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Experience is the Best Teacher

I thought by now I'd know how to tour self-supported by bicycle. I've gone far enough to have crossed the United States, but it's not the mileage. After a week or so, you get into a routine - your lifestyle temporarily changes and you get used to it. I'd passed that point on two previous tours, so that was expected. As a matter of fact, I got into that groove sooner on each subsequent tour.

There still seems to be some distance between the plan, and the reality. I see that generally as a good thing. I want to tell you about both, and perhaps a useful way to do that is to tell you what I took with me, both in expectations and in equipment, and you can see for yourself how close I came. Perhaps that will encourage you to plan a trip of your own. Maybe not. ;-)

I did a lot of planning and study prior to leaving. I talked (mostly via eMail) with others who had been in the area. I reviewed web sites of several West Virgina locations. I studied my electronic map of the state.

We know that streams flow downhill. I reasoned that a road along a stream would also go downhill.

I figured that on a hot day, I could take a dip in a nearby stream.

I figured too, that I would have trouble with rednecks in pickup trucks, and with loose dogs.

With so much of West Virginia dedicated to national forests, state forests, and logging, it would be easy to wild camp. I'd just pull off the road when no one was coming and disappear into the woods. This would save mucho money in camping fees. I would have to be careful about bears and raccoons.

I was quite willing to take side trips on unimproved roads. After all, this was to be an adventure. Knowing I might have a flat, or even cut a tire, out in the middle of nowhere, I carried two spare tires and four spare tubes.

I laid out routes along paved roads that closely followed the waterways on my electronic map. I imagined that when I was above where the streams started, I'd be way up high and have a nice scenic view. I marked those places on my map copies with little camera icons.

I took to wearing cargo-pant-style swimming trunks instead of bike lycra so I'd be ready to swim every chance I got.

For the rednecks and loose dogs and bears and raccoons, I took pepper spray. Not just one or two, but a half dozen to get a variety. Some had extra ingredients, and some had extra content. Without knowing what worked, I figured there was safety in numbers.

I took about 50 feet of cord to hang my bags in the woods, out of reach of the wild things, and far enough away to not draw attention to me.

How could I be so wrong, wrong, wrong?

Well, often there wasn't room for a stream and a road. And when there had been, the first couple of floods probably convinced the road builders to go to higher ground. So a road only a hundred yards from a stream could be way above it, and out of sight.

I also learned that the blue lines on the map were not rivers and streams. They are just places that, at one time, had water. Since I toured in the fall during a drought, most that had water could have been walked without getting my knees wet. Often, the water was nearly stagnant and, far from drinkable, you'd need a bath after leaving it. So much for the quick swim or free bath.

There were no bothersome rednecks. Nearly everyone I got to talk to was very nice. Even the bear hunters - the closest I found to rednecks - were not a problem for me. Loose dogs were no worse than at home. I never used any of the pepper spray.

Now, about that wild camping - it wasn't to be. Most of the time, pulling 50 feet off the road meant climbing a 5-story-high hill going in or coming out. Even then, you would not find flat ground for a tent. I never hung anything in a tree and only experienced bears and raccoons second hand through the stories of others.

I took my Tour Easy recumbent and about 50 pounds of stuff. I hung the bike on a standard bike rack on the back of my Saturn. Although none of the bike hung out more than six inches, on the narrow back roads of West Virginia, some people noticed it.

Concerned about the hills, I equipped Sarah Dipitee with really low gears. The granny on a stock road bike is normally about 28 gear inches. I thought 18 gear inches (the lowest my budget could go) would be enough. It wasn't by a long shot.

There were two problems, besides the weight of my gear. West Virginia is only 2% flat, and I took my Michigan legs. That translated into a lot more pushing up hills than I anticipated. What I could have used were stronger legs for long hills, and a tricycle for steep hills.

50 pounds of stuff? Was there anything I wouldn't take again? Just a bike lock and the pepper spray. Because of the ninety-degree plus heat in the first week, I sent home tights, oversocks, sweats, then wished a couple weeks later I had the sweats back for sleeping.

Although I didn't use some things, I'll still take them along next time. They include the wind jacket, wind vest, extra glasses, and extra tree inspection units (toilet paper and baby wipes).

This trip wouldn't have been the same had I not taken some things most tourists don't consider.

The Lumetec headlight, powered by a SON generator in the front hub, was useful most of the time. I left it turned on, even in the daytime, thinking it made me more noticeable.

Only when riding on a gravel rail trail at night did it become exciting. If the gravel became large or loose, keeping my balance became more important than looking ahead and holding the wheel steady. I found myself riding into the darkness from time to time. I also learned how much I depend on visual clues to help me maintain my balance.

A great accessory for a hot day is a bandana with crushed ice rolled up inside, then placed around my neck.

When it is a bit nippy, I've found that a pair of orange cotton utility gloves makes me more visible to approaching drivers and lets my hand signals get the attention they deserve.

I took a small backpack for when I bought more stuff than would fit on the bike.

I included a bunch of various sizes of plastic bags. A hole in the one protecting my sleeping bag or ThermaRest mattress, plus a storm, would be a formula for misery. They are light and they don't take much space.

Although everyone who goes tent camping takes a tent, many people make some common mistakes when selecting one. My second tent, the one I now use, corrects mistakes I made.

It is a 3-man tent, which means the designer was able to squeeze three average-sized sleeping bags inside. This allows me to have all my stuff inside, and still have 2/3 of the floor space available to find a good position for my bed. It's also large enough to sit and change clothes, and to wait out a storm without touching the walls every time I move.

It has a U-shaped doorway. This way, the open door doesn't get stepped on with muddy shoes. Unfortunately, it has no doorway on the other end to give flow-thru ventilation.

For on-the-spot trip notes, I took a digital voice recorder. I've tried remembering, and paper and pen, and even small tape recorders with less success.

I made a list of emergency information: name, address, phone and three people to contact. I added additional phone numbers and eMail addresses, just in case.

On the back I put a complete inventory of everything I had with me. That included the serial number of my bike and a record of money I had hidden, and where (coded). This would be useful if my bike were stolen (for identification and replacement). It would also remind me what I took as I prepare for the next trip. One copy stayed with the bike; another stayed with me in my fanny pack.

The planning that was not related to reality had many benefits. Going through the motions forced me to consider what there was to see and do, and that provided a variety of environments. The misconceptions are now etched in my mind in a way that is hard to forget - through experience. And not knowing everything assures that there would be surprises - and that is what turns a trip into an adventure.

Now, go ride your bike, and don't come back until you get it out of your system.

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