The Wonderful, Trying Adventure of Bike Touring

Ahhh, nature. Traffic, wildfire smoke, and 95 degrees.

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.

Halfway and about to cross the Mississippi River.

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.)

(How we pictured bike touring…) Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier looking practically fake!

Ah, Memories

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!

The more-common reality: Scorching heat and scenic hay bales in Montana.

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 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.

Soaring above New York in a 1946 Piper Cub seaplane with a generous local we met.

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.

Rolling hills of Nebraska. Soy and corn, corn and soy, wheeee.

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.

bike touring soy
Variety, the spice of life! Or soy beans for miles.

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.

Downshifting trucks are the best white noise for camping.
Sleeping at truckstops makes scoring an opera house hotel in Iowa even sweeter! (I’m in the turret!)

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.

kancamagus pass
Freezing Vermont sleet, a narrow road shoulder, lots of traffic, and a big pass to climb. The hot soup and warm fire at our host’s house this evening never tasted better!

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.

Sturgis Rally bike touring
“Put an engine on that thing!” This photo from Sturgis Rally will forever be one of my favorites.

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.

End of the road in Maine!
bike tour U.S. map
Our route. 4,000 miles and three months of pedaling.

Eye-Popping Awesomeness in Glacier National Park

View Grinnell Glacier hike

Our NW Montana/Canada road trip continues! Currently, we’re up in Canada enjoying most-excellent MTB trails near Canmore. Jasper and the Icefield Parkway beckon to the north as September steams ahead.


The end of the NW Montana plains is a splendid sight as craggy peaks of green and white spike toward the moon. It’s the front range of the Rockies cracking the earth, a reward for miles of rolling hay fields. Welcome to Glacier National Park!

We pedaled through this gem in 2014 during our U.S. bicycle tour and I also roadtripped through last fall with my dad. Crazy as it seems though, I’d never done any of the iconic hiking for which Glacier is famous.

In an effort to maximize the crowds, we left my friend Keif’s wedding and arrived on the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park system. Thanks to a big berry season, encounters with bears also resulted in trail closures for three of the trails we had planned to hike.

A curious sheep in Glacier.

Not a bear! Just a curious mountain sheep in Glacier.

This served to funnel hikers up a small number of trails. My guess is it is a devious plot by the Glacier Grizzlies (a rough, tattooed gang) so the bears could pick and choose the fattest, slowest tourists to gobble up. (I’m kidding – bears don’t eat people. They just scare the beejeebus out of them.)

We still found quiet and alone time in the park. Hiking 15 miles anywhere will get you that! While a favorite is hard to choose, we loved the Highline and Grinnell Glacier trails, both famous and highly trafficked for a reason: THEY’RE AMAZING.

Chelsea enjoys a view west from Highline Trail.

Chelsea enjoys a view west from Highline Trail.

Grinnell Glacier

Accessed right from our campground at Many Glacier (HQ for three of four nights we stayed in the park), Grinnell is a must-do. Get there before the glaciers are gone! If you can’t, don’t worry – Glacier will still be a stunning place even without the white stuff.

Grinnell starts out through pretty pine forest while skirting Swiftcurrent Lake, then climb climb climbs up to the glacier. Along the way, views open up big and loud like a Christmas present from a favorite uncle. The sparkling lakes line up toward the plains, sharp peaks surround the trail, and you might even spy a mountain sheep gnawing on some foliage.

Mountain sheep Grinnell Glacier

At the top is a brilliant blue lake with icebergs floating in it, while Grinnell Glacier and the crest of the Continental Divide serve as the backdrop. Turn around and it’s an eye-popping view; stick your feet in the cold (SO COLD) glacial-melt water and your eyes will bug out a second time.

My advice: Hike a few hundred yards past the viewpoint to the glacier and find a flat, warm rock right next to the water to recline on. Soak in the majestic amphitheater and be stoked to witness such a fantastic place.

Take a small iceberg with you! They're great travel mementos.

Take a small iceberg with you! They’re great travel mementos.

Before you turn around to hike out, check out the view to the east from the lake rim. Lower Grinnell and Swiftcurrent lakes spill through the deep valley and it’s possible to see the plains rolling all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

View from Grinnell Glacier

Highline Trail

This splendid trail is perfect for experiencing Glacier’s west side. You’ll snag expansive views toward Lake McDonald and likely spot mountain goats or sheep as you hike beneath the western crest of the Continental Divide. If you’re up for a steep spur hike, huff your way up a 900’ climb to overlook Grinnell Glacier for a panoramic view of the Rockies.

Highline starts right on Going-to-the-Sun Road, either at Logan Pass or down a few miles at The Loop. Free park shuttles connect the two, making logistics simple for a ~15 mile point-to-point hike. By starting at Logan, you’ll avoid a steep climb up from The Loop…though the knee-pounding descent from Granite Chalet to end the day had me questioning that logic. Pick your poison! Either way, it’s sweet.

Hiking Highline trail Glacier

Our initial plan was to hike Highline to Granite Chalet, then connect to Swiftcurrent Pass and head east down to the Many Glacier campground. Unfortunately, a woman encountered a bear the night before our hike and Swiftcurrent was shut down. (She was apparently only scratched up and recovering nicely in the hospital. Yikes! Note to self: don’t pick berries alone at 8 p.m. in bear country.)

Mountain sheep in Glacier National Park

No, I was not 2′ from this Manly Mountain Sheep – hooray for telephoto lenses!

Instead, we shuttled at both the start and end of the hike and still had a marvelous day. Traversing the ridge above Going-to-the-Sun Road yields big views that just keep expanding. Any hiker worth their trail mix will love this trek.

About a mile south of Granite Chalet is the spur trail to overlook Grinnell that is worth doing. Pro tip: No matter how badly you’re gasping and want to sit down at the top of the spur, KEEP GOING.

Another five minutes of fun scrambling to the next cliff gets you to a 360 viewpoint of Swiftcurrent and Grinnell, plus a vantage west across the rest of the park. Another hiker mentioned this to me and it was worth it. At the top, you’ll be alone and grinning like Yogi Bear in a picnic basket.

Does it get any better than this? Can you spot Lake Superior in the distance?

View from the top! Does it get any better than this?

Two Medicine Lake – Pitamaken/Dawson Loop

A few people told me that the 18-mile Pitamaken/Dawson Pass loop is the best hike they’ve ever done. We rolled in late and didn’t get a chance to do anything but a shorter loop near the lake, but this one is on my list. For you confident day hikers down for a big day with 3,300’ of elevation gain, hit it up and send me a picture!

Instead, I enjoyed a sunrise the next morning that had my jaw scraping the lake shore.

I'll get up at sunrise ANY day for a view like this.

I’ll get up at sunrise ANY day for this.

Shout Out for The Bob Marshall, Land of Solitude

Want to dodge the summer crowds? An hour south of Glacier is the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the fifth-largest wilderness area in the lower 48. The list of wild animals here starts with mountain lions and grizzlies and ends with “hike in large groups.”

The Bob just FEELS wild. Pre-blog in 2011 (when my life was a secret), I spent 10 glorious days backpacking and rafting there. I’ll admit to feeling more on edge at night there than anywhere else I’ve camped. Bivy sacks are basically tortilla shells for grizzly bears, after all.

Chelsea tries to summon lightning near the top of HQ Pass.

Chelsea tries to summon lightning near the top of HQ Pass in the Bob Marshall.

This time around, Chelsea and I hit the Bob by driving 35 miles west from Choteau to hike Headquarters Creek Pass. (Thanks for the tip, Eric!) We trekked the entire eight miles completely alone as we switchbacked our way up to the pass. Pika popped in and out of rock slides doing their best squeaky-toy impersonations; spruce grouse blocked our way on the trail and eyed us as if to ask, “what are you doing here?”

Thanks to our wimpy bear bells, loud talking, and Chelsea singing to iPhone backup from Kanye, the Grizzly Gang didn’t make an appearance. Instead, we enjoyed a expansive views east over the Montana plains, followed by perfect wild camping by a stream in solitude broken only by curious deer meandering past. It was tremendous.

A spruce grouse (or so my amateur birding skills claim) in the Bob.

A spruce grouse (or so my amateur birding skills claim) in the Bob.

The Bob: Check it out.

Glacier: Check it out, but aim for the shoulder seasons.

I’ll leave you with another decent view from Glacier.

Whether you come for the glaciers or the views, you can't go wrong in Glacier! (Shot from Grinnell Glacier trail.)

Whether you come for the glaciers or the views, you can’t go wrong in Glacier! (Shot from Grinnell Glacier trail.)

Cycling Going-to-the-Sun Road in the Fall (Video)

Going to the sun road cycling

One of the finest routes I’ve ever cycled is Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The winding, beautiful trip over Logan Pass starts by a rushing river and climbs (and climbs) for 11 miles as views of the valley below open like a magical picture book. During a recent road trip through western Montana, my dad and I were lucky to catch a nice fall day to pedal to the sun.

I rode through Glacier last year in July – one of our favorite days of our U.S. bike tour – and this time of year revealed another brilliant facet of the park. Fall colors were firing and, an added bonus, the road was closed for the season to vehicle traffic. During the summer, the park requires cyclists to be off the road by 11 a.m. This time around, we dawdled, pedaled in the middle of the road, and soaked in this gem of the Rockies.

A few miles from the top of Logan Pass.

A few miles from the top of Logan Pass.

Pictures can’t capture the experience. Instead, here’s a short video of our ride. Kudos to my dad for cranking up the steep grade for miles and miles!

More to come from our Montana adventures…

Going-to-the-Sun Road valley view fall colors