Motoring across Michigan

Before entering Michigan we weren’t quite sure what to expect from the state. Other than Detroit and Flint, where we were not planning to go, and miles of shoreline, which we were keen to sample at least some of, we had no idea what to expect as we crossed West. What we got were super friendly people (continuation of a theme) and miles of quality off-road bike trails that were converted rail lines. Well done Michigan. Oh and the lake shore is nice too.

Just us popping over to the USA then

It was a short ferry ride from Canada to the USA and we were the only people on the boat. This hindered us a little at US customs as it gave them the time to double and triple check everything in our passports and ask us as many questions as they wanted. Eventually we were let out of the door into the pouring rain and made the short ride to our warm showers host who happened to own and live above a great little restaurant. Time to cash in my birthday treat – beer and burgers – safe in the knowledge that we only had to walk upstairs afterwards. 

Birthday burger treat

The next morning, after hearing that we were once given lucky rocks that we then felt obliged to carry on our bikes, Cheryl gave us lucky bananas instead as a more useful gift of luck. Much appreciated. We set off, took a wrong turn, turned back to find the road we should have been on, found it was gravel, so turned back to where we were before we turned back. At this point we stood and ate our lucky bananas a little disappointed in their power so far. 

Lucky bananas? Give us time….

But the day picked up, we had the wind at our backs and joined together bike routes that took us West. With no plans of where to stay that evening, after starting bike trail number 3 of the day we noticed some activity under a marquee, a baseball game and a BBQ. Following our noses we ended up at a private boys school freshman event, there was loads of food left so we were told by the school nurse to sit and watch the game and have a hot dog. The assistant principal had cycled across the country 20 years ago so we got chatting to him and he invited us to camp on the school grounds. Not any old school grounds of course, they had their own lake, grotto, and perfectly mown grass. Yes we would like that a lot. Ten minutes later the school nurse returned with an improved offer – would we like a dorm room instead? Yes, we would like that even more. After being shown to our room we went for a walk around the school grounds and returned ready to cook some pasta on the stove only to find two meals boxed up for us waiting outside our door. Sitting watching the sun set over the lake and eating chicken and pork with our dorm room waiting we thanked our lucky bananas at how the evening had turned out.

Thank you lucky bananas!

The next couple of days continued in much the same fashion – good bike routes, not so good roads (including my least favourite, the horizontal-crack-every-ten-metres which involves the whole weight of the bike jarring first through the upper body as the front wheel runs over it followed a split second later by the same jolt through the backside). The friendliness continued. Sheltering from a thunderstorm under a gas station forecourt we were offered three lifts and a place to stay during 30 minutes and got chatting to a guy who was about to visit Europe for the first time and had concerns about whether he could use the term fanny pack. We said probably not. Debs had to explain why, good job we had a teacher on hand to clear that up.

The calm after the storm

Three days riding got us to Portage, home of Debs’ old friend Tracy and her two boys. We had a great weekend off the bikes playing capture the flag, soccer, battleships, and old arcade games at an actual arcade. We cooked hot dogs and s’mores over a fire and were sad to leave. 

Thanks for the relaxing weekend 🙂

Kal Haven trail

Our route 40 miles all the way to Lake Michigan took us on probably the best bike trail of the lot, the Kal Haven route, nice packed gravel, cheery people and loads of wildlife (though we had to be careful to avoid the suicidal chipmunks that run across in front of the wheels). Before we knew it we were on the shores of one of the Great Lakes watching the waves wondering how this is not the sea. That night we camped at a state park by the shore. The lack of bears so far on the trip meant we were a little casual over food and we woke to find a whole pack of tortillas had been half eaten. Half of every tortilla that is, I don’t know why the (assumed) squirrel couldn’t have carefully pulled the top few out of the pack to eat whole rather than digging into every single one. There were also a surprising number of torn mint tea bags amongst the scene of destruction, I can only imagine it’s disappointment scratching around in the pannier for food only to keep pulling out tea bags. As we packed up that morning we were on the lookout for a fat squirrel with minty fresh breath.

One big bit or many small ones?

The fifth day of riding took us into Indiana (state number 6) for a night camping on the National Lakeshore. We cooked up our typical exciting pasta dinner on the camp stove by the lake and watched the sun set over Chicago – the closest we would get to the city. Not a bad way to end the day, We have cranked up our daily average to around 75 miles given what lies ahead in the mid west – very little if we believe what we are told. Next up for us is a few days riding south west on old Route 66. 50s kitsch, old school diners and Cars (Disney Pixar) memorabilia awaits!

Sunset over the Chicago skyline

Thanks to Cheryl; Orcard Lake St Mary’s High School; Scott, Karen and family; and Tracy, Ben and Levi.


Slow travel and fast food

It was about two weeks into the USA cycle trip, whilst riding through another small town where fast food restaurants seemed to fill around 50% of the buildings, that we realised that we had not yet set foot in one of these seemingly North American icons. No McDonalds, no Dunkin’ Donuts, no Subway, no Starbucks, not one, not even to go to the toilet. At the time I was about 90% pleased with that realisation, 10% disappointed with myself – we are burning up calories in the centre of the fast food universe, with every excuse to tuck in to a different chain every night. But then two weeks turned to three; we spent over a week in Canada and cycled past approx 3500 Tim Hortons (ok that might be a slight exaggeration) without entering one. Back in the USA we are now over a month into the trip and are starting to wonder whether this is something we should actively try to keep up as long as possible. How far can we get across North America before we spend money in a fast food chain restaurant? I say spend money, because it’s close to miraculous that I haven’t needed to go in to one to use the toilet yet, and this can’t possibly last much longer.

Typical lunch

Maybe the health conscious reader wonders why this is even a big deal. After all I never eat in McDonalds at home, so why would I start here?! As it happens the big Golden Arches are every cycle tourists best friend during difficult times. Toilets, water refills (with ice if you are lucky), air conditioning/warmth and wifi; one place to satisfy so many basic needs (admittedly wifi is a luxury – until you see a storm ahead and want to find a place to stay without riding around for ages first). And cheap calories if that’s what you want; or a cheap coffee if you just want to spend a bit of cash to access the basic needs. While we were cycling in Canada during the 2012 Olympics they often had the action on the big screen and we’re giving away coffee during the games so they became our daily break locations. As we again cycle in North America in an Olympic year, we will have to see if we can resist this pull.

Lunch purchases from a menonite store

Who wouldnt try snickerdoodle cookies?

Avoiding fast food chains won’t mean that we will be on some kind of health kick. This is North America after all, even the brown bread tastes of sugar. We do our best to eat as healthily as possible, but we also need volume and low cost. Our options for calorie dense snacks are limitless. We will not be wasting away, don’t worry. What it does mean is we can give our money to local/independent businesses where possible. Such as these delightful snicker doodle cookies from a small Mennonite house.

How our low quality bread looks after a day squashed in a pannier

Certainly not on a health kick. Little Bar independent restaurant, Marine City MI

I almost gave in to temptation on our final day in Ontario last week after seeing an advert for cake batter flavoured milkshake at Mac’s, a kind of fast food chain but also a gas station brand. We had ridden 60kms with no shops and I was thirsty and hungry and clearly a bit weak at the knees. And who doesn’t like the sound of a cake batter flavoured milkshake? I told myself it wasn’t really a fast food chain; it was my birthday treat; I needed the sugar to keep going; and if all else fails, this would be a Canadian purchase so the challenge to not eat in fast food places in the USA could continue unscathed. Into Mac’s I went convinced that I was doing the right thing, only to find the milkshake machine broken. My heart sank. But then my mind cleared. It was a sign from the universe. I had come close to succumbing to a moment of weakness and only a mechanical problem had stood in the way. This was a let off. Be stronger next time!

Really definitely not on a health kick….

So how long can we keep this up? 

A little Canadian holiday

So after nearly two weeks riding in the USA it was time for a new country and a holiday north of the border. Cutting through Ontario made sense distance wise, and although we had already cycled around the area before it meant we could have a catch up with some of Debs’ family and a few days off the bike.

A cold day by Lake Ontario

Crossing the border meant swapping US dollars for Canadian dollars, restrooms for washrooms, miles for kilometres, a crazy presidential campaign for a stud premier, Dunkin Donuts for Tim Hortons, and other barely discernible differences. Oh and the accent apparently (eh) but I’m rubbish with those. After the Niagara Falls border crossing day (see here) we had our coldest day riding yet in North America. The planned bike route along the shore of Lake Ontario became a stay-as-far-away-from-the-lakeshore-as-possible route as the wind whipped up off the lake and smashed us around. We stopped at a boarded up ice cream cafe and reminisced about relaxing here in baking sunshine previously whilst we sat huddled in thick coats using the building as a shelter and eating cheese wraps with two pairs of damp gloves on. Not all days on the road are glamorous, and this was one of the least enjoyable yet.

But we made it to Milton, Ontario and the home of Wendy, Phil and Nathan which was to be our respite for a few days (that easily became six). Time passed quickly as we ate good food in good company, slept, tuned up the bikes, washed our clothes (twice, luxury), went for some walks, watched squirrels, had a day out in Toronto and witnessed Leicester City win the Premier League. Watching our small city back home swallowed up by such an insane achievement and the associated celebration brought a tear to my eye more than once. Listening to it repeatedly on the news over here brought home the scale of this – and they even pronounced Leicester correctly. It’s still tough to explain the achievement over here as there’s no real comparison but once we say that they were 5000-1 at the start of the season that seems to hit home. If in doubt, resort to the global language of betting odds.

Getting back on the bikes is always tough after a break with great company but they weren’t going to ride themselves so we set off west again. Unfortunately, and as will be the case for the most of this trip, the wind was blowing from the west making progress half as fast for twice the effort. Our first stop was with friends from our previous visit and Gail and Gerry pulled out all the stops to give us another great evening (that just happened to be my birthday) and threw in a tour of Stratford, the home of Shakespeare in Canada and the mighty Justin Bieber. As the sun set over the river Avon I thought again how lucky we are to meet kind and welcoming people over and over again on this and previous trips. 

Sunset over the river Avon, Stratford

This stretch of Southern Ontario is open, mostly flat farmland which made for pleasant riding along country back roads, particularly as the wind gave me a late birthday present and switched direction for a day practically blowing us to the border. The two final days in Canada were uneventful but followed the typical bicycle touring rhythm that becomes the norm for body and mind after a short while – get up, eat, ride, eat, ride, eat, ride, eat, ride, find a place to sleep, eat, sleep. It’s funny how in this respect every day follows the same pattern, yet the details make every day completely different to the last. One day we ate lunch by a fishing lake; the next it was on a small patch of grass outside a bank by an intersection listening to Fleetwood Mac on the iPod. Not the ideal picnic spot but it worked for us. 

Gas station snack stop
Intersection picnic

After a ride down the St Clair river that forms the border between Ontario and Michigan we were just a short ferry trip from being back in the USA. Goodbye for now Canada – see you again in British Columbia! (A mere 3200 or so miles away…)

Big thanks to Wendy, Phil and Nathan; Gail and Gerry; and Tom and Val.

Not going out

It’s Saturday night, April 30th and we are not going out. Our hosts for the evening have departed for drinks and it is with relief and tiredness bordering on exhaustion that we sit down to eat several hundred grams of pasta and tuna. Our day started almost 100km, a country and 14 hours ago…
Waking up in the tent the air was colder than we thought. Despite minimal camping recently we packed up very efficiently and rolled the bikes along the canal to Main Street, pleased to see the diner we spotted yesterday was open. It was 7.45am. We spread the tent out over the bikes to dry in the sun and ordered breakfast. There was a dizzying array of options, but we order a special #1 from the blackboard for me, Mac n cheese pancake for Jo. The diner was everything you would imagine/hope for in a small town diner. The waitress was friendly and knew all the other customers by name. When an old guy parked his truck up and came in she actually said “hey there Snuffy, I’ll get your coffee.”

When my breakfast arrived, it was 2 full plates of food. The first had 2 blueberry pancakes the size of my face on. The other had eggs (scrambled), bacon and home fries (without onions). I did share. Jo first had to negotiate an appropriate sauce for her Mac n cheese pancake. She went for ketchup, despite the server’s assurances that most people prefer syrup. It was quite the carb hit, but she soldiered on through a blueberry one with maple syrup. 

A few cups of coffee, use of a bathroom, refilled water bottles and a dry tent later, we hit the canal trail at about 8:30am. There were a few people out walking dogs and jogging, but saw no other cyclists. The path got busier as we approached the impressive flight of locks that climb the Niagara escarpment. It was short but steep, and signalled the end of our canal following. The wind followed us as we continued west and we picked up speed towards Niagara Falls. After a sun cream stop we noticed a few cyclists on road bikes around. Specifically, they were passing us. A rider with less ‘full kit’ slowed to explain that there was a 50 mile charity ride going on. He said that following their signs would bring us right to downtown Niagara Falls.

This seemed like an easy navigation option. It also meant that at the event’s next refuelling stop we were waved into a car park by many enthusiastic volunteers. They weren’t at all disappointed to discover that we were not on their ride and were very excited by the idea of our trip. There were several conversations going on at the same time, about cycling, food supplies, my sunscreen (“Girl, you so dehydrated your lips are white!” – “It’s sunblock.”), our British flags (“You girls from Australia right?” – “No England” – “Ah I knew you some accent”), the charity, the fact that there were two Deborahs, it all got a bit confusing and Jo started taking her jumper off. Not from panic or confusion but because somehow in the midst of being made a peanut butter and jam sandwich and explaining that we had cycled from Boston, she had been stung by something.

Fully packed up with bags of orange quarters, bagels and sports drinks we left the cheery volunteers and immediately lost the bike ride signs. Needing a stop to investigate the sting situation, (suspect wasp, moderate swelling) we also re-routed ourselves on a straighter road to make back some time. Somewhere along this stretch we realised w had missed our 9000th trip kilometre and opted for photos of the landmark 9019th instead.

The outskirts of Niagara Falls, NY were not so pretty. Long stretches of shops, gas stations, intersections, fast food places. At least there were plenty of options for a bathroom stop. (Gas station, alcohol sales only between 8:30am-2am). At a red light an SUV blared rap music and a car full of tattooed young people pulled up next to us. The passenger leaned out the window and in an apologetic tone said “Excuse me, Ma’am, I just wanted to let y’all know that not all Americans are ignorant like that. Some of us like real music. I hope you enjoy your visit.” The light went green and our unlikely trio (gangstas, hipsters, cyclists) went our separate ways. There were lots of empty lots and for sale buildings but as we got closer to downtown the road became less busy and there were many more houses and nice residential areas. 

The US side of the falls is a State Park, and as international tourist attractions go it is fairly moderately done. There is a cinema experience, a walk behind the falls, a walk somewhere else, a boat trip and plenty of ice cream available, but you can also just walk (or cycle) around the various look out points and be amazed at the volume of water pouring over the edge which is exactly what we did. At times the people watching was as engaging as the falls.

Riding across the Rainbow Bridge cost us the princely sum of 50 cents each. Last time we crossed this way on bikes there was a very long queue to get into Canada. Today it seemed like the universe was smiling, the sun was still out and we rode right up to the border control board. The world may have been full of the joys of spring but our border guard was not. We were not expecting this from Canadian staff. It is very hard not to sound facetious/know-all when standing astride a heavily loaded bike and answering the question “what is the reason for your visit?” with “Cycling?!”

The view is best on the Canadian side so we had a choice of primo picnic stops to eat our packed lunch from the charity bike ride folk. The falls are very impressive if you are ever in the area, the horseshoe one is over 400m long. Travelling North, the gorge downstream is also pretty, with plenty of scenic viewpoints along the bike path. We met some other cycle tourists at a few of the stops, three boys from Illinois who we had heard about from another guy the day before. Even in a country as big as this the road can be small. More surprising was that we had caught them up. It has never happened that when we know of someone going the same way in front of us we actually meet them. We are too busy riding slowly, snacking and stopping for Jo to take photos. The boys must do the same.

The last 20km was relatively flat and fast past vineyards and well kept houses. Jo’s sting swelling was still growing in size. We crossed the Welland Canal and passed an impressive war cemetery with many tiny Canadian flags blowing in the wind. Our lovely hosts are keen cyclists and direct us to bike storage and food. They have been in a running race today and are celebrating with dinner out. We wash, eat and sit. We are too tired to go out. As we are cycling on a day like this we often have a conversation about something that has happened, and because of all that goes on in between it seems like it couldn’t still be the same day. Did I really have a pancake the size of my face THIS morning? Did we really ride our bikes to Niagara Falls? What lucky little people we are.

Thanks to: the charity riders and volunteers, Dan & Emily in St Catharines – hope the red bull race went well!

Erie go…. Cycling along the Erie Canal trail

So it turns out that New York State is pretty big – after whizzing through our first three states at a rate of one per day, we crossed the border into NY and saw that it was a long old way to the Canadian border. Luckily for cyclists wanting an easily navigable, traffic free route through the state, there is a 360 mile bike route along the old Erie Canal that takes you from Albany to Buffalo. Always interested in an easily navigable, traffic-free route we rode west from our camp spot in Bruce and Sandy’s garden to join the trail in Amsterdam and intended to pretty much follow it for the next 300 miles.

Nice, traffic-free, tree-lined bike trail

The Erie Canal was quite an engineering feat for the early 1800s, allowing boats to travel from New York City to the Great Lakes. Until the railways made boat travel look slow and cumbersome this was how goods and people travelled across the state. Now the canal system is used for a multi-use trail and although in some places the gravel makes riding frustrating – and there are short sections that are still unfinished – it’s a pleasant way to ride across the state. However the view doesn’t change much, and by the end of the first day we were starting to understand why people had told us they liked it but wouldn’t ride it again…

Still a nice, traffic-free, tree-lined bike route
And more of the traffic-free, tree-lined bike route….

There is loads of historical information, though there’s a distinct ‘scraping the barrel’ feeling as you get towards the end and read the 8th information board about the intricate workings of lift bridges. Some of it is really good though, particularly the descriptions and photos of life ‘working the boats’. The canal would be drained over winter and the bottom would freeze and be used for ice skating; kids would be entertained by swings on boats but have rope tied round their waist and attached to the hull so they didn’t fall off; there was once a 100-boat pile up after the one at the front got stuck. As with the whole of our bicycle trip so far we were out of season along the canal so it was really quiet, we would see hardly anyone all day on the trail (but in typical North American style, those we did see would stop and speak to us and exclaim that we were awesome/brave/crazy for trying to cycle across the country and wish us luck). The riding was easy, it was flat as a pancake, but as is often the way with flat riding, it got a bit repetitive boring at times.

One of many information board snack stops

So after three days on the canal path, including spending a night in Rome, we decided to detour off and take a parallel route slightly south for a couple of days across the Finger Lakes region. This is unsurprisingly a particularly affluent area of the state – on reaching the first lake it was hard to believe only 15 miles previously we were riding through a particularly sketchy area of town where for the first time in the USA we were a little fearful of stopping at traffic lights. The lakes made for great lunch stops, the roads were quiet and the hills rolling enough to be interesting without tiring us out. We skirted the top of four different lakes that shone blue under sunny skies. This was the life.

The Finger Lakes

Off the trail we were on roads again with cars (less fun) but more places to stop at (as we were to discover, much more fun). On seeing a sign that said ‘Chocolate Pizza’ and an arrow to the left, but no more information, we obviously pulled in to see what this was all about. Fearing some warm chocolate/cheese combo yet still wishing to see it with our own eyes we were pleased to find lots of chocolate, no cheese, and super friendly owners who fed us free samples and were excited about our trip. We made it onto their blog and their enthusiasm about our ride spurred us on to Geneva (spot the pattern?) for a night by the lake. 

Yep, thats chocolate pizza

Late that afternoon we stopped in Seneca Falls, famous as the home of women’s rights in the USA. (We were fast learning, with much sadness, that having ‘Falls’ in a place name did not indicate waterfalls were to be found.) Seneca Falls is home to the Women’s Rights National Historic Park (yet it wasn’t a park, but a museum, it’s like they are trying to confuse us now) where I walked in to be greeted enthusiastically by a member of the parks staff with “right you got 19 minutes, whadda ya wanna see? I’d recommend going upstairs first to read the history and then to the chapel where the first convention was held, you cycling, awesome, we got ice water for your bottles and restrooms too” without pausing for breath (I guess she didn’t want to waste more than half a one of my precious 19 minutes). I did exactly as instructed and left with slightly more knowledge about the foundation of the women’s rights movement, full water bottles and an empty bladder. 19 minutes well spent. Debs sat outside on a Women’s Rights Park branded bench for 19 minutes. I think I won that day.

From Geneva it was back to the canal trail that would take us almost all the way to the Canadian border over the next three days. The canal is often higher than the land around it which is a bit weird, usually water is on the lowest ground. As if to illustrate how weird this is, at one point a road goes underneath it. Bike traffic on the trail picked up and we saw our first cycle tourist of the trip heading East and then to Europe, rode with a group of cyclists out on their first ride of the year for a morning and then saw our second cycle tourist, on a trike. Oh and we also had to share the trail with lots of geese who hissed wildly as we passed. But their babies were cute so we let them off. 

Happy to share the trail

Not so happy to share the trail

Our last night on the canal was spent camping by the water. It’s still pretty cold at night so this required lots of pasta followed by lots of clothes but we survived and rewarded ourselves with our first American diner breakfast experience the next morning. But this is for another post….

Meeting a long lost big brother

Thanks to Betsy, Pete and Chris for the impromptu hosting; Larry and Patty; Katherine and Greg for introducing big brother Surly; Ryan and the rest of the team at Chocolate Pizza; Jeff; and Karin and Ken.