Sunday, September 9, 2012

Where Do You Want to Go, Really?

I was telling a local cyclist about my dream bicycle tour, one I've imagined for years. It is still a matter of wishful thinking for now, but nonetheless I've mapped it all out: 650 miles of cycling up the coast, from the North Shore of Massachusetts to the easternmost tip of Downeast Maine. The coastline is jagged there and hugging it makes for a decidedly circuitous route. And my plan is to hug every curve - to not let the ocean out of my sight if I can help it. The cyclist I was talking to - an experienced bicycle tourist - said that the logistics of my plan sounded solid, but that it seemed like an awful lot of work for such a bleak destination. Do I realise how stark and desolate that area is? The picturesque Maine everyone envisions - with its seaside farms, historical houses and sandy beaches - is actually in the southern part of the state. There are some popular scenic New England routes that I might want to consider instead.

In fact my choice of route is deliberate and I know exactly what that area is like. Still, I am taking the warning seriously. Often we imagine what we think is a dream destination, only to learn that it's not that great to actually cycle there. It can be a matter of traffic, of overly challenging terrain, of insufficient amenities, or even of scenery that, while beautiful, becomes unexpectedly monotonous at bicycling speed. Or maybe our memory of a place focuses on one specific spot that is stunning to visit, but glosses over the fact that the route to it is in itself unremarkable. I have had these experiences on local rides, so I can certainly imagine the disappointment on a long tour. After all, a tour is something we need to to plan for, take time off work - we want it to be special and worth it.

So how can we tell where we want to go, really? Reading others' ride reports of the route we are considering might be helpful. It's also worth paying attention to what we personally enjoy and don't enjoy about the cycling experience. I know that I prefer rough scenery to the more manicured postcard-pretty stuff. I like sparsely populated areas. I love to see bogs overgrown with green algae, dilapidated barns, ghostly forests. I don't mind badly maintained roads. I prefer as little car traffic as possible and am willing to pay for the backroads experience by climbing extra hills. I do not grow bored of looking at the ocean. But I also cannot ride for long in direct sunlight, and I know that coastal routes tend to have much less shade than inland routes. It's hard to say whether my hypothetical dream ride along the Maine coast will be enjoyable in practice. But it's nice to dream for now.

How have your dream bicycling destinations measured up against reality?

44 comments:

  1. I very much understand your attraction to cycling the N.E. coast. I've done quite a bit of MA, NH, and ME (up to about Cape Rosier). Lovely country, but WAY too much traffic in warm weather; also, high speed of auto traffic on ME roads coupled with poor or no shoulders is frequently scary.

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  2. Frame it as seeing or experiencing the region, then the ups and downs are just part of the experience. Bad experiences can make the best stories, assuming you live to tell the tale.
    Thirty years ago we came into Maine from New Brunswick and rode down to Portland. At Bucksport, the traffic was so bad that we went inland for the rest of the way. Always be willing to change your plans.
    What about Nova Scotia as a destination from New England?

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  3. I've long dreamt of taking a sabbatical and riding with my son all the way down to Peru from Vancouver so that we can visit Machu Picchu.

    I'm told it's an impossible trip, but you're right. It's nice to dream... :)

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    1. Actually you could do that for less than $500

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    2. Check out the bicycle touring site crazyguyonabike.com
      I'll bet you find journals there for your dream ride. Alaska to southern most Argentina is quite popular for those who have the time.

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  4. I like desolate too. Farms can be pretty to look at but they're not "nature". Closest I ever came to a dream destination was riding from Camden, NJ out to Long Beach Island when I was in law school. You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned monotonous. I took Rte. 70 to Rte. 72 and just went... about 60 miles or so. It was a pretty flat busy two lane road through the Pine Barrens almost the entire way there. Nice to say "I did it" but I wouldn't bother doing it again. Hopefully your ride to the Maine coast will be more fun.

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    1. Matt, I know that route and yes, it is long, tedious and full of traffic. If you are still in the area you could consider a trip I took was from Haddonfield to Stone Harbor with many pleasant back roads. Following the county roads will get you there with plenty to see with little traffic except when you get closer to Stone Harbor and you only have Rt 40 to go with.

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  5. Your post made me think back to the issue of BQ on British Lightweights that featured several idyllic drawings of British countryside by Frank Patterson. These kinds of images were very inspiring as I started touring by bicycle. I seek many of the same thinks you do in a dream ride: winding roads, the shade of forrest, climbs that lead to breathtaking vistas, real natural environments.

    For me it is a great tragedy of our times that so much scenic countryside, in the UK certainly but especially in North America, is ruined by oppressive modern roads and choking traffic. I have often found that beautiful destinations are preceded by frustrating rides through soulless suburbs full of boxstores and highway collector roads. When I try using rail trails that provide a bit of respite from traffic, the ride often leaves me cold due to the constant level grade and straight lines.

    Finding the ideal is tricky these days but little gems can be still be found. Usually it is the cultural vitality of a region that saves such a tour. I prefer to explore truly rural environments or bustling urban centres rather than environments that cater to tourists. From a recent trip through the Laurentians in Quebec, it is the cuisine that lingers in my mind more than the riding itself—but the riding made the dining magical.

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  6. What about driving the route and paying attention to things like sections of trees for shade, alternative routes for shade, how far apart services are, or too boring after all? I love the sound of it myself as I love remote, quiet wildness, especially seeing the ocean that much. If you read the BQP blog, they recently did a test run of a 600k brevet in a very short period. You should just take some time out and do this dream tour, regardless of what other people say, or what you might worry about. It's one trip. You could do it in the fall or spring when the weather is mild, take breaks if the sun is too much.
    Now, I live on a very beautiful stretch along the west coast. The highway does not hug the coastline, only for short periods do you see it. But the scenery is gorgeous and always loved driving up to the lakes and wild spaces when I had a car. But, I have done it so many times, it's so engrained in my brain that it is a bit 'boring'. My husband routinely bikes all the way and back (at least 80k each way), but he's got the bikes and the chops for it. I always wanted to bike it, and finally got a touring bike a few years ago. My husband was itching to go bike touring so this was to be just a little ride. I tried it once and I hated it. He had insisted the road was quiet and safe. Not so, it's the only road up the coastline and connects ferries, so the traffic is usually frantic. No shoulder to speak of, and very twisty. To be fair, my bike was not set up properly and I was having a hard time, but every pedal was a slog! Very very hilly, which in itself isn't a problem, but with the scary shoulder/lack of shoulder and impatient drivers, I was overly hesitant. And it was boring. While there were sections of arbutus trees and sparkles of nearby coastline, it was mostly cycling along a tunnel of massive dark cedars and firs. It's also mostly populated with homes, cottages, rich people estates and one or two shopping villages, so it wasn't totally wild, nor was it pastoral which I am fond of(old barns, cows, goats, alpacas, horses etc) It took many hours instead of 2-3. The only times I cheered up was when we were close to the ocean or cycling along a lake. We had plans to swim at a beautiful lake,eat at the nearby restaurant and stay at his parents at the end of the road. It was so dark and late. No swim, the restaurant was getting ready to shut down so it was rushed... then something broke on my husband's drive train just in the last stretch. Hah! So, we got a ride home the next day.
    My husband was not amused, but I swore I would never do it again. There are of course streams of road cyclists pummelling away on the hills riding carbon fibre steeds and team colours, but the highway does have a bad reputation amongst cyclists.

    I've ridden long distances, used to go off for hours on prairie dirt roads and have to out pedal farm dogs, so it is not like I couldn't do the distance. A trip any of the gulf islands however is a different experience. No shoulders usually, but the speed limit is only 40 for the most part and roads often dead quiet. In spite of the murderous hills, I always enjoy it.

    Think about what you need. Make sure your bike is set up and comfortable, if there are long stretches between people that can help, be prepared. For example, in the Fall, wasps always get crazy, start dying down and will sting for no reason at all. At this stage their venom is much stronger so it can be dangerous, or at least very very very unpleasant. If I were to go on a long ride now, I'd definitely take something for wasp stings!!

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    1. "What about driving the route"

      Does not compute! : )

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  7. Expectations are dangerous when traveling. Being in the moment can give life to any situation. A friend solo bicycled around the world and said she found the most interesting and memorable experiences to be those which were somehow surprising/unexpected or completely counter to her intuition. Boredom is always part of the deal when pedaling for weeks at a time but it helps give a perspective one could not have had had they not been open to what was right in front of them if they could only pause to experience and observe.

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  8. I was going to say that traffic sucks so much that not much else matters, but I see others beat me to it.

    A nice trip that is currently not possible, we took with a bunch of boy scouts six years ago. Drive to Portland, cat ferry to Yarmouth NS, ride a big circle through Kejimkujik National Park. This is a lot of what got me rebooted onto my bicycle. Boringest day of the bunch was from Atlantic coast to Keji NP, rest were pretty good. Amenities were dicey for a group our size -- we had to sleep in a rec center one night, and another day was 75 miles long (lots of us took the sag van after mile #50, a crucial milestone for the cycling badge) -- but that should not be a problem for one or two riders. Mosquitos, don't underestimate the mosquitos.

    My inclination is to not sweat the amenities; I can ride 100k/day on a cargo bike (meaning, I can carry whatever I want) without suffering. Biggest worry is that I might get tired of rodent and/or bear-proofing my food each night (effing tree-rats gnawed a hole in my freeloaders once because I had left some nuts there -- this in the wilderness of my suburban back yard). On that boy scout trip, we also had raccoons invade our stuff one night, and heard "something" shuffling around the campsite that turned out to be a porcupine. So don't forget to add that to the equation, if you are planning on camping to fill in gaps in the amenities.

    If you're planning to be in the boonies, how are you set for on-the-road bike repair? For example, can you replace broken spokes on the road? (Cargo bike, I carry tools and some parts)

    For sun, ditch the helmet, get a big floppy hat, and wear long-sleeve seersucker.

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    1. I was really upset when I found out the CAT was shut down a few years ago.

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  9. I have ridden a little bit in that area. The coastal route #1 can be ridiculously crowded in the summer - fine for a bike though, and this time of year is probably much better. Cheap fresh lobster and ocean views around every corner and Mount Desert Island for a change of scenery when you get there. Really nice folks and amazing indigenous music in that part of the world too. Go for it.

    Jay

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  10. In 2002 my wife and I rode the length of Prince Edward Island, using the then-new Confederation Trail as a guide. PEI is beautiful, but what we learned is that the rail trail doesn't necessarily go to the most beautiful parts -- a lot of it is just mile after mile of potato fields. The coastal roads were a lot more interesting. Back then, at least, outside of the immediate area of Charlottetown, there wasn't much car traffic on PEI at all, and the drivers were super-nice (as are most people up there). The rail trail itself is mostly gravel, so we did it on mountain bikes; knowing what I know now, I'd do it on something more like your road-to-trail bikes. But we had a great time. It's like Maine, minus about twenty years.

    Right now, we're planning a ride from Montreal to NYC via the Adirondacks, Lake Champlain, and the Hudson Valley (or maybe the other way around). If anybody's got advice on that route, we'd appreciate it -- click to my profile and email. Thanks!

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  11. I have many "dream" routes and did one this summer - Canada's Icefield Parkway. It was better than I ever could have imagined it.

    Other tours I'm looking forward to are from Corvallis (family lives there) back to San Francisco (my home); Yreka to Lake Tahoe (via Lassen); and Palo Alto to Cambria (via Highway 1). The more touring I do - the longer my list gets.

    Highway 25 in California is awesome, so is Highway 198. I love Indian Valley Road and Peachtree Ave, too. The Columbia River Route would be better if it wasn't an interstate but there is always the Washington side (Route 14).

    Again, the older I get and the longer I ride, the greater the list.

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  12. With well-timed beers, you can get through anything.

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  13. As a resident of midcoast Maine, I'd say your friend is wrong. Southern Maine is still basically North Shore lite until you get a ways past Portland. In my opinion, my state's best cycling is slightly inland in Knox and Waldo counties -- beautiful farmland, no traffic, and hilly vistas for miles. Come visit, you'll see!

    Personally, the White Mountains of NH via the Kancamagus hway is on my bucket list, along with D2R2 and pretty much all of Vermont.

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  14. I'll also add that midcoast and downeast Mainers call folks from Mass (and even Southern Maine sometimes) "flatlanders." The hills around here are beautifully challenging -- not in a Colorado kind of way, but still.

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  15. Reggie - I am no stranger to Maine and my favourite part is past Bar Harbor. But I'll admit it's not for everyone. I would love to ride in Knox and Waldo counties. So far on a bike I have not gone past Wells.

    I've lived in NH near the White Mountains. The Kancamagus highway is a bit touristy, but I hear there are backroads (possibly dirt?) that run parallel and are especially good for cycling.

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    1. Thanks for the tip. The Kancamagus has been in my imagination for a couple of years now.

      The area past Bar Harbor is lovely. There are 85+ miles of bike paths starting in Ellsworth and ending near Calais. Not the coastline meander you envision, but still cool.

      Oh, if you liked riding around Harvard, I think you'd love parts of our Knox/Waldo county. Lots of postcard farms and dilapidated trailers coexisting. The dirt road rides sometimes make me feel like this:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zngFqsSKsbc

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    2. I'm interested in hearing more about this dirt-road route that parallels the Kangcamagus.

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  16. Just because it's a challenge doesn't make it not "worth it". It sounds like you know what to expect - maybe it's the challenge itself that is drawing you in. Perhaps it's a place that no matter how hard to deal with, you want to know how that place feels. I say - prepare yourself with good equipment and clothing - don't rationalise it too much - just go out there and experience the place as it is. There's no better way than by Bicycle.

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  17. Over a recent New Hampshire vacation, I planned a ride over Pinkham Notch, Evans Notch, and Hurricane Mountain Road. I never had the time to do it but I did drive it (carbon nap, don't ask) and changed my mind. Evans and Hurricane Mountain Road are fine and I have climbed the latter so I know it is possible. But the narrow sections of 16 and 2 east of Gorham would be somewhere between unpleasant and unsafe. Scouting helps.

    Having said that, I think that touring and coming to something you didn't know and dealing with it is the way to go. There are some fabulous places along the Maine coast that are definitely worth seeing on a bike:

    Prouts Neck, where you can see Mt Washington, Hapswell Islands Road (down and back and ditto about Mt Washington), Schoodic Peninsula, the blueberry barrens east of Machias, the weirdness of the radio installation at Little Machias Bay, Quoddy Head. There are a million other gems that I haven't seen by bicycle or haven't seen at all and you'd be finding them.

    Coastal roads might have heavy traffic but inland roads, north of Ellsworth, have logging trucks and they will let you know that you are in the way in unkind ways, at least in my experience.

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    1. Your 3rd paragraph - pretty much the stuff I am after! There are all sorts of interesting things even further out as well.

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  18. i became fixated with doing a big ride somewhere, and whenever I'd look at a map of the northeast, my eyes always veered towards the huge expanse of green that is the Adirondacks! I finally did a ride in early August: 450 miles in 5 days. lots of climbing, lots of heat. but really, it was no ideal for cycling. the Adirondacks are better for hiking, simply because there is pretty much only one route through the actual park: a big huge road (albeit with a nice safe shoulder). nevertheless, we had a fun time, but i've learned that for now, I'll stick to destinations that offer less-busy roads. At least there were the views, random backroads, wonderful people, and MASSIVE downhills...

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  19. Go San Francisco to Santa Barbara...it is better. :)

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    1. You mean you also have some sort of ocean over there?

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  20. Oh, you are speaking my language! I live and bike in mid-coast Maine, and spend a lot of weekends on the carriage roads on MDI with my trail-keeping partner. Route 1 (my daily work commute) can be intense in the summer time. Once you get really "downeast," it does thin out, but the sun is intense. I would second the readers who recommended some inland routes--it is gorgeous, laid back and full of friendly towns and people.

    You may want to look into the Downeast Sunrise Trail, one of the state's many "Rails to Trails" projects.

    My secret dream would be to head north to Canada. I've seen the Gaspe pennisula of Quebec and it seemed wild, beautiful and remote.

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    1. The Gaspe a great place to tour and it's also a great place to speak French - English is not a commonly spoken language east of Quebec City. The main road is not too busy and the rolling hills substantial. Nova Scotia (been there twice on bicycle tours), New Brunswick, and PEI are all great places to tour and, I think, a natural extension of the landscape and culture of downeast Maine, though of a different flavor.

      I once considered Newfoundland but never made it there.

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    2. I second the suggestion of the Gaspé Peninsula! We did the southern half last summer (at that point we didn't have the fitness or the bikes to tackle the big hills of the northern coast) and it was very close to what you seem to like about Maine: desolate stretches, almost always in view of the water, tiny coastal towns. We camped most nights (for budgetary reasons) and most of the sites were on cliffs overlooking the ocean - incredible!

      Plus! The bike infrastructure is very very good for 80% of the way, thanks to the Route Verte (Quebec's amazing cycling network). Even though you are mostly following the coastal (and the only major) road, there are huge paved shoulders specifically for cyclists along almost all of the route. It makes things much less stressful and allows you to just enjoy the ride.

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  21. It probably helps to be motivated by more than just the act of cycling, scenery and hills and instead to add some 'alternative' goals in the mix as well.

    What about riding to the 10 highest public houses in Britain (I like the odd pint... ;)

    Another I always thought would be nice would be the south of France to north of France via the Alps, but starting in San Remo after watching the one-day classic and finishing in Roubaix in the velodrome in time for the finish of that one too...

    That would be a good, solid ride with a party at the end!

    David
    www.andbike.cc

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  22. Next week I'll be cycling through the Scottish Borders, 6 days of quiet roads and rolling hills, castles and abbeys. Really looking forward to it.

    My all time favourite tour was 20 years ago, 3 weeks through Arizona and Utah, Phoenix to Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion. It was fantastic and I'd love to go back. Our only "plan" was to go to the Grand Canyon, which didn't disappoint. However it was the desert that really impressed us. It had rained in the week before we arrived and lots of the cacti and other plants were in flower. Going from Sedona, 90 degrees and full sun, to Flagstaff, snowstorm, was interesting.

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  23. Adventure Cyling may have some advice. They map routes for cyclists. http://www.adventurecycling.org/routes/

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  24. Your dream trip sounds wonderful to me. Perhaps if you went late enough in the year the sun would be low enough to stave off burn risk. That may leave you open to weather issues. Possibly accomodations may be limited as well, with many of the north Atlantic coast hotels and restaurants closed come end of tourist season.

    Weather issues complicated my cross country trip. I did a variation of the Northern Tier riding from Seattle to Nantucket with a bit of southern Canada thrown in. As I do not handle hot weather riding well, I originally planned to ride east to west starting late enough to hit the Northern Plains in early autumn. People more familiar with the ride told me this could leave me at risk of encountering inclement weather in the plains and worse, impassable conditions on all but the busiest roads when I started into the mountains in western Montana.

    West to East was great through Glacier National Park. With the exception of two days in the higher elevations in west North Dakota, GNP through Minneapolis was a miserable slog through blistering Northern Plains heat. The first day or two endless expanses of wheat fields, cow pasture and oil rigs had its charms, I suppose. By the third day the heat was really getting to me. On the bright side, the leaves were changing colors by the time I reached upstate New York. Beautiful as it was, it also meant I had to share the back roads with many car driving tourists as new to the area as I. Nantucket in mid-October was glorious. 60s to 70s in the daytime, almost all the tourists gone.

    In hindsight, I probably should have taken Amtrak from Glacier to Minneapolis and planned to visit western North Dakota some other time. I would not be able to brag I road coast to coast but would have had a much more pleasant ride over all.

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  25. when a cycling tour is not what I dreamed it can all get a bit nightmarish with existential angst - especially when it involves big barren spaces, but sometimes also when it really doesn't (cycling alone on the corniches between Nice and Genova for example), i find dissociating on a fast bicycle helps

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  26. People too often simply overlook the beauty in their backyard. Sometimes things are just too close for people to focus and put in the proper perspective. Load up, don't overthink it,pedal out and enjoy. The adversity you might experience is part of the beauty.

    Marc

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  27. Touring is a great experience, but I wouldn't call the riding aspect of it fun. Pedaling a fully loaded bike, for me, requires an attitude adjustment. Fast rides on a light bike are the best. I love the feel of a good bike, the thrill of speed, the feel of the air, and in general the positive feeling it leaves me with. Touring is different. Headwinds, cross winds, slow pace and monotony, and all that weight. But it's worth it. One can meander, meet great folks along the way, experience the landscape differently. I'd like to do the southwest and the eastern side of the Rockies. I've been down the Oregon/California coast and through the Cascades and through southern and central Maine but the desert seems fascinating.

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  28. Figured out a long time ago there's no place like home.
    Let the world come to you. Entertain visiting cyclists.

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  29. Portland, Oregon south along the coast for as many days as you can make free. I've done that twice, 10 years apart, and expect that I'll do it a few more times at least before I die. You should consider it at least once!

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    1. todd--this year's cycle oregon route also looks lovely. what is it, about 500 miles? doing that with a couple of buddies sounds like fun!

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  30. "How have your dream bicycling destinations measured up against reality?"

    Twenty years ago, not very well. Probably there was over-ambition.

    Went back to basics and worked on process for short overnight rides: one day on the bikes, one overnight, a second day on the bikes. And gear. Learning how to take small bites. And deciding whether we like this and can get good at this at its basic level. Larger bites came later with proficiency, and you know: the patient destinations didn't disappear.

    Not for everyone, though.

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  31. It's not where I really want to go so much as WHEN I want to go. I want to go to about 1948 or so to maybe 1965. Anywhere that helps create the impression of having slipped back a bit is helpful. That means rougher roads, simpler food in dustier lunchrooms, out of the way State Parks and the occasional tractor shed or the Pavillion between the Church and the cemetery in some spot where the lights from town don't crowd out the stars. Slightly rusty water from a pump would be a good sign.

    I do enough 21st century travel already, I'd like to go see if I can find enough of the remaining bits of my parents world to string together into a week or ten days of wandering... I think I could just about do it in West Virginia or Central Texas.

    Spindizzy

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  32. I dreamed of completing the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Banff, Alberta to Antelope Wells, NM in one, two month tour. My co-habitant, who is way smarter than myself, suggested I try a short section to see if this style of touring was really what I dreamed of. She is rarely, if ever, wrong so this past July I spent 8 days fully loaded cycling from Banff to Whitefish, MT (344 miles) primarily on gravel and dirt through the Canadian Rockies. It was an epic tour in every way and the resulting photos and journal are a source of great pride. The dream, however, was quite different than reality. It was very demanding in every respect and while I can see myself completing it in sections, the dream of one tour is most definitely off my list.

    As for your dream tour, I love the rocky coast of Maine and especially the Canadian Maritimes. On my short list: Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and Newfoundland. Strictly a "credit card" tour, though. After the Great Divide, no more camping. I like regional B&Bs. That's how you meet the locals and that's what touring is all about.

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