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Eco-travelers' vacation plans bypass the pump

Vern Ciardella of Littleton, Colo., takes in the view after biking to the Red Rocks Amphitheater west of Denver last month. Vern Ciardella of Littleton, Colo., takes in the view after biking to the Red Rocks Amphitheater west of Denver last month. (Ed Andrieski/AP)
By Michelle Higgins
New York Times News Service / September 10, 2008
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When Robert Huether and his fiancee, Heather Wierowski, go on vacation, they typically take a plane or a car to get away from it all. But spikes in gas prices, which reached beyond $4 a gallon this summer, spurred them to try a new kind of trip this year. Over the last weekend in July, they set out from their home in Buffalo, N.Y., on their bikes for a four-day trip, following the Erie Canal to Albany, with the goal of using only pedal power the entire 346-miles.

"Heather and I are active and love to bike," said Huether, a graduate student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, "so we combined traveling and biking as a way to save on the cost of gas."

Eco-travelers have long embraced low-impact travel, biking from campsite to campsite or taking cross-country jaunts on buses powered by veggie-oil to make a point. But the high cost of fuel is inspiring even more mainstream travelers to embrace the gasless vacation this year.

"We just queried our e-newsletter list - over 30,000 people - and got a landslide of stories" from cyclists taking gas-free trips this summer, said Winona Sorensen, media director for the Adventure Cycling Association, in Missoula, Mont. Inquiries about bike trips were up 7 percent from last October to July, she added, while the group added 6,496 members, a nearly 15 percent gain over the previous year.

Recognizing an opportunity, the association has been marketing cycling as the ultimate gas-free trip. "When you travel by bicycle, all you need - oil-wise - are a few drops (chain lube, anyone?), not many gallons," stated its website, www.adventurecycling.org, earlier this month. "As far as we're concerned, less expensive, gas-free vacations rule."

Gas-free travel poses some obvious vacation limits. To cover any significant distance by bike, on foot, by kayak, or even on horseback you'll need a lot of energy and a lot of time off.

Marvin and Nancy Webster from Bloomfield, Mo., are both retired, so they didn't have to worry about missing work when they decided to take a mule-drawn wagon to visit their two sons in Richland Center, Wis., earlier this year. The couple, both 65, set out on April 29, using a homemade wagon, pulled by three mules. The trip, which typically takes about 11 hours by car, took them 26 days by mule, traveling roughly 30 miles each day, they said.

Lacking the time that the Websters had, most fuel-conscious travelers compromise by taking short gas-free trips, not far from where they live, or by using public transit, or car-pooling with friends to cut fuel bills.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been adding tourist videos to its website, www.metro.net, to show where you can go by public transit after seeing a spike in ridership. Its not known how many were on vacation but last month, 319,582 passengers boarded Los Angeles Metro Rail trains on an average weekday, up 20 percent over a year earlier. Metro bus average weekday ridership rose 6.5 percent to 1,227,752.

Pamela Fischer and her husband, Scott Spaulding, from New Gloucester, Maine, had planned a 10-day bike vacation from their summer home near Millinocket, Maine, to the far north around Caribou, Fort Kent, and Presque Isle. But work obligations forced the couple to scale the trip back to five days, so they ended up driving close to Presque Isle before heading out on a 260-mile meandering bike loop.

"We ultimately ended up having to settle for a gasoline-minimized vacation instead of a pure gasoline-free vacation," Fischer said.

Weather can be an issue without a car roof over your head. And a flat tire or a wrong turn may be a bigger deal than when traveling by motor vehicle, as Huether and Wierowski learned on their four-day Erie Canal trip.

When a spoke on Huether's back wheel broke a good 20 miles from one day's destination, the couple had to call a family member to pick them up, and break their gas-free rule. The next day, they got off to a late start and ended up riding in the dark to their next stop.

"Night came and we were not prepared," Huether said. After missing a turn, the couple ended up on a two-lane expressway. "It was dark enough cars could hardly see us," he said.

"Heather was close to tears."

But soon they saw a light. "I am not a fan of Wal-Mart but I have never been happier to see one," said Huether, who bought two headlights and taillights there.

Packing for such trips can also be a challenge. Marsha Brown, who has taken many bike trips with her husband, Al, from their home in Lake Placid, Fla., recommends attaching a small suitcase to the bike's rear luggage rack. She likes the Ortlieb Shuttle Bike, a lightweight wheeled suitcase that attaches to a bike rack. Keith Hickerson, a professional mountain-bike racer from Boise, Idaho, prefers BOB trailers, which roll behind a bike.

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