Friday, July 25, 2008

Farewell, Portland

The rugs are up, the pictures are down. Bare floors and walls give an echo to every heavy box thud and pull of the packing tape roll. There’s no doubt about it anymore…it’s time to go.

My earliest impressions of Portland were negative. It was a stopover, a place to grab a coffee or perhaps some dried mango and move on. Each time, I came in via the seedy section of Congress Street, turning up my nose at Maine’s “biggest” city.

You could almost call it fate. Other options having failed, Portland was a choice more of resignation than inspiration. And yet, it didn’t take long for the city to open itself to me, revealing treasures that only local eyes could see.

What will I miss about Portland?

That fishy smell that greets me as I step out the door? Yes.
The lovely manicured lawn outside my workspace window? Yes.
The skyline, spiked with church steeples? Yes.
The fine variety of eating establishments, some say the most per capita of any U.S. city? Yes.
Evening walks through the Old Port. Yes.
Those damned cobblestone streets? Sure.
The flocks of seagulls, yelping into the night? Probably, but not for a while.
The tourists on Commercial Street? Well…
My daily morning bun from Standard Baking Co.? Hell yes!

Nine and a half months. That’s all it was. But I’m happy to count Portland among the cities I’ve lived in and to which one day I could return.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Green Mountains, Blue Water

“I remember this!” I laughed to myself as the bike wobbled out of the driveway and onto the shoulder of Route 7, just north of Burlington, VT. It was the first time since 2006 that my bike had felt the heavy load of panniers.

The week before the 4th of July, and it was time to test out some new equipment with a two-day tour through the islands of Lake Champlain. In fact, my panniers were heavier than ever before, now loaded with camping gear in addition to the usual clothes, tools, spares, and odds and ends. The unfamiliar weight took a few miles to get used to.

That first day was a tough one, my legs burning with the pain of atrophied muscles, my hands numb from gripping the bars too tight. But there was also all that makes cycle touring worth it: sweet breezes blowing off fields of wildflowers, grain silos gleaming like mirrors in the bright sun, a down-home lunch of chicken strips and French fries, a stop for fresh-picked strawberries, and that endless whiz of the drive train, unstoppable.

Lake winds were high, but the temperature was pleasant and I opted to continue all the way to Grand Isle State Park, near the southern tip of the islands. It was brimming with campers who’d arrived a day early to secure a spot for Burlington’s annual 3rd of July fireworks.

I set up my quaint 6’x3’ tent, pumped 75 cents into the hot water machine in the bathroom for a refreshing shower, whipped up a meal of freeze-dried curry, and promptly passed out.

The wind was howling long before I regained full consciousness the next morning. When I finally popped my head out the zippered flap to take a look, I decided it was time to go. Fast.

From the west, gray-black clouds were tailing the wind. Despite their ominous appearance, though, I’d made it out of the state park, through the town of South Hero, over the causeway to the mainland, and back to Route 7 before the first drops fell. From there, it was only a few miles’ ride in the drizzle back to my starting point.

My body ached, but it had been a successful trial run. The new gear—tent, stove, pad, and the rear rack bag to carry it all—had worked as it should. Still, I couldn’t believe that in exactly one month, I’d be setting out on the real thing…

…a five-week tour through Maritime Canada! Just about 20 days to go now. But more on that later.