Eleven years ago, I completed the Tour of Gondwana, an eighty-six-thousand-kilometer-long bicycle tour through the southern continents. Many people might consider that to be a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience, but our lives are long and the World is large. So—why not go around again! This site will chronicle my current Grand Tour, this time taking the name World2, and the posts presented here, which you will find below, will usually focus on three of my favorite topics. Please join me for the ride!
Recorded each day at 12:00 PM, map updated whenever wi-fi is available (zoom in for clarity.)
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The next destination that was relevant to my family story, was the small town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, in Caledonia County, one of three counties near the borders with New Hampshire and Canada, which, mostly for marketing purposes, are together referred to as the Northeast Kingdom. I had only uncovered my connection to that town relatively recently, but I was distinctly looking forward to my visit. Before I expand on my personal link, however, I want to mention some aspects of the route I used to get there, and about the town as it is today.
The next stop of the Tour that was relevant to my personal history was one that corrected an error made long ago. At the beginning of my first long tour, twenty-six years ago, I passed through the attractive region of western New York state. I was younger then, of course, and more interested in successfully reaching a high distance target each day, as opposed to seeing as many interesting things as I could. I knew beforehand that my great grandfather lived in the town of Batavia, today a rather disheveled small city that is the county seat of Genesee County. So I passed through there and thought, So that was it, and kept on riding. What I now know was that, about 30 kilometers farther west, I would also pass though another, smaller town, called Newstead, where two prior generations of my family had lived. In doing so, I would obliviously ride just one kilometer north of the land that they farmed for fifty years, a piece of property located along a road that is named for my family! Clearly, that oversight was something that desperately needed to be corrected during the World2 Tour.
One of the aims of the early part of the Tour route, which I have not mentioned before now, is to bring me to several of the places that my ancestors had lived. I have, off and on, been researching my family history for just over twenty-five years. For most of that time, we really knew very little about our ancestry, as the trail often disappeared into the fog as recently as the late nineteenth century. However, like many people, over the last decade, or so, I have benefited tremendously from the proliferation of online records databases and genetic testing services. Now, I have a picture of my personal history that is close to complete, at least on my father’s side of the family, and I will be able to visit several places that were important to that story, some of which I did not realize were involved until very recently. The first Tour stop where I can learn about that past, however, is one that had always been known to us.
Here are the Ride Tracks for the month of April 2019, the first month of the World2 Tour, and a month of chilly nights and seemingly constant climbing.
The second section of the World2 Tour is now complete, from Grand Junction, Colorado to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like most tours in the United States, parts of this section were very nice, while others were somewhat less so. Additionally, for some reason that I can’t quite remember, the schedule for this section was more aggressive than I should have made it, without any full days off for rest and recovery. I may have done that in order to partly avoid starting too early in the spring, but, as it turned out, I started earlier anyway, so I nullified any advantage that would have created. Another reason was a change of end point that added some additional distance to the route. When I first plotted out this route, a few years ago, there was a staffed Amtrak station near Santa Fe that would have made a nicer final location. However, when I eventually started to book the rail tickets shortly before the beginning of the Tour, I learned that station had been closed, and the only available station that would take checked baggage, specifically my bike, was Albuquerque, which added another 80 km the route, thereby removing a potential half-day off. In the end, however, I managed fairly well, all things considered.
I normally would not bother to write a post about something as mundane as a train journey. When I relocated to the American West Coast 26 years ago, I began using Amtrak extensively for travel around the region, almost always with my bike accompanying me. So, for me, rail travel became ordinary rather quickly, though for many of the other passengers likely to be met on board, the experience was often more novel. However, these days a rail transfer during a bicycle tour in the United States is much more user-friendly experience than it formerly had been, thanks to a new policy introduced in the last few years. Consequently, the first rail transfer of the Tour, at least, is relatively post-worthy.
When a cyclist begins a tour that will eventually encompass much of the World, it is rather uncommon to begin riding right outside their former front door. For example, those traveling the Alaska-to-Cape Horn route will almost always begin near either of those end points, so as to better take advantage of the prime summer riding season. There is also the undeniable pull to find oneself in a land that is culturally and geographically distinct as quickly as possible. However, departing directly from home creates a certain sentimental effect that many would find appealing, and, additionally, may eliminate another expensive transfer that uses other, non-cycling, methods.
I have lived in five of the fifty constituent parts that make up the United States of America during the little over half century that I have been animated and conscious on this beautiful planet. Also added to that time are three years during the Tour of Gondwana when I was, technically, homeless. The first four of those States were, in effect, chosen for me by default, either by circumstance of birth, or to obtain education or employment. As my previous Tour drew to a close, I had no professional or personal commitments that would require me to live in any specific location. In fact, I did have a personal commitment, but it was one that could be satisfied from any location, anywhere. That provided me with the enviable circumstance of being able to choose a place to live solely on the basis that it was someplace that I would distinctly enjoy.
When I was a graduate student in Western Massachusetts, back in the late 1980s, I often tossed around the idea of gathering up some of my colleagues and taking a weekend trip to Montreal, which was not especially far away. However, people in that stage of life a noted for always being short of both time and money, so that excursion never happened. So it was pleasing to me that I was able to finally make that trip during the World2 Tour. Of course, I exchanged Montreal for Quebec City, which has the advantages of being considerably smaller, always a smart move on a tour, and also being a WHS, which made the decision effortless.
There are a few examples of historically important canals included on the World Heritage List, and they are not always the easiest sites to visit. More precisely, they aren’t if you are the type of person who would not be satisfied unless you saw the entire length of the canal. Fortunately, I am not that type of person, and I will normally be pleased seeing just a representative portion, especially since, where canals are concerned, one end usually looks very much like the other. Since the western terminus of Canada’s 200 km-long Rideau Canal, which stretches from Ottawa to Kingston, Ontario, was not far from my route, I was able to make a quick visit.
I have long thought that in the unlikely event that someone were to create a Time Machine, and it was made available to me, one of the five places I would use it to visit would be North America prior to 1492. If I were able to do that, there would be no better place to see than the center of the Mississippian culture, a place known today as Cahokia. The Mississippians created a complex society with an urban component that included large settlements incorporating large, human-built earthen mounds. This society arose around 1,200 years ago, flourished for a few hundred years, and then declined before European contact.
Sometimes a place earns a spot on the World Heritage List based more on what it is than its inherent potential for tourism. This is probably the case with Taos Pueblo, a community about 2 km north of the modern town of Taos, which has been occupied in, more or less, the same manner for over a thousand years. Because it is a fairly small site, and, more so, because it is still a living community with several families making the Pueblo their year-round homes, there is relatively little for visitors to see and do compared with other sites. Guests are expected to respect the resident’s privacy and not to enter homes or other buildings, unless they have a posted shop selling crafts or food, which many do have. There are also guided tours available, which are worthwhile and provide the needed context to fully understand the history of the community. However, it is the site’s intrinsic value as being a place occupied for so long, in the style typical of a fascinating culture, that provides its justification for inclusion on the World Heritage List.
The Chaco Culture was a sophisticated society that flourished in the Four Corners region from about 1700 to 500 years before the present. No definite epithet can be ascribed to the people of that society, so they are most often referred to as The Ancestral Puebloan People. Like the Chaco Culture itself, which was spread over a wide area of the Southwest, the Chaco Culture World Heritage Site consists of ten separate archeological sites located in northwestern New Mexico. I was able to visit two of these locations.
When I developed my route for the Tour of Gondwana, I knew that the end point was going to be the Grand Canyon, but before reaching that impressive site I also wanted to visit several of the other great National Parks of the American Southwest, including a handful in Utah and Mesa Verde in Colorado. However, as is often the case, time and money pressures forced me to modify my plans. I first jettisoned the parks in Utah, but still hoped to get to Mesa Verde, especially since it is a WHS. In the end, I had to skip a visit there as well, which was quite disappointing. Therefore, it seemed fitting that I should choose that park as the first WHS to be visited during the World2 Tour.
If you are someone who enjoys visiting World Heritage Sites, the time, expense, and effort you will be required to put forth in order to do so will depend greatly on the location of the place you call home. The greatest concentration of WHSs, by far, is in Europe. There are a few other hotspots, such as East Asia or the Middle East, but, in general, no other part of the World comes close to that crinkled‑coastlined bastion of the Old World. Consequently, most of our European friends have the ability to visit a nice selection of WHSs by making only easy day-trips. What does that mean for a resident of the peaceful, though somewhat lonely coast of the Pacific Northwest region of North America? Even on this continent, the distribution of sites is quite unequal, with most being in Mexico, and a good portion of the remainder located in the Rocky Mountain region, or the lands east of the Mississippi River. So a person who lives where I have been is required to possess a level of determination that others may not, in order to see these special places.
I knew that there would be periodic birding droughts during this Tour, and the last couple of weeks turned to be this first of those times. While there were a number of new species I could have potentially seen along my route during this section, none of them presented themselves for my viewing, and, even if they had, the several days of bad weather I endured would have made actually seeing them much more challenging. Despite riding past numerous areas containing suitable habitat, the majority of the birds I saw were members of the melodious, but frustratingly common, quartet consisting of Common Grackle, American Robin, Red-Winged Blackbird, and Song Sparrow. Though they are all admirable species in their own ways, I have had my fill of them, for now.
The Tour route has reached the northeastern part of the United States, but even with a somewhat different set of avian residents in this region, compared to the earlier sections out west, I have been expecting that locating new species here will continue to present a challenge. That is primarily because, having grown up in Virginia, I had encountered many of the birds of this region in years gone by. However, most of what I had seen in my younger days were the common, easy-to-see birds of this region, and so there still remain a number of fine birds that I can add to my total while I am in the area. In fact, I have estimated that with some effort, and some luck, I may be able to pick up around fifty Life Birds during the next three months, including some that are normally found further afield, in other types of environments. That would not be a spectacular total, but one that would be reasonable given the circumstances.
I suppose that one could say that I am in the process of a migration of sorts, albeit one that is a bit chaotic, ill-defined, and certainly not an annual occurrence. The beginning of May in North America is also near the peak of the northward migration for many bird species, which is most definitely an annual event. Therefore, it made sense to try and take advantage of this coincidence by spending some time during the brief pauses I had scheduled recently, before the cycling component of the Tour really gets going, to seek out a few more new species where these two migrations overlapped. Additionally, I expect that some, but not all, of the new birds I will have seen in this region, and will see in the weeks ahead, are species that I have actually previously seen at some time in the past, specifically, at a time when I wasn’t paying attention. That is a situation that definitely needs to be rectified.
While I did not want to ride across the entire Great Plains of North America on this Tour, I did want to stop somewhere along the way to pick up a few birds of the prairie. The most conveniently located place, which was both close to a stop on the Southwest Chief route, and within a reasonable distance from a birding hotspot, seemed to be the area around Newton, Kansas, so that was the place I chose for a short visit. The notable birding location in the area is the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve, and site jointly managed by the US Park Service, and The Nature Conservancy. The chance to see one of the last remaining areas of prairie in its natural state was also a big draw for me. While it was a little too soon for many wildflowers to be in bloom, and the Tallgrass was not very tall yet, spring was definitely in full force on the Reserve, and the scene was really quite beautiful.
I should mention that another one of my birding incongruities is that I am usually reluctant to travel somewhere in hopes of observing a specific species of bird, a so-called target bird, even though that is an activity that seems to give many other people great pleasure. For me, success in such endeavors is a rarity and I am usually left with feelings of disappointment and thoughts of wasted efforts. However, there are certain birds that possess enough charisma, or at least uniqueness, that I would consider waiving that policy. One of those must be a bird that even non-birders are familiar with, but few have actually seen, the enigmatic Greater Roadrunner.
When the Tour eventually brings me to a far-away land, where most of the birds present themselves in a riotous display of color, will I look back at these first few days and shudder at the memory of a place where every new bird I saw was some shade of gray? Quite possibly.
Of course, in this post I am not referring to the specific
first bird I have seen since the World2 Tour began. As I mentioned in the Introduction for this section, I am primarily interested in finding birds that as new to me, the always-sought-after Life Birds. That doesn’t mean that I ignore all the other birds I see along the way, but rather that I will simply enjoy and appreciate them without working too hard to record their presence. It is tempting to wish for something special to be the inaugural bird of a grand tour such as this. Perhaps something rare or unusual, or a multi-colored exhibitionist, or maybe a strong and powerful raptor, would fit the bill. In any case, I knew it would take some time for me to find something new, so I really had no guess as to what it would turn out to be.
Anyone who is interested in observing birds, and who has lived in the same location for several years, will undoubtedly come to the realization that they have seen all the common and easy-to-find birds in their local area, at some point in time. Seeing new species after then will depend on waiting for some unexpected vagrant or rarity to make an appearance, or traveling to some other location that holds its own set of distinctive birds. It took me a number of years to reach that point around my most recent home base, in the small coastal town of Bandon, Oregon, but, eventually I did. Around that same time, circumstances generally prevented me from travelling very far from home for a while, so I had a lot of built-up lack-of-new-bird exasperation to deal with. Now, with the imminent start of the World2 Tour I expect that situation to be completely relieved for the foreseeable future. At least, it will, eventually.