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Biking across the United States
My friends had been telling me to get a life and so for 8 weeks I did
Equipment & packing list
April 22 - The Cookie Lady
April 25 - Sam the cyclist
April 25 - A Bad Day Gone Good
(Idaho and Oregon - under construction)
Early in 1997 I finagled a two month leave of absence from my job and used the time to bicycle across the United States, from Delaware to Oregon. I'm not quite sure what impelled me to do it, other than that I like to ride my bike, I was feeling an urge to do something Large in life, and I suddenly found myself with an opportunity to get away from the office for a while without being missed much.
So I set out with no other goal than to go for some good rides and have an adventure or two, figuring that the expedition's meaning would become clearer after I had done it. It didn't -- there were no Zen Masters on the tops of the mountains, only liquor stores -- but I had a wonderful time, something I'd call the "adventure of a lifetime" if I didn't intend to do it again.
I saw interesting and pretty places, met great people and learned a lot of lessons about long-distance bike touring and about being away from home for a while. In these web pages, I hope to be able to describe the trip (or the better parts of it) in a way that spreads around the fun I had.
This remains a work in progress, as evidenced by the many incomplete links there on the right. I'm still working at it, though, so check in from time to time to see what I've added. Meanwhile, have a look around. Once you've exhausted these links, trying reading about my 1995 ride from Boston to DC -- more photos there!
Finally. I have a Guestbook and I'd be real happy if you'd sign it!
Perfunctory autobiographical postscript: I'm originally from Michigan but I have lived and worked in Washington, D.C. since 1981. I'm single (a distinct advantage when it comes to planning trips like this) and I was 41 in the spring of 1997.
I started at the Atlantic Ocean in Bethany Beach, Delaware, on April 13, 1997. From there I rode west, through my home in Washington, D.C., and then southwest to Charlottesville, Virginia. In Charlottesville I connected up with the Transamerica Trail, a coast-to-coast bicycle route established by the folks at Adventure Cycling Association (formerly Bikecentennial) in 1976. The Trail follows secondary roads, away from cities (Charlottesville, Virginia, and Pueblo, Colorado were the largest places I visited on the Trail) and it is probably the single most popular route for biking across the country. I stayed on the TA Trail for the better part of the trip, riding down the Shenandoahs to southwest Virginia, west across the Appalachians into Kentucky and then through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and into Colorado. In Colorado just past Pueblo the route and I turned north, up into the Rocky Mountains behind Denver and into Wyoming. The TA Trail turned west again in Wyoming and I stayed on it until Jackson. There, I rented a car for a couple of days and drove around Yellowstone Park. At Jackson I left the Transamerica Trail (which continues up into Montana) and headed through Idaho along the Snake River Valley, across Oregon to Portland on U.S. 26 and then up to the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, where I finished on June 18.
It was a good route. The Transamerica Trail is well suited to cyclists, and Adventure Cycling's maps are convenient, chock full of useful information and easy to interpret -- it's hard to get lost. I had been a little apprehensive about improvising the non-Trail segments, but that turned out to be a lot easier than I had supposed. (Asking the right people for help makes a big difference; see the FAQs.) I enjoyed the mix of established and invented routing -- folks on the TA Trail have been seeing long-distance cyclists for a couple of decades, and they've become kind of blasé. Indeed it was rather deflating, early on when I was still a little awed by my own ambition, to be greeted by convenience store clerks with a simple "you goin' across?", as though I were riding (downhill) to the post office. I was relieved to get off on my own and start meeting people who were more suitably impressed -- although by then, I had discovered a hidden benefit to the Trail: Sure, thousands of cyclists have preceded you, wearing the wonder off the locals, but because the riders were so well-behaved and engaging, residents along the Trail treat you like an old friend back for a visit. It was interesting to feel like part of a community of people whom I'd never even met!
Townspeople and clerks weren't my only company. DC friends rode with me on the very first day and a for a while as I was riding out of Washington. In Pippa Passes, Kentucky, I met fellow cross-country cyclist Rob, and we rode together on and off (mostly on) for about three weeks, until Wyoming. In eastern Oregon I met an English couple, John and Gloria, who had been riding their tandem in the Europe, North Africa and the U.S. for a year. The three of us stayed together for a few days until our routes diverged.
Other touring cyclists were a rare sight during the first 4-5 weeks. Rob and I were in fact a little early -- most people heading westbound through the middle of the country set out a couple of weeks later than we did. And indeed the first 10 days of the trip were a little chillier and damper than I would have liked. The early departure had its plus sides, though -- Rob and I had heard a lot about hot, horrible riding in Missouri and Kansas but we encountered none of it. (We had one 94 degree day in Kansas but it was pretty dry and not uncomfortable.) Mosquitoes never really arrived, and the roads were still clear of summer traffic. All the routes through the Rockies were open by the time we got there and apart from one day of snow and cold rain, the weather in the mountains was fine.
For more detailed route information (showing overnight towns and daily mileages), have a look at my Trip Log.
From -> To
|April 13||Bethany Beach, Del. -> Queenstown, Md.||106.2||106.2|
|April 14||Queenstown, Md. -> Washington, D.C.||65.8||172.0|
|April 15-18||(back at the office, bleah)|
|April 19||Washington, D.C. -> Purcellville, Va.||55.0||227.0|
|April 20||Purcellville -> Culpeper||74.3||301.3|
|April 21||Culpeper -> Charlottesville||66.1||367.4|
|April 22||Charlottesville -> Vesuvius||66.1||433.5|
|April 23||Vesuvius -> Troutville||74.5||508.0|
|April 24||Troutville -> Newbern||71.8||579.8|
|April 25||Newbern -> Troutdale||66.1||645.9|
|April 26||Troutdale -> Rosedale||75.7||721.6|
|April 27||Rosedale -> Breaks Interstate Park||42.1||763.7|
|April 28||(rest day)|
|April 29||Breaks Interstate Park -> Pippa Passes, Ky.||64.0||827.7|
|April 30||Pippa Passes -> Booneville||73.1||900.8|
|May 1||Booneville -> Berea||59.2||960.0|
|May 2||Berea -> Springfield||84.7||1044.7|
|May 3||Springfield -> Bardstown||32.5||1077.2|
|May 4||Bardstown -> Falls of Rough||87.5||1164.7|
|May 5||Falls of Rough -> Sebree||77.6||1242.3|
|May 6||Sebree -> Cave-in-Rock, Ill.||58.0||1300.3|
|May 7||Cave-in-Rock -> Carbondale||90.2||1390.5|
|May 8||Carbondale -> Chester||44.5||1435.0|
|May 9||Chester -> Pilot Knob, Mo.||69.4||1504.4|
|May 10||Pilot Knob -> Alley Spring||82.8||1587.2|
|May 11||Alley Spring -> Hartville||76.1||1663.3|
|May 12||Hartville -> Ash Grove||77.2||1740.5|
|May 13||Ash Grove -> Girard, Kan.||90.3||1830.8|
|May 14||Girard -> Toronto State Park||86.0||1916.8|
|May 15||Toronto State Park -> Newton||107.2||2024.0|
|May 16||Newton -> Hudson||88.4||2112.4|
|May 17||Hudson -> Rush Center||69.0||2181.4|
|May 18||Rush Center -> Scott City||96.7||2278.1|
|May 19||Scott City -> Eads, Colo.||108.0||2386.1|
|May 20||Eads -> Ordway||62.8||2448.9|
|May 21||Ordway -> Florence||97.5||2546.4|
|May 22||Florence -> Schacter Hostel (near Guffey)||47.5||2593.9|
|May 23||Schacter's -> Breckenridge||64.4||2658.3|
|May 24||Breckenridge -> Kremmling||57.3||2715.6|
|May 25||Kremmling -> Walden||61.8||2777.4|
|May 26||Walden -> Saratoga, Wyo.||70.4||2847.8|
|May 27||Saratoga -> Rawlins||45.3||2893.1|
|May 28||Rawlins -> Hart RV Campground (nr. Lander)||120.0||3013.1|
|May 29||Hart RV Campground -> Lander||13.9||3027.0|
|May 30||Lander -> Dubois||77.3||3104.3|
|May 31||Dubois -> Moran (Grand Teton National Park)||68.8||3173.1|
|June 1||Moran -> Jackson||43.0||3216.1|
|June 5||Jackson -> Rexburg, Idaho||84.8||3300.9|
|June 6||Rexburg -> Arco||90.2||3391.1|
|June 7||Arco -> Fairfield||100.1||3491.2|
|June 8||Fairfield -> Bruneau||80.2||3571.4|
|June 9||Bruneau -> Givens Hot Springs||78.3||3649.7|
|June 10||Givens Hot Springs -> Vale, Ore.||65.2||3714.9|
|June 11||Vale -> Prairie City||107.8||3822.7|
|June 12||Prairie City -> Mitchell||83.5||3906.2|
|June 13||Mitchell -> Prineville||52.4||3958.6|
|June 14||Prineville -> Bend||44.3||4002.9|
|June 15||Bend -> Kahneeta||77.5||4080.4|
|June 16||Kahneeta -> Rhododendron||62.6||4143.0|
|June 17||Rhododendron -> St. Helens||81.2||4224.4|
|June 18||St. Helens -> Fort Stevens||96.8||4321.0|
Bruce Gordon Rock 'n' Road Tour, 28-38-48 front and 13-34 rear gearing (22 in. low, 100 in. high). Bar-end shifters on standard drop handlebars.
Continental Top Touring/Top Touring 2000 tires (700 x 32)
Brooks B-17 saddle (broken in)
Bruce Gordon pannier racks
Robert Beckman panniers & handlebar bag
Cateye CC-AT100 cycle computer/altimeter
Shimano M-535 SPD pedals
Visalite headlight, rear flasher
I had only trivial mechanical problems during the 8 weeks. All of this is great equipment and I would recommend it to anyone. Bruce Gordon makes a solid, dependable machine that is as well-suited for touring as any bike I've seen. It rode comfortably and true and gave me no problems worth mentioning. Continental's Top Touring tires are the best bar none -- I had two flat tires the whole trip, only one of them was a puncture and it was into a rear tire that had more than 2,500 fully loaded miles on it. Bob Beckman's panniers, well designed and impeccably manufactured, are in a class of their own. The only problem I have with them is figuring out to whom to will them when I die, because they're certainly going to outlast me. The Cateye CC-AT100 is the first cyclecomputer I've ever owned that endures cold and rain without pitching electronic fits. Bike altimeters have a reputation for skittishness but this one worked reliably and was accurate enough actually to be useful. The Shimano SPD clipless pedals needed a couple hundred miles to break in completely but I loved them after that and am even thinking of replacing the Look-compatibles on my road bike. The Zefal fenders added a few ounces but riding in the rain was much closer to fun without road spray constantly spinning up into my face. They also kept grit and grime off the bottom half of the bike, making cleanup a lot easier. And then finally, that Brooks saddle. It requires a little bit more attention than your standard plastic jobs but you're rewarded with a comfortable, shock-absorbent ride that only gets better as you spend more time on it.
Tools & maintenance
Cannondale hex key combo
cassette removal tool
spare spokes (all 3 sizes)
khaki long pants
Adventure Cycling maps
extra bungee cord
plastic cover for bike
North Face Ventilator tent
This is a fairly complete packing list. Indeed some might think it a little too complete, and to be sure a person could get by with a lot less -- a change of off-bike clothes is nice but not really essential; a bike headlight can double as a flashlight at night; a truly tough guy can shave with soap (or just water) instead of shaving cream. Next time I will probably cut out the purification tablets, the additional small towel, one synthetic jersey, one off-bike shirt and -- really! -- the Thermarest, which I used once. Other than that, however, I used just about everything on the list often enough to continue carrying it. I doubt I'd pare things down much below that.
A few items turned out to be exceptionally useful, and I won't take another long tour without them:
The single pair of shoes was a Shimano SPD hiking/biking model. They were generally quite comfortable, though something different on my feet would have been nice from time to time. Also they weren't the greatest for extended walking (which I discovered during my off-days in Yellowstone) but I would probably do the same thing again unless I planned to spend a whole lot more time off the bike.
Um, what else. Waterproofing! I had rain covers for the panniers, which were useful if for no other reason than keeping the pannier fabric from soaking up 3 pounds of water in heavy rain, but the covers were kind of a pain to put on and so I also kept most of my gear inside plastic bags too. Someone somewhere on the internet suggested using the long tubular bags that newspapers are sometimes delivered in, and it was a great suggestion -- they're lots less bulky than ziplocs plus they fit more easily into one's (primarily vertical) panniers.
Delaware, Maryland and DC
(April 13-14 & 19)
Bethany Beach, Delaware -- It was Saturday, April 12th. Several friends and I had driven, convoy-style, to the Atlantic Ocean from Washington, D.C. to launch me on my expedition. "Inauspicious" pretty well describes the occasion: I was about to set off on a 13 state journey on April 13 -- any numerologist would have told me to go home. (In fact it was 12 states plus the District of Columbia, but the Forces of Darkness don't deal in subtleties.) The Thisworldly signs weren't much better; Saturday day had been chilly and dreary, and evening had brought a cold, driving rain. Then of course there were my own doubts. This tour was going to be awfully long, and I was going by myself. My friends tire of my company after eight hours - how was I going to stand eight weeks of it? More to the point, I wasn't entirely sure why I was taking the ride in the first place.
No wonder I look distracted -- even bewildered -- in the photos taken early on departure day. But lucky me. The rain had stopped during the night and, while it was still damp and cool on Sunday morning, it looked like an okay day for riding. Plus I was actually heading toward home for two days, and the first couple rides (a long day to the Chesapeake Bay and Annapolis, then a shorter one to DC) weren't complicated. So in keeping with the adage, "never put off to tomorrow what you can put off to the day after", I decided to postpone my worrying and just ride.
My friend Jeff was going to ride with me to the Bay. After a leisurely breakfast with the gang, the obligatory wheel dip in the ocean and a terrific sendoff, we started riding west across the pan-flat Delmarva peninsula. We made great time for about 40 miles, but around one o'clock we ran into powerful, gusty head and crosswinds -- stronger than either of us could remember riding in. Jeff, not carrying a load, pretty much stationed himself in front of me and created as big a wind shadow as he could, but it was hard riding for both of us. We had figured about 80 miles for the day but when we finally packed in it, just shy of the Bay Bridge and in cold darkness, we had ridden more than 105. Whuf. I was beat.
I spent the night with a couple of friends who lived nearby; Jeff drove home. The next day was still a little blustery but not bad, and I had a pretty easy ride over increasingly familiar roads back home.
Day 3 began at my front door. The neighbors gathered to see me off, as did friends and relatives who had opted out of the big beach weekend. The weather had turned sunny and several folks planned to ride with me through the morning; my doubts began to recede.
The escorts turned around in Poolesville, Maryland. I rode another few miles down the road and paid 50 cents to take White's Ferry across the Potomac River into Virginia. I paused for a moment on the far side to look back at the greenery just beginning to show on the banks of the wide, slow river. The sun was still shining; I was by myself and heading away from home. The trip had begun in earnest, and it looked like it was going to be okay.
I rode only about 20 miles after crossing into Virginia on April 19, settling in for the night at the first hotel to offer itself up. I had hoped to get further, but decided it would be a good idea to build a little more strength before putting in hard miles. Also I figured I'd have all of flat Kansas to make up for early short days. (Over the following couple of weeks I came to rely a lot on Kansas.)
I was in Virginia for 9 more days. I rode back roads southwest to Charlottesville, where I joined the Transamerica Trail. From Charlottesville I continued south-southwest down Virginia's mountainous spine, in and out of the Blue Ridge and Shenandoahs, down to a point near the southwestern tip of the state. On April 28th I arrived at Breaks Interstate Park on the Virginia/Kentucky border, and after a rest day there (my last off day until Jackson, Wyoming), I rode into Kentucky.
Virginia was lovely, with many scenic, lightly traveled roads, varied terrain, and plenty of historical sites. It's the only state on the Transamerica Trail still to maintain the Trail's route signs, so despite the winding roads and frequent route changes, navigation was pretty easy. But. Virginia had its bleak side too -- I rode through towns that hadn't prospered since the 1960s, and parts of southwestern Virginia foreshadowed the poverty that I would encounter a few days later in Appalachian Kentucky. Virginia was also where I paid for my early-season start -- it was chilly, and of the 10 days in the state, two featured real rain and three or four others never improved beyond cool damp drizzle. Biking those days wasn't hard but it wasn't always fun, either. Oh and of course, "varied terrain" means hills, and Virginia had some of the meanest on the whole ride. They were, well, challenging so early on. I didn't camp at all in Virginia; the weather was dreary and I hadn't quite achieved the Spartan mindset of the unsupported long-distance cyclist. Indeed I wound up in a couple of pretty plush bed & breakfasts, so that after only week I was way over budget. I guess I figured I'd make up for that in Kansas too, by sleeping in a thresher or something.
You can't settle into a bike tour until you have shed the automotive mentality -- until you've recalibrated your brain to bicycle scale. For instance, 65 or 85 miles is a good day for a cyclist but it isn't very far if you're used to driving. Similarly, rural residents travel 30 or 40 miles between towns without a second thought, but the cyclist prefers to believe that such distances separate two very different places. These sorts of adjustments are elusive when you haven't got very far from home and are spending nights in places to which you routinely drive for dinner, and my route down to the southwest corner of Virginia -- as far west as Detroit! -- compounded the problem. I was in the state for a long time, and even though after a few days I had started to make good distance, phone calls home took on a familiar and vaguely discouraging pattern: "I rode 65 miles today and passed Roanoke, but, um, I'm still in Virginia." You can see Virginia from Washington, D.C.; though I'd been riding away from home for a week I wasn't sure I was getting anywhere!
Also in Virginia I saw my bike begin to evolve from recreational device, a toy, to functional machine. I began to strap things to the bike without concern for ounces or esthetics. I uglified the bike, made it purely practical; I began to live on it.
Here are some road highlights from Virginia:
Virginia, April 22:
June Curry - The Cookie Lady
Every cyclist who's ridden the Transamerica Trail knows about June Curry, aka The Cookie Lady. From her home in tiny Afton near the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway, she has been feeding and providing lodging to cross-country cyclists since 1976.
The Cookie Lady's hospitality is the reward for completing what some describe as the worst climb on the entire transcontinental route. The road up to Afton cuts back on itself in a series of wicked hairpins, one of them so tight that a sign warns cars to slow to 5 mph. At each, a cyclist has to choose between following the road's full curve for thirty or forty grueling feet, or cutting across the two lanes to ride straight up the hill and substitute seven or eight feet of even more impossibly pitched climb. It's not a particularly long ride up but it's challenging -- when I arrived in Afton, I needed a cookie! (The experience of eastbounders is very different. For them, the Cookie Lady marks the end of their climbing, and indeed presages the end of their entire journey. Eastbounders coast down to June's house from the Blue Ridge Parkway, then down that nasty hill to the Virginia coastal plain, where they have three or four more days of rolling riding before arriving at Yorktown.)
The Cookie Lady lives in a modest, charming brick house on Afton's main (only) road. Two doors down she keeps another house, a remarkable building which she calls the "Bike Museum". There, the kitchen is fully stocked with food, drink, basic first aid materiel and other provisions for hungry, thirsty or tired cyclists. Four large rooms are filled with books, photos, journals, scrapbooks, maps, and memorabilia left or sent back by the thousands of cyclists who have enjoyed June's generosity. The walls are literally covered with postcards. Each room has at least one couch (with a supply of blankets and pillows near at hand), and cyclists are welcome to spend the night.
It was chilly when I arrived in Afton, and the roads had just dried after a morning shower. Of course, I showed up at June's unannounced but she welcomed me warmly, opened the Bike Museum and, apologizing for the meager supplies (!), told me to make myself at home. I feasted on soup, ramen noodles, peanut butter sandwiches, cold cuts, sodas, and of course cookies. I hung around for more than two hours perusing the stacks of reading material, admiring the extensive collection of objets de bike on display, and later chatting with June about people she'd met over the years. I was tempted to spend the night at the Museum -- there was so much to look at! -- but it was still early, I was fortified by the two-lunch equivalent I'd consumed and the day had turned nice, so at about 1:00 I waved farewell to June and continued on up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Virginia, April 25:
Sam the cyclist
April 25, U.S. Route 11 outside Newbern --
Early in the day I spied a fresh banana peel on the side of the road. Bananas being a favorite of cyclists, I interpreted this to mean that there was another rider not far ahead of me; and indeed within an hour I had spotted him. (I later learned that banana peels are distributed randomly on secondary roads in the United States and that they are in fact not very reliable indicators of other cyclists.) Whoever this was, he would be the first fellow cycle tourist I'd encountered and I was eager to catch him. He was moving slowly and it was easy.
His name was Sam, and he was not so much a cyclist as a vagabond on two wheels. Deeply tanned, he was wearing khaki pants and a flannel shirt (cigarette pack in the pocket); his hair was greasy and his fingernails were cracked and dirty. He seemed to be carrying the universe on his machine. Most of his luggage was strapped on top of his rear rack (I didn't see any panniers) and it was stacked literally as high as his head. His front carrying capacity consisted of a large wire basket clamped to the handlebars. Through the mesh I could see a machete with an 18" blade, and a two foot hatchet. A flashlight bungeed to the basket was his headlight.
Sam had attached three or four American flags to the rear stack (to gain the sympathy of hostile drivers, he told me) and they fluttered in the breeze while we talked. He'd set out from New Jersey on Easter Sunday (March 30) and was on his way to Tennessee, to a farm belonging to a couple of cyclists he had met while riding from New Mexico to Maine the year before. They'd told him to drop by whenever he was in their area, so he decided to make them a destination. He was bringing the knife and the axe to "make himself useful" once he arrived.
We were riding on the same roads but in completely different worlds. Sam spent his nights not in hotels or at campgrounds, but in abandoned buildings and doorways; police, he said, often gave him a hard time. He went on to tell me that his front derailleur had been frozen into position for weeks and his rear had broken the day before, so he was propelling himself using a single gear. I couldn't imagine how he would traverse the Appalachians.
Sam was friendly enough but once we had exhausted the common subjects of weather and pavement conditions, we had little more to say -- neither of us was really curious about the style in which the other had chosen to ride. We wished each other well and got back onto our bikes; within a few minutes I couldn't see him behind me any more.
Virginia, April 25:
A bad day . . .
April 25 - still on U.S. Route 11
By midmorning I had ridden twenty-five labored miles into a sharp headwind. It had stopped raining but it was still chilly and overcast, and after three cold damp days I was altogether sick of weather. I'd been paralleling I-81 for a hundred or so miles, and the towns I was passing through were soulless dilapidated things, any remaining life sucked out of them by businesses that had sprung up closer to the expressway. There were no hotels anywhere near the day's destination of Troutdale, and it looked like I'd be pitching a tent in the rain. In short, the riding was lousy, the rest stops were lousy and I didn't know when any of it would improve; I was in a foul mood. Worse still, none of these hardships was particularly challenging or painful. I wondered how I'd make it across the entire continent when three merely disagreeable days could demoralize me so completely.
In Wytheville -- a pretty place -- I found a quaint diner and had a good lunch. I briefly began to hope that my luck might be turning, but not five minutes after paying my tab I was caught out in a sudden, soaking downpour. Then five minutes after that, one of my cleats got stuck in a pedal at a stoplight and I toppled over in the middle of the street. Pinned down by my hundred-pound bike and still locked into my pedals, I flailed helplessly like an upended turtle for almost a minute before finally righting myself. (In retrospect this image is really quite funny; but at the time of course I wasn't playing for laughs, and my self-inflicted slapstick was infuriating.)
The day was unsalvageable. All I wanted was to be done with it.
. . . gone good
I picked myself up off the street and walked to a pay phone in the surely vain hope of figuring out a place to spend the night, and was happily surprised when a single call to Information produced the number of a bed & breakfast outside of Troutdale. More surprising still, they had a vacancy. The owner warned me of a "really big hill" I'd have to climb to get to the place, but I wouldn't mind that if a warm, dry bed was at the end. I set out on the thirty or so miles I had yet to ride, a bit buoyed but still eager more than anything simply to finish.
The thundershowers apparently marked the edge of a front, because the sky behind them was clear; a few minutes after I left Wytheville, the sun came out for the first time in days. Not long after that the route turned away from the expressway -- this too for the first time in days -- and I found myself riding through rolling farmland on a quiet road uncluttered by 7-11s or truck stops. The crisp, rain-scrubbed spring air smelled fresh and good. Suddenly I was on a pretty nice bike ride.
The last leg of the road to Troutdale -- the "big hill" -- wound upward through a national forest. I'd been a little apprehensive about the climb but after two weeks on the road I had evidently become stronger than I realized; I rode up it steadily and strongly, almost effortlessly. This unaccustomed stamina, coming as it did after 55 or 60 miles, was exhilarating.
The best came a few minutes later. A couple of miles before the top, some movement in the woods caught my eye. I looked up to see a tall figure, dressed entirely in black, approaching from a clearing. He called out to me; suppressing my city-honed instinct to keep moving, I stopped. "Hi!" he said. "My friends and I are hiking the Appalachian Trail and we could see you coming up the hill. It looks hard, and we thought you could use some trail magic!" He produced a couple of granola bars from behind his back. "These are for you!" "Trail magic", he explained, is spontaneous gift or kindness bestowed on or by an AT hiker. "Unbidden" is key -- someone who tries to solicit trail magic is said to be "Yogi-ing", after the perpetually freeloading Bear. I didn't need a granola bar (I still had half a pannier of bon voyage Powerbars) but the gesture was so delightful and surprising that I barely knew how to say thanks. I burbled something about the day starting out crappy and him turning it around completely but that was as good as I could do.
I was so tickled by the day's transformation that the Fox Hill Inn could have been a dump and I wouldn't have cared. But in keeping with the new tenor of things it turned out to be a lovely hilltop house with a sweeping 360 degree view of the surrounding Appalachian foothills. Without even pausing to check in, I laid down in the grass and watched the clouds for half an hour or so, thinking how lucky I was to be taking this trip. I managed to snap a photo.
(April 29 - May 6)
On April 29, I coasted downhill from Breaks Interstate Park, crossed the Kentucky line and rode into Elkhorn City, a town of about 900. Elkhorn City seemed smutty and gray, as though a thin layer of dust had settled onto everything. I thought at first that my glasses were just dirty but then I noticed the coal trucks, which were suddenly everywhere; the dust was real. I stopped for breakfast -- it was a measure of my increasing hardiness that the name "Rusty Fork Café" didn't start me wondering about my last tetanus shot -- and was served an omelet the size of a first baseman's mitt. The people in the restaurant spoke with accents so strong that I couldn't understand them when they talked fast. I had liked Virginia fine but was eager for a change and Kentucky was doing the trick in a hurry.
My route through Kentucky was pretty simple. I entered in the east about a third of the way up the state and rode west except for a bend north through the college town of Berea. After a week in Kentucky, I crossed the Ohio River into Illinois.
Kentucky was a delightful surprise, far friendlier and more interesting than I supposed it would be. It is a hard state to sum up, though -- it isn't southern (I guess it was a border state during the Civil War but the historical markers are written from the northern point of view), it's not northern (it's very unlike Massachusetts), it's not eastern and it's not midwestern. It's just Kentucky. Or perhaps more accurately, "Kentuckys" -- eastern Appalachia, the central bluegrass region and western Kentucky each presented a distinct character and terrain. Kentucky felt like three states rolled into one.
I lost my tentativeness in Kentucky. Up until then when people asked, wherever was I going on that heavy bicycle, I'd answer the Pacific Ocean but I scarcely believed it myself and I couldn't have been very convincing. But by Kentucky I had been on the road for nearly 800 miles, I'd negotiated the hardest hills the trip had to offer, and I wasn't feeling beat up at all. I was increasingly comfortable and confident on the bike, having developed a keener sense of how far I could get in a day, learning that complications like flats, bad weather and darkness won't ruin a day (well -- won't ruin a week), and coming to enjoy the uncomplicated routine of getting up in the morning and riding until the sun is low. I started camping, and changed time zones for the first time. The days were getting longer, warmer and drier. I liked Kentucky.
At my first overnight stop, Pippa Passes (home to tiny Alice Lloyd College), I met Rob Lovell, from Camden, Maine. Rob had started out in Richmond and was riding west on the Transamerica Trail, maybe to Colorado, maybe to the ocean. He'd been behind me for a couple of days, hearing about me at stores and post offices, and had been hoping to catch up. We sat up late drinking a pint of whiskey I'd bought earlier in the day (see "May 1: Dutch & Brian", once I write it) and trading stories about our respective adventures.
We were eager to start riding together but we would have to separate first; Rob's ancient rear wheel had disintegrated and he was having to wait a day for a replacement to arrive by overnight. I wound up riding another five days by myself, out of the mountains at last and into bluegrass country (soft rolling hills, bourbon, horses and money) and then western Kentucky (a little more agricultural but but hard to characterize; "a lot like southern Illinois", perhaps). Rob and I hooked up again a couple of days shy of Illinois and rode on and off together for the next three weeks.
Kentucky afforded sites and sights and prompted observations that deserve specific mention:
It took only two days to ride across the southern tip of Illinois from the Ohio River to the Mississippi. After a quick auto ferry ride into the state from Kentucky, I persuaded Rob to split the cost of a room in the lodge at Cave-in-Rock State Park (he is a Happy Camper while I am sometimes no better than a grudging one). From Cave-in-Rock, we rode one longish day to Carbondale. The riding was good, but surprisingly hilly in away from the river. The second day, featuring 10 or 15 miles across flat, fertile Mississippi River floodplain, ended at Chester.
Early May in southern Illinois was nothing like April in Delaware or Virginia; everything was green, the sun was more reliable and temperatures were crawling up into and even through the 70s. Things had changed a lot during our 3 weeks on the road, and in fact our progress had started to come quickly enough to be disconcerting -- we barely had time to adjust to where we had just got before we were suddenly somewhere new. Indeed only days before, we had been struggling with the last of the Appalachian mountains but now we were as far west as St. Louis, the original Gateway to the West, and about to cross the Mississippi River. It was a heady thing, but at the same time a little hard to believe.
In two short days Illinois supplied more than its share of pleasant recollections:
-- The Ohio River. The Ohio River didn't look like much from the ferry, just a flat brown thing, but from higher up it was magnificent. Early in the evening at Cave-in-Rock, Rob had gone off to make a phone call and I was sitting on the balcony of our room with half a bottle of wine (I had learned my lesson, stuck high and dry at Breaks Interstate) and my feet up. It was a hazy, featureless dusk. The river below was broad, soundless and slow. Every so often a huge barge, hundreds of feet long and piled high with coal, would churn by. A single farmhouse and a couple of cultivated fields were visible near the horizon but otherwise all I could see was trees and river. It was silent, and infinitely relaxing. Part of me wishes I had the strength of character to rely on memory to preserve moments like that, but I am weak and leapt for the camera. The photo came out pretty well.
-- Ted from Holland. Rob and I had spent an hour and a half chewing the fat (as well as free cheese & mustard sandwiches) with the owner of a tiny grocery store a couple hours outside of Cave-in-Rock and were just again underway when we spied a loaded cyclist coming toward us on the road ahead. We were beside ourselves -- this was the first other cycle tourist we had seen! -- and eagerly rode across the road to greet him.
It was hard to tell right off what to make of the fellow. Trim, deeply tanned and with a shortcropped graying beard, he was wearing a brown button-down shirt, funky floppy hat, baggy khaki pants held around his waist by shoelaces, and hiking boots. His bike held a small set of panniers, what appeared to be a tent, and a small handlebar bag. No odometer, no lights. Was he a vagabond like Sam in Virginia? A local eccentric? No, neither; he was merely foreign!
Ted was a delight. He had started riding in San Francisco in March, and his destination was Boston. He was following a route of his own invention, pieced together at home in Holland from Rand McNally road maps mail ordered from the United States. He said that the green "scenic routes" were working out quite well, though he had met few -- well, no -- other cyclists in his seven weeks on the road. He was sleeping in barns, fields, front yards or wherever else he could persuade someone to let him set up his tent. No campgrounds (too expensive, too structured) and certainly no hotels. This highly streamlined style won Rob's quick admiration -- Rob as I mentioned being something more of minimalist than me -- and the two new friends took turns disparaging my moral indiscipline. Hm.
Ted couldn't contain his enthusiasm for the United States, and became quite animated as he told us about his adventure. "You have such amazing and beautiful things in your country, the people are wonderful, so friendly -- and your freedoms!" (He also liked Las Vegas a lot.) The comment about "freedoms" seemed a little incongruous; I mean, the guy was from Holland, not Albania -- but his excitement was utterly contagious and for the rest of the day Rob and I couldn't stop talking about how lucky we were to be making this trip.
-- The Bike Surgeon. In Carbondale we spent a night with the Bike Surgeon (Mark Robinson to his mother and banker), who for years has been offering free lodging and bike repair to cyclists on the Transamerica Trail. He was a pretty interesting guy. Thirty-seven years old and looking a bit like Ted Nugent (albeit without that peculiar bloodlust that Nugent sometimes gets in his eyes), Mark had moved to Carbondale from Long Island maybe 10 or 15 years before. He runs a bike shop and a limousine & bus service out of his house (which had been a grocery store until he decided to move into it), and finished a close second in the mayoral race in 1996. He's accommodating beyond all reason, and as best as I can tell, it's just because he likes it.
We arrived around eight in the evening, just in time to join Mark and a couple of friends for hamburgers hot off the grill, homemade french fries and the Simpsons. Instant family! That night Rob slept on the floor of the bike shop and I got the living room. In the morning Mark's sidekick Dave appeared kind of out of nowhere and within 20 minutes had our bikes up on the stand for cleaning and adjusting.
The Bike Surgeon was impossibly generous with his time and energy. More amazing still is that when we asked what we could do to repay his kindness, he handed us a stack of flyers and told us to be sure to distribute them to any other cyclists we might see.
-- Chester, Illinois. Elzie Segar, creator of Popeye, was born in Chester. All of Segar's cartoon characters, including of course Popeye, Wimpy and Olive Oyl, were modeled on Chester residents. This friendly town milks the Popeye connection for all its worth -- among other things there's a Popeye statute, a Popeye gazebo and a memorabilia store where they sell a lot of spinach.
One of the Bike Surgeon's many talents was wheelbuilding, and Rob had decided to stay behind for a few hours in Carbondale for a primer. We didn't hook up that evening in Chester and so I was by myself on the morning of May 9 when I crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri. After a couple of days of solo riding I found Rob again and we continued, still almost due west, across the southern third of the state toward Kansas.
A minor marvel of bicycle touring is the way in which cyclists on the same general route, separated by hours or even days, can find one other. When I rode ahead from Rob out of Carbondale, it was the second time we'd split up -- the first being the day after we'd met, in Kentucky -- and we didn't even bother to plan our rendezvous, because we knew that it would happen eventually. Indeed it's almost effortless: there are only so many places to snack or spend the night, plus people tend simply to notice fully-laden touring cyclists, which are a comparatively rare sight even on the Transamerica Trail. The upshot is that, several times in a day, the trailing cyclist will hear something like, "hey, a rider just like you came through here about 3 hours ago". Rob and I tended to cover about the same daily distance and once we got an idea of each other's tastes in overnight spots, it was easy to reconnect.
Anyhow. Other than one day in the fringes of the Ozark mountains (a bit of work, but only an echo of the Appalachians), the terrain in Missouri was rolling and benign. The route was, like almost all of the Transamerica Trail, over secondary roads through rural and semi-rural territory; we went through only one town larger than a thousand. Our maps warned of congestion toward the middle of the state on roads leading to Branson, but the country music season was evidently not yet underway and traffic wasn't a problem. Rob and I did, however, each encounter an twenty mile stretch of potent and inexplicable driver hostility in and around Farmington in eastern Missouri. It was an unfortunate introduction to the state but, thankfully, quite a contrast to the western part.
Missouri is hard to sum up. It offered more than its share of diversions -- pretty roads, nice campsites, unusual geology -- and friendly folks who fed and sheltered us, but somehow it lacked a theme. There were no revelations, no developments, no mental or physical adjustments to make. I didn't know what the Rockies would be like but they were still 10 days away. Even flat Kansas, with the prospect of thunderstorms and powerful winds, left room for a bit of uncertainty. But while I was in Missouri I knew how far I could get in a day, how much time I could waste, what kinds of places were suitable for spending the night and how to find them. So I just rode, occupied primarily by the white noise that my merciful brain supplies to fill uneventful days in the saddle.
As I said, not much of a theme to Missouri, but lots of cool stuff:
From the day we met in Kentucky, Rob and I talked about Kansas, fantasizing about tailwinds and 120 mile days in our last easy riding before the Rockies. Of course we knew that the wind and weather could as easily go against us, and we'd lose, not gain, time; but that uncertainty, the gamble, made us even more eager to arrive. For all our anticipation, however, we never thought much about actually being in the state; I guess we never got past the stock mental image of flat, fruited-plains monotony. The main attraction of Kansas seemed to be how quickly we would get through it, and so it is ironic that the place should make such a vivid impression.
Our route through the state wasn't complicated. We entered in the southeast corner near Pittsburg, an area not much different than western Missouri. On the second day we rode through the Flint Hills, a topographical and cultural anomaly where the land rolls and crests like immense ocean swells, and the residents raise cattle instead of wheat. Then it was flat. In flat Newton we camped in the city park and listened all night to freight trains being switched. In flat Hudson (the physical midpoint of the entire trip) the delightful residents bought us drinks all afternoon and put us up in the Town Hall. Near flat Rush Center, we turned onto State Route 96 and stayed on that one road for four days, deep into Colorado. We'd suffered for our early-season departure with rain and chill in Virginia and Kentucky, but we were grateful in Kansas where, instead of July's high 90s, we enjoyed comfortable days mostly in the high 70s and low 80s.
We were right about the riding; it was uninteresting and utterly forgettable. There were signs of civilization everywhere -- fences, furrowed fields, irrigation equipment -- but between towns we might go 20 miles without seeing a building or a person outside of a car or hay baler. After a couple of days there weren't even any trees. We'd pedal eight or ten hours but nothing would change, not at all, so at the end of the day we'd be someplace new but with little recollection how we had got there. (And, once we were on our bikes there was little to do but ride; we wound up averaging 90 miles a day.)
Yet Kansas was great, a truly memorable place. The people were wonderful: Overtaking drivers pulled entirely into the opposite lane to pass. In a week we rarely bought beers for ourselves. Kansas was the only state where, if we paused on the roadside for a drink from our water bottles and a snack, people pulled over to ask if we were all right. The West began in Kansas; it was open, drier, higher. (Even in the plains we gained a couple dozen feet of elevation every hour and by the time we left the state we were at about 4,000 feet, higher than any point we reached in the Appalachians.) The landscape was fascinating despite its stupefying uniformity -- emptiness has a kind of mesmerizing beauty, and we stopped several times just to look out over it and try to take it all in. I really liked Kansas.
Here are a couple more notes and anecdotes:
We rode out of the high plains of Kansas and into the high plains of Colorado. On our third day in the state and an hour or so past Pueblo, we entered the Rockies. From there we turned north and continued for four days in mountains west of Denver and Boulder, over the continental divide, through the resort town of Breckenridge, into North Park and beyond. We left the state just north of Walden.
Eastern Colorado is a bit more textured and varied than Kansas but not much. There's too little rain to make farming worthwhile, and so the land is open and untended. For two days we rode over broadly rolling terrain, through sagebrush and past abandoned farms, scanning the horizon for a glimpse of the mountains. There was no traffic, there were no cross streets, and the view didn't change for hours. I could literally put my head down and look at nothing but my pedals and the white shoulder line for eight or nine miles at a stretch. Towns -- indeed any kind of food or water stop -- were 30, sometimes 40, miles apart. We discovered whole new levels of emptiness and isolation.
We were eager to reach the Rockies, figuring that at the very least the views would improve and that the climbs would force us up out of our saddles from time to time. (Ten days in the flats takes its toll on the nether regions.) We were a little apprehensive, too -- the massive, jagged, snowy peaks in front of us seemed a lot more substantial than the assurances we'd heard from other cyclists that these mountains were easy compared to those in the east.
It turns out that the Rocky Mountains really are easier than the Appalachians, at least as far as pure climbing goes. The roads are nowhere as steep or as merciless, and it was not unusual to climb for six or seven miles and gain 2,500 feet without ever dropping into the smallest chainring. But the Rockies presented their own challenges. We'd anticipated shortness of breath or headaches in the higher altitudes (flatlanders begin to notice effects at 7,000 feet or so), but not the way in which the thin air would leech energy out of us. We covered only 47 miles on our first full day in the mountains but it may it have been the single most draining day on the trip -- from nearly the first pedal stroke we were listless and lethargic, and became tired all out of proportion to the long but otherwise unintimidating ascents. We rode that entire overcast day into a frigid, stiff north wind, and when we arrived for the night at our destination we were utterly spent. (In a fitting end to the day, a resident dog greeted me by peeing on one of my panniers.)
Every other day we seemed to ride into a new Colorado. We'd ridden out of vacant plains into Pueblo, which with a population of about 100,000, was the largest city I'd seen since leaving Washington, D.C. It was funny being in a place where people took no notice of us at all. Two days later we were in the mountains, nowhere again, getting ready to settle down for the night in a tiny solar-powered, stove-heated cabin offered by one Walter Schacter. Walter -- perhaps best described as a marginally reconstructed hippie -- treated us to beers in his kitchen and told stories. Before settling down in Colorado, Walter had hitchhiked around the world, working to support himself as he went. He'd been a stevedore in Thailand and had helped rebuild ships in Singapore; he'd even been to Woodstock. His exploits made our grand cross-country adventure seem a bit feeble by comparison, but we appreciated the beers.
From the simplicity of Schacter's we rode up over the continental divide and then down into toney Breckenridge. It was the first place we'd been that actually attracted tourists. Everyone there was beautiful and well dressed. Stores, selling sporting goods and souvenirs, ice cream and casualwear, sat three and four blocks deep. We ate at a restaurant featuring cloth napkins and a waiting list; I had two martinis!
Angel hair pasta was a nice change of pace but it took just an evening for the novelty of Breckenridge to wear off. We'd been living so simply -- sleeping in tents or cheap hotels, subsisting on diner food and fig newtons, rotating through the same three shirts day after day -- that the town felt cluttered and excessive. (It's kind of overdone anyhow and I suspect it would have seemed that way even if we'd arrived by plane.) By the next night, though, things were back to normal and in Kremmling I had dinner in the Quarter Circle Saloon, where the men wore black hats and string ties, and the women flared denim skirts and cowboy boots.
Colorado provided some truly glorious moments. Bicycling up past 11,000 feet and into standing snow to cross the continental divide was exhilarating and unforgettable. In Colorado, long climbs might be rewarded by extended effortless descents -- on the way into Breckenridge down from Hoosier Pass, we coasted for half an hour beside a clear coursing mountain stream that gained volume and speed with every mile. The mountain and valley views could be breathtaking; nothing before on the trip had had such power and grandeur. And, as in every state, we met wonderful people.
But having said all that, Colorado was strangely disappointing. There was an unexpected monotony to the place, even -- indeed especially -- in the mountains. Days with particularly long stretches between towns (as much as 59 miles) just dragged. (I assign John Denver and "Rocky Mountain High" a significant share of the blame -- I couldn't get the damn song out of my head. Recalling Monty Python's nasty takeoff on him helped me through the hardest hours.) If there was ever a time on the trip when the riding just got to me, it was in Colorado; and I wasn't sure things were going to improve in Wyoming.
Some other notes from Colorado:
(May 26 - June 5)
On Memorial Day in Walden, Colorado (elevation about 8,200), we awoke to winter storm warnings "for altitudes above 8,000 feet". It was small comfort that during the day we'd be descending to below 7,000 feet -- freezing rain would certainly be worse than snow. Neither Rob nor I had packed with this kind of weather in mind, but the general store in Walden sold plastic rain suits and woolen hats and gloves (right next to the ammunition) and despite the holiday the store was open early, so we stocked up. It was 37 degrees and snowing when we set out for Wyoming.
As expected, after a couple of hours the snow turned into a cold, piercing, intermittent rain. We rode the entire wretched day into headwinds, and though we made good distance, we had little choice -- there were no towns to speak of, and stopping at roadside to rest would have just left us wetter and colder. It was, on the whole, an inauspicious introduction to the state and we were very grateful finally to arrive in Saratoga, where we would be able to get off the bikes and into dry clothes.
Saratoga in fact provided a splendid and unexpected counterpoint to the day. By the time we left our hotel room to find dinner, the western sky had cleared and the heavy clouds still directly above us were bathed from underneath in a brilliant blood-red sunset glow. It was beautiful. And, though the temperature was still stuck somewhere in the low 40s, we had gym shorts and towels under our arms -- we'd learned of an authentic hot spring in town, and we were going to go for a soak.
We found the spring mostly by following the smell of sulphur. The town had built a cinderblock structure (complete with changing room) around the source, creating a waist deep, sandy-bottomed hot water pool. The water where it rose out of the ground was nearly too hot to bear. But toward the middle of the pool it was, conveniently, about exactly the temperature at which you'd draw a bath at the end of a hard, bone-chilling day. It was no spa -- in fact it was kind of dumpy -- but it was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and was free. I don't remember either of us complaining.
That day turned out to be the last one that Rob and I rode together. From the time I met him in Kentucky, he'd never been certain quite where or how far he was going to go, so there was a continuing ad hoc quality to our partnership. In Walden he finally decided to follow the Transamerica Trail through to the Oregon coast and then continue up to Seattle, where his wife was going to be attending a conference. To do that, though, he'd have to put in some serious miles. On the other hand I was way ahead of schedule, and, having no desire to end my trip early, was actively looking for ways to linger. On top of that, I had been planning to depart from the Trail at Jackson. In the end we decided it made more sense to split up, and so on a nippy and overcast morning I watched Rob ride off on the first of the hundred miles he planned to cover that day. We made vague promises to get together again at the ocean, but I knew he'd get there well before me. It was the last time I saw him.
My route through Wyoming was straightforward. Saratoga is 40 or so road miles in from Wyoming's southern border, about halfway west across the state. After Saratoga, the Transamerica Trail heads mostly north through Rawlins and the Great Divide Basin, then bends northwest to join the Wind River beyond Lander. A couple days later there's a climb up to Togwotee Pass, which at 9,658 feet is the second highest point on the Trail. From there it's downhill all the way to the base of the Grand Teton mountains. At the Tetons the Trail turns north through Yellowstone National Park and into Montana -- but I headed south to Jackson, where I stowed my bike for three days to tour Yellowstone in a rental car. Once back on the bicycle, I rode west out of Jackson, over Teton Pass and into Idaho. In all, I was in Wyoming for 10 days.
The plains in Kansas are covered with wheat and the mountains in Colorado are covered with trees. They're both lovely, but in a static, postcard kind of way, and riding through them could be painfully monotonous. Wyoming is the surprising converse - little grows, but the scenery is dynamic and fascinating. The views became more dramatic and striking each day, unfolding in front of me almost as though they had been laid out for effect; and with the sparse ground cover, the earth's folds and striations are plainly visible in nearly every mountain, gorge and outcrop. Every mile provided another window into tens or hundreds of millions of years of unimaginably massive and gradual change. Finally, few places in the country are as geologically active as Wyoming. The spring in Saratoga merely foreshadowed the hot, fluid, otherworldly earth that escapes to the surface throughout Yellowstone.
Wyoming was rawer and more rough-hewn than any other place on the ride. Even its beauty -- which was abundant -- had kind of an edge to it, as though it could hurt you somehow. Not surprisingly, Wyoming provided some of the ride's most vivid memories.
-- The fewer the merrier. It was funny being alone after a month of companionship. I'd been lucky to find someone as compatible on the road as Rob -- he liked longer days than I did, but not so much longer than we couldn't easily compromise. We kept a similar pace too; if we weren't riding actually side by side, we were almost always within sight of one another. And, though we could often go for two or three hours without saying anything, during those long silent stretches, we were still company. I also really appreciated having someone there to share particularly memorable moments, like cresting the 11,000 foot summit at Hoosier Pass.
So I did miss him. But on the other hand, now that I was by myself again, riding each instant at my own pace, I realized that riding with Rob had involved a constant, subliminal and irresistible urge to keep or make speed. If he was behind me, in my draft, I'd ride a stronger and steadier pace than I might otherwise. When he was riding strong, I'd stay with him; and though he might be riding only a hair faster than I would ride alone, keeping his rhythm and not mine could feel like a job. It was nice now to be riding exactly like I wanted to.
I was a little freer in my diversions too. I could stop three times in a thousand yards if three things caught my eye -- I passed up more than one photo riding with Rob because I felt foolish asking him to wait yet again. As much I missed the companionship, I was really enjoying the complete freedom that accompanies solitude. It was a good time to go our separate ways.
-- A Certified Epiphany. On my second morning in Wyoming, I set out from Rawlins on what was going to be a comparatively short 60 mile ride to Jeffrey City, a destination I'd chosen only because the next town, Lander, was 70 miles beyond it. A good part of the ride would be through the Great Divide Basin, a vast, flat expanse surrounded by high ridges. I read somewhere that the continental divide splits and goes to either side of the Basin, meaning that water falling into it drains to neither ocean. And indeed I passed signs marking the divide both as I descended into the Basin and climbed out. (In contrast to my first time over the divide at Hoosier Pass, these "crossings" came at the crests of small hills, indistinguishable from any of the other dozen or two I climbed that morning.)
The Basin is divided by a single, ramrod-straight two lane highway. Signs advise motorists on this mesmerizing road to drive with their headlights on at all times. Most drivers heed the advice, so oncoming cars are easily visible 8 or 10 miles away. It was fascinating being able to watch, for seven or eight long minutes, a single car approaching at (his speed plus mine) 95, maybe 100, miles per hour. Usually something traveling that fast arrives more quickly.
Except for these occasional cars, I was entirely alone. Time passed quickly, though, and I arrived in Jeffrey City a little after 1:00. The town, such as it was, consisted of two bars (open) plus a hotel (apparently closed). There was little to hold a person's interest and I had got there far too early to consider stopping, so without the slightest idea of where I might spend the night, I decided to press on.
An hour or so beyond Jeffrey City, the sky grew threatening. I could see rainstorms off to either side, and indeed sometimes right in my path -- but all afternoon as I rode, either the rainstorms or the road would change direction just when I needed them to, with the result that I rode the entire day through a tunnel of dry, sometimes even sunny, weather. It rained everywhere but over my head.
In Wyoming there is little other than the ground to sit on when you feel like taking a break, so 30 or so miles further on when I came upon a guardrail rising up out of the road alongside a culvert, I decided to stop for a snack. It was late afternoon. I'd been dodging dicey weather all day but at this moment there were only patchy clouds in the sky. The sun was shining low in front of me and making that perfect temperature where you can't tell where your skin stops and the air starts. I had been riding for ten, ten and a half hours and had covered well over a hundred miles but I felt great, strong, like I could go another 50. I still didn't know where I would be spending the night but it didn't matter; I wasn't in a hurry, and anyhow after 6 weeks on the road I knew that things would, one way or another, sort out fine by nightfall.
So there I was, enjoying the silence and reflecting on an already remarkable day, when all at once the thought struck me: I am on an empty road in the middle of Wyoming, three-quarters of the way across the continent from my home, and I rode my bike here. This of course should not have been news to me but still it came with the force of revelation -- how remarkable a thing to ride so far, how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to do it!
I'd been on other adventures where a single moment seemed to sum up the whole of the thing, and my friends and I always enjoyed trading stories about these epiphanies. I knew that I'd just had such a singular moment and so I snapped a photo of myself sitting on the guardrail. (It came out lousy.) Having documented the event I sat a bit longer to savor it; and I don't think that in those five or so minutes I would have traded places with anyone in the world.
Of course, perfect contentment is fleeting and so I wasn't surprised or upset when I noticed the sky once again darkening over the road in front of me -- it was time to start moving again. I got back on my bike and started to climb the hill leading away from the culvert. About halfway up, I reflexively checked the rearview mirror mounted on my glasses and spotted a rainbow -- a double rainbow -- arching over the very spot I'd just left. It's trite, sure, but it's still hard to imagine more fitting corroboration for what already seemed like a transcendent event. To make sure the rainbow wasn't the hallucinatory product of a fatigued brain, I stopped to photograph that too. Luckily for my story, that photo turned out well.
(There certainly does seem to be something special about this spot! A pair of eastbound cyclists have included a photograph of the identical place -- sans rainbow -- on their web site. To see it, follow this link to Dave & Babak's Wyoming page.)
-- The RV people. An hour up the road from the rainbow, maybe a dozen miles short of Lander, I passed an RV campground and made the improbable decision to spend the night there. The setting and campsites were nice enough but the place featured a hokey Wild West village with hourly staged shootouts, and it looked kind of stupid. Then of course there were those wall-to-wall RVs. But by that point I'd ridden 120 miles and I didn't need much encouragement to stop -- so when I spotted another touring cyclist setting up for the night, my mind was made up.
The cyclist was Alby Mitchell, heading on his recumbent from Jackson, Wyoming, to New York City. He was in the first days of his trip and was shedding excess baggage at the rate of about 10 pounds a day. We shared coffee and dinner and told stories, including a swipe or two at the RVers parked all around us. Indeed, any touring cyclist can reel off a long list of complaints about RVs. They're big and take up too much road. They're erratic and smelly and loud and their outrigger rearview mirrors are a menace. I have always thought of them -- and, uncharitably, their owners by extension -- as a kind of scourge.
Alby retired as soon as the sun went down but (remarkably) I was still awake and looking for something to do. While wandering around I was drawn into conversation by friendly RV owners curious about my bike and my ride, and wound up spending the rest of the evening, as well as a good part of the next morning, chatting with them. Surprisingly, I came away as impressed by them as they claimed to be with me.
Apparently there are semi-guided tours that you can sign up for with your RV, like you can with your bike. The company comes up with a theme for the tour, tells the RV owners where they'll be camping and how to get there, and the drivers spend the week heading from site to site with stops along the way. The RVers hook up with the same friends on different tours, and look forward to them for months. This particular group -- 20 or so RVs in all -- was roughly retracing the Mormon Trail on its 150th anniversary, attending various events along the way that commemorated the original Mormon migration.
These folks were old. Many needed a cane just to walk; one or two were tethered to supplemental oxygen tanks. A lot of people reaching that stage in life just retire to the bedroom to wait and die. But every one of these men and women was still curious, still interested in what the world looked like, and they were driving around the country to see it despite their very visible physical difficulties. Although they were fascinated by my transportation and had no end of questions for me, they didn't have to ask why I was riding across the country -- that part they plainly understood. Me and the RV drivers, kindred spirits. Huh!
I still don't like having to watch out for those machines -- and to be sure, lots of those folks drive barely better than they walk -- but I don't get so angry so quickly at them any more, and it's more fun to ride in a peaceful frame of mind.
-- An entirely different pace. Way back in Virginia I concluded that to enjoy bike touring you have to adjust to a "bicycle scale" of time and distance. Somewhere in the middle of Wyoming I discovered how successful my adjustment had been: After pulling into an auto rest area for a snack and to fill my water bottles, I struck up a conversation with an eastbound couple driving home from a vacation in Yellowstone. They warned me of substantial snow still in some of the park's higher elevations. Yellowstone was at that point maybe 250 miles and three days ahead of me. Thinking (hoping) that their information was stale, I asked them when they'd been there and was genuinely taken aback when they told me, that very morning. That possibility hadn't even occurred to me.
-- Two ways to Togwotee Pass. The road into Dubois, Wyoming, follows the Wind River, a muddy roiling thing that has carved a deep gorge into the colorful, variegated Wyoming bedrock. In Dubois itself, all the buildings on the main street are done up in the same weathered-wood western motif and it is too cute by about half. The place largely redeemed itself, though, with the local practice of permitting bar patrons to take "go cups" full of margarita or martini out onto the street.
After a night in Dubois I began the climb to 9,600 foot Togwotee Pass. The ride up was long and slow, but not that hard -- the sun was shining and the views were great. The road continued to follow the Wind River, which had been noisy and frothy in Dubois but quieted and shrunk on the ascent until it was almost narrow enough to jump across. At the summit, the temperature was in the low 70s but snow still blanketed the high meadows. I stopped to take photos of people incongruously riding snowmobiles in picnic weather on the last day in May and they stopped to take photos of a lycra-clad cyclist standing incongruously in a snow field.
As I started to descend, the weather changed abruptly to a heavy overcast. I coasted toward the Grand Tetons and Jackson for several miles under clouds, whereupon a cold rain squall blew in. After a few wet minutes I passed a resort lodge full of workmen preparing for the season's opening a week later. A convenience store next door sold sandwiches. (This was lucky -- they were the only buildings for several miles in either direction.) Eager for shelter, I pulled in and took up a spot on the porch of the hotel.
While I was waiting for the rain to let up, a small pickup heading uphill pulled into the parking lot. A very large man climbed out of the passenger side and unloaded a bike from the back. As the truck sped off, the former passenger wheeled his bike over to me and introduced himself. He was Joe Knapp, from the Quad Cities (those being of course Moline & Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport & Bettendorf, Iowa). Joe was riding from the Pacific back to the Mississippi but he'd decided early on that he going to "do it for the fun" and so would actually ride only the flat or downhill portions. As he explained, at the bottom of a climb he'd simply stick out his thumb and soon someone would stop to ferry him to the top. He never had to wait long at all. At first something troubled me about this approach but as I rolled it over in my head I couldn't identify anything actually wrong with it and decided it was not a bad idea at all. (Joe did allow as how, having ridden into somewhat better shape, he would occasionally ride up the more gradual inclines.)
The rain ended and the sun came out, but Joe was a delightful fellow and we chatted for a good hour after that. Finally it was time to press on. Naturally, the last I saw of Joe, he was settling into position on the uphill shoulder. I bet he had a blast on the descent to Dubois.
-- The Grand Tetons. This is brief because I couldn't come up with words to convey how magnificent these mountains are.
They are sublime. Formed by the angled upthrust of an ancient sea bed, the Grand Tetons (literally, "big breasts") have no foothills on their eastern side. They simply erupt, thousands of feet high, out of the flat plain in front of them. If it weren't for the lakes at their base, you could literally walk up and put your hand on their side, as you would a tree or a building. Still very young (only 5 to 9 million years old) and unsoftened by erosion, they appear jagged and sharp, like arrowhead flint. A dozen glaciers, 15,000 years old, flow slowly -- glacially! -- from the peaks.
The Tetons are stunning from 30 or 40 miles and they become even more spellbinding as you draw closer. For two days I rode with these mountains directly in front of me, and I often slowed to seven or eight miles an hour just so I could gaze at them longer -- it was a treat to be on a bike and have that option.
Wyoming, June 2-4:
Yellowstone National Park
When I was planning my trip, someone advised me not to try to tour Yellowstone on my bike -- the distances were too great, the roads too narrow, and the drivers dangerously distracted. Instead, they said, leave the bike in Jackson and rent a car.
It's excellent advice, for although Yellowstone is entirely passable by bicycle (the Transamerica Trail goes right through it), the park's single road is hilly, curving, and often shoulderless, and the full, figure-8 loop that it forms is more than 200 miles long. (There's a good map at <http://www.yellowstone-natl-park.com/bike.htm>.) Major attractions in the park are at least 30, and as many as 60, miles apart. What's more, when I was there in early June, six and seven foot tall walls of plowed snow still abutted substantial stretches of road, making comfortable riding space even scarcer.
The car was the right choice but my motorized tour of Yellowstone felt more like a break from the bicycle adventure than part of it. Nevertheless it was a nice couple of days, full of fascinating sights, and worth a few words here.
Yellowstone's tourist facilities (lodging, restaurants, gas stations, gift shops, etc.) are confined to five separate clusters located near some of the park's more popular attractions. These ersatz villages are spaced fairly evenly throughout the park and, although plainly contrived, are attractive (in a National Park Service sort of way) and provide visitors with a useful sense of place and destination within an area of otherwise overwhelming vastness.
Early June was a good time to visit. It was still chilly in the evening (temperatures dipping into the mid 30s) but mild enough during the day for short pants. More importantly, tourists had not begun to arrive in volume. Thus, even though one 40 mile leg of the park loop was still closed by snow (forcing a lot of backtracking), traffic was light. The most popular attractions were, at worst, manageably crowded, and stunning sights only the least bit out of the way could be enjoyed in complete solitude. Interestingly, Americans made up only about half of the tourists I did see. I met, among others, visitors from Japan, Holland, France and Germany.
The first few hours back behind the wheel of a car were jarring. The scenery sped by much too quickly, and seeing it through the windshield was barely better than watching it on TV. It was often impossible, and at best inconvenient, to stop or slow to take in interesting sights. Though I soon reaccustomed myself to the faster pace, I was surprised to discover that driving all day was much more tiring than bike riding -- by mid afternoon both days I was drowsy almost beyond the power of caffeine to cure. More surprising still was that my calves and feet quickly became tired and very sore. It made sense, of course, for despite all the work my legs had been getting on the ride, on any given day I might walk literally only a few hundred yards -- far less than I would in an ordinary day at the office. I was calling upon muscles that hadn't seen use in 6 weeks.
Here are a few high points from the (very brief) two and a half days:
Late on my first afternoon in the park, I met Jen from Minnesota. She was on a five day drive from Minneapolis to Missoula and back -- and had decided in spite of her tight schedule to spend a few hours in Yellowstone. We spent the rest of daylight exploring the sights along one 60 mile stretch of road. Afterwards we had a delightful dinner, finding no end of things to talk about; then at midnight we sat, alone together under a full moon, to watch Old Faithful erupt into the cold, crisp night air. It was superbly, sublimely romantic -- for me, anyhow. As for Jen, well, she had a boyfriend to whom she was unwaveringly devoted. Then too I didn't confess this as we sat, and if she noticed my giddiness I'm sure she ascribed it to the wine I'd had at dinner. Somehow, though, the asymmetry didn't matter in the least, and that night remains one of the very best memories of the entire trip.
Among the other things I remember vividly:
- The pervasive smell of sulphur
- spectacular erupting geysers (far more impressive and bombastic than Old Faithful)
- rainbow-hued ponds of crystal-clear steaming water
- the "sulphur cauldron", a pool of boiling mud with the pH of battery acid
- petrified trees
- bison wandering near the lodge at Old Faithful, their hot breath forming bright backlit clouds in the cold
- the broad and placid Yellowstone River flowing into narrow gorges and being transformed into violent, frightening cascades of whitewater
- towering waterfalls; and
- deep, green tree-lined canyons
Yellowstone is a magnificent national resource. Go see it, even if you have to drive.
The only way into Idaho from Jackson was over Teton Pass, a daunting climb that people had been warning me about for a week. (A less arduous route along the Snake River was closed by mudslides, impassable even to cyclists.) In the Rockies, roads rarely exceed a 6% grade, one of the things that makes the western mountains easy compared to the Appalachians. This route, however, rose at 10% for several miles. I hadn't ridden in four days; it was going to be a brutal reintroduction to the bike.
Only a couple thousand feet uphill I felt completely spent, and stopped to rest not so much to catch my breath as to keep from throwing up. While pausing, I watched oncoming semi-trailers descend at 10 or 12 miles per hour in impossibly low gears, their engines roaring against gravity. Some drivers, not completely trusting their transmissions to slow them, rode their brakes; the air was filled with the stink of overheated metal. That was the first of many breaks on what was probably the hardest climb of the entire journey. Luckily the second half was a little less steep and by the time I reached the summit I could feel my strength returning. Ironically, when I stopped at the top to take the ritual self-congratulatory look back over what I'd just accomplished I was suddenly grateful for having had to make the climb the prospect of descending that same road was literally frightening.
The eastern side of Teton Pass is not nearly as steep. But it's much straighter, and the road surface is smooth. Add a heavy bike and you have a recipe for speed! I knew I was going fast on the way down but the bike felt solid and steady under me and so I was surprised when I managed to clear the tears out of my eyes long enough to read my speedometer; I entered Idaho going 52 miles an hour.
My route through Idaho described a shallow U across the wide, rectangular southern part of the state. For three days I skirted the southern edge of the Pioneer and Sawtooth Mountains. With green foothills always visible to my right, I rode over rolling, sparsely vegetated desert and alongside vast plains of black, lifeless lava. On the fourth day, I rode away from the mountains to cross the Snake River, and then continued, high above the river's southern bank, the rest of the way to Oregon. I was in Idaho for a total of five days.
I rode through small, quiet, unprosperous towns, places that few people outside of Idaho have ever heard of. There were a couple of maybe-exceptions I spent a night in Rexburg, which was inundated in the Teton Dam disaster of 1976 when an earthen dam holding back the Teton River gave out. Eleven people died in the flood. (I rode down two or three miles of dirt road to reach the dam site, which, isolated and long abandoned, looks pretty much as it did shortly after the breach.) I also stopped in Arco, which enjoys the modest distinction of being the first town in the United States to be lighted by nuclear power.
Idaho lacked Wyoming's sweeping grandeur, but sometimes its subtle desert colors combined with unusual light to produce a remarkable scene. One afternoon on U.S. 20 outside of Fairfield, the sky was a kind of mottled overcast, with low rain clouds to one side and higher, broken clouds ahead. The foothills on my right were treeless, rockless rounded shapes covered with low, late spring growth; they looked like enormous green molars. The air, on that day unusually humid for the desert, absorbed distant details and made the already intriguing hills look like some sort of fantastic huge painting. The view was so captivating that for five miles I rode in the middle of the lane so I could gaze at it without riding off the road.
Such compelling beauty came, however, only in snatches. Other times the Idaho scenery suffered a certain sameness, and more than once I had trouble finding the rhythm of the day I grew impatient, and riding felt more like a chore than an adventure. (On reflection I think that I was probably beginning to realize that my trip was nearing its end; indeed, by then I had an end point and an end date, and a limited number of route decisions remaining.) Fortunately this malaise never lasted more than a few hours I was still in unfamiliar territory, with each day continuing to offer many small discoveries. One even foreshadowed the next, and last, state of Oregon: From the time I set out at the Atlantic Ocean, I'd been following the general direction of continental migration; as I moved west, settlements and historic dates became more and more recent. Towns in Delaware and Maryland might date to the 17th century. I rode through Thomas Jefferson's 18th century home of Charlottesville, Virginia, and in Kentucky I saw where Lincoln was born in the early 19th century. The boom years in Breckenridge, Colorado, came in the late 1800s; and Lander, Wyoming, is so young that practically its entire history is preserved in photographs. Midway through Idaho, though, the dates on historical markers began to grow older, moving backwards I had ridden beyond the front of the pioneer movement and was coming to towns that had been settled by people moving inland from Astoria and other older settlements on the Pacific coast.
In short, just as my trip was becoming increasingly defined by its endpoint, local history too suddenly owed more to the territory ahead of me than that which I was leaving behind. It was a pretty neat fit, even if I didn't really realize it at the time.
Here's some more of what I saw in Idaho --
-- Snake River geology. Until very recently (geologically, anyhow), southern Idaho sat atop a "hot spot" that is, a place where molten rock lies close to the earth's surface and from time to time flows up out of it. (Actually the "hot" stays put but as the earth's crust drifts over it, the spot appears to migrate. This spot is thought to be the same one that formed the Hawaiian Islands and the Cascade Mountains, and which now superheats the water and mud in Yellowstone National Park.) Lava flowing out of the earth in Idaho between 2,000 and 15,000 years ago filled the eastern half of the Snake River Plain, thousands of feet deep. The lava which in some directions stretches as far as the eye can see is impermeable to water and doesn't break down into soil. It's sterile, untillable, and only the most opportunistic of plants can live on it.
The Snake River Valley in western Idaho is completely different but has an equally fascinating geological history. The valley is enormous maybe a mile from ridge to ridge and far out of proportion to the river that runs through it. Evidently, a great inland lake once covered a third of Utah, and parts of Nevada and Idaho as well. Climatic changes caused Lake Bonneville to grow and ultimately to breach its northern bank 14,000 or 15,000 years ago. In a brief but unimaginably powerful cataclysm, the lake emptied, flowing to the Pacific along the route that the Snake River follows today. This immense flow of water dug the deep and wide Snake River Valley and scoured the banks clean; evidence of the flood remains plainly visible today. (See the numbered page links compiled at < http://wapi.isu.edu/Field_Exercise/lkbflood/text/lkbflood_main.html >.) Utah's Great Salt Lake is all that remains today of Lake Bonneville.
-- Craters of the Moon National Monument. This National Park Service facility, located on the northern edge of the Snake River Plain, showcases many fascinating lava formations. One of them, "The Inferno", is a small mountain of pumice hard, coral-sharp black cinders left by a volcanic eruption two thousand years ago. Visitors are invited to walk to the top to take in a panoramic view of thousands of acres of lava flows making up the rest of the park. Miles of walkways criss-cross the ancient lava fields below they take more time than the Inferno to explore, but they're worth it.
When the hot spot was in this region, lava flowed in molten rivers from vents leading out of the earth. Exposed to the cool air, the surface of these rivers would harden and form a crust under which molten lava continued to flow. As individual flows subsided, the channel would empty and leave a hollow tube. Many years later, the lava roof in some places collapsed, creating entrances to the tunnels. Some of these openings are big large enough for the Park Service to have built staircases into. Others are tiny, and negotiable only on hand and knee. Those are much more interesting, usually leading into small, dark, dead-end caverns that in early June were still full of ice. In those small caves my lycra bike clothes proved both a blessing and a curse. They let me contort myself in all the ways I needed in order to negotiate the tight entrances, but they were scant protection against the jagged and abrasive lava walls and floors. In happy contrast, my bike gloves made the palms of my hands almost invulnerable.
-- Flush with excitement. I spent one night at a privately-run campground at Givens Hot Springs. It was a pleasant place, offering small cabins, a large, well-tended lawn for campers, and an indoor swimming pool. All of the water used at the facility came from the same hot spring, which in some applications proved disconcerting. The locker room showers were of course warm, and that was nice. The swimming pool was equally well heated, which is to say about the temperature of a bath; truth be told it was hard to come away from a dip in that pool feeling refreshed. Most of southern Idaho is arid and so the campsite had to be watered I was surprised each time I felt warm spray coming off the lawn sprinklers. The strangest, though, were the toilets. Their tanks were almost hot to the touch, and the water in the bowl stayed steamy warm for quite some time after being flushed. Sitting on one of these toilets produced unaccustomed sensations, and, as with the swimming pool, I found my encounters with them strangely unsatisfying.
-- Roadkill. Different states have distinctive roadside detritus. In Virginia it was the beer can. Lumps of coal were common along the shoulder in Kentucky. In Wyoming, it was (inexplicably) Reader's Digest Condensed Books in one 50 mile stretch I rode past a half-dozen or more. Idaho, naturally, featured potatoes. I lost count of them on the first day.
-- A hail of toads would've clinched it. It's surprisingly difficult to string together more than a couple of minutes of coherent, constructive thought during an eight hour ride. (Indeed it may the absence of such thought that makes long-distance riding attractive to some.) Nevertheless one lovely morning in Idaho I managed to engage myself in an extended and fruitful internal conversation, prompted by a remark by a woman in Wyoming a couple weeks earlier. Describing the Tetons, which were then a day or two ahead of me, she'd said, "you can't see them and doubt the existence of God."
I knew what she meant, sort of. From time to time we encounter a thing of such overwhelming beauty and apparent perfection that it defies not only description, but comprehension. It opens an uncomfortable void between the world we perceive and the world we understand, and it seems right somehow that "God" be the thing to fill the emptiness. But I pressed myself on the point and concluded that the ineffable beauty of the Tetons (for example) doesn't really reveal anything more than the outer reaches of my our ability to comprehend; it proves only the hole, not what (if anything) fills it. Indeed, whether a person sees God in the Tetons depends pretty much on what they believed in the first place. God is there, for people who already had faith but for the agnostic, God is a non-sequitur.
Then I wondered, how does one get "faith"? Some people seem to be born with it in them. Others may need something to jump-start it palpable, Old Testament stuff like well, like serpents, and torments.
All morning I'd been enjoying a glorious tailwind. But as this internal conversation came to its conclusion I realized that the wind had shifted completely around and was now blowing straight into my face. A minute or two later a snake a rattlesnake slithered across the road in front of me. He was barely a foot long but he wasn't intimidated, stopping to regard me for a minute before going on his way. I rode on slowly, thanks to the headwind. The road had no shoulder, so I was only about 18 inches from the pavement's edge. I passed a small sagebrush and heard a sudden, unmistakeable warning from within. Another rattlesnake! This one was larger than the first but, despite his irritation, finally not much more interested in me.
Huh. I question God's existence, and in the space of 15 minutes I'm crossed by headwinds and two (2) poisonous snakes. Coincidence? Probably. It wasn't the first time that the wind had turned on me. And, of course, that part of the country is full of snakes. Still God is in the business of religion, not science, so you can wait (literally) until eternity for unambiguous proof!
I'm still not sure what to make of all that, but you can be sure I'll be waiting to see what happens to me after I post this story to the web --
-- still to come
Frequently asked questions about the ride
How far was it and how long did it take?
4,321 miles in 64 days (59 on the bike). I originally planned to take a rest day every week or 10 days but after the first one at the Virginia/Kentucky border I realized I didn't really need -- or even want -- them. The next time I got off the bike was in Jackson, Wyoming, where I rented a car and drove around Yellowstone National Park for four days.
How many miles did you ride each day?
A hair under 75. (4321/59 = 73+ miles/day.) When I was planning the trip I figured to ride about that much -- it's a respectable distance that's easy to make once you're in decent shape, but which leaves lots of time for visiting, touristing or just wasting time. Of course overnight spots aren't always 75 miles apart, plus on some days you just feel like riding more or riding less, so it was the rare day when I actually rode 75 miles. Generally, I was comfortable between about 65 and 100 miles.
How did you choose your route?
I wanted to ride ocean-to-ocean and decided to start at Bethany Beach, Delaware, because it's about as close as the Atlantic gets to my home in Washington, DC. Originally I intended to ride to San Francisco -- I really liked the idea of finishing in the shadow of the Golden Gate -- but getting to northern California meant crossing hundreds of miles of literally empty land in Nevada and I wasn't sure how much fun that would be. Robert Beckman (who made my panniers) suggested that I would enjoy riding to the ocean near Portland and so that's what I decided to do. The middle part was easy -- I just followed Adventure Cycling's Transamerica Trail, which runs right through the heart of the continent. (Adventure Cycling has also mapped northern and southern routes but the middle route made the most sense given the time of year I'd be riding.) Steven Ciccarelli, an avid cyclist in the DC area and an extremely helpful fellow, suggested routes from Bethany to the Transamerica Trail near Charlottesville, Virginia. (Check out Steve's cycling site at http://cyberider.us.net/bikes/.) Bob Beckman got me from Jackson, Wyoming, to Portland.
The Adventure Cycling maps are great but they cover only about 5 miles on either side of the route. As part of some deal with the U.S. Department of Transportation, every state in the U.S. offers free state highway maps; those were useful for helping me figure where I was in the state, as well as for occasional off-route excursions. Tourist centers and Chambers of Commerce usually had them, but stores and hotels sometimes stocked them as well. It paid to ask, because they weren't always on display.
Although for most of the trip I was following predetermined routes, I did improvise from time to time and was generally successful at it. If (when!) I do this again I might take a more ad hoc approach -- it's not as hard as it seems.
For a map and more detailed information about the route, see the Route page.
Did you take the trip by yourself?
Yes, due partly to a short lead time and partly to my own temperament. It is common to advertise in cycling magazines or on the internet for long-distance riding companions, but usually several months in advance. I didn't know for sure that I could go on my April trip until February and by the time I got to looking, potential partners either weren't able to clear their schedules or had already made incompatible plans. (My mid-April departure date was unmovable as well as a little early to set out.) As it happens, however, I usually travel by myself and so when no partner emerged I was quite content to go forward. And then -- almost predictably -- 10 or so days into the trip I met up with another cross-country cyclist, Rob, and we rode together for almost three weeks (from Kentucky through Colorado). Finally, toward the end of the trip I rode for a few days with an English couple, John & Gloria, who'd been riding on their tandem for a year. There are advantages to both solo and accompanied riding, and I was lucky to find a good mix.
What kind of bike do you have, and what did you carry on it?
I rode a made-for-touring bike manufactured by Bruce Gordon in Petaluma, California. Broadly, I carried with me a couple changes of on-bike and off-bike clothes, camping equipment (e.g. tent, sleeping bag, stove, toothbrush), some tools and spare parts, and a few non-essentials like a camera and a book. The loaded bike weighed 97 pounds the day I left Washington, DC. I whittled that down a bit over time.
Take a look at my equipment and packing list for an exhaustive answer and some observations.
Where did you stay at night?
Hotels about 2/3 of the time. The remainder, I slept in campsites, city parks, hostels or on someone's living room floor. Indeed there are dozens, even scores of people along the Transamerica Trail who have made second careers out of feeding and sheltering touring cyclists. Some are listed in cycling books or on the Adventure Cycling maps themselves; you might also learn of them from riders you meet along the way. But you may meet up with them even if you're not looking -- some of these folks are so aggressively generous that more than once I was approached by people who offered to put me up for the night if I didn't already have a place to go.
What did you eat?
I ate in a lot of restaurants, diners mostly. Some days I bought ingredients in the morning and constructed lunch out of them later. Between meals I stopped at convenience or grocery stores.
It took a week or so to realize that at a tourer's long, steady and low-intensity pace, I didn't need to confine myself to the high-carb, low-fat items that cyclists claim to prefer when riding hard and fast on their road bikes. After that blessed revelation, I ate whatever I wanted and indeed for several days in Kentucky subsisted nicely on milk and moon pies.
I always had something with me on the bike, if only an emergency Snickers bar wedged between the tent and sleeping bag. Fig Newtons and their spinoffs (Strawberry Newtons, Raspberry Newtons, etc.), bananas and apples were favorite between-town fuels. I always had three or four packages of Ramen noodles or Lipton "Pasta & Noodle" side dishes to boil up on those nights I was camping some distance from a place to eat.
You eat a lot when you're bike touring and it was not uncommon for Rob & me to go into a restaurant, order something like their "Hungry Mother" dinner and then follow it up with another entrée and then dessert. The need to keep ourselves fueled meant that when we were stocking up on food we would reject certain otherwise appealing items on the ground that they contained too few calories. It was an amusing (and welcome!) inversion of normal dietetic habits.
What do you do when it rains?
Well, first -- there were probably only four or five days when it rained hard for more than an hour. But to answer the question, you keep riding. It may sound unpleasant, but riding in the rain isn't bad at all. Oh, it can be a bother, stopping to put on a rain jacket and cover up the panniers, keeping your eyeglasses clear -- but getting and being wet really isn't a problem or even that uncomfortable so long as you're warm. In fact keeping a comfortable temperature is probably the most exasperating part of rain riding. Uphill and working, you get hot and unzip your jacket. But you have to zip it up quick on the downhill or chill in a hurry. It was no problem in flat country, but in rolling terrain zipping and unzipping every couple hundred yards got old pretty fast.
It snowed for a couple of hours one day in Colorado but Rob and I were dressed quite warmly and I actually preferred it to rain.
What sorts of roads did you ride on?
Secondary roads, i.e., those less traveled by cars. In one or two places in the east the only available or sensible routing involved a few miles on an unpleasant busy divided highway. Those instances were rare, however, and were more an esthetic offense than a safety problem. (They usually had pretty good shoulders.) In the west one's route choices are limited -- there might literally be only three or four ways across a state -- and I spent a lot of time on U.S. highways like Routes 20 and 26 in Idaho and Oregon. I even had to ride about 15 miles on I-80 in Wyoming. But even those roads were not too cluttered with cars and on the occasions when they did get a little congested, there was almost always a decent shoulder to retreat to.
I think that some of the roads are more crowded toward mid-summer (especially in the east) and so others riding this route may report a bit more concern about traffic.
Every few days I encountered an uncomfortably bumpy stretch of road but generally road surfaces throughout the U.S. were good, certainly better than what I'm used to cycling around DC.
How did motorists treat you?
Almost unfailingly with patience and respect. I figure I was passed by tens of thousands of cars, and yet I can probably still count the overtly hostile acts on my fingers and toes. (Oddly, most of the unpleasant encounters were concentrated in a 20 mile stretch either side of Farmington, Missouri.) I think drivers regard a loaded touring bike more like a slow vehicle -- a skinny, useless tractor perhaps -- than as a bicycle. The K states, Kentucky and Kansas, were the most pleasant. In Kentucky the drivers would drive behind me at a respectful remove up endless switchbacks, waiting at 4-5 mph until it was unambiguously clear to pass. Kansans overtaking Rob and me on their wide open straightaways would move clear over to the oncoming lane even when we were only 6 inches off the shoulder line on the right.
If I could see well up the road, I'd let the cars behind me know when it was clear to pass. In any case I tried to acknowledge passing cars with a wave or thumbs-up ("I know I must have held you up and I appreciate your patience"). Drivers in the hurry-up states of Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon passed a lot closer than the Kansans but never dangerously so.
Were the mountains hard?
Yes, but not as bad as you'd expect. You just gear down, slow down and sooner or later you get to the top. The route passed through three ranges -- the Appalachians (about a week), the northern edge of the Ozarks in Missouri (a day -- pfft), and the Rockies (10 days / two weeks). It's hard to draw direct comparisons but the Appalachians really were the hardest, even though their high point on the route -- about 3,700 feet -- was nothing compared to the 7,000 - 11,000 foot elevations of the Rockies. I think it's mostly because of the different way roads are cut through the two ranges. Appalachian roads tend to be twisty, steep, switchbacked things, while the roads in the Rockies are built within certain grade specifications and so present much straighter and more gradual ascents. Indeed you can gain thousands of feet in the Rockies without going near your lowest gears. Also the Appalachians were a lot crueler, in that as soon as you crested a peak you'd often descend back almost to the level at which you'd been an hour earlier. There just wasn't much relief from the climbing.
The hardest part about the Rocky Mountains was the thin air. Surprisingly, it wasn't hard to keep up a middling pace for hours even at 8,000 - 9,000 feet, but as soon as I asked my legs to do the littlest extra bit -- like get all the way around Rob so a car could pass -- they'd turn straight to rubber, not a bit of strength in them. Of course right about the time I adjusted to the altitude, the mountains ended.
Why did you ride east to west?
I thought it would make a better adventure to be a little deeper into distant territory, a little further from home, every day. By travelling west I would be following history, "discovering" new places in the same order that the early settlers and pioneers did. Also, though I had my destination pretty well decided, I liked the idea of an open endpoint: when you're riding toward home you pretty much know where you have to end up, but until I made my plane reservations out of Portland I could finish wherever I wanted. Then finally, and perhaps most importantly, when I rode from Boston to DC in 1995, I found myself unpleasantly impatient to finish in the last couple of days as I began riding through familiar home territory. I wanted this adventure to continue to the very last minute.
By riding east to west weren't you riding into the prevailing winds?
No. This was a real-life FAQ, although it was usually delivered as an SPOF (Statement of Patently Obvious Fact). In the middle of the country, most of the wind comes from the south and benefits neither the eastbounder nor the westbounder. Toward the coasts the wind does tend to come more from a westerly direction but it seemed silly to change the entire direction of the trip to make easier riding out of three or four windy days I could expect to encounter in the 8-10 days I'd actually be near the coasts. I can now report from experience that the wind was distinctly hostile perhaps 25% of the time, beneficial 15-20% and not much of a factor the rest. (Even then some of the worst days were in Colorado, when I was headed north, not west.) I wouldn't hesitate to ride the route east to west again.
This prevailing winds perception is so well entrenched that after a while I stopped trying to contradict it and simply told people that riding east to west was the manly way and that anyone who rode eastbound was really sort of cheating.
Did you worry about crime?
No. I locked my bike during the day fewer than 10 times, those being in larger towns (e.g. Pueblo, Portland) or when I was going to be well away from it for more than half an hour or so (e.g. at Natural Bridge or some other tourist spot). When I was in restaurants or grocery stores I just didn't bother, figuring that a grimy, lived-on touring bike isn't something anyone would want to touch, let alone steal. Also at close to 100 pounds it's not like someone can just hop on it and ride away.
When I slept outdoors I'd lock it so that if I heard a noise during the middle of the night I wouldn't wonder if someone was trying to walk off with it.
More generally, I didn't encounter any scary or threatening people other than the occasional grumpy motorist. I did discover late one Saturday night in the Springfield (Ky.) city park that the remote corner in which I'd pitched my tent was next to the parking lot where local kids went in order to drink, smoke and play music on weekends. A couple of times their headlights came to rest on the outside of my tent and I got a little nervous but I later decided that they were just curious about the kind of person who'd spend a chilly and wet night in a tent. In Hartville, Missouri, Rob and I camped on the courthouse lawn; in the morning he reported that teenagers hanging around at the convenience store next door had kept him awake during the wee hours with loud and nasty comments about how much they hated cyclists and what they'd like to do to them, but I slept through it all so I don't count it.
What was your longest day?
120 miles, Rawlins to the outskirts of Lander, Wyoming. Tailwinds, a loss in elevation and moderate temperatures all helped. I felt great at the end of the day and could have ridden more.
And your shortest?
13.9 miles, the outskirts of Lander to Lander, Wyoming. I'd met several nice people at the campsite and got a late start, I was falling ahead of schedule again, and Lander was too charming to blow through. I was not too worn out by the previous day's ride!
What was your average speed?
Eleven or twelve miles per hour (on the bike). Any day with an average speed over 13 was good and meant I'd probably picked up a tailwind. The worst day was 8.7 and the best, 14.9.
Got a Q? E-mail it to me at JohnDorsey@aol.com, and if it's FA, I'll add it!
Touring aphorisms I think I made up
Bait & switch! I start off with a couple of aphorisms but wind up with what are better described as observations. I think they're all pretty good, though, even if they never will achieve the popularity of such classics as "a fool and his money are soon parted" or "fish and visitors stink after three days".
There are no hard days on a tour, only slow ones. Midway through Virginia I encountered the first really challenging hills. They were long and steep and endlessly switchbacked. I wouldn't get a hundred feet up them before having to drop to my lowest gear (a 22 inch gear, low even by touring standards), which I'd stay in the entire rest of the way up. I might ride at 4 miles per hour for 30, 45 minutes, alternating sitting and standing, sitting and standing. It was a lot of work, and I felt no shame in stopping for a few minutes in the middle to clear the lactic acid out of my legs. Anyhow, eventually I'd get to the top and then descend (to about the level at which I'd started an hour earlier), and then begin again on the next hill. It took forever to cover even 10 miles on those days but at the end of them I was never as tired as I had supposed I would be. Indeed except for the very first day in the mountains, I was still feeling pretty fresh come 5 or 6 o'clock.
I was in decent shape to start and getting stronger every day, but I decided that the real explanation is that when you're on a tour and not hurrying to get anywhere, you freely slow to whatever pace that you figure you can keep up forever. The result is that a difficult route will take you all day but at the end you'll feel about the same as if you'd ridden twice as far on the flat.
All that said, there were a couple of days in Kansas when head and crosswinds made it hard to control the bike at any speed. Eight hours of that kind of riding was exhausting no matter how slow Rob & I went. It is ironic that the "hardest" days on the bike should come in the flattest part of the country.
There is no such thing as "picking up the pace" on a touring bike. The converse of the foregoing, it might also be stated as, "you can ride hard but you'll still be slow". When you're bicycle touring you're pushing around a heavy, aerodynamically hostile machine. The slightest rise slows you down (indeed a loaded touring bike is an excellent incline-detector) and the real enemy of speedy cycling wind resistance is substantial and impossible to reduce. (As low as you crouch behind your handlebars, your panniers still catch the wind like a parachute.) You can double your effort and maybe you'll add half a mile an hour to your average speed, finishing a seven hour day about 15 minutes sooner and winding up too tired to walk. It's not worth it. The only sensible way to cover more ground in a day is simply to ride longer.
A 50% chance of rain will still get you 100% wet. This speaks for itself. I probably heard it somewhere before, but one 50% day it popped into my head as though I'd invented it so I'm including it.
A loaded touring bike is as good as a dog or a baby for starting conversations. There's no trick to it with this accessory; people approached me all the time to chat. I got so used to it that I felt kind of naked and uninteresting whenever I would venture places away from my bike and in civilian clothes.
The most boring stretches were in the Colorado mountains. This is counterintuitive. The scenery was great, but the scale was so large! Rob and I would start the day with a lovely view of mountains ahead and to the sides. After two hours the view would be unchanged. In addition, unlike Kansas, which every few miles featured a tree or a bizarre machine or even a whole farm off to the side of the road -- something to look at as you rode by -- Colorado was empty. If you wanted to look at something close by, you could look at the pavement.
The U.S. seems larger by car than by bicycle. This one surprised me too. I once drove with a friend from Ann Arbor to Seattle; it took three days, and the continent (actually only that 2/3 of it) seemed vast and endless. I figured that covering a greater distance under my own power would make it seem larger still. But that sense never emerged. In fact if anything I came away with the opposite impression, that the U.S. is not so big after all. I think it's because when we're in a car we expect to cover large distances (i.e. get somewhere), but on a bike we're used to modest accomplishments. When we drive for the better part of a week and still aren't where we set out to go, it starts to feel like a hell of a long way. But taking several weeks on a bike to cross the country isn't much of a surprise. After all, what do you expect? And then the fact that an ordinary human can string together a bunch of unremarkable bike rides and actually go from the Atlantic to the Pacific means that the distance can't be that great. (See next entry.)
Riding across the country isn't remarkable. I mean, of course it is, and if I weren't proud of the accomplishment I wouldn't be wasting all this time writing about it. Nevertheless it was amazing how mundane, how ordinary the task became after just a couple of weeks. Once you're in fair shape (which has to happen), you can ride 50 or 75 mile days just about forever. You get up in the morning and pedal for 6 or 7 hours at a pace you like. In a week and without really working you'll have covered 400 miles and crossed one or two state lines. String enough of those days together -- even taking off every fourth or fifth day -- and before the seasons can change you will have run out of continent. Anybody can do it. The real challenges to riding cross-country are finding the time and deciding to accept the minor daily uncertainties (e.g. weather, flat tires, ad hoc lodging) that accompany -- no, make -- the adventure. The ultimate ordinariness of the expedition may be the most surprising insight of the trip.