“Are we close…to a mile?”
“Just a little…further”
“I think…I need…a break”
“I see a curve…two hundred yards…let’s stop there…”
“Wait…wait…Liz!…That’s it! I see it!!”
“THE TOP! WE MADE IT!”
Hoosier Pass: 11,542 feet
Standing on the top of the highest point on the TransAmerica Trail, we really had no idea what we were supposed to do. Lots of cars coming over the blind curve at the pass were quickly pulling into the gravel parking lot, while others slowed down just enough to catch quick glimpses of the majestic open valleys below. Hikers poured out of cars and geared up to go even further into the hills; some clearly headed for the snow patches that remained even in late summer at this elevation. There was also a constant stream of motorcyclists who triumphantly paraded to and from the Hoosier Pass sign for pictures. And then there was us...the bicyclists.
I think everyone around us was just as confused about how we got up there as we were. Lots of people passed by and snuck quick glimpses, while others stared without regard for social appropriateness. The bold came up and asked us questions. We were used to it by this point. We had been getting the same questions for weeks. We smiled big and tried to give slight variations of our normal answers to feel like we were giving each person and each question the kindness and compassion we were often granted by others. But we were just too excited to really pay much attention or focus too long on any one thing. We darted to and from on the summit, snapping pictures, posing for selfies, reading all of the signs, and soaking in the warm, bright sunlight, all while trying to catch out breath. We did it. Kind of. We had a long way to go – that very afternoon and for many afternoons after that – but we did it. We slayed our Goliath.
Most people we told of the basic plan had similar responses. Most of them involved the words crazy, wow, back-up plan, and WHAT? But for those who knew us pretty well, it just seemed to be a logical conclusion for how we would move from Washington, DC to Seattle, WA. By bike!
Even before getting married in the summer of 2014, we knew we were probably going to move to Seattle for Liz to go to graduate school. We were both excited about experiencing life in a new part of the country and going on an adventure together. As we began to plan the move, adventure began to take on a deeper meaning. A few seeds planted in our minds from tales of friends’ experiences began to grow and blossom and we started to seriously talk about what it would be like to complete our upcoming move by bike.
As we prepared for the trip, we learned about lots of people who ride their bikes across the country. Some take the trip solo, as a way of discovering themselves or pushing their limits. Some go with a group of best friends, as a bond-building adventure expedition. Some go with spouses or significant others. But regardless of their reasons, most go on their own bike.
Liz and I were pretty used to riding our bikes together to places in and around DC. It was our favorite mode of transportation. Unfortunately, as we started to go on longer rides to prepare for our trip, we noticed that we quickly grew tired of riding together for that long. The parts that we grew tired of, however, were getting separated by long distances with traffic, shouting to each other over the din of traffic and wind, and having to communicate directions from afar. Liz quickly pointed out that there was a simple solution to our problems: a tandem bike.
Friends, family, and bicycle enthusiasts alike pleaded with us to reconsider our decision. Looks of amusement when we told people of our upcoming trip turned to looks of terror when we dropped the tandem bike part. Nice folks called it the “Marriage Builder Bike”, while not so nice folks called it the “Divorce Machine”. But after a few rides, we were hooked. We were tandem newbies and our trip was only a few months away, but we were set. The logistics and details seemed manageable – we like to be outdoors, we like to bike, we like traveling, we can talk to strangers, we can stay upright on the tandem bike…what else would we need to really know?
As it turns out, bicycling the TransAmerica Trail on a tandem bicycle makes the journey a lot like walking into Cheers. You can really never go unnoticed. Our entry into a town was often met with fanfare; everyone stopped what they were doing to see about the new strangers in spandex. Word traveled fast around most of the rural towns we passed through about the married couple riding the “Double Bike”. Most people knew our names and our story pretty quickly. We got the same reception even in the big-city stops on the route like Charlottesville, VA, Pueblo, CO, and Missoula, MT – what the rest of America would call “great small towns”. Everyone had the same litany of jokes and questions, too.
“She’s not pedaling back there, ya know?”
“So, do you all have to pedal at the same time?”
“Does the same person always ride in the front?”
“Who controls the gears and the brakes?”
“Who REALLY does the most work?”
“Is it easy or harder than a single bike?”
Over the course of our journey, we learned to love those questions (most of the time) and learned how to answer some more appropriately. As far as the easy ones go:
Yes, I know she’s not pedaling (jk :-D)
Yup, we are linked up and pedal in sync…all the time.
Yup, David is gigantic and Liz is tiny, so David always rides in front.
David controls the things.
Liz is definitely stronger, and puts up with David’s erratic turning, so Liz does more work.
The last one took us all 68 days to figure out. In fact, we probably did not get a good idea of whether or not a single bike or tandem would be easier until we started biking solo around Seattle. Our official answer now: Tandem is definitely harder. So, if we do it again, will we ride single bikes? Absolutely not.
The idea of doing an adventure trek to get away from it all, be silent, and learn more about oneself is priceless. There is a lot to be said for one’s journey through the desert. We have each had our own one of those in different ways. But we think that if you really ask anyone who biked the TransAmerica the right questions, they will agree with us that the Trail is all about communication.
Needless to say, Liz and I were different than most touring cyclists in that we had to communicate ALL THE TIME. Breaking, changing gears, turning, coasting, shifting in the saddle, scratching, clipping in, stopping…literally every move we made had to be communicated before being executed to avoid serious catastrophe. Granted, we learned to predict movements and reactions with more time on the tandem, but we tried to never assume anything. This openness fostered complete dependence on one another for safety and success. However, we quickly learned that communication with each other alone was not enough to guarantee survival on the Trail. We had to communicate well with others, too. That may seem drastic to those who have done long, solo hiking expeditions in the real wilderness, but it was so true.
By communicating with others and refusing to make assumptions about people we encountered, we found out not only more about ourselves, but also more about the compassion of strangers. As early as our third night on the road, we found ourselves praying hard and desperately seeking help from anyone we could find to get shelter from a storm. We told ourselves we would be beyond ecstatic with just directions to a covered shelter or a building with a decent overhang. Instead we got a bed in a warm house, a place to dry our wet clothes, two amazing meals, and some new friends we will remember forever. We continued to find this kind of amazing generosity wherever we went. No one asked for anything in return. No one questioned us or looked at us suspiciously. Pretty much everyone just extended a helping hand and showed us love because we were fellow human beings. I think people saw some part of themselves in us and wanted us to succeed. Very few of these strangers know how big of a part they were in helping us reach our destination…and more importantly helping us learn how to trust and rely on others. And in doing so, trust and rely on each other.
The trip was not easy. It was almost impossible. It turned out that Hoosier Pass – our mental Goliath – was one of the more enjoyable challenges we faced. We pedaled up so many mountains. We battled crazy headwinds. Asphalt melted onto our tires. Frost formed on our bike. We ate so many Pop Tarts. We gained 8000 feet of elevation to get up to the highest point on the Trail on a ridiculous make-shift Wal-Mart tire after we had a blowout on our expensive “fail-proof” tire. But we did it. We rode an old, noisy, ill-fitting tandem bicycle 3500 miles from Washington, DC to our new home in Seattle, WA.
We can comfortably say that riding the tandem was way more challenging than riding a single bike for so many reasons. But there is no way we would have done it any other way. We shared even the smallest of moments and were only separated for minutes at a time at the most for the entire summer. One of my former co-workers calculated that we crammed in three years of normal married couple together time in a few weeks. It’s not for every one maybe, but it was groundbreaking for us. Learning to rely on each other in such extreme situations taught us about our weaknesses and flaws in ways that we may have never seen otherwise. With that, we learned a new, deeper level of respect and love for one another. And it pushed us to extend that love, respect, and even dependence to those around us.
Everyone who makes the journey across the country on bicycle would agree with Hemmingway when he said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” There is a beautiful simplicity to getting around on a bike and a feeling of freedom as you soak in what’s around you with more senses than you ever thought you had. Those who make it across the country successfully, though, would also agree with the statement that no one bikes across the country alone. Even if you buck the touring cyclist community you are bound to encounter along the way, or commit to making the journey in complete silence, any route you take from sea to shining sea puts you through the heart of America. And that heart of America communicates with you in so many ways, making you part of its story. The land calls out to you, begging you to lift your gaze from the churning of your tired legs. The smells tell you about the lives of the wildlife in dense forests and the hard work of the men and women in vast prairies. The water bottles from strangers, the hand waves from rearview mirrors, and the big awestruck, kind of smiles communicate a message of welcome and belonging in what at times seems like a foreign place within a country we call home. While our journey was together, we were often in places where it was just the two of us. But we never felt alone. And that might be the most unexpected thing we learned on our trip. Even when we think we are alone, there’s always someone behind us, sitting on the seat in the back of the bike, pushing hard to help us get up the next hill. And that’s how we want to get where we are going for as long as we can.