Beginning three months from today, if I haven’t taken on a full-time a job or had some personal matter arise that prevents me from doing so, I will get on my bicycle in Los Angeles and begin to pick my way through the traffic, heading east. Six or seven weeks later I should reach Connecticut.
I will use the ride to raise money for a nonprofit that I support – the Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program ( http://www.ctcyclingadvancement.org/). CCAP is a great organization, dedicating to building the sport of cycling by providing a well-organized alternative to kids who might not care for the usual school sports. In my view such children need something better to do than while away their time in front of screens. (We all do, but that’s another matter).
The truth is, though, that I want to do this adventure for myself. Many times have I flown over our fair land, and thought: someday, I want to really see it. Not just the resorts or the airports or the city-centers in which I’ve vacationed or had meetings, but the whole thing. The deserts, the mountains, the plains, small towns and big cities. I want to see the sights, smell the air and hear the sounds; I want to meet some people outside the bubble in which I usually live.
The distance is about 3,400 miles. My plan is to cover an average of about 100 miles a day, six days a week. I will take a rest day whenever either the weather is bad or I’ve gone six days without rest. It’s also possible that I’ll need more frequent rest days or cover less distance on average than expected, so the exact timing of the adventure can’t be fixed.
Friends have expressed interest in accompanying me for parts of the ride. They, and anybody who reads posts about my experiences on the ride – I’ll write at least something about what I see and learn daily, beginning on 4/11 – will be asked to make a per-mile pledge to CCAP here http://ctcyclingadvancement.donorpages.com/MarksRide/mj2016/. I’m hoping that we can raise a fair bit of money for CCAP – and some awareness of what it’s all about. I will try to make the updates from the road worthwhile.
Many details about the logistics are still to be worked out. I intend to have a sag driver – to carry a spare bike, luggage, etc., to do some of the daily route planning and to be close enough while I ride to help in the event of trouble; the sag driver will also co-ordinate with friends who come to join me for segments, help them with their stuff, etc. Maybe I’ll find three different friends who want to drive for two week segments just to see the sights and help out; if not, I’ll hire somebody for the job. It’s even possible that I’ll convince my Beloved Spouse to drive for a segment.
Having this adventure as a goal will also force me to get serious about upgrading from sorta, kinda fit, but undisciplined, to no foolin’ ready over the next 91 days. I know all too well how awful I’ll end up feeling if either I am not well prepared or I set too aggressive a pace.
Assuming that I set off on April 11th, I’ll turn 58 en route. I’m ok with that: I figure that I should do it while I’m still young.
Day Zero – 4/10/16
(This is the first in a series of daily posts that I intend to write over the next six or seven weeks about the attempt I am about to make at riding my bicycle from Los Angeles, CA to Old Lyme, CT).
I sent three bikes – my two beautiful new steel Mariposas, pictured below at home just after their arrival a month ago, and my much older carbon fiber Parlee – on ahead to Los Angeles with Dan, who will be driving the sag wagon for the first month of the journey; he is the son of a former colleague/old friend of mine. I am planning to mostly use the Mariposas, saving the lighter but less comfortable Parlee for big climbs. I figure I’ll use the second Mariposa for spare parts if I run into equipment trouble.
The Beloved Spouse and I spent the last few days visiting friends in spectacular springtime Charleston and attending a wedding there. She is heading home now; I am on an airplane on my way to LA.
On Friday, the friends with whom we were staying introduced me to a retired surgeon who, at the age of 73, had bicycled from coast to coast with a group last year. We had a great chat. He said that notwithstanding his having suffered from terrible saddle sores the trip had been by far the greatest adventure of his life.
His group, of which he was by far the oldest member, averaged 96 miles a day. Two of the twenty riders ended up in hospitals with broken bones. On many occasions, the intrepid Charlestonian almost quit – largely due to the saddle sores – but he hung in there. He said that he never would have made it without the emotional and drafting support provided by his fellow riders. The group really bonded.
I must say that I was humbled by the meeting – here I am, thinking that this is a huge challenge for a man of my age, and he did it when he was 15 years older than I am.
Our conversation refocused my mind on the reasons that I might fail. As I see it, there are five:
1) Exhaustion. I am not too worried about this. Been there, done that, know that I can recover. To avoid it, I need to keep the pace relaxed and focus on my intake of food and fluids.
2) Severe saddle sores. Have never been a problem for me, but then, I’ve never undertaken a ride of anything like this distance. Not sure I could endure really terrible pain in that department.
3) Loneliness. This won’t stop me, but it could make other problems worse. I will have Dan’s – and then Josh’s – company at meals, but otherwise I’ll almost always be alone with my thoughts and whatever traffic is out there. (Some friends are still talking about joining me for a few days along the way). I don’t mind solitude, but I’ve never experienced it in these quantities. Who knows, maybe I’ll think great thoughts…
4) An accident. I put the odds at 10% – one accident every 35,000 miles seems consistent with my experience and that of the Charlestonian’s tour group. The most important safety technique is to stay alert – to live fully in the moment.
5) Neck pain/possible nerve damage. For many years I have had occasional pain running from my neck down my arm; the pain is caused, or worsened, by having less than perfect posture, spending too much time hunched over a computer and long distance riding. The pain mostly went away a few years ago when I started working with a physical therapist, improved my posture, etc., but has been increasing again as I really ramped up the training over the last few months. If it gets really severe, I will abandon – there’s no glory in possibly inflicting permanent damage on my nerve system. This is the least controllable of the risks. Well, other than a drunk or texting driver.
So there it is: there are risks. I’ll try not to dwell on them.
I still think I’ll make it. I put the odds at 60/40 or 70/30.
Dan will meet me at LAX. We will spend the afternoon checking equipment and talking about routes, distances, topographies and places to stay. Then we’ll eat a big dinner, and I’ll go to my room and try to sleep.
We will depart early tomorrow so that I can try to beat some of the traffic as I begin to work my way eastward and out of town.
Tomorrow is likely to be slow, due to traffic and stoplights; I’ll want to ride harder than I should – I have been looking forward to getting going for quite some time, but would be far wiser to rein in my adrenaline. To set a pace that I cannot sustain for days and weeks would be a big mistake.
The weather is expected to be perfect – mid sixties with some clouds. The wind should be from the west.
This is it.
Day 1 – 4/11/16
Santa Monica, CA-San Bernardino, CA
Weather: Cloudy and cool
Distance: 83.3 miles
Feet of Climb: 2,280 ft/Descent: 1,325 ft
Rolling Time: 5:29:38
Note: Garmin links, like the one immediately above, will give readers the ability to see exact routes traveled, speeds, durations, temperatures and elevations. They tell the story through objectively collected data, rather than my own necessarily subjective observations.
For reasons that have nothing to do with cycling, today began on a sad note:
I went across the street to McDonalds for breakfast – at 5:00 AM nothing else was open, and I needed to put some calories into the machine. On the way over, I noticed that both our hotel and McDonalds had security personnel standing at their doors.
Inside the restaurant, I noticed a young man who, when I had first seen him yesterday afternoon around the corner from the same spot, I had taken for a hipster – a blond kid, with a beard and a piercing, maybe 20. I had seen him there again when Dan and I had walked to and from dinner; those times I took him for a stoner. This morning he was the only other customer in the restaurant, counting his change to buy something.
He’s on a rough road.
This morning’s ride started much earlier than will be the norm. I figured that an early start might help us get out of town before the roads became really congested.
In spite of my trepidations about the traffic, I could barely contain my excitement about starting a journey that I have dreamed of for decades. Barring a major mishap, we are going to see America up close and personal. As the boy at McDonalds reminded me, not all of it will be beautiful – but I’m guessing that most of it will be.
At sunrise, Dan took the picture below at the pier at Santa Monica, one block from the hotel where we stayed last night; immediately thereafter, I jumped on my bike, and he into the van, and we began to make our ways through the city streets.
The ride’s beginning – from Santa Monica SSE along the shore to Venice Beach, then ENE along Venice Boulevard through Culver City and on into downtown LA – was agonizingly slow. Venice Boulevard is a six lane road, somewhat akin to the East Coast’s Route One. Though we were passing by some magnificent residential areas, including Beverly Hills just to our north, all I saw was an endless array of service establishments.
I must have stopped at 100 red lights before I had finished working my way through LA’s relatively modestly-sized downtown. The riding was slow going, but neither particularly dangerous nor unpleasant; our early start seems to have had its intended effect.
I was pleasantly surprised by the look and feel of the areas I rode through after Dan, whom I saw occasionally throughout the day, and I left downtown LA. While I have been to LA on business many times, the east side was an unknown to me; I had been expecting to see poorer and more industrial neighborhoods, not the prim quasi-suburban towns that I did see as I headed due east through El Monte, West Covina, Baldwin Park, Pomona and Claremont.
The San Gabriel River Bike Trail, which passes over or under cross streets, was a really delightful surprise after all the stopping and starting that I had been doing. I was sent to it by the route that Dan and I designed last night with help from the Ride with GPS website. While I rode, route instructions were passed along to me through my Garmin, into which our route choices had been downloaded. Pretty cool.
I felt fine today. Other than when I was on the San Gabriel River Bike Trail, the ride was frustratingly choppy because of all the stops and starts at traffic lights, but the roads themselves were generally in excellent condition and the inclines were gently gradual – barely noticeable, in fact. The comparative flatness of the roads made a great contrast with the beautiful, cloud-covered San Gabriel Mountains, which loomed just a few miles to our left all afternoon.
The total distance was a little less than I will usually do on this journey. Tomorrow’s ride will be on the short side, too: it made no sense to add seventeen miles today and twelve to tomorrow’s route (to get to 100 each day) because those added miles would have left Dan and me in the middle of the desert at the end of the day tomorrow, with no nearby hotel. Better to take a couple of relatively relaxed rides at the start.
Tomorrow I will pedal through dramatically less populous areas on my way to the edge of the Mojave desert.
Day 2 – 4/12/16
San Bernardino, CA-Twentynine Palms, CA
Weather: Sunny; The temperature gradually rose from 50 to 88 degrees
Distance: 88.88 miles
Feet of Climb: 4,573/Descent: 4,003
Rolling Time: 6:48:36
Those of you who are cyclists might well look at the distance and rolling time and ask what on earth I was doing. My succinct answer: having a completely unanticipated adventure and a vastly harder ride than I had expected.
The day started off with an immediate change of scene from yesterday. Gone were the suburbs and exurbs of LA; I found myself in verdant countryside, following Timoteo County Road into Riverside County with orange groves to my left and ranches to my right. Farther off in the distance there were beautiful green mountains on both sides of the road; the ones to the north were taller and still snow-capped.
The road didn’t have a shoulder, but most of the time that was fine because almost all the traffic was heading west, into the more populous areas, while I was heading east. I was also climbing toward a pass between the mountains. At the top, roughly mile 40, I found myself in the city of Beaumont.
Shortly thereafter, following the route dictated by my Garmin, relying on a Google cycling route that we had downloaded, I turned into the entrance way to an Indian reservation. The policeman at the gate informed me that I couldn’t take the selected route and added that other than Interstate Highway 10, the only road heading east was an unmarked service road that was dirt, then rock for a mile or two, then paved for another mile or two. He helpfully explained how I could find it, then turned to Dan, who had stopped at the same gate, and told him that there was no way that the van could get through on the service road.
Dan went on ahead to wait for me at the next highway exit. I found the service “road” – a barely distinguishable path through mud, then railroad-bed rocks. I was right next to the tracks. It took me quite a while to get to Dan and a paved road again. I heaved a sigh of relief, thinking that I was through the worst, but that was far from the case.
Over the next four or five miles, the service road appeared, then disappeared, several times. Dan went on ahead again; this time he had to wait much longer as I picked my way through the edge of the desert – the greenery had changed in Beaumont as we crested the pass. At one point, I had to cross a dry riverbed and go looking for some sort of path where my Garmin indicated that there was a road that simply didn’t exist. (I guess that’s why Google’s bicycle routes are labeled Beta). At another time, following what Google had said was a rideable road, I passed by some Keep Out signs and through some private electrical grid property which, to eventually exit, I had to slip myself and my bike under a gate.
At no time during this section of the “ride” did I know if I was going to find another legitimate service road; I was just moving forward, sometimes riding on a dirt path, sometimes walking where there was no path but I could see one up ahead, with the highway a mile or so to my right, hoping that I would find a way through. I figured that if I didn’t find a way, I could always go back. Eventually, I did find a way through.
Please see below for a picture of one of the better sections of this area – here at least there was a path to follow, but it was sandy so I had to climb it on foot, and I didn’t know where it led.
Bottom line: the only paved road from Beaumont to Highway 62 is Interstate 10; the route can be traversed, but it is not truly rideable.
Next, I took highway 62 (which placed me back on the Google route). It’s a divided highway; cars and trucks were passing me at 70 or 75 mph, but there was a wide shoulder and traffic was light, so I didn’t sense danger.
But for a couple of small diversions, Highway 62 took me all the way into Twentynine Palms – about 40 more miles. It had one very difficult (and scary, because the shoulder evaporated) section climbing about 1,500 feet through a mountain pass – reminiscent of route 202 east of the Bear Mountain Bridge, but much longer.
I am now in the desert. To my north, east and west is the Mojave; immediately to the south is the Joshua Tree National Park. The landscape is parched and overwhelmingly brown, with a few dark greens.
Tomorrow I expect to ride due east for 112 miles to Parker, AZ.
I will be praying for a wind from the west.
Day 3 – The Mojave – 4/13/16
Twentynine Palms, CA-Parker, AZ
Weather: Clear; temperature rising from 60 to 90 degrees
Distance: 112.8 miles
Feet of Climb: 2,605/Descent: 4,206
Rolling Time: 6:24:12
At the crest of a small hill as I rolled out of Twentynine Palms, I passed a sign that read: “Next Services 100 Miles”. The vista from that hill looked like this:
I knew I was in for a new kind of experience. I had never traversed a desert in a car, let alone on a bike.
There was very little traffic and the topography was friendly – mostly flat, with more declines than inclines. If I had been younger, or with other cyclists, the pace could have been very fast. As it was, today I covered 112 miles more quickly than I was able to cover 90 yesterday.
I wasn’t focused on speed. Particularly in the morning, I worried that by afternoon the distance and heat might put me in a bad way, so I kept the pace relaxed and savored the endless vistas. Given the terrain – and a neutral-to-favorable breeze – a relaxed effort resulted in an average speed of about 18 mph – faster than I can usually sustain solo without immense effort.
It is trite but true to say that I found the desert beautiful. What it really was, though, was immense. Dan took the picture below; it will give you a feel for the size and shape of the lands I was riding through; I’m the dot on the road.
A few random observations:
During the course of the ride, I passed by seven little roadside crosses indicating places where somebody’s loved one had died in a car accident. All were immaculately maintained; some had little plastic flowers at their bases.
The truck drivers who passed from time to time were uniformly considerate, swinging way wide of me to make sure their drafts didn’t blow me over.
I passed one crew of California Highway workers three times in three different spots. They had surveying equipment, and were measuring something or other. On the second occasion when I passed them we waved to each other and one guy called out to say “great job” and ask if I needed water. I said “no thank you” and kept rolling. By the third time – maybe 40 miles from the first, we were old friends – they called out to ask where I was going; I said New York – simplifying matters, yes, but my response got me a great cheer.
Today was the second occasion in my life – the first was the time when I went on a multi-day Appalachian Trail hike with my friends Lewis and John – when I have considered just how important clean water is to everything we do – even to our ability to live. It’s strange to pass through an area where there isn’t any water for 100 miles, and where summertime temperatures are boiling hot. I had no worries on that score, though: Dan made sure I always had a full bottle.
Half of me – the half that has awakened every morning thus far – is profoundly grateful for the beauty of the world in which we live, and that I have the opportunity to explore so much of it right now. The other half – the post-ride, afternoon half – wonders what on earth I was thinking when I decided to undertake this journey, and how I will get back on the saddle in the morning.
On current form, sleep will cure that.
Day 4 – 4/14/16
Parker, AZ – Wickenburg, AZ
Weather: Fair, temperature rising from 64 to 91
Distance: 109.3 miles
Feet of Climb: 2,907/Descent: 928
Rolling Time: 6:34:59
Topographically, today’s ride was a reversal of yesterday’s. Whereas yesterday I descended about 2,000 feet, net, today I climbed a reciprocal amount. I had neglected to mention that Parker is on the Colorado River, and as with all rivers, you descend to it and climb from it.
Wickenburg was not where I had originally expected to ride today. When Dan looked closely last night, he realized that the route to Kingman, AZ, where we had expected to head, included a long stretch on an unpaved road – and that stretch has a 2,000 foot climb. No thanks.
So we redesigned the route for today, ending up in Wickenburg – 132 miles from Kingman. Needless to say, tomorrow’s route to Ash Fork, AZ, getting me back on track, will be quite different from – and much longer than – the originally intended route. Once again the Google Maps’ Beta Bicycling Directions algorithm proved imperfect; at least this time we (well, Dan) figured it out before I was on my way to Kingman.
In any event, I spent the first 100 miles – to the dot – climbing. The gradient was extremely light – maybe 1/2 % or 1% – but I could see and feel the road gently pushing back at me. The last nine miles were a pretty sharp – and very welcome – descent.
The feel of today’s ride was also different from yesterday’s for reasons having little to do with the topography. Today I was riding through the Sonoran, rather than the Mojave, Desert. Judging from my limited experience, they are very different from each other. Whereas the Mojave has no trees that I saw – just brownish/greenish shrubs – and no settlements, the Sonoran has plenty of both. Dan and I passed by six or eight little towns, and as we gradually gained altitude, the landscape became greener and greener.
I saw saguaro trees like the one below from about mile 20.
Soon enough, I was also seeing leafy trees that were springtime’s yellow-green, and wild flowers by the side of the road. After lunch – at mile 54 – we even started seeing agriculture.
The towns Dan and I passed through made this desert seem friendlier and less forbidding than the Mojave. There were still endless vistas like the one below, with the road shimmering in the distance, reflecting the sky, but people live there, and they were out and about.
Dan and I are now at a rather elegant golf resort/dude ranch where we could get last minute reservations. This is quite a change from the Best Westerns where we have been staying. I intend to get a massage – what a luxury!
At the risk of seeming ghoulish: today I saw nine roadside crosses – four singles, two side-by-side and three in a row. I wish I hadn’t noticed and started counting them, but now I can’t stop.
We had lunch in a saloon in the Town of Salome. On the way into town there was a sign:
“Salome/Where She Dances.”
The average age of the other patrons in the saloon was about 80; I wonder what they think of her dancing.
That wasn’t the funniest sign I saw today, though. We passed briefly through a town called Hope. The only building I saw there was a church at the crossroads. Then, a little way down the road, there was an elaborately and professionally painted sign that read:
“Your (sic) Now Beyond Hope”
Day 5 – Fear – 4/15/16
Wickenburg, AZ – Camp Verde, AZ
Weather: Fair; temperature rising from 62 to 74; winds gusting to 40 mph
Distance: 103 miles
Feet of Climb: 5,216/Descent 4,330
Rolling Time: 6:20:12
Dan and I decided to save about 20 miles over two days by heading for Camp Verde today, to be followed by Winslow, AZ, which will put us back on track. By making these changes we were cutting off the corner of a triangle.
The resulting route for today looked straightforward enough: sixty miles of descents, followed by a thirty-six mile climb and a final seven mile descent. I dreaded the long climb – roughly a 3,000 foot gain, starting off with some steep pitches – but otherwise everything looked fine.
How little I knew. The ride ended up being the scariest I have experienced in my thirty years as an avid recreational cyclist – notwithstanding the fact that in the past I have had many accidents, but had none today.
Also, that climb that I dreaded? It was a huge blessing.
Have you ever found yourself driving along Route 95, east of New Haven, and wondering what it would be like to ride a bicycle on it? I now know. I don’t recommend it.
At mile 50, my route put me on Interstate 17; I would be on it for the rest of the day. In Arizona it is legal to ride on Interstates where not expressly forbidden. Indeed, the state has very helpfully placed signs at the freeway entrances imploring cyclists to ride only on the shoulder.
Sensible advice, that. When cars and trucks are streaming by at 75 or 80 – the speed limit on I 17 is 75 – riding in the road seems unwise. I gritted my teeth and gamely set out on the (thankfully, wide) shoulder.
Wide, but not pretty. Unlike the road itself, the shoulder has cracks, sand, gravel, bits of shredded tires, etc.
Between miles 50 and 60 – where I had agreed to meet Dan for lunch – there was a huge descent. Even touching my brakes as much as I dared, I was going about 40 mph; doubtless the trucks whizzing by were approaching 90 – which causes quite a lot of turbulence in the air. Meanwhile, there was a 40 mph cross wind.
All I could do to try to stay upright was tuck myself down to present the winds with a smaller target and hope that I would get to the bottom of the hill without being blown over – or hitting some of the detritus that I was approaching at great speed. It didn’t feel like I would be any safer if I slowed down – that would just give the wind more time to toss me aside.
I was thoroughly shaken when I got to the lunch spot where we had agreed to eat. I told Dan that the descent had been really scary, and that I was actually looking forward to the climb that would come right after lunch. I figured that it would slow both me and the trucks down dramatically; I would much rather be straining to climb at 10 mph, and feeling safe than be terrified in an effortless descent.
And so it happened. The whole climb felt perfectly safe. Indeed, as I approached the top I was relaxed enough to get a laugh out of the vista I saw immediately after passing a sign that announced that I was entering the Prescott National Forest. I stopped and took this picture:
Do you see a forest? I half expected to see Clint ride across the field in character as the Man With No Name. (A few miles later, I did see some trees).
Also, the climb was not as bad as I had expected because for most of it, the day’s fierce winds were at my back.
On the way into Camp Verde, I had one more terrifying descent. Scarier than the first, actually. For seven miles, I descended a 7% grade, doing all I could to keep the bike upright in the buffeting winds. This descent has lots of signs warning truckers, and a runaway truck ramp for those who miss the signs. Also, to my right was a sheer cliff that I really didn’t want to get too close to.
This time I wasn’t so afraid of the passing trucks – there were fewer – or the road surface – which was better – it was the wind that scared the daylights out of me. Dan couldn’t have safely come to get me. I had no choice but to hang on and concentrate. I was acutely aware that losing my nerve or my concentration would have had very unfortunate consequences.
I try to thank the good Lord every morning for the blessings that he has so liberally bestowed on me. I did so again when I got to the hotel today.
I’ll be a lot more careful about the routes I choose henceforth.
Day 6 – 4/16/16
Camp Verde, AZ – Winslow, AZ
Weather: Um, yes. Details below.
Distance: 99.4 miles
Feet of Climb: 6,512/Descent 4,911
Rolling Time: 7:25:10
As I prepared to set out at 7:30 this morning, I looked at the topographical outline of the route on Dan’s computer; it indicated that I would be climbing about 3,000 feet without a break between miles ten and thirty, with more to come in a less steady-state ascent between miles thirty and thirty-seven. It was sunny and about 60 degrees, and I figured that the rise in elevation would roughly offset the effects of the rising sun, so I decided to put on arm warmers.
The initial section of the climb out of the Verde Valley was a classic of the type; western climbs are known among cyclists to be much less steep than but as much as twenty or thirty times as long as most eastern ones. As we climbed – I on my bike, Dan in the van – we were treated to spectacular vistas of the surrounding mountains and the valley below. Much of the valley looked like the high desert that we had seen yesterday, but a river flows through it and for 100 or 200 yards on both sides of the water, springtime is going hog wild.
The road was in perfect condition and there was almost no traffic. In fact I would see neither a long-haul truck nor a police car all day.
By the time we reached the first crest, at about 6,000 feet, the temperature had dropped to the mid forties. In what I thought was an abundance of caution, I stopped at the van to pick up some knee warmers.
Immediately thereafter, we rounded a corner and entered the Coconino National Park. Suddenly, we were surrounded by what looked like endless forests of mature evergreens. The air tasted delicious – cool, fresh and perfectly clear. The views on both sides of the road looked like backwoods Maine, or perhaps Bend, Oregon. The few people we saw in the park were ranger-types or campers.
The traffic-free riding was heavenly – but the road wound ever higher, with descents that added to the work of getting to the top.
By the time I crested the climb at 7,450 feet it was lunchtime; it had taken me 3.5 hours to ride 37 miles. The temperature was 37 and the first full-on clouds of our journey had appeared, so Dan and I sat in the van for warmth, eating our sandwiches.
I was also looking at a map of the rest of the ride on his phone: it looked like rolling hills for another 13 miles, then a glorious 50 mile descent to Winslow. I told Dan that I thought I would end up doing the last 63 miles in three hours. I also decided to put on a riding jacket and heavier gloves, knowing that a fast descent can feel really cold.
As I got back on my bike, I looked at the clouds – now darkening – and thought: nah; no precipitation is expected. I set off in my warmer gear, and shortly thereafter noticed snow leftover from winter on the side of the road. Then it started snowing. Not hard, you understand, and not to a level where I felt unsafe, but definitely snowing.
The snow continued intermittently past mile fifty. Then, as I started to descend, it turned to a light drizzle of semi-frozen rain. Again, it wasn’t enough to make me feel unsafe on the largely empty road, but it was a little annoying, and it certainly slowed me down.
At about 6,000 feet, I emerged from the pine forest. The vistas opened up dramatically to high plains – radically different from the views on the way up on the Verde Valley side. The picture below (taken as I approached Winslow) will give you a feel for what I mean:
Quite a contrast with the forest.
The other thing that changed as soon as I emerged from the forest was the wind. It began blasting at me – sometimes from the side, sometimes from the front. Between yesterday’s ride and today’s, I have gained great respect for western winds. They could blow a cyclist over – several times I had to react instantly in order to not lose my balance to a gust.
Whereas I had expected to be merrily zipping along at 20 mph + on the long descent, I found myself working awfully hard to ride at 15 mph. And it was raining intermittently until the last ten minutes of the ride, when it started pouring.
In spite of all the weather surprises, and the agonizingly long 7 1/2 hours in the saddle, it was a wonderful day. The roads were safe. I saw completely different worlds on the way up, at the top and on the way down. All three were beautiful.
This is what I came for.
P.S. Tomorrow I’ll be resting. Time for a day off.
Day 7 – Routines – 4/17/16
Since I am not riding today, I thought I would give you a description of the daily routines of this journey.
By the time I get off my bike I’m tired. The first thing I do is email my Beloved Spouse that I’m done for the day and fine. Then I shower and change before sitting down to write a post while the ride’s memories are still fresh.
I should add that I think about topics for the post while riding; I find such thoughts (is this interesting enough to share? should I take a picture?) to be a welcome diversion from a focus on aches and pains or miles to go. In my mind the posts fulfill three important functions:
1) They will help me remember details that would otherwise inevitably become scrambled as time goes by.
2) They function as near-equivalents of emails to family and friends, and
3) They provide you with some entertainment.
After I’ve written the day’s post, I have only two more tasks: eat dinner and go to bed.
I awaken at the earliest hour when I can get breakfast wherever we’re staying. After eating, I spend an hour or so relaxing – reading the paper, checking emails and calling my Beloved Spouse. Then I suit up for the day’s ride, meet Dan by the van, and go.
It is a blissfully simple routine, made so by the fact that Dan is providing me with many kinds of logistical and moral support. He lays out route options, which we discuss at dinner, considering weather, topography, expected road conditions, and, importantly, where the roads lead. He makes hotel reservations and figures out where we can have dinner and whether we will find a place to stop for lunch or, if there isn’t a place on the way, how he will get sandwiches that we can eat by the side of the road. He keeps plenty of water and snacks in the van, and stops every ten miles or so, so that if necessary I can stop to refuel (or pick up/discard clothing layers) as needed.
Seeing the van every so often is important to me, as some of the areas we’ve been passing through have no cell phone coverage. Being seen by Dan is equally important; that way if I get myself into an accident while riding alone – unlikely, but it could happen – help will come.
In other words, Dan’s job for these few weeks is to make my life safer and simpler, so that I can focus all of my energies on riding and writing. He is doing his job beautifully, which explains how I can do what I’m doing.
(When we arrive wherever we’re going, he goes out and explores the town or gets some exercise before dinner. He seems to be enjoying his routines – including driving through this wonderful countryside and doing the planning, as well as the exercise and personal explorations of the towns – as much as I am mine).
Other random observations/comments:
I brought two spare bikes, but am riding only one of my steel Mariposas. If I was going to switch to the lighter carbon fiber Parlee, which has gearing set for climbs, I would have done so yesterday. I didn’t because I’m feeling strangely sentimental about the idea of riding all the way across on one bike.
My friend Larry is planning to join me for four days beginning a week from now; he will borrow one of the spare bikes. I’m looking forward to having some great company on the road.
My fancy new Garmin bike computer has been part of the technology combination that has led me astray a few times, due to the occasional off-road choices made by Google Maps. Yesterday, the Garmin again tried to point me onto (from what I could see) nonexistent trails. It (or rather its programmer) also showed a sense of humor: when I turned onto Route 87, the Garmin very helpfully told me to prepare to turn right – in 61 miles. Then, as I followed Route 87 mile after mile after mile, with nary another road in sight, the directions bar simply told me to “Continue on Road”. Ok, then.
And finally: thus far, I am really pleased to report, my body seems to be holding up fine. None of the problems I worried about a week ago have reared their ugly heads. If this continues to be the case for the remaining 2,900 or so miles of this journey, I will count myself exceptionally lucky.
Day 8a. – 4/18/16
We’re going to get a late start this morning. There’s no reason to hurry because where we’re going today, just short of Chambers, AZ, promises only a place to stay and nothing more. I had thought we would be heading to Chambers, but that town’s only hotel, a Best Western, has shut down since I sketched out the preliminary plans a few months ago. The ride will be on the short side – around 80 miles – making tomorrow’s 110; there’s no other place to stay within one day’s ride between here and Grants, NM.
I thought I would use the extra hour to give you a little sense of the towns we’ve been going through and the hotels where we’ve been staying.
San Bernardino: A fairly large town at the farthest end of the Los Angeles metro area. Our hotel was by the airport; at 6:00 AM the breakfast buffet crowd consisted of a couple of elderly couples, six or eight guys who clearly work together in lower-level engineering or higher-level blue collar capacities, and me.
Twentynine Palms: A resort community of some size built alongside Joshua Tree National Park and at the edge of the Mojave. The early morning breakfast buffet crowd at the hotel consisted mainly of late middle-aged or elderly tourists. Checking in and out, I conversed with a nice guy, 65 or 70, who seemed to manage the place; he wore a hat indicating aircraft carrier service. He liked the sound of my adventure and wished me safe travels.
Parker: A much smaller casino town on the Colorado River. As we ate dinner in a bar across the street from the hotel, Dan and I watched the Rangers game and got advice to avoid Kingman from a hardscrabble local – long hair, missing front teeth, maybe 65, or maybe 40 looking 65 – who was a little too happy just to have people to talk to. We learned that the town was gearing up for some boat races on the river over the weekend; this explained why I had seen trucks towing boats on the way into town. The early breakfast buffet crowd consisted of two elderly couples and me.
Wickenburg: It’s a fairly large town, but I didn’t really see it because Dan and I stayed at a dude ranch/resort. Early breakfast at the local Dennys – 5 or 6 miles away; we were the only ones there.
Verde Valley: About the same size as Parker; another casino town. The crowd we saw checking into the hotel consisted of a late middle-age group of friends who had arrived on motorcycles for a night of gambling. The contrast between their tough-looking, patched leathers and the obviously gentle joviality of their age and moods gave me a smile.
Dan and I went out for dinner at a surprisingly good Italian place, but the service was hopelessly pretentious. At the hotel’s buffet breakfast, I saw two elderly couples and, wait for it, … a young mother with two beautiful children – the first youngsters I had seen in one of the hotels where we’ve stayed.
Winslow: we passed a huge, forbidding state prison on the way into town, not the nicest first impression, but the town itself makes its living off nostalgia for Route 66’s glory days and a statue depicting the verse in the Eagles song “Standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona…”. All day long, we saw people taking selfies with the statue.
Since yesterday was my day off, I walked around town. The main street has seen better days, but one street back there’s a long line of cheerfully kept homes. Dan went out to a National Park to see some native American ruins and take a hike; he says that other than the two rangers, he was the only one there.
Saturday night we stayed in a Best Western that featured an identical breakfast buffet scene to the one I’ve experienced in so many other towns. For last night we switched to the town’s one really nice hotel, which had been fully booked for Saturday night – La Posada.
La Posada turns out to be an astonishingly elegant hotel, originally built in 1930 as the last of the great Santa Fe Railroad hotels, and now immaculately restored. We had dinner here two nights in a row; the food was great and the crowd was distinctly high end; the hotel is clearly a destination point. Alongside it are railroad tracks; while eating, we watched mile-long, double-decker freight trains roll slowly by.
Off to breakfast, and then the day’s ride. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Day 8b. – High Plains – 4/18/16
Winslow, AZ – Chambers, AZ
Weather: Fair skies; temperatures between 46 and 66 degrees.
Distance: 79.27 miles
Miles to Date: 667/Estimated Miles to Go: 2,833
Feet of Climb: 2,087/Descent: 1,145
Rolling Time: 4:23:10
The wind swept me across the high plains of Navajo and Apache Counties today. It was at my back perhaps two thirds of the time and across my side the rest. When it was behind me, I rolled along effortlessly at 20 mph; when it was to cross-wise to my direction my speed slowed considerably.
The topography was one long, uneven and low-grade climb. When the wind was at my back, the slight gradient mattered not at all.
For the first hour or two I could hear “Fur Elise” playing on repeat in my head as it had been the featured music at La Posada’s breakfast. I spun right along to the tune, feeling fine. The views to my right and left were of the sort I first saw coming into Winslow on Saturday. Rather than continue to deplete my store of superlatives, I’ll just show you two pictures:
If you double-click on the pictures and wait a moment, you’ll get much improved resolution. If so, you may be able to see the reddish tint to the ground in the distance in the first picture. It’s quite beautiful.
The plains are not as empty as the photographs imply. There are a few little towns between Winslow and here, and many places that sell “Indian” jewelry and rugs, as well as a couple of small casinos. And the traffic on I 40, on which I was riding, is pretty heavy.
I didn’t feel in the least bit unsafe in spite of the traffic. The shoulder is 12 or 14 feet wide in most places and its surface is quite good. Cars and trucks could see me from a long way off, and I was so far to the side that I couldn’t even feel their drafts.
I was also not the only cyclist on the road: at about mile 20, I passed a couple of cheerful Aussies, husband and wife, who were heading to Chicago, bikes heavy laden with panniers. They are doing it the hard way. I wished them well and took off; it would’t have felt right to ride alongside them, unburdened by gear as I was.
In spite of the wind-aided speed I was able to maintain and the beauty on display on all sides, I can’t say that it was a ride that I would be excited about repeating. The noise and vibrations of the trucks robbed the scenery of much of its charm. It was a ride to get through quickly, which I did.
Before we had had our lunch, Dan and I pulled into the Days Inn that is the last hotel for 50 miles – a first in terms of timing on this journey. This Days Inn is an archetypal truckers’ hotel by the side of a highway.
While checking in, I had a fun conversation with Rick, the Indian-American – not the native American kind – who manages and partially owns the property. He told me that he works 16 hours a day and lives on the property. He also pointed across the highway at some horses and said that he owns them too.
“Oh, do you ride?” I asked.
He explained that he had let a rancher lease the land for the horses a year ago, but never received a dime in payment, and can’t find the rancher, so he figures that until and unless the guy shows up and pays his back rent, they’re his.
Day 9 – Over the Top – 4/19/16
Chambers, AZ – Grants, NM
Weather: Sunny and cold; temperatures from 35 – 60 degrees
Distance: 124 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 791 Miles/Est. Miles to Go: 2,709)
Feet of Climb: 4,271/Descent 3,536
Rolling Time: 7:11:35
If you like to ride a bicycle, or just appreciate being out in nature’s garden and/or cherish the majesty of our fair land, and if you ever get the chance to cross the Continental Divide in the time of year, the place and the manner that I did today, I implore you, I beg you, to take it. I am confident that you will find it to be one of the more sublime experiences that you have ever had, as I did today.
I’m sure you think that’s hyperbole, but it isn’t.
Last night we made the decision that today I would get off I 40 and take the longer, quieter and hillier southern route from Chambers to Grants. What a lucky choice that proved to be.
Knowing that it would be a long day, so I would be departing on my bike earlier than usual, at 5:15 AM I ambled over to the restaurant adjacent to the hotel for an extra large breakfast. As had been the case at most of the places where we have been staying, the manager had told us that breakfast was free, but the morning menu informed me that he meant that I was entitled to one breakfast item.
I was the only customer, and the night-shift cook was still on duty, so we chatted. He was a clean-cut young “Anglo”, happy to talk; I asked him about his life.
He told me that he has a pregnant girlfriend and they already have a two year-old daughter. His girlfriend works making and selling jewelry at native places along the highway – different places at different times of year. He works 72 hours a week – “and work’s hard to find around here”. I don’t doubt that he’s right about that.
I was dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, more or less as he was. I told him a little about the journey I am on. He was (to me, pleasantly) surprised to learn that I am a grandfather. He said that they see a lot of cyclists coming through.
When I had eaten my now-customary double-breakfast, he told me that he had thrown in the hash browns for free, but had to charge me $1.65 for the scrambled eggs. I thanked him, paid the added cost along with a tip that was not insultingly large, and we wished each other well.
Dan and I left at 7:00 AM; it was clear and chilly – 35 degrees. I headed east on I 40 for six miles. Again, starting out I couldn’t get a song out of my head – this time it was “The Return of the Grievous Angel” by Gram Parsons (who died in Twentynine Palms, as it happens):
“Billboards and truck stops pass by the grievous angel
And now I know just what I have to do…”
My mood changed abruptly, though, when I turned right and south onto Route 191. As the Interstate receded, I entered a world of quiet beauty. Cars and trucks were rare; I rolled over the green and brown hills, passing by occasional ranch gates, a church and a boarded-up liquor store.
I followed 191 south for about 17 miles, then turned left and eastward into Hopi tribal lands. The route was lovely – gentle hills with occasional pine trees and lots of shrub; well-tended fences hugged the road on both sides, with regular gates. For miles and miles, I saw neither people nor any sign that the tribal lands were other than well-loved.
At length, I emerged onto route 61 East, leading still along Hopi lands until just shy of the New Mexico border, where the road becomes Route 53. Shortly after the border, the road enters Zuni tribal lands. Strangely – and sadly – enough, along the couple of miles of road after leaving the Hopi lands and before entering New Mexico, the side of route 61 is littered with thousands of broken bottles – something I had not seen before.
The Zuni lands go on for many miles. Mesas appear on both sides of the road, as in the picture below:
As the miles went by, the mesas became closer and bigger. The land has an astonishing grandeur.
Meanwhile, the riding was terrific. You may note from the stats above that I climbed 4,000 feet today. That sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t when you consider that it was stretched out over the first 96 miles of the ride. A gentle 1% grade was barely noticeable; there was no traffic at all and the scenery just kept getting better. After leaving the Zuni lands at about mile 55, I rolled on by the El Morro National Monument. I really should have stopped to photograph it – it’s an awesome cliff, even from the road.
I knew from the topographical maps that the summit – about 7,900 feet above sea level – would come at mile 96 or 97; I kept expecting the grade to become challenging on the way up, but it didn’t; once again, the winds were kind. As I passed 7,500 feet, I found myself in a lush-smelling pine forest, just as I did at the same altitude last Saturday. The forest, which extends to just past the Continental Divide, is maintained by the Forest Service as the El Malpais National Monument.
When I reached the top I stopped and took the photograph at the top of this post. I was alone – no cars or trucks; no other people. The forest was silent. Then I jumped back on my bike for what could easily have been a rip-roaring descent, but I was happy to take it easy on the way down. It had already been a long ride, and I was savoring the moment.
About half way down, I rounded a corner, turning north toward Grants, and was treated to this view of the snow-capped Mount Taylor:
The only off note on the last 15 miles of the ride was that after turning north, I found myself descending into a fierce wind, such that I had to pedal hard and take care about my balance.
I can’t tell you how glad I am that Dan and I chose to take the longer, rural route rather than cross the Divide on I 40.
To say that it was a special ride would be a gross understatement.
Day 10 – Looking for the Old Way – 4/20/16
Grants, NM – Albuquerque, NM
Weather: Sunny; Temperature rising from 40 to 82 degrees
Distance: 112 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 903 Miles/Est. Miles To Go: 2,597)
Feet of Climb: 1,988/Descent: 3,264
Rolling Time: 6:16:14
Dan and I met at the van at 8:15 this morning, convinced that we were in for a short, easy day. The route that we had downloaded showed 76 miles, mostly downhill, but Dan assured me that it would, in fact, be three miles shorter than that. I told him that if he was right we should expect to have lunch in Albuquerque.
We went rogue right from the start when, 1/4 mile from the hotel, I realized that the downloaded route had me jumping right back onto I 40. I figured that the old Route 66, now relabeled Route 124, would surely take us to Albuquerque in a fairly direct manner. In this assumption, I was partly right.
For the first 37 miles out of Grants, Route 124 (66, that is: it, and service establishments along the way, still advertise its old designation) was lots of fun. It wove back and forth, traffic-free, on both sides of the Interstate and the railroad line. In a sense, it bore a resemblance to Route One along Connecticut’s coast, which is the old/local route alongside Route 95 and the train lines; the big difference was that Route 124 (66) has maybe 1/10,000th as many people/services/cars/etc. as Route One. For most of the section I traveled, it is an almost abandoned highway.
I wondered what the traffic must have been like on Route 66 before the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate System – when it was the main highway between Chicago and Los Angeles. In the section I was on, it’s a two lane road.
That said, two lanes were plenty for me this morning.
As we approached mile 37 out of Grants, which has an entrance to the Interstate, Dan and I talked about whether I would continue to follow Old 66 from there – it looked on our devices as if 66 would swing way south through empty territories, lengthening the ride from about 76 to well over 100, or jump on the Interstate to keep the day’s ride short. I decided to go long – it was a beautiful morning, and I don’t enjoy Interstate riding. So we followed the old road past the Interstate’s entrance.
Until it disappeared, perhaps three or four miles later. Gradually, the road conditions worsened to the point where one of my water bottles leapt out of its cage on a bumpy descent; there were potholes everywhere. At that point I looked a mile or so ahead, and saw that Dan had parked the van in the middle of the now-dead road, and was standing outside it, signalling that going further would be unwise for both of us.
So we retraced our ways to the Interstate’s entrance at what had been mile 37, and agreed that I would jump on the highway for the further 25 miles specified on the original route. Dan went on ahead as I gritted my teeth and went down the on ramp. On the on ramp I saw two signs: the first said: “Bicycles Use Shoulder”; the second – maybe 15 feet farther along – said: “No Pedestrians/Bicycles/Motorized Scooters.”
I got on the highway’s shoulder and started pedaling.
For the next nine miles I rode along I 40, wondering if at any moment a police car might stop by to give me a less than friendly greeting.
Just before the next exit I saw a sign that said: “Route 6/Historic Route 66”. Atop the exit ramp I could clearly see the van – which meant that Dan had (correctly) guessed that I would take the exit. I got off, breathing a sigh of relief.
The next 35 miles or so were lovely. Whereas the first 37 had been a descent with mountains/mesas on both sides, and I didn’t look around much while on the Interstate, the area I now found myself in looked like the kind of wide open space where long ago, one might have met the Lone Ranger, or his equivalent. You can see what I mean below:
At length, I passed a sign indicating that I was leaving the Laguna Indian Reservation, which I hadn’t realized I was in.
By now I was more than ready for lunch. Signs indicated that the first town would be Los Lunas, at about my mile 81. Dan took this picture of me just outside the town:
I noticed as we arrived in Los Lunas that I was passing a large development of big new homes, the first of its type that I had seen since LA, and wondered: is this town a suburb of Albuquerque? I also saw two BMWs and realized that I couldn’t recall having seen a single German car since I had left Twentynine Palms.
Dan and I stopped for an inexpensive and delicious lunch at a family-run place; at our lunches I have been eating twice as much as he has. While we ate this time Dan recalculated the remaining directions; the distance looked like 26 miles.
The last stretch took me through yet another reservation – this one for the Isleta tribe; it is thickly settled and lies along the western bank of the Rio Grande. I was heading north toward the city.
After leaving the reservation and crossing the river, my final ten miles were on a beautiful and well maintained bicycle path on the eastern side, still heading north along the Rio Grande. Albuquerque is the first big city that Dan and I have been in since leaving LA, but on my way in I saw nothing of it other than the last few blocks on the way from the bicycle path to the hotel.
With the exception of my brief stretch on I 40, another great day. Even so, the routes and our GPS devices do keep throwing us curve balls.
Day 11 – 4/21/16
Albuquerque, NM – Santa Fe, NM
Weather: Sunny; Temperature rising from 44 to 78 degrees
Distance: 83.9 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 987/Est. Miles To Go: 2,513)
Feet of Climb: 5,882 /Descent: 4,002
Rolling Time: 6:02:05
I have no doubt that Albuquerque is a thriving city with lots of charm, but I didn’t see its sunnier side leaving town on my bicycle this morning. For the first six miles of the ride, I headed east on Lomas Avenue – a very busy six lane road that gradually degrades on the way out of town from in-town offices to malls to used car lots and tuxedo rental shops. I could have been in Anycity, USA.
I was feeling tired after having covered 236 miles over the last two days, which didn’t improve my mood. I also knew that I had an enormous amount of climbing in store on the way to Santa Fe.
I should have been in a great mood: I knew that my Beloved Spouse had flown out to meet me in Santa Fe, and that I will be spending the next two days with her. I guess I was just nervous about arriving in an obvious state of exhaustion.
So I was pedaling softly and taking my time when I hit the day’s first big climb. The scenery wasn’t particularly appealing, either, as I was on a service road adjacent to I 40.
Just then, an obviously attractive and fully kitted out young lady with a dark brown pony tail sped effortlessly by me. At a glance, she looked terrific. Startled out of my grumpy self-pity, I did what any man would: I jumped on my pedals and strained to catch her.
Once I had pulled even she eased off a bit so we could talk. She – Mindy – is a nurse and a racer; today was her day off work, so she was out for some training. It turned out that we would only be on the same road for four or five miles, all of it climbing; while we rode together she told me a bit about herself and that I should expect some steep pitches on the way to Santa Fe. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but not unexpected. I told her about the journey I’m on. We passed, and waived to, Dan; he snapped the picture below:
If that ever happens again, I hope he gets a better picture
When she went her way and I mine – I was turning onto Route 14, which I would follow all the way to Santa Fe – I found that both my pace and my mood were much improved.
I climbed quite steadily – but at a gradient that wasn’t too punishing – to about mile 40. For the last few miles of that section, the road wound through green mountains and off to the left (westward: I was heading north) in the far distance were snow-capped mountains – likely including the one we saw just after descending from the Continental Divide.
I noticed at mile 40 that I had climbed only 2,000 feet – out of an expected 5,800, but was at an elevation of 7,000 feet – equivalent to where I would end up. There was only one inference – that in the remaining 46 miles I would descend and then re-climb a total of about 3,800 feet. Ugh.
Shortly thereafter, I rapidly descended 1,500 feet – coming into the artsy little town of Madrid (pronounced Mad-rid by locals, Mindy had explained) near the bottom. Lots of cute little Spanish-style buildings with art for sale outside and in. I stopped briefly to refill my water bottles and chat with Dan, but didn’t explore any of the town’s wares.
For the next twenty miles the topography was like the blade of an irregular, upside-down saw. When I could look a mile ahead – not always, because the road was weaving in and around small mountains – I would often see a sharp 1/2 mile dip followed by an equivalent 1/2 mile climb. In other words: a lot of wasted effort. The scenery was pretty, though. Below is a picture Dan took of me coming up over one of these short, sharp climbs:
At about mile 65, and at an altitude of about 6,500 feet, the vista opened up again to the kind of open high plain to which we had grown accustomed over the last few days. I passed an enormous ranch, then two imposing state prisons – one on each side of the road. Shortly thereafter, I entered Santa Fe.
On my way to the resort where we are staying north of town, I rode right through the commercial heart of the city. I was on another busy six lane road with malls, hotels and restaurants on both sides, for maybe 10 miles. Not great riding.
Just as I left downtown, something remarkable happened: my chain snapped. Suddenly, the wisdom of having Dan nearby with an identical spare bike was unassailable. What would I have done if I had had the same problem at one of the moments when for one of several reasons Dan was inaccessible? Thankfully, I expect to never find out.
Where we are, north of the city, it’s quiet and beautiful. I am looking forward to two days of rest in the company of my favorite person; perhaps I can even help her get over her cold. Tomorrow, Dan will bring my bikes to a bike shop to have them tuned – and the chain replaced. I am so lucky to have him on the trip – for his company and his capable assistance.
On Saturday, my friend Larry will arrive, planning to ride with me Sunday through Wednesday.
Most likely, I won’t post again until Sunday night. What I probably will do, though, is go back to the posts I’ve written over the last eleven days and add details that I didn’t have the energy to wrestle through as I was writing the drafts I published. Otherwise, I’ll forget them.
Days 12 and 13 – 4/22-23/16
Santa Fe, NM
In the bubble in which I ordinarily reside, everything a recreational cyclist could want in pursuit of his (or her) sport is always available. If I’m hungry or thirsty, food and drinks are readily at hand in a nearby convenience store or restaurant; there is always cell phone service, nearby medical – or bicycle – care, and, of course, either home or a wide choice of conveniently located hotels. Best of all, there is a vast web of secondary roads.
None of that can be taken for granted in the southwest, which makes planning a journey like this one much more complicated than I had anticipated. When I sat planning the first leg of this trip – from Los Angeles to Santa Fe – in my office at home, it all looked pretty simple: I used the Google Maps bicycle function – admittedly in Beta, but I didn’t worry about that – and found towns at roughly 100 mile increments, where I located places to stay.
As you know, I have since discovered that the route I had laid out included segments on uncomfortable and/or dangerous Interstates, roads that are unpaved or not there at all, as well as bike paths that might or might not exist. These differences sometimes meant that I couldn’t go to the towns where I had planned to go. One town that I could get to no longer has public lodgings.
Thus far, Dan and I have figured out how to get around all of the obstacles presented by these surprises. On several occasions, the changes that we made made the ride much prettier than it would otherwise have been at the expense of making those days considerably longer. Several times I have also found myself locked into uncomfortable circumstances the likes of which I would much prefer to avoid in the future.
Santa Fe was the planned destination for the first leg of the journey because my Beloved Spouse had agreed to meet me here. I had not attempted to plan the route home from here. Last night, I sat down to try to apply what we have learned in devising a route that will lead us much closer to the northeast. Dan – who also has a couple of days mostly off – is trying the same thing separately; over dinner tonight, he and I, in the company of my Beloved Spouse, will compare alternatives and finalize plans.
The planning task is complicated for the following reasons:
1) I no longer trust Google Maps as regards the existence of secondary roads or paths, or to keep me off Interstates.
2) Towns are few and far between in vast regions out here (I suppose that’s the corollary to the panoramic, largely empty-of-people vistas that we have been seeing), and places to stay even more so. Every time a route looks possible, we need to ascertain whether the named town has a hotel, or whatever, and whether there’s room at the inn.
3) Since the route initially suggested by Google includes Interstates and stretches between towns that are longer than a day’s ride, we need to look for state or county roads that often lead in very different directions than we had expected to go. One road might look promising for the next day or even two (for example, we could go NNE from here to a town called Eagle’s Nest, NM, tomorrow), then leave us in a place – then, or necessarily a day or two later – where there are no roads or towns within a day’s ride to the east or northeast other than Interstates on which it may or may not be legal to ride, but which would certainly be unpleasant (so no Eagle’s Nest for us).
As I looked at the maps last night, occasionally switching to Google Earth to see whether specific roads are paved, or even exist, and separately searching for lodgings, it struck me that once we get to Kansas, planning our routes should become much simpler. Judging from the maps, Kansas has lots of east/west state roads and little towns that must have hotels. Accordingly, my goal became to get us to Kansas in the most logical, safe and if possible scenic manner.
After trying several routes that didn’t work for various reasons, I came up with the following possible sequence:
1) Santa Fe to Las Vegas, NM – 70 miles
2) Las Vegas, NM to Tucumcari, NM, 107 Miles
3) Tucumcari, NM to Dalhart, TX, 94 Miles
4) Dalhart, TX, (crossing briefly through OK) to Liberal, KS, 113 Miles
It will be interesting to learn at dinner tonight whether this is the same route that Dan is suggesting. He might have found a problem with this route that I didn’t – that wouldn’t surprise me at all – or have found a better route for other reasons.
I wondered whether I should write about all those planning dilemmas; after all, why should you (or I, for that matter) care about whether or not we have to go way out of our intended way to find lodgings or food? It’s not like I’m in a race, or even on a schedule from here that is terribly important.
To me, the planning dilemmas are interesting for what they say about the lands that we are passing through. This country is big – really big – and parts of it are both breathtakingly beautiful and, to eastern eyes, amazingly sparsely populated. The fading roads and byways are interesting, too, for what they tell about patterns of life that are going or gone. Interstates rule the day now, and, astonishingly, I think it may be more difficult to do this trip by bicycle now than it would have been twenty years ago.
My Beloved Spouse and I spent several hours yesterday and more today exploring the shops of downtown Santa Fe and the museum at the Palace of the Governors. It is a splendid town with a whole lot of history; visit it if you can.
While we were perusing a high-end ladies’ clothing shop – not exactly my natural milieu, but anything for the visiting Beloved Spouse – we were served by a middle-aged gay man. He was a snappy dresser, wore extra-large eyeglasses and commented helpfully on various items that were under consideration; the Beloved Spouse and I would later agree that his observations were acute and that he was great at his job.
On hearing about my reason for being in Santa Fe he made a comment that I got a kick out of; he paused for a moment and said:
“You would really have to like yourself to be willing to spend that much time alone.”
It strikes me as a wonderful coincidence that I snapped my chain (and clumsily broke the screen on my phone – forgot to tell you about that) in the only town where I was already expecting to take a two day break and that has a great bike shop and a phone repair store. Magically, while I have been spending time with my lovely wife, those troubles have been resolved; even if there had been such stores in the tiny towns that we have been riding through (and I’m sure there weren’t, at least between Twentynine Palms and Albuquerque) getting my problems resolved would have caused an unscheduled delay.
So I count myself lucky. Santa Fe is just the place to have a breakdown or two that requires a technical fix. It is an outpost of wealth and art – a destination for people of a sort of whom I have seen few since Twentynine Palms. After I had gone without seeing a German car between Twentynine Palms and Los Lomas, my Beloved Spouse described the overfull parking lot at the resort where we are staying as looking like a convention for Mercedeses.
I don’t think I’ll be seeing many more Benzes between here and, say, St Louis.
Day 14 – 4/24/16
Santa Fe, NM – Las Vegas, NM
Weather: Beautiful; temperature rising from 52 to 75 degrees; strong winds from the west.
Distance: 60.4 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 1,047 Miles/Est. Miles to Go: 2,453)
Feet of Climb: 3,743 feet/Descent: 3,881
Rolling Time: 4:09:44
Today’s ride began in the parking lot of the hotel where my friend Larry had stayed after his arrival last night. The picture below of Dan, me and Larry (in that order from left to right) was taken by my Beloved Spouse just before Larry and I jumped on our bikes, Dan got into the van and she left for the airport to return home. I’ll follow her, of course, as ever, but it’ll probably take me about a month to get there.
The ride today was expected to be short: as explained in yesterday’s post, the most efficient bicycle route eventually leading from Santa Fe to the northeast has stops at Las Vegas, NM, then Tucumcari, NM, then Dalhart, TX, then Liberal, KS and beyond. According to the multiple sources that Dan and I had separately checked, the rideable route to Las Vegas would be only about 64 miles – a short day.
Larry and I set off cheerfully. The weather was enchanting and as soon as we got out of Santa Fe, there was little to no traffic on the Old Las Vegas Highway – now serving as the service road alongside I 25.
It was great to have company. Larry and I spun along, heading SSE on the old road that hugs the southern end of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, so to the left we had magnificent views. I 25 was rarely in sight to our right.
After about 15 miles, we crossed over the big highway as it turned due east in a manner that the Old Las Vegas Highway didn’t. Had we been on the Interstate, a few miles east of that crossover point we would have seen Glorieta Pass – the site of one of the most important Civil War battles fought in the West.
For the next ten miles or so, there is no service road alongside the Interstate. The Old Las Vegas Highway disappears and is replaced by winding local roads that pass far to the south of the big highway. As Larry and I entered that maze, I was unconcerned: the roads to which Google/my Garmin directed me were beautiful and still heading broadly SSE – toward the bend where we could go around the southernmost tip of the mountains, come back alongside I 25, and find Las Vegas.
After ascending a steep (10% grade) climb to over 7,000 feet, though, the county road that we were on suddenly turned to hard-packed clay and gravel. It was still rideable, if very slowly, and my GPS equipment – and Dan – still assured us that we were on the right path.
After we had crested the top, the county road looked like this:
Larry and I rode slowly, for fear of having our narrow tires slip on the loose soil, but we were far from unhappy. The scenery was wonderful – we were riding through a backcountry plain dotted with cattle pastures. I figured that four or five miles down the road, when we were scheduled to turn left (east) onto NM State Road 34, we would find steadier footing on blacktop.
Wrong again. When we got to the turnoff, we saw (as Dan had warned us a few minutes previously) that the four mile NM 34 cut-through that was supposed to bring us back to a Frontage Road alongside I 25, was blocked by a gate. The gate looked like private property rather than something that the state had put there, and it had hand written “Private Property/Keep Out” wording all over it. We briefly considered going through anyway, but were dissuaded by the hardscrabble look of the homesite adjacent to the gate, and the obviously disused look of the “State Road”.
So for the first time in this trip, we put our bikes back into the van, and Dan drove us to the other side of the four mile cut-through. To get there, we had to cover about 20 miles of roads that were markedly worse than the one we had been on – they could not have been safely ridden on road bikes. There was a sign that indicated that the road was impassable in inclement weather, and we had to go very, very slowly to avoid damaging the van (and, for that matter, its contents).
It’s clear that the road that we were on was once paved, but is being allowed to slowly die. In a few more years, it will be as impassable as the section of Old Route 66 that Dan and I tried to follow about half way between Grants and Albuquerque.
Once we were back on the Frontage Road, four miles as the crow flies from where we had gotten off, Larry and I got back on our bikes and found ourselves in a completely different world from the dirt road, cattle-grazing areas through which we had been passing. The wind was at our backs, we had a great road surface and a long, long rolling descent – during which, at one point, we reached a maximum speed of 42 mph without feeling in the least bit unsafe.
Over the last thirty miles of the ride we encountered, and occasionally rode alongside of, a large but spread-out group of cyclists who had started at the pier in Santa Monica (!) on the day before I did and are heading to Austin Texas.
We chatted amicably with them; the ones with whom we spoke were quite interested in hearing about CCAP (which came up because Larry and I were both wearing CCAP jerseys). One fellow commented vehemently that he wished that there had been such an organization in Texas while he was growing up.
Tomorrow’s ride to Tucumcari is expected to be nearly twice as long as today’s ride here – but it is largely downhill and will surely all be on good pavement because we’ll be on State Roads …
Hope springs eternal.
Day 15 – Willin’ – 4/25/16
Las Vegas, NM – Tucumcari, NM
Weather: Beautiful; temperature rising from 46 to 95 degrees; strong wind from the south.
Distance: 110 miles
(Distance Thus Far: 1,157 Miles/To Go: 2,343)
Feet of Climb: 3,743/Descent: 5,846
Rolling Time: 6:38:02
The destination for today’s ride was Tucumcari, NM, the second town that we have chosen as a stopping point that was mentioned in well-known lyrics of mega-hits in the seventies. (The first was Winslow, AZ, which was featured in an Eagles song). Today’s destination featured in “Willin’“, the great Little Feat song popularized by Linda Ronstadt, which naturally I would have playing on repeat in my head during the day. Once I have a song on the brain, it stays for a while.
Today I was more than willin’, though – I was eager to ride. I had heard nice things about Tucumcari from my friend Michael, and Dan had uncovered this ( http://newsok.com/article/2113536 ) article in his research about routes; it describes the road we were about to ride as one of the most beautiful country roads anywhere.
I was not to be disappointed.
As Larry and I rolled out of Las Vegas, I had to stop and take a picture of a fabulous wall mural:
A mile or so later, we turned onto NM Route 104 – the road that we would be on for the next 109 miles.
For the first 32 of those miles, Larry and I found ourselves spinning along the top of what looked to me like a beautiful, rolling prairie. Larry disputed that terminology; he said that a proper prairie should have 6 or 8 foot grasses; what we were seeing was a seemingly endless sea of grassland but the grass was only maybe one foot tall. There were a few cows to be seen on the wide open lands behind the wire fences that lined the road, an occasional farm building and a few low bushes. Nothing else interrupted the vistas.
The land was not table-flat; it had ripples so farm buildings, for example, would come into and then fall out of our lines of sight. The wind was blowing strongly from the south and southwest as we headed east – gusts of up to 50 mph were predicted. I wondered how such winds might affect us – it’s not like there would be any shelter.
The really fierce gusts that were predicted never arrived. We just had strong winds all day, mostly at our sides but sometimes behind us.
After 32 miles, we descended a spectacular, 1,500 foot escarpment. The photo below looks out on the escarpment descent that, when the picture was taken, we were just about to do:
I have become a much more cautious descender over the years; I rode my brakes all the way down. After we reached the bottom we found ourselves at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, and in a totally different environment.
Later, looking back up at the hillside that we had descended, Larry described it as a butte. It stretched thirty or forty miles in both directions from the line where we had descended, marking the edge and end of a great, higher-altitude plain. We had left the high plain, and backward-looking glances that revealed snow-capped mountains, behind; I don’t expect to see them again on this journey.
Now the landscape in which we found ourselves had plenty of short, piney trees and there were prosperous-looking ranches every few miles, but virtually no cars or trucks on the road. As mentioned, it’s over 100 miles from Las Vegas to Tucumcari, with only one gas station at mile 76. The road we were on – which, in sharp contrast to the state roads we tried yesterday, is in immaculate condition – really serves only local people; if you’re in a hurry, you take the Interstate that we never saw.
Dan told me that once when he stopped to watch me roll by in the middle of the day, a rancher pulled up to the van to ask if he was lost. He meant the question kindly: he didn’t expect to see a parked car that he didn’t recognize.
I rode along for mile after mile after mile (Larry took a break in the middle of the ride, then did the last 15 miles into Tucumcari), soaking in vistas of ranches and far-off buttes that seemed to be endlessly peaceful. The following picture captures a little of what I was seeing, but as Larry, Dan and I agreed when I stopped for a sandwich, our pictures couldn’t do the vistas justice.
I would go so far as to say that between miles 2 and 104 of today’s ride, what the three of us saw was uninterrupted beauty. We passed by or took in no sight that was anything other than spectacular. I have seen more striking specific views, for sure, but never have I seen such an endless stream of beauty. Previously, I have seen beautiful vistas; today, for a long time, I was in one.
It’s hard to feel anything other than wonder in such a place.
That said, eventually I did start feeling tired and achey. At about mile 104, as I rolled into town, the views became much less remarkable and I realized that I was sore and tired. By the time I reached the hotel, no matter how amazing the ride had been, I was good and ready for it to be over.
I’m looking forward to a great meal – this town is much more prosperous than Las Vegas – and then some rest.
Tomorrow, to Texas.
P.S. With apologies to Little Feat, I had a little fun with the lyrics to “Willin'”:
I’ve been from Tinsel to Tucumcari
City streets to sixty-six
Ridden every kind of road that’s ever been made
Ridden the back roads so I wouldn’t get splayed
But if you give me wheels, winds and wine
And you show me a sign
Then I’ll be willin’
To be movin’…
Day 16 – Racing the Storms – 4/26/16
Tucumcari, NM – Dalhart, TX
Weather: Mixed; see below for details. Temperature: 57 – 75 degrees.
Distance: 96 miles.
(Distance Thus Far: 1,253 Miles/To Go: 2,247)
Feet of Climb: 1,947/Descent: 2,070
Rolling Time: 4:34:49
For those of you – and there are many – who have defeated me utterly in contests on the bike, I urge you, in particular, to double click on the the link above.
Look on my (ride) ye mighty, and tremble.
It seems that for all these years I have been dogging it. Underneath the humble and lazy exterior that you saw as you left me in the dust lurked a bicycle superman, just waiting to reveal himself today.
Or maybe there’s another explanation.
The day’s excitements began in the breakfast room at the Holiday Inn. As has become my custom, I ate heavily and early, alongside a crowd of men who all knew each other and were obviously in Tucumcari for work. The television was set to the weather channel.
Soon enough, we were all hearing about tornado warnings stretching from Dallas to Wichita – a few hundred miles east of us, to be sure, but a little close for my comfort. Thunderstorms might also sweep through the area.
And from where would the thunderstorms be coming? I asked myself. Why the west, of course.
So what last night had looked like a favorable forecast – nice temperatures and a tail wind as we headed NNE from Tucumcari, NM to Dalhart, TX, suddenly looked much iffier. Oh, well.
Larry and I got on our bikes at 8:30. After a slow mile or two through town, we got on Route 54, which was expected to take us straight to Dalhart today, and me to Liberal, KS, tomorrow. On the maps, the road is straight as an arrow from northeast New Mexico through the northwest corner of Texas, then the Oklahoma panhandle and on into Kansas. According to our topographical maps, it would also be quite flat.
The winds were favorable right from the start, but Route 54 began as not a fun one to ride. If you look at this picture closely, you will begin to see why:
The shoulder to the right of the indentations in the pavement that are meant to awaken sleepy motorists is tiny. For the first twenty-eight miles of the ride, until we reached the town of Logan, NM, the highway bore lots of heavy truck traffic, so riding to the left of the indentations was out of the question. Consequently, Larry and I rode very carefully, single-file along the narrow shoulder.
We kept a fine pace – averaging a little over 17 mph – during this section, but were too absorbed with safety issues to enjoy the ride much. Also, the scenery was decidedly nondescript. I hadn’t really realized how much the mountains, buttes and mesas that we have been riding through added to the beauty of what we were seeing until today, when there were none.
After Logan, things got a little better. The truck traffic lessened dramatically and, in sections, the shoulder widened. The views were still of flat scrubland, though. By the time we reached Dan and the van at mile 38, the sky had become cloudy and behind and to the right of us we could see dark storm clouds. Larry decided that he would get into the van.
I chatted with Dan a bit. I asked what the forecast was; he checked his phone and told me that there were long lines of storms to our left and right, ten or twenty miles apart. The lines were parallel to our route, joined at the bottom like the tines of a fork. Dalhart was between the two end points, we were at the base of the area between the tines.
By now, the road conditions were much better. The shoulder had widened out and there was little truck traffic.
I decided to go for it; I would ride as hard as I could. Could I make it to Dalhart before the heavens opened? We would see.
Over the next two and a half hours I averaged something like 23 or 24 mph. Sadly, that’s not because I’m a bicycle superman or have discovered the fountain of youth; it turns out that there’s a very simple formula by which one can ride much more quickly than he has any right to do. It can be described with five words:
Flat road. Tail wind. Fear.
As far as the first is concerned, you can look at the topographical map at the above url, or at this picture (taken from the van before the clouds rolled in, but the landscape’s flatness would remain the same all day):
The road was table-flat. If it were actually a table you might be able to feel tiny grains in the wood, but that’s about it. I found myself changing gears once in a while, just to feel the novelty of different cadences. Flat.
The tail wind was really strong. I figured that out when I glanced down at the speeds I was maintaining, even on the barely noticeable inclines.
The fear came from the darkening skies, the forecast I had heard this morning and the knowledge that if lightning or, God forbid, a tornado came, there would be no shelter. I would get in the van if things got bad, of course, assuming that it was nearby; I didn’t feel that I could count on that, though, as I am in the habit of seeing Dan about once every half-hour, and a storm might arrive at any time.
So I really put the hammer down.
We were supposed to meet for lunch at mile 67, but when I got there all I saw was the van with Dan and Larry inside, and a picnic table. It turned out that the restaurant that the maps had said was there is actually in Dalhart – another 29 miles up the road. I looked at the unchanged weather map on Dan’s phone, asked that they make me a peanut butter sandwich, and jumped back on my bike.
By then, I was really enjoying the high speed that I was able to sustain given the wind and topography, and I figured I might make it to Dalhart before the storms. Also, after passing into Texas – at about mile 60 – the road had become very friendly, with a great, wide shoulder and no rumble strip.
A few minutes – and miles – later, Larry handed me a sandwich through the van’s window and I re-accelerated to my new cruising speed of about 24 mph. The sky was now entirely dark.
Long story short: although it began to drizzle as I entered Dalhart, I never encountered the storms I had feared. I entered the town – a thriving cattle-processing center, from the looks of things – with a great big grin on my face.
I very much doubt that I will ever again sustain speeds of 23 or 24 mph solo for sixty miles or so. But I’ll always have Dalhart.
Tomorrow will be a long day – 115 miles – and I will be largely or wholly unsupported, because Dan will be taking Larry to the airport. I’ll miss Larry’s company – and Dan’s for the day – but I’m not too concerned about being alone because there are plenty of towns up ahead.
Day 17 – 4/27/16
Dalhart, TX – Liberal, KS
Weather: Clear and Cool; temperature rising from 36 to 68 degrees; strong cross (and occasionally head-) winds.
Distance: 113.8 Miles
(Distance thus Far: 1,367 Miles/To Go: 2,133)
Feet of Climb: 768/Descent: 1,811
Rolling Time: 6:59:33
Here are the memories from today’s ride that I expect to cherish for years to come:
Just kidding. Actually, there were some moments today that I will hope to remember. Just not very many.
Once again, I was on Route 54 virtually all day, heading NNE toward Kansas. Today, though, the wind was from the NNW, so depending on the gust, it was pushing me sideways or backwards. Given Larry’s departure and Dan’s spending the day driving him to an airport, I was alone with a few thousand trucks. All day long I fought the wind and the trucks’ drafts.
Consequently, the riding I did cannot be described as fun.
I did, however see a few things that I found interesting, so I will comment briefly on those:
1) The place where we stayed in Dalhart last night was memorable. Immediately after we checked in, the lady behind the desk asked if we would like ear plugs, warning that the trains that run on the tracks adjacent to the hotel would roll through all night long, blowing their whistles. I was less bothered by the train noise than by my sense that my room, sheets, etc. were less … fresh … than one might hope. That said, we were lucky to get any rooms – every other room in the town was taken, and our hotel was fully booked after we signed in.
2) For the last 200 miles, I have followed a dead straight road on a nearly flat plain. Adjacent to the road are railroad tracks; roughly once an hour a freight train that might be a mile in length with double-stacked cars lumbers by. Sometimes, when the trains are going in the same direction as I am and traveling slowly for reasons unknown to me, the train and I are alongside each other for ages.
3) As I passed through northwestern Texas, the primary land use alongside Route 54 seemed to be cattle ranching; in the Oklahoma Panhandle, it was farming. Each Oklahoma town announced itself 10 or 15 miles out with a glimpse of enormous silos that, yes, called to mind the sight of distant Oz – until I got close enough to see them clearly. The silos are invariably placed between the railroad tracks and the road; they, a few houses and maybe some sort of agricultural service constitute the whole of some of the smaller towns.
4) It struck me as I passed from Dalhart through all the gradations of cattle and farm operations, past grain silos and trains, and trucks by the thousand, that I was in a place seemingly inhabited almost exclusively by men. I’m sure that there are lots of women in the world I was passing through – but for the most part, they were out of sight.
5) That said, the young lady who served me a double-sized Mexican lunch at Maria’s in Guymon, OK, was exceptionally kind; I tipped her well, and rolled on.
Finally, a passing comment or two on local culture:
During our brief stay in Texas, we knew that we were in a different place culturally than the one we had been in while in Arizona and New Mexico. Texas has a swagger that I find charming. On the way to and from the steakhouse where we had dinner last night we passed by an enormous new football stadium for the high school team – in a town of 8,000. All the other men in the steakhouse were wearing cowboy hats and boots.
Similarly, the town of Stratford, just shy of the state’s northern border, population 2,000, greets its visitors with a huge sign proclaiming that its football team has won several recent state championships. Best of all, though, is a sign on the way into town; it reads simply: “Your last chance to stop in Texas.”
Sixty or seventy miles north of there, in Liberal, Kansas, it feels like we have entered a different – and in many respects, more familiar – world.
I’ll start to ride through it tomorrow, hoping for tail winds.
Day 18 – Into the Wind – 4/28/16
Liberal, KS – Dodge City, KS
Weather: Variable; Temperature rising from the low 40s to about 60. Strong winds.
Distance: 84.8 miles
(Distance thus Far: 1,452 Miles/To Go: 2,048)
Feet of Climb: 981/Descent: 1,322
Rolling Time: 6:33:57
I knew that I would get off to a somewhat delayed start this morning because a CCAP board meeting was scheduled for 8:00 AM, Eastern Standard Time. I joined the meeting by telephone and am happy to report that the organization is growing exactly as we had hoped it would; school-based teams are being formed, training sessions and youth-oriented races are being organized and lots and lots of young people, rich and poor, are participating. CCAP is giving the sport the organizational structure it needs to fit into the lives of school-aged children throughout Connecticut.
I rolled out of the parking lot at about 8:30 Central Time. That might have been the last rolling I did until about 1:00 PM.
When I reached the street, I turned left and northward, toward Dodge City. The wind, which had been behind me two days ago and to my side yesterday, was screamingly in my face, right from the start.
Within a half mile of the hotel, I was outside of town on the open prairie where there is nothing to block the wind. I put my head down and started grinding. The wind would give me no quarter for hours on end. Though the road was flat – or maybe even slightly down hill, had I stopped pedaling I would have gone backwards. Momentum – spin – was impossible.
It may strike you as odd that I have been spending so much time commenting about the wind over the last few days. Think of the open prairie as being like an ocean; winds define the environment. They push you this way or that – and I was on a prescribed path with no ability to maneuver around them; I just had to push slowly through, head down.
At around mile 40 I turned right – I would now be heading NNE instead of due north. Suddenly the wind was off my port bow, as it were, rather than head-on. An improvement.
Shortly thereafter, I noticed a sight that gave me a smile:
I was riding (slowly, slowly) past one of the innumerable silos I passed today when I saw an electronic sign giving time and temperature. Then it flipped and gave the price of corn (see below), then of wheat, then of soy, then of other grains before wishing somebody a happy birthday and starting the cycle anew. I thought it was fabulous – a country version of a Bloomberg terminal – facing a street with maybe one car or truck every five minutes. They certainly knew what the locals care about.
By the time I stopped to have lunch with Dan at mile 55, I had been pedaling for four hours and was cold, hungry and grumpy – I had expected the previous town to have a restaurant.
Lunch at Eva’s Kitchen in Montezuma, KS, was a leisurely and filling affair, though, so I felt much better when I emerged. Also, to our pleasant surprise, during the hour that we had taken for lunch, the skies had shed their iron-gray cloud cover, and were now pale blue. The wind even seemed to have moderated somewhat. I got back on my bike in a much-improved frame of mind.
The after-lunch portion of the ride wasn’t all that much faster than the morning session – I was still fighting the cross/head-winds that my friend Michael the RAAM-King had warned me about – but it was much more cheerful. I only had about 30 miles to go, the sky was blue and the scenery was interesting.
I have always loved Dutch Renaissance painting. What could be more human than a face by Rembrandt? But beyond Rembrandt’s astonishing portrayals of humanity, there was their treatment of light and – a special favorite of mine – the perspective inherent in their landscapes. Look at any landscape by one of the Van Ruysdaels and you will see an enormous sky, with the land in about the bottom fifth of the painting, and a few people – so important, but so small. The sky, the wind, larger forces dominate the scene; man just figures out how to live with them.
If old Jacob v.R. saw what I rode by this afternoon, it would have all seemed rather familiar to him:
Enormous sky. (Modern) windmills. Maybe a few tiny-looking men working the land, far in the distance.
Was that analogy pretentious? Ok, yes, it was; but at least now you know how the landscape looked and felt. And besides, it was what I was thinking about as I was riding through. I have to think about something.
Just before I arrived in Dodge City, I saw a remarkable sight. I was on a cloverleaf road entrance; policemen were directing traffic and a cleanup crew was there, working around an overturned big rig. It was clear that the trucker had taken the turn too quickly, and that at the exact moment when his truck’s side had faced the wind full-on, it had flipped. From the absence of ambulances and the calm of the police and cleanup crews, I guessed that nobody had been seriously hurt.
The day’s ride ended in Dodge City, which called to mind very different associations:
I rode into town on my pretty little black Mariposa.
Dan and me, we’re bunking down on Wyatt Earp Boulevard, over by Boot Hill.
There’s a storm blowin’ in, so we’re fixin’ to hole up here tomorrow an’ maybe get get my ridin’ duds cleaned. And it won’t be bad to give the ‘posa a rest.
On Saturday, if the excitement has all blown over, we’ll be able to get out of Dodge.
P.S. As I write these words, my Beloved Spouse, Larry (who was with Dan and me just yesterday morning), his wife Leigh, and many others of my nearest and dearest – including many of those listed here: http://ctcyclingadvancement.donorpages.com/MarksRide/mj2016/ who have contributed so generously to CCAP in honor of this ride – are gathering in New York for the Harlem Academy Spring Benefit. This will be the first HA Spring Benefit that I have ever missed; my association with and support of the school have for many years been among the most rewarding parts of my life. I hope my friends and loved ones all have a wonderful evening.
I am a very, very lucky man.
Day 19 – Physical Observations – 4/29/16
Dodge City, KS
We made a good call last night in deciding to use today as a rest day. I am in need of a little rejuvenation, I was getting pretty close to the bottom of the barrel in terms of clean riding clothes and the weather outside is atrocious – rain, with heavy thunderstorms expected this afternoon. I’ll hope to set off on tomorrow’s ride as good as new.
A fair number of commenters and emailers have asked about the physical and mechanical aspects of this adventure, so I thought I would offer a few observations. These comments may be less than scintillating to non-cyclists, but some of you are interested in the purely physical/mechanical aspects of what I am doing, and I think about them all the time and will want to remember what the issues were.
1) Thus far, I have ridden 1,452 miles over 15 days, and had three rest days not including today.
2) According to the very rough estimates provided by my Garmin, given my weight and the pace I have been setting, I have burned about 92,000 calories on the bike, or an average of about 6,000 calories per riding day.
3) I am finding it difficult to consume enough calories – or enough fluids – to keep my physical equilibrium. I know when I am on one of the longer rides that I really should be pounding down food and drink as I go but doing so just does not appeal. I have been trying to make up for not eating or drinking enough on the bike by forcing myself to have extra-large breakfasts and dinners.
4) Eating in this manner is not much fun; frankly, my body wants to consume less and to rest more.
5) On the other hand, our bodies are machines that must have proper fueling if they are to perform as we wish. Yesterday, I felt immensely better after lunch – I could feel the renewed store of energy permeating my system; point taken.
6) Fluids are as or more important than food. I have longstanding bad habits of not drinking enough while on long rides, and while I have been trying to force myself to drink a lot on these rides, doing so doesn’t appeal as it should – particularly if I am cold, as I was yesterday. Every day, when I finally arrive at the destination, I find myself pouring down several large bottles of whatever I can get my hands on. Suddenly, I feel thirsty.
7) Also, I have discovered that Coca-Cola and Pepsi – the full sugar kinds – can give me one heck of a burst of renewed energy for the last twenty miles of, or immediately after, a long ride. The number of Cokes and Pepsis that I was in the habit of drinking before this trip was zero. Probably not a habit I will want to keep when the adventure is over, but for now, I’m all-in with Coca Cola.
8) As I have mentioned, the greatest physical fears that I had before beginning this adventure – neck problems and saddle sores – have not as yet been seriously problematic.
9) Frankly, the near-total absence of neck pain (which can come from how I hold my head while riding) is something of a surprise because over the years it had been a perennial issue for me whenever I undertook lots of big rides. I attribute my good fortune thus far on this score to two things: first of all, I have been doing physical therapy to strengthen my neck with a great trainer – Yana Blinova – for several years, and second, I am quite sure that my new steel bikes – Mariposas, designed and made by Michael and Dede Barry, have helped. I’m not sure if the magic sauce is the use of steel, which yields a softer, more flexible ride than carbon fiber, or the geometry of the frame; but whatever it is, I’m happy it’s working.
10) Dan told me last night that even with his daily off-hours exercise, all his long hours in the van are starting to trouble his lower back. Fortunately, I have just the thing for him: Yana invented something called the Pelvic Clock (https;//pelvicclock.com), and gave me one. It’s a great tool for effortlessly loosening a tightened and stressed lower spine via a very relaxed set of yoga positions.
11) So far, saddle sores have only been what I would describe as a 2% issue. Once every few days, I have felt a terrifying – and happily brief – sting of pain – like somebody sticking a small needle in my gluteus maximus. This has happened four or five times in total over fifteen days of riding. Each time, I have continued to ride, pain free after a moment or two. Go figure. To me, this feels like somebody lights a match once in a while; there is the possibility of a bonfire, but it hasn’t happened yet. I am not sure that it won’t happen, though.
12) It turns out that I am lucky to have brought two spare bikes – my second Mariposa and my (carbon fiber) Parlee. First of all, I had the snapped chain in Santa Fe – necessitating a bike switch and a replacement chain – and I was able to let Larry use the Parlee as a loaner while he was with me. Also, over the last three or four days I have had trouble with the hubs on the front wheels of my Mariposas; something about them is not adjusted properly so, while rideable, they make slight scratching/hissing sounds when I stand on the pedals or apply bigger pressure.
The bike shop in Santa Fe noticed the problem on one of the front wheels, but would have taken a couple of days I didn’t have to fix it; the other wheel subsequently developed the same issue. Based on emails with Dede and the bike shop in Santa Fe, it seems that this little problem is entirely fixable – but even if we wanted to wait a couple of days, there are no – zero – bike shops in Dodge City or any other place we are likely to get to soon. Consequently, I am using the front wheel from my Parlee on the Mariposa. In short: I am glad to have spare everythings.
13) I am also – very – glad to be employing Dan on this trip. Originally, I had declared my intention to do the ride unsupported – with panniers on the bike – but for safety reasons my Beloved Spouse decreed otherwise. The original plan was insanity. Entirely apart from his logistical planning and good company, the material support functions that Dan has provided have been invaluable.
As I have been riding on narrow shoulders I have been thinking: would I be comfortable riding this road with a much wider load? Would I really have braved a 113 mile crossing of the Mojave without Dan in the van with fluids and support? No chance. What on earth would I have done if my chain had snapped, and I had no spare? You get the idea.
Also, I have to tell you that it warms my heart when I see the van waiting patiently by the side of the road, a mile or two ahead; whether or not I need more water or whatever, I know it’s there.
14) And finally, I have been supported by a constant stream of emails and online comments from/by friends, and daily telephonic contact with my Beloved Spouse. I had feared loneliness on this trip, but have found lots of love and support instead.
Day 20 – 4/30/16
Dodge City, KS – Great Bend, KS
Weather: Cloudy; Temperature rising from 34 degrees to 55. Winds from the north west.
Distance: 85.7 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 1,538/To Go: 1,962)
Feet of Climb: 420/Descent: 1,030
Rolling Time: 4:23:50
Since yesterday was a rest day, Dan and I spent some time nosing around Dodge City.
What we learned while figuring out where to go for our meals and eating at three different restaurants is that Dodge is by far the happiest town we have been in since since Santa Fe, and unlike Santa Fe it’s not primarily a tourist destination – it’s mostly a town where ordinary people live and work.
The town had some surprises for us. First of all, it looks prosperous – we drove through neighborhoods of pretty homes where, if the weather hadn’t been stormy, I would have expected to see mothers with strollers; we saw lots of young people at the restaurants where we ate. This atmosphere of youth and prosperity stood in sharp contrast with most of the tiny – and apparently dying – towns I’ve ridden through in recent days.
Another surprise was that the town was nothing like ethnically monochromatic. My preconception would’ve been: white bread middle west; instead, we had lunch yesterday at a fabulous Vietnamese restaurant with a clientele that was equal parts Vietnamese, Hispanic and white. We saw people of various ethnicities all over town; everybody looked busy. It was also the first town we have stayed in for a long time – maybe the whole trip – where neither Dan nor I saw a single panhandler.
On Thursday, in the face of severe head-winds it took me over four hours to get to lunch at mile 55, and I still had thirty miles and two and a half hours of riding to go. Today, I covered 86 miles – the whole day’s ride – in four hours and twenty-four minutes. Today’s ride was a lot more fun.
Instead of being in my face, the softer, post-storm wind was across and slightly behind me. Over 86 miles the total ascent (gross, not net) amounted to less than five feet of climbing per mile; it got to the point where I was surprised to see any little rises at all. In short: I spun along merrily, in stark contrast with Thursday’s experience.
Also, the ride was beautiful. Allow me to explain:
Since leaving Tucumcari, NM, Dan and I have been heading northeast in a practically straight line for nearly 400 miles. We have also descended from an elevation of a little over 4,000 feet to a little under 2,000. The descent has been slow but steady, meaning that I have faced no climbs of any severity. For four rides in a row, the land has become ever flatter.
Gradually, the feel of the lands I’ve been riding through has changed. From Tucumcari to Dalhart, the ground was dry and the vegetation tended toward grayish greens. There were so few trees that it was awkward for a guy who’s forcing fluids to find an appropriate place to stop for a moment. Insofar as the land was being worked, it was for grazing cattle.
From Dalhart to Liberal, the land changed. Roughly when I passed into the Oklahoma Panhandle, it became somewhat greener and the primary use became more agricultural. Now every town had huge grain silos. (I should also note that railroad tracks have run alongside every single major road I’ve been on since Tucumcari; apparently, everything moved in volume goes by train).
Thursday’s vistas on the way from Liberal to Dodge – insofar as I picked up my head and noticed them – were mostly of enormous farms , stretching as far as the eye could see. Still virtually no trees, though, except ornamental ones around farm buildings and at the ends of driveways.
For the first forty miles this morning, the way out of Dodge looked like the way in – inconceivably large farms, many with hundreds of giant-like wind turbines. The world’s breadbasket, if I had to guess.
Even in the first forty miles, I started seeing and hearing things that were new to this journey, though. Lots of standing water – some of it presumably from yesterday’s storms; as I passed these wetlands, I heard lots of birds and even, to my surprise, frogs. And in the spots where the sun shone though the clouds, the fields were a brilliant yellow-green, giving the vistas a dappled look.
After about mile forty, I shifted onto Route 56 which heads NNE. Suddenly, the landscape – or at least the character of how the land is used – changed again.
Lots of trees and smaller farms lent a friendlier aspect to what I was seeing. Trees ringed and defined the considerably smaller fields – as I have seen them do on farms in Virginia and the Carolinas, but without the hills one sees in those states.
Meanwhile the fields’ greens were becoming ever lusher. It was absolutely beautiful countryside. I could readily understand why Dorothy wanted to go back to that Kansas. Apart from anything else, it was one heck of a place to ride.
The scenery became a bit more homogenized and less sparkly as I entered Great Bend, but it was a happy guy who rode into the lot at the Holiday Inn Express after a mere 4:24 of fast spinning.
P.S. Stopped to take the picture below this morning:
It was a heartening moment, even if I knew that on the route I’m pedaling, I’m two days from the half way mark.
Day 21 – 5/1/16
Great Bend, KS – Abilene, KS
Weather: Cloudy and cool; temperature rising from 39 degrees to 52; winds from the NW.
Distance: 102 Miles
(Distance Thus Far 1,640 Miles/To Go: 1,860)
Feet of Climb: 1,427/Descent: 2,074
Rolling Time: 6:25:00
My friend Stan, who accompanied me for part of The Big Walk but because of his job is unable to join this adventure, recently emailed me a wonderful Carl Sagan quote:
“For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood.”
When Dan and I went out to the van this morning, it was both colder and wetter than we expected. The temperature was 39; although it was slightly warmer than some recent starts, it felt colder because the blustery air was misty. No rain was in the day’s forecast, but I made a last minute decision to stick with my heavier jacket. As I rolled out of the parking lot, I wondered if I should have opted for winter gloves, too.
Once again, I would be heading NE all day long. Once again, the wind – blowing at a pretty constant 20 mph – was from the NW. The cross wind was not my friend; it was also not my enemy: it was more like an irritating companion, constantly making noise in my left ear and trying to nudge me to the right. I was generally pretty far right already.
For most of the first two hours of the ride, the heavy mist turned into a very heavy mist/light rain. Consequently I was cold, and riding cautiously from fear of slippery pavement. Fortunately, the shoulder was wide, the pavement was good and the Sunday morning traffic was very light.
About nine miles out from the hotel, I passed the entrance to a park that bills itself as having the largest inland wetlands in the nation. Dan had gone hiking there yesterday afternoon; he had told me of the wetlands’ beauty and of the park’s boast of being home to 400 species of birds. The entranceway had enormous old, gnarled trees on both sides; it was lovely.
By then I had warmed up enough so that for the rest of the rainy portion of the ride, I would enjoy the landscape in spite of my drippy status.
The sky was gray, of course, right down to the ground, and the lands alongside me were deep green. Birds and frogs were calling – pleasantly interrupting the wind’s white noise. I thought: Irish riding must be a lot like this, but with hills. Dan took the picture below:
Actually, the land was much less flat than it has been in recent days. For the first thirty or forty miles, it rolled. No real hills yet, though.
I stopped at the van for a bottle refill at mile 40. By then, the rain had stopped, and I was quite comfortable. Standing by the van to chat with me for a minute, Dan was cold. He wore a baseball cap on his head under a slicker’s hood and shivered anyway; he was used to the car’s warmth, while I was all worked up from the effort of riding.
At about mile 45 I passed through the town of Ellsworth – home to a large Correctional Institution, a few stores and doubtless, off the main street, lots of homes. At that point I turned east onto State Route 140. Immediately, the wind became less adverse.
State Route 140 proved to be one of the prettier roads on which I have ever ridden. For the next 30 or 35 miles – until the town of Salina – it wound through a hilly, lush countryside that, for a change, wasn’t farmed, but rather, had wide open pastures with cattle on my right and horses on my left, interspersed on both sides with a few prosperous-looking homes. In the middle distance on both sides of the road were barren but picturesque hills.
At one point I found myself climbing a small hill alongside a pasture in which eight or nine cows were resting. I shouted out “Hello, ladies” to them – I was feeling chipper – and all but one of the cows jumped up and started walking over to the fence, looking at me plaintively. I wished I had treats for them, but I don’t even know what constitutes a cow treat.
Shortly thereafter I saw three horses, two brown and one black, frolicking in the field to my left.
When I stopped at the van for a sandwich at about mile 67, Dan and I agreed that Kansas had gotten steadily prettier since we had left Liberal, and was now absolutely beautiful. Its vistas weren’t truly grand, like those of the southwest; they were more intimate and prettier.
After passing through Salina, the road became less enchanting. I found myself in farm country again – but a notch or two less prosperous-feeling than the lands I had been through earlier this morning and in recent days. I also rode through a couple of struggling small towns, at length arriving in Abilene, where the great Dwight D. Eisenhower was raised, and now rests with his wife Mamie and a child of theirs who died young.
I hope they’re still raising ’em like him around here. Or somewhere.
Dan and I have made a habit of eating at the most interesting places we can find. Tonight, we had dinner at the Brookville Hotel, where you can have anything you want, so long as it’s chicken.
It struck me as a brilliant concept – and a very successful business model. The absence of choices as to main dishes greatly simplifies matters for diners, and has to cut down on kitchen complexity and food spoilage. The place was packed – and has, we were told, been doing a land-office business offering only chicken since 1916.
The restaurant does offer some choices on the side dishes – they are not narrow-minded, you understand. You can have mashed potatoes or fries, for example, and they bring out several kinds of condiments. They should keep that tendency in check, though: look at what happened to the car companies after Henry Ford began offering colors other than black.
Tomorrow I have another full – 104 mile – ride in Kansas. Big state, and much more interesting than I had expected.
Day 22 – Frodo’s Ring – 5/2/16
Abilene, KS – Topeka, KS
Weather: Cloudy and Cool; temperature rising from 44 degrees to 58. Softer winds from the NNW.
Distance: 104 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 1,744 Miles/To Go +/- 1,756)
Feet of Climb: 2,742/Descent: 3,005
Rolling Time: 6:19:17
Today I received a gift that I would never have sought. I will keep it for the rest of my life.
The day began in a fashion that was ordinary enough in the context of this journey. Dan and I met at the van at 7:35. We agreed that given an expected 104 mile route, I should plan on refilling my bottles at about mile 40 and he should look for a place where we might have lunch at about mile 70.
The weather was nicer than it has been; it was warmer and the winds were much less fierce. I set off in a happy mood.
Over the course of the first thirty miles, I spun along happily, heading eastward on a state road two or three miles north of, and parallel to, I 70. The road was very pretty; it felt like I was riding on a plain at the top of the world, alongside family/residential farm properties. We were out of big silo territory; the farms – smaller than ones I have been riding by in recent days – might have been in New England.
At about mile 30, the Google Maps route played another trick on us. It instructed us to ride/drive through an active military base – Fort Riley. I pulled up to the gate to try to talk the guards into letting me through; Dan took the picture below of me talking to the guards:
When I asked if I could proceed, I addressed a friendly young (23 year-old?) guard who wore conspicuously small eyeglasses and was the only one present holding a rifle. Several other soldiers stood behind him.
The young soldier told me that he was sorry to say that I could not go through without a pass or a military ID because the base was on Condition Bravo. He was obviously sincere in feeling bad about saying that I was out of luck, and I was still in a pleasant mood, so we chatted for a while.
I told him that I am trying to ride from coast to coast to see our beautiful country up close and personal, and that I was headed to Topeka today. I also told him that I was stunned at how beautiful Kansas is.
He asked if I had been riding in the high winds and through the thunder storms. I responded yes and no respectively and mentioned that I had, however, been caught in a light snowfall in the mountains while in Arizona. He and his buddies were smiling with interest and pleasure at the little stories I was sharing about my journey.
He mentioned that unfortunately the detour would take me 30 extra miles and that the fastest way around the base was I 70. Regretfully, but with a parting smile, I turned my bike around, saying that I understood that they had rules to follow.
Suddenly, one of the soldiers off on the side, wearing a sergeant’s insignia, said: “Wait a minute. We’re just not going to make this man ride an extra 30 miles.”
The man with the gun said nothing.
“What I’m going to do” said the sergeant, “is take that car” he pointed toward a white (obviously government-owned) vehicle parked in one of the entrance lanes “and escort this man on his bicycle through the base. Call” he mentioned a name “and tell him I’m doing it.”
Nobody objected, so off we went – he driving, me riding, on a fast eight mile run through the base while Dan backed out and took the long way around.
While I was following the sergeant, I was thinking about how grateful I was for the initiative he had taken. He had saved me from an extra 20 or 30 miles on a day that was already expected to be on the long side. I would thank him profusely if I got the chance.
Just reaching before the gate on the other side of the base, the sergeant pulled over, so I did the same.
I thanked him, of course, told him my name and how to find me, and that if he ever found himself in New York or Connecticut, I would love to buy him a dinner or help him in any other way. I also asked him about himself.
Taking the measure of the man: in manner and demeanor, he reminded me very much of my friend Lewis, who is ex-military. He’s a bit bigger than Lewis, and maybe 10 years younger but has the same air of earnest friendliness and understated but rock-solid authority. I liked him right away.
In response to my questions, he said that he has been in the service for 18 years; he volunteered that he had done two tours in Iraq. He has four children, all under his care because things weren’t right on the home front when he came back. He also gave me his name – John.
Then he said that he would like to ask me for a favor.
“Anything I can do,” I responded.
He told me that a friend of his – a guy in his platoon – had died in Iraq. He had a bracelet commemorating his friend’s life, and he wanted me to take it. He had been carrying it for a long time.
“I’m not worthy of that honor.” I said.
“No,” he said “I’ve thought about it. My friend would like it if you did.” He explained that his friend had been from the east coast – Maine – and he thought a slow ride across the country to the east coast would be just right.
“But what am I supposed to do with it when I get there?” I asked.
“Keep it.” he said.
So I put it in my shirt pocket and said goodbye.
The bracelet is on the desk in front of me; between etchings of the symbol of a fallen soldier and a small flag, it reads:
“SPC Dustin J. Harris KIA”
“DC 172nd BSB 6 April 2006 OIF”
As I rode away through the beautiful Kansas springtime, I was more than usually mindful of the sacrifices that others have made, and still make, so that we can live in peace.
P.S. My friend Lewis did some research after reading this post. He reports:
“From what I could find about Dustin, he was very well respected by his team-mates, had decided to put off college to serve his country and his career had been on a fast track (he had received two promotions in a very short period of time). His unit, a Stryker (a very heavily armed vehicle) Brigade had been deployed from Fort Wainright, AK. Harris was trained as a heavy vehicle driver but was killed on foot patrol. It is very unusual for a driver to be out on foot patrol, I suspect that he had volunteered for the patrol, he was the only KIA that day, he was 21 years old and had been in the army less than three years.”
Day 23 – 5/3/16
Topeka, KS – Excelsior Springs, MO
Weather: Sunny; temperature rising from 45 degrees to 65; winds 5 – 10 mph from the west.
Distance: 105 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 1,849/To Go +/- 1,651)
Feet of Climb: 4,904/Descent 4,963
Rolling Time: 6:22:02
After five or six days of cloudy skies, Dan and I were greeted this morning by sunshine, blue skies and cool, crisp air. Those things invariably lighten my moods, and this morning was no exception.
That said, the first ten miles out of Topeka were no fun. Over the course of four hundred miles or so I had become convinced that Kansas has the widest shoulders and the politest truck drivers anywhere; those impressions were belied by the roads and the drivers’ manners that I experienced in the approach to and exit from the state’s capital city. Last night a truck driver – with apparent intentionality – edged me off an exceptionally narrow shoulder on the way into town (there was nothing in the lane to his left); this morning I again had to contend with nonexistent shoulders and rude drivers for a half an hour or more as I worked my way out of town.
The route for the day was north and then east – designed to run just outside the gravitational pull of Kansas City. All day long I would face innumerable small hills – ripples in the landscape that gave me nearly 5,000 feet of climbing with no net change in elevation.
After about the tenth mile, without changing roads I found myself on a quiet country lane. The trucks had all exited for bigger towns or highways. The road – Route 4 – wound its way northward, heading away from Topeka and Kansas City, winding through a pleasant exurban neighborhood for the next 15 miles. Well-maintained homes sit on 3-5 acre plots alongside the road; some have farm animals and small tilled fields, but none looks anything like a commercially viable farm.
Though I was passing through a residential neighborhood, the road was exceptionally quiet. A truck or car would pass – wide – once in a while, but at other times I could hear birds and frogs talking up a storm.
About 25 miles out, as I turned due east, the homes became fewer and the farmed plots much bigger. I was back in family/residential farm country. When I stopped to refill my bottles I noticed an archetypal old farmhouse surrounded by fields and trees just behind where Dan was parked. I wish this picture of it were better:
Over the next 40 miles or so the scenery was truly idyllic. Beautiful farms, clear skies and quiet roads. Dan said it was his favorite part of the whole journey.
Just before we left Kansas, though, we were presented with a very different sight:
Looks kinda nice at a glance; maybe a grand old college building or a surprisingly large courthouse?
I’m afraid not; it’s the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. The first I saw of it as I approached from the left were twenty or thirty foot walls, guard towers and razor-wire fences.
Before leaving Kansas behind, I feel the need to write a little bit about religion. Otherwise, I won’t have captured the full picture.
Out on the prairies, as I rode by enormous, seemingly limitless farmscapes, in addition to the omnipresent little roadside crosses marking the locations of car deaths, I noticed many apparently personal appeals to piety. Farmers had put signs by the side of the road asking that I trust Jesus, or expressing some variant of that sentiment.
I didn’t mind those signs in the least.
I think there’s something about wide open spaces that encourages people to think about God. Look at how many prophets were desert dwellers. I know that as I rode through the Mojave, and any number of other places in which the land was nearly empty, the sky nearly limitless and man awaits the weather with a certain awe, I felt myself in the presence of vastly larger forces.
In the cities and towns in which I spend almost all my time, man is the measure of, and seemingly in control of, nearly all. Not out here.
On a lighter but related note, not long before leaving the idyllic farm country of northeast Kansas, I saw the following billboard:
I hope you can read it; the sign advertises all the Christian churches of Valley Falls – Roman Catholic and multiple Protestant variants. You know those wars we used to have with each other over doctrinal differences? Yeah, never mind.
After crossing the Missouri River into Missouri, the character of the roads changed. For the first ten miles or so I was riding through less prosperous towns, and the road’s shoulder was both narrow and in poor repair. I sometimes had to play dodge the truck.
After lunch the narrow shoulders didn’t matter much, though, because the traffic was both light and polite. The area I was riding through still seemed kitschier than what we had seen this morning; the big draw near the resort where Dan and I are staying is Jesse James’s farm.
Tomorrow’s ride will be short – 60 miles – and late in the day, because during the morning I’ll be tied up with a business matter. So for those of you who have grown accustomed to my ordinary schedule, expect tomorrow’s post to be both late and short.
As a final comment: I am now quite clearly more than half way home. This adventure has been bigger than I ever imagined, but this horse is just beginning to smell the barn and wants to run.
A friend sent the following note about Excelsior Springs:
“I’ve been following your blog and was particularly interested in the fact that you passed through Excelsior Springs, MO. I grew up in Liberty 10 miles south of there. When we were kids there was no swimming pool in Liberty although it was a town of 5,000 people. No city, club or private pool. So,we used to swim at the salt water pool in Excelsior Springs, Lake Mauer. Later in high school Excelsior Springs was our most heated rival in football, basketball and track. I’m happy to say that in my senior year we crushed them in all three. Indeed, and most improbably, our quarterback was named to the first string All American high school football team that year. But then I got crushed. I went away every summer to camp, or in the case of my junior summer, to work on the construction of a natural gas refinery in western Alberta. When I got back I learned that my long time girl friend, Carol, had dumped me for the quarterback of the Excelsior Springs football team.
“You may have learned that in the early part of the 20th century Excelsior Springs was a hugely popular hot springs spa. Maybe you saw the famed Hall of Waters there. In fact, it was so popular that they constructed a dedicated railroad line to the town to handle all of the tourists who wanted to “take the waters.”
Day 24 – 5/4/16
Excelsior Springs, MO – Chillicothe, MO
Weather: Sunny; temperatures between 60 and 70; strong winds from the north.
Distance: 64.3 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 1,913 Miles/To Go +/- 1,587)
Feet of Climb: 2,887/Descent: 2,919
Rolling Time: 4:20:13
I’m going to level with you – not every ride on this journey has been wonderful. Today’s, for example, was in the not wonderful category. At least it was comparatively short; my writeup will be the same.
Once again, I was to make my way northeast by heading first north – for forty miles – then east. The wind was blowing hard from the north. The northbound segment also included virtually all of the day’s roughly 3,000 feet of climbing, so I slogged along, generally up hill and always into the wind, for over two and a half hours before getting some relief.
Making matters worse, the scenery was a little depressing as I headed north. After five or ten miles of generally comfortable-looking exurban homes, the road took on an air of not-quite-making-it farmland. The outbuildings were in disrepair, say, or the fields not planted. Some of the old barns were leaning this way or that. Most of the houses looked ok, though they might need some fresh paint.
Dan and I paused for a late lunch (I had gotten rolling at 12:30) in a town with a sign announcing its name and a population of 341. There were lots of boarded-up storefronts. I imagined the town’s DPW guy wondering whether he should cross out 341 and write in 340 because he knew old Pete had gone to a nursing home somewhere else.
Not fair, perhaps, but I wasn’t happy about the wind and hills. Maybe it would’ve all looked charming if the wind had been southerly.
The town of Hamilton (pop 1,820) where I turned east is clearly in much better shape than where we had had lunch. It has some lovely homes and, of course, offered me the long-anticipated prospect of relief from the headwinds that I had been fighting. It’s amazing how nice a side wind can feel after a long pull into a head wind.
The east/west road I joined in Hamilton for the last 24 miles – Route 36 – was a little strange. A divided highway with lots of truck traffic, it is nevertheless perfectly safe for riding because it has a wide shoulder. What made it odd was that for most of the way from Hamilton to Chillicothe (that’s chill-i-coth-ee) I had no views to divert my attention from the truck noises, drafts and road grit.
For seventeen or eighteen miles from Hamilton, on both sides of the road there are tall berms; on the other side of those berms, no doubt, are fields and woods, but most of the time I couldn’t see them. I was effectively locked into an alleyway. So while that portion of the ride was vastly easier – and faster – than the first forty miles, it had few redeeming qualities.
For the first time in this whole journey, I thought to myself: you just might be nuts to be doing this. But what choice did I have? I rode until it got better.
Maybe eight miles from Chillicothe, the berms fell away and I was suddenly treated to a lovely view:
Those are cows in the field, and off in the distance, a pretty barn.
Tomorrow I expect to be on the same road for over 100 miles, so I can only hope that the views stay as open as they were at the end of today’s ride.
Day 25 – 5/5/16
Chillicothe, MO – Hannibal, MO
Weather: Not a cloud in the sky; temperature rising from 45 to 69 degrees; light winds from the north.
Distance: 117 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 2,030/To Go: +/-1,470)
Feet of Climb: 3,540/Descent: 3,491
Rolling Time: 7:08:27
In setting off this morning, I knew that I had to cover 117 miles and that I would be on the same road all day long. Because warmer temperatures were expected, I had dressed lightly. I figured that I would start off a little chilled, but warm up quickly enough.
Right from the start the road was much prettier than I had found it on the way into Chillicothe. Yesterday’s berms were nowhere to be seen; in their places were views of mid-sized farms and small forests. The truck traffic was much lighter, too, and the shoulder wide, so I could enjoy the views. I was in gentle hill country – there were few flats, but the hills seemed like modest waves on a green ocean.
In those pretty, early miles, I resolved to set my Garmin on its directions screen, knowing that it would just tell me to go straight all day long. I didn’t want to find myself watching the miles be counted down on another of the screen options, and thinking: another mile down, only 113 to go! That would be no way to pass the day.
Instead, I decided, I would set aside thoughts of the distance to be covered, and think about the feel of the crisp air on my body and how lucky I am that my ears can hear approaching cars and trucks – or birds and frogs – that my eyes can see obstructions in the shoulder – and the beautiful views, that my nose can smell the occasionally overwhelming farm odors, and springtime in bloom – in short, that I am healthy enough to be here, doing this, right now.
To think about the long miles to come would be to ignore the particularity of the moment, and thereby convert an adventure into drudgery. I would savor the moments and watch for characteristics of the land and telltale signs of how people live here.
That worked for a while.
At about mile 25, I passed an obviously permanent billboard for Laclede, MO, birthplace of General John J. Pershing. It had an enormous picture of Pershing’s face. I liked that, but wondered how many passersby know who he was, or why he mattered. Maybe more around here than at home.
Beginning at about mile 30, I found myself surrounded by forests much of the time. The road also crossed many creeks and some rivers, and signs announced lakes not far away. Dan and had I started seeing more water as we headed north and east through Kansas; that trend has become ever more pronounced as we have made our way through Missouri. The land is lush here.
We stopped for lunch at mile 62, in Macon. We ate at a thriving Mexican restaurant; the food was terrific and the owner took an interest in my journey. He was originally from LA, and simply loved the fact that I had ridden from there. He said – a little wistfully – that he had heard good things about Connecticut, too. I told him that I loved the area I was riding through today.
After Macon, the land opened up again. The farms got bigger – not like the as-far-as-the-eye-can-see farms in western Kansas, but in a fields-in-the-hundreds-of-acres-with-trees-behind-them-kind of way. The fields looked very well tended.
By now, the morning’s zen pretenses were history. Reality intervened: I was too tired and sore for any live-in-the-moment bliss. I wasn’t in a bad mood, mind you, just focused on doing the job of getting to the hotel and seeing what I could along the way.
As I spun along, I flipped the Garmin’s screen back and forth, checking how many miles I had to go and weighing that against what I figured I had left in the tank. I tried to avoid doing the math on my average speeds – the purpose of this trip is certainly not to see how fast I can go, so that’s one obsession that I would rather do without – but inevitably the averages did come to mind as I tried to figure out how many more hours of pedaling were in store.
An irony: the central point of this adventure is to revel in the particular sights and sounds of the land, and impressions of people who I meet – but every day I strive to get to a destination that is, in a sense, no place. With the exception of the couple of memorably awful places where we’ve stayed, and the one or two resort hotels, every roadside hotel has been substantially identical. They all have the same rooms, the same amenities, the same breakfasts, they even seem to have interchangeable breakfast crowds. So in a sense, every day it’s my goal to pass through someplace unique and interesting to get to a place that is the opposite.
But what all these hotels – even the worst – have that I don’t have, or want, on the road is connectivity. My hotel room may feel like noplace, but from it I am as much in touch with you and the world at large as if I were in an office in Manhattan.
Tomorrow we will cross the Mississippi into Illinois. The nice weather is expected to hold for another day – maybe two – then turn bad. By the time the storms come, I’ll be overdue for a day off.
Day 26a. – 5/6/16
This morning as I prepare to set off on my bicycle ride into Illinois, I’m going to share two paragraphs of an email I recently received from a guy who has been a close friend of mine for over forty years. David grew up in these parts but now lives in London. The knowledge and love of this land that come through in his writing are simply wonderful:
“The region was settled along the rivers, which is kind of lost now because the interstates don’t follow the rivers. I don’t mean St. Louis or Cincinnati btw because they are huge. The Missouri valley east of Jefferson City, or the Illinois River around Peoria, for example. You also can take US24 all the way from Kansas City to Ft. Wayne and it goes through countryside and through Peoria. But it reaches the Illinois River near Beardstown and you can take state highways along the river NE for 50 miles to Peoria. The other thing, which you probably know, is that you can travel fast and without almost any traffic on the east/west state highways through Illinois and Indiana. They cut through farmland are are uniformly in great condition, which the US highways are sometimes not. Just imagining it makes me breathe deeply. It’s very peaceful out there.
“The Illinois river valley opens out to two big lakes at Peoria and Teddy Roosevelt called the road along the bluff in Peoria the world’s most beautiful drive. If you go on IL116 east from Peoria and turn around and look back when you reach the top of the bluff you’ll see why. When you cross the Wabash river in Indiana and ask yourself how it got to look like it does, the answer is that at the end of the ice age there was a giant sea of melted ice covering upper Indiana and lower Michigan and it was held back by a natural dam called a moraine just below where Fort Wayne is and it burst and carved a deep valley. It used to be navigable by steamship up to Terre Haute. Not any more and it’s sort of lost in time as an entity. John Mellencamp country.”
I just hope to get a glimpse of what those who are from here know.
I’ll write my own darn post later.
Day 26b. – A Day in the Country – 5/6/16
Hannibal, MO – Jacksonville, IL
Weather: Not a cloud in the sky; temperature rising from 55 to 75 degrees; no wind before lunch, thereafter a helpful breeze.
Distance: 88 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 2,118 Miles/To Go +/- 1,382)
Feet of Climb: 2,988/Descent: 3,064
Rolling Time: 4:48:58
When I went out to the van this morning to go through my customary final preparations, I noticed that the tire on my rear wheel was a little bit abraded. I looked closely to see if I could spy an embedded shard of glass, saw none, and no associated bulge indicating real damage to the tire, and concluded that I would be fine. A tire has the right to show a little wear after 2,000 miles.
The first fifteen or twenty miles were nothing special. I was following a divided highway – Route 61 – south so that I could eventually cross the Mississippi in the town of Louisiana. The riding was much like yesterday’s – traffic was so so, the shoulder was fine, the weather was bright and cheerful and there was no wind at all which, at the time, I thought was a wonderful thing.
Once I turned left and eastward on a county road called highway B, I entered another world. Highway B was just the sort of road that I love best: a well-maintained, two-lane road through gorgeous countryside with virtually no traffic. Farm country, once again, but by a back road running through quiet woods and by beautiful homes and fields.
I know that farm country is not as idyllic as it looks. I know that some of our worst problems – like meth – are, if anything, more prevalent in rural areas than in cities and towns. But you could’ve fooled me as I rolled down highway B – it looked like a world where every prospect pleases and man is not in the least bit vile.
Highway B took me to Route 79, which winds, entirely traffic-free, through beautiful lowland farms with a few hills just for effect. As I rolled along I was thinking of writing a post to the effect that if I had a magic wand and could give my friends a gift, it would be to enable them without travel or hassle to be magically transported to that very spot on just such a day, to ride through it as I was doing.
At one point I looked down on my arms and legs and noticed an accumulation of tiny black dots – doubtless fruit flies, I concluded, adhering to the mixture of sweat and sunscreen on my arms and legs. No matter.
I rode up over a sharp little hill and considered photographing it; with little round-doored houses it might have been Hobbiton. Dan captured a picture nearby:
Shortly thereafter, for no apparent reason, I flatted. I stopped, and decided to use the moment to offload excess coffee from breakfast – there was nobody about. By the time, a minute or two later, when I had finished doing so, I knew that I had made a big mistake.
Two minutes had been more than enough time for a cloud of flies, the likes of which I had never seen, to surround me. Tiny black flies by the hundred – if not thousand – were suddenly everywhere. In my eyes, in my ears, in my nose and in my mouth. Suddenly, I seriously regretted the complete absence of wind.
As I hustled to change my flat rear tire – you knew it – some enterprising mosquitoes joined the party, so now I could also hear lots of buzzing and anticipate itches. It was disgusting.
I changed the inner tube as quickly as I could – not stopping for more than a moment to again look for the offending shard of glass – filled the tire with CO2 and jumped on my bike, praying that it wouldn’t re-flat before I had gotten out of there. On that score, I was in luck.
I found Dan in Louisiana just before the bridge and switched to the spare rear wheel/tire; I figured that I could take time to look for the glass in the other tire tonight. Then I crossed the bridge into Illinois with Dan behind me with his flashers on.
Thus far, southern Illinois has proven to be everything my friend David described and more.
I rode up and away from the big river and soon saw something that those of you who read the posts on The Big Walk two years ago know that I love: a civil war statue. I cataloged many such statues in New England on The Big Walk, but hadn’t expected to see one out here; I guess they’re all over the parts of the North that were settled in the mid nineteenth century.
Dan and I stopped for lunch at Gino’s Pizza in the town of Pittsfield. The town – and the scene in the restaurant – were right out of Norman Rockwell. It was a scene the comfort and placidity of which were almost achingly out of time.
The young waitress who served us spoke with us about our journey. Understand: we made quite a sight – me sweaty, covered with dead flies and towing a bike; Dan, young and healthy-looking. When I explained what we were up to, and complimented the beauty of the nearby countryside, she smiled and said:
“Yeah, the gnats are really bad right now. If you stop at the gas station and buy some vanilla, that’ll keep some of them away.”
She meant it kindly. As it was, I didn’t much mind the innumerable dead gnats that I wouldn’t be able to wash off until I got to the hotel.
After lunch, I crossed the Illinois River, then rode through countryside that was just as quiet and pretty as a cyclist could ever hope for. For a while, it seemed that the only other traffic consisted of old guys on motorcycles and young guys on tractors. The views that were not of freshly planted fields looked like this:
The wind – which had come up at lunchtime – was at my back, and I spun along happily. In fact, thanks to my friend David’s writeup mentioning the peacefulness of this area of the country, I had an Eagles song running on repeat in my head:
“I’ve got a peaceful, easy feeling
And I know you won”t let me down,
‘Cause I’m all ready standing on the ground.”
In summary: today was – almost – perfect.
Day 27 – 5/7/16
Jacksonville, IL – Bloomington, IL
Weather: Storms rolling in; temperature rising from 62 to 75 degrees; variable winds.
Distance: 90.1 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 2,208 Miles/To Go +/-1,292)
Feet of Climb: 1,502/Descent: 1,341
Rolling Time: 4:45:39
Today’s weather forecast for central Illinois called for a front of thunderstorms to roll in during the late afternoon. I told Dan that while I am not averse to finishing a ride in the rain, I will not ride in a thunderstorm, so we decided that I should leave early – 7:00 AM – so we could be confident that I would have time to finish the planned 105 mile distance.
The ride began as yesterday’s had ended. I headed east out of Jacksonville, with a soft wind at my back, blue skies and stupendous vistas.
Many years ago, while riding with my brother-in-law, I called attention to the beauty of a similar morning:
“Look at this, Sam,” I said, “it’s perfect.”
“You know what that means?” he replied: “It can only get worse.”
After a couple of hours of easy, fast spinning on empty roads through immaculate farmland, I found myself working my way through the more densely populated environs of the state’s capital. On the far side of town, I stopped to chat with Dan and refill my water bottle. We commented on how easy it had been for me to maintain a quick pace given the road quality, the absence of traffic, the flat terrain and the wind at my back. Other than generally remaining on flat ground, all of those factors were about to change for the worse.
From there I took state route 54 northeast. Meanwhile, the wind decided to come from the northwest and to gather speed. Heavy-looking clouds appeared.
Like the traffic-free two lane roads on which I had been riding, route 54 has no shoulder at all, but it was carrying quite a lot of car and truck traffic. Also, the quality of the road surface was atrocious; potholes, loose gravel and broken pavement were everywhere. It was an obstacle course.
And an uncomfortable one at that.
I cannot overstate how important a good road surface is to comfort on the bike. An hour or two on rough road has the potential to awaken the sleeping dragon between a rider’s underside and the saddle. Mine snorted and groaned a few times this morning. I was all too aware that he was on the edge of awakening.
Perhaps fifteen miles north of Springfield, the traffic thinned out; after that I had more latitude to avoid potholes and cracks in the pavement, rather than just crashing through them out of fear of the vehicles to my left, but the surface was still very rough. My dragon slept uneasily.
I was in farmland again, though the views seemed somehow less friendly and intimate than the land east of Jacksonville. Dan took this picture when I stopped for a bite at about mile 72:
He also took the occasion of my stop to tell me that it was already pouring in Bloomington. He didn’t know about lightning. Maybe the rain would move out before we got there.
After asking Dan to stay close in case we ran into a thunderstorm, I jumped back my bike.
Shortly thereafter, I rode through a brief shower. It was still pretty sunny, though, and I was still optimistic about going the distance.
By now, the wind had gained great strength and was coming out of the north. Naturally, my directions called for a left turn onto a divided highway – state route 51 – changing my direction from northeasterly to due north, right into the wind. The sky up ahead grew darker by the minute.
Because of a moment of lax attention, shortly thereafter I came as close to crashing as I have done on this adventure (or, for that matter, this year). My new northbound road had a broad shoulder but it was made of different materials than the actual road. In gliding over from the road to the shoulder at an interchange, I failed to notice that there was a gap between the two types of pavement. My front wheel jammed into the gap while I was moving at perhaps 18 mph. I came within an ace of crashing while jerking the wheel out of the rut.
In my experience, most bike accidents are like that: they happen suddenly because the rider’s attention is focused on something other than the road ahead. Throughout this adventure I have enjoyed having my attention drift over many topics, but there is no excuse for not also – always – focusing on the road.
By about mile 90 the sky was black. I pulled over to where the van was parked by the side of the road, and told Dan that I would continue until/unless I saw lightning. At that very moment, we both did.
So I loaded my bike into the van and we drove – through a thunderstorm and a torrential shower – to the hotel. I’ll start tomorrow’s ride where I left off today’s.
P.S. The schedule for the next few days is unclear. The forecast shows thunderstorms for the next four days – but it looks as if each of those days except Tuesday with have a five or six hour window in which I will be able to ride. That said, as we learned today, forecasts can be wrong. My hope will be to use the worst weather day – presumably Tuesday – as a rest day, and get as far as I can on the other days.
The other big switch that is coming is that Dan will be leaving this adventure, probably Tuesday; he has to get back to other things in his life. At the moment, we are trying to coordinate a handoff from Dan to Josh, who will be with me for the rest of the trip. Josh has big shoes to fill, because Dan has been enormously helpful.
Day 28 – 5/8/16
Bloomington, IL – Watseka, IL
Weather: Variable; temperature rising from 50 degrees to 62; increasing winds from the south.
Distance: 86.2 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 2,294 Miles/To Go +/- 1,206)
Feet of Climb: 1,181/Descent: 1,305
Rolling Time: 4:54:33
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: This guy’s having too much fun. The protagonist must encounter Adversity. He must Suffer.
Ok, then. Adversity it is. Maybe even Suffering.
In the hotel lobby last night Dan and I were treated to the sight of innumerable happy young graduates of Illinois State University, Bloomington, still in their graduation finery and with their families. The place was crawling with them. It was a happy scene, if rather loud.
No, that’s not the Suffering part.
After consulting electronically at dawn with the shamans of the National Weather Service, I decided to put off the start of today’s ride until about 8:30. By then, the last showers should have passed and warm, dry weather was to be expected. I dressed lightly – a short sleeve jersey and shorts; I also threw on leg and arm warmers for the start.
Dan and I met in the hotel’s lobby at 8:00 and headed for the van. We drove south to the place where I had had to abandon yesterday, from whence I was to ride. The air felt chillier than I had expected, so I took off the arm warmers and put on a bright green riding jacket for better warmth.
As I set out, heading north toward Bloomington again, the riding conditions were beautiful. Last night’s – and the early morning’s – rains had left the roads wet, but Dan had found me a much better road parallel to the one I hadn’t enjoyed yesterday. As I spun along the quiet, wide street, I wondered why, despite being in the neighborhood of a vibrant college town, I saw no other cyclists.
As they often do on Sunday morning bike rides, the immortal lyrics of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Kris Kristofferson were playing in the background of my mind:
“Well I woke up Sunday mornin’ with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt,
“And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for desert…”
That’s it! I thought. The student cyclists were out celebrating last night, along with all their friends. They won’t be up and out until later.
At about mile 12, I turned right and eastward, away from Bloomington, which was then quite close, and toward Watseka. I was clearly leaving College Town, and heading back into Farm Country.
A moment or two later, the heavens opened. Not a drop or two, a downpour. Not a shower, rain.
For the next two and a half hours, it poured.
I learned that my green jacket is not impermeable; it absorbs water; soon my riding jersey was also soaked. I learned that 50 degrees can be very, very cold if you are wet and traveling in the open air at 17 miles an hour. I was soaked from tip to toe.
Dan stopped every five or six miles to watch me ride by. I didn’t dare stop at the van, because I knew that if I did there was no way I was getting back on the bike.
Well, ok, not for very long.
The rain stopped at about 11:30. Shortly thereafter I stopped at the van, replaced my soaked short sleeve shirt with a dry, long-sleeved winter shirt and my green jacket with a proper rain jacket, and got back on the bike. I warmed up quickly thereafter, and even began to appreciate Dan’s comment that he thought the rain brought out beautiful colors. When I was cold and wet, I had been focused only on unpleasant sensations and my determination to stay upright.
Thereafter the ride was pretty and uneventful. Miles and miles of well-maintained farmland.
In the thousand or so miles I have ridden since leaving Tucumcari, NM, most of what I have seen from the bike is farmland. I would guess that if I had been going from the northwest to the southeast of the middle of the country, instead of from the southwest to the northeast, I would have ridden by just as much. The amount of land that is farmed in this country is almost unimaginably large; those of us who live on the east coast usually only see cute little patches of it; out here, it is almost the whole environment.
That said, I have seen amazingly few farmers. Sure, each day I have seen a handful of guys on tractors or in combines, but that’s amazingly few when you consider the hundreds of thousands of farmed acres I’ve seen. When I mentioned that observation to Dan, he said he’d noticed the same thing. I guess we missed the planting season – and also that farming has become vastly less dependent on manual labor than it once was.
By the time I rolled into Watseka, just a few miles short of the Indiana border, the sun was shining through thinning clouds and the day had become quite cheerful. The town’s water tower greeted me accordingly:
So, yeah, that bit of uncomfortable riding is all I’ve got in the Suffering department. At least so far.
P.S. Tomorrow will be a rest day. The present forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday is for thunderstorms; I will hope to find windows in which I can make progress on those days. Three days in a tiny Super-8 hotel in Watseka might be a bit much.
Day 30 – 5/10/16
Watseka, IL – Peru, IN
Weather: Rain; temperature rising from 61 degrees to 66; winds from the ESE.
Distance: 93.8 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 2,387/To Go +/- 1,113)
Feet of Climb: 1,578/Descent: 1,575
Rolling Time: 6:20:48
Yesterday I traveled to and from O’Hare Airport as part of the process of bidding a fond farewell to Dan and welcoming Josh as the new Master of Logistics. Josh took this picture of Dan and me just before we parted company:
The drives were a bit of a cultural jolt. I have been riding through what felt like deep countryside for nearly a month now, and the traffic and excitement of our nation’s big cities had come to seem like a different planet. Two two hour drives reminded me that our urban and rural cultures exist side-by-side.
After I got back to Watseka with Josh, he and I went out to dinner at the town’s Mexican restaurant where Dan and I had eaten Sunday night.
While Josh and I ate, we speculated about whether I would be able to ride today given the forecast of scattered thundershowers. I said that we should plan for the day’s ride to happen, and that I would email him confirmation after consulting the latest forecasts at 6:00 AM. I also mentioned a little grimly that the breakfast food on offer at the Super 8 Hotel consisted exclusively of cereal, and that nothing else would be available in Watseka at that hour.
Josh suggested that we ask the restaurant to make us some breakfast burritos to go, pointing out that our hotel rooms had both fridges and microwaves.
Well, he’s off to a good start, I thought.
We asked the restaurant’s owner if he could make us the breakfast fare. Josh explained to him that I am riding a bicycle from Los Angeles to Connecticut and would need some real nutrition in the morning.
The owner was surprised and honored by our request; he had the burritos made and insisted on providing them to us for free. He also asked us whether Connecticut is a state, which I confirmed: a small one, I said, between New York and Massachusetts. Any mention of Rhode Island would have been just showing off.
My breakfast was delicious, and got me off to a better start than Raisin Bran alone ever could have.
As of this morning the forecast for Watseka was for a heavy shower at 8:00 AM followed by scattered thunderstorms beginning at 9:00. The forecast for Peru, IN, was for no rain, but a heavy thunderstorm beginning at 3:00. I decided to go for it; I am anxious to keep moving along and found the idea of another day in place unappealing. I figured I should leave early, though, to make sure I got to Peru before a big thunderstorm.
Consequently, I met Josh at the van at 7:00 and was rolling by about 7:10.
It began raining about two minutes after I set out; the rain would continue at a moderately strong rate for the next four hours. The wind was also adverse: it was from the ESE the whole way, while I was headed east. Finally, the two lane state road that I expected to be on all day – Route 24 – had no shoulder and fairly heavy truck traffic.
It was a slog, but far from unbearable. Unlike my stint riding in the rain on Sunday, I was properly dressed, and – more important – the extra ten or twelve degrees of warmth made all the difference in terms of personal comfort. I was riding slowly, but happy to be on the bike and moving.
During those first 60 miles, I didn’t focus on the scenery much. It looked a lot like the farm country I had been riding through for days. In spite of that, I did take note of three things:
1) crossing the time zone line into Eastern Standard Time in Indiana; this was my first inkling of really being on my way home,
2) a sign shortly thereafter pointing the way to the Tri-County (!) High School, and
3) a another sign announcing the town of Goodland, IN, with the slogan: “Our name says it all.”
After the rain stopped, and I realized that my slow speed and the time change might mean that I would run into the expected 3:00 PM thunderstorm near Peru, I decided to ride straight through rather than stop for lunch.
I also stopped and took this picture, mostly for the field’s colors:
By then the warm, dryer air felt great. I took off my rain jacket.
Unfortunately, while the truck traffic had gradually decreased, the road’s condition was worsening. Cracks and potholes became frequent obstacles and the shoulder, such as it was,was positively dangerous.
The character of the land was changing, too. I saw fewer and fewer big farms, more and more patches of deep woods. In the intensively farmed countryside I had been riding through, the only trees I had been seeing were ornamentally planted. Now I was seeing real forests.
I also rode past something unexpected in the middle of the woods: an enormous junkyard, with a razor-wire fence around it. Inside, I could see thousands of totaled cars, organized by make and model. Dozens of Mustangs all in a row, for example.
Not long thereafter, while rolling over some potholes, a truck by my side, I broke a spoke; this necessitated a stop and a call to Josh so that I could switch rear wheels.
Just outside of Logansport, at about mile 80, the Google/Garmin bicycle route instructed me to continue on Route 24, but the State of Indiana had other ideas. It had posted a sign forbidding pedestrians and cyclists from the next section of the road.
I consulted the map function on my phone, and switched over onto what was clearly the old road to Peru – Logansport Road. That proved to be a prettier road by far than the one from which I had been banned (which I could see in the distance from time to time); it runs along the Wabash River for five or six miles on the way out of town – a quiet country road with views of deep woods, train tracks and, occasionally, the river. It felt much more like New England than any road I had previously traveled on this journey.
When I pulled into Peru at about 3:00 PM, the sun was shining through the clouds. As I write this at nearly 6:00 PM there is still no hint of a thunderstorm.
I don’t know why I’ve been paying any attention to the weather forecasts.
Day 31 – 5/11/16
Peru, IN – Lima, OH
Weather: Foggy, then clearing; temperature rising from 61 degrees to 73; no wind.
Distance: 109 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 2,496 Miles/To Go: +/- 900*)
*It is now clear that the route will not total 3,500 miles, as I had guessed it would. As the final routes are chosen, the To Go total will gradually become more precise.
Feet of Climb: 1,433/Descent: 1,309
Rolling time: 6:28:01
When I set out at about 7:30 this morning a heavy blanket of fog lay on Peru, Indiana. The mist was so heavy that I considered taking off my (prescription) glasses because they had quickly acquired a film of beaded water. I was quite glad that coincidentally I was wearing my bright yellow and purple CCAP jersey as it made me conspicuous in the gray.
The first six or eight miles of the route took me along the southern side of the Wabash River. To my right were farmed fields, to my left, the river and, on the far bank, Peru. There was little to no traffic. For that section, and the ten miles or so that followed my departure from town and sights of the river, the views, insofar as they were not obscured by the fog, were of pretty little horse properties, woods and small farms.
I took the following picture to show just how little visibility there was:
Due to the near-complete absence of cars or trucks, the road was marvelously quiet. When I stopped to take that picture, I could hear many kinds of birds in nearby trees. I noticed, too, that when cars were coming from the other direction I often heard them long before I saw them.
Virtually the whole day would be spent on the same road – called Route 124 in Indiana and Route 81 in Ohio. It is a cyclist’s paradise. The road surface is nearly perfect, the views lovely, the traffic almost always extremely light and the topography varied enough to be interesting but not so much as to be painful. The road gave me the kind of day in farm country that I had dreamed I might have.
At about mile 65 I saw a pretty little girl in a black dress and wearing a bonnet, out retrieving mail from the box at the end of her driveway. “Good morning” I said to her as I rode past, and got a smile in return. Ah, the Amish, I thought.
Shortly thereafter I saw an Amish man – broad hat, black clothes, beard looking like Moses, diving a horse and cart. Then, again, a few minutes later, I found myself following another cart:
As I rode past, having put away the phone with which I had snapped the above picture so as not to be intrusive, I noted to my surprise that the two riders were a perfectly fetching young mother and her roughly ten year-old son. I don’t know why I had assumed they would be anything else.
At about mile 74, Josh and I stopped for lunch at Becky’s Restaurant in Willshire, OH. All the other patrons were local farmer-types; middle-aged white guys in working clothes; it seemed like they all knew each other. I got a few curious, sidelong glances, but not of the unwelcoming sort. The waitress asked about my ride and sounded genuinely enchanted at the idea of it. She said she could never do it; I said she could.
After lunch the sun had finally worked its way through the clouds, and my pace magically became snappier. I had treated the morning’s portion of the ride as an easy/misty/dreamlike ride through a quiet and pretty landscape; the sun brought clarity and energy to the enterprise.
As I rode into the city of Lima at the end of the day, I found myself passing through a residential neighborhood of well-kept, prosperous-looking homes in close proximity to each other. I saw a pretty and well dressed African-American girl of perhaps sixteen, walking her dog. Then I noticed lots of other African-American faces in cars and on the street, and it dawned on me that I was riding through the first neighborhood that was neither white nor Hispanic that I had seen since beginning the trip.
I thought that was interesting. How and when had a substantial population of black Americans moved to Lima? I had thought that the great migrations northwards early in the last century mostly brought African-Americans to major cities where they could find jobs in industry; I wouldn’t have thought that Lima, OH, on the edge of farm country, would have been a big draw. There’s some history here that I’ve clearly missed.
It was a lovely day.
P.S. My friend David, originally from the midwest but now a longtime resident of London, was one of three friends who wrote explaining Lima’s industrial past and present in response to this post. His comments were as follows:
“I knew someone from Lima. It was a manufacturing powerhouse. I looked it up and found that it was the site of a big oil field in the late 1800s. In the 20th century it was a center for locomotive production, the home of Superior school buses and was where Chrysler built tanks in WWII. It is where the M1 Abrams tank is still built.”
“Your instincts about African-American migrants to the north were thus correct.”
Day 32 – 5/12/16
Lima, OH – Ashland, OH
Weather: Clearing; temperature rising from 62 degrees to 75; light winds from the south.
Distance: 106 Miles.
(Distance Thus Far: 2,602/To Go +/- 794)
Feet of Climb: 2,637/Descent: 2,523
Rolling Time: 6:05:39
Once again the forecast was for thunderstorms, expected to arrive in both Lima and Ashland at around 3:00 PM, so I set off early – at about 7:15 AM – under cloudy skies on roads that were still wet from last night’s showers – hoping to reach Ashland, 106 miles to the east, well in advance of any storms.
The first ten miles or so were a rapid progression from urban to suburban to rural; the road’s shoulder narrowed progressively with each shift in population density, but the traffic – most of which was headed into town – diminished as well. After about a half an hour of pedaling I was back in serene, flat farming country. Traffic was light.
About twenty miles out, I rolled through a beautiful little town – Kenton. There were freshly painted homes with well-maintained lawns going into and out of town and the main street (which the road I was on crossed) had a row of immaculately-maintained – and occupied – old brick storefronts. The wall ad below charmed me, so I stopped and photographed it:
(It advertises an establishment that serves meals and sells fine art).
Since leaving Tucumcari, the 1,500 or so miles that I have ridden diagonally through the midwest have taken me through many dozens of small towns. Many are clearly dying, others thriving. The land around these towns – of both sorts – almost all looks like very prosperous farm country. What accounts for which towns make it and which don’t?
My guess: medical facilities. Kenton has a sparkling new one, just past the old but thriving downtown, so do virtually all the other towns that looked prosperous to me. People have moved toward towns with good healthcare. The towns that can’t offer it are gradually being abandoned.
Just east of Kenton I rolled through more lovely farm country and saw an Amish couple leaving their driveway in a horse-drawn buggy. I snapped this picture of the nearby fields:
I stopped to refill my water bottles and chat with Josh at mile 55. I didn’t know this at the time, but we might as well have been standing on an invisible line: we were about to leave the Midwest.
The land was about to become dramatically hillier. I was leaving the flat, fertile, farmed lands that I have been passing through with only brief breaks since Tucumcari. The use of the land would change, too: over the next 50 miles I was to see very few farms, and no enormous ones. Instead, I rode through woods, then by a reservoir (where Josh and I stopped for lunch), then through the town of Mansfield, which had lots of housing subdivisions set to internally uniform economic levels. I hadn’t seen anything like that in a long time.
For a continuous 1,500 miles – with the exception of Lima and the great cities – Kansas City, St Louis and Chicago – each of which I bypassed, the primary economic activity of the areas I passed through was flatland farming. I’m pretty sure that I have now left that place.
Tomorrow’s ride will be much hillier than any I have had in weeks; it will take me between Akron and Cleveland and then up to Lake Erie. I know that I’ll see some farming along the lake, and endless, generally hillier, farms in upstate New York, but still, today I passed the end of the great, flat Midwestern plain.
An odd cultural observation: when, two years ago, I did The Big Walk, from Grand Central Terminal to Old Lyme, I noticed that by far the most common billboards were signs at the entrances to most towns, announcing that “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” and providing directions to a nearby church. In the Midwest, I have seen innumerable, nearly identical billboards – but the vast majority were for the United Methodist Church. Perhaps Protestant denominations are like wines: different ones thrive in different soils.
I rolled into the hotel’s parking lot at 2:00 PM with no storms in sight.
When Josh and I were checking in, I asked the ladies behind the desk whether they consider themselves Midwesterners or Easterners. One giggled and responded that, yes, that is a topic of conversation, but she feels strongly that they’re Easterners. I told her she was right: the line is about 50 miles west of here.
So there you have it.
Day 33 – 5/13/16
Ashland, OH – Geneva-on-the-Lake, OH
Weather: Mixed sun and clouds; temperature rising from 55 degrees to 63; winds gradually gaining strength and shifting from SW to NW.
Distance: 126 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 2,728/To Go +/- 668)
Feet of Climb: 5,062/Descent: 5,439
Rolling Time: 7:42:22
It took me all of about fifteen minutes to feel that I had truly left Ashland. During those few minutes, I had to deal with lots of truck traffic and busy interchanges, but in the blink of an eye they were all gone and once again I found myself in Amish farming country.
I saw and waved to an Amish family in a horse-drawn cart; the father waived back. It struck me that like them I was eschewing modern modes of transport for one that relies on muscle and simple mechanics. At least for a little while (and if one ignores the help I’m getting from the sag wagon!).
I began regularly noticing horse manure on the shoulder where I was riding.
Josh had a closer encounter with the Amish, as he later related to me at lunch. He saw a sign advertising bee equipment and stopped to look since his father keeps bees in Brooklyn. The seller, he says, was an extremely friendly Amish man who had an amazing woodworking shop, full of things he had made. Unfortunately, Josh was unable to purchase anything – the pieces on offer were all too big.
We passed out of Amish country after eight or ten miles – and saw no more farms this day. Though the morning was lovely, I was in a rather grumpy mood. The riding was pretty enough – the woods and small towns I was passing through were quite reminiscent of New England – but I was brooding on the likely effects of the heavy rains and cold weather expected tomorrow on my hopes to complete this journey next Friday.
Yesterday, I had cooked up a detailed plan that could enable me to do so, but only if I don’t lose any days to rest, rain or other problems. After five weeks on the road, home, hearth and the company of my lady love beckon.
By mile 28, when I saw Josh by the side of the road, I had a solution: we would cancel our hotel reservations for tonight in Mentor, and push on a further 25 miles. That way, with even a partial day tomorrow I should be able to keep to my hoped-for schedule. I pulled over and asked Josh to cancel the existing reservations and make new ones farther down the road.
As I knew from the topographical map of the day’s original route, the toughest part of the day would be miles 45-65, which would take me across a couple of ridges of hills equidistant between Cleveland and Akron. Those were to be real, New England -style hills – i.e., shorter and much steeper than the mountains I had climbed out west. Shorter and steeper is generally harder than long, gentle inclines; riding up steep hills is like lifting a few very heavy weights instead of many light ones.
The hills turned out to be very pretty – and clearly a major route for local cyclists: I saw a sign indicating highway cleanup sponsorship of the road by the Akron Cycling Club; the next such sign indicated a similar sponsorship by Century Cycling. Two cycling clubs in a row! These were the first two such sponsorships by riding clubs that I have seen on the journey.
Other signs of cultural shifts:
I saw a lot more German cars today than I have been seeing – dozens, vs. one or two a day. Over the last few weeks I have also seen an amazing number of Chrysler Town & Countrys; the sag wagon is one, so I have my eye out for them, but I am also 100% certain that they are much more popular in the Midwest than on the East Coast.
I have been consciously refraining from making any political comments in these accounts of my adventure, but in the interest of accurate reporting I must make a couple of observations:
Today I saw my first Obama 2012 sticker. I have not noticed any current political bumper stickers. None.
That said, during this trip I have probably seen two hundred Trump lawn signs – a trail of them stretching from Oklahoma to Ohio. I have seen none for Hillary or Bernie – not a single one. Based on this radically unscientific survey the rural/exurban vote for Trump will be unbelievably lopsided.
Shortly after the hills, I passed through some absolutely lovely towns – and by a couple of gated private estates that would have looked right at home in back country Greenwich.
My mood was now much improved – I liked the new plan, I was happy that the hills hadn’t been as hard as I had expected and I knew that the rest of the day’s ride would be due north and downhill to Lake Erie (in Mentor) then NE and flat along the lake to wherever Josh had found us new reservations. The day was becoming brighter – but not warmer – too.
The rest of the ride went more or less as expected. I met Josh for lunch at mile 75, shortly after turning north and toward Lake Erie. The suburbs I found myself riding through as I headed north were quiet, but Mentor and its neighbor to the NE, the (from my perspective on the bike) all-too-aptly named Painesville, were quite congested. By the time I had escaped Painesville’s traffic, all that was left of the day was a wind-aided, fast, flat finish.
I am still hopeful about making at least some progress tomorrow.
Day 34 – 5/14/16
Geneva-on-the-Lake, OH – Dunkirk, NY
Weather: Clearing; temperatures falling (!) from 55 degrees to 42; strong winds from the west.
Distance: 99 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 2,827/To Go +/- 542)
Feet of Climb: 2,162/Descent: 2,263
Rolling Time: 5:12:02
Home is a magnet; the closer I get, the stronger the pull. While sitting in my hotel room early this morning I revised my plans yet again. I realized that if, in spite of the fact that it was pouring, I could do a hundred miles today, I should be able to get to Old Lyme on Thursday. The rain was forecasted to go intermittent after 10 AM, and maybe stop completely at noon, so I decided to go for it.
Today’s ride was delightful.
I rolled out of Geneva-on-the-Lake at around 10:00 AM, heading ENE on Route 321. The weather decided to be kind: the rain had simply stopped, never to resume during the day, and the winds from the west were just picking up; they would give me assists all day long.
I was happy to leave. The motel where Josh and I stayed last night has paper-thin walls; I had been awakened at 2:00 AM, and kept up for an hour by noise from an adjoining room. In addition, I had found the downtown area not to my taste. The town has a Coney Island or Asbury Park boardwalk -feel; when Josh and I arrived last night we were told that there was only one good restaurant, but eighteen bars. We did have great dinners and breakfasts at the lone restaurant, Crosswinds Grille, though, so maybe if I had gotten a good night’s sleep I would have been more generous in my early morning assessment of the town.
That said, the moment I hit the road I got a very different impression of Geneva-on-the-Lake. A short distance from the motel, I was presented with a lovely sight: to my left was Lake Erie, sometimes, but not always, with a home or two between the water and the road; to my right, well-kept homes. It was beautiful.
I was in Ohio until about mile 25, then traversed the tiny northwestern corner of Pennsylvania until about mile 70, then in New York. All day long I followed the coastline; all day long I felt gusts of wind at my back, pushing me along.
The 99 miles of coastline that I followed seems to consist of four kinds of areas, listed below in the order of geographic predominance:
1) beautiful coastal resort communities with nice homes and hotels along the water – these were to be found all along the coastline,
2) on both sides of the Pennsylvania/New York border, twenty or thirty miles of vineyards, mostly on my right hand side – away from the water – but sometimes, as below, running between the road (Route 5, at that point) and the water,
3) a few shrunken and slightly depressing towns that were once major centers of industry or commerce, like downtown Ashtabula, OH and Erie, PA, and
4) a few truly rural-looking wooded areas.
For the whole of the ride, on my left I would catch more than occasional glimpses of the ocean-like lake. Generally, it was behind a house or two, some vines or maybe some trees, but it was still a constant and inspiring presence.
Also, other than as I passed through Erie, there was next to no traffic, so the riding was perfectly safe. It would’ve been serene, but the wind was too gusty for that. Also, it was an unusual experience for me to have to stop at the van a couple of times to add layers of clothing because the temperature was dropping. I didn’t mind the chill at all, though: I was counting my blessings that the threatened showers never came.
When I stopped at the van for a sandwich just before the NY border, Josh told me that he had gotten a call from the ladies who run the motel where we stayed last night. They had noticed that he had left some shorts in his room, and wanted to learn where to send them. He had actually left the shorts intentionally, intending to discard them, but appreciated their diligence and kindness in tracking him down.
We chatted briefly about the small kindnesses that many people have extended to us just since he joined me on Monday. The free burritos in Watseka, a free drink in Peru, lots of suggestions about accommodations/restaurants/directions and now this call. Nobody has been intentionally unkind.
If my luck holds, five more rides will get me home on Thursday.
Day 35 – 5/15/16
Dunkirk, NY – Canandaigua, NY
Weather: Cloudy; snow showers; temperature hovered around 39 degrees; winds from the west.
Distance: 120 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 2,947/To Go +/-422)
Feet of Climb: 5,108/Descent: 4,862
Rolling Time: 7:05:45
It was cold this morning when I went out to the van – 37 degrees with a strong wind blowing off the lake – so I put on a cap, my heaviest riding jacket and winter gloves. I didn’t want to start off cold on a day when I was to cover 120 miles. Should’ve switched to neoprene socks, too, because the day never really warmed up, and my toes hurt from the cold for hours.
When I set off, Josh snapped this picture:
The first fifteen miles were much like the last forty or fifty miles yesterday: I was following the southern shore of Lake Erie in an ENE direction. Once again, I passed by vineyards and lots of pretty homes on the water.
Once I turned onto Route 20 – on which I was to spend most of today and will spend most of tomorrow – heading ENE and away from the shoreline, I entered Seneca tribal lands, which featured a string of tax-free tobacco shops on the highway; only woods stood behind the shops, and nothing beside them.
The tribal lands didn’t last long, though; I soon found myself skirting the outer edge of Buffalo. For something like 20 miles, Route 20 is a great big outer-ring service road, with the usual panoply of malls, car dealerships, etc. The mildly depressing monotony of slightly worn-looking service establishments was ultimately broken – if only temporarily – by the appearance of the Buffalo Bills’ stadium. While I was pedaling past it, Josh went right in and had fun looking around.
Shortly after stopping to refill my bottle – and bemoan the route’s temporary character in conversation with Josh – at about mile 40, I turned due east and away from Buffalo’s suburbs. It only took about five miles for me to feel that I had escaped the city’s shadow and was back in the countryside.
In all candor, though, the countryside just east of Buffalo is also a little depressing. For the next thirty miles or so, to my eyes it looked as if the farms I was seeing were both small and struggling, and I saw little else in the way of economic activity.
As I rode through this hilly, rather down-beat countryside, it began to snow – but lightly, and the flakes didn’t stick. I didn’t mind the snow much; I thought it a little bit funny. It stopped after a while, and hadn’t really meant a thing, but I was still as cold as I had been before the snowfall began.
When I stopped at the van again for a sandwich at about mile 72, Josh told me that he had gone to take a look at Attica Prison – three or four miles from my route – and had a conversation about the prison with a local guy at the store where he had bought me a sandwich. The prison provides jobs for hundreds of people; given what little else I saw in the way of farming or other business in the region, I’m guessing that it is by far the biggest contributor to the local economy.
Western New York and the Finger Lakes region are quite hilly; the real story of the 5,000 + feet of climbing I did today – which rivals the biggest climbing days I had out west – is that it was down/up, down/up, down/up from when I turned eastward and away from Buffalo. Some of the hills are pretty steep, too. If I hadn’t had a tail wind, 120 miles would have taken me a long, long time, and been much more exhausting than they were.
Not long after lunch, the countryside began to open up again in the sense that I started seeing larger, flatter, more commercially-viable farms again. It was a relief to see well-tended fields and well-maintained homes.
Passing into the town of Avon from the west, my first impression was that it was dying – I saw decrepit old homes. When I got to the center of town, though, I saw one of the most impressive civil war monuments I have seen (pictured below) in the middle of a well-tended green; and the neighborhood that followed the green featured a long row of beautifully maintained Victorian homes,
The next couple of towns – Lima and Bloomfield – also had town squares and spectacular, well-maintained nineteenth century homes, as well as mobile home estates. The region I was entering – the Finger Lakes – has viable farms and keeps echoes of the gentility of an earlier era of prosperity in the form of beautiful old buildings.
For the last ten miles of the ride, it again started snowing, but much harder this time. By now, I was tired so I found the pelting of my face by a mixture of snow and hale, as well as the newly-damp and slightly slippery roads, less amusing than I had in the morning. Oh, well: it was a small price to pay for making another big step toward home.
Josh and I are staying in a nice old mansion, converted into an inn, in the town of Canandaigua. At first I was put off by the fact that this was the only available accommodation, but I was wrong. In no modern hotel (in this region, at least) would I find the kind of charming and quiet sitting room in which I am typing these words. Outside, the snow/hale/sleet has stopped and the sun is shining down on trees that are showing off their freshest greens.
It’s a nice place to sit.
Day 36 – Rematch – 5/16/16
Canandaigua, NY – Hamilton, NY
Weather: Sunny; temperature rising from 41 degrees to 66; winds from the west.
Distance: 100 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 3,047 Miles/To Go: +/- 260)
Feet of Climb: 7,421/Descent: 7,067
Rolling Time: 6:24:24
Because the B&B where we were staying wouldn’t serve breakfast until long after I wanted to be rolling, Josh and I met at 6:30 AM to go to a nearby Dennys. On the way, I saw a Starbucks – the first I had seen in a long, long time. A comment I made about seeing the familiar store again reminded us both of a conversation that we had had with the nice-looking young waitress who served us while we ate at the bar at the Crosswinds Grille in Geneva-on-the-Lake.
She told us that she had grown up there, then moved to southern California for several years before returning home. When she had first gotten back, she had told the friend with whom she was staying that they should go out to Starbucks for a cup of coffee. Her friend had responded that that was a nice idea, but the nearest one was 40 miles away.
Today was always going to be a special day for me. The ride would take me across the top of the Finger Lakes, mostly on Route 20, from Canandaigua to Hamilton. I had ridden that route before: fourteen years ago, it was the setting of the most painful athletic experience I have ever had. The ride over this same territory then resulted in an epic “bonk” on my part – one from which it took many days to recover.
The reason that I was badly beaten by that memorable ride in 2002 is that the area between Skaneateles, NY and Cazenovia, NY (roughly miles 50-81 of today’s ride) has some truly monstrous hills. Not only would today’s ride have more climbing in the aggregate than any other ride on this transcontinental journey, but – more important – the climbs are much, much steeper than the roads on our western mountains.
I faced a series of long climbs at 11% grades. On a hot day in 2002, they ultimately caused me to collapse onto the lawn of a nice lady in Cazenovia (at the end of the hard part, though I didn’t know that at the time); she offered me a cold drink and the chance to cool off on her porch. Thereafter, I was a dishrag for three or four days.
I am not what you would call a natural climber. Oh, sure, I can spin my way up a long, modestly steep incline, or muscle my way over a short, sharp one. But when it comes to long, steep hills, the physics are against me. It’s the physics, I say, the physics.
I should describe the area I rode through today.
It has been aptly, if painfully, written that upstate New York is in the process of turning into ‘Detroit, with grass’. The area has been losing people, businesses and farms for fifty years. Much of it – like the area near Buffalo that I described yesterday and, I expect, the areas that Ken and I (see below) will ride through tomorrow – has the feeling of a land that time has cruelly passed by.
But not the area I rode through today. Quite the opposite, in fact.
From Canandaigua through Cazenovia, upstate New York is enchanting. This is the Finger Lakes region – an area that has been a high-end resort for 150 years. Was it more popular before airlines made travel farther afield convenient for denizens of New York City? Yes, of course, but the lakes and countryside are still just as stunning, the grand old architecture immaculately maintained and the towns still beautiful. If you have never seen Skaneateles, go there if you can. The lake is pictured below; the town is very nearly perfect.
The other thing that is wonderful about the area is that between the Finger Lakes towns are happy-looking farms, like the one below:
So I guess the formula that has kept the Finger Lakes region pristine is: have better soil, enchanting lakes and incredibly quaint – and vibrant – resort towns.
Watch out for the hills if you bring a bike, though.
There’s a way to pace yourself to go up long, steep hills. You put your bike into its easiest gear, and try to turn the cranks quickly enough so that you’re making forward progress at a minimum of four mph. Any slower and, in my experience, you’ll fall over sideways.
I won’t make a mystery of it: today I made it over the hills just fine. I did stop at the bottom of one of the big hills to take a picture of my Garmin; when following pre-planned routes that have been loaded into the device, it will tell you the pitch of the upcoming roadway. This is what it looked like (the dark area is the ground, naturally):
I should add that the degree of the pitch is overstated in the Garmin’s scaling – but, still, you get the idea.
So how was I able to do with comparative ease at the age of 58 the same thing that caused an assuredly much stronger me of 44 to bonk terribly? It was simple:
Cool air, a nice tailwind and a 3,000 mile warmup.
P.S. To my great delight, my friend Ken – who once wisely observed to me that the America that we see from our bikes bears little resemblance to the angry, divisive place described in the media – will be joining me for the last three days of this journey.
Ken will be great company and a great help; to tell you the truth, though, I’m almost happy that he didn’t come yesterday: he’s a much better climber than I am, and I’m not sure that I would have felt quite as triumphant about conquering the hills today if he had been effortlessly going on ahead.
Day 37 – 5/17/16
Hamilton, NY – Windham, NY
Weather: Mixed clouds and sun; a shower; temperature rose from 50 degrees to 66, then fell back; light winds from the NW.
Distance: 98.5 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 3,146 Miles/To Go +/- 161)
Feet of Climb: 5,695/Descent: 5,183
Rolling Time: 5:48:14
Ken arrived last night. It was a joy to see him again. His first words to me were: “Welcome home”, which didn’t seem out of place though we were a few days’ rides from our homes. Home does seem close.
This morning, another friend – Rob – drove from his home in Cazenovia to have breakfast with Ken, Josh and me. Rob, whom I first met through business, is more or less the same age as I am; like Ken and me, he is an avid cyclist.
Over breakfast, Rob told us about his experiences while crossing the country on his bicycle, solo, as a seventeen year-old nearly forty years ago. Though he rode with panniers and slept in churches and barns, our adventures were a real bond. Unfortunately, he was too busy with work to join us for the day’s ride.
Ken and I set out at about 9:00 AM.
Before I go any further, I want to expand on the meaning of that first sentence.
In an important respect about which I have not yet commented, this journey has been radically different from roughly 95% of the bicycle rides that I have taken over the last thirty years: other than the three partial rides with Larry, I have been alone. And Larry, while a terrific athlete and great company is not the kind of experienced cyclist who rides interactively with others. Thus none of my riding on this trip, prior to today, has been with another rider who was comfortable drafting off me, and vice versa.
Non-cyclists often do not understand that among experienced cyclists riding is profoundly interactive in ways that other endurance sports – like running or swimming – are not. Because the drafting effect makes it much easier for the following rider, a weaker rider may ride with a stronger one, or an equally strong rider may take a rest after having done the work of leading for a while. Drafting is a great equalizer.
When friends ride together, the rhythms of drafting create an amazing degree of intimacy. I know exactly when you’re tired, or when you’re feeling great, and you know those things about me – because in both cases, the rider who’s feeling strong wants to lead. Indeed, there is a subtle competitiveness about even the most co-operative ride: it’s just that the competition is over who has bragging rights (not that you would actually boast) over having done most of the work.
The equal and opposite consideration – among friends – is that the rider who feels great, and therefore leads, has a moral obligation not to push so hard as to drop the person who isn’t feeling as strong. It’s a subtle dance – but one that ultimately allows both riders to go faster, and have more fun, than they could have done or had on their own.
The interactivity of drafting – the amazing coincidence of mutual reliance and competitiveness – helps form deep bonds of friendship among those who ride together. If you have helped me finish a bad day with dignity, I’ll never forget it, just as I’ll remember that day when our dueling brought out the best in us.
In addition to being friends, Ken and I are both highly experienced cyclists; not only that, we have ridden many thousands of miles together, so we already knew each other’s rhythms. Consequently, riding with Ken was always going to be a very different, faster and more sociable (riders often talk on long rides) experience than the ones that I had been having on this journey.
Since riding interactively with friends, versus pensively alone, is something I associate with being home, Ken’s greeting to me last night seemed perfectly appropriate.
The route led us south out of Hamilton. For six or eight miles, we rolled over flattish countryside and by pleasant-looking farms. Because we were sharing the work of leading, we were keeping a pretty fair clip.
At about mile ten we ran into the first of three ridges that slowed our tempos considerably and changed the uses of the land around us. Over the next 25 miles, we worked our way into a poorer section of countryside, one where the hilltop vistas were splendid but most of the barns and some of the old houses no longer had windows.
It was wonderful riding – nice roads, few cars and grand views – but I didn’t want to think too hard about the lives of many of those who lived there. There were some nice homes among those that were decrepit; I couldn’t help but wonder how their occupants make a living.
As we passed through a tiny town at about mile 40, there was a brief shower. The air was warm, though, and neither Ken nor I was uncomfortable.
Perhaps ten miles later we circumnavigated Oneonta, where there is a large SUNY campus, and, consequently, a more robust local economy.
After Oneonta, Route 23 – which we would follow for the rest of the day – went through a few hardscrabble towns surrounded by natural beauty. The riding was comfortable – the road had light traffic and a broad shoulder. The natural beauty was provided by the surrounding hills and forests.
Today was certainly the most fully forested ride that I have encountered on this journey. From the ridges south of Hamilton to our hotel in Windham, on the edge of the Catskills, we saw nearly limitless numbers of trees. To our surprise, the leaves are not yet out on about half of the deciduous trees around here; I guess the elevation and the steep hillsides delay spring by weeks, as compared with lower, flatter lands.
We had lunch with Josh at a little restaurant at mile 72. While eating, we discussed the benefits of drafting with Josh, who had wondered why we seemed to be keeping up a good clip in the hills without too much apparent pain. I didn’t mention that we also had a bit of a tail wind: when the flags are flapping, but you feel no wind, it’s because the wind is your friend.
The restaurant where we ate proved to be one mile shy of the high elevation point of the ride – and as we crossed the pass, we entered a much prettier section of Route 23. The road heads due east there, between two rows of big, forested hills (small mountains?); in the valley between the hills are happier towns – Stamford and Prattsville – and viable-looking small farms. This is a more prosperous area, bordering the Catskill State Park. We also saw sights like this waterfall:
It was a nice way to end the ride.
Two more days!
P.S. Since Thursday will be the last day of this journey across the country, I thought I would take a minute to remind you about the not-for-profit that I am raising money for.
CCAP is teaching kids how to ride properly and organizing cycling teams at schools throughout Connecticut and events at which children can compete. In short, it is acting as the sport’s desperately needed organizing body – and has been recognized by USA Cycling as the most innovative and effective local group doing so in the country.
There are lots of young people who might not feel that they fit into the big, well-organized school teams who would love the combination of freedom, competitiveness and team spirit that they can get from being on a cycling team. They can learn healthy habits through organized, fun exercise, too. And if they can also come to see even a tiny fraction of the beauty that I have seen on this journey, their lives will be much richer for it.
For those who have already contributed to CCAP, thank you. For others who haven’t, but have been enjoying these posts, please consider doing so, here: http://ctcyclingadvancement.donorpages.com/MarksRide/.
We have already raised $41,000 for CCAP through this journey. It takes about $10,000 to set up a school team, after which they are self-funding. Wouldn’t it be nice if by the time I reach my home in Old Lyme, we’ve added an amount that would enable CCAP to start another team or two, making it five or six more?
P.P.S.: I’ve seen a lot of odd place and road names on this trip, but this one takes the cake:
Day 38 – 5/18/16
Windham, NY – Torrington, CT
Weather: Sunny; temperature rising from 48 degrees to 72; negligible winds.
Distance: 81.6 Miles
(Distance Thus Far: 3,228/To Go +/- 70)
Feet of Climb: 5,420/Descent: 6,316)
Rolling Time: 5:12:58
I am on the edge of the end of my journey across the country.
Today’s ride took us from a place with which I had been unfamiliar – Windham, on the northern edge of the Catskills – through counties and past places that I know. Tomorrow’s ride will take Ken and me on roads that both of us have ridden innumerable times, and to a place – my home in Old Lyme – that I love.
After a five mile climb out of Windham that was less steep than we expected, Ken and I stood on the precipice of a different world. Behind us were the Catskills, in front, the Hudson River Valley. The transition from one to the other was a twenty mile, 2,000 foot descent. As previously mentioned, I have become a cautious descender, so we took it easy on the way down.
At the end of the descent, we crossed the Hudson on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge; it is a bigger, longer, higher and more impressive bridge than the one on which Dan and I had crossed the Mississippi. On the eastern side, we found ourselves in Columbia County – a beautiful, rural place that is at the end of the string of places that I had previously explored on my bike. It has quiet roads and jewel-like small farms; many well-to-do New Yorkers have second homes there.
At the lower elevation, Ken and I noticed that the leaves on the trees are freshly out. The forests that we rode through consisted mostly of leafy trees rather than evergreens – and the colors of springtime’s yellow-greens were enchanting in the day’s bright sunshine. I snapped this picture to try to capture the colors:
When I left on this journey I feared that I might miss the northeastern springtime’s timeless, but all-too evanescent, beauty; I can’t tell you how happy I am that that didn’t happen.
We climbed some steep hills coming up and away from the river. My first stab of direct memory was in crossing New York’s Route 22 in Millerton; more than 20 years ago a friend named Jack – my first regular cycling companion – and I were dropped off just north of there by the au pair who helped with Jack’s children, and we did a fast and fun, sub-five-hour century heading due south. Today Ken and I were heading ESE – at a considerably more contemplative pace – past a spot where Jack and I had hammered.
We crossed into Connecticut in Lakeville – a place that I know well because two of my children went to school there. Lakeville – and much of Litchfield County – are near-perfect cycling country. The roads are in good shape, the traffic very light and the vistas lovely – especially in springtime. You have to like hills, though.
Ken and I rolled up and down and down and up for a couple of hours. Coming into Goshen, we had to climb a very steep, two mile hill – payback for our (much longer) descent out of the Catskills, I suppose. One thing that cycling teaches is that sooner or later, you pay for every descent with a climb.
In and after Goshen, though I hadn’t previously been familiar with the particular roads on which we were riding, the topography, home styles, Congregational churches, town centers and surrounding woods were unmistakably kin to the ones on the roads on which I have ridden thousands of miles. In a cultural if not a literal sense, I was already at my journey’s end.
With a 70 mile ride tomorrow, I will reach Old Lyme, the comforts of home and – by far most important – my Beloved Spouse and a handful of other members of my family. Some close friends will be there, too.
I will not write the final post about this journey tomorrow. At best, I might post a picture or two, but I will be too busy to do more. I will also almost certainly not write a wrap-up post on Friday, as I have other responsibilities that will occupy my time.
I will be anxious to write a final post on the journey, though – in my haste to get out simple notes every day I have failed to make some observations about the experiences I’ve had exploring our wonderful country from atop a bicycle that you might find interesting, and that I will want to remember clearly in twenty or thirty years. I’ll hope to capture those observations and memories this weekend, while they’re still fresh.
Day 39 – Overview Notes/Final Ride – 5/19/16
I had a couple of hours before setting out this morning, so I jotted down some background notes that you may or may not find interesting:
From the start, my approach to pacing myself on the bike was to try to set a tempo that was comfortable – no sprints, no huge efforts, steady as she goes. To the extent possible, I ignored my Garmin’s speed-recording features; my sense was that if I focused on the numbers, I would inevitably try to raise my average speeds (with a little more effort, I can get my average up to X!), and that focus would just as inevitably lead to exhaustion. The key was to let my body – and the weather and road conditions – set the pace rather than allow an arbitrary number to do so.
On the flip side, I was never tempted to dilly-dally because I knew that covering roughly 100 miles a day would take something like 6 hours of sitting on the saddle – which would begin to seriously hurt my back and underside even if my energy output was low; going slowly would only make that long-day soreness worse.
I did my best to simplify my activities to five: 1) riding, 2) preparing to ride/cleaning up afterward, 3) writing a post/responding to emails/communicating with my Beloved Spouse, 4) eating and 5) resting.
In order to be in able to focus only on those five activities, I needed a lot of help. Every day a route needed to be planned. The chosen roads had to lead in the right general direction and bring me to a place where there was a hotel room – and from which there would be logical places to go on the following days. Often when we were out west, because the roads and towns were so widely separated, one day’s route would look fine, but would essentially be a dead end because it didn’t lead to logical following routes. The routes also had to be on roads that could be ridden legally and safely, and the distances had to work with the weather, topography and my relative level of exhaustion.
The routes were almost entirely the work of Dan and Josh. They would consult various bits of technology, come up with a plan for the next day, then run it by me at dinner time. Built into in those plans were also places where lunch might be found, and hotel rooms where we would end up. Occasionally I would know something that called for a change in plans, but usually not. By delegating the planning complexities, I saved myself a lot of work daily – figuring out one possibility, rejecting it, moving on to another, etc.
Dan and Josh were also responsible for making sure that the sag wagon had whatever kinds of nourishment I might need, helping me on the rare occasions when I had mechanical issues and checking in with me roughly every 45 minutes on the road to make sure I was fine. They would also find decent places for us to have dinner (most of the hotels where we stayed didn’t have restaurants).
By relieving me of all of these responsibilities and carrying the considerable weight of my clothing and extra bike gear in the van, Dan and Josh made my job vastly simpler, thereby giving me the time and energy to ride, write and take care of myself. Their company was also invaluable – without them, the journey’s occasional loneliness would have been endless.
Bottom line: if I hadn’t listened to my Beloved Spouse in the matter of having a sag driver, the crossing would have been much, much harder and taken days or weeks longer.
I didn’t end up eating or drinking as much as I had expected. Food and drink become unappetizing when you’ve consumed amounts that are beyond your stomach’s comfort zone – even if you’re burning more calories than you’re consuming. I tried to eat more than I did – I just couldn’t force it down, so I often left portions of meals I had ordered uneaten. Consequently, I lost some weight. (I’m not worried about it, though: I’m sure I’ll find it again).
Kidding aside, losing weight was in no way a goal of mine – just as getting fit wasn’t one. I have read enough about nutrition – and lived long enough – to know that I will quickly put weight back on until I’m back to my accustomed body shape. And get fit for what? I wanted to be healthy enough to complete this journey, but I have no interest in becoming a bike racer; this adventure was the goal, not a means to achieve some other end.
The Beauty of Not Knowing:
With the exceptions of Route 20 from Canandaigua to Hamilton and increasingly lengthy segments of the last two days’ rides, I started each day in ignorance.
I didn’t know what the roads would be like: would they have shoulders? Would the surfaces be well maintained? Would the traffic be light or heavy, trucks or cars, fast-moving or slow? Would the roads be open to cyclists, or, at the limit, even exist?
Would the vistas be pretty? Would the hills be sharp (I had some information about this from the topographical maps, but given the scales of those maps, they were often misleading)?
Would the weather be as predicted? Would I be caught in “scattered” thunderstorms? Would the winds veer from their expected directions? Would gusts shove me aside?
Would the restaurants where we expected to get food be open? (On something like 30% of the days, they were not!). Would the hotels be disgusting?
Would Dan or Josh be where I expected them to be when I expected to see them? Had I taken adequate provisions on the bike and my person? If I needed help, would my cellphone, and Dan’s or Josh’s, have signals?
Would I see other cyclists en route? Meet people? What would be the towns be like?
Though I sometimes thought I knew the answers to these questions, I quickly learned that my assumptions were often wrong. The first dramatic lesson along these lines was on Day 2, when some of the roads I expected to follow did not exist – and there was no rideable road to where I needed to go.
When you are faced with such a situation, you have a choice: abandon, call for help or figure out how to get through or around the problem. I came to take a relaxed, philosophical approach to such matters that I might not have been capable of when I was a younger, more harried man.
With one exception (Day 5, when I found myself taking stupid risks), I even took a certain grim satisfaction in carrying on in physically uncomfortable situations. My sense of mission carried me through them. Actually, I had two missions: to see what I could, and to get home sooner rather than later. These missions were the yin and yang of the journey, balancing each other finely.
I came to enjoy the journey’s uncertainties. Nearly every day, I came across something completely unexpected. Not always good, to be sure, but interesting. One of the major points of undertaking this journey was to get out of the bubble – out of the comfort zone in which I have so long resided. I wanted to see new places, meet other people and have different experiences.
There is a beauty in knowing that you don’t know what to expect. Surrendering the false sense of control that we have over our personal environments is an empowering act because it means that you have to be ever so much more aware of, and willing to make decisions about, moment-to-moment uncertainties.
As I hope you would have guessed, I have had it on my person all the way from Kansas; it will rest in a place of honor.
Addendum: Final Ride Details
Torrington, CT – Old Lyme, CT
Weather: Clouds Turning to Sun; Temperature Rising from 55 degrees to 65; negligible winds.
Distance: 65.6 Miles
Total Distance Traveled: 3,294: To Go: 0
Feet of Climb: 3,392/Descent: 3,953
Rolling Time: 3:56:28
The last ride of this adventure took place in two parts: Ken and I rode a hilly, 35 mile route from Torrington to Middletown; the first half of that was suburban and lovely, the second half mostly on more commercial streets.
In Middletown we were joined by seven friends including Aidan – CCAP’s founder – and Dave – its Executive Director. The last 30 miles were fast, fun and on familiar ground.
Josh, Ken, our CCAP friends and I were greeted on arrival by my family and our friends. Dan joined us for the celebration, too.
I’m glad – and lucky – to have had the chance to see so much of our amazing country. And to be home.
For those who missed it and are interested in the details, I gave the facts on, and briefly described, the last ride of my transcontinental journey in an addendum to the Day 39 post. This note will conclude my comments on the adventure.
Looking back on it all, I am most struck by the open-hearted friendliness of most of those whose paths we crossed.
Random strangers took an interest in our journey; they gave us advice on routes, thinking hard about which ones might work best for a cyclist; they also told us where to eat and, in one case, volunteered where I could get bug spray.
Once, when I made it clear that I needed more food than I was entitled to at a truckstop restaurant, but was happy to pay for more, the overnight cook/server with whom I had been speaking amiably – it was 5:30 AM, and he and I were alone in the restaurant – explained that he had to charge me $1.65 for my extra eggs, but he could throw in a big pile of homefries for free; I thanked him, of course. After a different conversation, a restaurant owner in Watseka would not let us pay for the breakfast-burritos-to-go that we had asked him to prepare for us because we would want breakfast earlier than we could get it in town. People wanted to help.
When the sag wagon was parked by the side of the road, ranchers and farmers would stop to ask Dan or Josh if they were lost; one, on hearing from Josh that he was waiting for me to pass by, and what I was about, asked sympathetically if I was right in the head.
Professional truck drivers, when they could do so safely, almost always swung wide so I wouldn’t be troubled by their drafts; I came to love the sound of their wheels on the mid-road rumble strips because it meant that the approaching driver was looking out for me.
And Sergeant John, who has served our country for 18 years – and counting – under sometimes terrible circumstances, found a way to let me through Fort Riley, saving me from an extra 30 miles. Then he gave me a great responsibility and unforgettable gift.
On the other side of the coin: a few drivers passed thoughtlessly close to me when there was no need for them to do so; but nobody was intentionally cruel to Dan, Josh or me about anything. Nobody.
In short, the America that we saw was full of considerate people.
It was also beautiful. And huge. And varied.
I am convinced that the speed, ease and comforts of modern modes of transportation have robbed us of a true sense of our land. If we think that by having flown over it or seen it on television or on our computer screens we have a sense of the majesty of this land, we are wrong.
Nothing teaches you what a steep hill or a huge mountain is, like having to get up and over it under your own steam. When rain chills you to the bone, or 106 miles of uninterrupted desert stretch out in front of you, or you cross the Continental Divide alone, surrounded by a quiet forest with delicious-tasting air, you experience the land in ways that no car or airplane – or passive entertainment – will ever give you.
One of the vignettes that I have gone back and added to the sequentially-ordered mega post about the ride is about a salesman in Santa Fe who, on hearing about my journey said astutely: “You would have to really like yourself to be willing to spend that much time alone.”
Fair enough. You might wonder what I was thinking about during all those hours on the road. A jumble of things, really:
1) I started each day not knowing what I would find. I wanted to see – and actually notice – as many details as I could. I saw much more than I could process. This place is huge.
2) In addition to taking in nature’s grandeur, I tried to understand the cultural/sociological/economic implications of what I was seeing. Most of what I saw of mankind wasn’t representative of the nation as a whole – the population of the areas I rode through was much whiter and the economy almost entirely agricultural. That said, ‘flyover country’ was awfully attractive. From my limited experience, it’s a friendly, hard-working, productive place, and often spectacularly pretty. Perhaps rather quiet, relative to what I’m used to.
3) Safety was always on my mind. Riding a bicycle is a dangerous enterprise; sometimes, as on Day 5, foolishly so. An inattentive driver, a missed calculation or even sand on the road can kill. I didn’t listen to radio; I tried to avoid watching my Garmin’s screen; I needed to listen for cars and trucks and watch the road ahead.
(A detail: I came to love the sound of wheels on the mid-road rumble strips; it meant that an oncoming vehicle was swinging wide to give me space).
4) I worried about directions, with cause.
5) I listened to my body and constantly made little adjustments to my perceived effort to keep my energy output at sustainable levels. I knew that if arbitrary speed or power numbers became an obsession, I would inevitably push myself too hard, redline and exhaust myself. I wasn’t only checking for the sustainability of my energy output level, though, I was also worrying over whether I was eating and drinking enough, trying to figure out when and where I would stop to pee and wondering about possible longer-term problems like neck soreness and saddle sores.
6) I was in mild discomfort of one kind or another with some regularity. I had expected that, of course. The discomforts – and occasional exhaustion – that I experienced were never unbearable, but they required monitoring. Small problems can become big ones.
I came to be emotionally removed from my discomforts. Only the long, cold rain on the way into Watseka really threw me. I did notice, though, and I’m sure Dan and Josh did too, that I got pretty grumpy when I was tired and hungry.
7) In addition to all of the above, random thoughts – and old music – coursed through my mind. I touched lightly on family, business and politics.
I had too much on my mind to allow room for deep thoughts. Maybe that was an unconscious part of my own agenda: to undertake a task so all-consuming as to divert my mind from its usual obsessions. Hard, complex physical labor can be mentally relaxing – especially to one who has spent most of his working life at a desk or in front of a screen.
Sometimes, you just want to ride.
I am well aware that being able to undertake this journey was a great privilege, and I am grateful for it.
My thanks go to Dan and Josh, who did their jobs more than conscientiously – they did them with genuine care and excitement.
And to Larry and Ken, who joined me for three days each, providing much-needed, and excellent, company.
And to all of you who read and commented on these posts or sent me encouraging emails; this support from old friends and strangers alike was inspiring.
But most of all, my thanks go to my Beloved Spouse, for putting up with all my training for this journey and supporting me through it in a thousand ways.
M.H. Johnston 5/21/16
P.S. David Hoyle and I were interviewed about CCAP and the ride on local CT TV the interviews can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KANCUC7YJEs .
P.P.S. I was interviewed separately on the local CBS affiliate about the ride here: http://www.wfsb.com/clip/12742845/riding-across-the-us.