“Extreme Commuting” – combining touring with transportation – the long version

It was 1AM. The train station in Brunswick, ME wasn’t open yet and the next train back to Boston from Brunswick that allowed bicycles wasn’t for another 17 hours. I found an ATM booth and hauled my 90-lb bike in with me, and slid down to the floor. I’d been riding more or less since around 10AM, although with a good number of stops, some of which were long-ish. I was tired of being on the road, tired of being on the bike, and most of all, just wanted to go home. I’d planned on finding a motel and doing half the trip on Saturday and half on Sunday, but it was late August on the Maine coast and there wasn’t a vacancy to be found.

Which brought me to my ATM booth by the train station. I had two choices: I could try and get comfortable on the floor by the ATM and get some sleep, then once morning came and things started to open up, find a diner and have a very lengthy breakfast, then find a cafe with WiFi and spend the rest of the day killing time in it until it was time for the train. The other choice was to just keep riding another 40 mi or so to Portland, where there was a train leaving for Boston that allowed bikes, at 5:30AM. 

How did I end up in an ATM booth in the middle of the night with a 90-lb bike? Well, when I’m not making bike bags, in my other life I’m a musician. So in the summers, I travel to a number of summer workshops where I either teach music classes or play for dancing. These things vary in distance, but they’re generally within striking distance by bicycle. That means a lot of riding with a LOT of load: instruments, music, clothes for a week, etc. It adds up to more weight than bike touring gear, and it’s not stuff you can just do without or buy a lighter version of the way you can leave behind the second cooking pot or buy a lighter tent. This is the long version of the story. If you just want the details on how I get around this way, click here.

In the past, this has been my ride: 

The frame is a 1972 Raleigh Pro, set up with a 9sp 11-34 cassette and a T/A crank with 46t and 30t chainrings. I bought the frame because I like my 1974 Raleigh Pro (the light blue fixie brevet bike) so much. The panniers are ones I made for touring a few years ago, and everything plus the kitchen sink is strapped all over the back. The bike actually handles surprisingly well that way, but it’s hard on rear racks!

But my birthday/Christmas present from Jake this year was to have Peter Weigle put S&S couplers in that frame, add some more braze-on’s, add a new fork with lowrider mounts, and repaint it. I got a bunch of new parts for it, too. The bike was something of an ugly duckling before, but now it is GORGEOUS. So of course, it had to have new bags, to make use of the front rack and redistribute the weight. 

Here’s the bike “before” on several of these trips:

Bike to Pinewoods 2013

Yeah, that’s a box fan on top. This was for the shortest trip, which was to a camp where one stays in cabins that can get very uncomfortable without a fan!

Bike to lubec 2012 Bike to New London 2013

 

And here is “after”:

 Bike to pinewoods 2014

It looks like a new bike! And actually, the fork is new. In addition to redistributing the load, I actually did manage to save a little weight in a few places. You’ll notice there’s no box fan this time, although that part’s really because the itinerary changed; it’s one thing to ride 50 mi with a box fan, but another thing to ride more than twice that with one. 

The first trip was to Pinewoods Camp, to play for English-Scottish Session (English country dance as well as Scottish). It’s actually only about 60 mi from home, but I wasn’t going straight there. My first stop was a rehearsal with a friend on Cape Cod, which is another 35 or 40 mi past the camp. The ride down to the Cape from the northwest side of Boston isn’t a particularly nice one; it’s congested and built up, and any more scenic route one might take makes it substantially longer. When one is time-constrained and riding a very heavily laden bike, taking the scenic route isn’t really an option. But one nice option is taking a ferry to cut off some of the most congested areas. Practically speaking, it only reduces the distance and the trip time by a little, but it does mean I only have to ride into downtown Boston proper instead of all the way through it. 

Plus, the ferry is cheap, convenient, and fun, and allows bikes. It’s run by the MBTA and goes from Long Wharf in Boston down to Hingham, bypassing some of the worst traffic of the trip. 

bike on ferry 2014

 

After that, the ride was uneventful, if long and hot. One problem with traveling this way is that it’s kind of difficult to make pit stops. Generally, no one bothers a loaded touring bike and it’s normal to just leave the bike outside a convenience store while you go in. But I feel a lot less comfortable doing that when my panniers are full of expensive musical instruments than if they were just full of camping gear (although don’t get me wrong – having your camping stuff stolen while on a tour would really suck, too), particularly in the busy suburban South Shore and when using the bathroom means my stuff will be totally out of sight.  But I’ve found that a lot of convenience stores, Dunkin Donuts, etc, will actually let me bring my bike inside if I ask politely and explain that it’s because I have so much stuff and don’t want to leave it outside. Not all of them are willing, and if they aren’t, I just move on. And on that trip, I only made one stop at an ice cream stand where I didn’t need to leave my stuff.

Unfortunately, I forgot both the sun sleeves and the sunscreen. This was just after the Fourth of July, so there was lots of sun; there’s not much shade on that route, and I didn’t have a good opportunity to buy any en route. When I arrived in Chatham, I was well and truly toasted to a crisp. We rehearsed in the evening and the next morning, and then I left to go to the camp. I really should have left more time – I’d forgotten about how I’d be trying to get off of Cape Cod at the end of the Fourth of July weekend, probably the single busiest vacation weekend of the season. There was no place to stop for so much as a snack, let alone sunscreen, and between the load and the traffic, I was going nowhere fast. It was under 40 mi, but I spent quite a lot of it in stop and go traffic. By the time I finally turned down the dirt road that leads to the camp, I’d barely have time to shower and change and grab a snack in time for the staff meeting. 

Then I got passed by a pickup truck going a bit too fast, which kicked up a stick behind it. The stick went straight into the spokes of my front wheel and took my front pannier with it, and down I went. I scraped up my elbow and hip, knocked my helmet, and taco’ed my front wheel. So now I was sunburned, running late, bonking, bleeding, and on a dirt road with a 90-lb bike that wouldn’t roll. The best I could do was remove the front panniers and hook them onto the sides of the rear ones, and stumble awkwardly down the road while lugging the front end of the bike a few inches off the ground and letting it roll on the rear. I was actually passed by a number of people heading the same way I was, but it wasn’t anyone I knew, and they didn’t stop. After all, why should it occur to them that the sweaty, spandex-clad weirdo hauling a bike covered with bags was the same person who was going to spend the week playing for their dances? 

Finally one did stop and I was able to at least unload my luggage into his car, which made it much easier to carry the bike and walk the rest of the way. I arrived at the staff meeting still dirty, sweaty, bloody, spandex-clad, and un-showered, but I did make it just in time. I got cleaned and bandaged up afterward, and was ready to go when it came time to play for that evening’s dance. And in the end, had a fantastic week of making music.

I called Harris Cyclery, and my friend Elton shipped me a new rim for my front wheel and a spoke wrench, directly to camp. Miraculously, the panniers and front rack seemed to have protected my new paint from damage, so aside from the trashed rim and a somewhat bent (but fixable) fender, everything else was fine. I rebuilt the wheel on the porch of my cabin, with the front portion of the front rack as a truing stand. I used a piece of electrical tape with pine needles stuck to it as feelers, and made sure the wheel was centered by flipping it back and forth. This method actually made for a surprisingly precise (if delicate) truing stand, and I think the wheel came out just about as well as if I’d done it at home.

Pinewoods truing stand

 

That first week was actually a short one, and we all went home on a Friday. I had an uneventful ride back to the ferry in Hingham. Total summer “extreme commute” distance so far: ~180, over three days of travel. 

I had one day at home to do laundry, rest, and re-pack, then left for the next workshop. This one was in New London, CT where I’d be playing for an English Country Dance workshop attached to an early music festival. This one is 100 mi from home, and it’s a constantly hilly 100 mi with a whole lot of pretty steep grades. And the bike was loaded more heavily too, since I needed more clothing (for a longer week), plus concert clothes and shoes, plus a few more instruments, plus my tablet. I didn’t weigh the bike before or after this trip, so I’m not sure how much heavier it was, but here’s the photo:

Bike to New London 2014

In order to make it for the staff meeting, I left the house before 6AM. On top of the hills, there was a stiff headwind. Maintaining a 10mph rolling average was a real challenge. The whole trip took a bit over 11 hours, and this time I was able to shower and change and look like a regular person at the staff meeting. I’ll admit that I was tired that evening while playing for the dance! 

Dance Band

The week in New London was musically intense because in addition to playing for three dance classes per day plus an evening dance every night, the pianist and I played a recital together on the last fully day, and we spent all our free time practicing for it individually or rehearsing together. Actually, that was what the rehearsal on the Cape was for, too. 

So when I left to go home on the last morning, I was feeling pretty tired and a bit stiff, since I hadn’t ridden the bike since arriving. But I managed to keep my rolling average over 10mph and made it home by 9PM. Total “long commute” mileage: 380, over five travel days.

root beer float

Root beer floats make great bike fuel!

I had barely two weeks at home before the next trip. Well, mostly at home. They also included a short family reunion and a 600k on that middle weekend! It was a hard 600k, actually. Well, the route was familiar, but I was feeling pretty tired when I started it, and I felt like it took me 15 hours to warm up. And I rode my usual fixie in a 42×16. So it wasn’t what you’d call a “recovery” ride! I think I basically made it through the 600k by force of habit – if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s keep slogging away on a bicycle.

The next trip was back to Pinewoods for CDSS’s English Dance Week. So the trip down was my easy weekend. It was pouring down rain, but at least it was under 10 mi to the ferry and then 40 mi to camp.

Back on the ferry. Note the rain, and also the greater necessity of Starbucks this time!

Back on the ferry. Note the greater necessity of Starbucks this time!

But this time, I wasn’t just going for a week. The following week, I’d be teaching a private recorder workshop in Lubec, ME, and I’d be going directly from one to the other. So I had a few more clothes, plus all my music, photocopies, teaching materials, etc, for the Lubec week as well as my instruments and music for the dance week.  But this time, I had plenty of time. I road gingerly down the dirt road, met with no mishaps, and this time made it to the staff meeting clean and presentable and not oozing blood. 

English Week was also an amazing week of music and dance. I played with fabulous musicians all day every day. But these things are exhausting, too. The days are packed, the nights are long, the mornings are early, and they go by quickly!

I spent my days like this: 

playing in c-sharp

 

And a little of this:

playing two recorders

Before I knew it, I was saying my goodbyes at the last night party, since I’d be leaving before breakfast. The good part about traveling light is that packing is quick!

I left Pinewoods at 6AM on Saturday headed for the commuter rail station in Middleboro, MA. There isn’t a particularly direct route, so I did the best I could which ended up being a bit over 20 mi, including a couple of fairly rough dirt roads. Some of those started to really make me nervous because there were just too many giant holes to be able to go fast with so much luggage. With the limited train schedule, that meant I was really booking it to reach the only train that would get me into Boston in time to catch another train up to Maine. I was riding pretty hard, but I made it maybe five or ten minutes before the train arrived. The platform had an arrow pointing one way that said “outbound” and the other way that said “inbound”. The train arrived headed in the “outbound” direction; I even asked a couple of passengers who were getting on if this train was going in or out, and they said it was going out, so I ignored it and figured that the one to Boston must be the next one, and didn’t get on. As it rolled away I heard the conductor say something and and said, “Wait, is this the train to Boston?” and as the train rolled off he answered, “Yeah, what did you think it was?” 

I stood there sort of stunned. I was tired and I’d gotten up early and booked it to make the train, and then stood right there and missed it. Of course, I did know that Middleborough was the end of the line, so of course it would have to be a Boston-bound train. Of course, I should have asked the conductor. Or something. But I’d just paid attention to the arrows and the passengers (what did they think I was asking about??) and had stood there while the train left. 

 So I sat down and freaked out and wondered what to do. My schedule had been tight and demanding to start with. The next train wouldn’t get me into town in time to catch my train to Maine; the next train to Maine wouldn’t get me there until evening, which would mean riding all night with no sleep…. Finally, I called my better half Jake and asked him to search for cab companies in Middleborough that could take me into town. There wasn’t much to be found and in the end, Jake (saint that he is) rented a zip car and drove down to pick me up and drop me off at North Station. He should be canonized. 

So I just made the train at 11:30 and was back on track. The Downeaster is the Amtrak route that runs from Boston up to Maine. It has a bike car, and it actually goes as far as Brunswick, but not every train does. The 11:30 train stops in Portland, ME. My final destination was Lubec, ME, about 230 mi up the coast from there. 

The train got in, I got my bike, and was finally on the road for the lion’s share of the day’s miles. I’ve made a tradition of staying at the Yardarm Motel on this trip for the last few years; it’s a nice little mom-and-pop motel in Searsport, almost halfway between Portland and Lubec. It has a nice breakfast room with basics like bagels and cereal. If I let them know I’ll be in late, they just leave the door to my room open and check me in in the morning. 

You don't do this for the cuisine.

You don’t do this for the cuisine.

 

By the time I got off the train and got my bike all loaded up again, it was 2:30. That’s fairly late in the day to start a fully loaded 110 miles. For a lot of the route, I basically follow Rt. 1 and 1A up the coast. But in a couple of places, the coast curves out and Rt. 1 isn’t the shortest, so I take a short cut. This time I decided to get creative with my short cut, between my Garmin and Google Maps. Even with panniers, I enjoy dirt roads and if there’s a shorter way that’s dirt that’s fine with me. Well, it turned out that one of the roads that Garmin and Google both think goes all the way through actually doesn’t; it dead ends in a driveway. And of course I found that out after going a couple of miles down the road. At that point I was way behind schedule; I was up in the hinterlands outside of Belfast or somewhere down a dead end dirt road; it was maybe 1AM and the only sound was the buzzing of mosquitoes, I was exhausted and wanted a shower and a bed, and I was switching back and forth between electronic devices trying to find a road that was an actual road. So much for short cuts. 
But I did get myself straightened out and found my way back down through Belfast and Searsport and collapsed into bed after 3AM. 

I got myself off to a sow, sluggish start; it was still another 120 miles to Lubec. The bike felt heavier and heavier, and every hill just made me feel slower and slower. By midday I was dragging my feet about eating my snacks and getting back on the road at a convenience store at the corner of where I turn off of Rt. 1, since Rt. 1 curves around following the coast. My snack breaks were getting longer and longer. I was feeling the beginnings of a cold, too – dance camp is a great place to pick one up! I finally made it into Lubec at around 9PM, about two hours later than I’d have preferred. But then I was there, to a homey house, a shower, a warm bed, and a fridge full of all the assorted leftovers I could want. I was hoarse and sniffly when it came time to teach the next morning, but steady doses of hot coffee kept me functioning. 

The Lubec week was much more relaxing than the previous week. It’s just a small private workshop where I work with one self-selected group in the mornings, and then everyone has free time for the rest of the day. Some of the participants stay in the same house (the hosts play in the group too), and there’s often more informal playing in the afternoons. So I’m able to relax, take naps, clean my instruments, practice, walk around, etc. Campobello Island is right across the bridge and makes a nice afternoon trip (but not this time because I forgot my passport). And the group I teach are enthusiastic, musical people who work hard and play well together.  

Lubec has lots of fog

Lubec has lots of fog

 

That's Canada on the other end of the bridge.

That’s Canada on the other end of the bridge.

By the end of the week in Lubec, my cold was mostly cleared up, I’d mostly caught up on lost sleep, and I was more than ready to go home after two weeks away. In previous years, I’ve made the trip over two days and have stayed with Jake’s brother, a ways outside of Belfast. That makes the first day about 140 mi, but the second only 90, which is nice when I have a train to catch. But this year, between one thing and another, I hadn’t gotten it together to contact them. My host was driving a couple hours down Rt. 1 to visit someone on the Saturday I left, so she put my bike in the car and dropped me off before turning off. That meant it was only 150 mi to Portland, and I had two whole days to do it and catch the evening train; even less if I caught the train in Brunswick. I could find a motel, have a good dinner, get a good night’s sleep, and take it easy the next day heading into Portland. 

bike from lubec

Somewhat recovered I might have been, but I was still slow and kinda tired. But that was OK, I had plenty of time. I stopped and took a few photos in places I’ve never wanted to take the time to stop before. I was pretty ready to be home, but at least I finally had the time to take it easy. I even stopped at an actual restaurant for an actual large and lengthy meal in Ellsworth. While stopped there, a lady told me she LOVED my bike, and that it looked like an advertisement for a bag company. Heehee. 

penobscot narrows

But I really should have thought harder about the “I’ll just find a motel” plan. This was, after all, Downeast Maine, aka “Vacationland”, on one of the last weekends of August at the peak of the season. There wasn’t a vacancy to be found for love or money, anywhere near my route. I tried asking in person, I tried Google, I tried asking locals I saw at gas stations if they knew of anything. Everything was full. With no other option, I kept riding. If nothing else, I figured, there was bound to be something in Bath, which would be a very short ride to Brunswick the next day. Nope, nothing in Bath. I kept going. I figured I’d surely find something in Brunswick. It would be a late night, but I could get cleaned up, sleep in, and then find a cafe to hang out in until it was time to catch the train the next day. There was nothing in Brunswick either. So I rode over to the train station, and thought maybe I could at least go inside and sleep on a bench. It was August, but it was still chilly and damp outside. This is still Maine, after all. The train station was closed, but there was an ATM nearby. I dragged my bike into the ATM booth with me, and lay down on the ground. It was 1AM.

And that’s how I got to that ATM booth, wishing for a shower and a bed and maybe a cold beer, a big breakfast, and some hot coffee before I rode another yard. 

But I couldn’t have those things. The closest place to get them was home. If I waited in Brunswick for the evening train, I’d be bumping around town all day with my stinky, sweaty, sleep-deprived self and a bicycle I couldn’t practically leave anywhere even just to take a leak, for 17 hours. But there was a 5:30AM train from Portland that accepted bicycles, and I did have plenty of time to get there. The fastest way to get what I really, really wanted was to be on that train, which would have the added bonus of getting me home 12 hours ahead of schedule. So I got up off the floor and back onto the bike. 

In the end, that worked out actually really well. Having caught up on sleep in Lubec, I actually didn’t have any trouble staying awake. Aside from a motorcyclist outside a bar who yelled out to me “Wow, you’re loaded for bear!” as I rode by, I saw practically no one. There was no traffic to speak of, which made getting through Freeport (shopping destination and home of the LL Bean flagship store) into town actually much faster and easier than it usually is during the day. I had Rt. 1 completely to myself and didn’t even bother with taking the bike routes around some parts of it that I’d have taken during the day. It’s more downhill than up, and the wind was still. So in little more than three hours, I was at the train station. I’d gone 150 mi more or less straight through except for food/bathroom stops. I waited in the vestibule, chatting with a couple of other passengers, until they opened up the station. The oddest comment was from a guy who asked if I was a bike cop or something, because of my reflective sash. 

Before boarding the train, I started chatting with a couple from Germany who had been bike touring in Maine and Nova Scotia. They’d spent the night in an ATM booth because they couldn’t find a vacancy anywhere, either. I finally got on the train, drank a beer, and took a nap.

The fuzzy photo is pretty illustrative of how I was feeling about the world in general at that point! ;)

The fuzzy photo is pretty illustrative of how I was feeling about the world in general at that point! ;)

The train got into North Station, and rather than ride home, I rode with the German couple to South station by way of a cafe in the financial district. At South Station we went our separate ways, and I took the T to Alewife, and a mile and a half later, I was HOME. 

Aside from the issue of lodging though, I do think this “extreme commuting” strategy is actual a viable, useful part of the transportation mix, especially if you are car-free or car-lite (as in a one-car household where one person will be gone awhile and the other might need the car in the interim). Since this post is so long, I’ll do another one dedicated to just the nuts and bolts of it.

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