Category Archives: Travel

Bike overnight: East Bay to Black Mountain Backpack Camp

Executive Summary and Recommendations

This is a 24 hour overnight bike trip, starting and ending in East San Francisco Bay, to Black Mountain Backpack Camp on the peninsula.

I took Capital Corridor to Santa Clara on day one (San Jose Diridon would actually be better). There’s not that many trains, so check the schedule (carefully! unlike me) beforehand.

Day one was very unremarkable, through the South Bay suburbs and then up a big road climb to the campsite on Montebello Road. Don’t trust Google if it says you can go through Rancho San Antonio, since that includes three miles of pedestrian-only trails.

Day two was a return over the Dumbarton Bridge to Fremont BART. This was a much more fun day, with some very exciting mountain biking, long descent down Alpine Road, passing through Stanford University and through the wildlife preserves on either side of the Dumbarton Bridge. Fremont has done a very nice job signing the almost the entire way from the bottom of the Dumbarton Bridge to Fremont part.  

This is mostly a road trip, but day two has some moderately serious mountain biking. I did it on a touring bike with 35mm tires and moderate mountain biking skills. If you’re not prepared to go over trails that have some ruts roots and rocks on them, then you may want to find another way down it does not go on the Alpine trail.

Although I didn’t plan it this way, what I did – Amtrak->Montebello (uphill)->Black Mountain->Alpine (downhill)->Dumbarton/BART – probably makes the most sense rather than the reverse. More road uphill, more dirt downhill.

When you’re leaving the campsite, keep your warm clothes handy, because you will need them for the descent on Alpine Road.

The trip: day 1

This was a weekend when my wife, our two kids, and her parents went away for a few days. That gave me a break from family life, and an opportunity to be able to go bikepacking by myself. I live in Oakland, California, and had been to a lot of the best-known campgrounds near me on other bike overnights. A friend recently mentioned that the Black Mountain Backpack Camp in the mid-Peninsula regional open space was a very nice spot – it only had four campsites, with four campers per site, so it would never be particularly crowded. Like most camping sites in the Bay Area, it tends to book up; but I used the fact that I don’t work on Fridays to book a Friday night.

Continue reading Bike overnight: East Bay to Black Mountain Backpack Camp

Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Bike Tour of Normandy

[Note:  this is a long (but entertaining) story. If you’re just here for the pictures, here’s the gallery , or scroll to the bottom]

Preface: April 2017. This trip happened in July and August of 2017, but its story began in April. My wife and I had a one-year old, and had recently decided to have a second child. I could foresee the fun of being a family of four, but I was definitely not looking forward to the first year of having two very young children: lots of diapers to change, and not a lot of leaving the house for adventures.

Around that time Suzanne and I were sitting in our living room after our daughter had gone to bed, each doing our own thing. I was reading something about cycling, and I said aloud “I miss bike touring.”

Suzanne and I had gone on a bike touring honeymoon five years earlier, and we had plans to go touring with our children. A newborn, however, is not amenable to that, since most medical advice is to wait until one year old before subjecting a child to the bumps and vibrations of cycling. So when I said “I miss bike touring” it was with a degree of wistfulness, knowing that would probably be a few more years before I could do so again.

Continue reading Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Bike Tour of Normandy

How To Find Campsites While Bike Touring In Europe

I have gone on three bike tours in Europe, mostly in France, but also in Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland. I just wanted to give a quick rundown of the ways that I have been able to find campsites, and also hopefully attract other people to this page you can tell me what to do for other countries.

Wherever You Are: Try OsmAnd.

I have only done this within France, but there’s no reason that it wouldn’t work in other countries except that the data coverage might not be as good. OsmAnd is an Android and iOS application that shows OpenStreetMap data, which is sort of like the Wikipedia of cartography. It also has the best filter to show a particular feature type — like campsites — even better than the online OpenStreetMap.

Last summer I spent two weeks biking a loop in Normandy, and used this method almost every night in order to find a campsite. The main advantage of OsmAnd is that it has a lot of information, so it has both municipal and commercial campsites. The downside is that the data is not necessarily verified. One time I showed up at a campsite, and it used to be a campsite, but had become more like a trailer park. The people living there were friendly so I stayed there anyway. And the other ten times I used it I found a for-reals campsite. The idea is: there’s probably going to be a campsite where they are indicated, but is not guaranteed. Usually I did a quick Google search of the campsite name and town to verify that the campsite would actually be there.

The user interface of OsmAnd is decent but complex and it took me a few tries to figure out how to display campsites on the map. Here’s a video of me showing how to find the campsites using OsmAnd:

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who has used this method in other countries, and how accurate the campsite data is.

Country-by-Country Maps.

In Germany, another good way to find campsites are ADFC biking maps. The ADFC is the national biking organization for Germany, and their maps show bike routes, bike shops, restaurants, and… campgrounds. They also exist as digital downloads, which requires some navigation of their only-in-German website.

In France, Camping Qualite is a kind of campsite industry association that has its own map. They are usually going to be more full-featured and expensive campsites (so like twenty euros a night, with a pool and a playground).

In Switzerland, the website Schweitzmobil has a configurable map that will show the Swiss national and regional bike routes, and various categories of accommodations. Probably the most useful configuration for readers of this post is showing national bike routes, camping, and farm accommodations.

What others sources for finding campsites for bike touring are there?

Finding campsites using OpenStreetMap and Overpass Turbo

Update May 2018: The OSMAnd application accomplishes this task better than Overpass Turbo; see this post for more info.

*******

Campgrounds make for a quick cheap place for a bicycle tourist (or other tourist) to stop for the night, pitch a tent, and get a warm shower. Sometimes, though, it can be hard to tell where all of them are.

For any given region, there are usually some campground associations or governments that list a certain sets of campsites. However, in planning an upcoming bike tour around Normandy, I wanted to have a single map of campsites that cast a wide net. In Europe, the open-source mapping service OpenStreetMap is quite popular and often is the best source of data for geographical features. It’s not perfect. It is sort of like the Wikipedia of cartography: inclusive, but also prone to the occasional error or out-of-date information. Still, it’s exhaustiveness can be helpful for planning: it will tell you all the places there might be a campground.

To get one particular type of map feature out of OpenStreetMap, the best tool is a service called “Overpass Turbo“. It allows you to make a request for one type of feature, and then shows all of them that appear on the current map. Making requests looks a little bit like computer code, but even folks who are not computer nerds can make simple ones. Like for campsites.

Here are the steps:

  1. Go to https://overpass-turbo.eu/.
  2. Find the geographic region that you want to search in. You can either do that by dragging the map, or typing in the name of a geographical location (state, region, etc.) into the search box on the map.
  3. Replace the entire query box with this (borrowed from this example for parking lots):
<query type="node">
 <has-kv k="tourism" v="camp_site"/>
 <bbox-query {{bbox}}/>
</query>
<print/>
<query type="way">
 <has-kv k="tourism" v="camp_site"/>
 <bbox-query {{bbox}}/>
</query>
<union>
 <item/>
 <recurse type="down"/>
</union>
<print/>

Then click “run”.

The search may take a while. The more territory you had displayed on the map, the slower it goes. A search for all the campgrounds in a city will take a few seconds; a search for all the campgrounds in a region or state will take a couple of minutes or may not complete at all. You may need to reduce the size of the map that is displayed, to make the request in smaller chunks.

You can get a shareable link for the map you’ve created, but it will have to re-run the query when someone else clicks on it. I found it most useful to use the export button to export my data as a GPX or KML file, and then importing it into a Google “My Map“. I then changed  the style (click “uniform style”, “All items”, then the little paint bucket) so that the campsites show up as green tents. You can see that map here.  Either on Overpass Turbo or in the Google Map, where there is additional information about a campsite, like its name or website, that information will appear when you click on the icon. That can help in evaluating whether the information is current and other information about it. Now as I am planning my route, I can take into account where the campsites (probably) are.

You can also get this information through OSMAnd, which (I’m updating this post after the tour) is what I actually ended up doing most of the time in Normandy. Tap the “layers” icon in the top left, tap “POI…”, tap “Search”, type “camp” and choose “Camp site” (make sure you do not tap “former prison camp” which also shows up and which would be a very different experience). It will initially give you a list of the closest campsites; click on the map-with-pin icon in the bottom right.

OSMAnd campsites example

Thoughts on Srinivas Kuchibhotla; and A Love Letter To India

So there’s this guy who yelled “get out of my country” in Kansas, before firing on two Indians, killing one of them, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer from Hyderabad. The Washington Post reported that the father of the other Indian, the injured one, “pointed to the election of President Trump, who has routinely described a threat posed to Americans from people outside the country’s borders, and pleaded with parents in India ‘not to send their children to the United States.’” Maybe that’s the correct call for right now, I dunno. Parents of India will have to decide for themselves.

What I can tell you, though, is that I think parents in the United States should think about sending their children to India. In 2005–2006, I spent six months traveling around India and it was one of the most pivotal experiences of my life. By now I’ve been to probably a couple dozen countries, and so every now and again someone will ask me “What was the best or most interesting place you’ve traveled?” The answer is always India.

India is politically interesting: it has a wide range of cultures and religions, but is a functional democracy. If Ladakhis and Tamils can figure out how to participate in a government together, it seems like people from California and Kansas should be able to as well. India’s people are super-welcoming, and very similar to the United States in a lot of ways (we’re both former British colonies after all), but very different in a lot of others. The diversity of cultures you can see, all on the same railway system, is much greater than in Europe, and the castles are larger and more exotic. The food is amazing, extra amazingness if you’re a vegetarian. Walking down a given street in Mumbai, Jodhpur, or Kolkata is more entertaining than any television show: there are so many people, colors, activities, and animals (Mumbai and Kolkata: elephants and brahma bulls; Jodhpur: camels).

Man on the street, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India.

Recently this famous Mark Twain quote has been drifting through my head frequently: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” It’s perhaps a bit saccharine . . . but as a kid from a little corner of Indiana who had his mind blown by India, I can also tell you it is true.

I so wish more Americans would get out of their country for perspective. That might come across as elitist (“not everybody has the luxury to head off to the other side of the world for six months”), but it’s not that much harder to afford than a semester of college; the hard part is finding the time. The big expense is the plane ticket and after that, a lot of countries, including India, are pretty affordable. United States dollars go a long way elsewhere. I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms until now, but I hope for my daughter to go visit India with almost the same degree that I aspire for her to go to college.

My first response to hate of the shooter in Kansas is condemnation, like with any hate crime. I have realized recently that when it’s an Indian, though, the reaction is more visceral for me, a strong, immediate gut reaction of rage and sadness. This is also the case when I read stories of Sikhs receiving hate or prejudice on account of their turbans. I don’t really have any close friends who are Sikh, but I can tell you that of all the places of worship I’ve been to, Sikh temples are the best. Because of the practice of langar, they’re always like “Come in! Have something to eat!”, and in the temple at Amritsar, which ought to be one of the wonders of the world, I also stayed in free accommodations they have for visitors. So whenever I see in the news that a Sikh that got beaten up by crazy bigots (recent example in Richmond, California, a few miles from me), a little voice in my head says “He’s one of the *free food people*, fools! Leave him the fuck alone!” The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach; maybe it is a quick route to the end of prejudice as well.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar, India.

I feel guilty that I didn’t have this same immediate emotional reaction to, for example, Travon Martin or Eric Garner being killed. I mean, I know intellectually that those killings are deeply wrong, but the flavors of anger and sadness they brought were cooler and more subdued. Or saying “I feel guilty” is perhaps not the right phrase; you can’t create an emotion you don’t have. Perhaps what I feel is more like a recognition that reaction isn’t the way it should be, and that my wrong emotional reaction is just a reflection of the wrongness of the social structure of the United States. It is the bizarre nature of racism in America, that 150 years after the end of slavery, I’ve managed to live forty years in America and have more personal contacts with Indians (1.25% of the US population) that Black people (13.2% of the population). That’s certainly not a conscious choice on my part; it’s the history of redlining, the end of affirmative action, the economic oppression that makes the racial divide also a class divide. At least my experience in India makes me cognizant of the difference, and how I ought to feel.

I want to close out by counterbalancing crazy Kansas man’s hate with my own love here: I love India, I love its people, and I hope our people keep making the trek back and forth (including me, ten years is too long). Last year I came across the question “What Places Are Worth All The Hype?” on Quora, and astonishingly no one had yet written about India. So I wrote one. Thus far it’s gotten 4200 upvotes, which makes it clearly the most popular thing I’ve ever written on the Internet. If you want more convincing that you, or your children, should go to India, take a look: it has lots more pictures and reasons to go.

On the Immigration Order

I took this picture in Damascus, Syria, in the summer of 2001:

Bicycle with American Flag, Damascus, Syria, 2001.
Bicycle with American Flag, Damascus, Syria, 2001.

On the day after the President of the United States issued an executive order to ban Syrian immigrants indefinitely, this image has been hovering in my mind.

In 2001, while traveling in their country, Syrians treated me with a mixture of surprise (“You are American, you could travel anywhere, why do you choose here?”) and what I can only describe as Hollywood glamour. It was respect for the wealth, style, and openness that America represented internationally. There is this half-joke among American backpackers that they should put a Canadian flag on their pack so that no one gives them a hard time about U.S. Foreign policy. But in 2001, at the end of the Clinton years, the overall feeling I got traveling through the Middle East was a sort of grudging respect, and more than that, envy. The American dream was alive and well, worldwide.

In the sixteen years since then, we invaded a neighboring country and destabilized the region, bombed their country, and now have shut them out of our country entirely.

I wonder where this bicycle owner is today. He could be one of the many Syrians holding a visa that, even after arriving in the US, is being sent back.[1] Maybe he got lucky and is one of the 1.4 million refugees that were welcomed by Germany in the last two years (if the US accepted refugees at the same rate, that’d be over five million refugees).[2] Maybe he got unlucky and is one of the 400,000 civilians killed in the Syrian civil war.[3] Most likely he is still in Damascus, trying to make do with less and just stay alive.

Wherever he is, it seems very likely he is no longer flying an American flag on his bicycle.

Personally, I’m always aware that I arrived here from immigrants. I don’t have writings to say exactly what motivated Thomas Morris and Anne McGovern to separately leave Ireland around 1910. It was after the big potato famines; but Ireland was still a mess at the time, governed and oppressed by Britain and economically stagnant, so it’s fairly easy to infer some reasons. I don’t know how actively America welcomed them, but it certainly let them in. They they met each other in New Jersey, got married, prospered. My father was born in 1928. Here I am.

Immigration is complex. Certainly not every person who wants to live in the United States can live here. Even as I admire the fact that Germany has admitted over 1% of its population in refugees in the last two years (!), I worry that assimilation will be difficult or result in political blowback; it’s like watching someone you admire trying to scale a mountain that has never been climbed before. However it goes, I admire them for trying.

On the other extreme is this executive order. First, it is very abrupt, and in that abruptness is cruelty. There are people who have been given the greatest hope — a visa to the United States — and told to turn around and go back to somewhere else.

Second, it is immoral for a country in the position of power that the United States has — largest GDP, largest military, whatever ranking you might want to choose — to choose to turn its back on what is probably the largest humanitarian crisis going on in the world. Perhaps admitting three million refugees is too much; certainly the 12,587 Syrians that were admitted in 2016 seems low; setting a target at or near zero is reprehensible.

Third, the religious element is troublesome: written to prioritize Christians, the executive order, continuing to frame the world order in terms of a “Clash of Civilization” between Islam and Christianity. This is a prophecy that will only be fulfilled if we believe it. Christianity is supposed to be the religion and the morality of taking care of the weak and oppressed:

“When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33–34 and 24:22.

Sure, there are those paint the United States in broad strokes as the great evil, but it is a tiny minority of Islam, the crazies. We have crazies too. The answer to is not to paint in broad strokes as well and deem Islam a great evil, or to use national boundaries or religions as an indicator of a person’s worth. The answer is tolerance, acceptance, and taking care of humans that need taking care of. It is of recognizing gray area and subtlety and taking each person evaluating them as an individual. That is how you make the United States the kind of country where everyone worldwide wants its flag on their bike.

[1] NBC Philadephia, Two Syrian Families Detained at Philadelphia International Airport, Then Put on Return Flight Home, Family Member Says

[2] The Guardian, Germany expects up to 300,000 refugees in 2016, official says

[3] Wikipedia, Casualities of the Syrian Civil War

If you want to put more eyeballs on this essay, consider giving it a green heart. More my pictures of Syria 2001 here.

Why India Lives Up To The Hype

Ed. note: this was originally an answer to the Quora question “Which places are worth all the hype?”

I can’t believe that, with 71 answers as of this writing and half the nation of India on Quora, this isn’t an answer, but:

India.

I know, I know, there’s some answers here for parts of India, but I’m putting down the entire nation. In 2002, when I was 26, I set aside nine months to travel. To decide where to go, I went to a local bookstore and flipped through the pictures in all the Lonely Planet guidebooks. India seemed like the most colorful, the most varied, the most exotic.

So I started in India and stayed for the first four months of that trip. India delivered on its hype. With the exceptions of Delhi (solely on the basis of air pollution, but it has some *serious* air pollution, it’s like chain smoking; I came through a couple of times because it’s a rail hub and got a respiratory infection each time) and Agra/Taj (also air pollution, too many tourists), basically the entire nation was a stupendous storybook travel experience. The railway system is amazing. You can spend a smallish amount of money in one state of India, fall asleep, and wake up in a different place with another language, culture, food, architecture . . . Europe is really the only other place I’m aware of where you can do something like that. Also, since you are probably an English speaker if you are reading this, a lot of people speak English, which makes everything more convenient and interesting. You can’t really go to someplace like, say, Thailand, and just strike up conversations with ordinary people who are not in the tourist industry. In India, often you can (especially in the south).

Some particular highlights:

Rajasthan. I dunno about the Taj. Go if you need to check it off a list. But there’s swarms of people and architecturally it’s, well, stupendous, but there are also at least another five places in Rajasthan that are architecturally stupendous and do not involve swarms of tourists. Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Osiyan, the havelis everywhere.

A restored haveli in Fatehpur, Rajasthan.

Kerala. Kathakali theater, backwater cruises, spice growing (ever seen nutmeg on a tree? I went on a tour of a small farm that was growing pretty much the entire spice aisle of a grocery store). Tea. So much tea. I stayed in the hill station of Munnar and really enjoyed walking for a whole day surrounded by hills of tea. I’m not a beach guy, but there’s allegedly beaches too. Tamil Nadu also gets praise for similar reasons. I did not spend much time in Tamil Nadu — only went to Ooty, another hill station — but if I ever get to do a trip like this again it would be high on my list. Lots of English speakers in both states.

As a kind of pre-show, the dancers in the Kathakali theater come out on stage and put on their makeup. Fort Cochin, Kerala.

Hampi, Karnataka. The former capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, this place has some amazing ruins (elephant stables made from stone!) and was a great, relaxed riverside town that sort of caters to backpacker tourists.

Stone chariot shrine for Garuda, in Hampi.

Ladakh. A completely different culture and geography. You have to take a bus or fly, no train here unfortunately. There’s other answers on Ladakh specifically, but the Himalayas make you feel small like nothing else. Mountains so iconically mountainous that they don’t seem real. I went in January, which is cold, but no tourists.

The bus from Leh to Likir, Ladakh, after dropping me off in Likir.

Harmandir Sahib (“The Golden Temple”). The prime temple of one of the world’s largest religions. It’s a gorgeous building, a stunning complex, but it’s also an experience: take your shoes off to enter it, then you’re with all these people strolling in orbit around it, and then you line up to walk through the temple itself. And free lunch! (Non-Indians, Google “langar”). I hate to insult the Taj again, but I would *totally* go back to Harmandir Sahib first.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar, Punjab.

The Festivals.

Bodhgaya is the location where Buddha attained enlightenment. I went there during an event, the Kalachakra Initiation, which is a giant Tibetan Buddhist rite that, while perhaps not strictly a festival, sort of feels like one. It’s there occasionally; 2003 when I was there, and apparently there was one in 2012. I don’t know if Bodhgaya would be worth it at an ordinary time (maybe; many interesting Buddhist temples in many styles), but with the Kalachakra happening, it was an unforgettable experience. Between Hinduism, Sikhism, Jains, Buddhists, and Muslims, there’s usually some kind of festival or holiday going on somewhere. So I’m putting this in not necessarily for this event per se, but emblematically of the kind of experience you can probably have in India look for it. Winter festivals in Ladakh fall into this category.

Monks at the Kalachakra Intitiation, Bodhgaya, Bihar.

The Trains.

Where else can you stand in an open doorway going 80kph watching the scenery go by? If I had more time I could probably write an entire essay in praise of the India train-riding experience. You meet people, since you all have nowhere to be; you sit in your bunk reading books while time and scenery go by. I suppose that’s like trains everywhere, but here the tickets are cheap and the people and scenery are Indian.

On the Kanyakumari Express, somewhere between Mumbai and Ernakulam.

Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a smaller meter-gauge line. Sadly now this line is diesel, not steam.

Ok, I’m going to stop now. But, well, before I do, I want to say Mumbai and Kolkata are also wonderful cities, wandering around either one on foot for a day and watching people was more entertaining than any television show I’ve seen (especially Mumbai). Varanasi is not just a place for funeral pyres, it also is like Indian classical music central with schools and performances all the time.

Just your average under-the-Banyan sugar cane juice stand, Mumbai.

The point is, there’s so much to India, all packed together, and you only need one visa and one plane ticket to go see it. Just make sure you set aside enough time.

Bay Trail Bike Birding

After reading The Thing With Feathers and then Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle, I started being more interested in birds. Then I bought a Sibley Guide, and it got a little more serious.

I’ve always enjoyed the Bay Trail, on several occasions riding SF to Berkeley or the reverse. This weekend I rode from approximately Fruitvale BART to Hayward BART, going through MLK regional shoreline, Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline, and Hayward Regional Shoreline, and I brought my camera. When I’d ridden the trail before I’d often stopped to read the informational signs about birds, and I was surprised that I was able to photograph pretty much all the common birds I’d read about, plus several more. And a bat ray.

 

Bicycle Cue Sheet Holder

I’ve moved to Oakland from Berkeley, and so biking to things goes over longer distances and often I find that I need to bring a cue sheet. That meant I needed a way to hold a cue sheet. I already have a section of my handlebar taped over with electrical tape where I attach my front light, and so I just put a velcro cable tie through a binder clip and then around the taped area. The tape helps hold it in place and prevents scratching.

 

[picture of cue sheet]
Cue sheet made from electrical tape, binder clip, and velcro cable tie.