Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.
For more than four months, I have witnessed a seemingly endless autumn. After cycling 7,700 miles through Asia and Europe, the blazing red leaves and crisp early mornings of fall have followed us across the Northern Hemisphere.
Fall is a time of year I both love and loathe. The harvest of fresh vegetables, beautiful foliage and warm days with perfect temperatures have always made autumn rank in my mind as one of nature’s most wondrous gifts. But fall is also the prelude to my least favorite season, winter. Knowing that the beautiful days of fall won’t last long makes autumn’s arrival always seem bittersweet.
This year fall has been different. It started early and still hasn’t ended. For years, I’ve dreamed of living in eternal autumn. It seems that wish has come true.
My beloved season appeared unexpectedly one morning in late July. My friend Ellery and I were riding along a lonely road through central Siberia when we noticed a patch of golden leaves on a green tree. Several miles later we spotted another tree beginning to turn color. Then another.
It was a hot summer day and the trees appeared out of place. At first we supposed they were suffering from a disease. But the following day we pedaled past more golden-leafed trees. By week’s end, the morning became so cold you could see your breath and we began passing whole forests of trees with red-yellow leaves. It was inevitable: fall was coming.
At extreme northern latitudes, seasonal changes occur quickly. In most of Russia, there is nearly 24 hours of daylight during the summer solstice. The rapid increase of light during this time of year causes plants to grow quickly. Oftentimes flowers and green grass sprout by partially frozen rivers as soon as the snow melts. Plants begin growing long before the thaw has ended.
By July 1 Siberian forests abound with lush plant life and afternoon temperatures can reach 100 degrees or more. But a sweltering Russian summer is short lived. In just several weeks, the earth rotates ever so slightly on its axis causing the nights to become colder and the trees to change color long before August has even begun.
It is November now. After reaching Moscow in mid-September, we rode southwest to escape winter’s imminent arrival. Traveling southward, we inadvertently followed the movement of autumn. Cycling across Ukraine and Poland, I watched once more as the green trees by the roadside slowly metamorphosed into fiery red-leafed beauties.
While some people follow hot summer weather each year, migrating from Maine to Florida, or Japan to Australia, I prefer to run with the cool nights and beautiful days of fall. As cold weather sets in, it is easy enough to hop a flight to Mexico and ride out the winter on the beach. Existing in an eternal fall requires that you live like a nomad following autumn wherever it wanders. Bicycle travel proves perfect for such an endeavor; you move just fast enough that you can follow autumn’s footsteps without getting too far ahead.
One week ago, we began riding due north on flatlands through Germany to avoid going over the Alps. After months of seeing leaves changing color, we have finally moved far enough north to enjoy the peak of fall foliage.
After riding across Germany, we entered Holland on a blustery afternoon. Anyone who enjoys long bicycle rides on cool fall days would find perfection here. A small bike path by the road leads from Germany into Holland. On the other side of the border, the bike path widens out to the size of a main road that leads from town to town. Only cyclists can ride here.
The network of bike paths in Holland is so extensive that one can literally go anywhere safely on a bicycle. At each intersection, well-marked signs just for cyclists direct riders to nearby towns and cities. Each day I share the paths with hundreds of riders: old men and women, gossiping school children riding home from class, and mothers on bikes equipped with secondary seats, or trailers, in the back where one or two small children sit. The astounding number of people riding bicycles here is an amazing example of how people will use infrastructure, like bike paths, when they have easy access to it.
Riding across Holland, bike paths lead us through cities and towns, vast farm land, small sections of woods and beside wide canals full of small boats and mallard ducks bobbing on the water’s edge.
On our second day in Holland, we ride on a small trail which passes through a deep forest between two towns. Tree limbs thick with ochre leaves rise high above me like the underside of a terra cotta roof. We follow the path up the gradual incline of a long hill and then race down the other side. Leaves have begun to fall now and they cover the forest floor and bike path in brilliant orange. With all the leaves it is nearly impossible to tell where the path is, but I keep going faster and faster. The sound of my rubber tires hitting wet leaves sounds delicious to my ears. At times I am not even sure if I am on the trail as I glide over a sea of red leaves. The experience is like water skiing, fast and unpredictable.
While the scenery and availability of bike paths make cycling across Holland a pleasure, the weather complicates our experience. November in Maine is often characterized by cloudy skies and rain. Even though Holland enjoys a slightly warmer climate than New England — so the leaves remain on the trees far longer — cloudy, rainy weather now dominates the skies here, too. For nearly a month, we have not seen the sun and each day it is no longer a question of if it might rain, but when.
Most of Holland consists of farmland. Fields have long since been harvested and the constant rain has reduced them to giant mud pits. On rare occasions, we pass through a small section of woods, but we mainly ride from farm to farm and village to village. There are no longer places for us to camp without hauling our bikes over fences and trudging through muddy fields on someone’s property. Western Europe is so populated, it is almost impossible to be inconspicuous.
Because camping is difficult here, we now spend most nights in cheap hotels. There is little more than nine hours of daylight, so we must ride fast each day through the wind and the rain to both cover a good distance and arrive in towns large enough to have affordable accommodations. Although the bike paths in Holland are amazing, each day feels more like a race to make it somewhere.
The aspects of fall I once disliked now seem more appealing. Fall is a time when we lose daylight and retreat inside more. It’s when we begin reading books on the couch under warm blankets, learn to carve pumpkins and make pies with fruit grown in summer.
On a fall bike trip, I may be able to admire beautiful foliage for months, but I spend most of my fall days now seeking shelter, trying to quickly get somewhere before dark and then searching for a reasonably priced place to stay. It seems to me now that one of the best parts of fall is becoming less extroverted and spending more time at home.
I love being outdoors and for years I have hated watching the daylight hours shorten during fall. These days, as I race down a back road or a bike path in late afternoon desperately trying to make it to the next town before dusk, I often think about how much I would like to be inside making dinner or reading a good book. How great it would be to not have to worry about the fact that it is becoming dark. Perhaps next year, when I spot that first rosy leaf upon a tree, I won’t be depressed about the coming of winter, but excited that I have a place to sit inside and enjoy it.