Journal: Bike Trip Across America - June-September 2009
Spring of 2009 came around and I was frustrated with my job, my long term relationship was coming to end, and I felt like I needed a fresh start. So when one of my coworkers asked me to join her and a few others on a bike trip across the United States, I said "Sure, why not?" and signed myself up.
Never mind that I had never ridden a bike longer than 22 miles before, clipless pedals were brand new to me, and I had only seen panniers in photos. At 23 and lost in the world, things like biking across the country with no preparation sound like a good idea. Honestly 10 years later sometimes they still do.
I did at least have the common sense to realize that carrying a full DSLR rig across the United States was probably going to be a struggle, what with no training and already having to carry my tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove, clothes, and food 4000 miles across the country and up and over the Appalachians, Ozarks, Rockies, and Cascades. So I bought myself a Canon G10 and a Gorillapod and set off with three friends on the adventure of a lifetime.
The trip was not without its struggles and (literal) ups and downs. I almost died a few times and cried more than that. I learned a lot about myself, my friends, and people in general. We met incredibly kind and interesting folks every where we went. If you ever lose your faith in the human race, bike across America.
We saw the beautiful diversity in landscapes, cultures, and that makes this country what it is, including pockets of America that no one sees when driving by car or flying by plane. On a bike, you move slower and so your environment seeps into your bones and being gradually. You have more time to think and more time to feel. There is no roof to shelter you from sun and rain, no AC to soothe the heat, no music on the radio to dim your thoughts or games on an iPad to distract you from 50 miles of nothingness on Kansas highway. You create your own entertainment, and find yourself present, intentionally or not, wherever it is you happen to be. Biking across the United States, I feel I like I truly experienced America the Beautiful for the first time.
109 days after we began, Dave and I would dip our tires into the Pacific and call our trip complete (we had split from our two other riding companions on day 20, due to different deadlines and priorities for the trip). We had traveled over 4000 miles from Yorktown, Virginia to Florence, Oregon, propelled by only our legs, a simple machine, and tire rubber. It was the trip of a lifetime, and although it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, I would do it all again.
Thank you to my riding partners, Dave, Jenny, and Justin, the folks at Town Cycle of West Milford, NJ for getting us set up for the trip, my friend Sven for sending cookie money, and to all the people who provided us food, water, shelter, entertainment, stories, and memories to make our journey one that I will never forget.
Photos by me were taken with a Canon G10, and are a combination of jpegs straight from the camera and jpeg raw files processed in Lightroom and/or Photoshop. Photos by others are credited where appropriate.
Our riding group not too far from our start point in Virginia. L-R: Dave, Jenny, Justin, and myself.
A nice little country store and farm stand somewhere in Virginia.
This location, Raven's Roost along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, was particularly interesting to me, as it was a spot I had been to and photographed before. Many times while driving to the Appalachians in Virginia, I had seen people biking up the long, steep climb to get into the mountains and always thought they were crazy. Figures that just a few years later I would be one of those people, not only riding up into the mountains on a bike but doing it while carrying an extra 30-40 pounds of gear.
In Kentucky, our group split into two groups of two. Dave and headed off on our own and shortly after doing so, I crashed my bike and split open my shin. I probably needed stitches, but instead we ended up meeting a farrier at the truck stop and he let us stay at his home for a weekend. He had a lot of animals, including horses, a kitten, and a couple happy dogs. Elsewhere on our trip we encountered numerous stray dogs, some friendly and some not.
Taking a ferry across a waterway somewhere in either Kentucky and Illinois.
We took photos at all the state crossing signs we could safely get to when crossing state borders during daylight. Some came out better than others.
A field of sunflowers somewhere in Kansas.
Kansas was not our favorite state. The combination of long, flat repetitive roads, no shade, aggressive storms, and towns being miles apart meant our progress through the state was slower than we would have liked. We often had to cut riding short due to tornado and storm warnings, and spent a couple nights in 24 hour Walmarts for safety. We were pretty happy to see this sign when crossing from Kansas into Colorado.
This is a stretch of highway that almost killed us. Storms frequently popped up when you were 20 miles outside of one town and 20 miles to the next one. In eastern Colorado, we got caught in a storm so strong that it blew me riding my bike horizontally across the road, from one shoulder to the other, and it snapped Dave's metal bike rack. The town this road led to was empty - one lonely gas station, a closed bar, and maybe a school or town hall. We spent this night camped in front of the gas station. On the plus side, we didn't actually die and the rainbow after this storm was amazing.
Pronghorn! We couldn't get close enough for good photos but seeing North America's fastest land animal while riding our bikes was a treat.
We were so glad we found this restaurant on one of the days it happened to be open - the food was delicious. I recommend it if you are ever in the area.
The view from the road up Hoosier Pass, which would end up being the highest point on our trip and our first time crossing the Continental Divide.
Some other cyclists we met atop Hoosier Pass while riding. We encountered numerous cyclists along the way, some we'd camp with for a night, some we'd ride with for a few hours or maybe a couple days, and some we'd keep bumping into every so often.
The photo that other riders took of us atop Hoosier Pass. It's out of focus, which is unfortunate because I didn't realize it at the time and it's the only photo I have of us atop Hoosier Pass.
The Glory Hole Cafe. Clearly not a beautiful photo or location, but I knew our friend Danny would like it.
We crossed the Continental Divide multiple times in Colorado and Wyoming. I was a better photographer than Dave and he posed less awkwardly in photos than I did, so most of our sign photos are of him and not me.
Approaching the Tetons was one of the coolest parts of the trip. I didn't care too much for most of the people I met in Wyoming (Jeffrey City was one of the worst places we stopped on our trip), and the landscape to the east is a bit lackluster, but we did find some hot springs to soak in and Jackson, the Tetons, and Yellowstone were amazing.
We ended up meeting a couple of schoolteachers that let us stay with them in Jackson, so once we hit the Tetons we detoured south from the TransAm route and grabbed a tasty meal and warm shower with them. We ended up leaving our bikes with them for a long weekend (3-4 days) and rented a car so we could explore Yellowstone a little more thoroughly (and more safely) than by bike.
Old Faithful was pretty faithful during our time in Yellowstone, but the crowds were enormous and we decided to spend more time exploring other areas of the park.
We ended up really happy that we rented a car when we had close encounters with bison. There were times when we could have reached out of our windows to touch the animals (we didn't) and it made us really happy that we had the protection of a steel frame and some aluminum panels between us and these giants, as opposed to being on bicycle.
Yellowstone Falls was really different than any waterfall I have seen back east.
If you look closely, you can find a wolf in this picture. I snapped three images of this wolf, tiny and gray and off in the distance, but it was probably one of the coolest wildlife sightings of our trip.
This sign near the hot springs was worth a picture. Yellowstone has so many international tourists that pictoral signs such as this one are quite common (and usually somewhat hilarious).
We were driving down this dirt path and spotted this huge bull moose. He looked both ways (no kidding) crossed the road, and then a younger bull followed. The two stayed in a forested patch next to the road for a bit, rubbing their antlers on trees to shed the velvet. We were able to observe them for about 40 minutes and it was awesome.
Once we completed the Yellowstone portion of our trip, we returned to our bikes and set off to tackle our remaining states. We detoured a bit from the TransAm route here, crossing into Idaho to the south and heading through the desert instead of the forests.
We stayed at a campground at Craters of the Moon National Monument, which probably had some of the coolest campsites ever. Because the place is covered in volcanic rock, the campsites were small cleared areas that were like mini craters in the ground and the surrounding basalt walls gave you a ton of privacy, even when the campsite next to you wasn't far away.
The Three Sisters in the Cascades of Oregon. Crossing over from the dry east to the coastal west was very interesting. You could literally feel the humidity hit you as you rode down the mountain and the landscape around you turned lush and green. It was a welcome change from the arid, dry, brown inland terrain we had been traveling through for so long.
Our trip ended at sand beach in Florence Oregon. It was a bit of a disappointment, because I grew up in New Jersey where all the beaches are sandy, barrier island beaches, and I really wanted to see the big jagged cliffs dropping into the ocean that are so typical of the Pacific Northwest. Had we taken the scenic extension to Astoria we probably would have been treated to better views, but after 109 days crossing the country by bicycle, we just wanted to finish. By that time we were low on funds and energy, and when I dipped my tires into the ocean they literally split and the rubber started to peel back from the rim, so my bike had zero miles left in it at that point.
Still finally reaching the end of our long journey was incredible. After taking a day to celebrate, I got my bike boxed up and set off on a bus to catch another bus to catch the four day Amtrak train home, and Dave headed north to meet up with family in the area.