First Rain

From a cyclist’s perspective, Eastern Montana and Eastern North Dakota have a lot in common. Both are predictably flat, and both are unpredictably windy. Near perfectly straight roads connect small towns, and our routes look like they were drawn with a ruler. We left the Badlands and Medora less than a week ago and rode steadily across the 350 miles of North Dakota, staying in Richardson, Bismarck, Gackle, Enderlin, and now Fargo.

For the first time of our entire trip, we encountered rain. Up until our final morning in Medora our summer had been exceedingly hot and dry–so dry that burn bans were in effect for the entirety of our route after we crossed the North Cascades. Through sheer luck we avoided several fires in British Columbia and Montana, although my pictures from Glacier are blurred from smoke that blew east across the mountains.

This summer I opted to travel with a bivy sack instead of a tent. Bivys are nothing more than a waterproof tube with a zipper at one end, slightly larger than a sleeping bag. They are light, compact, and quick to set up. I almost always sleep with mine fully unzipped to improve circulation, so that final morning in Medora I woke up to light rain on my face and a slowly dampening pillow/jacket. Unfortunately crawling inside a closed bivy isn’t much better than getting wet; they are hot, sweaty, and provoke the intense feeling of claustrophobia that one would expect from being sealed into a waterproof bag. And the activities that are possible inside are the same as those possible inside a fully zipped sleeping bag–which is to say, not many.
After the initial storm the rain gave way to a cool, overcast grey characteristic of Seattle, we packed our still wet gear, and we rode out of the Badlands. Around Dickinson a second Thunderstorm stalled overhead, and this time we got drenched. My swift panniers shed water, but both my the thermarest and my bivy (which I packed externally) got soaked.
Bike touring is the art of unpacking and packing efficiently. We don’t have the luxury of extra items or extra space, and rarely do I go more than a few days without using something I’m carrying; unused equipment quickly gets donated or shipped home. As a result, almost everything gets packed and unpacked daily, and systems develop to do this quickly (my father and grandfather would be so proud). For instance, the stove, fuel, and sleeping bag go at the bottom of the panniers because I won’t use either between breakfast and dinner. The bivy and thermarest get packed on the handlebars because balancing them is annoying, and I only want to do it once a day. The phone charger and wallet stay in an external pocket because we could find an outlet or a snack at any moment.
Sudden changes–like a downpour after a month of drought–force us to adapt these systems, and the first time I usual get them wrong. We were lucky that we had a warm showers host the night after Dickinson, otherwise I would have spent the night in a very wet bivy sack. We got lucky again our morning in Gackle–that night we stayed in a bike hostel and waited out a thunderstorm indoors. I expect the first time we hit cold weather this fall will also require adjustment and reorganization as a dig my warm clothes out of the depths of my panniers.

Riding Fast and Riding Slow

From the Continental Divide we stared into the endless rolling pasture that is the Great Plains. Rory and I rode into and out of Eastern Montana full throttle, with a brief detour into Alberta.

The Great Plains are, without exception, brutally flat and brutally windy. The Rockies end abruptly, dropping into wheat fields, pasture, straight highways, and small towns of less than 1000 people. At times a tailwinds push us along, and the lack of climbing makes the miles between small towns virtually disappear. More often than not we’ve encountered crosswinds that rip across the flat landscape, making progress both physically and mentally painful. Sometimes the shoulder of 70 mph US and state highways is wide enough to echelon; frequently it’s no more than a two feet wide–half of which is grooved by rumble strip–and we both suffer in the wind.

(As a footnote: Rory’s front-loaded bike drafting my rear-loaded bike creates some hilarious echelon situations. One person swerves and our panniers bounce off each other. It feels like the sumo wrestling of biking.)

Pacing ourselves through this flat purgatory between the Rockies and the Upper Peninsula has been challenging. Touring is about seeing new landscapes and meeting new people, but touring is also about getting from point A to point B. Some days are beautiful, and some days we make new friends, but others are nothing more than a slog, moving ourselves from one meal to the next with little in between. Balancing the competitive need to ride more miles faster while allowing enough time to stop for coffee and meet people in those towns between breakfast and dinner means that I constantly feel that we’re riding either too much or not enough.

The flatness and sparsity of this leg of our trip have pushed us towards more miles. When we reached Medora last night on the tail end of back to back centuries, I could barely shower before falling asleep in my still damp bivvy. Over the past nine days since we “rested” in Glacier (as much as a 12 mile hike counts as a rest), we’ve increased our average daily mileage (not including rest days) from 58 to 77. In the past four days we’ve averaged 97 miles a day.

Pushing physical limits is both exciting and rewarding, but it also leaves less time for exploring. Since we left Glacier it feels like we’ve met fewer people and I’ve taken fewer pictures, though this could be due to the areas we’re riding through and not the number of miles we’ve ridden; as we approach the Midwest we find fewer Warm Showers hosts with whom to interact and fewer viewpoints at which to stop. We’ve also met two eastbound Northern Tier cyclists–John and Zach–who are putting in long days, though they tend to ride more slowly and steadily than we do. It’s temping to keep pace, to ride someone else’s tour that isn’t our own.

In any case, we may have reached an upper limit on mileage, though as we plan our days through North Dakota I catch myself pushing for the next mile marker. An inconvenient 50 mile day followed by a 60 mile day can be combined into a single 110 mile effort, but perhaps inconvenient is just the wrong perspective.

That said, fully loaded double century? We’ll see.

Among Strangers

We’ve now been on the road 21 days, crossed two state lines (Idaho and Montana), one international border (into Alberta, Canada and back), and one time zone. Over the days since I last wrote we’ve cut across the panhandle of Idaho and zigzagged through northwestern Montana. We left Sandpoint around noon on the 29th and stayed at Bull Lake, Lake Koocanusa (7/30), Eureka (7/31), Whitefish (8/1), Glacier (8/2-8/3), Belly River (8/4), Cardston (8/5), and Cut Bank (8/6).

Touring has been a jarring mix of crowded semi-urban areas and vast tracts of nothing. While traveling by car, I’ve always felt that the country is populated by a few big cities, many towns, and people who live between urban areas. Even Western Montana, where mountains render much of the land uninhabitable, it rarely takes more than an hour or two to drive between settled areas. But traveling by bike has given me a better sense of the vast amount of nothing and (especially as we head into the plains of Eastern Montana) that separates these places.

For me, transitioning between populated and unpopulated has been challenging. The coffee shops, breweries, and farmers markets of touristy towns like Sand Point or Whitefish feel like a throwback to non-touring life, but I haven’t figured out how to navigate the crowds of Glacier after spending quiet nights at Bull Lake and Lake Koocanusa. Conversely, the mostly empty mid-week campsites between towns can be ghostly after spending a night or two as adopted family in the homes of warm showers hosts.

All of this is to say that touring is an adventure, but that it can also be lonely. At times we live among strangers turned friends for an evening, while in between we see no one at all. While in previous travel experiences (e.g. Seattle, Chile, Chicago, and India) I’ve been able to settle, make new friends, and establish the routines of a normal life, as Rory and I make our way towards Chicago we will live entirely among strangers who we quickly leave. The non-permanence of touring means rarely repeating experiences, but it also means rarely revisiting friends.

So far, the lack of established friendships and relationships has been the hardest part of every day for the last three weeks; sometimes it makes this trans-am trip feel more like a challenge to complete than a dream vacation. But those lonely moments pass–more often than not turning into new (albeit brief) friendships–and on those long, desolate stretches of road I turn my brain off and pedal harder.

Warm Showers

Before I left Seattle for my trip across the Northern Tier I knew vaguely about Warm Showers. I knew it served the same purpose as Couch Surfing, but for touring cyclists. Hosts offer showers, kitchens, laundry, and/or space for sleeping, and they provide their contact information for cyclists passing through town. Unlike a paid service like Airbnb or Lyft, hosts have complete discretion over who they accept, and they can unlist themselves from the website at any time.

I expected we’d find a small number of homes through Warm Showers, maybe three or four per state. Rory and I planned to try it out a few times throughout our tour, but I honestly thought we’d have more luck knocking on doors and asking to crash in backyards.

As it turns out, everyone on tour uses Warm Showers. After only eleven days on the road, Rory, Lauren, and I have stayed with six Warm Showers hosts (though the two more established locations, the Bike Barn and the Bacon Bike Hostel, were cross listed with the ACA map).

We stayed with Parker in Omak, WA, the day I hitchhiked with Biscuit to the ER. Parker was away climbing in the Enchantments for the weekend, he but offered his house anyway–along with the fresh raspberries and peaches in his refrigerator. Rory and I spent the morning playing with his cats and washing our laundry. When Parker returned around 8pm we shared a few beers and talked about living in Omak, climbing, and backcountry skiing before falling asleep. The next morning we drank coffee together before he left for work, cleaned up the kitchen, and rode off towards Republic.

In Republic Rory, Biscuit, and I stayed with Dianne and Boyd. We found homemade Thai curry waiting for us when we arrived around sunset, and we all talked until midnight about Boyd’s work as a manager at a local mine. The following day Dianne and Boyd both left for work long before we were prepared to pack up, and we spent the morning enjoying the sun on their deck, writing in journals, reading, and drinking coffee.

Our first night in Sandpoint, Rory and I climbed to the base of Schweitzer (a completely unnecessary 2600 ft hill over 9 miles) to stay in Dawn’s ski condo. She was away but offered her home anyway, and we happily spent the night with a kitchen, a shower, and real beds. We also ate her pickles–with permission–but left her a beer.

Last night, Steve, Meg, and their two daughters hosted the three of us. We all cooked pasta together, and over dinner Steve and Meg told us stories about their honeymoon (a trans-Am bike trip), NASA (Steve worked for Space Ops), and off-roading (Steve and his daughter just drove the Lolo Trail in central Idaho).

Each of these stories speaks to the generosity and friendliness that we’ve experienced along the road. Complete strangers open their homes to us when they’re away, and they share dinner with us when they’re home. To be clear, Warm Showers is not a uniformly comfortable experience. We show up late, tired, hungry, and dirty, with nothing more to offer than company and stories. Sharing strangers’ space is not something I did in my day to day life in Maine, Seattle, or Chicago, and I reflexively feel burdensome or in the way.

Still, I set out on this trip hoping to meet different people and to stretch my bubble. And while Warm Showers hosts are undeniably a specific subset of the larger population (so far they’ve been relatively affluent with histories of traveling), sharing their space provides a brief window into lives, stories, and perspectives I would not otherwise have encountered.

Off the Ground

Today is our sixth day out on the Northern Tier ACA route, which runs from Anacortes, WA to Bar Harbor, ME.  At the moment I’m writing and eating peanut butter straight from the jar.

Rory and I started in Seattle on 18th, only a day later than planned and left the city for Deception Pass after a customary stop at Mighty-O donuts. At Deception Pass we met Lauren (aka Biscuit), my friend and Bonkers teammate from Chicago, who will be joining us until we reach West Glacier, MT. We then rode to Rockport (day 2), into North Cascade National Park (day 3), over Rainy and Washington Passes to Mazama (day 4), and finally over Loup Loup Pass and into the Okanogan Valley where we stayed last night (day 5).

As with previous bike tours, each day brings a lot to see but little to actually do, which I suspect makes for boring reading. Relatively mundane events become exciting (e.g. drinking coffee with milk or finding a power outlet), and I spend most of my waking and sleeping hours thinking about food. The parts of each day that are notable are difficult to capture in photos or words, so I’ll try to avoid creating a laundry list of small towns visited, mileages travelled, and passes climbed. Those details are better captured by Instagram and Strava, anyway.

For me, the transition from “life as a grad student” to “life on a bike tour” as I’ve experienced it is worth sharing, if only because of the near immediate change in perspective. In the weeks preceding the tour I worried about missing work, missing paper deadlines–generally “falling behind.” At one point during the spring I said that I felt like I was making a poor decision by choosing this bike tour over an internship. Two days before we left for Deception Pass I considered hauling my MacBook across the entire country. In retrospect, all of these thoughts seem ridiculous and absurd. To my knowledge, nothing about my grad student life has broken. I’ll spend the next few months thinking about what I’m going to eat and where I’m going to sleep (in that order), and everything will be fine.

The Bike Barn–our campsite in Mazama–stands out from the past week of riding, though I hope we find similar experiences over the following three months. Jim and Jan (the owners) leave their yard open to touring cyclists who are passing through, and they provide drinking water, an outdoor shower, a toilet, power outlets, and a small refrigerator, all on a pay-what-you-can model. We shared the space with 6 others–two couples and two solo cyclists–all of whom were in various stages of different tours, and we spent most of the evening swapping stories, trading route information, and drinking beers. That night at the Bike Barn contrasted with the following night in Omak, where we camped at the edge of a noisy park adjacent to the highway, surrounded by massive RVs whose owners glanced at us skeptically or remained inside.

Tomorrow we head north towards Republic and the Canadian border for more passes and (hopefully) sub 90 degree weather. for pictures and updates.