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Glacier National Park, Montana

“Sweet, I’ve got enough frequent-rider points for a free ticket to Montana. Hey Sean, wanna go to Glacier National Park?” my friend Jim asked. And so another bicycle tour was born.

Tuesday, August 7th, my affable- and frequent- bicycle-trip companion Jim and I set off for Glacier National Park in Montana via Amtrak. The train was two hours late in arriving in St Paul, and another hour late in departing. We took it in stride; if we were in a hurry we wouldn’t be riding bicycles.

Over the next twenty-six hours, we saw the splendors of the prairie, the first hints of the rough terrain to come, and miscellaneous and sundry bad puns were tendered.

 

Hay man, look!

We arrived about 2AM, MDT. We were glad to have reserved a hotel room given the late hour, but we had to pay a premium for it because Whitefish is a tourist town, and August is peak tourist season.

De-trained at Whitefish, MT.

The weather for the duration of the trip was consistently in the low 50′s Fahrenheit at night, reaching into the low 90′s during the day. We indulged in breakfast at a local cafe, collected edible supplies at the Safeway grocery store, and then rolled north for the hills.

We soon turned off the pavement and rode part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

After 29.6 hard-won miles, and one scenic detour, we made camp at Upper Whitefish Lake, elevation 4,433 feet.

Upper Whitefish Lake

Although our fishing attempts were for naught, and the water was too brisk to be refreshing, a quick dunk in the lake did wash off most of the day’s accumulated dust.

The next morning the lake was still as glass, and it was hard to leave such beauty and tranquility.

Day two proved to be even more grueling. We crested Red Meadow Pass, about 5,570 feet, riding on loose and frequently rutted gravel roads.

The speed as we descended from the pass was exhilarating. So were the mountain tops teasing us from over the trees.

We paused briefly for refreshment at Polebridge Mercantile. Jim still had a vestigial AT&T signal, but I had lost touch with Sprint back in Grand Forks ND days ago and was over-joyed to find the Mercantile had WIFI.

Polebridge Mercantile. Photo credit: J. Thill.

Then we crawled our way into Glacier National Park.

For six miles we bumped, skittered, sweated, and choked on the dust of SUV’s roaring past every thirty seconds on this one-lane “rustically-maintained” gravel road. The bumps eventually got so bad that I ran a Surly “Junk Strap” around the bottom of each pannier to keep it attached to the racks.

Some how we scored the second-to-the-last campsite at Bowman Lake Campground, 31.2 exhausting miles of punishing roads after leaving Upper Whitefish Lake. We were too tired to protest the exorbitant $16/night campsite fee; at least it had running water and pit toilets. The reward for this exertion was a stunning view of Bowman Lake.

Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana

Day three dawned with the Bowman Lake Campground Host telling everyone to be cautious because a mountain lion had been on the beach overnight. According to the campground host, mountain lions usually attack smaller lone creatures, not adult humans, but fighting 120 pounds of muscle, teeth and claws for my life didn’t sound like much fun to me. Fortunately we didn’t have any further encounters. We back-tracked the six miles to the park entrance. It was already getting hot, so I refilled my entire 10 liter water supply. Then we headed for the main campground at Apgar. The road to Apgar was far more pleasant than the one to Bowman Lake because it was temporarily closed to motor vehicle traffic after the first seven miles.

Inside North Fork Road. Photo credit: J. Thill

Thirty-five miles after leaving Bowman Lake we reached Apgar. After days of wilderness solitude, entering Apgar was jarring to the senses: paved roads, the cacophony of cars everywhere and people swarming over everything. The upside to this was $5/person-night hiker/biker campsites, and the first bacon-cheeseburger of the trip.

Day four we had breakfast at the restaurant, attempting to get an earlier start on the “Going-to-the-Sun” road. Our destination was Avalanche Creek Campground, 16 miles away, but we only made the ten miles to Lake McDonald before we had stop because bicycles are prohibited due to the extremely heavy traffic on this narrow road from 11AM – 4PM.

Lake McDonald. Photo credit: J. Thill

The water was the warmest we’d found yet, and Jim caught a fish.

At the stroke of 4PM we resumed riding for Avalanche Creek Campground, delighted to find it also had a $5/person-night hiker/biker campsite.

Day five dawned cool, and we continued riding the Going-to-the-Sun road, the mountain tops looking ethereal in the fog. We crossed Logan Creek, and wondered if it was the distant trickle we saw near the pass.

Then the climbing began in earnest. Just before the hair-pin turn we paused for a peek at Heavens Peak.

Climbing up to 5,000 feet, the pavement suddenly turned to gravel and we were stopped for road construction.  The flagman said that traffic was being lead, one-way-at-a-time, in 20-minute increments. This afforded us with 20 minutes of traffic-free climbing alternating with 20 minutes enforced rest to catch our breath and soak in the view on the narrow, winding road.

Logan Creek

Heavens Peak

After hours of climbing, we suddenly reached the summit at Logan Pass, 6,646 feet elevation.

We wandered the visitor center, but I doubt we could have lingered long enough to feel justified given the climb. Descending, we coasted at speeds of 20-30mph for nearly three miles before we had to pedal up another incline.

We stopped at Rising Sun Campground, near St Mary Lake, delighted to find a another $5/person-night hiker/biker campsite, pay showers and a restaurant. Naturally I had to have another bacon-cheeseburger, although it proved to be the last one of the trip.

Day six we broke fast at the restaurant, and then rolled out of the park and into the grasslands at high speeds, until we rounded the corner of St Mary Lake and the tailwind became a headwind.

The flat ground turned to high-amplitude rollers, and then we started climbing again in earnest.

One last turn and 38 miles into the day we were suddenly in the town of East Glacier Park. We checked in to Brownies Hostel, made short work of some of their signature huckleberry pastries, and then set about eating lunch. Followed by a nap. Followed by dinner. Somehow there never seem to be enough calories to stay full when bicycle touring, and all the climbing we had done over the last week now had to be reckoned with.

Brownies Hostel, East Glacier Park, MT

 

Glacier National Park is truly beautiful. My only regret was not spending more time, hiking the trails and seeing more of it; but Jim had to get back to work. Since the trip I’ve been looking for work to finance another cross-country tour some years in the future, but all of the contracting jobs have been both unprofitably far from home and short enough not to be worth relocating, while the so-called “permanent” jobs seem to be scared of someone without the conventional noose of massive debt obligating them to suffer gladly any and all indignities said job doth surely contain. So, in order not to trouble their little heads with such unconventionality, this may be the last post on this blog. Any future blogging, should it occur, would most likely have to be anonymous, but a rose by any other name… I still have stories to tell about Glacier, and heaps more pictures, so I may write an e-book about them if there is sufficient interest. If you have source code for software you need maintained please contact me, I have been writing and maintaining software since 1999. I specialize in embedded control and network programming, not just desktop computer applications. I’m teaching myself Android app development, too.

Till next time, keep the rubber side down.

-s

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Where DID the Time Go–An Anti-Sabbatical, A Bike Move, and More

Somehow the end of January became the end of May, almost over night. I decided to hang out in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis & St Paul, Minnesota, for a while and replenish my savings by working a temporary job; an “anti-sabbatical” so to speak.

Not knowing how to pick up short term work in my field of software engineering, I started by updating my resume and then spamming every former boss for whom I still had contact info (AKA networking). A lunch meeting with one led to a call from a recruiter at a contact firm, a phone interview with a potential client, and a job offer all  within the span of a week. The end of February saw me cashing my first pay-check in four months, and a steady stream of  phone calls from other recruiters. (Per Murphy’s Law, it seems they only call when you don’t need them.)

My first feint at contracting didn’t last long, however; mostly because the lead software engineer I was supposed to assist preferred to waste my time with daily explanations of trivialities like how text editors were different from word processors, how electro-mechanical relays worked, and how configuration management software was too valuable for mere contractors; frequently telling me “if you’re a good little contractor we might hire you on full-time as a REAL employee.” Turns out my tolerance for that kind of nonsense was only ten weeks, despite a handsome hourly rate of pay.

In the mean time, my friend Christina and I decided to move across the river to a more bicycle and transit friendly place in Minneapolis. Using a local cycling forum and Facebook we rallied enough friends, bicycle trailers, bacon and bagels to move all of our things.

We then set off for Portland, Oregon, via Amtrak, intent on visiting friends and bicycle touring the surrounding area. Christina hurt her knee badly enough going up a mountain road that the bicycle touring had to be curtailed, so we generally walked around Portland’s downtown the remainder of the trip.

An eye-blink later and May became August, and I’m headed for Glacier National Park tonight. I’ll be out of cell-phone service till I return in about ten days; hopefully with heaps of pictures.

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Plans–What are those?

At yesterday’s bicycle pub crawl the most common question, aside from “What’s on tap?” was “What am [I] doing back in Minneapolis, and what are [my] next plans?”.

Both good questions. The former isn’t really relevant any more, so I’ll take a crack at answering the latter.

Replacing gear
After 67 days on the road I had covered about 2,400 miles as I journeyed from Minneapolis to New Orleans by bicycle. Except for an Ortlieb handle bar bag (which replaced a handle bar bag that was hinged at the rear so it’s contents were not accessible while riding),  I purchased no new gear for the trip, instead following the motto “what I have is enough.” By and large this proved to be correct. By the end of the trip, however, some things had failed and/or needed to be replaced.

The first piece of failed gear I replaced was my REI LiteCore 1.5 sleeping pad that had been leaking nearly the entire trip and failed completely in Donaldsonville LA. I settled on a Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Mummy Pad, as recommended by both Nathan Watts (whom I met at a camp ground in New Roads LA) and by Tim Travis.

The second piece of failed gear was more of an issue: my Phil Wood Touring Cassette Freehub failed a second time, just 1,030 miles after Phil Wood repaired it. This time they claimed to have purchased a batch of incorrectly heat-treated ratchet rings, and recommended not returning the hub for service until a new batch was made in-house in February lest it be re-repaired with the same defective parts. At this point I think I’m going to have my home bike shop tear the hub apart post re-repair so we can inspect and document what should be “like-new” condition, test ride it for a thousand miles or so and then have it torn apart again to inspect it for what should be negligible wear before I’ll trust it on the road again. I understand mistakes can happen, but this is not the quality I expected to get from spending the big bucks on a Phil Wood Touring Cassette Freehub.

Two of the biggest problems I faced on a daily basis were the bike being over capacity (too much stuff) and over weight (too much stuff). I’ve decided to address the first problem, over capacity, by replacing my small front Ortlieb panniers with a second set of large rear ones so I don’t have to carry an external food bag, and could possibly fit the tent inside a pannier instead of on top of the front rack. (Every extra bag becomes a liability when off the bike, as I learned while packing things up for the train trip home from New Orleans.) I’m also considering replacing both my synthetic sleeping bag and my synthetic pillow with a down-filled sleeping bag and using my 6L MSR Dromedary water bladder as an air pillow; this should free up nearly half a large pannier. The second problem,  over weight, is still un-solved. I’m still considering a 22-32-44 mountain crankset  (in place of my current 26-36-48) which would raise my pedaling cadence to something more comfortable when crawling up hills at 3MPH.

A few other minor equipment changes: I got a silk sleeping bag liner for a few more degrees of cold weather tolerance, and I also want to modify my dynamo-hub powered wiring harness to include another pair of quick-disconnect connectors so I can field-replace the headlight without a soldering iron should the need arise.

Next Destination and Routing
The next destination was going to be San Diego CA by way of the Adventure Cycling Association “Southern Tier” Route through Texas. This is now up in the air, mostly because of my experience the second half of the trip (after leaving the Ozarks in Missouri): once out of the hills, the scenery degenerated into endless miles of dead farm fields, small towns with no services (restaurants or grocery stores) that had all but died, and constant headwinds.Traveling solo in these conditions made the second half of the trip a drag, where my biggest concerns were always where I was going to find food and a place to stop for the night, taking away much of the excitement the trip initially held. (It also made getting into places like Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans really special.) While I don’t know much about Texas, I do know one thing: it’s big. Really, really, big. So whatever it holds, it holds a lot of it. Plus, the prevailing winds are out of the West, so I’d likely be in for constant headwinds. In other words, it’s likely to be a lot like the second half of the trip south along the Mississippi River. This makes me disinclined to attempt it solo.

Well then what?
Since it looks like I’m going to be hanging out in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul for the next few months, I arranged to rent a room from a friend in St Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood. And since  I’m not a fan of negative cash flow, I decided to follow one of my other long-term dreams, and start working for myself. At present this means I’m open to the possibility of short-term contract software engineering projects; I’ve currently got a few on the horizon. I’m also (slowly) teaching myself the workings of the Android platform, with the intent (ha) of writing Android apps. I’m considering what kinds of destinations I’m interested in seeing; Italy still beckons with a siren song that I haven’t been able to forget since I was there for work back in 2006. Finally, I’m looking for people who think seeing the world by bicycle sounds like more fun than sitting in a box and wishing. As strange as it still sounds, I learned on the road that the right person will show up when the time and the place are right, just when I need them most. Till then it’s a matter of maintaining the right attitude and keeping things in perspective.

One thing is certain (as I’ve been joking with friends since I made it to New Orleans): Plans Is For Changin’.

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New Orleans LA

The first leg of my journey to regain trust in people, including myself, concluded in New Orleans after 2400 miles and two months on the road. I entered New Orleans with an open mind and a renewed sense of adventure. I found a wild and wonderful city full of magic sights, sounds and coincidences. Here’s the highlights of my week there.

Yield: Low Flying Aircraft

As I entered the city of New Orleans on the levee-top bicycle path, I saw this unusual combination of signs, apparently warning bicyclists to yield to low flying aircraft.

I make a habit of stopping at bicycle shops for the scoop on any new city; but I was too early for the four I found. Instead I found an open coffee shop and lingered through second breakfast and first lunch; trying to dig into a PHP and CSS coding problem while an older lady (with self-described mental issues) at the next table repeatedly engaged me in outraged conversation about every newspaper article she was reading. Shortly after she left I was approached by a guy with curly dark hair who asked the peculiarly-worded question I’ve heard several times along the way: “Do you belong to that bike out there?” Regardless of how many bicycles were outside at the rack, my fully-loaded touring rig is conspicuous. I answered affirmatively with a smile, because it means an interesting conversation had begun. I was not disappointed. “Are you Sean?” he asked next. Unused to notoriety but having become accustomed to near-magical coincidences, I was only slightly thrown off balance. It turns out Adam was a friend of a friend, and he invited me to stay with his family. It’s a small world.

Sidwalk concert at Jackson Square

The next morning I went wandering the city by bicycle, riding around the lake at Audubon Park, past Tulane University, and along Magazine Avenue, until I eventually wound up downtown at the French Quarter, where I found an impromptu jazz concert in progress at Jackson Square. I listened until hunger got the better of me, and I set off in search of Cafe du Monde for coffee & beignets.

Heading back to Adam’s house I saw NOBS bike shop was open, so I stopped in and had a nice chat with John, the owner. John is a successful BMX racer (he had several 1st place trophies on display) as well as a really nice guy, and his shop focuses on service. John recommended a near-by restaurant, Jacques-Imo’s, with the sound advice to get in by 6PM or face a long wait for seating. I took his suggestion to heart and was able to walk right in and sit down at the bar. Not even 15 minutes later the line was six parties deep, but I was already enjoying my shrimp-stuffed catfish, mashed sweet potatoes and beets. Later that evening I accompanied Adam & his family to the Maple Leaf bar for a show by Big Sam’s Funky Nation which was nothing short of phenomenal. About 1AM I ran out of steam and walked the few blocks back to Adam’s house; I think I could hear Big Sam’s trombone nearly all the way there.

Saturday came and I left Adam’s house for the final time because Lanny and David, two of my friends from Minneapolis, had flown in to celebrate my arrival in New Orleans. I met them at the Avenue Pub where one of the locals, on hearing about my journey, insisted on buying me a (delicious!) Stone Brewing Company “Supremely Self-Righteous” black IPA.

Crescent City Cyclists Christmas Ride at NOLA Brewing

Sunday’s plans took a routinely surprise turn for the amazing when the Crescent City Cyclists annual Christmas ride passed the front door of  our rental house just as Lanny, David and I were wheeling our bicycles out. They invited us to join them on their way to NOLA Brewing, where they insisted we share the free food and beer. They then took us on a wonderfully convoluted tour of the city, a route we never would have deduced on our own, which including two more stops at club member’s houses for dinner and then dessert. But the magic didn’t just stop there.

I got the baby!

At the dessert stop I was introduced to King Cake, where I of course found the baby in my piece. (Customarily I would have been obligated to pay for the next cake, but they good-naturedly refused.) As we were leaving we received two final gifts: a nearly full pan of brownies and an offer from Joe, the club’s president-emeritus, to give us a private bicycle tour of New Orleans.

Monday we toured the D-Day Museum, an experience which both moved me to tears and gave me a bit more context for understanding  my late grandparents’ occasionally puzzling behavior. That evening, while locking up the bicycles in front of Bicycle Michael’s next to D.B.A. for a show by Washboard Chaz, I found myself first heckled-by and then engrossed-in a deep conversation with Clayte, a bike-shop employee who had ridden the ACA Southern Tier Route from New Orleans to San Diego as I was planning to do next. On going inside D.B.A., I found the trifecta of Washboard Chaz’s musical trio, Brooklyn Brewing’s ever-so-tasty Chocolate Stout, and a woman named LaRinda who denied being a voodoo princess despite evidence to the contrary. She was both a fascinating person who had survived Hurricane Katrina and a good dancer.

Tuesday, while waiting on the front porch for Joe’s personal bicycle tour of New Orleans, a young woman pulled up with a Prius, an ink-jet printer and the self-described weird request to use the electrical outlet on the outside of our rental house. David and Lanny just shook their heads in amazement; somehow these kinds of unique experiences just seem to routinely follow me around.

Shortly thereafter Joe arrived and proceeded to show us architecturally impressive features, including a plethora of large houses owned by famous people (actors, athletes, statesmen, etc. in too-quick succession for my name-challenged memory to retain), three cemeteries filled with massive mausoleums, and entire neighborhoods still rebuilding years after Hurricane Katrina. The tour concluded with lunch and Joe inquired about my plans for the immediate future, offering to host me for the night if I needed a place to stay.

Lanny and David prepared to fly back to Minneapolis as the afternoon drew to a close, and I realized how incredibly home-sick I was. I purchased an Amtrak ticket for the next back to Minneapolis and called Joe to let him know I was on my way.

My love for bicycle touring hasn’t changed, but the focus has shifted. Riding bicycles and camping, initially just for the fun of it, has become a means to an end of meeting people and appreciating the wonder that still exists even in the “modern” world. High-speed travel promotes the notion that the world is a collection of discrete destinations, while moving at bicycle speed shows there are no destinations; everything and everyone is connected and interdependent. After enduring far too many heartbreaking events over the last ten years, my first two months on the road have restored my faith in humanity. The magic and changed attitude I found on the road have followed me back to Minneapolis, and I’m enjoying seeing familiar faces and places through this new perspective.

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Home for the Holidays

After a week of celebrating my journey to New Orleans with two good friends from Minneapolis, I decided I wanted to spend the holidays back home. I’m working on a post about my time in New Orleans, one of my new favorite cities, to which I will likely return when I resume the tour.

Wishing you happy holidays, and keep the rubber side down!

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Donaldsonville to New Orleans LA, 67 miles

Although I got to bed late, I was still up at 5AM. I tried to make the most of the “complementary” hotel breakfast, having biscuits & gravy, sausage, oatmeal, an apple, four mini pastries and several cups of what they called “coffee.”

I worked on my PHP5 coding project (Google Latitude aware WordPress weather widget) all morning, packed up at 10AM and rolled out at the crack of 11.

Seafood platter at B&C Seafood

After about 25 miles I stopped at B&C Seafood for lunch: the ginormous fried seafood platter with batter fried catfish, oysters and hush-puppies. It combined two of my favorites: fried and seafood, and so was quite good.

Brownie Melt at B&C Seafood

I followed it up with a brownie melt just because I could, which was delicious.

Edgard/Reserve LA free Ferry

I was undecided about staying at the KOA just west of New Orleans, and trying to make it a “few” miles further to some state park. When I reached Edgard I tried calling the state park, but got no answer, so I took the Edgard/Reserve ferry, which was free, and headed for the KOA.

 

 

2300 miles along the Mississippi River Trail

The directions I had said to take Highway LA-44, which had no shoulder and the drivers generally seemed upset about having to slow down and/or go around me, so I climbed up the levee and I rode there nearly the entire way. At times it was paved with asphalt, occasionally it was a dirt two-track, but mostly it was gravel. The LHT with 26×2.0 tires handled it all with aplomb.

As dark fell I found myself once again on a paved section of the levee-top bike trail. I was reluctant to pay $33 for a campsite at the RV-oriented KOA, but I tried to justify it as being less than half the price of the previous night’s hotel room. Less than two miles from the KOA, however, I saw what looked like adequate tree coverage and undergrowth for stealth camping. Changing eyeglasses for my riding goggles I was encouraged by what I saw: a 12-foot wide path cleared through the trees and undergrowth that curved around to the river. Verifying that the spot where I wanted to set up my tent was above the recent high-water mark, as well as being out of sight of anyone driving along the levee-top path, I quickly set up the tent, unloaded everything from the bike into the tent and crawled in before I started shivering too much.

The night was cold, with a low of about 34F. I woke up several times due to loud noises but realized they were carried quite a ways by the wind and did not threaten impending doom. At 5AM the alarm went off, and I packed up and was rolling by 6. Daylight came about 6:30, and I was surprised to see two other cyclists on the trail, both going the other way. I soon warmed up enough to drop the insulating layer, and when I stopped I was surprised to see one of the previous two cyclists pass me again, this time going back towards New Orleans. Shortly thereafter a police truck also passed by, so I was glad I had decided against cooking breakfast where I had camped (the Whisperlite throws off a lot of light while pre-heating, which makes it very observable and not stealthy at all. Regardless of whether the spot where I chose to camp was technically legal, it’s better still if no one is bothered to stop and ask awkward questions. Hence the “stealth” in “stealth camping”).

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Plaquemine LA to Donaldsonville LA, 41 miles

I left my free campsite in a preacher’s back yard in Plaquemine about a quarter to 7AM, and began sniffing out breakfast. After two false starts (cafe’s that had gone out of business), I wound up at McDonald’s for only the second time on the trip. (I think that means I’ve eaten at McD’s more in the two months of this trip than in the entire previous two years!) I pulled up and parked next to a local, who was jamming to some music next to his bike, a cruiser-style affair sporting ape-hanger handlebars. We talked bikes and cold weather while I dug out the laptop and bag of sundry cables and cords.

Inside I ordered the biggest breakfast on the menu board, conveniently called the “big breakfast with hotcakes” and a large coffee. Twice. It also seems that Mickey D’s wifi cuts you off after an hour or so, so I rolled for the library. By the time I had decided that Bob Robinson’s Mississippi River Trail guidebook was right, there truly was no convenient camping along this stretch of the Mississippi River Trail, the skies had opened up and the deluge began again for the second day in a row.

With no planned destination in mind, I set off for White Castle LA, about 10 miles away. On reaching it, I saw the quaintly named the “Cafe by the River”. Excellent. However, the “Cafe by the River” bore a hand-written note on the door explaining that Friday, July 29th, would be the last day of business. Bogus. Seeing no place else serving edibles, I rolled onward for Donaldsonville LA.

About 5 miles out of Donaldsonville I could tell my double breakfast had run out, but there was still sufficiently much precipitation that I didn’t want to open (and flood) my food pannier. I stopped at the first establishment I came to, a seafood market that the GPS mistakenly had classified as a restaurant. The proprietor suggested the chicken place down the road. On reaching Chef’s Chicken, I indulged in two huge pieces of the best fried chicken I think I’ve ever had, along with sweet corn bread, coleslaw and a pecan danish. Twice. (The second time I had a piece of ginger cake instead of the danish.) And coffee.

Google Maps claimed there was an RV park just a few miles away, so I set off in search of it, with the backup plan of finding a church and hoping for a sympathetic preacher.

Unsurprisingly, the RV park wasn’t there any more. After two false starts (churches that were in places I wouldn’t want to camp due to noise or perceived unsafe locations), I wound up at a hotel for only the second time on the trip. This time I paid a $45 premium for a Best Western, which was not crawling with obvious roaches. Unlike the place in Cherokee Pass MO, this hotel featured clean rooms,  an on-site coin-op laundry (to which I availed myself) and a free breakfast. I’ll see how much of my $45 premium I can recoup on breakfast. :-)

I also finally got the chance to investigate my leaking sleeping pad, by dunking it in the bath tub. It appears to be de-laminating internally, as it started bubbling all over a foot-long section at the head end, before a large bulge appeared[1], like something out of the movie Alien. I ran away screaming[2] before anything attached itself to my face.[3] I’ll have to talk to REI to see if they’ll warranty it: unlike a cut or a puncture which would obviously be wear, this seems like an internal defect. (I don’t know how long they’re expected to last; I can only account for about 10 months use in the five years I’ve owned it.) Looks like the nearest REI is about 400 miles away, in Houston TX.

1. Those aren’t pillows!
2. Everybody heard because we’re not in space.
3. Unfortunately I’m out of orbital nukes.

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New Roads LA to Plaquemine LA, 61 miles

Leaving New Roads with my newly repaired rear wheel, I stopped for first lunch at the only open restaurant in town, and had the”chicken stew”, a bland concoction on white rice with a slice of white bread.

By the time I reached Port Allen (across the Mississippi river from Baton Rouge) I was hungry again, and I had second lunch at the Court Street Cafe: a bacon-blue cheese burger and the best coffee I’ve found since leaving Highway 61 Coffee in Vicksburg MS.

Just after I headed outside the rain started in earnest. I made the mistake of trying to take LA State Highway 1 south out of Port Allen, and had a horrible experience trying to cross the canal on the narrow, shoulder-less highway bridge, in heavy rain. In hindsight, I should have crossed over the river to Baton Rouge and taken the bike trail along the River Road. Oh well.

Given the rain I was tempted to stop at the Econo-Lodge just over the bridge, but the forecast indicated falling temperatures and more rain, so nothing would be gained by waiting and I pressed on. (You can only get so wet before your clothes saturate, and the 68F temperatures made it merely wet, not miserable.)

I was heading for Carlos Campground in Plaquemine, but found the road to be well-and-truly closed just a few miles shy of my goal (there were several large trees crashed across the road, and it was completely impassable, with water on both sides of the road). Foiled, I turned around and headed back into town. Seeing a church with that shared a driveway with a house I knocked on the front door, and asked if it was the preacher’s house. The man that answered indicated it was, and asked me to go around to the side door.

There I met the preacher, who told me he 94 years old. I told him I was a weary bicycle traveler who was unable to make the campground 10 miles away because the road was blocked, and said I was hoping he would let me put up my tent in a back corner of his yard for one night.  He said if it was only one night, then yes.

Props to Rick B. in Cape Girardeau MO for suggesting this technique, a variation on Willie Wier’s suggestion to find the house with the nicest garden in the neighborhood and ask permission to camp.

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Port Gibson MS to New Roads LA

Port Gibson to New Roads

Thursday, 1dec2011: I had purchased a quart of denatured alcohol for the Trangia stove at the hardware store on entering Port Gibson. With denatured alcohol the Trangia lit easily and burned much hotter, but I had burned nearly the entire quart in just four meals (and starting two camp fires). I stopped at the hardware store again, this time with the following scheme to buy a quart of white gas: I asked for the owner, explained how I was willing to pay $8 to $10 for just a quart to fill my fuel bottles (she only had gallon cans for $10) if she would let me leave the remaining 3/4 of a gallon for her to re-sell again. (I also mentioned that Walmart sold it by the quart for $7, but I’d rather buy it from her than Walmart). Being intelligent and reasonable, once she understood that I had my own bottles, she agreed. She said she was selling me the gallon for $8, just over her cost, then followed me outside and watched me carefully fill my bottles. She asked what other uses it might have as she took the remainder; I suggested degreaser. So if you need a quart of white gas on the southern end of the Natchez Trace Parkway, stop at Claiborne Ace Hardware in Port Gibson at the intersection of Highway 61 N & Old Port Gibson Rd (Highway 18) and ask for Shreve.

From there I got a bacon double cheeseburger, “potato logs” (and Klondike bar) at the gas station next door as takeout, and headed for the Sonics a bit north on Highway 61 and bought coffee. While I was enjoying my coffee & smuggled in lunch, a lady pulled up, saw my loaded touring bike, and asked if I was familiar with warmshowers.org. Nicole said she had marked herself as an “inactive host” after having 18 guests over the summer, and gave me her home address & phone number, saying I was welcome if I wanted to go an extra 12 miles past Natchez State Park. So coffee and contraband-burger finished, I rolled for Natchez at full speed. The Natchez Trace Parkway was treat to ride, with beautiful scenery on a perfect day.

Mike & Terry returning from Natchez State Park

I saw Mike & Terry on their return trip from Natchez State Park, exchanged pleasantries, and continued heading south at top speed. (I also saw one other cyclist who waved, but he didn’t slow down to converse.)

I reached Natchez State Park about sunset, and Nicole’s about an hour later. I haven’t tried using warmshowers.org before, mainly because my plans are so fluid and likely to change. Nicole was a gracious host, even offering leftover chili and spaghetti for dinner (not expected and very welcome).

Fri, 2dec2011: Leaving Nicole’s I headed into Louisiana, and made an early stop for lunch at Nikki’s Cafe, where I had the usual: half-pound bacon cheeseburger, with coffee. Dessert was “warm” pecan pie, that seemed more like room temperature. While I was working on the pie, I saw a man outside eyeing my touring bike. He came back inside and started looking around, so I waved him over and invited him to sit down. I should have written it down, but I think his name was Toby; he was the owner of a local Bed & Breakfast. We talked for a while, and then I was off for groceries before heading down the river and back out into the wilderness.

The ride alongside the levee was quite pleasant, with good shoulders and warm temps, trending close to 70F. I stopped at a primitive campground about 2 miles north of the intersection of Louisiana State Highways 15 & 418. It wasn’t the most primitive campground I’ve been to, given that it had three portable chemical out-houses on-site, and since it was free I wasn’t complaining. That is, until 11:15 PM, well into “quiet hours”, when some fat old idiot parked a large trailer with a large generator 20 feet from my tent, and fired it up, saying he was going to run it all night. He had three linebacker sized youths with him, and a truck full of guns. So I relocated my tent next to the highway, which was much quieter (Inverse Square Law and all that).

Beignet

Saturday, 3dec2011: Having received a text saying my rear wheel with it’s (hopefully!) repaired freehub would be waiting for me at the New Roads LA Post Office, I planned to make a short day, stop at Jim’s Camping area (a private camp ground) and be on my way. The headwinds made for balmy temperatures in the 70′s (F), but meant I didn’t reach New Roads till 2PM. And discovered the post office closed up at 11AM on Saturdays. So I stopped by a coffee shop, Espresso Etc, and found their wifi no longer operational. I made up for it with a dark-roast coffee and a trio of “beignets”, a French-sounding name for a deep-fried pastry smothered in powdered sugar. It was like a square donut, without the hole.

Jim’s Camping area wasn’t much better. There was a “bar & grill” on site, with a limited selection of lousy beers, and they had bad service because of their preoccupation with some college football game on TV. They also had the filthiest bath house I’ve ever seen. My $8/night did get me a site with electricity, tho’.

Nathan

After I had retreated to my tent, I heard the unmistakable sound of a tent being set up. Here I met Nathan, a cyclist from Houston TX returning home from Florida on the Adventure Cycling Association Southern Tier route. He was running a 52 cm Surly Long Haul Trucker (which was naturally named “Shirley”) nicely set up with Ortlieb panniers on stainless-steel Tubus racks. Nathan and I pooled our resources and dined (my second dinner) on a smorgasborg of macaroni-and-cheese with salmon, some vegetable (carrots or peas, I don’t recall which now), bacon, sharp cheddar, GORP (Good Old Raisins & Peanuts), strawberry Pop Tarts and washed it all down with some after dinner green tea. It was a three-stove operation, as his propane-fuel canister ran out part way through, as did the remains of the denatured alcohol in my Trangia. Whisperlite to the rescue.

Sean & Nathan, blood sugar restored to normal

Sunday, 4dec2011: A bit before 7AM I rolled out of bed, and found Nathan packing up. He packed a clean machine, with everything except his tent fitting in his four panniers. Puzzled, I queried him on his gear list, and found it comparable to mine. The difference: his front panniers were just as large as his (and my) rear ones, so he had ample room for even more food than I was carrying, without a strapped-on duffel bag like I was using.

Mystery solved, we had a communal breakfast of oatmeal (with peanut butter), trading his Baton-Rouge Farmers’ Market oranges and chocolate-fudge Pop Tarts (my precioussss,) for my golden raisins and a refill of his 2 oz bottle of hand-sanitizer. A few photos later we said goodbye, Nathan rode off and I started a walking tour of the area, looking for laundry facilities. After I discovered the nearby “Wash-E-Teria” was out of business due to flood damage, Nathan returned with a flat rear tire. Naturally I had to kibitz while he installed a new tube, which proved to have a leak near the valve stem. So I added a fifth patch to his original tube, while he installed his other spare, this time lining up the “hot patch” (manufacturer’s label) with the valve-stem hole to expeditefuture tire forensics. Flat finally fixed, we said goodbye again and I spent the rest of the day catching up on domestic issues (laundry) and deferred maintainance (replacing the heat-shrink tubing that keeps my dynamo-hub quick-disconnect connectors from electrically shorting one to the other).

I took a leisurely ride back into town, only to discover no place open to get change for the one laundromat that was ostensibly open for business, although I’m not sure any of the machines were operational.

I had both lunch & dinner at Jim’s Place bar & grill, an un-inspiring cheeseburger and an allegedly “spicy” sausage po’ boy sandwich.

I did learn one thing from this experience: PBR isn’t the worst beer ou there, not by a long shot. Naturally, Jim’s Place didn’t carry it.

On the up-side, I was able to get my wheel from the Post Office Monday morning, and it seems to be in working order now.

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Greenville MS to Port Gibson, MS

Thanksgiving in Leroy Percy State Park, Greenville MS

Thanksgiving at Leroy Percy State Park

I spent Thanksgiving in Leroy Percy State Park. Having no network access of any kind (not even voice cell-phone service), and no mileage goals, I wrote the following in my journal:

I’m thankful for one of the most relaxing days I can ever remember. I’ve had the campground essentially to myself and I’ve been enjoying perfectly clear blue skies, light breezes, and temps in the low sixties all day. With conditions like this, it’s hard not to reflect on the six weeks since I hit the road.

It’d be easy to get hung up on the hardships I’ve endured in the 1,880 miles I’ve covered so far: the general lack of cell-phone service (yay Sprint), the failing freehub in Iowa, the excruciating knee pain in Missouri (I’m on my third bottle of ibuprofen), the pair of new-before-this-trip Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires destroyed in Tennessee, four days of torrential rain, not to mention the countless saddle-sores from too many consecutive days of primitive camping with less-than-ideal hygiene.

But that misses the point of this trip: all the amazing people I’ve met. How complete strangers have given me money just “because I’m travelling”, given me a cup of coffee and timely advice on the next stretch of the road, or bought me a meal, welcoming me into their home with a warm shower, dinner, a warm place to sleep, breakfast the next morning and even offered to wash my clothes for me.

I’ve learned that the most amazing things happen only when conditions look the most desperate, but only if I’m open to the possibility and humble enough to accept the help, which usually comes in the most unlikely form.

The great thing about traveling is learning to expect nothing and accept everything with a smile.

Friday, 25nov2011: Leroy Percy State Park to Chotards Landing Resort. Although the resort had suffered heavy damage from the spring flooding, like so many other places I’ve seen, they are open and allow tent camping for $8. The showers sadly are not currently operational, but they do have working flush toilets and there cold beer for sale.

Saturday, 26nov2011: Chotards Landing Resort to Vicksburg MS
I stopped at “Yore Store” in  Eagle Lake MS and talked to Ronnie, the owner for an hour or so. After a lifetime of driving OTR trucks, he’s an interesting guy, with lots of stories.

As I entered Vicksburg I passed Jim’s Cafe and had the best ribs I’ve had yet: meaty and tender, every bit as good (maybe even better!) than Rendezvous or Central B-B-Q in Memphis.

Highway 61 Coffee

Continuing into downtown Vicksburg the rain resumed, and I ducked into Highway 61 Coffee House, where I met a group of young men canoing and/or kayaking the Mississippi to New Orleans. While I was busy catching up on email and listening to live music, they were trying to figure out who owned the loaded touring bike locked up out in the rain. At 5PM the coffee shop closed, but I still hadn’t figured out where I was going to spend the rainy night. Unlocking the bike outside I finally met my fellow river travelers, who were couchsurfing with someone in town. They invited me to a bar, where we could “happen” to meet their host and see if he had room for one more, but the owners of the coffee shop, Daniel Boone & Leslie Silver, had seen my plight, invited me in, and then offered to let me spend the night. And fed me a feast of Thanksgiving dinner leftovers, and four kinds of dessert. Then they invited me to watch a movie with them in their home theater: Drummond Will (which was, IMHO, hilarious). Not only are they amazing and kind people, they have a presence that’s indescribable. The coffee shop superb, too, and they have an art gallery on the second floor. If you’re ever in Vicksburg MS then you need to stop by and say hello, the coffee shop & art gallery are just icing on the cake.

Rocky Springs Campground

Sunday, 27nov2011: Vicksburg MS to Rocky Springs National Park Service Campground on Natchez Trace. It rained all day, but I finally reached Rocky Springs National Park Service campground on the Natchez Trace (flush toilets and free camping).

2000.0 Miles

I also reached another milestone: 2000 miles.

Monday, 28nov2011: Still raining, so I took a rest day at Rocky Springs Campground. Mended holes in liner gloves, looked at route plans, read and tried to stay out of the rain.

Tuesday, 29nov2011: Rocky Springs Campground to Grand Gulf Military Park near Port Gibson. As I was leaving Rocky Springs, I met Steve & Debbie, a retired military couple who were enjoying the scenic Natchez Trace.

Natchez Trace: Cockpit View

Grand Gulf Military Park

Fuel at Ace Hardware, and then a double bacon cheeseburger & “potato logs” at the gas station/cafe next door. Groceries. Wifi @ library. Grand Gulf Military Park Campground. $3 admission, then $5/night camping. I stayed two nights (total $13). Be sure to find the campground host, Ranger Jim, on your way in, because he WILL wake you up at 11PM otherwise (he said they’ve had lots of ride-offs). I thought I gave him a $20 bill, and thought it strange when he returned with change of $13. Giving him the extra $1 back, I crawled back into my sleeping bag and forgot about it. The next morning, however, he showed up with an extra $20 bill that had stuck to the first. He also said the $3 admission fee was one-time, and a second (consecutive) night camping would only be $5. The park was nice enough that I decided to take him up on it. I could have easily spent a week (or more) exploring the park’s Civil War museums.

I found the Trangia alcohol stove works much better on denatured alcohol (very hot, with little soot) but it’s much thirstier than the Whisperlite.

Terry & Mike

Wednesday, 30nov2011: Grand Gulf Military Park, Port Gibson.
Met Terry & Mike at Sonic. Terry is a volunteer board member for  the Mississippi River Trail Commission, and knew Bob Robinson, author of the Mississippi River Trail Guidebook I’ve been using.

On returning to the Grand Gulf Military Park I explored the museum a little (not enough), and met Bud, the director. He insisted that the evening was going to be so cold that I needed firewood for a camp fire, and then he proceeded to help me load it into his pickup truck and haul it to my campsite. Deciding it didn’t look like enough, he then went and got me a second load. For free! So I enjoyed my first two campfires of the trip. If you’re in the area and even slightly into Civil War history this is a must-see; the staff are wonderful, too.

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