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Biking across the USA

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salt water never tasted so sweet

Friday, August 19th, 2005

The bike trip is over. It took two months, ten states, five flats, an ocean of sweat, dozens of jars of peanut butter, elevation gains equivalent to an Everest or two, and an ever-evolving infinity of little towns and landscapes, but I’ve pedaled coast-to-coast across the North American continent.

After navigating the Appalachians in Virginia, Mel and I ducked south into North Carolina and rode to Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks. There we ceremoniously dipped our bikes in the Atlantic and spent a few days floating in the ocean, lounging on the beach (taking care not to ruin our striking and oh-so-stylish biker tans), and stuffing our faces with divinely delicious food.

Now I’m back on the mainland, gearing myself up for my final semester at Carolina. The notion of staying in one place for longer than a day or two is alien and rather unsettling. I feel like I’m defying the laws of momentum and inertia by braking to a stop here in Chapel Hill. Mind you, staying stationary has its perks (good food, great friends, showers, air-conditioning), and I must admit I’m excited to trade the bike for the books, at least for now. But I’m sure that a few weeks of being classroom-bound will have me longing once more for the scruffy cycling life.

One thing I’m really going to miss is being the total dictator of my days. When you’re on a bike trip, nobody tells you where to be, what to be, who to be. You are challenged and pushed only as hard as you are willing to challenge and push yourself. Your failures hurt all the more because they are yours alone, but you savor your successes so much more because they, too, belong absolutely to you. Instead of always passing other people’s tests – in school, in work, in life – you design and (hopefully) pass your own test, day after day, and there’s such resonant and enduring satisfaction in that. Sure, making the grade on that chemistry final felt fleetingly good at the time, but climbing the grade up and over the Continental Divide felt amazing then, feels amazing now, and will continue to feel amazing forever.

So until I hit the road again, I’ll be pedaling in my dreams, reliving the agonies and ecstasies of this crazy cross-country cycling adventure. This is Kate the vagabond, over and out.

Check out this movie Mel and I edited from the Cycling X-USA bike trip. Part 2 coming soon.

little town, full of little people

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005

The last week or so of riding through Illinois and western Kentucky has been a rolling monotony of green, green, green. I guess there’s a tidy charm to the wavy hills and patchwork fields and quaint farm houses and pockets of forest, but the landscape has been so familiar looking that it feels like I’ve been cycling in circles around my backyard in Canada. I’ve got the recipe down for quintessential Small Town America: all you need is a greasy diner, a tanning salon, a beauty parlor, a pawn shop, a liquor store, the ‘Stars and Stripes’ flapping everywhere (with a few Confederate flags competing for the wind), and at least three front lawns with mini-billboards trumpeting the Ten Commandments.

So when Mel and I pull into town at the end of a long day, we have limited options for entertainment. There’s eating (always a worthwhile pasttime). Or napping (anywhere, anytime, on anything). Or talking with the locals (a snippet of the Disturbing Conversation of the Day: “Y’all’re from Canada? I bet y’all dont have no A-Rabs up there do you? Ah caint staind all the A-Rabs a pourin in this country. Ah need to git to Canada.”). Faced with these options, we’ve become quite creative at entertaining ourselves. We’ve discovered that grocery stores are the perfect setting for filming goofy video documentary scenes, and it’s always fun to walk the aisles and salivate over all the food we can’t carry or cook. Video stores usually have movies playing, and it’s amazing how long it takes the clerk to notice you’re not browsing but staring, mesmerized, at ‘Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion’ on the TV. And then there’s the local library, a bastion of intellect, internet, and air-conditioning, with a whisper-only rule that renders it the perfect setting for a nap.

We’re back in the mountains again now, this time in eastern Kentucky. The change of scene is awesome, but then there are the dogs. No homestead – however modest – in these here parts is complete without a posse of vicious guard dogs with raging and inexplicable appetites for sweaty spandex. So while the Appalachians are beautiful, it’s hard to fully appreciate that, say, stunning tangle of vines on the mountainside when a murderous mutt is liable to suddenly burst out of it in full attack mode. I’ve tried kicking, growling, shouting, and pedaling hard and fast, but the most effective means of defense has proven to be pepper spray. The challenge is aiming the cannister at the canine with one hand while steering to avoid potholes and stay on the road with the other. It’s a real rush, let me tell you. If only we still had those puppies to fend off their brethren…

dripping in the Ozarks

Monday, July 25th, 2005

According to license plates in these here parts, Missouri is the “show-me state”. I’m flabbergasted as to what this means, exactly. Show me…wilting humidity? Rollercoaster terrain with the steepest grades of the trip so far? Five days in a row with temperatures soaring well above 100F? Our sojourn through MO has coincided with a heat wave, and there is an advisory in effect warning people to ‘stay indoors and avoid all physical activity’. As I huff and puff my way across the state, it feels like I’m being smothered beneath a steaming, soggy towel with every breath. Attention Nevada and Utah: I take back every single complaint and curse directed at the “heat” in the West – this trial separation has worked, I love you, I miss you, take me back.

But if anything can make up for such punishing riding conditions, it’s puppies. The other day Mel and I were biking along when we decided to take a snack break at this church. As we stood there dripping water out and drinking water in, we heard these piteous little yelps and saw this tiny black puppy bounding toward us. Then we heard more yelping and found another puppy, this one golden-colored, cowering in the ditch on the other side of the road, trembling and terrified at the traffic screaming by. They were labrador puppies, absolutely adorable, and once we got them away from the traffic and offered them some water, their spirits quickly revived and they happily bounced and flopped around as puppies should.

We figured someone had ditched them near the church, hoping that a pious church-goer would rescue them (this all happened on a Sunday). We asked this lady at the church what we should do with the puppies, and she said we could leave them out back and someone would probably take them home after the service. But this lady also said, quite forcefully, “You know, instead of abandoning those poor creatures to suffer, they should’ve just shot them.” She may have a point – death by bullet beats death by dehydration or starvation or transport truck – but Mel and I were horrified that this lady would do just that if we left the puppies with her.

So instead, we fashioned makeshift puppy carrying cases out of cardboard boxes and latched them to the rear racks of our bikes. Then we rode ten miles to the nearest town in the scorching heat with the poor puppies crying in the back the whole way. We took them to the sheriff’s office and reluctantly – very reluctantly – parted ways. These were THE cutest, cuddliest creatures ever, and we were totally smitten with them. We half-seriously toyed with the idea of trying to keep them, of getting a better container and bringing them home with us, but we realized it was completely unfeasible since we still have weeks of biking in brutal heat all day, every day ahead of us, and boxing the puppies up through all this would be terribly cruel. The last we saw of them, they were happily scampering about the sheriff’s office, and the dispatchers there were lavishing motherly love on them.

So parents, you’ll be relieved to hear I’m not bringing home any more pets to add to the Harris family zoo – at least not right now. But hopefully there will be other puppies down some other road in some not-too-distant future….

there’s no place like…home?

Tuesday, July 19th, 2005

After days of searching for tailwinds and Toto in Kansas, I found neither, but I did find home. Toronto, Kansas (population 81) is missing the CN tower, the Skydome, and, well, even the most gentle hint of a resemblance to its Canadian counterpart, but it does have a lake, a homemade pizza parlor, and an ice cream shop – it doesn’t take much to win me over.

For most of the Great Plains of Kansas, I felt like I was on cruise control. Despite the frying heat, the constantly sideways-blowing winds, and the static scenery, the fact remains that this state is flat, and that trumps all. Riding 2,000 bumpy miles through the West has toughened my legs and lungs, and now that the landscape is more horizontal, I’ve been pulling century rides without pain – a feat I considered totally inconceivable when I began this trip. This is a popular biking route, so even in towns the size of Toronto people are accustomed to seeing heavily-burdened bikes rolling through. I haven’t even heard, “Biking across the country?! You’re crazy!” once this entire state.

The best part about Kansas: reuniting with Mel, my original intended biking partner this summer, now sufficiently recuperated from the boat collision to finish the coast-to-coast trip with me. In just a few short days, we’ve gone running with the bulls, baked cinnamon rolls in a Methodist church, and had our food stocks ravaged by racoons. So begins the beautiful insanity that this duo is uniquely capable of…

Finally, before we take off for the Ozarks of Missouri, I want to send a loud shout out to everyone who has written me emails or left comments on this blog – it’s soooo wonderful to ride into a town and read what’s happening in y’alls neighborhood of the universe, or read your words of encouragement. So despite the stubborn silence on my end when it comes to responding, please keep them coming, because I love hearing from you.

Give me silence, water, hope
Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes
-Neruda

it’s all downhill from here

Monday, July 11th, 2005

As a cross-country cyclist, I constantly dance between two worlds. On a daily basis I share the road with air-conditioned gas-guzzling monster vehicles. I ride through towns with stores and newspapers and internet access and gourmet restaurants. But while I’m exposed to all these modern frills and ameneties, I’m just a vagabond who sleeps in a tent, doesn’t shower, and spends most of her waking hours pedaling a bike. It’s a weird, hybrid sort of existence, where I’m neither isolated nor immersed in society or the wilderness. Instead I’m a perpetual fencesitter with one leg touching on the cultivated field of civilization and the other leg dangling in wild, overgrown, wonderfully neglected weeds.

I have to admit I prefer weeds to neatly trimmed grass. So when I met a Continental Divide Trail thru-hiker yesterday on the high point (elevation-wise) of this trip – an 11,500 ft pass in the Colorado Rockies – and he told me about the dramatic isolation and profound peace he’s encountered on his trek so far, I felt a pang of envy. As he hiked away after our conversation, I was sorely tempted to follow him, to trade in the concrete and traffic and entire eastern segment of the bike trip for the twisted trail leading over wind-whipped mountains all the way to Canada. I fear that the incredible beauty and remoteness of Nevada and Utah have spoiled me for the rest of the country; even Colorado seems urban and bustling by comparison, and the roads will just get busier from here to the east coast.

I’m in Salida, Colorado right now, and if I must pass through towns, I wish there were more like this one – snuggled between mountains, it’s an outdoors-obsessed, artsy, cultured haven populated by incredibly generous people. I rolled into town yesterday afternoon and in the span of an hour, three total strangers had offered me a place to crash. I ended up staying with a bunch of college-age kids working at a wilderness adventure camp, and I was treated to food, a shower, a sofa-bed sleep, and – this morning – a whitewater rafting trip down the Arkansas river. It felt wonderful to be pumping arms rather than grinding legs for a stretch, to feel the refreshing bite of water rather than the pulsing stab of the sun. This rafting adventure perfectly illustrates why I prefer cycling solo or in a small group, why I split from Brian’s biking crew. Traveling as part of a 9-person mob – while undeniably fun for a while – was really prohibitive to having these sorts of random, serendipitous experiences.

Now as I head into the flatlands of Kansas, I’m bracing myself for a totally different game. The eastern half will present a unique slew of challenges, more mental than physical in nature. That same CDT thru-hiker had some advice for long, dull, boring stretches of any trip: “Find the beauty.” It’s a good mantra, and as I leave the spectacular west behind, I’m determined to ride and live by it.

geologic chaos

Tuesday, July 5th, 2005

Utah is a burning wasteland, a scrubby desert of rock and dust and weeds, an utterly unproductive and worthless space for all human purposes. And I am mad about it. From the sculpted stone to the sunbaked colors to the yawning canyons to the star-frosted night skies to the bruised sunsets, I am completely, hopelessly enamored with this land.

Why is it that I love best the places that make me feel so small? What is it that I find so enchanting about deserts, icy expanses, and the remote, untouched, obscure realms of this planet? I can’t explain it. But I’ve been rereading one of my favorite books, Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey, and this passage perfectly describes the priceless fringe benefits of biking Utah:

Clean air to breathe; stillness, solitude, and space; an unobstructed view every day and every night of sun, sky, stars, clouds, mountains, moon, cliffrock and canyons; a sense of time enough to let thought and feeling range from here to the end of the world and back; the discovery of something intimate – though impossible to name – in the remote. – Edward Abbey

For the past week or so, I’ve been weaving through the canyon country on the toughest – but most magnificent – stretch of the trip yet. Along the way, I tackled countless lung-bursting and leg-quaking 8-14% grade climbs (and flew down the correspondingly steep descents). I contended with my first bike mechanical issues (nothing too serious yet, knock on tree). I battled the relentless, searing heat by biking at 4am with a headlamp, religiously applying sunscreen, and chugging gallons of water (and still finished each day feeling deep-fried). But the mind-blowingly spectacular scenery more than made up for it all.

The best moment: unexpectedly riding over the Colorado River on the very same bridge that marked the final leg of the Outward Bound course I participated in the summer before my freshman year at Carolina. After nearly a month of trekking, climbing, and rafting in Utah, the course finale was a half-marathon run that finished at this particular bridge, which is seriously in the middle of desert nowhere. It was a complete shock to revisit – four years later practically to the day – a landmark I never imagined I’d see again, a finish line that was really the starting line for everything I’ve seen, learned, and experienced since. Before that Outward Bound course, I’d never backpacked before, never done any wilderness traveling or traveling at all, and never ran anything close to a half-marathon. It was the most intense, challenging experience of my life up to that point, and it honestly defined who I am and what I love and how far I’m capable of pushing myself. To come full circle like that – well, I could rant on and on, but in short this bike trip was worth it based on that encounter with history alone.

I am reluctant to leave a place so charged with both memories of adventures past, and promises of adventures future lurking in every hidden canyon, on every lonely mountaintop. But it’s time to ramble on, up, and over the jagged spine of the country in Colorado, where the alpine chill and shade will be welcome novelties. Utah, I’ll be back.

i fell in love with a pile of rocks

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

As I sit down to write this update with my fifteen minutes at a gas station internet terminal, I’m absolutely overwhelmed because there is so much ground, quite literally, to cover.
So in brief, this has been my life these past five days:

- After a burning stretch of Nevada desert biking, I pulled into Ely and on a whim checked into a historic gambling hotel called Hotel Nevada, where rooms were cheap, coffee was free, and the slot machines and poker tables were open all night long. I proceeded to go on a gambling rampage, lost all the money I’d set aside for my food budget this summer, and so for the next eight weeks I’m resigned to a ramen-noodles-and-peanut-butter diet. Nah, just kidding about the gambling, but I have to say that shedding my accumulated second skin of sweat, dust, and grime in the shower felt divine.

-In Ely, I ran into Brian Burnham, Greg Mu, and their posse of high school bikers, so we linked trips and have been riding together ever since. Perks of riding with company include good conversation (although talking to myself for two weeks was strangely entertaining), iPods available to borrow for steep climbing soundtracks, and a quality amount of goofing around in the evenings.

-My love affair with Utah endures – as oft-quoted (by me) Ed Abbey put it, “In the American Southwest I fell in love with a pile of rocks.” The riding has been tough but exhilarating. As we rode into Cedar City, Utah, it was like riding into the apocalypse, with smoke & ash from nearby forest fires choking the air, and the winds tornado-esque. I was completely miserable, and I spent the whole ride fuming about the hills, the traffic, and the howling wind that transformed what should’ve been an easy fifty miler into a brutal, day-long slog. Then yesterday I had the most amazing ride of my life thus far – climbed from the desert heat to the winter cool of an 11,000 ft pass, where I was hit with a roaring thunder-and-lightning hailstorm, and then I warmed up on the 25 mile no-pedaling-required downhill cruise back to temperate climes. Wish I had more time to write about that day and do the AWESOMENESS justice, but yikes my time is up on the computer, so that’s all for now…..

the loneliest road in america

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Today marks day nine of the trip, and I’m spending a few hours in small-town Eureka, Nevada. For the past four days, I’ve been riding on what Life Magazine once dubbed ‘the loneliest road in America’. But while Nevada’s highway 50 bisects a vast, barren, and unpopulated landscape, this stretch of the trip has been my favorite yet, and I’m feeling far from lonely. Instead, I’m really enjoying the peace and solitude. I think bustling city streets are far more desolate and lonely and indifferent than this road, where you’ll sometimes ride for hours without seeing a soul, but when a truck does pass, you at least get a friendly wave – if not a cold drink or fresh fruit or cheerful words of encouragement – out of the encounter.

That’s not to say this stretch has been easy. The patterned mountain ranges of Nevada trend north-south, which means that the rhythm of biking east across this region consists of climbing steep summits and then pedaling across seemingly infinite desert expanses. Again, and again, and again. Horizons tantalize but never get closer, the pavement radiates a savage heat, and ferocious winds whip through the valleys starting mid-morning.

To battle the elements, I’ve been waking up at 4am in order to hit the road at 5am, when the winds are hushed and the temperature tolerable. Freezing my fingers and face off is a fate far preferable to melting, and there’s something magical about the desert’s morning hours – the slant of light, the hint of sage in the air, the silence that fills you with wonder. This pre-dawn riding strategy usually has me arriving in one of the sporadic oasis towns along route at lunchtime, just when the winds are having a tantrum and the heat becomes blistering. Then I’ll hang out in town, nap, eat, refill water bags, and hit the road again in the early evening to find a desert campsite.

Any romantic notions I harbored about a cross-country bike trip were abolished the first time I was buffeted off the road by explosive winds, or the first dinner where locusts swarmed my campsite as I was eating soggy, overcooked noodles. But where the romance ends, the real adventure begins, and that’s why I hit the road in the first place. More updates to come, and may your own trails – wherever you are – be ‘crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, and leading to the most amazing view’ (Ed Abbey).

how far is a mile?

Sunday, June 19th, 2005

This trip is teaching me a lot about relativity. Take a mile, for example. I really thought I had a decent grasp on how far a mile was – four times around a track, 5280 feet, 1609 meters, 320 perches, and so on. But there’s a mile around a track, and then there’s a mile up a steep grade in rain designed to drench. There’s a mile along the narrow shoulder of an interstate screaming with traffic, and a mile down a lonely, twisted mountain road with the sun shining and snow-capped peaks soaring and the birds singing and the air just humming with life. These are very different distances, and over the past few days, I’ve ridden them all.

After two days of relentless, thigh-screaming climbs over two different 7,000ft + passes, I’ve left frenzied California behind for the desert peace of Nevada. The transition from lush greeness to ‘sagebrush desolation’, as Robert Service puts it, was amazing to experience on a bike. It happened as I raced down the lonely, twisted mountain road I was referring to above – one second I was surrounded by grass and firs and pines, the next I was riding through scruffy vegetation and exposed rock. Maybe it’s partly the change in scenery, but I prefer the latter landscape. There’s something so raw and harsh and honest about deserts that appeals to me. I’ve got to be careful how much I rhapsodize about them, though, because my next update (post-desert traverse through Nevada) might tell a different story.

About stories – this trip has been chock full of them already, and I don’t know where to start, but I’ll at least cover the latest and greatest. After descending from the Sierras, I eventually rolled into Genoa, Nevada, a quaint town nestled at the edge of the mountains, and parked my bike in front of a pub with a parking lot full of Harleys. My poor, mottled bike (spray-painted gray to render it unappealingly ugly to potential bike snatchers) looked scrawny and pathetic next to the gleaming, muscular motorcycles parked next to it. I ventured a hopeful “I’ll trade ya?” to one of the leathery biker dudes, but for some reason he didn’t take my offer seriously.

As I was sitting on a boulder next to my bike, munching on a power bar and mentally calculating the ride to the next campsite (how far is a mile in the desert heat with jellied legs?), a lady came up to me and asked, “Are you Canadian?” With a huge Canadian flag patch sewed prominently onto my handlebar bag, my national loyalties weren’t exactly discreet, and it turns out she’s a displaced Canuck herself, now married to an American and living in Genoa with her family. To make a long story short (it’s late and I’m beat), she and her incredibly generous family took me in for the night and have treated me like their own daughter. Right now my belly is full of salad and steak, I’m clean and so are my clothes, my bike is stocked with enough Gu and MREs to see me through a marathon of desert, and I’m about to collapse asleep in a cushy bed.

The only certain thing about this trip is that everything – what I see, who I meet, what I eat, where I sleep – is uncertain. And I’m loving it.

where am I? who am I?

Thursday, June 16th, 2005

About 48hrs before I was supposed to take off for China, I got a phone call from my intended partner in misadventure, Mel Yule, who had shocking news: she was hit by a boat while swimming in a lake. Fortunately, despite leg muscles damaged to the point where she’s facing six weeks of physiotherapy to get back to speed, she came out of the encounter alive and at least relatively well.

Upon hearing the news, I was completely shaken at how close she came to serious injury. I was also completely gutted at the vision we’d both had for this summer being aborted in the final hours – so painfully close to realization.

Then I faced a choice. I could go on and cycle the silk road alone, or postpone the trip. The pros of just doing it: I’d still be in China. I’d still be cycling. And I’d be taking on a challenge unlike any other I’d ever faced – physically, mentally, emotionally, digestively… Cycling through the remote backcountry of northwestern China with a companion promised to be tough enough, but on my own, the challenge would be taken to the superlative. And there is a lot that’s appealing about that.

The cons: Traveling as a solo female novice cyclist through the aforementioned remote backcountry in a Muslim region might be challenging, or it might just be unwise. The trip wouldn’t be the same trip we’d envisioned and dreamed about for so long. Going alone would complicate everything logistics-wise. My family absolutely didn’t approve. And the Morehead Foundation, the organization funding the trip, was antsy about the idea as well.

After agonizing over the decision for 40 hrs, I decided to put off China until after I graduate in December. This spring, Mel will have recovered, I’ll be free – for the moment – of academic responsabilities, and we can cycle Xinjiang and continue on in a Tour D’Asie of our own design. Rationally, it all makes sense, but I was devastated at the sudden change in plans and, more accurately, at the prospect of spending a summer at home waitressing at a local restaurant.

So instead, I hopped on a plane to San Francisco (that incidentally departed at the same time my plane took off for China) to bike across the USA. My bags were packed, my heart was set on a bike trip, and I had to do something – so Cali it was. I’m biking a route that begins in San Francisco and finishes over 3,000 miles later in Virginia. Along the way I’ll cross the Sierra Nevadas, the deserts of the Southwest, the Rockies, the Great Plains, and the Appalachian Mountains in what promises to be one heck of a leg-burning endeavor. I’m cycling solo right now, but a friend of mine and his crew of high school students is biking the same route, only they started a few days ahead of me, so the plan is to rendezvous at some point.

I’m posting this blog from a library in Folsom, California, where I’ve made it after my first two days on the road. I spent a day in San Fran assembling the bike, running errands, and undergoing frantic last-minute preparations for the journey – also managed to fit in a delicious sushi send-off dinner with Win Chesson. The next morning, after dipping my wheels in the Pacific near the Golden Gate Bridge, I biked through nighmarish urban sprawl, then winding sideroads through farm country, then endless orchard fields, and then I eventually pitched my tent in the backyard of some kind organic farmers just outside of Davis. I was totally and utterly wiped. Who would’ve thought that a bike loaded with all I need to survive would be so everloving heavy? Not my legs, that’s who. Then this morning, after a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and yogurt thanks to my generous hosts, I battled headwinds for an hour only to realize I’d gone completely the wrong way. I would’ve been more frustrated if those same headwinds hadn’t whisked me along in the right direction after I turned around. Then I passed through Sacramento (sadly no Arnie sightings) and biked on to Folsom in a long, wet slog through rain (what’s the deal, Cali?). No idea where I’m staying tonight, so I’d better cut this short and figure something out. So adios for now – keep checking back in the next few weeks for updates from the open road, and keep in touch!

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