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Retrospection

It is pretty much impossible to sum up the 69 days we spent cycling across America. There is no way to suitably convey the range of feelings and thoughts I have about our trip now that its over. But here’s a few random pieces of my mind.

I was quite worried before starting this ride that I would end up not enjoying it, that my sabbatical would have been wasted and I’d regret the whole thing. I’m greatly relieved and a little bit proud to say that I loved it all. In no way am I now ‘hooked on cycling’ or fanatical about bicycles being the Greatest Thing Ever. But neither am I about to sell my trusty Surly when I get home. No, there are plenty more two-wheeled adventures awaiting me.

My overarching reflection is that this was not so much a journey or a trip as it was a change of lifestyle. We quickly got into a daily routine that we got used to. The tent was our bedroom. The bike was our office. The diner was our kitchen, dining room – and often our living room. Each day was a separate entity – we learnt to not think ahead to the final destination but just to focus on today and enjoy it. On the plus side this meant we didn’t notice the enormity of the task we were working on and the miles and miles rolled by ‘in the background’. But inevitably it also served to dampen the feeling of accomplishment at the end. The Pacific coast, although truly a welcome sight, was not so much a finish line for an epic challenge but more a visual reminder that our adventure was over and normal life must now resume. That is, until the next adventure…

I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciated having company along the way. As an introvert I always need some ‘Graham-time’ to myself each day (some of you have learnt this the hard way!) – but when you’re cycle touring you get more than enough of this as you sit on your bike, enveloped in your own thoughts. So for all the time off the bike you’re keen to have people around to chat to and share things with. Having done this trip, I would never consider doing a cycle tour on my own. I know I just wouldn’t enjoy it. Experiences like these have to be shared.

Things I’ve learnt

  • To be Relaxed by Design, not Relaxed by Complacency. I wouldn’t say I’m neurotic or a stress-head but I’ve always preferred to plan ahead and stick to schedules and make decisions based on pros and cons etc. But I do tend to be a risk-taker as well. Right from day 1 of this trip we rarely knew where we would end up that day. We would take each day as it came, making decisions as we went along. We could afford to do this because we knew we had plenty of ‘contingency time’ for things to go wrong. If we had to take an extra couple of days here or there, it wouldn’t matter in the long run. If one of the group was tired or injured or just fed-up, we could do a short day – it wasn’t a big deal. We would try to give ourselves multiple options for food and accommodation each day so our plans were flexible enough to be changed as the day progressed. Other cyclists we met had meticulously planned out each days ride and accommodation before starting their trip, and would either delight in telling us how well they’d stuck to it or moan/worry because they hadn’t stuck to it. And other cyclists were at the other end of the scale, stuttering across the States by themselves, staying in silly places and eating poorly because they couldn’t be bothered to plan at all. We definitely saw the benefits of being, as I have called it, Relaxed by Design (having a plan, yes, but planning contingency into it) rather than being Relaxed by Complacency (having no plan!) or indeed Not Relaxed At All.
  • To be Proactively Friendly. My default reaction and response to strangers used to be typically English (distrust anyone you don’t know – even if only subconsciously, mind my own business and never to initiate conversation with someone you don’t know unless you absolutely have to). Small town America has taught me (and it wasn’t easy) to do the opposite: to always strike up a conversation with someone who interests you (we stood out a lot as cycle tourers in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere!) and always offer to help if someone looks like they could use help but isn’t asking for it. The worst that can happen is they say they’re fine and don’t need any help. I have come to think of this as being ‘Proactively Friendly’ – and I shall try to stick to it when I get home. Do remind me of this!
  • To be content in all circumstances. We stayed in some fantastic homes and even had a few nights in nice hotels. Other nights we were bitten to death by mosquitoes or almost drowned in our own sweat inside a cramped, smelly tent. Some evenings we were plied with free beers, wine and amazing food by generous hosts. Other evenings we made do with tuna and crisp sandwiches and warm water-bottle water. Some days we rode downhill along smooth bike paths past gorgeous scenery. Other days we struggled uphill along rutted roads with no shoulders as coal trucks whizzed by honking their horns. There are so many ups and downs on a cycle tour. You really can’t get one without the other. But as the trip progressed I really felt I was developing a calmness and a sense of peace and contentment about all these circumstances. I live in quite comfortable circumstances back home and I feel strongly that it is important to periodically throw yourself out of that comfort zone and check that you’re not relying on it, that you can still keep smiling when things aren’t so cushy.

Things I would do differently next time

  • If I was to blog, I would definitely take a laptop/tablet. It is simply too much effort trying to a) type on a phone and b) make use of library PCs which are mostly time-limited and dead-slow. It also took a stupid amount of time getting photos uploaded as I typically had to copy them off my iPhone to a PC, optimize them, rotate them as necessary (why oh why does the iPhone save photos in a fixed orientation despite the fact it knows which way is up?!) and then upload them one by one (until I found this brilliant little plugin – after the trip had finished!).
  • I really regretted not taking a dedicated digital camera (I made do with my iPhone 4 camera). There were so many great shots I didn’t take because I knew the wide-angle ‘capture the world’ view from my iPhone just wouldn’t be worth it. You really need a camera with a good (x10) optical zoom.
  • I would make ‘business cards’ with my trip details (name, email, blog URL etc) to give to people I meet along the way. Much easier than faffing around finding a scrap of paper and a pen and they’re less likely to lose it. And less pressure than asking the person if they would like your email address/blog details! I would have a fairly clear photo of myself on it too to remind them who I am!
  • I wish I’d meticulously noted down everything I ate along the way. It really would be disgusting unbelievable!
  • We made good use of warmshowers.org but I’m sure we could have had even more encounters with generous, fascinating folk if we’d also made use of couchsurfing.org. I think I’m definitely going to embrace the couchsurfing/warmshowers philosophy when I get home and when I next go traveling.
  • We didn’t take cooking equipment with us. This was for three reasons: 1) its heavy and bulky to carry and we were trying to travel as light-weight as possible, 2) its not easy to buy fresh produce each day and cook healthy (or at least appetizing) meals at the end of a long ride – and you very quickly tire of food from tins and packets, and 3) eating in diners etc is a fantastic way to meet locals and other cyclists and generally get a fuller experience of the local culture. However, I definitely plan to take cooking equipment with me on my next trip. Towards the end of our trip we all became very comfortable with the daily routine of camping and cycling and felt that we’d now be much more comfortable with the additional tasks of grocery shopping and cooking for ourselves. It would be different but very satisfying.

Lastly, thanks to all of you for sharing this adventure with me vicariously through my blog and for all the comments on posts and emails I’ve received along the way – they’ve been a huge encouragement. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I know I have :-)

The Stats

The 'pot-hole count' value sadly wrapped around after the 9999th pot-hole, so here is the odometer reading instead

 

Here’s some facts and figures from the trip. I didn’t bother to note down random things along the way such as the number of roadkill deer we passed (lots) or the number of McDonalds we went to (even more), but the following should provide a useful overview:

  • Total number of days: 69
  • Number of rest-days: 7
  • Total miles cycled: 4205
  • Number of states crossed: 11
  • Average miles per day (incl. rest-days): 61
  • Average miles per day (excl. rest-days): 68
  • Total time spent on the bike: 339 hrs, 21 mins
  • Average speed over the whole trip: 12.4mph
  • Estimated number of pedal rotations (assuming 85 rpm): 1,730,515
  • Total cost of accommodation*: $153 (about £93.33)
  • Average accommodation cost per night*: $2.30 (about £1.40)

* This excludes the splurge in Jackson, WY – which was a detour and not on the route anyway!

For a detailed breakdown of the trip on a day-to-day basis, you can view this Google Spreadsheet, which is also embedded below:

Day 69 – It’s the end of the world as we know it

(53 miles)

We’re leaving together,
But still it’s farewell
And maybe we’ll come back,
To earth, who can tell ?
I guess there is no one to blame
We’re leaving ground
Will things ever be the same again?

It’s the final countdown…

Yes – we awoke to the glorious beats of The Final Countdown by Europe played through tinny iPhone speakers. Still – nothing could dampen our mood today, not even the incessant drizzle that accompanied us as we sped through our morning ritual of packing up camp. Normally we are pretty much silent machines in the morning, hardly uttering a word to each other as we all sleepily go about our packing and preparations. But today there was banter and excited discussion right from the start. Questions kept tumbling out. Would the 36 miles to Astoria feel long or short? Would we be ecstatic or melancholy? Would Astoria (which is after all the official end of the TransAmerica) feel like the end or would we only feel like we’d finished once we got to the beach at Seaside? Only time would tell, so for the last time we wolfed down our breakfast pop-tarts and hopped on our bikes. We were riding to the coast!

A suitably atmospheric start to the last day

This Cycle Tour is brought to you by Pop-Tarts

 

Mother Nature wasn’t going to make it easy for us though. We rode through some fairly persistent rain for much of the next two hours as we approached the coast. I kept thinking I could smell the ocean and hear seagulls. Route 30, which we had been following from Portland, had been re-surfaced recently along the last 5 miles or so into Astoria so we had a great smooth roll into town.

We were quiet now. I guess the others were thinking similar thoughts to me. This was it. 69 days. Over 4000 miles. Too many mountain passes to mention. Scores of kind folk who’ve offered us hospitality and help in other ways. I tried to remember each amazing moment along the trip but I couldn’t focus. There were so many thoughts flitting through my mind, but at the same time a real calmness. This wasn’t an exhausted, triumphant sprint down the final straight in front of an adoring crowd of onlookers. This was a gentle coast into a nondescript town where no-one knew that we’d been cycling for so long just to get here and that this was a momentous occasion for us. We pulled up at a busy diner, locked our bikes and went in for a celebratory late breakfast. We all agreed the real finish would be down the road in Seaside where we could actually reach the ocean ‘proper’.

Astoria. Not a classic finale.

 

Feeling brave and (more significantly) lazy, we decided we could ride along the 101 bridge which is fairly narrow and very busy. But it would save us about 8 miles and it was flat! So we breathed in, pedaled hard and raced across it. I can clearly remember thinking to myself ‘Well, I wouldn’t be sooooo bothered if I got run over now as we’ve officially reached the end.’ Obviously the long days on the road were starting to take their toll of my sanity.

Approaching the 101 bridge (this shoulder disappeared soon after!)

 

Rather boringly we made it across without incident and immediately it felt like we were on the home straight. Rather than racing to the end we relaxed and cruised along. I can’t describe how satisfying it was, knowing that we were completing what we’d set out to do so long ago. Finally there was nothing left to plan for, worry about or decide on. My brain and my body could now relax – they’d done their jobs well!

The final road to the beach was perfect for a coast-to-coast ride – a quiet town road from the highway that ran perpendicular to the beach and ended abruptly at the sand with a glimpse of the ocean sandwiched between dunes. I swapped my cycling shoes for flip-flops and we pushed our bikes along a sand path through the dunes and onto the beach.

Pushing our bikes down to the water. If anyone makes a comment about us 'not cycling all the way' I shall hit them over the head with my bicycle.

 

I stopped briefly at the crest of the dune as Matt and Pat walked on ahead. I was struck by how close we’d become over the last 10 weeks. Pat was a total stranger before the first day of riding but now, having shared so much, we would all be life-long friends. We’d always have this shared experience that no-one else would totally understand the way we did. And I realised how much I owed these guys for making the trip what it was. I would have hated to do it on my own. You need companions to share the experiences with, to motivate you and even sometimes to hold you back and talk sense into you. I thank God for bringing us together for this adventure. I’m constantly amazed that we formed such a good team. It cannot have been just coincidence.

We got a good few strange looks from other beach-goers as we struggled to roll our heavily-laden bikes 100m through the soft sand towards the water. The sun had come out (for which I will eternally be grateful!) and the Pacific looked beautiful – all the more so because we had been looking forward to this moment for so long. We took photos as we dipped our front wheels (and quite a bit more!) in the water. We stood there for quite a while just enjoying that sensation of not having anywhere to ride to. Then someone uttered the magic word ‘ice-cream’ and we all picked up our bikes and headed back to the road.

Contemplating the End

...and relax!

Anyone want a bike...?

 

Ice-cream seemed the most appropriate way to celebrate as it had become a favourite reward at the end of a long day’s riding. It seriously is a cyclists best friend!

Just as we were finishing our cones and I was checking my now substantial beard (ok, facial hair) for any drops I’d missed, Pat’s mum Sylvia and sister Alexandra show up. They’d driven up from San Jose, CA (about 11hrs away) to pick Pat up and give Matt and I a ride back to Portland. Sylvia immediately insists on buying us all another round of ice-cream which obviously we don’t turn down!

The Last Ice-Cream

 

The bikes were loaded onto the back and top of the car and we all piled in. I imagine some people develop a dislike of cars after doing such a long cycle trip. Not me – my appreciation for them has simply deepened! I’m so much more aware of how useful they can be and how much time and effort they save you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still keen to see how long I can last without them when I get back to Cambridge. But I certainly have not become ‘anti-car’ as a result of this cycle trip.

Matt's ludicrous tan-lines

Not spectacular, but it still looks silly

If these were geared, I would totally do a road-trip in one!

No more riding.

 

As we drove back inland towards Portland the rain started again. Zooming up one hill we spotted a lone cyclist, fully loaded and wearing waterproofs, struggling up the incline. He appeared to be barely moving. I’d like to say we cheered him on as we swept past, but I’m ashamed to say our response was more of a Nelson Muntz (The Simpsons) “Ha ha!”. Oh the fickleness of the cyclist with a ride!

Sylvia had booked two rooms in a hotel in Portland with ‘points’. It was a great feeling to relax in comfort at the end of the journey (although the stench of drying tents literally dampened the atmosphere). We all went out to a steakhouse for a final meal together – a last chance to pig out before returning to a more responsible diet. I’m gonna miss the whole ‘calorie-loading’ aspect of the trip!

And then we headed to bed. Tomorrow Pat would be driving south to California and Matt and I would be catching a greyhound bus up to Seattle for a few days of being a normal tourist. The adventure was over. But we all agreed there was definitely another adventure in the pipe-line with our names on it. Perhaps South America…?

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Day 68 – Close, but no cigar

(62 miles)

60 miles is now considered an easy, short day so we had a relaxed breakfast, chatted with Dennis some more about our plans for the rest of our time in the States, and then set off into the Portland drizzle.

The terrain now is fairly easy. None of the climbs are long, the gradients are still reasonable, and the road surfaces in Oregon are much better than, say, Colorado and Wyoming.

Crossing St Johns Bridge in Portland

Thank you Oregon - I feel so at home now!

We stopped for the night in the town of Clatskanie, just 36 miles from Astoria, the official end of the TransAmerica route. We could have got there today but there’s nowhere good to camp in Astoria and anyway we wanted our last day to be easy with lots of time to enjoy it. We had our last dinner as a three (Mexican. I’m getting quite good at ordering ‘custom’ dishes now: “Well, what I really want is… but I don’t see it on the menu. Is there any way you could…? Oh – that’s great, thank you!”), pitched our tents for the last time (in the city park, in the rain), and had a preemptive celebratory drink (chocolate milk – Drink of Champions).

Tomorrow it all ends.

Day 67 – Portlandia

(75 miles)

Today we were heading to Portland. This felt like a significant milestone as we’ll be flying out of here on August 2nd. So in a way it marks our end-point. And we were excited because everyone has only good things to say about Portland.

The only noteworthy aspect of the morning’s ride was a series of tunnels that we had to negotiate. Before each one there was a little button for cyclists to press that would cause a big warning light to flash for a minute or so. The idea was that it would warn other road users that a cyclist was in the tunnel and that they should try extra hard to avoid killing said cyclists – just for the duration of the tunnel. Then we were fair game again.

Hit the button and pray hard!

A short tunnel to finish. Fun and scary. As Parry would say - 'a great combination'.

So for five tunnels we hit the buttons, pedalled like crazy, and, once inside the tunnel, hollered and screamed like little children, simultaneously amusing ourselves with the echoes and reacting to the unnerving non-directional thunder of cars and trucks whizzing past with no lights on. Better than a roller-coaster for getting your blood pumping and your heart racing!

Riding up the ramp onto the Interstate bridge across the Columbia River into Portland

Its deafening riding between the highways on the interstate!

Our final state crossing.

Portland airport. About three weeks too early!

 

In Portland we stayed with Dennis. Dennis had stumbled across this blog a while back, followed our progress and got in touch in case we needed anything when we came through Portland. Like true cycle tourers we took full advantage of his offer of hospitality. Portland is huge but amazingly Dennis lives just a few blocks away from the marked ACA route into the downtown area. Later when we headed out for a drink and some food we saw it was also a really sweet neighbourhood to live in with loads of independent restaurants, cafes and bars all just oozing their own unique flavour of life.

We popped into the Hopworks Bikebar for a nosey-around and a pint. They served a beer which they modestly proclaimed had been voted ‘Best lager in the world’ (now there’s a job…). Naturally we felt it was our duty to verify this claim. 16 ounces later we weren’t convinced. But it was a fun, lively place. Think they could have gone a lot further with the bike theme though – there’s basically a lot of bike frames above the bar serving area and that’s it!

Popped into the Bike Bar for a cheeky pint

Portland is colourful

 

Side note: A UK pint is equal to 1.25 US pints. When Dennis asked Matt for a ‘small’, Matt saw my US pint that I’d just ordered and ordered the same thing, assuming it was a small.

You know you’re going to a popular place when you have to queue outside the restaurant for 20 minutes on a Monday night. I can’t remember the name of it but this little Mexican place was buzzing with locals! You queue up, place your order then go find a table. They bring you your order, you eat, and then you ‘bus’ your table yourself (clear everything to the kitchen like a waitress would usually do). I really liked the no-nonsense home-cooking they were churning out – and by the crowds of people queuing, so does everyone else round here.

As well as being massively cycle-friendly, Portland is famous for it’s microbreweries. And a bunch of them seem to have figured out that people like taking their dogs to the pub and hanging out in the pub’s outside area with a pint and their dog (and usually other human friends too). I reckon this is something that would work well back home – having some friendly dogs around in the beer garden really makes for a fun, sociable atmosphere, with the dogs almost acting as gateways between the different social groups. Just a thought…

Dennis - a top bloke

 

 

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