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!







4 comments:

  1. Hi John, Great story, nice ride. I think we have some things in common. I too, was a teacher for 30 years. Taught special ed. I rode across going from west to east. A group called, Ride for World Health. It was comprised mostly of 4th year med students from Ohio State. I was 70 at the time. The next oldest rider on the trip was 28. I started riding in the early 60s & have been at it ever since. I rode alone, raced for 12 years, & am now an officer in a club with 350 members. Because of my experience (I think) I was able to keep up without problems. We left from San Diego, rode north to L.A., then turned right & went straight across the country. My trip was much easier than yours because it was a supported trip. We had vans as sag & they carried all of our gear. We stayed mostly in churches, schools, YMCAs, & once in a motel in D.C. We also camped a few times in the desert because there was nothing close at the end of our day. We averaged nearly 100 mi./day. The crossing took 45 days, including 1 rest day per week. If you're interested, here's a link to the pics I took. Again, congrats on your trip which was longer & harder than mine was for sure. I certainly enjoyed reading your account of the journey. https://picasaweb.google.com/102827710065714184262/AcrossAmerica2012#5797115251232260130

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    1. Keep riding; you'll be my role model. And doing a hundred miles per day, supported or not, isn't easy!

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    2. For anyone interested, copy and paste Larry's link and you can see some good pictures from the eastern half of his ride.

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    3. Um...and hit the "back" button to see pictures from all the way across the USA.

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