As they say ‘time flies when you’re having fun,’ and a lot sure has happened in the last month. After riding through Costa Rica, we reached our most southerly destination in Panama City. From there we proceeded to cruise up to Miami and then skip up to Richmond, Virginia via Amtrak before setting out on the bikes once again, this time heading north towards Washington D.C. A brief account of this transitioning stage of our adventure follows:
“Self contained bicycle touring” is a term that leaves most people thinking about the time spent on the bike: how difficult it may be, how much weight one must have to pull, how many hours one must spend riding per day. But as most long distance bike tourists will tell you, this lifestyle is not always about the biking. We recently realized that over the last year, we have spent somewhere between 16 and 22 hours a week on the bike – just a fraction of our waking hours. The rest of our time is spent at libraries or parks, exploring cities, making or shopping for meals like regular folks, or setting up camp and just hanging out. But our favourite part of our journey, and the part that has been the most rewarding over the last year, has been meeting wonderfully kind and generous friends along the way.
The highlight of Costa Rice for us was not just the wildlife or the backpacker hostels or the landscape, and certainly not the hot and sticky weather which often felt like cycling through a steam bath – it was meeting a French Canadian couple who built their beautiful and unique home 27 years ago when they moved to Costa Rica where they operate a bed and breakfast – Casa Del Arbol. Their refuge is tucked away deep in the jungle between two small towns, and provided an incredible retreat for an evening. We had a hard time leaving!
There is really only one option for a direct ride through Panama – and it is a heavily trafficked highway through the countryside with few towns or cities along the way. Frustrated with the busy roads, we took a ‘long-cut’ and routed around the highway for a few days where we were rewarded with the most spectacular views we had seen in weeks – a lush tropical paradise dotted with small villages and winding beautiful roads with almost no traffic. We wondered why this road was so deserted during our first few miles rolling over fresh asphalt, but began to understand why few traveled this way when the surface was reduced to gravel and dirt with bits of fresh asphalt for the rest of the day. The road has obviously been under construction for quite some time, but when finished it will be primed for an incredible cycling experience. Once rejoining the Pan-American, the road got wider and the traffic got heavier the closer we got to Panama City, making for days with the sounds of nature drowned out by the sound of traffic. We were relieved to have a police escort vehicle to take us over the Bridge of the Americas. Crossing over the Panama Canal signified our entrance into Panama City and the end of our journey south!
When we entered Panama, a reader messaged us on Facebook. Tony was from Panama City and would love to meet us. He also offered to help us find boxes for our bikes so we could pack them up for shipping back to the USA.
Tony greeted us the day we arrived with a pick-up truck full of boxes and an invitation to join him and his family for dinner at his house. We were thrilled to spend some time with a Panamanian family and had a delightful evening. The children were soon sleeping as we were up till nearly midnight discussing everything from religion to bike culture to customs and lifestyle in Panama. It was humbling to be invited into someone’s home to share a meal and conversation as if we were old friends. Tony met up with us once again, generously transporting us to Colon with all our belongings in order to board our cruise ship, which was repositioning and would serve as our slow transport across the Caribbean Sea to Miami.
This one-way repositioning cruise was quite a way to travel from Panama back to the States. Amazingly, the fare was less than the cost of a flight, and the baggage handlers didn’t bat an eye when presented with the task loading our mountain of gear. While a cruise is fun in itself, it’s even better to share the time with people you love. So we were overjoyed that Reuben’s mom and grandparents flew into Panama City to explore the canal with us and were then able to join us for the 3-day journey back to the U.S. We ate, we played, we ate, we swam, we napped, and we ate some more (cruises, apparently, are mainly about eating! No complaints from these touring cyclists.). The boat was seriously under-booked, which resulted in there being more crew aboard than guests, so we felt like we had the place to ourselves. The quality time that Eden and Harper got to spend with their Nana and great-grandparents on the boat was truly special.
After disembarking in Miami and saying farewell to dear family, we loaded all our boxes into a U-Haul and headed to the train station where we were reunited with Amtrak on a 24 hour trek to Richmond, Virginia – a city on the map chosen for it’s proximity to home. With six weeks left before we needed to be back in Hamilton, starting this leg of the ride from Richmond would allow us to route through a few destinations in the New England area before returning to our home city. Our year of adventure was getting closer to completion! At the train station in Richmond, we spent a few hours putting the bikes back together and repacking all of our gear – then rode out to encounter the reverse culture-shock of being back in North America. There was a lot to rediscover after being in Mexico and Central America for the last four months!
With the bikes in need of some maintenance, we turned once again to Warmshowers.org to connect with a host family in Richmond. We were greeted and assisted by Glen and Latisha, their 3 boys (Logan, Miles, and Mason), and their many bikes. The weather in Virginia was refreshing after being accustomed to being soaked in sweat after a few minutes of riding in Central America. We could actually cycle around town, or down to Logan and Miles’ school and arrive with dry clothes!
Eden and I enjoyed riding a tandem for the first time and Harper got a kick out of sitting on the back of Glen’s Big Dummy with only holding onto the stoker bars! The best part of visiting with families with other young children is having a larger integrated family for a time. It’s not a 2-hour play date – it’s life together where kids get tired or hungry, where we eat together, play together and even do bedtime routines in the same space. It is also when you get to see your new friends again early the next morning. Eden and Harper learn so much from these concentrated moments with their peers – like how to make space for some quiet time alone and learning how to get along and share. As parents, we also get to learn from our peers’ parenting styles and techniques – picking up good ideas on how to deal with certain behaviours, or what new snacks and foods other kids eat that ours like as well.
Out of Richmond, we headed off in sunny weather, but the rains began as we made camp our first night. The next day, the wet weather continued while the temperature dropped. We pushed on, amazingly facing our very first rain day of the trip (we have seen rain, but never really rode through it the whole day until this point). We warmed up and dried out at a laundromat, waiting out the bulk of the storm before heading out of town to start the search for a place to camp. Not too eager about setting up in the rain and tucking into our damp sleeping bags, we knocked on door after door with no response. We were getting back on our bikes about to head to the next house when a car pulled in the driveway. When a man stepped out, I eagerly asked if he lived there and mentioned we were looking for a place to set up our tent. He said he had something better. His name was Hob, and despite the fact that he pulled up in a car, he was currently on bike tour with his wife Deb. He was actually just returning to his cousin’s house a mile down the road after getting some work done on their tandem. He insisted we follow him down to the house for a warm meal and a dry space to sleep! His cousin Annie welcomed us into her home like we were family and we had a wonderful time during this serendipitous encounter with Hob and Deb, who have over 100,000 miles of loaded bicycle touring experience! With the promise that we would reconnect near Hob and Deb’s home in Connecticut, we rode out towards Washington D.C. the next morning with smiles on our faces.
Washington D.C. brought back a lot of memories for me – in a way, it was my very first family vacation when I was 14. We met up for coffee with a good friend of my mom’s who had hosted our family when we came through 16 years ago. We had a great time visiting a few of the monuments and memorials in the city, as well as staying with another Warmshowers.org host family right near Capital Hill. Once again our kids had playmates and enjoyed playing with toys and at parks with our host’s children. It was awesome to also see the excitement on 6-year-old Stephen’s face when he met us. He travels to school and around town on the back of his dad’s Xtracycle, and was excited to meet a family who was travelling that way for a year!
While we have spent a lot of time meeting new people on this adventure, Reuben and I are generally introverts. Back home, we worked with colleagues in an office during the day but our evenings were usually spent at home as a family. This year has stretched us socially – we have found it so rewarding to learn from the friends we have met along the way.
It is human nature to be drawn to spending time with people who are similar to us and yet we grow the most when we spend time and conversation with people who are different. We have learned on this trip that 99.9% of people are good and wonderful people that we can learn from – we may not agree about every issue but we can find commonality somewhere and learn from our differences. We have also learned that many people have unfounded fears about opening up to strangers when the risk of getting hurt is actually quite low. Our minds have been opened in new and wonderful ways after interesting conversations and encounters. We look forward to continuing to meet new people and build lasting relationships when we return home. Whether the experience of meeting and interacting with someone is positive or negative, you can always learn something through each encounter – the risk you take will be worth it.