Bear Necessities

When Debbie and I first talked about taking another long-distance bicycle trip through the Pacific Northwest, my internal risk-o-meter kicked back in. Wolves, cougars, and grizzlies popped up on it, soon followed by rattlers, tornados, and wild dogs.

We began researching the tendencies and geographical dispersion of animals that have had a history of posing risk to unsuspecting—and unprepared—humans. With neither of us that familiar with outdoor survival techniques, a crash course courtesy of the Internet served to bounce the needle on my risk-o-meter far to the right. Fear and reason were jousting for supremacy in my mind.

The Grizzly, or should it be Grisly, Truth

Given the nocturnal nature of wolves and cougars, I was able to discount the associated risk to an acceptable level. As for bears, well…black bears are one thing. With reasonable precautions, they pose minimal risk. Grizzlies, however, are quite another matter. They’ve made a strong comeback from near extinction decades earlier. And human close encounters with them are on the rise, particularly in Yellowstone National Park and a wide radius surrounding it.

Bear Sighting in PAMany experts believe grizzlies have become more dangerous there because tourists have fed them and regularly come in close contact with them, with camera in hand and an open car door nearby. One of our lodging hosts in Montana claimed that the proliferation of the grizzly population is a significant problem for local ranchers and landowners. He said that the increase in predators, including grizzlies, wolves, and eagles, has jeopardized the livestock, the livelihood, and the well-being of area ranchers.

Debbie was much less concerned than I was before we embarked. She was also leading the charge for another grand adventure, although I don’t want to give the impression that I was not excited about one, too. So, we made a “deal.” I told her that we wouldn’t be traveling through bear country…period…unless we were prepared with safety precautions. I know that sounds like a hardline, unilateral decision, but some things are difficult to compromise on. Our safety is one of them.

Preparing for the Worst

Momentum surrounding pre-trip preparations brought the more practical considerations to the forefront. Even I would agree that bear attacks are low-probability events, despite the high probability of severe consequences if we were ever to face one. Therefore, we conveniently deferred bear proofing ourselves until the “midnight hour.”

Watch out you bears and dogs!We flew to Oregon armed with enough bear-defense information, but with little practical experience and as yet unproven—or missing—equipment. Once out West, buying a can of bear spray was an easy first step. Whether we would know how to use it—or be able to use it with an intimidating bear brandishing its jagged teeth as it charged full speed toward us—would be another matter. I studied the instructions as best I could and decided not to worry about the rest.

Our other major defense, beyond choosing our campsites judiciously, would be to learn how to suspend a bear bag from a tree branch. Every article that we read emphasized this practice. Not only does it keep bears away from your tent, but it also protects your food supply and your gear from other nocturnal hunters.

Dress Rehearsal

So, when we first decided on the trip, I had asked Debbie to take the lead on tying up a bear bag. She’s the “knot person” in this duo. She was a scout and a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club. As for me, when it comes to outdoor preparedness, you could call me the “not person.” I didn’t fail scouting, I just didn’t participate. I was too busy playing sports to embark on outdoor adventures. However, that was then, and this is now. As the starting gun was about to fire us into our excursion, the time had come. Check out this video.

Debbie masters the bear bagI have to hand it to Debbie. She mastered this art form with relative ease. The picture to the right sums that up best!

When we reached Sioux City, Iowa, I breathed a sigh of relief. After all, when you bicycle tour, you should only carry the bare necessities, and we no longer needed the bear necessities. We could hand over our bear spray to the next cyclist bound for the Pacific Northwest. We would have a ceremonial picture of the handoff, post it online, and wish him well.

A few thousand miles later, however, that encounter still had not come. We were too late in the season for westbound adventurers. Consequently, here we sit, at home, with an unused can of bear spray. Yet, that suits me just fine. It’s a better outcome than if we’d had to use it!

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Fall Touring

October 10, Day 100 of TheHopeLine Tour of 2014

Colder Nights and Shorter Days

We’ve altered our strategy of late. Instead of cycling into the middle of the day and finding out where we might land by day’s end, we’re planning our nightly stops earlier in the day. The cold weather has both of us shivering at the thought of camping. And with daylight waning by suppertime, we simply can’t cycle as many hours in the day as we could earlier in the season, which limits our options. We’ve discovered fall touring has more differences from summer touring than simply the clothes on your back.

Yes it's cold in Smethport on Oct 10So, when we saw today start with clearer skies and chillier temperatures, we utilized the early morning hours to plan a stop for the night. Several calls to churches within our estimated reach made it clear to us that we were approaching the northeast. (We can say that because we live there!) One church had a pancake breakfast planned for Saturday morning and thought our presence there would be incompatible with the early morning preparations. Another church said that they currently had no leadership and therefore no authority to grant our request for a safe haven. When yet another church suggested that we connect with a homeless shelter located several miles east of them, we knew we were no longer in the West or Midwest, where such requests are more commonplace and more readily welcomed. It also caused us to reflect on the state of affairs these days, when a similar request 25 years ago would likely have been handled much differently. Not even an explanation of our mission mattered to these people.

We decided to reserve a room at a motel within a shorter distance. We were concerned about room availability. Booking motels sight unseen can be risky these days, even with Internet reviews to scour. Without our trusted Adventure Cycling Association maps, which come vetted for appropriate and convenient accommodations, and with fewer daylight hours, considering lodging options has been more challenging and time consuming. Motels in this area don’t have many reviews. They are also older facilities whose lifespan has merely been elongated by a spike in oil and gas drilling activity in recent years. There’s no telling what the room would look or smell like, but it would beat sleeping in the cold…or riding in the dark on this truck-infested road. Of course, booking a room early is not a guarantee, as last night’s room came without heat.

Hilly Terrain

Finally, around 10:00 am, we ventured out into the 39-degree morning. In case we had any doubt that it was cold, the smoke in the mountain valleys and the reading on the local bank thermometer confirmed it. So did our fingers and toes.

Cold fall morning in Smethport PAWe tackled the hills that people had warned us about yesterday. There were four or five of them before arriving at Port Allegheny. They were reasonably sized hills, but their pitch and amplitude were modest compared to those of hills we have already faced in the West, in Missouri, and along the Ohio River valley. The worst part of cycling up the hills was coasting down the other side of them, which is normally the fun part. However, with the cold temperatures, the added breeze caused runny eyes and noses, and chilled the extremities.

Prospective Pledgers

Just outside of Port Allegheny on one of the last climbs, we met a couple tending to their property. This wasn’t just any couple. They were bicycle tourists from years gone by. And they had also worked with troubled youth from inner cities. The husband was planning one last tour for when he hits 65 next year. One last tour? Ha! That’s what they all say.

When we began our fundraising tour over three months ago, we thought God would place people in our path who would understand the mission of TheHopeLine and have the means to make a big dent in our fundraising goal. I sensed that this couple was one of those encounters, just as we’ve sensed others, who are now miles removed from us, have been. Our responsibility would be to simply share what TheHopeLine does and what the need is. The rest would be up to them, with God’s Spirit prodding them along. We had plenty in common with this couple and talked for several minutes. Eventually, we shared TheHopeLine and, due to the cold, left sooner than we otherwise would have, and made our way to a semi-heated diner for brunch.

Several patrons and the waitress were interested in what we were doing, so we shared it with the whole diner, since most were in earshot. When we departed, an equally friendly sun helped alleviate the cold start to the day. We were off to enjoy the fall foliage in the Susquehannock State Forest.

Motel Roulette

Descent from Denton HillWe ascended Denton Hill, noted as the high point on the map for Route 6 at 2,424 feet. People at the diner held the climb in high regard. Yet, we easily dispatched of it at this point in our trip. It took us some time to climb it, but little effort. Once at the top, a cordial man drove up and asked if we were the cyclists who had left a message on his answering machine last night. He runs a local motel. When I acknowledged that we were and that we’d booked a room farther down the road, he asked at which motel. When I told him, he uttered no words, but his smirk was difficult to mask and it said much. Debbie didn’t see his expression, but I did. And it made me wonder just how the evening would go.

Fall foliage in SusqueHannock State ForestThe descent from Denton Hill was certainly a just reward for the climb. We made our way to our motel and checked in for the evening. My suspicions were confirmed when we cycled toward our reserved room, situated in an old strip motel. The roof of the accompanying restaurant was obviously in need of replacement, as it looked more like the lichen-covered bark on a cedar tree than a manmade structure. The management said that they were nearly full tonight and that the room hadn’t been rented out in quite some time, which explained its distasteful smell. They handed us a bottle of Febreze to address the problem. At least the heat worked, and the shower was good, so we were thankful. We spent the majority of our time in the back room of the adjacent bar, which served a two-fold purpose: we had Internet access and we reduced the amount of time we would spend in the motel room.

Bicycle touring is not for the faint of heart. There are circumstances, such as this one, that are simply beyond your control. If you can learn to accept the good and the bad, you’ll find that the challenging situations are a small price to pay for the benefits of touring. The same can be said for life itself.
Are you one of those individuals who has met us on our tour, or followed us online, you understand and appreciate what TheHopeLine does, you have means to support it, but you just haven’t yet pledged your support? You can do so now at this link. Young people whose lives are hanging in the balance will be most grateful.

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The Face of Meth

October 9, Day 99 of TheHopeLine Tour of 2014

Foliage in north central PAWith cold temperatures prevailing and over 4,000 miles on these two sets of 56-year-old legs, a tailwind suited us perfectly. It was very strong today, pushing us from Warren to Smethport on a day characterized by a long gradual ascent and a more rapid decline on the other side. Furthermore, Allegheny National Forest provided some privacy, subduing the oft present truck traffic. We started and ended the day at about the same elevation, yet we were 56 miles closer to the Atlantic Ocean. And the appeal of the fall foliage grew the farther east we traveled.

Bicycle Tourist Groupie

Shortly into our ride, a man garbed in a reflective yellow vest, such as construction workers wear, waved his arms at us and shouted, “Where did you come from?”

I yelled back, “Manzanita, Oregon.”

Deb with Route 6 TrafficWe weren’t about to stop this early in the day and allow our extremities to get cold. Plus, with the wind blowing us along so forcefully, we were more inclined to maximize its value rather than chew the fat. As I rode farther, I wondered if we should have stopped to engage with him, but we were too far down the road to turn around now. At this point in our ride, a tenth of a mile would have been too far!

Do 6 Deb!Several more miles down the road, we stopped at a service station in a small town on Route 6 for a bathroom break. They had a restroom for their staff and were willing to share it, which we can no longer take for granted. Although Pennsylvania has declared Route 6 its official Bicycle Route Y, it hadn’t considered the adequacy of its service stops, nor advised area merchants to welcome cyclists into their establishments, whether they were there to spend money or simply relieve themselves.

After sharing TheHopeLine with the owner and the younger attendant, we exited the building, only to be greeted by the same man who tried to flag us down several miles back. He had hitched a ride in pursuit of us to learn more about our trip and us. He makes it a point to interview bicycle tourists who pass through his area. He even requested our picture. I don’t think he publishes any of his content; he’s also a bicyclist and he’s simply interested in bicycle touring. I felt better that we were able to engage with him after all, especially in light of how supportive and friendly he was, and how happy it made him.

The Face of Meth

We had another encounter later in the day at our lunch stop. Jack, I’ll call him, seemed an energetic young man, but had a toughened look to him, complete with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, teeth sorely in need of a dentist’s attention, a face full of acne, and a head of hair that hadn’t seen a comb in years . It was likely the face of meth. We’ve seen it before. And we’ve seen evidence of this problem in many parts of our country–on taxpayer-funded billboards, on makeshift signs from low-budget prevention advocates, and on the troubled faces of disheveled people in rundown surroundings to match. Those sights aren’t the material for cross-country bicycle touring photo shoots. Yet, we needn’t pretend they aren’t there.

Jack was most interested in what we were doing. He said he’d hitchhiked to northern Maine recently, and he wants to hitchhike to the Southwest to visit with his grandmother, whom he hasn’t seen in quite some time. He seemed very capable with good potential, yet misguided, aimless. I wanted to encourage him and coach him. He was with a friend and was about to return to work. Otherwise, we may have been able to engage with him further to find out what hitchhiking long distances has taught him about himself and life, and to discover what—or who—it was in his life that made him angry.

I shared cards with the phone number and URL for TheHopeLine with them, saying, “You may know someone who could use this.” However, I really wondered if they might call in or chat in themselves when desperation overtook them. As hope coaches, we’ll be talking to youth like them soon, when they’re ready to ask for help. Only the names will be different.

Our day ended well before dark. We had more miles within us, but for the fact that we’d booked a motel earlier in the day. Locals say the next several miles are filled with hills. We’ll save those for tomorrow.

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Leaving the Midwest

October 7-8, Days 97-98 of TheHopeLine Tour of 2014

We’ve been in the Midwest for roughly two months, thanks in part to our extended stay in Sioux City, Iowa, while recovering from an injury and a bicycle route designed for geographic diversity and to increase fundraising opportunities for TheHopeLine. Well, today, we officially entered the northeast with our entry into our 14th state, Pennsylvania.

Entering PALeaving the Midwest did come with a unique geographic feature. How many states can you enter by bicycling over a lake? The Pymatuning Reservoir, the largest manmade lake in Pennsylvania, straddles the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Entering Pennsylvania gave us renewed confidence that we would indeed make it home from this long tour. We can do this!

On our first day in the state, we cycled to Meadville and booked a room early. There aren’t many accommodations for miles beyond this city, and the weather was again cold with a strong possibility of showers. Rather than a repeat performance of yesterday’s dousing, we opted for a drier end to the day. We also need to catch up on some rest, as we seem to need more of it these days.

Climbing into Meadville PAWe avoided one detour of a bridge outage on US Route 6, but ran into another one. Locals tipped us off regarding a shortcut that improved mightily upon the official detour rerouting. It saved us several miles. However, it also put us on track for a monster hill outside of Meadville. It didn’t matter. There are no more monster hills at this juncture in our tour. No matter the size or the grade, we can handle them. This one was long and straight, with four lanes of traffic along for the ride. We dispatched of it systematically while anticipating an early end to the day.

Pennsylvania PotatoesPennsylvania feels like familiar ground. On our second day here, we still saw corn and soybeans, but we also saw a potato field! This brought me back to the days of my youth, picking potatoes in Houlton, Maine. I had to get off the bike to believe my eyes. I was indeed looking at a potato field.

I reminded Debbie of the potato-picking lifestyle, which I’d brought up when cooler weather struck us in Ohio. We’d arise at 4:30 in the morning to a hearty breakfast in preparation for a long day in the field. Even before sunrise, the farmer’s pickup, which was designed for transporting pickers to and from the field, swung through town to pick us up. This vehicle usually contained a wooden structure with a bench seat lining its three inner walls to house more pickers than you’d imagine could fit in. Some would ride on the rear bumper.

Silos and CloudsThe attire we now wore was so similar to the approach back then. We layered our clothing for picking potatoes. Since the near-frost temperatures from the morning would give way to warm afternoons, the layers would come off one-by-one until the final row of the day was dug. The crisp autumn air of potato harvest has been in full abundance on our tour of late.

This video will give you a feel for the road conditions as we left Meadville today. Check out the sky!

A strong tailwind from the west whisked us along US Route 6. The road has some truck traffic on it, yet it also has a reasonable shoulder for bicyclists. Indeed, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania deemed it appropriate for bicycles and designated it as “Bike Route Y.” Late in the afternoon, we approached Warren, an industrial town on the banks of the Allegheny River.

We’d bridged a long gap between services on a road for which we lacked good intelligence. It was satisfying. A few more days like this one, and the end would soon be in sight.

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An Abrupt End (cont.): Beauty from Ashes

October 12, Day 102 of TheHopeLine Tour of 2014

Part II

(Click here for Part I of an Abrupt End)

At breakfast at McDonalds after church, it hit me. Tim had just explained that we probably had only seven or eight riding days left. This tour would soon be coming to an end. As much as I wanted to be home and as tired as I was, I was sad that the tour would soon be ending. I was so looking forward to the two days of rest just ahead to prepare us for the homestretch. With 4,336 miles to date, we are 90% of the way home. The shortest ride of our tour thus far, 20-25 miles, would get us to our rest days.

We headed toward Towanda, Pennsylvania. The beauty of northern Pennsylvania in the peak of foliage season was breathtaking. The day seemed warmer than the past week, when we wore 3-5 layers of clothing to ward off the morning chill.

The Accident

As I ascended a slight grade along a narrower portion of US Route 6, I grazed the guardrail with my right rear pannier. I then swerved left and straightened my bike, only to hit a loose rock on the shoulder with my front tire. Down I went, right into the travel lane. Thankfully, no cars were speeding up behind me, which gave me time to pick myself up and get out of the road. When I first moved my right arm, I could hear a crackling sound, which triggered a well of emotions. As bad as my arm hurt, there was another haunting feeling: was the remainder of our bicycling adventure in jeopardy?

Meanwhile, cars and trucks continued to speed by on the other side of the road. Eventually, one of those cars, as we discovered later, turned around and came back to check on us. It slowed down and the woman on the passenger’s side asked if I needed help. They continued down the road to turn around while Tim moved our bicycles to a wider portion of the road. The carful of would-be rescuers met us there.

When the husband and wife, named Gary and Amy, quickly got out of the car, I immediately felt a calm and peace come over me. Their countenances radiated joy and contentment. Gary said that they had just come from church and were on their way home to Canton. They had seen me fall and came back to see if we needed help. Somehow, I felt an instant connection amongst the four of us. The calm within me grew when Amy said, “Whatever you need, we’ll see that you get it.”

As our conversation unfolded, they seemed to know exactly what we needed, yet they respected our decision making while offering information about local services. The more time we spent with them, it also became apparent that they understood what we were feeling. I soon found out that they were both in education, so we would have much to talk about, as we would spend much of the rest of the day together.

Their four-passenger Subaru would not fit our bicycles and gear, so Gary immediately called their neighbor, Jeff, who was watching his son’s soccer game. Jeff arrived in no time with a clean and capable pickup truck to transport us to the hospital. He hopped out of his truck and joined Gary and his son, who picked up the bicycles, loaded panniers and all, like they were children’s tricycles and placed them in the back of the pickup.

To the Hospital

The hospital experience was a blessing. When we arrived at the emergency room at the Troy hospital, the security guard asked me to fill out a simple form before admitting me. With Tim by my side, a kind nurse attended to me within two minutes of arriving. Only one other person was being treated, so I saw the doctor soon. The radiologist who read the X-ray concurred with the doctor. I had chipped my radius. They put my arm in a cast and the doctor recommended that I see an orthopedic surgeon within a few days.

Unbeknownst to me, our Good Samaritans were outside, waiting for a couple of hours on a football Sunday, and they had called their pastor who had joined them. They had already placed us on their church’s prayer chain!

FootballSundayI came outside and saw them basking in the late afternoon sun. As I looked at the blue sky and the colorful trees displaying their autumn regalia on the nearby hills, I thought, This must be what heaven is like: surrounded by loving people in a beautiful setting.

I looked back and saw the other ER patient come out of the hospital with a sling on his arm. I approached him and said, “What is this? One size fits all treatment?” He had popped the tendon in his right arm while bowling. His parents asked what had happened to me. I shared that we were bicycling across the country raising money for TheHopeLine, and told them about our goal to raise $100,000 for this organization with the main focus of preventing suicide in young people. The woman’s eyes filled with tears as she told of her father’s suicide in 1974. Her husband whipped out a twenty-dollar bill to donate to TheHopeLine. It was another reminder of the generous hearts of so many Americans and that too many people have been permanently affected by the suicide of a loved one.

While I was in the ER, Amy had been busy checking on ways for us to return to Massachusetts in the most economical way. Calling airlines and rental car companies, she landed a one-way rental car in Williamsport, 45 minutes away. Gary and Amy would drive us there. How can this couple—both working full time, one with a school board meeting to prepare for and the other with a dissertation to write, and with three kids at home—drop everything for us on a Sunday? The sermon I had heard a couple of weeks ago came to mind. You can’t hurry and love at the same time! They were living out the sermon as they devoted their attention to our needs.

Heading Home

The pastor prayed for us before we departed to Gary and Amy’s house. Jeff drove us there to swap vehicles with them so that he could attend to matters at home. We were overwhelmed by the grace, kindness, and care of these strangers. With arrangements made for our trip back to Massachusetts, we headed to Williamsport to pick up the rental car.

CelebrationDinnerMy conversation with Amy on the way warmed my heart. I kept thanking her. With her wholesome smile looking me in the eye, she told me how pleased she was to be able to do this for us. Later, after a late-night meal with them in Williamsport, she told me that her daily prayer to the Lord is, “Bless me into usefulness.” Then she said, “He answered my prayer today through you.”

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