It's difficult to reconsider a life dream. It's difficult to admit we are too ambitious. But the soreness in our knees makes it all too real. We sleep in, slowly do our laundry, and think about what is important to our tour.
We love cycling. We love astronomy outreach. But if we cycle for 13 hours every day, there will be no time for astronomy, barely enough time for rest. We will pass through incredible landscapes, and contact new and interesting cultures, without an ounce of time to experience it, because we always have to get there.
So our goals are in conflict. We want to cycle from city to city, but the distance and the hills in Italy make it impossible to spend any time in the cities where we stop.
Yesterday, when Brendan thought about giving up, I reminded him that we can do it, and that each day is only 1% of the entire tour. If today isn't what we want, then we still have every chance to change tomorrow. When I thought about giving up, Brendan cheered us on, and assured me that we can climb the next hill, the next hill, the next hill. In our moments of doubt, we each hold the other up. That's why we're brothers. That's why we're Moon Men.
We decide to take a train to Perugia. Even so, we must descend 500 meters and ride 20 kilometers to the train station. In the rain. So we do it. We board the train, and in minutes speed by the lakes and landscapes that we planned to conquer but could not today.
On the train my doubts boil over. On our rest day, we must still climb 200 meters up another hill to our AirBnB. But a dinner of pasta and antipasta calms them. The sky was clear, so we set up our telescope in Piazza IV Novembre. In spite of the cold wind and relatively empty streets, we still engage with many groups, and inspire everyone who passes with the beauty of the Universe. Some people linger, and help us with our Italian so that we can tell people that they are looking at what Galileo saw.
Rain knocks all the dust out the atmosphere, so this clear hilltop waxing gibbous makes all our doubts melt away. This tour is about astronomy, and about sharing it with the world.
If we must modify our plan to make that happen, so be it. We are not here to prove ourselves, we are here to learn and enjoy ourselves. The Moon Men will persevere, even if it means retooling our plan.
Kilometers Traveled: 101
Kilometers Climbed: 1.7
Are you wondering what a moon man eats to haul a telescope through the Italian countryside? A week's worth fruit, cheese, bread, and chocolate fuels us each day.
The Eurovelo 7 could be described as the "scenic route" through the Italy. It is a bike route that keeps you away from main roads to take you through some beautiful and remote places. As we left the roads for a gravel path, we realize we are leaving civilization for hours at a time. Reaching the top of a huge hill is a beautiful achievement, but I think we'd like to limit ourselves to doing it maybe 10 times a day, max.
The dogs run up to the property line and cross it, surrounding our bikes as a pack. We don't know if they are ready to bite, and attack. Brendan lets out a scream, and the dogs back away enough for him to speed off. Then they surround me.
One dog snaps at my leg from less than a foot away. It was instinct to scream as loud as I could. The dog backs away for a moment, and I'm able to speed off as well. The dogs decide not to chase us, although they could have easily caught up.
We eat our coldcut lunch and reflect on our first near-death experience of the day. It is 2 pm, and we are still 60 kilometers from our destination. We have been making a pace of.. 10 kilometers an hour. The hills are truly that steep. Will we make it there by sunset? We put our heads down and focus on our ride.
Ageless Italian towns pass us by, we speed past. Beautiful hilltops greet us, we climb through. The hours tick by. At 7 pm, we are still 20 kilometers away, and our host lives on a hill 500 meters above Orvieto. We have no choice now but to hit the hatchbacks.
The sunset is beautiful but threatens darkness. Brendan reminds us to keep pushing, to remain positive. We enter a trancelike state, where the climb is no longer difficult, it is simply what we must do. An orange glowing sun drops beneath the clouds and warms us one last time before setting behind the Umbrian hillside.
15 minutes after sunset, down a steep and slippery gravel road, we reach our host Francesco on his farm.
He greets us warmly with rice and lentil soup, his two dogs are kind to us, and the beds that he offers are warm. Francesco is a WWOOF and Warmshowers host, he invites people into his home pro gratis, and belongs to a community of people who do this with a mentality of trust and pass-it-forward kindness.
The sky clears after a day of rain (did I mention it was raining?), and we are rewarded with one of the darkest night skies I have ever seen. The waxing gibbous moon steals the show a bit, but we set up our telescope and share the night sky with our new friend.
Our limits have been tested, we have been on the most difficult bicycle ride of our lives, and tomorrow promises more hills and more rain. We decide to rest for as long as we need to, and think carefully about what to do about Perugia tomorrow.
Kilometers Traveled: 71
It's our first day riding. We're nervous about whether all this expensive luggage will stay attached to our bikes. North along fiume tevere on Eurovelo 7, 2,800 feet up some truly large hills. My legs are sore already from walking 20 miles each day in Rome. I can't wait to eat chocolates and coldcuts all day.
We arrive in Nepi at 5 pm to meet our AirBnB host, who continually responds to us "Non lo so." She had no idea how to use AirBnB, and did not know we were coming, so in this isolated mountain town, near sunset, we started looking for another place to stay.
Just one town further we find another AirBnB, check in, and begin to wash our clothes in the sink. Many worries begin to creep up on us. Will we find places to stay in these remote mountain towns? Are we ready for tomorrow's ride, which is even bigger? What will the weather be like? Will we run out of food miles from any town? I like to take chances for meditation. A few deep breaths can bring you more strength than you realize.
We walk down the street to a pizzeria, eat even more pizza and gelato, and the Italians in the store make fun of us the entire time we eat because we can't speak Italian.
I wanted that picture. I wanted that picture that everyone wants in front of the Colosseum. There is no question. We must set up our telescope in front of it.
My friend Katie told us that we will never see the inside if we don't book ahead. But we found the line moving quickly in the afternoon, so we jumped on and entered just 30 minutes later. Luck, or patience?
The buskers who sell bracelets and roses each came to look. One asked us "Cos'e questa macchina?", "What is this machine?" After they saw it, they knew what they saw. They ran to get their friends, pointed at us, and told them to look too.
We realized that Rome is a city of worldwide tourism. In front of this monument we met people from every different country. I'll list them here, to show you that we are all living on the same planet together, and that no matter who you are, where you are from, or what you believe, you will have the same reaction when you see what the Universe looks like: Wow.
Argentina, Austria, Brazil
Canada, Denmark, Estonia
France, Germany, Greece
Italy (of course)
Iraq, Norway, Portugal
Syria, United States
Colosseum, Roman Forum, Baths of Caracalla. The Pantheon. Rome's engineers knew more about concrete than we do now, and their architecture proves it. They used arches in ways that you will not find in any modern building. Their designs are considered unsafe by modern building codes, and yet they still stand. It reminds us that knowledge can be lost, that if we don't work to preserve our own civilization, we will lose it.
We are sitting again in Piazza di Santa Maria, I am waiting to meet up with an old friend. We watch a clown entertain the children with his hundreds of props, imitating the people who pass by. The most powerful motivator is joy, and beyond the science, this is what I want people to feel when they see the moon. I look up at the twilight sky and see it occasionally peak through. The forecast predicted clouds, so we did not pack our scope, hoping for a night off.
I don't make my hours, the moon does. Each time it shines on us, there is a chance to make another observation, share something new, as if there will be limited chances in my whole life to do it. But I cannot let it rule us. If I cannot take joy from the moon each time I see it, then I am missing the point. So I smile at the clouds, and allow the immortal moon to sit in the sky, unobserved for just one evening.
Brendan poses in front of the temple of Saturn, reminding us that humans have always marveled at the beauty of the night sky.
The second night in Rome was as clear as you could hope for. We rode our bikes over to Piazza di Santa Maria and found a plaza teeming with tourists and locals alike. We got to work. Viste Della Luna! The last time I visited Italy, I was afraid to speak even the smallest bit of Italian. Now, we are so eager to learn what we can in order to share the beauty of the cosmos. Viste Della Luna da vacino con telescopio! E bella.
Each time we thought we would pack up, more people came by to ask about the telescope. Are the Moon Men better received in Rome than in Philly? Prove me wrong Philly! The armed forces that guard the political buildings approached us and asked us what we were doing. And that's when a man holding an assault rifle looked through our telescope, said wow, smiled, and told us we are doing something good for the people.
We met Bruno and Sara, industrial engineers from Portugal. We discussed how fragile our Earth is, and how astronomy reminds us of our responsibility to keep our air clean and our water clear, for all the life on this planet. Bruno pulled us away from the setting moon long enough to treat us to many rounds of Heineken. So many rounds that by 1 am, Jupiter was visible, and we set right back to work pointing our machine.
Based on the first day, this trip will be impossibly full. It took us three hours easy to assemble the bicycles in the airport, but that really didn't wear us down. We ate chocolate, found some sim cards, and looked up at the late afternoon sky to see the waxing crescent overhead. So we packed our telescope and made off on our bicycles for the Spanish Steps. Italian drivers are very talented. The rules of the road are lax, but you better pay attention. Traffic flow is good. We burst down the busy hills and climbed the roads to the steps.
Culturally, the telescope will be recieved differently everywhere we go. The polizia were sympathetic but explained that we could not set up without a permit. We snuck down an alleyway and found a nice intersection.
A few encounters: a street performer, a bicycle delivery man, and two children who were pleasantly amazed. We ached for an Italian friend who could show us how to busk in this new language. A little bit of Pasta Al Pesto, we climbed to the top of the spanish steps later in the night to set up the scope for the setting crescent. We made some great friends here, met other travelers from around Europe, the interactions were pleasant and intimate. We upped the power to 140X, showed off the biggest craters we could provide, and impressed a few German architecture students before riding home. Now I'm off to the hostel's terrace, to observe Jupiter's moons. I wonder how long before I can calculate their orbits.
If you ask me, the real journey already happened. The real journey was packing our equipment. Our bicycles are in boxes. Bicycles are not shaped like boxes, so we removed a number of vital parts, wrapped them in foam, and shoved them in with the frame. In all, we took about three hours before we finished packing. Brendan finished first. And, like Pandora's box, the chaos of loose parts now awaits us in Fiumicino Airport.
Our combined luggage weighs 17 pounds each. Our telescope weighs a total of 20 pounds. Our handlebar bags, loaded up, weigh four pounds each. If thirty pounds each sounds a bit heavy, you may be surprised that many people tour with twice as much luggage as we are. Brendan isn't thrilled about the amount of weight, but I remind him that a third of that can easily just be the weight of the bags themselves. We are traveling with very little, all in all. We each packed:
- 3 Shirts
- 3 Shorts
- 1 Pair of pants
- 3 Pairs of socks
- 1 First Aid Kit
- 1 Toothbrush
- 1 Comb
- 1 Camelbak 3 Liter bladder
- 1 packable backpack
- 1 notebook
and a powerful telescope, and that's it! You won't see pictures of us fully loaded until we get to Rome. See you there!
Early this year I called up David Nagler, the President of TeleVue Optics, to ask if he's ever heard of the Philly Moon Men. On the other line was a man with a patient, enthusiastic voice, and I was impressed by the time he took from his routine to offer great advice and encouragement.
A month ago at the NorthEast Astronomy Forum, the Moon Men met David in person, and that's where we decided to begin an incredible partnership. David grew up learning the trade of optical engineering from his father, Al Nagler. Al is widely considered an innovator in the field of telescope optics, but what I love about Al is his dedication to astronomy as well. I learned of the Naglers' love for sidewalk astronomy, and of the many nights they've spent sharing their knowledge and their equipment with their community.
David spent the morning demonstrating concepts of telescope optics, and generously offered to let us take a TV-76 on our bike tour with us. This telescope is rugged enough for us to trust on a three month bicycle tour, taking on all sorts of terrain and each evening still pointing at the stars with lenses in exactly the same alignment. It is by far the most versatile and capable instrument I've ever used.
My heartfelt thanks to TeleVue and the Nagler family for sponsoring us on our epic tour. TeleVue optics are used by scientists and professionals to conduct their research. Although the Moon Men are amateurs, David wanted to enable our passion from the very beginning, and show us that anyone can become an astronomer if they are interested in the sky. I can't wait to share these views to thousands of people throughout our tour this Summer. We'll be keeping count!