The Trans-America Trail

Originally posted January 2016

“If, as I believe, the most important fact for Americans is America, the main part in the education of an American citizen is to know America” (Dr. S. M. Johnson, Tales of a Pathfinder, 1920).

The Background

The incentive for a transcontinental bicycle ride is different for all of us. For some, it’s a life goal to experience the country from the seat of a bicycle. Some people do it for a taste of adventure, to live a simple life for a while, to spend some time in the great outdoors, and to welcome the unknown. Regardless of the calling to do so, the simple act of equipping a bicycle with basic essentials and then pedaling it across a continent is something a lot of people take on. Throughout my years working in bike shops, I have had the pleasure of assisting many individuals setting out for this kind of journey. Inspired by their stories, I imagined doing the ride myself one day to truly experience this place I call home.  

When most people consider doing a trip like this, the challenge is timing. The time it requires to complete the journey can take anywhere from one month to four months, depending on the route and speed of the rider. This certainly was a big factor for Tom and me. To complete a cross-country tour would require us to close our business for a number of months. Another barrier was the prospect of riding a paved road route and sharing roads with large vehicles traveling 55-80 mph. I do not imagine a long, healthy, and enjoyable life cycling on roads where semi trucks are buzzing past me, which is why Tom and I travel on dirt roads. Riding on dirt roads is a lot like riding on a bike path, but with the diversity of hills and curves that back roads often have. Most of the time you have the whole road to yourself allowing you to ride side by side and to actually hold conversations with your partner. Stopping, to take in views, to take pictures, or to picnic, is a carefree, and often, a car-free experience. So we waited for the right time, to one day ride across the country, not by way of highway, but by dirt roads and back roads.

The opportunity finally presented itself a little over one year ago while I was searching the internet for dirt road routes in the North Carolina and Tennessee area. I stumbled upon a link to www.transamtrail.com, the official website for a dual-sport motorcycle route following dirt roads across the country. My interest was piqued and I spent weeks obsessing over any information I could find about the route. I was skeptical. All the information I had read, photos, and videos I had seen, depicted dirt roads I was familiar with riding. Why could I not find any accounts of cyclists attempting the route? I dwelled on this for a while, thinking there must be a reason why cyclists don’t ride this route. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I had to learn for myself and decided that one-day we would use this route as our guide for riding across the country.

Serendipitously, that someday came sooner than we expected. Around this same time, we had reached a point with our business where we needed to make a change. We were feeling the result of the growth of our business and some associated sacrifices in our freedom and quality of life. We needed some time for a fresh perspective. We decided that now was as good a time as any to make this journey. We worked, we prepared, we went on a handful of 3-day bikepacking trips, one 7-day bikepacking trip, and by July we had ended the leases at both our home and our bike shop. Our affairs were somewhat in order and we were as ready as we would ever be. On August 1, 2015, we departed on a 5,000-mile, 87-day journey across the country along mostly dirt roads. Equipped with a GPS file of the route, some basic information, and an itinerary designed for motor vehicles, we set out for the greatest physical and personal journey of our lives which proved to be an adventure of discovery, survival, and enlightenment as we found our way across the country along the Trans America (Dirt Road) Trail.

The Route

Not to be mistaken with Adventure Cycling’s popular paved road route from Astoria, Oregon to Christiansburg, Virginia, the Trans America (Dirt Road) Trail, was designed for dual-sport motorcyclists. The original route, created by Sam Correro, starts in Tellico Plains, Tennessee and ends in Port Orford, Oregon. As the route has become more traveled and popular, other people, like www.GPSkevin.com, have contributed additions to Sam’s original route to connect the coastal states of New York, North Carolina, and an alternative finish in Los Angeles, California. Overall, the route follows mostly dirt roads, some smaller paved roads, and occasionally ATV trails, with the percentage of dirt roads increasing to about 85-90% of the route the further west you get.

Since the route was established, over 8-years ago, every summer hundreds of dual-sport motorcyclists make the journey. For them, it can take anywhere from two-weeks to two-months to cover the entire route. The route is structured to pass through small towns with gas stations and/or motels with distances between those towns ranging from every 30 to 160 miles. Many dual-sport motorcyclists can complete the entire route without spending one night outdoors. To complete the route upon a human-powered bicycle is quite a different experience. Speed and distance separate our experiences. While traveling by power, a twist of the throttle can fix a wrong turn or chase down supplies that seem inconveniently out of the way. The motorcyclists’ need for gasoline was very much the same as our own need for food and water. 

We packed our dirt road touring bicycles with basic necessities for shelter, clothing, food, water, and repair. This included a tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, a minimal layering system of clothing good for everything from the hottest days to the coldest, enough storage capacity to hold food for a three day period, and water bladders to store up to 6-liters of water per rider. We also carried a water purification pump and water treatment tablets. All this meant we could take up to three days to travel between towns, camping along the way, until we would restock in town.

Since we wanted a coast-to-coast experience, we combined GPS Kevin’s North Carolina addition with Sam’s original route. Ultimately, we rode from Morehead City, North Carolina into the Great Smoky Mountains, across Southern Tennessee. We dropped into Northwest Mississippi, pedaled across Arkansas, over the Ozark Mountains, and dead straight across Northern Oklahoma and the Panhandle. We rode into the gulches of Northeast New Mexico, climbed up into Colorado, up and over the Rocky Mountains, before we dropped down to ride across Utah, and from basin to range northwest across Nevada and the high desert. We tapped California before riding northwest again, across Oregon, where we came to the end of the trail in Port Orford, Oregon.

The Ride

I’m dreaming about home, my cat, and my bed. I tell myself, it’s time to wake up to get ready for work. When I finally open my eyes I’m greeted with crisp cold air, that I can only feel around my face because my sleeping bag is tightly wrapped around my head. I’m warm and I can smell coffee. Tom woke up early to watch the sunrise and to start cooking breakfast. It’s getting brighter by the minute, which means it’s time to get moving. It’s going to get warm soon and we have a big day ahead of us. We have to make it to the next town to restock on food, water, and to enjoy a good night’s rest and shower. It will be our first town in two days and 140 miles. After this town we have another stretch of 140 miles before we reach civilization again. How long will that stretch take us? Two days? Three days? I burrow into my warm sleeping bag again. Tom tugs at the tent door, carrying what has become my favorite meal of the day, a cup of instant coffee and a bowl of apple cinnamon granola cooked in hot water, a sort of crunchy oatmeal. I drink and eat then I’m ready to greet the day. I change my clothes, pack up sleep stuff and the other remaining contents of the tent, and break down the tent. Once I’ve gotten things packed away, I walk down to the stream to help Tom carry the water he has been pumping.

We’re ready. It’s a beautiful day. We’re in Northern Nevada and we’ve been on the road for over two months. I know how far we’ve come, I’ve witnessed it, I’ve lived it, but it doesn’t feel real. I look down at my skin. I’m tan, darker than I have ever been. I take a sip of water. It has a faint taste of dirt, or does it? Maybe it’s because I know what it looked like before we purified it. I add a packet of instant iced tea powder into my water bottle. Better than dirt. I think back to New Mexico, and the windmills that made filling up with clean water a joy. Every place should have windmills, I wish. Many places did at one point or another have a well of some sort, but we’re in the year 2015 now. Very few people live in these places anymore. There is no one to maintain the wells, let alone drink the water from them. Except for the occasional recreational ATV rider, cattle herder, or TAT rider, why else would someone be out here?

 Our road takes us through a ranch, where we stop and speak with the owner who gives us a 6-pack of Gatorade. We drink two each while talking with him and pack the other two away. He offers us another 6-pack, we’re good, we say, as we thank him and make our way down the road. I can’t help but compare the generosity of people in rural Nevada to the people we met in Oklahoma. I can only assume it’s because of the remoteness of the land, the lack of population, and limited resources that people look after one another. I compare this to our time in Colorado, where we were just two of a million recreation seekers and there was no reason to stop and chat with one another.

The sky is clear and there are few clouds. The temperature will rise to 90 degrees today. We apply sunscreen to dusty skin and keep moving. The temperature reminds me of beginning in North Carolina and the heat through Oklahoma. We’ve been lucky with the weather though. It’s now snowing in the Rocky Mountains. We managed to avoid the snow. If it rained now, the dusty silt of the road we are riding, would turn sticky-wet like clay, like it had that day in Mississippi. I think about the constant crosswind from the South we had seen across Oklahoma and how fast it would push us when we turned right, to the north. I try to forget how slow we would move headed into the wind. It could have been worse. We’ve been lucky with the weather.

I stop to take a picture. I can see for miles and no person, house, or vehicle is in sight. We’re in the Great Basin, and I’m on top of a range looking straight at another range with a basin in the middle. It looks drastically different than what lies just behind us. How is this possible? I’m entertained.

We keep rolling and finally make it to the town. I’ve made it a habit to Google the town. Population 500, it says, a typical result. There is a grocery store, a gas station, a restaurant, and a couple motels. We have choices! We make our way to a motel where I’m greeted by a puzzled look on the face of the clerk at the motel desk. I’m dusty, clad in dirty riding gear, with a distinct sunglasses tan, and explain that, “We’re riding the Trans America Trail. Do you ever get folks coming in here on motor bikes?” “Absolutely”, they say, “but never anyone on a bicycle! You’ve ridden all this way?” This script-like conversation with every motel clerk across the country temporarily connects me back to the reality of the trip. We have come this far and we only have 700 miles left to go. Again, I think back to Mississippi, my lowest point, where I thought I wouldn’t make it to the end. “Stay the course” Tom would say, and that’s just what we did.

The End

On our last day, the clouds opened up, dumping inches of rain upon us and flooding our campsite. Rather than staying put for another day, we looked at this as a sign to finish our journey. That day, October 26, 2015, with over 5,000 miles and 300,000 feet of elevation gain covered, over 87 days, we celebrated in our soaking wet clothes on the coastal beach of Port Orford, Oregon at Battle Rock, the official terminus of the Trans America (Dirt Road) Trail. Life, as we know it, will not be the same, at least for a while. We will be processing the lessons we have learned for months, if not years. One thing, I know, is that we saw America. Not the America seen from a car, but the America where towns are connected by dirt roads, where families, three generations deep, are still ranching the land, and where towns of just 500 people live. This is an America that I read about in history books, where not too much has changed in a very long time. This is an America that many people overlook entirely, traveling city-to-city along the big highways, but I assure you it’s still there, albeit fading slowly, and I am eternally grateful for having witnessed it. You surely will not regret making the trip yourself. 

 

More From Our Ride

The Trans America Trail Route and Alternatives

Our Complete Gear List

The Details: Food, Water, Dogs, Bugs, Wildlife, Trail Magic, Etc. 

Updates From the Road

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

The Finale