5 Lessons Learned From My Second Long Distance Bicycle Tour

When I set out on my second long distance bicycle tour, I figured it would be much like my first. I knew there would be long days of riding mixed with extended periods of thirst and hunger. I also knew that once it was all over, I’d be coming back a whole new person. A better person!

That much I knew. But traveling on my own this time (in an area of the country I had never been to before), I knew that my second bike tour would be a challenge unlike anything I had ever faced in the past.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from traveling by bike the second time around:

Amtrak Needs An Overhaul

I started my second bicycle tour by hopping on an Amtrak train and riding for 26+ hours to the small town of Garden City, Kansas. It was here in Garden City that I was supposed to begin my second long distance bike tour.

But when the train rolled to a stop in Garden City at 1:30 in the morning (more than six hours behind schedule) the doors in my train car never opened. I tried to force my way out, but I feared setting off an alarm and waking up the entire train. Instead, I popped open the window and looked down toward the engine where I could see the conductor helping three passengers off get their luggage off the train.

I immediately slammed the window shut and ran through three train cars, trying to get down to the open door where I saw the people exiting, when all of a sudden the train started to lurch forward and exit the station. I was screwed!

Just moments later I ran straight into the conducted, practically yelling (while trying not to wake everyone around me) as I explained that I was supposed to get off in Garden City.

“I’m sorry” the conducted told me. “Let me see what I can do.”

I waited in agony for the next couple minutes while the conductor chatted on the radio with the engineer. Mile after mile of darkness rolled by outside the windows. Finally, they had a solution!  They would drop me off at the next city and I could get off there. Ugh!

Just over 50 miles away the train pulled to a stop and I exited into the night. My boxed bicycle was pulled out from underneath the train and thrown into the dirt beside the tracks. One other woman got off the train as well… and before I knew it the train was gone and I was alone in the middle of Dodge City.

By this time it was about two o’clock in the morning; it was pitch black; and I didn’t know what I was going to do or how I was going to get back to Garden City. I kept thinking to myself, “It’s only the first day and I’m already a day behind schedule.”

Of course, everything worked out okay. I found a place to sleep that night and the next day I rode my bike the 50+ miles back to Garden City. But the lesson I learned (and have learned time and time again) is that the Amtrak train system found here in the United States is in serious need of a makeover.

I make a lot of recommendations on this site, but traveling with Amtrak is something I would never recommend (especially if you can avoid it).

Traveling with Amtrak can be done… and they have been known to arrive on time on occasion. But if you do decide to travel with Amtrak, be prepared for bad service, long waiting times, over priced everything (from ticket prices to food), and when your train shows up 22 hours late (as it did on my trip from New Orleans to Los Angeles in 2004) don’t you dare expect an apology.

Don’t Be Afraid To Use The Police As A Resource

Once I had that whole Amtrak mess behind me, I headed west and spent the next week or so traveling through the long, flat grasslands of Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado. Many nights I would roll into town (the only town for 60+ miles) and need to find a place to sleep. Because I didn’t have much money and because many of these towns didn’t even have hotels, I needed to know where it would be okay for me to set up my tent and sleep for the night.

It was on this trip that I began asking the police where I could camp.

Prior to this bike tour, I viewed the police as people you wanted to avoid at all costs. In my mind, police were people who pulled you over for driving too fast, who ticked you for jaywalking, and were the last people you wanted to approach about the possibility of “stealth camping” in their area.

But as I quickly learned, many police officers are happy to help the traveling cyclist.

In these small Kansas towns I was riding through, the Police were the first ones to let you know that it was okay to camp in the city park. In Pueblo, Colorado, officers on horseback directed me to a city zoo where I was told precisely what area of the zoo to camp in and which part of the zoo to avoid (apparently because it was a homosexual hangout). And in California, an officer sitting idly in his cop car informed my riding partner and I that it would be perfectly fine for us to jump a fence and sleep in an abandoned parking lot for the night.

Over the years, the police have come to my aid in a number of ways. But it wasn’t until my second long distance bike tour that I realized the police are one of the first people you should ask if you are looking for a place to sleep.

Some People Just Want To Help

As I rolled into Ordway, Colorado after a long day of riding, I parked my bike in front of the only gas station/campground in town and went inside to inquire about the price of camping. When I stepped back outside to get my wallet, a sun burnt, beer-bellied man wearing nothing but a small, green pair of athletic shorts tapped me on the should and asked, “You lookin for a place to sleep?”

The man startled me, but I replied, “Uhh huh.”

The man replied, “Well, I gotta house right down the road. Cud getcha a nice warm shower. What da ya think?”

“Wow that would be great!” I said.

I remember thinking back to what my parents had told me all those years growing up. “Don’t talk to strangers” they said. I was a little afraid, but really wanted the shower… and really didn’t want to pay to camp in that parking lot behind the gas station.

“Wanna throw that bike in the truck?” The beer-bellied man asked me.

I was dead tired and wanted to take the ride, but I was still a little scared, so I said, “That’s alright. I feel like riding. How do I get to your place?”

He then gave me the instructions and I hurried as fast as I could down the road to his home in the middle of nowhere.

As I pulled up I remember thinking to myself, “What am I doing? This guy is going to kill me!” There wasn’t another home for as far as the eye could see.

As I pulled up to his small green house I saw his truck parked in the gravel driveway and when he heard my tires making their way down the road he stepped out from his garage and welcomed me with a big puff of cigarette smoke right in my face.

After putting my bike down, the man introduced himself. His name was Ron and he lived out there with his wife and her two kids (both from another marriage). That night I read books with his daughter, played chess with his son, helped his wife water her plants, and looked on as Ron drove his kids around their property on his tractor. After a big bowl of pasta and a nice warm shower, I was asked to come inside and sleep down in the basement. I declined the offer and slept outside next to the chicken coop instead.

The whole time I was there with Ron and his family I was so terribly frightened, but at the same time, having one of the greatest experiences of my life. As a child, I had grown up with people telling me not to talk to stranger, not to trust people, and never to accept gifts from people I didn’t know. But now, here I was, out in the middle of nowhere and having the time of my life.

The next morning I hightailed it out of there before the family woke. I didn’t understand it at the time, but sometimes people just want to help you.

Solo Travel Is Not As Difficult As It Seems

My second bicycle tour was the first time in my life I had ever really been alone.

When I did my first bicycle tour in 2001 at the age of 17, it was a monumental event for me because it was my first time being away from my parents. Of course, I had a friend or two with me at all times, so I was never really alone.

But this trip in 2002 on the TransAmerican bicycle route was the first time in my life where I was alone for days on end with no one to talk to and no one to help me in the event of an accident.

My parents were definitely afraid of me being out there by myself. They wanted me to call in every day and tell them I was okay. And when they didn’t hear from me, my mom felt the need to call the state police and have them search for me – which she did once or twice!

Even I was a little scared at times. But as the trip wore on, I became more comfortable being alone. It took a while to get used to, but after a couple weeks I didn’t even notice I was alone anymore. I just got used to it and started to realize the benefits of traveling by yourself (something I’ll talk about in a future post).

If you are considering a solo bike tour, don’t be afraid. You’ve got to be smart, but you shouldn’t be fearful. There are many joys that come with solo travel. Don’t let not having a riding partner hold you back. Just go for it… know it’s going to be rough for the first couple weeks… and know that you’ll get used to being alone and begin to enjoy it as time passes.

Having A Quality Bike Is Important

The biggest mistake I made on my second bike tour was trying to use the same bike I used on my first tour – my dad’s rusty old mountain bike (which incidentally had been run over by a car shortly after finishing my first tour in 2001. I hammered the frame back as straight as I could, bought a new wheel and crankset, and tried to use the bike again on my TransAm adventure. Big mistake!)

Your bicycle is the most important piece of equipment you can buy for your tour. If you buy the cheapest tent, sleeping bag, and panniers, you can still get by. But when you use a crappy bike, you’re risking your enjoyment out on the road… and your risking the success of the tour as a whole.

I eventually had to call my second bike tour off early because my bike was in such bad shape. I successfully crossed the continental divide eleven times, but once I started pedaling toward Yellowstone I could tell that the bike was not going to let me go much further. It had reached the end of its life… and I was ready to go home. Somewhere north of Rawlins, Wyoming I jumped on a bus and headed back home, feeling like a failure.

Now I realize that if I had just had a good bike, I would have been able to complete my tour… and the part of the tour that I did complete would have been that much more enjoyable.

So, those are the lessons I learned from my second long distance bicycle tour. Do any of these lessons resonate with you? If so, which one(s)? If you’ve gone on multiple bicycle tours, what lessons did you learn the second time around?


6 thoughts on “5 Lessons Learned From My Second Long Distance Bicycle Tour

  1. econnofoot says:

    Something I learned about AMTRAK that can be useful is that when you have extreme delays as I did in a trip to California a couple of years ago. Call their customer service as soon as possible and demand a voucher for your delay, my common gripe( a white lie generally) is that the 18 hours or so caused me to miss a meeting, interview, ride, etc. Any time I use AMTRAK for a signifigant journey outside of the Northeast corridor I figure an extra day into my travel to begin with, AMTRAK doesn’t have the right of way over freight for the most part so delays are gonna happen. My trip to California from the East Coast though netted me enough vouchers that got me back to Chicago from the Bay Area then on to WVA and PA for nothing. It can be frustrating to deal with but sometimes you can come out ahead… And always pack your own food, unless you go the sleeper route(which includes meals) but is generally 3 times as much. Train travel in the USA has a long way to go, but trust me it’s better here than in many asian countries, India for example.

  2. Karen says:

    Yes, I agree,

    I received a voucher for over $900 for a messed up trip to Denver last summer, but I didn’t even pay that much for the trip in the first place, nor was the experience that bad in the end (I had a sleeper for 2 people). I even arrived “on time” (when an Amtrak train is only 2 hours late I call it on time ;-). Needless to say, I plan on taking several one way trips with my bike this year, for free.

    The trick is to ask for customer relations, NOT customer service. Call them right away, as soon as you get a chance after getting off the train.

    On my messed up trip I met a woman who basically travels free because she calls and complains about every little thing and they keep giving her vouchers.

    I’ve learned that some trains are more reliable than others. Some lines are owned by the freight lines and tend to ALWAY run late. The Coast Starlight on the Pacific Coast is a disaster, but it will get you there eventually. Some routes have a morei intermittent. lateness

    I also expect to be late. I don’t plan on meeting someone at 6:00 if the train is due at 4:00, for example. I plan lateness into my schedule.

    Yes, I kind of like Amtrak, with all its faults (and there are many) but if you know how to play the system its a form of transportation that has its advantages.

  3. Ken says:

    You arent kidding when you say people just want to help. In 2009 I toured from MN to CA and I too was hesitant having grown up being told not to trust strangers compounded by years of corporate media only reporting the negative things, etc. What I discovered (amongst a great many other things) is that this country is filled with amazing, thoughtful, generous, and genuinely good people! I also have to agree with utilizing law enforcement as a resource. Being on a touring bike, most cops realize your not just some vagrant and are extremely helpful. In a little one store town in Idaho I was actually cooked breakfast by the county jail. It was a Sunday so all the inmates had to have cold cereal but the deputy on duty had the cook make me a huge hot breakfast. People never cease to amaze me. God bless and keep pedalin! 🙂

  4. Jeremy Werst says:

    I hadn’t heard of the cop thing, but it makes sense. Most of the people that I know are quite suspicious, and so will just go for clandestine spots to camp, and hope for the best. But often that means that they _do_ get hassled by the cops.

    Trusting strangers a lot of people have mentioned as key. Check at a bike shop and ask if there are people that would put you up. Or a grocery store. Stop outside, buy some food, then hang out and eat it slowly and rest for a bit. People will come up and talk to you, several might offer to put you up for the night.

    Another thing is that a lot of times state parks out here in MN and in WI have a policy that they won’t turn away touring cyclists, even if they are full and you have no reservation. We were once allowed to camp in a picnic area (not a real campsite) because there was nowhere else to put us. And the only reason there wasn’t a spot was because the site that they _reserve_ for this situation had already been taken by some other bicycle tourers.

  5. suzy says:

    I’m so sorry that you are so afraid of stranger danger that you can’t relax and accept the hospitality of strangers. I have cycled a lot in many countries and stayed with complete strangers and had a wonderful time. In almost all cases, humans are naturally hospitable. Parents, media and governments have made us fearful but really, we are very safe and people are usually very kind and helpful.

  6. Frosene Sacco says:

    I believe you offer sound advice regarding asking the police for help. Firemen too, are also great resources.

    On the other hand,, while solo touring in Central Greece,
    the police became my worst nightmare.
    They told me to go to this shared housing which turned out to be a flop house for illegal Albanians.
    I trusted my gut and snuck out before the prostitute roommate I had returned from her evening soiree.
    I thought the police could be trusted.
    I learned to TRUST myself.

    This might have been just bad luck, but I learned to overcome obstacles and never give up!

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