Across the USA
A journey across the USA, that gave a taste of culture, geography, history and an overdose of stunning beauty, was put together for the 1976 bicentenary. Around 4,000 cyclists turned up to ride in groups of around ten people, each group with its own trained leader. I like to travel alone, but I did like the aims of the ride and decided to leave it a year or two, let things settle down, then do it in my own way. A little later than intended, in June 2009, I set off…
By starting on the west coast, with the mistaken hope of catching the prevailing wind, American history, in reverse order, was paraded before me as I headed towards the east. The route crosses the pathways of famous, and not so famous, heroes and villains on a daily basis. Some giving just one cameo appearance, others, like soap opera stars, presented themselves almost daily.
The route starts in Astoria, a town once known for its fur trading, but more importantly, the end point of the Lewis and Clark journey from the Mississippi. It is possible to follow a dedicated Lewis and Clark cycle route, however, the ’76 route’ I was following, is itself a witness to most of their triumphs and hardships on both their outward and return journeys. There were many of both. For them starvation was a constant threat, and the terrain must at times have seemed impossible to navigate. Today it is difficult to imagine their joy on reaching the Pacific, yet their apprehension knowing a return journey would have to be made before the ‘Corps of Discovery’ could become a part of American history. My journey was in one direction only.
Without considerable help from Indian tribes, in particular the Nez Perce, their great adventure would have failed. As I wandered over this ever-changing dramatic landscape, I found it sad to realize that within 70 years of Lewis and Clark opening a route across the country, the Nez Perce would be chased from their traditional lands because of their refusal to live on a reservation. The new Americans wanted to get rich quickly, and in their rush for gold they brought with them disease and the wanton destruction of the bison herds. The old way of life for the Native Americans had gone for ever, and had been replaced by a truly wild west. All of this was taking place just before the first man cycled across America. No, not me in my younger days, as has been suggested by some ageist ‘friends’, but Thomas Stevens, in 1884. He lacked the advantage of the Adventure Cycling Association’s route maps by almost 100 years, and, for that matter, any reasonable roads, which puts this modern trip into perspective.
For the first 250km or so the route heads south, following the Pacific coastline, before turning west, and then south again. Along this stretch of mostly gentle climbs and changing coastline, I saw few cyclists. Stopping at a filling station for a snack, not only did I have my first, and perhaps last ever, taste of a corn dog, but while I was biting through the crispy corn coating into a hot dog sausage, I joined a group of old timers who were discussing their experiences of the Mt St Helena explosion. It seems they had been at the base of the mountain only the day before the eruption. Warnings had been given, so they tried, but failed, to get a friend to go home with them. The whole region, along with their friend and almost every other living thing, was wiped out.
Pretty well the complete ‘76 route’ has regular campsites that most cyclists use. There were huge differences between them, in part because of ownership, part location, and part it must be said with regard to price, beyond any logical explanation. On balance, they were exceptional value. Camping made the trip affordable for those of us on a limited budget. Along the coast camping was mainly private with good facilities, but quite expensive. Later, I was able to camp for very little and often even for free.
Camping in the woods
A free campsite
Roads in Oregon were well surfaced and cyclist friendly, with a decent hard shoulder. Beyond Oregon, the hard shoulders were not so common. Roads were frequently, by American standards, narrow, and sometimes had restricted vision for motor vehicles. However, they were always, almost without exception, cyclist friendly over the whole route. Once in a while there was a chance to follow an alternative route off road but these dirt and gravel roads often tended to be corrugated by four-wheel drive vehicles. Dedicated cycle paths were rare, but occasionally they did exist, were well sighted and very good.
A cycle path in the Rockies
A wide hard shoulder
After a week or so into the ride the trans-America cyclist became much more common and I would meet many west bound riders almost at the end of their journey, who had tales to tell of what to avoid and what to look out for. At the same time I would catch and be caught by those heading in my direction. While there is more than one route across the USA, the greatest distinction between riders, was between those who travelled on stripped down cycles with all their luggage carried for them in a motor vehicle, and those like myself who were self sufficient. Over such a long distance as the ‘76 route’ it is surprising how often, and for how long, the same people would appear at a campsite, in a café, or at a roadside stop. Their names would appeared in the note books every rider is encourage to sign at cafes and campsites, the dates of entry telling of friends just ahead along the road. The ride soon becomes a club of very different but friendly individuals, likeminded in having one common objective, to complete their ride. Most were young, frequently gap year students. There were some family groups, and a few, like myself, quite a bit older than the average.
An east to west trans American cyclist
Roadside information gave a picture of very different life stories of travellers in times gone by: George Colgate gave his name to a roadside spot by being left there to die by his fellow group of hunters. Having broken his leg in a rafting accident he was unable to walk out of the snow bound forest with his ‘friends’. His bones were found after the winter snows had gone. The place now known as ‘Robber’s Roost’ was a roadhouse and was on the surface a place to have a meal and stay the night, but in fact was the hangout of Montanan’s most notorious gang, the ‘innocents’, who were led by, non other than, the Sheriff of Bannack. They picked out likely targets and later robbed them of there worldly possessions at gunpoint. In 1884, vigilantes wiped out the gang including the Sheriff. While passing this site I reminded myself that it was at this dangerous period that Thomas Stevens was cycling across America, although not on quite the same route.
Yellowstone and the adjacent Grand Teton National Parks are quite rightly considered to be one of the highlights of the ride. Their only downside being a massive amount of motorised traffic. Traffic stoppers are the bison herds as they wander across the road. Traffic also stopped for other large animals, one such was an elk, he looked up at me from the edge of the road, but when I attempted to take a photograph he put his head down and continued eating. These animals are not scared of humans but don’t like posing for pictures! Campsites have metal boxes where food has to be stored overnight to hopefully prevent a nocturnal visit from a grisly bear. The earth steams with geyser activity in Yellowstone and wooden walkways are provided to prevent erosion from the thousands of visitor’s feet when they flock to see the most spectacular examples. Perhaps the most popular, Old Faithful, has its own tourist industry. Between regular eruptions the crowd shifts from standing three deep around the geyser to the shops or cafes. Even the road is on the move; the volcanic activity ensures constant repairs are undertaken each summer. Interestingly, road workers told me that road widening was taking place to make it safer for the ever increasing number of cyclists.
In the first half of the 19th century fur trading was common. Names such as Jedediah Smith, Bill Sublette, Joe Meek, Kit Carson, Henry Fraeb, Jim Bridger and Tom Fitzpatrick, led an often violent existence as they wandered the region which is now Yellowstone, living as trappers and guides. It was in the second half of the 19th century when the wholesale killing of the bison took place, and William Cody became known as Buffalo Bill as he and others destroyed the herds that once existed right across America. Now the bison seem to be making a comeback. There is talk of breeding the animals for meat. Modern carnivores, like their Victorian ancestors, seem to prefer buffalo to beef.
While the complete route was enjoyable and had daily points of real interest, it was the shear stunning beauty of the Rocky Mountains that stick in the memory. It was the snow-capped peaks, the lakes that glittered in the sunlight like diamonds, the forested slopes, and the streams of translucent waters coloured by minerals that
became etched in the memory. They did not have, as I had expected, the most difficult climbs. They did, at 11,542ft, have the highest mountain pass, but the grading was so gentle that my lowest gears were not required. Later I would find the Appalachians much harder, but before them, the most difficult of all, the Ozarks. Their profile map looked like sharks teeth. What appeared at first glance like a relatively smooth forested landscape, on closer examination, was found to be cut by rivers and streams into deep valleys. It seemed that for every kilometre ridden forward, one had to descend a kilometre into a valley, cross a bridge, and climb another kilometre back out again. For the Ozarks I did use all my low gears, constantly.
On top of the route
Once beyond the Rockies, Colorado, with its wheat fields and grain silos, and Kansas with a mixture of agriculture and oil, were covered very quickly. Not because the ground was flat, as the strong south wind more than compensated for the lack of hills, but because roads were, at last, heading east instead of meandering in every direction. It was particularly along these roads that all trans-American cyclists were treated with the utmost kindness. Small towns allowed free camping, often also with free use of their swimming pools. Fire stations and village shops let cyclists camp in their grounds too, and use their showers. But perhaps the most generous of all were the churches. Several times I was asked if I would like to stay in church halls, be given the use of a washing machine, (perhaps a hint there) and then find myself being invited to a wonderful evening meal with the family. And all this for a confirmed atheist!
This kindness was to continue through Illinois and into Kentucky, which surprised me with its poor quality of life. I was beginning to see more and more obese people. Many of these living in little more than old caravan like shelters. Alongside would be a pile broken motor vehicles, and an American flag on a post. Old gas guzzling V8s smoked up the hills. Yet, in one of the small towns, Hindman, there was a wonderful place to stay at the Historical Society. Up a very steep climb, through a gate, up another climb, was a man standing in the pathway with a large iced tea. David, who had some sort of detection system for cyclist at the bottom of the climb, handed me the drink he had specially prepared. What a service on a hot day! He had a large tent ready, with camp beds, where cyclists could spend the night. The next day he fed me piles of fruit, something that had been rare in the shops for the previous few days.
Virginia, judging by the information posts along the sides of the roads, must be one of the most battle scared places in the USA. Two great wars raged over these lands: the war of independence and the civil war. Only an expert on the civil war would recognise all the names posted, but even an ignorant Englishman like myself was familiar with some: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Philip H. Sheridan et cetera, et cetera. One very familiar name, George A. Custer, had left his tracks along much of my ride, before he, in 1876, ending his days with his ‘Last Stand’ on the Little Bighorn. The ‘76 route’ ends in Yorktown, where in 1781 Cornwallis surrendered to the American and French forces and thus ended the war of independence.
Close by, at Jamestown, is the site of the first British settlement. While America likes to think of its early settlers as people searching for religious freedom, those that settled in Jamestown were often people without scruples who would do anything to prosper. Their use of slavery is well known, and was common worldwide at that time. Problems with the Indians started early. The Paspahegh Indians objected to their land being stolen. To show who was boss, a Paspahegh town was destroyed by the British, 16 Indians killed and the chief’s wife and children captured. Later the children were thrown overboard from a ship and then shot in the head, and then the chief wife was executed. After that sort of start it is no surprise that from time to time Indian wars would break out. In 1610 English life was grim, but even by the standards of the day this was barbaric.
My journey had started where the first trail across America ended, and ended where British history in America began. On the way I had been given a fabulous insight into the history and culture of modern America and so much more. This ride isn’t just a 8000km trip across eleven states of the USA, its an education that should be on the curriculum of every American student. While this is not practical, the good news is: each year more and more students are taking to their bikes and doing just that.
If I was to do this ride again what would I change?
1. The bike I used had been put together with mountain trails I mind, and although it gave me a perfect trouble free ride over the whole distance, I could have used a lighter bike with 700c wheels and 36mm tyres.
2. My Hillburg single-pole tent is in many ways the best I have ever owned and was perfect for almost the complete distance. However, on a few campsites in the Rocky Mountains, a freestanding tent would have been better.
3. Instead of allowing three months for the ride, I would do it in two and a half.