Two years ago, my good friend Bill and I set off on our bicycles from Atlantic City, NJ, heading west. The plan was for me to ride across the country with Bill accompanying me for the first week. I got as far as Cadiz, Ohio before discontinuing the trip due to health problems.
We are ready to set out together again — this time, starting from Washington DC on April 20th — my 63rd birthday. We are heading west with the goal of reaching Anacortes, WA sometime in August. We will be self-supported, carrying all we need to camp and live outside for the most part. I will have to get a couple of infusions of Chemotherapy along the way, once in Kansas City and again in Missoula, MT. Otherwise, we have no particular schedule to keep except to return home (by plane) sometime in August.
This trip did not come easily. I developed a metastasis in my left eye in January, which after two weeks of radiation is on the mend, albeit with a detached retina and loss of vision. I fractured my big toe, bruised my ribs and injured my back in late March, which is slowly on the mend. These events significantly hampered my training for this trip. My doctor’s advice is to start nice and easy and “ride how you feel.” Bill was able to get a four-month leave of absence to make this happen. I am very grateful to my wife, Lissa, Bill, his lovely wife, Lynette and his employer for making possible a dream we have both had for years.
We are carrying a Garmin GPS device that will show our position and allow us to communicate using texts when out of Cell phone coverage. As of April 20th, you can track our progress using this link.
We left Mount Laurel on Saturday, April 20th, grateful for the clear weather after a night of heavy thunderstorms. Our good friend, Val, was kind enough to drive us to our starting point in Washington, DC. Right out of the gate. We made a wrong turn and had a front tire blow-out, but eventually found to mile 0, the start of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. We quickly left the crowded streets of Georgetown DC behind as we entered what we affectionately call the “Green Tunnel,” It’s a rough, mostly dirt, tree-lined path that runs the 185 miles from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. It’s also mostly flat, allowing me to ease into riding. Our bikes are heavy, weighing eighty pounds each — and that’s with minimalist packing.
The weather was beautiful for the first 150 miles! We met interesting people both riding the canal and in the small towns along the way. It’s a rural area with few amenities.
On Thursday, 4/25, the rain began in the morning and picked up as we entered Cumberland, MD. It turned into a steady rain as we climbed the 1100 feet to Frostburg, MD, where we wisely made the decision to get a motel room and hit the laundromat across the street. It was still raining the next morning, and cold to boot. We debated whether to continue riding, but ultimately decided we’d rather brave the weather than sit in a tiny motel room all day.
So, we bundled up and began the climb up to the Mason Dixon Line. It was a cold, wet ride … the kind where you start shivering the moment you stop cycling. The following morning was forecast to be in the low 30’s. Fortunately, we were able to rent a small cottage for the night in Rockwood, PA, complete with cable TV and both a pool table and a ping-pong table. After getting dry, warm and cleaned up, we headed out to the local tavern for dinner and a beverage – a real luxury!
We finished the GAP trail and headed onward to the Montour and Panhandle trails, our gateway to West Virginia. Amenities were sparse in the early part of the trail, forcing us to stealth camp our first night in West Virginia. That’s the term for camping without a legitimate campsite. Sometimes there’s just no choice.
We skulked out of camp early the next morning and headed over the two-mile climb down to the Ohio River where we stopped at a cafe for breakfast. To our dismay, we discovered that Cafés in WV are gambling establishments with poker machines and no food. Now we know!
With not much food in our bellies, we continued down the bike path to Wheeling, WV where the absence of people immediately struck us. It felt as though we were in a post-apocalyptic town. Despite that, a rest day was in order, and Wheeling WV was the place. We booked a room in the once grand McClure Hotel where presidents have stayed. The locals told us about the town’s history over a few beers. It turns out that Wheeling was once a vibrant town before its industry fell on hard times — not an uncommon story.
After our much-needed rest day, we left Wheeling and started climbing the tough, steep hills of eastern Ohio. Did I mention more rain? The forecast called for days of rain, yet we managed to dodge most of it. Just as we rolled into our home for the night in Senecaville Lake Marina Campground, the rains moved in. Fortunately, we were nice and dry under a covered restaurant deck, enjoying dinner and beer. When it was time to pay the check, our server told us that our bill was paid! Apparently, a nearby table overheard us talking about our adventure, picked up our tab and left without saying a thing. We couldn’t even thank them.
The steep hills continued – so steep that we had to walk our bikes up the steepest portions of a few climbs. As the hills became less steep, the rain became more steady. There’s always something when you’re bike touring. As we sat in a restaurant, on the verge of hypothermia, contemplating a wet Campground, we decided to rent a small cabin at Buckeye Lake. Good call! We blasted all three heaters until the chill was gone. The weather was good for the next few days, so we put in some long days and took advantage of Ohio’s very nice state parks — Deer Creek, Caesar’s Creek and Hueston Woods. We woke up on Wednesday morning and crossed the state line into Indiana! Goodbye Ohio.
Indiana welcomed us with a gloomy forecast of thunderstorms and high winds, steering us towards a well-deserved rest day. It had been eight days since our last one, and we were ready; it felt great to rest our weary bones.
The next morning was chilly but dry, so we bundled up and continued on our way. At our first rest stop, we were treated to free coffee at a convenience store. We thanked them and continued on to Shelbyville, where we had a hearty pasta lunch at Pasqhetti’s Italian Restaurant and talked with some of the wait staff who were curious about our trip. After a delicious meal, our waitress, Michelle, informed us that it was on the house! The day was shaping up to be a good one. We stopped at the local bike shop and met Tim, the owner. He was friendly and loaned us his pump to top off the air in our tires. We headed on, fueled up and feeling good.
After about six miles, I noticed that Bill was no longer behind me. Just as I pulled over to wait for him, my phone rang. It was Bill; he was having a mechanical problem with his rear wheel. The rear rim was split. It’s an unusual failure, one I’ve never seen before in all my years of cycling. We can only assume it’s a defective rim.
Fortunately, we weren’t far from civilization; the next town was eleven miles down the road. We considered our options — hitchhiking, Uber, walking — and finally decided to ride very slowly to the bike shop in Franklin, IN. Bill’s bike has a Rohloff hub, making it impossible for him to buy a standard pre-made wheel. A new wheel would need to be built around his hub. Long story short, he had to order a new rim and spokes, and they won’t arrive until Tuesday. Then the wheel has to be built. Our best case scenario is getting back on the road on Wednesday. The delay also puts us behind schedule for my May 22nd chemo appointment in Kanas City. No one said this was going to be easy.
The next challenge, what to do in Franklin for four days. We’re aching to be back on our bikes.
On Tuesday morning, after four long days killing time in the Franklin Motel 6, we checked out and raced over to the Gray Goat bike shop to await delivery of Bill’s replacement rim. The rim arrived and Brandon, the mechanic, quickly got to work on it. By 2:30, the deed was done. Thank you, Brandon! We headed out to the Johnson County Fairgrounds Campground for the night, happy to be back on the road. We were reminded of the Willie Nelson song On the Road Again.
“On the road again
Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again
And I can’t wait to get on the road again.”
The weather was good, and we had a couple of nice campsites and cycling days. Near the end of our time in Indiana, we camped at a county park east of Terre Haute. After riding the four miles into town, eating and doing our laundry, we checked the weather and received the tough news. A tornado warning and storms with tennis ball sized hail were forecasted. We quickly rode back to camp just as the rain, thunder, and lightning started. Sirens were blaring, warning of the imminent threat. Having no shelter other than our tents, we decided to wait it out in the campground bathhouse. Interestingly, all the campsites we’ve stayed in recently have a designated storm shelter, often the bathhouse or laundry room. That’s a statement! Fortunately, the storm passed quickly, with no hail or tornados, and we got on with our night. The next morning, we broke camp early and crossed the border into Illinois. We’ve made it to the Central time zone!
Our first night in Illinois was in the town of Casey whose slogan is Small Town Big Things — home to the world’s largest rocking chair, wind chimes, pencil and golf tee, among others. They also had the nosiest Campground of our trip to date; it was a quarter mile from the interstate with incessant truck traffic all night. To add insult to injury, there was a bright streetlight directly over our tents, making it tough to recognize daylight as it arrived.
We couldn’t wait to get out of that campground – until we got on the road and discovered that we were riding into a 20-30 mph headwind! It was exhausting and slow going. Much of the time, we struggled to maintain 6 mph, and that’s with no hills! I was not feeling well, so we decided to get a room in Effingham and have our bikes checked at the local bike shop. Surprisingly, my chain that was new at the start of the trip already needed to be replaced. The strong 30 mph headwinds continued the following day. Some days are easier than others; it’s all part of the package.
The remainder of our time in Illinois was uneventful. We even had a brisk tailwind, which was a welcome change. In Alton, IL, we crossed over the Mississippi into Missouri, where we discovered that much of our route was underwater. Welcome to Missouri!
We rode through one short section, getting our feet wet. As we continued, we were blocked by a quarter of a mile stretch of road covered by who knows how much water. We considered going for it but realized that would have been foolhardy; we didn’t want to become a statistic. At the edge of the water was the West Alton Bar and Grill. There was a pickup truck in the parking lot so we went in to see if we could hitch a ride. The first two women we asked said they didn’t know anyone who would do it. Then Cindy, the mother of one of the women, arrived and offered to take us. Her daughter protested heavily, but Cindy stood her ground, telling her daughter to “Get over it”. We loaded our gear in her truck and headed out. As we made our way through the water, it became obvious that attempting it on a bike would not have been wise. There were more flooded sections, beyond the first – many of them deep enough that the truck had difficulty maintaining traction. Cindy was our angel of the day!
We made it to the Katy Trail, a rail-to-trail path that that runs along the Missouri River. Severe thunderstorms were expected later in the day, but for now, the riding was good. We reserved a cabin in the Klondike County Campground and headed out. As we approached our destination, the sky became dark and ominous, with lightning and thunder the last few miles. We rode as fast as we could, making it to the bath house just as the sky opened. Bill turned on the light, only to have the power go out thirty seconds later. We sat in the dark, as the wind and rain pummeled the building.
After things settled down, we located our cabin and found downed trees and limbs scattered everywhere. A tree had come down in front of our cabin crushing the picnic table. It was only then that we fully appreciated how serious a situation it would have been had we not made it to the campsite in time. A tornado had touched down close to where we had been. Lesson learned!
The next day we got back on the Katy Trail, only to discover that it was impassable due to dozens of downed trees. We retraced our steps and took the road to bypass the blocked trail, stopping for the evening to camp in Marthasville at the baseball fields. We watched a couple of games and turned in for the night under a large pavilion. The forecast called for storms again. We awoke to a moderate storm around midnight that passed quickly. At 2:30 in the morning, all hell broke loose; heavy winds and horizontal rain drove us into the bathroom — a familiar refuge for us.
In the morning we heard that a tornado had caused major damage to the west of us. Of course, severe weather was expected for the next couple of days. Not surprisingly, large sections of the Katy Trail were impassable and closed due to flooding and tornado damage. We spoke with a ranger who strongly discouraged us from attempting the roads that circumvented the Katy Trail. Our only option was to get a ride past the damage. We stopped for lunch and were fortunate to find someone willing to drive us the eighty miles to Boonville and the end of our time on the Katy Trail.
We made our way to Kansas City, arriving a day early for my chemo appointment at the UK Cancer Center — the next adventure.
For those of you who are interested in the statistics of our ride to date, we have traveled 1,381 miles, peddled for 140 hours and 21 minutes and climbed 39,806 feet.
Chemo at the University of Kansas Cancer Center was uneventful. I am grateful to everyone there who helped facilitate my treatment. Thank you.
Bill and I headed out the next morning, encountering yet another flood detour. As might be expected, I was not at my best. The first week or so after chemo is challenging.
Kansas has been welcoming to us. We camp mostly in city parks and meet dozens of people. Our loaded touring bikes are a conversation starter. People want to hear about our journey and often give us much appreciated routing and camping advice. Kansas is a state of vast openness. We cycle through mile upon mile of farmland, as far as the eye can see in every direction … corn, wheat, soybeans.
We’ve been struck by the farmers we’ve met. Despite the weather problems they’ve had to contend with, they remain resolute about what Mother Nature has to offer. Many of them are struggling to get their crops planted, hindered by water-logged fields. Most of the farmers have crop insurance, but it will only pay if the seeds are in the ground by June 15th – which is proving to be a challenge in many locations. Not surprisingly, their rates are increased when they do collect insurance. It’s a tenuous game with the current weather craziness.
Tariffs and low crop prices are taking a toll on their livelihood. One farmer who has been at it for sixty years told the story of going broke twice, but bouncing back both times. There are real-life lessons in making the best of whatever comes your way. I identify with that. Most of the farmers we meet don’t seem to worry about the things they can’t control; they just deal with what is in front of them.
We are ready to head into Nebraska and into the Pawnee Grasslands in the remote northeast corner of Colorado. To be continued…
This post has been a long time coming; there’s been a lot going on.
We left Kansas and entered the high plains of southwest Nebraska with its vast expanses of farmland and cattle grazing. There were long distances between towns, frequently 30 miles with nothing but open farmland. Planning the day’s ride became challenging, often forcing us to choose between a somewhat short day or a prohibitively long one. We generally chose the former.
Then came the Pawnee Grasslands in eastern Colorado — another sparsely populated area. The wind made beautiful waves through the vast sea of grass. Pronghorn Antelope were a common sight and the farmers in overalls morphed into cowboys with boots and hats. As we continued west the signs of civilization increased – more amenities, more traffic. We were happy to get into the cool town of Fort Collins, with its incredible array of restaurants, stores, and activities. We had great food and beer, something that had been missing for quite some time — Kansas City to be precise. We have now reached the halfway mark of our trip! A couple of days off the bikes to rest and recharge our energy was in order. We will then begin the long climb up the Poudre Canyon to Cameron Pass at 10,249 feet and head north from Walden into Wyoming.
Or so we thought. The climb up the Poudre Canyon was beautiful despite
getting caught in a brief hailstorm. We stayed in a nice little cabin in the very
small town of Rustic, Colorado. The next day we continued climbing. As we approached
8,000 feet, it become apparent that the elevation was a problem for me. I had
been having headaches and difficulty breathing the previous week or so; 5,000 feet
seemed to be the threshold. At 8,000 feet, I was lightheaded, had a pounding
headache and was gasping like a fish out of water. There was nothing I could do but ride back
down the hill and rent that nice little cabin in Rustic for another night while
we considered our options.
We thought about hitching a ride over the pass but realized that wouldn’t solve our problem given that much of the remainder of the trip was at high altitude with numerous mountain passes. I was also worried that my headaches and shortness of breath might be caused by cancer progression, rather than altitude. My oncologist concurred that a chest and brain scan were prudent given the circumstances.
As difficult as it was to end the trip here, it was clear that my body was not going to cooperate. As my wife, Lissa, wisely said “Sometimes it takes more courage to call it a day than to try to continue.” While both Bill and I were disappointed, we reminisced about what a special experience the trip has been for us. We rode 2,200 miles and climbed 67,000 feet, much of it through the heartland of America — through floods, tornadoes and everything in between. We have memories and lessons that will live with us forever. I thank Bill for the sacrifices he made to take this time away from his work and family. He is a true friend that I am fortunate to have. I am also grateful for all of you that have followed along on this journey for your support. This trip epitomized the saying “it’s not the destination it’s the journey”.
I am happy to report that the brain MRI was negative. The CT of the chest showed some very slow enlargement of several nodules. This slow growth is not alarming, however, I will be adding Keytruda, an immunotherapy drug, to my regimen. The journey continues.