There is this thing in America which begins earlier every year and is increasing in strength and ferocity. We call it “Black Friday”. Immediately after giving thanks for everything in our lives, we either take off after the evening meal, or wake up at the crack of dawn to join thousands of other Americans to go shopping. I tried it once years ago – there was no place to park, crowds in stores were elbow-to-elbow, and to top it all off, the prices were not good! So, I decided then – never again.

Delightedly, this year I learned of a new tradition called #optoutside. Instead of heading in to a store for shopping, or sitting on your couch watching tv, thousands of Americans decided to opt outside for some time in nature.

We pulled up the google maps, located some new trails, and then headed out. Our trail selections were just about 2 miles from each other but about as different as night and day. Our first stop was at Spring Creek Bluffs. We parked in a small gravel lot, leashed up our hound dog and took off. The trail started in some scrubby woods and quickly we found ourselves in a high bank overlooking Spring Creek. Chas found a log that had fallen across the Creek creating a natural bridge and walked across it with Desi. It was mid-afternoon and the light glowed through the colorful leaves creating a scenery that looked a bit like the stained glass of European cathedrals.

We wondered if these were the Bluffs and hoped that wasn’t true. Soon enough we came to a point where the Bluffs appeared, with straight, tall Beech trees sporting yellow leaves standing like guardians on the slope.

The slope quickly climbed steeply to the peak of the Bluffs and as we reached the crest we met some folks who spoke with an English accent turning back because they thought the trail had ended. We enjoyed the view for a bit before continuing on.

Good thing we continued because the trail became even more breathtaking as we followed the ridge and meandered down to a greenway that bordered a neighborhood. We met a runner who jogged by with ragged breaths and a haggard expression on his face. Boy, I know that feeling, I thought. After a few hundred yards we turned back on to our trail to loop back to the beginning.

A short distance later we rejoined the path and walked along the ridge and down the slope before winding up on a surprisingly long boardwalk. The place must be swampy in the summer time. At the end of the path we found a beautiful placard engraved with this poem. Nice inspiration on our day opting out in nature.

After completing this trail, we drove the short distance to Hemlock Bluffs – a nature preserve that had a beautiful nature center and what turned out to be very well-developed chip bark trails.

Such a contrast to our first trail experience of the day. At Spring Creek Bluffs we saw maybe 10 people and one dog. Here groups of families, many with happy hounds tugging at the end of a leash, strolled along together enjoying the fine fall weather. Because we were still traveling the same bluff (I had assumed), I expected the scenery to be the same. As it turned out that couldn’t be farther from the truth. This park hosts a rare grove of Hemlock trees – a type of evergreen that is normally found in the mountains of western North Carolina – that thrives here because of a unique cold and swampy microclimate.

The preserve also has a large population of beech trees and what blew me away was the color of their leaves. Here the trees were wearing golden brown leaves, while on the other bluff the leaves were bright yellow. I still don’t know why this phenomenon would occur, but you can bet I’ll be doing some research on it.

We hiked all the trails at the park (about 3 miles worth), sometimes racing to stay ahead of noisy families, other times enjoying a rare human-free moment. I was impressed with the infrastructure and think it would be fun to return in the summer for a hope at a glimpse of the many salamander species that make this preserve home.

Today was sunny and warm and we headed off to San Lee for a mountain bike ride. Another gorgeous day on a challenging terrain made a bit more treacherous by the coating of colorful leaves.

I’d recommend checking out all of these parks if you have some time to explore in the area of Cary and Sanford, North Carolina. And if you didn’t do it this year, I’d encourage you to join us next year as we #optoutside!


Bike Bahn

Bike Bahn

I love to plan trips but every once in a while I love to just go along for the ride when someone else has built the plan. It brings an element of surprise that delivers a bit more excitement for what my otherwise be a routine activity. 

Today, this is just what I did. I rolled out of bed at 6 am, brewed some coffee, had a quick breakfast in the courtyard while I took my cat for a stand (cats don’t really walk) and then put the finishing touches on my bike – pumped up the tires and the frame shock. Threw my wallet, a rain coat (it’s Germany you can NEVER trust the forecast) and a banana into my camelback before rolling out of my apartment for the ride to the Düsseldorf HBF (hauptbahnhoff = main train station).

My instructions were to meet my friend (aka epic bicycle tour guide) at Gleis 7 to catch a train for Hamm (supposedly – German trains are notoriously late) departing at 8:47 am. Our plan was to ride a stretch of the Römer-Lippe Route. You can link to the route here

Römer = Roman and this trail is so named because it is located in one of the territories that was ruled by Rome during their reign in Europe. Later it became, and continues to be, an industrial region fueled by a ready supply of water from the Lippe river. This region was also in the past dominated by coal mining and coal power generation. The coal power plants are now gone, but the remnants of coal mining remain in the form of huge iron structures near the river banks.

I thought this post could be a bit about our actual ride and a bit of an instructional guide about how to travel by bike and train in Germany. It’s not so complicated but could be a bit intimidating for the un-initiated. Also, legal disclosure, I am certain there will be some errors and omissions of rules in this post. Honestly, it’s impossible to know all the rules in Germany! But, what we did today worked so hopefully it would work for you.

The first thing is to buy a ticket. While this may sound easy, it can be very complicated! Fortunately, my friend had a local help with this. What we used was a ticket that was a 24 hour fare for the entire state of Nord Rhein Westfalia. In addition to the ticket for you, you also need a ticket for your bicycle (aka Fahrad). You can try to make these selections online but I highly recommend (I cannot underline this point enough) that you go to the DB office and ask for their help during your first few trips. The people at the counter speak English and are very helpful. These are the tickets we used for our trip.

You will also notice the price on the ticket. This ticket is for up to 5 people because we originally planned to be a group of 3. It was still cheaper than two individual fares though. Be prepared to pay to play on German trains! They are not cheap. If you believe you will ride them often you can purchase discount options. As it turned out, I didn’t ride trains as much as I’d anticipated so I never did buy a discount card. But it’s worth exploring if you plan to be a frequent traveler.

Then when it comes to boarding the train with your bike, you need to look for the bike train car. You’ll see this on the sign board. In NRW the platforms have four sections: A, B, C, D. When you see the details for your train you just need to look for a pictures on the electronic sign board at the platform that has a picture of a bicycle under a letter. It’s often under the letter D. When you board the train have your fingers crossed that it’s not already full of bikes or baby carriages. In that case you’ll need to wait for the next train. Fortunately, we found space for our bikes probably because it was a bit early in the morning. As the train car filled with more bikes we lost our seat in the carriage, locked up the bikes and headed upstairs for the hour ride to Hamm.

As we traveled along we chatted exchanging travel stories and getting caught up on life. I found a great farmscape at one of the stations we passed. The tractor was the right color!

When we arrived in Hamm, we walked out and found the bicycle sign and started our ride to Lünen.

Our route was marked with the Roman centurion helmet. It was relatively easy to follow. We quickly left the city center and found the Lippe. I paused to admire a tall corn field that bordered some grain bins.

We paused near some cooling towers for a photo. They were impressive structures! I couldn’t tell if the plant was still active.

Soon we entered into a section of trail that was closed in on both sides by trees and we stopped to pick some blackberries.

As we started to takeoff I noticed a sign for a natural area and we paused to admire the view.

About a kilometer later I spotted what looked like a small path to the right so we stopped to check it out. What a surprise when we discovered a herd of cattle called Heckrinder that looked a bit like buffalo. My friend translated the sign for us and we learned that the habitat was a semirestired natural grassland and the herd is an attempt to restore European buffalo. I enjoyed watching the herd move about and we even spotted some calves!

By now we started to get a little hungry and fortunately our lunch stop was nearby. Our plan was to stop at a yacht club in Bergkamen. We passed my favorite bridge of the day and then entered the city.

I knew it was going to be a great lunch destination when a few Harley’s passed us and then we saw a guy in a root beer brown stingray getting an ice cream. Then the place was actually called California! That was too coincidental for me.

This is one of the best parts about bicycle touring by train in Germany. You can enjoy a nice bier with lunch without worrying about the drive home!

The next half of the ride went pretty quickly. Along the way we saw some retired coal mine equipment, an interesting industrial plant and a beautiful swamp.

Soon we entered Lünen and made a very important observation. Almost everyone was carrying an ice cream! This was certainly a sign. We needed gelato. We paused to snap a photo finish and then made our last refueling stop. 

I could not believe they had watermelon gelato. Of course, I had to try some.

We rolled the final 400 meters to the HBF and boarded the train to Dortmund. Then transferred to a train running to the Düsseldorf HBF. This is where it got interesting… the train was packed! Like, standing room only packed. We were able to cram ourselves and our bikes into the car.

Then, perhaps the most entertaining part of the day happened when I watched a girl grab her bike and walk off the train with a tomato plant, an entire tomato plant (!), peaking out of the top of her rucksack.

Soon we pulled in to the Düsseldorf HBF, lugged our bikes down the stairs from the platform in to the station. I was biking home and my friend needed to catch another train to her home. Happy and sleepy and relaxed we hugged and parted ways. Promising to try to squeeze in one more ride in September before I move back to America. Yes, the clock is ticking down. It’s time to grab hold of every moment. But, when is it not? 

Life is short, make it a good ride.

Dead Guys Bike Tour

Dead Guys Bike Tour

What follows is a (largely) unembelished tale of a wild bicycle tour through Oxfordshire – stopping to visited the graves of distinguished English gentlemen (and one very special lady), drinking pints of English ale in their honor, learning how to enjoy a proper English tea, a brief toedip into beetlemania, and stumbling across some very interesting pieces of American history…all squeezed in to a mere 8 hours so we could make it home for a proper English roast!


Years ago on a work trip to Brazil, I was at the evening mixer and met an interesting English chap who worked in publishing. We talked and discovered we had a lot in common – sports, travel, reading. Wound up exchanging emails and ultimately stayed in touch on Facebook. Then, a couple of years back I received a message saying he was visiting North Carolina and would love to pop in for a visit and to meet my husband. At the end of our visit, our English friend, Adam, extended an invitation to visit his home in England. Time passed, and we didn’t manage a visit. Adam’s first visit was followed by another trip to America a year later. This time we again spun dreams of a visit to England and the dead guys bike tour idea was floated. We made plans, wondering if it would ever happen. Then I moved to Germany. Surely, we would make the trip since it was now within driving distance. Alas, time was slipping by, 12 months to go, now less than 6 months to go and I’m very pleased to say, we finally did it! We made it to England and you can guess our very first stop – to see our English friend Adam.

Now, in those years between when Adam first visited and we finally managed to visit England, the plan for our dead guys bike tour began to build. Adam lives in a town very near Oxford. The home of many, many famous dead guys (and ladies, as I learned). Adam also knows how much we love to bike, and drink the occasional pint of beer. So, he began to map out a route for a day of biking to grave sites, visiting nearby famous pubs, and experiencing “real” England (which I came to learn is basically any city outside of London).

Here follows the tale of our whirlwind dead guys bike tour.

The night before our tour we diligently studied the map over a pint of real English ale. Who am I kidding, we had already consumed a pint and this beer is strong!  We listened attentively as Adam mapped out our plans including more than a dozen stops and a few surprise locations for good measure. We had another pint, because we were in England, why not, and turned in rather early with a plan to be rolling down the driveway by 9 am the next morning. Adam is a military chap so I knew I must be on time! Otherwise… push-ups!

I’m proud to say that we departed a mere 5 minutes late, pretty good considering we were on holiday. The day dawned a bit cold and overcast with a promising forecast calling for sunshine and blue skies. I began to wonder what country I was actually in, could this be the same England where it allegedly rains all the time??? (Sidebar: You should have seen and heard the reactions of the Germans when I told them I was taking vacation to England. The most common reaction was “why?” accompanied by a quizzical worried face. Germans prefer sunny and warm places).

I didn’t have to wait long to be reminded that, yes, indeed, I was in England. Our first stop was in Sutton Courtney to admire an authentic Thatched roof house. This was a special stop just for me as Adam knew my maiden name is Thacher, originating from the trade of building Thatched roofs. Here is the fine specimen we admired.

We crossed over the river Thames via a lovely bridge that reminded my husband of Central Park. I had to agree. By now the temperature had climbed enough that we’d all shed a layer clothing. A good promise of the beautiful day to come.

The Thames was our companion for most of the day. A lovely river and rather small and natural looking in this portion of the country. Populated by a variety of ducks and people paddling in kayaks and row boats. Schools of tiny fish flashed in the water. Honestly,  a week later when we walked along the Thames in London, I found it hard to believe that it was the same river!

After a slight mishap on the trail (I leave out the details to protect the innocent), we made a B-line to our first stop in Abbingdonn. My first impression was the fresh green grass of the cricket fields bordering the town – this must be a very orderly place, I thought. We paused for a moment to admire the fine architecture before pedaling back out of the town. Onward to Oxford!

We departed Abbingdon via national bicycle route 5, a beautiful green path that mostly followed the Thames. Everything went ok after I avoided my first head-on bicycle crash due to the fact that I was riding on the right side of the road which is totally wrong in England. “Keep Left” became the command of the day!

Very soon we noticed more buildings along the Thames and suddenly popped out in Oxford.  I asked the fellows to pose on the first bridge for a picture and they happily accommodated, much more than 50 pictures later when they began to avoid the camera… until they had a pint that is… then they became very photo friendly again!

As we rolled through the city, I spotted Oxford press and asked for a picture with Adam who grudgingly agreed to snap a photo in front of “the enemy”. I have no idea how much profit Oxford press gained from all those textbooks I bought in college, but I would guess it was more than a 10 pound note, or few!

So, you’re probably beginning to wonder when the dead guys part of our bike tour began, be patient, it’s coming soon, and the first dead guy is huge!!!!

First, we biked across a meadow and made our first GPS map check. Boy, the guys had fun with that moment! 🙂 Adam had a new GPS watch he wanted to test out and it worked like a charm.

Coordinates checked and having verified we were on the correct route, we did a time check and found we were running behind schedule. No time for leisure! Our proper English roast was being prepared and if we were late Adam would perish! Chas raced ahead and I followed, green grass flying below our wheels. 

We paused on a city street in Oxford and saw a couple walking by. This is the moment when we took a rather, I daresay, unorthodox decision… instead of consulting a phone for the location of the first dead guy, we spoke with the lady walking by! It was amazing! She was helpful and pointed us to the right and instructed us on a few turns. Between the 3 of us we could remember the instructions, and off we charged down the road to visit the spinner of Fantastical tales. None other than J.R.R. Tolkien!

We confidently followed the path markers and then walked right past the grave twice before realizing that JR stood for John Ronald. I think he has a beautiful resting place. Much simpler than I expected and the forget me nots are a nice touch. Most delightful was to discover that someone had left a “precious” on the rose bush planted in the grave.

Now it was time to raise a pint in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien. We shoved off to the Eagle and Child. Sadly the doors were not open at noon on Sunday, fancy that! I snapped a photo as we checked the train timetable. 

The Eagle and Child was selected because it was a gathering place of the likes of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis during the days when they were crafting tales such as the Lord of the Rings and the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The tales that shaped the fantasy world of my childhood!

Since the pub was closed, we made our first, of many to come, plan B deployment. No good adventure is without a complicated Plan B! We popped into a burrito shop to grab a quick lunch and our first beer – a cold Modelo! You know it wasn’t a real English ale because it was proper ice chilled cold! 

Refueled, we quickly pedaled to the train station for our journey to Cholsey: Adam’s hometown! I have to say it’s hard to beat the fun of taking a bike on a train! This was a first time for Chas and he was excited.

Now, you might be remembering that I mentioned beetlemania… as we departed the train station in Cholsey, Adam shared a story about a time when his mom had a Beetle sighting right here at the train station back in the 60’s! We also spotted an interesting looking alleyway, but alas, no time to explore, we were off to find another dead guy!

We pedaled through Cholsey, past Adam’s childhood home, then climbed across a steeply banked train bridge and were greeting by a beautiful sweeping scenery. 

Hiding behind the giant blooming chestnut trees, we discovered St. Mary’s church and the resting place of none other than the queen of mystery: Agatha Christie.

After our train journey and climbing that train bridge, we were thirsty again and popped in to The Red Lion for a half pint. Not a full pint, only a half. Why, you ask did we drink only a half pint of fine English ale? This is why: we were racing against the clock as we had a strict tea time to make at Adam’s family home. No time to dilly dally.

Adam poured pints here when he was a young chap!

I left with a souvenir Brakespear glass! I couldn’t resist, it was decorated with a beautiful bumblebee.

We soon arrived at a beautiful brick home, which is a new house Adam’s parents have recently built on their family land. They are a lovely couple, wonderful hosts and full of stories. Adam’s mom set about making us some proper English tea. She asked if we’d like to use the fine China, to which I responded, yes, of course. Owning a set of China myself, I know how much we ladies love to have an occasion to pull it out and dust it off. As Cecilia and I chatted during tea preparations, the fellows again consulted the maps to plan our next stops. 

The home has a beautiful backyard beyond which is the banks of the Thames. We enjoyed the warm sunshine and watching a family of Kites flying about landing in the trees. They have a family of Kites living in one of their trees and they are just beautiful birds! 

Cecilia brought out our pot of earl grey tea along with shortbread, biscuits and cream. We filled our fine china tea cups with tea and a spot of cream and proceeded to sip it with pinkies in the air! I learned how to properly hold the tea cup plate in my left hand above my lap while holding the tea cup in my right. We had a proper good time! As we sipped tea, we chatted, and this is when I discovered that Agatha Christie’s home was right next door!

Before we continued our journey we stopped off for a visit and a selfie! How could I resist!

Adam’s mother accompanied us on the walk to the Thames where we found the Oxford university boat house, Agatha Christie’s boat house and even met up with one of Adam’s great cousins walking along with a German friend. It’s a small world, especially in Oxfordshire!

While we enjoyed our tea, Adam had informed his parents about our next graveyard stop and instructed them to not give away the surprise. So, I was very curious to see who we would meet next! We pedaled into Wallingford and I noticed a very distinctive church spire looming above the town. Would this be our destination? Yes, it was! We leaned our bikes up in the cemetery and walked in to St. Peter’s. My curiosity peaked as I wondered when we would explore the graveyard.

Instead of going outside, Adam directed our attention to a marble slab in the aisle near the alter. Then the story began. Back in the 1760’s William Blacktone wrote a document commenting on the laws of England. Around that time, ahem, a group of folks decided to have a revolution! Yes, you guessed it, we were admiring the grave of the man who wrote a document that largely shaped our Constituion and Declaration of Independence! Don’t know about you, but I never learned about this guy in history class! I also found it fitting that his grave was marked with a black stone. 

I had told Adam about my puritan preacher English ancestors (you’ll learn about them in another post) and he pointed out the eagle statue to the right of the alter. This eagle is a puritanical symbol and also reminds me a lot of eagle symbolism which is common in America. 

We pushed our bikes to a pub on the banks of the Thames.

The line for beer was long, so we again deployed plan B and pedaled over to the town park where a car show was underway.

We topped up with a pint of Fuller’s London Pride – a beer advertised as being made from water out of Thames. The barkeep dubiously confirmed this was true. 🙂 After admiring the cars a bit, we pedaled out of town for what I thought was an easy run home. Boy, was I wrong. Soon, the elevation began to climb as we trudged up the only hill in the area. I’ll admit that I struggled a bit on trusty Apollo, my wheels for the day. Neither of us was prepared for the climb. We pushed on and soon reached the mountain peak. As I panted to the top Adam explained why we had made the trek. These hills – the clumps as they’re called in the area – are ancient lands where the Celtic people lived and shaped the land into defensible forts. We also had a chance to admire views of the valley and Thames below.

The rest of the trip was smooth sailing. We flew downhill and what happened next was one of the coolest moments of the day. Three white swans flew direcrly over us, not more than 10 feet above our heads. I listened blissfully to the flapping of their wings and gentle honking sounds. I have never seen swans flying before, a rare, delightful sight!

We made our final dead guy stop in Adam’s church graveyard. This one surprised me the most, and I can’t explain why I was so surprised, but I was!

Here we met none other than Eric Blair (pen name: George Orwell!). The author of Animal Farm and many other wonderful stories! Once again I was struck by the simplicity of the grave.

Our guide had again planned well and there was a pub right next to the cemetery. This one had my favorite name of the day: the George and Dragon. 

We had just 20 minutes before the roast would be served. Barely enough time to chill on the grass for our final half pint. I couldn’t resist a pour of Thatchers cider knowing we would pedal back by the thatched roof house on our way home.

As we basked in the final rays of sunshine we reminisced about our adventure. A day filled with wonderful scenery, remarkable literary history, friendly folk and many miles along the beautiful river Thames that ties the shire of Oxford together. Thanks, Adam, for an unforgettable adventure! Until next time, Cheers! 

And if you love the dead guys bike tour idea send me a route for your area and we can set up another!

Look where you want to go

Look where you want to go

This is the universal mantra of mountain bikers and motorcyclists. On a bike this is done to avoid a crash, on a motorcycle it’s necessary to avoid death. Mistakes have much bigger consequences on a motorized two wheel vehicle. The mantra flowed through my mind as I rode the steeply banked trails at the Bike Park in Winterburg, Germany.

While biking I often apply this principle when I deliberately look away from a tricky root, or a line I don’t want to follow, and focus my attention on the line where I want to go. It surprises me every time it works, but it’s really true, if you’re looking at that rock in the middle of the trail, your tire will go directly over it and you’ll probably crash. But, if you purposefully look away from the obstacle and focus your eyes on the tiny sliver of clean path just to the left, that’s where your tire will go.

On the drive back from Winterburg, I got to thinking about this phenomenon and how it’s also true in life. It’s important to consciously decide where you want to go. Once you do this, I can say from experience, everything in the universe will line up around your goal. I’m not saying it will easy. Heck no, sometimes you have to fight hard to refocus your attention away from some shiny object that suddenly appears and back on to the durable, although still exciting, object you’re focused on pursuing.

Sometimes the goal becomes less intriguing and exciting over time and this is when you should reassess – do I want to take the known, safe route, or should I try an experiment and do something totally different. Such as, maybe I’ll learn how to ride over that rock instead of taking the safe track to the left around it. Interestingly, to make this happen, you’ll need to refocus your attention on the Rock and then balance your body correctly over the bike to make it to the other side without a spill. And, you know what, it you crash, odds are you’ll be ok, or you might be laid up for a while recovering, which can be a great time to reassess your goals.

In the end, it comes back to looking where you want to go. The truth is you’ll be doing it subconsciously, or consciously, so why not take control of your thoughts, and deliberately choose the path and accomplish your goal?