The Adventures of Frank & Stein Part I

July 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

Every year is an anniversary of “The Adventures of Frank & Stein” played by myself as Stein, and a college friend and roommate Frank Falcione. The name really has to be credited to Thomas Dudek, another college friend. Tom was a somewhat streetwise Philadelphia fanatic that played a great game of pool, and lived in the same student housing slum as both Frank and I. We were in the same small Engineering Science department at Penn State, and we spent a lot of time together in class, at the Rathskeller shooting pool, at The Hub shooting pool, and drinking lots of beer. Somewhere along the line in this friendship Tom gave me the nickname Stein. Pretty soon that was how my circle of friends knew me. Very much the same way that I am known today amongst my cycling contingent as Bird (yes, it is short for Big Bird). I don’t really recall how Tom came up with stein. It was not like we were all looking for nicknames. We weren’t sitting around drinking and smoking dope thinking out loud “We should all have some nicknames….Eric you be stein”. Suddenly it was there, and that was who I was. So the following (and subsequent posts) is a recollection of an adventure that was hatched by me, and drew in Frank so that by the time we left for this adventure it was already being called “Frank & Stein’s Big Adventure” or something like that. “What route are you taking?” “It’ll be the Frank & Stein route.” “What the hell is the Frank & Stein Route?” “It will be the route that we travel, where ever that takes us.” Mostly it should end up being a tale of friendship, and the people we meet along the way. What are stories, but the recollection of past events shared with friends? So here is the recollection of one of my major past events.

In 1981 I was a Senior at Penn State and I had spent the previous summer on campus making up for a term I had missed when I became infected with Mononucleosis. I was studying at Pattee Library when I spotted an article in the universities daily newspaper, The Daily Collegian, about a student alumni who had cycled across the country that summer and was on his way to finishing his journey in New Jersey. At that moment I was smitten by the idea that I could, and wanted to, do this myself. I went to the map section of the library and started pulling out maps of the west and started exploring possible routes. It was pretty clear early on that I was going to start in California, where exactly wasn’t clear, but I was thinking a south to north route first.  I made a number of return trips to the library and researched places I wanted to visit on a trip like that. I thought about how much time I needed, and the kinds of supplies I would need. I owned a bike already, and I figured it would be good enough for the journey, but might need some enhancements and upgrades. I did not ride bikes then the way I do now (nor the way I have done now for 30 years), but I did use a bike to get everywhere I needed to go. I was a college student who had started out with a car, but found the cost to be prohibitive, so I eventually replaced my car with a bicycle. That, public transportation and the generosity of friends  was how I got around. Doing a long distance cycling adventure wasn’t a completely new idea, as I had made one long distance attempt a couple of years earlier trying to ride home to Montclair from the Altoona Pennsylvania campus. While I was on the road for a couple of days and did make it about half way, I ran into a hurricane that had stalled and felt that I could not continue, so I aborted that adventure. I just wasn’t prepared to sit out a 4 day storm in May on the side of the road. My shelter was just a 10×10 coated nylon taffeta backpacking tarp, so while one wet night might not be too bad, I couldn’t see spending days like that.

The summer ended, and my roommates returned from their summer break. At that time I lived with a guy named John Sedonic, who was an ex Air Force guy in school on the GI bill. He had gotten me interested in Racquetball and through this activity I met and became friends with Frank Falcione from Mt. Lebanon PA just outside of Pittsburgh. We both had lived in the same student slum complex, and were both engineers and so he moved in with us that final year and was around to listen to my planning of the following summer’s big adventure. Johnny Sedonic was the one who bailed me out of my previous little adventure and he wasn’t so sure I had my head screwed on straight, but tried to be supportive as much as possible “If you get stuck on this trip I won’t be able to bail you out.” Frank however, listened to my plans, saw me going through catalogs looking at gear, and accompanied me on several occasions into the local bike shops to talk turkey with anyone there who had ideas. After a number of weeks of this, he asked me “Would you like a partner for this journey?”, and so that is how we came to planning our big adventure.

Frank was in shape but he didn’t even own a bike. I was already a backpacker, so I had some decent lightweight gear already. Frank didn’t have any of that so his starting point was a wee bit behind mine, but we made a commitment to each other, and we started working on getting our shit together. Frank would need a bike. We would need panniers; we would probably need to have a triple front crankset as we both had a clear idea that 20 mile climbs with a load of shit on the bike was going to mean that we needed as much mechanical advantage as we could get. I had a decent sleeping bag, bed roll, and a lightweight cook set. I was also a decent mechanic so I had bike tools. We just needed to outfit Frank completely, get spending money for the excursion, schedule a flight and pick a starting point. We were college kids that didn’t have any money, so equipping ourselves was going to involve pleading with parents for specific birthday and Christmas gifts, and getting jobs of some sort.

One item I did not have from camping already was a tent, and considering we would be sleeping in it every night I thought we needed a good tent, and good light tents cost a lot of money, which, I may have mentioned, we didn’t have. But I did have a catalog for a company that sold fabric and I thought I could possibly make a tent. I figured I needed a tub made of some thick coated nylon, and something for the walls and roof. Since I owned a decent tarp already, and it was going to be summer I figured I could make the top out of mosquito netting and then using a guy line above the tent I could pitch the tarp over that for moisture protection. So I ordered some coated nylon, some mosquito netting, a couple of two-way zippers, some sealant and over the Christmas break that year I used my Mother’s sewing machine and I made my own tent. It was a pretty basic job. Rectangular floor that folded up at the edges to create the first 6 inches of wall. Then I cut out panels of netting and sewed a strong border material around them, and sewed them together to make a basic A-Frame style tent. I added the front and rear panels, one with zippers up both sides, and with the help of two poles (or two trees) a guy line could be run to support the top edge and with the four corners staked I had a pretty functional tent. It was light; the zippers were big so they didn’t jam; It wasn’t completely sealed, but it seemed like it would do the job. $40 and I had a tent.

Getting a job was a little hard to do in a college town of many thousands of students. There weren’t many openings, and neither of us had a car for delivery jobs. As I recall  Frank did work a bit at the local Movie theater (owned by a company in Pittsburg that his Father worked for), so for me to get a job seemed almost impossible when I saw an ad in the college paper for Sera Tech. This was a place where you could visit twice a week and sell your blood plasma. You go in, get a nice hospital style bed, where a cute (and sometimes not-so-cute) nurse would come over and stick a needle in your arm and draw a pint of blood into a blood bag. They would take that bag to a room and centrifuge it to separate the red cells from the plasma, extract the plasma, and then return the red cells along with some saline solution back into your body. Repeat one more time and you had $10! So every week that year we hit Sera Tech where we talked about our coming adventure and engaged the nurses in our dream and we picked up $20 bucks a week each which we banked for our trip. If we only had a rare blood type we could have earned more, but that is the way it was. I still have scars in both arms that mark the entry points into the veins that produced the best flow. I could fill a bag in under ten minutes, and the nurses loved my veins because they were easy to see and they could always get a good flow going. I remember watching them struggle with other people who really shouldn’t have been there, but that is another story.

Where should we start, and where should we go? As it turned out, Frank had a sister that lived in San Diego, so that seemed like a logical starting point. We could fly out there and get settled in her place and take off when we were ready. The south western most part of the continental US seemed like a great starting point. We had talked about a lot of places we wanted to visit: Yosemite, San Francisco, The coast of California, Yellowstone, Arches, Zion, The Grand Canyon, The Rockies etc. Zoom across the middle of the country and then hit New England before ending in New Jersey. Maybe we could hit the Eastern most point of the continental US in Maine. I do believe we were a wee bit ambitious, but hey, we were young and we thought we could do it all. So we figured, that we had to see Yosemite, and we wanted to see the California coast. We would either have to ride up the coast from SD and then cut East in San Francisco and head to Yosemite or we could head straight north from SD, come into Yosemite from the East, travel West to SF,  go up the coast and then head east. Either way the intention was to leave California out its NE corner and then, head north and east to Yellowstone. From there we would then turn south and navigate through Utah to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and then head Northeast to Colorado, across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, PA, then up into NY etc. For some reason we both liked the idea of going north and hitting eastern California first, and catching the coast in the north. It looked good on the map. Eventually we had thousands of miles planned, and it was all going to start in San Diego.

We were earning money. Frank got a gift from his dad and bought a bike. With some Christmas gifts of my own, and birthday, I bought a TA triple crank with a 32 tooth front ring. Frank’s bike was built for touring and came with a triple already. We bought front and rear bike racks, and panniers for both as well as handlebar bags. While I did have a set of panniers from my first adventure, they were small, and just weren’t going to be enough by themselves, so I used it as a front pannier. We figured we would need as much room as we could haul. We bought some cycling clothing figuring as well that we needed to be as comfortable as possible on this trip. Bike shoes that would be good for cycling, but also allowed us to use them as normal shoes as well. Racing shoes with cleats were out. Spare tires, patch kits, tubes, tools, a pump or tool, lots of water bottles holders, and an odometer. This was right about the time that the idea of helmets was starting to catch on in the US. I recall arguing a little with my parents about it, but we both eventually conceded to wear helmets on the trip. Helmets that we could attach a rear facing mirror :). Helmets have come a long long way since those early days. My helmet was basically a climbing helmet meant to protect climbers from falling rocks. It had two little ventilation holes at the front, and two at the rear. That helmet was like an oven, but I did wear it. After the trip when I started racing I showed up to a race in that helmet. Someone told me “Dude. You are going to die in that thing.” He was right, and I eventually got a newer better one.

In the PA spring we started to do some training. Central Pennsylvania is a beautiful place to ride bikes, and while we didn’t get out a lot, we did get some decent rides in. We eventually decided that we needed to try our equipment on a real ride and selected a weekend in April to do a nice big loop north of State College.  We would take Friday off from school and spend 3 days out on the bikes. We bought food, fuel for the stove, and then proceeded to figure out how we were going to get everything onto the bikes. Franks sleeping bag was pretty big, and though my Dad had bought me a nice down 0 degree bag for a HS graduation present, it wasn’t going to fit in the panniers. The bed rolls wouldn’t either. So we got our first lessons in figuring out the best way to tie everything to our bikes in a way that we could still ride them. We tied our sleeping bags under our seats, which for me and my height was a lot of room, and Frank was just enough. We tied our ensolite sleeping pads to the top lengthwise of the rear rack and under the sleeping bag. To this we could tie other accessories like tires. Everything else went inside the bags,  and then we set off.

Riding a bike that has nothing on it but yourself, is WAY different than riding a bike that is loaded with camping gear. Also, if some of that gear is in panniers on the front of the bike, then steering a bike like that is way different as well. You do not make quick movements with the handle bars. The steering is resistant. The bike also does not stop as fast. If your weight is too high, then the bike wants to fall over if you don’t support it correctly. These were all things we learned in the just the first few miles. We were pretty lucky though in that we selected a weekend that just happened to be a damn nice weekend. Sunny days, and cool, but not completely frozen nights. Because we knew we had good weather we opted to only bring our backpacking hammocks instead of the tent. We would bring both on the real trip, but for this weekend we figured the hammocks would be sufficient. Though the trip as a whole was a big success, we figured out quickly that the hammocks were not a good sleeping option. Even for Frank at 5’6″ the hammock was tight but for me at 6’4 there just was not a lot of room. This was not your backyard hammock. This was a mummy hammock. The night was cold, so we needed our sleeping bags. It was April in PA. So we had to get the sleeping bags laid out in the hammocks, and then we had to try to get into them and zip them up without falling out. After 30 minutes (remember it is dark too) we both finally succeded, however it wasn’t long before both of us realized that we were going to have to deal with the calls of nature. “Maybe we can unzip the bag, hold one side of the hammock and lean the other way as far as we can without flipping over, and then we just pee out the side so we don’t pee ourselves”. “Yeah that sounds okay, let’s give that a try.” [Fill in Jeopardy theme music, or some other little diddy as we made our attempts)] I was so stressed and tense from trying to keep myself from falling out that I could not relax enough to do what I needed to do. So, we got a lot of practice in those two long nights,  and we got better at getting into and out of the hammock. I should also note that at that time I wasn’t as much into camp fires while camping as I am now, so once the sun went down, and it got cold, well there wasn’t much to do except get into the sleeping bags. So those two nights we were in bed by 8pm easily, maybe earlier, and therefore had a lot of time for nature to come-a-calling.  Though we were in bed for a long time, we didn’t really get a lot of sleep. When you struggle for awhile just getting settled into the hammock, the last thing you want to do is get up. So when the urge first makes itself felt you quickly ignore it and try to get back to sleep. That of course doesn’t work, because it is on your mind, and you know you are going to have to do something about it. Eventually you succumb, extract yourself from the hammock, take care of nature, and then struggle to get secured in the bag again. Do that a few times each night and you don’t really get a lot of sleep.  So like I said, overall the trip was a good one. We rode the bikes, got to use our equipment, but we didn’t get enough sleep. The terrain was great; we had lots of long hills to test the triple cranks on; we had lots of mountain-stream-following roads that cut through the terrain, and we got to spend a weekend together which helped us determine (whether we were looking for that quality time or not) that we could spend time together and not get on each others nerves. Sure it was only 3 days, and we were talking about spending 3 months in constant contact, but it was a start.

We had some training; we had a starting point; we had a route plan; we had our plane tickets; we had our gear; Lastly we had the time, so all we had to do was finish the term, and then it would be off to California for the biggest adventure of our lives.

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