Sunday, September 13, 2015

June Lake, California: Hello, America!

There was an idea we tossed around during our five months of travel.  We had to figure out how to get ourselves and our bikes back to June Lake from my sister’s house in the Bay Area.  Last March we left both our cars at home parked snugly in the garage and crossed the Sierra using buses and trains.  Our idea was, if we weren’t too burned out, if the weather was right, and if we had the time, that maybe we could bike back home. 

When we left Copenhagen the coolness of autumn had already arrived.  When we stepped outside of the terminal in Oakland it was sunny and blazing hot like it can so often get around Labor Day in California.  And the forecast was for another week of hot weather, at least ten degrees above normal for early September, which translates to 100+ degrees in the San Joaquin Valley and the western foothills of the Sierra.  So our idea morphed, and we decided to take the train to Sacramento and a bus to Truckee and start our trip from there.

Outside the train station in Truckee with signs heralding the best of America -- money, internet access, and bathrooms that are clean, free, and with toilet paper!

After four years of drought, the low level of Lake Tahoe were shocking. Boat docks to nowhere.
It took us five days to get home.  It was an adventure, and we are glad we did it.  There were a couple of tough passes and it was challenging.  John came down with a cold on the day we left my sister’s, and he did it all with a nose running like a faucet and a raw throat.  Despite the hanndicap I still could not keep up with him on the big hills!

The first night we stayed in a small walk-in campground just south of Tahoe City in the west shore of Lake Tahoe.  It was a warm day and we took a dip in the lake.  All summer we heard the news reports of fires burning in the mountains, but our afternoon of cycling from Truckee was relatively clear.  Overnight, however, smoke drifted in from a new fire and we had hazy conditions on the rest of our journey. 
Check this pass off the list!
The next day we met our first challenge -- crossing over Luther Pass.  It was a huff, but what takes hours to go up is a quick but thrilling descent on the other side.  We dropped down to Highway 89 where we knew there were several campgrounds.  We went by one that had a rusty old gate and look closed.  We ventured in, and it must have been closed for years. There were a few picnic tables around, but half the campground was destroyed from floods many years ago.  So we wheeled down next to the creek and had a wonderful campsite.  Just like if we were backpacking, peaceful, with rocks for sitting and the place to ourselves!
Our campsite in the abandoned campground.
Monitor Pass was the challenge for the next day and the highest point on the journey at 8,314 feet.  It took us all morning, crawling up that grade.  When we neared the top I looked back at the sign for the downhill traffic that indicated an 8% grade for six miles.  I am glad I didn’t know that bit of trivia before we started.  On the other side of the pass we dropped 3,000 feet down to the Walker River, and the temperature must have increased 20 degrees.  We had a Popsicle to celebrate and took skinny dips in the Walker River.  Camp was on a hidden spot in the sandy floodplain.  We slept like logs that night, we were so tired.

Monitor Pass, check!

Heading down into the smoky haze towards Walker Canyon after crossing Monitor Pass.
The next day we were in Bridgeport by noon, had lunch, and then pushed on the Conway Summit.  We were so hot we stopped along the way to dip our shirts in the creek and put them on wet to cool down.  But by the time we were just below the pass and before our shirts even dried, the clouds came in and it started raining.  We sought shelter under the eave of the CalTrans building at the pass.  John got a bit drenched because he had to cycle up the road to intersect the creek to get water for the night, and he thought he timed a break in the action, but it started to really rain hard shortly after he took off.  We got down a short way and camped in the rocks at a place we knew about with a full view of Mono Lake below us.  But it rained and then the next morning it was really smoky, a bit disappointing.  We were home by noon, and we just got in the door and it started to pour again.  And it rained on and off the rest of the afternoon and again the next day.  We were so happy to be home and indoors!
Our last breakfast overlooking the smoke in the Mono Basin from just below Conway Summit.
After bike touring for months in Europe and then doing the same thing right away in America, the cultural contrasts between the two are apparent.  On both continents we often were approached by people who were curious about where we started, where we were going, how far we travel each day.  But in America it seems like the people who ask often had a story they wanted to share of a past trip that they still remember and wish they could repeat.  It happened at the train station, outside the grocery store, and even on the side of the road.  One couple stopped their car and waited until we pulled alongside and asked if we needed water.  She had done a bike trip across the country and knew the value of small acts of kindness. 

And then there was the man in his 70‘s in a flannel shirt and blue jeans sailing down Monitor Pass as we were laboring our way up.  At this point in the upward grind I was filled with less than positive thoughts.  My inner voice was asking --  whose idea was this, anyway? Why is it so hot? Maybe I’m too old for this?  When he saw us he braked and stopped.  He offered encouragement and told us it was only 1,200 feet more elevation gain to the pass.  We smiled and nodded acknowledgement, since oxygen was in short supply at that moment.  An then he said he so admired what we were doing, that he had also done many bike tours in years past, all over Europe.  He said they were the best years of his life.

I couldn’t agree more.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Copenhagen, Denmark: Goodbye, Europe!

After leaving the warmth of my family in Germany, we had only one more week left in Europe.  We could not dwell too long on thoughts of home, since our last few days would require crossing two more countries, making multiple transport connections, and finding cardboard.
The last kilometer of Germany, on the way to the ferry dock in Sassnitz.
The first challenge: get to Sweden.  We opted to take the ferry from the town of Sassnitz on Rugen Island.  We took the train from near my relative’s house to the ferry dock since we had already cycled much of the route.  It is always a bit humbling to take a train for a couple of hours and cover the distance that would have taken several days by bike.  It was a long day, though.  A train ride with a transfer, 10 kilometers by bike from the train station to the dock, a wait in line with cars and buses for the ferry, a couple of hours bobbing in the sea, and disembarking in the fading light of dusk in the town of Trelleborg in Sweden.  John knew vaguely that there was camping to the east, so we connected various bike trails and ended up at an adequate but pricey campground.
Southern Sweden looked like Germany, except the churches looked strikingly different and the sign sunintelligible.
We had only two days in Sweden, merely to get an impression for future trip, perhaps.  And our impression was that the landscape of this very small corner of southern Sweden looks remarkably like the part northeastern Germany we just left -- green rural landscape, rolling terrain, farms, and pockets of forest.  Almost everyone spoke nearly perfect English.  There are lots of blond-haired children. And the bread is very good, too.
Old windmill.... windmill.

Our lovely campsite in the Swedish forest.
We crossed over to Denmark on another ferry.  We were not sure of the departure times, so we arrived to buy our tickets, and were informed the ferry leaves in 10 minutes.  Rolling right onto the ferry, we cheered our good timing.  The crossing took all of 20 minutes, and we realized that it wasn’t luck that we didn’t need to wait. We passed multiple ferries on the way, and we realized this is a very busy crossing and boats run continuously. 

Leaving the ferry dock to go to Denmark.
Ooooh, Danish Modern, here on the ferry!

Our lunch spot, looking back at the coast of Sweden and the channel we just crossed.

It cracks me up -- signs saying don't park your bike here, dutifully ignored.
Once in Denmark, we traveled down the coast towards our goal, the city of Copenhagen. It was a crisp, windy, puffy clouds sort of day -- a hint of autumn.  We followed the coastline and passed very expensive and very stylish houses with ocean views.  There were harbors with flashy boats along the way, too.  We saw on the map a patch of forest just before the Copenhagen city limits, and with our new stealth camping skills we found a hidden spot in the trees.  The next day we were in the city within an hour.  We quickly found out that Denmark is also has a strong cycling culture, and if it is to be believed, even more than The Neetherlands.  We were able to explore the city center, easily connecting landmarks via dedicated lanes and traffic signals just for bikes. 

Bike trails wind along the Copenhagen waterfront.
It was a beautiful sunny day when we arrived, but our smartphone told us that the weather was to change the next day to a wet pattern.  We had hoped to find a hotel for our remaining time in Copenhagen, so we headed to the Office of Tourism.  Our past experience was that these offices often have a booking service and that they could help us find reasonable lodging options, so we had made no arrangements in advance.  The agent was very nice, and there were computers with complimentary internet access.  When we asked how we could find a place to stay, she showed us how to open the browser and go to  We were on our own in a city with only expensive options.  We spent a few hours playing AirBnB routlette, only to be rejected again and again.  We realized there were going to be a couple more days of deflating air mattresses and a leaking tent to deal with.  Our only option was to cycle a few more kilometers to the nearest campground.  Which was also expensive, but nicely equipped with a kitchen and enclosed dining area and filled with other interesting European travelers that were interesting to talk to.

Lovely old Copenhagen.

View from the top of the Christiansborg Tower.
With a metro pass we explored the city for a couple of days.  One whole day was spent trying to obtain cardboard boxes to pack our bikes for the flight home. We went to the airport and there were none for sale anywhere.  So we found a hotel for the last couple of nights and found a bike shop nearby that had some boxes they would give us.  We deposited our bikes in the hotel and then carried the boxes in between rainstorms back to the hotel.  Another afternoon was spent packing our belongings.  Taping the boxes closed only emphasized the finality of this journey.

A few choice chairs in the National Museum of Design.

Guards in front of Christian VIII's palace.
Our time in Copenhagen, even with all the departure arrangements, was great.  I must say, I think it is my favorite European city.  It has beautiful architecture, it is easy to get around, Danish modern design touches are everywhere, and it is cosmopolitan in culture and cuisine.

The lovely weathered copper dome of the Frederikskirken.
Our last night we went out for dinner, to a vegetarian restaurant within walking distance of our hotel that I found with a 10 second internet search.  We went over a bridge, along a canal, and into a park that became increasingly scruffy -- graffiti and trash and the smell of marijuana drifting from the groups of kids hanging around.  There were dwellings that were just shacks and no signs with street names.  And we somehow found the eatery, which was just another shack.  We went inside, and it was one big room.  Rough-hewn tables occupied one end, and a counter separated the dining area from the kitchen.  It was a cold rainy evening and when we entered it was so hot and steamy inside our glasses fogged up immediately.  It was all vegan fare, and you could choose from the baked dish of the day, the soup of the day, or the salad of the day.  We opted for all three, an autumn-themed meal that was warm and filling and good in our bellies.  The tables were filled with students, a lesbian couple holding hands next to us, and a few single diners sharing soup and bread with the strangers seated next to them.  It was a locals experience, not one that the tourist office would even know about.

A cliché view, but nice nonetheless.  I waited and waited for the sun to come out, but no luck. 
A taxi picked us up the next morning to transport us and our cardboard boxes to the airport.  We had only one more connection to make, and that was the plane to take us to Oakland.  Traveling west it was like dawn all day, and it was a spectacular view looking down on the glaciers and iceberg-dotted fjords of Greenland.  Twelve hours of flying and the grogginess from lack of sleep almost erased our five and a half months of memories of Europe.  But once we were reunited with our boxes and we unpacked and reassembled our bikes, it all felt real again. 

Europe is a special place.

A final view of windmills in the water off the coast from Copenhagen.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Medow, Germany: The Comfortable, New, and Unexpected

Traveling in Germany is very comfortable for us.  We spent three months there in 2007 on our first major bike tour.  My parents immigrated from Germany after WWII, so there is family scattered all over the country.  I have an acceptable degree of fluency in the language, so engaging with people along the way and getting what we need is easier.  And since we were already on the European continent on this trip, we planned to spend the last month or so visiting family, crossing territory both familiar and new.

Ahh, German trains.  Comfortable, on time, and just wheel your bike on board.
Our first stop was to visit my dear cousin Eva and her family near Hanover.  We took the train from where we entered Germany in the little town of Emmerich, squeezed between the Rhine River and the border with The Netherlands, in order to arrive in time to see my cousin’s lovely daughter Lena graduate with her Master’s degree in architecture. It was a reunion, with extended family coming from near and far to celebrate.  Our four days there consisted of a bit of sightseeing and lots of eating, drinking, talking, and staying up late.  It was hard to wind down at the end of the day with a head buzzing with all the conversations of the day and the German vocabulary resurrected from somewhere deep in my brain.
No afternoon gathering is complete without three different cakes and coffee.
My cousin's daughter Birte baked a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cherry Cake) which was a crowd favorite.
My Tante Christel now needs a wheelchair, and we spent an afternoon with her on a walk in the woods.
Our schedule was a bit more relaxed once we left my cousin, and we were able to cycle to connect visits to other relatives.  We stopped in historic Lüneburg to meet for the first time a cousin of my father, to Hamburg to visit with another cousin, and then across northern Germany to my second cousin outside of Anklam.  It is a feeling like a warm and soft blanket to be among family that is so nice and generous and welcoming.  Large family gatherings were not part of my childhood because family was something my parents left behind when they made a new life in the United States.  It gives me a feeling of completeness to experience it now.
My father's cousin Ortwin and his lovely wife Ute toasted our arrival to their home.

Paved bike trail along a canal in the countryside of northern Germany.

We took the underground (and underwater) route under the Elbe River through the St Pauli Elbtunnel.

Beautiful cycling in the German countryside.

Lunch with a view of the schloss in Schwerin.

Weatherbeaten but charming.

Bombing during WWII partially destroyed the St Marien church in Wismar.

Building ornaments in Wismar.

Wind machines are a frequent sight in the countryside of Germany.  Some folks don't like them, but we think they are graceful and smart.

The harbor in Stralsund where we boarded the ferry to Hiddensee.  This was my grandmother's home town.
A highlight was a visit to Hiddensee, a narrow 10-mile long island in the Baltic Sea.  We took a ferry to for a day visit with our bikes.  My father spent some time here as a youth and still recalls the geography of the island well.  No cars are allowed on the island, so people get around by walking, biking, or riding in one of the horse-drawn carriage taxis.  Most of the homes are summer residences and people are happy and relaxed because they are on vacation.  We had a brilliant sunny day, and that contributed to the general happiness and number of people sunbathing and swimming in the nude.
The sights on the beach on Hiddensee.

My aunt and grandmother on Hiddensee, probably in the 1930's, from a family photo album.  The wind blows there most of the time, which is why they decided to sit in this ditch.
Quaint vacation home on Hiddensee.

No cars on the island means luggage and other cargo gets hauled around by hand carts and bike trailers, here parked at the dock.

The horse-drawn taxi carts people around the island...
...and leaves traces behind.

The Dornbusch Lighthouse on Hiddensee, a landmark.

After our day on Hiddensee we crossed the channel to Rugen Island and watched the sun set on the lovely island where we spent the day.
We planned to stay in campgrounds, which was our normal routine throughout this trip.  But upon arrival at our first German campground the night after we left my cousin we were surprised to find out did not take overnighters.  It was a campground of “dauercampers” (permanent campers).  The other campground down the street was the same situation, and the next closest was over 15 kilometers away, not an option late in the day.  Pockets of forest are common in rural Germany, so we filled all our water containers and found a dirt road that took us out of sight amongst the trees.  It was so peaceful, not unlike the experience of camping in the wilderness at home.  No other campers watching us, no barking dogs, and no screaming children.  It was so nice and easy that we only paid for camping three nights for our entire month in Germany.

Our old tent leaks, so we had to buy a tarp to protect it on nights with rain.  Camping in the woods offers plenty of tie-off points.

The best thing about a campground is a warm shower.  But we found substitutes.  We camped near lakes a couple of nights where we were able to swim and rinse our clothes.  Many of the other people we saw swimming in the lakes didn’t bother with swimsuits, so neither did we. Schwimmbads are German institutions -- large swimming pools with diving boards and slides and areas with grass and tables.  Many larger towns have them and on a nice day families come and spend the day.  For just a few euros we were able to go for a swim, take a shower, wash our clothes before finding a secret spot in the woods.  And when either of these options are unavailable, then we looked for a public bathroom with hot water where we filled our water bag, which we could hang from a tree to take a shower, using a surprisingly small volume of water.
Schwimmbad heaven!

The unexpected part of stealth camping?  Ticks and slugs.  John had the first tick, no bigger than the period at the end of a sentence.  And then one day during our lunch break I took a look at my legs, and there were at least ten little guys that we had to pluck off with the tweezers from my Swiss Army knife.  Every evening from then on we did a tick inspection on each other before going to bed.  We had a concern about Lyme Disease, but a local pharmacist reassured us, saying it is more common in southern Germany, and that she gets ticks all the time working in her garden.  And the slugs.  Oh my, the slugs.  Big, inky black, and everywhere after a rain, including crawling up the side of our tent.  Harmless, but ugly.
Ughhh!  A slug!

Waiting out a rain event under a tree on Rugen Island.

A morning exploration with my cousins to the old fortified town of Spantekow, dating to at least the 13th century.

My second cousin Offried is a historian and antiques collector.  The live in an old farmhouse built in the late 19th century, and the top floor of one of the barns is his "museum" of artifacts.
One favorite memory of our time in Germany was at the end of the family gathering in the little town of Medow at the home of my second cousin.  It was the last day of August, the last day that we would all be together, late in the afternoon of a beautiful, warm, sunny day.  We piled into cars and drove to the Baltic Sea an hour away.  John and I ducked into the bushes on the way to the beach, and by the time we reached the water’s edge my family had already stripped down and wading into the water.  Buck naked.  It only took us a minute for us to think about it and join them.  I never felt more German than at that moment!
The Baltic Sea

My wonderful family after an afternoon of swimming in the Baltic Sea.

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