Wednesday, March 3, 2010

My trip to NAHBS, or The Hobo Life

The plan to take Amtrak to the 2010 North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond, Virginia was rooted in tradition going back to the 2008 show in Portland and the 2009 show in Indianapolis. It never occurred to me that Richmond has two train stations, the first of which I investigated does not provide luggage service. No luggage service = No bikes. Obviously, the solution to this dilemma was to take the train as far as Washington, DC, and ride to Richmond. Google maps says 111 miles, which, even when inflated a bit for back roads, seemed like a comfortable two-day ride. I ordered a bike map from Adventure Cycling - now I had the motivation and a map. How much easier could it get? Anyway, I soon discovered that Richmond has a suburban train station that does in fact have luggage service, and I, along with my traveling companion Weasel (I use this pseudonym to protect my companion's reputation), decided to ride from DC, and take the train home from Richmond.

Leading up to the trip I had the brilliant idea to do this ride on a fixed-gear:
This is an old picture, and I've changed a few things, but you get the idea. It's an old Stumpjumper reconfigured as a fixie touring bike. Every cyclist should have something like this. Weasel, who has historically always been agreeable, continued his unblemished record of agreeableness this time, and matched my enthusiasm for this fixed-gear idea with his Kabuki Submariner fixed-gear. I questioned the sanity of this decision many times, especially when Washington, DC got three feet of snow right before we left, but I'd already been bragging up the plan, and I didn't want to lose face by bringing a bike with gears and the ability to coast down hills. The die was cast.

Day 1:
We got to the Amtrak station in St Paul very early Sunday morning. We packed our bikes into the huge bike boxes and put them in the caring hands of Amtrak baggage-handling staff. The 8-hr ride to Chicago was uneventful. Mostly I just took in the beautiful scenery along the Mississippi River for the first couple hours and enjoyed my first Amtrak meal of the trip: corned beef hash, eggs, and grits. We killed time looking for a decent cup of coffee during our layover in Chicago before girding our loins for the 17-hour trip to DC. I should mention that we were traveling Coach Class. On previous overnight trips I had a sleeper reservation, and that caused me to miss a lot of people-watching! Suffice it to say that the people who self-select to make long trips via Amtrak Coach Class are, to put it mildly, fascinating, and unabashedly so. Oh! The humanity!

Day 2:
After a not-very-good night's sleep, I saw the first rays of daylight breaking over the lovely city of Pittsburgh, PA. After the Pittsburgh stop, I was treated to some of the most lovely countryside I've ever seen in southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. To describe the landscape as "hilly" would be a laughable understatement, and I was seriously concerned about my earlier hubris surrounding the fixed-gear idea. By the time we got to Cumberland, MD, things were starting to look more topographically civilized. We arrived in DC Monday afternoon, and we had a couple hours to kill, so we rode our bikes:

It's a lousy cell-phone pic, but until I get around to dumping all the images off my camera, it'll do. We rode past the Capitol building a few times and out to the Jefferson Memorial and to the American Indian Museum for a lunch in their highly recommended cafeteria. After our initial exploration of DC, we were warmly welcomed by a wonderful family I knew previously only through the internet and blogs. I find that traveling to new places is greatly enhanced by staying in the home of like-minded locals, and this experience was no exception. Weasel and I had a wonderful time with our bike-centric, tv-free hosts.

Day 3:
Our hosts had to go to work and school, and Weasel and I were excited to see the town, so we rolled out after breakfast. We spent a few hours in the Museum of Natural History, where I was excited by all the geology displays. We parked at the bike rack outside the museum next to a nicely spec'ed Ritchey Breakaway cross bike. When we came back out, the Ritchey was gone, but a note was left on my bike. I don't recall the exact wording, but the author was apparently excited by our approach to bicycle touring with a single-speed. After the museum, we rode over to the Jefferson Memorial again and across the nearby bridge to the start of the Mount Vernon Trail, which was also where our ride to Richmond on the Adventure Cycling route would begin the next morning. We rode maybe 5 miles down the trail to confirm that it wasn't as snow-covered as we'd heard. Had we ridden six miles, we would have seen the snow, but we didn't.

Day 4:
I was waiting for a call from a friend, former bikeshop coworker, and former Minneapolitan turned New Yorker who was to meet us at Union Station in DC. I will call him Igor, again to protect his reputation. Igor rolled out of the train station with a 1960's vintage Raleigh 20 folder with a large suitcase bungee-corded to the Pletscher rack. It was quite a system, and quite a sight for anyone who holds in his mind the standard archetype of what a touring bike should look like. By the time we actually got moving, it was a leisurely 10 AM. We had all the time in the world, since we believed that our planned overnight destination, Fredericksburg, was an easy 60 miles away. We stopped for a leisurely lunch in Alexandria, and took our time ambling toward Mount Vernon. The snow on the trail became impassible and even dangerously slippery in spots, but we had time. As we passed Mount Vernon, we suddenly found ourselves on busy roads with no shoulder. Some of the roads had bike paths, but the paths had become temporary repositories for all the snow that had recently been plowed from the roads. There were few bike lanes, almost no shoulder wider than 6 inches, and traffic was very heavy. I assumed it would improve as we got further from the DC asteroid-belt. Near Lorton, VA, we lost Igor. I was able to reach him on the phone, and he told me he was going to stop and eat and rest for maybe half an hour, and he urged us to go ahead to find a hotel room. Later I talked to him and got the mistaken impression that we wouldn't see him again on this trip, as he seemed to be relaxing and having a beer when I expected he'd be riding again.

Weasel and I continued onto what appeared to be lovely country roads. If you were planning a bike trip by looking at a map, these are the roads you'd pick, and, in fact, these are the roads that Adventure Cycling picked. The roads were narrow and without ANY shoulder and had every appearance of being rural, wooded, and/or agricultural. Appearances can be deceiving, I guess, because traffic was very heavy. I estimated that we were encountering maybe 300-500 cars per hour in each direction. One after another continuously: zoom, zoom, zoom. This went on for hours! There was no place to go, so our best bet was to ride as fast as possible and stay to the right so the cars could pass. It was very stressful and unpleasant. It got even more stressful when we noticed that it was getting dark. Traffic was not relenting, and we were starting to realize that we'd seriously underestimated the distance involved. The Adventure Cycling route was much longer than whatever route Google had prescribed.

Weasel and I came upon a little country store, where we stopped to gather our wits, rest our legs, and eat junk food. I got in touch with Igor who had somehow gotten ahead of us, since he was braving the traffic on the more direct US-1. On the advice of the somewhat confused person who ran the store, we got off the Adventure Cycling route in search of lodging. At this point, hearing a car coming up behind us, I got a little too far to the right, my tire went off the pavement, and I crashed. Nothing horrible, but my knee was bleeding and I bruised my hand a little. Soon we found a Super-8 in a hellish place called Garrisonville, VA. It was close to 9:30 PM when we got into our room. Weasel and I had ridden 90 miles that day, yet were still 10-15 miles shy of our original goal of Fredericksburg. We ordered and devoured a large pizza and soon Igor found the hotel and joined us.

Day 5:
Garrisonville, VA, where we spent the night, is a place that was designed with no provisions for pedestrians, even less for cyclists. We identified a probable breakfast location across the street from our hotel. Traffic was heavy, and there were no crosswalks. We had to wait for a break in traffic and then run for it. On the other side, we found ourselves traipsing through landscaping to get to the restaurant. During breakfast we contemplated the route. Igor convinced us to abandon the Adventure Cycling route and adopt his approach of riding the very narrow shoulder of busy US-1. If we were gonna have traffic, a 6-inch shoulder is better than NO shoulder. And the US-1 route would be more direct with almost no tricky navigation. Google said it would be about 65 miles. Easy!

We made Fredericksburg quickly, where Igor opted to leave us and complete his trip to Richmond on Amtrak on account of a sore knee. Weasel and I continued on US-1, which became worse and worse, traffic-wise, as we made our way through the sprawling hell of Fredericksburg. We stopped at Taco Bell to fill water bottles.

We tried to make use of frontage roads, but soon we faced the fact that there was no pleasant way to ride a bicycle on or near US-1. I studied the Adventure Cycling map and identified a way to get back to the recommended route. We were not eager to get back on the AC route, after the previous day, but US-1 seemed like the worse of two evils.

As soon as we got on the AC route south of Fredericksburg, it was GLORIOUS! The roads were beautiful rolling, meandering ribbons of smooth pavement, and almost no traffic! There were old churches and babbling brooks and rustic farms. Furthermore, we soon realized that navigation was a cinch because the US Bicycle Route 1 was incredibly well-marked. All the way into downtown Richmond, the riding was as good as it gets on pavement. Upon arrival in Richmond, we contacted the "Prince of Beer" and close personal friend Lanny, who was, at that very moment, doing a beer-sampling event at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant. I don't drink beer, but after 93 hilly, somewhat windy, fixed-gear miles, I was a bit peckish, and free all-I-can-eat Vietnamese food sounded like a great idea. I ate two heaping plates before making my way to the hotel room I was sharing with Igor. I rounded out the day with 98.6 miles.

Day 6:
By now I was tired and sore and didn't mind taking a day off the bike. Luckily, this was the day for the big NAHBS show, which was easy walking distance from the hotel. Igor and I started with breakfast at a recommended joint down the street. I ate, among other things, more grits. I usually eat grits as a novelty when I venture southward. But I really like grits, and may start making grits at home.

The NAHBS show is, for me, little more than an excuse to ride my bicycle in an unfamiliar city that is warmer than Minneapolis in February. It's a nice show and I see friends there, but let's face it, four hours is enough for me to see it all. I didn't go through all the aforementioned effort and expense to look at fancy-pants bikes! I took maybe 150-200 pictures at the show, and I'll post them one of these days.

That night we had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called Comfort. Some of the best eating I've had in a long time.

Day 7:
After the major mileage riding from DC and NAHBS show, the extra day in Richmond was sort of anti-climactic. Lanny had a rental car and we drove to a recommended breakfast place and to some local attractions of historical significance. Igor had a train back to NYC to catch, and Weasel and I had to make our way to the suburban Amtrak station sometime before our 5 AM departure.

We spent the afternoon riding the 10 or so miles out to the Amtrak station. Things got exciting when they didn't seem to have any bike boxes (I called ahead and they claimed to have them...) Eventually two well-used boxes were located, and we packed our bikes. I'd hoped that there would be some form of entertainment near the train station, but our only options were derelict strip mall venues. We passed the time by using Wikipedia on our cell phones to beat the trivia game at Dunkin' Donuts. That was fun. But soon it was back to the Amtrak station, where we passed the entire night on the benches waiting for our early morning train.

Day 8:
The Amtrak train to DC didn't disappoint. It was a short leg, less than 2 hours, followed by an 8-hr layover. We visited the Air and Space Museum and the American Indian Museum again.

Back on the train for the 17-hour slog to Chicago. I hadn't showered or changed clothes in 2 days by this point. That's life on the rails!

Day 9:
In Chicago we walked around and made our obligatory visit to The Bean.

It just felt good to walk around in the fresh air after such a stretch on the train.

The 8-hr leg back to St Paul seemed pretty mild compared to what we'd done already. It was good to be back home with the family.


Anonymous said...

Jim - I notice that you used the word hellish on more then one occasion to describe your adventure. To me, it sounded nightmarish too. I actually found myself worried for your safety as I read your stirring account. Were you concerned about the people on the trains? Did they threaten you at all? I also wondered how you tended to your hygiene since I assume you did not have access to hot showers or even the opportunity to use your bag of toiletries (shaving kit, cologne, comb, etc.). Would you ever do such a trip again? It seems much easier to hop on a plane, I guess. I did note that next years NAHBS is in the delightful city of Austin, TX (home of the incopmparable Lance Armstrong - I can't wait). The last two shows were in admittedly dull (and, to borrow your term, hellish) cities. I'm also curious to know how you passed the time in the house that didn't have a television (I assume you were not joking). Thanks for your excellent trip recap - I'm sure you learned many travel lessons!


Doug said...

"Were you concerned about the people on the trains? Did they threaten you at all?"

The people who ride on Amtrak aren't monsters, you know. Or particularly creepy. Just people! Or are you envisioning hobos riding the rails or something?
The trains are also equipped with bathrooms, allowing one to use a bag a of toiletries, and let's face it: there are worse things than not taking a shower for a few days.

Jim Thill said...

I was, by far, the creepiest person on the train.

I did make use of the restrooms to freshen up. Not a big deal.

midway cyclist said...

I think your shot of the bike in front of the Washington monument is terrific, cell phone or not.

I wonder if anyone has talked to Adventure Cycling about that stretch of hellish cycling, it sounds like the traffic conditions much have changed dramatically from the initial mapping and they need a better route.

Great story of the adventure, makes me want to do a trip like this.

2whls3spds said...

@ Anonymous...creepy and hellish are not words I typically use to describe AMTRAK...those are words I reserve for the motor vehicle operators on the roads of America.

I ride Amtrak extensively (15,000 Amtrak points in the past 18 months :-D)

The Amtrak's I ride are usually full of a reasonable cross section of the US general public. I have ridden with a retired pediatrician, navy reserve nurse, construction superintendent, college students, members of our military forces, a grandmother with an infant grand-daughter in tow going to visit great grandma, a whole car full of kindergartners on a field trip...they had a blast for the hour they got to ride.


Any pictures of Igor's Twenty and how did he pack it for Amtrak. I have been told mine has to go in the monster bike box. Mine is pretty much stock and does not fold particularly compactly.


Jim Thill said...

Aaron: I don't know Igor's bike packing technique. My approach would be to ask forgiveness rather than permission. Just fold it up and carry it on the train.

Shaun said...

Sounds like an interesting "adventure" in any case. Some pretty dicey riding at times though. Thanks for the post!

Bluepastures said...

I want to respectfully emphasize that my comment below in no way, shape or form intended to make light of your experience.

Reading your story made me feel better about life- these are EXACTLY the kinds of things I find myself doing all the time, and wondering later at how each decision incrementally leads to another, and another, until the world has kinda swiveled off its axis, and the whole enchilada has become a reality unto itself...
Mad props, as they say, for doing this!

Bluepastures said...

I want to respectfully emphasize that my comment below in no way, shape or form intended to make light of your experience.

Reading your story made me feel better about life- these are EXACTLY the kinds of things I find myself doing all the time, and wondering later at how each decision incrementally leads to another, and another, until the world has kinda swiveled off its axis, and the whole enchilada has become a reality unto itself...
Mad props, as they say, for doing this!

2whls3spds said...

Jim...I tried that and they made me get "the box". I am saving pennies (and dollars) for a compact fold bike that I can either stuff in a bag or put in a hard shell suitcase for travel. The Twenty has served me well so far, except when it has to be packed for public transit.

Is Igor's bike stock or modified?


Anonymous said...

Jim, it actually looked like there is a significant bicycle community in Richmond and area. There was a lot of bicycles locked up outside on all the poles around the convention center. As I was walking to the downtown Amtrak I came upon 3 Segway users on the roadway. BTW, last year I took the bus to Indy. I would say that is where you can find the underbelly of America not the train.


chiggins said...

A box full of delicious-smelling coffee just arrived today! Thank you so much!

It was a delight to host you both, you're more than welcome anytime you're in town. Hopefully we'll have an occasion soon to pedal around your home turf!

Billy said...

Adventure cycling will have no better luck trying to map a new route to Fredericksburg short of heading west out of DC and then riding south, but the roads west are no better. Unfortunately, Fredericksburg (60 miles away) is still a relatively close commute by DC standards. If anyone finds themselves riding in that area in the future I highly recommend riding the battlefield roads, they are usually deserted and cover some beautiful county.