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M.U.P.

About a year ago I started asking around to see if people wanted to go on a bike camping adventure. Once I rounded up the usual suspects (Fiancé, Dad, Brother) and heard from an unexpected addition (Uncle), we settled on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The first step was to decide if we wanted to register for the League of Michigan Bicyclists’ group ride or venture out on our own. We wanted to have a lot of family bonding time so we opted to strike out on our own…sort of. Fiancé contacted the League and, as luck and Michigander kindness would have it, they sold us their route maps for $10!

After a few questions were answered we were practically on our way!

  • Are there bears? (Yes.)
  • Do they come in the campgrounds? (Not usually.)
  • Are there restaurants? (Yes. Local joints.)
  • Are there grocery stores? (More like convenience stores.)
  • Is there cell phone reception? (Ye,s but you might pick up Canadian towers.)
  • What is the weather going to be like? (Colder than you think.)
  • Is the population really that small? (Yes.)
  • Are people as nice as everyone says? (Yes.)
  • Am I really about to go on a week-long bike ride with four dudes?! (…yes.)

I found campsites, mostly conveniently located…although our first three days would end up being over 70 miles each. After consulting with the group, everything was booked except for DeTour Village State Forest which was first come, first served (that freaked me out more than a little bit since, where the heck would we GO if it was full; there were no other campgrounds anywhere nearby). Straits State Park, our start/end point, allowed us to leave our cars for the entire week FOR NO EXTRA COST. I practically dropped the phone when I heard that news. I mean, helLO! I live in DC; you can’t park for 15 minutes here for less than $20.

Now if I could just convince Dad to lighten his packs so he’d roll without an additional 50 pounds, we would be set.

Our journey began. Fiancé and I took a relaxing road trip there and I’m going to be honest with you, I think the Andy Warhol Museum is overrated. Also, while Detroit’s food scene was on point, I had no clue it would shut down completely for the July 4th holiday. After our final pit stop to check out the world’s largest Christmas store, we headed to Straits to meet up with the others.

We biked. And camped. And biked some more. We ate pizza and fudge and ice cream since we’d be “burning it off tomorrow” (I gained weight this trip so…so much for that). We took the ferry to the carless Mackinac Island and were promptly overwhelmed with the sheer number of people on bikes. We toured the island at a snail’s pace, ate some fudge, and took a nap on the next ferry out. Relaxing is exhausting! We realized how heavy our bags were and started dumping things in the car before heading out, even Dad! It rained. It was sunny. It was hot. It was cold. We were hungry; we were too full. We biked on.

I must say, it was pretty amazing to only see one Starbucks and two fast food restaurants

(if anyone asks, I did not confirm or deny that we each ordered our own pizzas at Pizza Hut). And the people, the people were so sweet. During a lightning storm a couple welcomed us into their home and chatted us up for the better part of two hours.   One night a neighboring camper saw us roll in on our bikes and, not only did he bring over some wood for a fire, but he built it too. (He topped it with Doritos which are apparently super flammable although he told us Fritos are actually the best…or would that be the worst? I don’t know. Most flammable.)

And the nature. Stunning. Hello Lake Michigan, my old friend from my days living in Chicago, delightful to see your other coast. Lake Huron you say? Nice to meet you and your calm waters. And then Lake Superior…while a bit frigid I couldn’t resist stopping in, even if just to pay my respects to the late, great Edmund Fitzgerald. We saw two lighthouses and the beautiful tannin-dyed waters of the Upper and Lower Tahquamenon Falls (don’t worry, I still don’t know how to say it).

Just like that, it was over. Adios delicious breakfast places with the nicest staff on the planet. Sayonara perfect sleeping temperature for camping (40s-50s at night in JULY!? Amazing). Adieu highway shoulders littered with wildflowers instead of garbage. Au revoir ease of access to fudge. Goodbye scenery straight out of a Bob Ross painting (but for real though, look at the side by side) —>

Because biking is an adventure, an escape, a way to bring people together, a way to take some time for yourself, a vacation, that’s why I love riding my bike.

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My Bicycle is a Time Machine

I got off my bike, climbed the dark staircase, stripped off my sweaty clothes, and climbed right into my sleeping bag; 20 minutes later, I started to feel my feet for the first time in two hours.

How did I end up there?

The C&O Canal Towpath, what a cool bike path. It’s a national park. It stretches for 184.5 miles. It links up to other trails so you can basically bike as far as you’d ever want to. There are free campsites along the way with water and latrines. It’s basically flat. It’s away from traffic. It’s in nature and not through the city. What else could a person want from a bike path?

A house.

There are locks all along the canal. At each lock is (or was) a house for the operator of that lock. Six can be reserved and rented out. Back in November we decided the first weekend of April is when we’d make our maiden voyage. Surely it would be warm enough by then for a nice, flat, 30 mile bike ride followed by a stay in a house without electricity or running water.

Our mistake.

Halfway there we stopped at the Visitors Center/Tavern and warmed up while we watched the welcome movies inside. My panniers were loaded with warm clothes and a sleeping bag and I was so grateful we wouldn’t be camping outside that night. We’d missed the rain but there were GALE WINDS. I’m still not 100% sure what that means because I’m a biker and not a boater but what I do know is that my weather app had a gust of wind picture on that day instead of a sun. I also know that, in an attempt to protect my feet from the wind I wrapped them in plastic bags and shoved them in my sneakers, a throwback to my childhood where there was snow but no snow boots that fit.

(Please note: while very effective at keeping my feet dry when I was little, the bags did nothing to help me with the wind as an adult. If anything they just trapped the sweat inside which was no bueno when I took the bags off.)

Anyways, we somehow eventually made it. I don’t think I’ve ever biked slower.

Once my sleeping bag warm-up was over, I put on my leggings, sweatpants, carhart socks, slippers, long-sleeve t-shirt, sweatshirt, winter hat, wrapped myself in a blanket, and headed downstairs for dinner (cold sandwiches which tasted amaaaaaazing) followed by half a dark chocolate candy bar. Yum. Then my fiancé successfully taught me how to play checkers. There we were, just two people playing checkers by lantern light until we were tired enough to go to sleep. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about that Friday night…except maybe the temperature.

Not only does this place not have electricity or plumbing, it also doesn’t have box springs. You know the old expression “sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” While I think many people now know more about bedbugs than they ever wanted to, we were experiencing the “sleep tight” part of that saying. That’s right, our mattress was supported by ropes. There was one loose one which we never did figure out how to tighten but, it was actually surprisingly comfortable. I don’t know what people back then were complaining about (besides the disease, hard work, and lack of modern amenities, but I don’t blame those on rope beds so that’s neither here nor there).

Then again, maybe the lack of plumbing got to them. I can’t lie, when I woke up in the middle of the night and needed to pee, I glanced at the (I’m assuming decorative) chamber pot and considered the convenience but that was only for like one second…two max. (Don’t worry, I went outside.)

Lucky for us, the ride home the next day was beautiful.

Because a trip to the 1860s is a mere bike ride away, that’s why I love riding my bike.

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Metric Century Anyone? No thanks.

I ran a half-marathon once and it was amazing. The high energy crowds were motivating; the Elvis impersonator at the top of a hill made me smile. There were just so many great vibes there. I haven’t done it since. Why not? I hate the idea of paying to exercise, especially when it’s exercise I could do for free. Now…was the fact that I paid almost $100 a motivator to train? Yes. It was. Did I have a great time? Yes. I did. And yet I still refuse.

Then again, every once in a while I pay to ride my bike. Never a race, just a tour or a large group ride. RAGBRAII in Iowa (which I highly recommend), smaller day rides in and around DC, and most recently, a weekend in Staunton, VA for the Fall Foliage Bike Festival (even though it’s December now, the ride was legit in the fall, mid-October). And I have surprising news, I would pay to be a part of this ride again.

That’s right people. This ride was so fun, beautiful, and logistically easy that I would love to participate again. We strapped our bikes on the back of the car and started our three hour road trip from DC to Staunton. Traffic wasn’t too terrible, which was a pleasant surprise for the Friday afternoon mass exodus. Before we knew it (aka four hours later…DC traffic is still DC traffic), we were pulling the car in front of the middle school and heading to registration. Hello stickers and t-shirts and free food from a local farm; don’t mind if I do! After hitting up the pupusa food truck, we pulled the car around back, did a lap around the track (in the car…which was a little weird), and parked. Tents on the inside; cars on the outside.

It was cold. Very cold. I was wearing more clothes than I have since airlines started charging for checked bags. Unfortunately (and I would say this is the only downfall of camping at a school), fires were prohibited. So we froze. BUT, a benefit of camping at a school is we had access to real toilets and showers. Granted, the showerheads were about three feet tall but it was a middle school after all.

img_0948We’d been planning to do a metric century on Saturday but most of our friends were doing a shorter loop, around 50 miles. That is the genius thing about this ride; there are all these different loops for people to choose from: century, metric century, 50, 30, and a family ride that was 10 miles long with a shortcut that could make it seven. Normally when I go on a bike trip, it’s hard to convince people to come because the mileage is intimidating; not so with this one. Not only were there all these different rides, but they were well marked! Colored arrows along the road, each ride a different color, and an extra arrow after each turn, just so you know you went the right way.

If I had one piece of advice for the organizers, it would be to not use red for the family loop and pink for the 50…especially when they overlap on some roads. I can’t guarantee the six year old with streamers and training wheels on her bike wasn’t doing the 50 but…her parents looked lost.

And then there was the food. The food! Lunch on Saturday and brunch on Sunday were homemade. Yeah. Farm scrambled eggs, fresh pie, and casseroles as far as the eye could see.

Camp one more night, a quick 10 mile family loop before brunch, and then we were on the road back to DC. Not so much traffic this time. Everybody wants to leave on Friday but there’s not quite the same rush to get back on Sunday.

Because there’s nothing like getting in country via bike, that’s why I love riding my bike.

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Gracias Puerto Rico!

We hightailed it out of the forest and made it to the nearest town’s bakery for breakfast by 6AM. That is an early-morning record for us. Our asses were beyond sore; thank goodness chamois butt’r exists. (In case you’re unfamiliar, it is basically butt cream.)

Speaking of butts, pretty sure I mooned about 20 people. I had to pee and thought this one tree on the side of the road would offer enough coverage. It did not. So people of Puerto Rico, you’re welcome for the show! The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, except when GVP was being chased by a dog. I just kept pedaling at my slow speed and was pretty much left alone. I did almost had a meltdown because I thought I’d miscalculated the miles again and it was going to be over 30 miles instead of the 21.3 I was mentally prepared for. Crisis averted though; it was 21.3.

We rolled into our last camping location at lunchtime. I checked in at the Cerro Gordo National Parks office and paid for one night. One of the employees said he’d seen us biking yesterday. How cool is that? Local celebs? Not quite but we did run into a few people at restaurants and gas stations that said they’d seen us the day before or earlier that day. Kinda cool.

After we enjoyed our LAST mofongo with fries and sodas, we headed to a shady spot on the beach and relaxed. We did a little swimming and a lot of people watching. I swear we saw a guy who looks just like Bernie Sanders. Maybe he was taking a vacation from the campaign? There was also a guy we nicknamed Leather. I wanted to pass him our leftover SPF 90.

100_5899Our campsite was beautiful (once we moved away from the first spot we picked with the rotting dead iguana). This was the best campsite (which we deserved after the horrors from Cambalache); the bathrooms were usable but the showers looked like a scene from Saw so we decided to hold off until the Ritz the following day. We set up on a bluff overlooking a cove where waves crashed all night; we headed out to some rocks and enjoyed the panorama of nothing but ocean.

IMG_470219.5 miles to go. We packed up our things one last time and headed out. I’m not going to lie, for being under 20 miles it was still rough. Everything hurt. GVP kept me motivated with his positive attitude though and we finally made it to the ferry to Old San Juan. We wheeled aboard and were at the Ritz one annoyingly long cab ride later (it’s way too dangerous to bike from Old San Juan to the hotel).

I have never had such a glorious shower.

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GVP’s things are Chicago bound!

Then it was down to business: making cocktails and packing up the bikes. GVP would take his home in his suitcase. My brand new Schwinn had started to rust so I was shipping that sucker right back to where it came from. We ordered two large pizzas, which we devoured and subsequently felt sick. No regrets though. Isn’t the first time I’ve done it and probably won’t be the last.

GVP realized his flight was cancelled due to a blizzard in DC so he dealt with that (two day layover with ME in Chicago! So much for him never going there in the winter!).

Because GVP is fun to bike with, that’s why I love riding my bike.

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Arachnophobia Anyone?

We decided to treat ourselves by sleeping in until 7AM. After all, we only had 22.3 miles to bike that day.

However, we couldn’t leave the campsite until we had a good ol’ fashion photo shoot. This place was by far the weirdest place we stayed. There was a playground off the beach that had cement dinosaurs, farm animals, a blonde wonder woman, a giant hand, and more. How did kids play on this and not get hurt? In the U.S. it would definitely be a lawsuit.

Even though it was only 22.3 miles, it was still a hard day. I should have built in another rest day but I hadn’t so we pedaled on. The waves on the north shore were the biggest we’d seen after Culebra. I also saw the grossest bathroom to date that day. Desperate times though.

IMG_0160We stopped for lunch at this huge restaurant and had the best fish tacos of my life. Then there was a minor panic as we thought I’d lost GVP’s wallet. He’d given it to me that morning to hold and it was nowhere in my backpack. I searched my panniers. Nothing. After a few minutes of him assuring me he wasn’t mad (I wouldn’t have blamed him if he was and I’m sure he had to have been, at least a little), I FOUND IT! It was in my backpack in this little zippered part I normally don’t use; I put it there so I would remember where it was. Ridiculous.

It was of course another beautiful day. We stopped at a bakery for dinner and then headed to Cambalache State Forest where we were spending the night. I’d applied for a permit ahead of time as required and while they cashed my check, they never sent me the permit. I printed off a copy of the cashed check as proof and we headed to the office. Of course no one was there. Who works on a weekday at 3:30? After rolling my eyes so hard I thought I’d pass out, we wheeled our bikes a mile into the forest and set up camp under the picnic shelter in the camping area.

It all started out so great. We were there early. There weren’t many mosquitos. One of the bathrooms was unlocked. There was a shower house! What could go wrong? GVP went to check out the shower house. It was creepy, twists and turns around cement walls to get to the spigot with a drain below it. Then he looked up. In the rafters were tons of HUGE spider carcasses! We’re talking 4-5 inch long legs here people! Needless to say, we did not shower that night.

We only saw a couple of dead bodies in the rafters of the picnic shelter. We carefully zipped up our bags and didn’t leave anything out, just in case one had made it through the fumigation. We decided we would leave early so we could be out of the woods by daylight.

There I was sleeping when a quiet noise woke me up. I didn’t know what it was so I turned on my flashlight and looked outside the tent. There on our tarp was a spider. Please note that this spider was so big that it walking on our tarp WOKE ME UP. I woke up GVP who said it was fine. He wouldn’t be so calm when he had a close encounter in the morning! Let’s just say when he was untying the tent our friend was there waiting. GVP poked it with a stick to encourage it to move and it SWATTED AT THE STICK! We were out of there real quick after that, before it could get its friends together for an attack.

Because you don’t always know where you’ll end up, that’s why I love riding my bike.

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Heaven and Hell

We walked. A lot. There were so many big hills/mountains. Just when we got down the side of one there would be another. It wasn’t a long mileage day though…or at least it wasn’t supposed to be. We were going to camp at Tres Hermanos National Park for a total of 25 miles. Then I realized my calculations for the following day were off by 10 miles! That may not seem like a lot but between the tiny tires and the mountains and the gear…it was. And that day was already scheduled to be 43.2 miles with four mountains. Add another 10 miles? No thank you.

While we were at Applebees (I swear we really did have a lot of local food…mostly mofongo, but chain/American food was sometimes necessary but sorry not sorry because their blonde brownie dessert is just what we needed) for lunch I quickly Air B&B’ed a place in Rincon: 10 miles and one mountain ahead. Luckily people were attentive to their account.

IMG_0135A couple of hours later we were in Rincon. While we are in general, slow (we’re on vacation!), we also stopped for our first coco frio (cold coconut). It is exactly what it sounds like. The streetside vendor quickly chopped off the top and popped in a straw. I dare to say it was more refreshing than the Sprites (me) and Cokes (GVP) were guzzling down every chance we got. Then the man made another quick swipe with his machete to cut the coconuts open and chopped a coconut spoon off the side so we could eat what was left.

Rincon was my favorite town. After making a much needed stop at the laundromat, picking up a couple of frozen pizzas for dinner (uuuuhhhh…local frozen pizzas…?), we went to the beach. The Discovery Channel can call Culebra the second most beautiful beach in the world all it wants but…this one was a close contender. The waves were the perfect size (not knocking me over) and there was a rain storm out at sea. In fact it was so beautiful, GVP asked me if we could wake up early and come here for the sunrise. “No,” I said. “We’re on the west coast.” Not every ocean is a sunrise ocean.

Then we went back and enjoyed some pizza in our room.

The next day…I don’t even want to write about but I suppose I should. It was the day from hell. I have

We did see a couple of cool places that day, like this training facility.

We did see a couple of cool places that day, like this training facility.

wrecked my bike and not been in as much pain as this day. We left Rincon at 6:45AM and arrived to our campsite in Carizzales (a mere 43.2 miles mind you) AT 6PM. The thing is, we have no idea how this happened. Sure, we had to walk up four mountains…or maybe it was six. All I remember are endless mountains. The day included a scary isolated road where the bridge was out but the (one) car we saw used it so we did too, multiple BIG highways with active construction sites, GVP’s back wheel got stuck in a grate and he almost bit it (but gracefully did not), HUGE and scary downhills with no end in sight, and did I mention ALL OF THE MOUNTAINS.

We went to Subway for dinner. And frankly I don’t care if you do judge us because you don’t know what we went through that day. It SUCKED.

Because GVP sat on about 500 ants but couldn’t tell because bike shorts are so thick, that’s why I love riding my bike.

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Toothpaste to the Rescue

Heat is not my friend. The sun is not my friend. And will someone puh-LEASE explain to me why the 38.9 miles from Ponce to La Parguera seemed so much further?! Could it be my lack of training? Could it be my heavy bike? Or perhaps the tiny 20” wheels? Or the unexpected mountains? Perhaps.

Literally all that day was for me was mountains and heat. And fun of course. Every day on a bike is fun, even when it’s not. (Okay that’s not true.) There was also our lunchtime restaurant where we had cheap mofongo. It wasn’t our best one yet but it wouldn’t be the last.

We finally rolled into La Parguera. We were staying Yolanda’s, a hostel that was advertised on Air B&B. Normally I wouldn’t be stoked about staying in a room with no windows but that evening I was okay with not seeing the outside world. Once we got the cockroach issue sorted out (we switched rooms), the relaxing could begin. Or so I thought.

Sooo itchy! I don't even think I got 100% of them covered.

Sooo itchy! I don’t even think I got 100% of them covered.

When I got out of the shower (which was of course aaaaamazing) I realized just how many mosquito bites I had. My arms and legs looked like I had the chicken pox. GVP had apparently been attacked by ants so his ankles and feet were also pocked. I honestly don’t understand HOW we didn’t notice when we were under siege. Dinner was delicious but I was so distracted by shredding my skin open while I scratched my legs that I could barely enjoy it. Something had to be done. Enter paste (not gel) toothpaste. I’d read that if you put it on your bug bites overnight, it will dry it out and basically make them disappear! And…it worked.

100_5873The following day we had an excellent plan to beat the heat, and it didn’t  involve starting to bike at midnight. We left La Parguera and headed to the lighthouse and beaches of Rojo Cabo. If all went according to plan (spoiler alert, it did) we would be there by 10:30 and would be able to hang out at the beach until 3PM. The lighthouse was a lighthouse. The cliffs in front of it were dramatic and the water at the bottom that perfect clear green/blue color everyone wishes for. We looked into the cove at the beach and headed down. It looked surprisingly empty.

Little did we know everyone was seeking shelter from the sun under the surrounding low hanging trees; the place was PACKED! We found a patch of shade to call our own, blew up our pool floatie pillows, and promptly took the best nap ever. We never did get in the water but we sure did enjoy the coconut ice cream.

Eventually we packed up and headed to Boqueron for a daily total of 29.6 miles where we’d be staying in an Air B&B. This place was the one that was listed for $150 that he let us have for $20. People can be so cool. Showers, AC, free beer. It was terrific! Top it off with dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant and you have two happy bikers.

Because when bike camping, an issue needs MacGyver creativity to solve (because you probably don’t have what you need), that’s why I love riding my bike.