Many Thanks

By Laura in Siem Reap, Cambodia

During our bike trip, we regularly updated a Notes file on our iPod Touch entitled “People to Thank!” It was a list of everyone who went out of their way to help us. People we didn’t want to forget to thank. When we arrived back in NYC, we put together this photo collage, printed it out as postcards, and sent it to everyone on the list.

It was a small gesture that hopefully communicated the large amount of gratitude we felt- and continue to feel- about the help we received on our way across the country. We experienced it in every state.

People opening their homes to us, cooking for us, giving good directions, sharing a cold beer at the campground, letting us sleep in their yard, paying for our breakfast at a diner, lending us gear we needed. A free bike tune-up, a much needed razor, a tip on a good restaurant, a lift across a dangerous bridge, unrestrained enthusiasm about our endeavor. Help came in so many different forms.

Not everyone got postcards. We never even learned the names of many of the folks who assisted us in one way or another. But for those that we did- every host, every awesome bike shop, every extra special tour guide in Bourbon country- we sent word of our safe arrival in San Francisco and a thank-you.

I must say, the huge amount of support we received was an unexpected aspect of the trip for me. I expected to gain a new appreciation of our nation, meet fellow bike travelers, and turn into a strong long-distance cyclist. I did not expect to be so moved by people’s enthusiasm and willingness to help us along the way. Nearly three months after the end of our cross-country journey, it continues to impress me.

And so much of that help was from complete strangers. Sometimes people we connected with through Warm Showers. Sometimes people we met on the side of the road, or at a local bike shop. On numerous occasions, people we had just met offered, “stay as long as you like,” and really meant it. When does that happen?! Also, many times on our trip, hitch hiking became the best option. Trusting strangers is not something we are socialized to do. But in bike touring, and perhaps in traveling in general (probably in life in general), it is an extremely sensible and gratifying thing to do.

So right when we were feeling all warm and cozy and snug in our newly discovered country, we leave it on a one-way flight to Hong Kong.

And we’ve been traveling ever since- not on bikes. Two weeks in Hong Kong (visiting my bro, sis-in-law, and sweet baby nephew). Two weeks in Yunnan Province, China. Three weeks in Vietnam. One week in Cambodia- so far.

Totally different from bike touring across the US, of course. And totally wonderful. A new adventure, for sure. We are navigating through new landscapes, climates, languages, histories, architectural styles, food cultures, taboos. Visiting Angkor, the 12th Century Khmer capital, and seeing Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, is a memorable life experience. But as happy as Saul and I are to be traveling here, we often find ourselves thinking about/missing/extolling our bike trip. It was a really special time. An amazing shared experience and accomplishment. Our Angkor Wat.

I have to close this post with one last bike trip anecdote and a thank-you to someone whose address we don’t have.

Not to sound like a 21st Century American politician, but this one’s about Lisa in St. Martinville, Louisiana. We met her at a bar and made fast friends. Turns out the B&B we were staying at in this Cajun town used to be her school. We were sleeping in the room where she had typing class!

Lisa and her husband were really interested in our trip. They also were eager to hear about our impressions of Louisiana and their town. I gushed about the food, of course. They loved it and gave me an impromptu lesson on cooking gumbo. Later, Lisa had the cover band tell the whole bar about our trip- and forced us to dance. We could not keep up with the locals. (Another lesson learned. Want to learn how to dance? Grow up in Cajun country.) It was an unforgettable night in Louisiana, thanks to Lisa.

Weeks later, when our trip was done, we were up in Syracuse for Christmas. I discovered a box addressed to me. I hadn’t ordered anything, had I? Inside the box was a multi-year supply of Cajun seasons, Cajun roux, a kind letter, and a family gumbo recipe- all from Lisa!

Hopefully you’ll check the blog and see this, Lisa. Thank you so so much. It was the perfect thing to come home to.  I can’t wait to become a gumbo expert- when I have a kitchen again, that is!

Here’s a link to our Best Of X-Country Picassa album.

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Fin

By Laura in San Francisco, CA

The blogging may have stopped, but we didn’t.

After a month in the desert and a week on the coast, we arrived in San Francisco today.

How are we feeling? Hard to say. Certainly there is a sense of let down.

We’ve settled into this lifestyle. New people and new places all the time. Being outside all day long, often in stunningly beautiful environments. Pedaling has become more normal than walking. It’s shocking that this way of life is now over.

I’m a little sad to say there is a definite lack of euphoria with the completion of this trip. But that is ok, really. There have been countless euphoric moments along the way- and the journey, not the destination, is what’s important after all.

We are quite excited to be in the bay area, where we’ll be visiting friends and family for a week.

We are excited to fly home and see our friends and family. Enjoy our rock-star status for a while.

Also, of course, we are excited about the long stretch of open-ended international travel that lies ahead.

But, in truth, we are quite discombobulated by the idea that this journey is over.

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Land of Enchantment

By Laura in Safford, AZ

If we had stuck to the Adventure Cycling route, we wouldn’t have seen much of New Mexico. We would riden from El Paso to Las Cruces, NM, and then a mere 200 miles west before hitting the Arizona border. Sure, we’d go through Hatch, the chili pepper capital of New Mexico, but that’s about it.

Instead, we took the advice of our Warm Showers host, John. He is an engineer at the McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis, Texas. He strongly urged us to skip El Paso and the abominable interstate, go north to the Guadalupe Mountains (still Texas) and hit Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico). “You won’t regret it,” he told us. How could we ignore these words from a man who had so impressed us with his tour of the telescopes and his thorough understanding of the region’s geology? We couldn’t.

Taking John’s advice ended up being one of the best decisions of the trip. Effectively, we transformed our New Mexico experience into something big, wonderful, and as the state motto goes, enchanting.

Truly, this state blew our minds. It was like being on many different planets in the span of a few short days. One day, Carlsbad Caverns. An incrediblely deep, formation-rich cave. Absolutely stunning. The next day, back to scrubby desert. Yuccas all around. Then, Lincoln National Forest. A gradual climb of 4000 feet over about 50 miles to Cloudcroft, NM. We found ourselves in a full-on pine forest. How did that happen?!

Then, the icing on the cake, White Sands National Monument. After an incredible descent from Cloudcroft, we were back in the desert, but soon stumbled upon the gypsum dunes of White Sands. Camping in this sea of dunes, with a spectacular star show above, was a Little Prince-esque experience. We could actually feel ourselves perched on Earth, suspended in space.

We didn’t want to leave White Sands, though surely more enchantment lay ahead. After waking up early to watch the sun rise, we finally rallied and departed around 11am. The plan was 50 miles into Las Cruces, where we would rejoin the Adventure Cycling route. We even had a Warm Showers stay lined up for the night.

We knew we had to pass through the Organ Mountains, but what we didn’t count on was the headwind we enountered. The wind hit us well before the hill. It was strong and unrelenting. The mountains created a wind tunnel that was blowing directly in our faces. It was the kind of wind that makes an hour of riding feel like four. The kind of wind that makes you want to cry. Or scream. Or get off your bike- and possibly throw it.

We were pretty fatigued even before the incline started. We stopped for a roadside lunch of peanut butter and strawberry-jalepeno jelly sandwiches and dried fruit, hoping it would give us the energy we’d need to tackle the hill. It didn’t.

The wind obliterated any chance of a graceful climb. It was going to be long and hard. Five miles, to be exact. And, unfortunately, this was no pristeen mountainpass. We were on Rt 70, the only road from Alamogordo to Las Cruces. It was highly trafficed. The only thing worse then climbing with a headwind is climbing with a headwind and tons of cars speeding by. At least the road surface was ok.

Thankfully, in the midst of our struggle, Chance lent us a hand. Literally. He pulled up beside me in his pickup truck. Hat, mustache, a true cowboy. After miles of exhausting climbing, I was walking a particularly narrow stretch. “You don’t usually see bicyclists walking,” Chance said out the window. You sure don’t! But 30 mph gusts on your 4th mile of incline on a narrow shoulder in near rush hour traffic will do it. “You want a ride?” It was exactly what I was hoping to hear. Yes, please!

Chance gave us a lift all the to way into Las Cruces. He was pretty impressed by our trip and told us how he once traveled across New Mexico on horse. Now we were impressed! Chance deposited us at a shopping mall where his “honey” works. He was dropping by to say goodbye before going quail hunting with his buddies for the weekend. He admitted to us that he was actually better off quail hunting outside his house, where the quail were plentiful. The weekend was really more of a beer drinking thing.

We said goodbye to Chance and GPSed our way toward our Warm Showers host. It was one of those night where we were really going to appreciate a warm bed. White Sands had been magical- but freezing! John, our extremely hospitable Warm Showers host for the evening, welcomed us warmly. We ventured out for a meal before hitting the sack.

We wandered through the university area until we found The Game, a popular sportsbar. Our eyes lit up when we saw the beer menu. Finally, we were in the sphere of West Coast beer! We both had a hankering for a burger, fries- and an IPA. A perfect trifecta, when each element is done well. The Game did not disappoint. It was a deeply satisfying and memorable meal.

The rest of our time in New Mexico was filled with further challenges, rewards, and rescues.

There was the day we got stuck in a snow storm on a high mountain pass going into Silver City. That happened around eight in the morning and the wild weather did not cease. Pockets of grey clouds followed us and dropped cold sleet on us as we pedaled away. We were soaked, exhausted, and hungry, when William pulled up beside us about 5 miles outside of Silver City. He asked us if we needed accommodation and said that he regularly hosts cyclists. He had plenty of food at home as well.

We ended up spending a wonderful, restorative evening in the bungalow next to William’s house. We ate salad and cooked greens from his amazing greenhouse, spoke with our families on the phone, and felt incredibly grateful for William’s hospitality.

Mountains, desert, caves, sand dunes. Fields of white cotton next to fields of red chili peppers. Delicious food. Kind people. Never has a state motto rung so true.

Tejas

By Laura in Hope, New Mexico

New York felt like home. Pennsylvania barely counted. Ohio was our good omen state. Could the whole trip be this good? Kentucky answered yes. Tennessee was short and sweet. Alabama was like Pennsylvania. Mississippi was our cycling playground. Louisiana was a culinary paradise. And Texas? Texas was a behemoth.

But I can report, amazingly, that at no point in the three weeks it took us to transverse Texas did we ever feel antsy to leave. It’s just so regionally diverse. As New Yorkers, we can relate to this. Our crossing had three distinct phases: East Texas, Austin and Hill Country, and West Texas. Happily, our interest was held through each leg of the lone star state.

East Texas.

I’ll be blunt. At first, it sucked. Really sucked. Our Adventure Cycling route put us on some big highways. As soon as we crossed the state line, the speed limit shot up to 75 mph. Naturally, cars and trucks were speeding by at 85 and 90 mph. “This is insane!” we thought, as we clung to the right side of the shoulder.

On our second day, we were on some smaller roads. Hallelujah! Then the shoulder disappeared right at the same time as the logging trucks appeared. Huge flat beds filled with teetering masses of logs. Bark debris spewing everywhere. The speed limit went down to 65, so of course, logging trucks were doing about 75 mph. They tended to travel in packs. No fun at all.

But then, mercifully, we hit some nicer roads. The towns stopped looking so decrepit. Cattle and rolling countryside appeared. A little scrubby, but green. The sky was so big and the clouds so billowy. More cattle. More sky. More clouds. Texas became beautiful.

In the days before Austin, we hit some rolling hills. My memories of hills in Kentucky were wrought with angst. The grades were too steep. My heart rate pushed too high. Too many chasing dogs. But climbing these hills felt fantastic. My new improved bike and my new improved muscles were a dynamo team. And, refreshingly, there seemed to be no loose dogs in Texas. Just cattle. And the few dogs we encountered acted more like cows than dogs. They peacefully watched you come and go.

Austin.

After encountering several fake bike-friendly cities on this trip, in which the bike lanes last a scant three-quarters of a mile at best, it was completely refreshing to find ourselves in Austin, an authentically bike-friendly city. Great bike paths, great bike stores, drivers who know how to share the road.

Austin is also the home of one particulary bike-tourist-friendly Warm Showers host, Carl. You have to love the Warm Showers network. We first heard of Carl from Sarah, a woman who hosted us in Opelousas, LA. Carl had stayed with her on his bike trip from Texas to Florida last year. She suggested we look him up. Boy were we happy we did.

Carl helped us out in countless ways. He lent us a bunch of stuff, including a front rack for Saul (his broke literally as we pulled into town), a spare tire, and a camping stove. Carl tuned up our bikes at Pedal Pushers, a great bike shop where he works as a bike mechanic. We spent three nights at his East Austin abode where he lives with his girlfriend Erin, and their three sweet and cuddly dogs.

During the day, we cruised around Austin on bikes. Farmers market, bikes stores, Zilker Park. We ate great BBQ and Texas chili. We visited the Black Star Brewing Coop, a cooperatively owned brewery, and were seriously wowed by every beer we tried. We met up with some folks we know from Brooklyn who recently relocated to Austin. Also, amazingly, we ran into Derek and David, our buddies from the Natchez Trace, who we hadn’t seen since New Orleans. We vouldn’t have enjoyed our time in Austin more.

Hill Country.

At first the hills were gentle. Long ups and downs, but kind grades. Fun riding. Very beautiful country. Cute touristy towns. We hit the Guadalupe River and stayed in her valley for a day. Then, we approached the more serious climbs. The hills that put the “hill” in Hill Country. The freakish spikes on our elevation map. They were called the “three sisters.” I had been fearing them for weeks.

They ended up being an exhilarating trio. Tough, for sure. But really rewarding- the vistas, the downhills. The knowledge that the toughest climbs of Texas were over. A sense of accomplishment and security in our ability to handle the tough climbs.

Soon, the landscape started to change. It became decidedly southwestern. The trees became sparse. Mesas popped up. The air became drier. The ground became sandier. Then, full-fledged desert. The Chihuahua Desert, to be exact.

West Texas.

The place where I learned that the lower the population density, the greater my enjoyment of cycling.

We became small specks in a grand landscape. The scenery surrounding us was vast. All encompassing. Seemingly never-ending. The only visible reminder of human civilization was the road and the occasional vehicles that passed by. People often complain about driving this particular stretch of Texas. “There is just nothing there!” Cycling it was a joy. The riding felt so unhindered. You could see all around. The sunsets were spectacular. I have never felt so enveloped in a landscape. And so affected by an environment. In the desert, everything affect you more. Sun. Wind. Temperature. There is just no escaping it.

In West Texas, the towns became scare and more colorful. Alpine, Marathon, Sanderson. Small places filled with big characters. We enjoyed each town we passed through, and the 40 to 60 miles of riding in between them.

We continued to have wonderful Warm Showers experiences. We stayed with Lisa in Alpine. She and her boyfriend built a beautiful house which perfects fit in perfectly with the landscape. We talked about bike touring and hung out in their hot tub. Then there was our stay with John and his family at the McDonald Observatory. John gave us a great tour of the telescopes and urged us to head north to the Guatalupe Mountains instead of riding alongside the awful interstate to El Paso.

After some debate, we heeded his advice. Our last two nights in Texas, we camped at the extraordinary Guatalupe Mountains. In the Permian period, some 265 million years ago, these mountains were a coral reef. Though the ancient sea is long gone, marine fossils remain.

We could have spent a week exploring these mountians, but we had miles to make.

Apparently, twenty-one days in Texas wasn’t long enough.

Louisiana

By Laura in Silsbee, TX

“We’re not rednecks here, we’re Cajuns,” a man explains to me outside a gas station near Mamou before hopping into his truck. Pride is audible in his voice.

It was amazing interaction with a stranger in Louisiana No. 72. We were in the heart of Cajun Country. Southern Louisiana. Water world.

Things are not necessarily as they appear. Bearded guys in big pick-ups? Not rednecks. Cajuns. Gas station snack? Not processed junk food. Freshly made local delicacies. Boudin, smoked sausage, rice dressing, potato salad. Cajuns take their potato salad seriously.

It’s been a close competition throughout Louisiana as to what we’ve enjoyed more. The people we’ve met or the food we’ve eaten. Both have been memorable from the moment we crossed the state line.

Our first night in Louisiana we were still traveling with Team Honeycomb. The sun was about to set and we needed a place to camp. We approached a police officer in the town of Wilson for advice. A phone call was put in to the mayor. We received permission to camp behind the police station, which doubled as city hall. We pitched our tent under a broad pecan tree that evening.

The next morning, we rode with David and Derek into Jackson, LA, our stomachs rumbling. Not much in town. No breakfast spots. We pulled into a gas station, hoping for a decent sausage biscuit. None of us were prepared for the bounty inside. A full southern breakfast. The best grits of the trip. $3.50 for a ungodly number of calories housed in a styrofoam box. We devoured our breakfast specials with glee.

Our understanding of the correlation between gas stationsand awesome food strengthened on our mad dash down to New Orleans. After our first crossing of the Mississippi River, we stopped at a gas station in New Roads. Saul bought a crawfish boudin. Hmm… My skepticism vanished with my first bite. Delicious!

We know boudin as blood sausage, but Cajun boudin is different. It can be seafood or meat mixed with rice and seasonings in a natural casing. It’s all

over Louisiana. There’s even a website devoted to finding the best of the state. We took an immediate liking to boudin right there in New Roads.

That was October 14th. Our goal was to make it to New Orleans the next day. Saul’s birthday. We needed to make some serious miles andsomehow we pulled it off. 202 miles over two days. A double century.

Not without it’s perils, though. Most notably, the Sunshine Bridge. Deceptive name. There is nothing sunny about this bridge from a cyclist’s perspective. Four lanes of fast moving traffic. No shoulder whatsoever. Crazy incline. It stopped us dead in our tracks. I’m sure our jaws dropped.

Crossing the Mississippi a second time was the price we had to pay for our time along the scenic Mississippi River Trail. Our first crossing on the brand spanking new bicycle-friendly Audubon Bridge had been a breeze. The monstrous Sunshine Bridge was a conundrum.

What are we going to do? Could we hitch a ride? Four bikes and peoplewere a lot for a truck to carry, even if we could get someone to stop. Should we just go for it? It seemed too dicey. Maybe we could find an escort. Get somebody to drive behind us with their hazards on. That could work. We started looking for likely recruits. A green Volvo stopped at the light. Safety-conscious folk, I imagine. I approached the car. A family with young kids in the back. They agreed!

What would have been an utterly terrifying experience turned out to be a hectic but pretty exhilarating one. With the faithful Volvo behind us, we pedaled quickly up the bridge, into the sky, it seemed. We stayed in formation and tried to ignore the traffic flying by on our left. The Volvo saw usthrough the whole way. It was the best possible birthday present for Saul. The gift of continued life!

The rest of the day, we hugged the Mississippi River into New Orleans. No more bridges. Just the meandering River Road, then the paved top of the levee. A perfect vantage point for entering New Orleans, which we rolled into just past dusk.

Next, a seamless transition from bike path to bar. We spotted Cooter Brown’s from the levee and made a beeline. Oysters on the half shell and fresh pours of Abita Brewery’s Jockimo IPA for the birthday boy! A perfect welcome to New Orleans.

Our four nights in New Orleans were an ongoing celebration. Not just of Saul’s birthday, but also of the completion of our first 2000 miles. Our cross-country trip was now well underway. Crossing the country on bikes was no longer just theoretical. We had actually pedaled our way to New Orleans, a city I’ve long wanted to visit. We would, in time, actually make it to California. Snug in this realization, we were thrilled to take a breather and explore thecity.

Uptown, Mid-City, the French Quartier, the Garden District, the Bywater. We ate everywhere we went and everything we put in our mouths was incredible. Oysters, jambalya, fried chicken, po-boys, fried catfish, gumbo, bbq, bread pudding. The quintessential cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde.

We also took care of some important business. Bike business. A certain discontentment with my bike still lingered. Flat-as-a-pancake Louisiana was giving me a bit of a respite from my shifting difficulty and I hadn’t had another blow out since the trace, but I knew this relief was just temporary. Texas Hill Country lay ahead. More blow outs would come. I had to attack the root of my problem and bring my bike into the 21st Century.

Luckily, we got a recommendation for a bike shop up to the task. Bicycle Michael’s. And luckily, Clayton was working the day we went in. Last year, he rode from San Francisco to New Orleans- the exact journey that lay ahead of us. Clayton gave us tons of tips for our trip. Places to go, where the tough climbs are, where to camp. Clayton also proved instrumental in solving my bike woes.

Clayton, Tim, and Bicycle Michael’s legendary master mechanic, Donny, all consulted with me about my bike. First on the agenda. Could they convert my old school down-tube shifters to modern bar-end shifters? The answer was yes, but it was no simple affair. It would require a whole slew of upgrades. A new rear cassette, wheels, brakes, chain, cables. Well, I wanted new wheels anyway. Oh? Donny can build me a set? Clayton showed me some Mavic A719 rims. Theylooked pretty awesome. And what about hubs? Did they have Shimano Deore XT hubs? Yes they did! The prospect of hand built wheels started to sound extremely exciting.

Miraculously, Bicycle Michael’s had in stock every part I needed for the whole job, though they did take my bar-end shifters off an abandoned Surly Long Haul Trucker. Even more amazingly, the guys assured me it could all be done by the end of the next day. We totaled up the estimate. Sticker shock ensued. It would take a not insignificant percentage of my savings to do this work. I faltered. Was it really worth it? Could I finish this trip with my current set up? Not happily, was my resounding answer.

 

I sighed and stared at my bike. It was a gem. A 1981 Trek 620. I loved it from the moment I spotted it in Northampton Bicycles, where I snatched it up for $250. Mint condition. It was a joy to commute on. A joy to tool around Brooklyn on. Even a joy to do long day rides on. But unfortunately, it was not a joy to tour on. The demands of touring were just too great for it. One does not want to deal with belabored unpredictable shifting on tour. Or old wheels that occasionally blow tubes into oblivion. My relationship with my bike had grown so conflicted. It used to be all joy. Now there was too much pain. Physical pain- and emotional. Not that I blamed my bike. Touring is a lot to ask of a bike. Hours of riding each day in all kinds of weather and road conditions. Carrying 40+ pounds of extra weight. Sadly, the first 2000 miles had taught me that my bike, in it current incarnation, was incapable of keeping me safe and happy on the road.

But I wasn’t giving up on it, though I could buy a whole new touring bike for not much more than the estimate. My frame fit me perfectly and the quality of the steel was high. The coveted Reynolds 531 steel. A premiere alloy that you can’t really get anymore- except in vintage bikes. The changes we discussed at Bicycle Michael’s would turn my bike into an amazing hybrid of new and old. A blend of vintage and modern technology- like at the bourbon distilleries. I’d get the best of both worlds. I loved the idea of modernizing my bike.

So did Clayton. He agreed that my frame was a keeper. As a bike tourist himself, he completely understood how fundamental your relationship with your bike is to your enjoyment of the trip. New shifters and wheels would make a world of difference, Clayton assured me. I wavered back and forth a bit, as Saul and Clayton talked routes over Google maps. But I consented to the work in the end. How could I not? This trip was a rare experience I wanted to enjoy fully, not suffer through.

The next day when we returned to Bicycle Michael’s I found my bike totally transformed. Was this bike really mine? It looked so… sleek and sexy! All thanks to Clayton. He had come in on his day off to see my bike through. I took it out for a test spin. A revelation! I didn’t want to stop riding. It no longer rode like my little bike attempting a job too big. It was a majestic steed. It handled so well. My new indexed shifting was a breeze. It didn’t hurt my fingers or send shock waves radiating up my legs to my knees. It felt like a whole new bike. I was beyond happy. We took Clayton out for a beer.

A day later, we left New Orleans. We were not happy to go. We had not gotten enough of this American city with a Caribbean feel. We hadn’t seen enough. Hadn’t eaten enough. Hadn’t heard enough music. But we had spent enough money and we had miles to make. Plus Cajun Country was calling. And I was eager to put my new wheels to the test.

Cajun Country did not disappoint and neither did my bike. We flew through the bayou. Cypress trees, live oaks, and Spanish moss all around. Water everywhere. Satsumas, a local citrus, were in season. We wolfed down five at a time. It was warm and sunny. The air was salty. The food continued to astound. Crawfish étouffée, fried crawfish, crawfish au gratin, crab cakes, spicy boudin, shrimp gumbo. We felt like we were eating the bayou itself.

Fortuitous events flowed freely. We got a ride over a scary bridge from a guy named Moore. Our motel was next to a 24 hour donut shop with the best donuts ever. We had an awesome private tour at a state park living history museum.

On our tour, we learned all about Cajun history. How the Cajuns first settled in present day Nova Scotia after leaving France. They had a happy egalitarian existence in what they called Acadia until the British took over and eventually kicked them out. Displaced, the Acadians (which eventually morphed into “Cajuns”) made a home in Spanish-controlled Louisiana. Lured by land grants, the Acadians/Cajuns found themselves in a totally foreign environment.

Cajuns were a strong people, our tour guide explained to us, and adapted to the new climate and terrain. They turned to African slaves for support in this transition and cultural influences are evident even in modern Cajun culture. Take gumbo. A traditional Cajun roux-based stew. The name itself is derived from the Bantu word for okra, a vegetable native to Africa and a common ingredient in Cajun gumbo.

Yum.. gumbo. A dish I will definitely tackle when we have a permanent home again.

The history was fascinating. Cajun culture was reflected in the little towns we passed through. We heard French speakers and English speakers with French/Southern accents. Cajun accents, I presume. We were thoroughly intrigued by everything we saw/learned/ate in Cajun Country. We wished we could linger- an emerging theme on this trip- but there was a little state called Texas we needed to tackle.

And I finally feel up to the task on my new-old bicycle. My new mantra as I pedal? “I am so happy with my bike!!!”

Texas, it’s on!

The Natchez Trace

By Laura in Natchez, MS

The Natchez Trace. A national park, a scenic highway, a historic travel corridor.

The trace was first traveled by indigenous peoples following an ancient animal migration route. In early America, it was an important pre-steamboat pathway for farmers and merchants throughout the Ohio and Mississippi River regions. Inns, called “stands,” dotted the trace. Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, was mysteriously murdered in a stand along the trace. Under Thomas Jefferson, the Natchez Trace became the first federal highway of the old southwest. Now its a national parkway.

It’s how we got from central Tennessee to southern Mississippi.

444-miles of road surrounded by a continuous sliver of park, the Natchez Trace Parkway’s northern terminus is Nashville and it’s southern terminus is Natchez, which rhymes with matches. We learned the correct pronunciation around halfway down the trace.

Pre-trace, we spent two nights in Clarksville, Tennessee. Saul’s college friend Mike lives there with his wife Amanda. They stayed with us in Brooklyn last fall as honeymooning newlyweds. Now we were the travelers coming through. We basked in their hospitality, eating a lot, sleeping a lot, taking full advantage of their technology, enjoying their upholstery.

On our second night in Clarksville, I got a call from my brother. The timing was perfect. My phone was on, for one thing, which is a rare occurrence these days. Also, we were about to head out on the town but hadn’t left yet, mostly because I was deep in the process of downloading and organizing photos.

It was the first time I’d talked to my brother since starting the trip. I was giddy. There wasn’t much time to talk, as Chris was en route to work in Hong Kong and we were en route to a brewpub in Clarksville. Our talk was succinct. I wanted to hear the latest about Avery, my four month old nephew. And there was something Chris wanted to know. How was the actual riding going?

I hesitated to answer. The actual riding. There are so many variables that go into it. Variables that are constantly changing.

The road. Its size, what it’s made of, and it’s condition. The presence or absence of a berm (aka shoulder or safety lane). The presence or absence of glass/pebbles/debris on the berm. Rumble-strip or no rumble-strip? That’s a big one.

Who’s on the road with you? Cars, trucks, tractors, motorcyclists, horse and buggies, other cyclists? Their speed and frequency. The amount of clearance they afford you while passing. Honking or no honking?

What’s around the road? Urban, suburban, or rural landscapes? Homes, down towns, strip malls? Flora and fauna. The presence or absence of dogs. Loose or chained dogs? Aggressive or friendly dogs?

And, of course, there’s topography. Incline? Decline? What grade? And the weather. Temperature, humidity, the presence or absence of cloud coverage. Wind speed and direction. Another big one.

Then there’s your bike. And there’s your body. Both huge variables, each requiring a lot of maintenance. Nutrition, hydration, rest (body). Properly inflated tires, parts monitored for tightness and wear (bike). Cleaning and lubing (body and bike).

So many variables that affect each minute, hour, day of riding. I confessed to my brother that the riding has been quite mixed for me. Overall, good. But very mixed. Unfortunately, I am still having issues with my vintage Trek touring bike. And the hills of Kentucky really kicked my butt. I am plain sick of incessant hills and barely being able to catch my breath before the next incline hits. Also, there have been some frightening dog chases. But overall, the riding is good, and sometimes, when enough variables align favorably, amazing.

But even an amazing ride can deteriorate quickly. I experienced this coming out of Mammoth Cave National Park. Inside the park, we soared along a smooth, wide road ensconced in forest, atop a vast network of caves which we had spent hours in earlier that day. Wild turkeys and deer grazed along the side of the road. The air was fresh. The trees provided shade. There were practically no cars on the road. It was pure riding pleasure.

Not for long.

We reached the edge of the park and were spit out into the little town of Brownsville. Goodbye trees and shade. Hello houses and dogs. I heard loud, frenzied barking and tensed up immediately. Saul was down the road and out of sight. Within sight, however, were two medium-sized dogs, already at the side of the road. They were waiting for me. I swerved towards the mid-line to avoid them. Luckily on a downhill, I surpassed them without a problem. In my helmet mirror, I watched them chase me then give up their pursuit. Phew!

But I was not off the hook yet. At the bottom of the hill I heard a deep, gruff bark. Uh-oh. A big dog. I caught sight of the dog and my knees went weak. It was huge! Fear fueled me up the hill suddenly in front of me. “This could be bad,” I thought to myself, just before noticing the vicious canine was on a chain. Saved! The dog continued barking and bucking but I breathed a sigh of relief.

Then, not even a quarter mile down the road, I heard more barking. An equally aggressive tone. Out of nowhere, two more dogs were on my tail- and they were close! My lungs burned as I simultaneously screamed at the dogs and powered up the hill, fumbling to switch gears using my cumbersome circa-1980 down-tube friction shifters. Somehow I made it up the hill despite the grinding of my out-of-whack gears. So this is why Kentucky has such a bad reputation amongst cyclists when it comes to dogs. Some cyclists carry sticks around here.

I coasted down the hill, my legs weak from fear and fatigue. Saul was waiting for me at the stop sign. “Did you get chased?!,” I asked, but I could already tell from his serene expression that the answer was no. In fact, Saul hadn’t even seen any dogs, besides the big one chained up! He had certainly alerted them to our presence, right in time for me to roll around!

The rest of the day, and the whole hundred mile ride to Clarksville the next day, I rode in the front with Saul just behind me. That was just how it had to be. Saul was a good sport about it, though he doesn’t really understand my now fully-blown paranoid fear of dog chases. “You mean you think about dogs even when they’re not there?” Um, yes! For Saul, it’s out of sight, out if mind. For me, it’s out of sight, lurking behind the next bend in the road. My paranoia (and poor distance vision) has led me to mistake everything from potted plants to mailboxes for dogs.

The Natchez Trace seemed to promise a respite from dog attacks and other challenges of the road. 444 miles of park land. No houses, no dogs. Low traffic. Free camping. Mile markers. A handy map. No navigating, just straight down the trace. Gentle terrain. After the literal and figurative ups and downs of Kentucky, the prospect of easier riding sounded real good. Sure, the trace is not the most direct way to get down to New Orleans, but who cares. It has a national reputation as a cycling haven. Sign me up!

And sure enough, as soon Mike and Amanda dropped us off at the northern terminus and we started down the trace, I felt myself relax. The Natchez Trace was indeed a beautiful, gently curving road. Extremely well maintained. There was nothing tricky to negotiate. The surroundings were consistent and pleasant. Trees and sky. Pretty simple. Occasionally, we saw other cyclists, which hadn’t really happened since Ohio. We even met a cycle tourist heading north who had just ridden the whole trace. It really flattens out in Mississippi, he said.

With no distracting stimuli, there was suddenly time to think. I found myself reflecting on the trip and daydreaming about the future. I found myself getting lost in the scenery, but never for long. Saddle discomfort or the search for a comfortable position kept pulling me back. After a day or so on the trace, a long brewing realization set in.

I’m not happy with my bike.

A pretty major thought to have in the middle of a cross-country bike trip. The shifting, my new saddle, my riding position. None of it was quite working for me, despite the adjustments we kept making. No matter how ideal the other variables are, if your body and bike aren’t working well together, the riding can’t be good for long.

I knew my problems with my bike were not insurmountable. They were just going to require some time, money, and a good bike shop to fix. New Orleans would probably be the place to do it, but that was a while away.

On our third day on the trace, my dissatisfaction with my rig was brought home further. We had just entered Mississippi and found breakfast at Pattie’s One Stop. The name held true. Pattie’s met all our needs- hot food for now, bananas and dried goods for later, electrical outlets, wi fi, and bathrooms. Score! We lingered over coffee and chatted with the locals longer than we had intended. But no worries, we were about to make some miles. We topped off our tires with air and headed on our way.

Back on the trace, our intentions were soon thwarted by another blow out. My fourth of the trip! Totally demoralizing. It put three exclamation points on my realization. I am not happy with my bike!!!

The blow out sent my mind spinning. Why do I keep getting these blow outs? Its ridiculous that I have to fear putting air in my tires, even when I only pump to 80 psi, well below my tire’s maximum pressure of 95 psi. At this rate I’ll have 16 blow outs over the course of the trip. Unacceptable! I’m bound to get hurt in one of them. Clearly something’s not right with my wheels and tires. So many things are not right with my bike! Why did I decide to ride this vintage bike across the country? It was a great commuter in the city but it’s clearly not up to the job at hand. And why did I get a new saddle without a split seat? I should have known better! I just want to be safe and comfortable on my bike!!!

The worst part after a blow out is getting back on the bike. Trust has been lost. I reluctantly put my bags back on my bike and started to ride. We were heading to a bike shop in Tupelo to pick up a spare tire. My bike still didn’t feel right, particularly in the rear, the site of the blow out. A few minutes of riding passed. I still felt skittish and the rear felt wonky.

Saul pulled up behind me. “How’s it going?” he asked. “Not great. Something still feels really wrong with the rear wheel,” I replied. “Well, good thing there are two bike mechanics right behind us.” What?! I looked over my shoulder and, lo and behold, there were two other cyclists riding fully-loaded bicycles.

Enter Hollie and Emerson.

Suddenly we were riding two by two. I was so surprised and excited to meet other bike tourists heading in the same direction that I (very) temporarily forgot about my bike woes. Normally when we run into other cycle tourists we are heading in opposite directions and stop to talk. This was the first time we’d ever rolled down the road together with fellow bike travelers. Turns out it was just the beginning.

We learned that Hollie and Emerson hail from Knoxville, Tennessee. And, amazingly, they are doing pretty much the same ride as us- down the trace, on to New Orleans, then the Adventure Cycling southern tier route to the west coast.

It was kind of stunning news. This whole time we had only met one pair of cyclists going cross-country. We intersected with them in Ohio on the Little Miami Trail. They had started in Washington state and were heading to Connecticut. We only spent ten minutes with them but felt an instant comradery because of the similar scale of our trips. Now we were meeting two people doing our same route, at the same time, in the same direction. And they were bike mechanics!

That afternoon, Hollie trued my rear wheel at one of the Indian mound sites along the trace. We exchanged information, then parted ways knowing we’d be seeing each other again real soon.

The next day our numbers multiplied further. It was a hot day, which we’re not used to, and I was chugging along the trace. I heard someone approaching me, Saul I presumed- but no! It was Derek, and then a minute later, David. Two travelers from Indianapolis, also heading to New Orleans then west to Cali! Unbelievable!

There were now six of us, that we knew of, doing the same trip at the same time. Pretty incredible that we all had the same idea- and are actually doing it!

The trace was introducing a new riding variable. Community. Getting to know people pursing the same epic undertaking as you ride down the road together makes for a whole new experience. You can cram a week’s worth of normal getting-to-know-you conversation into a day of riding! Also, you quickly learn to be comfortable with silence together, something which takes far longer in most other social situations.

We camped out with Derek and David that night- and every night since.

The ever-exuberant David became my riding partner. His bountiful positivity and philosophical approach to life- and his willingness to keep my pace- kept me smiling throughout the day. We swapped all kinds of stories. I found myself pulling out ones that I hadn’t thought about in years. My bike woes faded to the background.

After our second day of riding with D and D, we hooked back up with Hollie and Emerson. They pulled a century to meet us at our campground in Canton that night. Then they further wowed us all with their dinner preparations. Curried vegetables over rice noodles. Hollie’s magic bag of spices amazed me. I didn’t know it was possible to cook and eat so well on the road!

The next two days, we rolled six deep down the trace. We were an ever-changing constellation of riders. We rode into Jackson, MS for provisions and lunch. Our collective power to take over a lane and force cars to defer to us was awesome. We were a force. And a spectacle!

Together, there was so much more of everything. More talking. More singing. More sharing.

I ripped the fly of our tent in a hasty retreat from mosquitoes. Emerson had a patch for us. Derek needed some contact lens solution. I had plenty. One night, inspired by Hollie and Emerson, David and I cooked a one-pot curry and rice. Hollie lent us her bag of goodies. A little of her paprika and curry powder mixed with our hobo-scored salt and pepper packets and the essential Sriracha. Perfection!

Our last day on the trace, we coined a name for our unlikely little community: Team Honeycomb. Corny perhaps, but we’ve been having a good time together. Part summer camp. Part Outward Bound. Maybe even a little MTV Real World.

Now in Natchez, never could Saul or I have predicted that we would finish the trace with four new friends. But it is rather fitting, considering the history of the Natchez Trace. We are certainly not the first to meet and band together along this path.

Ending the trace feels a little like back to reality. The need to navigate reappears, as do so many more uncertainties. What will the road be like? Where can we sleep? We’ve been spoiled by the predictability and ease of the trace. But Saul and I, and the other members of Team Honeycomb agree that if the trace kept on going, it would get boring after a while. Dealing with the uncertainties and all the changing variables is part of the fun, after all.

Plus, we managed to travel through Mississippi without really feeling like we traveled through Mississippi. The trace separated us from the communities we were passing through- and that’s no good. A big idea of this trip is to interact with and get a sense of the towns, cities, and states we are riding through.

I can’t begrudge the trace at all though. It gave me a change of pace when I really needed it and set the scene for meeting Hollie, Emerson, Derek, and David.

It was some pretty amazing riding too.

Bourbon country

Laura in Bardstown, KY

As this photo suggests, we ran into Rudy Giuliani on the bourbon trail. Yes, it was a shock. You quit your NYC teaching jobs, ride your bikes 1000 miles south to Kentucky. The last thing you expect is to run into your former mayor turned international figure. But it can happen, as we learned.

Here’s how.

Day 23 was special from the start. We awoke in a king-sized bed, having treated ourselves to a night at the Capital Plaza Hotel in Frankfort, the small-town capital city of Kentucky. Best hotel value of our trip so far, by the way, especially with that AAA discount (thanks Mom!). We were already in a state of euphoria, having toured our first distillery, Buffalo Trace (amazing!), and done two bourbon flights at downtown Frankfort’s Capital Cellars the day before. Deep into the nuances of the nectar, we were hungry for more. Woodford Reserve Distillery, a cool 11 mile ride away, was on the agenda for the day.

But first breakfast. In my pre-trip Chowhound research, I had read about a little place in Frankfort called Rick’s White Light Diner. The owner, a Culinary Institute of America grad, has been running this quirky diner for years. His oyster po boy and crawfish pie have even been featured on a Food Network show. The gal at Captial Cellars agreed that the food was fantastic- but she used a particular compound word to describe Rick himself.

We arrived a little before opening time, but the waitress let us in anyway. Good sign, we thought. Soon after we arrived, Rick arrived- though his presence was apparent before he even walked through the door. Immediately, we took a stong liking to this unapologetic man. By the end of our meal, he had practically achieved superhero status in our minds. His food. His politics. His food politics.

Rick, passionate, outspoken and a natural storyteller, kept us entertained our whole breakfast. He told many stories of disgruntled would-be customers who come into his humble-looking diner looking for a cheap meal, take one look at the menu, then walk out due to sticker shock. Its true that Rick’s prices are a bit higher than one might expect from the outside, but that’s because he pays close attention to what he’s putting inside his customers. Local organic meats. Fresh eggs. US seafood only. Homemade breads. Local Kentucky maple syrup (who knew?!). Nothing synthetic. Everything real. Not a speck of margarine can be found at Rick’s, but there sure is a lot of butter.

Rick bemoaned how close-minded and ignorant people are about their food choices. He also had some words about the greed of food corporations. Rick will periodically drive to a McDonalds to do some market research and finds that his food isn’t really that much more expensive, even before you start to think about the greater health and environmental costs. Rick also bemoaned the current Republican candidate line up (and the Republican agenda in general) and compared watching them on TV to taking an instant trip to Disneyworld. Ha!

We loved Rick’s soapbox, his crotchety old man attitude, and his lyrical Kentucky drawl. But we especially loved our breakfasts: eggs benedict with grits (Saul) and organic buckwheat pancakes with homefries and bacon (Laura). We couldn’t not get dessert once we heard they had a bourbon pecan and dark chocolate pie. Rick whipped out a decorative spray bottle and spritzed extra bourbon on top of our slice- then sprayed some directly into our mouths! He told us he’s a Buffalo Trace fan and uses a lot of their products in his cooking. Our hearts went a flutter. If only we could stay for lunch!

Our breakfast was a tad on the expensive side, especially on a traveler’s budget, but it was worth every penny. It kept us going all day- and what an eventful one it proved to be!

On to Woodford Reserve in time for the 1pm tour. A tiny historic distillery tucked away in some amazingly beautiful Kentucky countryside. It was a beautiful day to tour it. Melissa, our tour guide, ushered us into a little screening room to watch a short video on Woodford. Then we did a meet and greet, shouting out where we were from. On our tour were the “red hat ladies of Louisville,” who were, remarkably, all wearing red hats, a middle-aged couple from Ohio, a young guy from Manchester, England touring the states, an Irish couple and us. Melissa shared that she was a NYC native who moved to Kentucky to attend UK and never left.

Leaving the visitor’s center, we all headed down the hill to the buildings where the magic happens. We paused to watch workers transporting barrels, a highly advanced technology called rolling, along a track into Woodford’s limestone warehouses. As the cameras were flashing away, mine included, Melissa approached us fellow New Yorkers and mentioned that Mayor Giuliani was going to be visiting the distillery today. Soon actually. We’d probably get to see him. Really?! Too funny, we thought. What are the chances?

We moved into the fermentation building, a pretty small affair compared to Buffalo Trace, but small is Woodford’s thing. We admired the cypress wood fermentation tanks and breathed in the intoxicating smell of the fermenting mash- which is basically beer at this point of the process.

Soon we spotted men who could only be bodyguards and then we got a glimpse of the man himself. It was true. Rudy was here. His entourage was just ten feet behind ours, one room behind us. They entered the fermentation room just as we moved on to the stills.  I’ll admit, it was a bit distracting. I didn’t really hear all the tidbits of information Melissa imparted about Woodford’s distillation process. Woodford’s three gorgeous copper pot stills stand out in my mind visually, but I couldn’t tell you much about them. I had Guiliani on the brain.

I can’t believe he’s here. This is such a funny coincidence. So far from home. So close to the 9/11 anniversary. Maybe we’ll get to meet him. I really would like to shake his hand. Maybe we could even get a picture for the blog. As the tour continued through the aging warehouses, I started imaging scenarios of people checking our blog and being confronted with the picture. I was particularly relishing the idea of my mom’s reaction. Laura, Saul and… Rudy?! Could it be?!

I grew determined to make it happen. Should I just go up to him? No, that was invasive, plus there was the body guard factor. They probably wouldn’t even allow it. Well, we are NYC school teachers, that should get us somewhere.

In the end, Melissa helped us out. Melissa, a retired teacher herself, who, by the way, guessed out of thin air that Saul and I were both teachers. The eye contact on the tour, she said. At the end-of-tour tasting, I mentioned to Melissa how I really wanted to meet Mayor Giuliani. How amazing it would be to get a picture with him for our blog. She perked right up and made it happen, explaining to Giuliani’s assistant that we were teachers from NYC on a cross-country bike trip. Within moments, we had infiltrated his entourage. We found ourselves chatting about our trip with the Lexington police chief, who was escorting Rudy around that day. We were told that a picture would be no problem, although one body guard in particular didn’t look too happy about it (he kept eyeing the handlebar bag Saul had in hand).

Nevertheless, we were escorted to the private porch where Rudy was eating some lunch. Quick introductions. Quicker small talk. Then we posed together. Snap, snap, success! Thank you, Mr. Mayor! And we were whisked away.

In our post-photo-shoot high, we hung around for a bit with tour guide extraordinaire, Melissa, and Mr. Carey, another Woodford staffer quite interested in our trip. Mr. Carey gave us some route advice and suggested we check out a place nearby called the Life Adventure Center. It wasn’t a campground, but they may let us pitch a tent on their grounds. Also, it was just 4 miles away from Wild Turkey, our next stop on the bourbon trail. We could do a morning tour and hit Four Roses in the afternoon. Melissa sent us on our way with a couple of homemade banana muffins she had brought in to share with the staff. She brings treats in all the time, according to Mr. Carey.

Continuing the theme of the afternoon, Guiliani was just one step behind us. He emerged as we were outside the visitor’s center preparing to ride. He sized up our bikes. “You guys weren’t kidding!” And off he went in a big white SUV, heading to another speaking gig.

And that was our encounter with Rudy Giuliani! The whole experience felt pretty surreal.

There are times on this trip, sometime entire days, where everything seems to work out so easily, as if all the minutiae were perfectly choreographed and rehearsed in advance. There are times when it doesn’t, of course, and we are stuck, indecisive, in need of information or calories or a place to pitch a tent.

Day 23 was certainly one of those graceful days. A free flowing, unpredictable yet somehow logical and orderly, chain of events.

Of course, when we left the distillery the landscape was breathtaking. Of course, we found the Life Adventure Center without a hitch. Of course, we were received warmly. Byron, the head of their “wilderness living” program, arranged everything for us. It turns out his parents love to bike tour and are Warm Showers hosts! Small world again. Byron gave us a tour of some of their beautiful 575-acre facility in his truck. The working farm, the equine stables, Kentucky’s largest corn maze, Kentucky’s largest reindeer herd (numbering 2!), the challenge course, the pond, cabins, and pavilion, and the demonstration garden, which we were free to harvest food from. Byron told us we could camp wherever we liked.

The Life Adventure Center was certainly supporting our life adventure!

We picked the pavilion with it’s picnic tables, fireplace and rocking chairs. That night, we dined on cucumbers and green peppers from the garden and canned fish, jerky, and Wasa from our pannier pantry. We set up our mattress pads and sleeping bags on top of two picnic tables. We sipped Buffalo Trace in front of the fire and listened to the insects in the native grasses surrounding us. We star gazed and Saul spotted glow worms! Then back to the fire for warmth.

Periodically, either Saul or I would exclaim, “I can’t believe we met Mayor Guiliani today.” Or, “that breakfast was incredible.” Or, “I can’t believe we have this whole beautiful place to ourselves.” Or, “this bourbon is sooo goood.” We rotated through these sentiments until we climbed onto our picnic tables and fell asleep.