If you read my last post then you know I have the touring bug and have some experience figuring out how to travel by bike. But a cross-country tour is a whole different animal. There are a multitude of variables to consider, and while I have no delusions of having all the answers, I’ve traveled around the country (and abroad) quite a bit and have enough of the geography geek still in me to derive plenty of joy from playing around with maps. So after countless hours on Google Maps and the Adventure Cycling Association’s website (yeah I’ve linked to them a lot, but they’re worth it) scheming, I’ve developed a route that I’m kind of in love with. It’s not perfect, but it’s perfect for me. I decided to make this overly long post to illustrate my thinking process in how I developed it. Touring is about experiencing the landscape in a very particular way. That being the case, I’ve put a lot of thought into places I want to visit on my bike that all can be knitted together on a map in a somewhat straightforward line connecting the coasts. This is what I came up with.
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The obvious jumping off points for coming up with a route are the excellent resources that the Adventure Cycling Association have put together, but I didn’t want something too pre-packaged. I started scheming with the mind of having the most fulfilling experience I could geographically. I decided that I had to choose a route that worked for me. Say this is the only multi-month, major bicycle tour I ever do – what route would give me the most personal satisfaction that would continually move westward and could be completed in about three or four months? Beyond that, I wanted the greatest variety in the landscape I could get my two wheels over – rural, urban, plains, mountains, wet, dry, and everything in between. That pretty much immediately ruled out the Southern Tier. I had driven a lot of it west of Texas, and although I have a fascination with the aridity of the desert as a guy from the wet blanket that is southwestern Ohio, it just wasn’t speaking to me. Neither was the Northern Tier. I can’t place my indifference to either, I just know they’re not the way I want to go. For a hot minute I thought the Lewis and Clark Trail was the way to go; it offered plenty of time in places I’ve never been, and while it isn’t a coast-to-coast route, I figured I could make up something good for the portion east of St. Louis.
And then, of course, there’s the TransAmerica Trail. It’s a fantastic route that covers so much territory, and thousands of people have taken it on in the last 40 years. By far most of the cross-country touring stories I’ve come across involve this trail, and for that reason alone I wanted to kind of avoid it. There are many things about the route that I like, especially the length and variety of it. But no matter how special it is, I wanted something a little more off the beaten path, a route that was less heavily traveled by bicycle tourists.
I immediately knew that I wanted to start in New York. I mean, it’s New York. Of course I should start there. I’ve been to the city four times, and each of those times were kind of benchmarks in my life. But I’ve never been there alone. Additionally, my last time in the city was over this past summer (when I learned how much of an unadulterated joy riding a Citibike through Manhattan is) convinced me that I had to come back with my own bike and take on those frenetic streets again. The fact that Amtrak’s Cardinal line stops in Cincinnati and ends in New York just sweetened the deal. As far as I can gather, transporting a touring bike and all the gear to and from your end points is a true nightmare, and I’ve done enough air travel to believe every bit of the horror stories I’ve heard. Amtrak is far easier to deal with when you have a bike, and trains are cheap and cool. So New York it is for the start. Since I want to begin on the coast and do the wheel-dip ritual, I opted for hitting Brighton Beach after spending a couple days enjoying the city before riding.
But where to go then? In my experience, whenever you have an infinite amount of options you really don’t have any because the variety is overwhelming and just makes you throw up your hands in surrender. So I just thought of what I wanted. I love riding my bike in urban areas. While being loaded down with all my gear will make me far less nimble on car-clogged urban roads, it’s an experience I can’t wait to have. So I just decided to hit Philadelphia and Baltimore on my way to Washington, DC. I have been to all three of these cities before, but not on a bike, and not all in one go; I want to see how the landscape morphs from one major city to another, and I want to see it in quick succession. So, the first couple weeks will be spent riding through the southern half of megalopolis and getting it all on me. An added benefit is that by taking days off in Philly and DC I get to ease into all-day riding a bit, which I’m sure will be needed.
Ending that portion takes me close enough to Yorktown, VA, where the TransAm starts. but I don’t want to ride the south… at least not on this jaunt. I’ve spent an awful lot of time in Kentucky in my life, and I want to ride in places less familiar to me. I’ve been hearing about the magic of the GAP and C&O Towpath trails that run between DC and Pittsburgh for as long as I’ve been interested in touring, and I can’t think of a better way to move west from DC. I’ll write more in depth about them when I ride through them (as I will with all these places), but they are sure to be six wonderful days in the saddle. Plus, they’ll take me to Pittsburgh, a town I have good memories of and a fun place to ride.
From there it makes sense to hit Cleveland next. I haven’t been through the city in a few years and it beats staying south through rural Ohio. I get to ride through another city, and I get to see Jerry’s guitars at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling into Chicago next is a no-brainer. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Chicago over the years, mostly for concerts and to go to the Art Institute of Chicago, and it is easily counted among my favorite cities. But it’s another city I know well that I haven’t ridden in, and I gotta do that.
I feel that the route to this point is the urban-nostalgic-farewell portion of the ride. I have been to a lot of these places before, but I want to ride in as many downtowns as I can while recalling old memories and creating new ones in places I probably won’t be back to for a long time, as I don’t feel a move back east is in the cards for me once I’m done with this thing (but you never know). It’s kind of a goodbye to the eastern US in my head. But after Chicago, the map opens up all over again.
I have no personal experience in Wisconsin, Minnesota, or the Dakotas (aside from family vacations long ago that I barely remember, if at all), so I thought about making my way through them into Montana after Chicago. But by doing that, I would be sacrificing the Rockies, and I’m definitely not willing to sacrifice the Rockies. I’ve never been in Iowa, so I figure I might as well bike across it to get to the mountains. But I’ve never been through Nebraska either, and realized I could make stops in Omaha and Lincoln to see what’s going on there.
At this point I realized I have to stop in Goodland, KS again. I’ve been through the small town not far from the Colorado border three times while driving cross-country, and I have to do it again. Gotta happen. It’s become a running joke with my brother and me, and you’ll just have to wait till I roll in there to hear why. But after that little slice of paradise, it’s finally off to the Rockies.
As much as I don’t want to be another in the legion of TransAm riders, fifty million Elvis fans can’t be wrong. Between Hoosier Pass, Breckenridge, Jackson Hole, and Yellowstone, the TransAm hits pretty much every bit of Rocky Mountain coolness I could ask for, and I see no reason to reinvent the wheel. I want to visit Manitou Springs again, and planned on joining the TransAm in Cañon City not far from there. But then Dead and Company announced their summer tour. They’ve got a two-night stand in Boulder within a couple days of when I was planning on hitting Manitou. As a bicycle tourist who can’t separate the adventurous, mischievous spirit of the Grateful Dead’s music from his touring, this is an opportunity that I simply can’t miss. I’ve enthusiastically purchased my two day pass. This is the first and only time constraint I’ve put on my tour – I have to make it to Boulder by showtime July 2nd. I still want to hit Manitou though, so I’ll take a couple days to ride south through Denver to make it there….probably. After what are bound to be two glorious nights at Folsom Field I’m a little agnostic at this point regarding where I’ll join the TransAm in Colorado, but I will somewhere.
So it’s the TransAm into Missoula, MT. A similar sentiment goes to the Lewis and Clark Trail from Missoula to the coast that I have about the TransAm through the Rockies – it’s got everything I want, from a triumphant return to Portland a day or two before finishing to a portion of the ride running through Washington, to fighting the winds in the river valley pushing against me in my finishing days. And there you have it. My take on a cross-country bicycle tour. I’m pretty darn satisfied with it.
What am I missing in the country by choosing this route? A whole hell of a lot. I would love to ride across the country and finish at my brother’s place in Southern California, but there’s not really a way to get there easily by bike (I’m sure plenty of people have braved barren Nevada and/or Utah on two wheels, but I have no shame in saying I’m not there…yet!). Plus, I’ve developed quite the crush on the Pacific Coast route from Vancouver to San Diego, and I would much rather ride into my old (yet briefly trodden) Californian stomping grounds that way. By finishing up in Oregon I get to see a couple friends that live there, and it’s a good spot to chill out for a few days before doing whatever I’m going to do next. I’m even finding myself looking at the Southern Tier a lot more…maybe it’s in my future if I can do it quick and cheap. But first, I have to take on this route I pieced together.
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Damn, that was longwinded. If you made it this far you get a gold star.