A 10 week, 5000km bike ride through the Western United States, and my first real experience of bike touring
Having never toured for longer than a single week before, but inspired by the exploits of Alistair Humphreys and Mark Beaumont and feeling the warmth of a fire of similar ambition in my stomach, I realised that I should really stop day dreaming about adventure and actually go and see what a long bike tour was all about. Dan and Andy, two university friends, and I put our heads together over a few pints and concocted an ambitious plan to cycle across Africa during our long student summer holidays. A fairly foolhardy plan in hindsight given out collective lack of touring experience in arguably the toughest continent. This idea rattled around for a few more months with nothing concrete being organised and remained in the back of our minds as we enjoyed the first term of university. Eventually the idea was shelved and we were back to the drawing board (although the following year Dan and Andy took this plan back off the shelf and completed it. You can read the story here). In its place however came the plan of cycling through the American west; cheap enough to reach, geographically diverse and with enough open landscape to provide a challenge and for me to gain some experience. After some quick skyscanning an outbound and return flight was booked to Vancouver and Denver respectively. Although seemingly unrelated destinations they were both the cheapest destinations I could find. What resulted was a perfect 10 week time span in which to slowly meander through the Western States of America and experience all that they had to offer.
With flights booked I set about telling Dan the exciting news. Unfortunately, during this interim period he had signed himself up to do an Ironman in late July and thus was unable to join me at the beginning. Never one to say no to a challenge though Dan set about booking a flight to Vancouver only the day after finishing his Iron Man and would then proceed to speed through the first half of the trip to catch me up. Fantastic! I now had the chance to experience both solo and team touring and the five weeks that I would be spending alone would be the real baptism of fire that I needed.
Cycling out of Vancouver and approaching the first hill I was struck by the length of time that spanned in front of me. What I had envisaged as being a spirit awakening experience of freedom was actually supplanted with a deep sense of dread and fear which positioned itself in the pit of my stomach for the following days. I felt neither mentally nor physically prepared for the trip and with each painful pedalstroke the prospect of 69 more days was overwhelming. I was really out of my depth. Each morning I would awake from my tent with a renewed sense of purpose and optimism which typically lasted till around midday. At this point the heat wave that Washington State was experiencing would begin to gnaw at my body and soul. This would continue well into the afternoon until a brief time of shade would provide some respite from the exertions. Unfortunately this period of mental and physical quietude was brief as my mind would then begin to worry about where I was going to set up camp that night and making sure I had sufficient food and water. It’s clear that in this first week I lacked the confidence in my own decision making abilities to overcome the situation. I would constantly question myself again and again until I could no longer determine what was the best thing to do. This was perhaps the most damaging state to be in.
With each passing day however I was becoming more and more normalised to my activity. Well versed by all those who do long distance adventures, is that you just need to endure the first few days of wobbles and then everything will settle down. I understood this before departing from England however understanding something and practicing it I found to be two very different things. Everything always works out okay. For me, this was the greatest lesson learnt.
So, as the days rolled into weeks and my wheels rolled over mountain passes, through gorges, along open plains and across state borders I really began to appreciate and cherish my lucky situation. No longer were the days fraught with fear and uncertainty, rather I had now accepted that there were miles that needed to be ridden and I was the one who was going to ride them. Despite the fickleness of the emotions I felt; from self-pity when cycling uphill to heart leaping happiness when cresting the climb, I had stored enough positive memories in my head from the previous days to continue pushing through what seemed to my weary legs to be an endless assault of long slow climbs. Looking back on those five weeks two and a half years on I see them as some of the most formative times of my life so far. However, I do cringe at the amount of fuss I was making over very little and I certainly needed a voice in my ear telling me to ‘man up’. As all parents say to their children, or at least mine often did, “its character building stuff this”. Regrettably I have to concede that this is of course true.
Upon reaching Jackson, Wyoming, the prearranged meeting point between Dan and myself, I felt apprehensive once more about what lay ahead. After my first week’s woes and fears I had grown up a lot and was now perfectly comfortably with travelling by myself and enjoyed the time spent in my own thoughts and the ability to have complete control over every decision I made. What would the addition of another person mean to the freedoms I had been relishing? What would the intimate and difficult nature of bike touring mean for mine and Dan’s friendship? Was I even capable of being good company for somebody else or would I grate on him? Would Dan grate on me? Would Dan be feeling all the anxieties of no longer classing oneself as a ‘solo adventurer’ and the delusions of grandeur that one builds up with this self-appointed title? As the clock in the central square of Jackson struck 5, the prearranged meeting time, I saw Dan walking over to me with an enormous bag of day old bagels accompanied by two big jars of peanut butter and jam and with the added bonus of having met somebody who was offering us some floor space to sleep that night. He couldn’t really have arrived in better fashion and all the petty apprehensions I’d had evaporated.
We headed southwards along the dirt roads of Wyoming and into the open desert of Utah. Having been warned numerous times that we wouldn’t make it through Utah in the summer heat we delighted in reaching the spectacular canyons of Bryce and Zion in the southern part of the state. It was becoming more and more apparent to me during this time cycling with Dan that sharing a trip with somebody else was a hell of a lot easier and a lot more fun than being by yourself. Yes it didn’t quite have the same highs that solo touring had, but on the flip side it neither had the crushing lows. We’d laugh our way through any adverse situation rather than worrying about the consequences as I had been doing previously. I was really starting to feel like I could continue this way of life for much longer than we had left.
Following Zion Canyon our next major landmark was the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, a worthy 80 mile out and back detour. This provided a day off the bike to explore what America’s most famous landmark really was, and Dan proposed the idea of attempting a Rim to River to Rim to River to Rim walk/run as a the perfect way to see as much of the Canyon as possible in a single day. Basically we were to go from the North Rim, to the South Rim and back again. Encouraged by my growing fitness I agreed to this and just before the sun rose we set off on the 40 mile route. I must say that we did see as much of the Canyon as we possibly could have done, and despite all the notices and park rangers damning any such attempt it was a fairly straight forward route. What we learned through both our cycle through Utah and the Grand Canyon is that there are a lot of people who are willing to offer their two-pence worth, however very few people who really know what they’re talking about!
Onwards from the Grand Canyon and through a town called Page (with the obligatory photo of course) we approached Monument Valley at dusk and were treated to the landscape in all its cinematic glory. Imagining ourselves as the stars of a Spaghetti Western we snuck away from the road wheeling our bikes into the desert and set up camp just as the dark red sun was falling behind the horizon. This moment perhaps encapsulates better than any what it is to tour with another person. I found myself so at ease with every situation that confronted us whereas I once had been a little less assured of what I was doing. Dan and I managed to laugh off anything that came our way, from being threatened by the police after we were caught camping on private land to sleeping in the back of a 'For Sale' house and hoping the owners were either away for that night or that they weren’t particularly early risers.
We headed north from Monument Valley, through the mountain biking mecca of Moab where I managed to have an unfortunate incident with a colony of ants in my handlebar bag which resulted in me accidentally spraying my face with bear spray, and eventually caught our first glimpses of the Rockies as they rose up in front of us like sentinel guards barring our route. Perhaps it was the heady mix of knowing that the finish line in Denver lay a little over a week away or that we had more days than miles remaining and so began to really slow the pace down and take it easy which turned that final week into my fondest of the trip. We forded a river to camp hidden on a little island near the centre of celebrity hotspot ski resort Aspen and cycled over the Rockies’ highest mountain pass (much to the astonishment of the rather overweight melodramatic American housewives who gasped for breath after stepping out of their SUVs at the top). This was quickly eclipsed by a cycle up the highest paved road in America, at 14,271ft! Only the Americans would build such a homage to the car to allow everybody to reach the top of a ‘14er’. But hey, the descent was incredible so I’m not complaining! Colorado really did seem like the dream state to be finishing our little adventure in. We partied with pot-smoking hippies in Leadville after climbing Mt Elbert and spent our final three days relaxing in and around Boulder courtesy of the brilliant hospitality of Ed Phelps who seemed to be a warmshowers veteran and a wholly generous chap. If you haven’t heard of or been on Warm Showers then I highly recommend it, it’s basically a couch surfing site for bike tourers and seems to be popular in America and Europe.
The final week seemed to be a mix of excitement at the prospect of returning home whilst also tempered by the end of the holiday blues and the real feeling that I would be more than happy to just continue working my way south till road ran out. But eventually the day came to fly back home. We strapped the cardboard boxes we’d got from a bike shop in Boulder onto the back of our bags, wrapped in multiple bin bags, and set out into the heaviest rain we’d seen all trip for the 50 mile bike ride along the interstate connecting Boulder with Denver International Airport. It was a great way to end what had been an incredible journey. The western states of America really do hold absolutely everything you could possibly want, from high mountain ranges to thick forests, burning hot deserts to snowy mornings. All provided with that bit more colour through the eccentricities of the American people who hands down were the friendliest people I have ever met. All in all, I can’t really say I could have had a better summer holiday!