Mark D. Gardner 1999

On The Ground

Crossing America by Bicycle, 1998

by Mark Gardner

letter E-mail is welcome


"We said there warn't no place like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy on a raft."

- Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Links

Printer-friendly version (text only)

Summary chart of each day's start and end points, location and mileage.

Pictures. Each links to the next. They are good!

Newspaper article about me in the Hazard (KY) Herald. Ingenuous small-town journalism.

Annotated packing list

Adventure Cycling Organization Route maps and untold other bike touring resources.

Directory Statistics for Windows Disk space usage in tree format. Free from me.

Bicycling's 101 Maintenance Tips: 70% accurate Bicycling Magazine published 101 Maintenance Tips in their May 2013 issue. The article contains more than a little misinformation.

Introduction

In 1998, I finally did what I'd been wanting to do for twenty years. I quit my job in Atlanta, GA, put all my stuff into storage, got rid of my apartment, and rode across the continent. Mostly, this is the journal that I wrote on the road. It is a long story, but it was a long trip. I've edited it some, but a lot of it remains as I wrote it on the road, sitting in cafes, at picnic tables, or in my tent at night.

I followed the Trans-America Trail, mapped out in 1976 by an organization called BikeCentennial, now called Adventure Cycling Association. The route is little changed in twenty-two years. It takes secondary roads whenever possible, passing through small towns, avoiding cities; and it veers all over the country, adding a thousand miles to the passage. The scenery and the cycling are usually good, often great. People who live along the route are accustomed and accommodating to the cyclists who pass through their towns every summer. (I'd love to live along the route someday.) Adventure Cycling's maps show you every restaurant, campground, gas station, creek, and moutain pass along the way. They tell you which towns let cyclists stay in the city park. They take you from Yorktown, Virginia to Astoria, Oregon, by way of Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

The prevailing winds in America are westerlies; the biggest mountains are in the west. It would seem to be smarter to ride from west to east, but it's the other way around. There are several reasons. First, you can start in May, and ride the east when it's cooler (at least it should work this way, but I had hot weather in May). Second, the wind is inconsistent; other factors are more important. Third, the Appalachians are harder than the Rockies, so it's better to get them out of the way at the beginning. No one believes this who hasn't done it, but it's true, and anyone who has done it will tell you. Finally, I like heading west, like the pioneers. It's less smothery out there.

Story of the Tour

This web site is divided into four parts. The division is arbitrary - it's just to make it load faster into your browser.

Tuesday May 19 1998, Lexington, VA

Nearly 190 miles into the Tour and at last, thanks to this laundromat, I find time to write. Out in the big world, Frank Sinatra has died, and India and Pakistan are heating up their cold war. Here in the real world, Park Kitchings and I are starting our fourth day of this long tour.

Four days ago, according to plan, Park and I had met for the first time, at Bull Run Area Regional Park near Centreville, Virginia. For me it had been a couple hours' easy ride from Dulles Airport, but he had ridden all the way from the airport in Baltimore, with no sleep the night before. Back at home in Bend, Oregon it was still snowing, so he had been able to train all of 55 miles for a four thousand mile tour. Nonetheless he felt fine. I called this day zero.

Days 1 to 3 (May 16-19)

Sperryville VFD (105 kb)

We set out across the continent the next morning, riding a hilly day to Sperryville, at the foot of Skyline Drive. We camped in back of the Volunteer Fire Department and took a dip in the chilly creek.

The next day began like a summer morning in Atlanta, 70 degrees and 90% humidity. Three thousand feet higher, on Skyline Drive it was lovely, temperate and dry. We rode to Big Meadow center, at 3680 feet the highest point on Skyline Drive. The total climb - I had an altimeter which accumulates altitude gain - was 4500 feet. In fact this will prove to be most climbing of any day on the entire trip, in only 30 miles.

Skyline Drive (142 kb) We decided to leave Skyline Drive and ride in the valley. We rode 95 miles and stayed in the saddle till nearly dark looking for a campsite. We stopped at a pickup truck beside the road. Three local boys were fishing and urinating, drunk on Busch beer. They had accents such as I’ve never heard before, running words together into an unintelligible blur about two-thirds of the way through a sentence, about one-third of the time. One of them, with a red beard and bare shoulders even redder, pronounced something - I don’t remember the word - like an Irishman or a highland Scot. It came and went so fast I couldn’t place it. Park asked them if there was any place we could pitch a couple of tents for the night.

"Wait a minute! Let me think. I got it!" said red-beard. Up to the corner, turn right, down a hill, up another one, and camp by a little stream at the bridge. "It's our fishin' spot," he said. As soon as we got a hundred yards from them, we agreed we're not riding into the plot of Deliverance. We turned left and found a spot behind an elementary school, out of view of local rednecks. We slept under the stars and mercury vapor lamps.

Day 4 (May 19)

We rode six arduous miles into the charming town of Lexington, where I bought a new stove, then to Camp Bethel, a seemingly abandoned retreat. Camping was good by a stream. The trash bag I put out on the lawn disappeared by morning.

Day 5 (May 20)

One of the benefits of riding in the South is a vegetable plate for lunch. For about four dollars you can get a plate of, say, mashed potatoes, green beans, coleslaw, and black-eyed peas. Then, you go back out into the heat and ride. We took US-11 but should have stayed on the Adventure Cycling route. It ended with a leg-breaking climb up to the interstate near Christianburg, a mile or more of perhaps 14% grade. A construction worker estimated that figure. "I only know because I’ve been doing this work for 15 years," he told us at the bar that night.

Day 6 (May 21)

On US-11 again, we trudged into Wytheville and a nice municipal park with free showers and a personal escort. For the first time, we met other touring cyclists - two girls that I had thought were teenage boys. They had buzz cuts and wore baggy clothes. Counterculture wholesome, they had never done anything remotely like this, so they’re making about 25 miles a day with their huge, but shrinking, payloads. They had stayed at Camp Bethel three nights before where we had ridden from there in two. They had a wood-burning camp stove; a plastic milk crate in which they carried eggs and other groceries; a homemade Rubbermaid pannier; pounds of powdered drink mix and instant soup from a health food store, past the expiration dates. They did, at least, have a nice tent, good racks, and real front panniers.

It had not been a great riding day. I didn't feel strong. We rode the I-81 frontage road, on the advice of Lanny Sparks, to save a few miles. Lanny runs New River Bicycles, Ltd., a little place in what he called "downtown Draper." He liked to talk. We were shown a scrapbook of photos of the cyclists who had been through over the years. "Look at the places this fella has been," a list of all southeast Asia. In one, a few guys were buying bait; one was Greg Lemond. We must have stayed two hours in that little town.

Virginia Creeper Trail (83 kb) Virginia Creeper Trail (73 kb)

Day 7 (May 22)

Even with over 3000 feet of climbing, today wasn’t bad. Covered 60 miles and crossed a 3600-foot divide. The last ten miles, we rode an abandoned railroad bed, the Virginia Creeper, over thirty trestles. My extra shoes bounced off my rack; I'm lucky I didn't lose my sleeping bag.

In Damascus, VA, we stayed at The Place. The Place is a house available to AT hikers and Trans-Am cyclists, suggested donation two dollars. Perhaps fifteen hikers were here, and two cyclists other than ourselves. I explained cycle touring to a hiker with every imaginable body piercing, even compared to a Tower Records employee. Those guys always look so forbidding, but they’re mild-mannered and unfailingly polite.

Day 8 (May 23)

Virginia valley (102 kb) It poured rain as Park and I breakfasted at Dot’s Inn. But as the day developed we rode 53 miles over two major climbs, nearly 4000 feet in all, in a minimum of precipitation. Hayter’s Gap was a steady 3-mile grind in low gear; the long-dreaded Big A Mountain, mentioned by Lanny Sparks back in Draper, was a series of shorter, steeper ones. We rode most of the day with Andrew and Jim, the other two cyclists at The Place. Near the top of Big A, Park and I rested in someone’s yard. A man sat in a lawn chair near the road chewing tobacco, more tobacco than I would have thought possible. We asked him how many more hills there were to get up Big A Mountain. "This one, then another one, then another one," he said. "Then it’s like a racetrack." The road was newly paved ahead. "This one, then another one, then another one. Then it’s a racetrack." Since he never said the word "three," we're not sure he could actually count.

This is worth clicking on.

Virginia creek (381 kb, but the prettiest picture of the summer)

The four of us camped in a well-maintained municipal park in Coucil. Jim chatted with some folks at a family reunion. They unpacked all their leftover food for us, good Southern home cooking. We slept under the shelter on picnic tables, just like the homeless guy who spends the night at Aurora coffee house, Piedmont and Monroe. Just like? He’s not full of home-cooked food most nights.

Day 9 (May 24)

Downhill from Council, we had but a few steep climbs to The Breaks Interstate Park, on the Virginia-Kentucky border. It was only 31 miles so we were there in early afternoon. Park and I did laundry in the scuzziest laundromat I have ever seen.

Breaks was a beautiful park, but on Memorial Day weekend, it was "redneck central, the worst camping we’ve had," said Park. The stock car race blared from two radios until well after dark. Earlier in the afternoon, a couple guys, drunk to a stupor, had theirs playing even louder, a 96-Rock type of station. A hundred feet away, it was too loud. Commercials boomed through the park. Later than night we could see the same people dumping Coleman fuel onto a live campfire, to see the flare-ups I guess, time after time. Another site was doing this as well. It was perhaps the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen people do.

Incredibly, I slept well. The place was quiet during the night except for Mr. Stupor’s five-minute coughing fit.

Day 10 (May 25)

Second Monday of the tour, and the best coffee so far. The others wanted to go off-route to Hazard, Kentucky today. Jim and Andrew are not experienced cyclists, but they're strong. Park also hit his stride today - you can no longer tell he didn't train enough. I generally brought up the rear and wanted to stop more at that. I may split off from them. They are all intent on getting out west; I’m here now. I don’t want to ride that kind of trip.

At least we stopped in Jenkins, I think it was, for lunch with peanut butter cake and a ceaseless torrent of stories from the 79-year old ex-trucker Victor. How he lost his family and remarried; found his daughter by accident; built the interior of the restaurant; crashed his F-250 pickup. "Man can see a lot of country from behind a steering wheel. It’s good work for a single man, but not a married man. I come home from a job out west once, and I saw the grass around the house was long. Looked like nobody’d mowed it. I went inside, wasn’t no one there. Wife and all my daughters gone. Two years later I was driving up around Indianapolis, saw my daughter in a yard by the road. She was as pretty as ever. She said, ‘Momma told us you was dead. Said you’d died.’ Next time I saw her was 30 years later, down here, in a casket."

He remarried three years after losing his family. His second wife went out on the road with him on his first trip. She wanted to. After that she told him, "You lost one family from this job. Get another job or you’re gonna lose another one." So Victor got a job driving for Ford - had to sell a truck in the process, I think, but he talked really fast - where he was able to come home every night. He put five daughters through school driving trucks. Sometimes he’d drive 48, 72 hours at a stretch. "How’d you stay awake. Did you have to take something?" I asked. "Took them Bennie pills," he said. "You just stare ahead like you’re numb. You don’t even want to go to sleep. Tell you what, though, you step out and you feel like you could step over it." The truck, I guess.

Andrew had been through Hazard a couple weeks back. He had wrecked a tire and couldn't ride, so he’d walked to Hazard. How far did you have to walk? I asked him. He thought it over. "Fifteen miles," he'd said, as if it were half a mile. We found the bike shop, 12th Gear, with the owner’s phone number on the window, with a note reading, "Cross-country tourers call me at home if you need anything." He came to the shop to sell me a chainring bolt, tire levers, and a seat post binder bolt. They put the four of us in a furnished apartment for eight dollars each.

Day 11 (May 26)

I broke off from the group this morning. "I’ll see you tonight in Booneville," I told Andrew. Park was already off. I meant it at the time, but it was the last I was to see of them.

I spent half the day in the bike shop, chatting with Rhnea, the owner, and a local boy named Jim. Jim used to build race cars, and he built his own recumbent bike. He welded two BMX frames together and made sort of a Tour Easy replica with dual 20-inch wheels. He even made the seat. We talked recumbents and Kentucky history for an hour.

Rhnea got a call from the local newspaper editor. We have a cross-country bicyclist here, she told him, hoping for a little publicity for the shop. Retired history teacher Paul Taulbee, now managing editor of the Hazard Herald, came and drove me around to see the sights: a building built like a goose; a two-story McDonalds; the new hospital, psych hospital, and veterinary hospital. He took me to lunch at France's Diner, my suggestion. Taking notes with a fountain pen, he interviewed me for maybe five minutes, and took my picture in front of the shop. "Send me a card from the next state. Send me one every couple weeks and I'll run updates as letters to the editor." All the way across the country, I did. I know the article ran because Rhnea sent me a copy, but I never knew about my updates. Click here to read the article.

Camping in Buckhorn, KY (75 kb)

I left the shop at last at two in the afternoon, after test-riding Jim's recumbent. Three steep hills led out of Hazard on the hellish high-speed Kentucky route 15. But in ten miles I was back on the Trans-Am trail, a bucolic two-lane route 28. What a relief! It became obvious, what I hadn't realized - yesterday was terrible. A couple more hard, steep climbs in light drizzle, then a dramatic plunge up to 39 mph - without trying - to Buckhorn. On an afternoon's ride that I thought would be easy, 2170 feet of climbing in 30 miles.

In my first night on my own, campground host Ray brought me some of his wife's homemade chili for dinner.

Day 12 (May 27)

I had bought a little Walkman radio in Hazard. Last night I listened to Beethoven before bed and this morning, NPR at breakfast. Just like home.

Hills continued, one or two of them extremely steep. I was standing in my 22/26 gear, jamming as hard as I could, and cutting switchbacks in the road. Mercifully it was only 100 feet long. But it amounted to another 3000-foot day. For the first time, I got a motel, as there was no place to camp in Irvine.

Day 13 (May 28)

This morning I met a couple from Dearborn, Michigan, Ralph and Janet, In their 50's, they were also riding the Trans-Am route. Ralph said I'm "hauling ass" at 55 miles a day. He saw Park and the 82nd Airborne (as he called them - accurately, I gathered) loading their bikes into a pickup yesterday morning in Booneville, saying, "We're going to get out of this rain one way or another." If they got a ride to Berea, they could be two days ahead of me.

At last, an easy ride: just a few hills in the whole thirty miles to Berea. Fog lifted, sun came out, and it was BRAG weather again. In Berea, bikes were $3.50 at the Oh, KY Campground out by I-75. I almost tried to bargain her up. There is no logic to campground prices. The bathroom, tastefully tiled, looked newly remodeled. Sleep was alright but I had to admit, I slept like a rock in that motel bed.

Kentucky country road (86 kb)

Day 14 (May 29)

West out of Berea, route 545 got my 4-star rating for scenery, undulating roller hills, goldfinches, and nonexistent traffic. I chatted with a tobacco farmer for half an hour. A big sheaf of tobacco is worth about two dollars. I told him, "You guys work hard for your money." He had seen Park and the guys two days ago, and had given them some frog legs and turtle meat.

One of the tricks of camping in a city park is trying to find a spot that won't be overwhelmed by sodium vapor lamps after the sun goes down. I waited till dark to set up tonight. It was high school graduation night, and I really didn't want anyone to see me,

Day 15 (May 30)

It was even muggier than Friday, but I rode the seventy miles I had planned. The route was typically complicated today, involving routes 528, 438, 55, 1858 (Stringtown Rd.), US-62, US-150, US-49, Fogle Rd., 457, 52, 247, 84, 470, then 61. More than a front bag, I needed a map holder. Hills seemed to be getting a little more scarce until a 350-foot climb out of the Rolling Fork River valley nearly did me in.

Day 16 (May 31)

Rural Kentucky rest stop (57 kb) Slept in till after seven. As humid as yesterday but not as hot, I rode in a stiff crosswind most of the day, but at a low stress level. Still managed 11.9 mph. The hills really were letting up - lots of flat terrain today. There were tornado warnings, heavy thunderstorms and big hailstones all over Kentucky this afternoon, but not a drop fell on me.

Day 17 (June 1)

Cow Creek Regular Baptist, KY (99 kb)

Dry as predicted! I rode to Utica, little more than a crossroads, and camped in a well-kept municipal park near the local school. The retired guy who lived next to it kept it up. Nearby, they were playing softball under the lights. Three little girls came and visited me after the game, two sisters and a friend, Madeline, Emma, and Taylor. They gave their ages as eight to ten years. They spent a good hour with me, telling me things they’d done, things their parents said, asking questions. We got onto the subject of Leonardo di Caprio. Taylor said, "I’ll probably never meet him, but if I did..." I can’t remember what she’d do. They all got in the little Eureka Zephyr at once - I made them take their shoes off first, since the sleeping bag was unrolled. I wish I had taken a picture of their three faces looking out the door. It was so cute.

"Are you a virgin?" one asked me, out of the blue. I declined to answer. "I’m a virgin," she said. "I’m a virgin," her friend said. "I’m a virgin," said her sister. They knew a girl at school who wasn’t a virgin. They described for me some off-color visual jokes from the Austin Powers; movie, like Mike Myers holding a sausage up. Their parents called them to go home, but didn’t seem to mind their daughters hanging around with a vagabond stranger. The girls were charming, and turned a lonely evening into a fun one.

Day 18 (June 2)

At lunch in Beech Grove, I met a Mrs. Bernice Aaron, who rode two thousand miles on her exercise bike last year. Her husband Joe was a columnist for the Evansville (IN) Courier. Ten years ago he died at his desk, 56 years old. Bernice was about 75 now, making her an older woman to Joe. Joe would have written about me, she said. They spent three months a year travelling, writing about the "local character" or whatever came up.

She bought my lunch. She walked home and got one of Joe's books, signed by him, with her own best wishes written in. She would not take any money for it. I was to send her several cards over the next ten weeks.

Truly dangerous coal trucks hurtled down route 132 east of Dixon. One laid on the horn behind me - I got the hell out of the way. Empty, you can hear them rattling and thundering from a quarter mile away. I turned over 1000 miles just before the Marion city limits. At the city park, I found another rider. Mickey Roy, from California, had started with an Adventure Cycling group but left them, then ridden with a couple other people a while and left them as well, at Rough River. I'd been on my own about a week and mostly enjoyed it, but we decided to ride together for a couple days.

Mickey had just taken the day off, reading and relaxing. Suddenly I realized I needed one. I had ridden eighteen days without a day off and I was tired.

Day 19 (June 3)

Business District, southern Illinois (109 kb)

Mickey and I caught a ferry across the Ohio River into the state of Illinois, or "Illinoise" as he calls it. We expected few hills but found many. Along the Ohio, they were as steep as any on the route so far; I walked one, my first one. Another three-thousand-plus foot day, in only 51 miles. Weather hot and humid again.

Day 20 (June 4)

Three and a quarter inches of rain fell in western Tennessee this morning. Riding to the college town of Carbondale, we got wet today, but nothing like that.



Rachel and Mark, Carbondale, Illinois

Days 21-22 (June 5 and 6)

I took my first day off in Carbondale, then followed it immediately with my second. We were guests of the inimitable Bike Surgeon, former mayoral candidate, Kiwanis president, and liquor advisory board member Mark Robinson, and his girlfriend Rachel. We pretty much moved into their living room, itself barely discernable from his workshop. Well, there were more rims, old Schwinns, and rusted heaps away from his living area. Mark also ran a limo service; it is his main source of income, evidently. Rachel and Mark open their home to all Trans-Am riders, and many take advantage of it. Once a guy stayed eleven weeks. Park and the boys had been there a few days before. I cleaned the bathtub to earn my keep.

Rachel liked the way I dress, about the oddest compliment a bike tourist could ever get. She wished I could meet a friend of hers; we even have similar coloring. "I think she's attractive," says Rachel, so she may not be very attractive. She's never known her friend to date a man.

Rachel and Mark are like lots of couples I know: the women are more interested in your personal life, the men more reserved. Mark and I did not discuss our personal lives. We talked bikes, though - 32 vs. 36-spoke wheels; lacing patterns; lubricants. Mark had an OG clock almost like mine, and a huge, ornate reproduction wall clock, onto the pendulum of which he had fastened a freewheel cog. I said, "Looks like an old SunTour. Maybe a 28." I was right. An expert wheelbuilder, he built Mickey a new wheel just to get a lower gear.

Two eastbound cyclists rolled in from Colorado. One of them, Tom Mayer, worked at NCAR in Boulder (where I used to live), and knew some people I used to know. In addition he’s on the Louisville City Council. (A week later, Tom would stop at the 12th Gear Bike Shop in Hazard, Kentucky, and see the newspaper article about me on the wall, with my picture.)


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