When I first spotted Kathryn, she was nothing more than a speck on the road in front of me. I was cycling through Montana, in the midst of my first-ever bike tour that would take me across the United States, from Oregon to Florida. Following ACA’s popular Northern Tier route through Idaho and Montana, I’d encountered plenty of other touring cyclists. But none like Kathryn.
The first odd thing: I was gaining on her. As a newbie to long-distance cycling, I was usually the slowest kid on the road. Especially on that flat stretch of sunny Montana highway, I should’ve been left in the dust. But the dark shape on the side of the road grew larger as I approached.
It wasn’t quite bike-shaped. I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at until I drew up alongside her. And there was Kathryn, smiling and waving from the seat of her recumbent tricycle. She looked to be in her fifties, and had a large black umbrella propped against her shoulder like a parasol. She was wearing a bright blue tank top, with sparkling earrings that matched an elaborate necklace at her throat. “Hey!” she called in greeting, “Nice to see another lady out here!”
I instantly loved her. Kathryn was everything I aspired to be...
She was helmetless, wearing only a visor and looking for all the world like she was about to hop off her bike for a game of golf. Kathryn’s long brown legs pumped her forward at a steady 5 miles per hour. “I’m not in a hurry,” she informed me gaily, “I’m just out here working on my tan, taking in the sights.”
I instantly loved her. Kathryn was everything I aspired to be: laid-back, confident, and adventurous. I rode beside her strange rig, peppering her with questions. This was her first bike tour, also. She camped wherever she liked, at the side of the road. Her rear packs were swathed in fluorescent fabric to warn drivers of her wide load. She’d dubbed that neon color “Don’t-Hit-Me Yellow.”
This is what excites me about bicycle travel: there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Kathryn didn’t look like much of an athlete at that time, but I’ve kept in touch with her over the years and am astonished by all she’s accomplished. Kathryn’s bike has taken her through Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Cuba, Trinidad, Southeast Asia... where hasn’t she been? I wonder if she’s cycling faster these days, or if she’s still cruising along at a snail’s pace, taking in the world at 5 miles per hour and stopping for a chat with whoever she meets.
Then put on your reading helmet.
I encountered another unforgettable character a week later outside Yellowstone National Park. Ocho had tie-dyed fabric wrapped around his head, a banana stuffed into the waistband of his cargo pants, and was guzzling water out of a reused Gatorade bottle. Beside him was a shiny, sky-blue bicycle with neon orange fenders that looked like they’d been roughly cut from PVC pipe. There was one battered red Ortleib pannier clipped to the rear rack, but its mate was gone. A faded backpack was strapped to the rack instead.
The story behind this set-up was stranger still. Ocho had been working at a food truck, serving meals to groovy festival-goers at something akin to a Rainbow Gathering. Another young man had appeared, explaining that he was in the middle of a bike tour and didn’t want to continue. “I love touring,” proclaimed Ocho, “I’ll take your bike.” That’s how he wound up with this bicycle, complete with homemade orange fenders, a helmet, and a red Ortleib bag with someone else’s old yogurt spilled in the bottom.
Despite his subpar equipment and devil-may-care attitude, Ocho was an accomplished tourer. He’d been through Yellowstone before, and had ridden all over the United States. He’d even ran away from home on a bike when he was a teenager, pedaling 90 miles in one night.
But what really taught me that there was no right or wrong way to tour was meeting an awkward, balding gentleman at a campsite during my first week in Oregon. Being the rookie that I was, as soon as I’d seen his loaded bicycle I’d run over to shake hands and interrogate him. This man had cycled from Maine, taking ACA’s Northern Tier through the midwest before dropping down to join the TransAmerica Trail in Idaho. He was just days away from his end-goal of the Oregon coast.
When I exclaimed that he must have taken some great photos, he shook his head. “I didn’t bring a camera,” he said shyly. He admitted that he had no journal either. No camera, no journal, no way of collecting stories or remembering experiences with anything other than his own brain. I could hardly believe it. In a world where we frantically document everything from our breakfasts to our morning commutes, this man had opted out entirely.
“What was the hardest part of cycling through North Dakota?” I asked.
I stared, at once impressed and disbelieving. His food options would’ve surely been limited in such a rural part of the country. “What did you eat?”
For the first time since I wandered over, my self-conscious informant cracked a smile. “Did you know,” he said quietly, “Oreos don’t contain dairy?”
Olivia Round is a writer and cyclist who is currently writing a memoir about her cross-country bike tour. For more information, and to read her interviews with other female bicyclists, visit her website at OliviaRound.org.