Archive for the ‘Roadtrips’ Category

Sleepless ferret time

Monday, July 28th, 2014

I left off in the last blog about halfway through my 10 day trip in the Airstream Interstate. … and then, silence. That’s because I got back from the trip and immediately launched into a couple projects atop my day job of being the Airstream Life magazine Editor & Publisher, not the least of which was to write a guidebook about the Airstream Interstate.

Writing a guidebook is not really such a bad job, unless you, for reasons that cannot be fully explained here, have a deadline to complete the entire thing in three weeks. Then it’s an exercise to see how long you can stand to (in the words of Hunter S Thompson) work like a sleepless ferret, and still produce readable prose.

Not only readable, but accurate. These days, in the era of e-books, anyone can be a publisher, and sadly there are a lot of guidebooks available now that lack reliability and comprehensiveness. So I spent the last three weeks gorging on information and attempting to become expert on the intricacies of the Interstate motorhome, while typing out pages as quickly as I could.

So my blog stories of the Interstate trip suffered, but the good news is that I finished the first draft of the book last night. It’s off to my illustrator, and then I’ll run it past a few folks at Airstream and Airstream dealerships for fact-checking.  With luck, the ebook can be out in September. It will probably run about 80 pages long in the final version. I’m just glad it’s off my desk and out of my head, so I can think like a normal person for a while.

I owe you a conclusion to the blog series I started.  After I finished coastal Route 1 I headed up to spent a couple of nights in friendly driveways in the Silicon Valley area. I have a few friends up there, and one of them had a nice long fenced-in driveway in Los Altos that was just perfect.

After that I took the inland (101) route back to the Murphy Auto Museum Oxnard and spent the Fourth of July having dinner in Malibu with a friend.  I’ve never been to Malibu before, but now that I’ve had a chance to see some of the spectacle there (lots of elaborate parties going on, and the people-watching was fantastic) it’s possible we’ll make another visit as a family someday.

On Saturday the fifth I took the Airstream down the coast to San Pedro (where the cruise ships depart Los Angeles) to meet some other folks. I got there a little early, so I found a spot in a Home Depot parking lot where a Mexican food truck was making quesadillas, and had a casual lunch in the Interstate under the shade of some trees. At this point I was feeling completely at ease with the motorhome; we were a team of urban explorers willing to go anywhere.

Tom M, a friend and blog reader, wrote in to ask:

- Was there anyplace that it was too big to park?

Well, yes, you can’t fit a 25-foot motorhome just anywhere. Some friends I wanted to visit in Sunnyvale CA had a driveway that was less than 25 feet long, and HOA rules about “oversized vehicles” being parked overnight on the street, so I stayed in Los Altos and they picked me up. But in Veterans Memorial Park in Monterey CA, there was a rule supposedly prohibiting vehicles over 23 feet or so.  Half a dozen white box “Cruise America” rental motorhomes were camped there, all much longer than the limit, so I found a campsite that fit the Interstate and spent a peaceful night. Otherwise, I took it just about everywhere I wanted.

- Was it a hassle to pack-everything-up when you wanted to take day trips from the campsite?

Not for me, but then I was traveling light & solo. You can’t really spread out a lot in a B-van, so getting ready to break camp was mostly a matter of doing the dishes and tossing a few things into cabinets. I was usually ready to go in less than 10 minutes. Your mileage may vary.

The portability of the machine was its best feature, at least to a guy who has spent the last nine years in a rig 53 feet long. I took every opportunity to park it in places I’d never go with our 30-foot trailer, including parallel-parking on the street in Santa Barbara, pull-outs along California Route 1 and Tucson’s Catalina Highway (pictured below), grocery store parking lots, and undersized campsites.

 

Perhaps my favorite stop was on the coast north of Malibu at Point Mugu. I would have spent the day there if I didn’t have an appointment later that day…

Airstream Interstate at Pt Mugu CA

After finishing business in Los Angeles, it was time to head toward home. My conundrum was where to stay.  All week I’d been wrestling with this: toward the coast it was pleasantly cool but the holiday travelers had everything booked up in advance, while inland I’d find plenty of uncrowded places to stay–all of which would be scorching hot. So leaving Los Angeles was bittersweet.

I finally opted for heat, but with a compromise.  North of Palm Springs is the Morongo Casino, which offers free overnight RV parking. Being a little higher in altitude and not quite as far into the Coachella Valley it was not terribly hot (by my standards) which meant a night around 80 degrees. It wasn’t practical to run the generator all night for air conditioning, so I just lived with it.

The next day was my torture test for the Interstate. Seven hours of driving through 100+ degree temperatures, at 75 MPH most of the way, including a 1000 ft climb where the road signs say to turn off the air conditioning or risk overheating.  The Interstate was impressive, and I got 16.0 MPG despite the fast drive. It was too hot in the back, where the dash A/C couldn’t reach, so at one point I ran the generator and the ceiling air just to see what would happen. (It worked fairly well.)

I spent one night at home in Tucson, then took a day to drive up to the peak of the Santa Catalina Mountains to get caught in a thunderstorm, then drove the Interstate to a meeting in town (again no trouble parking) and finally spent the night in Casa Grande AZ before dropping the motorhome off in Scottsdale in the morning. Total: 1,600 miles of driving in ten days.

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I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  This was a fun trip. People who drive these things really have an interesting range of opportunities available to them. Obviously you give up a lot in terms of space, but on the other hand you get a lot of flexibility.

In fact, I’m hoping to get another shot at it later. Airstream is bringing out a new B-van in September, to be called “Grand Tour,” and it is supposed to be more camper-ish (less seating, more space for living).  I want to get my hands on it. That’s going to be difficult for a while, since production will probably be limited and I expect demand to be high.

Now that the Interstate trip is over, and the book is mostly done, what’s next? Tomorrow I fly back to Vermont to be reunited with my family, and in a week or so we’ll start the next adventure, our 3,000 mile trip back to Arizona, via Ontario.

 

An ideal TBM vehicle

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Traveling in the Airstream Interstate turned out to be a good TBM*  adventure. I recommend it.

(* = Temporary Bachelor Man)

As a solo travel vehicle, it’s pretty roomy.  I didn’t need all the nine seating positions, but during the course of the trip I managed to try all of them out anyway.  In the evening I could watch a movie on the Blu-Ray player from one of the seats in the second row, or from the bedroom/rear couch in the back.  Sometimes I’d swivel the front passenger seat around and use it as my workstation with the dining table.  Other times, like when I was parked at the beach, I’d put my feet up on one seat in the back (don’t tell Airstream I did this with their loaner) while sitting on the opposite seat, to read a book.  When the bed was set up, I had the equivalent of a King all to myself.

Being TBM my plan was to move fast and travel light, if you can call having five tons of vehicle “light”.  What I mean is that I stocked the fridge with only a few essentials, slept in a sleeping bag rather than setting up the bed nightly with sheets, and moved every day.  I wasn’t going to be living in the Interstate like a full-timer, but I intended to use every system on the rig that I could, because there were four major goals to the trip:

1. Learn how the Interstate works, for a book I’m working on.

2. Gather information and photos for an article for The Star, the Mercedes-Benz Club of America (which will appear in the Sept/Oct issue).

3. Build up a stock photo library for future Airstream Life articles.

4.  Cover a lot of miles to get plenty of driving experience.

But driving around aimlessly is no fun, so I set a goal to get up to the Silicon Valley area to see some friends, taking the scenic coastal Route 1 highway to get there. This turned out to be a great decision.  The last time we did that highway was with the 30-foot Safari in tow, and it was one of the most memorable drives we’ve ever done. With a 25-foot motorhome, it was even easier.

Grant me a moment for a minor car review here:  The Mercedes Sprinter is an awesome basis for a motorhome.  Considering its bulk, it handles remarkably well, accelerates and brakes well, gets good fuel economy (on diesel), and is really easy to drive.  Anyone with decent driving skills would have no trouble taking it on a curvy, hilly, occasionally intimidating road like California Route 1.  And I really liked the fact that I could pull over in any of the small dirt spaces alongside the highway to stop and take pictures.  So I did that a lot.

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The weather along this road is pretty changeable, thanks to fog banks that reside just offshore.  When the fog was away, it was generally about 80 degrees.  When the fog crept in, suddenly it would be as low as 55 degrees.  I liked that.  In one day I got dozens of shots for my photo library, with radically different scenery.

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In Monterey I found a public parking lot with dedicated RV spaces for “RVs up to 25 feet”. Well guess what, mine was 25 feet, so I plunked myself down next to the harbor for a day just to listen to the water sounds while catching up on some work.  Monterey even provided free public wifi, and a short walk away at Fisherman’s Wharf I was able to get a nice salmon sandwich for lunch and listen to the sea lions bellowing for a while.  If they hadn’t had a “no overnight sleeping” ordinance I probably would have never left.

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This was where the size of the Interstate really worked for me.  Not only was it easy to navigate downtown Monterey, but I was able to squeeze into a little city park at the top of a hill for the night.  The park is too small for most travel trailers and it didn’t take reservations, so by just showing up I actually scored a nice campsite for a night despite the masses of holiday campers elsewhere.

The next day I didn’t have as much luck.  I made sure to dump and fill before leaving the campground because I knew I might not get another campground for a while.  Sure enough, I finished the coastal drive as far as Big Sur, but every campground along the route was full.  Eventually I ended up at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which also had a “CAMPGROUND FULL” sign.  From prior experience I knew that despite the sign it pays to ask, and sure enough they had an overflow area where I was allowed to stay for the night.  It wasn’t a deal, since I had to pay the same rate as a campsite ($35) for what amounted to a parking space in a neglect asphalt lot, but given that it was July 1 in Big Sur, it was lucky to get anything at all.

No problem, this gave me another chance to experience boondocking in the Interstate.  I was getting to know this machine pretty well, and even starting to feel a little pride of ownership (except that it would only be mine for a few more days).  At this point I’d figured out all the key stuff: the efficient way to take a shower using the hand-held showerhead in the wet bath; where things fit best in the refrigerator; how to convert from seats to bed in less than a minute; how to change lanes in traffic without crushing somebody in a Mini; which outlets were powered by the inverter, etc.  But I never did figure out what that hammer was for …

Cool day in a cool van

Monday, June 30th, 2014

My goal for the Interstate was to try to find its natural place in the world, in other words to see what it was best at doing.  Having pulled a 30-foot Airstream travel trailer all over southern California, I had the opportunity to compare experiences and go where the big trailer couldn’t.

There was a problem with this great plan, however.  June 28, my first day, was also the first day of a holiday week.  In my part of the world people don’t begin celebrating July 4 until at least July 2, but the Californians apparently feel differently.  They crowded every available campsite from San Diego to San Francisco for the entire week and I discovered my chances of getting a nice spot anywhere near the ocean were virtually nil.

Had I not had several years of experience at finding alternative overnight stops, I might have given up right then and headed inland to the scorching desert.  No problem getting campsites in places where the temperature is running 110 degrees or so. But I wanted to experience the coast, so it was time to call on every resource I had.

My Saturday night stop was easy.  I just stayed parked at the Murphy Auto Museum overnight.  I hadn’t planned to spend the first night without hookups, but it seemed like a good chance to test all the Interstate’s systems.  Sunday morning I took a drive up to Ojai, then wandered down to Santa Barbara on country roads past orchards and ranches, staying off Hwy 101 for as long as possible.  That’s one of the nice things about the Interstate compared to a travel trailer.  I didn’t have any hesitation about trying narrow, winding road that might eventually force me to make a U-turn.  Twenty-five feet of motorhome isn’t exactly compact, but it’s a breeze to turn around compared to 53 feet of truck and trailer.

In Santa Barbara I got my first tank of diesel.  Turns out the Interstate has the same fuel capacity and slightly better fuel economy than my GL320, so it was a familiar experience, and not nearly as traumatic as I had feared it might be.  At the fuel station I got the first of many inquiries about the Interstate.  This is not a stealthy vehicle. People can’t help but notice it, and quite a lot of them will ask questions or even hint for an interior tour.  I ended up giving 15-20 tours over the course of ten days.  People want to know what it costs and what fuel economy it gets, and then they are often amazed to find that it has a full bathroom with shower.

A little further up the road I saw a sign for El Capitan Beach State Park and decided to drop in there, just to park in the day-use area for a while.

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For $9 I had this spot for the entire day, and it was a truly beautiful day.  I opened all the windows, broke out a cold drink and a snack and a book, and settled in for a while.  I could hear people walking by and saying, “That’s a cool van!” and similar comments.  With the blackout windows and the day/night shades in “day” position, they couldn’t tell I was in there.

Later, when I felt like company, I slid out the big side door and got a spontaneous visitor about every twenty minutes.  One guy claimed the Interstate cost $300,000.  Another was so excited he went back to get his wife and kids for a second tour.  One woman got in, then gave me a look that said Uh-oh, I just got in a van with a strange man, but stayed for the tour anyway and then got her husband and friends. Lots of people took photos of themselves next to it.untitled

I couldn’t spend the night here, so I wandered further up the coast on the PCH, ending up in Buellton.  There’s a good RV park there that I figured was far enough inland to maybe have a site available, and that turned out to be a good guess.  $63 with taxes reminded me that I was indeed in California.

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Well, I needed a chance to hook up and try out all those systems too.  The full hookup site gave me a chance to try the fancy new macerator dump that the Interstate uses (no more stinky slinky) and I was favorably impressed with the neatness of the system.  I found a small water leak coming from the rig but it turned out to be just a dripping P&T valve on the water heater.  That’s an overpressure protection valve, and it’s a common issue that is easily rectified, but I just let it drip because it’s not significant and I didn’t expect to be using the water heater much.

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This evening I tested the video system by playing a movie on the Blu-ray DVD and both LCD TVs.  With a Bose active noise-cancellation headset plugged into the headphone jacks (by the second row seats), I couldn’t hear a thing from outside nor the vent fan humming above my head, and I got totally immersed in the movie.  This Interstate experience was starting to feel very decadent, especially compared to the two weeks I just spent on a motorcycle. I was beginning to think that after ten days it might be hard to give the thing back.

BMW tour wrap-up

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

It’s hard not to make the last day of an epic trip seem anti-climactic.  We wrestle with that every time we come back to home base with the Airstream.  The last day is usually over roads you already know well, and there’s always that sense of being so close to home that you may as well just blast through.  Sometimes in the Airstream we combat this by taking a completely unneeded detour, or spending another night less than 100 miles from home.  This also has the benefit of making our arrival time early in the day so unpacking isn’t done at the end of a long drive.

On the BMWs it was the same sensation, but rather than spend an extra night in the last 100 miles we just packed up our camp without rushing (the tents and ground cloths were particularly damp because of condensation) and then made lots of stops along Rt 2 through New Hampshire and Vermont, like dropping in on Dunkin’ Donuts in downtown St Johnsbury.  (No more Tim Hortons now that we are out of Canada).

I needed the breaks along the route anyway.  It was a colder day than most, and I had skipped the long underwear layer on the assumption that it would warm up later, but that never happened.  Eric bit the bullet and did a quick change outdoors about an hour into our ride, in a location where he’d be inconspicuous to passing traffic.  I wasn’t freezing so I just threw on another top layer, but it wasn’t really enough until the afternoon.

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Also, my shoulder was bothering me.  It has gotten better since that accident back near Murdochville, and now I can sleep on that side again without the pain waking me up, but in riding position with my arms extended and the constant vibration of the thumper, and road bumps, it begins to hurt after a while.  Eventually the pain becomes excruciating and I have to take a 10 minute break, which relieves it entirely.  I’ve had a lot of time to think about a particular blog comment by one of my curmudgeonly blog advisors, suggesting that this particular problem may eventually require surgery.  I’m thinking it won’t, because it has gotten steadily better.  At least I hope not.  I don’t want that sort of permanent souvenir of this trip.

And the trip has been amazing, almost worth a permanent twinge in the shoulder.  I look back over the last 13 days of it and it’s like three trips in one, with all the stuff we saw and did along the way.  I’m pretty sure I only covered the highlights here, and there are a thousand fascinating details that I’ve already forgotten.

Finally, in the afternoon of June 20, we rolled back into the Champlain Valley on a gorgeous sunny summer day, to our respective garages.  We had covered 2,600 miles on those little BMW bikes—a trip almost equivalent to riding them back to Tucson!  None of us thought we’d do such mileage.  We really didn’t know much of anything for sure, since every day was spontaneous.

Back at base, after a nice reunion with my family, I slowly unpacked all the gear, laid out the tent and groundcloth to dry in the sun, and made an enormous pile of laundry.  My motorcycle pants and jacket are flecked with asphalt, bugs, and mud.  My boots are unmentionable.  The helmet has a few new dings in the finish, and it’s probably time for me to put on a new, unscratched visor.

The BMW is looking good except for two broken turn signals and a very handsome scuff mark on the front fender.  We’ll fix the turn signals later.  Otherwise the bike has held up very well and I have a new appreciation for why Steve likes them so much.  It’s not nearly as comfortable as traveling by car or by Airstream, but there are definite advantages to the experience.

We had a great “wrap party” with friends on Saturday night, showing a quickly-made video of some of our 500 photos.  If you want to see more, check Flickr.com/airstreamlife for the album.

In a few days I’ll be flying to Los Angeles for another adventure, which will also be posted on this blog and pre-dated.  I’m picking up a new 2015 Airstream Interstate and taking it out for a 9 day adventure up the California coast.  This is a trip I’ve been anticipating for literally years, and it is finally coming together, so I’m very excited about it.  Long-time blog readers note: Since I’ll be traveling solo, I’ll also be hoisting the TBM flag for the month of July.

BMW day 12: Moosehead Lake ME to Mt Washington (NH)

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Ever since we crossed back into the US we could all sense that our trip was winding down.  Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine are all familiar territory, and I think we had the sense that if we weren’t careful we’d end up re-tracing roads we’d all driven before, and becoming bored with the final days of our trip.

Yet we were still in the midst of some beautiful country.  So despite having Gaspé behind us, we decided to maintain our relatively slow pace and try to find things to do in the upper part of Maine and New Hampshire that we had never done before.

day12 mapWe selected a convoluted path following Route 16 past small towns and summer cabins.  This turned out to be ideal.  While entirely paved, it had the benefit of lots of vistas, sweeping turns, interesting small towns, and not much traffic.  The weather was once again ideal for riding, so we settled in at about 45-50 MPH most of the way and just soaked up the scenery.

Early in the ride we stopped in Abbott, ME for a quick break.  Lately my shoulder has been bothering me more when we ride.  The arm extended position really starts to hurt after a while, so an hour is about all I can go without giving it a rest.

But this was really a great excuse to stop in at the Abbott Village Bakery where, as luck would have it, the donuts are truly awesome.  I got one for the road after eating an enormous I-forgot-what-they-called-it jelly and cream stuffed creation.  I may have forgotten the name but it will take me a long time to forget that donut. I’d go back but it’s almost 300 miles from our base camp in Vermont, and 2,900 miles from our base in Arizona.  Some great things are destined to stay local, and that’s a good reason to keep traveling.

Just down the road we found an ATV shop, too.  Steve had been struggling with chain lube ever since the trip started.  It wasn’t holding up, and he was re-lubricating and adjusting the chains nearly daily on both our bikes.  The solution, he decided, was chain wax, and Victory Motorsports in Maine had one can of the stuff left on their shelves.  We did a quick spray wax on all three bikes and it seemed to last a lot longer.

I was feeling so relaxed that I took very few pictures on this leg of the trip, and I even stopped writing nightly notes on our travels.  Sometimes you just have to experience the travel and not worry about documenting it.  Traveling by motorcycle was becoming as natural as Airstreaming, now that I had the routine down. As we paralleled the Kennebec River in Maine I remembered long-ago whitewater rafting trips done on that same stretch of water. It was all becoming very familiar and easy, even though I hadn’t seen most of the roads before and we didn’t yet have a firm destination for our stop that night.

Our working plan was to ride to Gorham, NH, and check out Mount Washington. If you aren’t familiar with it, it is famous as the location of the “world’s worst weather” and there is a road all the way to the summit which (yet another lucky break) would be open only to motorcycles on this particular day. We figured it was a sign that we were destined to end our day with an epic ride to the 6,000+ ft peak of Mt Washington.

We made it to Mt Washington around 5 p.m., after having spotted a magnificent moose along the road in northern New Hampshire.  (This was our fourth large mammal of the trip, counting the bear cub early on, the seal in Perce, a second black bear (full grown) along the dirt road to Murdochville, and not counting the numerous deer because I’d rather not see deer.  They like to jump in front of moving vehicles and I didn’t want to find out what happens when one jumps in front of a motorcycle I’m driving.)

It was still early enough to drive up the 8-mile road to the top, have a good look, and start heading back by the mandatory 6:45 departure. It was a very nice day by Mt Washington standards: mostly clear skies, temperatures in the 60s, winds running about 55 MPH.

Yes, I said 55 MPH. When we arrived there were dozens of motorcycles coming down the mountain, all much heavier bikes than ours, 1200 cc hogs and 1100 cc street or touring bikes, everyone wearing black leather & bandannas (New Hampshire has no helmet law), and all looking a tad pinched in the face from the wind chill, perhaps even grateful to be back at low altitude. But with hundreds of motorcycles going up that day, we figured “how bad could it be?”

Pretty bad.  Unlike virtually everyone else, we were on tall, light, high-clearance bikes designed to maneuver around rocks and through potholes. Where we had the advantage on tricky dirt trails, these guys had the advantage on pavement and most importantly, in wind.

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I promise not to exaggerate. This was without a doubt the most terrifying experience I have ever had while operating a motorized vehicle. The time that the trailer brakes on the Airstream went out while descending off a bridge to a stoplight in the rain was a relaxing nap compared to our ride up Mt Washington.

After we reached about 5,000 feet of elevation and were above the treeline, the road becomes entirely exposed to the brutal winds that never stop up there.  The gusts that hit us broadside were (we later discovered) reaching 65 MPH, which is still a nice day by Mt Washington standards but nearly impossible conditions for a BMW F650.  It was all we could do just to hang on to the handlebars with a death grip and try to stay upright against the unpredictable gusts.  My bike was being slapped around the road like a hockey puck.  Sometimes I had to lean sharply in the opposite direction of a turn just to counter the huge impact of the wind.  I felt like a Weeble, except that there was the very real possibility that at any point I would fall down or even be blown right off the road and down hundreds of feet down a rocky slope—because of course there are no guardrails on this road.

We got to the top somehow.  The wind was so strong in the parking lot that Steve had to relocate his bike into the lee of a large cliff, otherwise the wind was simply going to blow it over.  We finally had a chance to take off our helmets and talk, and discovered we’d all had the same experience and thoughts on the way up: holy wind gusts, Batman!  A ride like that will teach you to focus very sharply on the task at hand.  And I was already thinking of something horrible:  we had to go back down the road later.  Perhaps there was an Inn we could stay in, for a month or two until there was a small break in the wind?  Maybe we could call a flatbed to haul the bikes back?

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The picture above makes it look so pleasant, but you can’t see any indication of the wind that was howling at every moment.  I recommend Mt Washington in a car, or at least in a much heavier bike on the calmest possible day. Then you can really enjoy the view, the museum, the coffee shop, and the outdoor observation deck without having terror in your heart.

After about half an hour to calm down, we came up with a strategy.  Upward travel would be stopped at 6:00 pm, so we’d wait until about 6:10 to start heading down.  That way we’d likely be the only people on the road and could have the freedom of being blown across two lanes instead of just one.  That sounds ridiculous but it helped quite a lot.  Downhill turned out to be not quite as bad—we got a small break from the wind during the most exposed portion of the road—and when I counted bikes at the bottom there were still three of us.  A bit shaken, perhaps, but intact.

So be careful what you wish for.  We wanted something exciting and new to do on this last leg of the trip, and we got it.

Tonight’s stay is the peaceful Moose Brook State Park in Gorham NH. No bugs here, for some reason, so we got to stay DEET-free.  It’s a short ride to the center of town from the state park, and we found an excellent wood-fired pizza place in town (with a power outlet under the booth for me to charge up my helmet intercom and cell phone).  This night of camping will be our last on this trip.  Tomorrow, we have only a half-day ride back to home.

BMW day 11: Presque Isle to Moosehead Lake ME

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

It turned out that the weather report was depressingly correct again, and rain was coming soon.  I was feeling some pressure because I needed to locate a Notary Public in town, and I wanted to get that job done before the rain came in.  Around 8:30 I was finally able to find a law office in town where a notary was available, and so I zipped out while the other guys were still packing.  I got my documents signed and notarized, dropped them in a FedEx box, and finally was free of that business obligation.  So, back to motorcycling.

Now here’s the other part about working from the road.  You can’t really enjoy the travel if you mentally carry around your work worries with you.  I’ve had a lot of practice at this, so believe me when I say that one minute after I dropped the package in the FedEx box, I was thinking about nothing but our day of adventure ahead.  Compartmentalizing your work is a skill that full-time travelers must learn, if they are to have any fun at all.

It wasn’t yet raining as I went back to the motel, but the toes of my boots got soaked anyway from the puddles on the ground left by overnight showers.  So another lesson learned:  wear the overboots whenever the road is wet.  Or, as I’ve decided to do, invest in a good pair of motorcycle boots that are waterproof.

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Our route for the day was completely undetermined.  Steve hadn’t done much research on travels in the US.  He kind of regarded the trip as being more or less over with by the time we left Quebec.  But we had at least three days of travel remaining before we landed back in Vermont, and we needed to plan some sort of interesting route, or we’d just end up on the paved highways covering miles for the sake of covering miles.

We did some checking and were disappointed to find that virtually all of northern Maine is closed to motorcycles.  The roads up in the forests are all privately owned, by land conservation groups, paper and timber companies, and various others.  So the roads are all private too, and they are not exactly speedways. This was a major blow:  the most exciting roads were off-limits.

At first our route was just pavement, so it didn’t matter.  And it was raining again, so we weren’t eager to hit slippery dirt yet anyway.

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Even at our lunch stop, the rain continued.  But by the time we got to East Millinocket, things had cleared up and the lure of dirt riding was too much for Steve. If I had remembered my pledge to go wherever he led us, Eric and I might have allegedly possibly could have followed him along a 50 mile ride of hell.

Let’s just say that there are very good reasons why motorcycles are not allowed on certain roads.  There is no street bike or hog that could ride the road we theoretically might have ridden.  Harley riders, don’t take that as a challenge, it’s just a fact that might save your bike. Imagine water crossings with two-foot deep ditches, potholes with potholes in them, and sections so riddled with bone-jarring bumps that it would be more comfortable to just ride a mechanical bull in a 1980s romantic comedy.  Remember my sore shoulder?  If we had ridden that road—and I’m not saying we did—it would have been the least sore part of my entire body.

We ended our day in a nice state park called Lily Bay, near Moosehead Lake, ME.  The sites were wooded and lovely, the rangers were super friendly, and so were the mosquitoes.  You’re not supposed to feed the wildlife, but in this case, it’s hard to avoid without 100% DEET on your body.  I slapped one mosquito flat while we were checking in at the gate and without looking up the ranger said, “Thank you.”  One down, 75 billion to go.

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This was again the sort of place where we immediately slathered ourselves with DEET before we did anything else.  Fortunately, it worked.  We set up camp and set out for the town of Moosehead Lake (maybe 10 miles away) for dinner.  A light rain shower started again on our way to town, so we stopped and threw on the rainsuits again, but after dinner things cleared up to give us a nice evening ride back to the campsite.

Or so I thought.  Along the way back Steve took a detour up yet another dirt road, which turned out to be not much more than a road, but then he zigged again and found something really challenging.  I was in the third position, and feeling pretty tired.  I didn’t want to go down these roads so late in the day, and within just a few hundred feet the road got so technical that I was beginning to worry about crashing again.  But I couldn’t raise the other guys on the intercom because their batteries had run out, and I couldn’t catch up to them.  So after the second or third near-crash in a puddle or while avoiding a massive rock or fallen log, I just stopped.

They spotted me, waved, and I just shrugged.  So they came back, and we got back to the paved road, and headed toward camp again … when Steve spotted a sign indicating the route to a famous B-52 crash site.  We had read about this earlier.  Apparently the B-52 crash site is only 0.3 miles from the road.  Steve asked if I wanted to go see it, and I said, “Sure, we’ve got time before the sun sets.”

Little did any of us know that the crash site was not 0.3 miles from the paved road, but rather 0.3 miles from a dirt ATV trail off the paved road.  That dirt trail wound into the woods for literally miles, forking into separate trails periodically, and seemingly without end.  Once every mile or so we’d see another “B-52″ sign but no other indications of how much further it might be.

This wasn’t what I was expecting and I wanted to turn back, but I was so tired that even catching up to the other guys on this potholed loose gravel road was too much of a challenge for me.  So I followed, hoping eventually we’d find the B-52.

We never did find that crash site, but I made one of my own.  At one of the forks Steve stopped for a conference, and I said, “Forget it, I want to go back.”  The other guys were agreeable to that.  The fork in the trail formed a nice triangle that made for an easy turn-around, but right then my brain just suddenly forgot how to ride a motorcycle and instead of staying on the road I just helplessly watched as the motorcycle, seemingly under its own control, went off the road, across a ditch, and crashed gently into a stand of saplings.  I was on the bike and theoretically the operator, but for those few moments I could not remember even how to apply the brake.

Fortunately, the crash was soft and the bike jammed between a few trees so it was left standing upright.  I was so disgusted and upset that I just got off the bike and stomped off while Steve and Eric retrieved it.  I yelled to Steve, “I’m just too tired to keep riding!” and he said, “I can see that now.  We’re going back.”  It was 7:30 pm.

The crash did no damage other than to break the other front turn signal.  Eric made me feel better when he said, “That’s OK, they are supposed to be replaced in pairs anyway,” which is a mechanic joke.  The nice thing about riding with these guys was that when I did have an incident they just jumped in and helped, and didn’t make me feel worse about it.  But I did feel pretty awful and I was exhausted.  Plus, the score was now embarrassingly lopsided, Rich 4, Steve 2, Eric 0.

The campground bathrooms at Lily Bay are not close to the camp sites.  We had a pit toilet nearby, but for actual running water I had to hop on the bike one last time that evening around 7:45 pm and ride 1.2 miles to the shower house.  You can believe that I was extremely careful for that last ride.  I had pushed beyond my personal limits on this day, with about 200 miles of riding spread over 12 hours, at least 50 of which was tough dirt (theoretically), and the last thing I wanted was to crash again somewhere in the campground in the final mile.  I survived this final ride, said goodnight to the mosquitoes, and retired to my tent.

BMW day 10: Through New Brunswick and into the USA

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

When we woke in Carleton-sur-Mer it was another gorgeous day, but things were a little different now because we knew we were about to end our trip in Canada. After 9 days of touring Quebec I could easily have stayed another week to continue to explore, perhaps down into the maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.

I bet if I had really tried to twist the arms of Steve and Eric I could have convinced them to go further south into the maritimes, but I was the guy who had a deadline. An important business transaction needed to be done, and I had to be in the United States to do it. People were waiting for me to get off my bike and sign papers, and my first chance to do that would be in Maine. So instead of dreaming up grand tours from the map, we headed east back toward home.

But first we took one last quick tour around Carleton-sur-Mer, stopping at a cafe in town for a leisurely breakfast and coffee, and then up into the mountains above town to a church set on the peak 555 meters above our campsite, near yet another wind turbine farm.

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We lingered for a few minutes, taking in the view, and then turned the bikes downhill back to the coastal road and east to New Brunswick.

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The road through New Brunswick is not very exciting. Basically it cuts the corner of the top of the province in the shortest possible way, directly from the last stretch of coastline on Gaspé to Limestone, ME. We had received an offer via an Internet forum from a guy in New Brunswick who would take us on a more “interesting” path through the province, but with my looming deadline to get back into the USA, we had to pass on that. Our only stops in New Brunswick were to get gas (and a bunch of Canadian candy bars as treats for my ladies back home), and lunch.

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Crossing the border in Limestone ME would have been a non-event if I hadn’t gotten selected for a random search. This added a few minutes to the crossing, just filling out an I-9 form and having an agent take a perfunctory peek at the contents of my panniers. Nope, no alcohol, tobacco, firearms, merchandise, or contraband in there—unless you count a stash of 7 Canadian candy bars. Eric had a tough moment when the agent asked him where he was going. He didn’t know, so he just said, “I’m following those guys.”

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Not far down the road we found the former Loring Air Force Base. Like other abandoned bases in the northeast (Plattsburgh, Pease, Brunswick), there’s an attempt to convert it to a “business park,” but in this case not much is happening. Most of the buildings, including this massive hangar (of which only about 1/3 is shown in the picture) are slowly deteriorating. If you need indoor space to store a really huge RV, or perhaps 200 or 300 of them, I can recommend a spot in far northeast Maine.

We rode the motorcycles down the long taxiways to see everything. It’s not every day you can ride your motorcycle down the taxiways of a formerly secure military facility. The runways are so long that even at 60 MPH it takes a couple of minutes to get to the other end.

We ended up, as planned, in Presque Isle, ME. The weather was threatening again, so we holed up in a local motel—not a nice place, but cheap—and I started in on my business tasks. Now here’s an example of “working from the road,” for those of you who want to see the real gore involved. I had researched copy shop, UPS Store, and office supply locations previously while in Canada, so I knew there was a Staples in town. I rode over there, and using the store’s wifi I emailed my documents (seven of them) to the store’s print shop. They printed them out for me (about $2), and then I rode over to the nearest FedEx drop box (also previously researched) to get an overnight envelope. I put all of that in a plastic zip bag because the rain was starting up again, and rode back to the motel.

At the motel I wrestled for about an hour with Bank of America, trying to arrange a wire transfer. They wouldn’t do it over the phone, and there are no branches in Maine. I couldn’t do it on the mobile app, either. So I got onto the website and immediately ran afoul of security protocols, which required me to verify my identity with username, password, my business credit card number, and then a 6-digit security code sent to my phone. Then I had to set up the wire transfer recipient, which required another security code. With various website SNAFUs and re-tries, this took quite a while. Eventually I was able to break through the security cordon and order my wire transfer. I wasn’t done, but it was a good start.  Tomorrow I have to find a Notary Public.

After that ordeal, we decided that a walk to town for dinner would be good idea, and we scored by finding Governor’s restaurant. After many days of mediocre meals, this was a real treat. It turned out that we’d arrived on a special day when they were discounting lobster rolls to $5.55. If you’re not familiar with lobster rolls, suffice to say that they are awesome and normally run about $13-15. So Steve and I, being lobster fans, ordered two each.

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Since it was apparently gluttony night for the motorcycle boys, I also got a real American milkshake to make up for the disappointing one I’d had in Quebec. The waitress comped it because they didn’t have the flavor I wanted. Two thumbs up for Governor’s! We waddled back up the hill to our hotel, stuffed with lobster. Maybe it wasn’t so bad to be back in the USA after all…

BMW day 9: Chic-Chocs, and Murdochville revisited

Monday, June 16th, 2014

By this point in the trip it was obvious to me that when you’re on a motorcycle, a change in weather can make an amazing difference.  The weather prediction right on target when we woke up in Carleton-sur-Mer: dry, clear, pleasant temps in the 60s and low 70s, perfect for riding.  So it was a no-brainer to stay here another day and do some inland riding back to the Chic Choc Mountains.

Since we were going to be out all day and probably far out of range of restaurants, we made our first stopped the local Subway, to grab some sandwiches.  The ride first backtracked east along the coast to New Richmond, before heading up Rt 299.

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It’s funny how the ride gets better in the sunshine.  The road to New Richmond was the same one we came in on, but now I noticed sparkling blue water to my right, round green hills to my left, quaint farmhouses, and attractive beaches covered with colorful stones.  Where was all this stuff yesterday?

Our route up Rt 299 followed the Cascapedia River as we wound up the road into the interior of the Gaspé Peninsula, eventually rising to about 660 meters elevation.  At that point we reached a sort of “continental divide” and the waters started to run north instead of south.

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You can cross the peninsula on this road in about 2.5 – 3 hours.  We didn’t go quite all the way, but turned around at Gîte Mont-Albert, an inn/resort up in the mountains.  Just a couple of miles back I noticed a sign for “Chutes” (waterfall) and called the guys on the intercom.  A short walk into the forest put at the ideal lunch stop, and amazingly, up here in the mountains in June, there we absolutely no biting insects to be found.  Guess they were on vacation.

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Although Steve caught my in this photo without a smile, trust me, I loved this spot.  We picked out a nice spot on the rocks and soaked up a bit of sun while eating lunch.  I could have chilled out there for hours.  This was one of those peak “vacation moments” when everything was exactly right: perfect air, no bugs, great scenery, the sound of the water falling, nobody else around, and no schedule.

Now here’s where it gets weird.  We had some extra time to kill on the way back, and Steve wanted to take a side trip down a dirt road (of course) which led east and eventually (44 km later) ended up in Murdochville.  Remembering my promise to agree to ride wherever he suggested, I followed along.  But I was thinking that this was a pointless trip, since there wasn’t anything to see in Murdochville.  We were just there three days ago, in pouring rain.

Well, I was sort of right but mostly wrong. The dirt road wasn’t anything exciting, just another dirt road. But at the end, we found several interesting diversions in Murdochville.  First, Steve & Eric had to go explore a giant tailings pile leftover from the copper mining operations.

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Then, we easily found the access road that led up to some of the local wind turbines.  They were spectacular.  Even though you can see that the blades come nowhere near the ground, when you stand beneath them and the huge blade comes swooping down with a giant whoosh, it’s hard not to involuntarily flinch or duck.

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So it was strange to be back here.  One tourist visit would normally be enough to this town, but we went twice.  And I’m glad we did.

All that dirt road (88 km round-trip) meant all the cleaning we got from the rain was undone.  I hung about 1/4 mile back from the other guys because I got tired of breathing dust from their bikes.  But when when a logging truck passed there was no hope at all of avoiding the dust.  At one point two of them passed us and it was a virtual white-out.  We had to just pull over and wait a couple of minutes for visibility to return.

Once we reached Rt 299 again, we were on pavement, and conditions couldn’t be better.  I led the group all the way down, winding through the turns along the river at about 55 MPH, for two hours.  There was little traffic on Rt 299, so most of the time we owned the road.  I know that last stretch of road made me feel like staying in the area for another week.

Tonight we are back to camping.  Carleton has a nice public campground on the bay, located far out on a narrow spit of land.  It’s so low in elevation that a tide of four feet would probably flood the place, but I gather there’s not much tide here.  The campground has nice sites, good wifi, good shower houses, and was $25 for a tent site.  We grabbed two sites, and I had one of them to myself.

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After setting up camp, we rode back to town to grab dinner at a restaurant overlooking the bay.  (Everything overlooks the bay here, so that’s not as unique as it might seem.)  Next door was a dairy bar with an ad for poutine ice cream, but even Steve wouldn’t dare try that.  I had a disappointing “milkshake,” because I forgot that in Quebec milkshakes are mostly milk.  I also got a bad-news phone call from my business partner about contractual dispute with a vendor who was being a major PITA.  But nothing was going to ruin this day … and I slept in my tent that night with the satisfaction of having had a wonderful adventure.

BMW day 8: Perce to Carleton-sur-Mer in more rain

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

We woke up hoping for a break in the weather, but found the same steady rain we’d seen the night before.  That was depressing.  There wasn’t really any point in jumping on the bikes under those conditions, so we hung back in motel for a couple of hours to see if a change was coming.  Eventually we had to concede that no improvement could be expected and so we donned the gear once again and resolved press on in the grim conditions.  Steve even put on his matching yellow rainsuit, which he had resisted before.  At least now we had learned a few tricks to stay drier than before.  In my case: remember to put the overboots on before you go out in the rain.

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It was the same story as the day before: gusty winds again, cold rain, fog … Steve led us around a tour of Perce (trying to find an interesting road he saw on the map) but all we ended up doing was going in circles.  We drove up the 17% grade again to get a photo of Perce rock, and then started down the coast in search of better weather.  Now we were heading southwest, driving toward the approaching sunshine.

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The front tire on the Dakar was fairly worn when we started this trip, but usable.  In the rain and gusty winds, it was a different story.  I didn’t like the way the bike was handling.  Steve offered to swap bikes with me, because he has more experience, but I hate to pass off my problems on someone else, so I said I’d stick with it.  The bike felt so squirrely that I eventually didn’t feel safe going over 45 MPH, which was going to make a long and unpleasant ride even longer, so Steve asked again, and then on the third suggetion I finally agreed to try his bike instead.  The difference was surprising.   The Dakar has a taller suspension, larger front wheel, is slower at turning, and constantly felt like it was going to be blown over in the gusts.  The GS, which is otherwise identical, felt much more secure and I had no trouble going 55-60 MPH with it.

day8 mapI’m sure we passed a lot of great scenery on that ride.  We certainly covered a lot of the peninsula.  But as with the day prior, we didn’t really appreciate it much under the conditions.

We eventually stopped in St-Godefroi at a tiny roadside restaurant, really just to dry off a little.  My shoulder was hurting, my right foot was soaked (the overboot had a small leak somewhere), and gloves were saturated with water.  I squeezed out about a cup of water from them.  (The heated handgrips were the only reason my hands weren’t freezing.)

Once again we got the pitying look from the restaurant staff. Good thing they  were empty when we arrived, otherwise I wouldn’t blame them for throwing us out.  We were damp even inside the yellow rainsuits, and we squinched and dripped water with every step.  I dropped my gloves on the electric heater in a vain attempt to dry them out, and we left puddles on the vinyl chairs and table.  Steve had poutine again, which I think was his third or fourth of the trip.  I don’t know how a human being can survive on that stuff.

Since the winds had died down, after lunch Steve and I switched back to our regular bikes.  We continued onward without much hope of further improvement.  This ride was becoming an endurance run, just something to be survived.  As we got along the south shore of the peninsula, I noticed that the towns were getting more populous and interesting, with occasional “grand” houses and buildings with intriguing architecture, but it still wasn’t touring weather and we pressed on in the drizzle. We passed on some potential side trips because they’d take us up slick dirt roads and in the fog and rain we couldn’t see much anyway.

Finally around 2:30 pm the rain tapered off. Half an hour later the skies had lifted enough that we felt safe to stop and peel off the rainsuits. This felt wonderful, even with the gray scudded skies above that threatened to soak us again.  I didn’t care—I just wanted to unburden myself.  After wearing all the layers and rainsuit, riding in just motorcycle pants, jacket, and long underwear felt like riding naked. Eric unfortunately discovered a leak in his suit which wet his pants so much that he thought he’d be colder allowing it to dry in the breeze, so he kept his suit on.

At at 3:00 pm, we pulled into Carleton-sur-Mer just as a new shower was getting started.  We stopped at what was probably the most expensive place in town but also a great choice, the Motel Baie-Bleu. It was my turn to sleep on the floor.

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During the routine unpacking that afternoon, I found dampness inside one of my dry bags, which I think was condensation, and a leak in another plastic bag that was in the pannier.  No serious damage, but everything had to come out and be aired out.  We’ve discovered that in serious extended rain, nothing is truly waterproof.  Also, one of my two drybags has started to show signs of wearing through at a few points, mostly where the iPad case rubs against it.  I had purchased lightweight drybags and that has turned out to be a mistake.  They don’t have the durability or abrasion resistance needed for a long trip like this.  Also, the plastic hooks on my bungee cargo net are slowly melting from proximity with the muffler.

That evening we took a walk around town, visited the tiny harbor, and had a glamorous dinner at Subway.  It wasn’t high concept entertainment, but at this point it was about what we expected and it was all fine.  We see blue skies on the horizon and the low pressure system that has been responsible for this rain is moved off the coast of New Brunswick.  That means we should be in fine weather tomorrow, so we are considering staying here another night to do a large inland run back to the Chic Choc Mountains (on paved roads).  This will be about 200 miles roundtrip, with camping—finally!—at the end of the day.  We’ll make a decision in the morning.

BMW day 7: Gaspé to Perce in the rain

Saturday, June 14th, 2014

We woke to find terrible weather.  Fog, rain, wind, chilly temperatures—it was everything I’d expected from the weather forecast but was hoping wouldn’t happen.

Back at home in Vermont we weren’t getting any sympathy.  They’d been having rain for days, and what we were getting was just the fringe of a much larger storm.  But on the other hand, the folks back at home weren’t facing a motorcycle ride around the tip of a peninsula and the edge of the North Atlantic.

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It was also a shame to leave the comfy Motel Adams.  It had free wifi, free breakfast, free “buy one get one free” drink coupons (which we used the previous night in the bar) and nice rooms.  But after breakfast we suited up in full gear (rainsuits again) for an attempt at touring Forillon National Park.  The road follows the coast north and around in a loop back to Gaspé, about 70 miles or so in total, and on a nice day I’m sure it’s a great ride.

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It wasn’t a nice day.

Probably the less said about that ride, the better.  We survived, and I think we saw a lighthouse or something through our fogged visors, but overall the best part was coming back to Gaspé, opening up the motel room, and drying off.  I had made a serious mistake in forgetting to put on my waterproof overboots for the first five miles of the ride, and by the time I felt the moisture wicking into my socks it was too late.  So even with the overboots on I had soaking wet feet.

Since it was time for a conference, we headed to the Tim Horton’s (next door, of course) and in there we decided to continue forward to Perce.  There was really nothing else to be done about it.  The weather was going to last at least another day.

By the way, a blog comment came in yesterday asking about how we were doing with French.  I mentioned a couple of times in earlier entries that our combined French was pathetic.  However, I kept trying.  In the Tim Horton’s I asked one of the counter staff (using my college-trained Parisian accent) for “sucre s’il vous plaît” and I got the same response that I got every time I spoke French in Quebec: a blank look.  So I said in my best Amerricun accent “SUGAR” and she said to me, “Oh, sucre.”  I swear her pronunciation sounded exactly like mine, at least to my ears.

This happened so often that I was tempted to give up on French entirely, but I didn’t, and toward the end of our time in French-speaking Canada, I actually managed to have a pidgin-French conversation with a woman at a campground who spoke no English.  This, to me, was a major success.

Back to the ride:  it sucked.  Gusty winds, constant rain, very chilly.  Even with rainsuits, condensation and small drips eventually dampen everything.  The visibility was poor, the gusts of wind nearly blew me off the road at one point, and to top it off, the last down grade to Perce was 17% with curves and broken pavement, in fog.  In short, it was terrifying.  I was glad to get into Perce after a couple of hours of riding, and find a motel.  When I stomped into the motel office with my dripping suit, matted hair, and clunky (leaking) overboots, I got a pitying look from the desk clerk.

After hanging everything to dry and turning up the heat in the room, we went out for a walk to find dinner.  We got seafood in honor of being at the “turnaround point” of our Gaspé tour.  After traveling northeast for so long, we will now begin to head back southwest.  At this point there was not much between us and Europe except the fierce grey ocean, which was covered in stormy waves cresting on the rocks offshore.  We walked to the small town dock in the light rain, and saw a seal looking back at us—our second large mammal sighting of the trip.  Perce Rock, the iconic attraction of this town, was magnificent but forbidding when it was shrouded in fog.

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We came back to our room to find it like a sauna.  All the wet clothes had released their moisture into the room, to the point that it frosted my glasses with fog.  We had to leave the door open for an hour to vent out all the humidity.

We would all rather be camping tonight, but there’s little chance of that for a while. The weather report suggested a slight chance of improvement tomorrow, but as long as there is rain we are going to stick with motels so we can dry out our stuff at the end of the day.

Steve was “floor man” tonight.  Eric laid down on his bed to do something with his phone and fell asleep fully dressed at 8:00 pm. I guess all this rainy riding took it out of us today.  But hopefully this is the low point, and tomorrow the weather will be better.

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