17 March – 8 April 2013
My first leg from Florida to Maryland ended up being 3 weeks and around 2,400k (1,450 miles) – a nice trip and a bit more adventurous than expected. I survived a very near fatal encounter with a car and somewhat harsh weather conditions – strong/fierce headwind most of the time, torrential rain in Georgia and in the mountains I struggled with freezing temperatures as well as snow/hail. The nature has been fairly diverse from swamps to fields and forests and from flat to mountainous. It has been a bit difficult getting in contact with people partly because of the cold weather making people stay inside and partly because they have been hesitant/uninterested meeting a stranger on a bike. Those I did talk to have been very friendly and most have been intrigued and curious about my trip – many have provided snacks and some have even fed me and invited me to stay over.
Instead of commenting everything on the trip in timely order I have decided to write some relevant topics – the pictures shown are more in line with the trip timeline.
Brief description of actual itinerary
From Naples, Florida I went straight north through the middle of Florida and Geogia. My initial plan was to access The Blue Ridge Parkway around Franklin in western North Carolina. However, when I got close it had (unusually and unexpectely) just snowed, so I decided to go parallel south of the Appalachian mountain range crossing the river into western South Carolina about 100k northwest of Atlanta. Heading northeast I kept hearing reports about snow, so I couldn't get up into the mountains until Boone, North Carolina from where I bicycled about 600k (375 miles) on the Parkway and later Skydrive in Shanandoah NP in Virginia. Afterwards I continued north to Charles Town, West Virginia and east into Baltimore, Maryland. Roughly estimated 2,400k in 3 weeks – not too impressive but it took time to get in shape and the hours for cycling were fairly short because of the cold weather.
My initial plan was to start bicycling early April but people told to get out of Florida in March to avoid the rain and mosquitoes in April. Still it was beatiful weather when I startet mid March – often overcast but dry days and around 20C (70F) which meant only sandals and short bicycle pants (sometimes also a t-shirt) – the rain more often came late afternoon, evening, night and early morning. This continued all the way up through southern Georgia, where I however experienced 24 hours constant rain (many hours torrential) – no problem since it was warm and my waterproof jacket and pants stood the test. All the way I struggled with a strong side-/headwind from west/north – when northern I hardly got anywhere and when western I had to lean into the wind not to be pushed off the road.... a bit dangerous when big trucks passed creating wind vacuum almost sucking me under the vehicles. Obviously the open fields became my “enemy” while the big forests became my “friend”. For some reason I always have headwind when I bicycle, so I wasn't really surprised when the wind changed direction to north/east just as I headed that way (although naïve I had hoped it wouldn't).......
As I progressed further north and started approaching the mountains it became colder – some days down to 8C (45F) which felt like freezing because of the wind chill and no sun. When riding in the mountains (up to 1,5k elevation ~ 4,500 feet) it was freezing temperatures every day. When it was clouded I was very cold despite 4 layers of clothes on my upper body (long wollen underwear, t-shirt, fleece and my jacket), so I was immensely grateful for the many sunny days that increased the temperature by 10C (20F) – especially because this was more than offset by the fierce side-/headwinds. The wind chill implied freezing temperatues especially when speeding downhill - one time I descended 1,2k (3,500 feet) continuously riding downhill for 16k (10 miles); I breaked to slow down and reduce the cold but when I reached the bottom I felt like an ice cube... ready to immidiately get off the Parkway and the mountains. However, waiting for people to ask directions for alternative routes I warmed up a bit and decided to continue. The many hills and the cold weather was an annoying combination – the temperature in itself was no problem but going downhill I had to close my jacket and put on gloves just to undo it a minute later when I reached the bottom and startet riding uphill again.....
Besides the sun I was very grateful for the dry mountain weather all days but one, because the predicted rain obviously came down as snow and hail (the meteorologists here are equally useless as everywhere else in the world). It was predicted to last for two days which meant I would have to go down, but I decided to stay in the mountains overnight and make my decision the next morning. A wise choice as it was a beautiful clear morning. The clouds hang low over the valley below but in the mountains it was sunny from a blue sky – an easy decision to stay up.
When I later came down from the mountains the weather was much warmer – about 25C (70F) - so back to sandals and short bicycling pants for the remaining ride into Baltimore.
Experiences, road quality and people
Having done no serious bicycling for 9 months prior to the start, it was pleaantly easy riding southern Florida's long, straight and flat roads – but also a bit boring because of the huge farms and forests with endless barbed wire fences and signs of “No trespassing”. A lot of (also heavy) traffic but nice big shoulders to ride on – however nobody seems to sweep them so they were full of pebbles, glass splinters, various metal objects, etc. My Google-map print helped me ride long distances on several bicycle trails converted from old train tracks - straight and few views but quiet and a good place to meet fellow bicyclists and people in general. In the streets I experienced few smiles/greetings and it was difficult finding people to talk to – are people too busy, uninterested or afraid to meet a stranger? When trying to stop cars asking for directions many sped by pretending not to see me even though I was in the middle of the street; when asking people in the street they hurried on without looking me in the eyes, etc. In a parking lot I got a couple cornered in their car – I waited minutes for them to come out and when they didn't I walked to the driver's side to show myself. The woman in the passenger seat took advantage of this and rapidly walked to a shop. Hesitantly the man came out trying to get by but I followed him asking why he wouldn't help me with directions. I managed to get a conversation going and he admitted being a snowbird (people migrating to Florida for the winter) not knowing the area well – though once we started talking he was friendly enough.....
From this and similar encounters I learned two things; 1) Talking to people (politeness and big smiles) make them trust me and neglect my hobo-look with dirty clothes, limited hygeine, etc. 2) The snowbirds in Florida come from the colder northern states, so it might be a warning that people living further north are more hesitant to meet strangers – I hope I'm wrong but other things about the snowbirds seem to confirm it. They often stay the same place every season and they prefer surrounding themselves with likeminded people – e.g. many RV resorts (!) are for age 55+ so they don't risk meeting people different from themselves. My friends Brian and Christina had warned me about the hesitant behaviour, so it didn't come as a bit surprise, but still..... what kind of life is it, where you don't dare meeting and talking to people in your own country? – no wonder Americans are afraid of going abroad if they are scared of living the US. Many people seem to be immensely influenced by the negative news reports on crime – I'm sure it's bad in some places but if you remove drug related crime, domestic violence and nightlife issues it's probably not that bad...... It seems people forget to put the stories into perspective and just turn into everyday life in their minds – my experience is that 99.99% of all people are friendly and helpful but unfortunately it's not an interesting story – fear is the top seller.
In northern Florida the rolling hills started and at the same time the farms got bigger and the fences fewer – the latter created a friendlier atmosphere but it implied unleached dogs chasing after me. People seemed a bit more open and friendly but I was still somewhat disillusioned – and then a late afternoon in Gainville I met Diane asking her for directions in the street. We only talked briefly before I continued to find a place to pitch my tent – in the mean time she talked to a couple of friends and they decided to ask me for dinner, so Diane got in her car and caught up with me after 8k (5 miles). What a great experience being invited into the home and lives of these interesting and generous people – a hot shower, plenty of delicious food, great company and finally a warm bed... an experience that lifted my spirit and confidence that it's not going to be 6 long months of bicyling in the US. This is exactly what I need to experience to eliminate part of my prejudice.
The rolling hills grew bigger and more frequent in Georgia. According to my google-map print, I was supposed to go 160k (100 miles) around the perimeter of a big swamp, but it turned out to be mostly gravel roads impassable with my heavy bicycle; and that is exactly the limitation of google-maps related to long distance bicycling – it doesn't distinguish between mountain biking and normal biking, it has many errors e.g. non-existent or wrong names of roads,etc. Navigation is also made difficult by all mile-counting-signs being reset when entering a new county. A good example of the autonome US where local, narrow minded solutions are predominant - not caring about the need of the actual users. In Georgia shoulders are limted and the few existing ones are narrow and full of holes made to make drivers aware they are pulling off the road. At the same time 2-lane roads are quite common creating dangerous situations for me when people try to squeeze by despite oncoming traffic. Exactly that situation was close to becoming fatal for me – on a rainy day in a curve a pickup truck came fast from behind, saw me late, tried to avoid by going around, discovered the oncoming 2 cars, breaked and skidded. When I heard this I stopped and pulled into the grass and had I not done so, you would not be reading this – still at high speed the car passed a few metres in front of me driving down the ditch and into some trees...... fortunately the car hit the trees sideways so nobody got hurt but the car was badly damaged. Making sure there was nothing I could do, I quickly continued my trip. I've had many near death incidents in my life and in these situations I appreciate being very rational – my mind seems not to understand/be influenced by the possible consequences of the incident and at the same time it estimates the likelihood of repetion being zero. I want to live a long life but should I die now it would not be a disaster – I have lived a priviledged and good life for which I'm grateful and I would rather have a quick death now than dying after years of illness at old age (the latter being my only fear in life).
Georgia was primarily big farms/fields and forests but my impression is that people and the state in general are pretty poor - especially compared to the rich Florida. Both places have a lot for sale but in Florida it's expensive houses/cars while in Georgia it's ramshackle houses/cars – I doubt there are many buyers. In Georgia, however, people are much friendlier,curious and encouraging – many times people spontaneously stopped asking if I needed a ride somewhere (including a police officer) – the record was 3 times in a day. Historically Georgia is right in the “bible belt” but religion is still the center of many people's lives – besides tradition probably because of the poverty and limited education. The are countless churches along the road promising everytrhing from salvation to miracles. I received many blessings and admittedly also blessed a couple of people though I'm not a believer myself – whatever makes people happy; I don't loose anything by being accommodating.
In Georgia I also had my only sketchy experience – from a distance on a big road I could see a car parked in the side with the bonnet up. When I approached I saw to people sitting in the car and when I drove by the guy in the driver's seat asked me to stop. Normally I would stop but I know nothing about fixing cars – at the same time I found it strange that they were neither working on the car nor trying to stop a car or walking for help (why would they wait for a guy on a bicycle to ask? - being the only bicycle on that road for months). Stopping a car would have been the normal approach if they didn't have a phone which I'm sure they had - so why not just call for help?..... I'm aware of exactly this situation because it's the most common robbery situation for long distance bicyclists – people see you, drive ahead finding a good place to rob you and just wait for your arrival.... in that respect bicyclists are pretty vulnarable especially travelling alone....
In Georgia I also got a sad example of American (and maybe Western) health care – I camped in the backyard of a vietnam veteran who had his 8-year old grandson living with him because the parents in NYC couldn't (wouldn't?) handle him. The grandson was very interested in my trip and very talkative so amongst other I learned he was medicated for ADHD – he said he couldn't control himself when he didn't take the medicine as if that was the only solution to his problem. Obviously he has been told so but with that attitude the problem becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and medication for life – somebody should invest the phychiatric resources identifying the underlying issues instead of settling for a quick diagnose and medicine – especially for a child.
When I crossed into western South Carolina (SC) the farms got smaller and the forests bigger. SC is famous for its red soil and already crossing the bridge from Georgia it became apparent why. This part of SC is more flat and very beautiful – maybe enhanced by the nice weather and very friendly people; the roads however were terrible. As I moved north the rolling hills returned and I quickly reached the foothill of the mountains unable to go up because of the recent snow. It had been a while since my last invitation so it was about time if I was to believe it could reoccur. And then as I passed by a small village late afternoon Tim and Lea saw me, caught up and invited my to stay – things really do happen when you believe in it! I soaked in their jacuzzi for half an hour and afterwards they fed me and served me beers and moonshine (local homebrewed alcohol). I accepted the offer of staying another day which Tim and I spent at beautiful Lake Jocassee. Tim has done a lot of long-distance hiking which has led to many of the same life changing experiences/decisions as mine – so nice to meet a travelling soul mate when least expected. Lea and her 3 kids were great and I also got to meet a lot of people from the community – everybody really friendly and generous.
I felt like staying longer but knew I had to continue my trip. I crossed into North Carolina and soon after I went up the mountains to the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) just east of Boone – a remarkable project initiated by Roosevelt in the mid 30'ies as part of New Deal (but not finished until the 80'ies). The Parkway is unique for several reasons – 1) It's actually a parkway which means no commercial vehicles, houses, shops and only a few times I passed nearby farms bordering the road - it implied very limited traffic and easy peace of mind. Most disturbing was US Airforce showing off when I rode through Virginia. 2) It's actually located on the ridge large part of the way, contrary to riding many other mountain ranges where it's often a lot of exercise with limited views. That said there are continuously ascents and descents – the lowest point is 0.2k (650 feet) and the highest around 2k (6,000 feet) though having to skip the western more mountainous part I only reached an elevation of 1,5k (4,500 feet). In a normal year there would be leaves on the trees by now, but because of the cold weather this year the trees were naked except for a few dry leaves from last year. As in life it's possible to have everything but not at the same time - riding outside the season provided solitude and tranquility but I'm pretty sure the views are more spectacular in the Summer, where however cars go bumper to bumper. I prefer the first and fear visiting other parks when it becomes Summer....
Knowing it's a secluded ride I was well prepared for a week in the moutains bringing adequate food and snacks – my big challenge was water especially riding the state and national parks where there could be 100k (65 miles) between civilisation. All campgrounds and almost all ranger stations were closed for the season, but when I was in need of help people driving gave me water or I got some from a creek. And talking about receiving many people were nice to give snacks and candy which I happily accepted – one elder man I spoke to for 20 minutes even offered me cash to buy dinner but that I politely declined (many times as he was very persistent). I think I offended him but for me it's a big difference from receiving hospitality, food and drinks. However, I general I was negatively surprised by most people not greeting me back when passing - most looked like mummies; if that's their happy (vacation) faces, they got to practice and if it's their best time in life they got to make some changes.....
North of Shenandoah NP in Virginia I exited the mountains and continued north on more flat roads. In the mountains I felt a bit disillusioned about my physical shape because I always had to struggle despite many days on the road. However, when the roads became flatter I suddenly felt my strenght – encouraged that the problem must have been my eyesight (not being able to assess the slopes) rather than my legs. It went so well that I didn't notice being on the freeway before a sign disclosed the end of it (in my defence the road changed from county road to freeway over 50k and through 3 different states). The easy ride only lasted until western Maryland where the short and steep rolling hills returned through the beautiful countryside. My last night I decided to camp on the bank of the Potomac River despite several people offering me to come and stay at their place.
Wildlife was diverse but not as abundant as expected. In Florida I saw different snakes, turtles and a lot of birds e.g. herons, eagles, buzzards, falcons and vultures. Deer was fairly abundant everywhere but along the way I also experienced opossums, groundhogs, capybayas, squirrels, chipmunks, beavers, skunks, etc. During daytime activity was fairly limited – instead I saw a lot of road kill easy to spot because of the vultures. Amongst the road kill was everything from birds, squirrels and hares to foxes, racoons and armadillos. Acticity was highest around sunset - interesting lying in the tent listening to all the sounds.... everything sounds much bigger than it really is e.g. a small animal making its way through the dry leaves. One big advantage of the cold weather - particularly in the mountains - is that there were no bugs.....
To avoid mice and other rodents destroying my tent and bags looking for food, I always hang it in a tree at night. In the mountains however, I left the bag outside the tent but under the tent cover. That way I could try and chase away a bear should I try and steal the food (I didn't have the ropes for proper bear storage high up between two trees). According to the locals there are many blacks bears in the Appalachians but I experienced nothing – no bear, no shit, no foot prints, no nothing. A pity during daytime – less annoying at nighttime.
Except for the 3 nights I was invited in, I slept in my tent either in a forest, a farmer's field or in people's backyards. When asking people it's always for a place nearby (never directly on their land) but people have been friendly and suggested I pitch it at their land – everybody from a poor toothless, old lady in Georgia to filthy rich people owning a huge Virginia estate. Some people offered it right away while others (especially the farmers) required a 10-15 minutes conversation to get to know me a bit. Thouh, it was not always easy to find out if people were home - where I come from a car in the driveway means somebody is home, but here 4-5 cars I no guarantee. In the mountains it was easy pitching a tent everywhere; here the challenge was pulling the pegs out of the ground in the morning - I felt like Arthur trying to pull the sword out of the rock. However, despite succeeding I haven't received neither a kingdom nor a round table....
When camping I usually go to bed and rise with the sun – on previous trips in the Summer this has implied bicycling 10-12 hours a day. However, until now it has been much too cold to get up at sunrise and sometimes also waiting until sunset to go to bed – most days I got up at 8.30-9.00 bicycling around 10.00-10.30 and stopping around 6.00-6.30pm.
Food and health
From previous trips I know how important it is to be overweight when starting to bicycle because I burn so many calories every day that it is impossible to keep up the calorie intake. And from experience I know my performance is much better burning body fat than having to “survive” every day on “short calories” like chokolate and soft drinks. Breakfast is usually oat meal/müsli and coffee, lunch is bread with ham/cheese and dinner a bowl of pasta/soup. On previous trips in Europe I had milk and fruit with the breakfast and sometimes more filling lunch options but on this trip it has been a challenge spending most of my time in the countryside and mountains because shopping opportunities are limited or non-existent. The distances are greater and the shopping culture different - everybody has a car which makes it possible to shop in bigger towns. My only option would be to buy a lot of food in towns and bring it, but my bike is already seriously overloaded (see equipment section below) so it's not really an option.
My last bicycle trip was around Ireland and Great Britain in the Summer of 2012 so in August 2012 I started rebuilding my body weight. I did pretty well but during my time in Sadhana Forest in Haiti during the Winter (vegan food, no alcohol, etc) I lost around 10 kg (25 lbs) and had to start all over. I gained part of it but far from enough – especially when I went up the Appalachian mountains I used short calories abundantly and even after days in Baltimore I'm still struggling to convince my body to quit the sugar addiction.
And talking about calories, no wonder the US has an obesity problem. Outside every town there are at least 25 fastfood chains offering super value meals.... Healthy food is both expensive and difficult to buy – e.g. gas stations advertise food but only sell snacks. Once I pointed out the lack of (healthy) food to which to the saleswoman responded “but what about the protein bars”....
Otherwise my health has been okay - the heavy rains and cold weather didn't influence my health. Only problem along the way was some days with seriously swollen knees (from mid thigh to mid calf) not being able to bend my legs more than 90 degrees. This has happened before with overexertion of my bad left knee (see the overall section on Health) but never the right knee. I did remove a number of ticks in the days before but as I never felt ill (headache, fever, etc.) that was probably not the reason. My childhood soccer coach always said - “exercise the problem away” - and so I kept bicycling and in a few days it disappeared, so no worries.
Drinking water has been an interesting topic – almost everywhere I went, people braged about their water being the best in the country. And despite this, many people prefer drinking filtered water....another good example of fear (this time in advertising) making people act irrational.
Having bicycled before I'm fairly aware of what I need and equally important what I don't need (although.some people would claim that my 40 kg or 90 lbs of luggage is too much). However, my previous trips have been maximum 2 months and always in the Summer – the difference created some interesting learning opportunities. I knew beforehand that I needed warmer clothes but didn't expect it to be necessary before reaching the Rocky Mountains much later – normally that would be correct since Spring usually starts around 1 March with around 20C (70F). Though this year has been very different as mentioned in the weather section.
My biggest challenges related to:
Fabric gloves – I definitely need warm and waterproof gloves
Waterproof sneakers – it was often quite cold at the toe tips so I have to consider an alternative
My 3-season tent – I had big problems when it snowed/hailed because it weighed the tent down. Several times I had to get out and remove the snow from the tent cover. Bicycling to Alaska from San Francisco next Summer might prove difficult without a better tent
My air mattress – there is no hole in it (I've tested it several times) and still it leaks overnight making it very cold lying on the ground. It might work if it stops leaking but if I have to buy a new one I should consider the more insulating winter model
My sleeping bag (-9C or 15F) was okay but it shouldn't have been much colder. I could consider buying a warmer one or it might be sufficient to wear more clothes at night.
Before I started the trip I refurbished the bicycle so no big problems were to be expected. Along the way my back tire was worm down to the kevlar after also being used on my trip around Ireland and Great Britain last Summer. No problem – I brought two new tires for the same reason.... another brand but similar size as tires previously used. To my great surprise the tire turned out to be too big touching the electrical wire on the inside of the mudguard..... Depsite small alterations it was still touching, so I took the chance and put the wheel in a somewhat extreme position only half way in the cradle. It worked when I put the mudguard in a specific twisted position but since it didn't stay there during the day, I constantly had to stop and ajust it. And when I later fixed a flat tire it was all over trying to find the new twisted position for the mudguard – extremely annoying and frustrating. I imagine a lot of bicycle enthusiasts ask: "how difficult can it be"? Under nomal circumstances I agree, but the bicycle weight changes everything - without luggage the bike can be set perfectly, but luggage changes everything.....
And speaking of flat tires – previously I only had one flat tire riding 24,000k (15,000 miles) on the bike.... and that was on a rainy day when the tire was totally worn down. This time I had a flat tire on day 1 (!) - happy to realise it was a drill penetrating the tire since no tire could have protected against that. Being more observant I started noticing a lot of metal scrap left on all shoulders – everything from nails to tools. In the mountains I had another flat tire dragging the bike through the bushes searching for a good place to camp – despite it being through thorn scrubs, I was still surprised since I've done it countless times before without problems.