TRIPS THAT CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE
One Guy, One Bicycle, One Cross-Country Tour
No matter where you live, you've likely thought about hitting the open road and seeing what else is out there. Ever consider doing it on a bike?
Two things happen when I drink Scotch with old friends: Believing I can speak Spanish, I attempt to do so at completely inappropriate times (such as to a Birmingham, Ala., policeman after hours of tailgating); and I say things I often end up regretting, like "I cried during the final episode of Friends." And so it was in 2005 that I found myself in a dimly lit sushi joint asking my confused waitress for a dessert menu--"¿Cuál está para el postre?"--and then blurting out to all within earshot, "I'm thinking of cycling cross-country. By myself."
Alcohol aside, the idea had appealed to me for as long as I could remember. And I'd just sold my tour company after 20 years of guiding bike trips in Europe, so I finally had the time to embark on the journey. But my declaration on that particular night in May meant that in order to take advantage of summer weather, I'd have six weeks to plan the trip. Not to mention train. I wasn't in great shape, but I was confident that I could ease my way into the tour, strengthening the requisite muscles en route.
I bought an armful of maps (detailing food, lodging, and bike repair shops) from Adventure Cycling Association, a nonprofit, bicycle-travel advocacy group, and pieced together a route that began in Seaside, Ore., and finished near Portland, Maine. While I had a rough idea of my trip's pace--70 to 80 miles per day for roughly two months--
I wasn't locked in to any kind of schedule, having purchased only the one-way plane ticket from Chicago to Portland, Ore. If I became tired, I'd rest; if I got hungry and could find a store, I'd eat. (Noting the scarcity of facilities along certain stretches of road, I did pack a jar of peanut butter and a dozen energy bars.) Weather would be a factor, so I'd follow the forecasts closely. Other than that, I had no preconceived notions of who--or what--I'd encounter along the way. I simply looked forward to a grand adventure.
I arrived in Oregon with more than 200 pounds of gear. For those without experience in bike touring, there's one word for this: stupid. After a week of masochistic punishment, my thighs bulged to weight-lifter proportions, so I shipped 80 pounds of stuff home--including 17 pairs of underwear.
Two weeks into the ride, I celebrated my birthday outside The Dalles, Ore., near the Columbia River Gorge, a majestic canyon that carves through the Cascade Mountains. Temperatures that day peaked at 107 degrees, and it wasn't until I had cycled 80 miles that I found somewhere to sleep. As I paid for my room, the innkeeper, Pam, mentioned a wine-tasting dinner scheduled for later that evening. Nearly three dozen people were coming to the inn to sample cuts of grilled Washington beef that would be paired with the Northwest's finest vintages. "Count me in," I said, hardly believing my luck as I dragged my weary body upstairs for a nap.
It was at least 120 degrees in my third-floor room, and I nearly wept with joy when I saw an air conditioner in the window. I flipped its switch to high, and instantly the power went out. Pam came running up the stairs and knocked on my door: "I told you not to turn on the A/C! We've been having major circuit problems!"
"I didn't touch it," I lied, glancing down at my hand, which was now turning the knob silently to the off position. "I'm not sure what happened." (So that's what she was telling me as I filled out the registration card and daydreamed about milk shakes.) Pam hustled downstairs to find candles and flashlights, which she distributed to the other guests; the wine-tasting event was canceled. Sheepishly, I walked to a nearby gas station and shopped for dinner--a can of Beefaroni, which I ate while standing in the parking lot. Happy birthday to me.
I quickly fell into a routine, waking up sometime between 6:30 A.M. and 8:00 A.M. Breakfast was simple, usually no more than a banana or energy bar bought the night before. I was sometimes tempted to linger near the motel's continental breakfast spread, especially when it offered waffles. But more often than not, 90 minutes after opening my eyes, I was packed and on the road.
Not long into the trip, two things started to stand out: the endless roadside traffic-death memorials, and the many FOR SALE signs scattered among front yards, storefronts, and farms. Although the memorials made me shiver--I tried not to dwell on the risks inherent in a solo bicycle trip--it was the FOR SALE signs that I found most depressing. Anyone who watches the news knows that today's economy is tough on family farmers and small-town shopkeepers. But you tend to forget that sometimes when you live in a city where lots of people with BlackBerrys permanently attached to their palms order $5 cups of coffee without batting an eye.