An Ambivalence For Traveling America By Bicycle

Oct 5th, 2017 in Adventure

Back in August, I concluded three months of dedicated cycling across the USA. Navigating coast to coast this way is a powerful and freeing experience, but not one I’d readily endorse. There are challenges and safety issues that give me pause despite it being a positive time for me overall. The intent of this article is to frame the good and bad here so a prospective traveler may understand the risks, which have a tendency of being glossed over to tell a pleasant story.

My route took me along the TransAmerica Trail, traversing the middle of the country between Yorktown, Virginia, and Astoria, Oregon. That route’s conclusion was followed by a 700 mile addendum looping around the Olympic Peninsula with visits to Seattle and Portland on the return. I saw many of our great mountains, the deserts and plains in abundance, and dense evergreen forests filling the harsh, northwest coast. Peppered throughout are a bevy of small towns, many of which knew the cycling tradition through their turf and welcome it. It’s not uncommon for their parks to have cyclists encamped most days during the season.

TransAmerica is a route that’s existed since 1976, the first of its kind in the US and now one of many. They’re all mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association, who charge $60 for an app or $200 for printed maps. For a novice, I think that a route to follow is helpful, but I don’t plan to use one if I venture out again. Google Maps provides a satisfactory alternative for free, with the caveat that some time must be spent to confirm the route is paved and to figure out your stopping points. Both services avoid highways, prioritize bike paths, and will send you on dubious, high traffic country roads anyway. They’re just the only way from Point A to B sometimes.

Safety on the road is a constant stressor for the US touring cyclist. There’s frequently auto traffic even on the most rural of roads, and the shoulder is often insufficient for a car to overtake without veering to the middle. Unfortunately, one person was killed and another I personally knew hospitalized in car accidents, and that’s only what reached my attention. Another alarming statistic: of my approximately 6,000 exurban miles pedaled this year, I’d estimate about 150 of them were on bike paths. You can bet those were treasured moments, in what otherwise can be a dangerous sport. Be aware of this before embarking. I acquired a rearview mirror for my helmet before the trip and it helped ground me a bit.

This was my second extended adventure, following last year’s thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. It’s quite easy for me to compare the two in favor of hiking; I found myself far more at peace in the woods than I ever was pedaling. That is versus an often tense state of vigilance that must be constantly kept while sharing the road with cars whizzing by. On the AT, there is little effort needed to find a safe, pleasant place to camp for the night and hostels are abundant. I’ll always take that over reaching out to strangers to couchsurf, being exposed in a public park or stealth camping.

One stark difference between hiking and biking is the amount of interaction one has with civilization. Depending on your perspective and needs, it can be a positive or negative thing. Hikers are frequently out of touch for days and pack provisions accordingly. While cycling, it’s rare not to pass through multiple towns in a day or even lose cell service for an extended period of time. I found myself constantly on my devices trying to keep them fully charged, and gorging myself in towns. By the end of TransAm, the size of my waistline actually increased! If your goal is to be unplugged and step away from the humdrum of society, go for a hike. But, if you want to meet a lot of locals and learn their stories, you’ll have an edge with wheels.

A shared benefit from both is the ease of connecting with those different than yourself. The low cost lifestyle of backpacking inherently involves trusting in others, both fellow travelers and those that would offer alms. I’ve met a lot of kind, bright people through the shared adversity of pushing yourself to your limits each day. City slickers, rural folk, veterans, hippies, students or retirees all find some common ground here and its a powerful confluence.

Another aspect of traveling the U.S. interior I need to touch on is that of race and privilege. I know I have an advantage being white and male; not only did nearly everyone share my skin color, but I witnessed bigotry too often on this trip. I had it confided to me by strangers who expected me to share their views or overheard wanton discussions in public, and the Confederate flag can be seen flying proudly in many places. It gives me pause when I think of the overall warm reception I had. If I looked differently, would I have been received the same? On a bicycle, there is a sense of vulnerability I felt on the open roads that led me to never confront this and keep my head down. Most minorities, especially backpackers, already know this reality and will keep their wits about them, but it’s worth me saying this on the record.

Despite my reservations, there’s a chance I may again ride out into the sunset on my bicycle. I like the idea of going towards whatever goal, whichever direction I feel sans gasoline. There’s a veneer of practicality to it, as I can carry everything I need to code a website or take professional photos. And with my bicycle, as long as time or weather aren’t concerns, I’m getting there. A bicycle can drop off the road and find a stealthy spot to camp or I can petition for a free place to stay through the amazing Warmshowers community. That’s all very empowering.

If I do set out again, it does mean I’ve checked a box acknowledging I’m okay with treating my wellbeing as though I was spinning it like a plate. For some people, and I’m one of them now, the nomadic lifestyle calls so strongly that it is worth taking some risks for. I’ve evaluated that cycle touring’s liabilities are significant enough to truly give pause and find other avenues to sate that lust. The sport does have unique aspects that continues to pull people in, and as society modernizes, it’s plausible to expect conditions to improve (driverless cars, anyone?). Before all that happens though, more cyclists will die and I’d prefer not to be one of them.

My individual journaling from the trip starts here.