NOTE: This is the ninth, final missive for Robyn's 2022 NorthStar bike-packing adventure from Deadhorse, Alaska, to Whitefish, Montana. The eighth missive can be found at https://attitude-maneuver.blogspot.com/2023/03/robyns-2022-northstar-adventure.html.
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A slideshow of photos from my "after-ride" from Bruswick, ME, to my home in Burlington, ME, can be found at https://photos.app.goo.gl/FT3zGGHH8GmyGxoi6.
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Missive No. 9: Rolling Home
9/18 -- From an Amtrak Empire Builder Window, part 1
WoodsWoman and I are aboard the Empire Builder, eastward bound. As I look out the window, I see my Northern Tier journey of two years ago rolling past in reverse. We are on the Hi-Line of Montana between Shelby and Malta, towns I remember well from 2020.
I seriously thought I might need to bike the Northern Tier back east at least part of the way. I camped wonderfully at Glacier for five nights before riding over to the Bicycle Retreat in Whitefish on the 11th. I was scheduled to depart on the Empire Builder on the 15th. I was blissfully unaware of the rail strike threatened for the 16th. My rude awakening came in the form of an Amtrak alert when I reconnected to the Internet at the Retreat: my train had been cancelled. I called Amtrak in the morning and must give credit to the agent who worked for over an hour to reschedule me for Sunday the 18th. There was still the real threat, however, that this train also would be cancelled if the railway workers struck on the 16th. That's when I began seriously to entertain the idea of biking east. Given that Amtrak and the Northern Tier run parallel across much of Montana, I could board the Empire Builder somewhere on Montana's Hi-Line once the strike ended. Typical of my feelings at the end of these summer journeys, I was vaguely sad when the strike was averted. As happens with through-hiking backpackers, epic bike-packers find themselves holding on to their journeys, not really wanting them to end. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I still have my 4-day "after-ride" to look forward to in Maine when I ride from the Amtrak station in Brunswick to my home in little Burlington.
It's time to sum up the summer. Although shorter, this year's NorthStar journey was more challenging than the past two summers on the TransAm and Northern Tier. Riding the Dalton Highway in Alaska required careful planning, in particular as to food. Like through backpackers on the Appalachian Trail, I had to prepare several weeks worth of my own dehydrated and commercial freeze dried foods, dividing up the food into weekly increments that I mailed ahead to the infrequent post offices along my route. Only when I reached Whitehorse, YT, did I begin to rely on restocking at stores in towns along the way.
Camping in Alaska, Yukon, and also on the Cassiar Highway in British Columbia was of the wild type. The good side of this is that my nightly accommodations were free. The down side is that wild camping with no facilities is labor intensive. In the north it often seemed that I was spending as much time on camping as I did riding. Put an exclamation point on that for rainy days that were an every other day event in the Yukon and northern British Columbia. Only when I reached the Yellowhead Highway did I find conditions similar to those in the lower 48 U.S. states.
The Brooks Range in Alaska, Top of the World Highway in Yukon, the Icefields Parkway in Alberta, and Road to the Sun in Glacier National Park: those are the highlights that will long leave an imprint on my memory. The Brooks Range of mountains and Atigun Pass in particular left a lasting impression for their rugged beauty combined with their northern isolation. Comparatively few tourists, let alone bike-packers, venture that far north on the most northerly road in the US.
Solitude. That was another part of the northern experience. I had no cell signal at all in the north and fell almost completely out of touch with current happenings in the world. My only line of communication was a Garmin InReach Mini device that I used to send a daily text message through the Iridium constellation of satellites so that my sisters and son would know my whereabouts.
I enjoyed the solitude. It gave me time for reflection, time to look back on a life that now, let's face it, is more in the past than the future. The quiet of the north allowed me to make peace with that and with my post-retirement life. No one cares that I'm fluent in Russian, have decades of experience in Russian-Soviet affairs, or worked many good years on Hubble Space Telescope. No one cares about the memoir that I have put through three re-writes. No one cares, that is, except family and close friends, many of whom are reading these lines. I now enjoy the peace and freedom of being a has-been. That's not a bad place to be.
Freedom from the Internet comes as a corollary to the solitude. In days when I had a connection, I was struck by how little I had missed that I considered at all important. As many of my readers know, last winter I instituted what I call my "no Internet Thursdays." I may expand that to more than one day per week this winter.
After three summers on epic bicycle journeys and doing most of my local transportation on two wheels in Maine, I'm questioning why I bought a car when I retired. It sits in my garage with the battery disconnected most of the time and rarely gets driven more than once a month. When I'm on WoodsWoman, I experience a fork-not-taken in the development of human transportation at the start of the 20th century. For a short time at the end of the 19th century, the bicycle appeared to be the future. What would the world be like today if the automobile had not displaced the bicycle? Perhaps the crisis of climate change would not be as severe as it is today.
Moreover, as I have written elsewhere, the bicycle gives us a more intimate relationship with the world around us. Not insulated in a temperature-controlled womb with an engine, we experience the landscape and weather fully much as all humanity knew it before the automobile. It gives one an appreciation for the hardships humans had to overcome on a daily basis.
Moving beyond the personal, I was struck by how much more international Canada feels as compared with the US. I met many more international tourists there than I am used to in the US. Other cyclists I met and sometimes rode with came from the UK, France, Germany, and Australia.
At the same time, Canada is not immune to some of the ills that are rampant in the US. I saw this most in Prince George, BC, which has a homeless and street crime problem on a par with that in many U.S. cities.
9/19 -- From an Amtrak Empire Builder Window, part 2
We're approaching Milwaukee, WI, as the first leg of my train journey nears its end in Chicago. There I transfer to the Capitol Limited that will take me as far as Pittsburgh, PA. Altogether it will take five trains to get me to Brunswick, ME.
So where will I ride next year? I'm thinking that will be Adventure Cycling’s Cascades Route together with a part of the Western Express and the Grand Canyon Connector. This had been my plan for this year before Deadhorse entered the picture courtesy of Bianca, a young bike-packer I met at an AMC lodge in the Maine North Woods last January. When Bianca told me of her plan to bike from the Florida Keys to Deadhorse, I told her, "Bianca, you have changed my life or, at least, my summer." (Bianca started that journey in March and reached Deadhorse when I was somewhere in the Yukon.)
If I do ride the Cascades Route next year, the question is whether I should ride south to north or north to south. I'm thinking the former, starting early in the spring before Arizona is too hot. I have some research to do. Stay tuned.
9/21 -- From an Amtrak Downeaster Window
We crossed the border into Maine a half hour ago. Summer doesn't end until tomorrow evening, which means that I will have spent one day and a few hours of summer in my home state. When I left in June, it was still spring. As I tell my neighbors, I am the opposite of a snowbird, someone who spends her winters in Maine and travels in the summer. Does that make me a "sunbird?"
The Downeaster is the last of five trains that have taken me to Maine from Whitefish. It's been almost 80 hours since I boarded the Empire Builder. That was the luxury part of the journey. I had a full bedroom and was able to relax. I had a roomette on the Capitol Limited from Chicago, but having to be up for a 5 a.m. arrival in Pittsburgh meant I had only a few hours of sleep. From there The Pennsylvanian took me to New York City and the last Northeast Regional of the day got me to Boston shortly after midnight. Both of were sit-up trains. From Boston's South Station I rode WoodsWoman a short distance to the HI Boston Hostel and got a few hours' sleep before riding over to North Station and boarding the Downeaster.
In short, although Amtrak is the easiest option for anyone traveling with a bicycle, I'm exhausted. I'll be checking in to the Relax Inn, my "cheap motel of choice" in Brunswick -- for two nights to recover.
9/22 -- Relaxing at the Relax Inn
It's just a cheap motel, but it has become part of my bike-packing tradition. I first stayed at the Relax Inn in 2020 after riding some 80+ miles from Northport to Brunswick as part of my "Bike Around Maine." I spent a night here again in 2021 before starting the after-ride on my way home from having ridden the TransAm. Now I'm back for the third year in a row.
I could not have chosen better timing for a rest day. A heavy rain is falling, and I'm happy not to be riding in it. The forecast for tomorrow and the following days looks much nicer.
I have just come back from lunch at the Brunswick Diner with David and his extended family. I first met David on the July 4 weekend in Fairbanks, and it happened that he is now visiting family in Maine. This, too, in a way, may now be a tradition -- a tradition of meeting again someone I first met on the summer trip just before I start my after-ride. Last year that person was Kelly who took me on a bike tour of Seattle. This year it is David.
Finally, the Brunswick Diner is itself a tradition. In 2020 I had breakfast here with Lily, whom I had met in 2019 on the Northern Tier in Vermont. I had expected only to do a "Bike Around Maine" because of COVID, but Lily posed the question, "What is more socially distant than riding a bicycle 6+ hours a day and camping?" That question was the impulse that saw me riding into Anacortes, WA, two months later. If not for that breakfast with Lily at the Brunswick Diner, I would have stayed in Maine.
Brunswick and tradition. That's what is going through my mind on this rest day as the rain falls outside. Tomorrow I begin the after-ride that will take me back to my little home north of Bangor.
9/27 -- From my Own Front Porch
I rolled into my own driveway late yesterday afternoon. Three months and ten days after leaving, I am home. My NorthStar adventure of 2022 has ended where it began in little Burlington, ME.
The weather gods smiled on me for the four days of my after-ride. Day 1 took me to Gardiner, ME, where I spent the night with Kevin, a very welcoming WS host whom I first met last year. Day 2 took me to Canaan and the country home of my friends Mark and Greg and their four dogs, not to mention their relaxing hot tub and Mark's as always sumptuous dinner. Day 3 brought me to Bangor, where I stayed with Kelby and Dan, two young cyclists and WS hosts recently relocated to Maine from the West Coast. The final day saw me riding up Rt. 2 along the Penobscot River. Last night for the first time in over three months, I slept in my own bed.
Even though I know from the last two years that returning to "normal day-to-day life" after a three month bicycle journey comes with a disorienting sense of loss, that does not diminish the emotions. The sense of loss is complemented by a strong "not yet wanting to deal" with accumulated tasks and the minutiae of that "normal day-to-day life." Today my energy is sufficient only to complete this missive and then retire to my hammock. It's good that I'm leaving for Maryland at the end of this week to spend ten days with family. I can put off my return to "normal day-to-day life" that much longer, live in my memories of this summer, and begin dreaming of adventures to come.
How far have I ridden since reaching Glacier National Park? My log shows 283 miles. I'm rounding that upward and donating $30 in support of independent Russian journalists at TV Dozhd'. Please consider joining me in this support to a talented, brave crew of journalists who continue to report uncensored news in the Russian language. An independent press is even more important today, now that Vladimir Putin has announced his "partial mobilization." You will find donation links at https://tvrain.tv/donate-en/. Thank you to all who have joined me in supporting Dozhd'! I know that several of you have.
(For anyone keeping track, my odometer shows 5535 km since I rolled out of Deadhorse. That's 3459 miles. As I wrote above, that's shorter than my transcontinental trips of 2020 and 2021, but these were more challenging miles.)
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Friday, September 23, 2022 -- 5627 km cum - 50 km/day
Saturday, September 24, 2022 -- 5691 km cum - 65 km/day
Sunday, September 25, 2022 -- 5771 km cum - 80 km/day
I'm writing on Monday morning from "The Grindhouse" in downtown Bangor after spending the night with Kelby and Dan, a wonderful newlywed WS couple who relocated from Oregon to Maine a year ago. They treated me to dinner and a bedroom for this, my last night on the road.
Friday's ride was a repeat of last year's ride from Brunswick to Gardiner where I stayed again with WS host Kevin. I left Brunswick late as I waited for the mail and a replacement for my mirror that broke as I loaded WoodsWoman onto The Downeaster train in Boston.
The train trip from Whitefish to Brunswick was uneventful but exhausting. It took five trains in the course of four days to get to Brunswick. I was lucky at the last minute to get a bedroom on the Empire Builder to Chicago; they had been sold out for weeks. I had a roomette on the Capital Limited to Pittsburgh, but a 5 a.m. arrival ensured that I didn't get much sleep. (I would have preferred to go through to DC, but there were no bicycle tickets available beyond Pittsburgh, likely due to the popularity of riding the C&O Canal and GAP trails in September.) I sat in coach on The Pennsylvanian to New Yourk City, where I was happily impressed by the new Moynihan train hall. I was impressed in the opposite way by the "bicycle closet" on the NE Regional train to Boston that required me to remove WoodsWoman's front wheel and hang her from a hook by her rear wheel. Whoever designed this closet was not thinking of bike-packers.
I arrived in Boston at 12:15 a.m. and pedaled over to HI Boston where I had reserved a bed in a women's dormitory room. The humorous moment of this short night came when I stepped out to use the bathroom. I had left my key in the room and was scarcely dressed. I had to ask a young and obviously embarrassed young man to go the the front desk for me
On Saturday I rode in what was a new direction for me to Canaan to spend the night with my friends Greg and Mark. Although I saw Greg a year ago, I hadn't seen Mark since before COVID. Although they still have their house in Bangor, they have, it seems, moved to Canaan for good. Mark, amazing cook that he is, prepared an amazing dinner of chicken fricassee and biscuits.
Jumping back to Brunswick, I nearly forgot to mention that David, whom I met in Fairbanks, took me out to lunch on Thursday. He has a niece in Falmouth and happened to be visiting her. In fact, he came with his niece's family and a friend.
One thing should be clear about this year's after-ride: I have been well fed.
That brings me up to date as I finish my coffee at "The Grindhouse" with Beatles music playing in the background. Fifteen minutes from now I'll begin my ride to Burlington on this, "my last time on the road."
Monday, September 26, 2022 -- 5851 km cum - 80 km/day [Writing on Tuesday, September 27]
Three months and ten days after the start of this NorthStar adventure, I am home. It's Tuesday afternoon, and I am sitting on my porch watching a gentle wind sway the tops of my norwegian pines. I am home.
I am also in shock. Even though I know from the last two years that returning to "normal day-to-day life" after a three-month bicycle journey comes with a sense of loss, that knowledge does not diminish the emotions. Combined with the sense of loss is the feeling of helplessness and of not wanting to deal with three months of accumulated tasks and the standard minutiae of that "normal day-to-day life." Today I'm doing my best not to deal. In a way, it's good that I'm leaving at the end of this week to spend ten days in Maryland. I can put off my return to "normal day-to-day life" that much longer.
That said, my final day of riding from Bangor to home could not have been better. The day was warm and sunny with a hint of autumn colors beginning to show. There was even a slight tailwind. Moreover, I proudly broke the law by riding the shoulder of I-95 from Hogan Road to Kelly Road, taking a video to use as part of my advocacy to remove the prohibition of bicycles on interstate shoulders in Maine.
I rolled into my own driveway at 5 p.m., picked up a Hawaiian pizza from Rick at the General Store, took a long hot shower, and watched an old, old movie, "The Great Race."
I also had my best night's sleep in many weeks. As shocking as the return to "normal day-to-day life" may be, I was sleeping in my own bed with nowhere to rise early and ride to in the morning. The everyday tasks of that "normal life" can wait a few days longer as I dream of what I hope will be new adventures to come.
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THE END -- КОНЕЦ РАССКАЗА