Category Archives: Bike

Breaking News!

You wouldn’t know it from reading these updates, but I made it to Tromsø today! It’s been tough to keep the writing coming as fast as I can pedal, but there are many more stories to come – fishing in the maelstrom, companions and hosts on the road, and the troll-infested wilds of northern Norway; I’ll get to them all soon. But I couldn’t leave you hanging after accomplishing the goal: 3000 kilometers from Amsterdam to Tromsø. I’m going to take a nap – see you soon,

Micah

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Tromsø + rainbow

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Trollstigen – Rocketing Down Norway’s Silliest Road

There’s not too much to say about Trollstigen, the Troll’s Highway, really. It’s billed as Norway’s most impressive road, with its dozen twists and turns laid out across a mountainside. It’s a silly place, with a modernist visitor center at the top. The designer of this center made the bathroom sinks look so much like urinals that they’ve since had to post signs that say “Don’t piss here.” That should tell you something.

As fun as it was to ride down, I couldn’t help but think that this road, open for less than half the year, prone to rockslides and closures, is as excessive as third houses or gold-plated braces. Quite nice to look at, but really, why? I’m sure there’s more to the story (there always is), but I’m glad that the Troll’s Highway is one-of-a-kind – the world can’t handle too many of these places, and I prefer to wash my hands in a sink, not a urinal.

BUT, it should be said, it was really quite nice to ride down.

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Precision Rainshowers and Rope-ladder farms

Nothing says Norway like a Russian tourist straddling a troll statue in a rainshower. That’s my entry for the new national anthem (it’s ‘yes, we love this land’ right now; mine wins hands-down, yes?). Troll-straddling was the most popular activity I witnessed in my short stay in Geiranger, a tiny community supported by the cruise ships that sail into its fjord. The particular troll in question was a little sheltered from the rain, maybe explaining its popularity.

The rainstorm came in at exactly the minute it was predicted to – Norwegian weathermen must have a closer connection to the sky controls than American ones. I set up a small picnic camp on a covered patio, right in the stream of cruise-ship travelers under umbrellas, who were ogling the diverse troll statuettes and jewelry in the windows behind me. I caught a fair amount of their ogling, too, but they were probably just jealous of my lunch of bread, jam, and Norwegian brown cheese…

Even with precision rainshowers and a crowd of cruise-shippers, Geiranger is a breathtaking place. The mountain road plummets down switchbacks to reach the water; from there, you can see that the town is an anomaly – a slightly flat place in a vertical world.

I opted to take a 3-hour ferry through the fjord, cutting out another big climb up the Ørnevegen (Eagle’s Way) – I left it for the birds and stuck to fish country. The ride was unbelievable, with the rain lifting just as we set sail. Along the walls of the fjord (and they felt like walls – impenetrable at most points), we passed countless waterfalls. The pre-recorded audio guide tried to keep up with our pace, but with Norwegian, English, and German to go through, it lagged behind at times.

As each new language started up, different clusters of people would lean into the speaker to hear about “The Devil’s Hideaway” (a crack in the fjord-wall so deep that he can always stay out of the sunlight) or “The Seven Sisters” waterfall, or the abandoned farms we began to see.

These farmhouses hung onto the tiniest scraps of hillside. Almost all of them relied on goat-paths or cable-lifts to access the fjord. Some had no water in winter, or were built under rock outcrops to protect them from landslides; all of them were extremely beautiful. Also a little terrifying to think about ekeing out a living in such an inhospitable environment. How desperate for land/subsistence must people have been to choose these places to make their stand in the world?

All these farms on the Geirangerfjord were abandoned between 1950 and 1960, when the economy was stirring, cities were growing, and the oil boom was on the horizon. Children began to see life more horizontally, spreading out and away instead of shuttling farm goods up and down, watching out for rock slides and tidal waves. It’s a trend that spread throughout the country, but was especially visible here in the most challenging growing environment in the country.

After the ferry ride, there was just one climb between me and the Troll’s Highway, Norway’s silliest road.

P.S. sorry for the lack of formatting on these photos – haven’t found a good way to stick them into the post from the road.

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Up, On, and Over (and then down)

I had no plans to go up over Norway’s highest pass on my bicycle. I didn’t even know it existed – I had some nice ideas to hug the coast, bike along the fjord, then turn north when I ran into the ocean. When I did hear about the Sognefjellet, though – a steep-grade climb from sea level to 1434 meters (4500 feet), I knew I could never do it. Why would anyone choose that way?

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This feeling of certainty that I wouldn’t take the Sognefjell contradicted all the stories I tell about myself. I say I’m flexible, up for anything, looking for the best experience possible I can get out of this trip. But then, when everyone I talked to suggested this different route, I kept throwing up resistance. Is it really that beautiful to go through the mountains? Wouldn’t it be nicer to stay by the water, even if there are a few impassable tunnels I’d have to catch a ride through? Am I fit enough to climb 4000 feet, just like that, then go back down and do it two more times? Or will I wind up on the side of the road, pushing my bike (which, in this vision, has become a twisted metal scrap-heap) uphill forever, butt of some Norwegian engineer’s cruel joke?

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The point here, maybe, is that on a solo bike tour, I’m finding lots of time for internal dialogue, to wrestle with my own thoughts and ways of viewing the world. I’m learning that while I think of myself as flexible and ready to choose the best way forward, I can also get set in one way of thinking. It’s freeing to be able to see that more clearly – when I can see it, I can move around it.

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I took the high road. It was awesome, full of mountain camps, ancient churches, and challenging rides. I met other bike-touring folk along the way and shared the experience with them. I learned that I can, in fact, bike up 1434 meters, and that I’m capable of more than I sometimes give myself credit for. I know more about myself, how I think, what I can do, and where I’m going. And I saw where Ron Weasley made his most recent movie, about a World War II fighter-plane battle. Wins on all counts.

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It rained, of course – that’s what it does in Norwegian mountains. But the ride down from Sognefjell was lovely, and then, after another pass came Geiranger, home of cruise ships, Russian tourists, and the most beautiful fjord of them all. That story comes next!

But I’m curious, too – what stories do you tell about yourself, and when have you felt them called into question?

The Impossible Kingdom

I will never be able to capture the beauty of this place with a camera – that goes for all of Norway, maybe, but especially this tiny town on the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest, that I’m staying in. This means that I have only words to describe it to you, which is a terrifying/exhilirating prospect, especially for a so-called writer. Can I convey to you the particular color of the fjord-water – not just turquoise, but the vibrant blue-green that Italian rivers are photoshopped to be in postcards; shifting and alive as the clouds pass over – or the steepness of the hillsides that surround this crazy arm of the sea? Can I make you feel the weight of the glaciers as they grind and gouge their way through the soft rock, leaving behind this giant-bitten landscape? Can you see the way this village sprouts up between the seaside and the mountain, tenacious in its footing, like a tree on rock that somehow finds a way to hold on and grow?

This is Solvorn, Norway – a perfect place in an impossible kingdom. Go there- you really should. Some pictures that don’t do the place justice:

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Thanks to Trond-Henrik and Agnethe at Eplet for creating an amazing place to stay, especially for bicyclists. A hostel/campground combined with an orchard and juice factory? It’s like they read my mind. Plus they have croquet-golf, which is somewhat like the game Super Cricket that I once helped invent.

Thanks to the other bike-touring folks at Eplet for sharing stories, advice, and food. It’s nice to have a built-in community on the road, and to know there are people doing crazier things than me out there.

From Solvorn, it’s all uphill – no, really. Norway’s highest road – Sognefjellet – comes next, then two more mountain passes and the Troll Highway (ominous). I won’t take the suspense away and tell you if I make it or not…

Sauna Pirates and Gypsy Picnics

After a short questioning of the existence of everything, the hills south of Oslo crested and broke over me like a wave, pulling me down, down, and further down, all the way to the sea, to the end of Troll Street, a fitting place to find my friend Etienne. A known Frenchman and suspected sea gypsy, it was a beautiful thing to see him in his seaside cabin – his natural habitat if ever there was one.

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His neighbors had recently salvaged a dinghy from the trash bin nearby – in Norway, or this part at least, appearances count for a lot, and this boat was no longer up to community standards. The neighbors, luckily, had their own standard – does it float?

Why yes, yes it did. Christian and Sara invited us out for a gypsy picnic at sea, and it was a fine, fine evening, followed by a bonfire. There was nothing but a mile or two of water separating us from the capital of Norway, and we could have a bonfire – what a place.

Etienne, through his renowned gypsy ways, also gained access to a sauna up the coast a little ways. Ocean, sauna, repeat until you can’t hold your head up.

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Thanks to Etienne for the best welcome to Norway I could’ve asked for, and for talking me through my existential crisis (afterwards).

Thanks to Christian and Sara for salvaging the boat (known to me as the Sea Gypsy from now on), for tortillas and bonfires.

Thanks to the bicyclist who saw me setting up camp at 5:30 AM for understanding these things.

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And thanks to you, as always, for reading along – updates from the fjords coming soon!

Uphill to The Gypsy Kingdom

On a bike trip, it’s a good thing to get your inevitable existential crisis out of the way as early as possible. For me, that happened on the first day in Norway, at the bottom of a hill.

The day started at dawn, which is the closest thing to dark you can come by in July in Norway. After arriving by ferry at 2:30 AM, I had the whole day in front of me to cover 80 miles, and it was already light out. So I started in on it, propelled on by the empty roads and the last of my Danish salami.

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By 5:30 AM, whatever night power was pushing me onward had left, and I half-pitched my tent in a comfortable-looking bush for a few hours’ sleep. This is totally allowed in Norway, if not totally normal – I think most people a) camp at night and b) go further than 50 feet off the road. The sleep was awesome, regardless.

Several hours and a ferry ride later, I was getting closer to my friend Etienne’s. “Save some energy for the last bit, though,” he said – “it’s quite steep (and all uphill!)”. After biking through the night, seeing the sky on fire with sunrise at 3 in the morning, and arriving back on Norwegian soil, though, I was feeling a bit invincible – on top of the world, even.

So when hill after hill appeared, I cracked a little. After the first few, I wondered what the hell I was doing. Am I cut out for bike riding? Why am I even doing this? Why does Etienne live in such a ridiculous place? I mean, what’s it all ABOUT, man?

I’m sure I’m not the first one to feel this way after the first serious challenge comes along. In the end, a few things kept me going. This was day 1 of a forty-some day ride, for one thing, and I wouldn’t have much to write about if I just camped by the side of the road next to Oslo for six weeks. I also knew that with forward progress, no matter how slow, I would eventually get there, even in this land of impossible uphill treks (author’s note: that was only the beginning).

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After a Week: The Update

When you think of a Norwegian ferry, maybe you envision a small dinghy, a bit rusty around the edges, that will tote you and perhaps a bicycle across the fjord. I’m not saying that this is what I expected to take me the 50+ miles across the North Sea from Denmark to Norway; I’m just saying I wasn’t expecting a cruise ship, which is exactly what I got – 9 decks and all. I’m waiting to board while I write this, and there are a thousand other people waiting to do the same (and at least one bike-touring family!). It’s a strange mix between a theme park and an airport terminal.

Ferry to Norway

On-board, this odd mix continues. I wake up from an uncomfortable nap to see a giant face quite close to me. This ferry crossing comes with a larger-than-life Captain mascot roaming the corridors, smoking a fake pipe, giving out high-fives and making adolescent girls squeam.  I sadly have no picture of this, though it will haunt my dreams for the next week.

Crossing to Norway marks the official start of the main stage of my tour, and I’m ready to tackle some mountains (or get tackled by them), but I’ve got some notes to share from the pre-game warmup through the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark.

Basket-cased in Amsterdam

Basket-cased in Amsterdam

 

After a few fine days exploring Amsterdam, I rode out to the east across the flattest and newest part of Holland. The Northeast polders were only brought above water between 1942 and 1968, creating a new Dutch province where once there was only sea. Some of the newest land in the world, but the buildings are already rusting and shabby around the edges. It’s a place I’ve got more to write about, but need a little time to figure out what the story is.

Cyclists-only signpost in Holland

Cyclists-only signpost in Holland

Holland melded into Germany with nary a border to speak of. After a quick ride with some touring Italians and a great night with German hosts in the uni town of Oldenburg, I took a train to the Danish border.  After a small altercation with a German street sign (I won), I found the trail to Denmark.

Denmark was a cyclist´s dream, mostly.  Separated bike lanes, a grid of 12 national cycle routes that span the whole country, and a beautiful, rolling countryside – I felt like I could travel in any direction and find something worthwhile.  But the north it was a´callin me, and I started losing faith in the signposts along the way (they had a tendency to disappear), so I spent only four nights making my way up the peninsula.

First campsite in Denmark - not bad!

First campsite in Denmark – not bad!

Ruined

Denmark is incredibly filled with relics from several different past worlds; they line the roadsides, disturb farmers´ fields, and pull me off the bike saddle.  Most common are burial mounds, which are all protected – you´ll see them, covered in wildflowers, sticking up in fields of rye and barley.  I camped near a mini-Stonehenge (a little bigger than the Spinal Tap version, though) and stopped at more roadside info signs than I can count.  One Viking stone ship was especially interesting – it was gigantic, but also the missing stones had been replaced with metal placeholders.

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Gratitude

A travel writer I read makes a habit of putting down his gratitude in words to all the people who helped him recently, from the guy who gives good directions to the good friend who shares their world with you for a few days. I think it’s a great practice to get into, so I’m going to try to remember all the people who’ve helped me out (and inevitably forget someone, or someones):

To Skander, Aleta, and Morgen, for outfitting me with critical supplies and sharing mad sushi skills before my departure.

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To Katherine for meeting me in Amsterdam at the beginning of the trek, giving me protective charms and protein power sticks for the bike, and to Boudewijn for hosting us so well.

To Rosemarie, Anne, and Midas for welcoming me off the road in eastern Holland after the first day.

To Simone and Daniel for giving me delicious meals, a comfortable tent space, and for sharing stories of their 3-year bike ride around the world.

To Riccardo and Jacopo for letting me join them for a day’s ride and learn some new ways of approaching the tour.

To Michel and Laurens for loving their city of Oldenburg and for introducing me to it.

To Mom and Dad for the quirky Skype video messages (sometimes featuring Minnie the labradoodle).

To Martin for sharing Danish hospitality and chicken curry with me.

And to you, for following along and giving support (tangible or in-) along the way.

Stats

For the number-hungry folks, some very accurate statistics:

Distance traveled by bike: 830 km/ 510 mi
Longest day: 125km / 75 miles from the ferry dock to Oslo, complete with the Hills of Existential Crisis just shy of my destination.
Salami eaten: at least 1 pound
Directional differential: +1. I asked for directions twice along the way, but I was asked for directions three times, so I guess that puts me ahead/makes me a local? I think my directions were even accurate two-thirds of the time.
Hosts: 5
Nights in the tent: 4
Countries in one word:
Netherlands – springboardful
Germany – openarmed
Denmark – undulating
Norway – firesky-sauna-steep-mazing

A word on Hirtshals

This last town in Denmark is a crossroads of all types. Several cycle routes begin and end here; there are walking trails, ferries to Norway and Sweden; and it’s apparently a motorcycle destination, too. It’s the kind of town where French cyclists riding around the North Sea mix with heavily tattooed Norwegian crotch-rocketeers and young children misbehaving in six different languages. The kind of place that is, somehow, both full of people and lifeless at the same time. There must be people who live here somewhere, but they seem to be hiding from the mass of us invaders.

Hirtshals Lighthouse

Lighthouse in Hirtshals, Denmark

This is the last place I’ll see in Denmark, but it seems to belong to the nation of transit more than the Swan Kingdom. Which raises another question – is it better for your national bird to be a beautiful, preening thing full of hiss and rage, or a great predator known to slum around garbage dumps?

I’ll leave you with that thought, but will be back soon to tell you about the mystical French kingdom of saunas and gypsy picnics that I’ve been holed up in next to Oslo. Ha det!

Stay or Go? How to Know When to Hit the Road

Land Art - Compass

I’ve been packing up and diminishing my belongings for the past few weeks – the Everything Box where all the bits I don’t know if I’ll need again someday has been fully sorted (mostly into the trash); the books have been pored over, then boxed or given away; the homebrew’s been drunk (me too, once or twice); even the banana canteen received careful scrutiny before eventually making it into the “keep” pile.

It’s painful, this process of sorting and winnowing, but it’s freeing, too.

Collecting things that might be useful “someday” is a great path to getting showcased as one of America’s Top Hoarders, but beyond that, it’s losing its appeal for me. Better to be intentional about the things I keep – belongings, company, food, and thoughts. That’s one of my goals for the next two months, and it starts with a huge recycling pile.

These belongings, the things I’ve collected, are one reason to stay – an anchor. There are so many other reasons to stay, too – the casual meandering of hot, dry summer days in Missoula that go on longer than should be possible; the people I’ve met here who make the place so vibrant; the yet-to-be-explored trails and woods. Stay or go?

It took a while for the balance to sway towards hitting the road. I came up with a thousand reasons to stay; but, in the end, there were 1001 reasons to go. The adventurous spirit of my friends and acquaintances here in Missoula is one of the things that shapes this place, and it shapes me too – it’s time to get back on the road, living new experiences.

My soon-to-be patented Flowchart to Adventure:

Is there something you want to do?

If N, ask yourself again/check your pulse. If Y:

Are you planning to do it?

If N, why not? If Y:

When?

If “Now”, awesome! If “Later”,

Why not now?

 
When I couldn’t answer that last question, I knew it was time to go.

 

What are you planning for?  What’s holding you back?