Setting up FT8

First, download and install the latest distribution from the WSJT-X project page. The documentation is well-written and useful.  The second release candidate features decoding improvements (a priori decoding) that increases the ability to work with weaker signals.  It seems to work awesomely.

Second, verify your system clock is set accurately. Seriously. The FT8 cycles are 15 seconds, of which 12.6 seconds are transmit, 0.5 – 1 seconds of decode & lookup, and the rest left up to you to make a response. On Mac, this is done via command-line:
sudo ntpdate -u time.apple.com
On Windows, use Dimension 4

Edit the preferences. In the General tab:

FT8 – General Settings

1. Enter your call sign.
2. Enter your Maidenhead grid.
3. This is optional, but if you choose your IARU region, it’ll help set up your frequency list later.
4. I like the program off by default as a reminder to set my system time.
5. There is some automation in place such that when it sends the “73” (“Best regards”), it’ll stop transmitting until you reenable it again.

The Radio tab is going to vary depending on what you own.
For my Elecraft KX3:

FT8 – Radio

1. USB device for the control cable.
2. I prefer having the computer control it rather than using tones (like my HT does).
3. This tells the radio to use data mode, which disables compression, the RX/TX EQ, and uses a low error-rate ALC.

From the KX3 manual

My Mac lacks a microphone, so I use an external USB dongle for both in and out.  Generally, you want to use as little volume as necessary to avoid overloading the card.

FT8 audio

Generally, I run with ALC (Automatic Level Control) — the ALC gain on the radio -showing 4-5 bars.  Some radios will require this off. Sound out from the radio (and into the sound card) is kept at a minimum.  See below.

The reporting tab has two items of interest:

FT8 – Reporting

1. When you detect a station, upload it to this (free) spotting service

PSK Reporter – used to help identify good/bad propagation

This is very useful because it lets you see that your station is being received.  The light purple arc is an estimate of where I’m being well-received.

2. There are supplementary utilities that can listen to the connection and automatically log for you. For example, I have JT-Bridge act as a layer to do lookups then instruct MacLoggerDX to upload them to QRZ.com. (Yes, this is overly complex.)

Finally, the first time you use wsjtx, or if you update, you’ll need to load in frequencies. Right-click on the main window and select Reset. I skim through these to remove bands my radio doesn’t support (e.g., 2200m, microwave frequencies):

FT8 – Frequencies

Right click and save these just in case you want to start over.

Okay, now that that’s set up, in the main window, there are three areas of interest:

FT8 – Main

Select the “Monitor” button to start listening.  The waterfall should start showing activity if there are users on.  Once a full 15-seconds has elapsed, you should start seeing those signals being decoded.

On the bottom, left is a meter showing input levels.  You want it to be in the green, ideally around 25-30db.  If it’s too quiet, the bar will be red meaning you’re not getting enough signal.  If it’s too loud, the bar will turn yellow indicating oversaturation.

The other two tick boxes are assistive automation.  Auto Seq will progress through the calling sequence on each cycle.  It’s necessary on FT8 because of the rapid cycle times (and my lack of cat-like reflexes).  The Call 1st is used when you’re calling CQ – it will automatically select the first response (either by time or, in the event of a tie, the sub-frequency you’re monitoring followed by the order of sub-frequency).

The standard messages, on the bottom, right, are automatically generated when you respond to someone (by double-clicking on their CQ) or someone responds to you.

So now, here’s how a sequence works.  The top quarter and bottom half of the graphic below are WSJT-X.  Sandwiched in the middle is a third-party listener, JT-Bridge, that does lookups of people and lets me know if they’re in a geographic area of interest.

First, I have the Monitor button (in green) selected, so it’s listening.  On the waterfall graph, outlined by the red rectangle are 15-second bursts of transmissions from NA4M calling CQ.  To response, I double-click on the CQ at 02:05:45.  (With JT-Bridge, I can also click on the one with the little number “3” next to it).

That action does the following things:

a) Pre-loads a set of standard messages (shown below) for the exchange.
b) Enables transmit (the Enable Tx button, currently off, because I’m doing this post-exchange)
c) Populates the Rx Frequency side with what’s happening on my receive frequency.

You’ll see in step (2), I respond, but he doesn’t acknowledge.  He repeats his CQ 30 seconds later.  I respond in step (3).  When he acknowledges me with my signal strength in step (4), the line turns purple to let me know that someone’s talking with me.  At that point, I return back to him with R-09 signal strength.  At step (5) he acknowledges receipt, and then exchange regards.

Buckle up, this goes faster than you’d think…

A month of QSOs

I’ve finished a month of QSOs and thought it’d be fun to look at the results.

Early (5pm) in the evening, I can hear activity along the east coast, Mexico, and Cuba(!), but I am unable to get through.  Not surprisingly, most of my contacts have been between 7pm and 10pm (02 – 05 UTC), when the sun’s dropping and signal propagation is improved.

Contacts by band and time of day.

Most of my contacts have been on 40m (7.074MHz), but I’ve been branching out because that band has become insanely busy, especially in recent weeks as more people have been playing with the FT8 digital mode.   In the map below, red dots are 40m, green dots are 30m, yellow dots are 20m, Pink = 17m and Blue = 80/160m.

North American contacts by band.

There’s a longer, very good description of band behavior, but I’d summarize my one month of summer QSO experience so far as:

  • 40m – locally (within a few hundred miles) early morning and late afternoons, longer at night, when I’ve reached New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii.  Unfortunately, it can be insanely busy, with people inadvertently transmitting over one another (… insane considering this is a 50Hz-wide signal).
  • 30m – medium-range during the day, long at night.  People on this band seem to be pretty chill.
  • 20m – this is the most interesting band for distance contacts.  Although I have picked up stations in Samoa and Fiji, they couldn’t hear me over the other folks.
  • 17m – when it was working well, I was able to talk with the east coast in the early evenings.
  • 80m – Pretty noisy and, so far, only usable at night.  When there’s been a strong signal nearby, I’ll see echoes.  (For example, someone transmitting on 1000Hz will also show up on 920/1080Hz and 840/1160Hz, albeit at a weaker strength.)  Because it’s 80Hz off, I assume I’m seeing multi-path.
  • 15m, 12m, 10m: Dead to me.  I haven’t been able to receive anything on these yet.
  • 160m – Not feasible with my current setup due to the antenna length and power required.

This is all subject to the propagation gods (sunspots, flux index, seasons), of course, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it changes as we get into winter. I will hopefully worked out a weather-alternative for sitting out on the deck.

The other aspect of HF vs VHF is folks are much more likely to log their connections because they use them in a variety of contesty-ways and challenges.  Because it would be easy to cheat, there are three common services used to record electronic records.

Logbook of The Web — this is owned/administered by ARRL, the equivalent to the AOPA of radio, and its focus is on award veracity.  Setting it up is a three-part verification process that feels absurd.  You sign up.  If you’re a US license holder, you’ll receive a postcard 3-5 business days later with a one-time password.  Type that in, then wait three more business days to receive an electronic certificate.

No Frodo?  This is the worst Lord of the Rings movie, ever!

You can manually “sign” logs with their custom tool  — it feels like code signing a program:On the back-end, if they receive an equivalent log from the other player, the log is considered validated.  As of today, it doesn’t support FT8 because the ADIF committee hasn’t validated it as an official protocol, which is because it’s still in release candidate 1 (with two imminent — thank goodness I can build from source!).  For logging purposes, most folks currently map it to DATA, hoping that when they approve it, they’ll simply re-upload.

eQSL – this service does validations, but also provides electronic QSL cards (eQSL – get it?) that you can print out for your collection.  Thus, its primary value is to save you from printing & mailing cards all over the planet.

eQSL: Welcome to 1998!

It’s free, but for a small donation, you can customize your “cards.”  For example, here is one from someone I had a contact with last month:

KD6C to WT8P on 40M using JT65 from my KX3! (Say that three times fast!)

A third option is QRZ.com.  While LoTW and eQSL feel like they’re from the 1990s, QRZ.com is more 2007-ish.  Its logbook is closer to feeling like a database:

QRZ.com database view

I should also mention qrzcq.com, which is a qrz.com knock-off.  While it initially felt more grounded (early 2012-ish), its database is outdated.

It’s really unfortunate these sites don’t have better interoperability.  QRZ can post to and read from LoTW, but through a process where you paste your password into a web dialog.  (Am I the only one who sees a potential issue here?)  Data exchange can lose of precision.  One site uses start time, another uses end time.  For a few QSOs that lasted longer, they show up as separate contacts.  In the zeal to prevent gaming, they give up deduplication.   And some have really terrible deduplication (*cough* QRZCQ) I had to delete and re-upload my log.

So I also maintain my own database…  I have ordered a bunch of cards to send out via postal mail (kind of like PostCrossing!).

Fun with FT8

Setting up WSPR (Weak Signal Propagation Reporting) was done in preparation for playing with the two-way digital communication modes. The set I was initially aiming for is JT9/JT65, named after Joe Taylor, for very short messages that can be received far away, in noisy conditions.

What makes this work are:

  • Short messages.
  • Long transmission cycles.  For most voice communication, you’re rarely talking more than 15 seconds.  These modes run a full minute.
  • Lower power.  Radios aren’t intended to be on all the time.  (Same concept for my minivan: it could go 100mph, but running it all the time is probably not a good idea for multiple reasons.)  High power * sustained time = more heating.
  • Accurate clock.   Starting right on the minute makes it easier to decode and be decoded.  Most modern computers make use of a time servers, though as I learned, this may be antithetical to power-savings.  Apple, for example, lets the clock drift a few seconds here and there.  For most purposes, that’s okay, but in these digital modes, it’s waaaaaay too much.  I’ve found that I need to update the official time when I power on, and then again about once every hour or two.  For example, this morning, the clock was 1.62 seconds off.  The horror!
  • Accurate frequency.   My radio has a special temperature compensation procedure whereby you pipe in a known, super-accurate frequency and measure how much the radio drifts as the temperature changes.  Once that’s done, the radio will compensate.  I have not done this yet.

There’s a newer digital mode called FT8 (Frankie-Taylor) that trades some of the sensitivity for much shorter cycle time of 15 seconds. Since it is still in beta preview, I figured folks would have much higher patience for a complete n00b learning to use his radio at the same time.

What is the Matrix?

Typically, I’ll listen to an area on the spectrum until someone requests a contact (or I can make requests myself if there are gaps).  The photo above is the spectrum on the 40M band (7.094MHz) last night. Each column represents an 50Hz slice of someone talking.   Brighter/redder patterns are a stronger signals.

Horizontal lines are slices of 15 seconds.  The gap between 02:56:45 and 02:57:15 was my transmitting in response to a request from Anthony, in Indiana. (I’ve never been able to get through to him, though.)

A successful sequence may look like this:

Sample of a short contact

Translated, it works out to mean:

Translation
CQ WA0RVK EM36 This is Philip from south of Springfield Missouri.
Is anyone there?
WA0RVK WT8P CN87 Philip, I’m Jim and I’m east of Bellevue Washington
WT8P WA0RVK -16 Jim, this is Philip, you’re signal to noise ratio is -16*
WA0RVK WT8P R-02 Philip, this is Jim, your signal to noise ratio is -02.
WT8P WA0RVK RRR Jim, this is Philip, acknowledged.
WA0RVK WT8P 73 Have a great day, Philip.  — Jim
WT8P WA0VRK 73 You too, Jim.  — Philip

And that’s it.  The elapsed time was about a minute and a half (compared to six minutes with JT9/65).   *My signal to noise ratio, -16dbm, is pretty faint, on par with a wifi network, but it’s not bad for 2600 kilometers away.  When we were having our exchange, our clocks were off by about 0.4 to 0.9 seconds, which happened to work out this time.

Remember what I said about the clocks? In this exchange, our clocks differed between 0.4 and 0.9 seconds. The transmit cycle is 15 seconds, which is 12.6 seconds of actual transmitting, about a second to decode the pattern into a 13-character message (72 bits!), do an internet lookup of the person, display the results; and 1.4 seconds for me to respond.

Initiating these contacts is very much manual and, as much as this activity could be, a small adrenaline rush of “Did I click in time? Will I be able to reach this person with my tiny radio? Will they respond?”

If the clocks are off 0.9 seconds, then there would normally be scant time to respond. Moreover, doing this six times a row is hard. The WSJTX software includes some automation to send standardized messages once we’ve established communication. Thus, starting at the end of the third message, when he responds back to me with a signal report, the computer will handle the remaining messages. If I don’t receive an acknowledgement — someone’s already beat me to it, he’s given up, or he’s trying again — my computer will repeat.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve exchanged contacts with several states, Canada, Brazil and Venezuela (who happened to also be my first contact!).

Only thing missing: a brewski or coffeeski.

WSPR – Weak Signal Propagation Reporter

Since earning my amateur radio license nearly two years ago, I have operated on VHF and UHF a modest amount, mostly participating in weekly Radio ‘Nets, CERT (aka “passing out brochures for emergency planning”), a day of Cascadia Rising and some experiments with packet radio.

With the approaching of ARRL’s Field Day, aka “It’s officially not a numbers contest, but it totally is*” I was interested in trying to get my HF radio set up so I could listen in.  I’d also signed up for a late-night slot with the Radio Club of Redmond to give it a whirl.

 

Yay, I found every cache in Bellevue!

*For the hams who think I’m being harsh in my description of Field Day, Geocaching has the same concepts.  Cache Machines run quarterly, offering hordes an organized itinerary to find ~100 caches in a day; challenge caches are different levels of repetitive stress injury :), power trails spam lonely roads but can bolster caching stats; and there are also those who solve a few thousand geocaching puzzles they probably won’t ever go out and find.

And so does cycling.   Seattle to Portland is totally a not a race race, replete with pacelines, semi-professional training options and a timing chip.

I get it.  It’s one way people enjoy their game.

Anyway… my initial challenge was how to string up a long-enough antenna.  Most hams do this by building an antenna gun, which is typically an apparatus made from PVC pipe that pneumatically shoots tennis balls (with strings attached).   I was nervous about the percussion calling undue attention to this and reasoned arborists must have to do this sort of thing all the time, so maybe there was a special tool to help out.

Thank you, Internet.  With a throw weight and my fine “I analyze data for a living” physique, I was able to toss one up to about 25′ up with a string, but without any semblance of accuracy.  The little portable wrist sling shots were very chintzy looking, certainly not going to toss a 400-gram weight up further than I can barely throw it.  Enter the industrial sling shot:

Industrial sling shot

It took me several tries to get the process down: place the weight in the basket, remember to spool out string (rather than entangling around my legs), pull pretty hard and steady, while aiming at the same time.  Also: do not try to pull antenna wire directly, dumbass, use twine only.  By the seventh shot, I had hurled a throw weight into a beautiful arc around a branch about 75-80 feet up.  I replaced the neon-line (good for placing, not good for staying there without raising questions) with black paracord.    Oh boy, was this going to be awesome…

… except I could not hear anything on my radio.  Granted, I’ve never really used it before, but FFS, surely I can tune it.  I borrowed a software-defined radio to look at the spectrum.  Wire fine, re-read manuals galore.  Finally, I popped open the pre-built balun and found the problem:

Well, *there’s* your problem.

This box is a 9:1 balun, which is simply something “you connect an antenna to.”  Signal wasn’t coming in because … the connection to the antenna hadn’t been soldered.  While it was countless hours of wasted time looking at other solutions, it was at least a problem I could solve!

So Field Day passed, but I still celebrated my July 4th by getting WSPR (weak signal propagation reporter) working. WSPR nodes are low-powered transmissions followed by listening (typically 1:4 ratio) to gauge radio propagation.  Results are sent to a central web site like WSPRNet or PSKReporter.  When propagation is really good, amateur radio people are known to drop what they’re doing and run to the shack to work the radio for real.

This is not entirely like geocachers with a potential first to find.

By the end of the week, I had hit five continents from my cookie-cutter subdivision, using only 2 watts of power (albeit, for one-minute polling intervals):

Holy cow, I reached five continents!

 

My setup:

  • Elecraft KX3 transceiver
  • Macbook
  • WSJTx software
  • USB sound card (this)
  • End-fed antenna – 54′ wire, launched into a tree, counterpoise
Yep.

 

Colonoscopy

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.  There is a small mailbox here.

<tl;dr>It wasn’t that bad.</tl;dr>

(These are notes are mostly for myself for next time.)

Beware of shark

T – 10+ days: Pick up The Kit.  The kit is a 4L container with GoLytley powder, a flavor packet, and a prescription  ondansetron, an anti-nausea drug that I would cherish later. Out of pocket costs for this: $2.31.  A nurse called to check that I’d done this, reviewed the information packet, and had arranged for someone to take me home on the day of the event.  She proceeded to ask me a bunch of odd questions about pacemakers and other stuff that didn’t apply, then asked if I had any questions.  I could hear a sigh when I responded in the affirmative…

Fiber dreams

T – 5 days: Last Fiber for a while.  I loaded up on the Mega Super Branny Nuggets with Extra Nuts, Grains and Seeds for breakfast.  Lunch was a melange of cherries, blueberries and strawberries.  Dinner dim sum with garlic steamed green beans for dinner.

Tree of Life

T – 4 days: Low fiber diet.  Although there was a short list of allowed and unallowed foods, I found it more helpful to find some menus online and pick out stuff that I thought would be okay enough.  Being told do not eat fiber or red/blue foods made me crave them more.

  • B: Rice Crispix (“0 fiber!”), milk and a banana.
  • L: Rice Crispix, milk and a banana.   Two meals in a row was a Bad Idea, as I’d bonk later with my body in full WTF mode.
  • D: Cheddar bacon cheeseburger with fries.  I can do this!
  • Shot of Miralax.
Prickly Pear

T – 3 days: 

  • B: Rice Crispix, milk and a banana.  While zoning out, re-reading the guidelines for the 47th time, I noticed bananas were on the “do not eat” list, which contradicted the menu I found from another hospital.  (N.B. they have small seeds.)
  • L: Tuna and cheddar on white sourdough toast.
  • D: Eggs, bacon and cheddar on white sourdough toast.
  • Shot of Miralax.
Zion National Park

T – 2 days: drink a lot of water throughout the day.

  • B: Rice Crispix with a can of peaches.
  • L: Cheddar slices and a can of pears.
  • D: Skipped, as I was feeling bloated.
  • Shot of Miralax.
____ is about to get real.

T – 1 days: Clear liquid diet.  The guidelines said I could have a low-fiber breakfast, but I was still bloated from the night before.  I skipped it and kept drinking lots of water and tea.

  • 10:00am (ish) – mix Golytley with a gallon of warm water.  Do not use the flavor packet. Shake until it’s totally dissolved and put it in the fridge to chill.
  • 10:00am – Clear liquids from here on out.  Tea with sugar is fine, coffee with milk, no.  Since there’s a risk of getting dehydrated later, drink plenty of fluids.
  • 16:30 – Begin consuming The Potion.  I found it helpful to fill a bicycle water bottle (~22oz) and add a packet of Crystal Light sugar-free lemonade, serving it with crushed ice (super cold) and a straw.  I was apparently expecting supremely awful, but it wasn’t that bad.  Consuming that much cold fluid made me cold.
  • 17:00 By the first bottle, I was feeling nauseous, a possibility they had warned me about.  I took one of the ondansetron tablets, watched an episode of The Expanse, then resumed the regimen.  Half a water bottle later, more nausea and the second ondansetron was popped.  Watched another episode, and resumed.
  • 19:00 – 3L consumed.  So much for this starting to work within an hour…
  • 20:15 – Thar she blows!  I was glad I had a stack of magazines handy.
  • 22:30 – Nappy time.
Not going anywhere for a while?

Day 0:

  • 04:15 – Drink another 1L.  Since it took ~3 hours to work its magic, I wanted to get a head start on the last bit.  I sucked this down moderately quickly.
  • 07:30 – Thar she blows ][. 
  • 09:30 – Arrive for my appointment.  They had three of us in adjacent areas, asking the preliminary questions, taking vitals, and getting me suited up.  Apparently someone else had not adhered to the diet, and was invited back for a second day. Everything was running late.  I would have been totally fine taking a nap at this point, but with other patients in adjacent areas being prepped, I only had ten-minute low-fiber naplets.
  • 10:30 – Counted 9,738 dimples in the ceiling tiles.  Nurse set up an IV with fluids. She periodically popped in to answer my random questions and indulged me in a discussion of the sedatives provided (fentanyl and midazolam).  There is a range of comfortable from “aware” to “unaware.”  I opted for unaware.
  • 11:30 – Terms and Conditions. The doctor introduced himself and went through his standard spiel on the efficacy (90-95% thorough, which is pretty amazing considering there are a lot of twists and turns), risks, and warning about not driving or entering into any legally binding contracts for the rest of the day.  Having voraciously consumed reputable web sites’ information, I had no questions and was wheeled into Bay 1.  When applying the finger monitor, the nurse thought my hands were too cold and got me a few more blankets (which was super kind).  Fentanyl started and …
  • 12:45 – I woke up to a presentation of snack crackers and cranberry juice.  Yes, please!   As soon as I could walk, they let me go home (not driving, obviously) with a very useful information packet summarizing the visit with photos taken at major sites along the defecation superhighway shown above.

They removed a single, small pedunculated tubular adenoma that was benign.  However, I am supposed to return in five years for another.

Searingly blue skies

MSRP was about $4300, insurance price $1600, all of it covered as preventive care.  It’s unclear how much of the return visit will be covered under the same, but I have some time to plan.

Mid-Atlantic Countryside

Well that was an enjoyable week!   88 geocaches in 6 states (DC, DE, MD, NJ, PA, WV) with 375 miles of biking (and some Ubering) over 9 days.  Highlights were the guided tours of Gettysburg, PA (by a professional guide) and Washington, DC monuments (local, at night).

origroute

Pre-trip: This was about as bad shape as I could be in for the ride.  In June, shortly after signing up for the ride, I sprained my ankle on a hike.   Then in August, I caught some sweet bronchitis for 4 weeks: I was in not-so-great shape for the ride.

Day -1: Fly to Philadelphia.  A 6-hour non-stop + 3 hour time zone change + meeting two fellow riders at the airport to share a shuttle (that I ended up having to book) consumed the day.  The hostel was pretty far from public transportation or places to eat, but we found one that would deliver a tasty, greasy Philly cheesesteak:

cheesesteak
Philly cheesesteak with pepperoni, onions, and provolone

Day 0: Get my bike, ride around in Philadelphia.

The stories of aggressive Sports Fans and a recent viewing of Twelve Monkeys made me super leery about spending a lot of time in Philadelphia proper but, convinced by a fellow rider from Canada who wanted to explore, we biked from the hostel into downtown.

Ben Franklin is popular.

Ben Franklin statue, #947 of 1,433.

There are lots of row houses, something I vaguely remember from early childhood.  They must be pretty small, because people sometimes leave their pets outside.

Kitty wants to come back inside
Philadelphia
Bridge over canal

Day 1: French Creek State Park: Rain.  Valley Forge

I didn’t sleep well due to the First Day Of Tour jitters.  Also, the cheesesteak didn’t agree with me.  (Note to self: you are no longer 19.)  I was rearranging stuff for a while before going with the Showers Pass jacket.  I’d need it, as it rained moderately hard for the first thirty miles.

At the hostel

A few miles in, I had achieved wet rider equilibrium: soaked to the bone, but warm as long as I was moving.  I really don’t remember much except stopping to try to help out other riders with various repairs.  At one point, someone’s derailleur crapped out (new bike, too) and I stuck around until one of the ride leaders came.  I felt kind of bad, but it was really wet outside and this was kind of my only vacation.

Valley Forge National Park

While stopping at the restroom at Valley Forge National Park, I discovered to my glee I could shunt the hot air from the hand dryer into my jacket.  After about twenty minutes of this, I was feeling better and decided to tour around the park, getting virtual geocaches.  I thought I’d be clever and make my own route back onto course before coming to a bride that was out of service for the indefinite future.  Denied, I trekked back.  The rain stopped, but it was pretty gusty.

1871 Bridge

An hour later, the sun was starting to peek out.  I actually had to apply sunscreen, which was kind of nice.  

About this point in the day, I started having a lot of shifting problems due to a stiff link.  Each third pedal would skip gears.  Really annoying, too.  I plugged forward, albeit slowly.  One of the last riders caught up and, with his map wet, wanted help with directions, but didn’t want to ride at my extra super slow speed.  Cat and mouse ensued.

In camp, I got some help finagling the link free so the bike was ridable.  Two other folks with $6000 Co-Motion bikes were having minor issues and the guy with the derailleur was going to look for bike shop options.  The ride leaders told us that Pennsylvania bike shops are generally closed on Mondays, so we would probably be SOL, but we could try Hanover.

I had good cell coverage (and a backup power supply) and found a shop in Intercourse (snicker) Pennsylvania, located near Blue Ball (snicker), that purported to be open on Mondays.

Day 2: Get a replacement chain.  Buy groceries.

Rolling hills

This was a pretty area with rolling hills and, of course, Amish minding their own business.  As fascinated as I was, I respected that as best I could.  The cows, however…

What are you looking at, spandex-English?

I did find this gentleman rather majestic on his horse-drawn plow.

Plowman

Intercourse Cycles was pretty awesome in getting me in and doing the spot repair (replacement chain; and while we’re at it, let’s put new pads on the front).  While they worked, I went next door for espresso.  Yes, even in small towns, you have multiple caffeinated options!

Back on the road, and with a decent amount of time before I had to head back to camp, I enjoyed the rolling hills of Amish country.  I came upon a buggy and, not really knowing the etiquette, waited until it was safe to pass with a wide berth.

Must… outbike…buggy

A mile later, I was dragging on an uphill and heard him clop-clop-clopping behind me, providing me some motivation to keep pedaling until I hit the flat roads again.

Day 3: Get to camp waaaaaay early.  Buy food.  Cook for 15.

Codurus State Park

One facet of these tours that I’m not super crazy about was the shared cooking.  In it, you and someone else are obliged to buy food (with shared funds) then cook a meal for 15 (13 riders + 2 ride leaders), clean and then have some kind of dessert.   I drew the longest day (in miles) of the tour, also somewhat tardy by my wanting to indulge in the Utz potato chip factory tour:

Utz potato chip factory

Very disappointingly, Snyder’s of Hanover, makers of awesome sourdough hard pretzels, does not appear to have a tour for hungry, pretzel-loving cyclists.

Bridge – photo by Phyllis Zitzer

And finally, I made it to the grocery store where we bought three meals’ worth of food for fifteen people.  Two carts, just under $400 worth because we over estimated the pasta consumption:

Groceries for 15: 3 meals, snacks.

We got into camp and found the van with all the cooking equipment hadn’t arrived yet.  (!!)  So we got started on dinner late through no fault of our own.   We made garlic bread (with real garlic & butter), spaghetti with meatballs, and a spinach salad with roadside heirloom tomatoes.  In retrospect, we overcooked.  I had intended for the garlic bread and salad to be consumed while we cooked the other stuff, but people didn’t quite follow and the garlic bread got cold.  (But, oh my, was it good.)

I ate, then slept, well.

Pasta for 15… and I really need to sleep now.

Day 4: Camp Misty Mount.

On these tours, I’m usually pretty excited to eat and get out on the road as soon as I can to enjoy my day at a snail’s pace.  However, the obligation of cooking requires one to unpack, set up, make coffee, cook breakfast, put out lunch stuff, wait for people to finish, clean, box up.  Fortunately, I had gone with Snacks I Like — candied ginger, mango, various nuts and salty pretzels — and had a relatively short ride.

I rewarded myself with picking up a bunch of puzzle caches I pre-solved.

This was a nice facility, apparently a Christian social camp during other times.  Although we camped in the field, they were nice enough to leave all of the dorms and common areas unlocked.  I got to do laundry, charge all of my devices, have a long, hot shower.  One of the other campers slept inside the common area to avoid the cold.

Day 5 & 6: Gettysburg.

Gettysburg and the Civil War were events that I was super oblivious to (thank you, Texas schooling) until I stopped on a business trip in 2008.  The magnitude is overwhelming.  I was looking forward to coming back and spending more time, up close.

Gettysburg

The tour included the interpretive film narrated by Morgan Freeman, whose marvelous voice would be fine for even reading cereal boxes.  The organizers made the next day short to accommodate an optional (yeah, right, as if I’m going to not do it) guided bike tour of monuments.

Gettysburg – John Warren, surveyor.

The tour concluded around lunch time, but could have easily been two days.  The guide was awesome and I have a better appreciation of the significance of Gettysburg and the sheer carnage (something I’d see even more of in Antietam).

Louisiana Memorial

Because this was in Union territory, most of the Confederate monuments were erected relatively recently.  Above is Louisiana’s.

Onto Maryland!

MD border

The ride to camp had significant elevation gain.  We had been repeatedly warned that Camp David was near the top of the hill and, under no circumstances, should we stop here and take photos.  Camp David, formerly Shangri La, is a retreat used by presidents.  It is, as they say, a poorly kept secret.  There are no signs beyond a couple of discreet “no stopping” and “no photography” icons.   The larger sign simply says this particular campground is closed.  More than one person knew someone who knew someone who didn’t adhere to the guidelines and found themselves enjoying some quality time with the US Secret Service.

Tonight, we had the luxury of cabins.

Day 7:Slave Auction Block, Harper’s Ferry, Brunswick, MD

Leaving camp required us to go right back up the hill, past Camp David, before plunging down.  My Canadian counterpart thought it would be amusing to take my photo while struggling up the hill… as he was right in front of Camp David.   As I crested it, I saw a van full of burly men, buzzed haircuts, zooming up.  Kind of feared the worst, but was too chickenshit to stick around and watch it unfold.

I’d later find out that the van’s occupants were late for work and waved at my friend before going past the gate.  My friend, wisely, chose not to press his good luck further.

Unencumbered by needing to buy food or cook, I enjoyed the slower pace to geocache.  (Hint: under the sign)

Crystal Grotto

There was a nice cluster of puzzles in Antietam explaining how much the undulating terrain played into completely unnecessary carnage of the battle.

Antietam Station, near Sharpsburg, MD

The most unexpected thing I saw was in Sharpsburg (a geocaching called my attention to it), was this:

From 1800 to 1865, this stone was used as a slave auction block.  It’s remained here for 150+ years as a sobering reminder.  Wow.

Our route then joined the Chesapeake + Ohio (C+O) towpath.  On the way to Brunswick, I crossed the bridge into Harpers Ferry for some more geocaches and to revisit the town on foot.

Harpers Ferry

There is an interesting viewpoint where you can see the confluence of the Shenandoah River joins up with the Potomac River which continues south past Washington DC into the Chesapeake Bay.

Harpers Ferry

In town, you can see markers showing the flooding over the years.  According to the earthcache, 1996 saw two floods of 29′ or more.

C+O Trail


Day 7: DC or Bust.

C+O Canal

The C+O towpath looks like this for a long time.  The canals (left) have gone unused, leaving stagnant water and algae pools.  It’s dirt and generally fine on slightly-deflated 28C tires.  (However, I would have preferred wider, especially later.)

Lock

Every few miles, the path opens up to a picnic area or local access.  There are a series of towpath houses for the former operators of said towpath (when it was a thing).  They have been preserved and are, apparently, rentable for overnight stays.

Canal house

Continuing south, closer to Great Falls, MD, the locks are also in better shape, though not typically used for the original purpose.  The park also gets very crowded and extremely difficult to ride on.

Functional Lock

Inside Great Falls Park:

Great F
Great Falls Park, MD

The most jarring experience was emerging from the C+O Towpath onto random Washington, DC, streets.  The directions were hard to follow and I was soon relying on Garmin auto-route to get to the Washington Monument.

Washington Memorial: does it show?

I was glad to get to the Hostel when I did because a presidential motorcade had occurred an hour later, severely delaying the rest of the group.  Meanwhile, I enjoyed a good hosing off and pizza.

One of the local ride leaders offered to give us a nighttime tour of the Washington, DC monuments, something I could not pass up.  This was the closest I’ve ever been to President Obama!   There were some locals who apparently set up a kiosk on the street and extol their unique interpretation of Biblical Apocalypse.

Among the highlights were the Korean War Monument, with its subdued lighting.  The facial expressions communicate a lot:

Korean War Memorial

The size of the Vietnam Memorial was stunning.  The names are ordered by year of death.  The full moon reflecting on the bricks added a somber note.

Vietnam Memorial

What trip to DC would be complete without visiting Giant Abe?

Lincoln

Last stop before heading back to the Hostel was the Capitol Building.  We had unencumbered access to bike around it.

Capitol Building

Day 9: All good things…

The trip description originally suggested we’d be taking Amtrack back to DC, but nope, pile into the van, bikes on top, and drive.   I think we were all pretty tired from being up so late, but the tour was totally worth it.

Van back to Philadelphia

I hung out in Philadelphia airport watching the Washington – Philadelphia game in a sports bar with a local fan who seemed like an okay guy.