My bicycle hobbled over the pavement for the final stretch, rims wobbling, bearings creaking at every turn. One thousand miles of loaded travel puts a great deal of wear on a bicycle. Tires bald, brakes worn down, dozens of new scratches in the bright yellow paint. I rode with baited breath my final day, hoping that my emergency tube patch job would hold after blowing my last spare on a particularly aggressive Indiana pothole the night before. Braking for the last time on my parent’s uphill driveway, I came to my final stop. 19 days. 1,234.63 miles.
It was a rather uneventful end for such a long trip. Arriving at my destination felt no more different than returning from a short evening ride. The cheering spectators, the paparazzi that I’d expected were absent. I had thought that my trip would deserve an epic fanfare, a grandiose welcome after such a long physical exertion. What I got instead was a simple welcome home from my parents. Soon enough thoughts of riding drifted away from my mind as I integrated myself into my parent’s nightly television routine. Coming back from three weeks of biking felt little different that coming back from a day at the office
I ended up cutting my trip short by a day. Camping in Indiana on what would be my final night, I made the decision to push through and make it all the way to my destination instead. To myself I had already proven my capability to endure the journey; all I needed to do was complete the trip. Instead of leisure and sightseeing on my final day, I just put my head down and rode. Peddle after peddle, mile after mile kept adding up until I amassed 113 in one day. With goal in site, no time to relax—just time to ride.
The most intense feeling I had on my final push was one of relief. Biking north out of Michigan City, I caught glance of the giant blue “Welcome to Pure Michigan” road sign. After so long away, finally back in my home state. A lump grew in my throat and my eyes teared up as I crossed the state border.
Later on, coming into the outskirts of Holland, that same emotional relief came over me; ‘I recognize this place now’, I thought to myself, ‘I know where I am. From here it’s only 4 miles, 3 miles, 2 miles…’ To the onlookers curious at why the overburdened cyclist was sobbing, there is only one simple response:
I had made it
What difference does it make now that such an arduous trek is behind me? Already the memories of the toil are fading. The afterglow was short-lived. A few hours after arrival I found myself showered, rested, and unpacked from the journey. No time to bask in remembrance, and only a few people to recount the adventure for. Instead I had pressing work to prepare for my upcoming job.
But already I feel nostalgia for the journey. The lactic acid has since drained from my legs and I’ve forgotten how sore I felt on the expedition. Rosy retrospection smiles kindly upon the difficulties, and I find myself yearning for more. A journey of one thousand miles, and I had chosen to stop in the middle of America when more road lay yet before me.
After such a long journey, after such a feeling of relief when I finally made my destination and could rest, I realized one thing:
I could have still kept biking on.
Fast enough to get places, but slow enough to see them–that’s what I enjoy so much about travel by bicycle. The saddle may not be comfortable, but the views provide the reward. Traveling over 800 miles in 11 days has heightened my geographical senses. Slowly peddling a great distance, one gets to play landscape detective: what’s changing and why?
The northern hardwood forests began to become infiltrated by beech and maple, warmer clime species from more fertile soils found further south. Farm country spontaneously erupted from the sylvan wilderness. Along the lakeshore, farmland eventually gave way to industrial cities.
The landscape shifts imperceptibly, but gradually, determinants of the physical and cultural environment. Any given day I could find myself peddling down a rural country road or meandering on a dirt track through a mature forest.
The weather changes also, with it bringing different moods to the landscape. Bright sunny days can make the terrain warm and inviting; cool, cloudy days present a somber melancholy air. Staying alert to the changing light environment rewards the onlooker with a multiplicity of panoramas, an ever-evolving sensory scene.
The culture shifts along with the landscape it inhabits. Forest land gives way to farm country. Tourist towns and sleepy hamlets lie tucked under the lakeside bluffs on the Door County Peninsula. Large industrial cities occupy important harbors on the Michigan lakeshore. Out in the hinterlands, a lone water tower on the horizon signals an approaching town.
Along the way I pass through areas of local history and interest. Where did the inhabitants of Oostburg come from? Why is there a village of Wales in the Wisconsin countryside? Roadside markers provide insight on the history of each small settlement. By car, it’s an inconvenience to stop and learn; by bike, it’s a welcome break from pedaling. Roadside harvest stalls showcase the seasonal agriculture and nourish the famished biker. A destination of interest, no matter how modest, is worth stopping along the way.
Beautiful nature abounds if you go out and seek it. Along the tracks and trails, nature displays her splendor. These places call out, beckon you to come close and linger.
The long journey is never about reaching the destination; it is about the process of discovery along the way.
“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike” John F. Kennedy
Confucius may have wisely remarked that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but since the bicycle wasn’t invented until 2,000 years after his time, he never got to say that the bicycle journey of one thousand miles begins with a single pedal. Also dealing with one-thousand mile journeys, another hero of mine, John Muir, began his period of long wanderings as a 20-something with a 1,000 mile walk from Indiana to the Gulf Coast. So it only seemed fitting that I should embark on a thousand-mile journey myself—1,000 miles of adventure and exploration via the bicycle.
I could write on and on about how my upcoming bike ride is a promotion of bikeable communities and alternative forms of transportation. I could posit this venture as a political statement about our oil-dependent and vehicle-oriented transportation system. I could say I’m doing this ride for all the health benefits of biking. I could even pass this journey off as a slower-paced trip along the backroads of rural America, where I can see my own country in a new light and get to meet authentic everyday Americans.
But really, I’m going on this journey because I really like to ride my bicycle. Well, and that I don’t have a car—or enough money to justify a plane ticket for that matter. And somehow I need to get back to my hometown from my summer camp job in rural northern Wisconsin.
The idea of biking back home after camp had always been at the back of my mind, even before arriving at my summer job. That’s the reason why I made sure to ship my bike to Wisconsin and only arranged for a one-way ticket to camp. Having nothing lined up after camp (well, initially, that is!), I found myself in the predicament where I had ample time to travel, no hurry to be anywhere, little money for gas, and a great desire to really travel. What better to fit my circumstances than a bike trip.
I have frequently entertained the idea of a long trek by bicycle, but have never yet risen to the occasion. Sure, I am the veteran of a handful of overnight bike camping trips, and in the summer of 2011 I completed a three day/two night bike ride of 200 miles in New England. But the really long journeys have remained little more than fantasy for me. I have select group of friends who I routinely discuss long bicycle adventures with—be they cycles across America or a bicycle trek of Europe. Will a successful regional gig be a testing of the pavement for something greater down the line…?
On this journey I will be traveling with my constant companion, noble steed, and packhorse, my (still unnamed) bicycle. Me and my bright yellow bike have been together since 2010, and she’s a 1990’s model Cannondale that I bought second-hand. She’s not a fancy bike or an expensive bike, but she’s a sturdy bike who can carry a load and take a beating. Weighing in at 36 pounds with accessories, she’s an-aluminum frame touring bike with all the features. Fitted out with my load of camping supplies, clothes, rations, entertainment, and other odds and ends I wanted to bring, the total weight of my outfit rises to 78 pounds. I could have packed much lighter, but then again extra weight on a bicycle isn’t noticed too much.
On average I’ll be riding between 50 and 60 miles per day. From start to finish I’ll take 20 days, with a few layover days scattered throughout for rest and recreation. Although I haven’t done as much training for my ride as I hoped, I feel more than ready. Long-distance biking is a challenge of endurance, not strength. So much of endurance is the mental resolve to continue.
If the point of the journey was just to get myself back home, I could do it in under 500 miles (although that would necessitate a ferry across Lake Michigan). But I’m taking a meandering route, stopping by some special places and enhancing the trip by visiting friends, which increases my projected distance to over 1,100 miles. I’ll try and post regular updates as I go along, but here is a general overview of my itinerary:
September 3: Leave North Star Camp and start my bicycle journey
September 8-9: Biking tour of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula
September 10: Day in Green Bay
September 12: Arrive in Milwaukee
September 14: Arrive in Madison
September 16-17: Cheese Days Festival in Monroe, Wisconsin
September 18: Skydiving outside of Chicago
September 19: Arrive in Chicago
September 20: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
September 22: Arrive at parent’s house in Michigan
(September 24: fly to New York to start next adventure as crew on the Sloop Clearwater)