In 2009, a friend and I went on a bike ride. Four thousand miles and fourteen states later, I finished my first travel blog. We traversed the US along the Northern Tier Route, which runs from Maine to Washington State. You could go to this website to see it in its rough just-woke-up-and-haven’t-put-on-my-makeup form, or you could read the edited version here:
Excerpts from a Diary of Pedaling: A Humble story of Bicycling Across America
What is it that draws people to the West? Year after year I watched friends leave behind their communities, their jobs, their education, and their routine Tuesday mornings at the bakery where I worked to chase the sun to its terminus on the Pacific. Being young enough to believe in planning, I imagined throughout college that I would take a year off, wander around Europe on a customary middle class pilgrimage to learn about other cultures, and then return to the womb of academia to work in a laboratory with the quiet chatter of NPR in the background. The summer before my college graduation I worked in a small New Hampshire town full of itinerant twenty-somethings and vagrant dreamers. The transitory feeling of the town had worked its way into my susceptible young blood. Slowly, subversively, the idea that travel was itself the destination rooted itself in my subconscious and, without realizing it, my plans changed. I no longer wanted what I had worked four years to accomplish. I wanted to set my young body moving until I had answers to my questions. Whether because of insufficient planning or a lingering idea of the final frontier, Americans of this romantic yet impatient disposition seem to often find themselves on the West coast. So, when my friend Joe told me he planned bicycle to Washington state, I abandoned all of my reservations and future plans and made the final commitment to my curiosity; I agreed to go with him.
Fears are cyclical. My generation is like every generation, and every generation reaches a point where the specters of mediocrity and obscurity beat at the door with unwelcome fists. This usually occurs when we are healthy and robust, when death and illness are quiet scenery on the horizon. Joe and I are born of good fortune. Spared true hardship, we had risen above minor difficulties with a banal ease. The privileges our parents’ generation handed to us became a hereditary weight, and as I found my own voice in my tentative adulthood, I felt its pressure as both judgment and incrimination. Although the notion betrays undertones of martyrdom, we resented the dullness that accompanied relative affluence. There is a prevalent notion, at least perhaps in the puritanical northeast, that the level of accomplishment matches the degree of hardship encountered, as though to every negative there is a positive counter-event in one’s life. Despite its poor logic and specious origins, this manner of thinking becomes an invasive organism in one’s mind, and eventually spreads its roots to one’s actions. What we grew to understand, then, was that to accomplish something that inferred the depth of our potential, we needed to suffer.
Joe was a thirty year old college dropout with an assortment of half-baked plans who was unable to handle smoking, drinking, or women without excess. I was a socially awkward student harboring a quixotic idea of the world and absolutely no athletic background. We were drawn together by our mutually sardonic humor and passion for life. The other peculiarity we shared was a dissatisfaction with our lives so far, and a hunger to accomplish something larger than ourselves. This is how, without a single bike tour in our past, with second rate steel frame mountain bikes and insufficient equipment, no experience and limited training, and an eight pound mandolin strapped atop our worldly possessions, we decided to ride our bicycles across the country. The following are edited excerpts from my journal during that long, difficult, exhilarating summer.
Monday September 14, 2009- Total so far: 4,008 miles (6,450 km)
I was on top of the world in Portland just before I found out that I was homeless. It happened next to a Safeway. A man pulled up in a truck to deliver the news. Oregon is accepting so many homeless these days that it has become a matter of public courtesy to inform them of their status. As I stood there next to my gritty bike and trailer, tan and lean, a man’s voice caught me off guard.
“Excuse me, ma’am” He spoke with a hint of opportunism but overwhelmingly more curiosity. I was used to the tone, as I had been catching people’s attention for some months now. My responses to this had become weary, like those of a celebrity being propositioned for an autograph.
“I was just wondering if you might be interested in buying this children’s bicycle I have. It was my daughter’s but she’s too big to use it now. You looked like you might be into that stuff.”
I answered frankly, surprised. “Oh, no thank you, I’m afraid I don’t have anywhere to keep it right now; it’s just me and my bike.” I said my last sentence with more than a little pride.
A shadow covered his friendly features and confused me momentarily. In a lower voice he said “I’m sorry to hear that, I was on the streets once too. It’s not easy. Good luck and God bless, honey.”
I, who thought I was beyond surprise by now, was too speechless to respond. As I watched his truck disappear from the parking lot, I took stock of my own situation. My clothes were filthy, my hair was a sun bleached mass permanently shaped like the inside of a helmet, and dramatic tan lines bisected my thighs. My scab-covered legs were so dark people had been mistaking me for American Indian for the past month, which had added a new element of difficulty to crossing the great Midwest. I had in my possession enough clothing to last roughly one week. I had been sleeping in a tent for three straight months and washing my laundry and dishes in gas station sinks. I had bathed in rivers and waterfalls more often than I had in a normal shower, and had gone dirty more than I had bathed. I had an unpleasant case of gastro-intestinal distress that had followed me for some weeks after eating a stranger’s turkey soup, and I was distressingly comfortable with going to the bathroom in the woods. My bank account had been squeezed like a grape and now held only the seeds. Everyone I knew and loved was four thousand miles away.
I suddenly realized I was homeless.
Eight Mile: Day 1
Monday June 1, 2009, 8 miles (13 km) – Total so far: 8 miles (13 km)
On our first day we rode only eight miles, the subject of many jokes between us. By the time our friend Jack and his mighty white van had deposited us in Bar Harbor and we had assembled our gear and taken the obligatory photos of our back wheels in the Atlantic Ocean, it was late enough in the day that we knew we would be camping soon. Neither of us was anticipating how difficult it would be to ride our bikes with fifty pounds of gear attached to the back. Despite our inauspicious start it feels good after so much planning to finally be on the road, moving. We experimented with the mandolin tonight. Joe has been eyeing it warily since we finished our ride today, but I think it will grow on him.
Surprising Encounters: Day 3
Wednesday June 3, 2009, 34 miles (55 km) – Total so far: 78 miles (126 km)
Nature took it upon itself to send us a personal alarm this morning. A murder of crows stationed their ranks above our tent to serve as our bombastic harbingers of the new day. Joe did not feel as graciously as I did about the situation, and spent most of the time it took to deconstruct the tent throwing and then finding his shoes. I wondered about the superstitious implications of literally shoeing a crow on our journey and decided that they were hardly albatrosses.
Serendipity, the reigning deity of the Northeast, ensured that we run into our first cyclists today. We spent a few minutes waving at specks in the distance before we realized they were my neighbors from Newmarket, proving that New England is exactly as small as people think it is. About two miles after them, we ran into another cyclist who was biking to Nova Scotia. He had been bicycling since he retired and looked as though he fit the part. He would only be the first of many squirrelly old men to put our speed to shame on the trip. We ran out of energy shortly before we ran out of sunlight and the day ended with a ‘guerilla campsite,’ which is our euphemism for slogging through the woods lining the road until we find a clearing unmarked by ‘no trespassing’ signs or shotgun shells and large enough to hold a tent. We found a beautiful spot which we eventually discovered to be a mosquito breeding ground.
Thank God for Locals: Fourth day
Thursday June 4, 2009, 18 miles (29 km) – Total so far: 96 miles (154 km)
Before the inevitable plunge into the picturesque Maine morning filled with little winged antagonists, we broke our fast on cold granola and filtered river water – a cheerful and rustic beginning to our day. We washed in a river after climbing through half a mile of scratchy brush and rode five miles to get coffee. With a broken stove our dinner has consisted primarily of peanut butter, carrots, and fruit. To amend this, we had grand plans of finding a recreation store where we could purchase a stove that actually worked. We were under the mistaken impression that Lincolnville Center, which had no population listing on our map, might be a big enough town to afford a camping store. We discovered that Lincolnville center consisted of a grocery store, corner store, and fire department that housed what looked like one pick-up truck. We stopped at the corner store, where eight other pick-up trucks had convened, ostensibly to discuss the Bush/Cheney stickers they sported. After we got coffee we sat with the locals. A great character with a dancing pinup girl tattoo on his forearm gave us some directional advice primarily consisting of the critique that we were “goin all ova Christ and creation” on our route through Maine.
We continued until we found Maine Sports, where we got a new stove and fixed Joe’s finicky bike derailleur. By this time, however, we were running low on sunlight and eager to find a camping spot. We were getting a bit desperate when a lady cheerfully rode by on her bike, singing in French. Marianne, who we soon discovered was actually Swiss, stopped to see if we needed any help and, in an outpouring of benevolence, took us in and fed us for the night. On our bikes, we present an unintimidating but curious sight. Apparently, one of the best ways to gain hospitality from strangers is to ride around on a terrible getaway vehicle. Marianne and her daughter Zoe live in a big beautiful Swiss chalet they built themselves. We enjoyed their oscillating French banter as they cooked. After an amazing dinner of fish and bread, we sat sipping wine while Zoe’s boyfriend Andrew played mandolin. As we sat listening and the surrealism of the experience enveloped us I hoped Joe’s attitude about our packed unorthodox instrument had changed.
Exposure camping: Fifth day
Friday June 5, 2009, 37 miles (60 km) – Total so far: 133 miles (214 km)
We spent the day riding along a small river, enjoying the scenery of Maine. Home to transcendentalists and more poet laureates than even we care to admit, New England has a quiet, austere beauty. Its forests are classically beautiful, filled with skinny paper birches, magnanimous looking maples, and rust colored ground cover. The coast line is sprinkled with hidden ponds, marshes, and rivers, and the whole area, from the harsh rocky coast of Maine to the preserved wild in Baxter state park, seems to retain an element of propriety, as though puritans had buttoned up the trees in collars on their arrival and insisted that the bushes wear cummerbunds. John Steinbeck good-naturedly criticized the people of New England for being too laconic, but a look at our scenery would easily excuse that trait to an outsider. Growing up surrounded by the modest forests, stoic mountains, and petulant seacoast, one adjusts to nature’s tacit cues to become, at their worst, moody, and at their best, reverent. I have always personally felt that home is where civiliation meets the wild, and a mutual exchange occurs.
Fruitlessly, we were searching along the river for an undeveloped spot to camp when we happened upon a clear plot of land. It was decorated with construction vehicles, abandoned for the weekend ahead. Assuming that we were alone for the evening, I headed towards the lake to wash our clothes and Joe stripped off his bike shorts in the clearing. Suddenly, a four wheeler came tearing out of the woods towards us to catch Joe literally with his pants down. There is no greater icebreaker than finding a man naked from the waist down. Joe stumbled and fell over in his haste to put his shorts on while I laughed uncontrollably. With this introduction out of the way, Greg, who was the property owner, explained that they lived next door to the site of their future home – our current campsite – and checked in on it from time to time. Being a hospitable man with a sense of humor, he invited us to set up our tent on their lawn and meet his wife, Wanda. We put our tent on a platform enclosed by mosquito netting and tiki torches and spent the rest of the night drinking with Greg and Wanda, who occasionally zipped back to their house on their four-wheelers to grab more libations. Greg told us about his youth working in a rock quarry and as the evening progressed his heavy Maine accent took on inflections that can only be described as unintelligible. We fell asleep smiling at the diversity of Maine hospitality.
Hills and help: seventh day
Sunday June 7, 2009, 41 miles (66 km) – Total so far: 208 miles (335 km)
Today was our hardest yet, but contributed to my quietly harbored belief in altruism. Joe’s rear derailleur was bent again after yesterday and he realized that he couldn’t go into 1st gear (the gear used for going uphill), which would certainly be a problem in the imminent White Mountains. The last bicycle shop before Conway was in Buckfield right before our biggest climb yet, a steep three mile incline. We called and found out that they weren’t open until Monday, but when we explained our trip they offered to open up on Sunday for us, as long as it was before nine. So we woke up at six and biked the ten miles to Buckfield where we discovered that what we expected to be a big bike shop was actually a small lopsided barn at the end of a winding dirt driveway. Art, the eccentric but benevolent shop owner, had built the unusual structure himself. More eye-catching than the barn, however, was the property next to it. The house we found in that little clearing on a hill looked like a cozy cottage that had contracted a terminal cancer and exploded in an uncontrollable bout of growth. Art explained to us that he and his wife Kathy had built a little one room house in the early twenties that expanded at the rate of the family. Six children later, their house was a wild wooden amalgamation of spare rooms, retooled walls, and spontaneous lofts, and it fit their adventurous personalities well. They were builders together, working full time jobs, volunteering at their church, raising kids, and even building Art’s wild barn to fuel his side hobby – fixing bikes. In their late fifties, they still went on ‘romantic’ bike tours together.
Art looked at our bikes while Kathy served us coffeecake and coffee. He skipped church that Sunday to help us, and even gave us a tutorial about how to fix some common problems we’d been having. After three hours of labor he refused to take more than ten dollars and even called us later to check up on us.
It turns out Art is going cross country himself in a week on the same route we’re taking, although he’ll be riding the more common direction from West to East, following rather than fighting the wind. We made plans to meet up in the Midwest. After we left their place, we put in our toughest and longest day yet, climbing up the most difficult section of the Maine maps all in one day. When we got to the last hill, Joe got off his bike and began threatening to throw the mandolin into the woods. Having decided that we were too physically exhausted to climb the last hill, we pulled in to an abandoned and slightly spooky children’s summer camp for the night where Joe spent the rest of his energy trying to convince me that the spirits of drowned children would rise up out of the lake while we slept.
Over the Hills and Through the Woods: 9th day
Tuesday June 9, 2009, 32 miles (51 km) – Total so far: 267 miles (430 km)
Today, we woke up with three realizations:
1. We are climbing 1,655 vertical feet, by bicycle, up the Kankamagus highway (aptly named for Chief Kankamagus, who put a curse on white people like us for taking his land.)
2. After more than a week of beautiful weather, we woke up to pouring rain, and
3. Our tent leaks.
Neither of us wanted to face these facts, so we got off to a late and soggy start. Our day quickly took on an epic feeling as we began our journey ascending the mighty mountain, dressed like bright skittles in our colorful rain gear. Thick mist surrounded the summit, wind howled violently, and rain pelted us as we crawled slowly upwards. This was the climb that we had been both dreading and anticipating; the climb that we silently agreed would make or break our trip. This was the biggest ascent either of us had attempted before on a bike, and it sat at the heart of our fears about the trip, daunting us with its mentally impassable nature. As we biked slowly up the winding serpent of the Kank, I recited to myself my personal credo: ‘It’s just pedaling. Just pedal.’ I met Joe at a halfway point where he was freezing and drinking olive oil while waiting for me. “It’s all we have in our food bag.” He said by means of excuse. We continued climbing, mentally and physically. A few intrepid cars whizzed by us with their fog lights on. The mist was so thick we could hardly see three feet in front of us, and so I was shocked when I suddenly spotted Joe a hundred yards in front of me, jumping up and down. He was shouting and it took me half the distance to realize why. As I bicycled up out of the mist, above the clouds, I saw around me the layer of fog we had been in, and the carpet of expanding green foot hills that reached out below it. I saw the heavy blue mountains forming our backdrop in the distance, and I saw the humble brown sign encased in stone next to Joe:
Elevation 2,855 feet
We were elated. Soaking wet on top of a pass, we also found ourselves freezing. We had passed our critical milestone, and it was all downhill now to civilization and comfort. Surmounting the biggest obstacle in New Hampshire, I realized that my limitations up to this point had been self-imposed. We rode downwards with our hands frozen on our brakes and coasted nearly the whole way to North Woodstock, where we stopped at my grandmother’s house. We spent a day there, adding to the surreal nature of the trip and fortifying ourselves for the great unknown. I also finally gave in to Joe’s pleas and got rid of the mandolin before he threw it off the top of our next pass, as he frequently threatened.
Oil dependency is Pornography: Burlington
Saturday June 13, 2009, 0 miles – Total so far: 332 miles (534 km)
After several impassioned, disciplined days of biking, we got a little hung up in Burlington Vermont. For about two days. We took advantage of the hospitality of Joe’s older sister and temporarily acquired Joe’s nephew, Jake. Armed with sore legs and an energetic five year old, we bravely approached the Burlington Jazz Festival. We heard great jazz music, explored the Burlington farmer’s market, and stopped to watch street magicians (one of whom gave Jake, unwisely entrusted to our supervision, some flaming torches and swords to hold). In the evening, we ignored the usual caveats about jazz and liquor and went out on the town (without Jake). The second day, we recovered from the first. We handled the sudden inclusion of a five year old in our conversations well, although we accidentally introduced Jake to a large group of naked protestors on bicycles who were making a literal argument that oil dependency is pornography. We discussed the merits and disadvantages and decided that, considering what we felt like after two weeks of cycling with fully padded bike shorts, there was very little we were passionate enough about to protest without a buffer between our nether regions and our bike seats.
In the Tent…
Thursday June 18, 2009, 0 miles – Total so far: 431 miles (694 km)
Joe is not looking good today. His lungs still reeling from their nicotine encounters in Burlington and his motivation depleted by the soggy weather, Joe is decidedly bedridden for the day. We spent the day in the tent avoiding the wildlife outside, which appeared to be primarily entomological. The slugs are particularly friendly here, and have sent out various envoys in an attempt to facilitate amicable relations with our main base. Unfortunately these attempts have been met with distaste and some hostility from our end. The mosquitos, however, appear to be launching an offensive aerial attack and do not appear discouraged by any manner of swatting, squishing, or other counter attacks by us. Whether or not there is any collusion between the two pests is yet to be decided. In the meantime, we fortify our premises.
Saturday June 20, 2009, 54 miles (87 km) – Total so far: 513 miles (826 km)
We are getting stronger every day. Today we put in a good day of riding and still felt energized at the end of it. We decided we needed to camp by a river, if only for hygienic purposes, and so rode several miles out of our way to find a popular fishing spot on a sandy bank that locals had recommended to us. We rode down a narrow dirt road and pulled around a corner to find three enormous men in full camouflage wielding fishing poles at us. It took us very little time to realize that they were also egregiously drunk. Since we were only a few hours in either direction from Buffalo and New York City, there was no explanation needed for why three men whose combined weight exceeded four digits were sitting on the banks of a river with a cooler of Genney light beer, but an explanation for us was required.
Kenny, Craig, and Matt found our trip simultaneously amazing and laughable, and offered to bring us back to their friend’s cabin for dinner. We accepted and, in turn, helped them to empty their cooler of some beer. We spent the rest of the evening at their friend’s cabin, about a mile down the winding dirt road, gorging ourselves on venison. Joe and I each ate about three pounds of deer, earning the respect of the hunters and the opportunity to shoot their guns at tree branches, a prize they were fairly insistent about. As the evening wore on, one of the men broke out a deck of cards and all three inebriated men proceeded to teach us Euchre. There was a notable decline in the eloquence of our hosts through the evening that culminated in a final exchange.
Kenny reared on Matt. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? It’s cut left, deal right.”
Matt’s response was slightly less heated. “No Kenny, it’s cut right, deal left.”
This disagreement continued for several minutes before Kenny, to prove his point, pulled out his hunting knife and jammed the blade in the table. Matt responded by pulling out his hunting knife, unfolding it, and burying its tip in the table adjacent to Kenny’s. Craig joined them in the heat of the moment and even drove his own blade into the unprotesting wood, seemingly unaware of whose side he was taking.
“I said cut left, deal right,” Kenny challenged, his hand on the handle of his knife and his eyes locked on Matt’s. Matt’s eyes flashed over to Joe and I, sitting motionless with our cards next to Kenny. Kenny noticed us for the first time since the altercation began and started to laugh. He turned to us and explained calmly, “My nigger friend here doesn’t know how to play cards. Don’t mind him.” He must not have seen much improvement in our expressions, because he continued with “You folks don’t mind that word, do you?”
I should point out at this junction that Joe and I are from families in rural suburban towns whose entire diversity demographic is usually filled by one family. We had tolerance and political correctness hammered into us at a young age, and even the act of supplanting the word ‘black’ for ‘African American’ causes us to cringe with shame. We grew tiptoeing around the issue of race with a meager handful of minority friends. At a time in our lives where every other expletive had become commonplace, we froze in the presence of ‘the N word.’
This having been said, Joe and I exchanged a glance before we overwhelmingly agreed that we were completely fine with this casual (and inaccurate) usage of the most taboo word we had in our vocabulary. Wide eyed, we shook our heads ‘no’ agreeably.
“So then,” Kenny’s eyes were hazy with alcohol but his brow was wrinkled attentively as he continued. “You hate niggers too?”
We stared at him for a full silent minute before all three hunters completely lost their composure and erupted into belly laughs. They slapped each other on the back, their eyes tearing from their own joke, and put their knives back in their pockets. Joe and I may have outdone them, we laughed so hard in our immense relief that these large armed men weren’t testing our racial beliefs; they were just drunk. We walked to our riverside home for the night, our silences broken periodically by uncontainable laughter and the gastronomic distress that accompanies three pounds of meat.
Erie noises: Rochester
Wednesday June 24, 2009, 36 miles (58 km) – Total so far: 686 miles (1,104 km)
It turns out our fears about biking through Rochester, city of brotherly love and violent crime, were completely unnecessary. Passing through Rochester was actually one of the best parts of our trip. Apparently, city officials were worried that cyclists would be deterred by an elevated chance of getting stabbed, and installed a convenient and scenic bike route to circumvent the issue. The Canalway trail manages to completely bypass the city of Rochester and follow the Erie Canal almost all the way to Buffalo. We were able to camp alongside the trail easily, although we discovered during the night that there were unusual animals native to the canal (which we were later told might have been geese, perhaps vindictive due to rampant cyclists chasing them all day) that made horrendous and unnatural sounding noises at random intervals throughout the night. We were fortunately more tired than wary and fell asleep regardless.
Thunderstorm and the Mighty Taco: Western NY
Thursday June 25, 2009, 40 miles (64 km) – Total so far: 726 miles (1,168 km)
Today we rode the rest of the Canalway Trail and officially got caught in our first thunderstorm. We managed to take shelter in the most logical local establishment – the town bar – and, since we were already soaking wet, had a beer while we watched the weather. It was here that we ran into a convivial cyclist named Tom who biked with us to Lockport and suggested a good motel and restaurant. In the interest of finally drying ourselves and our clothing after a series of rain storms, we invested in our first motel and stationed ourselves at Lockport Inn. Exploring the town, we discovered two things: Without trailers on our bikes we can go very fast, which may have contributed to Joe’s first crash of the trip. Secondly, the Mexican food place that Tom had raved about to us as the signature food of NY was actually a fast food place called Mighty Taco which was neither. We spent the night appreciating electricity and digesting our mechanically prepared ‘tacos’. Michael Jackson also apparently died, but that’s probably not breaking news on our blog.
Lackawanna be here: Buffalo
Friday June 26, 2009, 78 miles (126 km) – Total so far: 804 miles (1,294 km)
Today, we went through Buffalo. It was everything terrible that bicycling through a busy, economically ravaged city while towing our belongings in trailers should be and more. We found barriers closing off our bicycle route at multiple points due to construction, argued with the belligerent suicidal drivers that exemplify New York driving skills, and eventually questioned some relatively helpful winos who managed to give us directions while they heckled us. We also spent a colorful half hour replacing a flat tire on the side of the one freeway we have had to brave on this trip. By the time we made it to Lackawanna, we could relate to the name. Despite the excitement of the big city, however, watching the sun set over Lake Erie from Evangola State Park at the end of the day was an awe-inspiring sight, and the free beer from fellow campers greatly improved our motivation.
Monday June 29, 2009, 53 miles (85 km) – Total so far: 957 miles (1,540 km)
Apparently, no one in Ohio can give directions to grocery stores or motels. This may be because no one in Ohio eats anything but fast food, and there simply are no tourists. I can’t imagine why. Stuck in the lengthy strip of cities and strip malls leading up to Cleveland as dusk approached, we became frantic in our search for a place to stay and ended up at a Radisson hotel, which was beyond our means. We must have looked dirty or desperate enough, because they gave us a break on the price. We were going to stop in Euclid for the night, but when asking directions, were told that it was a ‘sketchy neighborhood,’ which given the price of the motel was believable. We had visions of cockroaches that were not only oversized but had gained the ability to walk upright, talk with a brooklyn accent, and hold a gun. We finally sprung for the Radisson in Willoughby.
As we were checking in, Joe mentioned to the friendly concierge that we were going to stay in Euclid, but after we were warned that it was a bad neighborhood had decided to push on further. We expected her to corroborate this, but instead she dropped her smile and responded heatedly, “I’m from Euclid!” The hotel ambassador raised his eyebrows at her and she shouted at him, “I’m sick of people saying that!” before she stormed away from the desk. Overall, it was a pretty good day. We deeply offended the locals but we also got to take a shower.
Erie today, gone tomorrow
Thursday July 2, 2009, 58 miles (93 km) – Total so far: 1,090 miles (1,754 km)
We left the Erie behind today, and we were sad to see it go. Despite the predominantly urban atmosphere of Ohio, the Erie was a beautiful sight, like an out-of-place ocean. At dusk the sky’s hue matches the lake and both form one giant sheet of blue, so that it looks as though the world ends at the shore. We passed through an endless flat sea of corn, soybeans, and wheat today, foreshadowing our Ohio experience. The morning sun shining on the wheat fields makes them light up with yellows and golds and is a cheery introduction to the Midwest, even if some of the signs on the wheat do bear the ominous Monsanto label.
The Legend of Payne: Ohio to Indiana
Saturday July 4, 2009, 77 miles (124 km) – Total so far: 1,219 miles (1,962 km)
We got an early start today because we knew we were meeting Joe’s cousin Matt that evening in Markle, Indiana. In fact, we got an earlier start than we needed to and ended up taking a long lunch in an abandoned park in Payne, Ohio. It was there that we learned “the Legend of Payne”. We arrived at a ghost town where we met a total of four people in the town park during the two hours we spent there. We felt that this was unusual for the fourth of July. When we asked a couple who greeted us about it, they told us the sad story. Although they couldn’t agree on whether it had happened seventeen or twenty years ago, they both agreed on the circumstances of the legend. A man with a wife and family had been setting off fireworks for the big Payne fireworks show when something had gone wrong and they had misfired, killing him in an explosion of red white and blue on Independence Day. Ever since then, Payne hasn’t had fireworks, and the fourth of July has become quiet.
The funereal tone of the town and the ironically ominous name spurred us on our way. Riding in the pouring rain, the tall corn stalks formed a tunnel that we seemed to slide through in the grey afternoon. Matt picked us up on the side of the road and brought us to his apartment in Zionsville, but by the time we had showered off the rain and pesticide residue, it was too late for most restaurants to be open. We went out anyways to futilely seek food. We tried to go to a Mexican place that appeared open, only to be told by a swarthy Latino bouncer that “by day, it is a restaurant, but by night, it is a nightclub.” He paused and said this last part with a flair that, combined with the flashy nightclub lights behind him and the endless stream of sharply dressed Latino people moving around us seemed a little out of place in Ohio. In the end, we found ourselves at a Denny’s, which will serve even the most degenerate looking people pancakes and coffee at two in the morning.
Something fishy in Wenona
Thursday July 9, 2009, 58 miles (93 km) – Total so far: 1,397 miles (2,248 km)
We woke up to a sunny day in Wenona in the ever-hospitable Midwest, where travelers are welcome to camp for free in the town parks. There were already local children playing around us as we packed up our gear. The town maintenance man came out to unlock the bathrooms for us and warned us that “those meddlesome kids in town get into everything and tear it all up.” Looking around at the Norman Rockwellesque surroundings, we privately laughed at the warning, but realized when we went to pack our belongings that we should have heeded it. We were both pretty surprised to discover a large fish living in my Nalgene. Listening to the chorus of giggles coming from the woods around us, I understood why my mother always warned me not to leave my drink unguarded at any time. We had to ask the maintenance man about the best course of action for our new floundering friend, to which he replied incredulously “Those little shits! Gimme that fish, I’ll go put im back in the crick.” After cleaning out my bottle thoroughly, we rode laughing to Kewanee.
Friday July 10, 2009, 18 miles (29 km) – Total so far: 1,415 miles (2,277 km)
Today, we didn’t make it very far; a bad thunderstorm deterred us from riding and sating our appetites. By the time we were able to ride and made it to Cambridge, our first town with a grocery store, we were reasonably ravenous. While we were sitting outside the small grocery store gorging ourselves on bananas and hard boiled eggs, a reporter from the Cambridge times asked if he could do an article on us and take our picture. We took this as good news since it meant we were in a stage of our frequently declining hygiene that was still approachable. Afterwards, the bar across the street was sounding pretty lively so we went across to get a drink, figuring that since the sun was almost down we were stuck sleeping in Cambridge for the night. We discovered to my dismay that bars in Illinois towns with a population of 2000 people do not have a plethora of beer choices, and I somehow ended up with something awful and blue in a glass, which patrons of the bar were overly eager to refill. In fact, the town seemed determined to get us drunk, and I found myself refusing drinks after a while, since it was beginning to look as though Joe would not be the designated biker of the evening. I found myself at closing time being approached by an unsteady Joe being supported by two very steady men who were roughly a head taller and a shoulder wider than Joe himself. Both were covered in tattoos, bald headed, and in their late thirties. Joe introduced them as Josh and AJ, the two new friends whose house we would be staying at tonight. As Joe ran gleefully into the night to recover the whiskey he had in his bike trailer, I considered my options and decided, with the cognitive abandon of someone whose life has been remarkably lucky to date, that I was going to have to follow Joe one way or another, since I could not hope to control an obstinate six foot three two hundred pound man by myself anyways. We followed them home and ended up swapping stories and laughing until early in the morning, when I had completely sobered up and Joe had descended into complete inebriation. We passed out on respective couches, myself warily and Joe noisily.
We woke up in a strange room surrounded by eyes. There was a moment of horror where we forgot where we were and found ourselves face to face with dozens of disembodied deer heads staring at us in an uncomfortably incriminating way. The table top in front of us was strewn with hunting knives and men’s magazines, and the entire house was devoid of soap, but we were fine. The two men had left on a canoe trip and trusted us completely, in fact. I woke up Joe, who was completely incapacitated, and we spent the day recovering at the fairgrounds and preparing to leave Cambridge before any bad publicity began to spread in a follow-up news article about our night of debauchery. The next morning, while leaving, we met some locals in the gas station who told us about bike tourists like us who had been at the bar on Friday night. “I guess there’s a bunch of them coming through these parts now…” they said. We left before a statue was erected to our notorious legacy.
Is this Heaven? No, It’s Iowa.
Sunday July 12, 2009, 70 miles (113 km) – Total so far: 1,485 miles (2,390 km)
Today we made it to Moscatine, crossing the Mississippi into Iowa, and stopped to admire Mark Twain’s quote, inscribed in a rock overlooking the river, that he had never seen a sunset on either coast that could rival the ones on the Mississippi. We were about five miles out of the city when we got a flat that would give us an opportunity to admire this sunset for the first time. Joe’s Presta valves proved to be an obstacle, and our pump could only inflate them to half the PSI we needed; We were at a loss for what to do, with the only town that had camping 18 miles away and the unrivaled sunset ending soon, when our chariot arrived. A man pulled up with a truck to see if we needed help. When we explained the situation, he offered to drive us to the nearest gas station to see if they had a pump. We began an odyssey that involved Ryan not only bringing us to the gas station but, finding it closed, driving us all over Iowa looking for a campsite. When we had finally located one, he dropped us off, only to return ten minutes later and invite us to stay at his place. After filling our tires in their garage, Ryan and his wife fed us, offered up a bed and shower, and entertained us with their cyclist friend Bill, whom we almost talked into joining us, late into the night.
There’s a storm a comin
Tuesday July 14, 2009, 76 miles (122 km) – Total so far: 1,607 miles (2,586 km)
We had several elderly locals echo the sentiment that “there’s a big storm a-comin’, better be careful” today, which sufficiently spooked us enough to keep us moving. We also had a rare day of tail wind, courtesy of the storm pursuing us. We met a couple young cyclists going to the opposite direction who told us to keep on the lookout for a man they nicknamed Lieutenant Dan after the character in Forest Gump. He and his plethora of Hawaiian shirts are in the middle of a 10,000 mile bike loop around the US, chain smoking rolled cigarettes and brightening people’s days. Unlike the original lieutenant, he does have use of his legs. We promised we’d look for him and kept going, eager to escape some infringing dark clouds. By the end of the day, we seemed to have completely eluded the storm. It was sunny and all of our rain preparations felt unnecessary.
We slowed our pace and pulled into the Bloody Run campground for the night. Because of the humidity, we didn’t bother with our rain fly, assuming that we had missed the worst of the storm and would be safe. We realized in the middle of the night, though, that we had only outrun it temporarily. Confused and awoken by a bright light, we saw that the sky was on fire. Loud thunder cracked over us and we had to secure the fly as quickly as possible. Our bodies propelled to action by fear, we leapt out of the tent and began fumbling with the rain fly.
“We need to stake the tent!” Joe yelled over the storm to me.
I responded, angry and shivering from my fear and the pelting rain. “I’m not holding up metal tent stakes right now!” My tone was a screech that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing come out of me. The sky was exploding in bolts of light and I couldn’t make my heart stop its loud hammering. Joe and I yelled at each other like that in the rain, our eyes wide and our clothes growing wetter. Another loud crack of thunder sounded right above our heads and we retreated, temporarily deafened, like frightened animals.
We huddled together in the soggy tent, with our tired limbs shaking uncontrollably and our blood pumping hotly in our ears, until the storm began to ebb an hour later. We drifted asleep slowly to the sound of rain, less insistent now, falling on our tent while the sky’s rumbling receded. Our tears streaked and dried to our cheeks. We dreamed about quiet things, and woke up alive.
Is this Iowa? No, it’s Dangerous.
Wednesday July 15, 2009, 70 miles (113 km) – Total so far: 1,677 miles (2,699 km)
After our harrowing night, we rode hard today in order to reach the nearest bicycle shop in La Crosse. We started our morning with Joe blowing another flat and since our feeble pump was still not up to the job and no gas station seemed to have an adaptor for the fickle European valves on his tires, Joe had to bike the distance with his tire half inflated.
Today I questioned the infallibility of the trip for the first time. Our map led us up a steep curving hill that spiraled around a large bluff on a road with no shoulder, no spare space for bikes, and heavy truck traffic. With a speed limit of 50 miles per hour and a steep cliff to the side of us, we were committed from the beginning. Even though we found ourselves the recipients of honks and angry curses from the drivers, turning around and crossing the blind traffic seemed to be equally as dangerous as finishing the climb or falling off the side. Joe powered ahead of me and I struggled to reach him. Between the previous night and this day, my adrenaline levels were making me wild. When I finally met him at the top, I really broke down. Joe held me, sobbing, and, with his rare but dependable humanity, consoled me.
“I want to quit.” I told him, my face worn from sun and dust and tears.
Joe reminded me why I wasn’t trying to do this alone. “We don’t have to keep doing this, but you’re going to regret it if we stop now.”
When I calmed down, we continued, and I realized, as is the case with most adventures and all life, that I was grateful I had continued. The rest of the day was illuminated by the new lease on life that our adrenaline rush had compensated us with, and we gratefully made our camp unscathed in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. In the evening we discussed lightly how, despite the unassuming nature of the Midwest, some of our most frightening moments yet have been in Iowa.
Thursday July 16, 2009, 26 miles (42 km) – Total so far: 1,703 miles (2,741 km)
The raccoons of Wisconsin taught us a valuable lesson about proper food storage this morning when we found our breakfast and an entire loaf of bread missing. We fixed Joe’s flat today at a local bike shop and got a new pump that works better. We also met the world’s coolest old lady. She was biking across the US, alone, on a seemingly more circuitous route than us just to celebrate turning 70. We camped in a cornfield tonight on the side of the trail and found that we agreed with Mark Twain about the sunset on the Mississippi. We slept well for the most part, although Joe had a lengthy argument with a neighborhood cat that was drawn to our encampment by the smell of tuna.
Stockholm Art Festival
Saturday July 18, 2009, 0 miles – Total so far: 1,703 miles (2,741 kilometers)
We couldn’t resist taking the day off to explore Stockholm and its supposed 97 inhabitants. For a town with a two digit population, it had a lot to offer. The town was filled with boutiques, art galleries, and cafes, and felt like it would be more at home in Europe than hidden on the banks of the Mississippi. The festival had painting, glass-blowing, pottery, woodworking, jewelry, and many other forms of art. We actually spent most of the day eating – primarily dairy. In fact, since entering Wisconsin we have discarded all of the outdated notions we had that a block of cheese is not an appropriate meal. We are thoroughly testing the limits of our lactose tolerance a decision that is not very compatible with tent sharing.
The locals around here are incredibly friendly (doncha know) and we learned the entire history of Stockholm in the museum. The town was founded by Swedish immigrants in 1851 as an almost entirely Swedish community because the landscape reminded them of home. Until the automobile revolution took off in the early part of last century, it was completely self-sufficient, but as transportation increased and more people migrated, integration sped up and blacksmiths turned to bars. In the 70s, the town was discovered by a few artists who admired it for its beauty, and over time it grew into a thriving art community, yielding events such as the festival we stumbled upon. After a day of sightseeing, we were given free passage for both nights in the campground by the caretaker, and fed again by some more kind natives. We fell asleep early to the sound of campfire murmurs and the train that runs through town.
Don Olsen’s farm: Minnesota
Monday July 20, 2009, 62 miles (100 km) – Total so far: 1,894 miles (3,048 km)
Today we ran into two guys cycling up the Mississippi early in the morning and rode with them about forty miles. Jhidi was an electrical engineer right out of college with a funny sense of humor, and his ponytailed friend Roland was a writer with one year of college left. They kept us entertained for most of the day, riding beside us, with stories from their trip thus far. Since they were only going 300 miles, they thought they would be able to do things somewhat minimally, and left on a couple of old road bikes with little more than a heavy car camping tent bungeed to the back of one bike. Both men had neglected to bring a sleeping bag or pad, an oversight that they sorely regretted after one long cold night where they hesitantly admitted to us that they had been forced to huddle with each other for warmth beneath a single child sized fleece blanket. We asked Jhidi about the towel wrapped around his seat and learned that he had developed a horrible rash from the combination of frequent friction and sweat, a condition known well in the bike community by the pleasant colloquialism ‘crotch rot’. Realizing what his problem was, we were surprised that he had not been warned about it before, since before leaving for our own journey it seemed like people were enthusiastically jumping out of the woodwork to tell us about the dreaded epidermal monster. We gave him a few tips on treatment and prevention which he was extremely receptive to, and he left us shouting thanks for literally saving his ass.
After separating from the two, we stopped at Don Olsen’s farm, a place marked on our Adventure Cycling maps as cyclist’s only lodging. Wemet the magnanimous farmer Don Olsen who took us in, fed us, and offered us the lower floor of his house to sleep in. Signing his guest book, we discovered that the elusive Lieutenant Dan had been through, but that sadly we had missed him. Don confirmed he was indeed an interesting character.
Looking at the cloudy sky that evening, Don told us we brought some rain with us. They hadn’t had rain all summer and the crops were drying up. That night, though, we had a thunderstorm, which made Don happy for his crops and us happy that we were under a roof. We watched the news for the first time in months and were able to catch up on the latest Minnesota happenings. We were comforted by the knowledge that “the ball slasher” was no longer on the loose, which was the headlining story that apparently capped a several week long investigation following a mysterious series of break-ins at exercise and yoga centers by someone with a fetish for large exercise rubber balls. Knowing this, we have one less reason to fear for our bike tires.
More practice with flat tires
Wednesday July 22, 2009, 70 miles (113 km) – Total so far: 2,027 miles (3,262 km)
Today we woke up on the banks of the Mississippi and rode to the little town of Bowlus. The husband and wife that owned the local coffee shop fell in love with our mission and sent us off with homemade cinnamon buns. A bicycle helmet is a brilliant device for encouraging strangers to give you free food. The cinnamon buns were the perfect thing to eat while sitting on the side of the road fixing a flat, which we were fortunate enough to get some more practice with. We ran into our usual bevy of dogs on the road. Dogs, we have learned, have a longstanding aggressive campaign against bicycles, which is deterred only by barking back at them, as Joe discovered today. We stopped for the night in Parker’s Prairie at the Lake Adley Park, where a nice policeman came by to check on us and found me up to my bike shorts in the lake, washing my hair with a bar of soap. It would have been embarrassing months ago, but we’re getting pretty used to our daily hygiene rituals being public. Joe also managed to set the picnic table on fire, making me question the wisdom of the Midwest when trusting travelers with their town parks. The site had an old fashioned water pump that you had to work for a good five minutes to get the water going, and Joe had a great time practicing his old timey accents while furiously pumping.
Finally entering North Dakota: North Dakota
Sunday July 26, 2009, 52 miles (84 km) – Total so far: 2,204 miles (3,547 km)
We heard from Art finally! Art, who fixed our bikes back in Maine, is biking the other way cross country and will be meeting us two days from now in Cooperstown, North Dakota. Since that is only about eighty miles we’ll be doing two short days. Today we decided to just bike to the town of Page, a five hour trip that turned into a full day endeavor. As soon as we crossed the border to North Dakota, things seemed windier and colder. North Dakota is amazingly flat, but the wind may prove to be a bigger obstacle than expected.
The Cooperstown Bike Gang
Monday July 27, 2009, 40 miles (64 km) – Total so far: 2,244 miles (3,611 km)
Today, we woke up to a freezing day. We began pedaling and had to quickly gear down due to the wind. As we fought against it, we slowed considerably to almost half of our usual speed. We tried to plow forward and noticed birds, attempting the same stubborn goal, being thrown backward by the wind. The long grasses undulated in the wind, and things began to pass us. First loose trash and small objects flew by, but then they were followed by farmers, cattle, and at one point a large barn that had been ripped from its foundation by the sheer force of the wind. The wind screamed in our ears and infiltrated our layers of warm clothing, freezing us to the bone. When we attempted to coast, we went backwards. We finally sought refuge in the small town of Hope, appropriately named. It was there, huddled under a roof while the wind knocked our bikes over, that we met Tracy, another fellow biker foolish enough to bike East to West across the brutal barren North Dakota. We got lunch with him and then biked with him to Cooperstown, which was another grueling several hours. What we thought would be a quick forty mile day proved to be a serious test of our dedication to the trip, but was rewarded with a lot of friendly faces. Quite a few more than we expected actually. Art, the friendly bike shop owner who had been our salvation in Maine, and his travel partner John had run in with about eleven other bikers whom they were now traveling with. Their new bike group was a wedding party, all aged over sixty, that was accompanying their two newlywed friends on their honeymoon, so to speak. In addition, a lone traveler Eli and four other travelers from Portland were heading west as well and happened upon the group in Cooperstown. It seems that three of the Portland tourists had worked at a bike shop together and were literally moving by bicycle to Wisconsin (with their belongings preceding them in a U-Haul). The fourth member of their party was a college professor cycling the same route for fun whom they had met on the side of the road while he was attempting to undertake an even more admirable goal of eating an entire carton of hard boiled eggs. Added to this motley crew were Joe, Tracy and I. We spent the night telling stories, relating bike tips and travel tips, and feeling at home with other cyclists for a change. Although our social skills were a little stiff from lack of use, they warmed up slowly and the town park in Cooperstown took on the look of a tent city, surrounded by a modern day wagon ring of bicycles.
From Russia with Love
Tuesday July 28, 2009, 36 miles (58 km) – Total so far: 2,280 miles (3,669 km)
The morning started with nuclear missiles. One of the last remaining missile sites in North Dakota opened early for the unusually large number of cyclists to visit it. In the early morning, I rode four miles to the site with our motley crew of cyclists and spent two hours touring it. Suffice it to say, North Dakota alone is perfectly capable (or at least was in 1980, before most of the sites were deactivated) of creating a worldwide nuclear winter, which was disconcerting information to learn before attempting the state by bicycle. After the missile site Joe, who elected to catch some extra beauty sleep during the missile tour, woke up so we could catch breakfast with Art and John before we parted ways. Tracy, Joe, and I headed on our way, deterred slightly by the giant gales of wind blowing from the North West. We only went a short distance today because we got a tip from Art that there was a great inn to stay at in Pekin. We explored the town (population too small to list) when we got there and got a drink at the local bar. It was there that we met an interesting old man named Gene who works on one of the many Indian Reservations in the area. He explained some of the tensions that we had already witnessed and were bound to see more often. He said that often the bordering towns on both sides of the reservations have big drinking and crime problems, so that “the white men see the worst of the Indians, and the Indians see the worst of the white men” as he put it. He said a lot of his pupils were incredibly bright (The reservation at Devil’s Lake, where he worked, in fact has the highest test scores for reservation schools in the country because they push education so much) but that many of them have family problems to contend with. We were raised with some of these stories in school, but this was the first time I found myself witnessing racial boundaries like this in person.
Indirectly Funding the Reservation
Wednesday July 29, 2009, 67 miles (108 km) – Total so far: 2,347 miles (3,777 km)
Today was eventful. We got started at a reasonable time because we had no tent to pack. The wind was slightly better, although still a formidable obstacle. The landscape around us is changing slightly. The bullet holes in all of the state signs lend a rustic touch to the area, and cattle ranches or long barren stretches of prairie have replaced the farms we used to see. We rode past Devil’s lake today, which was an interesting journey; North Dakota has land bridges constructed across the lakes, so it was as if we were riding right through them. We stopped in Warwick for lunch, following a somewhat misleading welcome sign to the town. We discovered that the town consisted of a dirt road, a surly looking auto shop, a few dilapidated buildings that had been closed for an indeterminate amount of time, and a bar. The bar’s lack of windows did not make it a welcoming environment but we locked up our bikes and took our chances. The interior was dim and the food was fried, but the real surprise lay in the bathroom, where I discovered that wallpaper had been forgone out of preference for male nudes. I was more surprised to learn from the guys that the men’s room was inexplicably devoid of similar wallpapering. Perhaps the bar was more concerned with providing women’s entertainment than men’s, an odd fact considering how few women I have actually seen here so far.
We continued on our way until discovered a large Casino right on Devil’s Lake. We couldn’t help but stop and try our luck. I was heading for penny slots but Joe talked me into black jack and before I knew it, a fast handed dealer repetitively named Muhamed Mohamed had added my two five dollar chips to his stack with a flourish. I spent another five dollars convincing myself that slot machines were also fruitless, and then avoided the flashy machines for the rest of our stay. Joe lost thirty and Tracy managed to lose two hundred, making me the biggest winner (?). Pulling out of the casino onto the busy 70 mph road, a driver slowed to pass us and was hit by the man behind him, scaring all three of us badly. We continued on our way more cautiously and reached Minnewaukan later that night.
Minnewaukan, we were told, was the Indian name for Devil’s Lake and actually translates to Spirit Lake. Apparently a great battle took place on the lake between Chippewas and Sioux and both sides were killed by a tempestuous storm, prompting a young Indian maiden betrothed to one of the warriors to drown herself in the lake and leading the Indians to refer to the ‘spirit lake’ as bad, which colonists later translated incorrectly to mean ‘devil’s lake’. The settlement named for the original Indian name still stands, although it has grown into a large town supported by tourism. Native American tragedies play a large role in nomenclature here. The town of Maiden Rock, which we passed through in Wisconsin, was named for a love struck Indian maiden who threw herself from a bluff because she was betrothed to another man. If one really wants a town named after them in the West, the combination of Native roots and tragic suicide is key.
Friday July 31, 2009 through Sunday August 2, 2009, 0 miles – Total so far: 2,407 miles (3,874 km)
We tried really hard to get out of the tent today. We really did. We woke up to a very cold day. New Hampshire in winter cold. Hell freezing over cold. It seemed that while everywhere else in the country was having a heat spell, North Dakota was experiencing unseasonably cold weather. In addition to this, it was raining some of the freezing North Dakota rain that we had experienced intermittently on our trip. This time it wasn’t accompanied by the hail we had had some brief yet unpleasant experiences with. We have a theory that the large number of churches in North Dakota are in fact formed in response to the horrific weather, which is not so much inclement as akin to what you might expect in hell if you died after starting a large scale genocide movement.
We bundled in all of our clothing, layering bike shorts over long johns to create a curious appearance and pulling on wool socks with our bicycle shoes, only to hop over to the bathroom cursing North Dakota. We huddled in our sleeping bags until noon, wondering why anyone would live in this frigid wasteland and trying to convince ourselves that riding would be fun today. Tracy, after all, had taken off bravely at an early, if not bright, hour. We couldn’t convince ourselves this was a good idea, try as we might to revive some optimism. We decided today, perhaps, would be better spent updating our blog, since cell phone towers were an endangered species here and we were pretty sure that some of our friends and loved ones thought we were dead. Determined to assure the world via internet of our existence, we valiantly forged into the storm to reach the library, and were told that the town’s internet connection was dead until the wind improved. Dejectedly, we leafed through books before we decided to explore the rest of the town as an excuse to avoid biking today. We discovered a neat restaurant that had been revamped to look like an old ice cream parlor and ate while the lights flickered around us from the wind.
Having run out of places in town to investigate, we checked out the town bars, always a good source of entertainment. The first bar was run by a sweet old man who gave us each a beer on the house after hearing about our trip. We watched a dice game being played that involved slamming a container with dice on the table and using the dice count after so many throws to determine who was going to buy who a drink. The second bar we went to was much livelier. We encountered about two dozen construction workers before we realized that the dice game was not exclusive to the first bar but seemed to be a North Dakota ritual. Different rules applied at different bars. At this bar, it appeared that yelling exclamations after slamming the dice down was important, and doing it as loudly as possible increased the luck of the game dramatically. We chatted with the construction workers for a while until we felt that I might have gotten a few too many propositions, which might have been more flattering had I not realized days earlier that I was the only woman in North Dakota. As we escaped during a particularly rowdy dice game, a mountain shaped man named Brian insisted that I first check out how strong his arms were, promising me that ‘I wouldn’t find pythons like that on a cyclist’.
Saturday August 1, 2009, 55 miles (89 km) – Total so far: 2,461 miles (3,961 km)
Today was possibly our hardest day yet of cycling, and we only went 55 miles. The wind is completely relentless, and a much stronger force than either of us expected it to be. We spent the day climbing a mountain of air. We had planned to make it to Minot, but found ourselves exhausted in Surrey instead, giving in to the wind. I am giving real thought to taking the train across North Dakota.
‘Wanna Get Naked?’
Sunday August 2, 2009, 42 miles (68 km) – Total so far: 2,503 miles (4,028 km)
We were planning to go to New Town today, but fell short of our mark and ended up in Makoti. We had to take refuge from the wind, which kept trying to push us over like a giant invisible bully. We realized today that we are moving at eight miles an hour, as compared with the thirteen miles an hour we were able to do in Minnesota. We planned to stop at a bike shop to look at my derailleur in Minot, but forgot that on Sunday nothing would be open. Instead we decided we could try the shop in Williston and continued on.
We stopped briefly at a bar where we learned that the dice game we were growing more familiar with could sometimes be played with the addition of loud expletives being screamed after each dice roll. It was here that we witnessed the best pick-up line we have heard yet in North Dakota, as well as the first female besides me in this state. While we were eating our greasy bar food, a visibly inebriated man yelled for the bartender to come over. When he had her attention, he slurred a great proposition: “Joanne! …wanna get naked?” She was hard pressed to decline the offer, but still managed to.
We pulled into Makoti hoping to find food because several friendly but misleading signs, despite the bullet holes, suggested that food was available via restaurant and grocery store, but we discovered after riding the two extra miles into town that both the cafe and the grocery store were not only closed but completely abandoned. In fact, the only businesses in town seemed to be a church, a bank, and a bar, the latter of which was of course not open on Sunday because of competition. We did find a lovely park and spent the night trying to hide from the wind there. We woke up in the night to what felt like an earthquake. The tent was rolling and pitching and taking us with it, turning over like a kite as it was being hit by the screaming wind. We are starting to lose some hope.
North Dakota Tries to Redeem Itself
Tuesday August 4, 2009, 71 miles (114 km) – Total so far: 2,606 miles (4,194 km)
Today we started early expecting the worst, and we were surprised by the lack of wind. We had assumed that wind was as permanent a fixture in North Dakota as the prairie grass or bleak local expressions, but it was noticeably missing today. We were ecstatic to finally get some relief from it, and found that even the scenery changed. We traveled through ‘the wild’ of North Dakota today, a strip that consisted of seventy miles devoid of civilization and filled with beautiful bluffs, red sand, and sweeping green hills. After many flat days, we found North Dakota’s hidden topography. The ride today went quickly and we rediscovered our excitement about the trip. In fact, we found ourselves racing over the last ten miles of hills, pausing on the tallest one to look at the town of Williston below us, stretched out in a valley. The views today, for the first time since reaching North Dakota, were really breathtaking. We rode the last three miles into town in a victory stance, knowing we were only twenty miles from the border and that we had finally seen the good side of the state we had been struggling through for a week.
Don’t go down that road
Wednesday August 5, 2009, 0 miles – Total so far: 2,606 miles (4,194 km)
We finally reached a town with service, internet access, and a library parked right next to our camp. The communication availability was staggering and overwhelmed the feeble surviving social skills that we have left. We basically spent a day camped in the library, surviving solely on food from the Economart, a chain of grocery stores here that sounds vaguely like something from a Transformer movie. It was in the town park where we met Henry and Cori, a couple cycling cross country from Northern Wisconsin on a tandem bike. Joe and I would kill each other after one day on a tandem bike, but they had managed to make it over seven hundred miles together. Henry worked at a bike shop so his bike resembled something that Doc Brown might have approached time travel with, sporting halogen lights and a homemade air horn to contend with the ever vocal semis on Highway 2. While visiting, two different locals stopped by to warn us about the upcoming Indian reservations we would pass through, which ostensibly had a high murder rate. We weren’t sure what to make of the reservation politics, but elected not to stay overnight in the town one man dubbed ‘the stabbiest place in America.’ Once again, there’s nothing as ominous as locals saying things like ‘Don’t go down that road, no one takes that road’.
The Serpents of Glasgow
Friday August 7, 2009, 90 miles (145 km) – Total so far: 2,741 miles (4,411 km)
The reservation we were headed towards today is actually the ‘stabbiest’ place in America, if one is able to tolerate the egregious adjective, since it witnesses more cases of stabbing per capita than anywhere else in America. However, this statistic is really not a reliable indicator of violence since the reservations are so small it could easily just be one guy who goes on a stabbing bender once a year and manages to wound seven or eight people before he’s detained, as Joe was fond of suggesting. We made it across all ninety miles of the Fort Peck Reservation by bandying jokes about the Fort Peck stabber back and forth, and managed in this way to keep an unspoken decision silent between us that we would not be stopping until we were out of stabbing territory. We did, however, eventually succumb to our curiosity and stop at several museums and chat with locals. The people were friendly and the worst we encountered was bullet holes in the signs and broken glass on the roads, which still painted a nicer sight than North Dakota.
On the subject of broken glass, we learned about a popular game the highschoolers play in Eastern Montana called ‘highway baseball,’ which entails lining up empty glass bottles of questionable origin and predictably smashing them with a baseball bat while driving by. If every vehicle that used the highway did not have permeable rubber tires, this would be a great game, but as it is, we blew three tires today and ended up riding until dark to end in Nashua (population 325), directly outside of the reservation. We went to the first place we saw for food, which happened to be a combination bar and casino, and ate three pizzas between us. We realized it was Friday night at that point, and ended up having a few drinks with some locals, who explained that Nashua means ‘meeting place of two rivers’. This was surprising, because in NH I had assumed Nashua meant ‘meeting place of strip malls and fast food establishments’.
Reading the local paper, we realized that after an ocean of pleasantries in the Midwest, we were reentering sarcastic territory in Montana. Nashua was one of those small towns with the fantastic policy of writing up all 911 and emergency calls received by dispatchers for that week in the back pages, which the residents at the bar referred to as ‘the funnies’. The best listings included a call from an elderly gentleman who complained of young people ‘raising Cain’ in his neighborhood, and a woman who had called to report a despicable conspiracy of the Jewish men in Glasgow (a town 15 miles away) to infect all of the women in surrounding towns with HIV and enslave them as prostitutes. We were wondering how this could be done on such a large scale, but the woman had explained in her frantic 911 call that these Semites were using snakes to scare the women. We decided this was useful information to heed, and determined to avoid Jewish men and snakes (even the Gentiles) on our way through Montana.
The Red Cross Welcoming Committee of Hinsdale
Saturday August 8, 2009, 45 miles (72 km) – Total so far: 2,786 miles (4,484 km)
We continued down the glass gauntlet of Highway 2 today, and got two more flats before noon. This put us at a grand total of five flats in two days, and allowed me the opportunity to witness Joe actually throwing back his head and yelling at the sky. Since the sky is roughly ninety percent of what you see in Montana, I’m assuming he was directing his curses at the state in general by yelling at its largest target. After this added tire practice, we rode through unpleasant rainy weather in a mutually grumpy mood. At the end of the day, however, even though we hadn’t made it to our target for the day and had had some obstacles, our bitterness dissolved while we watched the sun set. The sunsets in Montana are amazing, courtesy of their abundance of sky. The rain parted and we saw a rainbow, casting a stunning scene that left us content until we made camp in the mosquito capital of the world.
We had been warned about the mosquitos of the Saco area, but, being from New England, had scoffed at what we assumed was a gross exaggeration. We stopped our bikes next to the Milk River in Hinsdale and were confused for a few seconds about the low visibility until we realized it was due to the mosquitos in the air. Looking down, we suddenly found our legs and arms covered in a writhing black mass. We dealt with this as bravely as we could, and began screaming and slapping ourselves. We both started cursing the ‘DEET free’ bug spray we had bought in a moment of environmental consciousness. We threw up the tent as quickly as possible and spent the next hour killing mosquitoes inside of it. Time after that was spent eating green peppers and peanut butter, as it had become evident that cooking, or doing anything else outside was not a viable option. Dinner was meager but the tiny winged carcasses covering the inside of our tent with red smears left us wanting in appetite. After this, we commenced to sleep huddled and shivering because in our hurry we only threw one sleeping bag in the tent, and the cold snap in the Montana/ North Dakota region was still in effect. As we listened to the tapping, rain like sound of the mosquitoes asking for entrance to our tent late in to the night, we assigned a urine water bottle, deciding that if we could clean a fish out of it, we could clean anything out of it. Overall, the day was filled with highs and lows.
The Great Escape
Sunday August 9, 2009, 60 miles (97 km) – Total so far: 2,846 miles (4,580 km)
Our inescapable tent proved to be a great think tank in which to plot our escape from Hinsdale. Our final strategy involved running out of the tent screaming and slapping ourselves and packing the tent as quickly and roughly as possible. We got breakfast at the gas station – one of two remaining businesses in the town – and were told by the owner that the mosquitoes are so bad this year that they have been industrially spraying the area in a futile attempt to dispatch some of them. We shared our opinion with him about the efficacy of this. We made a valiant attempt to escape the bloodsuckers by riding as quickly as we could, but discovered that they were drafting behind our pedaling legs, biting through our shorts. Joe has two pairs of bike shorts and managed to escape any upper thigh damage, but I was left with two swollen meaty looking appendages where my legs used to be. Along with the tan lines and grease stains, I think it gives me a more rustic distinction that better matches Joe’s increasing hairiness. Given our current appearances, we have mostly given up on the hope of good Samaritans taking us home with them now. We stopped at the Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs to soothe our skin and clean our least favorite water bottle before camping at Dodson.
Thursday August 13, 2009, 61 miles (98 km) – Total so far: 2,978 miles (4,793 km)
Being from New England, the original importers of masochism from Europe, we waited through the beautiful weather on our days off in Havre for a truly despicable storm to commence with our trip. It rained on us most of the day and we had some headwind in the afternoon. We stopped at a bar for lunch and discovered another bike with a bob trailer outside. This is an overstatement, because what we actually saw was a decrepit mountain bike with massive knobby tires that was literally groaning from the weight of four panniers, an overloaded bob trailer, and a huge front pack. Overall, the bike appeared to be holding more weight than most people would be willing to carry in a minivan. This is how we met Old Joe, a 62 year old man from Connecticut who quit his job and sold his house to cycle around the country. We realized we were biking the same trajectory and decided to all share a campsite that night. Joe said he’d get a bottle of wine to celebrate which we thought was a joke until we pulled up and found him with a bottle of wine and a six pack of beer, listening to country music on his wind up radio in the Chester town park. We spent the evening listening to Joe’s country music and the cracking sound of beer opening at intervals through our thin tent walls. Waking up groggy and irritable after our poor night of sleep, we discovered that Joe had taken off on his beast of burden at six, leaving us with a lot of questions and a short note.
The weather worsens
Friday August 14, 2009, 43 miles (69 km) – Total so far: 3,021 miles (4,862 km)
Montana is getting colder every day as we gain elevation. Lately the nights have been in the forties and the headwinds are increasing as we grow closer to the Rockies. We had planned to make it to Cut Bank today, but could only get to Shelby on account of some relentlessly strong headwinds. We shivered our way through rain and wind to find a campsite, only to find that Old Joe, shirtless and bemustached, waiting for us with another six pack of beer and a bottle of wine that he was merrily dispatching. We are wearing all of our clothing now, at 3000 feet above sea level, and beginning to wish we had invested in heavier sleeping bags.
A plague in Montana
Saturday August 15, 2009, 24 miles (39 km) – Total so far: 3,045 miles (4,900 km)
We woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of what sounded like a torrential downpour hitting our sleeping bag, and it took us a minute more to realize it was the sprinkler system in the park. While the tent wasn’t quite up to the task of keeping all of the water out, we fared a lot better than Old Joe did. We found him soaked and shivering at six in the morning, heading to the Laundromat to dry his sleeping bag and clothes because he had had the bad luck of camping next to a sprinkler head that shot water right under his rain fly.
Today’s weather was nothing short of biblical. We failed to witness any frogs (although Montana’s locust population is impressive), but all plagues which pertained to bad weather seemed to strike Montana at once. The headwinds were by far the strongest we have seen yet and we spent the day in our very lowest gears, even on the downhill, fighting gusts strong enough to knock us over. The day barely reached the low fifties in temperature and we approached the battle in all of our layers, looking like brightly colored ninjas. It took us four hours to make a grueling 24 miles across mostly flat territory. We were exhausted by the time we reached Cut Bank, at 3500 feet in elevation, where, defying all logic, we again found Old Joe with his arsenal of libation.
Montana is finally interesting!
Monday August 17, 2009, 55 miles (88 km) – Total so far: 3,100 miles (4,989 km)
We laid low in Cut Bank to wait out what we refused to admit was a snowstorm in August, and cresting the hill to leave Cut Bank we were shocked to see the Rocky Mountain Range stretched out in front of us like a sleeping giant. We spent the day watching the mountains grow larger and felt our energy return as the prospect of climbing the Continental divide grew close. As the day wore on, however, strong headwinds combined with climbing our first hills since Minnesota cut down on our speed. We also overestimated our riding time because we forgot that the looming mountains would abbreviate our sunlight. We stumbled upon a campsite in a small mountain pass outside of Kiowa, in official ‘bear territory’. Owned by a vivacious Californian who fell in love with Montana and guarded well by five friendly dogs, it had the best food we have had since New England. After the Midwestern food desert of greasy burgers, tasteless tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce, we happened upon an oasis of fresh vegetables. With our digestive tracts shocked yet satisfied by the reintroduction of nutrition, we fell asleep full and happy in a grove of trees after watching the sun set over the mountains.
Tuesday August 18, 2009, 50 miles (80 km) – Total so far: 3,150 miles (5,069 km
We started at 4500 feet today, and spent the day riding over the foothills of the different mountains leading up to the continental divide. Because we neglected to take Maria’s Pass or the route through Canada because of our lack of passports, we rode between the two routes Adventure Cycling suggests so that we could still go up Logan’s Pass at the Going to the Sun Road. We found ourselves riding over steeper climbs than we expected and spent most of the day climbing. After our training with the headwinds, however, we felt more than up to the challenge and hardly noticed the climbing because of the beautiful views that lasted the entire day. We met some Europeans on top of our last mountain pass and rode downhill with them for a full five miles to St. Mary’s. We discovered in St. Mary’s that after a long dormancy through North Dakota and Eastern Montana, civilization began again. We entered Glacier National Park and rode around St. Mary’s Lake to the Rising Sun campground on the Going to the Sun Road so that we could wake up early to make the climb. We couldn’t believe that the site was completely packed with tents. Fortunately, we found Old Joe reserving our place and sharing his usual Popeye inspired fortification ritual with some fellow bikers and hikers.
The views we saw in Glacier were completely breathtaking, especially compared with the barrenness of our recent landscapes. We heard an interesting talk from one of the forest rangers about white bark pines, which are a unique tree that thrives in adversity and therefore requires forest fires and other strife to naturally occur. We have a useful brochure which features, on its front, a large picture of an angered grizzly attacking the camera along with the explanation BEARS! that we found very informational. Using this guide for reference, we avoided feeding, petting, or chasing after the black bear we saw near camp. We did, however, stand in a group and gawk at it.
The Continental Divide!
Wednesday August 19, 2009, 60 miles (97 km) – Total so far: 3,210 miles (5,166 km)
Today we officially climbed the continental divide at Logan’s Pass – 6664 feet above sea level – making today the most awe-inspiring one of our trip. I think we both expected that summiting the Rockies would feel like the Kankamagus Pass in New Hampshire, a quiet private experience between us and the mountain. We failed to appreciate in this romanticized idea how popular Logan Pass is mid-summer. Fortunately, the small boy cycling past us as we climbed reminded us of our humility. The climb was much less severe than we expected, and the view and experience of taking the Going to the Sun Road was incredible. On top we hiked around and got some long distance shots of billy goats on the mountain. We realized how unnecessary our hard effort had been when we nearly collided with a family of the goats licking salt off of the middle of the road on our way down. We found out later that they are salt deficient, and therefore have been known to follow sodium packed American hikers around hoping that they will urinate.
The descent down into the Western side of Glacier national park was absolutely the most incredible downhill experience of our lives. We used our brakes so much we had to stop periodically so our rims wouldn’t overheat. The headset on my bike has been slowly deteriorating since Iowa, so I took the descent slowly, leaving me to only speculate about Joe’s experience at the bottom where he almost hit a black bear in the road. We continued on a mostly downhill tract until Western Glacier, where we separated from Old Joe, before continuing on to Hungry Horse. We surprised Joe’s old bosses, Mark and Mary, at their bed and breakfast and were kindly rewarded for our total lack of forewarning with dinner, wine and beer on the back porch, where they have the second best view in Glacier. The best view is from The Octagon building, which is where they graciously put us up.
The Whitefish Escapades
Friday August 21, 2009 and Saturday August 22, 2009, 0 miles – Total so far: 3,230 (5,198 km)
We spent an entire two days in Whitefish, planning to hike but never successfully undertaking it. People here are almost ludicrously friendly towards cyclists. We actually had a man stop his car on a busy road to give us a bag of carrots and peaches. We made some friends here, including a cyclist going the opposite way named Steven Tyler Simmons, whose parents met at an Aerosmith concert. Thanks to this energetic social magnet, people wanted to help us out left and right and we found ourselves in possession of huckleberries, cherries, and baked goods from a group of female admirers. I got a new headset at the bike shop where I was given an opportunity to see the rusted remains of the one I used to descend the Rockies with, humbling me once again with the recognition of my own mortality. The town has gentrified recently, giving it a ‘yuppie’ reputation, but we still found the people there to be down to earth. With Steve leading, we spent time at the beach, bars, and bike trails and seriously considered moving to Glacier.
The breakfast of Champions
Sunday August 23, 2009, 60 miles (97 km) – Total so far: 3,290 miles (5,295 km)
Of the people interested in sharing their good will with our new friend Steve, the most notable is an eccentric gentleman he met in a Whitefish bar, Mike. Mike is an unfailingly energetic body builder with calves the size of melons and a sweet soft spoken temperament whose dream in life is to someday have his own cooking show. Today, he invited us to his house for breakfast and a show, not necessarily in that order. Mike not only narrates his cooking enthusiastically, but supplements sound effects and other vocal noises periodically throughout it. Along with Steve, whose enthusiasm and curiosity only served to further fuel Mike’s, Joe and I felt like the captivated audience of a sudden and unexpected live food channel show that was unfolding before us.
After our unorthodox breakfast we parted ways with Steve and Mike and once again headed west. We rode through more gorgeous western Montana territory to Eureka, where we were informed that the best burger in America was waiting for us. At least, according to some arbitrary talk show, which was plenty of reason by now for the two of us to ride sixty miles for a burger. We were deeply disappointed to discover that the best burger in America was not available on Sundays. We thought we had left the land of puritanical burger judgment. We opted for making tacos instead, which we did a mile from our campsite, thinking we would be smart and avoid any incentives for a bear to investigate our camp. What we didn’t consider, however, was that the taco juices would still get all over us, leaving us marinated in tasty meat sauce.
In the town park that night we met Mark, a friendly bearded giant who was likewise on a bike trip. His was a bit more extreme than ours, we can admit wholeheartedly, as he was traveling not across but along the continental divide from New Mexico. As a result, he passed over the Rockies not once but more than twenty times. Undertaking a mountain bike route, as well, he had much more impressive bike problems than we could own up to. He had stories of crucial pieces of his bike literally falling off while he was riding. Despite the intensity of his trip, he was a mild-mannered, funny guy who we enjoyed talking with until late. Fortunately for our meaty situation, as well, the park had showers, although they were not lit showers. Since the park was in the back of a warehouse, this meant showering in the dark or with the door ajar to an alley, where one could be entertained by a loud and angry domestic dispute while showering. The park itself was pretty charming and located next to the river so that we drifted off to sleep to the sound of peaceful flowing water contending with the domestic enmity.
Monday August 24, 2009, 67 miles (108 km) – Total so far: 3,357 miles (5,402 km)
Today we woke up with determination. We decided if we couldn’t eat the best burger in the country for dinner, we would eat it for breakfast. This found us sitting in the Front Porch Restaurant at noon, waiting to eat a curious burger with Mark, who we learned is actually 6 feet, 7 inches, leading us to believe that he has chosen to bike through the mountains because he can relate to them so well. After our beefy breakfast, we rode along the Koocanusa today (not an Indian word, as we thought, but actually named for the Kootanai river and the two countries it runs through, Canada and the USA), which is supposedly the deepest river in the country. It is a glacial flow, and therefore the most amazing blue color that would seem less out of place in the tropics.
Lobster Mushrooms and Hospitality?
Tuesday August 25, 2009, and Wednesday August 26, 2009 60 miles (97 km) – Total so far: 3,417 miles (5,499 km)
We rode along the Kootenai today towards Idaho. Joe’s lungs were having a hard time adjusting to all the fresh air they were getting after he had spoiled them with nicotine for two days in Whitefish and so we stopped for a day in Idaho to rest them. We pulled in to a campground, which was actually more of an RV park, and were greeted by several people with beers and baskets of lobster mushrooms they had just picked. After checking in, we found ourselves recipients of homemade food and, a little more questionably, homemade liquor. We spent the night listening to the reasons why Cody, Diane’s live-in ‘friend’, would be sleeping in his tent instead of in their mobile home for a while. We felt a little bad for Cody, despite the rumors at the RV park that he was vacationing in Idaho to avoid his popularity with law officials in other states. He was kind enough to offer to take me to town to get our spare flats patched while Joe lay leaky and groaning in the tent. I made the executive decision that Joe would be well cared for by Diane with her homeopathic mystery herbs and took the opportunity to listen to Cody’s mixed country and admire his prodigious mustache. He refused to take any money for his efforts and even offered me a beer from the quickly decreasing thirty pack he kept in the truck, although I had to decline because it upsets my stomach before ten AM.
Serendipitous meeting: Washington – last state!
Saturday August 29, 2009, 64 miles (103 km) – Total so far: 3,531 miles (5,682 km)
I spent the morning watching Joe yell at his tire while he fixed it. It was almost equal in entertainment value to watching Joe try not to yell at his tire as he struggled red faced while a passing couple asked him questions about the tour. Today we rode out of Idaho and into Washington, home of giant well stocked grocery stores. Sitting outside of one such grocery we met a long haired Vermont native who had been cycling almost the same route as us a similar time frame as ours. We found after talking that we had camped at many of the same places, only one day apart, and had surprisingly failed to meet until now. We made plans with him to make camp together tonight before going our separate ways, but we were unable to find him later at the Panhandler’s campground on the Pend Oreille River.
Sunday August 30, 2009, 59 miles (95 km) – Total so far: 3,590 miles (5,777 km)
This morning we woke up in a cloud. The mist surrounding our tent was so thick we couldn’t see more than three feet. The curious effect of the mist and the river next to us made our encampment look as though we were on an island surrounded by white fog. We were waiting for visibility to return and eating breakfast when Francis rode up and told us he had camped five miles back. We made plans again to meet in the town of Ione. However, Joe’s spoke was a casualty of the bumpy road and we found ourselves sitting outside a grocery store in Colville, debating our options. We would soon be approaching the great unknown again – a long stretch of wilderness in Eastern Washington that was devoid of bike shops – and the last chance to replace Joe’s spoke lay inside a closed shop in downtown Colville that would not reopen until the following morning. To add to our complications, Colville’s only designated campsite was the fairground, which was currently not useable due to the fair in progress.
As we sat dejectedly discussing our options and our regrets that we would miss our meeting with Francis, two men approached us from across the parking lot. Scott and Jerry introduced themselves as fellow cyclists and asked if they could be of service. By this point, serendipity and hospitality has come to feel commonplace. When they heard our minor plight, they offered to whisk us away to the free campground they were staying at, five miles out of town. Despite protestation, they insisted we could all fit in their cars, and then proceeded to pull up in the two smallest Toyotas I have ever seen. As Joe and I looked skeptically at the tiny cars, already packed with Scott and Jerry’s camping gear and bikes, Francis suddenly pulled in to the lot. Joe and I were seriously re-evaluating the situation at this point, but Scott and Jerry were determined to fit our bikes, their bikes, all of our panniers and trailers, plus the addition of Francis into their two small cars. By some miracle, it just barely worked. The effect was a clown car appearance that looked like it might have halved the gas mileage for both cars, but they got us to the campsite. We washed off in the waterfall by the camp and then sat around a campfire talking until late before falling asleep to the sound of coyotes in the distance.
Mighty Mountain Climbers: The Cascades
Tuesday September 1, 2009, 60 miles (97 km) – Total so far: 3,660 miles (5,890 km)
Today we woke up and faced the mountains. The cascades are famed as the longest climbs of the Northern Tier. Because of the jumping elevations, each of the four passes requires more climbing than Logan Pass itself. As a result, we found ourselves embarking on a 21 mile climb that would take us up more than 4 thousand feet to the 5575 foot elevation for Sherman Pass, our toughest Cascade. With all of those dramatics out of the way, I should also add that the Cascades are not nearly as steep as the average New England hill, which seem to be designed for skiing rather than cycling, and the gradual grade surprised us so that, despite the hot day and tiring climbing, we had enough energy after climbing our first pass and reaching the town of Republic on the other side (as well as eating an entire chicken between us) to continue on to our second climb at Wauconda Pass, which added another 2 thousand feet to our climbing for the day. Joe greeted me at the second summit with clapping and cheering and told me, more than a little facetiously, that I had found ‘my inner hero’, which was an expression my mother did not realize would be embarrassing to post publicly on my blog. We decided that the Cascades were not as formidable and frightening as we had imagined.
We camped for the night in a blissfully quiet field in Wauconda by an abandoned old fashioned school house. The northeastern Cascades are actually located in a desert climate, so we finished our day with crackly grass brushing against our tent and a looming thundercloud that would not break but eventually rolled noisily away. The giant white full moon is brighter than we have ever seen it out here, and it drew a loud coyote close by our tent to yip and bark for most of the night until Joe’s ‘hey! shut up!’ quieted the confused canine.
Approaching the Wrong Border?
Wednesday September 2, 2009, 53 miles (85 km) – Total so far: 3,713 miles (5,975 km)
All doubts that Joe harbored about Eastern Washington’s desert climate were dispelled today when he unzipped our tent. We had summited Wauconda pass in the twilight, and traveled the last few miles in the dark, so when we looked out at what we expected in our hearts to be a continuation of the lush, mossy rainforest of conifers, we were shocked by the wide yellow expanse of the arid northern desert. Gleefully, we embraced the novelty of sage brush, tumbleweed, and fragrant juniper like children, riding our bikes with no handlebars down the hot sunny side of the mountain. Joe temporarily disappeared behind me and then rode up beside me wearing a silly green fedora with a feather he had found on the side of the road. We rode through the Okanogan forest, which was a sea of yellows and browns. Parched grass grew in patches like psoriasis on the sandy ground and orange cliffs loomed in the distance. The shocking blue of the sky stood in contrast against the harsh desert scenery.
Joe and I rode on, elated and oblivious, and then we began to see signs written in Spanish. Looking around us as we passed through towns, we could find only Spanish stores. Without warning, we found ourselves to be an English speaking minority. We began to worry about where exactly we were. Between the sudden change of surroundings and the cloudless ninety degree weather (Okanogan gets 12 inches of precipitation per year), we were losing our bearings. We passed a few lush fruit farms, the lively berry bushes and citrus trees standing out absurdly against the stoic desert. Pulling into Tonakset for the evening, we sought food in a variety of Hispanic grocery stores and discovered, to our dismay, that we had studied the wrong languages in high school. We made a few guesses and ended our evening eating some easily identifiable vegetables and ambiguous chalky patties. Talking to people at the town park, we came to understand that immigrant families with experience harvesting on fruit farms had migrated to the far reaches of Northern Washington because the arid climate was ideal for fruit farming (with irrigation) and job competition was low. It was an unexpected exposure to a different culture for us, and one that made me seriously question the pragmatism of my decision to study Latin as a second language.
Thursday September 3, 2009, 20 miles (32 km) – Total so far: 3,733 miles (6,007 km)
We began our climb up Loop Loop, the third of our four major Cascade passes, late in the day. We had a hard time leaving the beautiful weather of the Okanogan region behind for another damp climb to a chilly summit. Air flows over the mountains of eastern Washington carrying coastal moisture over the peaks so that the lower basins are dry northern deserts. The tops of the mountains are rainforest climates, and as we climb each pass, we find ourselves riding out of a searing hot environment and into cold damp clouds. We forced ourselves through the climate change today, but because of our lethargy got caught on the top of Loop Loop pass in the dark. We camped there, saving the steep descent for daylight. I contracted a mild case of food poisoning; At this point our bodies and our bikes are falling apart, but we are nearly there.
The Wild West
Friday September 4, 2009, 23 miles (37 km) – Total so far: 3,756 miles (6,045 km)
After a frosty night on Loop Loop pass, we woke up early and covered an easy ten miles downhill to breakfast. The ride was amazing; as with the descent down the side of Wauconda pass, we rode out of the cool glistening tree cover into the hot sun, the desert stretching before us in a shimmering haze. As our poor planning left us atop another pass with our trusty peanut butter and little else for supplies, we broke our fast in the town of Twisp. It was a short ride to Winthrop where we were thoroughly distracted by the town’s novelty. Like many little spaghetti western style towns, Winthrop thrives on the life blood of tourism, and we fell right into their target demographic of curious explorers who make poor fiscal decisions.
Sunday September 6, 2009, 50 miles (80 km) – Total so far: 3,806 miles (6,125 km)
After spending a day and a half exploring the marvels of Winthrop, we tackled the last of the Cascade passes left to complete, heartened that this last obstacle, we could nearly coast to the ocean. At least, this was how we chose to interpret our topographic map. We arose and packed our gear in the rain. Fueled with our customary Hubris we would, too late in the day, attempt our last cascade climb. This time, the consequences would be disastrous.
Starting out in a light rain, we were soon drenched. Prior to encountering the sleet at the top, two people stopped to give us candy bars, apparently moved by how pathetic we looked. We hastily took pictures of the first summit, moving past the aptly named Rainy Pass towards Sherman Pass, which involved a brief descent. As we cycled downhill, our motionless legs, no longer pedaling and generating heat, began to freeze. We were soaking wet in thirty degree weather on top of a mountain at dusk. Desperately, we layered our clothing only to discover our outer layers quickly soaked through as well. As we pedaled up the final ascent to Sherman Pass we recaptured some of our lost warmth. We still faced our longest descent from the top of Sherman Pass, at an elevation of 5575 feet, with a dramatic drop to near sea level. Speeding down hill, our cold, shaking bodies made it impossible to maintain any balance on our bikes.
It was the first desperate two miles of descent. The cold was relentless. We spied a concrete outhouse, the only structure we had seen in twenty miles, and stripped down to our driest layers. Huddling for warmth, we rubbed each other’s feet and legs to bring back feeling and avoid the more serious dangers of prolonged exposure to cold. And then, crouched in the pungent outhouse, shivering, hungry, and suffering from food poisoning, we began to laugh. Teeth chattering and bodies convulsing in hiccups from the deep chill, we laughed ourselves warm. Eventually, fortified by our break from the rain, we forced ourselves to don wet clothes again. We rode into the wind a few more miles before we saw signs for camping. Despite nearly going mad from the visceral desire for warmth, we experienced a lucid moment as we crossed a bridge over a deep gorge in the surreal moonlight. The chasm below us was illuminated by silver mist. We stopped, awestruck, and momentarily forgot about our brief flirtations with hypothermia. That evening we slept in our driest clothing, shivering from the pervasive wetness of the Pacific Northwest.
Back to the Sea
Monday September 7, 2009, 45 miles (72 km) – Total so far: 3,851 miles (6198 km)
The night was spent shivering in wet clothes in a wet sleeping bag in a wet tent surrounded by an extremely wet world. In the morning, thoroughly sick of moisture, we rode ten more miles to heartily inhale a gas station breakfast. On our final big descent, we were stunned by beautiful waterfalls gushing out of the rock beside the road. The mist lingered in the morning, making the mountains look like islands rising out of a foggy ocean. Our excitement was palatable with the feel of the Pacific Ocean approaching rapidly. We dried our clothing at the Laundromat, only to be sprinkled on again by passing showers. In the evening, the sun finally broke out of the clouds and shone optimistically on us before setting. We are approaching sea level.
Tuesday September 8, 2009, 65 miles (105 km) – Total so far: 3,916 miles (6,302 km)
Today we were unable to contain our excitement. We were only a day’s ride from the Pacific. Waking early, we eagerly started our ride. Not wanting to delay our arrival, we neglected to stop for lunch or even snacks and rode the 65 miles to the seaside town propelled only by our enthusiasm. We were weaving through side streets to connect to a main route when we crested a hill and saw the Pacific Ocean. After more than four thousand miles, we finally saw the bright blue arc like a finish line across our path. We began shouting in celebration – until Joe’s chain broke. A half hour later, with a mended chain, we began the last ten miles to the ferry in Anacortes. Ignoring our hunger pains and the woes of our decrepit bicycles, we raced each other. I found, to my surprise, that I was able to keep up with Joe and even pass him occasionally. Moving seventeen miles an hour, we found ourselves gaining on two cyclists in front of us. They had backpacks, and the girl was wearing a dress. When they saw us racing, they began to pick up their own pace. We soon realized they were heading to the ferry landing, and the four of us, couplets of strangers, competed to reach it.
When we pulled into the ferry landing, Joe and I were shouting and singing. We leapt off our bikes and let them crash to the ground and we started to jump up and down. Our cycling friends eyed us warily; we explained to them our journey and introduced ourselves. They told us they were taking the ferry to the San Juan Islands, to join up with a commune on Orcas Island. Being of the communal sensibility, they invited us to join them. We looked out at the great blue in front of us. We saw ourselves continuing to the distant dark spots on the horizon, continuing past our finish line and into the unknown. Joe and I looked at each other. The ferry whistle was sounding and our new friends were shuffling forward, waving at us to follow.
I would like to say that we went with them. I would like to store that thought in the quiet idealistic space in my heart. What happened, however, was that Joe and I looked at the ocean for a couple minutes. The ferry whistle sounded. The strangers we had just met, who carried possibility with them, waved at us from the side of the boat. The operator called his last call. We still stood there. We looked back at each other, and shook our heads. We then spent an anti-climactic half hour awkwardly carrying our bikes down the rocky embankment to a tiny strip of beach and positioning the camera to take our pictures. Our front wheels in the Pacific Ocean, we felt very different from the people we had been when we began with our back wheels in the Atlantic. Our demeanor was different, our posture was different, our bodies were different. We stood with our shoulders wide and our bodies open to the world at large. We had had our adventure. Truthfully, we were weary from it.
The expression ‘world weary’ was something that I always aspired to understand. I realize now that although the adventure is amazing, and it makes you hunger for more, without a home to go back to you are half empty. An adventure is wearying not because of physical exhaustion. We were tired on our last day, but had completely boundless energy in the weeks following, when we did not have the daily release of constant cycling. An adventure makes one weary because at the end of it they think of the ones they love, and the communities they have built, and miss them. You can travel around the world and never break the ties you forge. I no longer want to. After our journey, what Joe and I realized was that we wanted to go home, to the place we had worked so hard to distance ourselves from.
Friday September 11, 2009, 0 miles – Total so far: 4,008 miles (6,450 km)
We woke up in Seattle today. Joe’s brother was kind enough to take us in, even smelling the way that we did. Ninety five more miles through the islands and two days had delivered our bikes and us to Seattle. It was an unexpectedly sunny day, and neither of us knew what to do. We poked around the house, enjoying the novelty of indoors. We wandered on our bikes to bars and found that our alcohol tolerance was deplorable. After three days of this, I told Joe I was leaving. I took my bicycle and my trailer and caught a train to Portland, where I found myself out side of a grocery store, thinking about my next move. Who was I, what did I want, and what was I going to accomplish next? That was when a man in a truck pulled up to me with a child sized bicycle…