53 days. 4,888 miles. 233,679 feet of elevation gain. 9-10 hours each day in the saddle. One totally, unbelievably epic summer.
It was winter when I finalized the idea of biking across the country with a friend. We had met last summer at an internship I was doing in Seattle. Having gone on a few rides together and lots of hiking and backpacking trips, we threw the idea of cycling across the country around as something to tackle the next summer. I was set to finish grad school in a year, and it would be the perfect capstone to the close of my education. We parted ways without having decided one way or another, and it stayed that way until December when I received a text that said, “so are we doing this or what?”
I can’t tell you how many times I've dreamt up big road trips and thought about how cool they would be to do, and either flaked out myself or had other people flake out on me. After a little hesitation, I got this feeling that welled up inside that told me I had to do it. After all, it was the opportunity of a lifetime! I would be done with school, I was young and already in pretty good shape, I didn’t have a wife or kids; hell, I didn’t even have a job lined up. Long story short, we decided to go for it.
In the beginning, I didn’t really have a reason for doing the trip. I suppose more than anything it was to prolong the inevitable task of job hunting and beginning a career in the architectural field. At the same time, it was also to fulfill a sense of adventure that I have never quite been able to satisfy. I find myself always planning the next trip, screenshotting spots I’ve seen in photos and adding them to a list of “places to go” far faster than I can actually visit them! I hate the idea that we put limits on what we can do — I have a firm belief that you can do anything you set your mind to, as long as you have the willpower to keep going and the desire to succeed. I knew that this trip would push me ever closer to my limits, whatever they may be — it would be a huge challenge, mentally and physically.
I learned a lot over the course of those 53 days. Though you wouldn’t know it from the blog that I kept, I struggled a lot. I rode through lots of physical pain over those first few weeks. At first, I was vocal about it to my riding partner, but eventually I stopped mentioning it. It was easier for me to pretend it didn’t exist. I got incredibly frustrated some days, whether it was from flat tires or strong headwinds, or little nuances on the bike that made it just not work properly or ride as smoothly as I would have liked. Trips this long are unpredictable; attempting to plan out the whole thing to a T is impossible. I’m a planner by nature; and as a result I had to learn to adapt to situations that came unexpectedly.
Over the course of the trip I began to take down some "lessons learned" as we made progress each day. While these were formulated as a result of sitting on a bicycle for 10 hours a day, I was able to relate a lot of them back to everyday life too. Granted, there are some that are pretty much limited to travel. Still, as I move forward into the professional world, it’s pretty cool to look back and realize that I learned those things on a bike. I’d like to share my list with you:
1. A strong sidewind is always better than a strong headwind — while you may be blown off course, you’ll still get to where you’re going.
Everyone we had talked to about a cross-country cycling trip had told us that the prevailing winds blew west to east. We found the opposite to be the case, particularly in Nevada, where we often faced 25-30 mph winds. That said, while it would sometimes feel like you might get blown sideways off the bicycle, at least you weren’t fighting it head on. It’s safe to say that I had some of my most frustrating days in Nevada, and it’s also safe to say that I spent a good amount of time screaming into the wind to release that frustration.
2. Give yourself a reason to stop in the small towns. It’s the tiniest towns that have the biggest character.
When you’re out on a road trip in a car, able to drive 300 or 400 miles on one single tank of gas, there’s no reason to stop in those tiny towns. Additionally, the interstates are hardly the “scenic route.” However, on the bike, those little towns are your safe havens; they provide food, a place to refill your water bottles, and some of the most interesting (and often bizarre) people that you’ll meet in your life!
3. When you’re climbing a hill, remember to look up and enjoy the view while you’re working to get to the summit.
Again, this one stemmed mainly from Nevada. Out of all the places I have been in this country, Nevada is by far the most barren I’ve seen. Between the mountain ranges, it wasn’t uncommon to find a 20 or 30 mile stretch of road that didn’t turn. These roads are so straight and long that unless you turned around and looked back every once in awhile it was almost as if you were pedaling in circles!
4. Every hill is followed by a descent at some point. Work hard going up, and have fun on the way down.
Lizard Head Pass. Monarch Pass. The Dallas Divide. Salvation Knoll. These are some of the toughest climbs we endured on the trip. Anywhere from 10-50 miles long (yes, you read that correctly, 50 miles!) these hills will test your physical strength, and perhaps more importantly, your will power. There is no stopping on the bike; you have to keep going -- but there is nothing like seeing the top of the hill, knowing a descent lays on the other side. Those steep grade signs that signaled 6 or 8% were definitely a saving grace for tired legs! That said, there was nothing more satisfying that passing 18 riders on the Colorado Rocky Mountain Bike Tour coming out of Gunnison up Monarch Pass, which marks the Continental Divide and rises to over 11,000 -- not to mention they weren’t even carrying any gear! From there, it was all downhill to Salida, CO.
5. Once you leave a place, the only direction to go is forward.
The harder you work, the faster you’ll get there. It’s easy to feel like you’re getting stuck in the same old routine in life. On the bike, whether you ride 50 miles or 100, you have to keep moving. The trip isn’t going to finish itself, and you’ll never reach your destination. When we packed up each morning and got back on the bike, we made a commitment to make it to some destination that night. That destination might change, and it might be more or less depending on how we were feeling, but no matter what, we always made forward progress.
6. Take time to enjoy yourself. Beer may cost you and dehydrate you, but man does it hit the spot!
What good is a trip across the country if you can’t stop and relax once in awhile?! We pushed ourselves way harder than most people we met out on the road, averaging about 90 miles a day as opposed to 50 or 60. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t take time to relax, though! Whether it was for a beer on a hot day or just some good food, the breaks make the trip far more enjoyable! After all, if you’re not enjoying it, why are you doing it?
7. Go for the out-of-town campsites. You’ll be more in the middle of nature and it will almost always be more scenic. You can take a shower another time...
Being someone who loves the outdoors, camping at an RV park in town isn’t exactly the best option for a place to stay. It’s basically a motel scene with far less amenities and no roof. We got to a point on this trip where we felt so disgusting and knew for a fact that we smelled gross; and yet it doesn’t matter how bad you smell when you have a great view in front of you.
8. Life gets so much simpler when you’re living primitively. If it’s hot, all you want is water. And after a long ride, a good meal and a cold beer is all you could ask for.
This trip has fully made me reevaluate what I need to survive and enjoy life. I carried everything I needed in one large dry sack and two tiny ones. Returning to Seattle, I peered into the storage unit with all my possessions in it and wondered how the heck I owned so many things. When I move into my new apartment, there’s no doubt I’ll be trying to cut out all the things that I don’t really need. There is something so appealing to living minimally: there isn’t all this “stuff” weighing you down. You pay much more attention to the people and scenery around you instead of being entertained by things in your possession.
9. Don’t be afraid to take breaks. A few minutes’ break could rejuvenate you for 50 more miles. At the same time, don’t make your breaks so long that you lose focus and momentum.
With any long trip, the key is to pace yourself. There’s no way we could ride 5000 miles in a day, and there’s no reason to try. While there were days where we pushed ourselves to make it to a spot before sundown, there were also days when we had no choice but to let the sun set and continue in the dark. No matter what, we always made it, but sometimes we just needed breaks in between riding. Comically enough, we never could really figure out how we could blow 3 and 4 hours on breaks in a day...
10. Break large tasks into chunks. It’s the small steps (and single pedal strokes) that ultimately climb mountains. The trip overall turns into weeks, which turn into days, which turn into distances b
If I had a penny for each jaw that dropped when we would tell a curious person about our trip, I wouldn’t have had to start a GoFundMe for this trip in the first place. There were a lot of people that would hear our story and say “I could never do anything like that…”. The reality of it is, anyone could do this trip! It’s simply a matter of breaking it down into manageable chunks. You wouldn’t try to eat a burger in one bite, would you?
11. Keep looking ahead and focusing on your dreams, but don’t forget to turn around once in awhile and relish in how far you’ve come.
When you’re out on a journey, it’s easy to get burned out after awhile. The best way to keep the fire alive? Take a look at how far you’ve already made it. For me that meant looking at the map of the whole US on my phone and seeing that flashing little blue dot that marked my location. Initially it didn’t seem to be going very fast, but every few days I would check back in, and before I knew it, we were making serious progress!
12. Break up your journey into legs, and take time to celebrate each time you reach the end of a leg. Because when you add up all the legs you’ll have achieved your bigger goal.
There’s a great saying that says “it’s the little steps that ultimately climb mountains.” Don’t feel like you have to grind without stopping until you reach the very end, though. Our method was that each time we crossed a state line, we would get a few airplane bottles of liquor to celebrate. A hearty cheers, and bottoms up!
13. If something is broken, don’t wait to fix it. Drop the money and do it right away. Just as in life, if you’ve burned bridges, fix them as soon as possible before the problem gets worse!
This little anecdote will suffice for both number 13 and 14! We were trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, which meant fiddling around and trying to fix things on our bikes if something went wrong. In most cases, the bikes were rideable long enough to get to a shop in a bigger town. However, sometimes, it’s better to just leave the work to the professionals. In Kansas, my front derailleur cable was giving me issues, and I could only get my chain into the middle gear if I started from the bottom. If I started from the big gear, it would skip the middle. I started messing around with the barrel adjustments to tighten and loosen the cable and figure out a happy medium where it would work. As it turns out, the cable was frayed and totally shot, and I ended up stressing the shifter to the point where it broke… Though everyone told me those Shimano shifters (“brifters” as they are called because the levers are both brakes and shifters) are virtually bomb-proof, I somehow managed to break one. Lesson learned!
14. Leave the professional work to the specialists! If you don’t know how to do something, don’t make it worse!
15. Be nice to everyone! It makes a huge difference and builds character!
It is amazing the people you meet on a trip like this. To name a few: a Trinity County Sheriff that drove us to Hayfork when my buddy’s bike broke, a guy who let us stay in his house even though he wasn’t even in the same state, two guys who were traveling reps for Jimmy Johns who were super interested in our trip, a random guy in a big black pickup who stopped on the side of the road to make sure we had a place to stay that night -- you get the idea. You never know when a blessing is going to come your way when you most need it. Keeping an open mind and an open heart is the best way to make the most of all the opportunities to meet some amazing people!
16. Even if it gets dark, just keep going until you finish. It may not be the easiest to get to the finish, but the important thing is that you do, no matter what time it is!
Towards the end of the trip we were really pushing to get finished and our schedule was tight. Being later in the summer, we had less daylight to work with and having taken only one rest day, it was getting harder and harder to wake up in the morning and get rolling. It’s not easy riding in the dark, and it feels a whole lot less safe, but sometimes it’s necessary, and even if it happens, you can be proud knowing that no matter what you accomplished what you set out to do that day.
17. Do the things you love. Listen to the lessons of those who have done before you. And don’t ever make excuses not to do something.
I embarked on this trip without even having a job to come back to. I knew it would virtually bankrupt the small amount of money I had left, and I actually even had to end up asking my parents to help me over the finish line financially; but I wasn’t going to give up on the trip, and even though I knew that it would be difficult to scramble and job hunt afterwards, this was one goal I wasn’t going to let slip away.
It’s been about two weeks since we finished the trip, and I must admit it is still completely surreal. I often go back and read the stories and look at the pictures to just relive it all. That said it is awesome to be able to share stories and pieces of the trip with anyone who asks. As I search for a full time job in Seattle, I’m so proud to have accomplished all that we did this past summer; it’s easily in the top three accomplishments of my life. After all, if I can persevere to bike across the country, I can do anything!