Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Gettin' the Ugly Out

Day: 19 (Gretna Green to Abington) 

Average Speed: 9 mph

Distance: 48.6 miles 

Distance Cycled Total: 871.7 miles 

Feet climbed: 1,874 ; 40,310.1 total

Difficulty level: Not too hard
Not exactly sure what this is, or why it boasts the name of a French city... but it was along today's route. 

When I was leaving Hebden Bridge a few days ago, I stopped to examine my route for the day, unaware I was blocking someone's driveway. I hadn't noticed a car approaching either, and as I stood there calculating how painful my day would be, the car waited to turn. It was probably two minutes or more before a woman rolled down her window and said "Pardon me... I was wondering if... I mean... I just have to get my car there where you're standing."

I looked at the driveway, then back at her, and chuckled. "You're telling me to get out of the way!"

My bluntness seemed to surprise her, and she paused to consider a response. "Politely," she finally said, politely. 

The Brits are famously (if not infamously) polite. What I deserved was a gentle "beep beep." I would've moved instantly with a "my bad" gesture. But manners got in the way. 

So when my British guidebook mentioned that today's ride "...[would not be] the most scenic" of the journey, I had a funny feeling that meant something else. It's like when people describe their studio apartments on Airbnb as "cozy."

"Cozy" = "Cramped"

"Not the most scenic" = "Fucking ugly"

And in that respect, the day did not disappoint. 

It started ugly. There was a whole lotta ugly in the middle. And it finished ugly. In all
Most of today's scenic vista.
The highway sign reads
"Yellow Warning: Heavy Rain Forecast"

A few miles outside of Gretna Green, in the town of Ecclefechan, I stopped at a small general store for some daily provisions: Two bottles of water and three granola bars. The usual. But there was a dispute over the payment. 

Everyone here pays with contactless credit cards, even for the smallest purchases. Cash is a rarity. However, as America hasn't adopted the contactless system, I still have to insert my card into the machine like a Neanderthal. It often gives cashiers some pause, as they've forgotten that once upon a time customers used to have to sign a piece of paper promising to pay the amount due. 

The cashier at the Ecclefechan general store seemed genuinely befuddled when the machine spat out a double copy of the receipt, one half of which I was supposed to sign and leave with her, and she stared at it for some time. I started to gently explain the process and reached over to tear the paper in two, where the halves were supposed to be separated. She came to life, as if suddenly recalling a brief mention of this type of situation in her employee training manual. She grabbed both of my wrists before I could complete the tear and thrust me back, as if I were mishandling the Scottish Declaration of Independence. 

I was stunned. 

She examined the tear I had made before slowly completing it herself. To her credit, her tearing skills were far better than mine. 

I typed "Mean Old Lady"
into Google and found
this surprising likeness
to the cashier
She slowly handed me a pen: it was time for the signing process. I obliged, passed the signed slip across the counter, and began to collect my items. She grabbed my wrist again. 

"I need to see the card."

Of all the security measures that have been taken to deter credit card fraud, comparing one's signature on the receipt to the one on back of the card has to be the stupidest. I refuse to sign the backs of cards, much preferring someone check my government issued ID should they bother to check. I automatically handed her both my debit card and my license. 

"This card isn't signed."

"I know," I explained. "I prefer someone examine my license."

"Yes, but if the card isn't signed it's not valid. It could be fraudulent." 

Huh? Keep in mind, everyone else in the UK simply waves a card in front of a machine and no one checks anything. 

"But you can clearly see that the name on the front of the card is the same as the one on my ID."

"It doesn't matter. The rules say if the card is not signed it is not valid." Without further discussion, she voided the transaction, and bid me goodbye. 

I went out to my bicycle, found a pen, signed the damn card, and walked back in. I followed
Otherwise known as a "shoulder"
behind the cashier as she restocked my items, picking each one back up as soon as it was shelved before returning to the checkout.

She wanted nothing to do with my freshly signed payment, but I persisted, once again showing her my license. Reluctantly, she compared the signature on the license to the signature on the card before declaring they did not match. Trust me, they matched. 

"But it's me in the picture on the license!" I couldn't say this without laughing at the overall absurdity of the situation. 

She declared that my license picture did not look like me. 

"Do you have a razor I could borrow?" 

She didn't seem to understand my humor. 

Flat #2

Finally a manager came over, heard a brief overview of the situation, and looked at the clerk incredulously. "How much is the purchase?" he asked. It was seven pounds. "You're stressing this guy out on his holiday over a seven pound purchase!" He accepted my payment with an apology. The clerk was pissed. I won. 

To be honest, I wasn't stressed at all. I was entertained. I could've paid cash. 

Three granola bars and two water bottles later, I started the day's grind. A slow ascent on a rainy day along a crumbly shoulder (which was dubbed a "cycle lane") parallel with a loud highway. A long, boring slog of a day. 

It would've been the perfect time to listen to music or a podcast, and drown out the sounds of
Dancing with the highway
the major motorway- I haven't listened to anything other than an electronic voice giving me directions thus far- but I'd accidentally rolled my earbuds into my tent when I was packing up in the morning. Instead, it was the music of the highway as my road went along with it, the two occasionally having a tango when we crossed.  

My rear tire went flat at mile 27. A car buzzed me at mile 34. The rain picked up again at mile 39. 

Occasionally there was a glimpse of Scotland's acclaimed beauty, but it was rare. 

It was one of those days that I consider a sacrifice when touring. "Get it done. Better stuff is ahead." Reading between the lines, the guidebook puts its tail between its legs in a veiled apology and declares this leg as the most direct route to Glasgow.

Cliff and Carol

Fortunately, I did meet some wonderful people. Cliff and Carol, who were touring on a tandem. 

Australian Shaun, who touted the wonders of riding while completely stoned. 

Mark Warren, riding for a charity called  Event Mobility

And lastly, and impressive man named Mark Warren, who is completing the same route as I for a charity called Event Mobility. Unlike me, Mark is planning to finish his entire ride in only eleven days, where each day requires him to ride for more than 100 miles. His supportive family rides ahead of him and sets up camp, where they offered me dinner. 

I didn't want to impose, and instead hoped there was a local pub nearby. 

But in Abington, there's nothing. 

First bad meal in the U.K. 

Except for a Burger King at a highway rest area. 

And for the first time this trip, I had a bad meal, which seemed a fitting end to the day. 

I was, however, lucky enough to find a bottle of cider to bring back to camp. 

The crispy chicken sandwich I ordered wasn't enough to fulfill me. But that wasn't a big deal. 

I still had three granola bars and two bottles of water to wash them down. 


If you haven't figured this out by the time you reach Abington coming from any direction,
chances are you aren't around to read it.

If there's one thing we can agree on as a global society, can't it be which side of the road to drive on?

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Am I in Scotland Yet?

Day: 18 (Penrith to Gretna Green) 

Average Speed: 10 mph

Distance: 53.2 miles (4 of which were spent searching for a welcome sign)

Distance Cycled Total: 823.1 miles 

Feet climbed: 1,778.4 ; 38,436.1 total

Difficulty level: No problemo

This sign was very much not on my route.

"Am I in Scotland yet?" 

I must've asked this question a dozen times today, worrying I'd miss the opportunity to take a picture of some important signage. 

Carlisle Castle- just south of the Scottish border
Because everyone is so friendly here (as they have been since I left from Lands End), the answer is never simply "yes" or "no." It comes with a whole series of directions and suggested alternate routes to find the elusive country of Scotland. When that's done, a fun and friendly conversation follows. And then a repeat of the directions since it was clear that I'd forgotten the first third of the conversation. 

I can only retain three directions in my head at any one time, and they'd better be simple. I prefer SECOND LEFT, THEN FIRST RIGHT, AND A QUICK LEFT over cardinal directions with descriptions of contours in the road as landmarks. If I'm being honest, even retaining three simple directions is pushing it. 

It is, however, easy to remember the first direction. They always start with "Go that way..." and a clear hand gesture. Got it. While the good samaritan finishes describing the intricate series of turns, I usually nod politely, thinking "Go that way... and then ask the next person you see."
Google could've saved me some miles

"Am I in Scotland yet?"

The reason for my curiosity as to whether or not I had crossed a border could not be more insipid. I really just wanted a picture of a sign that says "Welcome to Scotland." That's it. I suppose I could've just Googled one. Took me two seconds just now to find a plethora of them, one of which is the same one I eventually took. But that just feels wrong. 

Not my bicycle.
But whoever uploaded this
to Google was coincidentally
also on Day 18, according to
the caption

Plus, you'd never be able to Google one with a bicycle in front of it, would you? [Googles adding word "bicycle" to search]. Oh. Yes you can. Quite easily. And I doubt anyone would know it wasn't my bicycle. 

Conversations about whether or not I was in Scotland literally added about two hours to today's ride, which was quite tame. I descended more than I ascended, and met the rarest, but certainly the most fun, types of roller coaster climbs. These are the ones where the momentum from a downhill is almost enough to get you over the next uphill. Feels like this would be a frequent occurrence, right? It's not. 

Today was also the first time I felt it necessary to wear my neon yellow cycling jacket to stay warm. Only a few days ago, on my ride to Harrogate, sweat was dripping into my eyes and blurring my vision. Today was legitimately chilly. "Scotland's always cold!" I'd heard from the people of England, "And rainy!" My guidebook (I'm back on track!) doesn't exactly pinpoint when the route enters Scotland, but being that it was both cold and rainy, I knew I was close. Perhaps I should've paid more attention in Geography class. 

"Am I in Scotland yet?"

Maybe I crossed the border here?

"No. Go that way and..." (ten minute conversation ensues).

"And there's a sign that says 'Welcome to Scotland'?"

"Oh. If you want a sign you'll have to go that way and..." (fifteen minute conversation ensues).

Then repeat. 


And again.

Until finally- 

"Am I in Scotland?"


"But there was no sign!" I followed everyone's directions so carefully.

"Well if you want the sign you'll have to..." 
The tourists all fled after they took this pic

I gave up and followed the pre-loaded route into Gretna Green, a small town on the border with exactly one claim to fame: It's where people used to go to elope (and I suppose some still do). Since the marriage laws of Scotland were more lax than those of England, people would flock to the Blacksmith's Shop- just over the border- and tie the knot. Other than that landmark and a host of kitschy hotels, there's not much to the town. 

Yet it's teeming with tourists, each taking their picture in front of the statue of two entwined hands. They snap the picture. Jump back into the car. And speed off to the next landmark. I think some tourists see traveling as a sport to see who can take the most pictures. I mean, I was there... so of course I took the picture... but still. Seems like an awfully silly tourist destination. I can only hope it was part of a scavenger hunt. 

Very odd claim to fame.

In a final last ditch effort to take the picture I really wanted, I asked two elderly men if they knew where I could find a 'Welcome to Scotland' sign. 

One of them pointed clearly. 

"Go that way for two miles."

That's the kind of direction I can follow. 

Although I did not have it in me to go out of my way to visit the highly recommended Pooley Bridge this rainy morning, and the campsite I'd booked for the night was a three mile cycle in the opposite direction, I knew I'd regret it later if I didn't cycle out of my way for this pic:

Picture not found on Google.

Oliver Buehlmann!

Not a whole helluva lot happened today. 

Saw some castles. 

Cycled through the city of Carlisle. 

Talked to a bunch of people. 

Had a beer.

But one memorable thing happened for sure.

I made it to Scotland.


I read this as "Cows Drunk on Irish Whiskey Crossing"

Monday, July 29, 2019

All Play and No Work

Day: 17 (Hawes to Penrith) 

Average Speed: 9.5 mph

Distance: 42 miles

Distance Cycled Total: 769.9 miles 

Feet climbed: 2713.3 ; 36,657.7 total

Difficulty level: Tough at times, but relaxing
In the Bike Garage at the Wayfarer's Hostel in Penrith

The first ten miles and the last ten miles are typically the most difficult of any ride while touring, no matter how long the day is. For the first ten, your legs are saying "Really? We're doing this again? Didn't you learn yesterday?" and for the last ten they're saying "Oh boy! We get a beer and pub food soon!" It's a mind game for sure, but it's real. At least for me. 

With my daily mileage being lower in comparison with other tours, this means that I get to hear my legs complain for a solid portion of the ride. At the beginning, it's all you can do to tell them "You never know... it might turn out to be a great day."

It's like teaching a group of teenagers a difficult text. The Raven, for instance, or a Shakespeare tragedy. It takes work to get started, but once you're knee-deep in it? Sold. 
Waterfalls on the way out of the Yorkshire Dales

So, I guess what I'm saying is my legs are like a group of typical teenagers: They'd rather be on Snapchat for the first and last ten minutes of class. Gotta make the most of the twenty minutes in between. 

For sure, my legs didn't want to work this morning. I was in my lowest gear every time I met the tiniest of hills. Perhaps they were pampered in Harrogate with Tracey's calf massage and thought they deserved another rest day. But they hadn't earned it. At all. 

What's a bus doing here?
Beautiful scenery with distant waterfalls accompanied me in a peaceful ride out of the Yorkshire Dales, where I barely passed a single car. It was so quiet that it was shocking to turn a corner at the tenth mile- just as I was feeling warmed up- and see busloads of people milling about the ruins of a castle, with someone in a yellow vest directing the lack of traffic around the throng. Sure, castles are cool to check out... but they're everywhere. What was everyone doing at this one? A wedding perhaps? I pedaled up to the yellow-vested man to ask. 

"They're putting on a play!" he said enthusiastically. 
Program of the unexpected play

"A play? Like... with actors?" 

"Yes! It's about Lady Anne Clifford, who was a baroness from this area and restored that castle in the 14th century. It's starting right now and it's free! You should go!"

"How long is it?" I asked, ever conscious of the time spent off-bike.

"Thirty minutes, give or take. It's never been performed before, and it won't be performed again."

I did the math. The chances of me arriving at my destination later than expected are near 100%. It happens every day. 

But what are the chances that you're ever going to be 1) cycling near the ruins of the castle 2) in the middle of nowhere 3) where both the world premiere and final performance of a play is about to begin. 

A play! With Pendragon Castle as the set!
I joined the audience just as two actors stepped to the "stage" to deliver the exposition. 

It was awesome. 

The talented cast of five- wonderfully costumed- used all sides of the castle in their performance, keeping the audience moving with them. Although the focus of the script was to give a history of Lady Anne's involvement of the restoration of Pendragon Castle (where we were standing), it was delightfully funny and remarkably well written. The bleating sheep in the background only enhanced the unique experience. 

Half an hour later I was back on the bike, and my legs weren't complaining at all. Told ya' something cool would happen, I reminded them. 
Me and Teresa Morris

However, the best was yet to come. Had I not stopped for that play, I certainly would not have met Teresa Morris, a cyclist I nearly passed heading in the same direction. She had panniers on the rear of the bike and didn't seem to be in much of a hurry. These are the types of cyclists I like to talk with. 

It turns out Teresa was from the area, and having cycled a fifty mile route every Sunday for over twenty years (yes, even in the harshest conditions), she was intimately familiar with every road in the Eden Valley.

I did some quick math and figured that she was nearing her 100,000th mile of cycling, a statistic that she'd never considered. And in that 100,000 miles, she'd never cycled alongside another person. She welcomed the change, and instantly became my tour guide. We pedaled casually together for the next fifteen miles, and she made sure to stop at certain points where we were afforded the best views of the valley. 

View of the Pennine Way (difficult to discern in the photo)
She pointed out her favorite parts of the Pennine Mountains: Cross Fell, Great Dun Fell, and High Cup Knick. She remarked on the history of quaint villages we passed through. She made sure I appreciated the view of the Lakes District, where she works as a conservationist. 

For me, the best part of this was not the views that she pointed out, but rather seeing the passion and pride one person has for where she lives. 

"Why would I want to go anywhere else?" she said when I asked if she travels often. "Everything I could ever want is right here." Occasionally, she takes holiday in Scotland, where she cycles and promotes conservation (she laughed at this, fully realizing that her "holiday" life is essentially the same as her "work" life). 
Me... and a squirrel with a "bushy" tail

We parted ways in the town of Morland, where she pointed out the comical topiary of a squirrel next to a church. Picture-worthy for sure. And true to her word, she followed up with an e-mail providing informative links to the sights we'd examined and her blog of pictures she'd taken while cycling

Although we cycled relatively slowly, the time had flown by, and it still felt like midday when I arrived in Penrith to a cyclist's hostel (where there is a free bicycle mechanic's shop for visitors). 

Charles and me
I sought out dinner, and quickly met Charles Van Havarbeke ("My last name translates to 'Cereal River'!" he pointed out later). I correctly guessed that Charles was from Belgium based on his accent. Impressive, right? Actually, it's not. When I can't place an accent, I always ask if the person is Belgian. They're never offended if I'm wrong, and 2 times out of 10 I'm right. It's also really fun to note their expressions on the occasions that I am correct. 

It's a great feeling to meet long distance cyclists who have planned less than me. Charles


had no clue where to stay that night, and was unaware of how demanding the climbing of the area would be. My kind of cyclist. 

I invited him back to the hostel where there was plenty of room in my dorm, and we spent the night half-talking and half-pantomiming (English being difficult at times) over a couple of beers before heading to bed. 

It was one of those days I was sad to see come to an end. One of the most memorable, for sure. 

I didn't even realize until after I'd lain down that the last ten miles of today's ride weren't difficult in the least. 


I showed up in Penrith just in time for Pot Fest!

Don't get too excited... it's literally a festival that celebrates pots. 


Sunday, July 28, 2019

Channeling Langston Hughes

Day: 16 (Harrogate to Hawes) 

Average Speed: 10.5 mph

Distance: 51 miles

Distance Cycled Total: 727.9 miles 

Feet climbed: 636.5 (that seems very wrong- I'm positive I did more than that... but that's what it says) ; 33,944.4 total

Difficulty level: Somewhat easy

Tiny Bicycle Zip-Tied to a Road Sign

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain.

-Langston Hughes

We knew it was going to rain today.

Andy put things in perspective the night before while sipping on his evening tea. 

“Rain is always good for someone. It just might not be you.”

Still, he couldn’t help but choke back laughter when Tracey opened the front door to see me off.  

“Sorry, mate.” It was pouring. 

“I’m sure it won’t get much worse than this,” all three of us said in some form or another at the same time. 

And I was off, momentarily forgetting which side of the road I was supposed to be cycling on (see video).

For the first thirteen miles, to the town of Ripon, the rain steadily increased in intensity. Normally my mind wanders off, and I don't much focus on the ride itself unless I'm cursing at a steep hill. But the only thing one can think on a bicycle in this kind of weather is Wow. I'm really wet. 

I tried to distract myself by reading road signs aloud, practicing the different types of British accents Tracey and I had discussed during my stay in Harrogate (this is as ridiculous as it sounds), but instead I always found myself saying "It's raining!" 

I also encountered a brand new challenge, literally fighting through a current of rainwater as it raced downhill, eager to flood the bottom of the road. 

All of this might sound bad. But it wasn't. In fact, it wasn't even close to bad. It's easy to be miserable in these types of conditions- too easy. However, nothing is more out of one's
A momentary break in the rain
control than the weather. And, while it might take a little more work and mental effort, you may as well enjoy it. The alternative certainly doesn't help. 

I crossed paths with about five cyclists today. Every one of them was smiling, and shouting greetings and encouragement from across the road. 

I watched a man practice sprints on the main street of his town- back and forth- while I checked maps under a bus shelter. His smile seemed to grow every time he passed, and when I left he stuck up his hand for a high five. 

Sure, I would've preferred the sun. Yes, I was looking forward to drying off. Of course, I would've liked to have been able to take more pictures. But no way was I going to let my own misery become another obstacle. 

Taking fewer breaks than usual brought me the 51 miles to the town of Hawes faster than it normally would. Hawes is located in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It's a strange concept to me- that the national parks have normal, populated towns within them- but they're relatively quiet, and attract an older, more mature crowd of tourists. 

The "youth hostel," where I was lucky enough to book the last available bed, is full of cyclists and hikers, and I'm among the youngest. There are no drug-induced midnight conversations about whether or not human beings are robots, like there are in the big city hostels. Just people who want to go to bed early and get a jump on the day. 

I'm still not quite one of those people though. 
"Everybody now! My ding-a-ling!
My ding-a-ling!"

Instead, I quickly found a local pub, ate a plate of ribs, and had a refined conversation about cultural differences between Americans and the English with Phillip, Moyra, and Karen, three native Brits on holiday. 

As if to counterbalance this, I visited another pub where a raucous crowd was singing karaoke. 

They asked me to sing. 

So I did. 

Although I introduced it as an old American folk song, perhaps I should've reconsidered my song choice of My Ding-a-Ling by Chuck Berry. Normally, it's quite the crowd pleaser! And while about half the pub drunkenly sang along with the chorus, the other half looked on with curious expressions. 

"You're not shy then, are ya' mate!" a man said when it was over. 

"Not at all!" I replied.


At least I gave them something to talk about tomorrow.

Still, I found a way to nonchalantly sidle out and head back to the hostel, where all my clothes and gear was drying in a heated room. 

It'll get wet again tomorrow. And perhaps the day after that. 

And while I may not always be able to maintain the same level of optimism as I did today, I can certainly try.

It wasn't a good ride today. It was a great one. 

"Rain is always good for someone," Andy had said. 

It may as well be you. 


If you think for one second I would stick my head in one of those stupid
tourist cutouts, and ask someone to take a picture...

You'd be absolutely right.