There comes a moment on a trip, if it’s been a good trip, when you stop and say, “Everyone should have this experience.’’ As I wash my face at one of the portable outdoor sinks lined up at our campsite on a farm in Kingfield, Maine, I’m in that moment. It’s super early, much earlier than I’m usually up, and the sun is changing pink to peach-orange, the mist lingering over hay fields below. And in the mirror I see that I’m grinning like a nut.
Spending 24/7 outdoors in Maine in mid-September will do that to a person, it seems, since people at the other sinks are grinning likewise as we chat and match notes. We had ridden our bicycles for 133 serpentine miles over two days, slept in tents for two clear, starry nights, and are about to sit down to another huge breakfast before embarking on Day 3 of our rolling tour of inland Maine, organized by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.
In truth, my back hurts from sleeping on a substandard air mattress, my butt hurts from the saddle, and I wonder how I’ll tackle today’s agenda: 50-plus miles circling Maine’s High Peaks, climbing Bigelow Pass and crossing the Appalachian Trail before taking in the view of Sugarloaf Mountain. We will gain 2,133 feet elevation — if I make it the whole way without calling the sag wagon. But it’s been a bliss of a trip. I’ve been eating like a farmhand, gawking like a leaf-peeper, and going to sleep to the chirping of cicadas. The air is redolent of Balsam fir and late summer mowing. Blessedly, it has only rained once, the night before we hit the road.
This, I’m told, is the classic Bike Maine experience, one that over half of the 400 riders return to, year after year. They come to discover a Maine they don’t know (the route changes each year and emphasizes less-storied, remote hamlets). They come to enjoy open stretches of pavement with few cars, and they come to reconnect with fellow riding alumni.
If it sounds a little clubby, it is. Cyclists are clubby, and I am not much of a joiner. As riders and organizers convened at the starting point of this year’s ride, Skowhegan Fairgrounds, I felt weird showing up alone with no one to ride or share a tent with. We sat at picnic tables on the fairgrounds for a sumptuous dinner of broiled lobster; I dined alone. When the rain started, I took cover in my solo tent — so much for making any connections before launching this journey of 294 self-powered miles.
After an early breakfast of blueberry pancakes with Maine maple syrup, bacon, and oatmeal, we got on our bikes and hit the road that follows the Kennebec River out of Skowhegan. This first leg took us 40-plus miles over a few steep climbs and tricky descents, all before we reached the lunch stop. I focused on staying upright instead of chatting up other riders. So it wasn’t until I lined up for lunch at the Community Center in Unity that I met Pete Harrison of Cleveland, also riding alone.
The day was perfect for sitting around outside gorging on pulled pork and blueberry grunt, and Pete and I almost forgot we had to get back on our bikes and go another 27 miles to reach our campsite in Pittsfield. But before we knew it, we were rolling into Manson Park where Bike Maine staff and volunteers were waiting, ringing cowbells and cheering riders coming in. I’d paid $450 to have my tent set up and bags delivered to my “room’’ each night, as well as a fresh towel to take to the shower; dear reader, it was worth every penny. And even though I was showering on a truck, I really can’t remember when a shower felt better.
The Bicycle Coalition of Maine, a Portland-based nonprofit that pushes to make Maine more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, launched Bike Maine in 2013 as a way to promote cycling and boost smaller outposts as places where well-funded cyclists/tourists could spend their time and money. In Pittsfield, the townspeople were ready for us, with a craft fair set up on the park’s grounds and posters advertising local events. Pete and I took in a free concert at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House that I’d gladly pay to attend: folk and blues singer/songwriter Crys Matthews, visiting from New York. The church was celebrating 150 years since its founding, and members welcomed Bike Maine riders with a huge array of desserts. We’d already gorged ourselves on dinner and ice cream, but that didn’t stop us.
For the cyclist, there is nothing better than a quiet stretch of road less traveled by cars. The ride from Pittsfield to Kingfield was just that, with views of tall trees interrupted by power line alleys. We stopped for rest at Athens Elementary School, where students asked us about bicycling and our hometowns. One classroom had a map of the world set up so that riders could mark their origins. From the looks of it, the memo on Bike Maine has spread: riders from Oregon, Colorado, south Texas, Arkansas, Newfoundland, even the Netherlands, had put their dots on the map.
It’s all a pleasant blur of morning chats at the communal sinks, huge breakfasts with excellent coffee, getting on the road by about 7 a.m., rolling into the campsite after the post-lunch leg of each day’s journey, and hitting the shower truck, swapping road stories at the beer garden (which opened at 3 o’clock), and then exploring the town before sitting down to a lively communal meal promptly at 6. I’m tan, tired, and not worried about anything except getting to the next stop. And I haven’t used my phone except to take pictures.
The scenery rolling by calls to mind every superlative you can conjur. But for most riders I spoke with, the real luxury is being completely unplugged and responsible for nothing – not meals, not accommodations, since everything is already arranged. The Bike Maine staff seems to have thought of everything. (Big shout-out for the port-o-potties with slatted floors to minimize smells! A hearty thanks for the constant reminders to take off our riding gloves and use hand sanitizer before digging into snacks! As for the folks arising before dawn to brew coffee for riders by 6 a.m. on the dot, you know you rock!)
Still, we happy campers have to get on our bikes and get the miles in, and for some riders, shortcuts and sags were the go-to. I’d promised myself to ride my bike instead of pushing it, and to avoid any temptation to cut the ride short. But the climb out of Kingfield on Day 3 turns out to be almost more than I can handle, starting with a twisty 15 miles uphill on Route 27, the Carrabassett River on our right and logging trucks passing on our left, and then the headwind again on the grueling and truly spectacular ride into Rangeley.
We have a well-deserved rest day ahead, at our perfect campsite at the edge of Rangeley Lake (where many riders, mostly the Mainers, get in a post-ride swim). Then we have two more days in the saddle as we wind our way back to Skowhegan, where another carb-heavy lunch, gourmet pizza this time, awaits. I table- hop delightedly to say goodbye to new friends, any of whom I’d ride with again. In fact I’d do the whole trip again — as soon as I have a better air mattress.
If you go . . .
Bike Maine 2018 will take place in Aroostook County, along the border with Canada, Sept. 8-15. The exact route will be announced in early February, chief organizer Zach Schmesser, expects registration to fill up by early March. The cost is $975 and includes all meals, as well as luggage delivery at each campsite. For an additional $450, riders can purchase “tent and porter service,’’ which includes setup of a two-person tent and luggage deposited inside the tent. Visit www.bikemaine.org for more information, including maps of past years’ routes.Amy Graves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.