"History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind." ~ Edward Gibbon
10,000 Miles Alone Around America by Bicycle
Column by Douglas Herman.
Exclusive to STR
“A voice said to him, Why do you stay here and live this mean, moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you?” ~ Henry David Thoreau
Imagine taking a 10,000 mile bicycle trip around North America today without a cellphone, credit cards or keys. No sponsors or support vehicles either, and never more than $100 in cash. No cellphone for a day? Imagine having no cellphone for an ENTIRE year!
Thirty years ago this April, in 1986, I left Santa Monica with an overloaded bike and headed for Seattle. My bike and gear weighed 95 lbs. To prepare for my trip, I rode ten miles a day to work and back from Venice to West LA. I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t.
The most scenic road north is Highway 1, snaking along the Pacific Ocean on the California and Oregon coast. That was my planned route. By the third day I had done more than 200 miles and felt exuberant yet exhausted. Over hills and into headwinds I rode and by the end of the week, I was in San Francisco. I stayed with an actress friend, Victoria Lind, and we read about the Chernobyl nuke plant meltdown. People live their whole lives surrounded by danger. Earthquakes, tornados, drunk drivers, nuke leaks, terrorist attacks and random school shootings. If we never left home, never went outside, we’d have the illusion of safety. I’d rather throw caution to the wind myself, and so should you.
North through the redwoods, sleeping out under the 300’ giants, I rode towards Seattle. While working for Club Med in Mexico, a couple years before, I had read a book called Miles From Nowhere about a couple biking around the world. They always seemed to be falling off their bikes. I decided North America was challenge enough for me and I’d go alone and I’d write a better book about NOT falling off my bike.
I hoped to spend a season on each side of the continent. Springtime going north along the Pacific coast; Summer across Canada; Autumn down through New England, and Winter along the deep South. I planned to work along the way and pay for the trip. I left with about $100 in my pocket and returned with about the same amount.
The best thing about any long trip is that you’re forced to confront yourself. At least you were back before cell phones were invented, back before Wi-Fi. No electronic distractions. Just long, silent solitudes, with lonely stretches of highway and sky and sea panoramas and quiet campsites under a millions stars.
After working a week in Seattle and seeing friends, I biked east. The North Cascades rise steep, snow-capped and scenic. Even after weeks of cycling on Highway 1, the hills hadn’t really prepared me. I struggled for several hours to cross Rainy Pass and 5,500’ Washington Pass, and then flew down into Winthrop, 38 miles away, in what seemed like 38 minutes. Eastern Washington was as different from cosmopolitan Seattle as upstate New York is from the Big Apple. Wilder, wonderful and way different.
On a whim, I headed north into Canada. The Trans-Canada Highway was smooth, with a paved shoulder, and blessed with small, friendly towns boasting a public swimming pool. Refreshing on a hot summer day! Sadly, most of those pools are long gone. I crossed the Canada Rockies in Banff, and spent my first and last night in a youth hostel. Fun experience. The energy of so many young, hopeful dreamers, all going east or west, north or south, into some vague or well-defined dream or goal cannot help but invigorate rather than intimidate you.
Down the Rockies into Calgary, with the sky filled with hot air balloons celebrating the Calgary Stampede. Then into Regina, a city that rises out of the Canadian prairies like the Emerald City rose out of the poppies for Dorothy. Canada is as different from America as Europe. For several days I cycled with Marc Giroux from Montreal. Biking from Vancouver back to Quebec, he hoped to average 100 miles a day. Not difficult with a tailwind. The westerly wind is the prevalent wind across the prairie in summertime and some days we rode 150 miles with our fully loaded bikes.
Before we parted ways in Manitoba, I gave him my remaining Canadian currency. Then I headed south into North Dakota. I had friends there. With Facebook, couch surfing and Craigslist today, it’s easy to make bike friends before you even go. I made a dozen contacts through my work at Club Med Mexico. You can makes dozens through yours.
Of course, once in New England, I lingered long at Walden Pond. I imagined living there for a year in Concord, Massachusetts, hometown of Henry David Thoreau. Certainly, I Broke the Law at Walden Pond--Twice. Thoreau would have approved. In fact, I loved all of New England so much I stayed well into the late Fall.
Urban Sprawl, Urban Crawl
New York is exactly like the Emerald City to a biker, and you’re like the Scarecrow on the busy streets. Lost! Frantic! Excited! Luckily I had a few friends there. They lived in Brooklyn. On the way into NYC, I became lost in the South Bronx at night. Talk about dangerous and scary as I bumbled my way among abandoned old tenements, the only living creatures seemed to be packs of wild dogs.
But as noxious and intoxicating as NYC is, some aspects of The City redeem itself. Biking across the Brooklyn Bridge walkway or coasting down to Wall Street at dawn to see the old Dutch settlement, or the South Street Seaport on an early Sunday morning, made it all worthwhile. The Twin Towers loomed large, as they would for another 15 years.
I enjoyed the Big Apple, in a wide-eyed, country boy kind of way. The contrast of this frantic, chic decadence and corrupt urban capitalism of lower Manhattan with the overgrown, often impoverished countryside I had crossed three months and 3,000 miles ago was eye-opening. After a week in NYC, I lost track of time and when I finally left, winter hit me hard.
Down past Gettysburg PA and Amish country I rode in mid-November. One night in Virginia, the temperature dropped so far below freezing my water bottle froze. TWELVE degrees said the thermometer. I had taped it to the downtube of my bike so I could roll over and look at it from my sleeping bag. I was riding slowly through the frigid cold to Florida, with Rob Ketterhagen, a cyclist I had just met. We camped during one of those polar vortexes. By the time we reached Florida, it had finally warmed. Rob headed to Disney World; I headed west. West to LA!
In the last chapter of my book, Treasure Highway--after ten days alone in the Southwest desert--I wrote: “I will miss the wildness of this rather tame adventure. The freedom will call to me when I feel most trapped by civilization. I feel enriched by the solitude of the journey as well as the communion. At times I wished for more of one than the other, forgetting that solitude and communion are complimentary, and that humans often die of an overdose of either.”
If you go, expect the unexpected. The good, bad and ugly. Yeah--the bike trip definitely instilled confidence in me to throw caution to the wind. In fact, I made a movie of the same name about a trio of kids doing something similar. Today the hardest part about such a trip, for a bicyclist, and the most dangerous, would be avoiding texting teens and stressed soccer moms on cell phones.
If you would like to own a signed, hardback copy of the book about this bike journey, email me at Roadmovie2@gmail.com. Less a blueprint than a simple litany of good fortune while on the road, the book might inspire or entertain you, before you embark on an adventure of your own.