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.

Surrender: A Day in the Life of a Cycle Tourist

Our view for the last couple weeks: hay fields and open roads.

Near the headwaters of the Missouri River, Chelsea cruises through our view for the last couple weeks: hay fields and open roads. Hazy from Washington fires and hot as a firecracker in July.

The day’s intensity ratcheted higher like a rising guillotine blade. 99 degrees. 25 mph headwinds with gusts. Nothing except barb wire fences whistling in the wind for 80 miles in front of us. The “town” we’d just passed through, Mosby, consisted of two houses, one abandoned with a roof caving in. A rippling series of long rollercoaster hills spelled our doom in thousands of feet of elevation to climb that day. And there we were, two specks on the ocean of the plains, beat down and buffeted, with nary even a cell phone signal to be found to even complain on Facebook. Good thing I have a blog and can do it later!

Sometimes, the warrior’s path is to push on, head down into the morass, battling our way to victory. We all are stronger than we think, both mentally and physically, and I am certainly in the Stoic’s camp believing that suffering makes you stronger and better equipped to handle future adversity. I find that small challenges and tests will often make life’s tougher obstacles seem easier in comparison, and am occasionally circumspect enough to cherish the pain afterward.

Cranking into the wind in the Montana plains.

Dakota cranking into the wind in the Montana plains.

This, however, was not one of those days! While we wake up with tired bodies every morning, on this day our legs hung like lead pendulums churning away in a thick soup of blasting hot air. We’d pushed through 60 mile scorchers before, yet this total feeling of exhaustion was like a crashing wave trying to drown us.

Only 25 miles in, with 50 to go, we found a rest stop in a fancy new building in the least populated area of Montana. Why they put it there, I have no idea. The cold, filtered water (most water in the plains tastes like warm dog farts) and hard slat benches to relax upon in the air conditioned space made it feel like Cleopatra’s palace. I sat and relished the cold air and took on the unofficial and unpaid Greeter of Road Trippers for awhile, chatting with each new arrival. “Heyyyy, where ya headed? Seen any stores to the east of here? No?”

The motorcyclists have been awesome! Super friendly and always interested in talking to us. Or giving me a fist bump on the highway. Good thing - the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota attracts 500,000 visitors and is starting while we're here!

The motorcyclists have been awesome! Super friendly and always interested in talking to us. Or giving me a fist bump on the highway. Good thing – the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota attracts 500,000 visitors and is starting while we’re here!

After much deliberation, we listened to our tired bodies and scoped out a spot under a picnic structure in the far corner of the parking lot. Baked brown earth lay on the other side of a sagging fence and semi trucks pulled in and out every so often, but we chugged frosty water, threw down a tent footprint and sleeping pads and lay on them with sticky backs. All our technology came up blank looking for a signal, and that was ok. Our Truckstop Hilton provided shade, solace and relief from blasting winds and it felt good.

Home sweet home at our rest stop.

Home sweet home at our Truckstop Hilton.

We’d done enough pushing through adversity for the day – there will be plenty more of that to come in future days. For now, a concrete pad and picnic table in the middle of nowhere Montana felt like a warm hug from Grandma. We reclined, napping and reading, for the afternoon, then justified carrying our emergency backpacking meal by gobbling it up for dinner. Dessert was a 180 degree lightning show crackling in the distance, the rumble of semis thundering behind us. (Why do trucks leave their engines running nonstop?!)

Next day, after absolutely terrible sleep thanks to constant semi traffic, we rose early and vanquished the remaining 50 miles on another 100 degree day with fresh(er) legs. It was a good reminder that while usually we press through biking and life doing things even when it’s tough, a day like this needn’t be misconstrued as weakness. Instead, it takes a different strength to accept our lot and deal with struggles one day at a time in a way that builds cumulative success. And, for us at least, that’s what it takes to ride through barren countryside all the way across this giant country!

A vivid sunset on the plains.

A vivid sunset on the plains.

Middle of nowhere on the plains.

Middle of nowhere on the plains. Click for full view.

Faces from the Road: Ray from Quebec

Ray from QuebecSome people just embody an activity. Ray, who we met on a remote highway in NW Montana, sums up the essence of bike touring.

We crossed paths with him on the 4th of July as he biked west. Sporting a cotton shirt with “America: the best things in life are free” emblazoned across the chest with an eagle patterned in stars and stripes, Ray was astride an old, well-worn bike with thousands upon thousands of miles on it. He had been all over the place on tour – Mexico, Canada, the US, and elsewhere.

Ray doesn’t travel with a computer, GPS or a specific route in mind. He camps along the way and is simply out exploring the world while enjoying the heck out of it. When we asked if he was all good on water, he gestured behind us and said, “There is lots of water in the mountains.” Hell. Yes. A true adventurer!

I love the common ground that bike touring brings to life. Chelsea and I with our shiny bikes and glossy panniers, helmet lights blinking and reflective jerseys on, were doing the same thing as Ray with his rig: pedaling across the country trying to find food, water and shelter while taking in whatever scenery, people and adventures present themselves. Every day is a fresh landscape and challenge to surmount, and we can point our tires wherever we please. And that seems like true freedom to me!

Happy (belated) Independence Day,