Happy New Year!

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Since actual New Year’s Day, we’ve been to South Africa, got snowed in in Red Wing, Minnesota at the Big Turn Music Fest, and did a LOT of snow shoveling.

Now that it is March, we are looking at the coming season of biking and nice weather adventures. Dan got out this weekend for two 30 mile rides around town, dodging potholes, icy patches and dirty piles of melting snow.  It was wonderful to be back on the bike even under those conditions.

We are making some plans for the summer which you will hear more about in coming posts.  The first will be the Bike Around Missouri – a 300 mile, five day ride around central Missouri.  We’ll actually come pretty close to Hannibal, so that will be fun.  Also, this ride will be fully supported by our friends at Pork Belly Ventures (our outfitter when we rode RAGBRAI in 2017.)  Pork Belly provides some amazing amenities, including hot showers in a customized semi trailer, and a beer truck at the end of every day…and great music every night. So, as Lisa said, “It will be a training ride” since we don’t really have any worries and the individual days are not that long (daily average of about 60 miles.)  That will be in the second week of June (Dan will celebrate a birthday while on that trip.)

The second trip of the summer may be a bit more challenging:  we are planning on riding from our house in St. Paul to Chicago on the last days of July, arriving in time for the Lalapalooza music festival which starts on August 1.  We’ve booked our hotel in Chicago, and will be buying tickets for the festival soon.  We do, however, still need to do some work on the route.  I think we’ll follow the river down to LaCrosse, and then take advantage of Wisconsin’s extensive series of bike trails to get us over to the Milwaukee area and then follow the lakeshore into the city.  We’ll enjoy the big city for a couple days, and then take the Amtrak Empire Builder back to St. Paul.

More to follow on those ideas, but for now, let us wish you all a happy new fair weather biking season, safety and most of all, adventures!

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Ending summer

When I was about fifteen, a surfer movie came out called Endless Summer, and I loved it. It made me wish I’d been born in Southern California instead of Northern Iowa. But I eventually came to accept that my roots are deep in this place where summer ends rather dramatically and the green things dry up and the temperature drops and the leaves fall and need to be raked.  At the end of summer in my part of this country, the harvest comes, and it is a time of celebration.  September is my favorite month, beginning with the State Fair, bringing cool nights and some healing rains after the heat of July and August.

Summer officially ended last Saturday evening with the autumnal equinox.  At that moment, Lisa and I were sitting by a fire on the shore of Lake Pepin, a large, wide section of the Mississippi River at Lake City, Minnesota.  Lake Pepin is a popular spot for sailing and is said to be the birthplace of water skiing.  Our 80 mile bike trip down there capped off a remarkable three weeks during which we closed down a remarkable summer.  We were experiencing the last of a series of events which truly were a confluence of the river, music, biking and friendship.

On the second Saturday in September, we hosted our ninth nearly annual backyard concert – during which our sloped yard becomes an amphitheater and a musician or band we admire performs for our friends and neighbors.  The show is a benefit for our favorite environmental organization, Friends of the Mississippi River.  FMR advocates for the protection of the Mississippi within the Twin Cities metropolitan area.  We book the performer, invite our friends, family and neighbors, fill a canoe with beverages, and provide a table to hold the many gifts of food that everyone contributes.  It has become a highlight of the summer for us, and we’ve been able to introduce our guests to musicians and to the work of FMR, and as a recognition of this too-often-taken-for-granted resource from which most of us get our water (and, remember, your body is 80% water). Lisa and I walk, run, bike, and drive across the Mississippi River every day, most often on the high Lake Street bridge from which we can see the gleaming buildings of downtown Minneapolis, the rowers down on the water and the gorge itself, lined with forest and cliffs.  It is beautiful, and many times we’ve been there as the bright moon shone down on us, or as an eagle or two circled over the river looking for fish.

Our show this year featured the music of the delightful Lucy Wainwright Roche, who was on tour in the region (with her dog Maeby) and who responded quickly to our invitation to play for the fundraiser.  The evening was perfect, and we had more people sitting on the hillside than ever before, and they contributed more generously than ever before, raising over $4,000 for FMR.  We couldn’t have been happier with the evening that felt as though it was the celebration of the end of this adventurous summer.

And then last week we attended the FMR annual gala at a beautiful event space in downtown Minneapolis, celebrating their 25th anniversary as an organization with a variety of artists speaking to the theme “The River Inspires.”  It was a stormy night and we drove through a downpour to the party.  We’d invited our great friends Tom, Joe and Jill to join us, making it an even better evening as we were audience to poetry, art,  storytelling, and music inspired by the Mississippi.

Our friends at FMR had asked us to compile a playlist of river songs to close out the evening.  Making a playlist of our favorite river songs wasn’t easy – not because it is hard to find music about the river, but because there is so much – after all, the Mississippi has been a musical highway and an inspiration forever.  Lisa and I worked on it together and over a few weeks came up with a list that we called “River Stories.”  Some of the stories are happy (Greg Brown’s “Mississippi Serenade”) and some are pretty melancholy (Lissie’s “Oh Mississippi.”)  It contains Delta blues and songs about the floods and storms that have destroyed so many places and lives over time as well as songs about the spiritual river – “I’m going to lay down my heavy load, down by the riverside.” Through all the songs, the Mississippi keeps flowing, and we give thanks for the opportunity to sit on the banks and watch and meditate.  As Bob Dylan writes,

But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

The list began to acquire a kind of logic – we started at the north, with local musicians, and worked our way south – from Peter Ostroushko to Greg Brown to Pokey LaFarge to Bessie Smith and James Cotton and down to Aaron Neville.  It turned out to be a fun and creative experience.  Here it is if you’d like to listen (if it doesn’t play, or only samples from here,  open with Spotify to hear the whole song.)

And then last Saturday morning, we woke up to get on our bikes, packed with the tent, sleeping bags and a few clothes for one last overnight biking adventure along the river.  In this part of the country, the nights (and days) start getting pretty cool in September, and there were not many more weekends that we could attempt this trip.  We rode south on exactly the same route as we did last May 20, replicating the first day of our long ride.  It was very different, and so much the same – the hills had not gotten smaller!

In May, the corn was just getting started – it wasn’t more than a few inches high.  Now it is nine feet tall and golden brown and dry, the leaves rustling and crackling in the wind.  A few farmers had started to harvest.  Pumpkins are big and orange and we saw a large truck full of them on its way to a store somewhere.  In May, the lilacs were blooming and now the leaves were falling.  In May, we had no idea what lay ahead.  Now, we were full of memories from the summer.

We rode along this beautiful stretch of the river in the sun and wind and thought of Lucy Wainwright Roche’s song, “Last Time” –

Between forever and one day there is the finest line

And we knew this was maybe the last long ride in a remarkable year, and that we are ready to move into a quieter season, with more time inside, perhaps by a fire in the fireplace, trying to stay warm, day dreaming of next summer’s adventures.

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.

Day Twenty Eight: New Orleans walkabout

It was strange to be on foot all day yesterday rather than traveling by bike, but we had a lovely time wandering around the city.

We woke early and walked down to the Mississippi river and it was humid – tropical, even, by nine o’clock. Overheard the captain of the steamboat Natchez direct his crew through their drills (“we will now do the man overboard drill”), watched stone carvers put the finishing touches on a monument that is a tribute to immigration (donated by immigrants who arrived here under other presidencies), listened to some good music in the streets including at the National Parks Jazz monument where they had free jazz yoga underway with a ranger playing the piano, walked through the farmers market, and eventually took a break for beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde. The highlight was our stop at Faulkner House Books off of Jackson Square, located in a home where the writer William Faulkner lived for a time. The store is small (max capacity: twelve customers), but impressive, with a great collection of new and rare books. We walked in, looking a little sweaty and ragtag, and Dan asked if they had first editions of Faulkner’s books, and the woman (Joanne) working there said they were in the locked case, and Dan said that well, we were not likely to be buying any, and Joanne said “and I had such high hopes.” That was the start to a great conversation and she later put Dan in charge of the store while she stepped out and returned with a rare first edition of The Sound and the Fury valued at over $19,000. “The past is never dead, it is not even past” is a Faulkner quote that we cited many times as we made our way through Mississippi along the Natchez Trace, and the complex, tragic characters in his novels seemed very real and close by during our time there, so it was great fun to visit the books and rare letters at that lovely little shop.

The afternoon was spent in part by the hotel pool reading, and later I went off to find a salon for a pedicure while Dan took a nap (we are now doing vacation things!) We were delighted to discover prosecco and chocolate-covered strawberries in our room with a congratulatory card from the Gergen-Burkes, which was a very generous surprise, and later headed out for dinner at Herbsaint, which came highly recommended by friend Melissa B. Dan sent her a note telling her we had a reservation for last night, and she replied, “I have three words for you: Get The Gumbo.” And we did, and it was sublime, as was the rest of the meal.

As we sit out on our little patio with coffee this Sunday morning we catch the occasional sounds of the city drifting over us – music from a calliope, horns playing gospel hymns, and it is very peaceful. We are getting ready for more adventures in the city today, including the art museum and Preservation Hall. We are also sending our love and best wishes to Dan’s brother Tom as he sets off today with a group on a transcontinental bike trip…by comparison, our hills were considerably smaller than the mountains he will climb….looking forward to hearing about his adventures from the west to the east coast.

Day Twenty Seven: LaPlace, LA to New Orleans, LA

We woke yesterday, as we have so many mornings in the last month, to the sounds of highway workers who were staying next door at the days comfort super six eight rodeway motel inn getting up at the crack of dawn to get back out to work.

Our typical first thoughts when we woke were on how far we had to ride, what the weather looked like and how soon we had to leave. Then, we’d rise, try to find clean biking clothes, pack our panniers and grab a bite at the free continental breakfast and mount up.

This last morning, though, we knew we only had about 45 miles to ride and that they were largely on the bike path on top of the river levee on the east bank of the Mississippi so we didn’t feel too rushed. We had to return the truck and then find our way to the levee, but got good advice from a lovely former school administrator who was working at the hotel about how to get there easily. It was sunny and hot, even at a little after 9:00 AM.

The lady at the rental place said “you’re riding into New Orleans? That’s a long way!” Then she advised us to go easy on the Hurricanes and sent us on our way.

We found our trail and began a leisurely and thoughtful final day’s ride, except for when it was pouring rain. The levee is about 30 feet high so we had a good view to our right and left.

The Mississippi is really wide here, and deep enough for ocean going vessels to sail twenty miles upstream. The ships are visiting the many chemical and refining and agriprocessing plants that lined the river in our early miles. We rode by Norco, Destrehan, St. Rose, Kenner, and through a variety of environments, from industrial to residential.

On our right was the river, close by and lined by trees and wetlands. On our left, the river road and development. Mixed in with the industry were plantations, strip malls, and around Kenner, really nice residential neighborhoods. We saw lots of birds, including egrets and red-billed ducks and one bright green parrot (or parakeet, but big), and over and between the trees to the right, the smokestacks of huge ships.

We entered the city through the beautiful Audubon Park and then followed St. Charles (we were now sharing the street with traffic) and rode along the streetcar tracks past fabulous homes, block after block. Lisa, who has visited NOLA a few times, started to recognize the neighborhood and soon we were pulling into Jackson Square with its artists and tourists.

It is hard to express what we were feeling as we looked at each other and realized we were done; we are sappy people, and we both got a little teary. We’d ridden 1,427 miles since May 20, through 9 states, on busy highways and county roads, chased by dogs and one goat; we’d crossed and ridden beside countless rivers, the greatest rivers of the heartland, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee; we’d had breakdowns and resolved them with the help and kindness of complete strangers.

And now we were standing at our destination, trying to absorb the moment. We walked around grinning, wanting to tell everyone what we’d done. We grabbed a couple and asked them to take our picture by the Bourbon Street sign and they turned out to be from Wisconsin and had many questions for us.

We walked over to a restaurant where we could hook our bikes up and keep an eye on them and ordered a popcorn shrimp po boy and beer. Of course we told our waiter we’d just arrived on our bikes and he took our picture, and then the manager said to Lisa “I commend you on your travels!”

We walked down Bourbon Street to our hotel, the Royal Sonesta, and rolled our bikes into the fancy lobby. Lisa said “this is the nicest hotel our bikes have ever been in!” The staff knew we’d biked in, and had received the bag that Lisa’s sister had shipped down with regular clothes. I’d also spoken the night before with one of the desk managers, Rita, who recognized that my name was Norwegian (she came from Norway) and she actually recognized us right away. (There weren’t too many others in the lobby who looked like us.) We sat out in the courtyard and waited a while for the room to get ready, and then Rita and Brian, the hotel’s Director of Rooms, came out and told us that they’d upgraded us to a two story room opening on to a small private patio. We were gobsmacked as the bellman took us to the beautiful room. He said that in 45 years working at the hotel, he’d only seen people arrive by bike three times.

After we showered (and got into clothes that weren’t Lycra) we walked down to the Spotted Cat for music and to meet our friend Carlos, who’d bused to NOLA from Natchez. As many possibilities as there were for fun last night, Lisa and I started to flag at 9:30 and we ended up walking home and climbing into a huge comfortable bed for a long night’s sleep. We are in New Orleans till Tuesday and have a long list of music, food and museums to experience. We might even ride those bikes one more time before we ship them home.