Cycling Across America
On May 28, 2018, I left Washington, DC for a cycling tour across the United States. Over the next 53 days, I rode 4,064.6 miles through 10 states to get to Seattle. I pedaled an average of ~ 80 miles every day, including eight days where I biked more than 100 miles. (My longest day was 121.8 miles from Pittsburgh, KS to Eureka, KS.) As I planned for my journey, I benefitted from the blogs, advice and experiences of other cross-country cyclists. Although I didn't blog about my trip or take many pictures, I learned a lot that may be helpful to others setting out for the adventure of a lifetime across America.
Where Did I Go?
For most of my trip, I followed the TransAmerica Trail, a network of routes mapped out by the Adventure Cycling Association from Yorktown, VA to Astoria, OR. After a couple days of Google mapping my way to the trail from Washington, DC, I linked up with the route near Charlottesville, VA. I rode about 3,000 miles along the TransAmerica Trail before peeling off onto ACA's Northern Route, which ventures through northern Washington to the Pacific Ocean. For the final two days, I meandered through the islands of the Puget Sound before arriving in Seattle on the Bainbridge Island ferry. I rode through ten states (Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington) plus the District of Columbia.
I quickly learned that there were lots of advantages to biking the ACA route. It kept me (mostly) off major highways and on roads that were, by and large, scenic and lightly trafficked. The maps offer a detailed list of amenities (e.g., motels, grocery stores, etc.) along the way so that I was rarely guessing whether I would be able to find a meal or a motel in the next town. I preferred navigating with their maps on my iPhone, although I carried the paper maps to do some route planning, as well. By sticking to these well-traveled routes, I met lots of other cyclists traveling across the United States.
Across the country, I camped in state forests and national parks, and I slept in roadside motels or cyclist hostels run by local churches or towns. Some of my best nights were with families through Warm Showers, an app for families to host touring cyclists. I stayed with incredibly kind, generous families in a handful of places, including Republic, WA, Dillon, MT, Clark Fork, ID, Newton, KS and Litchfield, KY. The landscape across the country was incredible - from unexpected deserts in central Washington to endless rolling hills through Missouri to the mountains of Colorado. There were so many memorable rides, but some of my favorites were across the misty Blue Ridge Parkway; through Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Virginia; up and down the hills in central Missouri; a multi-day approach to the Rocky Mountains from Pueblo, CO; the endless open roads in Wyoming; navigating Yellowstone and the Tetons; the river valleys of western Montana; and my final, 4,000+ feet climb across Washington Pass in the North Cascades.
What Did I Pack?
For nearly eight weeks, I carried everything I needed on my bike. I had two Ortleib panniers on the front of my All City bike and two panniers on the back. Together with the bike itself, everything weighed about eighty pounds.
- In my front, right pannier, I packed three biking outfits (jersey, shorts, socks and a cap), some cold-weather biking clothes for cold mornings (a long-sleeve jersey, a pair of biking tights) and my toiletries (plus sunscreen, bug spray and some Chamois Butt'r). I had a notebook, too, but I barely used it during the whole trip.
- In my front, left pannier, I packed my off-bike clothes - a long-sleeve t-shirt, three short-sleeve t-shirts, one pair of shorts, two pairs of underwear, an REI down vest, long underwear, a rain jacket, a bathing suit and a tank top. I also packed a Summit-to-Sea lightweight hammock, my ACA maps, and a Kindle Fire for reading.
- The back, right pannier had my tent and bicycle maintenance gear (a couple extra tubes, some basic tools, chain lube + rags, and an extra cable). I carried an extra 2 liters of water in a platypus and an assortment of snacks, including lots of Rx bars. My flip flops, which were the only other pair of shoes I had (besides my Xero sneakers, which I rode on-bike), were also tucked away in the back.
- The back, left pannier had my sleeping pad, sleeping bag and inflatable pillow. One packing cube had electronics, including a solar charger, earphones, and power cords for my iPhone and Kindle, and a handful of potentially-useful odds and ends, like electrical tape (for quick fixes!), tiny bungee cords and a bunch of cash. A second packing cube has some personal extras, like face wipes, camping towels, camp suds, a couple bandanas (so useful!), a lightweight bike lock and my sleep mask.
- In a small pouch on my bike, I kept some band-aids, credit cards, my rechargeable bike lights, Advil and hand sanitizer - all the things I might regularly need.
What Do I Wish I Had Known Before the Trip?
Although I had been thinking about a cross-country bike trip for a couple years, I only committed to doing it a couple weeks before I left. Like so many adventures, there's no way to really learn what it's like to tour across America until you start pedaling. Every day, I learned a little bit about my bike, a little bit about America and a little bit about myself. (Among my more useful new skills, I can swap out the shifter cables on a bike now and easily change a tire in five minutes flat.) Still, there were a handful of things that I wondered before I left for my trip, and that may have been helpful in planning my adventure. Hopefully these answers will help future cross-country cyclists plan their adventures across America.
- East to West or West to East? Most blogs encourage riders to ride West to East for one reason - the wind. In Wyoming, parts of Colorado and a few days of Washington, I had some ferocious headwinds from the West. Except for the winds, I loved riding West. It felt very American to be riding West, and pedaling toward the Pacific meant that the scenery kept getting better and better. The hills of Appalachia were stunning in their own right, and I loved riding through the Blue Ridge Parkway and Mount Rogers in southern Virginia, but nothing compares to climbing the Rockies, pedaling around Lake Yellowstone or riding over four passes in the North Cascades.
- What kind of bike? Clips or Straps? Granny Gears or Not? Cantilever or Disc Breaks? I rode an All City Space Horse with pedals and straps, rather than clips. I liked not needing an extra pair of shoes off-bike, and because I wasn't racing, there was no need for the (very marginal) boost from clips. I also didn't have a granny gear - the small front gear that makes climbing hills easier. Without it, I earned every mile up the Appalachians, across the rolling hills of Missouri, and through the Rockies (and northern Cascades). My model of the Space Horse had cantilever breaks, but I would swap them out for disc breaks if I were to ride the route again.
- How was the weather? Did it rain? Was it cold? Although it rained lightly for the first couple days, I had unusually beautiful weather. After Charlottesville, VA, I didn't hit a single day of rain and struggled only with some excessively hot afternoons while riding. However, it got really cold at night in the mountains out West. In the Arapaho National Forrest, I was saved from a really frigid morning by the generosity of a fellow camper with hot coffee. In Yellowstone, I endured a cold morning ride around the lake. I was pretty unprepared for the cold nights and mornings with the original gear I packed, so I ended up buying long underwear, a hat, and gloves in Lander, Wyoming.
- How was the food? Well, the food was fine. Mostly. I didn't bring a camp stove or anything to cook for myself and, in hindsight, it would have been worth the extra weight. In parts of the country, I survived on burgers and fries, donuts from convenience stores and iceberg lettuce salads. Oh, and lots of Rx bars, Cliff bars, bananas and peanuts. That said, I hit some terrific diners across the country and found some great food options here and there. The Grace Café in Danville, KY had delicious food in a pay-what-you-can community restaurant. I had an all-you-can-eat catfish dinner in Leitchfield, KY and loved my breakfast at Paula's Hot Biscuit in Hodgensville, KY. There was amazing pizza at a local bar in Wisdom, MT and some of the best pie I've ever eat at Cooky's Café in Garden City, MO. And I highly recommend the breakfast burritos at Joel's if you're ever in Sand Point, ID.
- How was riding alone? I loved riding by myself and I never really felt alone. I regularly met people on the road, at campsites or in local bars who offered me beers, made me food and wanted to hear about the trip. More than anything, these were the people that made the trip incredibly memorable. I also met cyclists nearly every day. I rode across Kansas with a handful of solo riders that I met in Pittsburgh, KS and broke bread with a touring group in Hindman, KY. In fact, nearly every day, I met (or at least saw) cyclists traveling in both directions, which made for good camaraderie (and often, great advice) with fellow cyclists.