Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Cross-Country Tour: An Introduction

"The town is behind. Its cares are forgotten. If I have left a thing undone, let it remain so; for I have done with the town and all that remains in it, and the open world is before me. Now I care nothing for either time or space, for of both I am absolute master. I scorn appointments, either with myself or with another. I will not end the day in any given spot, but in that spot which pleases me best when the day is near its close. I am king of the road, I, a vagrant, a gipsy, a highwayman if you will, but at all events one who knows and honours the freedom of the road."

 -- Mr. Haydon Perry, a touring "enthusiast" quoted in A.W. Rumney's Cycle Touring (1898, "Price One Shilling")


Hello from Pikeville, Kentucky, and a bike trip that has finally gone interstate. Before I can talk about how we got here, though, a little history is in order.

This trip of ours formally began thirteen days ago today, but a lot has happened over the few years without which we never would have been able to dip our wheels in the Atlantic. When I was in Taipei during the summer after my freshman year, I spent a lot of time exploring: wandering the alleys, cycling into the mountains, trying the food, talking to people I met in restaurants or on the street. It seemed like the best way to take the pulse of the city and the best way to meet its people. The Taiwanese I met were usually just as curious about America as I was about Taiwan; they wanted to know how Americans live, what we eat, what we earn, how we celebrate. I discovered pretty quickly that I didn't have very many answers for them - I could speak for my family, or at times on behalf of suburban Connecticut, but rarely did I feel confident talking about anywhere else in America, let alone the country in its entirety.

When I got back to the U.S., I started wondering why I had never really thought of exploring America, or even New York, the same way I explored Taipei: on foot, by bike, and most importantly in person. So at some point during the winter of my sophomore year (late 2009 or early 2010), an e-mail went out to Steve, a longtime friend and partner-in-shenanigans. It went something like this: "So what if we took a summer and biked across the country?" The reply was characteristic of him, and went something like this: "That sounds great. Let's do it. I mean it."

Over the next year and a half, we kicked the idea around and let it take shape. Around mid-2010, when I had just arrived in Beijing for a year of Chinese study, we settled on the summer of 2012 as our window of opportunity: Steve would be graduating, and neither of us knew what the post-Commencement world would bring, so we figured it might well be our last chance to embark on an adventure of this scale together. In mid-2011, while I was working for a Chinese company in Zambia, we started talking more seriously about logistics, cost, and other considerations. Throughout the past academic year (2011-2012), I spent a large portion of my free time doing research: combing books, blogs, and the local bike shop for clues about what to buy, eat, prepare, and expect. I also applied for but failed to receive a Yale fellowship, saved up some of the money I would need for the trip, and dipped into previous savings for the rest. Most of my spring break in March was spent training, and while I quickly lost the mileage gains I made during those ten days, I did get a lot more comfortable with my new bike and with endurance cycling in general.

Preparing for the trip has involved a pretty serious commitment of time, money, and attention - more so by far than any of my previous summer (ad)ventures - but it's hard to sum up in a word what exactly has motivated me. The main impetus has always been this desire to get a grassroots, worm's-eye view of America, but other elements have also become intertwined in that: rising to the physical challenge, filming some breathtaking scenery, eating some delicious food, cementing a strong friendship, attaining the feeling of achievement that I hope will come after completing an ocean-to-ocean trip, and briefly freeing myself (Perry-esque) from schedules, communication, and obligations.

Given the limited amount of time we have before I need to be back at Yale, it's going to be difficult to balance all of these; just yesterday, for example, we were talking about whether or not we'll be willing or able to maintain a pace that will take us through the deep South, northern Texas, the Great Plains, and Utah, or whether we'll have to take a more direct route to our final destination of San Francisco. We chose our route with the intent to spend some time in as many "alien" regions of the U.S. as time would allow. We hope it will look something like this - http://g.co/maps/naxpd - and so far we seem to be reasonably on track, though with 650 miles down and as many as 3,800 remaining, we'll need to pick up the pace a bit to achieve our goal. You'll notice that we didn't start in Connecticut, where we're both from and where I go to school; we figured that if we're reasonably familiar with any two regions of the U.S., they are New England and the mid-Atlantic, so we (and by "we," I mean "Steve") drove a rental car down to Virginia Beach and started there. (This became a brief point of embarrassment yesterday when we met Stan, a guy from Belgium who had started from New York on about the same day as us. Stan also drinks milk instead of water and may be superhuman, so I think we'll go back to being proud of our daily mileage soon.)

Before I launch into what our trip has actually been like - the subject of the next blog entry, so, hold your horses - I'm going to answer a few of the most common questions we've been asked along the way:

Q: What do you carry with you?

A: Everything we need (or just really want). So far, for me personally (including group gear) that comprises:
  • touring bike (mine is a secondhand Fuji Touring from around 2007, a steal at $400)
  • bike accessories
    • bike computer (which I got for free with the bike! stopped working in the middle of Virginia but started back up again two days ago for no reason.)
    • rear rack
    • panniers (saddlebag-type packs that hook onto the sides of the rack)
    • handlebar bag
    • waterproof map pocket (attaches to handlebars)
    • U-lock and cable
    • pedals (Mine are dual platform, which means that I can ride clipped into my cycling shoes or on a flat platform with regular shoes. We always ride clipped in when we're on the road, which was a big adjustment at first but became second nature within a day or two.)
    • cycling shoes with cleats (made especially to clip into the pedals)
    • water bottle cages (2)
    • bell
    • reflectors (one set per wheel and then a back reflector that I've zip-tied to my rack)
    • front light (1W, blue-white)
    • rear light (Very Bright, red)
    • mini mirror (zip tied to my left drop handlebar)
    • flag (3m fiberglass; fluorescent orange replaced with an American flag, which was Steve's idea with inspiration credit to his friend Marshall)
    • mini floor pump (mounted to the down tube)
    • extra mini pump
    • handlebar mount for video camera
  • Spares and Repairs
    • spare tire (1)
    • spare tubes (2)
    • spare spokes (2)
    • patch kits (includes sandpaper, vulcanizing glue, and patches)
    • chain lube
    • bike tool set (includes Allen keys, screwdrivers, tire levers, chain breaker, etc.)
    • rag (for grease)
  • Cycling Apparel
    • cycling shorts (3x; mine are all mountain bike- esque Louis Garneau Cyclo shorts. I'm allergic to something in them and will probably return to Yale with a hydrocortisone and/or Benadryl addiction.)
    • cycling jersey (1)
    • helmet
  • Other Apparel
    • socks (5 pairs, incl. 2 SmartWool)
    • gloves (1 pair, fingerless leather, courtesy my younger brother Ian. For when it gets cold.)
    • pants (1 pair, nylon-y hiking pants, can convert to shorts)
    • shirts (3: 1 short-sleeved, 1 long-sleeved, 1 short-sleeved Seersucker)
    • belt
    • handkerchief (for sweat)
    • rain shell (cheap, plastic-y, and slowly desintegrating)
    • poncho
    • sunglasses and strap
    • swimming trunks (haven't used those yet.)
  • Technology
    • audio recorder (Olympus; in lieu of a journal/notebook)
    • camcorder (Canon Vixia HF-S10)
    • Seinheisser mini shotgun mic (wish I hadn't brought this. not much use for it.)
    • Sony mini lapel mic (ditto.)
    • portable hard drives (two 1TB drives, FAT32 formatted: one Hitachi Touro and one Western Digital MyPassbook [or whatever it's called])
    • cell phone (Verizon, w/ pay-as-you-go plan)
  • Camping Equipment
    • tent (REI Quarter Dome T2+. Truly magical.)
    • tent footprint and rainfly
    • extra tarp (for the bikes. really another tent's footprint on clearance.)
    • sleeping pad (Thermarest, foam)
    • sleeping bag (Marmot Maverick)
    • camping utensils (mostly for making sandwiches)
    • rope (for use as a clothesline)
    • camp soap (not yet used)
  • Everything Else
    • water bottles
    • hydration pack (Camelback Lobo)
    • Leatherman multitool
    • bungee cords (4) and one adjustable strap (haven't had to use the latter yet)
    • pepper spray (mostly for dogs, maybe for humans? Have had a few close calls with the former.)
    • gaffer tape (wrapped around a pencil stub)
    • zipties (super useful)
    • a book ("How Washington Really Works." Picked it up off a pile in my basement; haven't opened it yet.)
    • toiletries (soap, shampoo, deoderant, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, floss, electric razor)
    • towel
    • first aid (band-aids, Ace bandage, cold pack, alcohol prep pads, Benadryl, hydrocortisone cream, aspirin, tweezers, scissors, gauze, antibacterial cream, etc)
    • sunscreen
    • bugspray
    • emergency toilet paper
    • Adventure Cycling Association maps (TransAmerica from Virginia-->Kentucky and Western Express from Utah-->California)

Q: What do you eat?

A: A lot of PB&J - we try to switch up the jelly to make it interesting, but I love PB&J so I don't mind anyway. Also, a lot of power bars - Clif energy (especially brownie flavor) while on the road and Builders (for our muscle-rebuilding protein fix at the end of the day or after a tough climb).

Q: How many miles do you ride a day?
A: We've been averaging 60 but hope to push it up to 75 very soon. We started out at 65 on flat terrain (near VA Beach), and our max was 80 (the day we arrived in Charlottesville), but our pace quickly slowed [ha!] as we hit the Appalachians - after Charlottesville, for example, we had a 45-mile day,  followed by 35-mile day that nonetheless completely wiped is out. We've been doing some pretty solid climbs recently without much of a problem though, so I think our muscles are finally adapting; a few days ago we had a 1,500-ft climb, followed later by a 1,000-ft climb, and we ended that day (about 65 miles) feeling ready for more.

Q: Where do you stay?

A: So far, it's been a mix of camping (at parks or other campgrounds), staying with relatives or friends (or relatives of friends!), and camping in the yards of folks who have just gone out of their way to be hospitable and make the offer. We've also CouchSurfed once(http://couchsurfing.org/), and had a few more offers but failed to make it as far as we wanted to on that day and so been unable to claim our couch; we hope to do more Couchsurfing in the future, especially now that we have a better idea of our pace and what a realistic daily mileage goal might look like. There's also a site specifically for touring cyclists called WarmShowers, but I've never used it and to be honest I just keep forgetting to check whether anyone's available along our route. We've had to stay in a motel once, and it felt very much like a defeat.

Q: How do you plan your route?

We plan in 3- to 5-day increments. Until yesterday (and except for the first day), we've been largely sticking to the ACA TransAmerica route, which follows Interstate Cycling Route 76 through Virginia and into Kentucky. We've been supplementing that with some Google mapping, either on computers at houses we've stayed at or via Steve's iPhone, but we'll now be deviating completely from the map to head south into Tennessee. When we plan a route, we look for terrain, expected daily mileage, available stops (convenience stores, etc), and places to spend the night (campgrounds, relatives/friends, or CouchSurfing users).

Q: When will you get to San Francisco?
A: Hopefully by August 20 at the very latest. I'd like to spend a few days there before I fly back to NYC/Connecticut (probably August 23/24). But... who really knows? Que sera, sera.

To read about the first two weeks of our tour, check back in five or six days for an update from our next rest stop (hopefully in/near Nashville). Or, for terse but up-to-the-minute information, follow Steve on Twitter! -- http://twitter.com/scubarton.

In the meantime, here's the cliffhanger to my next blog entry, which begins as we drive down to Virginia Beach, bikes stowed in the trunk of our rented Crown Victoria, to meet with our CouchSurfing host for the evening. What I felt can best be summed up by none other than Mr. Haydon Perry, the fellow from 1898:

"What finer enthusiasm is there than that begot of the thought, 'To-morrow I begin my tour?' - what conveys fuller or surer promise of novelty?"

Until Nashville,


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