Across America by Bicycle - Katie
I met Katie at the Stoked Spoke Route-Sharing event in downtown Seattle this spring. Katie and her boyfriend, Rob, were actually waiting in line afterwards to talk to me... which went straight to my head and made me feel like an honest-to-goodness celebrity. They loved my presentation on "Touring Your Own Way," and reported that they'd just finished their first-ever cross country bicycle tour together last summer.
Katie confessed that, despite having ridden across the US mere months before this event, she'd felt "so out of place" when the other presenters were sharing their tales of hardcore bike-packing wilderness adventures. She said, "I had to remind myself that 'you freaking rode across the country this summer' while I was watching these presentations to make myself feel confident that I belonged."
"I had to remind myself, 'you freaking rode across the country this summer' to feel confident that I belonged."
This is exactly the stereotype that we hope to overcome: the chiseled, disciplined athlete on a heavily-loaded bicycle, performing feats of strength and speed that would make Lance Armstrong proud. Some of us are just the opposite: a little out of shape, a bit inexperienced, pedaling along at ten miles an hour and having the time of our lives.
You can read more about this approach to bike touring in my recent essay on Adventure Cycling Association's website: "It Takes All Kinds."
Katie writes, "I’m sharing all this because feeling intimidated can be a major discouragement, but we all feel it. The fear dies away when you start your journey. Yes, preparing can be useful, but what I found more comforting was knowing that you will learn along the way. You don’t need to know everything when you start. You will screw up, and you will figure things out. The rest of us are all screw-ups too."
"You will screw up, and you will figure things out. The rest of us are all screw-ups too."
Read on for more encouragement and advice from Katie, the latest bike-riding female badass in my interview series.
Where do you live?
I live in Seattle now after recently relocating from the Boston area where I lived for almost 10 years.
What role does your bicycle play in your life?
My bike brings me joy almost every day. Generally if I can ride my bike places, I will. I’m a fan of both short city trips and day-long adventures, whether it’s loading my touring bike with groceries or taking an actual scenic ride. In these adventures, I have bungeed many weird and bulky items onto various parts of my bike including: tires, 12-packs of glass jars, a rotisserie chicken, a cookie jar, 12-packs of paper towels, etc. Asking yourself “can I bungee that?” introduces a fun challenge that is mildly embarrassing for you on the ride home.
How did you fall in love with bicycling?
My first bike as an adult was a beater that I bought off Craigslist in Boston. I was terrified to ride it and was convinced that it would sit unused in my small apartment where I would have to face this "money pit" of a purchase everyday. The first few times I rode it I’m certain my hands broke out in a cold sweat, and I did not enjoy it.
I kept at it and my shorter trips on quiet streets gradually became longer trips on busier streets. City riding still makes me a little nervous, and I think that’s healthy: My nerves force me to pay attention and to never get too comfortable or unsafe.
"Asking yourself 'can I bungee that?' introduces a fun challenge that is mildly embarrassing for you on the ride home."
What inspired you to buy that first bike?
What got me riding in the first place and what has kept me riding is this feeling of freedom. You can go anywhere under your own power. No bus to wait for, car to park and maintain, its little you on your two little wheels facing a much larger world. It’s the act of being both humble and self sufficient, and there’s a peace in that.
What do you love about bicycle commuting?
Boston is a city that can feel inaccessible. Once I started biking, it really opened up the city and the surrounding area for me. It turned a boring commute into a micro-adventure. That’s what got me into riding and what keeps me riding - the sense of adventure that you can infuse into your daily life. It only takes a few miles.
Tell us about your bicycles.
Now I ride a Bridgestone XO-4 that I have not yet named but affectionately call “Bridgey” and less affectionately call “Shithead” when things aren’t working. I recently bought the Bridgestone as a slow, upright cruiser of a commuter bike and it has not disappointed. I wanted something that I would enjoy riding and would also feel safe locking up in the city. It’s my first bike with a bell, and I experience a child-like joy whenever I ring it, which really helps to prevent road rage.
My touring bike is a mint Surly Straggler with brown handlebar tape, which, given the color scheme, is my mint chocolate bike, also referred to as “Mint Cocoa.” “Mint Cocoa” has gone through a few identities over the years from city commuter, to fatty tired touring bike, to fatty tired commuter. I’ve recently fallen in love with fatter tires. It’s more a psychological thing, but I feel more grounded with a wider base.
What inspired you to bike across the country?
I was finishing up a grad program and was feeling lethargic and frustrated. In the years leading up to the end, I started reading as an escape and picked up a few books about personal feats of strength and extended adventure. I read about Cheryl Strayed hiking the PCT, Bill Bryson taking a walk in the woods, and Rinker Buck riding a mule-drawn carriage across the Oregon Trail to name a few. I didn’t read any of these books and think “I want to do that” it was more like “I want to do something that feels like that.”
Most of these stories share similarities and mine is no different: My day-to-day sometimes felt purposeless and constrained to routine. In the two years leading up to the trip, I had trouble discerning one year from the last. I don’t think I explicitly wanted a bike trip but I wanted a feeling of freedom, to be removed from my typical day-to-day, to experience the world in any way but numbly.
I entertained the idea of a bike trip because it was the type of extended adventure that I was most capable of doing. I don’t particularly like walking, so hiking was out, and I get too antsy on car trips. My partner Rob and I were only a few months into dating when I defended my thesis. A little too happy after a few drinks at the campus bar, Rob confessed to me that he wanted to ride across the country when he finished his degree. I was a little less surprised than I should have been when I heard this, because I’d been thinking of doing something similar myself. Once verbalized, our trip was in motion although it wasn’t until 6+ months later when we were finally on the road.
"I wanted a feeling of freedom, to be removed from my typical day-to-day, to experience the world in any way but numbly."
Tell us about your cross country bicycle tour. What route did you follow?
Rob and I pieced together different Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) routes: mainly staying on the Northern Tier, but we did a bit of the Great Lakes Route, too. I liked using the Adventure Cycling routes because I like having things relatively planned out without having to do the planning myself. The ACA maps were a great plan to start with and gave us a certain level of “choose your own adventure.” It was nice to have that freedom.
We started off-route at Rob’s parents’ place about 100 miles north of NYC. From Rob’s parents’ house, we cut north to Albany and then followed the Erie Canal to Buffalo. From Buffalo, we picked up the Adventure Cycling Association maps and cut into southern Ontario, and then went on to Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and finally through Washington to finish in Seattle.
What was your preparation like?
In the weeks leading up to our trip, Rob had been finishing school, and I’d been traveling for interviews. In the end, we U-Hauled all of our items into storage on a Friday, had a going away party on Friday night, and then drove to New York on Saturday. Not unexpectedly, this was overwhelming. The beginning part of our trip was different than I expected. I’d been advised that the start is the hardest, and it was challenging physically but mostly it was a relief. The chaos was over and now instead of being pulled in many directions we traveled in only one. Ahead. It was refreshingly simple.
If you plan to do a long tour yourself, I’d highly recommend starting at some form of home. We could take our time getting our stuff together (i.e. we had too much stuff, so we ended up mailing back some items weeks later), and had the opportunity to rest.
What surprised you about the United States?
It’s hard for me to come up with something that doesn’t sound cliche, but my biggest takeaway is that the US is so big. After seeing so many miles of it, people and places, it is amazing to me that we are all part of the same country. I know that deep down we all know that we live in a large and diverse place but there is something about experiencing it which hit me in the face with that diversity.
Building off that, if the US is big, the plains are also big. Biking felt boundless. Textures of the plains landscape became familiar and in the end, I kept my bearings by locking on to these markers: Corrugated silos on a hot day scattered light in ways that reminded me of early technicolor movies. Flowering fields were uniform patchwork quilt squares of color. The consistency of the landscape could be mind-numbing, so adding imagination became useful.
"The Plains are so big. Biking felt boundless."
More specific to parts of the northern route and particularly in northern Montana, we were exposed to the historically brutal treatment of the native populations. I’m not the right person to speak for this history, so I won’t try. The route that we took crossed through reservations and followed Chief Joseph’s path into Canada. Historical markers commonly denoted bloody battles, exploitation and (at best) cavalier treatment of sacred spaces by European settlers. I never thought of travel as a way to confront the past, but biking provided an intimate approach.
What makes bicycle touring special, compared to other modes of travel?
Touring is so friendly. When we started on the trip, I was worried that we would have too much alone time together, which could only lead to a few options: (1) we would destroy each other and ourselves, (2) our social lives would become singularly intertwined so that all sentences would become inside jokes and we would therefore lose the ability to communicate with others or (3) a toxic combination of options (1) and (2).
I didn’t know that in reality people would come up to us all the time, and we would commonly stay with strangers who willingly offered up their homes along the way. There’s something about putting all of your stuff, all your vulnerabilities out there that makes you approachable. Strangers would not only greet us but commonly open up with deeply personal topics usually related to their own adventures or dreams of adventure. I learned that all people have a fundamentally engraved inclination to adventure. It is a great equalizer.
I don’t think you can get this type of deeply moving social experience without the exposure provided by bicycle travel. People just aren’t as likely to approach you or view you as a kindred adventuring spirit in a car, plane or other form of transportation.