by Jim Mann
Having completed an east coast route from Key West to Bar Harbor, ME during 2011-12, Dennis Wirth and I began planning a tour across the country. Like our East Coast route, we decided to divide our trip into three sections. One of the advantages of trip division is being able to avoid most extreme weather. On April 19, 2014 having hitched a ride with our buddy, Larry Kokesh, to Carbondale, IL, we headed east through hills and woodlands toward Yorktown, VA. Soon we were being ferried across the Ohio River from Cave-in-Rock to eastern Kentucky. While spending Sunday night at a church in Sebree, we were invited to join a Bible study group. Guessing this would last maybe 30 minutes we accepted. For the next two hours those folks ran chapter and verse circles around us.
We made it through several dry counties before hitting a wet one in Bardstown. Over all, both cycling and weather were very nice as we rambled across this beautiful section of Kentucky. Twenty-five miles east of Berea, a speed bump left me sprawled over my bike in the middle of the road, followed by the screeching of brakes behind me. The lady was able to stop a few feet short of hitting me. I thanked her for her offered ride to a hospital but completely forgot to thank her for not running me over. I was pretty banged up from the accident and with at least a week of mountains ahead, we decided to return home, having ridden 404 miles, and made plans to return come fall.
In early October Carl Vinson joined us as we returned to Kentucky. Starting in Berea we were headed into the Appalachian Mountains. For most of the trip we had very nice fall weather and scenic views. Getting into the mountains the climbs became more difficult. Dennis decided to mail home ten pounds of his gear which really helped him on later climbs. Since Carl was taking two weeks off work, we decided to try to cover the whole distance to Yorktown in that time frame, so we never took a day off. Riding through coal mining country we ran into lots of coal trucks as well as pro-coal signs. Four days of riding got us to Breaks State Park at the Virginia state line. The following night we camped next to the railroad tracks which ran beside the Rosedale Fire Dept. and listened to passing trains throughout the night. Our route soon ran parallel to I-81 as, we headed up the Shenandoah Valley. Gertie’s country store in Vesuvius, VA supplied a great lunch and our names joined many other cyclists on the restaurant walls. Shortly after leaving Charlottesville the mountains surrendered to the piedmont which extended nearly to Yorktown. It took us sixteen days to ride 739 miles. My wife, Jane Ann met us with the van as we ended our tour and were able to get Carl home by the end of his deadline.
We were finishing up breakfast on September 5, 2014 in Astoria WA, as we began Part 2 of our tour. Going out to our bikes we met a cyclist who months later spent the night at my house. The whole area of western Oregon were beautiful green forests and dark blue waters. We rode through Portland, which was very bike friendly, spending the night with Dennis’ kin. The next morning, Jeremy, a good friend of our hosts, rode the first 30 miles out of Portland with us, ending at an over look, high above the Columbia River. Later that day we rode beside the river, soon arriving in Rainier. Two days later we met Bruce, a retired attorney from Scotland whom was beginning a ride to the Mexican border. His Bike Friday featured an internal gear hub and belt drive in place of a chain. Bruce mentioned his cure for a squeaky belt drive; he just squirted a little water on the belt. As we left the Cascade Mts. the color of the landscape turned from green to brown. Even after crossing the Columbia into the state of Washington, we could still see Mt. Hood over 100 miles to our rear. Heading further East we saw amber waves of grain, wheat fields which completely covered high rolling hills. About ten miles east of Walla Walla, while stopping for a snack, a car pulled over and a lady got out to talk with us. Turns out Alison was a doctor, who along with her family had done a bike ride across the country. She invited us to spend the night with them. They were a delightful couple, her husband, Dan, made very good beer, which went well with a wonderful evening meal on the back porch. Two days later we arrived in Lewiston, Idaho where we took a couple days off. Lewiston was a nice city and on our second day there we rented a car to go up into the Palouse area N to NW of the city. The Palouse is a very fertile farming area with large rolling hills. If we had the time, we’d have spent a few days cycling the Palouse. Heading east on a hot afternoon we did a long, tough climb up to the town of Winchester. Towards the end of the next day we made a long descent into Kamish, which was thick with smoke from forest fires. The smoke was so heavy we got a local resident with a truck to drive us past the fire area to a National Forest campground. We tried to pay him for his help but he refused. The campground was closed but we found a place to camp and had enough water to fix breakfast the next morning and ride another 40 miles to a resort camp where we camped while eating our meals at the lodge. The following day we climbed Lolo Pass, crossing over into Montana spending the night in Lolo. The next morning was a short ride into Missoula. We ended this trip with 663 miles of riding. Dennis had caught pneumonia prior to starting our trip, delaying us a week. This delay resulted in us not having enough time to cycle on to Billings for our flight home. So, we stayed a few days enjoying Missoula, which is a great place for cycling and huckleberry ice cream. While visiting the Adventure Cycling office there we met Joff Summerfield and his self-made penny-farthing bike, who was on his second trip round the world. After shipping our bikes home we spent our last evening in Missoula at the Iron Horse restaurant. We told our waiter, who had served us the night before, we’d be driving to Billings in the morning to catch a flight back to Tallahassee. He responded by saying it was also his last night since he was leaving in the morning. I asked him where he was off to and he answered “Paris.”
Early August 2015 found us busy making final preparations for the third and last section, Missoula, MT to Carbondale, Il. We used bikeflights.com to ship our bikes and gear out to Missoula which reduced the shipping cost by nearly 50%. On August 16 we left for Carbondale, Il, where we left my van with a Warm Showers host. Renting a car, we drove to Chicago in time to catch our flight on Frontier to Denver. However, due to weather the Frontier flight left two hours late and we missed our transfer to Missoula. We had to cool heels at a motel near Denver for two days. On our arrival in Missoula our friend, Linc Clay, met us at the airport and put us up for two nights. The next day we picked up our bikes, gear and got ready to leave the morning of August 22. For the prior two sections we’d primarily followed Adventure Cycling routes using their maps. On this trip we were plotting our own route using state road maps and a GPS. On the second day out, we left from Lincoln on a dirt and gravel forest road which took us up and over Stemple Pass, 6367 feet. Half the distance to Helena that day was unpaved. On our way to Townsend the following day we crossed over the Missouri very close to its source. Hwy 12 through a National Forest was a very scenic route except for the construction going on. At one point we were transported by truck for two miles, being informed there was no place to get off the road for truck traffic. Afterward we wished we had ridden this section since it was not nearly as bad as they said it would be.
That evening we soaked in the hot springs connected to our motel in White Sulfur Springs. While eating supper that evening we met a group of horse women. It turned out one worked at Mass General in Boston and knew both my first cousin and Dennis’ daughter, both of whom were also employed there; small world. Two days later we arrived in Ryegate where David and Patti, our Warm Shower (a home hospitality organization for touring cyclists) hosts fed us and let us do our laundry. We slept in their full size tepee that night. The Billings Quality Inn provided impeccable service the following day with the manager coming to pick us up at the edge of town so we didn’t have to try find our way through Billings to the motel. After a rest day we headed south towards Wyoming. Just before hitting the state line a truck passed us and pulled over to the side of the road. An old man got out and presented us with boxed lunches. He’d seen us pass his home earlier and figured we must be hungry. No one had ever done that for us and we thanked him profusely for his kindness. On our way down to Sheridan and Buffalo on I-25 we skirted the Bighorn Mts. but still had several climbs and descents. The ride over to Gillette was long and hard with rolling hills and strong side winds. That evening we had a great Bison sirloin steak but the restaurant had the AC set well below our comfort zone. We headed south for over one hundred miles through an area where you could see for miles. Only two small towns of Wright and Bill provided food and shelter. At last we arrived in Douglas at the North Platte River which we followed southeast. In Glendo we ran into a cycle touring couple. They offered Dennis a used tire which was much better than his worn rear tire. We all rode together for a couple hours before parting ways. Soon afterward Dennis’ worn out tire went flat and it was good he had a replacement. On September 8th we reached Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, a state we had been told was flat. The next day riding 50 miles south to Kimball, we did many climbs in that flat state. Turning east on Hwy 30, the old Lincoln Hwy, we arrived in North Platte a few days later. There we loaded up on spare tubes since goat heads (like large sandspurs) and shards from radial tires had flattened several tubes. A dog breeder friend of Dennis’ joined us for supper that night. Headed towards Lexington we got on I-80 with plans to get off at an exit 12 miles to the east. We’d gone about six miles when a highway patrolman busted us for riding on I-80. In many western states it’s legal to ride interstate highways but not so in the Midwest. The officer was going to take us back to North Platte but on the way to the next exit we talked with him and he decide to let us off at the location where we had planned to get off. Our Warm Showers host, Bryan showed us around Lexington and took us to a real Mexican restaurant. Two days later we rode into Grand Island and our last Warm Shower hosts. Steve and Sherry were not home from work but they left us some snacks and bottles of cold Gator Ade. Over supper that evening we talked about touring, they had done shorter trips since they were still employed. We made York the next day and had lunch at Chances Are, a restaurant with a good reputation beyond state borders. We had planned to leave in the morning but hard rain was forecast so we stayed another day and watched the rain and hail storm from our motel window. Over the next two days we covered over 150 miles ending in Falls City. On September 21st, after nearly 600 miles we left NE, did about 20 miles in Kansas and ended up in St. Joseph Missouri. That day we met a second cycling touring couple on their way home to North Platte. This couple shortly before didn’t have bikes and were just talking about touring. Then one day the wife came home with a bike rack which started the ball rolling. With Missouri, came woods and hills and only short level sections. Four days later, not aware of the bike path on the far side of the bridge, we crossed the Missouri river on a six lane bridge in a lot more traffic than we desired. Surviving the bridge crossing we entered Jefferson City and found very steep climbs between us and our motel. The traveling Viet Nam monument panels were on the state Capital grounds and I found the names of two West Point grads I’d known in high school. We left a very pretty downtown area and this time took the bike bridge across the river and rode down a square round about which slowly took us down to ground level where a path led out to the Katy trail. Arriving in Herman, with both our bikes and us very dusty, we cleaned our bikes and bags outside the B&B before entering. Moving on, we left the Katy and returned to the hills of Missouri. As we crossed the Mississippi River into Chester Il, we knew the next day would end our tour. Most of Illinois is flat but not the very southern part. Going south on Hwy 159 for twenty miles we met a constant line of coal trucks both fore and aft. Just past the coal truck armada area, a young Englishman, just out of the service, pulled up on his touring bike. We followed his route to Murphysboro where the Brit continued on and we started searching for lunch. A little old lady on Main St. told us of a good restaurant and it was indeed. The last ten miles to Carbondale were flat and we had a bit of tail wind, which was a great way to end the tour, having covered 1,934 miles. We got the van out of the garage and drove over to see Jack, our Warm Showers host. After a shower and a lot of conversation about the trip, we took Jack out to a very good vegetarian restaurant for supper after which we began the drive home. On the way home we experienced more rain than we had during our whole tour. The tour was a good one but it was great to get home; there is no place like it.