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Back when I owned a Surly LHT I made several mods to it, each of which improved it significantly.
3. Moved the bar end shifters to Paul Thumbies
Consider the above a very personal opinion.
No. Not very personal at all. Almost every single "costly" bicycle sold has combination brake/shifter levers. Mountain and road bikes. Both. If bar end shifters were desired by a majority of people, then the capitalist society we live in would provide them. If friction shifters were better than the indexed click shifters on every single bike sold, we would have friction shifters. In a capitalist society, the businesses provide the buyers what they want to buy and will pay for. That is how capitalism works. But if you are trying to sell what no one wants, then you won't sell anything. That is capitalism too. How many friction or bar end shifters do you see people using? Almost none. Touring bikes are somewhat bizarre because they use mountain bike components and need road shifters. Bar end shifters are an easy way to make this work. Otherwise you have to mix and match various years and models of road and mountain together to get it to work right. Go to all your local bike shops. How many bar end or friction shifting bikes are sold? None. Why? The bike shop is there to make money. If all their customers want to buy bar end shifters, they would sell all they could. They would make money and be happy. But no one wants bar end shifters. So the bike shop does not sell any. Very simple. All the customers want those new fangled (25 years old now) combination shifter/brake do-hickeys.
Shifting: The LHT comes with bar end shifters. Fine choice. Some love them. Until they ride a bike with the new fangled modern supposedly delicate and breakable STI shifters. Then they want to take a hammer to bar end shifters and pound them into junk. You could make your riding, loaded or unloaded, more fun with STI shifters.
A slightly longer route but flatter would be to follow the Erie Canal to Albany and then follow the Hudson River south. The finger lakes area is often very hilly with steep inclines, especially around Ithaca.