Bicycling Across America
In 2000 I bicycled across America. This seemed a logical next challenge after I sailed a small boat across the Atlantic Ocean in 1987. The voyage took seven weeks, which was long enough for it to become an almost total withdrawal from the “real” world. Indeed, the real world came to seem unreal, and readjusting to the routine of normal life after the voyage wasn't easy.
The experience wasn't limited to the voyage itself — planning, preparing and anticipating were a big, and an enjoyable, part of it.
Bicycling across America would have the same teleological sense as the voyage — a planning/preparing/anticipating phase, followed by a withdrawal from normal routine and the achievement of a goal. While a bike tour would take place in a more familiar terrestrial environment, I expected to experience the same focus as on the transatlantic voyage, the same lack of distraction.
It’s great to have dreams. And it’s great when you can make them come true. I have made many of mine come true by first conducting a kind of feasibility study. If the dream proves to be feasible, the next step is to assign it a priority. If it gets a high enough priority, it’s just a matter of going out and doing it. Biking across America isn’t climbing Mount Everest, about which I have dreamt but which flunks the feasibility study test. The physical demands, the danger and the cost of a transcontinental bike tour are all far less. But because of the time it would take, I had to rank it behind earning a living. Once I retired time ceased to be an obstacle, but this wasn't until thirteen years after the transatlantic voyage.
As I made the tour, it seemed to me that I was living not only my own dream but the dream of many of those I met and talked to along the way. Most of them were more than intrigued. Invariably they felt it necessary to say “I could never do it myself.” The reasons given were much the same. “I couldn’t take the time.” Well, neither could I until I had retired. Or, “It’s too much like work.” Okay, but that was a price I was prepared to pay.
Because finding overnight accommodation can both be time-consuming and limit choices along the route, I wanted to camp. Or to use bike touring parlance, to go “self-contained”. Not only is it more flexible, it’s a lot less expensive. But also, the combination of bicycling and camping would make the experience much more immediate than traveling enclosed in a metal box (a car, bus or train) and staying in motels, inns and bed and breakfasts. This immediacy would mean some discomfort, but not too much. Bike touring had one big advantage over blue water sailing, which is that if the elements really got nasty, I could pop into a motel.
The bike touring I had done had mostly been on my own. None of the longest tours I had taken — in Germany, on the South Island of New Zealand and along the south coast of Australia — was more than a week. Solo travel has its advantages, particularly if there are time constraints. The timing of a solo tour need not be coordinated with others, and each day can be taken as it comes, adjusting daily travel to individual interests, tastes and whims — and to the weather. A week is not very long to be alone. But for a longer tour, I wanted to share the experience. That meant finding companions.
From the time she was quite young, my daughter, Kate, wanted to join me. For years she kept asking me if the next summer was the one when we would bike across America. To make sure she knew what she was getting herself in for, she and I participated in a week-long tour in Vermont on a tandem bicycle during the summer before I retired.
Like the transcontinental tour, this was a camping tour, but it was supported, not self-contained. The support included carrying participants’ gear from campsite to campsite, meals prepared by a mobile caterer, manned rest stops along each day’s route that provided food and drink and a bicycle mechanic. (Kate liked the fact that the mechanic was a young lady who had a big tattoo on her left thigh.) With 100 participants on the tour, we easily found others with whom we enjoyed spending time. Kate had a good time, but my retirement hadn’t come soon enough. She was 13, about to begin her final year at middle school. After she got back to school, she decided that she didn’t want to spend the entire summer before entering high school away from her friends.
I next registered to join a self-contained transcontinental tour sponsored by Adventure Cycling Association, the leading American organization devoted to long-distance bicycle travel. At the same time, I looked for a congenial independent group and found one through a classified ad in a bicycling magazine. But then I saw another classified ad, this one placed by Adventure Cycling looking for leaders for its tours. I applied and was ultimately accepted as leader of the same tour for which I had registered. The pay was modest, to say the least, and didn’t even cover the costs I would incur, and I had to travel to the West Coast for leadership training. But I liked the idea that I would have a role in planning the tour and a greater measure of control over its execution. And the pay, however modest, helped.
The leadership training took place over a long weekend. Naturally it covered the specifics of leading an Adventure Cycling tour — matters such as budgeting, record keeping, the determination of daily route and scheduling, group touring techniques, food purchasing and preparation, group equipment and chore rotation. But much of the time was devoted to group dynamics. The leader is expected to be a catalyst, initiating and smoothing courses of action for the entire group, and to seek consensus where possible. The evenings were given over to role playing and problem solving exercises in which one of us was presented with a situation with which as leader we might have to deal while the other course members acted as tour members.
Early in the course, we also participated in group exercises intended to bring the course members together as a group. One of these was called the Human Knot. About a dozen of us went into a huddle and randomly joined hands with others in the huddle. We then were to unwind the huddle so that the group was in a circle, without letting go. When my huddle unwound, we found ourselves in two circles, one of which consisted just of myself and the two most attractive young women in the course. I got a look suggesting I should get serious, and we were told to try again. Oh, well.
The Adventure Cycling tour followed the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. The route had been mapped by Adventure Cycling, which at the time was known as BikeCentennial, to celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday. 4,000 cyclists of all ages rode the trail in 1976. The success of that year made the TransAm, as the trail is popularly known, the route most widely used by cyclists touring across the continent.
Maps of the TransAm are published by Adventure Cycling. The maps include a “cue sheet”, a textual description of the route, and information on services available in towns and cities through which the route passes ― campgrounds and hotels, restaurants and grocery stores, bike shops and emergency services. The availability of this information is a big help to the touring cyclist and a major reason for the popularity of the TransAm.
While the TransAm was mapped from west to east, over time more cyclists have chosen to ride it from east to west, possibly because that direction follows the development of the country or possibly because it leaves until the latter part of the tour the best scenery in the mountainous West. Based on my expectation that the winds would blow from the west over the continent just as they do over the North Atlantic, I thought it preferable to ride eastbound.
Adventure Cycling programmed exactly three months for the tour. We began in Portland, Oregon, in early June and reached our destination in Williamsburg, Virginia over Labor Day weekend. The overall distance was about 4500 miles, which is a longer distance than my transatlantic voyage.
The TransAm actually begins in Astoria, Oregon, where the Columbia River reaches the Pacific Ocean. It heads south along the coast before turning inland and passing Eugene, the largest city along the entire trail. From there it follows a northeasterly direction, crossing Idaho and reaching Montana at Lolo Pass near Missoula. It then turns southeasterly, broadly paralleling the Continental Divide, which the trail crosses several times, and passes through Yellowstone and Teton National Parks in Wyoming and the high country of Colorado. It emerges from the Rocky Mountains west of Pueblo and heads generally east through Kansas, Missouri, southern Illinois, Kentucky and Virginia to reach the sea at Yorktown.
This route has a lot to offer — ocean coastline, mountain passes, temperate rain forest, high desert, river valleys, plains, National Parks, civil war battlefields and other historic sites. It uses mainly secondary roads through small towns known for their hospitality and home-made pies. There was much to look forward to.
But part of the anticipation is in preparation. The unanticipated is inevitable, and it can best be handled if what can be anticipated is under control. My preparation would be for two roles, as leader and as a participant. In addition to the leadership training given by Adventure Cycling, I re-took courses offered by the American Red Cross that I had taken years earlier to obtain current certificates for first aid and adult CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
I also needed to take everything that any “self-contained” bike tourist would require, spare parts, camping equipment and clothing suitable for all of the conditions we might encounter. But not too much, as I had to carry whatever I brought. Every item was weight, and the need for its inclusion had to be justified. Space had to be left for group cooking equipment, a first aid kit and bike repair gear that would be provided by Adventure Cycling and would be divided among and carried by group members in addition to individual gear. Lastly, I needed to train. Preparation extended over the better part of the year leading up to the tour.
Training consisted of riding my bike — riding it a lot. I like riding my bike. Many years had passed since the bike was the key to mobility as a child. While it remained a symbol of freedom, my bike was now primarily a source of pleasure and a way to maintain fitness. Like most recreational cyclists, I have developed a series of rides beginning and ending at my home. Southwestern Connecticut is great cycling country; the Berkshires reach Long Island Sound in a series of glaciated ridges that afford varied if hilly roads bordered by colonial farmhouses and modern mega-mansions, woodlands, meadows and wetlands, stone walls and rocky outcroppings, drumlins and erratics and not infrequent sightings of wildlife. There are many days when I set out vaguely intending to do a certain route but find I am enjoying it so much that, each time I come to a point where I have to choose between a shorter or longer way home, I take the longer way.
But now the frequency and length of my rides increased. And I had to do them. This robbed them of some of the pleasure and sense of freedom, particularly when doing familiar routes. I found that the rides I most enjoyed were ones that took me over unfamiliar roads.
And rides with others, which contributes both to motivation and to energy. To motivation because I feel I have a responsibility to the others to whom I have made a commitment to ride. To energy because the total energy of a group of riders somehow seems greater than the energy of the individuals in the group. In any event, particularly if I find myself with stronger riders, I push harder, and the miles and hours go by faster. And most of all, it’s nice to have companions to talk to, about the ride or whatever. These were among the reasons why I wanted to do the transcontinental tour with others.
Although I did most of my training rides on a new touring bike I had bought, I did relatively few of those rides loaded as I would be during the tour. Of course, I did enough riding with the bike loaded to satisfy myself that it was up to handling what I planned to bring. This was part of the process of determining what to bring. But at least as a confidence booster, I needed to put in some of those training miles with the added demands that a loaded bike places on the rider.
The longest loaded ride I took was to my brother’s home in Guilford, CT, about 75 miles east along the Long Island Sound coast. This is a thickly settled corridor, and I encountered many other cyclists along the way, provoking lots of oohs and aahs. And inevitably the question: “Where are you going?” Answering that I was only going to Guilford didn’t quite do it, so I had to describe the transcontinental tour. More oohs and aahs.
Training was essential, but so was a suitable bike. Bike frames come in different shapes and sizes, and are fitted out with different gearing and other components, depending on how they will be used. What I needed was a touring bike.
What’s special about a touring bike? It looks much like a typical road bike with dropped handlebars and smooth tires, but just about everything about it is stronger — tubing, wheels, brakes. The geometry of the frame is designed to make the bike track better and to keep the center of gravity low. It has much lower gearing, fatter tires and fittings to attach racks on which to mount panniers.
The gearing is particularly important. Modern bikes have two sets of cogs, two or three chainrings, the cogs mounted on the cranks next to the right pedal, and a cassette, the bundle of up to 10 cogs mounted on the hub of the rear wheel. Most road bikes have two chainrings and the gearing is that used for racing, which makes for hard pedaling on even relatively modest uphill gradients. In contrast, touring and mountain bikes typically have three chain rings which permit lower gears. The third chainring is called a “granny”.
At least in America, gear sizes are measured by “gear inches”. This term is a throwback to the high wheelers of the early days of bicycling. The pedals on a high wheeler are on the front wheel, like on a child’s tricycle. One revolution of the pedals produces one revolution of the wheel. As a result, a front wheel with a bigger diameter is faster than one with a smaller diameter, but it’s harder to ride uphill. Separating the pedals with a chain and gears from the wheel being driven eliminated the need for an oversized wheel. The “gear inches” of gears on a modern bike reflect the size of the wheel that one revolution of the pedals would have driven on a high wheeler.
Gear inches are determined by dividing the number of teeth in the chainring by the number of teeth in the rear cog to obtain the gear ratio and multiplying the gear ratio by the wheel diameter. For example, if the number of teeth in the chainring is the same as the number of teeth in the rear cog, the gear ratio is 1:1 and the gear inches is equal to the diameter of the wheel, which on a modern road bike is 700 mm or approximately 27½ inches. The smaller the number of teeth on the chainring and the greater the number on the rear cog, the lower the gear. For climbing steep hills on a loaded bike, experienced touring cyclists recommend a low gear of about 20 gear inches. With a 20-inch gear, you move uphill at a walking pace — a slow walking pace — but it’s surprisingly easy except on the steepest hills.
I bought a new touring bike from my local bike shop. The frame and the wheels were made by Waterford, a small manufacturer of high quality bicycles based in Wisconsin. To get the low gearing I wanted, the shop owner, Glen van Cura, equipped it largely with components designed for mountain bikes. I also wanted to have a high gear comparable to that typically found on a road bike. The length of the chain limits the range of gears that can be accommodated, but Glen was able to prescribe a wider range of gears than that typically found on off-the-shelf touring bikes.
Many people find cycling for long periods uncomfortable or even painful because of the design of traditional bike saddles. The situation, at least for men, is more serious than simple discomfort. Sitting on a traditional bike saddle puts pressure on the blood vessels that supply a man’s private parts and in some cases has been shown to cause impotence and other urological problems. To its credit, this problem was first given wide publicity by Bicycling magazine, the leading U.S. bicycling magazine.
The manufacturers of bike saddles immediately scrambled to bring to market saddles that alleviated the problem. The best of these new saddles was designed by a woman, Georgena Terry, whose small company markets bike accessories primarily for women. She had previously designed a very successful saddle for women that featured a hole in the center. Her company, staffed evidently by women but (as their sales literature said) with the help of their “loved ones”, adapted this design for men. I found it the most comfortable saddle I had ever used.
I had the camping equipment I needed — tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads. Perhaps because I subscribe to the Scandinavian maxim that “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”, I had outdoor clothing in abundance. The challenge was to select a limited number of articles that would cover all of the conditions I could expect, cold in the western mountains, extreme heat in the Mississippi valley and wet on the Pacific Coast and from time to time almost anywhere else. Adventure Cycling recommends that participants in its tours keep their loads between 30 and 45 pounds. I managed to keep my personal gear within 45 pounds, although the group equipment I carried initially took my load higher. As the tour progressed, I sent items home and brought the weight down.
I could choose my bike and its components, the route, the time of year and how to train, but I could not control the composition of the group. Traveling with the right people would greatly enhance the experience; traveling with the wrong people could even make it unpleasant. It was a roll of the dice. I imagined that others who shared my desire to bike across the country couldn’t be a bad lot, but if I was wrong, there would be no escape during the three months of the tour. I had agreed to lead the tour for Adventure Cycling, and without its concurrence, I could not shed a problem participant as I had done in the case of a problem crew member during the transatlantic voyage.
About a month before the tour was to begin, Adventure Cycling sent me a roster of 13 names and questionnaires answered by about half of them. The group came from nine states and one foreign country and ranged in age from 18 to 68, with a representative of every decade of age in between. I wrote letters to each of them introducing myself and providing them with information about the tour. These produced responses from some but, again, not from all of them. About all I was able to deduce was that we were an extremely diverse group.
Our first get-together was on a Friday evening at a hostel located a short distance from the downtown business district of Portland, Oregon. After a day of getting acquainted and a shakedown ride together, we started the tour on a warm, sunny Sunday morning. We took group photographs in the side yard of the hostel, to the accompaniment of birds twittering in the trees which gave the urban setting an appropriately bucolic feel. Then we were off.
While the goal of the tour lay to the east, we began by heading west. Portland was the starting point because it is well served by public transportation. But the object was to cross the country from sea to sea. It took us two days to reach the Pacific Ocean, and on the advice of local cyclists, the road we intended to follow to the coast was called Meadow Lake Road. For me this route was terra incognita. Indeed, the entire route across the country was terra incognita to the extent that I had not visited any part of it except the very end. But Adventure Cycling provided me with a set of notes covering the route compiled from comments made by leaders of prior tours. The road to the coast that it described was a busy, four-lane highway along the Columbia River that the locals thought we should avoid.
We began by crossing the Willamette River, riding through the deserted downtown office district and then, following the river, south out of Portland. After about three miles, we turned west, passing strip malls, fast food outlets, gas stations and other commercial establishments, and frequent traffic lights that, accordion-like, alternately separated and brought us together.
But soon this was behind us, and we were in farm country. We were in the Willamette Valley, which extends south from Portland between two ranges of mountains, the Coast Range and the Cascades. The soil and temperate climate of the Valley support a wide range of agricultural products — lumber, vegetables, fruits and excellent wine — and it was the destination of many of Oregon’s early settlers. Even today it is where most of Oregon’s population lives.
Continuing west, we left the highway for a quiet secondary road. Here the farm fields came right to the edge of the road. The young crops were bursting out of the ground, still with the pale green color of early growth. A haziness contributed to the sense that this was lush farmland. The sun warmed the moist air, and it was hot by the time we stopped for lunch at a park in Gaston, a small town we reached at midday. We bought cold drinks at the local store. Then we turned south again, stopping to purchase groceries at Yamhill, the last town through which we would pass before reaching Meadow Lake Road.
The shopping was done by the members of the group who were to cook that evening. Part of my job was to set up a cooking rotation whereby a different two members of the group had responsibility each day to do the grocery shopping and prepare two meals, dinner and breakfast the next morning. Lunch ingredients were set out at breakfast time — bread, peanut butter and jelly, bananas, Fig Newtons, granola bars, Gator Ade and the like — from which group members prepared their own lunches. We purchased only what would be required for those three meals, so that food was not carried from one campsite to another. The rotation was intended to bring different members of the group together and help us to get to know each other.
While the cooks shopped, the rest of us waited outside so as not to overwhelm the small shop with our numbers. After the food had been purchased and as we were packing it on our bikes to carry to our campsite, a large woman came out of the shop in a state of agitation, looking for the group leader. She was directed to me and turned out to be the shopkeeper.
The others immediately drifted away, leaving me to handle the situation. Fair enough, this was what I was being paid for. I was aware the tour member who had bought the groceries had a somewhat gruff style. In response to my question, the shopkeeper told me that the rudeness had to do with his rebuff of her effort to pack the groceries in a way she thought would make it easier for us to carry on our bikes. I reckoned that he knew better how the groceries should be packed to carry on a bike, but explaining that wasn’t going to pacify this woman.
I said, “I’m really glad you brought this to my attention. And I’m really sorry it happened. Please accept my apologies. After all, we want us to be seen as good emissaries for bike touring.”
To my intense relief, the shopkeeper seemed mollified. Or perhaps she realized that she’d better get back into the shop and attend to the growing line at the check out counter. She returned as abruptly as she had emerged.
We continued through increasingly hilly terrain. When I and the slower riders reached Meadow Lake Road about five miles beyond Yamhill, we found the faster riders stopped in front of a sign saying the road was closed to through traffic due to construction work. Having come this far, there was no easy alternative route. But bikes can frequently get past road work where motor vehicles cannot.
Seeing a large clutch of cyclists pondering the sign, several locals stopped to tell us what they knew. At first the only information offered was unhelpful. “The road is closed because of a dispute between loggers and environmentalists.” But then someone who seemed to know the road arrived and told us what we needed to know.
“Don’t worry. A section of the road is blocked by barriers, but you’ll have no trouble getting through. Bikes use the road all the time.”
We proceeded. There were five campgrounds shown on the map I was using, all of which came after we had climbed out of the Willamette Valley into the Coast Range. The first was after 10 miles and a climb of about 700 feet. This was clearly the one to go for, because all the others were on the far side of the crest of the Coast Range which would require a much steeper climb of another 1000 feet. Unfortunately, while I had ascertained that we could use several of the campgrounds along Meadow Lake Road, I had been unable to get any information specifically about this one.
We shortly started climbing, left open farm country and entered forest. The sun was still high, and the trees provided little shade. While the gradient wasn’t that bad, this was the first significant hill we had encountered, and the group became more spread out. I stayed with the slower riders and caught up with the faster ones only when we reached the turn‑off for the campground. Again I found them pondering a sign advising of a closure due to construction. This time there was no one around from whom to get information. However, everyone was ready to stop, and everyone looked at me. I was going to have to be lucky a second time.
What we found was an ideal campsite. It was more a park than a campground, situated in a narrow, shaded valley below a large dam with a pavilion, picnic tables, a portable toilet and a level, mowed lawn. The water had been shut off, but there was a clear forest stream. We could have boiled the stream water, but to my amazement, a member of the group produced a water filter from his pack. Problem solved. There was no one around from whom to request permission to stay, but the park had everything we needed. We settled in.
Most of us had pitched our tents when the warden of the park appeared in a truck. I went over and explained who we were and why we were there. He immediately put me at ease. “The park is closed because it will be used in a week’s time as the site of a field office for a construction crew who will be performing maintenance on the dam. I’ve got no problem with a group of bicyclists using it tonight, but I have to lock the gate of the park for the night.” We could get our bikes around the gate, so that created no problem for us. I thanked him, and he was gone.
But there was one last problem to be dealt with. The youngest member hadn’t brought a tent, expecting that tents would be provided by Adventure Cycling. It was clear from the variety of tents that had emerged from our packs that everyone else had brought one, so he needed no convincing that he’d gotten this one wrong. But he did need a place to sleep that night (and for the next several nights, until he was able to buy a tent).
The cooks prepared a pasta dinner, and when it was ready, we quickly ate everything. The cooks had used the serving information on the packages in determining how much to buy, and it looked like a lot of food in the pot. But we could easily have eaten more. It took some time before we knew how much to prepare, and during that time the right amount was something of a moving target as our appetites adjusted to the demands we were placing on our bodies.
The twilight lingered after dinner, and the day gave up its warmth slowly. We broke up into smaller groups and continued the process of getting acquainted. My most demanding day as tour leader had ended.
The next day brought cooler, overcast conditions. We had a steep climb of about 100 feet just to get back to the road. After reaching the road, it was another 1000 feet of climbing to the crest of the Coast Range. The gradient was steeper than the day before, and several members of the group walked their bikes.
We reached the crest after about four miles, still in forest. Then, just as we began the descent, it started to rain. The air developed a misty quality and low clouds settled over the higher ground surrounding the stream valley that the road followed.
We soon reached the section of Meadow Lake Road that was closed. This turned out to coincide with a 2.7-mile stretch that the map showed as unpaved. There was no sign of construction activity or any other indication of why the road was closed, but it was blocked with heavy cast concrete barriers which had been placed very effectively, and we could not get our bikes around them. We found that rocks had been piled on either side of the barriers creating rough ramps to get over them, presumably put there by other cyclists who used the road. These required some modification for our loaded bikes, but once this was done we were able to get over the barriers without unloading.
The rain continued on and off as we descended the western slopes of the Coast Range to where Meadow Lake Road met the main coastal highway, US 101. After a break at a café at the crossroads to dry out and get some food, we followed US 101 north to Tillamook, a small city whose name I associate with the cheese often served with airline meals. We then headed for the coast and our campsite for the night at Cape Lookout State Park.
The rain held off after we reached our campsite. The father of one of the younger members of the group met us there. He had driven his son and his bike to Portland from Wisconsin, but he wanted to see him begin the trip at the Pacific Ocean. He was anxious to start the long drive home, so he orchestrated (and photographed) a ceremony in which we dipped the wheels of our bikes in the ocean. For this, we had the best weather of the day, the sun shining through a mix of clouds and blue sky, with easy surf rolling onto a sandy beach framed at either end by a headland. With that mission accomplished, he promised to meet us again when we dipped our wheels in the Atlantic Ocean, and departed.
One ocean down, one to go.
From the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic is a long way. Nonetheless, we cycled south along the Pacific coast for a couple of days before turning east. The rain was with us until we reached the Cascades, which we crossed at Santiam Pass in particularly heavy rain. We later learned the first days of our tour had been a period of unusually heavy rain and cold temperature for an area which gets a lot of rain and cool temperatures.
The rain tapered off and the air warmed perceptibly as we descended the east side of the Cascades. We did not have to contend again with heavy rain until we reached eastern Virginia, where the remnants of a tropical storm produced lots of it. Mostly, we had dry weather.
Shortly after we crossed the Cascades and despite the better weather, one member of the group concluded that he lacked the fitness for the tour, and he dropped out. He was just the first to do so. A German member never intended to go the entire way, and she dropped out in Montana to catch the flight home that she had booked before arriving. Another member turned out to have a serious alcoholism problem, and Adventure Cycling asked him to withdraw. The youngest member of the group had reluctantly come on the tour at the urging of his family, and he left us to join the annual gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light (a counterculture organization) which fortuitously, for him, was taking place in Jackson, WY, at the time we were passing through. Another sadly had a serious accident in eastern Kentucky. By the time we reached the east coast, our group of 13 had become five.
Apart from layovers, the days followed a simple routine: eating breakfast, making lunch, breaking camp and loading our bikes; following a mapped route to reach a predetermined destination with time out for lunch or to visit a café or a sight along the way; and making camp at the end of the day’s ride, buying groceries, having an evening meal and sharing with each other the experiences of the day.
But despite the repeated pattern and the fact that our route was confined largely to rural America, each day was different. There were very few days when there wasn’t a noticeable change, however subtle, in topography, flora and fauna, climate or the way in which men used (or abused) the land.
Traveling “self contained” was a reminder of how little we really need to explore the world around us. Of course, it helped that the little we had brought was pretty high-tech stuff and that we had good weather over much of the route. But the fact is that a bicycle and about 45 pounds of gear affords a reasonably fit traveler with freedom unmatched by any other mode of transportation.
Traveling through settled country provided a constant reminder that “normal” life awaited at the end of the tour. This was no wilderness trip. Indeed, experiencing the way that culture changes across America, and how it is changing, was a major part of the tour. But the freedom from normal routine and responsibilities that makes wilderness travel so appealing was nonetheless present. Because I was the tour leader, I had responsibilities, but I had little to think about beyond the tour itself. So long as overnight arrangements were made a couple of days ahead, I could take each day as it came.
The tour ended in Williamsburg, Virginia, which was the only place on the entire route that I knew; I had lived there for two months while in the Navy attending Mine Warfare School in Yorktown. The last few miles followed the Colonial Parkway, which connects Jamestown with Williamsburg, and we stopped to dip our wheels in Atlantic water at a beach where the roadway paralleled a tidal section of the James River. The father of our young group member was there, and he managed to capture the occasion on film despite showery conditions.
We stayed a day in Williamsburg, did some sightseeing, reorganized our gear for the trip home and had a celebratory dinner at a nice restaurant. And the next day we all headed in different directions. The end of the tour seemed sudden, even if the Amtrak ride home was slow, but the suddenness was more than made up by being once again with family. It’s wonderful to get away, but there’s no place like home.