Quite a lot happened today. First, TheConversation.com published a piece I wrote about the safety of various activities like bicycling. You can read the piece they published here or you can read a slightly different version in the post published between Day 31 and Day 32 (the post is here if you cannot find it).
Second, my oldest son, Josh flew out to Michigan to join me for a week of cycling. This gave me a chance to sleep in and recover a bit from yesterday’s total exhaustion. I am not fully recharged, but at least I can keep my eyes open.
Josh and his bike made it safely to Michigan, but his hydraulic brakes were locked shut when the bike came out of the box. Luckily, a great bike shop was open in downtown Ann Arbor and only two blocks away. Brad, the shop’s bike mechanic, was able to open the brakes and got the bike working like new in no time flat. That saved the day! Brad also recommended a great place for breakfast and we dined outside before setting off.
Our goal was Toledo, Ohio, which meant entering another state. Now there is just Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland to go.
Google Maps did its very best to show my son every type of road surface possible, from new roads to bike trails. We even did quite a few miles of gravel and hard packed dirt. At the end of the gravel section my son said “now I know why you are so exhausted.”
We arrived in Toledo around 5:30. Our hotel faced the local baseball stadium and we picked the perfect night. The local team, the Toledo Mud Hens (the farm team for Detroit Tigers), was playing at 7 pm. Josh picked up two of the cheapest tickets available ($13 each). They turned out to be right behind home base. We sat about 10 feet from a half-dozen major league baseball scouts who were watching the game with their own video cameras, radar guns and laptops.
It was a great experience watching minor league baseball up close. I was tired so we left before the game was over. That wasn’t a problem since our hotel room looked down on the stadium and we finished watching the game from high above. Yes, the Mud Hens beat the Louisville Bats, but the Mud Hens led the whole game so it was not unexpected.
Overall, it was another great day on the road and we even managed to pedal about 57 miles.
It is summer, a time when many people who were sedentary all winter get outside and start being active again. While being active is great, many people become injured when they start playing new sports or ones they haven’t done in years. So, how safe are the various activities done by the typical weekend warrior?
I am personally interested in this question because this summer I am bicycling across the U.S. When people hear a middle aged man is pedaling alone 3,000 miles the first question they ask is, “Is it safe?” Given the near misses and one crash on loose gravel I have had so far this trip my inclination is to say no. Nevertheless, personal experience is no substitute for looking at actual data.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is the government agency that gathers data and makes rules to help reduce the risk of injury or death when using equipment like a bike, golf club or even treadmill. They estimate that total damage, death and injuries from using faulty consumer products costs the U.S. more than $1 trillion a year.
They track the specific types of injury from every kind of sport and make this available online via the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). This database not only tracks sports injuries, but also injuries from contact with any kind of consumer product from ATVs to workshop tools.
The NEISS system has tracked injuries since 1979. It counts only injuries that resulted in a person ending up in a hospital emergency room. Injuries that people take care of at home or leave untreated are not counted.
The NEISS releases data in aggregate form and also as individual case records without people’s name or geographic location. For example, one of the first injuries reported in 2017 is a 21 year old white man who was boxing with a friend while drunk and went to the ER because he was punched in the face.
The overall NEISS data show that bicycling is indeed dangerous. About 455,000 cyclists ended up in the emergency room in 2017. However, other sports and exercise activities have even more injuries. There were half a million ER visits because of injuries received while playing basketball. Going to the gym is the most dangerous with 526,000 people injured using exercise equipment. Maybe all the bike riders, basketball players and gym rats should try something safer like horseback riding since that group only had 49,000 ER visits.
The problem with using aggregate NEISS data to compare the dangers of various sports and activities is that participation rates vary. One reason few people are injured horseback riding is that relatively few people do this compared to the large number shooting hoops in their driveway or at the neighborhood playground.
ATUS shows the most common types of exercise are walking and using exercise equipment and weights, which I consider going to the gym. Using the gym figures as a baseline it is possible to compute a participation adjustment figure for each sport. For example, the data show 2.5 times more people go to the gym on a typical day than play basketball. This means basketball injury figures need to be increased by 2.5 times to make a fair comparison of being hurt in the gym versus being hurt on the court.
What do the adjusted figures show? The most dangerous activity is no longer going to the gym. Instead, it is playing football. The second most dangerous activity is playing hockey. Unfortunately, for me bicycling stays in third place on the list.
Table: Dangerousness of Various Activities Based on ER Visits
The adjustment is not perfect because we should also adjust for the amount of time spent in the activity since the longer people spend doing an activity the more time they have to be injured. Nevertheless, the message is clear for those of you thinking about taking your bike out for a spin on a lovely summer day. Be careful out there.
I am exhausted today. I am not sure how I pedaled the 90 miles from Portland Michigan to Ann Arbor but somehow I got here.
I was exhausted like this once before in southern Michigan. When I was younger a friend convinced me to come out and do the Wolverine 200 Belle Isle Bicycle Marathon in Detroit. This marathon was simple. For about 40 years an island in the middle of the river, next to downtown Detroit, was shut down to all car traffic for one day.
Bicyclists then pedaled round and round the island in an attempt to do 200 miles in 24 hours. The first time I tried, I was only able to do about 150 miles. The second time I did the 200 miles with time to spare. At the end of the 200 miles I was exhausted. I got off my bike after hitting the double century goal and fell asleep in the grass by the side of the road.
I am feeling that kind of exhausted. Two days ago I averaged 13 mph over the day. Yesterday I averaged 12 mph. Today, it is down to 11 mph. That might not seem much but the two miles per hour difference means sitting on the saddle an extra hour. That extra hour hurts my bottom, a lot, especially on Michigan’s roads, which look like the state’s highway department ran out of money years ago. I have not seen roads in such poor condition since Montana.
I need a rest day. The last one was almost two weeks ago in Bismark, North Dakota. My son, however, is flying out and will be here tomorrow. He is expecting to go riding with me. He is also a very strong rider. We did a 70 mile training trip together just before I started this adventure. After the 70 mile ride, I laid on my couch and watched a movie. That was all the energy I had left. He wasn’t tired. Instead he went for a four mile run because he wanted a bit more exercise and then went out with friends.
I will try going to bed immediately. Maybe 10 hours of sleep will help? I will let you know tomorrow.
PS: The big adventure/problem of today was exploding chocolate. I bought some chocolate bars to eat during today’s ride. I ate part of them this morning and then stuck the rest back in my pack and forgot about them. When I got to the hotel I stuck my hand in the backpack and it came out covered in melted chocolate.
When you are exhausted the last thing you want to do is wash chocolate out of your clothes and pick chocolate pieces out of power cords. It took some time, but I think the biggest part of the mess is cleaned up. The proof tomorrow is the bug test. If I cleaned up enough, bugs will not be attracted to me. If I didn’t clean up enough, I will be a bug magnet.
Wow, I pedaled 90 miles and nothing happened today! After weeks of daily adventures, problems and highlights today was very routine. I left the motel around 9:30 and pedaled about 25 miles on a paved bike trail that ended at the western edge of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Then I pedaled through rich and poor neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. One minute I was pedaling by homeless people sleeping on top of a low wall. A few minutes later I was pedaling through a fancy restaurant district, where the patrons were sipping cocktails on outdoor patios.
The eastern edge of Grand Rapids is clearly not a safe place for autos. While leaving the city I had to dodge three different areas filled with the broken glass, plastic and metal of previous car accidents.
In the late afternoon I stopped for more Gatorade. Google decided to update my route during the pause and gave me three choices for the final push into Portland, Michigan. One choice took an extra hour so that one was out.
Of the two remaining, one was very simple (go straight for six miles and then go east for fourteen miles). The other was Google’s recommended route. It took many different roads in a step pattern, but supposedly was 7 minutes faster. I started on the faster step route. After two miles the pavement stopped and gravel roads began. I turned around, pedaled back to town and took the simpler route to my hotel.
I am sorry to disappoint readers who expected more excitement today. Almost any activity can become routine after doing it long enough.
Today was a great bicycling day. What made it great? Conversation. I stayed in a charming bed and breakfast in Ludington, Michigan, called “The Inn at Ludington.” Lars, the owner was very friendly. Since they were fully booked, they had two breakfast seatings. I took the early shift and while the food was good, the conversation was even better. Two of the guests had both served in the US military and both were deployed to Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was fascinating hearing what the war was like from people who were there.
At the end of breakfast, the skies opened and it rained heavily. It was not good cycling weather, so I did something sensible. I went back to sleep until the weather improved. Around 10 AM the sun came back out, so I got ready to leave the Inn. Just as I stepped outside another heavy rain shower doused the area. My first half-hour of pedaling was cold and wet. Luckily that was it for bad weather. While the skies threatened more rain for most of the day, none happened.
The first twenty miles were from Ludington to Hart, Michigan. The ride went by lake homes and even a giant dam. It was pleasant and the speed limit on some of the roads I took was 25 mph. Both I and the cars were going quite slowly. I was crawling slowly because my legs were very tight and the cars were crawling because of the low speed limit signs. I was concerned I would not pedal all the way to my next hotel in Muskegon, but after 45 minutes my muscles loosened up and I was able to start making steady progress.
I stopped in Hart for lunch but could not find an open shop that made sandwiches. I ended up buying a fried fish sandwich from a warming rack in a Mobil gas station. It was only marginally better than eating nothing. I vowed to eat no more gas station sandwiches.
In the town of Hart my day, which was going well, suddenly got much better. Hart begins a very long bike trail that goes for many miles. I knew there was a trail but didn’t know its conditions or length. The conditions were excellent. It was paved, smooth, maintained and well-marked and it went the 40 miles to my hotel.
At the start of the trail I saw another long-distance cyclist. You can pick them out based on the packs they are carrying. I speed up and met Beau. Beau teaches Spanish to grade school students and was pedaling for two weeks with a friend who needed to make a long stop in Hart. Beau was pedaling on ahead. We had a wonderful conversation about biking, travel and life for over four hours of cycling. Riding with someone made me pedal faster. More importantly it made the entire afternoon slip by relatively effortlessly since I focused on the conversation, instead of my aches and the number of miles left to pedal.
After riding with Beau, I was met at my hotel by Professor Pat Smith, from the University of Michigan. Pat and I have written many research papers together over the last decade. It was wonderful chatting with her and her husband over dinner.
Talking to various people at breakfast, during the ride and at dinner made the day a social and more interesting experience. It was not just about putting on more miles and getting to the east coast. It makes me eager to finish the ride and see and hear face-to-face what is happening in your lives.
I am writing this post from Luddington, Michigan, a beach town on the shores of Lake Michigan. I am now two-thirds of way through the trip!
This morning I was in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin. I needed to pedal 57 miles before 1 pm in order to get to the ferry that would take me across the lake.
At home I try to cram as many things into each day as possible and don’t leave much slack in my schedule. On this bike trip lots of unexpected things have happened so I decided that I needed to leave extra early in case something unforeseen occurred.
I left the window shapes in my motel open so that the rising sun would get me up. During the night I was treated to a spectacular lightening and thunderstorm that lasted a long time. With the storm came a torrential rain. I was quite glad the storm was happening while I was safe in the motel.
I was on the road at 6:30 am. My goal was to be at the ferry by 11 am, which would give me two hours in case anything went wrong.
Fond Du Lac has a large number of bike trails. The streets had puddles but the bike trails were dry. I was pedaling along nicely, making good time on a trail when Google maps told me I needed to get off the bike trail and turn right. The bike trail ended, however, with a left hand turn.
I decided to peddle along the sidewalk for a few feet and take the first driveway on the right. There was a puddle at the end of the driveway but I was more concerned with looking for cars driving down the road I was merging onto than splashing through a puddle.
The puddle, however, was not what I expected. It was actually a huge pothole. My front tire went into the pothole and I ended up on the ground. Wow! That was unexpected. Luckily, I was going very slowly.
Another bicyclist was there within one minute, asking if I was okay. I checked the bike. It looked fine. I checked myself. I felt okay. So there was only one thing to do. Get back on the bike and continue pedaling to the ferry.
I spent a lot of time thinking about why I didn’t have a bike crash for the past 30 years and then crashed twice this trip. My conclusion is that I am not getting enough rest and pushing myself each day to my physical limit. Being over-tired and sore is making me sloppy.
The rest of the ride to the ferry was uneventful. I went past numerous dairy farms, many proudly advertising that they provide milk for “Land o’Lakes” products.
I pulled into the ferry terminal at 11 am, which was two hours before when I needed to be there. The boat had very nice lounge chairs on the bow. I took one and then had a long nap in the sun. The boat ride across Lake Michigan was uneventful. The lake was calm and peaceful.
Luddington, Michigan seems like a nice town, but I will not have a long time to explore it since tomorrow I am back on the road to complete the last third of the journey.
Today was a lovely day of bicycling. Using Google Maps is an interesting experience. The program provides turn-by-turn directions. The phone is mounted on my handlebars so when I am using this program I concentrate first on the physical road, then on the surroundings, third on the traffic and then last at the map. I run through this sequence every minute or two. The first three steps are typically the same each time. The last step is many time the surprise.
While the map tells me where to turn, the roads it picks out for bicycling are often a total surprise. Today the roads turned out to be mainly pleasant surprises, with just a few doses of adventure. It is almost as if Google doesn’t want to make biking too easy so it occasionally throws in some gravel some other unexpected situation.
I left the motel in Friendship a little after 8 am this morning. I had the choice, follow state highway 21, which I did yesterday afternoon or try Google’s suggestions for roads which ran in the same direction. I was a bit unsure which to take but the sun was still rising and I was heading due east. This meant on the highway there was the chance some cars and trucks might not see me because they were blinded by the rising sun, so I took the back roads.
The first five miles were lovely. I saw some deer and rabbits. The road was smooth. Life was good. As the miles rolled by the road condition got steadily worse. The sealed road became an unsealed road. Then the unsealed road became a gravel road with a no ATV sign. Just when I thought the road had become as poor as possible for Wisconsin, I found a large tree lying across the road blocking the path. I was able to go under it but the tree closed off the road for any other type of vehicle.
In more western states the poor conditions would go on for many miles but in Wisconsin dirt and gravel roads don’t seem to last very long. About 3 or 4 miles later the road became paved again and the cycling got much easier.
Google sent me through back roads where Amish or Mennonites were living. I passed a girl in a long black dress with a starched white bonnet on her head. I passed a man with a full Amish style beard hitching up a team of horses.
One of the more interesting things for me was their corn fields. Almost all the corn fields I have passed so far are very thick and dense. It is impossible to see through the first row of corn to the second row in most of the fields I have pedaled by. In Amish country, the corn was not spaced tightly together. I could see many rows into the field.
The Amish often don’t use modern technology in an attempt to preserve their ways. It was interesting to see how modern planting, growing and harvesting techniques squeeze more corn into each acre than older methods. This is important because growing food is a key issue as the planet’s population continues to expand.
I had lunch just outside of Berlin, Wisconsin. I was sitting at the bar finishing off my grilled cheese and water when a man walked in and started asking me all kinds of questions about my bike. He was quite excited to see a long distance cyclist in town. We chatted for awhile. His name was Joe and he is interested in pedaling from Wisconsin to the Grand Canyon and wanted to know all the different choices I had made.
Joe also said one of the best bike shops around was located just down the street. Joe and I went to Mike’s Bike Shop (his Facebook page is here). Mike gave the bike a long appraisal and said she was fine for the rest of the trip and didn’t need anything beside air in the tires. You know you are dealing with an honest bike shop when they say nothing needs fixing or repairing right now, even though the bike has 2,500 miles of wear on its components from the training plus cross-country ride.
After leaving the bike shop and saying goodbye to Joe, I finished the day by riding the Mascoutin Valley State Trail. This trail is another abandoned railway line. It was not in as good a condition as some of the other rail-trails I have been on in Wisconsin. Someone clearly understands this because part of the trail is being reconstructed to a much higher standard. It is a shame they didn’t finish the construction before I needed to pedal its length.
The day ended in the Microtel Inn in Fond Du Lac. It is likely at $265 per night to be the most expensive 12 hour motel stay of this trip. I talked to the front desk managers and they said if the Oshkosh Airshow was not taking place the rate for my room would be about $65. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t.
The motel is about two miles from any restaurant so for the first time in my life I called a restaurant. ordered food and had it delivered to my room. It was certainly easier than either walking a long way or getting an Uber/taxi. Plus the food (large salad and a veggie lasagna) was quite good. I might even do this again.
I am off to bed very early. Tomorrow I have a 2 pm ferry ride across one of the Great Lakes (Lake Michigan) to Luddington, Michigan. By using the ferry, I don’t have to pedal through downtown Chicago and other cities like Detroit. The downside of taking the ferry is that I have to pedal all my miles well before the ferry is set to sail so it will be a very early start.
Oh no! Major equipment problems. No, the bike is fine. I am fine. The laptop, however, is dying. I bought this ASUS laptop only 7 months ago. It is all solid state, so it has no moving parts to be destroyed while bicycling. However, the battery is having problems and this morning it took over five minutes to get the machine to power on.
This is a big problem because I charge my phone (needed for maps), camera (so you can see the pictures), and my lights (so cars can see me) all off the laptop. Plus, I write this blog each day on the laptop. If it will not boot again you will hear less from me.
It is interesting how life has changed. The last time I cycled across the country I needed no electricity, Internet and I phoned home once a week. My maps were physical pieces of paper from AAA. I am not set up that way today. Montana was difficult because it had tough terrain, few services, few people and also because I had three days of no cell-phone coverage.
Stay tuned, but if my posts become shorter it is not because less is happening on the road, but because I don’t have a full-size keyboard to type out what is happening.
It is now night time. The laptop booted. The battery is clearly dead but if I get a good wall outlet I can get the machine to stay on. I also bought a separate cell phone charger at Office Depot. I found a store near the motel and jogged over. No, I did not take the bike. I want to spend as little time sitting on that saddle as possible. With the separate charger, even if the laptop dies, I can still keep going.
After the technical issues were dealt with, I started pedaling on the same rail trail as yesterday. They renamed the path the La Crosse River Tail, but I didn’t notice much difference. This trail ended in Sparta, Wisconsin which claims to be the cycling capital of the USA.
I went into the tourist information office which was located beside the rail trail to ask why they are the USA’s capital. The lady behind the desk told me that in the 1960s they were the first place in the USA to buy an old abandoned railway line and convert it into a bike trail. There is a picture above of the first bike rail trail in the USA.
I then pedaled another 60 miles on the shoulder of a local highway. It was busier than I expected. After looking at the map I discovered that Walmart had put a distribution center in the middle of Wisconsin along the highway I was traveling, which explains all the tractor trailers from food companies like Nabisco whizzing by.
I ended the day with another small crisis. I try to book motels a day or two ahead of time. Oshkosh is about 80 miles from Friendship, Wisconsin where I am presently. Looking at hotels on the Internet shows no vacancies. Going 30 miles north (Appleton) or south (Fond du Lac) shows a few vacancies but the prices are unreal. One hotel was asking about $500 per night.
My wife found out that Oshkosh this week is having a major old-time airplane show. Every antique plane buff in the country is in Oshkosh this week. I spent a lot of time trying to find a room and finally found one for $265. It is about 10 miles off the bike route and has no restaurants close by. Given I have no tent, sleeping bag or mat there really is no choice but to pay the going rate since sleeping on a park bench in sweaty bike clothes is not a viable option.
I lecture every semester about supply and demand. I clearly state that when demand shifts dramatically, prices jump. While I understand the theory, I hate it when the price jump happens to me in practice.
I made it to Wisconsin this morning! After spending a very long time getting across Montana, I am amazed at how little time it takes to pedal across some of the Midwest states.
Over the last two days I have crossed the Mississippi River five times. I am not really sure why there is a good bike trail or road for a few miles on one side of the river and then the bike trail/road swaps to the other. Whatever the exact reason, even at the upper reaches of the river, the size and amount of water flowing through this river is amazing.
Now that I am in Wisconsin I am eating more cheese. I crossed the Mississippi into Wisconsin at lunch time. I stopped at the first spot that sold cheese which was less than half a mile from the bridge. I ordered a cheese sandwich at the Nelson Cheese Factory. It was delicious.
My dinner is almost always the closest place to the hotel or motel where I am staying. After pedaling all day I don’t have the strength to walk very far and I am certainly not getting back on the bike. Tonight, I went across the parking lot to a Japanese sushi restaurant. They had sushi with cheese and avocado on the menu. I had to try it. It actually tasted pretty good.
I am sure much more happened today but I am having trouble staying awake. The sun is going down. It is time for me to go to bed.
Between last night’s post and tonight two things happened. First, my wife and I acted like tourists. After finishing pedaling yesterday we went to a street and food truck fair for dinner, instead of eating in a restaurant. Then we drove to downtown Minneapolis to watch a very large fireworks show that they were holding along the river.
Doing both of these things felt a bit weird. Normally, my night is structured differently. I typically get off the bike, take a shower, eat, type a blog entry and pass out. Doing touristy things felt quite strange but both were a lot of fun.
The second thing that happened was while pedaling today. In the early part of the trip if I came to a sign that said “Road Closed” I was in trouble. This sign meant the road was really off limits.
Today, I came to one of these signs and tried to figure out what to do. In Minnesota, I guess “Road Closed” doesn’t mean that since many of the roads have people living along the road. I decided to see how far I could travel down the closed road. Not only did I make it all the way (about 5 miles), but I was passed by a dozen cars, including one police car. It is funny how the same sign in two different states means such different things.
My first trip to Minnesota was many years ago. I went dog sledding across the Northern part of the state during a very cold January. How cold was it? We had a number of days when the temperature was minus 40 degrees. Minus 40 is where Celsius and Fahrenheit converge and there is no need to convert from one measure to the other. At minus 40 it sometimes hurts to breathe and strenuous exercise is hard to do outside.
I went dog sledding because of a beer commercial. Molson beer at the time frequently showed a commercial on television of a man standing on the runners of a sled with a large team of dogs pulling him across the snow. It looked magical.
The reality was quite different. Besides it being numbingly cold, I was immediately dispelled of the notion that the dogs do the work and humans stand back and enjoy. In reality dogs pull the sled and humans push the sled. Dog sledding ended up being a lot of work.
I left Minnesota with a number of impressions. It was cold, exhausting and relatively empty of people. My current trip through the state has been quite different. So far, Minnesota has been the easiest state. I haven’t hit a gravel road yet. Everything has been paved.
Services and people are relatively plentiful. Today, about ten miles into the trip I needed to go to the bathroom. In a western state that meant doing my business by the side of the road. Today, I just pedaled a couple of miles and the next town showed up. It had a tourist information office with a sparkling clean bathroom and softer toilet paper than any motel I have stayed in yet.
Lunch today was in Avon by the side of a small lake. There were people swimming and fishing. The bench we sat on for lunch was shaded by a large tree. It all felt so civilized.
The miles still need to be pedaled. Today, I was only able to do 81 miles before calling it a day. Unlike, my first experience in Minnesota, pedaling through it this summer is easy sledding.
Not long ago I visited Istanbul. While in Turkey my wife suggested we see the “whirling dervishes.” These are Sufi Muslims who meditate while spinning in circles. If I spin myself around a few times I get dizzy and fall down. They can spin, dance and be lost in thought for what seems like hours.
Today’s ride reminded me of watching the “whirling dervishes.” In the morning I pedaled about 40 miles on Minnesota route 52. Dervishes keep spinning until the music changes and then move to a different position. On route 52 I didn’t spin my whole body in circles, only my legs.
There was very little traffic, the scenery didn’t change much and most of the ride was a hypnotic blur of legs going up and down. Occasionally, the music of a car or truck coming up the road would change my body to a different position. Otherwise there seemed little difference between people spinning in circles and what I was doing this morning.
At the 45 mile marker I met my wife at the world’s largest statue of a “prairie chicken.” Scattered across the country are bizarre statues. A few days ago I took a picture of the world’s largest sand crane (a type of bird) and the largest buffalo. Today it is the largest chicken. Each small town seems to want to outdo the others with a special claim to fame.
Having my wife here for a few days is amazing. I left my backpack in her rental car and pedaled without 15 pounds strapped to my body. Instead of my searching for a place to buy lunch, she picked up food at a supermarket and met me at the “chicken.” Having some support made the day much easier.
After lunch I pedaled to Fergus Falls. As I pedaled into town a sign proudly announced that Fergus Falls had a population of over 13,000 people. I was expecting another dying town but was shocked. It had a huge main street and almost every building was in use. People were shopping and the town had life, unlike some of the dying towns further west.
At the end of Fergus Falls, Google Maps decided to go crazy again. It kept telling me to get on the Central Lakes Trail, but I didn’t see a trail, much less how to get on it. When I saw the sign for the trail I was amazed.
The Central Lakes Trail was another railroad line that had been abandoned. The trail is 14 feet wide and smoothly paved all the way to Alexandria. The trail was not as beautiful as the paved railroad trail I took in Idaho, which had mountain vistas at almost every turn. Nevertheless, the Central Lakes Trail has its own beauty.
I pedaled a bit less than 50 miles of the trail, most of it in the same meditative state as I had this morning. The trail was empty except for the occasional rabbit and quiet. It was the perfect place to pedal.
The first three weeks of the trip had some very hard sections. I will not say today’s 112 miles were easy. My legs hurt and my bottom hurts even more. Yet while today was physically demanding, there was no crisis, craziness or complications. It was a simple day; just move each leg up and down for hours. I could get used to this.
Fargo, North Dakota is halfway across the country. Not only is Fargo halfway, but my wife is on a plane flight and has promised to meet me for dinner in celebration of completing half the trip.
My small problem is getting there!
I am now in Valley City, which is a little over 60 miles away from my destination. The bike is in good shape. I am in good shape. However, the rain is coming down in sheets. I think I just spied Noah and his ark floating down the road.
Getting wet is not a problem. I have a rain coat, rain hat and wet weather gloves. The problem is that of the 60 miles to go, 25 miles are on gravel roads and North Dakota doesn’t actually use gravel. Instead, they use sand with some rocks. In a heavy downpour these roads turn to oozing mud.
I’m now in a pizza restaurant for a late lunch. I started out from Valley City but after an hour and a half had only made it about four miles in the muck. I turned back since at the rate I was going I wouldn’t get to Fargo until midnight at the earliest plus the mud was scoring my brakes. Soaked, cold and feeling stuck, I tried to figure out what to do.
All I needed to do was get to Wheatland, North Dakota. From Wheatland it was about 35 miles on paved roads to Fargo. Unfortunately, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft were not available. The internet did not show any taxi services but did show a bus came through once a day at 5:10 AM. I asked the man behind the pizza counter and he said they did have a taxi service in town and directed me the 10 blocks to its location.
There I met a man named Paul, who said I was in the wrong spot. I needed to go back into town to the senior center and ask there. I pedaled back in the rain and noticed the senior center was the next building over from the pizza parlor. I did as told, even though the idea of a senior center also being a taxi company was a bit strange.
The woman running the office did not think it was strange that someone wanted a taxi. She picked up the phone and had a short conversation and then gave the phone to me. A very old voice asked where I wanted to go and how far. I told the person, “Wheatland, which is about 34 miles down the road.” The voice said, “that will cost you a lot, about $40.” I instantly agreed.
Five minutes later a minivan with a taxi sign showed up. Clarence, a man in his 80s got out and helped me get the bike in the van. As he drove me to Wheatland he explained that he used to own the taxi company in town but he could no longer work seven days a week. So he sold the company to the senior center and drove occasionally. The senior center wanted a taxi service because it gave freedom to the elderly in town.
As we approached Wheatland the heavens opened up again. Clarence let me off by the side of the road. I put my head down and slogged about 35 miles into Fargo.
As I saw the sign “Welcome to West Fargo” the rain stopped and the clouds began to part. Half an hour later when I made it to the hotel the weather was even nice.
But the best part of the day happened 30 minutes later when my wife pulled into the parking lot and we got a chance to celebrate halfway day together.
When I was little my father and I watched a running marathon. I was amazed that people could run 26.2 miles. It seemed almost impossible, yet thousands of people were streaming by who were doing it.
I asked my father “how were they able to run that far?” He said if you want to run a marathon then the first day you run around the block. The second day you run around the block twice. The third day run around it three times. You just keep building up gradually and after awhile you are running long distances and able to do a marathon.
I think back to that moment often during this trip because numerous people have expressed amazement when I explain what I am doing. Six months ago, in February I was pedaling each day an exercise bike for 20 minutes while reading. This was not very strenuous stuff. When the weather got warm enough to pedal outside I started off doing a short 10 mile loop each day and would come home exhausted.
After doing the 10 mile loops for a couple of weeks, I added on a few side streets and made the loop 12 miles. Part of the loop included going around a golf course, Each loop around the golf course is a bit over four miles. Once I could make it 12 miles I did two loops around the golf course, instead of one loop. Before starting the trip I was doing so many loops around the golf course that I needed to bribe myself to keep going.
In short, pedaling across the country sounds amazing but I have heard dozens of stories of people in all stages of their life who have or who are currently pedaling very long distances. For example, in Montana a bar owner wanted to tell me about her 80 year old uncle who had just pedaled across the state. In North Dakota a man wanted to tell me about two men he had breakfast with that morning. They were pedaling across the country and both men were in their 70s. I am telling you this because today I recited the above story multiple times.
I woke up in Bismarck, North Dakota, not really knowing what kind of day it would be. My goal was to pedal 100 miles to Jamestown, North Dakota. However, the weather forecast was for thunderstorms around 4 pm plus heavy rain after dark and into tomorrow. Not only was the afternoon weather iffy, the maps showed more than half the day’s ride would be on gravel roads.
On the positive side the morning’s weather was supposed to be greatand there were numerous towns with motels if the ride needed to be cut short.
The morning ride of 45 miles was glorious. The weather was perfect. Once I left Bismarck, few cars or truck were on the road and the pavement was new and easy to pedal. I reached my lunch spot of Steele, North Dakota around 11:30 am.
Steele had a grocery store! While they didn’t make sandwiches or salads, they did have a ready to eat BBQ beef bowl. The store manager even heated it up in her microwave oven and gave me a plate so it would be like a real meal. I then told her and some customers the above story when they asked how I could pedal so far.
I ate my lunch two doors down on some benches in front of a church. The Pastor came out and invited me inside to use the bathroom and fill up my water bottles. Yes, I had the same discussion with him.
After lunch I hit the first 8 mile stretch of gravel. It was pretty bad. The first 2 miles were so soft I switched into sneakers to prevent myself from crashing again. The last 6 miles were so bouncy there were times my eyes couldn’t focus because my head was being jarred so much.
After 8 punishing miles, I decided to try pedaling on the Interstate. My goal has been to avoid the highway, but the gravel roads in North Dakota were too tough for me. The first section of the interstate I traveled was quite pleasant. The only issue were that some delivery service companies like Federal Express were running triple trailers. These road trains create quite a suction force, but all the road trains stayed in the left lane when they passed me so there was a lot of space between us.
After a dozen miles, I got off at an exit with a gas station. The clerk told me it was either the highway or gravel roads the rest of the way to Jamestown. This was not good news, so I got back on the highway to pedal more.
A few miles later in Crystal Springs, North Dakota, I ran into a problem. The highway, starting at that point, was under construction. Instead of being two travel lanes and one breakdown lane it was one of each and my road train cushion disappeared with the left side travel lane blocked off with cones and signs.
They started the highway construction at a rest area. I pulled into the rest area to contemplate my options. The choice seemed clear. Get back on the gravel road, at least until the construction was done, and live with the jarring. This was easy since the service station had one entrance on the highway and a back entrance onto the gravel road.
Alas, this idea did not work out. I pedaled the gravel road for about 1 mile and then ran into a sign stating the gravel road was closed 2.5 miles ahead. I was now semi-trapped at the rest area. I could definitely not go forward on the gravel road and didn’t want to go forward on the interstate highway.
It took a long time to find someone who would give me a lift down the road. My saviors this time were Ben and Lisa, who were driving a pickup truck that was towing a camper. They had just started out on a 3 month adventure.
They were going to Jamestown so they gave me a lift the whole 35+ miles. It was a good move because there were some bridges on the interstate that were under construction and had no shoulder at all. In Jamestown we looked at the world’s largest statue of a buffalo and then parted ways.
There was still plenty of sun in the sky so I called my wife for some trip help. The map told me it was 33 miles to the next set of hotels. My wife told me she could book me a room. If I hustled I could make it beyond Jamestown and be in a motel before dark.
The bike and I flew the first 25 miles. The road was great. I felt good and there was a clear sunset deadline. The next 5 miles were slower. My legs were tired and I was running out of energy. Maybe I misread the map but it turned out to be 38 miles not 33 to Valley City. I was very slow the last 8 miles but still made it into the city before the street lights came on.
Overall, it turned out to be a great day. The morning ride was excellent. The people in Steele, ND were friendly and welcoming. The late afternoon sprint was exhilarating and once again I met nice people (thanks again Ben and Lisa) who were willing to help out a stranger. Plus the weather held off and no rain has fallen yet.
Crash! I have been pedaling a lot of miles on dirt and gravel roads on a bike made for city streets, not mountain trails. I guess the odds of my not crashing at some point in the trip were low. Fortunately, the crash resulted only in scrapes and a sore shoulder, nothing more. The bike was untouched since my body cushioned the blow.
How did I end up face down in the dirt? I left Dickinson, North Dakota relatively early in the morning. I wanted to get a jump on the day because about 35 miles outside of Dickinson Mountain time ends and Central time begins. This means I lose an hour off the clock. This doesn’t matter for pedaling since the sun doesn’t care what time zone humans use. However, restaurants close based on clock time. Few places keep their kitchens open very late in this part of the world. I found that out here you can drink from sunset to sunrise easily, but eating is a very different story.
Both my wife and I looked at the route using Google Maps. We both agreed there appeared to be no gravel roads for the 100+ miles I had to travel that day. The day started out glorious. It was warm but not hot. There was no wind and the traffic once I left Dickinson was almost non-existent.
I passed five women who were biking long distance from east to west, which made me glad that there were others on the same route doing this same madness. I stopped in a drug store in Richardton for a quick break at the 25 mile mark. Today looked like a relatively easy day. The wind picked up and my speed dropped but I still made it to Glen Ullin, North Dakota in good shape for lunch at the only supermarket on the route. I had done 55+ miles, had a full belly and lots of Gatorade. Life was good.
A few miles outside of Glen Ullin came the unexpected and dreaded sign; “Pavement Ends.” I stopped and opened up Google Maps. It showed to continue straight ahead, onto the gravel road. I have been on many gravel roads the last three weeks. Up till now most roads have been consistent. Some are hard pack or washboard the whole way. Some are tight or loose gravel the whole way. This road was different. The surface kept changing. Parts were washboard, which is a killer on the wrists, but doable. Parts were paved with gravel thrown on top. That is doable if you can find where tire tracks have clearer away most of the gravel. Parts were loose gravel, which is the most dangerous because the whole road bed keeps shifting under the tires.
The worst part for me was that the gravel was unexpected. I didn’t know how long I had to go. Simply knowing if it is 5 miles or 25 miles makes a big difference psychologically even if you still have to suffer the same amount.
This section was a bit less than 10 miles. After about 8 miles on a moderate, but not very steep downhill, I hit a slippery patch and crashed. The bike slid out and I landed on my left side. Nothing broke on me or the bike. I had some scrapes on the left elbow and knee, but no blood was flowing out.
On a deserted country back road with nothing in sight there was little to do beside have a drink of Gatorade, get back on the bike and keep pedaling. After two more big hills I sat down and took off my cleats and switched to sneakers. This gravel road had beaten me. I could no longer pedal it. I would walk the rest of the way.
I was dejected, sore and wondering how many more miles I had to suffer before the day would end. To be a long distance cyclists you need to have an optimistic outlook and be prepared for pain. At that moment when I put on my sneakers I lost my optimistic outlook.
More importantly, I was almost out of water. I was down to about one quart, which in the city is a tremendous amount but if I still had miles of gravel to traverse would not be enough.
Where I sat down to swap shoes was half-way up a small hill. If it was paved, I wouldn’t even have noticed climbing the hill. I started trudging up to the top of the hill, which was about 100 yards away. At the top of the hill I was shocked to see a blinking traffic light ahead. The bottom of the hill marked the end of the gravel road and the beginning of pavement.
One mile later I saw a strange sight coming toward me. It looked like a cyclist, but the bike was a strange shape. It turned out to be another long-distance cyclist named Ernie. Ernie was from the Netherlands and was towing a two wheel cart filled with his gear.
Five minutes of chatting with Ernie brought back my optimism. He said three important things. First, there was a gas station at the top of the next hill that sold drinks. I would be replenished shortly!
Second, he had just come from the Eastern part of North Dakota and thought it was not challenging because it was so flat. He wanted mountains and hills! I wanted just the opposite! I am tired of being constantly challenged
Last, he was using the “official” paper bicycling map. I didn’t buy the maps because almost all of the information on the map beside the route is where to camp and where to find a hot shower. The “official” route avoided the gravel section where I crashed. It did everything else that I pedaled today. Instead of the gravel section it told bicyclists to pedal on Interstate 94 for one exit.
In hindsight if I knew the “official route” avoided a gravel section in preference for the Interstate, I would have pedaled the gravel section anyway. Being on gravel and potentially crashing is less scary than being beside tractor trailers doing 75 miles per hour. I would have, however, switched to sneakers earlier if I had known the gravel road was that bad. Wearing sneakers probably wouldn’t have helped much anyway. I fell on my left side and on that downhill I wasn’t cleated, or locked into, my left side pedal. I had the ability, but not the chance, to put my foot down.
After talking to Ernie I pedaled 40 more miles to Bismarck, North Dakota. The last five miles were on a great bike trail that wound through a golf course and then over the Missouri River. At least this Missouri River had a bridge. I didn’t have to get wet crossing it. The end of the ride restored my spirit.
Today (day 19; July 17, 2018) I am taking as a full rest day. No fifty mile quick rides to the next city. The plan is simple. Once I finish typing this go back to bed. Wake up and see a mindless movie, like Ant-man. Eat dinner and go back to bed and rest up since there is still 200 miles left of pedaling in North Dakota.
I was rescued again by a man named Roger wearing a baseball cap, and his wife Deb. That part of the story, however, comes later.
On Saturday (July 14, 2018) I woke up in Circle. My plan was to ride from Circle to Wilbaux Montana, which was 88 miles. Given how punishing Eastern Montana has been, I spent extra time looking at Google Maps and noticed that the last 38 miles were on gravel hilly roads. I was not physically able to handle the pounding so I decided ahead of time to just bike to Glendive, Montana, a shorter 50 mile ride.
Riding to just Glendive was the right choice. It was very hot and dry. I had a strong tailwind and made great time, but arrived in Glendive around 1:30 pm parched and tired. I checked into a nice motel (Baymont by Wyndham) and sat down on the inviting looking bed to take off my shoes. I don’t remember taking off the shoes, but I apparently did get them off before falling asleep wearing all of the other biking gear.
When I awoke it was time to do laundry. The motel had a laundry room for guests two floors above my room. I did what any person with almost no modesty left would do. I took all of my clothes off, wrapped myself in a bath towel and went upstairs and put everything I had in the machine.
By the time the laundry was dry enough to wear I had missed seeing Glendive’s one tourist attraction, the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, which “proudly presents its exhibits in the context of Biblical history.” I was interested in understanding how they explain dinosaurs, whose bones are abundant around Glendive, in the context of God creating everything in just six days. You can see more on their biblical explanation of dinosaurs at their website here. I had a forgettable dinner and went to bed early because my goal for Sunday was a 100+ mile ride to Dickinson, North Dakota.
I woke up excited. I was going to be done pedaling across Montana! Montana, however, was not done with me yet. The Swanson family had shown me that from Missoula until after Glendive I was on an official long distance bike route, called the “Lewis and Clark Trail.” Their official paper map, showed there was no need to take gravel roads after Glendive. Instead, the map said bicyclists should get on Interstate 94 and pedal 9 miles east on the highway shoulder.
I was not keen to pedal on I-94 so I stood at the on-ramp for awhile. Unfortunately, there were almost no cars getting on or off the highway so hitchhiking was futile. I was not interested in doing an extra 30 miles of gravel so I bit the bullet and got on I-94.
The first two miles of the highway were easy. The shoulder was wide and almost no one was driving at sunrise on a Sunday. The next seven miles were not easy. Those seven miles were under construction and both the travel lanes and shoulder were done in loose gravel. Trucks going by threw up a cloud of small rocks and dust. I was very happy to get off the highway and onto smaller roads that were in a better condition.
From the highway exit until the North Dakota border, Montana gave me every type of road; dirt, hard pack, gravel and smooth as silk asphalt in a steadily changing mix. It was as if the state wanted to make sure I did not forget her.
North Dakota started off with light traffic, a much lower speed limit (55 mph instead of 70) and roads in much better condition than Montana. My guess is that the shale oil boom in North Dakota has given the state government enough money to take better care of their roads.
My goal was the town of Medora for lunch and the city of Dickinson for supper. The miles were going by steadily, when Google Maps said turn right onto some switch backs. I was hungry but expected the switch backs so I grumpily followed the directions and started climbing. The scenery was breathtaking. I was on part of the “Custer Trail,” and following in the footsteps of General Custer, who fought and lost one of the last wars against the Native Americans. Then I hit a very long downhill, complete with numerous cattle guards.
At the bottom of the downhill Google Maps decided to go crazy. When Google Maps is lost the directions start getting strange. I was going straight and suddenly the map said make a U turn. I did and went a few feet before the program told me to a make a U turn and go back the way I was originally going. When the program does this, it means only one thing: trouble!
Luckily, there was a person walking by who I could ask for directions. I told her I was trying to get to Medora. She said that from where I was standing Medora was only 1 mile away, but the town was on the other side of the Little Missouri River. There was no bridge. My choices she explained were to either go back ten miles up the gravel road I had just come down or ford the river with my bike.
She pointed me down a sandy path and said at the end of the path is a iron gate, go through the gate, get wet and you will be in Medora. Locals always make it sound so easy. I never did find an iron gate. I found a wooden one. Then after taking off a lot of clothes and packing things in plastic bags it was time to ford the river.
Stumbling across slippery rocks carrying a bike on one shoulder and my pack on the other was not easy. Luckily, the river was only about two feet deep in the place where I crossed.
However, the hardest part was once on the other side trying to figure out how to get to Medora. The other side of the river was a state campground but almost no one was camping there. The one person I did find was from Tennessee and had no idea where the campground exit was. She came up with a novel solution. She put Medora into her car’s GPS and drove off, with me following. I couldn’t do this with my phone because my battery was just about dead. She got me to the main road, which was about 1/2 mile away and pointed me in the right direction and said Medora is less than a mile.
That less than a mile was a killer. It had a long 9% grade uphill followed by an 8% downhill. I wanted food, not steep climbs. I did make it to Medora and had lunch almost two hours later than I expected. Fording the river was a slow process.
I finished lunch by 3:30 and still had over 40 miles to pedal to get to Dickinson. I recharged the phone during lunch and Google Maps told me to go back to the campground (ugh) and then head east on Sully Creek Road, which was gravel. I pedaled back up the giant hill but could not see any sign. I turned on the map program and it got me onto a small driveway that ended in barbwire and a “no trespassing sign.” Sully Creek road existed beyond the barbwire, but it was clearly off limits no matter what the mapping app said.
I went back to town and stood next to the I-94 on ramp and hoped to hitch a ride down the highway for two exits, which was where “Sully Creek Road” ended and the paved road “Old Highway 10” began. I stood there for a very long time, baking in the sun until Roger and his wife Deb stopped and picked me up. They own a gift store in Medora and explained that very few locals were in town. Almost everyone was a tourist visiting the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Tourists typically don’t pick up hitchhikers, which explains my long wait for a ride.
They dropped me off in Belfield, North Dakota, which is where the paved bike route began. I pedaled a few more hours and pulled into a Motel 6 in Dickinson a little after 7 PM.
Given I started pedaling at 7 AM it was a 12 hour day. I certainly did not pedal for 12 hours. I had lunch, took a couple of snack breaks, stood on the side of the road trying to hitchhike and spent a lot of time fording the river. Hopefully, tomorrow’s ride to Bismark will take less time to cover the same mileage.
I was having dinner in a bar a few days ago. In Eastern Montana bars double as restaurants since most small towns cannot support both. I always eat dinner sitting at the actual bar, not at a table, because the bar is a place where there is a chance to talk to other people.
I started chatting with a rancher who was there to have a few drinks. He looked exactly like what central casting from a movie would have ordered. He had a large white cowboy hat, a big bushy mustache, nice boots and a big laugh.
I bought him a beer since that is an easy way to keep a conversation going. He told me about his life ranching and hunting. He asked about me and my trip. Hearing that I teach in a business school he was keen to explain the problems raising Angus beef, which is the specialty of that area.
His story was clear and simple. Small ranches and farms were no longer profitable. Only large ranches and farms could economically make it in today’s world.
The problem was that outsiders, with lots of money, like Silicon Valley and Wall Street tycoons were interested in buying large ranches as trophy properties. He said they were willing to pay ten times the actual value. This was boosting land prices and preventing future generations, like his children, from being able to go into ranching. In this part of the world they call it shifting property from agricultural to recreational use.
He didn’t say this but if his complaint was true then the end result for beef eaters would be bad news. Less property to raise cows would mean grass feed Angus beef prices in the future would go steadily upward.
I thought about his complaint for the next few days. It made perfect sense from a theoretical perspective. However, I had one small nagging issue. I didn’t see any evidence of well-to-do outsiders. On a bike you are very attuned to cars and trucks that pass you. In the past week, I have not seen a single Mercedes, BMW, or Tesla. The only planes at the airports I pass are small prop planes, not personal jets. The bars don’t stock high end liquor for the occasional rich person.
I saw just one instance of the very rich. Outside of Missoula, which is in Western Montana, not Eastern, I passed by a ranch that specialized in glamping, called Paws Up. Glamping is glamour camping, which means you sleep in a luxury tent and have a high end experience. Their website said rates were $800 a night per tent. However, this ranch was catering to very rich outsides who only wanted to experience Montana’s great outdoors for a few days, with all the creature comforts that are possible.
Today, I had enough time to bring up some data to look into the rancher’s complaint. The US Department of Agriculture has been doing a survey since the late 1990s of cash rents. The survey contacts about a quarter-of-a-million farmers and ranchers. It asks them questions about the price it costs to rent land. More details on the survey are found by clicking here.
Sure enough the price to rent land in Montana has increased a lot, just like my rancher friend stated. In 1998 you could rent an acre of land for one year in Montana for about $22. In 2017 the price was about $32. You can see the full series in the next picture.
However, as I remind my students, unless you adjust for inflation long term comparisons are meaningless. The next picture shows the inflation adjusted price, in 2017 terms.
After adjusting for inflation the price to rent an acre of land for ranching or farming in Montana is about the same in 2017 as in 1998.
What does this mean? Rich people might be converting agricultural land to recreational use. However, not enough land is disappearing to push the price up over time. We came blame Silicon Valley and Wall Street tycoons for many things. One thing it doesn’t look like they are guilty of is making it tougher for a new generation of ranchers and farmers to get into the business in Montana.
Today is Friday, July 13, 2018. It is day many people consider unlucky because it is a Friday the 13th.
I have been on the road for over two weeks. Being on the road for long periods of time by yourself is lonely. For much of the day an old Billy Joel song called the “”Piano Man” played in my head. In the song Billy Joel talks about playing a piano in a bar where patrons request their favorites. The part stuck in my mind was all the people in the bar were “sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.”
I deal with the loneliness by talking on the phone to people back home after the cycling is done. Other opportunities for direct human contact are relatively limited in Eastern Montana, which has very few people. Fridays are especially lonely because back home, this is the main night of the week when guests come over for dinner.
I was not looking forward to the Jordan to Circle Montana stretch. It was relatively short, just 68 miles. However, it had many punishing hills to climb. I ended up climbing three-quarters of a mile today.
More importantly, today was expected to be especially lonely because there is almost no place to stop. There is one highway rest area at the 36 mile marker. There is one bar around the 55 mile marker. Other than that there is nothing.
I really mean nothing. There are almost no cross roads, almost no homes, and almost no animals. In a car the emptiness goes by quickly when driving at highway speeds. On a bike when slowly grinding up a two mile long incline the emptiness seems to stretch forever.
The loneliness was broken at the rest stop when I meet up with the Swanson family. This couple and their two children were pedaling from Seattle to Minneapolis. They had done many long distance cycling trips and had interesting stories. I had lunch with them, a drink of Gatorade at the 55 mile marker bar with them and dinner with them in Circle, Montana.
It was Friday and I got to share the day with interesting people instead of being lonely. Who says all Friday the 13th’s are unlucky?
Food and water are key to a successful day, especially in Eastern Montana because there are so few places to eat or drink. Between Winnett, Montana, where I spent last night and Jordan, Montana where I am sleeping tonight, there are 78 miles of punishing hills. The bike computer tells me I climbed 4,400 feet on today’s ride.
Between these two towns is one rest area with bathrooms and one small store. Almost everything else is grass lands or sage brush.
Because there are so few places to stop it is key to get the food and water right. I had breakfast in Winnette at the Kozy Korner Cafe. It was good food and helped me through the early miles.
I drank a lot of Gatorade getting to the rest stop, which was about 26 miles outside of Winnette. At the rest stop I ate a couple of bananas, a couple of pieces of bread and a Cliff bar.
This got me another 20 miles down the road to Sand Springs, where they made milk shakes in the store. I consumed about half a gallon of Gatorade between Sand Springs and Jordan.
The result was clear. Not enough food consumed to fuel a punishing 78 miles ride through numerous large hills. My body just wanted to stop pedaling.
In Jordan I tried to make up for the lost calories by consuming a lot of food. For part of my dinner I even tried “Rocky Mountain Oysters.” They are fried cattle testicles and not for the faint of heart. I thought they were tasty. Given how hungry I was, however, eating my socks might have also seemed tasty, so I will hold off judgement and try them again when I am not famished.
Tomorrow’s ride to Circle should be just as challenging since there is just one highway rest stop at the 35 mile point. There are no other services, shade, or places to stop between Jordan and Circle Montana. I expect another punishing day.
The reader of a travel blog and the blog’s writer have very different desires. The reader is interested in posts that are exciting and have interesting adventures. The writer, especially this one, would like a day or two of boredom. I thought today would be a simple, boring day where I could write a short post that said something like “nothing really happened.” Unfortunately, for me, but not for you, today was not boring.
I spent the night in the Calvert Hotel in Lewistown, Montana. The bed was large and comfy. The bathroom was stocked with soaps made with goat milk. The internet was fast and I was finally able to upload pictures. The hotel was quiet. It was heaven.
Check-out time was noon and they provided a cooked breakfast buffet that was worth eating. I woke up early, had breakfast and went back to bed to sleep. It was wonderful. I packed up just before noon and ate a lovely lunch in the hotel lobby that I procured at the local grocery store.
The ride for today was expected to be just 54 miles to Winnett, Montana. Google maps said there were two ways to go. One was to continue on Route 200. The second was just two miles longer and went via Route 238 through the town of Grass Range. I was skeptical of the second route since Google Street View was not available. This meant part of the second route was on an unpaved road.
I then used the satellite image to check out the road. Modern technology gives us such amazing tools. The road had a painted yellow line on it! The Street View map was done a decade earlier. The satellite image was only a few months old. That sealed the deal. I would take the second route, which looked like it went through more scenic land.
I started pedaling and made terrible time because the scenery was so amazing I kept stopping to take pictures. The weather was perfect. The road surface was new and hard. I was following a large stream and life was glorious for the first hour of pedaling. Suddenly the beautiful road stopped and became hard packed gravel and then the road split. At the split a road sign stated that route 238 was veering off in a southward direction. This was not right. Grass Range was due east.
No, I did not have any cell phone reception to check a map. No, I forgot to download and create an offline map, like I had done on other days. What to do? I did something old fashioned. I asked a man sitting in his front yard for directions.
It took a while for us to connect since I kept telling him that I was trying to go to “Grass Land” and he had never heard of the place. Once we figured out I was using the wrong name of the town he told me that I missed the turn-off a couple of miles back. He said that I could get to “Grass Range” by continuing up the same gravel road and turning left at the next fork onto Tyler Creek Road. I then asked his advice. Should I go back to the turn-off or take Tyler Creek Road? He smiled and said something like “you are pedaling and looking for an adventure, so go up Tyler Creek Road.”
On the positive side Tyler Creek Road has some amazing scenery. On the negative side the road was in terrible shape. Parts were washed out a year ago and the temporary patches were just that, temporary. I bounced, smashed and slid for an hour and half over rough terrain.
To make matters more exciting the road contained cattle guards or cattle grids. A picture of a cattle grid is above. The idea is simple a rancher fences off all their land but cannot fence off the roads. To prevent cattle from wandering off they drop a steel grid in the ground. When a cow tries to walk off the property using the road they get stuck in the grid and learn not to go through the opening in the fence.
While the grids are great for ranchers, they are horrible for bicyclists since they are very slippery and the bar spacing captures your wheels. The simplest way to handle a grid is to get off the bike and do a slip-slide walk over them. Grids are not placed for the convenience of cyclists either. There were places where I would come bouncing down a hill going too fast and realize there was a grid coming up very soon. There was also one grid on Tyler Creek Road which was near the top of a large hill. I almost pedaled to the hilltop when the grid appeared.
After bouncing for a long time, I came to the end of the road. Behind me was a pickup truck with a local rancher. He laughed at my going the back way to Grass Range and thought it was funny that I took Tyler Creek Road instead of the standard gravel road. He marveled that I was able to do Tyler Creek on “them skinny little tires.” He was also helpful and told me how to get on the regular road to Grass Range, which was called Forest Grove Road.
Forest Grove Road was also gravel, but most of it was hard-packed and none of it was washed out. The Tyler Creek detour added an extra 10 miles to the day’s pedaling.
I made it to Grass Range finally. I never did find the gas station that attracted me to the town. It didn’t matter. The weather was cool so I still had enough water and Gatorade to make it the 20+ miles to the motel I booked in Winnett. Getting back on Route 200 was a pleasure after bouncing the back way. On Route 200 a motorcyclist slowed down to my speed and asked if I needed a refill on water. This meant I didn’t need to go to Grass Range at all, since I could have gotten a water refill on the road!
That peaceful uneventful day I wished for didn’t happen, but there are still many more miles to pedal. Maybe the peaceful day will be tomorrow?
Sometimes life and the weather change suddenly. First, the life change story and then the weather.
I have worked at Ohio State University as a researcher for the past 23 years. My sudden life change is that I am retiring from OSU at the end of August. I have enjoyed working at OSU very much. I was featured in the Spring 2018 Alumni magazine. They convinced me to write for TheConversation.com, where my total readership broke 2 million people a few months ago. They have promoted my research with over a dozen press releases. Unfortunately, my job was supported by government grants, which have been cut. After the trip is over it will be time to think about my next career, since playing golf daily holds little appeal.
The weather, especially in Montana, also changes quickly. Last night at dinner the forecast was for hot and dry conditions during this morning. Then with a 20 to 40 percent chance the forecast predicted that sometime from 3 PM till 5 PM a new cooler weather front would arrive. Where the two fronts collide, the forecast was predicting large hail, heavy rain and lightning.
This forecast concerned me for two reasons. First, pedaling a bike on the plains means that in a lightening storm I am the tall object on a metal bicycle. While it is normally gratifying to attract attention, lightning is not something to entice.
Second, on the last cross-country bicycling trip, I was hit by hail and heavy rain in Kansas. We made it to the edge of a city just as a storm hit. One minute I could see. The next moment everything beyond two feet away disappeared in the deluge. I don’t mind getting wet. But getting wet while being hit by sharp ice is quite painful. In Kansas we were able to get onto the porch of a kind person’s home, so we had some protection. I was unsure in Eastern Montana a similar kind of porch would be available again.
Since the forecast stated the chance of the storm was only 20 to 40 percent, I decided to try pedaling and not spend another night in Great Falls. As a precaution I would start pedaling very early in an attempt to finish before the storm. I also checked out all the places I could stop and seek shelter.
I was on the road at just after sunrise and did 25 miles before 9 AM. I stopped for a bathroom break at a rest stop. The bathroom had a loudspeaker system that was playing Montana’s weather. The forecast had not changed. By 11:30 I had done half the day’s mileage but was famished. I stopped in the small town of Geyser for a hamburger, which was quite good!
After Geyser my speed dropped. Part of it was a strong headwind. Part of it was pedaling on a full stomach. Part of it was that by noon I had already been on the bike for about five hours without a long break, except for wolfing down a hamburger and pulling over to swap water bottles.
I made it to Stanford, MT around 2 pm. One hour to go before the storm was supped to hit and I still had 45 miles left to pedal through rural areas. In Stanford the wind started to change direction and the sky began to darken. I stopped at the last gas station in town. They said it was 28 miles to the next gas station/shelter. I wasn’t sure what to do with the storm coming closer. I decided to hitch another ride. If the storm showed up before I got a ride, I could at least stand under the roof that protected the gas station’s pumps. If the storm hit while I was in a pickup truck, I was protected.
A very nice man named Dale, stopped and offered to give me a ride to the next gas station. Dale ran his own repair shop and did a lot of work on combines and tractors. He was going to fix the air conditioning unit on a combine just beyond the next gas station. We had a nice chat and I learned all about the economics of repairing farm equipment and contract harvesting. Dale’s ride was great because the storm was coming from the west and he drove me due east, which increased the distance between me and the storm.
He let me off at Eddie’s Corner, which was 17 miles from my destination of Lewistown, Montana. I looked at the sky. I looked at Eddie’s Corner, which offered less protection than I hoped. The storm seemed to have slowed a bit. The wind was now a gusting 20 mph tailwind. My conclusion was there was enough time to pedal to Lewistown safely.
Did you ever make up your mind and then have that sickening feeling that the choice was wrong? About 4 miles down the road from Eddie’s, the whole left side of the sky looked dark and angry. Then I heard thunder. It was far off, but it was clear this storm was going to happen. I started pedaling faster. To make the story short, I sprinted for 1 hour. Normally, with a loaded pack I pedal about 12 mph. The program that monitors my speed and distance showed I did the sprint to Lewistown at about 18 mph, with the help of a tailwind.
I made it to the “Welcome to Lewistown” sign just as the first rain drops fell. I made it to a nice hotel, called the Calvert, as the sky overhead became dark and angry. I don’t think hail hit Lewistown, so the forecast was off on that part. But the forecast was right that the storm would pass quickly. By the time I checked-in, took a shower and was ready to leave the hotel for dinner, the sky was clear again.
An afternoon of outrunning a storm was exciting, but also exhausting. My original plan for tomorrow was to do 130 miles. That plan is totally unrealistic. Caleb, who checked me into the hotel suggested a shorter ride of 55 miles instead. Caleb is a clearly a smart man. I will sleep in tomorrow morning and take it relatively easy.
Biking long distances is clearly more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge. Last night, I stayed in the Three Bears Motel. The bed was comfortable. The room smelled fine. The neighbors were not particularly noisy. With all these advantages I didn’t sleep a wink. This morning I wanted to rename the motel the “Princess and the Pea,” after the princess who could not sleep because a pea was placed under her mattress to test her.
What was the problem? I lay in bed stressing about today’s ride. Today I needed to bike up Roger’s Pass on Montana’s Route 200. Roger’s Pass, as the picture shows, is where I cross the continental divide. All water dropped on the ground to the west of the divide sooner or later ends up in the Pacific Ocean. All water to the east of the divide ends up in the Atlantic.
For those of you interested in history, Roger’s Pass is famous for having the lowest recorded temperature in the contiguous 48 states. In 1954 at a mining camp on the pass the temperature hit minus 70 degrees. You can read about it here.
The last time I biked across the country I did eleven different continental divide crossings. I was young and a wee bit stupid. Instead of crossing the Rockies once, I went up the backbone of the Rockies. This time would be different. Just one crossing, not multiple.
Most continental divide crossings are a physical challenge so I wanted to know what to expect. Google Map and Earth tell you a lot, but local experience today still beats looking at computer images. I asked four different people where I was staying in Lincoln what the pass was like. Three out of four said they had never been up the pass and the fourth had done it a long time ago.
This was shocking to me because Roger’s Pass is a bit over 18 miles from Lincoln and the town of Lincoln has only one main road, that goes directly to the pass. If these people had not done the pass, there must be a reason. My brain went into hyperactive mode all night thinking of all the reasons why locals wouldn’t go there.
The reason, which I found out later, is that there is an alternative pass five miles closer than Roger’s that is very steep and has lots of switchbacks. If you can manage to get over the alternative pass then you end up on the Interstate highway (route I-15). Going over Roger’s Pass takes you away from the Interstate, which was something I was keen to do, but most people who live in Lincoln are not.
Roger’s Pass ended up being something pretty straightforward to bike up. When the pass started I had 4 gears left and thought “this is going to be a piece of cake.” Halfway up the pass I was in my easiest gear (smallest ring in the front, biggest ring in the back) and sweating hard. I did make it up to the top without stopping or walking, but it was no piece of cake.
I took the obligatory pictures and spilled a little filtered Gatorade and water on both the west and east side of the continental divide sign. Then it was time for the six mile downhill. If you ever do something like this, make sure you have wrap-around glasses.
The wind and air pressure coming down was intense and my eyes were tearing up. Having your eyes filled with tears when nothing separates you from going over the edge of a mountain except for a low guard rail is a hair raising experience. I used my brakes a lot, which kept the speed down enough so that I could see. Wrap-around glasses keep some of the wind and pressure off the eyes and let you go down the mountain faster.
The end result was that I made it up, over and then down Roger’s Pass. There was a bit to worry about, but nothing worth spending 8+ hours in bed imagining all kinds of terrible things. The mental pain was much more than the physical pain of getting over the pass.
I was itching to start pedaling again after yesterday’s rest day. Sleeping is good, but I could be sleeping at home in a bed that is far more comfortable than many of the motels where I am staying.
I woke up at 4 AM, but it was too dark to pedal. I went back to bed and checked again at 5 AM. It was still too dark. I woke up at 6 AM. The sun was up and the restaurant beside the Motel 6 was now open for breakfast. I was the first customer of the day! I had a cheese omelet and went back to my room to pack up.
I was on the road pedaling at 7 AM, which for me is shockingly early. I tell people one of the reasons I like being a professor is that I can sleep in, but not today.
Pedaling that early in the morning has some pluses. There are few cars on the road. It is peaceful. It is cool. The big minus is that the sun rises in the east and I am pedaling due east. During the early morning hours it was hard for me to see.
I wasn’t worried about the cars seeing me. First, because there were so few on the road Sunday morning. Second, the road and the shoulder were separated by a large rumble strip. Any car veering into the shoulder would make a horrible noise warning both myself and the driver.
The plan for the day was simple. Pedal abut 80 miles uphill to Lincoln, Montana. The Rockies are like the letter “M.” I went up the left side of the “M” from Idaho into Montana. I then came down into the middle of the M going through towns like Alberton. The middle part of the “M” was Missoula. Today I am climbing the right half of the “M.” If all goes according to plan tomorrow morning I will cross a mountain pass, which is the top of the “M”‘s right side. Then it should be mainly downhill to Great Falls, which finishes the Rockies and the analogy.
I thought the road (Montana route 200) would have no services but was pleasantly surprised. There were a couple of gas stations, with bathrooms and even one highway rest area. The negative part of the route is that today there are many campers and recreational vehicles on the road. These are large vehicles, often driven by inexperienced operators. People with a regular car or truck license should not be able to drive an RV unless they pass a test showing they are qualified.
I arrived safe in Lincoln. There are four motels in town. One advertises that haunted rooms can be had for no extra charge. I passed on that one. One advertises it is the cheapest. I passed on that one since it was a half-mile more to walk for dinner. The third seemed very dumpy. I decided on fourth called the “Three bears Motel.”
So far I have been in the motel for a couple of hours and it seems “just right.” The only strange thing is that my room has four chairs. I was expecting just 3; one for mamma bear, one for papa bear and one for baby bear. I guess the fourth is used by Goldilocks when she stays in my room, which is room #3.
Today was a relatively short day of pedaling, slightly more than 40 miles. One problem that I have biking in Montana is that there are relatively few towns and motels. The choice today was 40 miles to Missoula or 130 miles to Lincoln, Montana.
The last time I biked across the country I had the same problem in Montana; finding places to stop at reasonable distances. Once on the last trip we just couldn’t make it to the next town because the distance was too far. We saw a clearing just off the road. It was besides some train tracks, but the tracks did not look very used. We set up our tents, had some food and went to sleep. In the middle of the night the ground started to shake. It felt like an earthquake was happening. Then a huge roaring noise filled the air as a giant train screamed by on the tracks. I was too petrified to even open my tent flap.
The motel in Alberton was a bit like this story. All the rooms looked at the Clark Fork River. Just on the other bank of the river were train tracks. These tracks were used more than the tracks I camped beside years earlier, but the result was the same. I didn’t get a lot of sleep even though the surroundings were quite beautiful, and the motel’s restaurant served a great steak dinner.
My wife talked to me on the phone and tried to convince me of the need for a day off. I wasn’t sure in the morning when I set off. The ride towards Missoula was not much different than previous days of riding through Western Montana. Today, luckily there were no missing or closed roads! However, there were places were the road surface switched to loose gravel and hard packed dirt. I was also chased by a dog, but it was early enough in the day that I could pedal faster than that dog could run.
I then hit a section of road construction. The crew was spraying the dirt with water, so I got to pedal through sticky mud. The bike and I were a total mess. After making it through the mud the bike was not working well. I was in a small town and found a man mowing his lawn. I asked if he had a hose. I was able to get the heaviest parts of the mud off the wheels, chain and brakes. The bike worked much better after its bath, but I was still covered with dirt.
On the way into Missoula I picked up a bike path just ahead of a slightly overweight teenage girl wearing sandals. I beat her on the downhill since I had the better bike. On the flat she blew me away. At that point I realized I needed a rest day, soon.
I made it by 2 PM to the local REI store. I wanted a spare tire. I had brought spare tubes and patches but the experience outside of Spokane convinced me that I needed a spare tire too. They were out of my size (700 X 32 cm) but they did have lubricant so that I could reoil the bike after the mud bath. The cashier chatted with me about my ride and felt that the next 200 miles would not be a problem. He said the first 100 miles were a slow but steady uphill. The next 100 miles were rolling hills that he didn’t think would give me a problem. That was good news.
There was another bike store near my motel. They had the same tire which REI was out of stock. It was $10 more but I wasn’t going to take a chance of slicing a tire in Eastern Montana and not having a spare. The salesman told me the same information about the next 200 miles. I asked him if I should stop in Missoula or take a rest day in Great Falls, which is the town 200 miles from here. He was unequivocal, “don’t go to Great Falls, stay here.”
It looks like I am spending two nights in Missoula. I took a rest day here decades ago on my last bike trip. None of the town looks familiar but I am doing familiar things. Last time in Missoula I cleaned my clothes in a laundromat. Tonight, I went to a laundromat to get the mud out of my bike clothes. Last time we had a small party in the laundromat. I bought wine, cheese and crackers. This time was more subdued. I talked on my cell phone and read email. The result in both cases was the same; clean clothes.
This morning I hit the wall. Maybe I was over-optimistic that I could do hundred-mile days through the Rockies. Maybe I am just getting older. Maybe many of you told me I was being unrealistic to not schedule any rest days.
Whatever the reason, I woke up around 5:30 AM and felt terrible. I went back to sleep. At 7 AM I woke up and still felt bad. I decided to try the Super 8 Motel’s free breakfast. It didn’t help. On my way back to the room I looked at the sign and thought it said check-out was noon. Maybe sleeping till noon would help? I went back to bed. At 11 am housekeeping knocked on the door and told me check-out was now. Noon was actually check-in.
The front desk said I could stay the extra hour. My original plan, months ago, was a 90-mile trip to Missoula, one of Montana’s big cities. There was no way starting at noon that I could do 90 miles even if I felt in great shape and I didn’t.
Google Maps showed there was another motel 16 miles down the road in Superior Montana and also one 47 miles down the road in Alberton. The maps also showed that some of the route would be on abandoned railroad right of ways. My body was saying it needed a rest day, so I figured I would try the 16 miles and if that felt good I would keep going to Alberton. Missoula would have to wait.
My wife called the motel in Alberton and they said there was plenty of rooms so there was no need to book ahead. The first 16 miles to Superior were relatively easy for the Rockies. There was one gravel section during a huge up and downhill, but the gravel was small and not very loose.
The scenery for the first 16 miles was amazing. I went through one meadow that was particularly memorable. A rancher had just pulled his truck and horse trailer into the meadow and opened the back down. Four majestic horses sniffed the air and then bolted for freedom. I felt I was watching a tourist commercial for “welcome to western Montana, were everything is free.”
Lunch, around 1:30 was a sandwich on the lawn in front of the courthouse in Superior. After eating I checked in to see if I could go another 32 miles. Legs, brain and backside all said 32 more miles were possible, but not a lot more.
The next 16 miles were just as scenic as the first 16 miles. The river, mountains and trees were beautiful. I was not setting any speed records by pedaling a bit less than 10 miles per hour, but the bike was moving forward.
A few miles later I ran into some problems. Before setting out I had spent time with Google Maps ensuring I could make it the whole way from St. Regis to Alberton. I looked at roads and even did satellite mode when the roads turned to dirt or gravel, since the Google mapping cars only stay on paved roads. It looked like a good route on the computer.
Around mile 33 or 34 I was feeling good, thinking I had less than 15 miles to go. Then the road switched from asphalt to gravel. No worries, the gravel was packed. Then the road split. I was bit unsure which way to go since the mapping software said go straight but the sign clearly said, “no outlet.” I went right and ended up at the river’s edge at a boat put-in and take-out. I walked back up the hill, since pedaling on loose gravel with weak legs was not an option. Just at the split a raft guide in his van passed me by. I flagged him down and asked. He said there was no road and I had to peddle on I-90 the last 15 miles to Alberton.
This did not sound good. I-90 in Montana has an 80-mph speed limit. I was not interested in being road kill. Since not all the advice you get, even from river guides, is right I went up the “no outlet” road that Google Maps said was the way to go.
The gravel road soon stopped and became two ruts separated by grass. Then the ruts stopped at a gate and the road completely disappeared. There were two options. First, bushwhack without a compass or map through someone’s private property. This was not my first option since landowners in Montana don’t like trespassers. The second was to go back to the highway. Just before the highway I heard a truck coming up behind me. I stuck out my thumb and a giant pickup truck pulled over.
It was driven by Jared, who was taking a couple from California, for a fishing trip on the river. I told him my problem. He threw the bike in the truck and drove one exit down the highway, which was where he was going. I was willing to pedal the whole way, but if the road no longer exists there did not seen much choice but to ask for a ride.
One exit down Google Maps showed I was still on the right road! I pedaled for a few more miles and ran into another problem. The road I was supposed to continue onward was closed with barbwire across it. For added measure the owner put an interesting sign that you can see in the pictures. For those who cannot see the pictures the sign suggested the surest way to a fast death was trespassing. The only option was getting on I-90.
I stood next to the barbwire hoping someone like Jared would show up but traffic was nonexistent. About 20 minutes later one car did drive down. It turned out to be the co-owner of the fast death sign. I told her my problem and she was clear that her family had bought the railroad right of way and did not want people on it. However, she did understand my predicament and volunteered to drive me one exit down the highway, which was the town of Alberton, so I did make it to the next motel
Early this morning I didn’t think I could pedal even one mile. I ended up having a relatively light day and covered about 40 miles of pedaling in about five hours. I am not sure what lesson to take from today. Maybe, just be flexible and things work out.
Today I hoped would be an easy day. It is the 4th of July. Traffic should be light and the maps said today would be under 70 miles. After doing two centuries, which are 100 mile days, that sounded like a nice change of pace. The goal was to get from Kellogg, Idaho to St. Regis, Montana.
It didn’t turn out easy. Instead, it took so much effort to get to St. Regis that I have fallen asleep numerous times typing this entry.
The first hour or so of pedaling was lovely. I was again on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, which is a paved bike path. I even ran into the man who cleaned the path. He was driving an oversized golf cart. Attached as a trailer to the back of the cart was a large leaf blower on wheels. It was noisy, but certainly effective.
Unfortunately the trail ended, but the mapping program said to get on the Northern Pacific Trail, which was also an abandoned rail line. How different could the new trail be? For the first few miles, not different at all. Then the trail started to climb and not at a gentle 1 or 2% grade. Then the road switched from being paved to being hard packed dirt. Finally, it switched to rock and gravel. At a particularly steep part, I braked, got off the bike and switched from bike shoes with cleats to sneakers and started walking the bike up the hill.
I then spent the rest of the day alternating between riding and walking the bike. The map showed a large zig zag, which typically means a very steep part. As I was getting closer to the zig zag my legs started turning to jelly. I was a little concerned, but roughly every ten minutes an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) passed by me so I knew there would be help if I had to flag something down.
I soon discovered why my legs turned to jelly. I rounded a corner and saw that I was near the top of a large mountain and ¾ of a mile up in the air. It turned out I had pedaled and walked to “Lookout Pass” on the Idaho-Montana border. The legs turning to jelly was my feeling altitude queasiness.
Interstate I-90 was far below where I stood at the top of the pass. The signs stated the part of I-90 far below me is the highest elevation the highway ever reaches on its run from Boston to Seattle.
At the pass there even was a ski lodge and lifts (not running) which gave me an idea how high I had climbed. I figured having done the hard part, the easy part was next, the downhill. If the trail was paved or even hard packed it would have been a great ride. However, most of it was loose gravel. In some place the gravel was so loose I had trouble walking with the bike. The rough trail conditions made the ride down as punishing as getting up to Lookout Pass. One nice thing was after 15 minutes of riding downhill, my legs started recovering, which suggests altitude was a big part.
While the ride down was hard, I saw quite a few white-tailed deer. One even raced in front of my bike down the trail for a long way. Another stood in the middle of the trail and we had a staring contest. I lost.
While it wasn’t the easy day I was expecting, I made it to St. Regis without any serious problems to myself or the bike. There are a lot of fireworks going off right now since it is the 4th and the town has a big stand selling them. I don’t think the explosions will hamper my sleep in any way, shape or form.
If you read day 4’s post you might ask, “What is the point of cycling across the USA?” Today answered this question emphatically.
While yesterday had some low moments, today had one long and continuous high moment. I had this experience during my last 50 miles of the day, while pedaling the Trail of the Coeur d’ Alenes.
What is this trail? Imagine a 10 foot wide flat sidewalk that winds its way for 72 miles through some of the most scenic areas in the Northwest. While pedaling down this trail as added bonuses, you get bathrooms every dozen miles, benches or picnic tables every 2 or 3 miles, almost no road crossing, very few people and amazing wildlife and scenery.
I had no idea what the trail was like. Nor did I expect to be on it for so long. Unexpected experiences like this are the reason for traveling and in my case bicycling across the USA.
The trail starts almost at the Washington State border and ends just before the Montana border. It is a joint project of the Coeur d’ Alene Indian tribe and the government of Idaho. The trail runs along an old railroad bed which is why it is almost flat.
Are there downsides of the trail? It is tough to find something negative to say. The trail caused my camera to run out of power, because the views were so photogenic. That is really not a negative.
The single small downside is that the trail has water at the beginning and end, but not in the middle. In the trail’s defense after riding it I looked at some websites that discuss the trail and they say “bring water” and a camera.
I got on the trail at mile marker 6 and had no idea what to expect. I was using Google Maps. It said, “turn left here.” I turned left and saw a sign “no motorized vehicles.” I started pedaling and then after a mile pulled over to see what the next set of instructions were going to be. I scrolled through a couple of screens of going straight when suddenly the screen showed I was supposed to be cycling in the middle of a lake. I felt a bit confused but Google Maps had done well so far that day so I decided to take a chance.
A few miles later a giant bridge appeared that was open only for walkers and bicyclists. The bridge crossed a large lake right where Google indicated I should be pedaling. By the end of the bridge I knew I was on something special, since even the bridge was built to make cycling up it easy, with short flat spots interspersed with up-hills, so you were not continuously climbing.
On the other side of the bridge the trail didn’t just hug the shore. Instead there were times it bisected inlets and small ponds. The vegetation kept changing along the side of the trail and the distant scenery kept changing from farms, to alpine meadows, to mountains.
The skies were busy with birds flying about trying to catch insects. I joined the birds by occasionally swallowing a few bugs too. The difference was that they were trying to catch bugs and I just opened my mouth at the wrong time.
There were a few other special moments. I was about 20 miles in on the trail when I saw what I thought was a horse on the trail in front of me. Another bicyclist coming towards me saw me brake while staring ahead. He turned to look back and whispered, “Moose.” We stood there about 20 feet from a teenage moose who was sniffing trees on both sides of the trail before jumping in the water to swim off.
The trail has many interpretive signs. My goal was to read the heading of every sign as I pedaled past. I saw one that said, “bald eagle nesting ground.” A few minutes later I could hear a pair of eagles screeching to each other, but I could not see the actual birds.
Another memorable experience was about an hour later. A moose started to crash out of the woods beside me. Just as his head broke through the thicket I whizzed by. We looked at each other from about 6 feet away. The moose sniffed, turned and darted back into the forest. While I don’t smell particularly fresh, I sill felt a bit insulted the moose darted off that quickly once it caught wind of me.
To top it all off, I booked a motel three blocks off a trail entrances in Kellogg Idaho. The room is clean, comfortable and quite cheap ($45). What more can you ask for in one day?
When doing long trips like hiking or biking the third or fourth day is typically a problem. The initial adrenaline has worn off. The novelty of being out of the office, school or work has worn off. Most importantly, your body is tired. This is the time when you want to say; “I quit.”
I was concerned about the “I quit” issue since today I needed to do over 110 miles to reach Spokane. I didn’t really want to hit the century (100 mile) mark this early in the trip. The problem was that after leaving Moses Lake, I didn’t see on the maps any motels or hotels until Spokane. So, it was Spokane or bust.
I spent hours mapping out the optimal route using Strava. Strava is a bicycle app that also shows you what other cyclists have done. This gives it the ability to suggest the most “popular” bike routes. I mapped out four choices. My first choice was 111 miles. The problem with this route is that it went through one town around mile marker 45 and then no other towns until Spokane. Strava’s most popular choice was 160 miles, which was a no go this early in the trip.
I looked at another route that hit three towns. It was ten miles longer for a total of 120 miles. The clincher was that the last 35 miles into Spokane were labeled “most popular” by Strava. I chatted with my wife and we agreed that an extra ten miles was probably worth it since it went through more towns. I also liked it because the last 35 miles were on an east-west road and the weather report said that would give me a tailwind.
That choice of a route turned out to be a disaster, but more on that later.
The first part of the ride from Moses Lake to a town called Ritzville was lonely. The road started off with two lanes in each direction and a wide shoulder. As I pedaled out of town the road started shrinking. First, the road dropped down to one lane in each direction with a shoulder. Then the shoulder started shrinking. At least the large telephone poles with their nice mile markers were still there. Then the telephone poles shrunk in size before disappearing.
I was soon on a two lane road with nothing else. No homes, no farms, no telephone poles, no cars, no trucks….nothing but wheat. A vehicle passed in either direction about once every ten minutes. I have not felt this isolated in my life. It was like being in a zombie movie where almost everyone in the world has died. For those of you worried about my safety, there was no fear for the first 45 miles. The only thing that would have killed me was boredom.
After pedaling for three and a half, isolated hours in zombie land, I reached Ritzville. Ah, I thought civilization, however, brief. I was wrong. Ritzville looked like it was once ritzy but that was a long time ago. My guess is that Ritzville and many other towns around here thrived when farms were small, relatively close together and primarily used physical labor. Today, with giant farms, heavy equipment and relatively few farmers there is less need for many rural towns.
I searched Ritzville for an open restaurant. All I wanted was a sandwich, but I couldn’t find anyplace to eat. On my way out of town, I passed a bowling alley that had a bar sign. Under the bar sign it said, “we serve breakfast.” If they serve breakfast in the bowling alley, maybe they serve lunch?
I carried the bike inside the bowling alley and the place was dark but there were four people inside. It was not a good sign but what did I have to lose? I asked if they were serving lunch? One of the four people said, “sure, we can do that.” Lunch (grilled cheese and a side salad) was excellent. Plus, they had clean bathrooms. Then the bill came for just $5.80. That was a real bargain given I am writing this from a restaurant in Spokane that just charged me $30 for a bowl of tomato soup, a bowl of mac-n-cheese and one glass of apple cider.
With a full belly it was back on the bike for 30 miles to Harrington. The first part of the ride was great. The road was smooth, sealed and I had a tail wind. Then I switched onto “North Hills Road.” The wind now tried to push me over as it gusted. The road was not sealed and bounced me up and down. Not surprisingly, given its name, I pedaled up and down a lot of large hills. I arrived in Harrington, another semi-deserted town with a dying main street. They did have a nice park with a bathroom and a working water fountain so all was good.
The final town before Spokane was Davenport. This was where I would pick up the “popular” route. I hit Davenport 85 miles after leaving Moses Lake. It was a nice place and had a main street that was alive with shops, banks and a nice new park. I was excited. It was 4:15 pm and I had only 35 miles left. I was thinking, this is great. It is day 4, I don’t want to quit ,and the easiest part of the ride is about to happen.
At that point the entire day went very wrong. The “popular” route from Davenport to Spokane was route 2, which was a graded highway. Graded highways are where the construction crews blast out parts of hillsides and fill in valleys so that cars go straight. It was also a busy highway. At this point I was trapped and had one choice; just to pedal onward to Spokane. The first 13 miles were not bad. The highway department had built a shoulder that was wider than a car. I hugged the far right side and had plenty of distance between cars and myself. There were relatively few trucks since long distance truckers use the interstate and the local truckers were all done for the day.
Then I hit Reardan, the last town before Spokane. I stopped and had a milkshake to give me some energy for the last 20+ miles. The highway changed leaving Reardan. The shoulder was narrower, and it was no longer clean of garbage. The ride after breaking the 100 mile mark was becoming less than fun.
At the edge of Spokane, at Fairchild Airforce base, the shoulder became filled with rocks, glass and other debris. My rear tire punctured. I was on a highway with cars whizzing by and the shoulder was not wide enough to fix the bike. I had done almost 108 miles and made it to Spokane, but not downtown Spokane. I thought to myself, “I quit! This entire ride is dumb.”
Then I pulled the bike and myself off the road, mentally rebooted and stuck out my thumb to hitchhike. About 20 cars and trucks passed me before someone stopped. The man who stopped was named Roger. Sometimes saints come in baseball caps.
He was part of the local Spokane Indian tribe and worked for the tribe as a tree scaler. The tribe owns trees that they cut down. To prevent lumber mills from ripping the tribe off tree scalers estimate how many usable board feet are available from each tree before the saw mill begins to cut. If the mills output and the tribe agree (within 2%) there is no problem. If they don’t agree then someone has to figure out why. Who knew there was so much economics in cutting down trees?
Roger said he was just going down the road to the gas station. I offered to buy gas for his truck if he was willing to take me the 12 miles I needed to go to get to my hotel. He drove me into downtown using many of the same roads I would have had to pedal. Getting a ride all the way was a smart thing. The last 12 miles into Spokane were not designed for cyclists since it was strip malls and fast food restaurants, plus a shoulder filled with more debris.
I got the bike and myself into my hotel room and flipped the bike over to start changing the tire. The rear wheel was badly out of alignment and the rear tire had two deep gashes. It was almost 8 pm and the internet showed every bike store around was closed except one. REI was open until 9 pm. I called and the repair man said he had time for an emergency repair.
The store was only a few blocks from my hotel. Randy the bike tech was amazing. He spent a long time truing the wheel. He replaced the tire and tube with heavier, but more puncture resistant stock. He oiled and cleaned the chain and drive! By 9 pm my bike was like new again, ready for another day of adventure. After a shower and an expensive dinner (see above) my faith in humanity was restored. I am looking forward to pedaling into Idaho tomorrow!
Before this trip started there were a number of days I had either nightmares or tossed and turned in my bed thinking for hours about part of this ride. Today is the first of these days.
I have an easy morning, just 28 miles to Vantage Washington on a flat road that ends in a steep downhill. Then comes the part over which I have lost sleep. Getting across the Columbia River. There is basically one bridge on this stretch of the river. That bridge has Interstate 90 running over it. The bridge is about one mile long, four lanes wide, no shoulder, no sidewalk and lots of trucks doing 70 miles per hour.
The Internet is filled with totally unhelpful suggestions for getting across. For example; wait for a break in traffic (doesn’t usually happen), pedal as if your life depends on it (it does) or call the State Police and ask for an escort. Another suggestion is that there is a dam nearby and if you call ahead by a month you can get security clearance to cross over the top of the dam. This is impractical since I didn’t know the date and time I wanted to be escorted over the top of a dam.
My current idea is to pull into a gas station that is located just before the bridge and see if I can get a ride in someone’s pickup truck over the bridge. Cross your fingers that this works. If it does the pedal to Moses Lake, Washington where I am planning on spending the night should be fine.
I left Ellensburg, Washington on a sleepy Sunday morning. It was 28 miles to the bridge. The first 18 miles were a slog. I wasn’t going very fast and the scenery was mainly scrub and sagebrush. I did have a nice tail wind, so it wasn’t miserable. After pedaling for 18 miles I stopped at the top of a large hill beside a giant windmill farm to take off my windbreaker. I was not looking forward to the next ten miles. I was surprised at what happened next.
From the windmill farm to the Vantage Bridge was a 10-mile-long steep downhill. The downhill was so long my fingers began to cramp holding them in anticipation of using the brakes. The experience was a scream (both literally and figuratively). I rolled into the gas station without pedaling once in the entire 10 miles.
I went inside the gas station to buy an ice cream and the clerk asked me if I was trying to get over the bridge. She said there was a woman in town who drove cyclists over the bridge for a nominal fee. She called, but the lady didn’t pick up. Clearly, other riders had hitched rides across the bridge if the gas station clerk knew what I needed before saying anything.
Since the unofficial lift was not there, I looked around myself. There was a boy and his mother selling cherries in the gas station parking lot. They had a pickup truck and no customers, so I paid them to give me a lift over the bridge. I worried for weeks about crossing the bridge, but it was relatively simple to get across safely.
The climb out of the Columbia River Basin once I made it to the other side was only a six or seven mile uphill. Maybe it was the sugar from the ice-cream or relief that I made it across the river easily, but the climb was not too bad. The last 50 miles of the day were okay. I spent about half of it on the I-90 service road. The scenery was mainly cars and trucks whizzing by, but I got to Moses Lake, which is where I want to be tonight.