Wednesday, December 14, 2016

How to Bicycle across America

This post covers my first bicycle ride across the United States, in the summer of 2007, when I was 58. 

By spring of that year, I had enough time in teaching (plus a stint in the Marine Corps) to retire if I wished. My principal and I had been clashing, and she I think she would have been happy to seem me retire that June. I still loved teaching and working with teens and decided to return in 2007-2008, for one more year. I also decided to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and tie donations to my ride.

My students got excited and helped me raise thousands of dollars for a great cause.

***


IN THE END, MOST OF MY BATTLES with Erica [my principal] had little to do with the heart and soul of education. So they really didn’t matter. If you want to know what matters, kids matter.  

This is as good an example as any. My classroom cleared one day, as fourth bell exited for lunch. Tired after a long week at Children’s Hospital, I slumped in my chair, elbows on my desk, forehead cradled in both hands. When I thought about Emily, our youngest, just diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, I felt like crying.  

Some slight movement alerted me to the fact I was not alone. Under the rim of my hands I noticed two sneakered feet. I looked up to see who was there. 

Adam hesitated, then with great kindness said, “If you have any questions about diabetes I’d be happy to talk.”

This was in the spring of 2005, and Emily had just been released to home the previous morning. Adam was type-1 himself, only thirteen, yet wise enough to offer solace to someone four times his age.

Adam developed type-1 diabetes at age three.

That’s one of the great lessons of teaching. Give kids a chance and they almost always come through. Two years had passed since that day. Now it was spring again and Erica was motioning towards the exit.

I knew I had a deep reservoir of good will in the Loveland community [where I taught my entire career]. If I was going to return, perhaps kids might help raise money for a worthy cause. I made a promise to my students one day, in honor of Adam and Emily and all other type-1 diabetics, including Kyle and Nicole, who passed through my classes the year before. “If you help me raise $5,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, I’ll bicycle 5,000 miles across the United States.”

[I take the long way; and I always go through Yellowstone National Park.]

The kids laughed and predicted I’d be flattened by a tractor trailer loaded with steel beams. One young man promised to visit my grave and leave a lovely bouquet of plastic flowers. But I was overwhelmed by kind support. Fred Barnes, our school resource officer, and a man deeply committed to helping kids, was first in line to donate. Jillian, one of those students who make teaching a joy, handed me a check in her name and another from her parents. Anthony gave $5, explaining he wanted to honor a friend at his former school, a boy who was type-1.

Anthony was poor and his gift touched me deeply.

Good people came through with donations, including Erica Kramer, our principal, and Chris Burke, our assistant. Steve Ball, a great math teacher, gave $110—a dollar per mile for what he figured would be a good day’s ride. Jillian returned to pour out fifteen dollars in change. My two brothers, staff and students at our high school and strangers who read about my plan in the papers helped. Diane Sullivan, an eighth grade art teacher, and a good one, collected a quarter from anyone caught chewing gum and netted $17.50. We passed $5,000, then $10,000, and kept going.

 *

That spring, I rode myself into shape, if we define “into shape” generously. Then, on June 18, my younger brother dropped me off in Avalon, N. J. and I began my solo journey, coast to coast.

Traditionally, a rider dips a back tire in the ocean where he starts, a front tire in the ocean where he ends. I carried my heavily-laden bike across the sand and did honors in the Atlantic.

A pretty lifeguard was watching and inquired: “Where are you headed?”

“Oregon,” I replied confidently. She wished me luck. After sizing me up, I imagine she was thinking: Fat chance!

And I mean fat.

I started my ride twenty-five pounds overweight and twenty-five years past my prime. Yet, to my way of thinking, it was a simple matter to ride across the continent, a habit of mind in which one does not allow excuses like “age” or “fat” to stand in the way. It was a way of looking at the world which I had been trying to pass on to students for decades.


Ready to ride: June 2007.


I was too cheap to buy maps from reputable bicycling associations. So I charted my own course, down the coast of New Jersey, across Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Riding in Northern Virginia, I found myself on a busy road and spent an afternoon cycling in fear. At one point, two men in a white pickup pulled alongside and slowed to speak. The passenger leaned out and observed, sage-like, “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

I decided not to mention this incident when I called my wife that evening.

An hour later, with dusk descending, I rolled into Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Unable to locate a campground, and too rattled to keep pedaling, I settled for lodgings at the Twi-Lite Motel. It was not the kind of establishment one chooses for a romantic honeymoon getaway. The room had three lights. Two lacked on/off switches and the third had no bulb. The dresser was Goodwill-quality but some guest had checked out, taking the drawers with him. The bathroom ceiling sagged and the towel must have arrived with the Jamestown settlers.


Fine linens!


Dogs were another hazard. I was chased six times on one back road, but learned that growling loudly kept most of man’s best friends at bay. Late that afternoon, however, a German shepherd came barreling across a front yard. I was riding head down, up a hill, and had a split second to see what direction the monster was coming from. I realized he was penned in by a fence. A moment later, I saw I was headed for a roadside ditch. I stood my bike on its nose and somersaulted across the pavement.

Ah! The smell of blood on hot American asphalt! No need to mention this to my wife during nightly conversations, either.

Soon after, I struck the Appalachians. The first challenging climb of the journey came ten miles west of Charlottesville, Virginia, at Rockfish Gap, offering entry into the Shenandoah Valley. By the time I reached the top my thighs were on fire and I had to keep wiping stinging sweat from my face. I considered renting a car, driving home, and retiring in ignominious fashion. But I had stuck my bicycle shoe in my mouth and had no recourse except to pedal.


Passing through Pulaski, Virginia, two days later, I stopped at the library to update my blog and listened to a weather report that pegged the temperature at 96°. An hour later, after dawdling in air-conditioned comfort, I decided to push on and pedaled out of town. An African American woman was watering her garden beside the road and flagged me down to talk. I asked if I might fill my water bottles from her hose. She disappeared into her house and came back with a large chunk of ice in a zip lock bag. 

“May the blood of Jesus protect you through your journey,” she said and sent me on my way.

I was still working myself into shape at that point. So fiddling over breakfast was always appealing. The locals were usually interested in what I was doing and talking about my trip was easier than pedaling.

In Justice, West Virginia one morning, I eavesdropped on four older women at a nearby table. Conversation centered on modern teens and their piercings. One member of the quartet brought up the days when they were young and first had their ears pierced. “I fainted dead away when my sister pierced my ear,” her friend admitted. “But when I woke up the other one was done, too!”

The five of us, me behind my newspaper, shared a laugh.

At the cash register the owner informed me breakfast was on the house. I tried to pay; but she had heard me tell the waitress I was riding for JDRF and this was her contribution. I put the money saved aside and included it when I turned in my next batch of donations.

Asking advice at almost every stop, I bypassed some of the worst mountains in West Virginia. I made a mistake, though, when I ignored warnings and decided to ride along Highway 10. The road was narrow and twisting, with coal trucks thundering past in both directions and I made excellent time cycling in terror. Finally, a couple in a red pickup stopped and offered a lift. I gladly accepted and watched the next ten miles fly past.

Another hot afternoon, I was sitting drinking Gatorade outside a country store. An elderly couple in a beat-up blue Chevrolet pulled into a parking space a few feet away. They asked about my trip and I explained my cause and they bought a few items before wishing me well and heading home. Ten minutes later, just as I was finishing my cold drink, they pulled back into the same spot. The old man climbed out of his car and placed a $10 bill in my hand. 

“Me and the missus’ got to thinkin’ about what you’re tryin’ to do and we decided we had to help,” he explained.

By the end of June I had crossed into Ohio. On July 1, I pedaled 105 miles and reached home just before dark. It was a pleasure to see my wife Anne and youngest daughter for four days. Emily was quiet the morning I left on the second leg of my voyage. Obviously, she was worried. Her mother and I were far more worried about her and her diabetes and I gave her the best hug I knew how.

On the first leg, I had ridden myself into condition and it wasn’t hard getting restarted. I logged 80 miles July 6th, 83 the 7th, and 82 the 8th. One crisp morning I pedaled past a field filled with cows and noticed they were watching me as I was watching them. Cows don’t get out much and I imagine they were bored. I was something to study, to keep their brains working, like Seinfeld reruns for humans. I had plenty of time to think as I chugged along at 13 mph. So, what were they thinking? How sophisticated is the bovine brain? 

Possibly: 

Cow #1: Creature with shell on head passing. Not threat. Need to poo.

Cow #2: Human moving fast. Hope crash.

Cow #3: I envy that cyclist his freedom. These other cows are morons. Oh well, might as well chew the cud.

I waved goodbye and kept pedaling.The first night out I slept behind an Indiana cornfield, where no one could see my tent. The next night I found accommodations in a graveyard. A bobcat roaming in nearby woods serenaded me through the night. The following evening I paid for a motel. I noticed there was an exercise room with an elliptical machine. I passed and headed for bed.

A few days later I rode into Columbia, Missouri, where I picked up a bike trail running along the Missouri River. It was growing dark. So I paid for a campsite and pitched my tent close to the river. I was at peace. Fish leaped and fell back in the water with silvery splashes. Frogs croaked under the bank. V-formations of geese honked overhead.

A couple at the next campsite offered beer. They explained that their children and friends were boating. They’d soon be coming ashore. Sure enough, the vessel promptly hove into view and a dozen young men and women, the latter in skimpy bikinis, disembarked. They were towing a floating trampoline and I imagined later asking to try it out.

Bouncing babes in bikinis? I could only hope.

The entire crew turned out to be friendly and I was offered more beer and a steak from their grill. Night soon fell and I had hard riding to do the next day. I headed for my tent.

Alas, the sounds of Nature were soon subsumed by boisterous, drunken shouting. And these drunks knew but a single adjective. “F---ing beer!” screamed one.

“F---ing frogs!” responded a second.

“F---ing geese!” whooped a third.

As tired as I was, it proved impossible to sleep. I tossed and turned and hoped the beer would soon run out.

Shortly after midnight, a storm rumbled in, bringing enough rain (I hoped) to send the alcoholics running. “F---ing rain!’ shouted a drunk.

“F---ing thunder,” shouted another.

“F---ing lightning,” bellowed a plastered weatherman.


Camping beside the Missouri River. The drunks slept in late.


Only the wimps packed it in and the serious drunks kept guzzling. Finally, around 3 a.m., the beer ran out, enthusiasm waned, and everyone stumbled off to their f---ing tents.

Badly fatigued, I pedaled west the next day, on into Kansas. Now I faced a five-day battle against heat, humidity and headwinds. Trust me when I say that on the Great Plains the wind has a life of its own. On a bicycle it's like fighting a fire-breathing dragon. First, the heat cooks your brain under your helmet. Second, the humidity soaks you with sweat and you think you’re melting. (Yes, Dorothy, melting!) Third, the wind retards your forward progress and it feels like you’re dragging an anchor all day.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the stark beauty and small towns and small-town people I met. Many of these towns were dying. I passed weed-grown elementary schools and even a weed-grown church. McDonalds had shuttered its doors in Hillsboro. Twenty miles west, in Lyons, Kansas, the same was true; but Lyons was at least experiencing an ethanol boom.

At breakfast in Hillsboro an old truck driver provided a rundown of local sights. It used to be you could see the embalmed remains of Civil War veteran Sam Dingle. “When I first saw him he had a full beard and all,” the driver continued. “Then I went back a few years later and the hair had all fallen out. The parasites or somethin’ got him.”

I could feel my enthusiasm for sight-seeing drain away and decided to keep on going, leaving Dingle to his inexorable fates.


Two young cross-country riders, heading east. Most riders go west to east;
but I like to save the best scenery for last.
I lost their names during the trip, but they were fun to talk to for part of one day.


I continued to meet kindness at every stop, even in motion. A motorcycle rider cruised up beside while I was pedaling one afternoon and slowed for conversation. When he heard I was raising money for JDRF he reached into his vest, pulled out a thick wad of bills, stuck out an arm and told me to peel off two tens. Then he wished me luck and roared away.

People saw my load of gear and wondered where I was going and why. A couple at a camp-ground listened to my story, gave $50, and packed me lunch for the next day. A Kansas bakery donated coffee and two of the best cinnamon rolls I ever tasted. A bar owner paid for lunch and explained her daughter was diabetic. Then she wrote a check for $100.

East of Eads, Colorado, and again west of town, I traversed barren stretches of fifty miles with no place to find food or drink. I made it through and confidence soared. I was following the Trans-America Bicycle Trail at the time and started running into cyclists heading east. Most were young, fresh out of college, riding for adventure before settling into the workday grind.

Young legs help; but any two legs suffice.

On July 23 I picked up a tail wind and sailed along like a clipper ship. One hundred and fourteen miles later, I found lodgings at a motel in Pueblo, Colorado, across the street from a Payday Loan office. Most of the guests spoke Spanish and I doubt they could have proved legal immigration status. They had the weather-worn look of men who spent their lives in toil, “salt-of-the-earth fellows,” as my father used to call them, and so had my respect.

I was sleeping quietly next morning when the desk delivered a 5:00 a.m. wake-up call.

“Juan?” inquired the voice on the other end.

“Wrong room,” I mumbled.

Moments later—the phone again. “Juan?” the voice asked once more.

WRONG ROOM!” I replied.

The line went dead.

I hope Juan made it to work on time and imagine the day ahead was filled with harder labor for him than for me.

The next afternoon I climbed into the Rockies and made camp a few miles from Royal Gorge Bridge. After a good night’s rest, I piled out of my tent around 6:30 a.m., polished off another 2,000-calorie breakfast at a nearby restaurant, and pedaled off to see the sites. Royal Gorge is advertised as the highest suspension bridge in the world, a beautiful but useless one-lane span 1,053 feet above the Arkansas River. Near the middle a sign shows where the longest free rappelling climb in history was completed. Another sign marks the spot of the world-record for a bungee jump. In a flash of weakness I wondered if this might not be the time to try for a record “bicycle drop.”

The feeling passed and I kept going. You can’t talk effort to students unless you give effort. I gave effort. People seemed amazed by what I was doing. I thought it was simple truth. I gave effort. It was the basic concept I had been preaching for thirty-two years.

Two legs always suffice.

I pedaled north, up the Arkansas River Valley, the scenery spectacular in every direction. Eventually, I climbed to almost two miles above sea level and found a beautiful camping spot beside a mountain stream outside Leadville, Colorado. By the time I crossed Fremont Pass, the highest point on my trip at 11,320 feet, I was seeing eastbound riders daily. They warned that conditions in southern Wyoming were harsh.


Where I camped (for free) near Leadville, Colorado.


One stretch, between Rawlins and Lander, was little more than 130 miles of sagebrush and sand, a treeless wasteland that had to be negotiated with care. If you were hungry or thirsty you had three choices: Grandma’s Kitchen (32 miles from Rawlins), a store at Muddy Gap (46 miles) and a café at Jeff City (88 miles). That was it; and the place at Jeff City (population: 50) closed early. When I took my break for lunch that day, eating food I carried in my bags, I had to prop my bike against a reflector by the side of the road to create a spot of shade.

Half an hour later, in the middle of the middle of nowhere, I suffered the first flat of my trip. I unloaded my bike, flipped it over, and set to work, fumbling tools and getting grease on my shorts. (I improved dramatically after suffering four flats in one day and a dozen more in coming weeks.) 

Just as I was finishing, I looked up and spotted a rider in the distance. Something was wrong. I looked again. My eyes must be playing tricks in the bright sunlight. From the waist up, the silhouette appeared female. Only something was wrong. Moments later I had my explanation when a young woman pedaled up and braked to a stop. Her name was Sarah Brigham, a free-spirited 22-year-old from Columbus, Ohio. She was outfitted in a spaghetti-strap black top and black biker shorts, topped by a red and black tutu. She told me she made it herself, said she sold a handyman business back in Columbus and headed west for adventure. Now she was pedaling south to Durango, Colorado to meet friends. We shared hard-won lessons, each complimenting the other on an adventurous spirit, and off we went.

In this case: two attractive legs sufficed.


I don't recommend a tutu; I do recommend this kind of trip.


I continued up Route 287, pointing for Yellowstone National Park. At a Pizza Hut in Lander, where I piled three buffet plates high and cleaned them again, I met Judy and Ron Hartwigsen and their grandchildren Ryan and Beth Mitchell. Beth, 12, had been diabetic for three years. Judy called her a “little warrior” who worked hard to control the disease. Ron promised a lift into Dubois later that day. After they finished shopping they picked me up twenty miles down the road, carried me into town, bought me dinner, and added a present of Huckleberry chocolate candy for good measure.

The next day I pedaled up and over Togwotee Pass (elevation 9,649 feet). Then it was down to Grand Teton National Park. A sign warned truckers they faced a 6% grade for seventeen miles. To me that meant a sweet, swift descent, at speeds as high as fifty mph.

You can easily hit 70 mph. on such stretches; but around 40-45, I tend to start gripping the handle-bars tightly, like a Congressman accepting a fat bribe. Even at that speed you feel like you’re flying.

Camping in Grand Teton that evening, I had the good fortune to share a bear box (for food safety) with the Garcia family next door. Bob Garcia invited me for dinner and the meal turned into an evening of lively conversation and laughter. Bob and his wife Teresa had three children, Katie, 12, Jessica, 9, and Phillip, 6. The party included Teresa’s sister, Dr. Lydia Rose, and her daughter Sabrina, 10. The children were well-mannered and funny. Sabrina told me she hated being shorter than Jessica, her cousin. “I’m the second shortest fifth grader in my entire school,” she lamented. “And the shortest kid has a genetic defect!” 

The next morning, when I pedaled out of camp, I could hear the family teasing Sabrina for rising late. She mumbled from deep beneath her covers, “I’m not sleeping.  I’m cleaning up the tent.”


The view of the Grand Tetons.


With high mountains on every side and buffalo, elk and an occasional moose in the bushes to watch, I headed for Yellowstone. I had driven into the park from the south several times. Looking at a road map it didn’t seem that far from Grand Teton to Yellowstone. Now, on a bicycle, I discovered I would have to cross the Continental Divide in three places. By the time I entered the park I was beat. The weather turned cold and drizzly.

Then the drizzle became a steady rain.

I managed to take in a couple of sights but afternoon was fading and all campgrounds and hotels were booked. Ignoring rules and the dictates of good sense, I pitched my tent in a grove of pines off to the side of one of the roads and out of view. I was in bear country. So I bagged my food and toiletries and hung everything in a tree before turning in for the night. Around 10 p. m. some small woodland creature skittered over a corner of my tent and startled me from my dreams.

Sleep soon held me softly in its grip. Then, about midnight, a large woodland creature approached and I heard snuffling outside my front door. Seizing a can of pepper spray I carried for safety, I clicked the red button to “fire.” Then I waved my flashlight about to indicate I was on the alert and kept an eye out for the first claws to come ripping through the thin nylon walls of my house.

I considered opening a window flap to see what my foe might be. But frankly I was afraid I’d be staring at a bear. Whatever the creature was it soon wandered off and I drifted back into restless sleep. The next morning I discovered fresh “scat” two feet from my tent. I have since described this poop to experts and consulted books about the bowel movements of forest creatures. I can now say, as something of an expert, that elk and deer normally leave pellets when answering Nature’s call (of the wild). This pie wasn’t pellets.

Then again, the books say elk don’t always leave pellets in summer. My visitor might have been an elk.

It might have been a bear. If it was a bear I’m glad I didn’t get a look. Remember that rhetorical question: “Do bears shit in the woods?” If I had unzipped my tent and looked into the eyes of a bear I assure you I know who would have been defecating in the forest.


Buffalo in Yellowstone.


After spending two more days pedaling in the park, I rolled out the west entrance and into West Yellowstone just as dusk was coming on. Motels were filled and I was too traumatized to repeat my recent camping experience if I could avoid it. I began asking around and ran into another rider, Doug T--------, who found himself in a similar predicament. He was talking to Bill, a local fellow, whose last name I never managed to catch. Bill owned land north of town and said we could camp there if we liked. Then he thought a moment, and added, “My boys are with their mother this weekend. You can have their beds if you want. “I’m not much of a housekeeper,” he added, “so the place is one step above a frat house.”

Still: that was three steps above a tent in the woods, and 100 steps above being gnawed by a grizzly.

It turned out Bill wasn’t lying about his cleaning abilities. If you got past the laundry on the floor and the empty pizza boxes and missing doorknobs you could see he was philosophical and funny and a fount of information on local wildlife and environs.

Doug was equally interesting, probably 25, a young man who would have fit nicely in the 70s. He admitted mixing marijuana with pedaling. At one point he informed Bill and me, “There’s nothing like coming down a mountain when you’re half baked.”

I decided to take his word for it.

Back home, Doug trimmed trees for a living and loved climbing. On one bicep he had a chainsaw blade tattoo. As a teen he spent two years hitching round the country. Then he got picked up by a paroled convict headed north for a stint in rehab and a meeting with an ex-girlfriend.  Sadly, the ex-con had the brilliant idea of stealing the car to complete his journey to rehabilitation. A police chase ensued. The car spun out and rolled.

Doug rolled, too, suffered minor injuries, and decided to end his thumbing career.

The three of us parted ways the next morning and I continued north into Montana and Idaho. A few days later I crossed Lolo Pass, where history says, in 1805, Lewis and Clark nearly came to grief in deep snow. The pass wasn’t difficult in summer, what with modern roads, and on the far side I ran into one of the only riders I saw heading west my entire trip. Gene Myers turned out to be a soft-spoken 47-year-old computer programmer from Pittsburgh.

We hit it off and decided to kill the afternoon and evening at a nearby camp and set off together next morning. Part of the time we devoted to playing checkers at the lodge. Neither of us could remember the rules and I said I thought you could jump your own men. Using this novel strategy I crushed my new companion three games in a row.


Gene Myers.


For the next few days we pedaled together through spectacular country. High mountains rose on both sides of the highway and loomed ahead, promising hard climbs to come. We spent August 8 in the Lochsa River Valley, a “wild and scenic” region, and enjoyed swimming in cold, crystal-green waters. I had been riding solo and enjoyed having someone with whom to share stories. Gene had kept company with a woman who recorded how many margaritas she downed during her journey. One night, when the count ran to eight, Gene decided it was time to part ways.

On August 9 we found a camping spot at the city park in Kooskia, Idaho. The grass was soft and lush. The Clearwater River bubbled past our tents and we were soon dreaming under the stars.

Then…what the hell….

Is it raining!

Half awake, with water battering my tent, I heard Gene swearing softly and fumbling with gear. What the hell!! Skies were clear when we went to bed. What… the…a blast of water hit my tent…HELL!!!!

I unzipped and peeked outside, to see park sprinklers blazing. Gene and I did some quick singing in the rain and moved our tents and equipment and ourselves to drier pastures.

Gene had dreamed of making a cross-country trip for twenty years. Finally, he took a leave of absence from work and began his ride in Washington, D. C. on June 4. Like me, he had trouble believing how close we were to the finish. At one point he asked, “Will you be sorry when the ride is over?”

I realized in some ways the answer would be yes. It was when we crossed the Snake River and saw the sign at the Washington State line that it hit us. We had said we were going to pedal across the USA.

Now we were going to do it.


At this point, Gene and I realized we were going to do it.


On August 11—after Gene suffered an unfortunate incident involving too many prunes—we parted ways—not because of prunes, but because he was heading for Seattle and I was aiming south. I pointed my bicycle down the Columbia River Gorge, despite warnings from locals that winds came “howling up the river.” It was the shortest route to the Pacific and after fifty-one days in the saddle I was ready to get home. The scenery I most wanted to see was my wife.

The first day in the Gorge the wind hit me like punches from a prize fighter and I could only average nine miles per hour. Then the winds died and I enjoyed swift sailing. At times, I used Interstate 84, legal in that area. Part of the way, I followed Historic Route 30. Built in 1916, 30 offered interesting tunnels, challenging climbs, sharp turns and gorgeous vistas. At one point I got off the road entirely and onto a bike trail which cut through old-growth forest. Five miles later the trail sputtered to an end. I hated to backtrack; and through the trees, happened to catch a glimpse of I-84. I clawed through briars, slashing red marks across my arms and legs, stumbled up a steep embankment, cursing lustily, threw my gear over a fence, lifted my bike, and continued west.


View from Historic Route 30; I-84 below is also open to bicyclers.


My older brother drove up from Stockton, California and trailed me the final 150 miles, offering any assistance he could. The last night we stayed at a motel in Forest Hills, Oregon. Then we rose early and I rode over the Coastal Range and rolled down into Tillamook. I could smell the Pacific at last—or at least the cow manure near the Pacific. Tillamook is the heart of Oregon cheese country. So there are lots of cows and lots of pungent cow smells.

After lunch and a beer to celebrate, I discovered Tillamook sat a mile from the coast. I wobbled north, considered the ironic possibilities of getting a “PUI,” found a spot at Bay City, Oregon, and dipped my front wheel in the Pacific.

Just like that: after fifty-five days and 4,088 miles, the ride was ended. I told my students I would pedal across America and did. I was twenty-five pounds lighter and thrilled to have raised $13,500 for JDRF. 





Monday, December 5, 2016

“Clyde Barrow on a Bike”

My ride started at Cadillac Mountain in Maine in the summer of 2011.
I was 62 years old at the time. I think many people could do what I did.

This is the story of my second bicycle trip across the United States in 2011. It was originally presented to a literary group I belong to back in 2013. If you’re thinking about a similar trip you might find it interesting.

Try not to get handcuffed in Indiana, though. Keep reading and I’ll explain.

*

To the basics then: September 7, 2011, I complete my second ride across the USA, 4,615 miles, 58 days, 79.5689 miles per day.

At a stop for lunch, in Cold Springs, Nevada I talk with a waitress about my journey. She is probably the only attractive female within a hundred mile. I don’t mean that Nevada women are hideous. Just pick up a state map and you’ll see that Cold Springs shows as a “town.” In reality, it’s a bar/motel, with fifty miles of barren landscape to the east and fifty to the west. At that point, figuring on a napkin, I tell her I’ve probably burned 250,000 calories during my trip.

(God knows how many I’ve consumed since I returned.)

*

...Now, when I tell people what I’ve accomplished, I get strange looks. Twice across the USA on a bike? At your age? Several people have told me I remind them of Forrest Gump.

I not sure they intend it as a compliment.

I’ve said it before, though. I don’t think what I do is difficult. I’ve got wheels and 27 gears. I’m not dragging a cross. And no, I don’t get lonely. People see me coming and want to talk. I don’t get scared either. Despite what you think, if you watch the nightly news, America is not overrun with psychopaths. In fact, I’m treated with almost universal respect.

The occasional car comes too close but a vast majority of drivers are considerate. In 58 days, only once did occupants of a vehicle shout profane encouragement as they flew past. I suggested loudly that they go home and engage in intercourse with family members.

If Man, the most dangerous beast, didn’t get me, neither did the woodland creatures. I did a lot of “stealth camping” this trip. So they had their chances. Stealth camping means pulling off the road when no one is looking and setting up your tent along the edge of a cornfield or in sagebrush or deep woods and sleeping under the stars at God’s premium price. The ride from Rapid City, South Dakota, up into the Black Hills involves a lot of sweating and low gears; so it was late evening when I approached Mt. Rushmore. Rather than make a hasty tour before dark, I pulled off the main road and put up my tent in the forest, a mile south of the site. Two deer watched me inflate my sleeping pad at bedtime; four watched me brush my teeth next morning, before I headed off to see Stone Abe and Stone George.

Stealth camping near Mt. Rushmore.

Stealth camping has its drawbacks, of course. In Maine, where my trip began, I put up my tent behind a pile of logs in one of those breaks utility companies create when they build towers and run lines. I passed a restful night but awoke to something unpleasant—ticks. Two were crawling up my leg. A third was smashed to my stomach. Luckily they weren’t carrying Lyme disease.

This does, however, bring to mind the growing moose threat to all Americans. Bear with me a moment as I set the background. I began my ride on June 17 at Acadia National Park in Maine. Unaware of impending danger, I pedaled 68 miles the first day, under beautiful, sunny skies, and felt great. The next day, with light rain falling, I fiddled over breakfast in a Belfast restaurant, where pancakes were the size of garbage can lids. I was reading the Bangor Daily News when I noticed an article about Trooper Thomas, of the Maine Highway Patrol.

Thomas had been involved in a collision, on duty, with a Maine moose and it was clear the moose (singular and plural) were out to get him. Thomas had been targeted for a “hit” before. In 2007, he was forced to take evasive action to miss three moose crossing the highway. He missed two, but plowed into the third, causing $10,000 worth of damage to his cruiser, and barely surviving an antlered assassination attempt.

I might add that New Hampshire is addressing this issue with the seriousness it deserves. A large sign as you pedal across the border warns: “BRAKE FOR MOOSE. It could save your life.”

So: I keep my eyes peeled. 

I am definitely watching out for moose!

*

If the moose don’t get me, the cops do—and I end up handcuffed in Indiana. I had broken off my trip for two weeks, after pedaling back to Cincinnati, so my wife and I could attend a Cape Cod wedding. Now, I was back on the road, one day out from home. I was dealing with 100º temperatures and high humidity, tough cycling at any age. After pedaling 70 miles, I got caught in a late afternoon thunderstorm. Normally, I hate getting drenched but since I had been broiling I was glad to cool down.

Still, this was a deluge.

I pulled behind one of those fenced electric transformer stations you see along highways and threw up my tent in tall weeds, thinking to do a little stealth camping. The rain poured through the opening in the top before I could attach the rain flap and poured through the tent door as I tossed in my gear. I scrambled inside, removed my shirt, and started mopping up water. Fifteen minutes and it was over. Emerging like some bedraggled Punxsutawney Phil, I called Anne [my wife] to let her know where I planned to be for the evening. Before I could tell her she was still the hottest-looking woman in North America, a cop car, lights flashing and siren wailing, came flying up the road and skidded to a stop.

“Well, it looks like I’m going to get kicked out of my camping spot,” I said. “I’ll call you back later.”

At almost the same moment, a Wayne County deputy jumped out of the cruiser, gun drawn, and shouted, “Hands up!”

“Seriously?” I responded.

“Hands up!” the officer repeated, and waved his pistol in menacing fashion, to clarify his point.

“Really?”

“Get them up where I can see them,” he yelled, pointing his pistol, this time more carefully.

Cell phone in hand, I reached for the sky.

The deputy called me out from behind the fence, told me to turn around so he could see if I had a gun in my waistband, and then cuffed me. It seemed like an over-reaction to trespassing.

I’m in shorts and bicycling shoes, with no shirt, mind you, and the officer can’t see my bike in the weeds, so I tell him I’m riding across America to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

[My daughter, Emily, is a type-1 diabetic.]

By now two more cruisers have arrived and four officers have me surrounded. The first deputy explains that there has been an armed robbery, ten minutes before, in nearby Richmond. I want to point out that the scene of the crime is six miles south and I don’t ride a rocket-propelled bike. I don't quibble, though, because police officers are not always known for a sense of humor. I start laughing, though, but quickly interject: “I’m not laughing at you. You’re just doing your job. But this will make a good story for my blog.”

The first officer is pretty sure by now I’m not the guy, but says he has to keep me cuffed while he calls in a description. He checks my ID and then I hear the dispatcher describe the suspect: “White male...

...in his 20s.”

Oh, so close.

They let me go, but one of the deputies tells me I can’t camp where I am and I need to move. I want to ask, “Can you put the cuffs back on and take my picture.” But they might not like my attitude.

So I take down my tent and pedal away. Five miles down the road, with night settling over the land, I see a likely spot along the edge of a cornfield and go to ground once more. I’m Clyde Barrow—without Bonnie—on a bike. 

The next day is broiling hot, over 100º again, and by late afternoon I’m wilting like eleven-day-old lettuce. I’m way out in farm country but hope to find a motel for the night. I log on to Google Maps and discover I’m 8.2 miles from the “Dog Patch Hotel.” I call to see if they have rooms. The owner is a gravel-voiced woman named Marcia Clark and says she usually closes at 6, which seems odd, but my battery is dying, so our conversation is abbreviated. She says she’ll wait a little longer and I pedal furiously to get there in time.

Unfortunately, when I arrive, I find that Ms. Clark owns a doggy day care. We broker a deal and I spend a night on the floor of her air-conditioned office. Some hotels—you worry about bedbugs.

Some you worry about fleas.

*

If you’re thinking about riding a bicycle across the United States—and who isn’t—roads in Maine are great. Traffic is light, which has something to do with the fact Maine is only slightly smaller than Ohio, but with 1/8th the population. 

(Traffic is even lighter in South Dakota—with 9 people per square mile and Wyoming, with 5.)

The roads in New Hampshire are good, too, the scenery gorgeous. That’s true most of the trip. Near Conway, you start up Kancamangus Pass and for ten miles you’re pedaling along the Swift River, past some of the prettiest swimming holes in America. You have to churn uphill for 20 miles to crest at 2,860 feet, but then you enjoy a free-wheeling ride down the other side of the mountain.  

Swift River scene--all one piece of granite grooved by years of water and grinding stones.


At North Woodstock, you take Lost River Road, which looks like a shortcut over the next mountain range and is only a mistake if you’re not trying to kill yourself. If you talk to most riders who cross the United States they agree old roads crossing eastern mountains are by far the worst. Lost River Road is no exception. A nondescript state highway, it must have been laid out in Colonial Days to trace a path blazed by Billy goats. There are almost no cars for fifteen miles, though, because locals aren’t stupid enough to use the road if they can avoid it. 

Heading for Middlebury, Vermont, a beautiful college town, I ride up and over Middlebury Gap, which crests at 2,144 feet. In places the grade is as much as 18%. If you’re not a rider, trust me, it’s a killer climb. It’s not too terrible going up a pass at 4 mph. When you drop as low as 2.2, which is “stand-on-the-pedal” speed, it gets hard to be philosophical.

Then you curse.

I had been to Middlebury before and remembered riding over a bridge with a beautiful green river forty feet below. There was a popular swimming hole nearby and I stopped to watch youngsters jump off the bridge into emerald waters. Before starting my ride, it was one of my goals to jump off that bridge. When I passed this time, however, the issue was no longer water below but water from above.

It started pouring right after I topped Middlebury Gap.

So let me be clear: I like bicycling and raising money for JDRF; but my bike is not amphibious.

Here’s what I learn while getting soaked in Vermont. If you wear glasses and rely on a mirror attached to those glasses to provide rear visibility this is what you cannot see once glasses and mirror fog:

1. Road signs
2. Potholes
3. Pedestrians
4. Large farm animals
5. Blimps
6. Ocean liners
7. Basically, anything... 

Bicyling in the rain: not my idea of fun.


Still, I meet nice people all along the way—the Middlebury couple that sees me come sloshing into the public library and offers dinner and a dry place to stay—bar patrons in Diamond Point, New York, who get me a free room at the Super 8 motel, when they hear I’m riding for JDRF.

But I get rained on almost all the way across New York. In a blog post on June 28, I report: 

Okay, this is getting ridiculous. I’ll be riding out of New York State this afternoon and I’ve hardly seen the sun peek out from behind the clouds once. I’ve been on the road for eleven days and rained on seven. If you want to know what the weather has been like go put on a bicycle helmet, t-shirt, gym shorts and biking shoes. Put on a pair of glasses even if you don’t normally wear them.

Now go stand in the shower and turn it on full force. Be sure your glasses steam up so you can’t see. That’s what the riding has been like at times in this state.

It’s causing a lot of soggy underwear.

*

Like I say, bicycle trips may be long, but literary papers never. So I zoom across the Pennsylvania panhandle and when I hit the sign that says, “Welcome to Ohio,” the wide shoulders I’ve been enjoying disappear like Jimmy Hoffa. No joke: Ohio roads are the worst. I make it back home in one piece, go to the wedding, and I’m off again, cuffed in Indiana, broiled in Illinois. Or as I describe it in my blog: “Here’s the short version of the first four days out of Cincinnati (20th to 23rd): hot, cornfields, hot, sweat, cornfields, holy s#@%, it’s hot.”

Iowa? More cornfields.

I do have the pleasure, near Dubuque, of riding for a day with Joe Ossman, who made his own cross-country trip in 2010, at age 64. He is kind enough to take the lead, cutting wind resistance, which makes my pedaling easier. I let my attention wander, catch a pothole and crash to the pavement, landing on my camera. And what do I learn? I learn you cannot break your fall by landing on a camera but you can break your camera.

By now the moose population has thinned, but I’m still meeting nice people. There’s the man in the pastry shop who writes out a check to JDRF for $100. There’s Kathy Frizoel, a type-1 diabetic for half a century, now confined to a wheel chair, and husband Mike, who has a tiger tattoo on his back, in honor of her indomitable spirit.

Kathy and me.

On August 1, I cross the Big Sioux River into South Dakota. The heat index for the day is 118º.

No psychopaths yet; but my brains are just about cooked.

I zoom along over the Great Plains until one day I pick up a ferocious headwind, twenty miles per hour and constant. On days like this, you think about quitting. I pass an old 1970s Oldsmobile for sale. It’s primer gray but looks like it might run. Or that used tractor for sale? Either one might get me back to Ohio. I could commandeer a harvester. I could knock that old lady off her riding mower.

Luckily, the mood passes before the psychopath you hear about on the news turns out to be me.

Anyway, I need to pedal faster and finish this story. I spend several days crossing South Dakota, with grasshoppers ricocheting off my helmet. 

(That’s better than Iowa where two mosquitoes flew up my nose one late afternoon.)

More nice people, probably a story in itself.

I see the Badlands from the saddle of a bike and find the landscape inspiring. On to the Black Hills, passing through during the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which brings half a million motorcycle riders to the area. Twenty-five years ago the scene was “like Halloween on steroids,” as one veteran of several rallies tells me. It’s still not tame but today the average attendee is probably fifty +. At Mount Rushmore I notice one gray-haired Hells Angel in a leather jacket, with an oxygen tube stuck up his nose.

Can’t say I ever expected to see that.

Generally, the riders prove to be conservative but friendly. I see one RV with this slogan painted on the rear:

OBAMA KISS MY WHITE AMERICAN ASS. 
YOU STUPID F*CK.

I suppose the painter was trying to be discreet, putting that star there where the vowel was supposed to be.

You could get an entire story out of Wyoming, alone; but I’m keeping it simple. Up and over the Big Horn Mountains one day. Thirty-three miles uphill out of Buffalo and 5,020 feet in elevation gained.

Yellowstone. On a bicycle: amazing. Then a trip north to Bozeman, Montana, to see the S--- family, and daughter Sidney, a seven-year-old type-1 diabetic I met during a ride in Florida. Sidney’s a darling and her little brother, Sam, is a comic, with a pet pig he calls “Slugbutt.”

Then I pedal south again, down the beautiful Gallatin River Valley and it’s a joy to be alive. My plan is to do 80 miles and get close to West Yellowstone and reenter the park the next day. A check of Google Maps shows a campground along the way, right about where I want to stop. So I enjoy the sun and the scenery all day. At the 50-mile mark I pass the last town where I might find shelter for the night. Bah! I’m riding 80! At 60, I see cabins for rent: “$50 a night.” Pshaw! I’m riding 80.

At the 75-mile mark I start looking for the campground. Nothing. At 80? Nope. I pass 82, 83, 84, 86, 88. Now it’s getting on toward evening. I pick up the pace and rip along, with darkness settling over the land. Soon I’m trying to keep my tire close to the white edge line. 

Then I’m bent low trying to see the white line. 

When I crest a high hill, West Yellowstone lights shimmer faintly in the distance. By now I’m stopping to dismount when cars pass, or switching sides to ride in the dark, with lights behind me. Finally, traffic coming out of West Yellowstone picks up and headlights keep blinding me. Then, one more time, I aim for the side of the road to dismount, but turn my wheel too sharply and go crashing to the pavement, bloodying my elbow and whacking my helmet. (Better the helmet than the head.)

Finally, I spot a campground; but when I start down the road, I see a warning sign: “Keep all food, drink and toiletries out of sight and locked in your vehicle. You are in grizzly bear country.”

I am definitely not stealth camping tonight.

I walk the last two miles to town and find almost every hotel sign flashing, “NO VACANCY.” I settle for a room at the Brandin’ Iron Inn, where another sign warns: “Room price established at check-in time.” I figure the clerk sees my bloody elbow and jacks up the price $25, and figures it’s dark outside and sees I’m on a bicycle and jacks it another $25.

I get branded myself and pay $154 for the night.


My crash could have been worse; but it wasn't much fun.

Back I go through Yellowstone; more nice people; the Grand Tetons by bike; fantastic. South to Salt Lake City, where a couple of friendly Mormons try to convert me, then across the Sevier Desert in southwestern Utah, a ninety-two mile moonscape, with no services. [Here I carry eight bottles of water with me and drain them all before I’m done for the day.] I go up and down a dozen Nevada passes and follow what’s called “The Loneliest Highway in America” most of the way across the state. Then I decide to cut south and follow what I’ll call the Bleakest Damn Highway in America toward Yosemite National Park. For the next 36 miles I don’t see a single house or a tree. Unfortunately, I get a tire hernia in Gabbs (population 349) and have to do some dancing before I hitch a ride to Reno. Eventually, it’s up and over Tioga Pass, the highest point of the trip at 9,914 feet, and a week spent amid the marvels of Yosemite.

Truly spectacular.

I ride out of the valley, meet my older brother at the park boundary, and he pedals along with me for two days, and finish my trip at San Francisco, where my younger brother resides.

I fly home on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and when I get home, I tell everyone, “Never again.”

*

Now, I look at my pictures and check out my maps—and I don’t know. Maybe I can do the ride again in 2019.

I’ll only be 70.



If you read this far be sure to look at some of the photos below. If you want advice on how to do a similar trip you might find Advice before Bicycling across the USA beneficial.

I absolutely recommend this kind of trip.

This was a typical view in Grand Teton National Park.

Yellowstone National Park. The riding is fabulous.
(Also: they save spots for bicycle riders in the campgrounds.)

My ride: I ditched the front bags in Yellowstone when I realized I could combine my gear.

Yellowstone flowers.

Large hot spring; I recommend designing a route that takes you through Yellowstone.

View while pedaling along the Yellowstone River.

Every mile marked on this map of my ride was scenic and spectacular.

Wyoming, I-90 view: in many  western states you can ride along the interstate. 

Riding out of Buffalo, Wyoming, up Powder River Pass. Great views, great challenge.
It is mostly uphill for 33 miles.

Oops, the Powder River Pass pictures should come before the ones from Yellowstone.
Oh well, it was the largest elevation gain of my entire trip: 5,020 feet over 33 miles.

After leaving Yellowstone, I headed south to Salt Lake City.
Here: Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon faith, feels the call of God.

Woke to this view near Bear Lake, Utah.
(I was stealth camping again.)

Parts of Utah looked like a moonscape. Crossing the Sevier Desert.

Rick Arnett was riding 10,000 miles and planning to write a book about his trip.
He had just gone through a difficult divorce. I rode with him for a few hours; but when we got to a mountain pass he said he always walked up and I bid him adieu. 

The Loneliest Highway in America: Nevada.

Tioga Pass leads into Yosemite National Park. Highest point on my trip at more than 9900 feet.

Lake near the top of Tioga Pass. A view worth pedaling miles to see.

View from a hiking trail in Yosemite.

Lake beside the road in Yosemite.

Got off my bicycle and took a hike in the woods.

Yosemite waterfall.

Pondering my next ride? Overlooking a Yosemite waterfall.
(In this park they also have a special campground for bicycle riders.)

Pedaling through the Californian hills.
End of the ride, September 7, 2011. Twenty-five pounds lighter!