Why Ride a Bicycle across the Country?

December 4, 2007
7 min. read

This post is part of the Trans-Am series.

I have been asked many times why I wanted to ride a bicycle across the county. Having completed the trip, the question became easy to answer. Before I left, I’m not sure I even could answer it.

I am a bicentennial baby, born in 1976. This is the same year the Bikecentennial route was created as a celebration of our 200 years as a country. Thousands of cyclists rode across the country on that route during the inaugural year. Many thousands more have crossed the United States on the same route since. The route is still maintained by the same organization with a new name: Adventure Cycling. Their maps are extremely helpful for the bicycle tourist and have kept the same basic route, with slight changes as roads are modified over the years.

All of this is well and good, you say, but it still doesn’t answer the why. The truth is that I didn’t really know. I read a tour report on-line and thought it sounded interesting. Over the years it fermented into a strong desire. I wondered if this was something I could do. I started riding a Trek 520 touring bike in college. I was overweight. No nicer way to say it. Riding 50 miles in a day was a task. This wasn’t because I couldn’t physically do it, my butt just couldn’t handle the time on the bike. Yes, I had the real bike shorts. I tried three different seats. It just didn’t work. All season would be required before I could do two back to back 50 mile days. I couldn’t see myself riding across the country, when you are doing 50+ mile days, every day. The idea was put on the shelf.

I started working at Office Depot as a Business Machine Specialist, while in High School. Lower hours during the school year and full weeks during the summer, I didn’t have much time off. When High School turned to college, I worked as much as I could to help pay for school. Added to that a challenging Engineering curriculum and there wasn’t much time off. Then I started work at a consulting company, pulling crazy hours and throwing myself into my work. The reality was that I needed to get a life, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I had work and not much else. Work was challenging and I enjoyed it, but I was burning myself out.

In 2001, I ran into a man on a recumbent bicycle. The man’s name was Pete, something I didn’t know until months later when we became friends. I asked him so many questions that he graciously answered. Soon after that encounter, I purchased my first recumbent. It would be the first of many to come.

With recumbents came pain free riding. They allow you to ride a bicycle, while you sit in a lazy boy recliner. I started easily riding 50 miles. I rode a century (100 miles) without much problem. I thought back to the first century I rode on an old mountain bike without road tires. That experience is currently in Webster’s as a definition for pain. I had trouble walking for a day or two after that. With the recumbent century, I just had sore legs and nothing else hurt. This was the way to ride.

Now having a way to ride across the country, I began to seriously consider it. I didn’t know if I could actually make it all the way across, physically. That became another reason to do it, just to see if I could. This is the same reason people have climbed mountains and explored new realms.

While the discovery of recumbents was occurring, I started consulting for an Internet startup in my day job. Working 6 and 7 days a week for 80+ hours each week can take a toll. It was challenging and I enjoyed the work, but I was getting further burned out. I needed a vacation that I didn’t feel like I’d had since High School. I had saved up so much vacation time, it was ridiculous.

I finally set a date for the trip and told my boss that I would need 4 months off work. I told him that I would like to come back to work, but would take the time off regardless of a job waiting for me or not. I had over a month of vacation to use and knew I would get a few more paychecks during the trip, even if I was forced to quit. If I needed to find a new job when I got back, so be it. I wound up with two months paid leave (I could pull forward vacation time from the new PTO system in addition to my vacation) and two months without pay. Then I would return to work.

You would be bored with a description of all the small projects I was put on during the months before my departure. I couldn’t do a full term project, because I wouldn’t be around. As never happens (snicker), all the projects ran long. Instead of getting ready for the trip, I was working serious overtime again. I was getting burned out with a vengeance.

So why did I go? Had I known the serious and life changing effect this trip would have on me, I would have come up with a better answer. But the only answer I came up with is this: I had to go. I needed those hours of uninterrupted thought. I needed to figure out if I was doing what I wanted in life. I needed to change something. I needed to see if I could ride a bicycle across the country.

I just had to go. So I went. And it changed my life.

My outlook on so many things is different. The definition of what you actually need to live. We think we need so much more than we do. When life is a bicycle and what you can carry, you have to simplify and ration your belongings. Each hill demands justification for every pound on the bike. For all but the most seasoned bicycle tourists, the first few towns’ post office is a must stop location. You have been on tour for some days and you can’t for the life of you understand why you brought this heavy, useless [fill in the blank]. Then be prepared to do the same thing in another few days, when yet another piece of equipment is voted off of the bicycle. This is an event similar to backpackers, where common hostels and other meeting locations often have a place to leave things that others can take.

There isn’t a month that goes by that I don’t long to be out on the road again for a while. I am now over 5 years from my big trip and I still miss it. The challenge was almost too much for me at first. But it was an emotional triumph to persevere and conquer my weakness.

The experience isn’t the same for everyone. Many on the tour would have only goals in mind. Finishing the tour in a certain amont of time. This is often a necessity due to work schedules and other things. I didn’t finish the trip, due to an accident. But it didn’t matter, as my goal was touring.

I was surprised when I would ask if others had seen the beautiful artesian well or stopped at the museum.

“Nope. But we made our mileage in under 5 hours.”

Who cares? How full of experiences were those miles?

The same is true with life. Are you living life to really live it or are to constantly striving ONLY towards goals and missing life? Is your job and crazy hours caused by the things you surround yourself with and who know rule you? Life can be as simple as a bicycle and being homeless. Everything else is gravy. But too much else is a millstone around your neck.

Live with a purpose and justify all the drains in your life. Live simply. Live happy. Because doing otherwise isn’t really living.

I learned that by riding a bicycle across the country.

Part 48 of 48 in the Trans-Am series.

Series Start | Day 42 - Ash Grove to Pittsburg, KS

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