Of Headwinds and Home: Crossing America by Bike

A writer takes the less-beaten two-wheeled path from Boston to Seattle

IN retrospect, I'm willing to admit that the bear probably wasn't as big as the Winnebagos that had been passing me regularly on the larger roads throughout the Great Lakes region. But pedaling alone on a forested county road in Wisconsin can give one a different perception of the formidability of local fauna.

When I finally spotted the puzzled black bear sitting at the side of the road watching me, I squeezed on the brakes as hard as I could, and the sound sent him lumbering across the road into the underbrush. I sped away as quickly as I could get my heavily laden mountain bike to move.

That, I told myself when the loop of ``Wow, a bear... Wow, a bear...'' had finally played itself out in my head, is why I had embarked on this adventure. It was a chance to see some of the constituent parts of the United States at ground level, quietly and slowly, and a unique way to move from Boston, where I had worked for the last 3-1/2 years, back to my hometown of Seattle.

The trip had been quieter in the 25 days since I had left Boston. My first rest stop had been at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., a favorite swimming spot and philosophical symbol whose shadow would follow me for the rest of my journey. I sprinkled a few drops of pond water on my bike, then left, dodging mosquitoes.

Many people who ride across this continent do so leaning on the experience of others. Bikecentennial, a major cycle-tour operator in Missoula, Mont., guides about 1,000 people across the country each year either on organized tours or with their special cycling maps, according to Mac McCoy, the organization's assistant director.

But I decided to join the untold numbers of individualists who shun the beaten path, such as it is. At the risk of repeating others' mistakes, this was to be a journey of self-exploration. I packed enough camping equipment, bike tools, and spare parts to survive all but the most improbable situations. I had some highway maps, a compass, and a large bag of food. And unlike my ancestors who made a similar journey generations ago, I had a pocketful of travelers' checks and a fairly smooth road before me.

The first day, in late May, was mostly sunny, and I spent the night with friends just over the border in New Hampshire. The second day brought two challenges that would recur: weather and accommodations. A torrential afternoon thunderstorm pinned me at the roadside produce stand of disgruntled New Hampshire farmer Jim Amsden. (Many residents of this state seem disgruntled, by taxes or government or, in Mr. Amsden's case, boars that had escaped from a neighboring game reserve and had destroyed a corn field.)

When I finally continued, as the rain eased to a mere deluge, I found that the campground shown on my map did not, in fact, exist. As it began to get dark, I gave up on finding a formal campsite and lugged my bike into the woods, setting up my tent in the drizzle that fell through the trees.

On subsequent days, I got better at choosing more interesting sites for camping: hilltops, lake fronts, abandoned roads, small-town parks. But much of the time there were campgrounds too convenient to ignore, even if they were littered with huge RVs and their stereos, coffeemakers, lights, and lawn ornaments. I usually left these places as early in the morning as possible, before the kids and TVs had awakened from their slumber.

The late spring weather was not so easy to escape. Cold, wet, windy days - punctuated by just a little sun - dogged me as I made my way north through Vermont and across the Adirondacks. My rain gear got a good workout, and I was constantly cleaning mud and grit from my bike. Taking a rare indoor refuge at the musty Buckhorn Lodge in Buckhorn, Ont., I was told by the proprietor that the temperature was hitting record lows. And to think that I had worried about the weather being too hot!

A cyclist's main nemesis, however, must be headwinds, which sap not only one's speed, but also one's will. I knew starting out that I would be going against the prevailing winds, but I had no idea they would be strong enough to keep me crawling along in my lowest gears even down hills, as I was forced to do near Toronto for several days in a row.

I knew I was making progress, however, as the black-fly-dominated assortment of insects gave way to the tenacious mosquitoes of the Great Lakes. Then I entered the hunting and snowmobiling mecca of northern Michigan and Wisconsin; fortunately, both activities were out of season. The forests gradually gave way to farms, the wet weather having left small ponds in the fields through which poked pathetic-looking corn stalks. As I waded in the initial flooding of the Mississippi when I reached St. Paul, I had no idea that in the coming weeks' floods would inundate farms and towns throughout the region.

As I confronted the wind and weather, I spent many solitary hours defining the goals of my trip. It didn't take long before ``fun'' defeated ``martyrdom.'' Facing the prospect of weeks of headwinds like those I'd experienced in Ontario, I opted to catch a ride with a friend across the Plains states. I was a bit awed - and very grateful - as I watched hundreds of miles of windswept prairie and range land roll past in hours instead of days.

RESUMING my trip in Idaho, I found a great inspiration in the landscape. Here, at last, was what I'd been aiming for all along: towering conifers, rapid rivers, snaking valleys, majestic mountains. Having neither a topographical map nor a knowledge of the terrain, I was taken by surprise by the three consecutive mountain passes I had to climb north of Boise. But for once the sun was shining. Thousands of vertical feet came and went, and the smile at recognizable signs of home never left my face.

The day I rode into Spokane, Wash., to meet a college friend who would ride to the end of the trip with me, I clocked 105 miles, my longest day of the trip (my average was 64 miles a day). Together, we rode through the grain farms of the Palouse to the sage desert between Othello and Yakima, and north along the pine-blanketed eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

The final ascent began in Wenatchee, on State Route 2. The terrain changes quickly from hot, dry valley to cool mountain gorge, a dramatic setting for Leavenworth, Wash., a town that has drawn hordes of tourists by passing itself off as a Bavarian village.

After the previous mountain passes, Stevens Pass, the 4,061-foot top of Route 2 and my passage through the jagged Cascades, did not seem too arduous. I simply put the bike in a low gear and kept my legs pedaling for a few hours as I admired the ridges and rivers passing by. It grew cold, but finally we arrived at the seasonally abandoned ski area at the pass. The descent on the west side, like all such downhills, was exhilarating after hours of a crawling pace.

Camping that night near the tiny town of Skykomish, I felt embraced in the familiar landscape. Huge trees dripping with moss welcomed me home, and the needle-covered forest floor cushioned the tent I had pitched next to a rotting log that nursed the next generation of cedars.

It was the hardest campsite to leave, but the last 80 miles to Seattle rolled by quickly. We rode into the city along the shore of Lake Washington, on one of the city's many bike paths. There was no fanfare, but I was jubilant. A week later I rode down to a waterfront park one rainy Seattle morning and gave my bike a ceremonial dunking in Puget Sound.

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