Trans-America Trail: The Details

Originally Posted January, 2016

Food

Soul food, barbecue, mountain burgers, open faced roast beef sandwiches slathered with cafeteria gravy, chili burgers, pizza stix, corn dogs, Subway, Pop-Tarts, fruit snacks, Biscoff cookies, oatmeal, Clif Bars, Red Vines, ice cream, V8, bananas, ramen, Easy Mac, and dehydrated meals. These were staples that fueled our ride across America. We purchased our food from gas stations and truck stops, local grocery stores, and the endless aisles of Walmart. Fresh fruit and vegetables were luxuries for us in most parts of the country and we began to consider food as a fuel source, rather than a source of nourishing nutrients and pleasure. Occasionally, we would have some extraordinarily satisfying food. Bavarian French toast comes to mind. I’m a big fan of French toast and conducted a study of French toast, across the country, by ordering some at every breakfast establishment we patronized. After having a delicious dinner at the Country Hearth Restaurant, we decided to visit again for breakfast. I had scoped out the breakfast menu over dinner and noticed that the restaurant was known for their homemade cinnamon rolls. This started an internal debate within me that continued all night long… do I order the cinnamon roll or should I order the French toast? By the time we were riding to breakfast I still hadn’t decided, but thought I might as well order the French toast and get the cinnamon roll to go. As I walked through the door, I saw the freshly posted listing of the specials for the morning. On the list was Bavarian French toast, which is a homemade cinnamon roll, sliced in half bun-wise, and cooked into glistening French toast perfection, served with two pieces of bacon on top. It was a perfect combination and will go down in history as having been the best French toast on the Trans America Trail, according to me.

 Pie Shop

According to Google, the Pie Shop in De Valls Bluff, Arkansas is known for “Made from scratch buttermilk pies” and “The best pies on the planet.” We would have to ride a mile and half off route to find out for ourselves, but the sound of a piece of homemade pie sounded perfect at the time. We followed the directions while rain drizzled, but could not find the Pie Shop. We circled back and found a little building tucked away, behind someone’s house, bearing the hand painted words “Pie Shop”. At the sight of the building, we could not help but feel like we had been lured into some kind of strange trap. Despite our skepticism, we approached the door and saw a sign that said the proprietor of the Pie Shop was working at Craig’s BBQ that day and that we could be served slices of pie at Craig’s BBQ. So we went to Craig’s BBQ and got ourselves some buttermilk pie, chatting with a local who had been hunting squirrels on his rainy day off.

Dogs

From North Carolina to Arkansas we were constantly on the defense against wild packs of family dogs. One particular encounter with a dog turned out to be the scariest experience of our entire trip. We had just crossed into Arkansas from Mississippi when we made a turn onto a road and noticed a group of 5-6 men shooting guns in their front yard, on the side of the road, while drinking Busch Lite. As we entered that scene, a large white bull mastiff dog ran from the men, into the road, and charged us head on. The dog, which looked to be around 100 pounds, with a head the size of a cannon ball, was not barking or growling at us, but blocked us, stopped us, and moved very close to us. There was no tail wagging involved and it was apparent that this dog was serious as he mirrored our every move. Adding to the tension of the situation, the gunshots from the group of men on the side of the road had not ceased, even though it was obvious to them that we were having a hard time with the dog. In an effort to get some help, I called over to the men and asked them to call for their dog. Rather than helping us, they suggested that we attempt to outrun the dog (from a dead stop) on our bicycles. Sensing that we weren’t going to benefit from any action on their part, I started a flat out sprint, while Tom corralled the dog with his bike and forced him into a ditch, creating enough space for Tom to mount his bike while running and start riding away. We sprinted for what felt like 2-miles until the dog was out of sight. I will always remember the adrenaline pumping through my blood after that scenario.

Weather

Leaving in August, we knew we had some very hot days ahead of us. As expected, during the first week in North Carolina, temperatures reached 110 degrees. We rode through the heat again in Oklahoma, and even for a short time in Nevada, where temperatures were still in the 90’s. For a while, we experimented with leaving at 4 a.m. to get a jump-start on the heat of the day, but ultimately settled into a rhythm with the sun, waking just before it rose, taking breaks in the shade during the hottest hours, and finishing our ride with enough light left to make camp and cook as the sun set. We focused a lot on staying hydrated and making use of any shade we came across.

            The only other bad weather we had was a series of thunderstorms and rain in Tennessee and Mississippi. At times, we felt very close to where the lightning was striking and often there was nowhere for us to go, so we would tuck into the woods and wait for the storm to blow over. The conditions after the rain were the worst. A day after the last storm blew over Mississippi we were riding along a freshly tilled road when it turned to mud. This mud stuck to everything that it came into contact with, including our shoes, our tires, and our bikes. For 4 miles we walked and carried our mud-laden bikes until we reached the next road that was in much better condition. Later, we learned that conditions were much worse ahead in Oklahoma, and had we been there, instead of Mississippi at the time, we would have been facing a lot more than just 4 miles of mud.

Road in the Distance

When we rode through the dense forests of the Ozarks, we could hardly see 100 feet in front of us. Around every turn there was something new and unpredictable. You are constantly guessing what lies ahead. At times in Utah and Nevada, we could see the next 30 miles of our route, stretched out before us. Everything was predictable because we could see what the terrain looked like. Some days, like this day in particular, we spent the entire day looking at our future. Understanding how far you are traveling in a large space can make you feel very small in the enormity of the landscape.

Sharing the trail with motorcycles

            We loved sharing the route with motorcycles. Because they are all traveling a similar rate of speed, Motorcyclists are lucky see another fellow traveler during their journey. As cyclists, going much more slowly, we got to see almost all the motorcyclists running the route from August through October because they would pass us. It was always fun to talk to them because, like us, they were on a journey of a lifetime and what was significant or difficult for us was just as significant and difficult for them. We would exchange tips and tricks and seeing them really made us feel part of the TAT community. Most of them knew there were a couple cyclists on the route and were tracking our tire tracks for days before finally catching up to us. This particular day was pretty special because it came after a low point. We were literally out in the middle of nowhere, 60 miles in on a 100-mile day, when these guys rolled up on us. The guy next to me in the picture is Casey Folks of Best in the Desert Racing, who was traveling with professional endurance motorcyclist, James Embro, and a group of their friends. They were headed to the same town we would be staying in that night, only they would be there in one hour, and we would be there in four. We told them to save us a beer. They kept the restaurant open for us as we rolled into town in the dark, treated us to a big meal, and when we learned that all the rooms in the town were booked, they invited us to stay with them. We continued to share campsites and motels with TAT riders we met along the route. 

Trail Magic

            We were riding through the Panhandle of Oklahoma on a considerably windy day. The wind had been coming from the South during our entire time in Oklahoma as we were traveling west. On this particular day, our route took us 40-miles south, directly into the wind. It was rough and slow going. We saw that we would be crossing the same creek twice and planned to camp along the second crossing, downstream. At the first crossing, Tom had spotted a few small trout and had hopeful thoughts of enjoying some creek side comforts. When we finally rejoined the creek, it was just a dry bed. All of the water had found a home upstream, irrigating dry fields or watering cows. We had been relying on that water source for cooking and drinking that night so we started to feel a little desperate. When we finally saw a car, we waved them down and asked them if they had any extra water.  They said no, and carried on their way. We then came across a house and went to find their hose which was being closely guarded by a dog growling and showing his teeth, so we continued to ride on. At a fork in the road, we had a choice to get off route and ride to the highway in search of some water or to continue on the route and hope for the best. I saw a green area with trees in the distance, which meant there had to be some water around there somewhere. We rolled down the hill and the road took us right through a ranch with a water spigot in the front yard. I knocked on the door to ask permission to use the spigot, and the man who opened it greeted me by saying “Hello! Come on in!” I was a little shocked and explained that all we wanted was some water and to camp on their land somewhere, but they insisted on having us stay in their spare bedroom. We obliged and enjoyed a much-needed shower, a cold beer, and respite from the road in the good company of Gil and Mary, who told us about what it was like to live in No-Man’s-Land.

Bugs

Bugs were only an issue through New Mexico. Tom seems to be completely immune to bug bites, where I tend to have allergic reactions, so dealing with bugs was a big deal for me. Prior to our departure I was sure to get some prescriptions to manage the ill effects of bites. Sure enough, in North Carolina I got a few bites that blistered pretty badly, then in Tennessee we stayed in a questionable motel crawling with bugs. I woke up the next morning with bug bites on my face, the most demoralizing feeling and look ever. Tom seemed to have made it out unharmed once again, until 24 hours later, a bloom of bites appeared all over his forehead. In Arkansas we had the biting horse flies that haunted us 24 hours a day. This picture was taken after my last encounter, when I fell asleep with my arm against the net of our tent. I woke up with 25 mosquito bites on my arm. We counted! After this, bugs were never really a problem, maybe I developed some immunity, or maybe there were just fewer bugs out west.

Water

We didn't run into water scarcity issues until we reached north central Oklahoma, where ground water ceased to exist. We learned this the hard way one day with some heavy miles ahead of us, 110 to be exact. We knew it would be hot, we knew the ground water was becoming scarce, so we pre-hydrated and stuffed our bags and pockets  with as much water as we could carry. It would be enough on a cooler day, but with the heat in the high 90's we kept our fingers crossed for some body of water along our path that day. Sadly we had no such luck. We had crossed Oklahoma's threshold and the water we were searching for was deep within the ground only to be pumped by the loud generators to irrigate the fields. We ran out of water that day with 20 miles to go. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, it never is. It taught us that we had to figure out a way to get enough water through these long sections through Oklahoma, even if it meant we would have to go from ranch to ranch and ask for it. And that's exactly what we did for a few days. The ranchers were used to it from the motorcyclists and very friendly. Eventually in Western Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado, we were able to use windmills that were still operating. In Utah and Nevada we relied on natural springs, reservoirs, and local ranches. We used our MSR Hyperflow Microfilter most of the time, but in the cases of pumping reservoir water, or water from cow troughs we would pump the water, add a half an aquatab to it, and cover the poor taste with some Crystal Clear Ice Tea. 

Mechanicals

Anyone who knows me, knows that my mechanical skills are fairly unpracticed for the type of riding I do. I’m lucky; I’m married to a professional mechanic who also happens to be my riding partner. He takes his job seriously and prepares our equipment for the long haul. Throughout 5,000 miles our first and worst mechanical happened in Colorado, when I kicked up a large rock while pedaling, lodging it into my rear wheel and breaking one of my spokes. I was riding a wheel with straight pull spokes, which allowed Tom to conveniently replace the spoke within 5 minutes. The damage I did to my wheel with that rock caused two more spokes to break later in the trip, one in Nevada, then one on our last day in Oregon. I did not get one flat the entire trip, where Tom had four. We carried three extra spokes, three tubes, a shift cable, three small bolts (to replace any in case of a failure), a chain ring bolt, a replacement derailleur hanger for each bike, two pairs of brake pads, a spare derailleur pulley, needle and dental floss, some zip-ties, oil for chains, and a thimble’s worth of grease. For tools we had a hand pump, a tiny Leatherman Squirt multi tool, and a bicycle multi tool with a chain tool and spoke wrench. This small list of items, combined with some ingenuity, would allow us to temporarily solve many problems and get out of most jams.

Wildlife

We thought we were in for an adventure full of wildlife sightings when we saw a bear on the first day of our trip. Unfortunately, it was to be the only significant wildlife sighting. We saw many commonly seen creatures like raccoons, turtles, dead armadillos, antelope, horses, and deer. The most frequently encountered creatures we interacted with were cows and snakes. In the mornings, snakes would be sunbathing all over the roads. There were big ones and medium sized guys, but the ones that spooked us were the tiny, fast, and squiggly baby snakes. As much as we were on the look out for them, there were still times where we would be riding side by side and notice that we had just rolled past a large snake that was lying in the road between us. As a sudden chill went up our spines, we reprimanded each other for not paying attention. We learned from the locals that these sunbathing snakes were not too much to worry about unless they were coiled up. After so many miles, and so many snake encounters, we became fairly desensitized to the presence of snakes. 

            We had a love-hate relationship with cows. On one hand, they were a constant throughout our entire trip, the calves were cute and, at times, I think Tom was really trying to speak to them. On the other hand, they were always in the way. There were the freedom cows, on the loose, which would be quite surprised by our quiet and sometimes rapid materialization, often causing them to overreact and run straight through their barbed wire fence back to safety. Then there was the issue of wild camping and upsetting the surrounding cows who would sound an alarm, giving away our position. There were even impenetrable herds of cattle blocking our path. If you should happen upon such a sight, it is possible to part the sea of cows by merely moving straight ahead, often resulting in sheer chaos, but clear passage.