Any Road Tour: The Worst

Every bike tour has bad aspects to it. I was on the road for two months. And I am surprised how little went wrong.

    • Soul sucking headwinds. I had a couple of tough days in Illinois when I was surprised by strong headwinds (and hills). My ride from Circle to Jordan MT must have been a drag because I don’t remember much about it. I also had a tough day riding the last day into Astoria, but I didn’t realize it because adrenaline kicked in as I approached the coast. The baddest day was the 88 mile ride to Missoula. The scenery was gorgeous. The entire ride was downhill. The headwinds were punishing. Five days out of 60 is not that bad.
    • Defying death in Iowa. I got caught in a nasty storm in a hilly part of Iowa. My brakes were totally inadequate to the task. It was scary. I made a bee line for the flat Great River Road in Wisconsin.
    • Too many motels. Time and again, my camping plans were washed out by storms at night. My plans to camp out on the first three nights on the C&O canal were washed away. What the heck am I carrying all this camping gear for? I used my tent for the first time in Indiana.
    • Killer hills on day two. The washout on the canal meant that I had to ride over Catoctin and South Mountains in Maryland. I was not physically or mentally up to the climbs.
    • Days six and seven. Three steep climbs in a row. The second taking me from Pennsylvania into West Virginia and the Ohio River valley was truly the hardest climb I’ve ever done. I was weaving all over the road just trying to move forward. There was nothing meditative about the climb, it was just damned hard. Then I decided to skip a scuzzy hotel in Wheeling and climb back out of the Ohio River valley. Dang. The next day’s steep rollers made me feel utterly incapable. I made a wrong turn and traded scenery for flatter ground.
    • Hapless apps. Both weather.com and google maps were sources of frustration. Weather.com consistently got the timing or even the occurrence of nasty storms wrong. I was better relying on my eyes and ears. Google maps tried to get me to ride down a steep decline on a wooded single track trail in Shelton WA. Near Camano Island WA it told me to turn around and go down a nonexistent street. It was useless when I tried to cross the St. Croix River from Minnesota to Wisconsin.
    • Unreal food. Lord help you if you are a vegan or even a vegetarian and you try to ride your bike in rural America. Time and again, the stores had no fruit or other healthy food. I bought a sandwich in Sandpoint ID that was a soggy mess when I opened the wrapper a few hours later. I ate it but I wasn’t happy. And in Newhalem WA the only store for over 60 miles was closed because of a computer problem. Good thing I had a ripe peach and some downhill riding to get me to the next town.
    • Close passes and f-bombs.
      • I expected far more closed encounters with big metal things. The worst one was on my ride from Fort Stevens into Astoria. The bridge had only about a two-foot shoulder and the cross winds were strong and erratic. A tractor trailer passed about a foot from my left shoulder. There were plenty of other close passes but I had room to bail out if necessary.
      • I never really got used to the two-lane roads with a 70 mph speed limit in Montana. Objects in your mirror are closer than they appear indeed.
      • I think I had only one unpleasant encounter with a driver. He was annoyed that I delayed his access to the only road across Shelton WA. He dropped numerous f-bombs as I rolled past in traffic on a road torn up by construction. A mile later her caught up to me and started in with the f-bombs again.
    • Inhospitality

Many towns out west offer free or low cost camping to bike tourists. Iroquois IL and St Helens OR were two towns that didn’t offer this anymore. (I could have caught the latter if I had read the addendum sheet from Adventure Cycling.) Winnett MT had camp grounds but they all seemed to be closed. (I camped illegally next to an RV.) And the Warmshowers place in the town of Lewistown MT looked like a dump. The volunteer at the town greeting center told me that I couldn’t camp in the park with in Kettle Falls WA. I called the police and they gave me permission.

  • Medical woes. I pushed my body hard and it gave me plenty of feedback.
    • In Minnesota, my left calf started swelling up. Then I rode 136 miles in a day. I’m an eejit. Because of my recent deep vein thrombosis in that area, I had to visit an ER in Bismarck. Thankfully, it was a false alarm.
    • In the town of Square Butte MT, I ate a late lunch. I ordered a chicken Caesar salad. What I served was an elaborate dish, the biggest and best salad I’ve ever eaten. Unfortunately my tummy was not up to the task. When I dismounted in Geraldine, my head was swimming. Any thoughts of riding on to a Fort Benton with a tailwind were scotched.
    • When I dismounted in Missoula after 88 miles into a headwind, I had a similar experience with light headedness. I skipped the Warmshowers house and checked into a hotel.
    • Before the tour, I did two months of physical therapy for my left shoulder and arm which ached in random ways at random times. Winds pushed on my panniers causing me to use my arms and shoulders far more than on a regular bike ride. My arms and shoulders were quite sore from simply controlling the front end of the bike. After a few weeks the pain in my arm and shoulder went away.
    • The middle finger on my right hand has been numb for over a month. My handlebar tape was so compressed it offered no cushioning. Both hands feel stressed from holding on to the bars for so many hours. In Washington state, I noticed that my wedding band felt tight. My fingers were so swollen that I couldn’t budge the ring. (It comes off now with some persuasion so I think my hands will be fine with time.)
    • I have a history of lower back problems including back surgery. I’ve been doing physical therapy exercises every day for over 20 years. And my pulmonary embolisms presented as back pain last December. So I was a bit worried that all the riding, especially the climbing and riding into strong winds, would cause big back problems. My lower right back sometimes felt like it was being stung by bees. It may have been old scar tissue stretching under the strain. Regardless, my back held up fine.
    • The expansion joints in the highways of North Dakota beat my back and bottom up for several days.
    • Speaking of back problems, I stopped doing my back exercises for the entire tour. Not only didn’t I miss them, but I was much more comfortable in my tent. I could change clothes and move about without difficulty.
    • I had some perineum soreness. This came on especially when I was making a big effort. I noticed that I’d push down on the handlebars and saddle, digging in, when mashing the pedals. When I became aware of this, I’d focus on loosening my upper body and unweight my behind, often by standing in the pedals or stopping. Also, I had no saddle sores, despite discontinuing chamois cream somewhere in Minnesota.
    • A recurring problem was muscle cramping. Sometimes I’d get cramps in my feet or lower legs when changing shoes. Sometimes my calves would go haywire. The worst calf cramp happened the night before going to the ER. Then there was the massive hamstring cramp in Astoria. My advice is that if you’re going to fall off a barstool, get piss drunk first. You won’t notice how hard your right sit bone hits the floor. (Mine hurt for four or five days.)
    • With the understandable exception of the mother of all climbs in Pennsylvania, I did not feel any maxing out of my lungs. I breathed hard for long periods of time but I always felt like I had extra lung capacity. This is strange given that I have asthma. I didn’t use my rescue inhaler once.
    • My knees normally are all messed up but they only felt sore a couple of times, after difficult climbs. By the time I made it to the big mountains out west, my leg muscles were cooking with gas.
    • The black wasp sting in Port Townsend WA hurt big time. After an hour the pain went away but my lower lip was a swollen mess. The swelling went away in two days.
  • Mental problems
    • I can’t think of a single day when I was depressed. Tired? Yes. Anxious? Yes. Depressed? Nope. After the first days, I discontinued my daily meditation practice. Never missed it. After all, I was on a rolling meditation retreat.
    • As I explained before, I made it a point to focus on the short term. When I was under extreme stress, I’d concentrate on NOW. If I looked too far ahead, especially early in the tour, I ran the risk of being overwhelmed. Ironically, once I reached Astoria, I found it strangely discomfiting. I needed mental rest as much as I needed physical rest. Talking to Julie, Shannon, and Eric, mostly about their lives, helped a lot.

6 thoughts on “Any Road Tour: The Worst

  1. I’ve enjoyed following your adventure and think about doing it myself sometime. I have two questions maybe you could write about in a blog post. 1. What did the whole thing cost you? Seems like food and lodging were the two big expenses. 2. How did you do laundry? At the hotel? Two hours at a laundromat?

    Thanks for the fun summer read.
    Bob

    1. Thanks. I’ll research the cost. I did laundry at motels, friends’ houses, and one Warmshowers home. It was a bit of an annoyance but I always had something else to do: eating, reading, blogging, etc

  2. Although we never camped, we noticed how many towns in the middle of the country let cyclists camp in the parks. I notice that around here, except along the C&O, overnight camping is prohibited in local parks.
    We had a joke about the fine line between cycle tourists and homeless cyclists (between jobs) and maybe that explains the increasing reluctance to allow cyclists to camp.

    We are going to miss vicariously participating in your adventures. Thanks for sharing them with us.

    1. In Omak WA the town park seemed to be an outdoor homeless shelter. I took a pass on it. I am always reluctant to do Warmshowers but I have to admit that I have 6 out of 7 good experiences with it.

      1. I was reluctant to try Warmshowers because I didn’t want to carry any sleeping gear, and I was under the impression you could be camping in someone’s yard. Was I wrong?

      2. Yes. Warmshowers hosts fill out a form that indicates whether they will provide a bed, food, laundry, etc. Only Alice’s Attic and Jim Gregg’s Bike Camp required camping gear. (In Alice’s case you didn’t need a tent.) I had a couple of bad experiences, but I was under no obligation to stay anywhere I didn’t feel comfortable or met my needs. Maybe I should do a blog post about this.

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