We’re oh-so-close to getting back on our bikes after six months away from our beloved Salsa Fargos and we can’t wait. We spent the last two weeks in Florida at Kristin’s mom’s beach house, joining family in spreading her father’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico, and are headed back to New Jersey to collect our Ortlieb duffel bags, deposit some of the gear we took to Japan and Indonesia, and bid farewell to family one more time. We’ll be back in Italy, unboxing our stowed bikes in less than a week!
While we were making our 31-hour journey from Singapore to Florida earlier this month we thought it would be fun to assemble a “top 10” post from our first 15 months of being on the road. Rather than answer the most rudimentary questions (What’s your favorite meal?, What’s your favorite country?, How did you get across the Atlantic?, etc.,) we tried to remember the questions that scratched a little deeper. And in doing so, we were forced to remember — and acknowledge — that this has been one absolutely amazing trip so far.
We hope you enjoy this post and, if we failed to answer any questions your inquiring mind wants to know, go ahead and ask it in the comments section and we’ll be sure to reply as soon as possible!
1: What was your favorite day on the bike?
Doug: For me, it had to be our second big mountain day in Spain. I was really hesitant to leave Pamplona and my 8-year old GPS gave up the ghost the morning we were leaving so I had to wing it with just a compass and small-scale map. The next day, after camping in Logrono, we headed deep into the Sierra de la Demanda for some tremendous alpine scenery. We struggled to find a place to wild camp as we kept getting higher and higher into the mountains. The scenery was tremendous, the road very narrow and windy, sheep and cattle wore eerily clanging bells, and it was getting dark. And we just kept climbing and climbing along this narrow mountain creek until, finally, we found a wonderful primitive campground near a trailhead on the side of the road. It was one of the darkest nights I had ever experienced and it got cold. But it was the perfect end to a tremendous day of early autumn cycling in the Pyrenees and capped our third consecutive day of 4,000 feet of climbing.
Kristin: For me, it was the day we finally reached the familiar scent of the Atlantic Ocean. We rolled out of Brooks, Maine that morning headed for Acadia National Park. We always knew we would eventually reach the Atlantic Ocean, but after enjoying the routine of biking, eating, and sleeping day after day, we were shocked when we realized that we actually did it. We bicycled across the USA at its widest point. It was as we crossed the beautiful bridge that connected the small island of Verona with mainland Maine that I smelled that salty, sea air. I stared at the back of Doug’s head, willing him to turn around. I didn’t want to ruin the moment by calling to him. Within a few minutes, he turned his head and through my tears, I saw his eyes glistening too. We stopped on the bridge, wrapped our arms around each other’s sweaty bodies and just paused to think about what we had just accomplished.
2: What was your favorite day off the bike?
Kristin: I will never forget my 39th birthday in Naples, Italy! Doug plans most days, but today was going to be special. The celebration started with dinner the night before at a small restaurant with live music. It started to lightly snow in Naples and the waiters all ran outside to see the flakes — it never snows in Naples! The next morning, we hopped a train to Pompeii where a dusting of snow made this wonder even greater. It was much larger and better preserved than I imagined. There were still tile mosaics in the bathhouses and terra cotta warming pots in the restaurants. After returning to Naples and a few hours of rest, we ventured out to the town square for a Time Square-like celebration to ring in the New Year. Yes, my birthday falls on December 31st! At midnight, after the countdown, many people in the crowd began lighting fireworks (most would have been illegal in the USA) and sparklers as long as my arm and the diameter of my index finger. It sounded like what I imagine a war zone to sound like. Later we returned to our room, walking down the middle of the street so as to avoid items being thrown out the windows. In Naples, people take “out with the old and in with the new,” quite literally as champagne bottles, small appliances, and even some furniture were thrown out in favor of a new start. This was a celebration unlike anything I’d experienced before and it went from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning. People in Naples know how to ring in the New Year.
Doug: Kristin planned a tremendous day for my 39th birthday in Paris. We walked up to Sacre Couer first thing in the morning and then split up for a few hours. I had to get some new bike chains and a new tire and went and walked through Paris by myself on a bit of a cafe/pub-crawl. That night, Kristin took me to the incredibly beautiful Sainte-Chapelle to see a string ensemble perform Pachelbel’s Canon, Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, and Vivaldi’s entire Four Seasons led by one of the France’s top violinists. It was absolutely amazing. We then had a fantastic dinner at an upscale cafe while watching some guys play a fun yard game out in the square. After dinner these two younger Parisians, Cedric and Jeffrey, taught us how to play the Swedish game Molkke. I took to it right away and won my share of games. We played until nearly midnight when one of the wealthy neighbors came out to complain about our noise.
3: What was the biggest dose of culture shock?
Doug: We spent a month in Morocco, our first Muslim country, and then, on December 9th, boarded a ferry bound for Livorno, Italy. We were tired, emotionally spent, and not really thinking too clearly about the seasons. When we finally arrived in Italy, very late on December 11th, we pedaled four miles through darkened streets to our hotel. The next morning, we awoke to realize our hotel was right in the middle of a bustling Christmas market. We had completely forgotten about Christmas. The transition from southern Spain to Morocco was so gentle thanks to the long-forgotten Moors (“Moops” for our fellow Seinfeld fans) but going straight from a month in Morocco, capped with ten days in the Sahara, to a Christmas market in Italy… it was almost too much to comprehend.
Kristin: On April 27th, after six weeks in Japan, we boarded a plane to leave the polite, modern world of Tokyo. We loved the city. There are so many people in one place and yet it never felt crowded or claustrophobic. Everyone was courteous and respectful of everyone else’s space. But we were excited to be finally headed to Bali and after ten hours, we were thrust into another world. The streets of Kuta, our first stop, were crowded with honking cars and motorbikes and the sidewalks were filled with people bumping past each other. Most every store front was a cheap souvenir store, tour or taxi service, or massage parlor with workers outside constantly calling to us. It was also very dirty in spots. It was too much in-your-face chaos too soon. After a good night sleep, we accepted Kuta for what it was and enjoyed the party, but the initial shock nearly had us back on the plane for Tokyo.
4: List your Top 3 favorite food memories!
Kristin: Anyone who knows me knows that every tooth in my mouth is a sweet tooth and I never met anything sugary that I didn’t like. So, when we arrived in Morocco and I had my first sip of the sugary sweet mint tea, I was in love. It tasted like mint flavored sweet tea from the southern United States, but served hot. Next on my list are the baguettes in France, which seems obvious, but when I imagined a French woman walking elegantly down the street, I never pictured her gnawing on a baguette for lunch and yet that was what I saw. Naturally, I paid my euro for a whole baguette and joined in. And last but not least, I loved the plethora of fresh fruit (papaya, passion fruit, dragon fruit, guava, mangosteen, to name a few) in Bali. Much of it I had never seen nor was really sure how to eat, but the locals were always willing to help us out or sometimes we just figured it out. Eating is a huge part of the joy of this trip.
Doug: Forgive me for speaking in general terms, but after so many great snacks and tremendous meals, I struggle to be very specific. For me, when I think about food, the first thing that comes to mind is the unbelievable French bakeries (boulangeries/patisseries). The baguettes and pastries being produced in France are, for my money, the highest quality, most affordable food on the planet. Next up, I’d have to say our first kaiseki meal in a Japanese ryokan. We stayed in a few ryokans while in Japan, but nothing compared to that first 11-course meal at Aura Tachibana. And, lastly, for my third pick, I’ll just say Tuscany. All the food in Tuscany. All of it. Especially the meal we ate on a rainy, frigid, day in the mountains served up by a former Miss Italia.
5: What cultural observation surprised you the most?
Doug: After spending a month in France, a month in Spain, and a month in Morocco, three countries with very established “cafe cultures” for lack of a better word (Spain less so than France and Morocco), I have to say I was quite surprised by the lack of a cafe culture in Italy. Italians belly up to the espresso bar, order, throw back their shot in one gulp, and are out the door as fast as can be. I noticed very little loitering in Italian cafes, very few people reading the paper or watching the day unfold. Which shocked me given how unhurried most Italians seemed to be. That said, the cafes in Italy stock an impressive array of alcohol and appear to do most of their business in the evenings when people stop for a drink or three after work. Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many chairs and tables in Italian cafes.
Kristin: Japan is small and space is limited, so I was shocked to see the size of the stores and number of choices in every category. Just one store, Yodobashi Camera in Osaka, had eight massive floors of electronics. I couldn’t believe how many high quality choices there were for every category of electronics from refrigerators, to vacuums, washers and dryers, to printer paper, to speaker wire, everything electronic. Just as an example, there were over one hundred different vacuums to choose from and the printer paper section spanned about 2000 square feet. Every item had a variety like this. If you wanted a rice cooker, you had dozens of models to choose from. The section devoted to camera tripods was larger than most camera stores we have in the USA. I’ll be very jealous when I start looking to furnish a home and faced with America’s limited choices.
6: What was your favorite region/country to travel by bicycle?
Kristin: Even though the New England region of the USA provided some of the hilliest and longest days, the friendliness of the people more than made up for it. We cycled up Terrible Pass in Vermont with a pair of roadies who chatted with us until our paths diverged and nearly six months later invited us to see them when they heard that we were back in New Jersey for a few weeks. Also in Vermont, we had a motel owner toss the keys to his new car to Doug to drive the two of them to pick up our pizza and beer. The pizza place didn’t deliver, nor did any other restaurant in town, and the motel owner had had two beers, but didn’t want us to go hungry. In Maine, we were adopted for the night by a dozen senior citizen hot rod owners staying at the Fryberg Fairground. We cycled up to ask them if they knew where we might camp for the night and before we knew it they insisted that we join them for dinner, let us put up our tent behind their RVs, and fed us until we cried mercy. The following morning, several of them brought us baggies of brownies, muffins, and bread to have for breakfast and take with us for snacks during the day. We have met friendly people everywhere, but these were just a few standout memories that we wouldn’t have had if we were driving.
Doug: I want to say Spain, but I can’t. I have to go with my backyard and say the northwestern United States. Particularly, that stretch between Puget Sound and Glacier National Park. The scenery is phenomenal, the environments varied, and there are so many affordable camping options that bike touring is just easier there. We camped in State Parks, County Parks, National Parks, and plenty of National Forests, the latter of which has a tremendous system of primitive campgrounds. Also, food is abundant and inexpensive (gas station Teriyaki for the win!), there are a number of friendly WarmShowers hosts. Also, the roads aren’t bad at all and there are plenty of rail-trails to be ridden. If you’re looking for good roads, abundant non-commercial camping, and great scenery, the Pacific Northwest is tough to beat!
7: What place are you most looking forward to returning to?
We’ll tag team this answer since we have the same top two responses and they’re essentially 1a and 1b. First, we have to say Bali. Not for bicycle touring, but for living. And we’re actually going to be doing just that next year, as we already made arrangements to rent a great little house outside of Ubud for four months in 2016, just a short walk through the rice fields to our favorite haunts from last month. So that, by default, has to be mentioned first. The other place that we really hope to return to is Pamplona, Spain. Pamplona had a tremendous blend of parks, public squares, cafes and restaurants, and nearby recreation that it really suited us. It’s also a very clean, well-organized city, with a lot of culture and history. And the best part, in our opinion, is that it’s relatively free of tourists outside those two weeks in the summer when the world comes to run with the bulls. Kristin has been working on improving her Spanish language skills with Duolingo and looks forward to putting it to use in the future.
8: What place do you hope to never return to again?
Kristin: North Dakota. Whether riding or camping, the wind is more than I could handle at times. Some days we had a tailwind and it was wonderful, but most days it was either a strong crosswind or strong headwind. We had two days that we had to cut short after a few hours of cycling averaging only 5 to 7 miles per hour and realizing we wouldn’t make it to our planned destination. In camp, the wind continued to annoy by whisking away our plates, napkins, plastic garbage bags, and anything else that wasn’t weighted down. There were plenty of nice views and scenery, and we met some friendly, generous people too, but the incessant wind was miserable. If I ever return, it won’t be on a bicycle!
Doug: I’ve complained about Morocco enough over the past six months, that it’s starting to feel like I’m piling on, but I have to say the city of Fes. It’s just not for me. There are a lot of neat things about Fes, but for every wonderful moment we had, we had two or three blood-boiling moments of frustration. I don’t care for places where the only way to survive is to assume most people are scam-artists. It’s particularly disappointing as I always counted Morocco as one of the three countries I was most excited to visit. It’s been funny to talk to other long-term travelers these past few months about Morocco. As soon as the topic comes up, everybody we meet who has been there just puts their hands up to stop me right there. “Don’t get us started about Morocco. Let’s talk about something else,” they say. I’m happy to know it’s not me (though, of course, those who experience Morocco on package tours often regale us with a very different opinion).
9: What were your favorite obvious tourist attractions?
There are plenty of so-called must-see attractions that we rolled right on past, but we did stop for some of them. We even went way, way out of our way for a couple too. A brief list of our favorites in no particular order: Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Michelangelo’s David, Bodleian Library at Oxford, Pompeii in the snow, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, live Flamenco performance in Seville, the Eiffel Tower, Mont Saint-Michel, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
10: What was your most embarrassing moment?
This was a joint-humiliation affair so this will have to cover both of us. We were still in Washington state, staying with a WarmShowers host in eastern WA and he so graciously emailed to say that he would be home after we arrived and we should just let ourselves in. We were really shy about doing this so we instead went to a bar for an hour and then came back. He still wasn’t home so we finally got up the courage to let ourselves in. He had cats. Two of them, one orange and one black. We did our best to keep them away from the door, but we had a lot of panniers to bring in and, well, in the chaos of us going back and forth from the basement guestroom to our bikes outside, the cats disappeared.
Panic immediately set in. We started running throughout the house calling out for “black cat” and “orange cat” hoping that they would respond to these ridiculous calls. The cats were nowhere. And then we noticed the door was ajar. Oh no. We ran to the door and looked out the window and didn’t see them. Another hurried search of the house turned up nothing. What are we going to do? “We need to just go,” I said to Kristin. “We need to just pretend we were never here and hope someone returns the cats. Lets get back on our bikes and find a motel before he comes home.” She didn’t like this idea. I didn’t like it either, but what choice did we have? I was already envisioning these poor cats getting eaten by a coyote or run over by a car.
We stood in shock in the kitchen, feeling absolutely awful. And then we heard the dog barking outside. He was in a fenced-in kennel and barking like crazy. We went outside to see what the problem was and that’s when we saw the cats. They were sitting on their hind legs right outside the door. Miracles exist! We each grabbed a cat and quickly carried them inside, tremendously relieved that they actually allowed us to pick them up.
Two hours later, showered, beer in hand, and talking with our host, the cats wandered into the kitchen. Our host bent down to pet them, then stood, and opened the door to let them go outside. “I should have asked you to let them out when you got here since I had to work late,” he said.
Yes, the cats we were so panicked over; the cats we imagined being killed by our negligence, turned out to be outdoor cats. Outdoor cats we should have just let out.