In the past few weeks I’ve had several friends tell me that it’s amazing that we’re going to ride our bikes to California, but making a longer-term trip happen is possible if you have the motivation to plan in advance, save up, and take some time off from work or school. Here’s the breakdown of the planning we did to get ourselves to this point of imminent departure.
3 months out
- Start dreaming and searching our calendars for when we can make this trip happen. The easy part here was that we’d plan to arrive by September when I start my graduate program, so we have a natural time frame.
- Read lots of bike touring blogs and see how others have done it. My favorites are The Path Less Pedaled, Going Slowly, and While Out Riding - though there are as many ways to bike tour as there are bike tourists!
- Save money by cutting back on extras: ride a bike instead of Metro (kills two birds with one stone), cook more at home, stick to your budget by reminding yourself what you’re working towards.
2 months out
- Make lots of additions to our bikes - get both front and back racks, enough pairs of panniers (two pairs each), new tires – and buy a great new campstove.
- Sketch out a route we want to follow and start asking friends for recommendations. We didn’t want to go south because of the summer heat, and going across the north seemed more interesting than through the middle of the country – more mountainous, though.
- Do a shakedown bike tour, fully loaded, to test out if we’re bringing too much. A few items did get cut after five days of riding with all our gear.
1 month out
- Do more research into the route. Order Adventure Cycling maps – a mix of several of the routes in the ACA network - and other maps we’ll need for navigation.
- Research travel insurance options.
- Finish ordering last things we think we’ll need: sunblock, spare brake and shifter cables, extra water storage, and so on.
3 weeks out
- Throw a going-away party and try to see all our friends in the area before we leave.
- Attempt to write down everyone’s great suggestions for the trip – which roads to take, who to stay with, etc.
- Finish wrapping everything up at work to get our departures in order.
2 weeks out
- Get the first week of the route planned out in detail in our spreadsheet: options for lodging, friends nearby, available amenities, and expected daily mileage. We’ll probably take it easy in the beginning since we haven’t been able to do much riding lately.
- File forms for student loan deferment (for those of us still paying off our education).
- Visit our families!
This is where we are right now. Fifteen days and counting. And this is what’s coming:
1 week out
- Pack our U-Haul pod and have it shipped out to California! Odd to think that our furniture will beat us there.
- Make last-minute bike checks.
- Hang out with friends and toast the beginning of something new.
- Pack our panniers.
- Preemptively drink lots of water and eat lots of food. Okay, let’s be honest – this step should last the entire week (month?) before departure.
Morning of Friday, May 24th
- Grab coffee with wonderful friends at Swing’s in DC and pedal on.
I’m excited to finally share the plans we’ve been working on for the past few months! In short, we’re spending this summer riding our bicycles across the United States and interviewing people along the way about where they live.
We’re calling this trip “Migration Trail” for two main reasons. The motivation for the trip is our bi-coastal move – we’re moving from DC to California for me to start my graduate program in Geography, and decided to make it an adventure by doing it as a bike tour.
Since we are moving to a completely new-to-us place, we’ve built upon the idea of interviewing people along the way about the places where they live and how they came to live there – whether it be a recent move or their family has been settled in the area for generations. We will be posting what we learn to my website to help people explore the variety of circumstances that bring people to all kinds of places in our vast country.
Our cycling route takes us up to Michigan, west across the northern part of the United States, then south through California. Plenty of miles. One hundred days on the road – give or take.
We start Friday, May 24th. That’s only three weeks away! We still need to wrap things up at work, finish packing and ship our pod to California, iron out everything we need to take care of beforehand (medical stuff, bills, insurance), and make our final goodbyes. Our first week will be mostly on the C&O Canal Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage to Pittsburgh, and we’re inviting friends to join us for the first day or two of our trip.
So, after looking over our route from our recent five-day shakedown bike tour, I plugged the actual route into the GPS Visualizer tool and got this graph. Red vertical lines separate different days.
It’s not beautiful, but it shows how far we went and the elevation change over the course of the ride. Even though I planned the route and divided up our days of riding ahead of time, it turned out that we did ride further on days without major climbing – the first and last days. Those two days were spent primarily on the C&O Canal Towpath.
You can see the C&O on the graph as the nearly-horizontal (flat) sections. The first little spike on day 1 is Persimmon Tree Road. The 800-foot climb on day 3 is Gum Springs Road. Really satisfying climb with a chilly and fast descent. Adam and I are working on generating some other visualizations on our own for our upcoming trip. More soon!
Five days on the bike, 243 miles of riding, all kinds of weather and terrain. Through rain, farmlands, and mountain passes.
Day 5: Harpers Ferry, WV to Washington, DC
Our fifth day of riding was a lovely, mostly sunny day of riding back to DC via the C&O Canal towpath from Harpers Ferry. A night of restful sleep and a great waffle breakfast at the Teahorse Hostel completely refreshed us, so even after four days of riding we were ready for more. We chatted with the hostel owner, Laurel, and two Appalachian Trail hikers who had also stayed the night. They were headed in different directions on the AT with very different hiking styles.
Along the way, I found that bicycle speed is the perfect pace at which to notice flora and fauna, start up conversations with new people, and feel the sun warming up the land. We paused at one of the lockhouses on the canal and met a volunteer named Bud who offered to show us the interior of one of the restored lockhouses further down the trail that he was checking up on. The three of us continued down the trail and had the opportunity to look inside the lockhouse, which would be fun to rent for an overnight stay (it’s $70-100/night for up to eight people). The house was very basic – you have to carry in everything you need, including water – but has two bedrooms that can easily accommodate eight. It does a good job of evoking the feeling of a bygone time.
We talked with Bud for a little while before starting off down the trail again. Soon enough, we were stopped again to chat with an older man who was curious about where we were headed and where we were coming from. He said he had done a lot of bike touring in his day and sent us off with a cyclist creed: “For every uphill there is a downhill, but for every headwind there is another headwind.”
The rest of the ride back into Washington, DC via the C&O was pleasant and had pockets of sunlight to warm us up enough. We were both feeling tired of trail-riding by the last 10 or 15 miles, but soon were back into the city with all its familiar traffic (rush hour on L Street isn’t pretty). Happened to run into Chris on our way in and then stopped to visit a friend at a nearby coffee shop. Nice to see familiar faces!
We had a wonderful trip overall, and it was refreshing to get out of the city for awhile. Bike touring can be very affordable: no rising gas prices to worry about, free lodging if you already have camping equipment (the C&O Canal hiker/biker sites are free), and plenty of time to stop whenever you like. Most of our meals were made on the road, and as cyclists we also had to snack constantly. We had a good idea of what we didn’t need to bring, though we didn’t overpack too badly. If we tent camped more it would have been more worthwhile to haul the camping equipment, but low nighttime temperatures drove us to seek indoors shelter more often on this trip.
A few takeaways if you’re considering a bike touring trip:
- Wear more sunblock. It’s easy to forget on cloudy days.
- If wearing cycling shoes, it’s worth it to take a pair of off-bike shoes. After a long day of riding, throwing on comfy sneakers can be the best feeling in the world.
Never run out of snacks. Salty snacks especially. And eat lots of peanut butter. You can never really eat too much if you’re riding your bike all day. You can drink too much, though: beer hits you harder after a day of riding.
- Talk to everybody you meet, even when you think you don’t have the time. Plans were meant to be changed.
Miscalculated in the last blog post – we’ll be riding for five days total. Here are days three and four, with only one day until we’re back in DC.
Day 3: Gettysburg, PA to Williamsport, MD
We did a lot of climbing the third day of our trip, and it seemed at the time like it was entirely into headwinds. There were very few periods of relief from either climbing or riding hard into the wind (which felt like climbing), so we took many breaks just to give our legs time to recover.
Started the day with some of the strongest winds I’ve ever experienced while riding a bike. Our surroundings were a lot of flat farmlands with little tree cover to shield us. We were relieved when a road took us into the woods through a valley. The route started off as an innocent-looking valley, but we quickly realized its intention was to climb the side of a mountain. Okay, I write this as if I didn’t plan the route myself…
The biggest climb of the day was Gum Springs Road, which took a lot out of us. As soon as we crested it, a light rain began to come down; at first refreshing after the climb, then increasing as we descended. The descent down the mountain was exhilarating and a welcome reward after endless climbing. After another (shorter) climb, we descended quickly down Buchanan Trail Road. This was a scary two mile stretch along a busy highway but we survived with only a few bike shimmy worries. Adam spotted the perfect spot to cook some well-earned lunch. After lunch, more wind and more climbing.
It was exciting to reach Hagerstown, Maryland, which had the first bike lanes we had seen since we left DC. I had also been hearing a mysterious metallic noise from my front wheel which I was convinced was a broken spoke, but it didn’t seem like that was the case when we stopped at Hub City Cycles to inspect it. None of us could figure out what had caused the noise, so chalked it up to possibly something that had been caught near my fender. We chatted awhile with the two guys working there and I bought an extra spoke for the front wheel just to have as back-up. It’s always going to be what you don’t have that ends up being what you need.
It was a short trip from Hagerstown to Williamsport, still windy. We passed two Sheetz gas stations and a Waffle House. Unfortunately didn’t stop for the Waffle House since we weren’t in the breakfasting spirit (I’ve been to only one Waffle House, in Georgia, and it was great). But with Ed‘s advice to us – “If you see a Sheetz, stop for awhile” – we decided a coffee and juice break was in order.
Williamsport, Maryland is another nice town that looks like a good stop for cyclists. We just rode through to meet up with the C&O Canal path and headed downriver to stake out a camping spot. Adam set up the tent and started a fire while I prepared dinner. We ate huddled around the fire pit and were down with the sun.
Day 4: Williamsport, MD to Harpers Ferry, WV
That was the coldest night of camping we’ve had yet. Temperatures in the mid- to high-20s last night left us shivering to stay warm and not getting much sleep by the time the sun rose. I kept looking at my watch and predicting when sunrise would be because it meant the day would start to warm up. Unzipped the tent around 7:30 to see that our panniers were covered in frost. We had been out of water since the previous afternoon, since we ran out and the water pumps along the C&O weren’t on (the handle was removed on the pump at our campsite). The nicest part of the morning was talking to the helpful NPS rangers who were checking the water quality at the campsite – they helped direct us to where we could meet Falling Waters Road, which brought us to a well-stocked general store in Downsville. We bought lunch and dinner supplies as well as some breakfast to fuel us for the day.
There was a fair bit of climbing today, but overall it seemed that we descended more than we climbed. If “day three legs” are bad, day four legs are close to empty. The stretch to Antietam was really beautiful and made up for the exhaustion. We only took a quick break there to enjoy the sun and another snack.
It wasn’t much further on to Harpers Ferry, where we’ll be having an early night. Riding back to DC tomorrow!
Two days of bike touring! Two to go. It’s been a beautiful ride so far.
Day 1: Washington, DC to Frederick, MD (58 miles)
As we loaded our stuffed panniers onto our bikes, I started to wonder what we were getting ourselves into: “This bike is really heavy.” “Maybe our first day shouldn’t be 60 miles, or should I have chosen a slightly less hilly route?” But after loading up, tweeting a picture, and pushing off, we found that the bikes carried the weight well. The extra weight was hardly felt while riding through flat DC, and made the bike very stable. Once we got onto MacArthur Blvd, however, we started to feel that we were carrying some extra pounds. I spun thoughts of the gear I should have left at home.
After a full day of riding with this stuff, I can safely say there’s no reason we need two pot sets (the one larger MSR set will do). I think the amount of clothes we packed is well suited to lasting us four days at a time before we need to do laundry – lots of practice from traveling light (thanks, increasing airline fees). And though we have a lot of weight from the food we’re carrying, it’s nice to be able to cook our own meals wherever we want, like a perfect picnic spot overlooking the river. I’m trying to take more photos since that’s something that’s easy to forget when you’re looking for the next turn you need to make or just chatting away with the people you meet.
Speaking of meeting people, I guess riding bicycles loaded for touring makes you something of a novelty. Lots of people were out on the C&O Canal Towpath enjoying the early spring weather, and my favorite moment was when a family of four stopped in their tracks to watch us ride by – the boy waved the entire time we were passing and the mother speculated out loud, “They’re going the whole way!”
We traded photo favors with another family with three kids, all of whom were on bikes. Well, the littlest was in one of those seats that goes near the handlebars and holds each leg – not sure how to describe that well. The father told us he always ended up with the extra weight, which in this case was a cute pink backpack and two stuffed dogs tied to the handlebars. After cleaning up our lunch supplies, we also talked awhile with a woman who lives in Bethesda and regularly rides the C&O. Her husband was still getting back up speed after he was in a bad accident last year when he was doored by a car and his helmet was split open. She had an unusual looking helmet and told us that’s what her husband bought for the two of them after the accident, after evaluating safety ratings.
We rejoined the world of paved roads at Nolan’s Ferry, which meets New Design Road. This was really pleasant riding: smooth roads, gently rolling hills, and drivers that rode fast but gave lots of passing room. We gave our CouchSurfing host a call and met him at his place earlier than we expected to arrive. The total for the day was about six hours on the bike, and about an hour off the bike for lunch and photo opps. Not too bad for riding fully-loaded!
Day 2: Frederick, MD to Gettysburg, PA (42 miles)
Rain all day! We had originally planned on camping out tonight, but it looks like we might grab a motel and get dry. Rode through beautiful Maryland farmlands, mooed at cows, took rainy photos at Gettysburg Battlefield. We crossed Route 15 too many times – a little tricky in places – and had a lunch stop at a local BBQ joint called Chubby’s. That was a nice sweet tea and get-warm break.
Rain and cooler temperatures make you appreciate hills. Climbing a hill lets you warm up inside. Descending is less fun.
Entered Gettysburg, Pennsylvania around 3pm and decided to grab a coffee and upload this blog post. Thanks to friends who have been tweeting nice messages at us. Bike touring is great, even on less-than-perfect weather days. We’re learning a lot so far.
By this time next Friday, Adam and I will be on a short shakedown bike tour before our longer ride this summer. It’s still early in the season, so our routing choices for next week’s bike tour were based partly on which campgrounds would be open by then. We have the option of camping at the free hiker/biker campsites along the C&O Canal, which are open year-round, but don’t want to do the entire ride on gravel.
Our tentative plan to get a good mix of experience – and test the gear we’re carrying – is as follows:
Day 1: Say hello to Friday Coffee Club, then set off towards Frederick, Maryland.
Day 2: Ride to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, then camp at Caledonia State Park in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania.
Day 3: Head towards Falling Waters, West Virginia (near the C&O Canal).
Day 4: Take the C&O Canal trail to Brunswick, Maryland.
Day 5: Back to Washington, DC – likely not via the C&O.
Works out to about 250 miles total. We will be going at a casual pace, considering our bikes will be loaded up with gear: camping and cooking stuff, food, and bike tools. Feel free to join for part of the ride if you have time. It’ll be a good test run if you’re interested in getting into bike touring! I’ll also recap what we learn from the ride when we get back.
Note: We will also be testing out the TrackMyTour iPhone app on this ride. It looks like an easy way to let family and friends know where you are. Let me know if you’ve tried this app or any similar ones, and how it’s worked out for you. Along with the manual waypoints through TrackMyTour, I’ll be using Strava to record our rides as usual.
The past couple of weeks we’ve been digitizing building footprints from satellite imagery in advance of the “mapping party,” which is a gathering to conduct an on-the-ground survey. I’ve been getting the hang of using JOSM, the Java OpenStreetMap editor, which is great for repetitive tasks like tracing buildings.
To coordinate our activities, we tried out a tool called MapCraft to help us track which areas had already been traced and divided up ‘slices’ of the overlaid cake diagram to prepare for surveying. This was a nice way to coordinate when several people were editing Falls Church from different locations.
A group of seven of us gathered at Mad Fox Brewing in ‘The Little City’ of Falls Church, Virginia on Saturday to gather details on buildings and other points of interest in the area. We had a good mix of newbies and more experienced mappers, and were able to pair off to go into the field to collect data. Mostly we relied on paper printouts – thanks to Brian for the great preparations! – of specific sections of the area, so we were able to cover more ground in a short amount of time. A few of us also took GPS tracks and waypoints using either dedicated GPS devices or smartphones. Since the building footprints were already on OSM, it was easy to navigate with the printed maps and take notes about tags to add later (name, address, use, etc). We reconvened after an hour or so of walking around Falls Church, and spent a little time updating the features in OpenStreetMap. I regret not taking a “before” screenshot of Falls Church before we focused our attention there, but there is a definite improvement in the coverage of that area.
If you have any interest in joining a mapping party or just learning more about OpenStreetMap, join the MappingDC Google Group and come out to a future event. Ideas for next events include the Arboretum, updates to Chinatown and Georgetown, and a trip to Baltimore.
I first noticed the addition of this new bike lane on Gallows Road on Bike to Work Day 2012. It’s a great way to connect the area with the W&OD Trail, though there is a long way to go before the casual cyclist feels comfortable here. Formerly I took the sidewalk for the part of my ride that goes along Gallows, but the lane is great if you’re comfortable riding next to high-speed traffic. However, I find this part of Fairfax County a tough situation for anyone riding a bike, as I’ve been yelled at by pedestrians for being on the sidewalk (before there was a lane) and yelled at by drivers for being in the road waiting to turn onto Gallows (to get into the lane). It’s usually a lack of understanding, as legally I’m allowed to be in either.
It looks like there are plans to extend the Gallows Road bike lanes to Old Courthouse Road in phase 3 of the project, to be completed this year.
Thanks to Mary’s Errandonnee challenge for inspiring me to grab a shot of this lane!
This is a quick note to say I’ve switched from WordPress hosting to a self-hosted site, still using the WordPress software to maintain this blog. This means I have better control over layout and design options since I can edit code directly when I need to. However, for now you’ll see that my blog largely looks the same as it did before.
I’m updating some of my pages to organize them better, so don’t fret if things move around. For example, I’ve thrown up a more general Travels page which can house more specific pages in the future. I may be making more changes in the future and it’s nice to have the option to do so now. I can’t believe this blog is almost 5 years old!