From Sea to Shining Sea

Imagine slowing the pace of life down to a max speed of 15 miles an hour, with a drastically simplified list of daily responsibilities.  I wrote this a lifetime ago, but it sure set the tone for the future of the Hoffpack!  This was definitely one of our most definining experiences of our early years of marriage (but for the record, 14 years older and wiser, parenthood has far surpassed this experience as our biggest challenge yet).

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At the completion of our coast-to-coast bike journey from Florence, Oregon to Newport News, Virginia, I reflect on the past 7 weeks (or 4003 miles).  While we never thought our trip would be easy, we never expected it to be what it was – our biggest challenge ever. 

Looking back, as we started out in Oregon, out of shape and hopeful for a pleasant and safe journey, we saw the most beautiful country of the ride.  On our first day out in Eugene, we met Case from the Netherlands on his last day, who impressed us with his knowledge and gave us a true feel for the journey ahead.  We learned that llamas and other farm animals are almost as intrigued by us as we are with them, as they ran to greet us on our bikes.  As we rode over the coast range, we experienced mountain ascents, pine-filled breezes, and of course, passing vehicles (and even logging trucks and recreational vehicles).  Our entire ride through Oregon felt like a true vacation – camping at Belknap Hot Springs to pedaling through Hell’s Canyon.  On just our third day, we did a 4000 foot climb through the Cascades – one of our biggest of the trip, only to find out that it wasn’t all that bad (well – except for the sleet/snow on top of one of the passes).

As we passed through Idaho, struggles with the wind became difficult and I was very tempted to quit.  I feel all the enthusiasm for the two of us prior to leaving on the trip, and I put all my energy into planning.  However, if it weren’t for Chuck, I might have ended our journey on several occasions.  We are a genuine team.  We would not triumph without each other.  Idaho offered perfect biking temperatures and unbelievably beautiful canyons along clear mountain rivers.  We even stayed at a campground where Copper was given a huge bone, and we were able to watch movies in their private living room!

Montana surprised us as we had only seen the most picturesque sites in the past.  While most was beautiful, we did experience some very barren country – the most difficult being the irrigated mosquito breeding grounds of Wisdom and Big Hole, where we had to maintain a speed of 15 MPH to rid the bugs.  As we passed through the Bitterroots, daily ascents of 2000-4000 feet became the norm, and the descents became more and more fun.  Heading north into Missoula (instead of our eastern goal), we were forced to remind ourselves that our trip should be about the journey, not the destination. 

As we headed into Wyoming, we learned that a tough or easy day is not determined by miles, but by conditions.  A 135 mile day down the Wind River with a tailwind (after a 4000 foot ascent) is much easier than 80 miles into the wind.  Visiting Yellowstone and the Tetons was wonderful, with blue skies and grizzly, wolf, bison, black bear, moose, and elk sightings.  It was almost too good as it reminded us that vacationing could be that great all the time, but alas, our journey was to continue on through many other parts of our country, a little too quickly.  We literally blew across the rest of Wyoming with atypical winds that we knew we had to take advantage of. 

As we entered Colorado, we struggled with the lack of shoulders and idea of shortly losing our awesome support – my Mom and Copper (our dog).  There would be no more pre-checks on upcoming camping areas, great food, and luxury items such as real pillows, chocolate, pop, etc in the rented Ford Ranger.  Ahead of schedule, we biked a short day, and then piled into the pickup to drive off route up to Estes Park to see Brent, Lori, and Chris, as well as our old stomping grounds.  Soon after, we made it over the highest point on the TransAmerica bike route, 12,000 foot Hoosier Pass past Breckenridge.  On our last day with support, we headed into Buena Vista for our third indoor stay (the other two being due to wind and Copper’s fear of fireworks on the 4th of July) to switch out tires and load up our bikes for the remainder of our lone journey.  Looking ahead at the next 6 of 12 maps turned out to be difficult, as we had actually completed the part of the trip we had looked forward to most.

The next 700 miles through eastern Colorado and Kansas was straight and flat, with almost nothing to see or do.  The sight of gas stations had never been so good.  Towns were rarely over 1000 people, with not even a McDonald’s for 500 miles.  The taste of tea-like hot water in our water bottles did not do much to cool us off or quench the thirst of 100 mile days, and refills with ice were the highlight of the day (even if the cool water only lasted 5 minutes).  Heading into Eastern Kansas through wildfires and 110 degree heat, Midwest humidity kicked in to top it off.  Strategies changed often – mileage only in the morning, breaks in the afternoon and then pedal into the night, only to find out evenings are not much cooler after the kind of heat that fired up the black pavement that we needed to ride on.  Century rides (100 miles) became the norm, and metabolism kicked in, causing us to eat through bags of donuts and 2 liters of pop.  Forward motion to get out of the flats became an obsession, even after being forced to slow down with my crash/sprained elbow from drafting a little too close.  Our fear of tornado alley reached its climax at this point, with storms chasing us, and me unable to ride after crashing (well, almost).  The friendliness of Kansas residents saved us, especially at the “Trail’s End” Hotel in Tribune, Kansas, ironically also the halfway point to Virginia.  The friendly doctors and hotel owner/chef/tennis players occupied our time for our only 2 days off of the entire trip. 

As we thought we had been through the most difficult part, we headed off into Missouri (now termed Misery), only to find out the entire state consists of the Ozark Mountains.  Hotel stays became the unexpected norm, as it was nearly impossible to sleep otherwise, especially with the only camping being available at city parks or rest areas, and showers became crucial.  The few times we did camp, we slept among trailer-park barking dogs, crying cows on the way to unspeakable places, and race tracks active only by night.  Mileage was cut back to accommodate grades in roads we thought must be illegal.  Chuck’s broken spoke slowed us once again, with the unexpected blessing of the Palmers taking us in, driving us in to Springfield to fix his bike, and replenishing our spirits.  We finished off Missouri awaiting an expected cool front and visit from my Mom in Illinois.

As we considered Illinois being our end point if we were cutting it close to the return of school, we were ahead of schedule, and knew that we would be continuing on.  By this point, Chuck had no consideration for stopping, keeping that coast-to-coast goal in sight.  Our trip through Illinois lasted 2 days, and we said an emotional goodbye to my Mom at a ferry where we crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky.  Going home was extremely tempting, but again, Chuck was determined to continue.

The further east we went into Kentucky, the bigger the hills, the smaller the houses, and the more dogs we encountered.  None of them were actually able to grab hold, but some of them gave us a run for our money.  In some cases, we were lucky to be pedaling downhill, as we don’t think we could have outdone them any other way.  Just as we were feeling the high of coming close to completing the trail, we met a woman from Holland who had spent 4 weeks crossing Virginia and told us of the dreaded Berea to Booneville stretch of dogs.  One owner actually told his dog, “Sic her!”  We met with Jan  (my college roommate) and her Kentucky-born husband, who drafted a successful dog-free corridor through that section.  We still experienced the fridge-friendly lawns of eastern Kentucky, but without the loose canines.  Living in the third richest county was quite a comparison to riding through the third poorest in the nation.  Still discouraged and worried about our plan to finish off Virginia in a week after our recent encounter, we continued on, worried about the bad roads and steep grades of Appalachia.  One of our maps warned of coal trucks, with coal flying off and hitting you on the head, or at best, causing you to fly over your handlebars as you ran into it.  It was plentiful on the roads, but we did manage to avoid any of those encounters as well. 

Moving through Virginia awakened us to finishing soon.  We were able to stay on pace, and some days, managed to cut off 15-20 miles with shortcuts from the mapped course.  Starting out in the west, on the only roads through the mountains, with all other types of vehicles, forced us to get used to riding with the traffic.  So, extra mileage in the east did not seem necessary since the roads were not even as busy as out west.  Plus, thoughts of home tainted our vision of seeing all the backcountry roads, some of which turned out to be in poor shape, with cracked pavement everywhere.  Virginia towns became rich with history and plentiful with good restaurants and hotels.  After 6 weeks of drought, we got 4 days of rain as we completed our journey.  Riding through the rain was difficult, as vision was impaired.  However, what we did see of Virginia was also some of the most beautiful along the trail, with lush vegetation and beautiful mountains.  On our last day crossing the mountains, we were forced to walk 3 miles up a 3000 foot climb on to the Blue Ridge Parkway, again one of the best sights of the trip.  The tough “no-walking” philosophy of the Rockies was sometimes not possible in the Appalachians.  As we exited the mountains, we spent our last day pedaling through Richmond, led by a fellow biker on a 135 mile trek to Williamsburg through pouring rain and eastern plantations.  The next day, we pedaled an additional 15 miles to pick up our car in Newport News on the Atlantic, totaling 4003 miles for our coast-to-coast bike trip.

As we drove home, we felt some joy and sadness at the completion of our trip.  Life was to change drastically from what it entailed over the last 7 weeks.  No more daily-rinsed wet clothes to put on every day, as we own a washer and dryer, and actually full wardrobes to be worn at home.  No more daily 5am wake-up calls to get on the road before the sun came up, with no “weekend breaks.”  No more worry about what Mother Nature would bring us each day, as we would now have cover from whatever that may be.  However, there would be no more peak shape, as we were absolutely certain we would not be riding 80-something miles a day for 7 weeks at any other point in our lives, and probably not even for 1 day (well, at least for a while). On the flip side, we would be allowed to take a day off whenever we pleased.

As we have been back over a week now, we have enjoyed the shelter of our home.  We have spent a lot of time outside still, working on landscape, and inside, watching movies.  Surprisingly, even to ourselves, we jumped back on the bikes the next day, although my arm hurts more now than during the endorphin-filled trip.  I have been forced into healing mode, especially with doctor’s orders to do hourly exercises to alleviate the 30 degree range of motion in that elbow.  Exercise is still a high priority however, and hopefully, running will do the trick until the arm is better.  This trip has shown us how lucky we are, and the little things are always so much better upon our return.  We always remember that when going through all the challenges life has to offer.

We were fortunate enough to repeat parts of this trip 12 years later in 2015, with our 5 additions.  Ironically, had we been self-sufficient on bikes like we were in 2003, we wouldn’t have been stuck waiting for our wheels for 18 days in California.  Someday, we will revisit the biking scene, but until then…

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