Winter Dreams: Coasts and Shores

January, the most useless month. I wish I could sleep through it and wake up when the crocuses are finally nosing up through the grass. Here in Bethesda, the foot of snow that fell just over a week ago is mostly gone. The temperature bottomed out at 10 degrees the other night and is rising back into the 50s tomorrow, bringing with it more rain of course. It’s January all right. The midwinter blahs have set in.

Smithsonian museums and national parks are still closed, thanks to our ungovern-ment, so I haven’t been volunteering. In the meantime, I knead dough into rolls that will warm the kitchen and make the house smell good. I make plans to remodel my workbench and to build an armchair from the pieces of an old wooden couch, once it’s warm enough to haul my circular saw outside. I sort through drawers and folders and reorganize stuff, my go-to activity when I’m bored. I check out book after book from the local public libraries. I plan trips, some of which I’ll never take, but I can dream.

On my computer desktop, a full-screen image I’ve taken of a coast or shore over the last dozen years transports me to somewhere else. I have at least 90 images loaded into a slideshow that washes a new view across the screen every few hours. For the sake of something new to do over the past couple of days, I gathered a few of them here. After all, it’s January, a time for dreaming.

The Mid-Atlantic

The Southeast and Florida

The Pacific

David Romanowski, 2019

Different Strokes: 20 Bicycle Tours | # 2

Fully Supported Tours

I took part in 10 fully supported tours over the past 13 years. They varied greatly in duration, numbers of riders, and the nature of the routes, but they also shared many similarities.

Tent rentals at Bike Florida.

Tent rentals at Bike Florida.

On each tour, we stayed in campgrounds, parks, schools, colleges, fairgrounds, or convention or recreation centers. On most tours you can camp out, sleep on the floor in a building, pay a tent rental service to handle your camping needs, or book lodging on your own. You usually have the option to sign up for catered breakfasts and dinners for an extra fee. On many days, you often have the option of different routes of varying length.

Cycle Maryland, which I went on 2006, was discontinued a year or two later. That year it was based at Princess Anne on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and was similar in nature to the Cycle North Carolina Coastal Ride described below.

Bike Florida

One of the rewards of biking in Florida: beaches.

One of the rewards of biking in Florida: beaches.

Takes Place: late March or early April
Duration: 7 days
Riders: Hundreds
Where: Different regions throughout Florida
Routes: Loop routes among 3 or 4 host sites
My Tours: 2004, 2013, 2014, 2016

Bike Florida was my very first bicycle tour, and the only one I’ve gone on more than once. I enjoy exploring Florida, and this tour makes for a nice end of winter getaway. Bike Florida has taken me through the springs-rich region of northern Florida between Gainesville and the Gulf of Mexico, the citrus-growing region of central Florida south of Orlando, the Atlantic Coast region of northeastern Florida, and the Gulf Coast region around Sarasota.

At Gasparilla island State Park on Boca Grande on the Gulf Coast.

At Gasparilla Island State Park on the Gulf Coast.

On Bike Florida tours, you can look forward a lot of flat riding, although some regions have more hills than you might expect. Another thing you might not expect is the wide temperature range. It can get surprisingly cold at night—down to the low 40s—in northern or central Florida in early spring.

I plan to publish a blog post soon on Bike Florida, its past routes, its plans for the future, and next year’s spring tour.

Bon Ton Roulet

A typical view in the Finger Lakes region.

A typical view in the Finger Lakes region.

Takes Place: July
Duration: 7 days
Riders: Hundreds
Where: Finger Lakes region, New York
Route: Loop route among 6 host sites
My Tour: 2012

Besides cycling in Florida, I’m partial to exploring my home state. The popular Bon Ton Roulet tour introduced me to the Finger Lakes region of central New York. Each year the route and overnight locations vary. But you can always be sure of lovely rural and lakeside scenery, farms, wineries, handsome historic towns, lots of rolling hills, and the occasional steep climb.

Exploring the beautiful gorge in Watkins Glen State Park.

Exploring the gorge in Watkins Glen State Park.

My tour led me through beautiful areas and towns I’d missed seeing during all those dozens of times I’d driven straight across the state. Among the places where we stayed were Cortland, the starting and ending point; Auburn, at the head of Owasco Lake; Geneva, on one end of Seneca Lake; Watkins Glens, on the other end; and a state park just outside Ithaca.

I decided to try the tent rental service, which included a roomy tent, thick air mattress, chair, and other perks. I enjoyed letting someone else do the work of setting up and breaking down camp. One particularly memorable experience: the fierce, blinding downpour during the tour’s final couple of miles—one of the worst storms I’ve ever been caught in while on a bike, and an experience my friends and I still talk about.

BubbaFest – Florida Keys

Lots of bridge crossings and beautiful waters in the Keys.

The Bahia Honda Bridge in the Lower Keys.

Takes Place: November
Duration: 6 days
Riders: Up to 200
Where: Florida Keys
Route: Key Largo to Key West and back
My Tour: 2009

Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers, those cheerful folks who provide tent rental services on many bicycle tours, run BubbaFest. As the name implies, Bubba aims for a rollicking good time. The result is partly fun and partly tacky. It has its fans; many people do BubbaFest year after year.

I had mixed feelings about my tour. I came alone and at times felt like I was crashing some stranger’s party. I rented both tent and bike, so it was a pretty carefree trip. But I wasn’t in a carefree mood at the time and never got into the festive groove.

The old Seven Mile Bridge from the top of the new one.

The old highway bridge from the top of the current Seven Mile Bridge.

However, for me the biking’s the thing, and I really enjoyed cycling in the Keys. About half of the riding is on bike paths, and most of the rest is on reasonably wide shoulders. The views of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico (sometimes from the same spot) can’t be beat. You go over many bridges, including the iconic Seven Mile Bridge, which takes you about as far out to sea as you can get on a bicycle. You’re usually going with the wind on the way down the Keys and against it coming back. It was an easy two-day ride from Key Largo to Key West, where we had a day off to explore that end-of-road town. A bicycle is the best way to get around Key West, and one of the best ways to see the Keys.

C&O Canal / Great Allegheny Passage

Entering Pennsylvania on the GAP Trail.

Entering Pennsylvania on the GAP trail.

Takes Place: Early summer or fall
Duration: 8 days
Riders: Up to 70
Where: Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh, PA
Route: C&O Canal towpath and Great Allegheny Passage rail trail
My Tour: 2008

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath begins in the nation’s capitol and connects with the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) rail trail at Cumberland in western Maryland to provide a continuous off-road route from Washington to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a distance of some 335 miles.

Many cycle touring organizations run tours along this route. I took mine through the Adventure Cycling Association. At the time, the GAP trail hadn’t quite been completed, so the tour ended in the town of Boston, a little short of Pittsburgh. We were bused back to Washington from there. It’s easy to plan and execute a trip on your own as well, given the availability of campsites, towns, and lodging along the way.

A view from the GAP Trail in southern Pennsylvania.

A view from the GAP trail in southern Pennsylvania.

This isn’t a route for those who want to ride hard and fast, but for those interested in biking past, across, or through transportation relics of bygone days and getting away from it all—you’re really out in the boondocks for much of the way. You encounter lots of wonderful tunnels, bridges, aqueducts, canal locks, and countless other historic structures. The canal towpath is rough in places, but the crushed gravel GAP trail is smoother. By the end of the trip, you’ve traversed the better part of two states and crossed the Appalachian Mountains without hardly realizing it.

Cycle the Erie Canal

The Erie Barge Canal locks at Lockport.

The Erie Barge Canal lock at Lockport.

Takes Place: July
Duration: 9 days
Riders: Hundreds
Where: Buffalo to Albany, NY
Route: Erie Canal trail, some on-road routes
My Tour: 2011

Another great canal trip is the annual Erie Canal tour offered by Parks & Trails New York. They have been doing this tour over the same route for nearly two decades, so it’s very well organized and run. For me, it was quite a thrill to bike 400 miles all the way across New York State from the Niagara River to the Hudson River.

The finish line along the Hudson River in Albany.

The finish line along the Hudson River in Albany.

You can park in Albany and (for an extra fee) take a shuttle bus to Buffalo, where the tour starts. The tour route generally follows the still-working Erie Barge Canal and sections of the historic Erie Canal that are no longer used. The riding is mostly off road, and the sections on roads are safe and easy. You go through lots of historic canal towns and small cities. There are many historical sites and museums to visit along the way. Like the Bon Ton Roulet, this tour introduced me to many places in my home state I’d only heard about or seen in passing from a car window. Like the C&O Canal/GAP tour, this tour attracts a more family-oriented, history-appreciative crowd than your typical bicycle tour. Riders range from surprisingly young to surprisingly old. Some have taken the tour many times.

Among all the fully supported tours I’ve taken, I think the Erie Canal tour was my favorite. It was the first tour on which I made friends—and other friends through them—whom I now reconnect with when I go on other tours.

Cycle North Carolina Coastal Ride

Camping along the river in Washington, NC.

Camping along the river in Washington, NC.

Takes Place: April
Duration: 3 days
Riders: Hundreds
Where: A town in coastal North Carolina
Route: Loop routes from the host site
My Tour: 2015

Each year this early spring weekend tour is hosted by a different town that lies in the low country bordering Pamlico Sound, the body of water separating mainland North Carolina and the offshore Outer Banks. My tour was based in Washington (NC rather than DC), a nice little riverside town I enjoyed exploring. Other recent tours have been based in Oriental and Edenton. The daily loop rides (you have a choice of routes from under 30 miles to 100) are rural and flat.

Except for the first night’s dinner, you are on your own for meals. This keeps the tour cost low and encourages riders to patronize the local restaurants and eateries. I’ve come not to expect memorable catered meals on bicycle tours, so a particularly tasty one always comes as a welcome surprise. The fried fish and shrimp dinner served to us on the first night was one of the best meals I’ve ever had on a bicycle tour.

David Romanowski, 2016

Different Strokes: 20 Bicycle Tours | # 1

The First in a Series of Posts About Past Tours

To celebrate turning 50 in 2003, I bought a touring bicycle and a full set of panniers, joined Adventure Cycling Association, and began learning about bicycle touring. By April of this year, I will have taken part in 20 cycling trips.

As I wait to embark on my next cycling adventures this spring, I thought I’d begin to look at them as a collection and consider different aspects of them and what I liked or didn’t.

The trips I’ve taken fall into three broad categories:

Self-Contained Tours—You carry everything you bring—clothes, biking and camping gear, food and supplies—on your bike in panniers (or tow it behind you in a trailer). You rely on yourself or fellow cyclists for support on the road; there is no roving “sag wagon” to assist you.

Fully Supported Tours—Scheduled, organized tours you pay to take part in. They vary greatly in nature, but they usually include mapped and marked routes, roving teams to assist with mechanical or other problems, luggage transport, meals, rest stops with snacks and beverages, camping facilities and amenities, and sometimes indoor sleeping spaces, such as school gyms. They can involve a few dozen to hundreds or thousands of riders.

Overnights—Short, informal trips planned and taken with friends. In my case, we used someone’s house or a motel as a home base and did daytrips in the surrounding region.

Adventure Cycling Association

Anyone interested in bicycle travel should know about Adventure Cycling Association ( Adventure Cycling describes itself as “North America’s premier nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring and empowering people to travel by bicycle.” That’s no exaggeration. Adventure Cycling is devoted to promoting and improving bicycle travel in all its forms, especially self-contained touring. A cornucopia of information and resources, Adventure Cycling also offers a diverse menu of organized tours, from guided self-contained tours to fully supported and van supported tours. They range from six-day regional tours to cross-country tours of two to three months.

I’ve gone on three self-contained Adventure Cycling tours, as well as one short solo self-contained tour. While all four tours involved riding a fully loaded bicycle, they varied in important ways and I got different things out of them.

Self-Contained Tours I’ve Taken

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Camp, sweet camp: a typical campsite scene, somewhere along the Pacific Coast.

When I decided to get into bicycle touring, it was with idea of doing one long, challenging trip. What I eventually settled on was a month-long Adventure Cycling tour down the Pacific Coast from Bellingham, Washington, just south of the Canadian border, to San Francisco. This September marks the 10th anniversary of that trip. If you click on the “Then” tab on my homepage you can access two stories I wrote about it: “Cycling Beyond Your Comfort Zone” and “The Pies of September.”

To prepare for this ambitious undertaking, I bought a Trek 520 touring bike and went on three trips with it. The first was the big annual event tour Bike Florida (more on that in a future post) to experience traveling long distances by bicycle every day for a week. Then, to learn about self-contained touring, I enrolled in Adventure Cycling’s “Introduction to Road Touring,” an excellent learn-by-doing course for aspiring bicycle travelers. Finally, later that summer, I set out on my own on a three-day, self-contained ride down the 184.5-mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath in Maryland.

“Introduction to Road Touring”

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My Trek 520 and me on my first self-contained tour.

The road touring course was based at a state park just south of Richmond, Virginia. There, the dozen of us enrolled in the course and our leader stayed in cabins for three days and discussed every aspect of self-contained bicycle travel, in particular Adventure Cycling’s approach to guided self-contained tours. Then we put what we learned into action and set out on a three-day tour. I wrote about that experience for Adventure Cyclist magazine. You can read about it here:

Adventure Cycling offers “Introduction to Road Touring” several times a year in locations across the country (this year in Maine, Virginia, Florida, Montana, and Oregon), and I highly recommend it. The course was great fun and, because it was the first time I’d traveled around on a fully loaded bicycle, quite an adventure for me. It very much whet my appetite for bicycle travel.

Meals on Wheels

One key aspect of Adventure Cycling self-contained tours we learned about and practiced was that organization’s approach to meals. Each day a different pair of cyclists is responsible for food shopping, cooking dinner in camp and cleaning up, and setting out food for the next day’s breakfast and lunch. Usually they empty their panniers after getting into camp and head out to a grocery store to pick up food. Sometimes, if shopping must be done before reaching camp, everyone rendezvouses at a store and carries some of the purchased groceries to the campground. Everyone pitches in each day to transport a share of the non-perishable food, supplies, and cooking gear.

In theory, this in an inexpensive, equitable, and even enjoyable way to approach meals when camping. Depending on the cook’s creativity and grocery availability, the meals can range from fairly basic to quite tasty. But sometimes certain people don’t pull their weight with cooking or cleanup. And if it’s your turn, it means devoting several hours to shopping and meal duties when you’d rather be doing something else. Fortunately, the commitment is only about once a week.

Still, it’s awfully nice to just visit a restaurant and have a delicious meal prepared and served to you, with no cleanup required. On my month-long Pacific Coast tour, the leader set aside a certain amount of “fun money” that the group could decide to spend on something special—kayaking, massages, or some other activity. We always chose to spend it on eating out. We also quickly fell into the habit of stopping at the first coffee shop or bakery we came across for a good cup of coffee and fresh baked goods. (I structured my story “The Pies of September” around these stops.) Obviously, we craved non-camping food.

On my Pacific Coast tour, I often felt I didn’t have enough time to play tourist, enjoy walks on the beach, or explore some of the places we passed through. I would like to have eaten out more, or perhaps broken up the camping with a motel stay now and then (which Adventure Cycling often does on long tours). We camped every night except two that we spent in hostels, once because there was no nearby campground and also on the final night of our trip. I had my best night’s sleep of the entire trip at that first hostel.

Cycling “Inn to Inn”

Since my Pacific Coast trip, Adventure Cycling has introduced self-contained “inn-to-inn” tours, a style of travel that independent bicycle tourists often refer to as “credit card tours.” Although the term “inn-to-inn” evokes cozy bed and breakfasts, these tours might better be described as motel-to-motel. Still, they are a welcome alternative. You transport your own gear but a lot less of it, because you don’t need to bring camping gear. You share a room (or pay extra if you prefer not to) and eat out. The tour guides take care of paying for everything and supplying food to pack for on-the-road lunches.

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The view from my balcony at a motel on the Outer Banks. The beach was only a boardwalk away.

A couple of years ago, I sampled this style of touring on Adventure Cycling’s “Outer Banks Inn-to-Inn” tour, a week-long loop trip that circled from mainland North Carolina to the offshore Outer Banks and back. Besides the obvious pleasures of staying indoors and eating out, I also appreciated all the time saved in not having to deal with setting up and breaking down camp and helping with food shopping and meals.

Going It Alone

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The start of my C&O Canal trip.

Only one of my first 20 bike trips has been a self-contained tour I planned and carried out on my own. That probably says a lot about the limits of my adventurous spirit. I love to plan and dream about trips, but I’m not very good at actually following through with the plan or dream.

Still, that one trip on my own, a three-day ride along the C&O Canal, remains one of my proudest achievements on a bicycle and one of my favorite trips. After being dropped off at Cumberland, Maryland, I was off road on the flat canal towpath for nearly the entire trip, with the exception of side trips I chose to take and a six-mile detour on country roads. There were primitive campsites conveniently situated along the towpath about every five miles, and several towns along the way. It was about the safest, most carefree self-contained bike tour I could possibly have undertaken. But for me, it was still a daring adventure.

Although I was prepared to eat meals in camp, among my favorite moments on that trip were breakfast at Weaver’s Restaurant and Bakery in Hancock, Maryland, and a well-deserved dinner and beer at a restaurant in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on my second and last night.

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The end of my C&O Canal trip.

The only downside of the trip was that I had no one to share the experience with along the way until the last few miles. Other than on side trips to towns and other attractions, for the first two days I saw hardly anyone on the trail. I camped alone, ate alone, enjoyed discoveries alone. If the trip had gone on more than three days, I probably would have started feeling lonely.

To Summarize . . .

The Pacific Coast tour was the most difficult and demanding bicycle trip I’ve ever taken—and the one I’m most proud of. But I’m not sure whether I’ll take such a long trip of that style again. While I may choose to do another challenging trip someday, I’d prefer mixing camping with lodging, and eating out more than preparing meals in camp.

While I’d like to do another solo trip of two or three days, companionship makes a trip more enjoyable. The cycling friends I’ve made are not as interested in self-contained touring, so if I do other such trips in the future, I’ll probably turn to guided tours by Adventure Cycling or another organization. Another inn-to-inn type of tour might interest me.

Since that Pacific Coast tour, I’ve taken bicycle trips more for pleasure than challenge, so all of them in recent years have been supported tours or overnights with friends. But who knows? Every now and then the idea of doing a big, challenging trip starts to feel appealing again. You never know where your daydreams will lead you.

David Romanowski, 2016