In mid-September I managed to get two days off in a row, a rare and wonderful thing when you work retail. I had spent a considerable amount of time in the saddle by this point and decided it was time for my first bike overnight – a two-day trip in which one loads down a bike with gear, rides out to a place, camps (or crashes in a hotel, if your pockets are deep), and rides back the next day. These jaunts are about as humble as it gets as far as bicycle touring goes, but as a first effort, I aimed somewhat high. I wanted to ride from my apartment in downtown Cincinnati to the southernmost point of the Little Miami Scenic Trail and take it all the way to Ohio’s favorite hippie town, Yellow Springs, where I would crush a pie from Ha Ha Pizza before heading over to nearby John Bryan State Park to camp for the night. This was a pretty long haul for me, roughly 80 miles each way, which at first felt daunting. But pedaling along the Little Miami Trail was a perfect way to get used to the extra load hanging from my rear rack in my panniers because I didn’t have to worry about southern Ohio’s notorious hills or uncompromising car drivers. It enabled me to soak up my first experience touring as I cruised along the river listening to some Dead shows from the Spring 1990 tour without the added stress of worrying about anything extraneous.
That first ride north was something I won’t soon forget. The weight of my gear on my bike added an element to my cycling that made riding an entirely new experience. A loaded down bike doesn’t handle the same way as a “naked” bike. It drags a bit and makes steering a more deliberate action, and I had to learn how to manage it. My quads were on fire from pushing more weight, and I loved every bit of it. The mental game was all new as well. It’s one thing to climb on a bike and just ride around till you make it back to wherever you started, but knowing that I was going from point A to a point B far away put me in a completely different headspace. The world opened up in front of my bike, and I felt an entirely new aspect to the inherent freedom cycling enables. Perhaps this was a result of how much I romanticized touring leading up to the ride, but looking back I think that was only a small component of it. Touring inherently makes the built environment your playground. You start to feel the limitless potential of self sufficiency and travel by bicycle. All these good vibes solidified as I set up camp for the night at John Bryan, where I was able to finally relax and stretch my legs next to my campfire and reflect on my accomplishment. I realized this was the farthest I had ever ridden in a single day. Not only that, but I had managed it competently. I felt a sense of contentment that I had never experienced before: even after a single day of touring, the act emerged as a missing piece in my life.
I returned home with a fervent dedication to keep going. I decided I needed to try something new on my next overnight trip. A week or so later I headed to Hueston Woods outside Oxford, OH, a trip where I wanted to experience touring on open roads rather than a protected trail. The good times continued, especially given that my campsite for the night had trees where I could hang up my hammock – there’s nothing like being able to stretch your hamstrings in a hammock after a long day on the bike. I’ll always tour with one from now on as a result, despite the added weight. A week later I wanted to try a new experiment – stealth camping. I decided to head out past Lawrenceburg, IN, purposely not knowing where I would camp for the night. By asking around I learned of a semi-abandoned dock along the Ohio River that fishermen used next to a wooded area. I made my way back in the woods around sunset, and with the promise of a favorable forecast and the possibility that I’d have to leave quickly if I were found out, I slept that night in my hammock again. This was the trip where the world-as-playground took a whole new dimension. By camping where I wasn’t supposed to camp I realized that touring allows for a healthy dose of victimless mischief that is thrilling to say the least. The next morning I headed out early, careful to not leave a trace of my night spent there. My imagination went wild on the ride home, as I realized that with all that I had learned from a handful of overnights, there really were few limits to the potential of touring.
I went to work the next day riding high (get it??) from my accomplishments. And then I lost my job. There’s not really much I want to say about that here other than it was a blow that put me in a position where I had to reevaluate a lot in my life. My birthday was the following week, and never one to downplay a birthday, I decided it was time for my first multi-day tour where I could take stock and figure out my next move. I designed a loop starting from my apartment with stops in Xenia, Chilicothe, and Portsmouth, with the last day, my 34th birthday, being the first day I would ride 100 miles in a single day as I returned home for a party at a bar with friends.
Those four days were some of the best in my life. Bike overnights are incredible at getting you out there and experiencing the thrill of touring and I’ll evangelize them forever to people who think touring might be a thing to try. But when you’re out for multiple days, the depth of the experience is overpowering. I had to call on all that I had learned thus far: how to ride on through pain, the puzzle of navigation, the challenge of being mindful of your body and not overdoing it throughout a single day let alone several, the problem solving of finding places to sleep when you don’t know your surroundings, maintaining energy levels with food-as-fuel, and perhaps most importantly, being tuned in to the introspection and meditation that touring allows for. All of this was a gift given the transitional and uncertain point I was at at that point.
The ride was not without its complications, however, most of which had to do with sleeping. The first night I stealth camped along the Little Miami Trail, which was fine. The next I anticipated stealth camping along the Scioto River outside Chilicothe, but I failed to realize the river banks were all private property. I had ridden late into the day, well past nightfall, and was filled with anxiety as I realized finding a place was going to be more difficult than I anticipated. A friend gave me the idea to find the nearest church and sleep behind it for the night, which is what I did. Despite the fear and apprehension of being well outside my comfort zone, I had no choice but to keep on keeping on. This was when I learned that a lot of the anxiety one can feel on the road is located in one’s mind. Things generally tend to work out if you keep your mind open and cultivate an attitude that whatever happens, you’ll probably be alright.
On my third morning, riding through the cool, foggy, crisp air of rural Ohio in early fall, I realized what I wrote in my first post: it was time to hit the road for the long haul. Although broke, I was never in a better position to tackle a cross-country ride than I was at that point, and as soon as I decided it was time to do that ride, a game plan materialized in my mind. I took in the next 150 miles with a newfound purpose and a deep sense of gratitude for all that I had experienced and a profound hunger for more. On the last day I hit the 100-mile mark on the east side of Cincinnati while riding on Riverside Drive, and I was overcome with emotion. Plenty of people have ridden 100-mile days, but it was my first. And after all that I had experienced as a rider, from managing weight gain in years past to my collarbone to relearning bike riding more recently, to my first bike overnights, to all that I had learned about myself and what I wanted out of life, I felt a sense of satisfaction way beyond what I felt after my first overnight to Yellow Springs and back. I celebrated 34 years and 300 miles that night with friends utterly spent physically, but with a singular focus of what I had to take on next.
I started getting ready immediately. I gave away furniture, packed up my belongings, and moved out of my place to set myself up for the ride of my life. I decided that the first thing I had to do was develop my route from the Atlantic to the Pacific so I could make my tour more tangible in my mind. There are infinite ways to ride across North America, and I wanted my route to give me the most complete experience possible. Being a geographer just allowed for even more of a geek out. How I developed my route is where I’ll turn in the next post.