Would you do it again?

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Almost as soon as we arrived in New Orleans, people started asking us if we would be doing a trip like this again.  In the first few days, my answer was quick and certain – NO.  Then it became more conditional – “well, not self supported” or “well, not that far.”  Then it became even more open – “Sure, we might go out for a week or so…” We even started a list of places we want to ride, and now are hoping to get out for an overnight trip before the summer is over.

How did that happen – evolving from NO to maybe to YES?  We’ve been home for a month and in that time, we’ve talked about the trip a lot, and we’ve realized that, in the last week or so, as we finally approached New Orleans, we were figuring this bike touring thing out.  Of course we could have ridden back home (if we had the time, that is) and of course we want to do it again.  Because we really miss touring, that is, actually going somewhere, making progress out on the open road.  Our minds wander during meetings and we recall riding down the Natchez Trace in the sun, the blue sky overhead, the sounds of the forest loud beside us, calculating how many miles lay ahead and what we wanted to eat when we achieved our goal.  We miss the simplicity of travelling from one place to another, encountering hills and crossing rivers, even those aspects of the trip which caused us (me) stress.  We miss the physicality of the trip, burning thousands of calories every day, the great feeling of relaxation when the day was done, the soundness of sleep when you are so physically tired.

I really, really miss the time with Lisa – days and nights spent together, with time to talk,  solve problems, recount the day and chat about tomorrow.  Too often now, we rush out of the house in the morning and don’t connect until 7:00 or 8:00 at night after the day at work.  We are tired in a different way, and it is not our muscles which are weary as much as it is our brains.  Our problems are complicated, involve many other people and are more difficult to resolve.

Lisa was out of town this weekend, and I woke Saturday morning just wanting to get on my bike and ride.  I made some coffee, looked at the paper, then filled my water bottles and took off.  I rode south on Mississippi River Boulevard to downtown St. Paul.  I rode fast, positioned between the river on one side and the railroad on the other, as we had been so often on our trip.  I rode by the busy St. Paul Farmers Market, and by the St. Paul Saints baseball stadium, then north on the Bruce Vento Trail through St. Paul’s east side.  I rode by the abandoned buildings where Hamm’s beer was once brewed – the brew that grew with the great Northwest.  I rode around Lake Phalen and saw sailboats and kayaks. The day was perfect.

The Vento Trail intersects with the Gateway Trail, which heads east out of St. Paul, by the snow man of North St. Paul, as cool in late July as he is in midwinter.  I rode into Washington County, between fields and wetlands, and eventually down the lovely Brown’s Creek Trail into Stillwater.  The town was busy on a beautiful Saturday morning, crowded, and out on the St. Croix River, an incongruous gondola giving a couple a ride as big speedboats slowly motored nearby.  I had a quick cup of coffee, a Clif Bar and a banana, refilled my water bottles and turned around to ride up the hill away from the river and back home on the same route.

In the end, it was 64 miles.  At our touring pace, on fully loaded bikes, Lisa and I would have spent seven hours doing that.  On my lightweight carbon fiber bike, I finished in exactly four.  So, faster, but way less satisfying.  Because I didn’t really go anywhere!  I didn’t have the feeling of actually travelling.  I ended up back where I started, in my garage.  Worse, I parked my bike by the lawn mower, which just reminded me that there were mundane chores to be done in the afternoon. One of my favorite poems of all time is Mark Strand’s “The Continuous Life” –

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? O parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost—a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don’t really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.

Our sense of adventure is still present, but it is currently somewhat suppressed by the routines of daily life.  We miss that experience of leaning down close enough to hear the careless breath of the earth.  We have to work, of course, and want to work, and we like our work…and we want to care for kids and the dog, and mow the lawn and weed the garden and clean the house.  But the romance and appeal and excitement of adventure is kind of missing at the moment.  We trust it will come back.

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Homecoming

We flew home from New Orleans on Tuesday, June 19 (well, Wednesday, really). Walked up the many steps to our front door at 3:30 am after an eight hour delay at the MSY airport, with our pannier bags and a suitcase that my sister shipped to us in New Orleans, fumbling for house keys that it turned out we didn’t have, marveling at how much everything had grown since we left, and anxious to climb into our own bed after so many nights away and a long night in a cold airport.

When we left on our trip, the lilacs were just reaching their peak and the lawn was hardly long enough to mow…while we were gone, the peonies bloomed, as did the azaleas, and the grass flourished and so did everything else and we came back to a lush array of perennials on the hillside of our backyard.

We learned, while delayed in New Orleans at the airport, that my family had planned to surprise us on arrival at the gate in Minneapolis – with signs, flowers, balloons, the whole works – and we were really touched. After discovering we would arrive in the middle of the night, they dropped it all off at our house and so we got to enjoy it the next day.

The dog was kind of weird for awhile after we got home — we think he was afraid we would leave again – and then he came around and was back to his usual nose poking, tail wagging, dog kissing self after a day or two, and he continues to stay close by when we are home.

Dan went to a 9:00 meeting a few hours after we returned, and I went in to the office a bit later and was humbled and delighted to find that my team had put up a “Welcome Home” sign with balloons in the office and had a box of crazy great donuts to celebrate the end of the trip. We were so, so grateful for our colleagues, who adeptly took care of the work underway and reached out when there was something critical at work but otherwise let us focus on the work of bicycling and traveling, and cheered us on.

Josh did a fine job of taking care of the house and yard while we were gone, in between his two summer jobs. In the first few days after returning, we caught up on laundry and gardening and grocery shopping and bill paying, and things got back to normal pretty quickly. Being “back to normal” for us includes listening to a lot of live music, in addition to our work and household and people and pet responsibilities. The first weekend we made it out to see our friends Wilkinson James perform a great late night gig at the Aster Cafe with the Mississippi River and the Minneapolis skyline in the background, and the next day we were delighted to see many people we knew at the first Grand Oak Opry concert of the summer, just off of the river in St. Paul, under a 200 year old oak tree in a St. Paul backyard, where we heard our friend Chastity Brown perform, and we got big hugs from her after the show and chatted some about Tennessee, her home state, and our ride through small towns there. We also had a lovely dinner with friends Tim and Kevin who were visiting from Hawaii, and celebrated a milestone birthday with our dear friend Nancy, and made gumbo for my family and neighbor Ted while listening to a New Orleans soundtrack, and ate from food trucks during a Spoon concert with friends Paul and Cindy on a perfect summer night. And then we were honored to be celebrated with an al fresco dinner at Bernie and Cindy’s house with a group of dear friends, with a Mississippi River menu that included Lisa’s lemonade and Minnesota trout and Iowa corn and Cajun shrimp and grilled pork and corn bread and Izzy’s ice cream (Cindy’s suggestion: “get rocky road,” a fitting selection.) We were also humbled and delighted by cards and notes from friends and family, and by the gift of a beautiful book of Thomas Paquette’s paintings from our friend Sally; he painted his way down the Mississippi from the headwaters in Itasca State Park to Louisiana, and the paintings are gorgeous. Perhaps it is not surprising that after we walked over to Now Sports to pick up our bikes when they were reassembled on the 4th of July, we rode downtown to the Day by Day Cafe for breakfast, and started talking about our next long bike trip over eggs and toast and coffee.

The truth is, we miss it. We miss that rocky road; we miss being outside and experiencing the unknown and the simplicity of days just riding bikes, even though we love being back home, with people who know us and with all of the comforts of this life we have created. And we miss the south in a way that we did not expect, and the food and people and history and extraordinary beauty we encountered.

It was humbling to discover that so many people were reading this blog while we biked, and we have been struggling to figure out how to end, or continue it…we really liked writing together, and we realize that our day to day life may not lend itself to an ongoing blog. Or maybe it does.

Today Dan took his bike into a local bike shop, Grand Performance, after he had a recurring flat on the Old Abe Trail outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We camped there over the weekend so we could attend the Eaux Claires festival (did I already say we love live music?) This was year four of the festival, and it has consistently been an interesting mix of creative musicians and artists and writers assembling at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers, which is unlike any other festival in terms of collaboration and the unexpected. We typically camp and bring our bikes along, and Dan’s back tire was looking pretty low yesterday before we set out on a 50 mile ride. I will let him tell the rest of the story because it is like the perfect bookend to this homecoming post…

Dan: Lisa has written beautifully of the odd experience of returning to the familiar after a sojourn in a strange land.

I have a couple of observations. When anyone suggested in New Orleans that we should ride home, I could only think ‘that’s absolutely impossible to even consider’ and yet, now, a couple of weeks later, my thinking is that we were getting this adventure cycling thing figured out. Of course we could have done it. Because we’ve learned you can do these things. One day at a time, you can do almost anything. (Including change the world, I hope.) So now, we are planning our coming trips, even before the end of the season. Stay tuned.

And on machines and mechanics: I really admire the bike, I tried to write of that during our trip. It is a marvelous machine – relatively simple, very efficient and mostly true to the original designs of the 19th century. But a bike needs attention, especially when pushed the way we pushed them. You all know of Lisa’s tire troubles. So this weekend, riding in Wisconsin, my tire went flat. I didn’t have a reliable replacement tube and Lisa had to ride 20 miles back to the car and return to pick me up.

Today, I took the wheel into one of St. Paul’s high performance bike shops, near campus. I chatted for a few minutes about changing tires, about methods and tools. Then I left the wheel with the mechanics and came back in a hour, the tube replaced. They determined that I’d picked up a tiny piece of wire which pierced the tube. (Sound familiar yet?) I thanked them, bought some new, and supposedly better, tire levers, and went back to work. At the end of the day I went home to install the wheel and found it to still be flat after resting in the back seat for a couple hours. The shop was still open, so I went right back. Different mechanic this time. I waited and watched him remove the tire and tube and locate the hole. I asked if there was another wire poking through – he said the puncture wasn’t on the tire side, but the rim side. He replaced the rim tape (is this sounding familiar yet?) and put on another new tube and I walked out, thinking “well, more evidence that even expert mechanics can goof it up.”

Which we already knew. So, bottom line – I’m going to do it myself from now on. I’m going to work on the machine (zen and the art of bicycle maintenance) and understand that the machine I’m working on is myself. I look forward to getting my hands dirty.

We have more miles to go. Thank you, friends. We could not have done this without you.