30 Days Across the American West (By Bicycle)

by Chris Marsh

Many years ago, I took a summer off and road my bicycle 5000 miles across the country. I did this with 12 other young riders, camping out along the way and carrying everything I needed for three months. I don't think a day has gone by since that I have not thought back about that trip. Last fall I noticed a new trip offered by Adventure Cycling that would start in Jackson, Wyoming and travel to the coast. It would cover the western third of the trip I did so many years ago. Like my previous journey, it would be camping without any support to carry our gear. I immediately decided to relive my youth and signed up for the adventure.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Lao-tzu, Chinese philosopher (604 BC - 531 BC)

So, on July 15th I loaded up my bike in Grand Teton National Park and road to a Motel in Jackson to meet the rest of the group that would be my family for the next 30 days. The group of 13 was the most diverse I had ever toured with. The ages ranged from the 20s to the 60s. We had men and women, Americans and foreigners, racers and slow riders, experienced riders and novices. We all had one goal in mind - to ride the 1600+ miles and reach the coast in a month.

If you look a a map, you will see that it is only 1000 miles from Jackson to the coast. Our route was very indirect going more north and south for many days and even going east for a while. We started out riding over the very steep and high Teton pass. We were forced to take this route because Yellowstone will not admit groups of cyclists through the south entrance of the park. So the first three days would be new territory for me seeing the Tetons from the west side for the first time.

After three days of riding together we arrived in the town West Yellowstone where we had a rest day before making a loop through the park and heading north west to Missoula, Montana. In Yellowstone we had our coldest weather of the trip, waking one morning to frost and ice in our camp. Moving west we encountered some very long days, head winds and a lot of mountain passes I had long forgotten about. Many of the towns had changed, and they were now growing crops where I remembered only grasslands. I stopped in one store where the sales lady told me that we were too serious - the riders decades earlier were more fun. I told here that I ridden through years ago, and she told me to to wait so long before I returned again.

At Missoula, we had another rest day. I went to the Adventure Cycling headquarters where they offer free ice cream and internet access to cyclists passing through. There were many displays of old bikes that were used by riders to cross the country in 1976. It looked a lot like what I used on my previous trip through there. (I still have the parts in my garage!) After Missoula, we headed southwest across Idaho and into Oregon.

Years ago, when I crossed into Idaho I was greeted by a sign warning bicyclists that the road was unsafe for riding and told that we would be riding at our own risk. This year we were greeted by a fancy visitors center with free drinks, internet access, movies and a museum. The next 100 miles were all down hill through the wilderness with few stores and little traffic. At the bottom of the long two day descent, we had more mountain passes I had forgotten about and the temperatures got a lot hotter. In Hell's Canyon, it got close to 100 degrees in the shade. We finally reached 1000 miles just before Baker City, Oregon.

Years ago Baker City was just Baker. I don't know when it was elevated back to being a city again. (Over a hundred years ago when they were mining gold there, Baker City was one of the largest cities in the West.) The downtown of Baker City had been restored since my last visit. Buildings that were falling apart years ago were now back to their Victorian grandeur. The owners of the new downtown bike shop were from my hometown of Dearborn, Michigan. After Baker City, we had just nine riding days left in the trip. (With more mountain passes I didn't remember.)

The riding got easier for me toward the end of the trip. The hot spell that plagued the Northwest was over; it was getting colder and climbing the mountain passes didn't seem so bad. When we got to Mitchell, Oregon I finally saw a town that hadn't changed in three decades. We camped in the city park just like I did years before and the local store still had a notebook for cyclists to sign as they passed through. The man at the counter told me about a rider who just came through that signed the book and then looked back to find his father's name from the 70's.

A couple days after Mitchell, we finally crossed the Cascades and left the high desert of eastern Oregon behind us. We were now in the lush green forests of western Oregon. The night before we reached the coast, we ran into another Adventure Cycling group called "Introduction to Road Touring". They were just starting out and were cooking their first dinner in camp. Since we were now all experienced and had been on the road for four weeks, we showed them how it was really done by ordering pizza and having it delivered to our campsite.

At the end of the trip we road 30 miles down the Oregon coast to Florence before heading east to Eugene where we could get transportation home. It rained all along our ride on the coast. Instead of taking the recommended 78 mile route from Florence to Eugene, we decided to take a shorter 61 mile trek. I told the group that years ago there wasn't much traffic on the shorter route but that had likely changed. The only other thing I remembered of the road from before was a place that sold gingerbread and a tunnel. We discovered that like much of our trip, the road was under construction. To my surprise, the place selling gingerbread was still there, and the tunnel now had interior lighting. After 30 days and 1700 miles we reached Eugene and the trip was over.

The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. In the end, it is the journey that matters, not the destination

I had forgotten so much and things and changed a lot over the years. It was like I had done an entirely new trip. So, after 30 days of carrying 50 pounds of gear and sleeping on rocks in the rain would I do it third time? If I wait as long as I did to it this time I will be 80. I think I will have my gear transported between towns and sleep in motels more often then.