Bicycle Across the Country
My first attempt at long-distance bicycle touring was cycling across the USA from Jacksonville, Florida to San Francisco. Coast to coast...nobody ever accused me of being an under-achiever. Before then, I would have considered myself a weekend warrior, cycling twenty to thirty miles on the weekends. Why I originally decided to cycle for months on end to cross the country isn’t entirely clear to me. I suspect it had to do with my stagnant work environment and the feeling of life passing me by. My trip began in mid-April and ended nearly three months later. In total, I cycled over 4,000 miles and crossed twelve states. To this day, those numbers seem staggering to me. The truth is, if I can do it, then just about any other able-bodied person can do it. All that’s needed is the drive and the love of nature. Spending your life in an office from nearly daylight til dark is enough motivation for anyone!
There are three common routes to cross the USA by bike: the Northern Route (4,244 miles), the Transamerica (4,626 miles), and the Southern Route (3,050 miles). Wanting to see friends and family along the way, I chose a combination of the Southern Route and the Transamerica. Starting in Jacksonville, Florida, I cycled west to Austin, TX, from there I headed north to Fort Collins, CO, and then west once again to San Francisco, CA. Any combination of the three routes will get you cross country, USA.
One of the biggest mistakes I made was deciding to cycle east to west from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Why was this a mistake? Well, the prevailing winds blow from west to east, which meant for a large portion of my trip I was cycling into a headwind. At one point, in Wyoming the headwind was so strong, I was essentially cycling in place, forcing me to hitch a ride from a passing farm truck who then dropped me off at the next hotel to wait out the storm. If I had to do it over again, I would start from the Pacific Ocean and head east. However, either direction is doable. Maybe the best route is to start from your own backdoor.
Do not be the cyclist that starts the journey overloaded with cheap, heavy gear. If you are that person, be prepared to learn your lesson as I did. I left with the kitchen sink, and about halfway through my journey, I dumped my cheap, oversized gear for lightweight, durable gear that weighed half as much (and probably cost twice as much, but worth it!). If you can afford it, start your journey with quality, lightweight gear that will last you a lifetime. And, if you have never been on a multi-day bike ride, then find someone who has and have them help you pick out your gear and sort through your bags before you leave. Don’t forget, you can always pick up supplies along the way. If you have to keep re-packing the same things you have never used, it’s time to let go of some things. You don’t need more clothes than you could possibly wear. Just be sure you have the right clothing for whatever weather you may encounter. You can combine your laundry days with days to meet up with friends. So what does my set-up look like? Go to my interview with Outside Magazine to get the complete list.
The cost of bicycle touring is relative to your comfort level and budget. I’ve heard of people cycling around the world on as little as $5 a day. This is an extreme example, which involves wild camping every night and living off pasta and canned tuna.
When I cycled across the US, I budgeted $1,000 per month or roughly $33 per day. This allowed me to stay in a hotel or Airbnb every few nights. I used my hotel nights as an opportunity to take a real shower, wash my clothes in the sink, and to get a good night’s sleep. Although, funny enough, by the end of my trip I felt cleaner and more comfortable in my tent, than staying at a hotel.
In addition to the cost of being on the road, don’t forget about the initial cost of your bike and gear. If you are buying a new bike and gear, then it can cost another $2,000 to $4,000 depending on your set-up. Again, I suggest buying quality gear the first time.
On my journey across the USA, I wild camped four or five nights each week. Wild camping is essentially finding a discreet place in the woods or alongside the road to camp for the night. I’ve slept in apple orchards, on the bank of the Mississippi River, on beaches, in cornfields, between vineyard rows, in the snow, the desert, and the list goes on. And the best part, it’s a free place to stay and an easy way to stay within your budget.
If wild camping doesn’t appeal to you, you are in luck because there are many other options. I would review the list in my mind to determine where and how I was going to sleep the coming night. Here’s the list:
Couchsurfing.com - A community of people around the world who offer travelers their spare bedroom or couch to sleep on for the night.
Warmshowers.org - An app similar to Couchsurfing, only for bicycle tourists.
Churches - In small towns, I never hesitated to stop by the local church to ask the pastor if it was alright to pitch my tent behind the church, which almost always worked.
Campgrounds - The US has great, affordable campgrounds. Plus, it’s an opportunity to take a shower.
Hotels/motels - Can be expensive, but worth it, especially, in poor weather. You may save the cost of a hotel for when you really have no other choice due to inclement weather or other unavoidable circumstance.
If you have a cell-phone, you can make arrangements while you are en route.
As for food, my options varied depending on where I was. At times, I would shop at the grocery store and prepare food on my small camp stove. Other times, I would eat one big meal a day at a restaurant, then snack on energy bars and trail mix for the rest of the day. When I felt like I wasn’t getting enough fruits and vegetables, I would stop at a grocery store and fill up on fresh produce. Regularly, I was the weirdo in front of the grocery store munching on a bunch of raw broccoli. Your body is a complex system and will tell you what it needs, if you are listening. Food is your fuel, so eat healthily and get lots of protein. You will likely burn whatever calories you take in on the ride.
Solo or with a group?
Deciding to cycle solo or with friends is merely a question of personal preference. As an introvert, I had no problem cycling alone for the majority of my trip. Occasionally, friends would meet up with me and join me on my journey for a week or two. But for the bulk of my trip, I preferred to go at it alone, at my own pace. That’s not to say people don’t cycle in groups, in fact, many times I crossed paths with groups of friends or families cycling together. There are many advantages to cycling with others. For example, you are more noticeable on the road and have an added sense of security at night knowing there is someone else camping beside you. A disadvantage of cycling with others is that you may feel stuck being on someone else’s schedule or dependent on another’s budget that is either much more than you are willing to spend, or much less than you are comfortable with. As in life, there is no right or wrong answer to making this decision. It should be based on your personality and the other known variables.
Danger and Fear
Sure, some roads were more dangerous than others, but that is part of the journey of life. I realized early on the importance of making my presence known, therefore I wore a bright yellow cycling vest. Believe me, it is not a fashion show out there. In addition to a neon yellow cycling vest, wear a bright yellow helmet and keep your bike light turned on when visibility is poor or when you are on a road with no shoulder. Not all shoulders are created equal.
As for other dangers and fears, most of them originate in your own thoughts. Many nights, I lay awake in my tent listening to every sound in the darkness, so spooked I couldn’t sleep. Of the hundred or so nights I have wild camped in the wilderness, there was only one night when my fearful thoughts were valid.
One night, while cycling through Louisiana, I struggled to find a place to sleep and was forced to make the decision to sleep at the edge of a swampy creek. By then, the sun had already gone down, and the Louisiana mosquitos came out in force. Wasting no time, I threw up my tent, dove inside, and struggled to fall asleep. That’s when the real fun began. As I lay there, I kept hearing something run past my tent. At first, I thought it was probably just some small varmint running through my camp looking for food, but then after a while, my curiosity got the best of me and I looked out of my tent into the mosquito-filled night, and guess what I found? You got it, it was a gator. The moment I looked out of my tent I saw the tail of an alligator slither past me and into the nearby creek. I was freaked out, to say the least, but what could I do? It was pitch black, in the middle of the night, and I was exhausted from a full day of cycling. Looking back at that night, I should have packed up my gear and left, but I didn’t. Instead, I dug my small pocket knife out of my bag and lay there in fear the rest of the night. Luckily, nothing bad happened that night, but from then on I made sure to find a campsite earlier when there was still enough daylight to make a safe choice. Lesson learned.
Is it dangerous to bicycle tour? Sure, you have to be constantly cognizant of passing cars and know when to get out of the weather. But the way I see it is, it’s way more dangerous to live in San Francisco or any other big city, than cycling across the country on back roads.
For the Love of Bicycle Touring
Now that we’re over our fears, let me pass on a note I found in the guestbook at the Merryville Museum in Louisiana. At the museum, there is an old cabin on the property which they amazingly offer to bicyclists. That night, when I opened the guestbook, to sign it, this note fell out.
“Bicycle touring is a way of life and once you do it everything changes. Life becomes simple, yet rewarding. Follow what is natural and everything will fall into place. I’m thankful to have stayed at the museum’s cabin in the small town of Merriville. Thank you for providing.” - Unsigned.
I couldn’t have said it more eloquently. “Bicycle touring is a way of life and once you do it everything changes.” In my opinion, everyone should find a way to take a similar journey, whether it is cycling across the country or hiking the Appalachian Trail. The world would be a better place for it and we would all be a step closer to finding our true self or purpose. If a part of you feels the road calling, go for it. I promise you won’t regret it.