Brian’s Cross-USA Bicycle Tour


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© 2001,

Brian's 2001 Cross USA Bicycle Tour - Summary

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Introduction, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Yellowstone, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania / New York, New England - End of Tour, Tour Reflections  


In the summer of 2001 I completed a 4000 mile bicycle tour across the United States. This was a solo tour without a support vehicle, carrying all of my gear on the bicycle. The tour began in Seattle and ended in Boston, using a route I pieced together from various sources: bicycle maps from Adventure Cycling’s cross country routes, web sites from commercial bicycle touring companies, state department of transportation bicycle maps, and conventional road maps.

Washington (photos)

In late June I flew from California to Seattle for the tour start. I met with some folks from the bicycle touring e-mail list to do a short warm-up ride, after which we did the rear wheel dipping ceremony to officially kick off the tour start.

I had originally planned to use mostly US 2 to get through Washington, but others convinced me that detouring north to Highway 20 as recommended by Adventure Cycling was the better choice. It was certainly much more scenic than my original plan, with forests instead of deserts, but a much more challenging ride with five mountain passes, each topping out at about 4000 to 5000 feet. Instead of setting a goal of “X” miles per day, the daily destinations were set based on climbing only one pass per day. Camping opportunities were plentiful – in state parks, or even county fairgrounds or city parks, where camping was allowed and even encouraged. I was blessed with good weather, although it did rain on me during the last day in the state.

This was a very popular section for self-contained touring cyclists. Tom and Dave from California are teachers who ride across a different state every summer. They got up too early for me to ride with them, but we still shared some campsites for a couple of days. There was also a couple from Vermont that was touring on their tandem bicycle. Although I never saw them, there were two guys rumored to be riding to New Jersey – later I got an e-mail from one of them confirming their existence. Finally, Keith would ride his road bike without any gear, while his wife Sharon had the car – she would explore the towns and take the gear to the hotel room.

Idaho (photos)

The ride went across the across the panhandle of Idaho. There was a really nasty seven mile stretch of US 2 that was torn up and muddy from the construction – I was able to ride through it only because there was an RV in front of me that wouldn’t go faster than 12 mph. (At the end of my tour, I spoke with a bike tourist that ended up getting a ride from a pickup truck to get around this section.) Later I found that the Adventure Cycling maps use the other side of the river, avoiding this stretch – if I only had the maps for this part!

I took a rest day in Sandpoint to do a bunch of things. I went to the bike shop to get a new set of pedals to replace the one that I had super glued together on the road after it had split. The bike shop also cleaned up my bike for me, which had looked like it went through a muddy mountain bike race. I also shipped eight pounds of extra gear back home that I decided that I didn’t need.

Montana (photos)

East of Sandpoint, the Adventure Cycling route continues to Glacier National Park in Montana. I instead headed southeast towards Missoula to eventually rejoin my original planned route thorough Yellowstone National Park. I saw no other touring cyclists on this section, although I did bump into a couple of local cyclists that were able to give me directions for the more scenic alternatives to the main road. At one of the campgrounds I also met Jerry, a professional photographer who was driving his van around the west to photograph old ghost towns. I would end up seeing him a couple other times while in Montana.

Missoula is the headquarters of the Adventure Cycling Association, the organization that researches and provides detailed maps for long distance bicycle touring routes. Therefore, it was no surprise that I saw many other cyclists at the local campground. Dave had taken my original planned route through Washington and Idaho, riding at a really fast pace of 90-100 miles per day. Geoff and Phyllis had met up from a magazine advertisement and were planning on heading east together. I took some time to visit the Adventure Cycling offices – I got to use their free internet connection, and they got a picture of me which they might put in a future issue of the monthly magazine.

After heading south through the Bitterroot Valley, the route once again went into the mountains. The passes in the Rocky Mountains are a lot higher than the ones in Washington, with the Lost Trail and Chief Joseph Passes topping out at around 7000 feet. On the other side of those passes (near the Big Hole battlefield) is a section of high plains.

While having breakfast in Wisdom one morning, I met John and Nancy from Cleveland, Ohio. They had crossed the USA by bicycle before and were in the middle of another crossing, this time from Oregon to Virginia. Although they would not be home by the time I made it through Cleveland, they gave me their daughter’s number and said I could call her if I needed a place to stay when I was passing through.

My weekend arrival at the campground in Alder meant that I got to experience the hospitality of a Montana barbecue. There were a lot of friendly “regulars” there, including a couple that drives up from Salmon, Idaho about every other weekend. The campground folks also cooked up a nice breakfast the next morning.

By now, loosening and occasional breakage of rear wheel spokes had become quite annoying. I had the rear wheel trued up in the town of West Yellowstone, just outside of Yellowstone National Park. The youth hostel in West Yellowstone seemed to attract cyclists who wanted a break from camping - I spoke with a German lady who had just spent ten days in Yellowstone and had been on the road since November. Earlier that day I spoke with a few people from a group of eight graduate students from Philadelphia who were doing an east to west crossing.

Yellowstone (photos)

Yellowstone National Park offered some of the best natural scenery on the tour. I took a few really low mileage days through the park so I could stop and see all of the sights.

I had an interesting conversation with a lady who was on a group tour. Although she got along well with everyone in the group, apparently the committee approach to every decision tends to get a little exhausting. After talking with her, I wasn't regretting my decision to do this tour alone.

Yellowstone seemed to have weather of its own. One day I had to wait out driving rain for two hours before setting up camp. Luckily there was a tarp hanging up over the picnic table, which I had shared a guy who had cycled from New Jersey with his two children, ages 10 and 14.

I ran into John and Nancy again at Old Faithful. We rode together for a couple of days until our routes parted ways.

I was still about a week behind my original schedule, partly due to my longer route through Washington and also because my daily mileage had been less than originally predicted. To make up some of the time I had decided to exit the park through the east, instead of continuing south through the Tetons.

Wyoming (photos)

There was a pass to crest at about 8500 feet when leaving Yellowstone through the east entrance, although it wasn't as difficult as it sounds, with most of Yellowstone being at around 7000 feet. This was followed by a gradual, but beautiful, descent down to a plateau at 4000 feet elevation. Being off the beaten path, I did not see many other cyclists, but I did meet someone riding from Denver to Jackson via Yellowstone.

The Big Horn mountains were the last, but toughest major climb of the whole trip, starting at 4000 feet and peaking around 9000 feet. Had I known that beforehand, I might have continued southeast with John and Nancy through Dubois, then heading east to avoid the Big Horns. While I was stopped to take a break on the uphill, a couple from Southern Illinois who had driven out for vacation had stopped to talk to me - they were rather impressed at my trip!

When I reached Sheridan, I made another shipment home, this time it was all of the cold weather gear that I didn't need for the rest of the trip. East of Sheridan was a lonely 120 mile stretch to Gillette with few services. It was lonely because it was bypassed by an interstate highway of the same length along a different route. Although it only took two days to ride this stretch, those two days felt like forever.

South Dakota (photos)

After ten days in Wyoming it was a welcome relief to cross another state line! Trees had finally appeared again as I neared the Black Hills.  One night I took a bus tour to see Mount Rushmore. The Black Hills were a popular biking area - for motorcycles, that is - but I think it's good for bicycling also. I stopped to talk to two westbound cyclists just outside of Hot Springs.

Although I had made up a few days by my Wyoming routing, I was still a little behind. Therefore I decided to head down to Nebraska instead of going northeast through Pierre, South Dakota.

Nebraska (photos)

Trees gradually gave way to the open prairie as I left the Black Hills and entered Nebraska. This coincided with a heat wave, with temperatures around 100 degrees. Luckily I was in the half of Nebraska where it was still a dry heat.

I was now in the part of the country where I would have to watch out for thunderstorms. Getting wet from the rain is not an issue, but getting hit by lightning is! Luckily the storms came in either early morning or late afternoon, making it easy to adjust my riding schedule accordingly.

Contrary to popular belief, Nebraska is not entirely flat – at least on the route I took.I passed through the desolate sand hills in the north central part of the state. The only services were spaced 30 miles apart – as a result I had my longest day of the trip – 95 miles – through this area.

There are lots of friendly people in the state who will talk with you forever if you let them. When I stopped for a drink in one town a lady came over from across the street and asked if I could talk to the kids at the vacation bible school across the street. I did, and there was an article in the local newspaper about it.

As the route flattened out in the eastern half of the state the cornfields began appearing. There weren't a lot of cornfields here, since irrigation is necessary to maintain them here.

Based on total mileage I was about halfway done with the tour - I had a "care package" waiting for me at the post office, with a new tire and other items.

Iowa (photos)

I crossed the Missouri River, entering Iowa at Sioux City, where this year's RAGBRAI bike ride across Iowa began. The local bike shop was very responsive with helping out with the mid-ride adjustments, including the rear wheel adjustments. Although I was in town a week too late to join the RAGBRAI ride, I downloaded the route for the first day's ride from Sioux City to Storm Lake off the internet.

The RAGBRAI route highlighted the large network of county roads, which are well marked on most maps, including AAA road maps. These "country blacktops" are mostly only used by farmers and locals, and the condition of the roads in the state is excellent for cycling. Since there are an almost infinite number of possible routes for crossing the state, I did not expect to see any other touring cyclists.

People were also friendly in Iowa. At the Storm Lake campground I spent most of my time talking with two couple that were campground regulars. There was even an Iowa potluck dinner for the campground host. Gary even cooked breakfast for me the next morning. Great food and great company! In one of the other towns I was asking around for a place to camp, and someone said I could go to their house and stay in their spare bedroom. Again, nice people.

Most of the riding through Iowa was past farms that had either corn or soybeans, or a combination of the two. Never have I seen so much of both in my lifetime!

A heat wave with temperatures in the high 90s came through – or was it always that hot and humid during the summer? I found the exposure to the sun to be worse than the heat, requiring me to put on sunscreen at least twice a day. There was shelter from the sun one day, however, when most of the day's ride was on the tree-shaded bike path from Waterloo to Cedar Rapids.

Illinois (photos)

Another river crossing – this time the Mississippi – and I was in Illinois. The farm roads weren't as well marked as Iowa's, so often times I had to use more of the main roads instead.

I took a couple of rest days off in the Chicago area to visit my wife and her family. After six broken spokes in the first half of the trip, I decided to get a whole new rear wheel rebuilt while I was there.

My Illinois bike maps seemed to work better for the part of the ride between Chicago and the Indiana border, in part because the rural roads in that part of the state were better labeled.

Indiana (photos)

Once I crossed the state line into Indiana, I felt like I had instantly entered the land of Hoosier hospitality. Just as I was leaving a restaurant near the state line, the owner drove up and we were talking. Not knowing that I was on my way out, she offered to buy me lunch, but she was too late. Also, one evening at a campsite I camped near three guys who had come down from South Bend to work a construction job – plenty of food and conversation there.

I rejoined the Adventure Cycling route soon thereafter. I had mixed feelings about using a “standard” route – the up side would be that it was an excellent route through the area, the down side would be that I’d be just another one of those bikes passing through. My suspicions were confirmed when the first words from one of the campground hosts were "west or east?" Although no ill will was intended, comments like that made my journey sound fairly trivial.

But the Adventure Cycling maps provided an excellent way through all of the little-traveled farm roads. Trying to explore them on my own would have been fruitless, since I wouldn’t know which ones would turn to dirt or even suddenly end. The route even went through a state forest and dam – hills and trees in Indiana, who would have thought it?

The best hospitality was had in Monroeville, not too far from the Ohio state line. They offered free overnight use of their recreation hall in the city park, complete with a kitchen, bathroom, laundry, and an air-conditioned place to lay my sleeping bag. Later I had found out that another cross country cyclist had ended her tour early about 20 miles away in Fort Wayne, within a day or so of my passing through.

Ohio (photos)

The first half of the route through Ohio followed rivers and creeks, which along with the accompanying trees made the cycling more interesting. >There were still cornfields on the way, although not as many as in Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. But you know you’re getting closer to the east when you start hearing less country music and more of other types of music in bars and restaurants.

I was quite fortunate to be reach northern Ohio on a weekend, so that Dan and Debbie (college friends) could make the drive down from southeast Michigan for a visit. Soon thereafter the route made it to the shore of Lake Erie. The sight of a large body of water made me feel as if I had made it to the ocean!

Riding along the Lake Erie shoreline meant that the route took me straight through Cleveland, the only major city I passed through on the tour. The shoreline riding through Cleveland actually wasn’t too bad, as most of the through traffic uses Interstate 90 instead. I stopped at NASA to visit Fred for lunch – I got a few looks from security when jumping through the hoops to get on the site! That night I stayed with John and Nancy, who I had met earlier in Montana. They live in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland about 250 feet from the Adventure Cycling route – much better than having to hunt for a hotel!

Pennsylvania / New York (photos: PA, NY)

The route went through the forty miles of Pennsylvania along the Lake Erie shoreline before entering New York. Surprisingly, the moderating effect of the lake provided a good growing climate for vineyards in this area.

Just on the other side of the New York state line was a private campground. At that point I called it quits for the day since it had started raining – the first rain I had seen in days. I was able to set up camp in the covered pavilion, using some of the picnic tables to prop up my tent (which isn’t freestanding). I didn’t know at that time that this would be the last night of camping on the tour. Being in the pavilion meant that I was automatically invited to the leftovers from the potluck dinner that some of the regulars put together – good hospitality on tour once again.

The route continued along the shore of Lake Erie until I got to the outer suburbs of Buffalo. At that point I had to make a decision: either stay on the Adventure Cycling route through Niagara Falls and through the Adirondacks, or take a more direct route to the end of my tour in Massachusetts. Choosing the former option would have been more scenic, but I would have had to cut it too close to my flight home. So I instead opted for the more direct, albeit less scenic, option.

The terrain changed once I headed away from Lake Erie, with steep climbs followed by all-too-short descents before having to climb yet another hill. Things flattened out a little bit when I got to the Finger Lakes region. Then the hardest rain that I had seen in weeks came through the area. Luckily, there was a good mini-mart with picnic tables outside to wait out the rain. While waiting a couple of hours for the rain to stop, I was talking with Miki from London who had started riding from Boston and was headed to Minneapolis.

After the Finger Lakes the route pretty much followed NY Highway 5, which was the flattest and most direct east-west route across upstate New York. Skirting the outer suburbs of Syracuse, I stopped to a talk with a couple from Middlebury, Vermont who were riding in the other direction for a bike tour of the Finger Lakes.

My bottom bracket had developed a crack in the cup where it attaches to the frame. To get the bottom bracket replaced I had to navigate my way through the city of Utica and find the only bike shop in town. Although they dealt with mostly used bikes and had very little in the way of new parts, they were able to MacGyver a replacement (although somewhat heavy) by cannibalizing parts from other bikes for sale in the shop.

For the entire tour I had never reserved any hotel rooms in advance – I would just look for a place to stay upon arriving in town. This did not work in Little Falls, as all of the hotels in town were booked for a retreat. Luckily, one of the hotels was able to find a bed and breakfast for me in Dolgeville, about eight miles away – but up a big hill! It’s a good thing I save a little extra energy at the end of the day for situations like these!

The next day as I was stopped to read my maps, two touring cyclists about my age caught up to me. Steve and Dwayne had just met each other earlier that day and had been riding together for a few hours before running into me. It seemed strange that all three of us had started our tours from Seattle and had taken completely different routes to all end up in the same place at the same time. They were headed to Maine and New Hampshire, respectively, while I was headed to Massachusetts. So we would end up riding together as far as we could.

Steve’s local knowledge of the area far north of Albany helped out quite a bit, as he knew it would be tough to find affordable accommodations with the race track season at Saratoga Springs well under way. Luckily, being able to split hotel rooms three ways helped out quite a bit.

New England – End of Tour (photos)

Crossing into Vermont brought on a feeling of excitement that I was about to finish the trip, yet also a feeling of sadness that the trip would be over. That feeling partly resulted in one really short 40 mile day, postponing the climb over the Green Mountains. After a few days of riding with Steve and Dwayne, I split off on my own after Keene, New Hampshire.

Most of the ride through Massachusetts was through familiar suburbia, even retracing some steps from a previous tour. I was planning to stay at the youth hostel in Littleton, but Jeff had flagged me down back in Acton to let me know I could stay at his place – an unexpected, welcome surprise near the end of the tour.

Ken joined me for the ride for the last few miles to some decent ocean north of Boston in Beverly, where we did the ceremonial front wheel dipping. 3959 miles in 70 days! I finished! Yippee!

Tour Reflections

I just wanted to reflect on a few items concerning my tour that seem to come up from time to time.

Many have asked why I chose to do my trip alone, instead of with a group. In short, I wanted the freedom to go at my own pace or stop anywhere that only traveling alone could provide – I have no regrets about the way I did it. Also, a solo traveler is more approachable by the locals compared to a group of cyclists.

Earlier in the tour I had spoken with someone who was part of a twelve person group that carried their own gear and traded off chores every night – I got the impression that she felt like she was “chained” to the group. In my opinion, that would be the worst case scenario for group touring – if I were to tour with a group I would prefer a really large group which had a support truck for carrying gear and offered more people to interact with. I think the best situation would be to tour with only one other person – this provides many of the advantages of traveling with others, while avoiding the group dynamic that would come about if there were any additional people.

I also got a lot of questions about the physical demands of the tour: how much training did I do beforehand, whether or not my butt hurt, etc. Actually, the tour was less physically demanding than most people would expect, although some days were tougher than others. I was not in the best of cycling shape before the tour (although still in pretty good shape), so I started off with shorter days in the beginning and worked my way up to higher mileage days. I think that almost anyone can do a trip like this, although a certain baseline level of cycling fitness is required so that you don’t get injured in the first couple of days.

The big surprise for me was that I was more mentally than physically tired near the end of the tour. Perhaps this was because I was somewhat pressed for time near the end – not so much that I needed to put in long days, but enough to preventing me from taking any days off. If I were on a longer tour I would have gone for a lower average daily mileage, taking more occasional days off.

There were also questions about safety concerns. There were two different concerns: safety while cycling on the roads, and more general concerns about traveling alone in strange places. These fears are generally overrated, although no activity is 100% safe. Bicycle riding on the roads is perceived to be much more dangerous than driving – in fact, the danger levels of those two activities are not that much different, even with varying levels of traffic. Also, the risk of crime in rural areas is fairly low.

Last, but not least, is the age old question, “so why did you do this tour?” If you have to ask that question, then no amount of explaining will convince you of the answer…