The Wonderful, Trying Adventure of Bike Touring
What does adventure, a much-belabored word, even mean these days? Fools far crazier than Chelsea and I rode bikes across the country…in 1880. On wagon trails. Not breaking new ground here, Magellan!
Adventure is so relative. For some, it’s a visit to their ancestor’s land; others, a trip to Cabo; for new parents, the first hiking date in months; for my friend Graham, it’s scaling the world’s highest unclimbed peak (NOOOPE).
For me, it’s not about unexplored exterior terrain. (Antarctica is cold, dude.) It’s searching for unexplored regions in ourselves. What’s new, challenging, different?
After 10,000 miles of bike touring, further pedaling these days offers fewer teaching moments. But in 2014, we dove headlong into our first tour and learned so much about ourselves and each other.
The bike tour prompted major positive shifts in my relationship with Chelsea, upended my work-life balance for the better, and changed my outlook on engaging with difficult endeavors.
The Bike Trip Idea Germinates
Like many of our life pivots, the bike tour germinated from Chelsea’s explorative spirit. Previous short tours with friends whet her appetite and a three-day birthday bike trip from LA to San Diego beckoned a longer tour.
Four months into our van trip, my work was fully remote for the first time. Most importantly, we’d finally focused our energy on aligning with important core values of freedom and self-development, not chasing the all-mighty dollar as I’d done for five years.
The touring seed grew into a towering beanstalk idea of a bike tour across the U.S. I’d never biked and camped before. Neither of us had ridden more than three days in a row.
What the hell. Let’s do this!
(Cue planning and logistics. Driving from California to Idaho to park the van at our parent’s house. I’ll skip further boring details.)
Pedaling from Idaho to Maine still generates rushes of nostalgia. With 2020’s vagaries nixing travel and canceling plans, I’m reminiscing since this week marks six years since we reached the Atlantic.
In no stretch of the imagination is bike touring easy. Luckily, like initial forays into love, hormone-addled fights and sulking disappear behind the sweet memories of holding hands and first kisses. Even chafed butts and boredom and headwinds and hunger and traffic and exhaustion fail to tarnish the experience of a first bike tour. The patina creates interest!
This wasn’t our light-and-easy romantic European first date. Bike touring chiefly featured solitude, us and endless pedal strokes across America. Which, it turns out, is a big.fucking.place. I’d never drive across it: WAY too far.
Hundreds of hours to pedal away thoughts, consume endless quantities of food to fuel biking all day, swear at headwinds, feel intimidated by the distance remaining, then wake up surprised (and a little disappointed) in New York because the Atlantic Ocean lay a mere week away.
This is Different
Euphoria buoyed the first few days of pedaling. The rolling wheat fields of eastern Washington, moose chomping next to our favorite rails-to-trails route in N. Idaho. Purple sunsets and satisfied grins after a hard day’s pedaling. Maine or bust!
The heat closed like a vise on day three as we climbed over Thompson Pass into Montana, temps sizzling to 100 degrees. Nothing wipes an exuberant smile away like a frying brainpan.
If the adventure starts when things go wrong, how wrong do we hope things get without reeeeally wanting it? Tales of woe create the best stories, but do we wish for them?
Can we channel Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard when he quipped, “Let the adventure begin!” after his expedition’s only map blew out the airplane window above far-east Russia?
Our less-crazy trip still presented opportunities for feelings. Straight-up fear when a Nebraska thunderstorm spiked lightning as we raced for safety, my hand pushing on Chelsea’s back. Simple amazement pedaling up the gorgeous Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier. Disillusionment at the smell and terrible sounds coming from pig farms in Iowa.
Unlike the cocoon of a car, you can’t hide on a bicycle. If it’s hot, you sweat. Wildfire smoke chased us in Montana and freezing sleet pummeled us over a pass in Vermont.
The smells, the heat, the dust, the thirst. You can’t floor it to escape: a scant hour in a car requires a solid day of pushing pedals. You’re there, present. For better or worse.
Some people say, “Any day outside is better than a day in an office.” To those flippant philosophers, I counter with a 99-degree day in the endless cornfields outside Wahoo, Nebraska, big rigs blowing by.
I’d happily trade an air-conditioned workday to skip pedaling narrow highway shoulders! Clearly I need to keep meditating.
Fun Versus Satisfaction
No parent I know says, “We expect raising kids to be 100% fun!” Similarly (and infinitely easier), no extended physical trip features entirely flat bike paths, grazing moose, and lemonade stands when you’re thirsty.
Instead, we step into the most satisfying journeys of our lives anticipating adversity’s onset.
For better or worse, crucible moments transform us. Fleeing lightning storms with Chelsea comprised but one trust-building moment. Her fears about my impatience and competitiveness tainting the trip evaporated and hard moments forced us closer.
Dealing with my business mid-bike tour also revealed operational weaknesses in need of fixing. Hard, fundamental shifts still paying us dividends.
Stuck between the hammer of hard moments and the anvil of life, I’ll accept a few of Thor’s blows to affix me to another human or temper personal shortcomings. Quitting enervating jobs, ditching vampire relationships, seizing scary-yet-exciting opportunities, pushing ourselves via hard physical trips – we earn our stripes via hard stuff.
I aspire to flip back through my life’s storybook and see the full gamut of experience. Not all eye-popping sunsets and coasting downhill; rain in my face and sweat in my eyes on the uphill side. Frustration. Sadness. Fear. All of it.
The Bittersweet End of a Journey
Looking back, beautiful landscapes and people’s incredible generosity eclipse the glaring bulb of solitude and hard work. A ride in a deathtrap seaplane over the changing fall colors of New York. Leading a phalanx of burly bikers at Sturgis Rally. A grinning Iowa couple’s hospitality and a huge spread of food for two ravenous cyclists.
So many more… Tales of round-the-world touring from Barry and Elise in Vermont. Waiting out all-day thunderstorms with Chelsea in a Nebraska hotel and gobbling down vegan ice cream sandwiches until we were sick. The real magic of a trip (of life!) is crystallized by small moments.
A week from our trip’s terminus in Portland, Maine, we considered continuing south to Florida. Hard work and perspiration aside, the simplicity of a hard day of pedaling creates satisfaction and (slow) tangible progress, mile by mile, across the country.
Instead, after 4,020 miles and 82 days of biking, we dipped our front tires in the Atlantic Ocean, snapped the obligatory success photo, and shipped our bikes home. Future touring awaited us, but the first one remains special in my memory.
Our adventure featured euphoria, exhaustion, accomplishment. A mix of pain and pleasure, fear and joy, commitment to a journey, and to each other.
Was it difficult? Hell yeah it was. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Everyone curious about bike touring should read Willie Wier’s Travels with Willie. This book captures the very essence of bike touring with elegance and humor.
I picked up Travels with Willie up per your recommendation and dug it! Fittingly, he has a chapter about “what is adventure?” Reminded me of my thoughts in this post!
So many great lines in this that I can’t even pick one to specifically quote. That view from the plane – WOWZA. Also, you two haven’t aged a day. I’d ask what your secret is, but I’m pretty sure the answer involves butt chafing.
Go Jules Go recently posted…Dethroned: Part One
You tell such a great story! Really enjoyed this. That shot of Glacier really does look photoshopped something crazy!
Hopefully putting this together and regaling us let you re-wear some of those memories. What a blast!
I was looking through the related stats post and was very surprised to see that, at least you, made it through the trip on a single set of tires. Wow! Not to mention neither of you sustained significant personal injuries. You are MACHINES! I love it.
Your infectious exhilaration makes me think Jenni and I really do need to plan a much longer bike trip.
Thanks for sharing, as always.
Chris@TTL recently posted…How Comparison Is the Thief of Joy and Your Superpower
Thanks Chris! Glad you enjoyed it. We were also surprised to not get injured or have the bikes wear out.
Highly recommend a tour. Maybe check out the Natchez Trace – it’s out east, which is “close” to you, right? I’d recommend starting with credit card camping (hotels) to get a sense of it over a few days, then aim for a bigger trip if it seems up your alley. Europe is SO good for touring because there are many car-free bike paths via the Euro Velo routes, but it’s more committing. However, you’re retired so you’ve got time…