Why bike across America?
The rewards of spending two months on a bicycle
This is the first article in a two-part series about a biking/teaching adventure across America. Part One describes what a 3,000-mile bike trip feels like and why a sane person would ever willingly embark on one.
Sweat drips from my face while my mind verges on delirious. Ahead are 30 miles of Nevada desert, and boy is it flat … and bare … and dry.
A loud boom goes off, echoing throughout the valley. Was it a bomb? It’s probably from the nearby army base, but my adrenaline surges nonetheless.
I readjust my spandex shorts and hop back onto the saddle of the bike following a quick hydration stop. My legs have finally warmed up after 20 miles of biking — my behind, not so much. As the sun emerges, the desert flips a switch and the morning chills are replaced with a fiery heat. I can almost feel my tan lines becoming sharper.
Today’s destination: Sand Mountain. Or is it? The team’s plan was to bike 90 miles to a campsite near some sand dunes. Halfway there, though, I get word that Sand Mountain is just that: a sand mountain. And only that. I guess you could call it a bring-your-own-water, bring-your-own-awning type of arrangement. Except for two latrines, the place is just white Nevada sand. Since ending a long biking day in the desert with no protection from the sun doesn’t sound so pleasant, we pass. We’ll have to make our way to the next town.
The day has just turned into a 115-mile bike ride through one of Nevada’s hottest regions on America’s loneliest road, Highway 50, in the middle of the summer. Some might balk at such a notion, but I remind myself of the only alternative: Sand Mountain.
This is Day 61, and along with six other college students, I am so close to finishing our cross-country trip from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. It’s as if the salt flats of Nevada are a teaser to the approaching seawater.
Biking, teaching, biking, teaching. This is what we spent our summer doing. Through a student-run program called Spokes America, we biked across the country and taught science and engineering to K-12 students along the way. This wasn’t your typical science class, though. This was rockets, robots, and programming. Students built everything by themselves.
The teaching part may make sense to you — of course, students across America could use some new approaches to engineering to help them in their future careers. (Or maybe it doesn’t make sense, in which case you should definitely read part two of this series.) But why in the world would someone bike across the country and submit himself or herself to such suffering?
I think it can be distilled to one innate human yearning: the desire to explore. It sent Columbus towards the edge of the world. It sent the Soviets and U.S. towards the celestial bodies. It sent American colonists out west.
There is something special about entering a new land, a new environment, and a new community — especially when the transformations seemingly take place in slow motion.
On our trip, we often forgot exactly when those plains turned into mountains, but we knew we were there. There was a sense of continuity — that the wheel spins we’d taken connected those remote areas to one another. When you fly, drive, or take the train, you pass over regions without much thought. That’s because you spend a disproportionate amount of time at your starting point and destination, while skipping everything in between. A cross-country touring trip is the exact opposite. We split our time equally between everywhere, whether it was the nation’s capital, a big-time city, a desert, or a town of 80 people.
Throughout these varied places, we primarily did three things: we met people, we overcame obstacles, and we explored new environments.
The people we met told us many interesting things, but their actions are what we’ll most remember them for. In Wichita, Kansas, a police officer found me lost on the Interstate and blocked a lane so that I could make it past an overpass where the bike lane had disappeared. In Missouri’s Ozarks, a self-made businessman hosted our team overnight and brought the mayor of his town to meet us. He tried to connect us with his Amish friends for a place to stay the next night, but when that fell through, he treated us to two motel rooms instead.
We met an eastern Colorado pastor whose pastime was programming for the Commodore 64; a middle-aged woman who had biked across the country three times (spurring her self-proclaimed couch potato husband to hike 9,000 miles in his ’60s); and a man who owned well over a hundred bikes.
Many of these people cooked for us, cared for us, and opened up their homes to us. Their kindness was unbelievable. While everyone is likely capable of such kindness, it’s not something that is always present in the hustle and bustle of an urban environment. When you bike across the country, though, you’re forced to submit yourself to the vulnerabilities of living on the road with your bike as your home. People recognize these vulnerabilities, and they reach out in incredible ways.
Even with people’s help, though, we faced an abundance of challenges. At times, our destination seemed beyond reach. We were met with flooded roads, flat tires (too many to count), and multiple hospital visits. It was in times like these that we made use of our resourcefulness and grit, traits that are — fortunately — hidden inside all of us. When our only option was to seek out alternatives, we sought out alternatives just like anyone else would.
A frequent challenge we faced was planning our route. While much of our biking was indeed on two-lane highways for 50 miles at a time, navigation in urban areas proved tricky. By the time we arrived in Lodi, California, we had to bike on a road with such a dilapidated shoulder that previous bikers had literally destroyed their bikes attempting it.
The family that had hosted us the night before kindly offered a detour that kept us off the treacherous road for 20 miles, but we still met all sorts of obstacles, including ending up on the wrong side of the Sacramento River, being forced off the road by semi trucks, and having to cross an eight-lane freeway (it was safer than Frogger). We may have added a few miles here and there and unnerved ourselves at times, but we made it safely in the end.
Then there were the environments that reminded us just how geographically diverse the United States are. In Kentucky, we walked through the world’s longest network of caves (just not all 405 miles of them!) In Colorado, we climbed to over 10,000 feet above sea level in the Rockies on our bikes. In Utah, we touched a gigantic wall of naturally embedded dinosaur fossils. In Nevada, well, we saw lots of desert.
There’s also a whole lot of land that Earth has dedicated to transitioning between these landmarks. We got to see that as well.
Sometimes we’d be biking along Missouri’s lush rolling hills when colossal rainstorms fell upon us, and we’d make a beeline for the closest tree or porch. It was in times like these that farmers, more aware of their climate than anyone, would offer a helping hand: maybe some iced tea or simply protection from the drenching rain.
One thing is clear: biking across the U.S. brings out the best in people and those around them. Whether it’s through the people you met, obstacles you navigate, or places you see, a cross-country adventure is the perfect environment for observing humanity and the country at its finest.
So, although it may have been the desire for adventure that brought us to start such a journey, it was witnessing humanity at its best that will keep us hungry for another go. We seven are done with the cross-country biking for now, but somehow I know this won’t be our last adventure.