Looking back, our big bicycle ride across America this spring pivoted at a little point: Pampa, a town of 18,000 in the Texas Panhandle.
By then, in early April, about three weeks and 1,300 miles into a seven-week trip, my friend Will Fifer and I had ridden through an amazing and sometimes comical series of misadventures. We’d had stunning damage to both of our bikes (a crash that took out eight spokes and bent the fork on my bike; the bizarre failure of the crank set — the pedaling mechanism — of Fifer’s bike); slogs across the California and Arizona deserts in searing, unseasonal heat waves; an accidental escapade over a snow-covered, 10,000-foot pass in New Mexico; a rather too-frequent series of frightening near-miss moments with trucks, buses and cars; and a week’s worth of dreadful days fighting biblical head winds of 25 to 40 miles per hour when we hit the Great Plains.
So, near nightfall on that April day, after 11 hours of dodging tumbleweed and airborne chunks of sod, we hit Pampa in a bad mood, and were greeted by unfriendly traffic, dreary blocks of vacant buildings and air redolent of vented oil wells.
After Pampa, it was difficult to surprise us. The romance of bicycle touring? We still had some. By then, we’d seen the sun rise on too many deserts and mountains; too many kind people had helped us or wished us well; we’d had too many long, lovely rides to forget why we’d come. But Pampa was our touring rite of passage. We’d matured. We’d been humbled — but humbled with stronger legs and the promise of new maps.
Similar to life and literature, this arc of experience and growth (and saddle sores) was supposed to be one of the attractions of this trip for two 60-year-old friends riding 3,100 miles from San Diego to Savannah, Ga. The ride was supposed to be difficult, unpredictable, a challenge. We’d told ourselves that over and over: This is going to be hard. Really hard. But, in truth, we had no idea what weeks of 50- to 90-mile days would be like. We had no idea, frankly, that Oklahoma was really that big. Or that, after Pampa, we’d ride 810 miles over 11 straight days.
We came home with panniers filled with large and small moments that together refreshed us and to a significant degree made America exotic again. Can you make such a ride and not be changed? What does it all mean? Well, at close range of only several days back in Minneapolis, it’s safest to stick with lessons learned and hard-won observations:
It helps to be lucky. We rode for 50 days, and on only one of them did we have to take cover from storms. All the other days’ rains were light enough to keep riding. Riding west-to-east and with a mid-March start, we hoped to harness prevailing west winds and avoid 90-degree heat in the deserts and the Deep South. Neither of those tactics worked. But the truly dangerous weather was always ahead of us or behind. If we had left two days later, we could have been pinned down for days by tornadoes and storm fronts.
We’re physically intact. We didn’t get sick. We were not run off the road. We came home in decent shape: a little sunburned, slightly scraped up, and skinnier (Fifer lost 10 pounds; I lost 14). Our only definite near-death experience occurred on Hwy. 160 heading east out of Durango, Colo. A flatbed truck came up behind us at highway speeds, hauling another truck that was facing backward on the bed. The driver’s side door had blown open, extending it out like a plow across the shoulder of the road — road that we inhabited, me in front, Fifer 50 yards back. The door whooshed over Fifer’s head. He looked up in time to see the door clear my head by about 8 inches. It felt closer.
The bikes. We arrived in Savannah with the bikes worn and dirty but working. Our main lesson: On a bike tour, you are on your own, especially if you are traveling through small towns. We went 500 miles between bike shops several times, and rode partly disabled bikes more than 100 miles to find help. Wal-Mart, a potential source of resources, carries inner tubes, but only Schrader valves, not higher-pressure Presta (we checked twice). We were uncomfortably low on replacement tubes and carbon dioxide inflation cartridges several times; one new tube was damaged and one new cartridge was empty. Fifer blew out the sidewall of his rear tire. We carried a spare. But, with no bike shop on the horizon, we bought a replacement online and shipped it ahead to a town where we planned a layover. In hindsight, I’d now carry four spare tubes and at least six CO2 cartridges (many gas station air pumps don’t work for bike tires, even with stem adapters), and I would rotate tires (my rear tire, which carried more weight, was almost bald when I finished; my front tire looked almost new).
Basically, we did little maintenance, except occasionally cleaning and lubing chains, topping off the air in tires, and minor gear adjustments. The final, official bike carnage for the trip: eight spokes, a front fender, a bent front fork, a crank set, five inner tubes, one tire, two disc brake pads, a kickstand and a tire lever.
America is not yet interested in you, cyclists. We left Durango on a roadside bike lane. We did not see another bike lane for 1,700 miles until we arrived at Pensacola, Fla. (However, we enjoyed a rail-to-trails bike path in Louisiana.)
America is not ready to feed you, cyclists. One of the great things about riding 50 or 90 miles in a day is you can eat anything — and usually want to. But there were challenges. Most small towns have little to offer beyond Dairy Queens or Pizza Huts (almost all of which lack a salad bar). The local cafes can be excellent for lunch or breakfast. But do you want that grilled ham and cheese and fries for dinner, too? Interesting or recommended restaurants were often 3 or 5 miles away — for us, by bike, at night. Eating was more of a challenge and far less rewarding than we hoped.
Best food: Bill’s Pizza, Prescott, Ariz.; Fire Up Pizza, Durango, Colo.; Bar-B-Q Pit, Madill, Okla.; Cotton Alley Café, Natchez, Miss.; Half Shell Oyster House, Biloxi, Miss.
Fifer and I are still speaking. How many people would you join for seven weeks on a bike, with just one three-day break (when our wives met us in Natchez)? Right: Probably nobody. Fifer and I have known each other many years and have ridden many miles, but we each discovered new and profound ways that the other is annoying. We still hugged when it was over. (A woman named Blanche, who runs the tiny Knox Hotel in Nahunta, Ga., told us she regularly gets bike touring guests and “quite often it’s clear they have had enough of each other.” Fifer and I said simultaneously, “Tell me about it.”)
Most amazing roads to ride. Arizona’s Hwy. 64, from the Grand Canyon east to Cameron (good shoulder and grand landscape, but riding it westbound uphill for 25 miles was a huge ordeal); New Mexico’s Hwy. 64, from Taos to Cimarron (gentle switchbacks up to the last pass in the Rockies, then a 20-mile ride along the Cimarron River out onto the Great Plains); Oklahoma’s Hwy. 7, from Altus to Lawton (busy road and unremarkable towns, but the ride is an Eden of green prairie-scape); Tammany Trace bike path (27 miles of scrupulously maintained path between Covington and Slidell, La., on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain); Hwy. 90 in the Florida Panhandle between Milton and Madison (a decent shoulder for bikes and an amazement of forests, bayous, fragrances and birds, when you’re not in Tallahassee, at least).
Worst ride. By far, Arizona’s Hwy. 64, from Williams to the Grand Canyon. Like riding a bike on a balance beam through a monster truck rally. The shoulder was either absent or narrow and crumbling, with a drop-off if you strayed an inch or two. All of that amid endless fleets of buses and recreational vehicles blasting by on your left, occasionally inches from your elbow. Given another opportunity, Fifer and I now would say “to hell with it” and take our bikes on the Grand Canyon Railway, which runs the 60 miles between Williams and the canyon.
Most surreal moment. A staff member at the Rio Grand Gorge Visitors Center in north-central New Mexico insisted that Fifer and I leave. The reason? Cars and trucks only. No bikes allowed.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in south Minneapolis.