Cycling Across the Country Will Change Your Life

It's a rite of passage that not many experience, but it gives you a whole new perspective.

The open road
the open road.

 Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a young architect with a blog that I follow, appropriately called Young Architect. I noticed the photo above on a post of his, where he describes how in 2005, midway through architecture school, he rode coast-to-coast, 4,547 miles over 77 days. Then, after graduation, he did it again, to Portland, Oregon, and he ended up staying there. “After arriving in town on a bike, I eventually found a job, a place to live, an amazing dog.”

He goes on about the wonders of the experience, and how it changed his life:

At 25 years old, I needed to get away from the New York City lifestyle and explore, much more then I needed another summer spent working in an architecture office. I spent a lot of time with people who had very different lives than I did. I needed to see how the rest of the country lived. I never traveled west and had never seen big mountains before, let alone rode my bike across them. America is not the microcosm of New York, LA, Boston or even Portland, Oregon. I needed to experience this first hand.

The story resonated with me, because when I was 17, the summer before I went into architecture school, I did much the same thing, and it changed my life too. I did not go quite as far, traveling 2,700 miles to Vancouver. I didn’t quite make it, either; cycling with my cousin, we both got blown off the road by a transport truck outside of Salmon Arm, British Columbia, and his bike was seriously bent, so we took the train for the last 300 miles.

But it was still a very long way and in 1970, nobody was riding bikes. Our diet consisted of a loaf of white bread and a jar of peanut butter each meal, or dinner with other people in the campgrounds — who were just amazed that we were doing this. We would ride 50 or 60 miles each day, and on the Prairies, you can go that far without seeing a gas station or source of fresh water. Equipment was primitive; I was on a 10-speed CCM bike with a tiny tent tied to my handlebars and my old Boy Scout metal canteen for water; I can still taste the metallic tinge it had. I hit a giant pothole in Headingly, Manitoba, that bent the front forks of my bike; I had to fight with its tendency to steer to the left the rest of the way. High in the mountains we jumped in a stream to cool off; my wet shorts rode down a bit, leaving a two-inch gap between it and my shirt, and in the high altitudes the sun is strong, and sunscreen wasn't widely available. I got a burn so severe that I had to go to the hospital. (I still have a scar from it.)

But, as it was for Michael, it was a life-changing experience. I have never forgotten that everything weighs something and every ounce matters; in architecture I always tended toward light and portable and minimal. I learned that people of all ages and origins are generally really, really nice and helpful and friendly. By the time I got back to architecture school, I had to buy a whole new wardrobe (I weighed 115 pounds on my return) but I was so fit that I could pull all-nighters without thinking. I also saw the world differently, understood space and time differently, and I don't think that ever left me.

Michael at the Hoosier Pass
Michael at the Hoosier Pass.

Thirty-five years later when Michael did it, it appears that not much has changed. He writes:

When bicycling across the country, you are greeted with open arms everywhere you go. All the amazing people I met, other cyclists, animals, sunrises, sunsets, the weather, the mountains and thousands of miles of farmland welcomed and greeted me every single day. Sometimes arriving in these small towns was the most exciting thing that had happened in weeks.

Planning ruins it.

Going with the flow, having a good attitude and just being open to accept whatever happens, is the formula to having an amazing experience. Worrying and planning too much immediately negates any synchronistic experience from ever taking place. This is a hard lesson to learn.

We were stuck three days in Moosomin, Saskatchewan, because the winds from the west were too strong to even try to ride into; we actually cheated and hitched a ride in the back of a pickup truck to Regina. I spent two days lying on my stomach until my sunburn would heal enough to let me ride again. You definitely have to go with the flow and be flexible.

Other things have changed significantly over the years. Lots of people of all ages have done this and there are maps, guides, and smartphones with Google maps. Equipment is much better. Sunscreen is widely available. The infrastructure is slightly improved, although the Canadian prairies are still deadly. There are organized tours that carry your equipment, lunches, and tools. People no longer look at you like you're nuts. 

And, a lot of baby boomers are doing it, in America and Europe. Bicycle tourism has become a big deal, with one website noting that bicycle vacations are the new golf. Perhaps crossing the entire country is a bit much, but reading Michael’s post makes me want to get back on my bike and take a good long ride.