January 24, 2011
Author's note: This story originally appeared as four separate posts, which have been combined here for the sake of continuity. Above: The author, jubilant at his first crossing of the Continental Divide by bicycle. Photo by Nancy McCullough.
Like yesterday, today will be a scorcher, so we’ve hit the road unusually early. A faint glow in the east hints at the approaching sunrise, and the endless plains of northeastern Wyoming sprawl before us in the half-light. In the distance, a pack of coyotes — it sounds like a hundred of 'em — yip-yammer their high-pitched exuberance for the day. From somewhere much closer pulses an incongruous, rhythmic drumming, and I think for a second that a rock band is jamming behind the fantastic sandstone formation off to our left. Then I recognized it as the sound of an oil well, pump-pump-pumping black gold from deep within the bowels of the Cowboy State. The only other sound is that of our narrow rubber tires purring over the prairie pavement. I’m convinced we’re the only humans for a hundred miles around. “This is great,” I say to Nancy.
It seems like yesterday, but it was 37 years ago. While ski-bumming at Grand Targhee Resort the year after graduating from the University of Wyoming, I’d met a girl from the Seattle area who was also working at the resort for the winter. We immediately hit it off (and got married three years later). After we’d had too much of a good thing — snow, that is — Nancy and I began thumbing through a spring REI catalog, dreaming about fun summery outdoor things to do. “That looks like fun!” she exclaimed, eyeing a picture of a pair of cyclotourists.
“Yeah!” I agreed. “Let’s bicycle across the country this summer!”
That was it. Inside of 24 hours, we rang up Redmond Cyclery, near Nancy’s home in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, and ordered a pair of Peugeot U-8 10-speeds to go (about $130 each, if I remember right). Two weeks later, in late April, we pulled up to the shop, where we picked up the bikes after having rear racks installed. Then we drove into Seattle to REI world headquarters, where we procured most everything else needed: sleeping bags, Svea cookstove, patch kits, pots and pans … Next, at another downtown store called Sportscaster, we purchased two rudimentary, one-piece, two-sided rear panniers, one for each bike.
Our “training” consisted of a fully loaded, 30-mile ride around Lake Sammamish, the farthest either of us had ever pedaled in a stint. But heck, we were young and our legs were strong from a winter of alpine skiing. We were good to go!
As neither of us was independently wealthy, we had agreed to combine the small nest eggs we’d accumulated during a virtually expense-free winter of working for $1.85 an hour, and supplement that by taking odd jobs as we pedaled across the U.S. and Canada (or so we thought, regarding our neighbor to the north). Dressed in cut-off Levis, T-shirts, and tennis shoes — and no helmets, of course — we rolled out of Bellevue on May 1, waving a misty-eyed farewell to Nancy’s folks and my dog (her parents were extremely generous). Through then-rural -- but now suburban -- Redmond we rolled, and into the bucolic farmscapes that spilled off the timbered flanks of the Cascade Range. We had nothing before us but the open road.
That's right, we had nothing before us but the open road, but over the next 50 miles the open road climbed from sea level to Stevens Pass, elevation 4,061 feet. Neither of us had ever bicycled over a mountain; moreover, had we even been familiar with the concept of spinning the pedals at a high cadence, doing so would not have been feasible. The combination of our lack of training and our Peugeot UO-8 10-speeds’ lack of suitable low gears wouldn't have permitted it to happen.
But make it to the top we did, though I admit to walking from time to time. And, on the flip side, we had never before coasted down a mountain pass. Rocketing into Leavenworth was an eye-opening blast — sort of like a gravitational gratuity for all that work we did getting to the top.
Relatively speaking, the next five days along U.S. Highway 2 to Spokane were a breeze. We arrived just in time for day two of the city's Expo ’74, 24 hours after President Richard Nixon had made an appearance. We were excited to attend a world’s fair celebrating “the birth of America’s fresh new environment,” and then very let down to learn that no secure bicycle parking was available. We ended up stashing our bikes and gear in a nearby convent, whose nuns were more than accommodating.
Making like Lewis and Clark, we proceeded on, finding our way to the panhandle of Idaho. Throughout our ensuing trip, it was common to have locals invite us into their homes for a night or longer; this first happened in Sandpoint, where a retired logger and his wife adopted us. Far from affluent themselves, this gracious man and woman wouldn’t hear of letting us us pay for a thing during our stay. They fed us and put us up outside in their travel trailer while we spent a week planting trees for the Forest Service. The lady of the house even sent us into the woods each day with sack lunches! They were some of the most generous people I’ve ever met, and even then I understood that our bicycles were the means to their hearts.
Planting trees was backbreaking work; bicycling seemed a lark by comparison. So, we were off again, pedaling north to Bonners Ferry and onward to the Canadian border ... where we were turned back for a lack of adequate cash. (Credit cards were unheard of in 1974, at least by Nancy and me.) The humorless border guard feared we would look for work in Canada (he was right) and supplant out-of-work Canadians (he probably was wrong).
“Well, heck, then we’ll just ride across our own country,” I proclaimed, suddenly feeling very red, white, and blue. Nancy agreed.
We followed the wide, shimmering Clark Fork River upstream for much of the way to Missoula, Montana, where we camped tentless off Brooks Street beneath a sprawling spruce in Rose Memorial Park. The tree’s broad canopy did not provide quite the degree of protection we'd expected, and we got drenched at around 4:00 a.m. when the automatic sprinklers sprayed to life.
Back then, even in Missoula — now the Bicycle Touring Capital of the Free World — cyclotourists were an uncommon thing to see, and someone reported a sighting of us to a local TV station. A reporter tracked us down, and during our interview we made an on-camera plea for odd jobs, but no offers came our way.
Little did we know that less than two years later fate would bring us back to Missoula ... for jobs.
Having ridden from Missoula to Deer Lodge, Montana, Nancy and I were engaged in a yard-work project for an elderly lady when a cyclist riding by on an expensive-looking Italian racer spied our heavily laden bikes. He pedaled up and introduced himself as a local high-school teacher, then told us he was the official “Bikecentennial route liaison” for Deer Lodge, explaining how this oddly named grassroots group had recently sprouted over in Missoula. The organizers’ goal, he said, was to run 10,000 cyclists across the country in 1976. (It ended up being closer to 4,000, and the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail bypassed Deer Lodge altogether.)
Nancy and I thought this sounded great, so we obtained Bikecentennial’s mailing address from our new acquaintance. I tucked it away, thinking that when we finished our adventure maybe I’d contact them to see if they needed help.
Soon we were pedaling through Yellowstone, the world's first national park. It was still early in the season, and the roads were all but deserted — in fact, they were probably emptier than at any time in years, and at any time since. We had obliviously hit the roads of America during the infamous year of long gas lines, the result of price controls and/or the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74. Whatever caused it, traffic counts were definitely down that summer.
Crossing the Bighorn Mountains was our stiffest test yet, as the steep grade up Powder River Pass seemed endless. But we finally made it over and down to the other side. After a visit to Devils Tower National Monument (where I would wind up working as a ranger four years later), we landed a relatively lucrative short-term job in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, helping the city doll up for its Fourth of July blowout by applying a fresh coat of yellow paint to fire hydrants and no-parking zones. We were on the receiving end of a few dagger stares and ‘subtle’ hints from a couple of the full-time city workers, who thought we were working too hard too fast.
At night we camped in the town park, where for the first time I disassembled our bikes to clean them. I found that they came apart a lot easier than they went back together. One morning, I remember, a blizzard of white stuff emanating from the surrounding cottonwood trees blanketed every horizontal surface — the ground, the picnic tables, the merry-go-round ... — in several inches of cotton fluff.
Zipping across the South Dakota prairie in the early mornings was a heavenly feast for the senses: Meadowlarks whistled their melodious call and the cool air carried on it the sweet scent of Russian olive, that ubiquitous imported windbreak tree of the Great Plains. But afternoon cycling was hell, with temperatures reaching as high as 104, and scant shade to be found in which to sit out the heat.
In the tiny town of Faith, the proprietor of the local drive-in movie graciously allowed us to camp on his fenced-in grounds — but only after we screened the now-classic flick The Paper Chase. A bike-in movie followed by a night under the dazzlingly starry skies of the Mount Rushmore State ... if you've never tried it, I heartily recommend it as a fine way to spend half of a 24-hour day.
Several days later, in Watertown, not far from Minnesota border, we stayed with the parents of a woman friend (not a girlfriend) of mine from college. After dinner, they took us cruising in their convertible, through downtown and past parks full of kids and grown-ups playing softball and doing other summer parky things — a living Norman Rockwell scene that made us feel a bit nostalgic and homesick; it may, in fact, have been responsible for our first acknowledging that the open road would not stretch on forever.
After enjoying the riding in western Minnesota, we confronted the greater Twin Cities, the first and only metropolitan area of our trip. Today, Minneapolis is heralded as one of the best cycling cities in the nation, but in 1974 it was a virtually unbikeable maze of limited access highways that we could not figure out how get across. So, we thumbed a ride with a guy driving a pickup truck … who proceeded to rear-end the car in front of him after we’d been with him for only about two miles.
Okay, we agreed, no more car rides on this trip.
As I alluded to last time, Nancy and I were only vaguely aware of the gasoline shortages plaguing motorists in the U.S. that summer. That’s because the fuel running our machines was fruit, peanut butter sandwiches, granola, peanut butter sandwiches, salads, and peanut butter sandwiches. Oh, we also tried peanut butter on edible day lilies we found growing at road’s edge.
After staying and water skiing with some friends of a friend in Stillwater, Minnesota, we crossed the St. Croix River to New Richmond, Wisconsin. There we celebrated the Fourth of July in true Badger State fashion: a parade and fireworks, accompanied by plenty of Leinenkegel beers and Sheboygan bratwursts. Mmmmm!
Wisconsin, the best state of all. Endless miles of paved country roads, virtually traffic-free, leading over rolling hills and past postcard-perfect farms — and farm wives/mothers, regularly flagging us down to make sure we got our recommended daily allowances of fresh cheese, fresh milk and cookies, and fresh-squeezed lemonade.
But we were almost out of time.
We made it as far as Rhinelander, in the northeastern part of Wisconsin, before turning around and heading for my parents’ place in Iowa (but, oh yeah, pausing briefly to stay at an interesting hippie commune/farm cooperative near Frank Lloyd Wright’s hometown of Spring Green). We regretted not making it to our intended destination of Bar Harbor, Maine; looking back, however, I wouldn’t change a thing about the adventure. By bicycling and odd-jobbing our way across the country and spending up to a week in certain places, we earned an intimacy with the locals, and with their lives and landscapes, that would have eluded us had we pushed to make it all the way to the East Coast in those three months. We saved very little money during the layovers, but we accumulated a fortune of experiences and good feelings about our country and its citizens.
And now, in the clarity of hindsight, I also see how wonderfully simple it all was. We had no blog or website to keep up … no daily cell phone calls to make or emails to send (only the occasional postcard or call from a pay phone to let family know we were still okay) … and no greater cause or altruistic reasons for doing what we were doing. We were just bicycling, having fun, and discovering new people and places.
Like that night of camping under the stars on the drive-in-movie grounds: I highly recommend it if you’ve never given it a try.
BIKING WITHOUT BORDERS was posted by Michael McCoy, Adventure Cycling’s field editor, highlighting a little bit of this or a little bit of that — just about anything, as long as it related to traveling by bicycle. Mac also compiles the organization's twice-monthly e-newsletter Bike Bits, which goes free-of-charge to more than 50,000 readers worldwide.