- How old are you? 63.
2. Why ride across country on a bicycle? See my separate page in my attempt to answer this question for myself as well as for you. I’m still mulling these items even as I finish my ride – as one friend noted, I might not fully understand “why” until well after the trip is over, if ever!
3. How much did you carry? My sturdy Gunnar touring bike (steel frame, front and rear racks, lights, etc.) weighs over 30 pounds. I then added an additional 50 pounds of gear (full camping gear, clothes, a day’s worth of food, iPad, and all the other miscellany I note under “My Kit“). It was heavy! Some of my cycling friends used the F word to react to how heavy it was at my launch. In hindsight I could have cut another 10 pounds off by leaving out items I hardly used or could have done without. I’ll comment on those under “My Kit.”
4. So how’d it go? Both body and bike did amazingly well. The bike was a dream — heavy on the mountain passes and steep grades, yet sturdy and solid, so the more I rode it the more I trusted it to survive the cracks and potholes and to rip the long downhills. My aging body did surprisingly well — I was tired at the ends of most long days, yet I felt stronger as the ride progressed and didn’t have any signs of chronic fatigue. Periodic rest days were helpful, especially in the first third of the trip. Each mountain pass felt a bit easier than the last, so by the time I went over Morias Pass at the Rockies I felt great. After that it was all downhill.
5. Only one flat? This bike was a dream – I credit Gary TeGantvoort at Montlake Bike Shop in Seattle for putting together such a perfect bike for this long ride. (See my description of the bike and its components on a separate page of the website.) I had only one flat, in Upstate New York at mile 4,000 (actually about mile 5,500 on the tires), which was due to finally wearing out the rear tire; I replaced it the next day at a local bike shop. These Schwalbe Marathon tires are nearly bomb-proof! I went through three chains on the trip, due to the fact that I didn’t clean my chain daily (I scrubbed it a couple times a week, and re-lubed as needed) and because the accumulated grit, especially from the non-paved rail-trails in Wisconsin, Michigan, and New England, simply wears out chains. I replaced the rear gear cassette twice, due to wear of the most-used gears. I frayed, and needed to replace, the rear deraileur cable right at the handlebar shifter, also at mile 4,000. That was it!
6. What was with the dogs? Rural roads often, but not regularly, have loose dogs. It is one of the hazards of a bicyclist. I had a total of 10 encounters over the 5,000-mile ride — an average of one dog attack every 500 miles, which isn’t bad. I was able to outrun about half of these hounds, given delay on the part of the dogs plus adrenaline pumping my peddles. But I had three serious encounters with dogs within a ten-mile span passing through an Eastern Washington Indian Reservation, each one aimed at blood, ready to end my trip. I carry a small pepper spray for such occasions, which is not designed to hurt the dogs but rather to stop them in their tracks and maybe teach them that chasing bicycles = discomfort. It works — these scary beasts stop their attack and turn back as soon as they sense the pepper. Loose dogs were not frequent, but were always on my mind on rural roads with trailer homes and lots of abandoned cars in the yard; less so in regular farmland.
7. What did you eat? Everything I could. I was burning 5,000 calories a day. I started the day with a couple cups of strong coffee (courtesy of Starbuck’s Via instant French Roast) and instant oatmeal, using my Jetboil camping stove. That got me going. I then kept an eye out for a cafe or diner in 10 to 20 miles for a real breakfast of eggs, hash browns, toast, etc., which gave me fuel through mid-day. I carried protein bars and other snacks such as Clif bars and Fritos to keep calories coming in during the ride, and looked for lunch or early dinner options if cafes appeared at appropriate times. If not, I always carried a couple days of supply of high-calory snacks and dehydrated dinners which filled in, for example, when I was camping away from any accessible restaurants. I weighed in once back to Seattle: I lost 11 pounds despite my constant food and ale intake.
8. How was the food? As a vegan prior to this trip, I knew that I wasn’t going to survive if I stayed on that diet, which turned out to be a correct assumption. So I ate everything in sight, including elk meatloaf and bison burgers, lots of fried stuff, iceburg lettuce with ranch dressing, and an occasional taco salad for variety. Across the inland north the options are limited. In some small-town bars, my choices were limted to burgers and fries — a “veggie” burger in such places meant a hamburger with lettuce and a slice of tomato. Cheese curds in Wisconsin, pasties (meat pies) in Michigan’s U.P., and other local delicacies provided regional variety. Coffee is almost uniformly bad between eastern Washington and Upstate New York, with a few rare exceptions. The coasts are where the variety of foods are served. The middle of this continent survives on meat and potatoes, with lots of fried things, cole slaw and few options.
9. Tell us about the ales. One of my weaknesses is a good microbrew, especially the bitter, hoppy India Pale Ale or IPA. I am happy to report that there are hundreds, no thousands, of local brews across the country, but I should warn you that there are also large brew deserts. I loved checking out local brews — it was one of the highlights of my trip, including talking with the brewmasters. But there were huge sections of the land where the options in the local bars remain Bud Lite or Miller Lite. Seriously. I drank Bud America with Eastern Montanan farmers, who were kind enough to include me in their BBQ. Once I got to Fargo, North Dakota, the rest of the ride included a wealth of local ales, which were a treat to taste the variety and passions of local brewers.
10. So how was your butt? I’m glad you asked. Overall, it did quite well. During the first few weeks, the longer days (time more than distance) caused my butt to complain. My friend Matt predicted that it has more to do with time on the saddle than distance, and that slower days are worse. But overall, my backside did fine. I wore padded bicycling shorts, which help a lot. It still complained after eight+ hours on the saddle, yet it recovered quickly each night. No issues.
11. Where did you stay? I camped most of the time, about 90% of the nights. I stayed in motels occasionally, more frequently toward the end of my trip as fewer camping options were available in more populated New England. I carried all my camping gear (tent, sleeping bag, foam pad, stove) and was quite comfortable throughout the trip. My most memorable camp was on a tiny bit of grass in downtown Richardton, North Dakota, between the bar on Main Street and the railroad tracks. Nine huge freight trains went by during the night – each approaching horn sounded like the train was about to come right through my tent!
12. How far did you go each day? My average over the whole trip including days off was 54 miles a day. If I exclude rest days, I averaged 65 miles a day on days I peddled. It all depended on terrain, weather, wind and what attractions I stopped to see – on long days with flat terrain and a good tail-wind, I could easily do 90 to 100 miles, whereas on hilly days or days with a nasty head-wind, I might only do 30.
13. Who’ was on your speed dial? First, Mary Sue of course. And Nick and Veronica. Also Dr. Matt Handley, my personal/family doc at Group Health who is a bike-riding nut and overall supporter. And Byron Dondoyano, my personal trainer and one of the best trainers in Seattle (check in with him at email@example.com if you are in the Seattle area). And Gary TeGantvoort at Montlake Bike Shop, the guy who put my awesome bike together for me and trained me on the basics of touring mechanics. And last-but-not-least, Taylor Watson, my former colleague who served as my tech support, the one who made this website and blog look good. Thanks to all for their support and willingness to respond when or if needed.
14. What about safety? Did you carry a gun? How were the drivers? Many family and friends were concerned about my safety. No, I did not carry a gun, and in hindsight I never had an opportunity where I might have wanted one. Never. I did carry a small container of pepper spray, and later a larger container of bear spray after hiking in the Rockies. I only used the small spray occasionally for dogs.
As for road safety, I believe strongly in riding safely, both in the way I ride and in being seen. I always wear a bike helmet, without fail. I use flashing red lights behind, on my bike as well as high on the rear of my helmet. I sport a yellow triangle used by farm equipment to indicate a slow vehicle. I use a flashing white light ahead, so that oncoming cars can see me and give room to those trying to get past me from behind. I use a rear-view mirror and never wear ear buds, so that I can be aware of vehicles coming up from behind. I wear a bright yellow vest every day, even on the uncomfortable, 95-degree, humid ones. I always want to be seen! As for riding, I always hug the shoulder, however miniscule it is, and on occasion will pull off the shoulder on a dangerous right-hand curve with a big rig coming up behind. If there is any room to the right of the white line, that is where I live. (Some bicyclists insist on always exercising their rights to ride to the left of the white line within the roadway, but one can be dead right or safe and usually not both over 5,000 miles — I opt for safe rather than dead.) I always stop at stop signs and traffic lights, unlike many of my fellow bicyclists. I always wave to thank courteous vehicles, and I never give the finger to the uncourteous.
Most drivers across every state I traveled in were courteous and gave me lots of room. I was quite impressed at how nice drivers were everywhere. Professional, long-haul 18-wheeler drivers were uniformly courteous. The few challenges I had were from local truck drivers such as dump trucks and gravel trucks, who either didn’t know how to drive on a narrow road with bicycles or didn’t care. This is especially true for logging trucks, whether on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, in the Montana Rockies or in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – they won’t give a bicyclist one inch! The small number of jerks who drove too closely to my left elbow were few, and were usually guys in big, black or red pick-up trucks with oversized wheels and throaty mufflers, or drivers of Jeeps. I’ll need to research that demographic more to explore what is going on there.
All-in-all I was very impressed with American drivers everywhere, and tip my helmet to them, flashing red light and all.
15. Wasn’t riding solo both dangerous and lonely? Neither. At least for a guy, I don’t think riding solo is particularly dangerous. A solo woman might have more concerns. I never felt threatened or uncomfortable. I would regularly be the only non-local in a small-town bar or cafe. Being solo actually helped me there by requiring me to strike up conversations. The bicycle helped as a conversation starter. If I were with others in a group, we would be more likely to talk among ourselves and less likely to engage others in the bar. So riding solo actually encouraged the very interactions that became the gold of my trip. I thought I might get lonely, but I’m an introvert who is quite comfortable in my own skin and quite happy being by myself for long periods, and a day didn’t go by when I didn’t get into conversations with locals. Also being solo gave me the freedom I was craving for this trip – every day I made my own decisions, and didn’t have to negotiate them with anyone!
16. What was the biggest surprise? The friendliness of people across the country was the best surprise of my trip. The conversations I had in cafes, bars, campgrounds and convenience stores were the gold of the trip. Despite what you hear on the news, Americans are nice people across the political spectrum. People in small towns and cafes were curious about me and my ride, helpful and unflaggingly friendly. At first I was shocked, but got to expect it through the rest of the journey.
17. What place did you like the best? This is a hard question to answer, since I genuinely enjoyed all the different regions I rode through. The high plains were amazing in their vastness after encountering the Rockies. Michigan was a surprise in its size and variety. The Erie Canal across Upstate New York was a wonderful encounter with history. My favorite individual spots were the national parks, all five of them: Olympic and North Cascades in WA; Glacier National Park in MT; Theodore Roosevelt National Park in ND; and finally Acadia National Park in ME. Of those, I’d have to pick Glacier as the cream of the crop – am I influenced by Mary Sue’s visit?
18. With all the planning you did before the trip, what was the biggest thing you missed? I was most worried ahead of the trip about finding a place to land each night. For the first week, I reserved campgrounds in order to ensure that I would have a place to stay. After that, I got used to winging it, never sure even how far I would get in a day and not worrying about a place to stay until around 4:00 o’clock when I would start to focus on landing for the night. Through the high plains, I knew I could camp in any town’s park, simply pitching my tent on the grass and eating at the local cafe or bar-and-grill. Most midwestern Lutheran churches are unlocked and allow travels such as bike tourers to sleep in their basements. These and other random accommodations were my biggest surprise related to trip planning.
A closely related surprise was how free I felt, simply taking a day at a time. I never knew how far I’d get, depending on terrain, weather, wind and how interesting local people or attractions were. For this kind of trip, it turns out, less rigid planning is better than having it all nailed down. It took me awhile to appreciate that, and to go with the daily flow. What a great feeling it was to head out each day with that kind of freedom (“… just another word for nothing left to lose”).