10.14.2011

THE REST OF THE STORY

This story takes you back a long time in the “Life On A Bike” chronology but it couldn't be written about at the time of its happening as there were some people who needed to hear the news in person rather than read it on the internet or hear it over the phone. It has been a difficult secret to keep but now that we've told everyone in our immediate families in person, I can finally write the story.

Rewind all the way back to the U.S. portion of this trip, August 2010, as that's where the story officially began. We were at my parents' house in Minnesota and somehow, though I don't remember this happening, Mike got a hold of the one piece of jewelry that I always wear, a piece made by my sister in a college class and I've never removed since she gave it to me at least 5 years ago. Anyway, he managed to get his hands on it, tried it on himself for size and made a mental note of how it fit.

Then there's a huge gap in the story. We rode the rest of the distance across the U.S., through South America and some 7 months later, in southern Spain, the story resumed. We were camped by a river with huge boulders that had sweeping, comfortable grooves for sitting in so I took the opportunity to do some writing in such a beautiful and peaceful setting. Mike took off on a walk through the forest in search of the perfect piece of wood for making a sling shot for his brother-in-law. Unbeknownst to me, he was also searching for something else; another piece of wood with tight grains, that was dry and had no cracks. He found exactly what he was looking for, cut 2 small pieces about a quarter of an inch thick from the 1 ½ inch diameter stick, tucked them away in his handlebar bag and waited.

Later that week we were staying at a Couch Surfing house in Granada. While I was in the shower, Mike found a ¼” drill bit in a tool box in the room we were given, quickly drilled a hole through the centers of the wood pieces before I returned and again put them away for later.

Another 2 weeks passed and the project remained untouched until we reached Zaragoza, a city in northern Spain. There, we had a Warm Showers house to stay at so while I was busy making phone calls and writing emails, Mike went out to search for some cardboard to send some stuff home. While out and about he bought a utility knife, which he was waiting until he was alone to buy as we documented every penny we spent and he didn't want to have to make up a bogus reason for his purchase. The knife was then used to carefully carve out the center of the wood piece any chance he got to get away from me. It's not an easy task when you live together in a 5x7 foot tent and though he's talented, he hasn't quite mastered the art of wood carving while cycling, which most days is the only time we get away from each other.

Again there was a long span of time where nothing happened, through France, Switzerland and on up to northern Austria. It wasn't until we reached the city of Schladming where we again had a house to stay at for a couple of days and Mike had some time to himself. Bike maintenance in the basement of the apartment was what I was told he was doing, which to a certain extent he was, but he was also sanding. With the sandpaper in our tube patch kit, he was meticulously smoothing down the outer surface of his creation.

Again there was another big break in the progress until we reached Kallstugan in southern Sweden where we stayed with our friend Gisela for nearly a week. There was a lot of down time while we were there waiting for a package to arrive in the mail. I spent an entire afternoon in town with Gisela which left Mike at home alone, and another afternoon he went “fishing” at a nearby lake. Those 2 large chunks of time were spent putting the final touches on his project. First he had to smooth out the inside surface and make it perfectly round which he did by wrapping a tiny piece of sandpaper around a small stick. Once completed, he had to seal the wood so he coated his work with clear fingernail polish that he had found in a bathroom cupboard at the house we were at. It wasn't the perfect sealant but it was the best he could do at the time. After it dried he set it in our tube patch kit, the only small box we have with us, tucked it in his pocket and waited for the perfect moment.

That moment finally arrived exactly 1,567 miles later. Fast forward to Nordkapp, Norway (The North Cape), the northernmost point in Europe to which you can drive (or ride a bike), the place where we saw the midnight sun. There was actually much more to that story than I originally published on the blog, so here's the remaining part.

There was a point along the cliffs at Nordkapp that we noticed right away; it was narrow with enough space for one to stand safely on its point or maybe two if you squeezed, it had beautiful views of the surrounding sunset golden cliffs and the Arctic Ocean far below but the best thing about it was there was no fence like most of the area. It was the place where you could sit on the top of the world with your legs dangling free over the ocean below; the place everyone seemed to be waiting to stand. “That's the perfect spot,” I remember Mike saying, but of course it always seemed to be occupied . We stood along the fenced section of cliffs until finally, shortly before 11pm, it was empty. By that time in the night most of the crowd was gathering around the globe, the iconic spot at Nordkapp where people come from around the world to witness the midnight sun.

I sat down on a small, grassy step, let the setting sunshine warm my face from the crisp Arctic breeze and invited Mike to sit down next to me. But he declined and just stood there, smiling at me from the edge of the cliff with his hands in the pockets of his puffy down jacket and replied, “You've been quoted as having said that you'd never marry a man who wouldn't ride his bike across the U.S. with you.” (Which is true, those words have come from my mouth on many occasions; a small requirement in my opinion). Before he finished his first sentence we were both smiling our biggest smiles and crying our biggest tears as he pulled his hands from his pockets. “Well, I hope I made the cut.” And then he asked me to marry him. No, not down on one knee as he would have tumbled down a cliff, and besides, that's a little too traditional for me anyway. Of course I said YES as he placed the perfectly sized, beautiful, hand carved wooden ring on my finger.

Since it came from an Oak tree is southern Spain, we like to say it's made out of “Spanish Oak” just to make it sound fancy and if I hold my hand in front of the sun it has more bling than any ring in the world. It is an invaluable ring that shines as bright as the sun and is made with the most sought after elements in the world, hard work and love. Mike has asked me to marry him about 100 times since that night in July, and every time I say yes. Now that he's said it once he can't seem to stop and he'll likely propose another thousand times or more before we actually get married as it's going to be a while. We still have a whole lot of the world to see from the seat of a bicycle and a wedding can always wait.


10.07.2011

ADJUSTING

While we were out on the road, people often told us that some day we'd have to come back to the real world. The thing is, we never left it. Traveling by bicycle is anything but an endless hay-day; we have daily chores to do, finances to budget and balance, days of boredom, days of no motivation and days when we have more to do than is feasibly possible in 24 hours. It was simply a different world and just as it took some time to figure out how to live while in constant motion, it also took a while to adjust back to the lifestyle that we once considered normal.

Things were overwhelming at first and suddenly the quiet, simple existence which we had been living for over a year seemed very far away. The peaceful country roads that we called home were replaced with bustling freeways, honking horns, vehicles everywhere and no escape. The days of solitude where the only people we had to talk to were each other, where we were free to watch the landscape pass by at a snail's pace without ever speaking a word at all while lost in our own thoughts were replaced by people. People everywhere. People wanting to know how our trip was (but I have to ask in return, is anyone able to sum up their last 15 months in a few sentences?) and people wanting to schedule a time to see us. I cannot hold it against them, as I would do the exact same thing if I had a friend who had been away for that long and though it was a bit exhausting, it was wonderful to see our friends again. The nights of drifting off to sleep to the sounds of a rushing river, the wind flapping the fabric of our shelter or the rain pitter-pattering on our tent was replaced by whistling trains, rumbling planes and passing cars. The only familiar sound that carried over was Mike's snoring which is anything but peaceful. The constant commotion and clutter enveloped us the instant we landed in San Francisco and sent me into a desperate desire to become a hermit. I don't think I'd make a very good hermit but during those first few days I wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole and return to the quiet, zen-like existence I had come to love.

In retrospect, our first couple of weeks back in the States were really quite comical. Mike's Mom took us to the grocery store to pick out some food we wanted to have at the house. We gathered the items we needed for dinner and were ready to go when Ruth reminded us that we now have a refrigerator, don't have to carry everything on our bikes and could therefore get enough food for a few days rather than a single meal.

On our second day back, Mike and I went out to run some errands and were startled when we could understand what everyone around us was saying. It had been one year since we had been in an English-speaking country and I had grown to love the fact that I couldn't understand what people were saying. It meant that I didn't have to listen to parents pleading with their children to get them to cooperate, teenagers talking about the upcoming weekend's party or people's one-sided conversations on their cell phones because I didn't care, or want to hear, any of it anyway. Everywhere else in the world it was white noise that I could completely tune out, now if I could only figure out how to do that with English. As we approached the checkout counter and, as we have become accustomed to doing every time we wanted to talk to someone, I began saying, “Do you speak English?” before I realized everybody here understands us and we no longer have to preface every conversation with that question.

When we got home, we each dug out a box of our clothes since we left most of what we had with us in a trash can in Denmark. As you've seen in our pictures, we each really only wore one shirt; Mike a bright orange one and me bright pink. While we were shopping we separated to each go grab a few things. I found what I needed and then began looking for Mike. I scanned the entire store for his orange shirt but couldn't spot him anywhere and it wasn't until he was literally a foot in front of my face that I did a double-take and finally recognized him.

Driving was another thing that caught me off guard. I used to be somewhat of a lead-foot but apparently I've turned in to a Granny Driver. While cruising down the freeway feeling like I was moving outrageously fast, I noticed that everyone around me was going considerably faster. I looked down at the speedometer to find that I was only going 50 mph. I guess I've come to love life in the slow lane.

Those were just a few of the culture-shock scenarios from our return that made us laugh. Now that we've been home for a month, we finally feel a little less alien and a little more human. We've realized that not a whole lot has changed in our absence; everyone's still over scheduled and works too much, Americans are still powered by obscene amounts of coffee, the newspapers are still full of depressing stories and the pop radio stations still play the same 7 songs over and over all day long, of which we didn't recognize any, but were disgustingly sick of them after a mere 2 hours of listening. As for us, we've once again settled in to the luxuries of sleeping in a bed, showering regularly and wearing clean clothes, though in my opinion, those things aren't all they're hyped up to be. I didn't mind the alternatives and in fact I kind of liked them.

I know I haven't updated the blog as often as I said I would but we've actually been quite busy. We seem to have transitioned from bike tourists to home improvement specialists as Mike's repaired his parent's fence and done some major renovations on his family's cabin while I've been working on my parent's property in Minnesota and helping build a shed at their cabin. Between projects Mike's been to Las Vegas for a Bachelor Party and I've been head over heels for my new niece, Amelia, who was born while we were in Europe, the 2 of us already discussing plans for her future as a cyclist as well as her first bike, which she'll likely have before she can walk.
Mike's cabin project.

Cari and Merry putting the roof on the shed.

Amelia

9.10.2011

DEFEATED IN DENMARK

We arrived in Denmark feeling strong after having ridden for several weeks in the mountains of southern Norway, and the fact that Denmark is completely flat only made us feel that much stronger. Sadly, the rain that we had experienced in Norway continued right into Denmark but it's much easier to deal with when the terrain is flat. You don't have to decide between not wearing a jacket on the climbs and getting drenched by the rain or wearing one, overheating and getting drenched by sweat. Nor do you have to deal with freezing on the descents and having the rain drops pelt you so hard in the face you have to squint to the point where you're essentially riding with your eyes closed, following the white lines on the side of the road through eyelash covered slits.

Riding in Denmark was a completely different experience from Norway. The terrain was flat instead of mountainous, the architecture of the houses was primarily brick instead of wood and the land was covered with corn and wheat fields rather than forests, raging rivers and fjords. Aside from having to deal with the rain, cycling there wasn't all that difficult and we put in big miles our first 2 days, eager to arrive to the house of the family of a guy, Mads, we met in northern Norway and get out of the rain.

Unfortunately, Mads wasn't at home as he had already left for University, but his family in Houstrup was more than welcoming towards a couple of disgustingly dirty cyclists. The first 2 days at their house were great. We enjoyed late night drives through the nearby forest to look for Red Deer, afternoon tours of the surrounding areas with a lot of history about the landscapes, people and wildlife of this region and delicious cakes baked almost daily by Mads' brother, Frederik.
Mike and Frederik next to an old fishing hut. 

Frederik and one of his delicious Banana Cakes.

On Monday we had the option to either continue cycling in the rain with a 30 mph headwind or drive across Denmark to Copenhagen to drop off Christoffer, one of the sons, at college, spend a day in the city and then resume riding in a couple of days after the weather improved. We opted to go to Copenhagen as we were completely fed up with the rain, but on the way we ran into trouble. Mike's legs suddenly began to cramp, a phenomenon that had happened twice on this trip already, both times in the U.S. after we had taken 2 or 3 days off of cycling.  The fact that he never had any troubles during any of our extended stops in either South America or Europe had us believing that whatever nutritional imbalance, muscular imbalance or other issue had caused it had worked itself out. Apparently we were wrong.

What we had hoped would be a relaxing day of walking around Copenhagen ended up being a slow and painful hobble with frequent stops to stretch and try to get his quads to relax, but nothing seemed to work. We returned to Houstrup on Tuesday evening, gave Mike a muscle relaxer which he'd gotten a prescription for in the U.S. after this happened the second time, and packed up our stuff with every intention of leaving the next morning. Well, it turned out that the pills did absolutely nothing for him and being unable to walk normally meant that pedaling a 100-pound bicycle was completely out of the question.
Changing of the guards in Copenhagen.


The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

I went into the house and explained our situation to Niels and Lotte. I was upset and worried that we would have to overstay our welcome; these people, afterall, had only met us 3 days earlier and had agreed to let us stay for a night or two, not to have us move in with them. We loved this family from the time we met them; they were kind and fun to be around and without a moment's thought they told us we were welcome to stay for as long as we needed, pointing out that at least this happened while we were there, at a house with a comfortable bed to sleep in, rather than in the middle of the forest. We had to agree with them and guessed that it would be another day or 2 more until Mike was able to ride again given that the other bouts of cramps lasted a total of 4 or 5 days. That turned out not to be the case this time. Every couple of days it seemed as though he was improving so he'd try to walk down the stairs or pedal down the driveway, but both scenarios only left him with completely seized up muscles again. After a week of being crippled and loitering around Niels and Lotte's house in bad spirits we had reached our wits' ends. Our original plan had been to fly out of Germany at the end of September after cycling through Holland and Belgium but time was a-wasting and if we didn't get moving soon we'd be forced to make a bee line to Dusseldorf to catch our plane.
Lotte and I made Mike lunch in bed.

Saturday morning we made the difficult decision to throw in the towel. I hate quitting, feeling defeated, not finishing what I set out to do and I know Mike hates it too, but sometimes you simply don't have alternative options. We never expected our European tour to end like this; it was horribly anti-climactic, but this was the ending that we got. I spent the day on the phone changing our flight dates and locations while Niels worked out which trains we would have to take to get us to Hamburg, Germany, which was now where we'd be flying from. We said our sad good-byes to all of our gear that was completely worn out, unrepairable and would not be making the trip back to the U.S. with us as there was no way it would hold out for another tour. The list included 2 helmets, 1 pair of cycling shoes, 1 pair of shoe insoles, 4 pairs of nylon thickness see-through cycling shorts, 1 pair of knee warmers, 1 t-shirt, 2 pairs of underwear, 1 pair of socks, 3 water bottles, 3 water bottle holders, 1 emergency/too many bugs pee bucket, 1 frying pan, 1 cutting board, 1 stove burner, 2 pens, 2 buttons, 1 fingernail clipper that no longer cut nails, only ripped them and 4 zip-lock bags that have torn and been taped multiple times but I'm thrilled to say have lasted and been used every day since we left California in June of 2010. Not listed here or pictured below are all of the bike parts that no longer work, which included pretty much everything on a bike that moves but we took those things home with us as we have plans to use them for other projects some day in the future.
All of our old gear that got left behind.

We left Niels and Lotte's house Sunday morning and spent the day riding the rails, lugging our bikes and gear onto and off of 6 trains over the course of 8 hours. It was an exhausting day but we were fortunate to meet 2 friendly people, Simon and Luisa, from Hamburg and were invited to stay at Luisa's flat until our flight on Tuesday morning. Monday was spent packing and while Mike stayed at the apartment and disassembled our bikes I was out in the city hunting down bike boxes and necessary packing supplies. It was another long and busy day but by 7pm we were completely packed and ready for the next morning.
Lotte, Frederik, Niels, Mike and Cari.

We are exceptionally grateful towards Niels, Lotte and their 3 sons, Christoffer, Mads and Frederik in Denmark and Simon, Luisa and her flatmate Anne in Germany for helping us out during our final 10 days in Europe. Neither of us were in the best of moods during our stays but thanks to all of your kindness, understading, hospitality and friendship, you made it much less painful and stressful than it would have been.

So here we are, back in California 2 weeks earlier than we had planned. Though I'm sad we had to cancel the last 3 weeks of our trip and missed out on cycling through northwest Germany, Holland and Belgium, the last thing we can be is upset. We did, afterall, spend nearly 6 months in Europe and pedaled just under 7,500 miles through 12 of its countries; it was quite an impressive ride if I do say so myself and there's no doubt that someday we'll return for another tour through all of the countries we missed this time around.

I'm sure many of you are wondering what will come next and the answer is we're not quite sure yet. First and foremost we have to figure out what's going on with Mike's muscles. Two straight weeks of debilitating cramps cannot be normal; perhaps it was just his body's way of telling him that he needed to take a little break for a while. And we will listen as we've learned over the years that the body will always overpower the mind no matter how hard you try. So after 15 amazing months on the road the time has come for a brief intermission. We have decided that we'll remain in the U.S. through the holidays calling the next few months “an intermission to repair our bikes, earn some more traveling money, get healthy again and enjoy time spent with all of our very-much-missed families and friends.”

This is not the end of Life On A Bike; our hearts are not yet ready to quit this adventure and an injury is certainly no way to finish the story. The current plan is to resume riding shortly after Christmas but in the meantime I'll continue to write regularly as we figure out where in the world we'll be heading next, how Mike's legs progress and whatever else I feel moved to write about. Stay tuned.

8.29.2011

KONSMO


On November 16, 1943 an event during WWII forever linked Mike's family to the tiny town of Konsmo in the hills of southern Norway. On that day the B-17 Bomber his Grandfather was piloting was shot down by the Germans and crashed into the hills but all 9 members of the crew managed to safely parachute to the ground. When we began our bike trip in Europe we had no idea we'd be cycling right through that exact area or meet some of the people who witnessed that event, but due to Mike's Mom's interest in uncovering the details of that day as well as a very enthusiastic group of historians in Konsmo, we were treated to 2 days of a very thorough and personal history lesson.

Though pieces of the story still remain in question, and perhaps forever will, as many of the characters involved have already passed away, the vast majority of it is certain and it was a unique and interesting experience to learn a bit of history from first hand sources. Along with Jorunn, Tom and Liv who hosted us while we were in Konsmo, we met 10 others from the historical group. Every one of them had their manilla folder full of newspaper clippings, photos, pamphlets and books that they've written about the event, eager to share with us their piece of the story. Whether it was that they saw the plane or the parachutes falling from the sky, had visited the plane in the days following the crash, helped to hide some of the Americans from the Germans or had pieces of the plane, they were fanatics about the event and wanted to tell and show us everything.
Some of the group that went to the crash site.

I must say, it was quite exhausting, but interesting nonetheless. We were driven around and shown the approximate locations where each of the members landed, the houses of the Norwegians who took them in and fed them and the barns or sheds in which they were hidden. We got to see, touch and unfold a parachute that one of the crew members used to jump from the plane along with the pack and harness made of heavy canvass. We got to see the door from the plane, a piece of the wing, the compass and pistol from one of the Americans and many other miscellaneous parts that were pulled from the wreckage. We visited the place where the plane landed and though it happened nearly 70 years ago and the forest has covered up most of the wreckage that remained after people took everything they wanted or needed during the war, in the short period of time we spent at the site, we were still able to dig up a fair amount of small pieces from the plane.
A shed where 4 Americans were hidden.

The parachute.


The door of the plane.

A part of a wing.

The compass of one of the crew members. 

A pile of rubble we found at the crash site.

Norway was extremely poor and it was difficult for civilians to obtain everyday materials during the war, which made pieces salvaged from the plane wreck very valuable. Bullet casings, bolts and other small pieces were used for such purposes as coat hooks, the bullet-proof seat backing was used as a well cover (and is still in use today), parts of the plane's exterior were used as building materials, the chords from the parachutes were unwoven and used as thread for sewing clothes and one parachute itself was used to make a gown and shirt for a 1944 wedding. I actually got to put on the wedding dress while Jorunn made me a little bouquet of flowers from the back yard and gave me a pair of shoes to wear and had we agreed, this excited group of folks would have liked for me and Mike to get married right then and there.
Cari in the 1944 wedding dress.

Mike's Grandfather was 28 while he was serving in WWII, the same age as Mike is now, and it was a little ironic that they were in the same place on the globe, though in entirely different circumstances, 70 years apart. Though Mike never got to meet him, seeing these places and hearing the stories from that event somehow made us both feel like we knew him, at least a little bit. Many thanks to Jorunn, Tom, Liv and all of the rest of the people in Konsmo who shared their bits of information with us, allowing us to piece together a very special story.

8.22.2011

OH NORWAY

Mike and I have a serious love-hate relationship with Norway. The cost of traveling here and the rotten weather have beaten us down and we can't wait to get to Denmark where hopefully it will be a bit more pleasant. I know we shouldn't judge a country by its weather but it's hard not to; it's been cold and rainy every day since the last post, mostly a constant rain throughout the entire day, though once in a while it stops for a few hours and if we're lucky the sun even peaks out from behind the clouds for a few minutes before the next rain shower begins.  We have become thankful for tunnels, which we once hated, simply because it means we get a break from the rain for a few minutes.  We've discovered that they make a great place to eat lunch; though they're not any warmer than the bitter temperatures outside and they're not very peaceful with traffic roaring past, at least we're out of the rain which has lately been our number one priority.  Everyone tells us that this has been an unusually cold and wet summer; how could we be so lucky to have chosen this year to cycle here?
The sun peaking through for a moment.


Mike having lunch in a tunnel.

Though we find ourselves cursing this place almost daily for one reason or another, wishing we were back home in a warm, comfortable house or dreaming of hot tropical beaches, which neither of us really enjoy, both of us agree that Norway has been one of the most impressive countries, in terms of scenery, that we've visited on this trip. The northern part of the country was spectacular with its dramatic and varying landscapes but the southern portion, from Trondheim south, has simply blown us away, even with the crummy weather. I can only imagine how great it would be if the sky was always blue.

Southern Norway is fjords and mountains, not little ocean inlets and rolling hills but giant fjords that can stretch inland for over 100 miles and mountains that explode straight up from the dark turquoise waters. They are not extremely high mountains, with their passes reaching only 3,000 – 5,000 feet, but the fact that they start from sea level gives them a vertical relief that is truly impressive. This terrain makes for difficult cycling as we spend 2-3 hours climbing from sea level, over a wet and foggy mountain pass, then it's a freezing yet exciting and fast 45-minute drop back down to the next fjord only to do it all again. With terrain like this, you find some insanely massive cliffs, some of the biggest in the world, and equally impressive roads that switchback right up the side of them, many of which we've thoroughly enjoyed riding. I can't imagine how much fun the engineers had who got to design these roads, as literally you come to a vertical wall and just when you think there's no way to get over it, you see the road cut steeply into the cliff's side thousands of feet above and the vehicles making their way up or down the mountain looking like ants in an ant farm. It seems impossible when you look up from the bottom of the mountain, but a few hours later we always arrive to the top. From there we stand on the edge of these cliffs looking down to the water where the enormous cruise and ferry boats look like miniature toys and it takes a minute before we realize those barely visible yellow lines in the water are actually dozens of kayakers taking in the amazing scenery from far below. It quickly became obvious to us why this region of the wold is so famous for base jumping. The sheer cliffs beg to be jumped from, inviting you to fly and if I had a parachute I'd probably jump too. We partly expected, or maybe just hoped, that we'd see a person go buzzing through the sky in a jump suit, but sadly we didn't. Maybe on our next trip to Norway.
The Trollstigen - one crazy road. 

 Looking down on a fjord...can you see the kayaks?

We descended down that switchback road in the distance...and then we had to climb right back up the other side. 


Once we descend from the mountain passes, we get to take in the scenery from another angle, which is equally beautiful. From high above waterfalls come crashing down from what seems like the clouds as their origins are frequently hidden in the fog; the brilliant white water a beautiful contrast to the charcoal gray and black streaked rocks over which they fall. Looking towards the ocean from the head of the fjords, the mountains begin as midnight blue with each successive one turning a lighter shade of blue until they eventually fade into the same depressing gray as the sky and altogether disappear from sight. Even through the fog and rain this place is beautiful.
One of many waterfalls.


The wet weather makes camping rather miserable so we've had some interesting housing experiences over the past 2 weeks. Once evening, after we had been warned multiple times that day that the following day was going to be horrendous rain, we decided we HAD to find shelter for the night just in case we had to hunger down for a day. We didn't have to search very long before we came across an old abandoned shed along the side of the highway. It appeared to be an old structure that was once used for drying firewood as there was scrap wood strewn throughout the place. The shed was far from waterproof with holes in the roof and no walls but there were plenty of supplies laying around, including wood, cinder blocks, bricks and scrap pieces of tarp, so we went to work creating ourselves a home. Once completed we had a solid floor to set our tent on, a fireplace, table, benches, a more or less waterproof roof and walls to block the wind and rain. Though we couldn't exactly stand up straight when we were inside, it was quite a cozy, yet sometimes smokey house and even though the storm didn't hit with quite the fury we expected, we opted to stay a day in our for just because we put so much effort into it and it was so cute.
The shed as we found it. 

The finished product. 

Cari inside the fort.

Four days later we had a roof over our heads once again. After a day in the rain we stopped at a house to ask for water before we set up camp. The person who lived there was an old man who didn't speak any English but as he was filling our bottles a big red van pulled up. A guy hopped out with a 6-pack of beer for the old man and we got to chatting with him. Within the first 2 minutes of meeting him, we were invited to stay at his house for the night. “It's a huge old house with only me and hired hand living there. There's plenty of space for you, you can have a hot shower and dry out. It's about 3 Km in the wrong direction, but you're more than welcome.” We couldn't believe our ears. We always dream of something like this happening on days like this and it took us about a half a moment to take him up on his offer.

Oddmand and his hired help, Sergej, were absolutely wonderful. We got hot showers, comfortable beds to sleep in, our clothes were able to dry overnight, they fed us, we enjoyed our first beers and ice creams in nearly a month and we got to try, for the first time in our lives, fresh milk straight from Oddmand's cows. I was more than a bit skeptical as I don't really like to drink plain milk but it turned out to be amazingly delicious to the point where I even suggested to Mike that we buy a cow someday. He quickly shot down my idea but perhaps I'll try again in a few years. Oddmand was delighted to take us on a tour of his old house and the smoke shed, tell stories about his family members who immigrated to America and settled in Minnesota, especially after he found out that's where I grew up, and teach us about his farm which was build by his Grandfather in the early 1800s. This was our first time staying at an old Norwegian homestead and the similarities between there and Minnesota were amazing. The way people talk, the style of homes, the way of life; it was obvious that much of the Midwest region of the U.S. was influenced by settlers who arrived from Scandinavia long ago; and I felt right at home.
Cari, Oddmand, Sergej and Mike

8.16.2011

TOO MUCH RAIN, DYING BIKES AND LOTS OF FREE COKE


Why is it that when you really want good weather you don't get it and when you really don't care if it's cold and rainy because you don't have to be outside all day, it ends up being warm and sunny? The entire time we were hitchhiking, it was hot outside, the skies were clear and we were spending our days sitting in camper vans. As soon as we took off riding again the rain began and it doesn't seem to want to stop. Thankfully it hasn't rained every day for the past 2 weeks or we probably would have hitchhiked our way all the way out of Norway. There is nothing more uncomfortable while bike touring than consecutive rainy days. Give us extreme temperatures, wind, bugs, grueling mountain passes, no showers for weeks, anything, but please don't give us constant rain day after day. Not only is it boring to spend all day staring at the white lines painted on the roads and the water spraying off the front tire because you can't see the scenery, but it's also miserable knowing you don't have a warm, dry place to go home to when the ride's over.

One day of rain is okay because even though everything you're wearing gets dirty and soaked, if the next day is dry, we are able to wash our stuff at gas stations or in a river and let it dry on the backs of our bikes while we ride. It's a different story when it rains for days. Everything is muddy and wet, even on the insides of our waterproof panniers. We set up our tent only to find the inside floor is one giant puddle from being on the bike all day. Our sleeping pads are wet because the waterproof bag they're stored in is no longer even the slightest big water resistant. Once we get set up and into our sopping wet house, there's no relaxing. Instead we spend the entire night boiling water for hot water bottles to wrap our wet shorts around, a desperate attempt to dry them out a bit before putting them on in the morning. It usually doesn't do much good and we end up slipping into freezing cold, wet clothes and shoes that squirt water with every step.

After a while the rain gets to you. It simply breaks your soul. The last thing in the world you want to do is get out of your sleeping bag and go back outside. There is no motivation whatsoever. One day last week we stayed in bed until 2:00, grumbling and groaning about the weather for a few minutes before rolling over and dozing back off to sleep. Three o'clock rolled around and we realized we didn't have enough food or fuel to get us through the night so we packed up and ventured out. A few hours into a ride we were both hating, the rain slowed and we were debating whether to set up camp or keep on going. I made the call that if it started to rain hard again, if we found shelter or if it got to be 8:30 we would stop, whichever of those things came first.

At 8:30 on the nose it began to rain so we turned down the first gravel road we found. No more than 50 meters down the road we spotted a hunter's hut which are typically nothing more than a little perch with a roof, no walls and only big enough to fit a single chair. I climbed up the 10-foot old metal ladder that leaned heavily to one side to take a look. There were walls, a sturdy floor, a seamless roof and chairs. We found our home for the night and suddenly the day of riding in the rain didn't seem so bad after all. We hung a clothesline along 2 of the walls to drape all of our wet things on, had a comfortable dinner while sitting on chairs and even though it was very cramped quarters with our tent taking up essentially the entire room, we were happy to be out of the rain for the night.


The hunting hut.

The following day it was raining again, which was no surprise, but we had sent out a bunch of Couch Surfing requests the day before and luckily had found a place to stay in Trondheim. The city was 65 miles away, a long ride in the rain, but just knowing we had a shower and laundry awaiting kept us going. We arrived at Ronny's house late that night covered in mud, soaked to the bone and shivering. His face was priceless when he opened the door to find 2 drowned rats on his doorstep but he welcomed us and all of our filthy gear in, gave us hot tea and let us stay for 2 nights while all of our clothes and equipment, which we had draped all over his porch and attic, dried. Ronny, we can not thank you enough!

One major order of business we, well Mike since he's in charge of the bikes, had to tend to in Trondheim was fixing our dying bikes. They are seriously ill and I'm not sure how much longer they're going to last. Everything is worn out, except for the brakes because we just changed them, but every other moving part is completely shot. No amount of cleaning or adjusting improves their functionality at all and it's a bad sign when you stop to check out the old, completely mutilated bikes that have been abandoned on the side of the road and realize their parts are in better condition that ours; if only they were the right sizes. The 2 days before we arrived in Trondheim, Mike couldn't shift out of granny gear so he head to pedal with hardly any resistance, which is fine for the uphills but at all other times his legs were going as fast as Road Runner's. I had the opposite problem; I couldn't get into my small ring so there was always a lot of resistance, which was great for going downhill but as soon as we had to climb, my poor legs had to work quadruple time. At the top of every hill I could barely breath, my heart was pounding so hard, and I was positive that if I had to take one more pedal stroke I'd keel over from a heart attack.

We had no choice but to buy some parts to fix the bikes and it's a real bummer that we had to do so in Norway. When we left the bike shop and looked at our receipt we actually went back in as there was no possible way the amount could be correct. These parts should have cost us maybe $20, not $60, but apparently everything was priced correctly. I hope we have no more major breakdowns in Norway. It wold be cheaper to book a plane ticket back to the US and buy a completely new bike than to simply replace our worn out drive trains here in Norway. Fortunately Mike's got the mind of an engineer so hopefully his zip-tie, jury-rigged piece of work will hold out until we're in a different country.

We've discovered that in Norway they have an excellent way to get people to recycle their plastic bottles and cans. They charge you what equates to $0.18 per bottle and can that you purchase but unlike California where you get only a fraction of that back, in Norway you get it all. But of course, just like everywhere else in the world, people still throw beverage containers on the sides of the roads, so we've taken to picking them up and returning them for cash. It's a bit of a dirty job and can slow us down a bit, but we figure we're dirty anyway, don't really have a schedule and without much effort we can easily knock $10 off of our daily food expenses, which helps us stay close to our budget. If we really wanted to I'm sure we could eat for free nearly every day but we're out here riding our bikes, not doing a major clean up Norway project. For the month of August there's an added bonus to picking up bottles. Coca-Cola has a promotion going on where if you collect 6 smiley faces from under the caps you get a free coke. A very high percentage of the bottles on the roads are Coke bottles which is doubly awesome for us as we get money for the bottle and free drinks with the caps. Between what we've collected from the roadsides and Mike's shameless asking at a small town supermarket if he could take the caps from the bottles in their recycling room, we're going to have free Coke every day for the rest of our time in Norway. It might not be the most healthful thing for us but a daily treat is nice and getting anything for free in this country feels really, really good.
This is worth lots of free Coke.

8.08.2011

HITCHHIKING WITH CAMPER VANS


The night of our first failed attempt at hitching a ride south from Nordkapp, the same night we saw the midnight sun, we met 3 French cyclists who informed us that they were also hoping to find a ride south the following morning. We were very unenthusiastic to hear this news, as the sight of 5 fully loaded touring cyclists on the side of the road looking for a lift is extremely daunting. In hopes that we could catch some early risers the next morning and beat the French to a ride, we dragged ourselves out of bed after only a few hours of sleep and set up our hitching post at the exit of the parking lot full of campers. Much to our surprise there was not a single sign of life in the lot. The shades were all still drawn, no doors were opening and closing, there were no smells of bacon and eggs cooking, it was a ghost town. We sat at the exit for 2 hours before anyone even began to stir, and another full hour passed before the lot was finally awake.

Around 10:00 the campers began to depart, yet no one so much as slowed down to inquire about where we were headed. Suddenly, the leader of the French pack appeared in the parking lot and began walking towards us. Oh man, we thought. He's coming to tell us that they're going to join us; exactly what we didn't want to hear. As it turned out, he had a different message for us. The 3 of them had already solidified a ride by walking around and asking people the night before and suggested that we try to find a ride that way. We had thought about doing that, but simply walking up to people asking for a ride and putting them on the spot like that seems a little bit rude and isn't our cup of tea. “Thanks for the advice” we said with fake smiles on our faces which faded as soon as he turned around. Our chances of getting a ride was rapidly dwindling. There were only about 10 campers with racks left at Nordkapp so we decided to test our luck.

We stood around for the next 10 minutes trying to figure out how we should go about these awkward encounters, what we should say and most importantly which of us unlucky souls would be the one doing the talking. After much debating it was decided that I'd be the one to talk “because you're a cute girl and people will be more likely to agree to give us a ride if you ask” was Mike's argument. Personally I thought that was a bunch of bologna but figured the worst that could happen was we'd get told to buzz off.

And so the face to face ride search began. The first guy I asked was super friendly and agreed to take us about 100 km to the point where he'd be turning toward Finland. Well, that was a good start but we thought we'd should ask around some more to see if anyone was going further. We got a handful of “no's,” a yes from a couple of old Finnish burnouts who had just driven 22 straight hours from southern Finland to Nordkapp and an “our camper is only registered to carry 4 passengers because of seat belts and if we get pulled over I'll get in trouble” from a gruff-looking, goatee'd guy in a Harley shirt. We immediately wrote that one off as a no and decided we'd take a short ride from the first guy, try hitching again from where he dropped us off and if worse came to worse we'd hitch with the Finnish guys. Just when we thought we were set, the first guy meandered over, shuffling his feet and informed us that his wife had vetoed his offer so he wouldn't be able to help us. Well, the Finnish guys it was. They weren't leaving until 3pm so we just sad on some rocks, waited and deep down hoped that someone else would pick us up.

As luck would have it, shortly after we sat down, a camper pulled up next to us and out hopped the guy with a goatee asking if we still needed a ride. “Well, we're still here, aren't we?” we replied as we began loading our bags into the camper and bikes on the back. They were headed to Alta that day, some 150 miles south of Nordkapp, a great start to the 750 miles we were hoping to cover. The ride was pleasant, filled with small talk with Roar, his wife Sorfrid, their son Henning and Sorfrid's brother, David. As we neared Alta Roar turned to us and said, “we have a place for you to sleep tonight if you'd like. David lives in Alta and we will stay at his house. There's a small BBQ house where you can sleep and the only thing you have to do in return is play a game of volleyball with us.” We were sold! When we arrived to David's house, we were greeted by his wonderful wife Ninni as dinner was being set on the table. Mike was in heaven eating reindeer stew, we showed our not-so-impressive skills in a humorous backyard game of volleyball, we were treated to hot showers, taken on a personal midnight tour from Ninni at a World Heritage Site in Alta of an extensive display of ancient rock carvings and to top it off, got to sleep in beds that night.
Sorfrid, Roar, Henning, Ninni, Cari & Mike

Mike, David, Henning & Sorfrid playing volleyball. 

 Rock carvings

We had planned to haul our bikes back out to the highway the following morning, but right before we went to bed Roar told us they were continuing south for a bit more and were more than happy to take us with them to the point where they'd be turning off of the main highway towards the Lofoten Islands. Amazed at our luck, we piled back back into the camper the next morning and just before they dropped us off we pulled over, had a big BBQ lunch and were invited to stay at their house in Trondheim (if they're home) when we get there. We cannot thank Roar, Sorfrid, Henning, David and Ninni enough for their incredible kindness towards us. They went so far above and beyond giving a couple of bums a ride (a total of 360 miles); they welcomed us like family.
Henning, Sorfrid, Roar & Cari

We got dropped off in Nordkjosbotn in the evening, stood by the side of the road for a couple of hours, but eventually gave up for the night and set up camp. The following morning we checked into bus tickets, but of course, they were painfully expensive, as we are in Norway afterall. On our way back out to the highway we spotted a camper at the supermarket with an empty rack. Well, it worked once so we might as well shamelessly try it again. I rolled up to the driver, asked if they were headed south and if they'd be willing to give us a ride. “I'll have to ask my wife” was the reply. No sooner had we backed away thinking it would be a negative, which is usually the case when the wives are asked, that a woman walked out of the store, gave her consent and we were loading into another camper. They told us that they were headed to Narvik, 120 miles south and were hunting something or another so it would be slow-going. Are you hunting a kind of animal we asked? No. Are you hunting for a certain type of berry, which we've seen a lot of people doing? No. We had no idea what it was they were searching for, but we weren't really in a hurry and beggars can't be choosers. A ride is a ride.
Granny, Jatage & Miritta

It immediately became clear to us that this Finnish couple was gung-ho about Geo-caching, a game we knew nothing about until we stayed with my uncle in Huron, South Dakota nearly a year ago. It was quite possibly the slowest 120 miles we've even driven as we stopped at least 20 times to join in the game as the enthusiastic couple searched high and low, in buildings, under bridges, in rock crevasses and under tree roots to find random objects hidden by other people and then happily crossed it off of their list. Once again we were treated wonderfully, and owe many thanks to Maritta and Jatage for the ride, the lunch and the introduction to Geo-caching.
Mike & Jatage Geo-caching.

As before, we arrived at our destination late in the evening and had no luck finding a ride as everyone we asked seemed to be going in the opposite direction, or that's what they told us anyway. Both of us, tired of standing on the side of the road begging for rides, didn't want to waste another entire day, so we decided that we'd catch the early morning bus from Narvik to Fauske, a 150-mile section of busy, winding, shoulder-less highway with a total of 17 tunnels. As we watched from the windows of the bus, we concluded that avoiding that stretch of road was well worth the $100 we paid for tickets.

We arrived in Fauske at noon with the intention of giving hitchhiking a try for a few hours and if we had no luck, would ride the final segment of highway E6 to Mo i Rana, the point where we entered Norway, the following day. We got off the bus, rode into the city center and saw a camper sitting at a gas station. Here we go again. I pulled up to the window, asked if we could get a ride and almost immediately got an affirmative answer that they too were going to Mo i Rana and were willing to take us. We slept for most of the ride with Uwe and Heidi, a German couple, as we'd had several consecutive short nights of sleep. They dropped us off near the campground where we stayed for a night and from there we planned to ride south.
Friend, Heidi & Uwe

We are truly grateful to the 3 camper vans that collectively drove us 600 miles, enabling us to avoid cycling on a terribly busy highway where there were no alternative routes. Every one of you were far more kind and generous to us than we ever expected; many thanks to all of you!

8.02.2011

THE MIDNIGHT SUN

Once back on the mainland we continued to head north with one destination in mind; Nordkapp (The North Cape), which is the northernmost point in Europe to which you can drive without taking a ferry. We were fortunate to stay with Stig-Martin, a warmshowers host, for a couple of nights in Russeluft, one of only two hosts in all of northern Norway. It was a much-needed stop for all 3 of us having ridding 12 straight days without a rest day and equally as long without a proper shower. We were beyond filthy, exhausted, desperately needed to do laundry and a major bout of bike maintenance as none of our bikes were working well anymore. We got everything we needed and more – lots of bike touring talk, an amazingly welcoming host and a delicious BBQ with the whole family. We left Russeluft feeling clean and refreshed for the final 2-day push to Nordkapp which was anything but easy as the road was continuously climbing and descending, never flat, as we snaked our way around one fjord after another.
Ben, Benjamin, Kesia, Mike & Stig-Marting...BBQ'ing

There were many Sami souvenir shops along the way, the Sami people being the indigenous semi-nomadic reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia, selling furs, antlers and dried meat. The reindeer population drastically increased forcing us to slow down or pull over on many occasions. I'm positive that reindeer are the stupidest animals on the planet. Northern Norway has so few people, leaving millions of acres of open space for the animals to roam, yet the reindeer opt to graze, walk and relax on the highways instead and are far from frightened by people or vehicles. Unlike deer who freeze for a few seconds, hesitate but then eventually run off of the roads, when a reindeer is in the ditch and sees us coming, rather than running away it runs onto the road and proceeds to awkwardly gallop in a zig-zagging line down the road in front of us. Other times they simply stand there, usually in the most inopportune of places, like a bend in the road or the entrance to a tunnel. Cars crawl to within inches of them but still no amount of yelling, bell ringing, horn honking or whistling can get them to move. It's a wonder how there aren't hundreds of dead reindeer in the ditches but we have yet to see one.
A Sami souvenir stop along the highway. 

Reindeer blocking a tunnel.

The day we arrived to Nordkapp turned out to be quite a monstrous ride. It began with a series of tunnels, the first being relatively short, but dark and drippy once the reindeer moved out of the way and allowed us to enter. The 3rd and 4th were not noteworthy at all but the 2nd was by far the most intense tunnel any of us have ever been in. Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad in a car but it was 6.87 KM long and steeply dropped to 212 meters below the ocean's surface. (For those who only think in miles and feet, the tunnel was 4.27 miles long and 695.5 feet deep). The ride down was fast and exciting at a 9% grade which allowed us to move at high enough speeds to ride in the traffic lane. Climbing out the other side was a different story, however. The grade increased to 10% which, on a loaded touring bike is really difficult. Often at grades this steep we have to switchback our way up the long hills, but we were confined to a 2-foot wide slab of asphalt where if you swerved to one side you ended up in wet mud and if you swerved to the other side you ended up going off a curb into traffic. It took major concentration to keep the bike on the little bike path at such slow speeds and we've never been more relieved to see the light at the end of the tunnel as we were after that particular one.

After the under-sea tunnel we met a Danish guy, Martin, who was also heading to Nordkapp so we invited him to join us. We arrived to the town of Honningsvag to buy groceries for the next few days as there's nothing available at Nordkapp, fill up water and find camp for the night. It was late and we were tired but we were less than 20 miles away from our destination which made it difficult to call it quits for the day. The group was a little indecisive on whether to stop or keep going so the executive decision was made to press on. It may have ended up being the most difficult 20 miles of our entire European bike tour. Little did we know when we set out that it was going to be 20 miles of mostly climbing in an absurdly dense fog that left us soaking wet and icy cold.

We arrived to Nordkapp at midnight on the dot, 4 grueling hours after we left Honningsvag, all of us completely bonked, eyes wind burnt, starving and shaking from the cold. The weather forecast for that night showed it as being our best bet at seeing the midnight sun but instead we couldn't see 10 feet ahead of us and were completely miserable. Moreover, we were greeted with a sign 500 meters before Nordkapp stating that there was a $50 per person entrance fee to walk out to the infamous globe. To ride all that way and then be told to fork over $200 between the 4 of us was outrageous. We turned back 200 meters, set up camp outside the toll booth as quickly as possible, chowed down some dinner and passed out before any of could enjoy the celebratory beers we lugged up the mountain for the occasion.
It was supposed to be sunny when we arrived!

We awoke the next afternoon to thick fog, just as it had been the night before, though by the time we'd eaten breakfast it was beginning to thin. We took this as our opportunity to disappear into the fog and sneak around the toll boot. There were no fences and no one checking tickets which made it amazingly easy to walk right into the visitor's center and out to the globe. Martin had purchased a mini bottle of champagne which he so gratefully shared and the 4 of us toasted our accomplishment and snapped what could potentially have been a $200 picture for free.
Ben, Martin & Mike using the fog to sneak around the toll booth. 

Martin, Cari, Mike & Ben celebrating with a glass of champagne. 

Cari & Mike at the globe.

From Nordkapp we were all heading separate directions; Ben back home to France as this was the end of his trip, Martin to Russia and me and Mike attempting to hitchhike about 750 miles south to the city of Mo i Rana which was where we entered Norway a few weeks ago in hopes that we wouldn't have to backtrack this busy section of highway that we had already ridden. We packed up our gear and stood just outside the toll booths thinking that surely one of the hundreds of camper vans in the parking lot would gladly pick us up. We stood there for 4 hours, watched thousands of people in cars and buses arrive, but only about 5 campers departed, none of which showed any interest in having us join them. We were completely baffled as to why no one was leaving. It was still foggy so the chances of seeing the midnight sun was slim to none and besides, yesterday was the day with a promising forecast. Maybe there was something everyone else knew that we didn't.

Suddenly, at 8pm, the sky began to clear, a patch of blue sky was growing right above us, the fog grew thin and wispy and revealed beautiful cliffs dropping a sheer 1000 feet down to the Arctic Ocean. Though we had technically caught the midnight sun quite a while ago, we had yet to see it as it had been cloudy every night. Perhaps it was good no one picked us up; maybe we were going to get lucky, if only the fog would completely burn off and stay away for 4 more hours. Cars were pouring into the parking lot keeping the toll collectors occupied so we not-so-discreetly rolled our bikes right on in to the tent area hoping to go unnoticed. Once again it worked so we set up camp and proceeded to choose our spot on the cliffs to watch the sun make its slow, angled descent towards the sea. As the hours passed the fog disappeared, the sun transitioned from white to yellow to deep orange until it ever so lightly kissed the northern horizon at midnight and then began its beautiful early morning ascent into the northeastern sky.
The fog beginning to lift. 

 8 pm.

9 pm.

10 pm. 

11 pm. 

The sun through the globe. 

The midnight sun. 

1 am...and then the clouds moved in.