Great America Loop On Our Tandem
What we did this summer
By Peter D'Entremont
It must be love. My future wife has joined me for a little ride, a simple loop of 30 miles. She had just purchased her own beautiful French 10 speed bike, a red Gitane. So off we went and I took the lead. I knew the route. She kept pace, more or less, and I glanced back occasionally to confirm that she was nearby. We never stopped until the end of the ride. No water, no food, no rest. Normal. That’s when I saw she was dehydrated and in a cold sweat. Oh.
I got my first bike at 10. All my friends had bikes long before me. I lived far from any paved road and, to my parents, a bike seemed inappropriate. I had a late start but I’ve been making up for it ever since.
A bike means many things to a kid. It’s the dream of flying made real with an expanding universe, personal freedom, growing up. In the summertime it’s a daily adventure. In the adult world it’s a toy to be put away. Some of us, though, don’t quite put that bike behind us. In college I was smitten by my roommate’s Peugeot 10 speed. This was not mere transportation. This was sport where human muscle power is transformed into dance and speed. Not much compares to that feeling when you and your bike are flying down a twisting mountain road or you slice through the air on a flat straightaway with your head down and legs churning in top gear.
Now it’s not so much about the bike as it is about that 10 year old in all of us reaching out and touching the world in a unique way, experiencing it at 10 or 15 miles per hour, sometimes faster or slower, serene or terrifying. It’s an alternate universe of back roads, barking dogs, quizzical gazes and the natural forces that affect your day in every detail - what you wear, see, eat, how you feel. This is about travel, by bicycle, by an average couple interested in seeing the world.
THE COAST TO COAST TOUR
Ann Louise and I just finished a coast to coast road trip combining automobile and bicycle. We traveled through 23 states, stopping in most of them to take short bicycle trips on different types of trails. Some were in cities and some in rural areas. After over twenty years touring through much of the country by bicycle alone we decided to see more of it in a single trip. The trip took about two months, same as some of our other bike trips. Those bike trips covered about 2,000 miles. This one almost 10,000 miles.
The basic pattern we followed gave us a chance to stay in one place for a day or two and see it at those slower bicycle speeds. We also avoided, for the most part, interstate highways, traveling a few hundred miles at a time and seeing a greater variety of scenery and towns. The car allowed us to carry more stuff, for camping or bicycle equipment, giving us many options each day. It was also a little more complicated. With only the bike, you carry everything day after day. Each day you pack up and head out on the road. This time we had more things to decide, car or bicycle, which clothes to wear, where to park the car. It was worth the extra decision making.
We visited parks, cities, and towns – many of them. This was also a “cousins tour” visiting all my Wintermute cousins in Tennessee, New Mexico, and Washington state. We tested many types of bike trails, paved and unpaved, crowded and empty. Here’s some of the highlights, in chronological order.
Chattanooga, Tennessee. It has a lovely bike trail on the river and an impressive aquarium.
Little Rock, Arkansas. Another nice river trail, mostly on the other side of the river from the town. It ends at the new President Clinton Library. Also took in a minor league ball game in a delightful downtown stadium.
Sedalia, Missouri is a pretty town on the Katy trail and it caters nicely to bicyclists.
Oklahoma City has another nice riverside trail but it was hard to find a place to eat.
Albuquerque, New Mexico. One of our favorite states, having visited it before, has one of our favorite cities, specifically the Old Town of Albuquerque.
National Parks. We stayed at Mesa Verde in Colorado, magical place high up in the clouds. In Utah Arches National Park was too crowded but, on a bicycle, we were able to skip the line of cars and go directly to the visitor center via a bicycle path. Redwoods in Northern California are everything they say about the trees. It's a sacred honor to be among them.
We crossed Nevada in a day on route 50, the “loneliest road”. It was pretty lonely but we’ve been on lonelier ones on our bicycle. Fascinating sky and horizon all day. Reno is a pretty nice city with, again, a very nice bike trail on the river and through downtown. 100 degrees plus out here and into California.
113 degrees in Redding California. 65 degrees on the coast after we crossed over the mountains.
Eugene, Oregon. The Oregon coast was too crowded to stay there so we lucked out with Eugene. Again, a nice, maybe the best, river trail we saw. Downtown was very nice. Walking and bicycling friendly.
Ilwaco, Washington is near Cape Disappointment. Corps of Discovery, Lewis and Clark, history abounds here. Fascinating place in so many ways that the few days we spent there were just enough to make us start planning the next visit.
San Juan Islands, Washington featured a nice ferry ride and a rather hilly bike ride around the island. A motor would have been nice. Nice tourist town is Friday Harbor, similar to Bar Harbor in Maine.
Cascades. We didn’t ride a bike here but the drive was wonderful despite the ever present threat of being rear ended by cars and trucks racing up and down the mountain roads. This is true in every mountain area we drove, east and west. When we could stop we saw beautiful mountainsides, waterfalls and river.
Parks again. Grand Tetons in Wyoming is absolutely gorgeous. We rode a nicely paved bike path down to Jackson Hole and back. The Tetons were in view the whole time. The path was often near the road and I think people on the road, despite their air conditioned vehicles, envied us.
Driving through Wyoming we stopped at the town of Thermopolis, known for its Dinosaur Museum. It’s not just a collection of bones but a fascinating display of the evolution that culminated in the dinosaur eras. There are exquisite fossils of all kinds plus actual dinosaur bones and replicas. This area, once a sea, is a treasure house of dinosaur remains.
Still Wyoming, Devils Tower is stunning and peaceful at the same time. Even with many people around you there was a church-like hush when gazing up at it. And you can climb it! Seems daunting.
South Dakota, the Black Hills, has Custer State Park. It’s an amazing park, especially for a state park, with its bison and rock formations. Nearby is Mount Rushmore and, even more impressive, the Crazy Horse Monument, still under construction, with its very impressive museum of native American history and artifacts. This is where it hits you. Native tribes should be in charge of these sacred lands where so many of our national treasures have been kept.
In Nebraska we visited the Sand Hills area and spent two days on the Cowboy Trail. Peaceful trail, poorly maintained though, through rolling dunes and big sky.
Minnesota has some of the best bike trails in the country. The Twin Cities are well known for their urban trails but their statewide rail trails are extensive, nicely paved, and go through interesting scenery and towns.
Chicago, Illinois, has perhaps the best engineered urban bike tail we’ve seen. It follows lake Michigan with much of it in parks. It even has separate trails for bikes and pedestrians. There are trash and recycling bins everywhere along the trail but none were used. Trash was everywhere. Chicago may need some better social engineering too.
Columbus, Indiana is known for it’s embrace of good mid-20th century architecture. It also has a very nice bike loop around the city, through quiet streets and paths. We found the town to be a useful, quiet, way to ease our way back home.
It’s a vast country we have and traveling west of the Mississippi impresses you like no travel east of the river can. The open spaces, yes, but also the magnificent variety of landscapes and towns, history too. This road trip had less of the up close connections that a bicycle only trip affords, although there were some of those too, especially while bicycling. It helped that we were going relatively short distances each day or going nowhere at all. This was a different kind of trip, one with very few destinations, rather a series of pauses. A motor vehicle (or a train) gets you from place to place while a bicycle lets you drink it in.