IamA bicyclist who rode 14,000 miles around North America - from Seattle to Maine, down to Florida, over to California, and up to Alaska. AMA!
Update: Thanks for all the questions everyone, that was fun. I love talking about these trips, so if you have any more questions or followups please feel free to ask. I'll keep an eye on my inbox and keep answering any questions that come up over the next few days. Good night everyone! - Eric
Update: I'll be in and out for a while, but I'll keep answering questions when I can open my computer. If you've got more questions, keep them coming!
Update: I need to head out for an hour or two, but I'm really enjoying these questions. I'll keep an eye on the questions while I'm out and answer them when I get back!
I teach high school math and science, and after my second year of teaching I decided to bicycle across the country. I grew up in New Hampshire, and I had never been west of Iowa at that point. I wanted to see the mountains of the west, and meet people from all over the country. Bicycling is great because it's slower than driving so you see more, but fast enough to cross the country comfortably in a summer. I rode from Seattle to the coast of New Hampshire, and loved it.
I enjoyed the trip so much I decided to do it again the next summer. I wanted to do a different route, so I rode from San Francisco to Savannah, Georgia. That was a much harder trip; there were 100+ mile stretches without water in Nevada, 114-degree days in Utah, and the humid heat of the South in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. But I loved it just as much as the first trip. I saw beautiful places, met wise and interesting people, and pushed myself in ways I never could have anticipated.
After that I wanted to do a longer trip. I wanted to live on the road for an extended period. I was considering a trip from Alaska to South America, when I got a call from an old friend asking if I wanted to ride across the US again. I had always wanted to do a trip with her, so I said yes. I still wanted to do a longer ride though, so I decided to circle the rest of the country alone after we finished the northern leg. We met up in Seattle, and rode across the northern US and Canada to Maine. Shortly after leaving Sara in Maine and starting the solo portion of the trip I realized finishing in Alaska would be a great way to end this ride. I rode down the east coast to Florida in late fall, spent the winter traveling through the southern states, and headed north after passing through the Mojave desert in April. I rode through the Sierras and the Cascades, and then tagged the coast on the Olympic Peninsula. After leaving the lower 48 I rode the Cassiar Highway through British Columbia and into the Yukon, then headed up to Dawson City and into Alaska. It was an immensely satisfying journey, and I ended up moving here shortly after that. I'll probably live in Alaska for the rest of my life.
I wrote a book about the journey, if anyone enjoys reading about adventure travel. It's called The Road to Alaska, and the ebook is $0.99 for the next 24 hours or so. The first chapter is also available for free.
I have always enjoyed telling stories about living on the road for an extended period, so I look forward to your questions!
I sure felt like Forrest Gump when I reached Alaska, and despite all the beauty around me I really just wanted to be done. And I do like chocolate.
Mr. Matthews, How much money did you spend per day? Was all this saved up, or did you earn money somehow during the trip(s)?
I didn't spend much. I had saved some money ahead of time, but the big thing that made me able to do the long trip was not having to make a housing payment. Most of us would have a lot more disposable income if we didn't have to pay rent or mortgage every month.
I slept in a tent almost all the time, and didn't stay in campgrounds if I could avoid it. So all I really spent money on was food and bicycle repairs. There was a bit of an investment in outdoor gear initially, but I had bought most of that gear over a period of years. I bought food in supermarkets, which was pretty cheap. I kept an eye on my budget and splurged on restaurant meals when I saw that I was staying well within my budget. If you can keep from paying for hotels or campgrounds this kind of travel can be really cheap, and you see more interesting places like this as well.
If you didn't stay in campgrounds where did stay that was cheap and safe to camp?
I looked for woods that weren't marked "No Trespassing". There are a surprising number of woods still left in the US, despite all of our focus on development. I mostly wanted to get my tent out of sight of the road each night, and ideally out of sight of any houses as well.
That said, people like to host travelers. It got pretty easy to walk up to a house and ask permission to sleep at the back of a field. That was an interesting way to meet people, but I just didn't need to do it that often.
"Safe" is an interesting concept. People thought it was dangerous to sleep in the woods every night, but I heard about more issues in campgrounds with weird people than I ever ran into in the woods in the middle of the night.
On that note, have you ever read On The Road by Jack Kerouac? I feel it's probably pretty likely, as it's one of the first books that romanticized the Great American Adventure, but I found it curious how similar your experiences with the concept of safety are to Sal Paradise's adventures around the country. He brings up similar points; that the things we take for granted or the things we assume about human nature and safety are often misguided or just plain wrong.
I think I first heard of Kerouac sometime in the middle of one of these trips. It was really satisfying to discover Kerouac after having lived the wandering lifestyle for a while. There were some fun comments from different Kerouac books that matched exactly what I felt; I think Japhy Ryder said something about passing through the great American continent while everyone else was sitting at home watching TV. Most nights when I'd ride through a small town in beautiful late-evening light there would be plenty of people outside enjoying the night. Occasionally I'd pass through a town that was clearly lived in, but I didn't see anyone outside at all. Those were eerie times.
I had the privilege of hearing Gary Snyder speak a few years back. Some friends here are lifelong friends with him, and he comes to visit on occasion. I really enjoy reading and listening to Gary Snyder, because he was an inspiration to Kerouac's generation but didn't fall into many of the self-destructive habits that so many others did. I need to reread Dharma Bums and see if it speaks to me as much as it did when I first came across it.
I know you wrote a book to share the journey, but any particular incident/moment that stood out to you that you could share with us?
Also, what place that you'd never visited before the trip would you say surprised you the most?
Sure, there were lots of moments that stand out. I think the moment I saw my first grizzly was probably one of the moments I remember most clearly. Riding around the lower 48, people would ask where I was headed. When I said "Alaska", most people told me some reason I wouldn't be able to make it. "That's too far!" "You'll get hit by a truck!" "You'll be eaten by a bear!" I heard that kind of stuff so often I started to believe it a little bit.
As I headed towards the Pacific Northwest, I started thinking more about bears. I considered getting a gun, but a little research showed I couldn't realistically carry something big enough to make a difference in a bear encounter. But bear spray really does work. I met a guy in Bend, Oregon who had lived in Alaska and worked as a kayak guide. He'd been around lots of bears, and assured me you can learn to be around them safely.
I was riding a section of gravel road in British Columbia, and I saw a patch of matted grass on the side of the road. I thought to myself, "Oh, it looks like a bear slid down that grassy slope", and I imagined a bear happily sliding on its back. I then wondered if it was still nearby. I looked to my left, and found myself staring at the biggest bear I'd ever seen, about 10 feet away. I was already too close to stop, so I just kept pedaling steadily and started speaking loudly but not aggressively to it. It huffed at me, and squared its paws on the ground. I turned back and asked it not to eat me. It huffed again, and took one step forward. I just kept pedaling steadily, and it didn't chase me.
It's funny what prepared me for that moment. When I was in Florida, I got chased by two Rottweilers for about a mile. They would take turns darting at my front wheel, trying to make me fall. I just rode steadily and waited them out. That mindset works for bears as well.
Also, what place that you'd never visited before the trip would you say surprised you the most?
I think I'd have to say the national parks. I remember heading toward Yosemite on the second cross-country trip. I was riding down into the park, and entered a long tunnel. Tunnels are intense on bicycles, because you're much more exposed to traffic, and you feel the darkness and cold more than you do in a car. I came out the other side, and suddenly I saw all the iconic formations of Yosemite. My jaw just dropped, and it stayed that way for a long while.
I avoid campgrounds whenever possible, to save money and because I like solitude. It's also much nicer to camp on the soft ground in a random forest than on the hard ground of an established campsite. But you can't really camp inside a national park outside of the established campgrounds. I camped just outside a few national parks, thinking it was pretty beautiful where I was. But when I entered the parks the next day, I was blown away by how much more beautiful everything was inside the park. Our national parks truly are amazing places, and now I stay in them whenever I can. They're usually crowded and require reservations when you have a vehicle, but most have walk-in sites for people traveling under their own power.
It sounds like you went through Tunnel View. I went four years ago and was blown away, so I'm going back this year. Now I understand why 80% of Americans don't have passports - your country is beautiful! https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/viewpoints.htm
As much as I love Alaska, I'm a little jealous that you can just head out and visit Yosemite on a whim! I love California, especially the eastern Sierras. Highway 395 was one of my favorite rides from the whole country. Enjoy the view!
What was something you thought you would need but didn't really use and what was the most unexpectedly useful item that you brought?
Packing for these long trips is funny. Every trip I've been on, I reach my first campsite and end up spreading everything out. I repack the stuff I actually need, and give away the things I don't actually need to carry. It's always nice to lighten the load a little. One time I brought a full-size tube of toothpaste thinking it would last the summer and be easier than using the travel-size tubes. That was silly. I bought a new bike in the middle of the long ride, because my first bike was starting to age and fall apart in key places. I had a hard time leaving a brand new bike outside in the rain, so I brought a big piece of thick plastic with me to cover the bike at night. I let that go after the first day of riding in the rain.
what was the most unexpectedly useful item that you brought?
That's a hard question. I can tell you one item that I've never replaced in 25,000 miles of self-supported travel: my MSR whisperlite stove. I've had that thing for over 20 years now, through backpacking, bicycling, and now mountain rescue work. One time a seal on the pump started leaking, but I was able to rub the O-ring in my fingers and the oils in my skin made it seal again. Those stoves kick ass and just keep going.
Anybody ever roll coal in front of you? One of the doucheist things I ever heard of.
No, but I certainly had a few "get off the road you damn bicyclist" moments. They happened mostly in the South. I had cars follow along behind me on otherwise deserted roads for way longer than they needed to. I had a bottle thrown at me once. I do feel fortunate that nobody ever followed through enough to hurt me.
How many miles did you cover on your longest day? Start and finish times that day?
On my first ride, I wasn't sure if I had what it took to make it all the way across the country. I was never a particularly strong bicyclist, I just kept riding for fun after I got my driver's license. When I lived in NYC I commuted by bicycle, which made me a much stronger cyclist.
When you start a cross-country ride in Seattle, you see a bunch of other people starting out on similar trips. I found myself surrounded by people who were way stronger bicyclists than I was. I was absolutely intimidated by those people, especially knowing that you immediately have to cross the Cascades on west-east trips. But I was in good shape for it, and my bike was set up with a low enough gear to get through the mountains comfortably. I found I could do 100 miles in a day, and I found I really wanted to make it across the country. So that first trip I did close to 100 miles a day; at one point I strung together 11 straight days of 100 miles.
On the second trip I wanted to go at a more relaxed pace, and I averaged closer to 75 miles a day. On the long trip I was in no rush at all, and I needed to stick to the seasons anyway. I averaged close to 50 miles a day on that trip. But there's a huge difference between summer days in the northern US with good light and good temperatures all day, and winter days on the east coast when it's cold and dark until well into the morning, and then the sun goes down in the early afternoon.
I had two days where I did just over 150 miles. That felt impressive, especially considering it was a loaded bike. Those were days where I woke up really early, and rode in 30-50 mile stretches at a time. I didn't have strong tailwinds or anything, but they were days with good roads, decent weather, no flats, and I had a friend's house to stay in so I could ride a little later than usual.
When I was crossing Texas I looked at the map and saw that I had hundreds of miles of lightly-traveled secondary highways ahead of me. It was going to be a full moon that night, so I decided to ride straight through the night. That day, night, and morning I did just over 180 miles. I would have liked to top 200 miles in one stretch, but I had strong headwinds for 20 and 30 miles stretches, which kept me down around 4-5 mph for hours at a time.
Mr Matthews, what can kind of preparations do you make before doing your very first journey? Is there any kind of training that you do before hand?
Also, other than tents and sleeping bag, what else do you bring with you?
That's a great question, and the answer was quite different than I thought it would be. I thought I should practice riding on a loaded bike, but it turns out you don't need to. Time on a bike is more important than riding a loaded bike. I lived in NYC when I was doing these long trips, and I used to commute 5 miles each day to work by bike. That meant I was always in good basic riding shape. As the trips approached, I would do an extra 10-20 miles several times a week, and a few longer rides on weekends in the spring. I made sure I was doing 100-200 miles a week of riding.
Also, it's easier to prepare for an 8-week trip than a 1-week trip. On an 8-week trip you can take it easy the first week or two and still get where you're going. On a 1-week trip you've got to be strong from the beginning.
I think the clearest thing that made this kind of travel possible for me was the choice to continue riding my bike after I got my driver's license. That wasn't a conscious choice, I just always enjoyed getting around on a bicycle. When I was about 12 my friend and I would ride as far as we could from our homes in New Hampshire, and try to find our way back without looking at a map. We really learned how to get around on our own, under our own power, and we learned how to ask other people for directions. You get different ideas for where to go from local people than you do from a map. My friends who stopped riding bikes after they got their licenses would have had a harder time getting into this kind of travel.
But that said, just about anyone can get comfortable riding a bike long distances. The bigger factor is being comfortable knowing that you'll deal with difficulties you can't possibly anticipate, and being ready to deal with those difficulties as they come up.
I brought books, a journal, a chess set, climbing shoes, a stove, and a few other things. When I was finishing the ride I was planning to get a motorcycle next, so I also had about five or six motorcycle magazines with me near the end of the trip.
Right, so I guess it all boils down to time on the bike then. I've read your answer to the other questions and it's been crazy interesting so far! I do have some follow-up questions if you're not too busy.
My next questions are more towards the practical side of your trips.
Keeping in mind the context where we assume you are riding in the more REMOTE parts (no supermarket, no house etc, just pure wilderness) of the country:
What sort of preparations for food and water supply do you make, especially for your hundred mile ride in the desert? And how did you deal with water shortage?
How did you wash and dry your clothes?
How did you shower during your trips? In the city, I assume you go to a friend’s house or a motel, but what about in the more remote places?
(Serious question, I hope you don't mind, I'm really curious) When you couldn’t find any restroom, and there’s no toilet rolls to use, how do you defecate?
And thank you for this AMA! I really appreciate it :D
What sort of preparations for food and water supply do you make, especially for your hundred mile ride in the desert? And how did you deal with water shortage?
I modified my bike to carry four water bottles. That was usually enough for a good bit of riding in the afternoon, a night of camping, and some riding the next day. When I got to long stretches in the desert I'd buy two 1.5L water bottles, and I'd ration it over the coming miles. It was wild to be riding in the hot Nevada desert and think, "Okay, three more miles and I can take a sip of water." One of my most vivid life memories is sitting on the side of a Nevada desert highway with no one else around. I had finished all the water in my four water bottles, and I was transferring the water from the 1.5L bottles into the bottles I could drink from while riding. I remember watching that water pour into the bottles, working very carefully not to spill any, wanting to drink it all at once, and very aware that I would probably remember that moment for the rest of my life. I knew I'd never look at water the same way again, and that water was beautiful in the bright sun.
But that's a self-imposed rationing. I was also aware that if I got into trouble, if I was wrong in anticipating how much water I needed, I could just sit on the side of the road and wait for a car to pass by. The only way to really get in trouble on those kinds of roads is to panic and run off into the desert looking for water. That was a self-imposed challenge; I wanted to make it those 100 miles without having to put my thumb out and ask for water. I met other cyclists who were less concerned with self-reliance, and they would hold out an empty water bottle when vehicles passed. That was a perfectly reasonable approach as well.
How did you wash and dry your clothes? How did you shower during your trips? In the city, I assume you go to a friend’s house or a motel, but what about in the more remote places?
That's a fun question, because the answer is not what a lot of people would expect. I went a month at a time without a shower during most of the trip, because I tried to swim every day. And I didn't smell bad. Living outside and exercising every day is pretty healthy, and swimming once a day kept me pretty clean. I'd also rinse out my socks every night, and hang them on the back of my bike to dry the next day. Once a month or so I'd visit a laundromat and wash everything. Things felt a little softer after a good washing, but I stayed pretty clean throughout the trip. In the winter months when I wasn't swimming as often I'd visit laundromats a little more frequently. But I also got good at jumping into the small bit of moving water at the edge of an otherwise frozen lake. It's a good feeling!
(Serious question, I hope you don't mind, I'm really curious) When you couldn’t find any restroom, and there’s no toilet rolls to use, how do you defecate?
It's an AMA right?! I carried some tissue with me, so I was usually covered. But I've used leaves and moss at times as well. Whenever I find myself pooping outdoors, I find myself feeling bad for people who have only ever pooped indoors. It's an interesting feeling to find yourself pooping in a place more beautiful than many people will ever visit.
And thank you for this AMA! I really appreciate it :D
You're welcome! It's a pleasure to share some of what I've learned over the years, and to hear of people's plans to do their own trips.
What type of bike do you have? And how tires have you gone through on these trips?
I did my first cross-country rides on a Bianchi mountain bike I bought before I had any notion of riding long distances. Most mountain bike frames are strong enough to last for long distances. By the end of the second trip the seat stays were starting to bend outwards, and at one point the handlebar just snapped off the stem while I was climbing a steep hill.
I replaced that bike with an aluminum-framed Gary Fisher. I took the shock off the front and replaced it with a straight fork so it would be lighter, and to be more efficient over distances. The aluminum frame shimmied frighteningly at first, but I figured out how to load the bike differently to handle the weight well, and I didn't have any issues after that.
I probably went through about ten sets of tires in all of this riding. But my tubes had about 20 patches each by the time I replaced them, and I went through several tubes for every tire I used. Flats come and go in completely unpredictable patterns. I'd get three flats in an hour, and then not get a flat for three weeks. My least favorite was getting a flat in the early morning when it was cold and rainy or snowy, and the tires were stiff and my hands were cold. But even in those moments, I knew I'd get it fixed and be back on the road in a short time, and I appreciated the opportunity to live outside and deal with simple issues like a flat tire.
You... rode cross country on a mountain bike.
I don't like riding those cross city.
I went with a mountain bike because the frames are strong, and I wanted to be able to ride on gravel roads when I came to them. I made sure to get skinnier tires than a typical mountain bike has, and to get something with a continuous tread. Also, if you run the tires a little higher pressure on pavement it makes for a smoother ride.
On my next ride I might get a cyclocross bike, but I also like using a simple bike that I could easily replace if it got stolen or if something happened to it.
What was the weirdest thing you saw on your adventure?
That's a fun question. Here's a few.
Drizzly days were not usually fun in developed areas. I'd just put on my raingear, keep my head down, and put in the miles. One day in the southeast I was riding along like this, and I suddenly found myself staring down at a flattened dead cat staring back up at me from the bottom of a puddle. It wasn't even gross or anything, just weird to see that from the bottom of a puddle I was riding through.
I stayed at a Rainbow Camp one night in a Florida forest. I saw some hippie-looking people filling up a camper van at a gas station, and they came over and asked where I was going. They invited me to their camp in the woods, and I decided to stay with them for the night. I had no idea who the Rainbow people were before that, and it was wild to suddenly understand that there were people living in the national forests for decades at a time.
I lived on a bicycle longer than most people, but I knew there were people who had traveled farther than I had. I met a few of those people. They seemed to be either really committed adventurers, or people dealing with mental health issues in the best way they could. I met a guy in the Mojave who was carrying a full camping setup, plus an electric guitar and an amp that ran on eight D batteries. He would set it up in the night and sing songs to God in the middle of the desert. He also carried a baseball bat in case anyone gave him trouble. His bike shook when he got back on it, it was loaded so much.
Did you run into a lot of Rainbow people on your travels? Have you ever been to a Rainbow gathering?
I didn't run into a lot of Rainbow people, but I started hearing more about them once I knew what to listen for. I still like the idea that there are people living their lives in the forests of North America right now, rarely setting foot indoors. I know it's not all peaceful and happy living, but it is inspiring in some ways.
I haven't been to a gathering. It was interesting to stay at a Rainbow camp in the middle of a solo trip. The people at the camp were super welcoming, and it was one of the most magical nights of my life. I heard stories sitting around that campfire that I still remember vividly. But everything at the camp was shared, and I wanted to keep some things to myself, and I needed my own space at that point in my life. So against their pleas to stay longer, I got back on the road the next day.
I probably won't go out of my way to attend a gathering, but I would be happy to check one out some day.
Do you by chance have any pics of the bike you rode? Also, did you have to replace brake pads at all? I really want to make a cross country trip on bike, seems really fun! Thanks
I'm going to have to step out for a little bit, but I'll try to post a picture of the bike. It's definitely showing its age, but it's still my regular ride.
I don't remember replacing brake pads more than once or twice. Riding cross country is pretty straightforward on a decent bike; most bikes that are well taken care of will last a few thousand miles without much more than routine maintenance. Year-long trips will wear out some parts, as will riding in really harsh conditions.
Mr. Matthews, I'm from humid Georgia, do you remember what you biked In Georgia?
Definitely! I rode through Georgia on two trips, and I have family in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, so I pass through from time to time.
On the San Francisco-Georgia trip, I actually finished at Tybee Island. That was a perfect place to end a trip. I remember riding out over a couple bridges, smelling the salt in the air and feeling the ocean getting closer. I rode to the beach, walked my bike out onto the sand, and went to sit in the surf. I remember sitting on the sand and listening to the ocean, and then realizing some time later that the tide had come in and I was sitting waist-deep in water. In this kind of travel there are new obstacles every day, and you just get in the habit of figuring out ways around those obstacles. When I reached the ocean my mind just considered this an obstacle like any other. I was picturing the land continuing out under the ocean, and my mind drifted trying to come up with a way to continue, and I disappeared out into that ocean for a while. Finishing a long trip like this really does make you high for a while.
On the long trip I came from the north and headed down into Florida. It was December then, and I had the coldest night of the entire trip in Georgia. It got to about 17 degrees Fahrenheit that night. Everything I had with me froze, and I think there was a power outage from everyone in the area running their heaters as high as they could. I never expected the coldest night to come in Georgia.
In the summertime trips though, I just remember laying in my tent almost naked, waiting for the sweat to finally dry off my body. I like visiting the South, but I don't ever want to live in that summer humidity!
I live in NC, near the mountains, but the humidity here in the summer can get crazy. I mean just standing and talking in shade while rivers of sweat is pouring off of you is such a miserable experience, and all you did was get out of the flippin' car to talk to a friend. Thank God we live in an age of lots of air-conditioning.
I bicycled through the eastern part of North Carolina, far from the mountains. But after this trip I bought a motorcycle and rode through the NC mountains a few times. I absolutely love the roads in and around the Smokies, they're my favorite motorcycling roads in the country. The Blue Ridge Parkway in spring before it gets crowded, the Cherohala Skyway, and of course Deal's Gap are amazing. But in that part of the country you can just pick a back road and pretty much be guaranteed good riding!
How did you sleep? I want to go to Seattle at some point and counting my money biking seems to be my only option.
I slept in a tent most nights; I'd just look for an unmarked opening in the woods and set up a tent in the forest. Those were the best nights of sleeping of my entire life.
If you can afford a bike and a tent and some outdoor clothes, this lifestyle is pretty cheap. Not paying rent and staying away from hotels keeps cost pretty low.
did you bring your bike with you inside your tent? what did you do to prevent it from being stolen?
I did not; you'd need a pretty big tent to do that. I was almost always well out of sight of the road, and out of sight of anyone else. Also, if someone was going to steal my bike, I'd probably hear them approaching my tent and leaving with the bike. Not many people can walk through the woods silently, especially while carrying a half-loaded bike away.
Great adventure. I drove the Cassiar highway years ago and it was one of the most beautiful stretches of scenery I've ever experienced, although the road was murder on my '89 mustang. Did they ever pave the whole thing? What was your most noteworthy, awesome road?
To mention something beyond the Cassiar, my second most memorable roads were probably long stretches of desert riding. I loved the section from Tonopah, NV to Rachel, NV. Part of that is called the Extra-Terrestrial Highway, because it passes right by Area 51. That was 111 miles of riding with no water. In the early mornings and evenings on those roads, you can ride in the middle of the road for hours at a time without seeing a single vehicle.
I also enjoyed the stretch from Parker, AZ to Twenty Nine Palms, CA. That was 90+ miles through the Mojave. I always rode late into the night in those areas and got up as early as I could. It was good to get miles done while it's cool. But inevitably the sun comes up, and it gets hot and windy, and then it's just brutal riding. Since those desert rides, I've never complained about the water I drink. When water is lukewarm or tastes a little off, I just remember those days when I would have given anything for a faucet to drink from, and enjoy the water I have.
The Cassiar was the single most satisfying road I've ever ridden. I remember standing at the junction of Highway 16 and the Cassiar in Kitwanga late one evening in the long summer twilight. I had two choices: turn right onto the Cassiar and head north as I had been planning for a long time, or continue on Highway 16 to Prince Rupert a short ways away. I knew if I turned right onto the Cassiar I'd be living with bears for a few days, and I knew that in Prince Rupert I could just catch a nice safe ferry to Alaska, or head back to Seattle and call it a trip. It was wild to stand there at that corner and hold a single life-changing decision in my hands like that.
These trips were about embracing the unknown, so I turned right and headed onto the Cassiar. I found a place to sleep just outside Kitwanga, and started riding the next morning. In the first hour I saw three bears eating the brush on the side of the road, and I saw 15 or 20 bears at close range over the next few days. It was wild riding, and wild living. In many ways, that stretch of road was the validation of everything I had learned from living on the road over the past few years. It was really satisfying to travel under my own power through such a wild landscape.
I have friends who've traveled it more recently, and I believe it's still unpaved in long stretches and just as wild.
Could we get a picture of your legs?
I don't have a good picture of my legs from the ride. But I do remember towards the end of the trip feeling a strength in my legs that I knew I wouldn't be able to keep. For a year I'd bicycled about 50 miles a day on a loaded bike, up and down mountains and against the wind. Near the end of the trip it was a pleasure to sometimes come upon a long stretch of smooth road and just ride hard.
What is your strategy when cycling in windy conditions which are against you? Did you constantly keep one pace or did you slow down in those conditions till they get better?
Wind sucks. Literally. It sucks energy from you, and you never get it back. Climbing mountains is slow, but you get to fly down the other side of the mountain. On the windiest days, I went slower from fighting the wind than I did from climbing steep mountains. I could always climb a mountain at a steady 5-6 mph, but sometimes the wind would slow me down to 4mph.
On my first trip I got to Pierre, South Dakota after three days of fighting steady headwinds. I met three other bicyclists heading the other way, and they had just spent three days fighting headwinds as well. The weather pattern didn't stay like that, we didn't all get a a few days of tailwinds after that. In many places, you can't really wait out the wind, you just have to deal with it. The worst wind I had to fight was on a steep pass in New Mexico, near Magdalena. That was steep climbing, with a strong but variable sidewind. That wind kept trying to blow me off the mountain or into traffic. I fought to keep going forward, and fought to keep going in a straight line.
So the strategy was simple: keep my head down and drop to a low gear, and keep pedaling. I stayed on the bike longer on windy days, so my overall mileage wasn't significantly affected, but those were not what I'd call enjoyable days. It was always a pleasure to get off the bike at the end of a day like that, and go find a place to pitch my tent out of the wind. I loved waking up the next morning to a calm morning, but often those were just windy places and I'd wake up to the same wind the next day.
I also found myself in the middle of a sandstorm in the Mojave at one point. That was strong winds, and millions of grains of sand flying at my skin and making their way into my ears, nose, eyes, and all my clothes. The Santa Ana winds blow through there every spring, and I got caught in the middle of it. I took a hotel that night, and shingles were flying off the roof before the wind finally died down.
Mr. Matthews, How long did it to write the book?
It's taken a while, which turns out to be a good thing. I didn't set out to write a book; I've never wanted to write a book just for the sake of writing a book. When I had enough meaningful and unique experiences to share, I thought it would be good to put together a book.
I considered finding a place to hide out in Alaska right at the end of the trip and write the story then, but I was ready to get back into the teaching life. So when I could I typed out all the journals I'd been keeping on the long trip. It was 1500 pages raw! I then cut out all the stuff that would be meaningless to other people - dreams, encounters that didn't turn out to be that interesting, etc. That process of reading the journals and typing them and trimming them really cemented my memories of the trip. But still, it read like a journal, not like a book. So I stayed in a tent for a week in the Arizona desert and wrote out the story in an oversized art journal. I then typed that out when I got back home, and edited it from there.
The benefit of taking a long time to write the book is that it's much more timeless. I took out all the stuff that seemed important at the time but really isn't in the long run. What's left is the timeless joy of long-term independent travel, the hard lessons anyone who lives on the road for an extended period learns.
Edit: I never answered your question directly. I did the ride in 1998-1999, so I've been working on the book off and on for a long time. Every time I got close to finishing it, the school year would start up again and I'd get busy. The first few times I reread it after putting it down for a while, I'd find sections I couldn't believe I had kept in the book. the last few times I read it I couldn't find anything to take out, and the story as a whole seemed even more relevant than when I first started drafting it. That's how I knew it was ready to share. It really was a life-defining journey, and the book captures that well.
I also wrote Python Crash Course, which is an introduction to programming in Python. That book has done really well, there are 48,000 copies in print and it's been translated into six other languages. The experience of writing that book made it a lot easier to put the finishing touches on this book.
I read elsewhere in the thread that you did this before smartphones. Did you use a road atlas, GPS, or something else?
Edit: Oh, also -- what did you teach before you took your journey? Do you still teach?
I had a copy of the Rand McNally road atlas that lost its cover early on. I used that a lot in the winter when I was planning the next summer's ride. But most of the time I'd just carry a paper map of the state I was in. I'd pick out where I wanted to end up on the other side of the state, and find the smallest roads that would get me there in a reasonably direct route. But I was also really flexible about listening to recommendations for less-traveled roads from local people. Some of the routes were pretty indirect across some states, especially in mountainous areas.
I'm not sure what I'll do on my next trip. I really like the idea of not knowing what I'll see until I get there. I love looking at Google Earth from home, but I don't want to start a habit of looking at Google Earth every night in a tent and knowing exactly what to expect the next day.
I taught middle school math and science before and in between these trips. I moved to Alaska shortly after the long trip, and I switched to high school once I moved here. I teach in a small alternative school, so I get to teach a little of everything at times. After living closely with bears on a bicycle, there's not too many things that rattle me when working with difficult students. I still teach, and I'll continue teaching for the foreseeable future. I did write an introductory programming book that's doing really well, so I may end up with a second career as a full-time author before too long. That book is Python Crash Course, which has almost 50,000 copies in print and has been translated into six other languages. Even if I retire from teaching to focus more on writing, I'll still go back and co-teach some classes at times.
YOU wrote Python Crash Course? I'm a software engineer, so anything that gets kids involved in programming is right up there in my books. Have you given any thought to getting involved in the FIRST Robotics Competition? That might be a good way to expand your impact on society, and it does entail some cool travel and teaching opportunities. Hope you see this and you find it interesting!
I did! It's been really interesting to hear back from readers. I had hoped to write a book that spoke to anyone old enough to want something that doesn't treat them like little kids. It's been really satisfying to hear from people as young as 10 that they've enjoyed getting into programming through the book, and I've also heard from retired people who have used the book to keep their brains active. The book is clearly reaching its target audience, which is a wonderful validation of all the work that went into it.
I've seen a bit of FIRST Robotics, but I've got too many projects on my plate at the moment to do much with it. I've got another Python project in the works, and then there's another intro programming book I'd like to take on as well.
I've always wanted to do something like this - I'm a bit of a pedal junkie myself, but hilly country roads bum me out due to their coarseness.
What were the roads like? Smooth or crunchy?
Smooth roads are wonderful, and crunchy roads keep me on fat tires.
The shoulders on US roads are really varying in quality. Some places have nice wide shoulders and good quality pavement; others have really narrow shoulders with lots of debris and broken sections. I always stay on the smallest roads that get me from one side of a state to the other, so traffic is only an issue when there are no good secondary roads. On roads with really low traffic it's really fun to ride in the middle of the road for hours without seeing any vehicles. There are still lots of those roads around if you know how to look for them.
By far the worst roads I found were in the south, particularly Louisiana. I remember roads there with negative shoulders - the white line was painted over gravel off the side of the road in some parts. That was compounded by the large trucks carrying freight to and from the barges from the Mississippi River. One time a double trailer carrying giant sections of pipe passed me, taking both lanes of the road. The pipe sections brushed the trees on both sides of the road as it navigated a corner. I had to get into the woods to let that truck pass.
I rode the Top of the World Highway through Chicken, Alaska at one point. That's a red dirt road, with endless rolling hills. There were washboard sections that rattled my bike on the downhills so much I thought it would all fall apart underneath me and I'd end the trip sprawled out in the middle of the road with my bike in pieces around me. But at the end of one long downhill I reached the Alaska Highway, which had a giant shoulder of impeccable asphalt in that section. I made a hundred miles on day on that good shoulder. With twilight stretching after midnight in the summer and no one else on the road, that was joyous riding.
That sounds beautiful.
Did you ever have to replace your outer tyres at all then? Or were all punctures just cosmetic (teeny bits of glass, metal, etc)?
I definitely replaced my tires, but only from wear. I never got a single cut that made me replace the tires. My tubes had about 20 patches each when I replaced them, and I went through several tubes for every tire I used. I'd usually get new tires when I noticed flats coming more often than usual.
I crashed hard as I was heading into NYC. I took a ferry from Connecticut to the end of Long Island, and found some beautiful woods to camp in. The next morning I got up early to make it all the way into the city, where I was going to stay with a friend. I got to the outskirts of Queens, and I got doored hard. But all the weight on my bike actually saved me; I started to go over the handlebars, but there was so much weight on my bike my rear end didn't go up high enough to pitch over. Instead I just went most of the way vertical, and then flopped over sideways. I thought I hit the pavement, but when I started moving limbs and assessing the damage I found I was suspended off the ground between my panniers, still clipped into the pedals. My front wheel was bent though, so I had to replace it. I happened to crash two blocks from the last subway station, so it was easy to get to my friend's apartment.
I was riding just outside Yakima, WA later on. I broke spokes occasionally, and when I was replacing a spoke I noticed that my rear wheel was cracked in about five places. I found a bike shop in the next ten miles, and got a new wheel.
My favorite bike malfunction story happened just a few miles from the end of the trip. I had ridden a little over 14,000 miles, and I was on the last day of riding. I was high at the approaching end of the journey, and also just ready to be done riding. At one point my right pedal stuck and my foot jerked out of the clips as the pedal stopped rotating. I pulled over and popped the dust cap off the pedal. I should have seen some bearings and some grease, but I just saw flakes of rust. On these long trips sometimes you get to test the overall lifespan of some components. I squeezed enough grease into the pedal to fill the space, duct taped the dust cap back on, and finished the ride into Anchorage.
Ah yep. I have been doored twice (and have the lifelong facial scars to prove it...) Usually it's the city folk who aren't actual city folk and so aren't used to looking out before opening a door. People need to know the dutch reach.
I take it you didn't have to replace the forks then, that must be a damn good frame you're riding (carbon alloy?)
And yeah, it's amazing what grease will fix! Some of the the bearings gripped up on my steering column a few months back, thought I'd have to replace the entire stem -- nope, just squirted some grease down there -- right as rain since.
Also wow, Alaska -- you rode on snow/ice?
My worst crash actually came from a bridge. I used to commute on a mountain bike in NYC, and the fat tires meant I didn't really have to pay attention to expansion grates. I went to a workshop in a different location one day for work, and I took a road bike instead of my mountain bike. On the way back some construction pushed me off the shoulder of the road and into the lane as I was heading from the Bronx back into Manhattan. I didn't notice until it was too late that the expansion grate openings were wider in the middle of the bridge than on the shoulder. That grate just ate my front tire and threw me over the handlebars. As I looked up, all the passing motorists were holding their hands over their mouths, with their eyes wide open. I felt blood pouring down my face. But a passing taxi stopped and took me to the hospital right across from the bridge. It wasn't too bad, and now I'm someone who can tell a "cracked my helmet instead of my head" story. I also have a nice cheekbone scar to show for it.
I got to Alaska in July, so I didn't ride on any snow or ice. It was over 80 degrees when I passed through Fairbanks; interior Alaska gets quite warm in the summer. When I was heading south towards Anchorage I saw the first dustings of new snow on the higher mountains though, and it felt like a good time to be finishing the trip.
yep, think I'm gonna have to give your book a looksee -- you seem to have adventures and a half!
Thanks, I hope you enjoy it. If you have any questions after you read it, feel free to get in touch. I'm not hard to find online.
How would have you reacted to an accident on a non-populated road ?
You mean what if I got hit on a lightly traveled road? I'd assess myself, and stabilize myself as much as I could. Then I'd probably wait for a passing vehicle. I went to some remote roads, but I never went anywhere that I didn't see a vehicle for more than six hours or so.
The dangers are more from heavily-trafficked roads. I tried to stay away from them, but you end up on some eventually. I had the benefit of several years of bicycle commuting in NYC. There were some secondary highways with more traffic than usual and narrower shoulders, but I got good at staying as far to the right as I could and riding a very straight line. I also had a rear-view mirror on my handlebars, which I checked on a regular basis.
How many pokemon go gyms did you take over?
All of them!
Not really, I did this ride before smartphones came about. I'm glad I had the chance to do that, because it was nice to be separated from everyone I knew for long periods of time. It was nice to head into an area and not know what I was going to see.
I'm going to do another long ride at some point, and I haven't decided yet whether I'll bring a phone or not. Life feels different when we're not connected, and I miss that sometimes.
Does your butt hurt?
Seriously, you get used to the riding position after a few days on a long ride. I always found that shifting my position throughout the day kept any part of my body from hurting or being too uncomfortable.
Well done! I'd love to do this some day. I feel you on the Yosemite tunnels - not sure I'd ever have the balls to ride up them again. Down's fine, but up... yegads. A few questions:
Clipless, or flat pedals?
Spandex, or street clothes?
How was the ass-chafing, regardless?
Panniers, or single-wheel trailer?
Clipless, or flat pedals?
I started out with pedals that were flat on one side and clipless on the other. That way I could ride in cycling shoes or non-cycling shoes. But I got shoes that had recessed cleats, and after that I got dedicated clipless pedals. I love the feeling of being clipped into the pedals.
Spandex, or street clothes?
I got two pairs of cycling shorts that had regular shorts on the outside. I had the padding of cycling shorts, but didn't look like a cyclist to most people. I wore t-shirts in warm weather and polypro hiking shirts in colder weather, I never wore a cycling-specific top.
How was the ass-chafing, regardless?
I never really had an issue with this, although I now plenty of people who have. I think I rode enough in my every day life (I commuted by bicycle for years) that my body was used to being on a bike. When I got sore occasionally I'd take a little more time off the bike.
Panniers, or single-wheel trailer?
Panniers, all the way! I can't imagine riding with a trailer on the road. I like everything being contained on the bike. Sometimes in the winter I was loaded pretty heavy, both from thicker clothes and more layers, and from carrying books and stuff for long nights in the tent. In warmer weather I'd get rid of some of that stuff and travel lighter, and tighten up my panniers. The bike felt more responsive then. When I left the lower 48 and headed to Alaska for real, I got rid of everything I didn't need and it was nice to be a lot lighter.
I once met a couple who were riding a tandem across the country, while towing a two-wheel trailer behind them. They became good friends, but to this day I can't believe they didn't get hit with that thing. It's hard enough keeping two or three wheels in line out of traffic, I don't know how they kept a two wheel trailer from getting hit.
I'd consider a single-wheel trailer for an off-road ride. But I rode plenty of gravel roads and didn't have an issue with panniers.
Have you ever been to Denmark, the (I think) number one cycling nation in the world?
I have not! I was just about to start traveling internationally when Sara asked if I'd do another cross-country ride in the US. As a result, I still haven't traveled outside the US at this point. That's one of my next goals in traveling. I want to ride across the US once more to see how much has changed, and I want to see other parts of the world.
I'm most interested in seeing Patagonia, Iceland, the Himalaya, and maybe some of Europe.
As a Dane and an eager cyclist I recommend Denmark. All the drivers also has bikes, so they know how it is and take care.
I have heard very good things about cycling in Denmark!
Mr. Matthews, where were you in the twitter photo with the snowy mountains?
I moved to Sitka a few years after finishing the trip. I climbed Gavan Hill (a 2500' mountain) yesterday morning, and turned back when I reached waist-deep snow because I didn't have my snowshoes with me.
Sitka is in southeast Alaska. I never really thought of southeast Alaska as "real" Alaska; I thought I'd move here for a year and then figure out where I really wanted to be. But I love it here, and I'll probably never leave. Sitka is big enough to have much of what I like about modern life, but you can only get here by boat or plane, so it feels really isolated. We also have a lot of protected water that stays fairly calm because of barrier islands, but the open ocean is quite close as well. We really have a little of everything here, and true wilderness is right outside our doors.
Hey man this sounds really cool. I've always thought about doing some long distance on my fixed gear whenever I get the chance to. As for sleeping on your journey, what was your typical set up? Did you just crash in a personal tent most of the time while sometimes couch surfing?
I carried a tent and sleeping bag, and one of my favorite memories of these trips was walking my bike into the woods at the end of each day. I was amazed to find, that even in our seemingly over-developed modern world, you can still find stretches of woods almost every day you travel. I only trespassed once or twice to find a sleeping spot; I almost always found unmarked woods I could just walk my bike into. You can't do that in a car because you need to find a place to park. On a bike, you can just spot an opening into the woods, and be invisible to the rest of the world in 50 or 100 feet. It was a wild feeling to sleep in a tent just a short ways from the road, hear cars and trucks passing by occasionally in the night, and know that nobody knew I was there.
When I couldn't find open woods to sleep in, I would knock on doors near big fields and ask if I could put a tent in the back of the field. People would listen to my story a moment, look at my loaded bike, and usually say yes. If people said no it was usually because they didn't own the fields near their house. I got a rude awakening once or twice from an angry or confused neighbor, but those were rare exceptions. I was usually packed up and gone before most people were awake when I slept near houses like that.
In the deserts out west there were often no trees to hide in. But if there's no trees because it's a desert, it's usually dry enough to sleep without a tent. those were wild nights, waking up in the middle of the night to the stars up above, forgetting where I was and what I was doing for a moment, wondering how all those stars got there. Sleeping outside of four walls night after night was one of the best parts of all this travel.
What's your favorite bike seat?
I don't have a favorite seat. I never wanted to get too attached to my bike, so if it got stolen or broken I could just replace the bike with another middle-quality bike and keep going. I can't even tell you the name of my seat; I think it's the one that came with the bike.
I have wanted to do some bike touring for some time now. I race triathlon and my bike fitness is really strong, but I'm incredibly hesitant to get out there and just do it.
I will have some time at the end of summer before school picks back up, but—how do I start? Any sites/guides you would recommend? I've never camped in my life, but I would love to do a self supported with some camping... Feasible?
First of all, I encourage you to do it. You'll learn a great deal the first few days and nights out, and then you can consider all kinds of trips. There's not a huge difference between a 3-day trip and a week-long trip. There's not much difference between a week-long trip and a summer trip. Getting into year-long trips becomes a question of whether you can stand long nights alone in a tent more than anything else. Once you need to carry a change of clothes and camping gear, the length of the trip begins to become less significant in what you bring.
I have not participated in it because I did most of this riding before reddit was even a thing, but the r/bicycletouring subreddit is a wonderful resource. You can pick up a lot just from reading through the threads there. I think the most important bicycle issues are having a low enough gearing to climb hills with weight on your bike, without hurting your knees. Being a cyclist, you'll make sense of that pretty readily. Then, having components that you can maintain and repair with only the tools you carry is a huge plus. Even in the most remote places, you can always wait and hitchhike to safety if your bike becomes unrideable. But these adventures are much more satisfying the more self-reliant you are.
You might spend a night in a tent without a bike before biking with the intention of camping. Then again, you can practice setting up a tent and rolling out a sleeping bag just about anywhere.
In short, absolutely feasible! My first ride was a three-day trip out of NYC to Ellenville, where I took a hang gliding lesson and then got a bus ride back to the city. Then a week-long trip from NYC to Niagara Falls, and then the first cross-country ride. Good luck!
Mr. Matthews, what all did you always carry with you on your trips?
It's a pretty simple list to put together:
- 2 sets of riding clothes
- sleeping clothes
- a rain jacket
- tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad
- a journal
- a small set of bike tools and a patch kit
- 2 spare tubes and one spare tire
- a few spare spokes, and a couple other extra parts
- a book
- a map of the state I'm in
- on the long trip, it was fun to carry a US map as well
- a stove, pot, bowl, and spoon, and a bottle of stove gas
- a chess set
- a pair of climbing shoes and a little chalk
There were a few other things, but I think that was most of it.
Do you get calluses on your bum?
Not really, but you do get used to a few different riding positions. It's easier to adjust to this on a long ride than on a shorter ride, because you can take some easy days in the beginning.
Have you got a driving licence?
I do! But when I got my driver's license, I kept on riding a bicycle for fun, to get around, and to explore local areas. When I had enough time to set off on a real adventure I was still in good bicycling shape, so it was easy to pick up bicycle travel.
Good to hear you kept up cycling after you got your licence. Have you thought about touring a foreign country in the future on your bicycle?
I definitely want to travel internationally before much longer. I want to see Patagonia and Iceland next. I don't know if I'll do a bicycle trip or not. I definitely want to ride across the US at least once more, to see what's changed. But I'm not tied to bicycle travel, so I'll see what feels best when it's time to visit another country.
Mr. Matthews, what types of Science and Math do you teach and which grades and what is your school like?
I'm the only math and science teacher at my small school, so I really teach a little of everything. I have a background in Physics, which is a pretty good basis for being a generalist. I'm not really an expert in much, but I have a basic understanding of many things. I'm pretty honest with students about what I know and don't know, so I can usually help them think about whatever it is they're interested in. I love teaching about space and the Universe, because there are so many things that just trip people out. Everyone loves space!
I really enjoy teaching math because the way my school is set up I get to meet every student where they're at. Everyone gets an accurate assessment when they first start math at my school, and they get an individualized plan. There's no need to keep up with everyone else, you just need to keep demonstrating progress. I used to think I wouldn't get to know students very well by teaching math, but I had no idea how interesting it is to see how each student approaches math. I love my job, although I do need some time off every once in a while to keep from burning out. I couldn't imagine teaching for 25-30 years straight through until retirement.
How did you like the coast of Oregon? I've biked down it once before (ages ago in Scouts), and other than getting food poisoning that had me riding in the sag-wagon for a few days, it was an awesome trip.
I crossed into Oregon near Klamath Falls, passed through Bend, and crossed into Washington near Hood River. But I've been to the Oregon coast a few times since then, and I love it there. My wife and I hiked out to the point in Cape Lookout State Park, and we couldn't believe the steep dropoffs right next to the trail. That place was beautiful.
Oregon is one of these west coast states that just seems to have a little of everything. Beautiful wild coasts with big waves crashing from the open pacific, large tracts of forest, high desert, and canyons as well. I'm always happy to go back to Oregon.
I did a similar trip back in 2009 but took the easy way out with more restaurants and motels. I didn't include Alaska and might add it to a future trip. How was the route between Washington state and Alaska?
(My blog is on the crazyguyonabike website under user name fruit loop)
It's wild and beautiful, and there are a good number of options when picking out a route. I crossed into BC near Chilliwack, and headed up the Fraser Canyon. Hope, BC is a wild place to pass through. I followed Highway 97 to Prince George, where I picked up Highway 16 toward Prince Rupert. Then I turned onto the Cassiar Highway, to stay off the heavily traveled Alaska Highway as much as possible. That was wild - I saw bears almost every day on the Cassiar. Then I headed up to Dawson City, and crossed into Alaska at a tiny checkpoint where the pavement ended at the Alaska border. It was a perfect place to reach Alaska for the first time.
On separate trips later in a car and on a motorcycle I passed through Whistler and Lillooet, which has some of the steepest dropoffs I've ever seen on a road designed for cars. I also passed through Banff and Jasper and Revelstoke, which are all just gorgeous.
Can you tell us a bit about places within California you would recommend for biking/hiking/sight-seeing that you personally enjoyed?
I'm in the bay area but I've been so busy I haven't had the free time to explore anywhere. Yosemite is definitely on the list, but what are some other places you would recommend for maybe an introspective weekend trip / getaway?
California is so full of good places to visit. I rode through Joshua Tree, and then up 395 all the way along the eastern Sierras. But in other travels I've visited the redwoods and the sequoias. Just in that you have deserts, mountains, and forests. It's unreal the variety that California represents.
I went to a conference in Santa Clara, and I took a side trip to Big Basin State Park. It was amazing how quickly the development just ends and suddenly you're driving through cool forest air. Then you get to the redwood stands and everyone's just quiet and humbled. Tahoe is gorgeous; it's one of those lakes where you can see straight to the bottom even in deep water. I went through a lava tube near Lassen volcanic park; it was interesting to go in there and turn off all lights. That made me realize I'd never experienced absolute darkness before.
This is awesome! Lots of questions but I'll limit them-so I used to be a bike mechanic, what kind of bike did you ride? How many chains did you go through? Were there a lot of other repairs throughout the trip-maybe cable replacements, wheel truing, hub work? Also how did you work up the cardio to make it through the 100 mile trips? I've ridden for 10 years but just get so bored after a while and can't seem to make it farther then a 50 miler
I rode a Gary Fisher Montare mountain bike. I modified the gearing to get a super low gear, and I rode a narrow mountain bike tire with a continuous tread, and ran a higher tire pressure when I was on pavement. I also put bar ends on bar ends, kind of like a homemade aero bar. I really only used those when I needed to get down and out of the wind. My weight was on the main handlebar, but I could steer with the second set of bar ends.
I only broke a chain once, and I think I know why. I rode about ten miles on the beach at Daytona one night because it was just gorgeous, but I think that put sand in the chain that just ground away at the links for a long time. I broke the chain on a steep stretch in New Mexico, but I'm pretty sure it came from that Daytona beach riding. Of course I had hundreds of flats. I'd go through periods where I'd break a spoke every couple of days, but I had learned to true a wheel before taking the trip. I used a hair elastic to hold an allen wrench on each side of the rim, and trued it right on the bike. It makes a truing stand seem luxurious, but it works. I don't think I ever replaced a cable, but I did break a steering stem once and had to replace the handlebars. Fortunately that happened a two-mile walk from a ski area that had some bike parts in the back of the shop. I did clean the hubs every once in a while when I found someone to stay with and I could really take the bike apart.
It's a lot more interesting doing 100-mile stints when you know you'll end up 100 miles from where you started. Long rides from my apartment in NYC were not nearly as interesting as long rides in the middle of a trip. On these long trips you can just take shorter days in the first few weeks and build up. On the shorter trips I made sure to get in more specific bicycling shape before starting on the rides.
Wow thanks for the reply! I don't know how old your chain was at the time you broke it, but they typically last about 5,000 miles. That's the equivalent of a car mechanic telling you to change your oil every 3,000 miles though, so they typically last longer.
I find when I ride in the rain that the hub becomes very audible and just needs to be opened up and greased, so that's why I asked.
Breaking a chain is a strange feeling. You go from pedaling hard to suddenly spinning really fast. I was happy not to fall and get hurt when that happened.
Just wanted to say first that your trips are inspiring. I've long been considering a cross-country ride, and reading your comments definitely gets me more eager. A few summers back I planned out my first trip, from Boulder, CO to Missoula, MT, but ended up not going due to family reasons. Hope to do one next summer.
Anyway, do you think your trip and time on the road changed your relationship with people in general (like how you see/understand them), but also did it have any impact on your close ones?
It feels really good to hear people being inspired by my travels. I started riding because I happened to find an old book called A Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins. That book opened my eyes to the idea of traveling long distances under your own power. Then one summer while working at a camp in the White Mountains of NH I met someone who had just done a cross-country ride. Before that I had never met anyone who traveled a long distance on their own.
Anyway, do you think your trip and time on the road changed your relationship with people in general (like how you see/understand them), but also did it have any impact on your close ones?
This is a great question. Yes, absolutely this affected my relationships. I got the idea for the first trip sometime in the fall of my second year of teaching. I told my girlfriend at the time what I was thinking and she said something along the lines of "How could you think of doing something like that, when that could be our time together?" It hadn't even occurred to me that some time apart would be bad for our relationship; I knew I would grow and learn from the trip, and thought she'd be fully supportive of the idea. We broke up for other reasons shortly after that, but that conversation made it clear where we were each at in our lives.
After that I stayed single for a long time so I could follow my adventures where they led. I wasn't so much actively avoiding relationships, as I was focusing on where I wanted to go in the world. I went four years without dating anyone, and it was really good to get to know myself before getting into a relationship again. I learned who I was on the road, and my time on the road has grounded me for life. It's hard to get too rattled by everyday things when you've met people from all walks of life, and faced real physical dangers on a regular basis for a while.
When I was traveling people would walk up and just start sharing their stories. When you're standing over a loaded bike, you look very non-threatening, and people can tell you're just passing through. People told me stories they hadn't told their loved ones, because they knew I wouldn't be staying around for long. That context gets people right to the most important life conversations. It was a privilege to stand on the side of the road and listen to people share their life's stories. So when I see people now, I know everyone has a story and that we just don't tell our deepest stories often. It helps me see the good in people, and understand why some people do awful things as well.
Most of my family is from New England, but my generation has started to fan out to other places. I've visited a number of family members on my travels, and that's been a nice way of connecting as adults. I would say I'm closer to many family members than I'd otherwise be because of these trips.
Good luck in your trips, I hope you make them happen! Boulder and Missoula are beautiful places.
Thanks for your thoughtful response.
I learned who I was on the road, and my time on the road has grounded me for life. It's hard to get too rattled by everyday things when you've met people from all walks of life, and faced real physical dangers on a regular basis for a while.
Definitely a part of what I'd like to explore. I'll read your book & reach out if I have more questions!
Please do, I'm quite curious to know what people think of the book. It was definitely worthwhile for me to put together, because it cemented these memories for me in a really interesting way. I think the book captures the essential aspects of a long trip like this pretty well.
Couldn't ask for directions?
That's actually pretty funny. When I was heading down the east coast and people asked where I was going, I stopped saying "Alaska" because I got tired of people asking why I was heading south to get to Alaska. I started saying "Florida", and then only mentioning Alaska if the conversation went further.
When I got to Florida I started telling people I was headed to Alaska, and people were impressed and wished me luck. That's when I started asking myself if I was really going to ride all the way to Alaska. But I loved life on the road, and I wanted to see all the wild places and meet all the interesting people between Florida and Alaska, so I committed myself to finishing the trip if I could.
It was immensely satisfying to reach Whidbey Island in Washington and complete a loop around the lower 48. Closing that circle was a tremendously powerful feeling. But over the next few days I had some really odd interactions with people:
"Hello, where are you headed?"
"Wow, where did you start?"
"How long have you been on the road?"
"Just over a year!"
At that point some people would look at me really confused, and some would look at me with pity in their eyes, saying things like, "You'll get there some day." Some people got angry at me, thinking I was trying to deceive them or something. It was funny to clarify that I had stopped off in Maine and Florida on the way to Alaska from Seattle.
Mr. Matthews, do you listen to a lot of music on your bike trips? Are you constantly getting new music to listen for your trips?
I typically don't listen to much music when I'm riding. I really like to be aware of my surroundings when I'm biking, hiking, and running, so I don't have headphones on very often outdoors. Even when relaxing around camp I like to hear anything that's approaching my campsite.
That said, I love listening to music. My "one album for the rest of my life" is Beethoven's ninth symphony, because it has a little of everything in it. But I grew up on classic metal, so I have a fairly wide range of tastes. I don't have a good way to manage my music these days, I'm waiting for my 5th gen 30G ipod to die.
Mr. Matthews, have you thought about selling your book rights to be adopted by screen writers into a TV mini series or motion picture?
That would be an interesting offer! I don't think it's a big enough sell, though.
Mr. Matthews, what advice do you have for Redditors who want to long bike trips like yours?
I think it depends on where your strengths are currently. You need to be comfortable on a bike, comfortable camping, and comfortable around new people. But you can develop in any of these areas, and you can always learn as you go.
The most obvious safety issue is being able to ride safely around cars and trucks, because you'll occasionally have to ride around traffic, and there will be a few close calls in any long trip. But there's risk in any adventure, so you just have to accept that once you're confident enough to hit the road.
Riding on a daily or weekly basis is a good start if you don't do so already. Having some experience camping is helpful, so you can spot good places to stop for the night. Other than that, a lot of this is learning by doing. The Adventure Cycling Association is a great resource for people who want to learn more about long-distance bicycling. They publish detailed maps of established bicycling routes, which keep you on pretty decent roads for riding.
Mr. Matthews, I had a relative/ancestor go on a bicycle trip from Pennsylvania to Colorado in the 1920s, did you ever make this same trip? If not would you?
Well, that's a pretty specific ride, so no I haven't done that trip. I've traveled through PA a few times on a bicycle, and I had a motorcycle for a bit and loved riding through the Poconos from time to time. Colorado is beautiful as well.
I would love to go back in time and see what that kind of trip would have been like. Bikes were much more primitive, and the roads were a lot less consistent as well. But I'm guessing people were largely the same. It would be quite interesting to hear more about your ancestor's setup!
Mr. Matthews, what sports or sport like activities do you like to do and watch?
I've always loved the mountains. I got into rock climbing just before starting all this bicycle travel. I usually biked with a pair of climbing shoes, so I could try out climbing when I passed through different climbing areas. I ended up moving to a part of the world that's not particularly good for rock climbing. I live in southeast Alaska, and most of our rock here is too crumbly for climbing. But it's a wild place, so you can easily go climb a mountain that has no trails, and you can stand on top of a peak that gets just a few ascents a year if you want. There's really no such thing as a "first ascent" here because nobody records who's climbed what.
I grew up watching baseball, but that's not too much fun to watch any more. All of the ball sports are a little less interesting after getting into mountain sports like climbing and mountaineering. That said, I'll watch the championships of any sport. It's fun to watch any sport played really well.
After living quite a sedentary lifestyle I took it upon myself to purchase a used bike and get active. I could barely make it 7km (equivalent to just over 4 miles) without feeling very winded and my legs burned. Any tips for a starter?
It sounds like you've already done the hardest part. If you keep taking these short rides they'll become more comfortable, and you'll want to go farther. 4 miles will soon become 5, which will stretch into 10, and you'll be on your way to riding as far as you care to.
Did you enjoy the riding?
Thanks! Yes I did quite enjoy it. :)
I hope you continue to enjoy it!
That is the question, isn't it? I started out doing these trips because I'd never been west of Iowa, and I knew my view of the world was fairly limited. I knew I'd see new places, meet new people, and learn new things. The first trip was a great mix of all three of these things. At the end of the first trip I knew there were still many places I hadn't seen, more interesting people to meet, and much more I could learn about myself and the world. That kept me going through the first half of the long trip.
Something interesting happened in Florida, right in the middle of the long trip. I met a wise man named Milton, and I stood on the side of the road listening to his stories about hitchhiking back and forth between Chicago and Florida all his life. He'd been harassed by the KKK in scary places, but also shown kindnesses in his travels that he'd never seen in everyday life. As I was listening to him, I realized I'd heard his stories before. I realized that everyone who lives on the road learns certain things if they listen and live honestly enough. I realized I'd keep hearing these same stories as long as I traveled. It wasn't that the stories were suddenly boring; I realized they were all variations of the same story about basic human interactions.
That was an interesting encounter, because it was the first time I wondered if I really needed to travel this way anymore. I spent a few days considering whether I wanted to commit another six months to this kind of traveling. In the end I decided I wanted to hear more individual stories from the wise people you meet on the road, I wanted to see the rest of the wild places between Florida and Alaska, and I wanted to feel what it felt like to live a full year on the road.
I think the book is an attempt at a full answer to this question.
Afternoon! Thanks for taking the time to do this.
I'm keen to do a tour sometime in the near future, most likely the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland which brings me to my question; how do you go about getting warm and dry on the really miserable days when it just won't stop raining? I can see a day or two being manageable but what happens when it's several days at a time with a limited amount of clothes?
You just described northern Ontario. Sara and I were looking for a route across the country that I hadn't taken before, and I suggested we pass through Chibougamau, the northernmost town on an east-west road in eastern Canada. It was 300 miles of mostly taiga forest on either side of the town, and cold rain most of the time.
The short answer is to keep moving. There's really no way to stay dry; you're either wet from some rain getting in or wet from sweat. You can keep from getting soaking wet, but you're going to be wet riding long distances in steady rain. So I made a habit of stopping less frequently on days of steady rain, riding a little slower but always moving.
It's helpful to stop in diners for a bowl of soup and a warm drink if you can. But that also means not moving, so you deal with being in wet clothes in the diner. Sometimes it's nicer to just snack throughout the day so you can keep moving and avoid changing layers.
Setting up a tent in pouring rain isn't the most fun, but I realized that the joy of a tent in steady rain is that it keeps you from getting wetter. It's not like stepping into the tent makes you dry, but it is great to suddenly not be getting wetter. I usually strip off my wet outer gear in the tent fly, then crawl in on my sleeping pad, and pat off as much wetness as I can. Dampness is better than wetness. Sometimes everything you have ends up damp or wet, and you're really just waiting for a dry day or a laundromat. But oh man that first dry day feels good after a long spell of rain!
People used to ask if I was happy on these trips; many people think it's just a long vacation. But in difficult weather, this kind of travel is hard work. That said, it's what makes the overall journey so satisfying, and the beautiful days so enjoyable.
So it's all just a matter of perspective! Makes sense really. Thanks for taking the time to reply, I've got a couple of other questions but they are mostly minutiae so I'll read the book and see what crops up. Adios!
Ps: Missed the offer so it's going to have to wait until I'm a little less, well, time rich. But it is on my wishlist, so I'll get around to it. Eventually.
PS: Missed the offer so it's going to have to wait until I'm a little less, well, time rich. But it is on my wishlist, so I'll get around to it. Eventually.
This AMA was meant to share the full story of my travels with people, not to make money. You're the kind of person I want reading what I've written. I put it back at $0.99, and it'll stay there until this thread is completely quiet.
Thank you for your interest, and if you enjoy the book I'd love to know what you think when you're done!
Edit: Make sure you use the direct link to the ebook, the print version sometimes takes a bit longer to show the updated price.
Hello. It sounds like an incredible trip, thanks for inspiring and answering our questions. Would you have felt safe to do this trip if you were a woman? I'd love to do something like this one day but sadly I worry about being a vulnerable target cycling alone along long open roads.
I am a middle class white male, so my experience on the road is definitely safer than many people's. I can't honestly say whether I'd feel safe doing this as a woman, or a black man, or anyone else. There were certainly situations I found myself in that would have played out differently if I was not a white male.
I was sitting at a campfire in Mississippi one night, listening to wild stories about hog hunting and farm life. One old man was playing harmonica softly through it all, and it was a magical night. Then someone asked about my life outside of bicycle trips, and I said I'd been teaching in NYC recently. One of them said, "I'd have left on a bicycle too if I had to teach a bunch of niggers and wetbacks!" I tend to surround myself with pretty open minded people, so I haven't had too many blatantly racist encounters like that. I challenged them as well as I could. "What's a nigger?" "It's not the color of a person's skin, it's the way they live their lives." I pointed out they knew nothing about my students, so they were pretty clearly talking about the color of their skin. I realized how easy it is to talk to people you see eye to eye with, and how hard it is to talk meaningfully to people who you don't see eye to eye with.
So the only honest answer is to share a bit about who I met on the road. The traveling cyclists I met were mostly white men. I met women traveling in small groups. I'm not sure I met any solo women bicyclists. The r/bicycletouring subreddit is pretty active, and there are a number of posts that might be more helpful in deciding how safe a trip like this might be.
I just realized I kept spelling your name wrong a bunch of times, i hope that wasn't annoying I'm sorry, are you annoyed or no worries?
No worries at all! My name has been spelled wrong most of my life, I know it's never intentional.
You asked a bunch of questions in separate threads yesterday, and I didn't get to all of them. Was there anything else you were still wondering about? Have you done a bicycle trip, or are you interested in doing one at some point?
I road a bike for the first time since learning as a child recently. I did 28 miles in about two hours. I'm 25 and in probably average health, 5'11, 11.5 Stone, 20% body fat.
I've wanted to quit my job and go on a long cycle ride through Europe. Is this something I can just go and do, or would I need to train up to it?
Well, that makes it sound like you'd make a pretty quick transition to a long trip. If you can go that far, you'll have no trouble making a reasonable daily mileage.
In the US it seems to be either camping or staying in motels of varying quality. Are those your two options, or are huts and hostels available where you're thinking of going? I haven't traveled in Europe, but I've always heard there are more affordable and appealing accommodations available.
I would definitely suggest a weekend trip just to get the feel of staying somewhere overnight with a bike, but other than that it sounds perfectly doable. Longer trips are easier to prepare for physically than shorter trips, because you can ease into the riding over the first week or two.
Why do the majority of cyclists ignore stop signs, traffic lights, and just ride their bikes like they are exempt from the rules of the road?
I'll answer from my own perspective. I ride with safety in mind first, and legality second. So when I approach a stop sign, I know there could be traffic coming from different directions. On a bicycle I often have a better sense of what's going on at an intersection than when I'm driving, because I approach the intersection slower on a bike, and I can see and hear better on a bike than in a car. So if I approach an intersection and see no one coming, I ride across the road without coming to a full stop. At some traffic lights a bike won't trip the signal, so we have no choice but to ride through the light once we've determined it's safe to do so.
I never ignore a stop sign or a stop light; riding straight through them as if they weren't there is asking to get hit. There are cyclists who do so, and they give all of us a bad name, but many of them also end up getting hurt or killed. Most people can only get away with bad riding habits for so long.
So are you basically the Forrest Gump of biking?
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