Monday, December 14, 2015

20-Mile Day Ride to Turkey Run

I'm riding down a gravel road that is even smoother than asphalt--gravel and good ol' Iowa mud packed to a porcelain-like riding surface. The day is near 60 degrees, little to no wind, and I'm out and about on my bike in December for a day ride to Turkey Run Wildlife Area in Jefferson County, southeast Iowa.

Besides being out on the bike on a warm and rare December opportunity, I'm checking out how my Raleigh Detour 2.5 with its 35c wide tires handles on gravel. I don't think this was a good test.

The trip, though, was a good chance to experience how hitting the "ripio" or gravel takes one far away from busyness, even in rural southeast Iowa. Yes, I did meet a few cars, maybe a half dozen while on the gravel, and I did pass some farms, including a couple of CAFOs hidden away, but the silence and the openness and the distant horizon did wonders for my psyche.

The next day was even warmer but also windy. Two days later, it rained and the road would have been mud, so I had chosen the perfect moment to plumb the gravel roads of Cedar Creek bottom and to check out Turkey Run for the first time. My route out of Fairfield, Iowa, was Glasgow Road to Osage Avenue, which leads to Turkey Run. On the way home I branched off west from Osage to 256th St., which took me to state Highway 1, which I took north back to Fairfield, ten miles out and ten miles back.

Turkey Run is not a camping area. It is set up for primitive camping for equestrians, and the park service said it would be okay to do an overnighter there with a bicycle. No water, no restrooms, and no electricity. Pack in and carry out.

I wandered around a bit, ate lunch, took some photos, checked out the trail, and then headed home. Turkey Run is a nice refuge for wildlife, and I have to say that I enjoyed my time there, a refuge from civilization, even if only a small patch in the gridwork of Iowa farms.

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Grocery Run with the Burley Travoy

It's December, 46 degrees, and blue sky--time to take the Burley Travoy out to get some groceries.

This is my second post on a Travoy grocery run, the last about three years ago with a January test run. I have a different bicycle, but the trailer experience was pretty much the same. The trailer is just great for a grocery run. What I love most is unhitching the trailer and then using it in the store as a grocery cart while shopping. That's not only efficient but also a foolproof means of knowing everything I buy will fit in the Travoy!

The ride to the store is about 1.75 miles. Today it was into the wind on the way there, and I'm not sure yet whether the flat front of the Travoy catches the wind. Maybe it does, or maybe it was just a headwind.

Coming home, I had to climb the steepest hill in town with the 25 pounds of food, and made it with no problems--which means some time totally geared down, and then a bit of upshift and standing on the pedals. I think, though, that the trailer rides more smoothly with weight. At least it is more quiet.

I had a full load of groceries, which included a gallon of milk and some space-taking crackers and chips. I put the eggs and glass in the top bag.

Notice I have the trailer attachment that fits onto the rear rack. I have to use that because the rack is too long for the trailer to attach to the seat post. However, the rack still has space in front for panniers or canvas bags.

It's great to take a ride while doing a chore. I brought home quite a few groceries on my food run. Now I'll have to hope for more good weather to work off all that chow!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Montague Navigator: Folding Bicycle Review

I bought the Montague Navigator primarily because I travel regularly by the Amtrak Zephyr from Iowa to California, and I wanted to take my bike with me. The Navigator folds and fits into a cloth carrying bag. It is allowed by Amtrak as one carry-on bag.

The bicycle works well for traveling on Amtrak. I've taken the bike back and forth across the country four times (8 trips), and have not had any problems with the bike or with the Amtrak policy. Once there was no room for the bike, but I just stood in the downstairs coach area and let the attendants figure the situation out. They placed me one car back, where there was more storage room.

I bought the bike online through NYCeWheels, and the bike came folded, well protected, and ready to go since I paid a little extra for a pre-tune from the shop. I also bought my wife a Navigator so we can load the bikes in our SUV and go for a day ride somewhere. On hers, I also ordered folding pedals, which facilitates folding. Mine I bought as an after-thought once I had the bike. The bike also comes with detachable fenders, which work well. I bought a different seat, since the Montague seat is very basic (basically, is was hard on my sit-me-down). There are screw holds for one lower bar (near the crank) waterbottle holder. Not really adequate. I keep more water in my panniers.

The gearing for the bike is not so much for touring--more for commuting--so when I ride the hills and mountains, I find I have to stand on the pedals more than some folks might like. Myself, I enjoy getting out of the seat, so the gearing is okay. The hills of Iowa let me do a little pumping, and then I can sit down again. However, if I were tackling some longer pulls, I would probably want a gearing combination that let me spend more time sitting and spinning.

The bike comes with stock 26mm width tires. I was getting many flats in California due to goatshead puncture vines, so I bought Marathon Plus tires, 28mm width. They work well and do not obstruct tire removal when folding the bike. One bicycle world tourist mounted 32 width tires, and her review stated she has to let the air out of the front tire to remove it.

I also replaced the basically worthless seat post rear rack that comes stock with a Topeak rack that allows me to use panniers when touring. This interferes with the folding function, but that is fixed by popping off the handlebars when folding. This sounds cumbersome, but go figure that I pack the bike, take it 2,000 miles, and then put it back together. A couple of weeks later, I repeat the process. This is acceptable. If I were commuting by train every day, the handlebar removal would be a pain. Now when folding the bike for the Amtrak long haul, I not only remove the handlebars but also the fender attachment piece for the front fender. The angle with which the attachment piece sticks out is just an opportunity for the bike to get scratched, gouged, or for the attachment to bend. Both pieces are easily removed with an
Allen wrench.

The bike is light and lively. I enjoy riding it. The shifting is not sloppy or sluggish, the Octagon adjustable height handlebar post allows me to be more upright most of the time yet to drop the bars when the wind whips up. I use a Bell Velcro strap-on mirror for the bike, so I can take it off easily when folding. I've used the Burley Travoy trailer with the bike, and the bike pulls it easily.

This 2015 biking season I toured on about 8 overnighters to county and state campgrounds in my local area--gone one day and back the next. The Navigator was a fun ride. I used rear panniers for the overnight rides, and the weight carried well. Riding the gravel had its challenges with the 28mm tires, but riding the lime chip loop trail around Fairfield, Iowa, was easy with 28's and even with my wife's stock 26mm tires. I plan to use my Raleigh Detour 2.5 next year when I'll be on gravel longer than three miles. As a hybrid, it should do better with its wider tires.

The Navigator has held up well for me with a season on short tours. One woman is currently riding the bike on a world tour. It has held up well for her. She did add stronger wheels and changed the gearing a bit. All said, this bike is adequate for touring, but the folding capability is its main positive feature.

I'm glad I have the bike to travel with and tour. There are better bikes out there for touring, but if you want to be able to have a touring bike with both 700c tires and folding capacity, I'd say that something in the Montague folding line is the way to go.

Friday, November 6, 2015

What I've Learned from Overnight Camping (S24O)

"Grandkids, the wife's new business, aging parents, the garden--no long tours for me this year," I told myself over the winter of 2014. And then I had a good thought, that there were about 20 state and county campgrounds within 40 miles of my house. Inspiration!

How about a goal of one overnighter a week? Well, I didn't hit THAT goal (see sentence 1) but did hit about 10 during this 2015 riding season.

Those overnighters, in addition to some great dayrides, provided a great opportunity for learning and for pleasure.


It was my great joy to discover the charm of local campgrounds. I had been to several and even camped in one local state park a couple of times (once on bikes with my wife several years s ago), but the detail of experience was so much intensified by arriving on bicycle.

Local campgrounds highlight the beauty of where I live. Arriving by bike and tent camping intensifies the experience. Here is Lake Darling State Park, 17 miles from my home.

A sub-24 hour camping trip is really two dayrides with the added spice of a night in the woods. The S24O also has the advantage that anything left behind or any miscalculation can be solved by a morning's ride home. Therefore, I was more motivated to experiment and try different equipment or methodology on each trip. My shortest overnighter was a one-way jaunt of 4 miles to local Jefferson County Park; the longest was a one-way distance of 35 miles to the town of Cantril south of Fairfield, Iowa. Actually, the shortest trip was camping overnight in my yard when I was testing tent and sleeping equipment. Ironically, my backyard camping was one of the more quiet campgrounds . . . and had a great toilet and shower!

Just learning about what gear to bring, how to load and pace the trip, camp set-up and cooking, and packing for the return home were all stimulating and rewarding. One unexpected negative aspect of overnighters was that I found myself working in the garden of spending time with grandkids and then jumping on the bike and riding off--finding that overnighters aren't the best way to really get conditioned. As a special note for someone old enough to be a grandparent, there is a special joy to be on the bike, doing activity which is a demonstration of fitness. For me there is the pleasure of knowing that I have chosen the lifestyle of bicycle touring and have not lost the opportunity.

The Bicycle

My father was an automobile mechanic, a very good one who actually had clients who would follow him if he changed shops.

"I've brought my car in for Harold to tune up."

"We'll get 'er done."

"Harold will do it?"

"Well, Harold's not here anymore."

"Where's he working?"

My tinkering was not with mechanical devices but with the mechanics of writing; I became a writer and English teacher. However, I've always wanted to be "mechanical," even though it takes more planning than for some folks, such as my son and dad, who are truly mechanically inclined.

Becoming more serious about biking and taking longer rides to places miles away from help have provided a very real opportunity for me to 1)get the right setup for me bike, and 2)to learn some basic bicycle maintenance and repair. I've bought some Parker tools and bike repair stand and am enjoying the experience.

I've also become more informed about what bicycle to ride, what seat I'm using, and other bicycle specifics. For instance, I've be riding a Montague Navigator, a folding bicycle that allows me to carry-on the bike when traveling Amtrak. I've replaced the seat with a Serfa seat with springs and the tires with Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, a necessity when in California with its goatshead puncture vines. In Iowa, most county campgrounds are out on the gravel, so I found the 28mm tires on the Navigator (it came with 26mm) are not great for gravel. They are OK for lime chip trails, though. What I'm in the process of doing now is taking my hybrid Raleigh, a Detour 2.5, and making it more gravel-friendly and more comfortable for longer distance. The basic frame and gearing are great; I'm just looking for better tires (maybe the new Kenda Flintridge tires coming out in 2016) and a thinner seat, which will probably be a swap to my Serfa to try that out. Working with my current bike instead of buying a new bike is a hands-on adventure for me.

I fiddle with my bike, knowing if I screw it up, I can always take it to my LBS. Actually, I still take it in for the more complex stuff.

Cleaning chains, packing wheel bearings, adjusting brakes, fixing vine-punctured tubes--this has be, if not "fun" then at least fulfilling, a sort of homage to my dad, who passed away a year ago at age 94. There is the possibility of hiring my local bike shop pro for a few focused lessons over the winter months.

Equipment, Camping, and Packing

Overnighters are great practice for camping because it's "pack and get on the road" for evening and morning, and then "what will I do different next time?" Weight distribution, what to take, how dry should the tent be (how early to leave in Midwest dewy mornings), take a stove and what kind?, which sleeping bag, which tent and how many clothes. I read all about these decisions on CGOAB journals, about boxes being shipped back home, and now I'm enjoying the process myself.

I usually bring a Thermos of fresh stew from a local natural foods store; sometimes I cook some noodles to add.

These one-day trial and error expeditions allow me to experiment, to makes mistakes, and to know that I'll be back home in my head nice bed the next night if I've erred. I have some equipment now that provides me with possibilities, good equipment. But is it really the best for me? I've found that I've got to temper my desire for the best, most appropriate equipment with a little frugality. (Note my earlier decision to change out a few aspects of my Raleigh rather than buy a new $1,000 bike!) Yes, I've bought some things over the last winter and this 2015 biking season that probably weren't the best choice, but sometimes finding the best is a process. If it's good enough, though, I'm content at this point to wear the item out or to at least use it for a couple or few years. Examples? I bought an Emberlit wood-burning "rocket" stove in December of 2014 and then bought a Trangia spirit-burning stove in September of 2015. Each works well, but really I get by mostly on my overnighters with a Thermos of stew, a sandwich, and cold cereal for breakfast. It's more enjoyable, though, to cook some noodles to add to the stew and to then fix some tea for the early morning. My justification was the Emberlit is great for most use, but then later I realized, what if it rains? The Trangia is a great and light solution.

My ride to Cantril to an in-town park allowed me to buy a cantaloupe for a snack. The one-person tent prompted the habit of just leaving the panniers on the bike and tossing a tarp over at night to keep off the dew.

I've also been looking at tents. Tarptent Ultralight Shelters, for instance, has some great tents. However, I bought a $50 tent in December of 2014, a Texsport Cliff Hanger Three Season Backpacking Tent. The tent works well, even though it has drawbacks, such as being too short. Are there better tents? Yes! It doesn't leak, though, (I sealed the seams), it's not too heavy, and I plan to give it more wear before spending more money.

That's my motto now, actually. I've gotten through a season of overnighters, enjoyed myself immensely, and next season plan to use the equipment I've bought to extend my range, to increase the number of times I take off, and to perfect the use of what I've got. Honestly, though, I'll probably break down and get something this winter. I'm working for small stuff, though, little treats.

Last Thoughts

In conclusion, the realization that I don't have to do a trans-America or world tour in order to enjoy bicycle touring was very liberating for me. I enjoy discovering my local southeast Iowa camping gems. I enjoy a couple of days' riding and then seeing my wife again. I enjoy learning and growing. I could have passed this all up if I had felt that only long tours to distant lands were legit.

Whether I'm on my bike on a local country road or traveling on Amtrak with it and enjoying some dayrides, bike riding has influenced my life. I'll someday do some overnighters near my mom's California town of Oroville, but the current fee of $35 for the night (no hiker/biker!) had dimmed my motivation.

Next year I'll continue my local southeast Iowa dayrides and overnighters. I'll probably string a few together for a 2-3 day ride next summer. I might try a portion of the Mississippi River Trail, since I'm close to Ol' Muddy. I have many choices, I'm healthy, and I'm happy. And it all started this last season with me trying out my $50 tent in the rain in my yard. It's great to know that it doesn't have to be complicated.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Amtrak Biking Encounters


Now that I've traveled the Amtrak California Zephyr line from Iowa to California about sixteen times (eight round trips), I've met other bicyclers on the train. Chatting with them are some of my most pleasant encounters.

Some "encounters" have been fleeting--more bicycle "sightings." One was of a man in his twenties with his biking helmet and panniers who snoozed on the train for a few hours, from Reno to Sacramento. Another encounter was descending to the lower level where restrooms and carry-on baggage are situated, and then seeing a soft-bagged bicycle leaning in the aisle. Later I met the owner who said he was traveling with a racing bike, which must have had S & S couplers so it could break down.

I had a great talk once with a conductor who said he had a folding bike and would take it on the train so that he could ride along the lake when his work run ended in Chicago. He was supportive of having more bicycles on Amtrak. He also mentioned that one place to tuck my folding Montague Navigator, if the carry-on baggage area was full, was in the lower level seating area behind the last seat.

My most fun talk was on my last trip home. I met a biker from Colorado who was taking his bike to the Erie Canal to ride that bike trail. Ivan had ridden the C & O Canal Trail last year and was now on his way for a fall ride on the Erie. I spotted him because his overhead bags were red Ortlieb panniers. I never saw his bike, so I assume he had it boxed and on the baggage car. He was interested in the folding bike option that my Montague provides.

He was on his way a week later than he had originally intended, so we talked temperatures and weather. We also talked about the canal pathways and his experience on the C & O. With many campgrounds and food and lodging options, the canal routes sound like an interesting option and a trip my wife and I might someday take. We also talked Midwest trails, and I gave him what info I could about the Katy Trail and the Mississippi River Trail. Ivan was interested in the quality of the Midwest trails, and we discussed lime chip surfaces. He said he had almost chosen the Katy Trail for this fall's ride.

I wish him tailwinds and fair skies on his trip. Meeting like-minded bicycle travelers on Amtrak is an experience that I hope increases with time.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Riding the Gravel

I've found that my overnighters to local county parks invariably end with at least two miles of gravel road. These little nooks of tree-filled parks among the corn and bean fields aren't on main highways as are most of the state parks.

Low profile and low budget = off the beaten track = Midwest gravel roads.

Here is a light article about gravel roads and bikes: "Trendy Gravel Grinding is Good for Biking."
So the latest hipster-trendy wave to wash over the bicycling world is this thing the bearded guys are calling "gravel grinding."
Basically, it's biking on a gravel road. I grew up on a gravel road, so I've always called this kind of bicycling "going for a ride."

I've also posted several overnight rides in SE Iowa that include a gravel road segment:
YouTube "SE Iowa Overnighters"

There are also great limestone trails that surround Fairfield, Iowa. I ride these a lot:
YouTube "Jefferson Co. Loop Trail"

Here's an example:

Monday, August 31, 2015

Cantril, Iowa, Overnighter (S24O)

Fox River, Highway V64
So far this summer, I've ridden on my bike overnighters no farther than 20 miles in one day. There are a half dozen state and county campgrounds within that distance from Fairfield, Iowa.

I wanted to explore more, so on my last trip to Mac Coon Campground I  made it a day trip, 14.5 miles each way for a total of 29. That ride let me know I could reach to the next ring of campgrounds, those in the 30-40 mile range from Fairfield. I knew I could ride this range because I had regularly hit 30 when riding day rides in California; however, an overnight camping trip meant riding a loaded but that distance two days in a row. There are probably another ten campgrounds within this distance from my home, so riding this extra distance really expanded possibilities and wanted to go for it.

I chose Woubonsie Trail Campground in Cantril, Iowa, for my next trip, a round-trip distance of 70 miles. The trip began taking Libertyville Road out of Fairfield. At the town of Libertyville, the route led south on Highway V64, which was probably 85-90% of the trip.

Libertyville Road is a mixture of farmland and residences near to Fairfield. It was an easy ride, one I've made before on day rides prior to the creation of the Jefferson County Loop Trail.

After Libertyville, the road passed through more intensively farmed land. Then the terrain became more hilly, more suitable as pasture, although much was converted to corn and beans or alfalfa if possible. This was beautiful riding country even with the hills, except that there were a lot of grain semis and dump trucks on the road. I pulled off about a half dozen times to give traffic space and myself a safety margin.

Arriving at Cantril, I found the campground suitable for a night's stay. The tent area was closest to the road, but the traffic died down after sunset. I'm sure the majority of the campground's business comes from RV's. At any rate, the restroom/shower area was clean and fresh, and a little extra food and sightseeing was just a short ride down the road to the Dutchman's Store, an old-style mercantile selling just about everything. There is a lot of flavor to the store because it caters to the Amish and Mennonite communities and also hires from those communities.

I left early the next morning because rain was expected. Because my legs were not 100%, I came home via highways 2 and 1, which was a flatter route, although the same distance. The volume of traffic on Highway 1 was high with quite a few trucks. I rode the verge more than I wanted, which was awkward because fresh gravel had been laid down, and it was still soft and loose. I'm riding Highway 1 on my next trip, but I'll take it on a Sunday, which should lessen the truck traffic.

The greater traffic lessened the joy of this trip, but there was a lot of beautiful country. I'm sure I'll be riding down V64 again.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Daytrip/Overnighter to Mac Coon Campground

Mac Coon Campground is on the Skunk River, about 15 miles east of my house in Fairfield, Iowa.

I wasn't sure of the campground facilities, so I made this a daytrip on my bicycle instead of an overnighter. I also wanted to put in some extra miles in one day to check my conditioning for overnighters farther afield in my area.

A little history from the county conservation site tells us this:
Mac Coon Access is located five and one-half miles north of Lockridge just east of Willow Blvd.
Skunk River
Photo and info from
This recreation area got its name from an old game Warden, Mac Coon, who worked in the area back in the 1930's and 40's. Purchased by the Department of Natural Resources in 1945, a renewable 25 year management-lease agreement allows the Jefferson County Conservation Board to develop and manage this area. Since 1973 numerous improvements have been made to Mac Coon Access which includes: construction of restrooms and a shelter house, installation of playground equipment, drilling a well for potable water, developing a campground equipped with electricity and providing a concrete boat ramp and fish cleaning station.

The trip was enjoyable. Naturally, I had a tailwind heading east and a headwind coming home! That made for high gears on the way out and me thinking, "What an easy ride," and low gears on the way back and me thinking, "Just hunker down and spin."

The campground is nicer than I expected. One person had billed it as a "fishing camp," and that is true, but there are some nice camping spots there. I wouldn't assume the camping is great if there has been a lot of rain: the campground floods sometimes. There is drinking water from a well, and the toilets are pit toilets, not flush. The site has no showers.

The ride was fun, though. The gravel was tricky, and I rode quite a bit on the verge, where the gravel was thin and the ground a little soft. I walked some hills just because it was easier than grinding and slipping on the rocks.

I did have one moment's scare near the Mac Coon campground road. Some resident must breed hunting dogs or something. As I rode by a house, I saw one dog, and then about 10 dogs started howling and barking. Luckily, they were all caged and chained. Otherwise, I would have been lunch.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Overnighter to Morris Memorial Park

It was 15 miles from Jefferson County's AJ's Bike Shop, Fairfield, Iowa, to Morris Memorial County Park in Van Buren County, Iowa, and a nice ride it was, comprising county roads and gravel. On both the out and back legs of the S24O (sub-24 hour overnighter), it wasn't too hot, there was little wind, and the traffic was acceptable to negligible. I made the jaunt (17 miles from the m my house) in about two hours, including photo and video stops.

The campground has fifteen sites, and with no other campers (a quiet Wednesday) I chose a site with afternoon shade and morning sun. The campground is also home to several historical collections of farming and frontier life, housed in a frontier cabin, a small circular barn, a one-room schoolhouse, and a large barn for the larger farm implements and wagons. The campground has showers and modern toilets. 

The country park is an oasis of trees and pond surrounded by farming operations. It was a safe and pleasant spot to spend the night. The 2+ miles of gravel put me deep in corn and beans with livestock thrown in. At one point coming home, I found myself scratching my head at an unmarked gravel "T" that I didn't remember. I tried GPS and was informed "no available route," but I expanded the map and identified the correct gravel to ride.

I saw a "century" farm, a hawk in flight, and a doe while on the gravel. The paved roads offered the rolling, rural roads of Iowa.

About thirty state and county parks are within 50 miles of Fairfield, Iowa. So far this riding season, I've done S24O's to four of them. I believe I'll manage to visit a few more before the nights grow icy.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Equipment Review: White Lightning Chain Johnny

The White Lightning Chain Johnny is a real pleasure to use when I travel with my Montague Navigator folding bike. On Amtrak, I use a soft bag to transport the Navigator, but I like to keep the inside of the bag as clean as possible, so the Chain Johnny really helps keep the bag grease-free.

I also will probably use the Chain Johnny instead of the travel bag on day trips when my wife and I will slip the folding bikes into the SUV to reach our departure point. It will be a lot faster than using the bag that completely covers the folding bike.

White Lightning as a multiple-paragraph description of the Chain Johnny, one of which states:
The Chain Johnny uses a rip-resistant, 2-ply rubber/nylon material which protects the inside of a car much better than old-school methods such as towels or rags. It is also water resistant to protect the drivetrain itself when transporting bicycles on vehicle-mounted bike racks or storing them in the garage during the winter. Apartment and college dorm dwellers are also using the Chain Johnny to shield their greasy chains when storing their bikes indoors.
Sometimes I toss in a small ditty bag or two into the bike bag, and I can feel comfortable that it won't come out greased up from the bike's drive train.

I'd keep the instructions handy for installation because there are some recommendations for easiest use as to what gears to be in and the steps of installation. The website also has online instructions. I plan to photo the instructions so I'll have them on my smartphone when I travel.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Round Trip 4: Amtrak Zephyr with a Montague Folding Bike

This has been the 4th Amtrak Zephyr round trip with my Montague Navigator folding bike, and I have to say that in terms of traveling with a folding bike, it has probably been the easiest.

The trip train destination points are Ottumwa, Iowa, and Sacramento, California, although I add an hour Amtrak Thru Bus shuttle ride up the Central Valley on the western end. It's always a bit awkward carrying the bike because it's somewhat cumbersome, but it's also just a tiny, tiny bit of that 4,000- mile, 4-day, round trip experience.

This time the trip began with the conductor at Ottumwa telling me, "If the luggage space is full, just put your bike in the lower coach area, all the way back behind the last seat." Sure enough, there was an 18-inch space behind the last seat, so I stored the bike upright the entire trip, guarded most of the way by a nice Amish mother while I traveled in the upper coach section. On my return trip, I was able to place the bike on the coach car's upper baggage shelf after tipping one passenger's bag on its side. The bike filled the space well enough so that no one placed a bag on top of the bike.

The Amtrak Thru Bus experience was quite easy, too. Evidently, the standing order for drivers is to have the bike owners place the bikes in the bus's lower storage area, so I was able to safely store it with the derailleur up.

I think the Amtrak system is getting used to folding bikes. All four round trips with my Montague Navigator folding bike have been easy for me. Once on one of the trips cross country, I found some bags on top of the bike but arranged the luggage so that my bike was on top. Once I was told there was no room in the baggage area for the bike, which was true. I just stood still with my bike and let the crew figure out a solution. They moved me one car up the train, which had more luggage capacity. Once I'm on the train, I don't think anyone's going to pick me up and carry me off. The crew just needs a little problem-solving space with no passenger freaking or getting belligerent.

I always carry along with my ticket a print-copy of Amtrak's folding bike policy, though. It doesn't hurt to be informed. Also, as a traveling precaution, I use the plastic safety devices that were used when the bike was shipped to me: fork divider and plastic protectors for the front quick release locking nut and derailleur. Finally, I use the White Lightning Chain Johnny to keep the travel bag more grease-free.

All in all, traveling with a full-size folding bike on Amtrak is pretty easy. I think it's easier than traveling with a boxed bike--and cheaper, of course. Any travel can (and probably does) have its hassles. I've found my folding bike and Amtrak to be a pretty good match, though. I get to travel to visit my mom and brother, and I get to get in some great day rides. I'm happy!

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Friday, June 26, 2015

Bicycling the Americas, a book review

In 2008, the Sathre-Vogel family--mom, dad, and two ten-year-old sons--began their bicycle trek from Alaska and the Arctic Circle to Argentina's Tierra del Fuego. The trip lasted about three years, and mother Nancy Sathre-Vogel chronicles the family's adventure in her book Changing Gears: a Family Odyssey to the End of the World.

Quite a journey it was, with desperately difficult terrain, medical emergencies, and equipment failure. Nancy Sathre-Vogel honestly tells their story, including her doubts and weaknesses, the powerful strength of family bonds, and the innocent exuberance of the boys.
>>Read more>>

Friday, June 12, 2015

Overnighter Bike Camping (S240): Lake Darling

It never works out quite as expected, but that's part of the adventure!

Lake Darling is about 15 miles from Fairfield, most of it on the hilly Pleasant Plain Road. The traffic was light and respectful, but the headwind wasn't. I arrived at 5 o'clock to Lake Darling State Park that has just received a multi-year makeover. My tent campsite was nice with a view of the lake and not too far from the restrooms and showers.

I had fun cooking my noodles with my Emberlit wood-burning stove, adding the noodles to my stew that I had brought in a Thermos. It's a pretty great little stove that focuses the heat of twigs that I collect from nearby.

The unexpected was when Bob from Arkansas showed up on his Long-Haul Trucker. He's traveled over 50,000 miles on bike trips and had gone104 miles the day I met him. We had a good talk and I picked up a few tips.

The night was pleasant in the park, and the sound of owls put me to sleep.

The trip home began as an easy morning with no wind, but the wind picked up about halfway home so I dug in for another headwind. I am finding that on overnighters, I have less energy the second day. I guess that's because I haven't built up my conditioning yet since it's still early in the bike season. Bob heads out every day, and that builds up his stamina.
I got home, though, and have good memories of Lake Darling. I had remembered that the tent sites were out in the sun but were actually tucked in among trees. Very nice.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

One Apple 6+ Smartphone Equals 6 Electronic Devices

Well, I did it. I bought an Apple iPhone to replace all the electronics (and chargers) I was packing around on my bicycle.

Here are the devices I've accumulated and have been packing on my bicycle:
  • Kindle eReader
  • Canon movie/still camera
  • Tracfone (buy minutes of phone time)
  • HP mini computer
  • Verizon MiFi wireless 
  • Garmin Edge Touring GPS

What I've Learned So Far

I'm still on the learning edge regarding the iPhone 6+, but I'm very impressed and believe adding a new, monthly "communications utility bill" to my expenses is worth it. Buying the 64G phone should provide me with plenty of space for all my needs.

What have I discovered so far? One important fact is that such a consolidation is a compromise. The iPhone is in many ways less than the original device it replaced--yet so close that the bulk elimination is the deciding factor.

One reason I bought the larger 6+ phone is that I thought it would be easier to use as an eReader, and I was right. Reading a book on the phone is very easy, and it was easy to download the Kindle app and to use it. I have to say, though, that I still really like the Kindle E Ink reader, but not enough to pack it with me when I travel. The phone's screen size will do just fine.

I'm still playing with the phone's camera and video options, but the quality appears to be quite good. I've downloaded the iTunes app to my PC and am getting used to the new system. I think the MOV video files will work with my video editor, but if not, there are converters out there I can use. I have bought a phone holder to attach to my tripod, and also a selfie stick that will hold the camera while I ride and record. Hopefully it will also provide some better angles for clips.

The iPhone, of course, replaces my Tracfone. In terms of quality, the Apple phone wins on all counts, except for cost and size. The iPhone 6+ is a little big and heavy if I were a big-time phone chatter, but I'm not. The larger-sized screen comes in handy for options other than a chat on the phone.

For instance, my HP mini computer has a keyboard, larger screen, and more options, yet it is also at least six times bigger than the phone. I will miss the keyboard and will sometimes write by hand in a notebook now. However, I have downloaded Google docs on the iPhone and am also playing around with the dictation option. My step-daughter has also told me I'll get faster with touchscreen keyboarding options, although that keyboard is small. Viewing movies on the 6+ screen is great--yes, a smaller screen but excellent quality. I've learned how to move my mp4 movies to the phone, no conversion necessary. I will also be able to download some audios to the phone. A big choice also was that the phone's FaceTime will replace Skype for my face-to-face chats with my family.

I am pleased with Verizon's reception. The MiFi I used was also a Verizon device, and the iPhone will render the MiFi unnecessary. The phone will even work as a WiFi hotspot if I ever need to bring my HP.

Finally, I have downloaded Google's GPS maps app, and it looks like it will be great. However, there are other apps I can try also if I need to. The screen on the iPhone is larger (another reason why I bought the 6+) and the app even includes voice directions.

Bottom Line

The Apple iPhone 6+ will meet my daily and travel needs quite nicely, and with greatly reduced space. I believe quality may also be improved with the little device, but only time and interaction will tell me that for sure. It has all been about compromise, but in this case, it seems the compromises are all very easy to make.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Electronic Equipment Consolidation--Too Many Devices!?

Slowly I keep plugging along, buying the electronics I need at the moment, but now that I'm doing more traveling on Amtrak with my folding bike, and more bicycle camping, maybe it's time to consolidate my devices.

Here are the devices I have at this time:
  • Kindle eReader
  • Canon movie/still camera
  • Tracfone (buy minutes of phone time)
  • HP mini computer
  • Verizon MiFi wireless 
  • Garmin Edge Touring GPS
And, of course, all these come with cords and chargers.

All these devices fit my needs.
  • I enjoy the Kindle's E Ink screen for its ease of reading.
  • My Canon FS10 suit me well with its video/still photo capabilities. I like the lens clarity.
  • The Tracfone is minimal. I mainly use it for check-in's with the family.
  • A mini-computer fits a pannier easily and is fairly small.
  • The MiFi allows me access to the internet while on the go.
  • The Garmin accepts my custom routes, is good for through-town guidance in strange cities, and provides directions to stores and points of interest.
I believe I can consolidate this to 3 items:
  • an Apple iPhone
  • a Galaxy 7" screen tablet.
  • retro pencil and paper journal
On the upside, this is quite a reduction of weight and equipment. I could even minimize more and just go with the iPhone. (By the way, the brand specificity is because my wife has an iPhone; otherwise, I could also go with Android, which my son uses.) Just an iPhone would be quite a bit of minimizing. However, on Amtrak, I think I'd enjoy movies more on the 7" pad, and reading eBooks on that size screen would be a basically book-sized screen. The pencil-and-paper journal? I could use the touch-screen pad or phone approach, but I think I'd be faster with a pencil. Showing my age, I suppose.

On the downside, there will be a loss of capabilities. Generally speaking, each of the devices can fit my specific needs just a touch better--bigger screen, more options, a little faster. I do not think, though, that the "touch better" warrants all the clutter and weight. I might add the video camera to the mix if I had a specific project in mind and wanted an external microphone. I might find that not necessary, though, as I explore and learn the possibilities of the new devices. The main downside, of course, is the monthly fee for the phone. My Tracfone costs me about $7 a month for the minutes I buy. For the MiFi, though, I usually spend $60 four times a year.

I'm also realizing that people who own smartphones really don't put them in the "optional" category. The smartphone is placed in the "necessary utilities" category--an information necessity. Water, electricity, and information. The main reason I bought the Tracfone was for emergencies, but that little hand-held device can be a lot more.

The website reveals quite a range of possibilities. Right now I'm mostly focused on keeping weight down. I'm not on a world expedition, and my panniers are not my permanent home.

Any suggestions or experiences to relate? I'm still in the speculating stage.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day Bike Overnighter (S24O) to Jefferson County Park

I left my house at 4:30 PM, the Thursday night before Memorial Day weekend, figuring that I'd beat the rush. Well, that was partially true. I found a campsite, but most were already taken.

As a guy with a 5th-wheeler across the way explained, "Some folks pay for a space starting on Monday, even though they show up on Friday. I got here Wednesday this year, and my usual spot was already taken."

So much for my forward-thinking plan! I did find a spot, though. The ride along the loop trail was fun, all loaded up with my panniers and drybag. I saw a neighbor walking his dog and gave a nonchalant nod.

The ride through the park set the mood. The trees shaded the lime chip trail, and the immediate mood was "outdoors and away from the bustle." That was somewhat dampened when I reached the campsite, already 75%  filled with RV's. I soldiered on, though, setting up my one-person tent, my bike leaning against the campground table. I wondered if some RV would pull in and tell me my little tent and bike didn't really count so hit the road.

I did get some looks from the folks who sat watching me in their lawn chairs beneath awnings extended from their 5th-wheel trailers. One guy came over and asked if I was from town.

"Yes," I said. "I'm just having fun and checking out how the equipment works."

"Looks to me like you could just take off with that rig."

"That's the idea."

Equipment Tests
  • Tent: My little $50 tent worked fine. Not much room in the outer vestibule for equipment . . . and not much room inside, either! One of those weight vs size things. For $50, I'm careful with this item. Not sure how it will hold up.
  • Toaks titanium cooking pot: It has a lid, handles, and is 550ml, a touch less than 2 cups volume. Nice for quickly heating water. Cools quickly so can be used as a mug. A touch small for real cooking.
  • Emberlit wood stove: Works great. Focuses heat upward and I just used sticks/twigs from the trees around. It could be a challenge on a wet day! Very light, packs flat. I brought along lint from the clothes dryer and a fire starter cube that I shaved pieces from as the fire base.
  • Topeak bike rack: My panniers mounted well, and the lower mount gave me room on top for the drybag. Also allows for sliding on the Topeak top bag for day rides (or an Amtrak journey).
I packed up the next morning and was only 10 minutes late to work. I would have easily made it on time, but I was playing with my stove, making hot tea, and I waited longer than I needed for the tent to dry.

I was pedaling home, though, and had the thought, "Maybe I should just ride straight to work and show up early." I opted for home, a quick shower, and work clothes, though.

A real shame, actually. My loaded bike leaning against my desk. . . The faint smell of woodsmoke in the air. . .  Tee shirt and black baggy bike shorts. . . It would have been a hoot!

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 25, 2015

SOL Escape Bivvy Tactical Breathable Survival Sleeping Bag - Olive Drab, Review

About 30 state, county, and city campgrounds are within 50 miles of my home in southeast Iowa, so I plan to do as many bike overnighters as I can this camping season.

I was looking at lighter gear and ran across the SOL Escape Bivvy. It SE Iowa in the summer, not much sleep gear is needed because the nights are hot and muggy. I thought maybe I'd take a light flannel travel blanket, one of those that roll up into a little pack, and the SOL bivvy. I could pull the bivvy over me toward morning when it cooled.

What are the limit for low temperatures, though? I'd watched the YouTube videos, I'd just seam-sealed a little tent I'd bought, so why not try out both? Yesterday, April 24, the forecast was possible rain and thunderstorms with a low of about 45F. I set the tent up outside the house and got in about 9 PM, the temp in the 50's.

I set up with a Thermarest pad and a Big Agnes blow-up for support. I brought along a cheap fleece bag liner that I bought a couple of years ago for $10. Some reviews online had said a liner would "up" the bivvy's warmth. I was wearing a light cotton sock hat, thermal underwear, and insulated socks. Soon I inserted the fleece liner, not because I was cold but because I wasn't cozy. There were some areas where I was cool, notably where my shoulders and hips stretched the bag.

As the night cooled, the cool spots became cold spots. I put on a light cotton flannel shirt, then my fleece jacket, and then my cotton cargo pants. I slept, never really getting cold during the night, but definitely having cold spots. The low of the night was 46F, but with winds the "Real Feel" was down to 32F. The little tent is a single half-dome, net with a cover. I got some wind.

What I feel is that I would have been better off using my down bag. I camped in mid-March on an overnighter, used my down bag, and was cozy all night until dawn when I could feel some coolness rising from the still-frozen ground.

Here are some specific comments about the SOL bivvy:
  • It works as a survival sleeping bag. I never got chilled.
  • It's a lean sleeping bag. I'm 5'8", 145lbs, and I was fine but with no extra room. Add the clothes and the fleece liner, and maybe I wasn't cozy-warm, but I was certainly snug.
  • The zipper zips halfway, so with the clothes, the liner, the bag, each bag with a zipper, it was an expedition taking a mid-night pee!
  • The tightener for the head works great, but the bag's zipper is right at the edge of the tightened face enclosure. I padded the zipper with the fleece liner's top edge.
  • The inside silver liner feels cold to the touch, so the fleece bag really helped, as did socks and thermal underwear.
  • The bag's material does breathe. I didn't have any condensation except when while asleep I hunkered down some in the bag. When I woke, there was condensation right at the edge of the face opening when I had been breathing inside the bag.
  • The specs say the bag has waterproof seams, so if my tent had leaked, I'd at least not been soggy, like I would have been in my down bag. It's raining cats and dogs right now as I write this, so I wonder how that little tent is doing!
The bag does retain your heat, but it seems that where the bag is tight one feels the outside temperature more. This was not true for my contact with the sleeping mattress. That was fine.

The bivvy folds and rolls into a little sack with a shape of about 5" x 6". It's light. I'm looking forward to using it in warm and hot weather, and I'll update this review when that happens.

Last words? The SOL Escape Bivvy Tactical Breathable Survival Sleeping Bag is a useful addition to my bicycle camping gear, but it's one that has its limitations and quirks. By knowing the quirks and using the bivvy within its performance parameters, I believe from my night's experience that the bag will lighten my load and keep me warm.

I'm not throwing away my down bag, though, and if you buy the SOL bivvy, neither should you. I'd rate this bivvy bag with three stars at this time, just an OK score because of the cold-spot experience. Once I really come to know the bivvy's limitations, though, and work within them, I think the bag will serve me well.

I spent another overnight in the front yard with the SOL bivvy. This time the low was 60 degrees. The results were much more comfortable, but I want to detail the process I followed.

First, going to sleep at 77 degrees, I just slept on top of my fleece liner (with only the air mattress beneath me and dressed in my light thermals as above), the bivvy bag pushed to the side. As the evening cooled I experimented: first in the fleece bag, then in the fleece bag with the bivvy on top like a blanket, then solely in the bivvy bag, then in the bivvy bag with the fleece on the outside. Finally, around 2:30 AM, I slipped into the fleece bag then the bivvy bag and slept comfortably for the rest of the night.

I fall asleep easily, so this experimentation was not an ordeal. I'd just wake, adjust, and fall back to sleep. There were still cool spots, but with the warmer temps, that was not uncomfortable. Now, all the survivalist types might call me a wuss, but I wasn't looking at this bag as survival equipment; I was seeking a high comfort level. When I go bike camping overnight, I'm just looking to enjoy myself in all phases of the experience.

My bottom line is I like the lightness of the bivvy, and with the fleece liner it will provide me with many options over the summer. If not for compactness and the waterproof feature, doing it all over again, I would probably look much more thoroughly at summer bags, even with the greater size and weight. However, I'm adaptable and it gets damn hot and humid here in SE Iowa in the summer, so probably in this case, less is more.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Friday, April 17, 2015

Round Prairie Park Campground Overnighter--An Adventure

RPP Schoolhouse at campground
My first overnighter bicycle "tour" of the year wasn't exactly a flop . . . but it wasn't exactly not.

The third Sunday in March 2015 was unseasonably warm, the next day even hotter, highs of 70 and 83. I was looking for a date for an overnighter, and on Saturday my wife said, "Why don't you go tomorrow afternoon and come back Monday morning?"

"Yeah," I said, "It's only 14 miles to the Round Prairie Park campground. I can pack up and get back in time for work."

It all worked out pretty well. The camping was nice. I had the little county campground to myself. My new wood-burning Emberlite "rocket" stove worked great. There were some details, though, some things I didn't realize . . .
  1. I had just gotten past a cold, so even though I felt fine, I didn't have any stamina.
  2. I had not ridden all winter, and "a 14-mile jaunt" was more than my body expected.
  3. Seeing how my Travoy bicycle trailer handled by loading it up immensely was probably not the best way to begin the touring season.
  4. Headwind! I had thought, It'll be okay because I'll have a tailwind coming back the next morning. How foolish was that? Headwind both ways!
You can see how innocently naive I was. It worked out, though. And my first overnighter of the year was a great learning experience.

Sleeping in temperatures of the 40's was comfortable with my sleeping bag. Wussy that I am, I'd never slept out in the cold. (And some hardy souls would say temps in the 40's is not cold.) About 4 in the morning, I could feel the ground chill creeping up through the pad and bag, but nothing excessive, even though the ground gets cold over Iowa winters. I took my heavy North Face tent--less netting and more solid covering than my other tent.

My ride to the campground was a battle with headwind the whole way, but I made it, tired but satisfied. The next morning I was more tired than expected, so with the headwinds back it actually took longer to return. I walked the bigger hills. I walked sections of the 2 miles of county road gravel just before the park. The family was considering sending out a search party. I was late to work. I picked up a cold again, no doubt my depletion of energies contributing.

However, it was ultimately a good experience. I learned. I enjoyed (pretty much). I returned.

And today I write about my experience and look forward to my next.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Swiss Postmen on Eco Electric Trikes

This is the largest version of the picture

The Swiss postman in Basel uses an electric scoot mobile with trailer to deliver the mail. Swiss Post currently has around 5,000 electric scooters used for deliveries, the largest fleet of its kind in Europe.

By 2016, Swiss Post’s entire fleet of scooters will be run on environmentally friendly eco-electricity.

Powered by battery, the scooters produce no emissions and are virtually silent. The required electricity comes entirely from renewable sources in Switzerland. The electric scooters save 4000 tonnes of CO2 a year.


Crazy Guy on a Bike bicycle touring website, journal by Ciska Keerssemeeckers and Michael Verhage
L.A to South America on 2 tandems and onwards to Timbuktu.