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?