As I’m getting ready to race the Trans America Trail in 2014, I thought now was an appropriate time to reflect on some of the memories I have from the first time I rode the route in 2010, and give other racers a taste of what they’re in for…
Welcome to Wyoming: coldest I’ve been on a bike
I’d done some research into the best time of year to ride the Trans Am Trail before I booked my tickets to the US — after talking to other riders who’d completed the route, and having spent hours pouring over weather trends online, I decided on an early April departure. This, I reasoned, would ensure that I had nice temperatures throughout the east, but that I missed the worst of the weather in the Rockies.
It was a good plan, but of course it didn’t play out as expected. I did have good weather as I made my way from Virginia to Colorado — the odd storm here or there, but nothing unexpected. That all changed with my ascent into the Rockies. Southern Colorado was cold but bearable, the kind of weather that a warm drink and a good jacket will deal with, but the north of the state was another story all together — snow storms, icy roads, and howling winds all kept my life interesting as I made my way toward Wyoming.
On the 12th May the forecast snow that had been dogging my tire tracks for the last few days finally caught up with me, forcing a day off in Walden — a one-horse town near the Wyoming state line. I remember the frustration of not being able to ride and my determination that the following day I’d make up for it, no matter the weather. In hindsight another day off might have been a good call.
On the 13th I was up early and on the road toward Wyoming; I distinctly remember crossing my fingers as I rode out of Walden, hoping that the snow plows had covered the small roads I was taking and that I wouldn’t be forced to turn back. The plows had been out all right, but it was so cold that my gear and brake cables jammed, my water bottles froze, and when I stopped to take a photo of the ‘Welcome to Wyoming’ sign my overshoes stuck to the tarmac.
It wasn’t all bad though, before long I’d lost altitude and was relaxing in Saratoga Hot Springs — glad to have made it into another state.
The Great Divide Basin: Rawlins to Lander
I might not have been so glad to make it to Wyoming if I’d known what lay ahead. The stretch of road between Rawlins and Lander is infamous among riders on the Trans Am Trail: 125 miles across the Great Divide Basin, with only one ghost town along the way. Jeffrey City was built to house workers at a near by uranium mine and enjoyed an industrial boom at the height of the Cold War when there was massive demand for uranium. However, as soon demand dried up so did the town’s populace — today it’s a ghost town and the businesses still operating do not have a reputation for hospitality.
I was keen to avoid spending the night and resolved to tackle the 125 miles to Lander in one shot — a lengthy bash for a novice going at a touring pace. The Divide Basin is another ‘must see’ along the route; sitting in the middle of the Rockies it is as barren and windswept as the surface of the moon. Crossing it in one shot was the furthest I’d ever ridden in one push and I had to dig deep against a roaring headwind to make it, but I reached the other side having experienced another classic American landscape.
I rewarded myself with a motel when I reached Lander, but was so vacant when I checked in that the motel receptionist commented that I looked like a zombie —exhausted, I fell asleep in my cycling gear, not waking up until nearly midnight. I remember having to work my way through the phone book to find someone who would deliver food at 1am.
Thinking about that ride now, I still remember it as being one of the hardest I’ve ever completed. Since then I’ve ridden much further, in far more hostile conditions, but this ride was a major stepping-stone to longer rides. I pushed myself hard and learned a lot along the way.
Great Parks: Yellowstone and Grand Teton
When most people ask me what my least favorite state along the Trans Am was, I often go for Wyoming (Kentucky being the other contender… just too many dogs), but it’s also the state that I had some of my best and most lasting experiences in.
It may be clichéd to include Yellowstone and Grand Teton in a ‘Trans Am top 10’ list, but they’re so incredible, so different to anywhere else in the world, that I have to touch on them. Heading west on the Trans Am, I approached Grand Teton National Park over Willow Creek Pass — if the climb itself is unremarkable, the view from the top is not: from that perspective the Tetons span the far horizon, rising starkly from the valley floor. Of all the mountain ranges I’ve seen, the Tetons are the most archetypal — so perfectly rugged that they look like something a child might draw. Descending from the pass toward Moran Junction was cold but exhilarating — there is nothing better than flying at 40+mph down a deserted road, surrounded by breathtaking scenery.
Having rounded a frozen Jackson Lake, the Tetons beginning to recede over the southeastern horizon, Yellowstone lay ahead. Many cyclists coming through the park at the height of the summer months report log-jammed traffic and huge crowds. I reached the park on the first day of the year that all the roads were clear from snow, the traffic was light and the Bison had just birthed calves. It was a tough ride through the park, complete with freezing fog as I entered the caldera, but I wouldn’t swap the experience for anything. I’ve never seen so much wildlife in one place — bison, eagles, and elk — not to mention the peerless geothermal features.
Colombia River Gorge: headwinds
When I set out from Yorktown I had intended to ride the entire Trans Am Trail, and until I reached Missoula I had followed the route faithfully. Missoula, MT is the home of the Adventure Cycling Association — the company responsible for myriad long distance bike routes across the US, including the Trans Am — its offices are a ‘must visit’ for cyclists following the route. They offer hospitality, a wealth of advice, and an opportunity for the lone cycle tourist to swap stories. When I reached Missoula, I took the day off and went to check out the ACA headquarters — while I was there I had the opportunity to talk to some of their cartographers and a couple of other cyclists. They collectively convinced me to abandon the Trans Am route to Astoria and take the Lewis and Clark route instead.
The Lewis and Clark route is so named because it traces the passage of the eponymous adventurers that led the Corps of Discovery, becoming the first explorers to cross the American west. I found the notion of following in their footsteps incredibly appealing; it seemed to be a fitting way to finish my journey. What I hadn’t counted on was a unique weather pattern in the Columbia River Gorge that would conspire to create some of the most painful days I’ve ever experienced on the bike.
Up to 4,000ft deep, the Gorge represents the only sea-level passage through the Cascade Mountains; it also acts as a pressure valve between the distinct weather systems that sit either side of the Cascades. In the summer, as the Pacific high pressure becomes settled off the coast and lower pressures prevail east of the mountains, westerly winds rip through the Gorge — creating ideal conditions for windsurfers and a nightmare for cross country cyclists headed for the Pacific.
While the Gorge was beautiful, I could not appreciate it — head bowed into the wind, tucked low on the bars, and wrapped up in my suffering, I was in no mood to look at the view. I met several cyclists coming the other way and was hugely jealous of the massive tailwinds they were enjoying. It was tough going, but it made reaching the coast that much sweeter.
Finished: Astoria and the end of the road
Astoria is, in many ways, fairly unremarkable: although historically, it is the place where Lewis and Clark completed their journey to the Pacific, geographically it is just a small town at the mouth of the Columbia River with a population of less than 10,000 people. Nevertheless it will always be etched into my memory as the place where I completed my journey.
The western terminus of the Trans America Trail is the Colombia River Maritime Museum and when I rolled up on the 1st June 2010, in the middle of a torrential downpour, I found it to be utterly anticlimactic. A fairly average museum, on an ordinary street, in a small town in America — but there in lays the poignancy of the location. To get there I had challenged myself more than I had ever thought possible, I had seen incredible things, and met numerous brilliant people — the destination was not important, but the journey was priceless. If the destination had been more spectacular then this point may have been lost, or at least diluted, but as I stood in front of the museum, utterly drenched, it was made nicely.
I managed to drag a museum employee outside to take my photo and then wheeled by bike away to a motel, beginning the process of extracting myself from the adventure and returning to ‘normal’ life. I’d been changed by the journey across America in hundreds of ways and knew with certainty that I’d be back on the bike before too long, seeking out new places and experiences, pushing myself harder and further. Careful, these adventures can be addictive…