent, so we would sometimes have a bit of fun at their expense.

Even though we aren’t living in New York any more, we wanted to have our ride, so we affixed some CVS battery-powered Christmas tree lights to our bikes and rode around Austin. We had a few slices of gingerbread cake to hand out to those who we saw. For the most part we didn’t see many people on the streets, but we did manage to get rid of the cake, 50% to the staffers at a nearby ER, 40% to the community fridge at Drifter Jack’s, and 10% to a homeless person.

The exuberance of our ride was somewhat curtailed when my bike chain snapped completely. This wasn’t entirely a surprise to me, as I had been having a lot of problems shifting recently, and had to remove a link from my chain while in western Louisiana. I bent the broken link back with a pair of pliers and we were able to limp the 4 miles back home, including a stop for Christmas Eve dinner at In ‘N Out Burger.

Amy and the Christmas bikes.

On Christmas day itself we exchanged presents, cooked, and phoned our families. A sampling of gifts:

  • Waterproof socks
  • 1oz Moka pot espresso maker
  • Chocolate Santas
  • Additional chocolate, a panettone, sausage, and dehydrated bananas
  • Winter bike gloves
  • Hand and foot warmers
  • A bike computer
  • New sleeping mats (to replace our old, mouldy ones)

We cooked a nice beef pot roast and spent most of the day relaxing and digesting all of the chocolate gifts we received.

On Boxing Day we took a bus out to Katy, Texas to visit my old friend Nick from high school, and his parents Bob and Suzie. We were originally going to only spend the evening, but we ended up staying for a few days, playing board games, conversing, and watching television. I had my first introduction to “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”, which both Suzie and my parents claimed was a “staple of their childhood” growing up in the late 1960s. Cue rapid zoom-in/zoom-out sequence of dancing Goldie Hahn with flower power body paint. I still had the finale song stuck in my head for a few days afterwards. We also watched more than a few episodes of “Person of Interest”, and went out to see the new Star Wars movie. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that their cat Mishka, who they hand-fed from a tiny kitten adopted on the streets of Cairo, is still alive and doing quite well. She’s sort of a strange feline link to the past.

After leaving Katy, we went back to Austin for a final day of errands. According to our map, Austin was the last large city we would encounter before beginning our trip through the dry expanse of west Texas, so we wanted to make sure that our bikes were fully stocked and repaired. We made a trip to the H.E.B to do a full food repurchase and replaced both chains and cassettes on the bikes.

Apparently the bike chain and sprocket are considered wearable parts, and we’ve been putting a lot of wear on our bicycles. Dutch-style bikes have sealed chain-cases, but ours certainly don’t and spend a lot of time outdoors (like us!). Amy’s chain was visibly damaged, and while mine had been replaced in Pensacola, it had already reworn itself due to the sorry state of my rear cassette. I’m still not exactly sure why it broke, but the new chain has been holding up quite well. For simplicity, I made the transition to friction shifting so I could change to a 9-speed from a 10 speed. I’ve gotten used to it already — I don’t understand why more people don’t use friction shifting.

The mechanic who repaired our bicycles had a thing or two to say about Austin in its current state. His sentiment was that “the economy should crash so all the people that are just here because there’s money will leave”. I can certainly understand that. It seems that in many of the cities we’ve seen in the US, money can be almost an occupying force, that changes the place and the lives of those who live there.

The next day we spent biking out of the gravity well of Austin, both figuratively and literally. We boosted ourself up to Bee Cave through amazing Mediterranean hills, and then on to Johnson City.

We spent New Years drinking some local wine and watching the ball drop in Times Square, as well as the “Lone Star New Year’s Eve” fireworks in Houston. An unseasonably cold two days have trapped us here in Johnson City, but we’re looking forward to continuing west across the hills as soon as the weather clears.

To all our blog readers, I hope you have a Happy New Year and that your 2018 is a fantastic one!


After returning from Massachusetts, it felt strange to be on the road again. Our bikes (or possibly ourselves?) felt like they had gained twenty pounds over our break. However, after a few days getting back into it, we were richly rewarded by some of the most interesting travel of this trip.

We left Pensacola and continued west along the gulf coast. Our first stop was Big Lagoon state park in Escambia County, FL. The park itself was impressive. Sandy paths, gazebos, a watchtower and miles of boardwalk over swamps and lakes. We saw large black snakes slowly working their way over the soupy surface of the swamp. Florida has the best state park system of any of the states we’ve been through so far, and we stayed an extra night because I was still recovering from a head cold.

Next, we continued along the barrier island chain into Alabama. We crossed Mobile Bay via ferry to Dauphine Island. During our crossing, the water of the bay was the same blue-grey color and shade as the sky, punctuated by hulking oil derricks, complete with natural gas flames. Everything was so calm and peaceful, it was as if we were floating through fog.

Most of the buildings on Dauphine Island are on stilts, and we spent that evening camping underneath a vacation rental owned by someone on Warmshowers. The following day, we biked to the mainland and through two fishing towns, Alabama Port and Bayou le Batre. We stopped for “The Best Poboys in the Bayou” at a restaurant only a mile from the shrimp docks. The shrimp was delicious, with that haunting sweetness of fresh crustaceans.

Shrimp drawn on the wax paper from the Poboy.

Originally we were planning on biking inland, following the Adventure Cycling route to New Roads LA, then skipping New Orleans. This was mostly because we were tired of having to deal with the traffic associated with the more-developed coastline, and we did not want to take the 150 mile spur two ways from New Roads to New Orleans and then back north again.

However, while lingering with the restaurant owners (waiting for a Christmas parade) we met Tomasz, a bicycle tourist from Poland. Tomasz had met some cyclists that had come from the west, and had successfully travelled along the coast. With that extra piece of information, we decided to make a go of it along route 90 on the coast to New Orleans.

That evening we attended another Christmas parade where I was showered with miniature moon pies thrown from the back of a float. I felt a warm holiday glow seeing the entire small city out in lawn chairs, watching the high school band march pass. We spent that night camping behind the laundry building at a trailer park (yes, with permission!), before we began our detour back to the coast and into Mississippi. We decided to ride much further than usual over the next two days, to reach New Orleans at the same time as Tomasz.

Our first major city on the new route was Biloxi, which was a cluster of casinos, also on stilts. 90 went from rural to overbuilt, so we left the road to ride along the beach boardwalk. There we saw a couple who was dressed to the nines with eyes sharpened like daggers. My only thought was that they must have been casino people, professional gamblers or general hustlers going for a walk, about to start their day. Otherwise, the boardwalk was beautiful, but oppressively long and monotonous. We were happy to make it to our hotel in Pass Christian just after dark. Our hotel upgraded us to a three room suite, with two bathtubs, a four poster bed and private balcony. What a strange contrast from the previous evening’s accommodations!

The following day, we passed over a number of bayous and entered Louisiana. The foliage changed fairly rapidly. The palmettos disappeared and were replaced by more midwestern foliage, that you might expect to find in somewhere like southern Ontario, such as oak trees and deciduous shrubbery. However I encountered some novel wildlife: in a protected preserve we saw what must have been a gila monster (or other beaded lizard the size of a large iguana) sunning itself on the side of the road. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) I did not stop to take a picture.

We arrived in New Orleans after our second day of harder riding. I’m glad we detoured to New Orleans. The architecture was beautiful. The people, too, were more cosmopolitan, relaxed, and beautiful as well. Outside of a community bookstore/flower shop we met a few young people stringing together carnations for a hotel. We stayed with some friendly art therapists who had biked across the country.

We did the tourist stuff, too. We walked through the French Quarter, down Frenchmen street and Bourbon street. We went to a bookstore where Faulkner wrote his first novel. We had chicory coffee and beignets at the Cafe du Monde. It was a touristy, yet strangely authentic, experience. We ate a muffuletta at the Central Grocery Co. It was delicious and brought me back to the muffuletta style sandwiches they would periodically serve at my high school.

Sketchbook page with Cafe du Monde servers and our hotel in Pass Christian.

We stayed with our hosts for three nights. One interstitial day was for touristing, and they allowed us to stay an extra day to avoid cycling in 40 degree rain. The transition from complete idleness to bicycling has not been smooth. There have been many times over the past two weeks where we have gone from complete relaxation to relaxed cycling to challenging cycling and back again.

Most of the reasons for this are outside of our direct control, such as illness, the weather, and the availability and distance between services such as lodging or points of touristic interest. Currently we’re in a slight holding pattern due to some unseasonably cold and wet weather. It was even snowing this morning, although none of it was sticking to the ground.

Even if we aren’t cycling as intensely as we were a month ago, we’ve been keeping ourselves busy with things like writing blog posts!

That’s all for now,


Palatka through Tallahassee

After leaving Palatka, we continued west through to Gainesville. Most of the route was through bike paths and rail trails. The final approach to Gainesville, on the Gainesville-Hawthorne Bike Trail, was especially notable. The path was beautifully ecologically well maintained, with large isolated shrubs on either side of the bike path. Massive quantities of large dragonflies were flying between the island-like shrubberies, flitting across our path. We saw wild pigs and armadillos in the underbrush as well.

Gainesville is a large college town: home of the University of Florida, a massive institution of 40,000 students. We stayed with a couple, Krin and Richard, who had a fantastic garden with banana plants and raised beds of kale. Amy found an art shop on the way into town. We didn’t have too long to stay in Gainesville as we wanted to continue on to Pensacola. This part of the trip has been somewhat constrained by the number of days we have to make our flight back to the northeast on the 20th. Krin helped us plan the next part of our journey and rode with us out of town.

After Gainesville, we passed through to the Ichetucknee springs state park. We stayed for two nights. Both nights we were kept company by an a very charismatic feral camp tomcat. Both of us wanted to take him with us, but he seemed to be enjoying his life at camp, chasing armadillos and begging for food from the tent campers.

It seemed like he was being cared for by the park hosts as well. Besides, it is doubtful that he would have been able to stay on our bikes for any extended period of time, especially without a cat harness.

On the second day Amy went to the springs (see her earlier blog post). I spent the day doing a Walmart run, the first time I’ve been to a Walmart since 2011. We had discovered that we’d run out of food and camp fuel, so we needed to make a 17 mile detour to go get some. Walmart wasn’t my first choice, but it’s one of the only places that sells the type of camp fuel that we need. I was expecting the prices to be out of this world, but the food was more expensive than at Food Lion. There were a lot of shoppers though, and a fairly comprehensive array of products. The most horrifying thing I came across was a giant 2 lb meltable block of “make your own almond bark” vanilla topping that seemed to consist entirely of sugar and hydrogenated palm oil. On the flip side, they had a surprisingly good fresh produce section.

On the way back to camp, I ran into an old man running what appeared to be a metal detector along the ground. When I came closer I saw that it was a spherical wire mesh basket attached to a handle. I asked what he was doing and he said “pecans”. Sure enough, the golf-ball sized unshelled pecans on the ground were just the right size to pop themselves into the basket/wheel, leaving the other leaf litter and ground detritus behind. I’ve decided that I quite like unshelled pecans. The shell is just easy enough to remove, relative to something like a black walnut, and the nut is large enough to seem worth the effort. We bought a half pound at a produce market, and we have been cracking them with some pliers that are part of our bike repair kit.

The following two days we pushed hard to ensure we would make our flight out of Pensacola on the 20th. The first night out, we stayed at a country themed music campground on the banks of the Suwannee river. It was massive, large enough to have its own sales office, with campers using golf carts to get around. The music hall was busy for a Friday night. Lots of people of all ages dancing to a country cover band out of Georgia.

The second night out, we rode almost from dawn to dusk. Our mad dash was assisted by a delicious hamburger and fried veggies provided by the Corner Grille in Madison, Florida. We ended at a campground in Jefferson County on the eastern outskirts of Tallahassee. According to the campsite manager, Jefferson county doesn’t have any stoplights. It’s that rural. He gently ribbed us from being from “the city” while serving us free quiche his mother made for the guests the next morning. (The quiche was composed of egg and sausage coated with cheese and was delicious.) Having lived in cities or towns all my life, I found it interesting to encounter the concept of the county. Apparently the county is the local city government for an entire region. In Florida there is an elected county position called the “tax collector” that handles administrative work (like getting a driver’s license). It was slightly amusing to pass by “Tom McGee: Tax collector” buildings with large crowds of cars waiting outside. It made me imagine some kind of modern Sheriff of Nottingham character from the Robin hood legend.

Later that day we biked into Tallahassee. Parts of Tallahassee seemed more hilly than San Francisco, which was a change from the past month of cycling. We stayed with Scot, the founder of a bicycle collective called Bicycle House. Scot used to be a professional bicycle racer, and at one point rode in the tour de France for a club. He moved to the northeast, near Natick, where Amy and I went to school. Later in life he suffered an injury and came back to Florida to be with his family. We had great fun staying at the Bicycle House and using the outdoor shower, made with PVC pipe and a cattle trough! We talked late into the night over a few beers and then again the next morning over coffee.

Scot coaxed Amy into trying this tandem with me.

Scot turned us on to a slight modification to the standard Adventure Cycling route. Instead of traveling inland to Pensacola we could continue south to the “Forgotten Coast”, the section of the panhandle that abuts the gulf coast and take state route 98. The route has been turning out great so far, but I think it deserves its own blog post.

At long last – The Villages

Soon after crossing the border from Georgia into Florida, we turned due east and headed towards the Florida Coast near Jacksonville. After a night in an uninspiring RV park near the highway, we biked onto a series of barrier islands and headed south.

The memory of the two storms this year loomed large in the area we were biking through. We saw a lot of debris – shingles, window frames and larger home pieces on the side of the road – and many of the houses were being rebuilt. There were plenty of cement mixers and other construction crews racing along the roads. Some dwellings, however, seemed beyond repair; the cliff under one house had collapsed and been eroded into the sea. Another had been squashed down by the wind, as if pushed over by a giant hand. Both had been abandoned and left to ruin. Many of the damaged houses we were passing by were McMansions that could not have been built too long ago.

It was a reminder to me that our division of the land into neat property boxes is a human abstraction, completely disrespected and ignored by nature. The land is alive, with plants, animals and natural processes, and those processes are more powerful and patient than the mightiest empire.

“And so castles made of sand, slip into the sea… eventually.”

Unfortunately, we are all obliged to stake our sustenance, our hopes and futures in the realm of human abstraction and live in sandcastles. We know that nothing is certain, that change is constant, that we our ourselves nature, and yet we must make plans for the future, using our abstractions to try to make sense of it all, try to gain some semblance of control, try to effect some change; what other choice do we have but to build and continue to rebuild our lives? One cannot will oneself not to breathe.
 Man is truly the unnatural animal; born from and of nature, but with the hubris to think that he can govern it.

Eventually, we reached St. Augustine and spent a lovely evening with Warmshowers hosts Hugh and Elisabeth, who fed us a wonderful dinner of roast chicken and allowed us to sleep in their camper. I can now understand the appeal of an RV – it is basically a hotel room that you can tow behind your car. The next morning we went to the more historic area of St Augustine and walked around, trying Spanish-style enriched breads and eating brunch. That afternoon we biked out through to the middle of Florida – to Palatka and then to points south through the Ocala Natural forest.

Good news, everyone!

We spent an evening in Salt Springs. The next morning we went to the springs themselves and spent a few minutes mesmerized by the sight of schools of large fish swimming in protected, crystal clear waters.

On the way out of the campground, I glimpsed a man with a tent and a bicycle – a fellow bicycle tourist! I gleefully went up to say hello. I announced myself and he turned around. His sun-scarred, misshapen face and sad wordly eyes instantly let me know that I had misread the situation. He turned from his breakfast of Wonderbread and honey, with a few cigarette cartons off to one side. He responded a weak “hello”, followed by a fit of coughing that reminded me of the sound of waves. Apparently he too had been misplaced by the hurricane and had “had to start over”. He came up in a U-Haul and someone gave him a rusty old cruiser bike so he could bike from his tent to the dollar store for groceries. I asked him if a few dollars would help. He said weakly – “If you want, up to you I guess”. I told him we were biking west to Pensacola to start with. He said that he did a “trip out there for God once”. Then he returned to his breakfast. When we passed by him again 30 minutes later I swear he hadn’t moved.

Later that day, we biked along Route 25. We are often chased by dogs, some of which are left outside unrestrained by fences (country folk have different opinions when it comes to dogs) and run into the street in pursuit. This time, I heard some barking, and out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a small white pitbull, the most American of dogs, beginning to give chase in my rear-view mirror. Groaning, with a slight increase of adrenaline, I start to pedal harder. I’m usually behind Amy so I have to do a lot of the escape work to get away from dogs. The dog turned its head quickly to its left and then a split-second later I heard a thud and the sound of car brakes.

Once I had processed what had happened I turned around and returned to the scene. A few more dogs just like the unfortunate one were howling in the yard, outside this bungalow embraced by swamp oak trees. The driver was waiting for the sheriff to arrive, with her young child in a car-seat in the back of their truck. She suggested we leave in case the other dogs started chasing us. We gave her our number to give to the sheriff… no-one ever called.

An hour later we arrived at the Villages. The Villages is a privately owned age-restricted retirement community. Their sales motto is “Free Golf for Life”. Seeing a maze of golf-courses, themed downtown areas and golf cart-only bridges and tunnels rising out of the rural landscape so suddenly was surprising. The man in front of you at the Dollar General, whose card was declined buying two packs of cigarettes, is replaced by a well-tanned, well-dressed elderly gentleman with a bowtie and a hawaiian shirt, puttering along behind you in his Club Car, his well-groomed dog beside him in the front seat. The surroundings are immaculately maintained, with a small army of landscapers running around with gas-powered hand-held lawn edging machines and other contrivances. The entire area seems so very well controlled.

I exclaim, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” No-one except Amy is within hearing range.

We reached Cherie and Diane’s house in the Villages before sunset. Cherie, Amy’s aunt, moved to Florida with her partner, Diane, a few years ago to retire here, and visiting them both was one of the reasons we decided to ride all the way south to Florida. Both Cherie and Diane were very sweet and hospitable and we had lots of fun talking with them, playing with their dog Gillian, and lounging on their lanai. I shared my family shortbread recipe and made two batches. Amy and I gently poked a bit of fun at the Villages while at the same time exploiting its amenities, everything except the golf courses.

We visited all three of the themed downtown mall areas – the western themed mall, the coastal themed mall (complete with a lake with artificial shipwrecks and a boat tour), and the original Spanish themed mall. There are hidden speakers in each area that play soothing oldies, and I can almost imagine myself wearing a Hawaiian shirt. The weather is cool enough for the warm Floridian sun to be soothing like a heat lamp at dusk. The feeling of being here is very leisurely. I could almost convince myself that I am retired. I’m not working right now, right?

We’ve been restocking our supplies, sleeping on a fantastic guest bed, taking baths (yes, baths!) and generally being on vacation. I watched the Lawrence Welk show and thought it was charming and ready for a comeback somewhere in deep Brooklyn. I saw the new Blade Runner movie and was very impressed by the cinematography. We ate lunch with Fran, the bike tourist from Concord who we met on the side of the road near Philadelphia (who was also traveling to the Villages to see her father) at a Mexican restaurant “downtown”. It was a pleasure to add a bit of closure to her story, and to swap a few stories from our trips so far. I also got a buzz cut, which should make camp showers in un-heated shower areas less miserable. The barber who cut my hair was from Brooklyn. Go figure.

We’ve decided to continue our trip for now, down to Melbourne, FL to visit our friends Jared and Bryce. Part of me wishes we could stay here for a few more days, but part of me is itching to get back on the road.

That’s it for now,