Day 71: Georges Mills to Rochester, NH

Our cabin for the night was on Little Sunapee Lake, and we woke up on Tuesday, October 21st to a view of perfectly calm water. The morning weather forecast said the rain wouldn’t start until around nightfall, so we set off at 9am under mostly sunny skies. It turned out to be a beautiful day for a ride – slightly warmer than the last few days, with brilliant sunshine poking through and fall scenery that was still spectacular.

Unfortunately for us, New Hampshire is a densely populated state. A lot of our ride on Tuesday was along busy highways, We were relatively safe because the state has put wide shoulders along most of its roads, but it’s strictly business when you’re riding in highway traffic. I didn’t take many pictures. We rode through New London, Andover, and Tilton, which had a statue in the middle of the highway that was just too weirdly beautiful to ignore. Then we went on to Franklin, where we got off Route 11 and the traffic fell away.

We started toward Rochester on state route 140 and went through Belmont. Jim explored the public library building, and reported that it was really old and that the door made a scary squeaking sound when you opened it, but that the two women inside were very friendly and the bathroom was clean. We ate lunch at the town’s one diner – it was a new place, and they didn’t know if they could make a grilled cheese sandwich. “How can you not know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich?”, asked Jim.

Most of the townships we rode through had welcome signs that gave their founding dates, and most of them were settled well before the Revolutionary War. We rode past the Gilmanton Town Pound, a corral of huge old stones that was used in the early days to safeguard cattle that had wandered off their owner’s property. I hope they still use it sometimes.

A marker told us that the rural road we were following was the “Old Province Road,” one of the first highways in New Hampshire. It was authorized in 1765 to supply northern settlements from the tidewater port of Durham. Many of the houses along the road were from the 18th or early 19th century, and the scenery was probably the same for us as it had been for travelers 200 years ago. We were finishing our ride down the hills toward the coast. At one point we crested a small rise and thirty miles of plains lay in front of us. We probably could have seen the ocean if the clouds hadn’t gotten in the way.

It might have been a 240-year-old highway, but it was also very much in the here and now. New Hampshire was a battleground state in the 2008 Presidential election, and we saw more signs for McCain than for Obama in rural New Hampshire. But the closer we got to the coast, the better Obama showed. More impressive was the profusion of lawn signs for local offices. They really like electing people up here, and they really like lawn signs. Or maybe it’s just that the election was just 13 days away.

We rode through Rochester as the first sprinkles of rain started. We were safe in the motel Sara had found for us by the time the weather got yucky. It was the second 70-mile day in a row and we were beyond exhausted, so we ordered a pizza and zoned out on TV. We noted tomorrow’s forecast: much colder, with a strong north wind. Yet we only had 25 more miles until the end of the trip. At that point, I was so eager to be finished that I would have done it naked.

Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm

Our ride ended at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells Beach, which is located on a preserved 2,200-acre site stitched together from five old coastal farms. Farmers began cultivating this land in the 1670s and kept working it for 300 years. When the last private owner died, local residents formed the Laudholm Trust to buy and manage the properties. The 1910 owners gave the name to the main home and barn complex by combining “laud,” to give praise, with “holm,” a meadow on the shore. The Farm Trust was established in 1982, and the Reserve was dedicated in 1986. The Trust now has about 2,500 members.

Wells is one of 27 National Estuarine Research Reserve sites scattered around the country. State and local sources are the base of support for these sites, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration matches their support with a federal grant 2.3 times the original amount. Wells is the only site that relies on a private not-for-profit organization as the local source (all the others have state funds). The Reserve monitors the health of Maine’s estuaries, which are under increasing pressure from housing development. “We’re trying to show how commercial fishing and community clam beds depend on clean water. People need to understand that degrading those estuaries has an economic impact on the state, “ says Jeremy Miller, a researcher at the lab.

We spoke with Laudholm Trust President Diana Joyner in the Trust’s offices inside the renovated farmhouse. “The reserve is a mixture of things,” she said. “It’s a precious piece of open space for people in Maine. There aren’t many places on the coast where you can hike on seven miles of trails. It’s also a community space where people get married, have parties, and gather in all kinds of ways. And it’s also a research facility. The Trust’s job is to keep the community engaged at a high enough level to make sure the research continues to get the funding it needs.”

Day 72: Rochester to Wells Beach, ME

The rain tapered off and left behind a stiff north wind. Added to an air temperature in the 40s, it meant that our last day was also one of our coldest. We left around 11am after my old friend Jon Crispin, a professional photographer, showed up to record the festivities. We had 25 miles to go before the end of the trail at Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells Beach, Maine.

Traffic remained heavy but we were sheltered from the wind, and before too long we crossed the state line and turned east on state route 9. The road was flat and before long the buildings thinned out. We rode thorugh a coastal deciduous forest that was being stripped of its leaves in the raw wind. We reached the town of Wells and turned north on US Route 1, picking our way through the cars and broken asphalt and closed fish-fry restaurants until we reached the entrance to the Reserve. It is a beautiful spot, a preserved farm complex on 2,200 acres, and we spent an hour talking with scientists and the President of the Board about its dual mission of research and education (see separate post).

About 2:30 pm we threaded our way down Drakes Island Road to the Preserve’s beach, where we ceremonially dipped our tires in the water. We also unveiled the hat of Al Craig, in whose memory Jim and Sara made the trip, for the last time. Sara brought some bubbly and we had a toast, but it was too cold to stay long. So we went to a nearby restaurant and said our goodbyes over tasty bowls of real clam chowder. Then it was time to disband.

The trip ended well. We finished in good shape physically, and Jim and I still like each other enough to plan more rides together. Not until it warms up, though. The three of us finished up so tired, and with so many unprocessed memories and emotions, that we all felt stunned. In the weeks after the trip ended, some of those memories came bubbling back up in my mind up at odd moments. It made me think of a big pot of soup simmering on the back burner, its flavor changing slowly over time. This trip will be nourishing us for a long, long time.

Afterword: What We Learned

Thanks to Jon Crispin for the photo.

Jim, Sara, and I spent several hours in the last days of the ride trading stories and thinking about what we learned. Many of the events that inspired these aphorisms are written up in the blog.

Riding
Rain is OK. Mud is not OK.

It is never as hard as the convenience store guy says it’s going to be.

If the temperature is going to be more than 90 degrees in the afternoon, get rolling before sunrise, quit no later than 2pm, and find a campsite with shade.

If the road has a narrow shoulder, ride on the white line and use hand signals to encourage vehicles to swing into the passing lane. Most of them will. If you ride on the shoulder, even a narrow one, no one will move over.

Put lots of flags, reflectors, and lights on the back of your bike. We encountered aggressive drivers only about a half dozen times in 3,670 miles of riding. But every day we met people who passed too close to us because they either did not see us or didn’t care.

Two of our six encounters with nasty drivers were with people driving Hummers.

There is often a better alternative to the busy highway. Maps from the Adventure Cycling Association are an almost foolproof way to find these alternate routes. If you aren’t on an ACA route, ask the guy at the convenience store.

Unscented baby wipes are a must. So is Bag Balm. Details on request.

They should make disposable bike shorts. You can never pack too much underwear. And if you need more, the ones at Wal-Mart really aren’t bad.

The Biblical commandment about resting on the Sabbath Day makes a lot of sense when you have an outdoor job. After six straight days of riding we were dull, sore, and more prone to make mistakes. The best reason to take a rest day is safety.

Eating

Use caution when eating meat in the middle of a long ride. Even if you’re really hungry, a triple-decker lunch is an awful idea. You will feel like your guts are packed with Silly Putty.

Simple sugars and carbs are best during a ride. Liquids are better than solids. Lots of little meals are better than one big one.

Don’t order a milkshake until you see the Hamilton Beach machine.

Don’t eat at a place that won’t make you a grilled cheese sandwich.

Most middle-aged people are lactose intolerant. Don’t order a milkshake unless you’re prepared for the consequences.

When your riding partner is farting, stay at least ten feet back.

Don’t drink more than two beers after the ride is over. Riding with a hangover is no fun.

“Bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) doesn’t care how much you exercise.  We ate meat every night and got lots of our calories from fat. During the ride, Brad’s LDL count actually went up 50 points. It just ain’t fair!

Camping
Make sure you have a comfortable place to sleep. The Coleman Ridgeline cot ($42 at Wal-Mart) was much more comfortable than sleeping on the ground. It was light and folded easily. It was by far the most important piece of gear in Brad’s kit.

A middle-aged man who is doing physical labor all day can never get enough sleep. If you feel like lying down, go ahead.

Use extreme care when making reservations. Web pages lie. A lot of private campgrounds have a high “creep factor” that you cannot detect until you get there. Look at the showers before you pay.

There is always a place to camp. Keep looking. Go to the nearest store and ask questions. You can always beg the nice ladies at the Chamber of Commerce.

Personal care chores require way too much time in camp. Why do commercial washing machines still demand quarters? Snack machines take dollar bills. When will washers catch up?

Earplugs and a face mask are essential for nights when you’re near a train track, a highway, or a street lamp. Taking a Benadryl will help you drop off to sleep and it isn’t habit forming. But if there’s a sing-a-long in the next campsite, abandon all hope.

Vault toilets are really not so bad, as long as you have toilet paper. Bring your own.

You can cook great meals using the cheapest pots and pans.

There are items you’ll never use that still give you comfort. Sara got a warm feeling every time she saw her frying pan. Brad brought a ponderous history book in case we were ever snowed in.

Thinking

Living in the moment is overrated. Two months on the road packs your brain with so much unprocessed imagery that you can hardly put two words together when someone asks you what it was like. This proves Socrates’ point.  The unexamined live really is not worth living.

Choose crew members who laugh at your jokes. Don’t ride with people who don’t laugh a lot.

It is almost never a good idea to get all worked up over something. There is simply too much you cannot control.

Anybody who can walk uphill for an hour without stopping can ride over the Rocky Mountains on a bicycle. It ain’t the dog in the fight. It’s the fight in the dog.

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