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.

Where Are We Staying Tonight? A Day in Iowa, Part 1

Zooming along through, you guessed it, corn!

Zooming along through, you guessed it, corn!

It’s nice to know where you’re going to sleep at night. There’s comfort in planning, security in reservations. And yet the adventure of no plan or no clue where your head will lay has its charm. During this bike tour, I’ve felt exposed to the whim of the elements and people we meet and yet completely at ease, plan or no plan. The kindness and generosity of strangers reinforces my faith in humanity, strengthening the feeling that riding without a route will turn out ok.

I dig the unknown and the surprises (good and bad) that accompany serendipity. I’ve always laughed when the weather gets so bad it seems like a joke – horizontal rain, for example – and revel in the edge I discover when things get, well, “interesting.” Missed a turn? No big deal. Planning our trip day-by-day? Sign me up. Lucky for me, I have a partner in Chelsea who both embraces this ethos and also has a healthy sense of self-preservation. She balances my “just do it” attitude, though I frequently battle her like a defiant two-year-old. I know some of you are thinking, “Poor Chelsea,” and you are right…but not all the time. After all, embracing the open road without a plan can result in some of the most satisfying adventures out there. It can be more of a rollercoaster ride of events and emotions, but such is our way. She did get on a plane to Prague for our month-long first date, after all!

The product of the cornfields rests on an old fence board.

The product of the cornfields rests on an old fence board.

This is the story of two serendipitous days in Iowa. They are snapshots, but are representative of our general experience on tour: No plans and nothing to guide us save a convenience store map and the sun on our backs. Since it’s just after Labor Day and we all have work to do, I’m breaking it into two bite-sized stories and will post the other later this week.

Au Revoir Nebraska

Our two rest days in Omaha were perfect. They featured time with good friends (thanks Holman family!), a decadent dinner at a new vegan restaurant called Modern Love and even tracking down old homes that Chelsea’s maternal grandma had lived in to chat with the current owners. We left the city on a sultry and humid August day to head further east. On our way out, we watched a parade south of Omaha, talked to a guy from Florida who almost did somersaults he was so stoked about our trip, ate lunch next to the Missouri River and then crossed it on a narrow bridge. The attendant waved us past the $1 cyclist toll for free, smoke ringlets from her cigarette marking the end of our time in Nebraska.

An amazing meal at Modern Love. Isa, the chef and owner, lived in Portland, OR for awhile. She runs an amazing vegan blog, (Post Punk Kitchen). So great to find her in Omaha at the restaurant, which had only been open a week. SO GOOD. I'll stop raving about it now...

An amazing meal at Modern Love. Isa, the chef and owner, lived in Portland, OR for awhile. She runs an amazing vegan blog, (Post Punk Kitchen). So great to find her in Omaha at the restaurant, which had only been open a week. SO GOOD. I’ll stop raving about it now…

A great stay in Omaha with the Holman family!

A great stay in Omaha with the Holman family!

Onward into Iowa, whose first surprise hit hard right over the bridge: Nothing in the state is flat! (Joe P, I know you could have told me that.) The country roads are a gridded array of steep, long hills (paved and gravel) that cascade across the countryside through corn and soybean fields. In all our time on the road, there have been only four days I would call “flat,” and those of course featured the scourge of cyclists, Headwinds From Hell.

We enjoyed a short stint on a nice, shaded gravel trail called the Wabash Trace, passing four guys doing a weekend bike trip with a boombox blasting classic rock. Unfortunately, the trail ran north-south, as many of the rails-to-trails seem to do. We soon continued east in search of Chelsea’s paternal great-grandparents’ gravestone in tiny Henderson, Iowa. With some help from a nice woman, we tracked down the tree-shaded cemetery a mile out of town, views of fields dropping away from the hill. Chelsea laid fresh-picked flowers on their graves (Victor and Inez Norton) and we sat together on the windy knoll contemplating the past and this winding path of life we’re lucky enough to experience together. To have biked 2,000+ miles to be there was amazing, especially since it wasn’t part of the plan until a few days prior.

A bridge on the Wabash Trace Trail.

A bridge on the Wabash Trace Trail.

Making Friends

Back in tiny Henderson, population 185, Chelsea searches for someone who knows her family. She knocks on the door of a guy who says, “Oh, you need to talk to Ken and Mary,” and points across the street. Tapping on their door, we’re warmly ushered in to chat with the most connected residents in town before we even tell them who we are or what we’re up to. Mary and Ken are a delightful couple who seem to know everyone. Chelsea is quickly on the phone with Wanda, who played as a kid with her great aunt’s kids while living across the street from the family farm where Chelsea’s grandpa grew up. Mary has every phone number memorized and is a master connector, dialing up a couple more people for Chelsea to chat with.

Chelsea, Ken, Mary, Wanda and friend in Henderson.

Chelsea, Ken, Mary, Wanda and friend in Henderson.

Meanwhile, Ken regales me with a quick wit and shows me his impressive knowledge of ham radios in the Man Cave at the back of the house. He also tells great stories, such as when he worked at Nebraska Furniture Center and Warren Buffett, who owns the store, was checking up on his investment. On his way out, he asked Ken, “Hey, do you have $5 you could spot me for lunch?” The Omaha billionaire didn’t even have the cash to grab a burger across the street!

Then we hop in their car, meeting Wanda along the way, and everyone heads out to the old family farm, surprising a Russian woman who lives there. As they toured the farmhouse, I saw fireflies for the first time in my life on the old homestead as they flickered on and off in the dark, twinkling by the barn as the sun dipped low and glowed red on the horizon.

The old homestead at sunset.

The old homestead at sunset.

A visit to Wanda’s house follows and then Ken and Mary invite us to stay the night, where we burned the midnight oil trading stories. Their good cheer and warm hospitality kicked off our stay in Iowa. Another example of embracing the unknown resulting in great friends and memories that will last a lifetime.

Tomorrow, Part 2! We’ll be hitting the shores of Lake Erie, where we’re staying with a buddy I ran Hood to Coast with on Labor Day Weekend four years ago. Full circle connection, as usual.

Ciao for now,


P.S. Happy birthday to Chelsea’s brother Jesse! Thinking of you today and much love from Grand Rapids, Ohio.

Visiting Chelsea's great-grandparents' hometown of Henderson, Iowa. Any place with a giant smiley face barn is ok in my book!

Visiting Chelsea’s great-grandparents’ hometown of Henderson, Iowa. Any place with a giant smiley face barn is ok in my book! Any woman with a smile like that is even better. 🙂

A sign in Madison, Nebraska with distances to cities all over the place. 1,690 to Portland! This moment feels so long ago...

A sign in Madison, Nebraska with distances to cities all over the place. 1,690 to Portland! This moment feels so long ago…

I know you love these shots... All the rain in the Midwest has kept the flowers firing and the landscapes green.

I know you love these shots… My two favorite subjects! All the thunderstorms in the Midwest has kept the flowers firing and the landscapes green.