You know that feeling on Christmas Eve when Santa Claus is specifically making a pit stop at your house and the quicker you close your eyes, the sooner you’ll be able to wake up and rip the wrapping from your presents? This was me the night before BRAK. Lying in my cozy, warm bed, staring at the dark ceiling, I ran through the mental list of what campsites were booked, what food was safely packed into our panniers, whether I should bring an extra battery bank … all the while anticipating that for the next month, I’d be sleeping on the earth, with a thin layer of polyester and nylon separating me from nature.
In mid-March of this year, I lost work in Colorado as the ski resorts made the safety call to close for the remainder of the winter season. In a moment of uncertainty, I made the quick decision to leave behind my mountain valley apartment and head home to hunker down with my family in Mount Vernon, Kentucky. Like many people in 2020, when lockdowns started happening around the U.S., I found myself with fewer distractions and more time to reflect on what I wanted to invest in. For the past three summers, I’d put all my time and energy into planning, training, and cycling with the nonprofit Bike & Build. Along with sweet memories of cross-country trips, long-lasting connections, and the crispest of tan lines, this organization ignited a spark in me that eventually burst into a wildfire for exploring on two wheels.
With the organization, I learned how to properly research and safely map out point-to-point rides in detail, find overnight accommodations and points of interest, and secure locations of food, water, and bike maintenance. I was also inspired by the resilience not only in myself but in an entire team of individuals from many different backgrounds to come together and safely accomplish months-long rides while raising donations and contributing acts of service to affordable housing organizations along each route. Once I learned I had the capacity to achieve such a feat and how impactful the connections to nature and people would be for me, I knew I had to dive in deeper.
With all of this experience in my toolbelt and a blank canvas of an unknown amount of idle time ahead, I began to create my very own, never-before-ridden bike tour of my backyard, the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In all my 21 years in the state, I’d never been to many of its cities nor immersed myself in its natural beauty, terrain, and people that bike touring offers. During the COVID-19 lockdown, I finally had the time to research, plan, and actually see my vision of a Bike Ride Around Kentucky (BRAK) play out.
There were several existing routes I found that passed through my home state but none that completely circumnavigated the perimeter. With respect to accessible roads and places to sleep, I didn't follow the state’s border exactly but wanted to get as close as possible without sacrificing safety. The result: a 1,300-mile, 26-day self-supported bikepacking trip that started and ended in my hometown of Mount Vernon. I then spent innumerable hours turning my brainchild into a real plan by meticulously scanning Google street view and Strava heat maps, formatting step-by-step directions into precise cue sheets, and responding to long email chains with my best friend Amanda Wilcek who had committed to be my travel companion on this ride. (Let’s just say I didn’t have to twist her arm too much.) My family began to question if I had started a new job, working from home, spending six or more hours a day staring at my computer screen. But I was attached to the idea of not relying solely on GPS to navigate, imitating my B&B leadership experience. In the end, we each had a copy of all 26 cues and followed along with our mileage on our bike computers.
Unable to sleep much the night before Day One, we luckily had Mama Arvin drop us off right outside the Rockcastle Outdoor Company in Livingston, allowing for a shorter “first day of BRAK” ride. Although I was screaming and jumping and doing somersaults internally, the commute was silent. Processing. Thinking. Feeling. Calm, but trembling. Mentally preparing and envisioning what life on the road will be like for the next month. We put our bags on our racks, tightened straps, fastened buckles, mounted our lights. It was time. I gave one final embrace to my quarantine roommates, mom and dad, and clipped in. Once I heard Strava say, “starting ride,” I knew my dream had finally become reality.
I purposely routed us on KY-490, the official first cue of the ride. This was the only stretch of road that I knew well as a regular roadie; the rest of the trek was unknown territory. Throughout the day, I had the feeling of being present but not being present, of being overwhelmed by the realness of it. I kept checking in with Amanda and asking her questions like, “How do you feel? Are you … do you feel like you’re here?” And statements like, “I can’t believe we’re actually going to ride around the state of Kentucky.” On my previous trips, all I was required to do was show up and be present and ride my bike. Now, assuming all the roles of trip specialist, camp chef, and trip leader, I began to feel the creeping pressure of this fictional beast coming to life. My anxiety slowly relaxed as the day continued. After a full day of communicating, trying to decide when it was time for snacks and where to pull off to let traffic pass us, we pulled into our first campsite. After a celebratory drink to ring in the official first day, we found ourselves in the same position as the night before BRAK, lying on our backs, staring up at the tree canopy shading our red, sweaty faces.
We realized quickly after Day Two of BRAK that hike-a-bike was not going to be an uncommon activity. Occasional treacherous terrain throughout the trip, especially in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, had us acknowledging the importance of offline maps and our intuitive compasses, navigating when to avoid roads with names like “Little Buffalo Bullskin” or “Yonts Fork.” I never knew how appreciative I would be to see a handwritten address on a little metal mailbox deep in the hollar of eastern Kentucky after following a cue onto an unmarked road.
The coolest aspect of this inaugural ride was not only taking it one day at a time and breathing in the uncertainty but also going into it without having eyes on the route itself other than online research. It was all part of the thrill though, each moment an adventure. One minute I would wonder if the person yelling from their house was thinking, “HEY! Would you like some OJ?” or if they were going to send their four-legged home security system your way. The next, I’d be hoping the gas station we were using for shelter during the rainstorm had a hot bar consisting of double cheeseburgers and pizza slices at 10:30 AM. And at the end of every day, I questioned whether the campsite was still awaiting us as we approached the final 15 percent grade climb of the day.
As we made our final turn of the months-long trek — pedaling down the exact road where I was a safety patrol guard in elementary school, where I drove my brother and me to school with my fresh and crisp driver’s license, and where Amanda and I checked off a practice ride to test out the weight of our packs — an odd feeling rushed through me, a feeling I never want to forget. The feeling of satisfaction. The feeling of “I actually did this” with tears rolling down my cheeks. The feeling of getting to change out of rain-drenched clothes and crawl into a warm bed later that evening. All those feelings coalesced when I saw four figures in the distance holding signs congratulating us on our completed Bike Ride Around Kentucky. My parents, along with my family’s closest friends, whistled and jumped up and down and squeezed our worn bodies. With such support from friends, family, and community, it felt impossible not to complete BRAK. I am the happiest when I’m in the saddle, and as much as I wanted to take a breath and visit and relax on the couch and watch a Hunger Games marathon, I still had a craving to get back outside and tire my legs out for one more day. I just wanted to ride.
When I think back now to all that planning and pedaling, I question what was at the heart of BRAK. Was it to prove to myself that I was able to successfully plan, create, and complete a totally novel cycling trip? Yes. Was it to build Amanda’s first and my longest self-supported bike trek? Absolutely. Was it to hopefully secure a Dollar General sponsorship by the end of it, considering that 90 percent of our fuel consisted of instant mashed potatoes and Tuna Creations packets? Most definitely. It sounds cliché, but I am living proof that if you want something bad enough, you will make it happen. This wildfire is just getting started.
End of August to end of October. If you go in the late summer, you’ll have less gear to pack. But if you ride early autumn, you’ll hit the prime foliage change. We started on September 14 and ended October 11.
Celebrate those state parks and family-owned campgrounds. Thankfully motels are scattered throughout the state in case of unexpected weather or lunch legs. I was very happy to see laundry facilities available at most state park campgrounds.
An excellent pro about a loop route — choose your own direction. While eastern Kentucky was the most challenging terrain, I felt grateful to leave the Appalachians behind early in the trip, eager to experience a new leg of the endurance expedition.
A mini bottle of Sriracha. Extra fuel for the camp stove (believe it or not, we checked six Walmarts and they were fresh out). Top tube bag to store easily accessible items, such as phone, mask, wallet, and obviously your local double cheeseburger.
A flask of gin — bourbon or bust baby. (C’mon, you’re passing through the Bourbon Capital of the World.)
Peanut butter cups, Quaker instant oatmeal, Cafe Bustelo Espresso, and obviously all-you-can-eat Dollar General goods. Special shoutout to the Coffee House in Paintsville, Tre Fratelli in Olive Hill, Little Me Bakery in Augusta, and the Taco Bell in Owensboro for blessing us with two nights of crisp, Crunchwrap Supremes.
Never underestimate a rundown, “is it closed?” gas station because you will be surprised with a gourmet deep-fried hot bar. While prepping for your ride, practice a loud “GIT!!” to ward off free-roaming dogs. Grab a handful of condiment packets every chance you get. Always get food before you roll into camp; three miles seems like three hours when you travel back into town. If not, be sure to scope out the nearest pizzeria so they can deliver it to your campsite.