Monday, September 20, 2010

Couple's cross-country bike trip was an adventure in tandem

Jenny and Brett Constantine celebrate their accomplishment after dipping the front tire of their tandem recumbent bicycle in the ocean along the Oregon coast.

Simply Living

(First appeared September 19, 2010)

"We're home!" my daughter called to tell me.

On Sept. 7, after 91 days and 4,380.1 miles, Jenny and her husband, Brett, completed their cross-country bike trip and flew back to New England. I first wrote about their adventure June 7, the day before they mounted their tandem recumbent bicycle and pedaled away from their home in Florence, Mass.

In June, Jenny and Brett began an odyssey that took them through 12 states and one Canadian province. They rode up and down mountains, through lush farmland, hot desert, tiny towns and small cities. They averaged almost 50 miles a day, with an average speed of about 10 mph. Although they mainly traveled on scenic secondary roads, they occasionally ventured alongside speeding trucks on major highways as well as over gravelly side roads and vehicle-free bike trails.

A number of mechanical breakdowns occurred during their trip. They replaced their bicycle computer three times and changed four flat tires and more than a dozen tire tubes. The only physical ailment was Brett's knee, which became painful after the first days. A knee brace and frequent stretches kept the pain at bay, and by the time they reached the state of Washington, my son-in-law was able to pedal painlessly without a brace.

Although they mainly stayed in campgrounds, their accommodations also included a couple of hostels, three overnights in the homes and yards of people they met along the way, a few stealth campsites and three stays with members of the bicycling network called

Only on seven occasions did they indulge in the luxury of a motel room. One of those occasions was Day 20 outside Sandusky, Mich. After biking for 40 miles through one downpour after another, Jenny and Brett were ready for a night of comfort. They chose a motel that offered a biker's discount, pulled their 45-pound riding machine into the room, spread their wet items out to dry and took showers before preparing a delicious dinner on their camp stove.

"It felt really good to have a big bed to spread out on, in a dry room, out of the rain," Jenny wrote that night on their blog, PlayAlways.

Thanks to their online journal, staying connected was easy. A lightweight netbook and digital camera enabled the pair to capture images and keep friends, family and acquaintances well informed.

"It does my mother-heart good to know where and how you are!" Brett's mother, Kathy Ruseckas of Leyden, Mass., commented on the blog.

I couldn't have agreed more. The blog was both comforting and exciting to follow. The pictures and travel descriptions were so compelling that I often felt like I was along for the ride. I loved seeing all the different kinds of wildflowers they saw along the roads. I found the varied landscapes they passed fascinating and the sunsets beautiful. They saw so much wildlife.

"We loved seeing so many birds of prey in every state, especially once we left the Northeast. In the Midwest, we saw several hawks on telephone poles just about every day. We even saw a couple bald eagles! Farther west, we saw prairie dogs and a large rattlesnake in Montana. In Idaho, we saw two moose! When we got to the Pacific, we were lucky enough to spot whales," Jenny wrote in an e-mail.

Other animal sightings included beavers, foxes, kingfishers, pelicans, raccoons, skunks, butterflies, groundhogs, songbirds, great blue herons and, of course, hundreds of deer.

"Seeing so many animals was one of our favorite things about our summer on a bicycle," Jenny said.

Although they expected to see wildlife when biking, a couple of animal sightings gave them pause. On Day 50 they passed a zebra grazing in a field outside Plevna, Mont., and on Day 67, when they were just over 3,300 miles into their trip, they spotted a camel. A solitary dromedary was sauntering over the arid ground outside Walla Walla, Wash.

While I envied much of their adventure, I'm glad I wasn't there to experience the mosquitoes and flies. Hordes of bugs were a daily annoyance. Bugs bit while they biked and when they were setting up camp. Many nights were a struggle to eat and sleep bug-free.

When I asked Jenny and Brett what they missed most about being away from home they said: "We missed friends and family most, but also being able to shop for more than a meal or two at a time in the stores. Sometimes, we missed having a place to escape the elements or the bugs."

To me, escaping the elements and bugs would have topped the list.

Food was a frequent focus of their daily reports. They stuffed themselves on berries found along the road — blueberries, blackberries, red raspberries and blackcaps — and in Michigan's Upper Peninsula they were introduced to the meat pies known as pasties. They picked figs in Portland, Ore., ripe plums in Idaho and cherries in Ontario. When they pedaled to the top of their last mountain pass and crossed the border into Idaho, they celebrated by eating a small watermelon they had carried up the mountain.

I'm proud of Jenny and Brett for dreaming big and accomplishing their goal. More important, I'm proud of all the kindness and consideration they bestowed on each other. Anyone with willpower can rack up miles, but it takes a special type of person to withstand difficulties with compassion and patience. Jenny and Brett sang songs as they pedaled across the country. They laughed often and made time for play. "Playalways" is not just the name of their blog, it is a personal philosophy that will serve them well in their many journeys to come.

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