The Last Word (Maybe) - Two Old Guys Take On A Continent - CycleBlaze

August 11, 2023

The Last Word (Maybe)

The Best and the Worst and Lessons Learned

The Best

The best thing about the tour was the people we met along the way. Not just the other bicycle tourists we encountered who were traveling in the opposite direction, though it was fun talking to them for a bit and comparing notes. Not just the other bicycle tourists traveling in the same direction we were with whom we spent more time because we were staying at the same places overnight.

There were the WarmShowers hosts who put us up for a night, shared their homes with us, fed and watered us, and sent us on our way, without expecting anything in return but our company and our stories.

There were the friends and relatives who put us up for a night or two along the way, or who sent care packages to post offices on the route, or drove all the way from California to follow us and carry our bags, or drove to meet us and spend a couple of days visiting.

There were the shopkeepers, coffee shop owners, convenience store and grocery store clerks, servers, bartenders  and others who showed a genuine if incredulous interest in what we were doing. Some of our followers on CycleBlaze came from that group. There were the many random encounters with people in restaurants, bars, stores, on the road, in campgrounds and rest areas who invited us to join their conversations and tell our stories. A couple times we were allowed into what I like to refer to as the old retired folks gabfests at a convenience store or restaurant.

There were those people we met camping who shared with us, sometimes beer (greatly appreciated when in the middle of nowhere), once or twice food, information, odd bits of equipment (I now have a full size carabiner for my raccoon hangs). Doug who went out of his way to provide a cake for my 70th birthday and then paid for dinner. A bartender comped my drink when he found out it was my birthday. Randy treated a whole table of bicyclists to burgers and beers for HIS 65 birthday. The couple who snuck us the wifi password in the restaurant when the proprietor wouldn't give it to us because we hadn't ordered an entrée. 

There were the road construction crews and pilot car drivers who not only passed us through their work zones but who kept the backed up traffic off our tails and helped us through when they didn't have to.

There were the bike shops that dropped everything so help us out when we rolled in.  That's not to say they always did the greatest work in the world (some did), but they moved us to the top of their priority lists. 

Of course there were magnificent scenery and interesting places (and in my case, fascinating geology) along the way.

The most stunning scene I remember was coming over the top of Lolo Pass from Montana into Idaho, after a long rainy ascent, and having the sun burst onto the rugged and heavily forested mountains. It was a whole new shade of green. 

We saw some of the great rivers, the Potomac, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Columbia, and their tributaries, like the Snake, the Platte, the Madison. Who knew there are raging rapids on the Potomac River not far from Washington DC?  Certainly not me. We watched the Rocky Mountains slowly materialize from afar and then disappear again as we got so close that the foothills blocked our view. Once we got to the Rocky Mountains there were almost always snow covered mountain ranges in view, often in several different directions simultaneously.

There were heaps of historic sites along the way, and even at touring speed there was not enough time to stop and appreciate them all, unless we wanted to be on the road forever. From the C&O Canal to the Lewis and Clark Trail (which actually extends across the continent, from Washington DC where Thomas Jefferson set their expedition in motion, to the Pacific Ocean), to the historic highways and byways we traveled, to the old courthouses and monuments we passed, to the myriad historic markers along the roads. Let's not forget the cabin where Home on the Range was written.

I won't belabor the geology. It was everywhere. Some high points for me: Stylolites in 3 dimensions.  Sand hills on the Great Plains. Earthquake Lake. The Grand Tetons. The geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone. Beautiful examples of columnar basalt. The Columbia River Gorge. Mount Hood.

Let's not forget the breweries! Too often they were in towns where we did not plan to stop, or that we passed too early in the day, or that were closed on the day we visited. But we did visit our share, and it was great to have a cold beer at the end (or occasionally in the middle) of a long ride, with a captive audience to share our story.

The Worst

I wouldn't say there were a lot of "worst" things on the tour, but there were a few.

There was our one certified Road Demon on US 40 in Illinois, probably still hunting for us. The relentless parade of logging trucks that passed us without giving quarter as we rode up from Kamiah, Idaho to the Camas Prairie. The Day from Hell when we rode from Walla Walla, Washington to Umatilla, Oregon on the super-windy, uber-busy, shoulderless stretch of US 12 between Touchet and Wallula Junction, the only time I seriously considered thumbing a ride to the end of the day.

There were irksome things that did not rise to the level of "worst". Gravel roads that were supposed to be paved.  RV park drives of coarse, loose gravel. Milled asphalt road surfaces in construction zones (okay, maybe that one 7-mile long stretch was a worst). Gated communities blocking roads that would otherwise allow us to get off busy highways.

I didn't consider any of the climbing we did as "worsts", neither the short steep sections of the climbs in the Appalachians (that a couple times had me pushing my bike uphill on foot) or western Missouri, nor the many-miles-long climbs in the western mountains, which oftentimes took as long as two hours to crest.

Lessons Learned (or Reinforced)

The prevailing winds were not from west to east, at least not where and when we rode, at least not this year.  We had very few of what would qualify as headwind days (a half dozen perhaps), mostly later in the ride and mostly where the topography channeled what wind there was up a narrow valley or canyon.

"Road Closed" and "Trail Closed" signs are generally not reasons to panic or even to try to find a way around.

Only once did we have to go significantly out of our way due to a road closure, and that one time cost us about 6 miles. The only other time we actually diverted from our route due to road closure was the day before we got back to Portland, but the detour added only about 1/2 mile to the ride.

Only twice did a trail closure cause us much heartburn. We had to push our bikes over the top of the ridge bored by the Paw Paw Tunnel in Maryland (we knew that might be coming a year before we left home). No extra miles, just extra climbing on a steep, muddy, rocky trail.  We found a way around the Greer Tunnel closure on the Montour Trail in Pennsylvania thanks to the voice from above that told us to turn into the private drive at the bottom of the Hill of Death to get to the back streets of town. The only extra mileage was the 3-mile round trip on the trail to satisfy ourselves that the tunnel was truly closed. I posted our workaround on Facebook after hearing that a woman had to go 35 miles out of her way to avoid the closure and the Hill of Death.

Every other time we saw a closure sign we rode or walked through or around the construction site, sometimes with the help of the construction workers themselves.

I learned that I don't like to ride downhill faster than about 30 mph on a loaded bike, and I want to do it on the road, not on the shoulder even if there's a nice wide one there.  And the road has to be pretty smooth, and not too trafficky. If there's traffic and a wide shoulder I'll ride on the road until a vehicle approaches me from behind, then duck onto the shoulder just long enough to let it pass.

When you ask a bike shop to ship a bike, be specific about any packing requirements. The shop in Portland unnecessarily removed the saddle from my seat post, and didn't bother to mark its position and angle.  It took me forever and a day to get it set just right; now I have to start over. The saddle mounted on the post would easily have fit into the box as is. Neither did they mark the height of the seat post when they removed it from the seat tube. A simpler adjustment, but it just makes common sense that things like this would be marked before they are disassembled.

Don't overload your kit with food. There will be grocery stores and convenience stores along the way to allow you to stock up for the next day or two. Keep a few freeze dried backpacker meals in your pannier for those times when what I just wrote doesn't come true. You can't help but have multiple days of some food items at times, like instant oatmeal and hot chocolate, because they're sold in boxes of 8 or 10 envelopes, but keep the heavy items to a minimum. If you run out of everything else, those staples will keep you going until you find a store.

Take collapsible water bottles to fill when you suspect it's a long way to the next potable water. I carried two Platypus 2L bottles, and used them a number of times. Ed carried a filter and I carried chlorine dioxide tablets, but we never used either.

Heavy bike locks are just that, heavy bike locks. We rarely used our locks, almost never when we were camped overnight. Only when we knew we would be away from our bikes during the day for an extended period did we bother to use the locks, and then only in larger towns when the bikes were unloaded. A lighter lock would discourage the casual thief, but a heavy lock would not stop a determined thief, who even if he couldn't defeat the lock might try to steal seats, wheels and the like. Go with a lighter lock.

I never bothered to lock up my fully loaded bike when I went into a supermarket or restaurant or other store. I just used the inconspicuous little bungees on my handlebars to lock the brakes. I thought it likely that anyone who thought they could grab the bike and make a run for it would fly over the handlebars without moving the heavy bike. 😜 Naked bikes are a lot easier to steal.

Absent a brewery or a bar and grill there are almost always convenience stores where you can buy cold beer near the end of the day. Stuff it into the pannier with your clothes.  It'll stay cold until you get to the campground.

Carry some dry matches. Those disposable lighters don't always work.

Don't believe everything you see on The website showed zero availability at Mountain Park Campground the day we left Fort Collins, but when we got there that afternoon ready to grovel before the campground host we found available campsites galore. In Yellowstone National Park I spoke with a woman in an RV who said that there were no sites available on the website for months, but she was able to snag a spot the day she arrived. The website opens the camping reservations system 6-9 months in advance, and they book up fast in the national parks and more popular federal campgrounds elsewhere, but many people never show up after making such early reservations. So take Woody Allen's advice, and try just showing up.

The national parks (and some state parks) really do have hiker-biker campsites that cannot be reserved in advance (which is why they don't show up on Even if all the hiker-biker sites were full, they would find a place to put you if you arrive on foot or bicycle tires. I think that even if a public campground without dedicated hiker-biker sites were full, they'd find a spot to pitch a tent or two if you just show up!

The Bottom Line

Maintain a positive attitude! Don't sweat problems that might occur. Wait for the difficulty to present itself, then deal with it. Early on in the tour I came up with two mantras that I expounded any time we were presented with a problem. The Universe Is On Our Side! and It's All Part of the Adventure! I had to repeat them to myself a number of times, and I know Ed got tired of hearing them. I talked him off the ledge a few times, but he came to adopt the mantras to some extent as time went on.

Concentrate on what's right in front of you. Don't dwell on how far you have left to go. Or how far you've come. Enjoy the moment. It will soon be over.

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