May 14 , 2016— Conway, NH to Lincoln, NH
I take a right off Passaconoway Road onto Kancamagus Highway and there by the side of the road is a small sign “Race in Progress.” There is no one to be seen on the road. Neither a cyclist nor a vehicle in sight. Just me and the sunny blue sky and the mountain ahead. I pause to make sure I’m headed in the right direction and then start pedaling.
After a couple of miles, a scenic overlook appears on my right and I pull off to have a snack and a drink. It is then that I see the first cyclists. Clad in light-blue spandex, a team of three passes by on their way up the pass. More cyclists follow. Men and women of varying ages, all wearing professional-looking kits covered in team names and brand logos and pedaling road bikes that look like feathers compared to my heavy touring set up. I finish my snack and get back on the road.
I had been prepared for a difficult, perhaps impossible, climb, but the first several miles of the Kancamagus Highway prove to be very manageable. The road is smooth, the shoulder wide, and the weather is perfect. I am glad I took a rest day to wait out the rain.
As I ride, more and more cyclists pass me on the left. Some say encouraging things like “nice job” or “have a great tour” or often, “I’m impressed.” Some say stupid things like, “it’s a long climb with all that weight.” “No shit,” I think, shifting into a lower gear as the road steepens.
A few miles from the top, the grade changes from 3% to 9%. I try not to stop because it’s very difficult to start pedaling again on a hill, but there is one stretch where I have to take three breaks in the span of twenty minutes. I stand with my legs over the frame and my hand on the brake and stare off into the trees, thinking of nothing in particular. I drink some water and get back on the road.
The cyclists in the race have reached the top and begun their descent. Every time one whizzes past, I want so badly to ask, “Am I close? How much farther?” But they wouldn’t hear me, so I don’t.
At one point, I am taking a break when I hear loud wheezing coming up the road behind me. I look back to see a ten year old kid, wearing a spandex cycling bib and riding a miniature road bike, powering up the hill followed closely by his father. He sounds like he’s having a tough time so I say, “nice job” as he passes and he says thanks. He’s wheezing, but he’s clearly determined to make it to the top. I hear his father say, “it’s not going to be that steep up ahead.” That gives me a little strength. I get back on the bike.
Finally, around noon, I come around a bend and I see an overlook where there is a race tent set up. I push it as hard as I can and then let the bike come to a stop in front of the tent.
“Aww, c’mon, you didn’t even make it to the white line!” the race official says, pointing to the finish line on the ground in front of me.
“I didn’t even see it,” I respond truthfully, too exhausted from the climb to care.
I chat with the official and a couple of other cyclists for a moment before wheeling my bike over to the overlook. The race, I find out, is a time trial race called “Crank the Kank”, and it has just ended. The cyclists have descended, and the officials are packing up. They offer me some bagels and bananas, which I gratefully accept.
I sit on the overlook, eat, and rest for awhile. When I feel ready, I get back on the bike and begin the descent to Lincoln, NH.
It took me four hours to get from Conway, NH to the top of the Kanc. It takes me forty minutes to descend to Lincoln. I let go of the brakes and speed down, trying the appreciate the scenery as it whizzes past.
When I get to Lincoln, I stop at a gas station to buy a cold drink. I sit on the ground, outside the gas station, and try to figure out whether or not to continue on or find a place to stay for the night. It is only 1:30pm, but I’m tired, so I decide to stay.
None of the campgrounds seem to be open for the season yet, and I can’t find a hotel for less than $90, so I decide to try my luck at the local fire station. I pedal on over, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone there. Just down the road, I see a Catholic church. I decide to try my luck there. I ring the bell at the rectory and a large dog runs to the door, barking. A man opens the door, holding the dog by the collar. I ask him if he knows of a place where I might be able to camp, and he tells me to go to Chet’s.
Chet’s as it turns out is a free hostel operated by the eponymous Chet. His guests are mostly Appalachian Trail through hikers, and the hostel walls, bunks, and refrigerators are covered in the signatures of hikers. There are thousands of trail names, each one unique. On the back wall is a bookcase full of shoes, clothes, and backpacks. There is a leave-one, take-one library and a supply shelf with toiletries and other small items.
Chet shows me around and tells me the hostel rules. Lodging is offered on a barter system and donations are also accepted. Chet is wheelchair-bound and legally blind, so he asks if I would sweep his house—which is connected to the hostel—in exchange for a bunk. I happily agree, thinking that it’s the least I can do. I drop my stuff at one of the bunks, and head back into Lincoln to have a look around.
I’m still exhausted from the day’s ride, so I decide to stop at GH Pizza for something to eat and a place to sit. When I’ve had my fill, I head back to Chet’s. We sit out on his deck for an hour or so, while his golden chow Daisy May wanders around the backyard, and he tells me about the hostel and the surrounding area.
He used to be a very active hiker, cyclist, and skier, but an unfortunate accident with a backpacking stove sidelined him. Still wanting to be involved with the hiking community, he opened up his doors and created the hostel. Over the years, he’s hosted more than two thousand travelers including AT hikers, cross-country cyclists, and entire Mennonite families. Anyone who needs a place to stay is welcome at Chet’s.
It’s early in the hiking season, so I am the only one at Chet’s tonight. It might seem a little strange, sleeping in a bunk in a stranger’s garage, but I am comforted by the signatures of those who came before me (and by the fact that the place was recommended by the local Catholic priest).
I sweep Chet’s house, and he shows me a photograph of a cow moose standing outside his garage (!) as well as a wooly mammoth tibia that his aunt sent him from Florida.
I eat some leftover pizza, write in my journal, and check the forecast. The temperature tomorrow will be in the forties with rain and possibly snow in the afternoon. I’m worried about this, because I do not have that many warm clothes. I decide, perhaps foolishly, that I will try to ride to Orford, NH tomorrow.
The sun sets, and I crawl into my sleeping bag and fall promptly asleep.