Adventure Cycling Maps Are the Best

Okay, so maybe calling it "chicken scratch" is a bit extreme, but the guide book for the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) was minimalist, for certain.

It was October of 2011, and I was nearing the end of my cross-country bicycle tour.  I'd started in Oregon in August, and was now in Mississippi. Using maps I'd purchased through Adventure Cycling Association, I'd made great progress through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri.  But once I'd turned south to follow the Mississippi River Trail, my pace had slowed.

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For the past few days, I’d spent considerable time stopped at the side of the road. Hunched forward over the handlebars, pondering the MRT guidebook in one hand and holding my smart phone high in the air with the other, trying to get reception, I resembled a very lost Statue of Liberty.  It would have been an eye-catching thing to see, but nobody was ever driving by to see it.  That’s one thing I can say for the MRT route: traffic was minimal.  

The MRT maps are so basic, it's something that could be drawn for you on a bar napkin. In fact, since the MRT guide book was written by just one cyclist,  I sometimes felt like I was sitting at a bar with the author, sipping cranberry juice while he doodled on napkins and muttered incomprehensible directions to me. I would just nod and say "yeah, yeah, sure" as he babbled on about three miles this way and ten miles that way. Then, when I actually closed the book and hit the road, I quickly became confused and wished I'd paid more attention. So I'd pull my bike to a stop, pop open my pannier, retrieve the book, and I try my best to interpret the mutterings and chicken scratch all over again. 

The directions hardly referenced any landmarks along the road, relying solely on distances: “after 4.5 miles, turn left”.  It was a shame that I hadn’t bothered to fix my bicycle computer since it decided to stop working in Colorado, because here I was attempting to estimate distances.  I’ve never been good at estimating distances. And on the MRT, that left me in the middle of nowhere.  

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The Adventure Cycling Association maps had spoiled me. Their maps are thorough, and include everything from train track crossings to tiny creeks to city limits and connecting roads. I could tell where I was, and mark my progress by which landmarks I passed. They even have elevation profiles, showing me where the ups and downs of the day would be! Oh, how I missed them.

I'd met a fellow cyclist in Tennessee, and asked him which route he was following. "The MRT," he replied, "what else would I be on? ".

"The ACA has a route called the Great Rivers Tour, I thought you might be using that one,” I explained.

"Nope, I don't like ACA. Their maps are too darn expensive".

Funny he should say that. Three months ago I would have completely agreed, cheap dirtbag that I was. But after sweating across deserts and straining up mountain passes, I can say the ACA maps are worth every penny. No map is perfect, but the ACA has come close. At the very least, the maps are a collaborative effort: a whole group of people sat in a bar and scribbled, instead of just one.

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But the MRT book was what I had, and I intended to use it. The only thing that kept me from giving up and ordering the Great Rivers mapset from ACA is that their route swung way out into Kentucky before sliding west back into Baton Rouge.

I wanted to just truck it, straight down the Mississippi River, with no nonsense. People kept telling me it could snow in October in Tennessee, and I wanted to pedal far ahead of that cold front. So far, so good: the temperature still crept above 80 degrees during the day, and sank only to 40 degrees at night. Lucky me, to ride on the tailcoat of a late summer, all the way across the continent.

But I didn’t feel lucky.  I felt lost and lonely.  And I missed those Adventure Cycling Association maps.