Summer-y

We remain technically (and electively) homeless and adrift since concluding our bike tour in Houston at the end of March.  We took two months to catch up on adult life responsibilities: taxes, dentist and doctor appointments, passports, finalizing travel plans, applying to jobs, and executing school work with extra discipline in anticipation of our summer travels.

We structured our journey around volunteering opportunities we found on https://www.workaway.info/. The basic idea of this program is that you work four to five hours a day, five days a week in exchange for room and board, and the rest of the time is for you to travel and explore the local area.  As a family of six, in which not all members provide equal output to earn their keep, we flexed on some of the details of that basic arrangement to make it workable for all sides.  That said, it is still a very economical way to travel and embed yourself in a different culture.

The types of work sought through WorkAway are wide-ranging from construction projects, farm work and development, to childcare.  Our main appeal to potential hosts was our native English skills.  Our first position was in Kołobrzeg, Poland, right off the Baltic Coast, for three weeks.  Our hosts were language teachers.  The husband and wife duo teach at the local high school and tutor privately from their studio. They seek native English or Spanish speakers to assist with their private students and to spend time with their two children for their language development.  They too home educate their children and have done a year-long bike tour, theirs across Europe.  Our days were spent with our hosts’ kids, riding the city bikes to explore the coastal town, learning its history, regularly indulging in ice cream, Friday night pizza parties, and playing games together. Their school year wound down while we were there, so we got to attend accordion and dance recitals as well.  As our schedule navigated around the irregular end of year programs, the adults discussed the trappings of being in the self-imposed, middle-class family ‘box’, and how easy it is to fall back into it even after life-changing experiences like extended bike tours.  Many other interesting conversations abounded. As we wrapped up our time there our Polish hosts prepared for their annual summer bike tour.

We left Kołobrzeg by train and spent the night with our army friends currently stationed in a different part of Poland.  We shared a fun-filled night in their home.  Both families’ kids played well together while the adults caught up on the past 7-8 years since we were neighbors in New York.   Amazingly, time did not stop for them, despite my mental image of their kids forever being in the under-5 crowd.  Our fleeting time with them rekindled our nostalgia for our former military community.

We traveled another day by train to Wrocław, Poland.  Wrocław (pronounced: Vrawswov) is a charming city with over 300 gnomes stationed throughout which make on-foot exploration fun and compelling for those less enchanted by taking in architecture in the city square….  We indulged in some traditional Polish cuisine for dinner to close out our Polish adventure and ended it on a high and full-bellied note.

Another day of train travel brought us to Bratislava, Slovakia.  We spent two weeks there in the home of Old Man’s best friend from high school, Mr. Fish, and his family who are currently stationed there.   Mrs. Fish is a world-class hostess and made us feel so welcome and at ease despite our imposition of noise, chaos, and food consumption on her orderly and well-stocked household. While based with the Fish family we took a two-night getaway to Budapest, Hungary, and made two day trips into Vienna, Austria (the highlights being an organ concert at St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest and both the zoo and Children’s Museum in Vienna).  The remainder of our time was spent with our hosts celebrating the Fourth of July, hiking to castle ruins, exploring Bratislava and other small towns. We treasured our time with them and hope less time passes before the next visit.

 

We departed Bratislava and headed to České Budějovice in the Czech Republic.  České Budějovice has one of the biggest town squares in Europe and a 14th-century Iron Maiden, but our main objective in staying there was access to Český Krumlov.  Český Krumlov is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and offered a window into the past along the Vltava River.  We toured the castle, walked through town along the narrow, winding cobblestone roads densely lined with historic structures, and tried to imagine life as it was several hundred years ago.

 

We hopped on another train and continued north to our second, and final, WorkAway position.  It was on a teaching farm one hour south of Prague, in the Czech Republic where we stayed for three weeks.  Our hosts were a young family trying their hands at bringing an old family farm back to life.  Their goal is for it to eventually be completely self-sustaining and their exclusive occupation, but both husband and wife still work outside the farm as they develop the infrastructure for that reality.  We weeded gardens, cleaned out animal stalls, harvested food, cleaned, cooked, and assisted with collecting flowers for their weekly farmers’ market stand.  Our main contribution was for the English Summer Camp the farm hosted our last week there.  The students possessed varying degrees of English language skills, but that proved no obstacle to the universal language of play.  Sissy was a shining star in her ability to put the visiting students at ease, show them around the farm, and involve them in the various activities with mostly only hand gestures and her inviting smile to guide them.  At the camp’s conclusion, all four of our kids were sad to say good-bye to their new friends and the farm itself in quick succession.

 

While at the farm, we did an overnight getaway to Prague each weekend.  Prague, like Budapest, is said to be one of Europe’s prettiest capital cities.  Perhaps it is, but we were unable to savor it amid the throngs of tourists present.  We watched the Changing of the Guard at the palace and got our fill of the crowds.  We enjoyed our time more away from all the hubbub and sought out playgrounds and a Model Train Museum to regain some personal space and quiet.

 

Upon our exit from the Czech Republic we lingered a few more days on the European continent to visit our old stomping grounds from high school in Germany.  Has it really been over twenty years since we were so young and starry-eyed?  We toured our final castle, stood in awe of our final cathedral, visited a couple of museums, and tried to stay cool in the stifling heat wave that occurred during our time there, which served as good conditioning for the weather awaiting us on the other side of the ocean.

 

We are now back on U.S. soil and actively re-entering the real world we have dodged for almost a year and a half.  We once again own a motorized set of wheels*, our Keen foot tans and sunglass-raccoon-eyes are greatly diminished, and gainful employment appears to be around a nearing bend.  Despite our best efforts, it seems we already have one foot back in the ‘box’….

 

*a funny aside: when our credit score was revealed during our vehicle purchase, Old Man quipped, “Wow, and that’s for a homeless, unemployed vet….”

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Postscript

What do you miss most from our bike tour?

Old Man: I miss the rhythm of the bike tour.

Me: Meeting new people

Sissy:  Meeting new people

Otter:  Seeing all of the wildlife, going to beaches, meeting new people.

Tango:  I miss all the Warm Showers hosts and all the people doing nice things for us.

Big Mo:  Seeing all of the wildlife.

What do you like most about living residentially again?

Old Man:  No longer having to continually pack and unpack—living out of bags.

Me:  Indoor respite with climate control and fewer bug bites

Sissy:  The predictability of where we are staying and what it offers.

Otter:  Having projects again, like Legos [that are not limited by packing volume].

Tango:  I like that we don’t have to set up camp every day and that we can have more things.

Big Mo:  Having toys and dress-ups again.

What are you looking forward to next?

Old Man:  Being established somewhere.

Me:  Our summer travels

Sissy:  Going abroad.

Otter: Spending more time with our cousins.

Tango: I’m excited for our trip.

Big Mo:  Meeting more new people.

….

Other Takeaways:

Human kindness is alive and well.

My arbitrary expectation that all Toyota Prius drivers would be extra courteous to us given our shared ‘green transportation’ aim was proven hollow.

Hourly weather forecasts are never to be trusted. Ever.

Hills can be hard to pin down: sometimes you still have to pedal on a downhill; the hills frequently look worse from far away; downhills are so much sweeter following a challenging uphill.

God always provides, whether that be through giving us the strength needed to go further than planned or putting someone in our path to assist us, He always provides.

I find myself puzzled by the increasing rejection of religious faith when a seeming majority of drivers are more than willing to take a grand leap of faith to pass us with zero line of sight of oncoming traffic; or sees oncoming traffic and trusts the oncoming driver is paying attention and willing to accommodate the lane intrusion.  It is all the more impressive when one considers how common practice distracted-cell-phone-driving is.

Driving under the influence is significantly more prevalent than we thought or expected—based on the number of beer cans/bottles and liquor bottles littered along the roadsides.

If a levy for the purchase and employment of additional street sweepers ever finds its way onto my ballot, I will happily vote ‘yes’.

The pursuit of simplicity can be elusive.  Prior to the bike tour we failed to consider that domestic simplicity can be defined in multiple ways:  1. To decrease the quantity of tasks and demands in a finite period of time, or 2. To reduce the complexity of the tasks required.  We thought that by eliminating the quantity of demands on our time that more time for relaxation would result.  Tethered domestic life requires more balls in the air each day, but has technological conveniences to reduce the burden of their achievement (dishwashers, cars, etc.).   We had fewer daily tasks required of us while bike touring, but all of them took longer—running errands, in terms of duration and frequency; washing dishes (hand washing everything and often having to boil water beforehand to do so); and family bathing to name a few (one set of toiletries that had to be ferried across four kids in separate gendered bathrooms and stalls).  So the simplicity we gained came at the expense of the other we had.

Personifying animal dialogue never gets old.

Our budget for this sabbatical year as a family of six came in just above the poverty line.  We stayed within budget the entire time except for the month of January when we had the weather-induced glut of hotel stays.  Our inventory of personal possessions was at a minimum, we rarely ate out, and we looked increasingly shabbier with each passing day. The bulk of our memories center around the people we met and the experiences we had, not on what we wore or the material consumption we went without.

One of our best budget hacks was a museum membership in Montana.  The membership qualified us for reciprocal admission to most of the other museums we visited over the course of the rest of the tour.

Many presumed paved roads on GoogleMaps are not.

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Stranger Things

Old Man and I were both rather disillusioned with the state of affairs in our country and our fellow man when we departed on our bike tour last March.  As I am sure everyone vividly remembers, the 2016 presidential election cycle was the longest and ugliest on record.  Even after it was over the ugliness fervently continued on both sides of the aisle.  We were sheltered from many of the outlets of vitriol: our household did not have cable television or ever tune into network television, and mostly listened to CDs or audiobooks when in the car.  However, we did seek out news online for current affairs and frequented social media accounts, namely for keeping tabs on family and friends, communication about our kids’ extracurricular activities or groups, and neighborhood-related forums.  Social media alone overloaded us with the overwhelming sense of division and discontent present at every level in our country.  Our limited face-to-face engagements with strangers often involved first facing a yard sign, a t-shirt, and/or a derogatory-named hat, that in the context of such a cripplingly toxic divide, prohibited ease with or approachability by anyone with remotely divergent thoughts.  The walls of self-selected bubbles hardened, social tension was palpable, the white noise was loud, and it was everywhere.  We had a multitude of motivations to check out for a year on our bikes, but we became more eager to escape all the political noise, both literal and figurative, as we got closer to the departure date. Thank goodness we did, because we are better for it, but maybe not in the way you would expect.

Prior to our bike tour we were both present on Facebook.  It was a great tool for staying in touch with our families and military friends scattered far and wide, and those connections in turn helped us when settling in new locations: both to combat the senses of isolation and loneliness, and as sources of knowledge about our new location.  Curiously, despite Old Man and my large overlapping group of Facebook friends, our newsfeeds could not have been more incongruent.  We were each presented exclusively with an opposing political narrative, which made getting onto Facebook to check in to our various groups a chore.   I never once posted a preference for either mainstream candidate.  Yet, a woman I knew all during graduate school and maintained contact with for years afterward, wrongly assumed my vote against her candidate and un-friended me because of it.   Our friendship boiled down to this one issue after so many years of knowing each other.

Sissy’s Girl Scout troop was warned to brace for blowback at the cookie booths because a Girl Scout troop marched in the Inaugural Parade.  People, grown adults mind you, might demand an itemization of all the cookie sales’ proceeds or inform the scouts of their political reasons for not buying cookies.  Really?  These are ten and eleven-year-old girls.  They did not vote, they did not march, and they had no say about the troop that did.  Likely, the troop that marched in the parade was slotted to do so regardless of the victor, and few kids would pass up an opportunity to be on television.  So grown adults, who did or had the option to vote, were expected to vent their political frustration on non-voting children who want to earn a bit of money for their own troop’s activities and local charities?

Neighborhood forums, specifically our local Buy Nothing group and Nextdoor.com, became political outlets.  I utilized Buy Nothing extensively to unload our excess during our pre-move purge and to acquire some things we needed while in transition or for the bike tour itself.   We utilized Nextdoor.com to advertise our kids’ lemonade and cookie stands, find baby-sitters, yard sales, and to discuss neighborhood news or concerns.  Both forums are intended to bring together local communities, to act as a medium for neighbors to meet and get to know one another in our indoor, behind-the-screen digital age.  And yet, a tension fell over both as political hysteria rose.  Many ‘neutral’ Nextdoor.com discussion threads devolved into politically-charged name calling.  The Buy Nothing Group on occasion became a venue to promote a political ideology or to self-affirm a moral high ground, which as a byproduct of doing so through a screen silenced those who did not share the same worldview and built a taller fence between neighbors.  While Nextdoor.com was the worse offender of the two, neither was fulfilling its objective of fostering neighborhood cohesion.

What Old Man and I loved about our military life was the sense of community.  We both grew up in the military and dedicated the majority of our adult years following Old Man’s military career.  Maybe it was the unique combination of schools we attended, but we have never seen such elective mixing of race, socio-economic, or personal interests outside of military populations.  Even among young soldiers you see walking down the street on a military installation, one may be wearing skin-tight Wranglers and a Stetson next to a guy in baggy urban clothes, and another one looking like he came from the cast of Jersey Shore.   My theory on why these individuals with glaringly different backgrounds and styles mingle in ways not often seen off post is that we all want friends.  We feel better with someone at our side to help us navigate new terrain or to whom we can go to with a problem.  Even as adults, the military community served us well.  We were on a rinse and repeat cycle of starting over completely every few years—researching schools; securing housing; finding doctors, summer camps, preschools, sports teams, and most importantly, friends.  By living it, our military peers understood the challenges, and they helped ease the process.   Sissy was passed around a cul-de-sac of families while I was in the hospital bringing Otter into the world, and nobody sweated the burden, timeline, or logistics.  Many post-partum meals were brought to us by people who barely knew us.  I had an emergency appendectomy while Old Man was traveling, and my neighbors and friends rallied to care for Sissy and Otter until he returned.  We were welcomed to friends’ holiday meals.  I was included in a neighborhood baby-sitting co-op to ease the challenge of childcare needs and expense that come as a result of not having family nearby.  That sense of belonging and assurance that others will gladly help if needed gave us a highly valued sense of stability in a transient way of life. When faced with true social isolation—being somewhere entirely new, possibly in a foreign country, and not knowing anyone—the need for human connection overshadows the triviality of our skin color, fashion or music choices, or who we voted for in the last election.  We did not have the luxury of perpetuating a social bubble of exclusively verified like-minded friends.  We reached out to strangers.

With our time in the military over and our formal transition into civilian life upon us, we resigned ourselves to the loss of that sort of community.  All we read about in the news was social discord, racial tensions, and political divide.  Most of what we encountered on social media and in our daily urban life confirmed those assertions.  The bike tour was to serve as a break from the self-imposed middle-class family grind, all the noise, and a time for personal and spiritual growth. Perhaps with some quiet and cultivated grit we could better face the onerous task of starting over from scratch, expecting that this time, by all media accounts about the state of our country, we would be truly on our own.

The first few weeks of the bike tour were brutal.  The weather was exceptionally wet, we were out of shape, and drivers were not very friendly or even safe in some places.  We were isolated and out of our element.  We were a few days away from crossing into the rain shadow, but things began improving when we stumbled into a grocery store in Stevenson, Washington.  A stream of strangers approached us to inquire about our ride and offer local advice about the roads ahead while we waited for a break in the rain.  An elderly farmer allowed us to camp in his orchard and shared his history with us.  Strangers approached us in a park in Idaho to inquire about our adventure, give us tips on the route, and wish us well.  Then came the Warm Showers hosts in Montana.  We had written off using Warm Showers as a touring resource, assuming no one would be willing to host SIX strangers, four of them children.  We never would have discovered the error of our way had our first hosts not flagged us down on the side of the road and insisted we stay with them.  This fruitful introduction to Warm Showers inspired us to seek out other hosts.  Our very next hosts were the beloved goat farmers, who have gone above and beyond on multiple occasions to help us and love us.  People we had never met emailed us through the blog to offer touring insights about roads, hosts, or just to let us know they were praying for us. The list of kind strangers willing and often eager to help us goes on and on: the remarkable assembly of people, who were strangers to each other, yet still came together to help out an unknown family stranded on the side of the road; someone approaching us at a grocery store to offer us use of his RV overnight; another stranger pulling over to commend us for having guts and to shake our hands; a host calling up friends along our route to offer us mid-day refreshment, horseback rides, or overnight accommodations; a local cyclist tracking us down at a campground to offer use of her lakeside cabin; several people offering to escort us along busy roads or in construction zones; a woman hollering an invitation to us from the front porch for the extended family’s Sunday meal as our lungs labored and sweat streamed down our faces; the mother of a friend picking us up and allowing us an extended stay while our bikes were repaired; a fellow touring cyclist seeking us out inside a library to tell of us about a local church that lodges traveling cyclists; and most recently, inclusion in a small town’s celebration of their high school athletes’ championship.  All these acts of kindness listed amount to a fraction of the benevolent gifts we received along the way and were offered to us by complete strangers.  Yes, we may appear unthreatening.  We were fully exposed on our bikes with little capacity to hide anything.  The presence of kids minimizes the likeliness of nefarious intentions.  We are a low theft risk given how slowly we could flee a scene and our limited volume and towing capacity.  However, even if unthreatening, we were still strange and non-conforming.  Yet, all these people were willing to overlook our peculiarities and welcome us into their lives in one way or another and enhanced the joy of our journey exponentially.

By extension, we stayed in the homes of people from all walks of life: people who clean up our messes, deliver our milk, grow our food, help heal our bodies, care for our pets, fix our homes, make necessary parts for our beloved technology, teach our children, coach our youth, plan our communities, prepare and serve our food, advocate for our weak, design and build our commercial buildings, nurture our faith, transport us, and serve in our militaries.  Education levels and breadth of domestic and foreign travel were wide-ranging.  Political leanings were varied, as were religious convictions.  Direct interest in or experience with cycling was often lacking.  Yet, conversations abounded.  We shared our story and they shared theirs.  We got a window into their worlds.  We learned one farmer’s perspective on and experience with migrant labor.  We gained a doctor’s take on the American healthcare system.   We gleaned parenting wisdom from others a cycle or two ahead of us.  We received invaluable tips on places to check out and roads to avoid.  We discovered that we do, in fact, have a lot in common.  Maybe not everything, but we all want good healthcare, we all want a good education for our children followed by career opportunities for them, and we all want safe neighborhoods.  We may have different ideas on how to achieve those ends based on our differing backgrounds and experiences, but we do share a lot of common ground with each other in terms of goals and objectives.  We crossed into worlds to which our self-selected socio-economic bubbles rarely allow access, and we gained three dimensional windows into topics the media can only cover fleetingly in two dimensions.  Personally, I would much rather begin relationships focusing on shared interests than dwelling on our differences.  Our differences sell advertising space, but our shared goals and interests build bridges and communities.

We went into the bike tour expecting quiet solitude.  Having lived in an urban setting surrounded by so many people, yet engaging so few, how could untethering from a static domestic life, often passing through minimally populated areas, create more opportunity for community? We hoped to grow spiritually through this self-imposed isolation, to give God access to us without the distraction of human noise.  Funny how we want God to grow us, but still try to direct how that happens. We wanted to condition our minds and bodies towards self-sufficiency in preparation for starting over again in the civilian chapter of life awaiting us.  We prayed that all of these goals and objectives would strengthen us as a family.  All of our expectations were blown out of the water.  Amazingly, we experienced greater levels of community as transients than we did as residents in recent years.  Perhaps community is less about population density or duration of residency, and more about visibility and accessibility.  We were not hidden behind screens or tinted windows.  We were outside and in plain sight all the time; available to talk face-to-face.  God did not speak to us directly.  He spoke to us through other people, through their acts of kindness and generosity.  He showed us how we as individuals, families, and communities all benefit when we take the time to listen to each other and help each other.  Despite our best efforts, we did not achieve true self-sufficiency.   So many people helped us along the way. It would be disingenuous to think we accomplished our 8,000+ mile journey on our own.  We need each other.  We need community.  We thrive when we have it. However, community does not exist with depth or substance through screens because they make caricatures of both people and issues people care about.  I encourage everyone to reach outside of their established social circles, to not hide behind screens, but to engage people—strangers—face-to-face.  If you do, you will undoubtedly, eventually, get a glimpse of God’s beautiful creation, both the landscape and its inhabitants, and be blessed as we have been.  We are thankful for this journey, for the people we met along the way, the things we got to do, and the places we got to see.  Our family is better and stronger because of it.

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Favorite State

Big Mo, age 5

“I do not have a favorite state.  My favorite things from the bike tour are: the forests with butterflies (in Montana); the pretty water colors in Lake Michigan and the Gulf of Mexico; white sandy beaches (in Florida); the wildflowers (in Wisconsin and Texas); and Medora Musical (in North Dakota).”

Tango, age 7

My favorite state along our bike tour was Montana.  I like the people, the outside, and riding there.  The drivers were friendly.  They would always move over for us and some would toot their horns.  We stayed with lots of nice Warm Showers hosts.  One Warm Showers host had a goat farm.  We got to work with the goats and learn about them.  Some people think goats are a lot of mischief.  They are only a little mischief.  There is a lot to do outside in Montana.  We got to camp a lot and the campgrounds were better than a lot of other states’.  We could fish at a lot of the campgrounds.  One campground had caverns.  I would give that one ten stars.  ⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆ I really liked the stalagmites and stalactites.  It was really quiet in Montana, so it was easy to talk on the bike and sleep in our tent.  The only thing I did not like was the winter cold, but I would still live there anyway.

Otter, age 9

I was on a bike tour for a year and went through 23 states.  My favorite of those states is North Dakota.  I thought it was a great place to be outdoors, meet people, and ride my bike.

I really liked being outside in North Dakota.  It was really pretty, specifically the Badlands.  North Dakota’s campgrounds were also the newest and nicest of the whole tour.  There were a lot of farms and animals, especially horses, which I enjoyed seeing.

We also met a lot of friendly people in North Dakota.  Our first host in North Dakota was friends with one of our Montana hosts.  Some of our family and friends met up with us in North Dakota.  I even made a friend while we were there, and we still keep in touch.

It is a great place to ride your bike.  We frequently got a strong tail wind out of the west.  There were a lot of rolling hills and flat lands, which is easier than the mountains for biking.

The only thing I did not like in North Dakota was how hard it was to find fresh produce.  I would still live there because I think it is pretty, a great place for biking, and the people are kind.  If I get to live there and be a farmer I will grow my own produce.

Sissy, age 11

I have recently completed a year-long bike tour that took us through twenty-three states.  I have been able to see some of the good and bad things of all those states.  Some states had more good things than bad things or vice versa.  In my opinion, I think that Montana and Florida had the most good and fewest bad things of the states we recently traveled through.

Montana is a great state.  Montana is in the heart of the mountains, which is an environment that I love.  The mountains are home to amazing flora and fauna like syringa, white tail deer, and elk.  The state parks there, like Lewis and Clark Caverns, have great campgrounds and tons of history.  There are lots of farms in Montana as well.  There are big farms that have things like buffalo, cattle, and wheat, and there are smaller farms that have things like goats and sheep.  The people there are kind to others, but still are rugged.  People help each other when they are in need more than any other state I have traveled.  Montana is a wonderful place.

Florida is a good state too.  It’s a great place to go to the beach.  The beaches have soft sand and crystal-clear waters.  Florida is perfect for dolphin watching.  I got to go on a dolphin cruise to go and see them.  Florida has lots of other flora and fauna too.  We got to see white squirrels at a Florida state park and we saw lots of palm trees too!  Florida even has an island named after me.  Florida has lots of bike infrastructure, such as bike trails and lanes, which makes traveling by bike a whole lot easier.  The people in Florida are very friendly as well.  If they think something is wrong they make sure you’re okay, and drivers are slow and courteous to bikers.  Florida is a nice state.

Over the course of the last year I have been able to see many of the true colors of the twenty-three states we rode through.  In my mind, Montana and Florida were the best.  The people were friendly, and the two states had amazing wildlife to see.  I had a great experience in both states.

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We Made It!

We made it to Houston today.  The idea that the bike tour is over is a bit surreal to all of us, but we have the comfort of knowing we ended on a high note.  Not only did the originally grim weather forecast delay to our benefit, but our year of pedaling finally paid off as we raced a train today and won! (Nevermind that the train was within city limits and likely required to go slower….) 

This tremendous experience tempts us to continue adventuring and delay real life for a bit longer, so we are going abroad for some volunteer and travel opportunities for the summer (without our bikes).  We will begin job searching in earnest in August.  Anyone looking to hire a well-traveled, physically fit, and handsome Analytical Chemist in a few months?

The kids and I will post once or twice more in the next couple of weeks, after we have had time to process and reflect upon this experience.  Until then, here are the statistics of this past year:

Total miles: 8,188

Total days on tour: 361

Average miles per riding day (not including zero-mile days):  32

States traveled: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas

Wildlife seen: deer, fox, turtles, chipmunks, squirrels (black, gray, brown, white), rabbits, prairie dogs, beaver, antelope, butterflies, snakes, toads, frogs, lizards, raccoons, buffalo, dolphins, otter, opossum, armadillo

Birds: bald eagles, sandhill cranes, pelicans, great blue herons, loons, turkeys, ducks, geese, red-tailed hawks, osprey, peregrine falcons, terns, mountain bluebird, eastern bluebird, cardinal, western meadowlark, red-winged blackbirds, western tanagers, killdeers, magpies, yellow warblers, pheasants, quails, robins, mourning doves, swans (white AND black) and cygnets, Wilson’s snipe, snowy egret, great egret, red-bellied woodpecker, muscovy duck, American white ibis, turkey vultures, black vultures, roseate spoonbill, double crested cormorant, little blue heron, seagull

Wildflowers: daisies, buttercups, snapdragons, prairie roses, syringa, lady slippers, black-eyed Susan, tiger lily, water lilies, azaleas, crimson clover, coreopsis, milkvetch, Indian blanket, prairie verbena, wisteria, pink evening primrose, fleabane, Texas paintbrush

Farm animals: cows, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, llamas/alpacas, guinea fowl, buffalo, ducks, emu, donkeys, mules, ponies

Number of Warm Showers hosts or other strangers who hosted us: 32

Accommodations slept in: tent, hotel, motel, yurt, tipi, barn, cabin, house, cottage, bunkhouse, teacherage, stilted beach house, workshop, restaurant

Weather: lowest temperature: 24 degrees overnight; highest: 100 degrees; other conditions: snow, ice, rain, 35 mph sustained wind

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Feed Your Soul

In the end, the leprechauns had the last laugh.  We did not have any more encounters with them until the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, when we all awoke to find gold glitter on us (to include in Old Man’s beard! Ha!).  We wrongly assumed that all non-government run lodging and camping must spray for such pests, so our guard was down.  However, to be fair, Louisiana has so much precipitation and standing water, I am not sure how one could ever truly chemically rid themselves of unwanted pests here.  The storms and downpours are serious events here when compared to the prolonged gentle mists and showers we were accustomed to in Seattle and the drought we experienced in Albuquerque.  With all of that said, we survived St. Patrick’s Day and have had a well-rounded tour of Louisiana, to include splurging on its infamous cuisine.

We took a day off in New Orleans and traveled the city by trolley, to the delight of the kids.  We went to the Children’s Museum for a relaxing morning of play, followed by a Cajun lunch.  We then went to the French Quarter where the kids had an age-appropriate tour (that I highly recommend).  We closed out our whirlwind sightseeing with beignets from Du Monde Café and watching street performers in Jackson Square.

While we were in New Orleans we discovered that our friends and former Seattle neighbors, who are on a cross-country RV tour, were also in Louisiana.  The following two nights they generously drove to our locations to hang out with us and share stories about our differing varieties of adventure.  The constant newness of people and scenery in an ongoing adventure is exciting, but there is something to be said for the ‘familiar’ and relationships with some history.  We relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company and took a break from being the newcomer in a new place.

The bike route between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is over 100 miles long and has no lodging along the way.  Knowing that, a Warm Showers host offers his workshop for touring cyclists as an overnight stop to break up the journey.  After 55 miles we were beyond grateful for his thoughtful generosity, and the boys relished the opportunity to speculate about the owner’s plans for all his automotive works-in-progress.

Upon leaving the workshop, we had to tackle a day even longer than the day before to make it to Baton Rouge. In addition to the lodging challenge that forced our distance, we were faced with a weekend forecast filled with thunderstorms that we wanted to avoid.  We ended up staying in Baton Rouge an extra day because of those storms, and arguably should have stayed another day beyond that.  During one particularly heavy downpour early on in our departure day’s riding, we took shelter at a gas station, at which point we questioned the wisdom of our departure.  While in Baton Rouge, we ventured out once to check out the Louisiana Museum of Art and Science.  It was not a big museum, but what it had was very well done, especially their Ancient Egypt exhibit that includes a real mummy.  The kids especially enjoyed the hands-on science room, where Otter and Tango dominated the Keva planks table.

Once out of Baton Rouge, the weather improved and things turned rural quickly.  Rice fields and grazing cows appeared frequently and traffic reduced considerably.  Again, lodging options were sparse.  Our map mentioned camping in a local small town park, which tugged at our nostalgic memories of doing so in Montana and North Dakota.   However, when we looked over the only Warm Showers option in that town they specifically said they do not recommend camping in the park, so they offer the area behind their restaurant for touring cyclists to camp with greater safety.  The librarians in an earlier town voiced the same sentiment about the town park, so we heeded the inside scoops and pursued the Warm Showers host.  Much to our delight, the family-owned Cajun seafood restaurant was an immersive experience.  The family warmly welcomed us, taught us how to sort, cook, and eat crawfish, and offered us ample conversation, all the while keeping up with the rigors of a busy evening of business and little ones running about.

 

Since leaving the restaurant, our route has taken us through crawfish farming country.  Rice fields are flooded and dotted with rows of crawfish traps.  Upon further research, we learned that the rice farming here has evolved into crawfish farming for many farmers.  The crawfish eat the rice and we eat the crawfish (along with the waterfowl that eat both the rice and the crawfish).  This change in harvesting objective has apparently been met with booming demand while keeping overhead expenses to a minimum.  Instead of expensive rice combines, farmers utilize small boats and crop dusters. We had the good fortune to see one of each in action among the fields during our ride.

Most recently, Lil’ Mo turned five!  It is a bittersweet milestone, as our family’s little people years are now over.  It appears it is only me feeling sentimental about the conclusion of this chapter, as Lil’ Mo is diving into her big kid rank with both feet.  She informed me she can no longer ride in the grocery store shopping cart or go in the men’s restroom given her advanced age.  I tempted her with a farewell grocery cart ride to pick out her birthday cake, which she sheepishly accepted. When asked if she felt five years old, she asserted (with that feisty spark in her eyes) that she actually feels six years old.  With this promotion to big kid status, she requests she be referred to as Big Mo on the blog going forward.  I will oblige from here on out.

Louisiana is a state that wears so many different faces.  On the surface, it is desperately in need of new roads and stricter enforcement of its littering and dumping laws.  Yet, the longer we are in this state the more we have come to appreciate the subtler characteristics of it, such as its overwhelming friendliness.  If someone is out on their porch as we ride by in our full sideshow glory, nine times out of ten they will wave, if not holler a hello.  Drivers wave and often toot their horns at us.  Often, when we are pulled over to take a break (which are frequent lately due to a multi-day, demoralizing headwind), someone pulls over to make sure we are okay and not in need of supplies or assistance—a school bus driver, a farmer, a rough looking guy in a pick-up with an accent I struggled to understand….  The Cajun restaurant family has no interest in cycling, but they are interested in meeting new people, sharing their culture with others, and caring for the welfare of travelers.  When recently eating at a Subway (generously afforded by our Seattle preschool benefactors), one of the customers who engaged us informed us that Louisiana is God’s country.  Perhaps it is.  The good food will fill your belly, and the kindness will fill your heart.

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Away with the Fairies

Perhaps I was wrong to state in a previous post that there is no such thing as normal weather, because it seems that right now we are actually experiencing normal weather.  It is cool enough at night to sleep comfortably in a sleeping bag, and mild enough by day with coastal breezes to cut the humidity and not feel gritty with salt residue and road grime at the end of the day.   Nowhere was this truer than as we rode along the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  The beaches, sand dunes, and crystal-clear water made for a beautiful ride.

We were so mesmerized by the beauty that we failed to consider the significance of our location along the Emerald Coast.  Anyone who knows us well, knows that we have struggled with pest problems at this time of year every year since living in Albuquerque.  We thought by leaving Seattle and not having a fixed residence that we would finally be able to shake these vermin once and for all.  When we mapped out our journey we did not even consider there were other hot spots in the country, assuming the Emerald City was their headquarters and Albuquerque was a fluke.  Alas, we were wrong.  Apparently, any place with a name that implies treasure, is likely an unwitting host to legions of leprechauns.  Additionally, the remnants of all the Mardi Gras celebrations have left the Gulf Coast sparkling.   When you put those two things together, you are guaranteed to draw those diminutive creatures with gold on their brains.

We pulled into Pensacola and went straight to a bike shop for some repairs on Frank.  As the kids and I waited outside the shop they happened to look up and see the trees draped in Mardi Gras beads.  Immediately, they went about collecting any intact necklaces for themselves.  Tango and Lil’ Mo could barely hold their heads up under the weight of the bounty adorning their necks.  Lil Mo’s collection of beads from the Fourth of July parade in Minnesota had long since disintegrated, so her delight at being resupplied was considerable.  Fully bejeweled, we went to the Pensacola MESS Hall while Frank was repaired.  The MESS Hall offers exclusively hands-on math, science, and engineering activities and experiments to do at your leisure.  Every single one of us was contentedly occupied for the duration.

After we picked up fully-functioning Frank, we headed to the First United Methodist Church in Pensacola for that night’s lodging.  One of their ministries is outreach to touring cyclists.  They offered us use of their Youth Ministries Building, fully equipped with a kitchen and bathroom.  Additionally, the member that let us in and showed us around drove Old Man to the grocery store to pick up the few things we needed.  It was such a treat to be greeted by a friendly face happy to help us, have so much room to spread out, check out their wall dedicated to bike tourists, and have the convenience of a modern kitchen at our disposal.

At no point up to now on this adventure had we ever considered the risk of leprechauns, despite all our years of struggling with them.  Oblivious to the hazards ahead of us, we exited the Emerald Coast flaunting our leftover parade plunder as leprechaun networks chattered about our movements.  Shortly after crossing the state line into Alabama, we saw a sign informing us of the protected status of the Alabama beach mouse.  Not far beyond that we boarded a ferry to cross Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island.  We saw more dolphins and watched the pelicans dive-bomb their lunches.

We made camp and then headed to the beach.  The kids joyfully dug to their hearts’ content.  During which time, Tango absent-mindedly took off his surplus of beads.  He remembered this at bedtime, at which time they were nowhere to be found on the beach.   Did the tide take them out?  Or did it tip off the resident leprechauns that the treasure-laden family they heard about was in their neighborhood?  It seems the latter was the case.  The following morning, the kids woke up to find their tent partially unzipped and some of Lil’ Mo’s beads stuck in the opening.  Having memorized her inventory of jewels, she quickly realized that the gold beads were missing.  While searching for her missing beads, we discovered more beads hanging from the trees above our campsite.  Had we unwittingly camped directly on their turf???  Puzzled by these revelations, we sat down to breakfast to find our yogurt tampered with and GREEN!  A sealed box of Pop-Tarts had also been mysteriously removed from our trailer.  An act perpetrated by the protected beach mouse, a leprechaun, or an alliance between the two?  The kids suspected the alliance due to the protected status of the beach mouse and the fact that leprechauns are opportunists!  Tango, who has started to doubt the tooth fairy, said in complete seriousness and with a bit of alarm while sitting at the picnic table for breakfast, “Leprechauns are real.” (tangent: to be fair, he has a pretty crappy tooth fairy—she is always late, and always has a list of convenient [and suspicious] excuses and technicalities for her tardiness.  The leprechauns, on the other hand, reliably dish out their nonsense every year.)

We camped in Shepard State Park our first night in Mississippi.  We were the only campers in the tent area, but were greeted by some RV campers upon our arrival.  They asked to take our picture, welcomed us to Mississippi, and went back to their modern campground.  The husband returned as we were eating dinner to deliver us a batch of firewood, commenting that he doubted we were able to carry any with us.  Pyromaniac Otter was delighted and we read our bedtime book by the fire that night.  Overnight, leprechauns struck again.  The kids woke up with green glitter in their hair (an aside: who knew glitter on hair will ultimately settle on the scalp rather than just shake out?).

Upon further investigation, the kids discovered a fort built at the edge of the fire pit, with a leaf bed and incriminating glitter leading up to and inside it.  Clearly, the leprechaun was keen on warmth and comfort, not to mention shelter from the looming rainstorm.  It was a drencher and its resulting puddles interfered with the investigation!  It rained steadily from about 4:00 a.m. until noon.  Since we had a short ride ahead of us, we had the luxury of waiting out the rain under the campground’s pavilion while watching for any leprechauns lurking in the shadows as we did homeschooling.

Our short ride took us to Keesler Air Force Base, where we took two days off at their TLF (the military loves acronyms!  TLF = Temporary Lodging Facility).  We expected that a place with armed guards at its gates would be secure—that we could finally relax and process the intentions behind all the leprechaun mischief we experienced.  What could they want with us?  We are not Irish.  We are technically homeless, so not of any wealth.  Had fake news been circulated about our status or the value of our possessions?  How could this be happening to us yet again?!  We could not have unknowingly transported a Seattle leprechaun across the country in one of our trailers—our inventory is a 3-D game of Tetris every day with no extra capacity, and any stowaways would have been detected.   We concluded there must be more cells of leprechauns throughout the country, and we must have stumbled onto the radar of one of them while on the Emerald Coast.  Those tiny, myopic gold hunters wrongly surmised us as one-percenters worth pursuing. Perhaps our ability to subsist this long without obvious income or employment gave them this perception?

On our first morning at Keesler, we celebrated our fleeting domesticity with a pancake breakfast only to discover that leprechauns had meddled with our eggs!  Fortunately, the contents of the eggs remained unharmed.

Historically, all of the tomfoolery had taken place under the cover of darkness at night, but one of them was bold enough to contaminate our pancake batter that morning, in daylight, while we were distracted with other breakfast preparations and outside searching for clues of the scoundrels’ whereabouts.  The lack of evidence outside cemented Otter’s conviction that the rodents were in cahoots with the leprechauns.  The leprechauns were likely riding them like horses and utilizing their tunnel networks.

The following morning, we awoke and breathed a sigh of relief.  No evidence of a leprechaun breach and our food supply was untouched.  Then we looked outside….  All of the sidewalks surrounding us for blocks were marked with green arrows leading to our unit.  At our doorstep was a rainbow and a large arrow pointing at our door.  What could this possibly portend?!

We stood at our doorstep and looked around in a state of disbelief (and with a bit of trepidation) not knowing how many miniature sets of eyes were watching us at that very moment.  I suggested we consider yielding.  We only had one more night there, and we could just accept whatever they dealt our final night and flee in the morning.  Sissy looked at me incredulously and said, “Mom, [our family] always chooses the harder road no matter what.  We can’t give up.” Lil’ Mo lightened the mood by pointing out that the arrows could actually be useful in preventing any of us from getting lost.  Her rational ability to see the silver lining and Sissy’s call to arms broke the spell we were under and spurred us into action.  We were NOT going to fall victim to leprechauns AGAIN this year.  We have ridden our bikes over 7,000 miles—we have seen a lot, learned a lot, and are a lot stronger than we were in years past.  We were not going to take this lying down anymore!  If we could trap just one of them, they would never consider messing with us again!

Tango quickly adopted a strategy of reverse psychology, loudly praising the leprechauns and announcing his intention to build them a very comfortable house.   Behind closed doors and in whispered voices we concocted a plan.  Our resources were limited, but we had ample heart, brainpower, and adrenaline pumping to help us.  Every year the leprechauns have bested us and defeated our traps while we slept.  What if we did an overnight watch, where there is always someone awake to ensure their ensnarement?  It was genius, and undoubtedly a game-changer.  This would be our year.  The kids brainstormed trap designs, submitted and presented them individually to the family, and then decided on how to combine everyone’s brilliance into one trap.  This is what they created:

Take note of the details: a pot of treasure in the back to lure in the single-minded villains, a sticky tape floor to trip them into the trap door that lays in front of the desired treasure.  The entire contraption is rigged to a pulley that will raise the trap to the ceiling to prevent their escape once contained or risk death from such a foolhardy jump.  Should the caught leprechaun be extra wily, the boys placed spikes on the roof surrounding the fishing line to prevent any unwanted tampering with the line while suspended in the air. It was foolproof.

As the discussion about overnight shifts was underway, enthusiasm for the plan began to wane.  Sissy admitted that she really likes a full night of sleep and was not committed to staying awake at random hours.  The boys were incensed that she reneged on the arrangement and immediately renegotiated her shares of gold upon their success.

Bedtime came.  Tango continued his loud reverse psychology strategy as we set up the trap.  The boys were on the pull-out sofa by the front door and the girls were tucked away in the bedroom.  Otter volunteered for the first watch shift.  Everyone agreed that dark and quiet was best, so the leprechauns would not suspect anything was amiss.  Old Man and I retreated to our room to watch a movie while our brave boys kept watch.  At about 9:30 p.m. we went out to check on them to find this:

Since there was no inkling of leprechaun mischief we did not interrupt their sleep.  That was a mistake.  We woke up in the morning to a ransacked suite.  All cupboards were open.  Green footprints were everywhere.  Our pannier bags had been dumped out.  The trap was defeated—two of the gold pieces (chocolate) were missing with the wrappers discarded on the floor, the beads were found outside, and the fishing line had been cut near Otter’s handle.  How could this have happened?  Again?!

 

In hindsight, we should have thought to wash off all the green arrows on the sidewalks to reduce the lawbreakers’ ease of targeting us.  We licked our wounds, ate the remaining chocolates, cleaned up the suite, and hastily abandoned our compromised residence.  We headed to Buccaneer State Park.  We were warmly greeted by our RV neighbors. In an act of neighborliness, they gave us a bag of candy and some snacks for the kids.  We shared stories of our camping adventures and forgot about our humiliating defeat that had taken place not even twelve hours prior.  Thinking we had put this year’s chapter of leprechaun antics behind us, we slept soundly.  However, when we awoke in the morning we discovered these cryptic ads written all around the bath house that suggested the presence of yet another band of leprechauns.

 

Perhaps they live there to carry on the thieving works of French Pirate Jean Lafitte? Fortunately, these ruses posed no direct threat to us.  We did our best to stay off their radar and quietly left the campsite, finding some comfort in knowing that this pest problem is not uniquely our own.   With this knowledge, we know we must remain vigilant until the dreaded St. Patrick’s Day passes.

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