A Rolling Vision Quest around some lakes...
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
I came home from a year of volunteering and exploring my way around the world and quickly realized I hadn’t given my own country the same attention. So I put it out there - stated to my friends that I was going to ride my bike across the country, bought a touring bike and started to make plans! And then, Covid hit. Yup, the whole world changed and it didn’t feel right in May of 2020 to travel across the US. But the idea of a bike ride churned in my mind and a fellow traveler (who also had her plans thwarted) and I started scheming as biking, camping and being outdoors away from people felt like an ok response to Covid.
Now mind you that I’m not a camper, and in fact I was given my first tent as a Christmas present just the year before and practiced putting it up in the basement. And, I’m so grateful for friends who gently encouraged and coached that this was a doable adventure - even for a 59 year old woman! At the end of the day, it wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be (though there were definitely moments of difficulty).... and this 1,300 mile bike trip provided more joy than I had anticipated. The beauty of my own country and the kindness of ole’ and new friends was staggering!
This blog is a short tutorial on “how to” as many people have expressed an interest in following their own heart’s desire and hopefully this may be an encouragement to just do it - on any level!! I’ve broken this trip down into various segments so you can choose to read about what you are most interested.
I Notes From the Road
II Lessons Learned
IV Trip Planning
V Gear, Stuff and Food
VI Riding Partner
VII Wrap-up Stats
VIII A Few Final Thoughts
I must admit to having some trepidation in anticipation of this trip even though I had just spent a year volunteering my way around the world. To take off on a bike without a specific route nor great mechanical skills put me out there on that uncomfortable edge. And yet, it is on that edge where I have found I learn the most... So here goes.
I Notes From the Road
Here are random excerpts from my daily journal which give some insight into the adventure:
Oh man - riding out of Chicago was both easier and harder than I thought it might be. Harder in that 40+ lbs of gear made me wonder how I was ever going to do this ride - holy shit!!! Easier in that the traffic was light, the trails were wide and the scenery was gorgeous! Update: by day 3 the weight of the gear was a non-issue, as I totally got used to it - whew!!
Over 500 miles in!!!! Woo hoooo!! Rolling with experiences like eating incredible sweet corn bought at road side stands (learned that eating raw corn was amazing while selling stone fruit in New Zealand - lol); being lulled to sleep while laying in my tent listening to the gentle waves lapping the lake shore was blissful; “bathing” in 65 degree lake water and trying not to scream when submerging was an accomplishment and feeling like super woman on the bike was surprising though it might have had something to do with a tail wind - lol!
Today we road on desolate undulating smooooooth country roads that passed through a National Wildlife Refuge which protected a large area of swampy green wetlands where gobs of toads leapt across the road. Later that day families of deer and fawns jumped beside me and at times forced me to brake hard as they darted in front of me. The Wisconsin roads are lined with fields dotted with dairy cows creating a truly bucolic scene and most are complete with red barns off in the distance - and now I now know why it’s called the cheese state!
Today the Door County skies were so crystal blue that the Dr. Suess like clouds looked like they could be plucked right out of the sky. And it was a relief to learn that eating rehydrated food from a bag wasn’t so bad (well, with the addition of raisins and nuts that is), that some are better than others and that the Pad Thai is repeatable.
Geezo - today was a stressful one... We were riding east on one of the few Michigan highways in the upper peninsula - and it was a road FULL of campers, logging trucks and cars roaring by at what felt like 100 mph!! Two lanes of highway transitioned from lane to rumble strip to 18” of paved berm (where we rode) to rocky gravel berm.... A truck that shot past drew me into its vortex for what felt like minutes (more than likely only 1-2 seconds) and the pull was so strong that it yanked up the back of my shirt. Shit! Once we got off that road and onto another highway that was designed with a 4’ berm, I felt incredibly safe and at ease even with campers and trucks roaring by at 70 mph. Strange what a mere 4’ will provide!
I wonder how many countless hours I’ve spent trying to visualize a wall of wind and how an oncoming truck displaces it and pushes it in my face and why I feel it many seconds after the truck passed? Funny how I wished I understood physics better...
And I loved all of the scents that randomly wafted across my nose some of which reminded me of my rural upbringing - dairy and pig farms - and occasionally that distinct smell of skunk perfumed the ride. And what was surprising was the numerous road kills that weren’t part of my childhood - porcupines... poor things.
II Lessons Learned
The synchronicities of the trip were an on-going affirmation that we were being held every minute of the day by the universe (I know... I’m pretty woo woo). Debbie’s first flat tire happened in the home of our first warm shower host who had a bike work shop in his basement. The next one was .1 mile from a bike shop where I learned that I needed a new rim strip. The next flat found us being escorted to a bike shop by a bike rider we had met at a cafe 30 miles away from the city to which we were headed, and then - he randomly ran into us 3 hours later as I was pumping up a flat tire. Oh, and that time I found I had a broken spoke that needed to be repaired. I thought I had heard something funny while riding... hhmmmmm.
It’s Good to Talk to Strangers
Often we were given directions about a trail or a beautiful ride by a random person, and one gorgeous sunny day I remembered we had been told that there was a not so obvious route to a trail somewhere close by. I stopped at a cross road waiting on my riding partner, and in that moment another bike rider appeared. I hailed him and after an easy conversation he offered to ride us to the trail head and even yelled encouragement as we labored up a steep hill. Simple magic...
Be in the Moment (and in your body)
I found that by making frequent micro adjustments (like every 5 minutes) to my sits bones while sitting in the saddle resulted in a less sore bum that I expected! And I realized by being conscious and giving myself gentle reminders to stop gripping the handle bars and unclench my jaw when traffic loomed near or storm clouds rumbled off in the distance, that everything was easier...
Learn Something New Every Day
We became a little more savvy about route selection and learned to check the elevation of the route options (even with that I had to walk 5ish “hills”); we learned how to estimate our ride time against a radar wall of fast moving storms (most of the time that worked!) and determined that we were happier when we used our credit cards for motel rooms on the nights of rain.
Perseverance Wins Every Time
Headwinds. GEEEEZE!! I found that I would much rather push a loaded bike up a hill than ride into a headwind. One blustery day we rode 42 miles (5 flipping long hours) straight into it! It was a long, hard ride physically and emotionally as all you can do is downshift and spin.... AND yet, we did it!!
So... over the years I have worried about my memory and, at times, my minds sluggish response. An unintended consequences of this trip - really, completely unexpected - was that my memory and mental sharpness returned. I found that I was able to pull names and memories up that would have been a struggle to recall in the past. The improved recollection was pretty astounding and I have to attribute it to the exercise, fresh air and reduced caloric intake. I am wondering as I write this if it will be sustainable. hhhhhhhmmmmmmmm.........
The Warm Showers network (couch surfing for bike riders) https://www.warmshowers.org/ was one of the unexpected joys of the adventure! These brief, yet meaningful encounters were a reminder of the goodness of humanity and were found again and again through this web site allowing us to make new friends (yes, some lifelong even after a mere 16 hours). The kindness extended to us was at times overwhelming. Families opened their homes, provided beds and often a meal or two in exchange for a meaningful conversation sharing biking stories and traveling adventures. Debbie, my riding partner started using the phrase “currency of gratitude” as that’s all we had to offer in return. We sat, counseled and dreamed of future bike rides with many of our hosts.
One of our warm shower hosts was a young couple that bought retired school buses and converted them into campers, and were over the moon excited to share their baby blue bus experience with us! That night we sat around the camp fire in their backyard and listened to some pretty wild stories of exotic bike riders that had stayed with them. Another evening found us riding up to a beautiful home on Torch Lake as we were being hosted by another Warm Shower enthusiast and learned that this 25 year old woman had ridden her bike across the US two times; talk about an inspiration! She and her dad gave us a boat ride around the lake and encouraged us to use their kayaks for a sunrise paddle the next morning. Magical! At another stay, we were the first warm shower guests that Andrew had ever had and he excitedly hand rolled and stuffed pasta for an amazing dinner.
We also had a litany of friends we stayed with as we made our way south on the east side of the lake. A retired gent from Indy relocated to the quaint little coastal town of Leland and graciously hosted us. The meals he cooked using ingredients from the bounty of his veggie garden were incredible. My mouth waters even now merely by thinking about the zucchini pancakes doused in cucumber infused yogurt sauce!
Camping proved to be another lesson in trust as we never knew what what to expect when we rolled in, and yet we never had a bad experience. We stayed at full service camp sites, sites that only had pit toilets and one where the potable water came from a flowing artisanal well. And then we discovered a game changer! All state campgrounds in WI and MI provide camp sites for bike riders even if they are full. That bit of knowledge was a huge stress reliever as having to find alternative lodging after a 60 mile day is, well...........
And literally the last night of the trip was more magic. We found that private campgrounds were requiring a 3 night minimum stay as it was Labor Day weekend (who knew!), and it was a perfect opportunity to put into play something I had read that other long distance riders did and called a church. Trinity United Methodist Church in Kokomo was the first place I called, and the kind voice on the other side of the phone quickly offered the gated small grassy yard at the back of the church as a camp site. The afternoon we rode up found us quickly surrounded by two young boys who were curious about the trespassers on the church grounds - LOL. We Tom Sawyered them into helping, and they eagerly assisted us setting up our tents! Afterwards they tumbled off to the store and came back with bottled water as they worried that we wouldn’t have enough to drink because the church was locked up tight!
As the sun broke into the early morning sky, we heard a voice calling from across the fence asking if we wanted a cup of coffee. We stuck our heads out of our tents and saw a tall, smiling woman. June was a Native American Indian living in Kokomo and married to a black man. We took her up on her offer of coffee (and a bathroom), and she shared stories about growing up on the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, the number of children she helped to raise and what was like living in Kokomo, Indiana. As we were were leaving and extending effusive gratitude for her kindness, she told us we had place to camp whenever we passed through. I rode away just smiling!
IV Pre-trip Planning
I think the biggest challenge is to commit and to say out loud, “I’m going on this trip!” I discovered that by telling others about my crazy plans, they then became part of an invisible team holding me accountable. Once the commitment is made, the gear is the next point to ponder along with what bike to take, how will you sleep, how will you eat, and where to go?! It feels a bit overwhelming as there are a few moving parts to dissect.
And I will confess - much of the fun is in the discovery. Asking friends for advice that have undertaken similar journeys gives them an opportunity to relive their adventure, and I’ve discovered that people love to be asked for help (harbinger!). Reading blogs of those that have taken the plunge and visits to bike shops will always unearth an avid bike packer who will share his or her stories and nuggets of information.
My friends that are avid bike riders are meticulous about route planning and spend hours on google maps and GPS researching. Maybe it’s because they know a lot more than we did about what to look for in a route, but we didn’t do any planning. Zero. Nada. Nope. LOL! The way we planned our route was simple. We obviously had an overarching goal and knew the direction we were headed, so over dinner each night we would confirm the town or campgrounds that was our target for the next day or two and let google maps show us the various bike route options. We got a little more sophisticated as time went on and started looking at the elevation differences between routes (I think I had to walk 5ish hills over the course of the month), and we did on occasion hit a gravel road Google sent us on (gravel with heavy packs is not a happy ride), so we did ride some gravel (less than 10 miles) but as quickly as possible found an alternate paved route. It became an ongoing joke as we recalibrated several times a day for many different reasons.
We were coached to stay close to the shore but often got pulled away to follow a protected trail (designated by a solid green line on google maps) which provides such an easy and stress free ride, that we willingly gave up glimpses of lake shore for the protected trail. There are a plethora of amazing trails all around Lake Michigan which made riding a breeze.
V Riding Partner
I had originally thought I would do this adventure alone, but a fellow traveler also had the exploring itch, and so we started scheming. I didn’t really know her well, and understanding this would require us to spend a lot of time together, I felt it important to ask (and answer) some probing questions.
How do you show up when you’re tired, hungry, sore...?
What’s your morning/nighttime routine?
How do you want to be responded to when....?
This proved to be a good exercise, and both of us felt comfortable to think that we could navigate a long ride together.
Our mornings were intentional... We didn’t start riding till 10amish as we both independently had similar morning routines of meditation, breath work and yoga. This cadence was important to both of us, and yet we realize that our slow mornings might have driven others crazy!
Our riding styles were a wee bit different, and people were surprised to learn that we didn’t ride together. I sold my car over 6 years ago in an effort to reduce my carbon footprint and relied on my bike for transportation; as a result, I’m a pretty strong rider. Debbie is in great shape, but hadn’t ridden much. In the morning we set out together, and I would ride at my pace which was a bit faster than hers. Our agreement was that I would stop at every turn and wait, and if I got 5-6 miles ahead I would stop and wait for her to catch up. It worked well and forced me to stop and be in the moment more often than I might have otherwise been!
VI Gear, Stuff and Food
My approach was not to over think the buying of gear (stuff) and followed my gut. A friend was the manger at a local nonprofit bike shop and told me about a great deal they had on a Raleigh Grand Sport touring bike. It was amazing how quickly that idea of that bike resonated deep inside of me, and I’m pretty sure it’s because the first bike I bought myself back in high school was a Raleigh, and besides, it had a vegan Brook’s saddle! It felt great on the test ride so the decision was an easy one.
I too found this to be fairly easy as the vast majority of the blogs I read and friends’ recommendations confirmed that the Ortlieb panniers were the “go to” waterproof bags for most long haul bike riders, and I concur. Both the back panniers and front handle bar bag were awesome, and I filled them with 40+ lbs of stuff. I took the sage advice of others who were experienced long distance riders and didn’t buy front panniers as I knew I would just fill them with more stuff... 2 back panniers were just enough for a summer trip!
My daughters bought me the Alpine Chaos single person tent - love it! Another friend recommended both the Thermarest blow up mattress and sleeping quilt - not a sleeping bag - and both recommendations were spot on! All were designed for backpacking in mind as they were incredibly light weight which is kinda’ important when struggling up hills - lol!
Not being a camper left me leery about carrying the right amount of food and eating healthy, so we opted to pull out credit cards and eat on the road. We would typically ride for an hour or two in the morning and find a cafe for brunch, snack on power bars throughout the day and dinner would either be with a warm shower host or friend; if we were camping, we would pull out a rehydrated meal packet - add boiling water and voila - dinner! The whole food thing was easier than I thought it would be....
Bike Gear Detail
Raleigh Grand Sport touring bike with a double kick stand and fenders
2 Ortlieb back roller panniers
Ortlieb front handle bar bag
2 bungee cords
Lights (front and back)
2 water bottles
Joglite reflective triangle for the back of the bike
Camping Gear Detail
Alps Mountaineering Chaos 1 person tent
Thermarest sleeping quilt
Thermarest blow up mattress
Alpine sleeper sack
Steripen water purifier
Blow up pillow (wrapped in a t-shirt at night)
Mini camp stove
Can of propane
3C steel mug
Multi tool set
2 Pedros tire levers
Bike oil and rag
Hand pump with gauge
Front Handle Bar Bag
Wallet w/ cash and credit cards
Small collapsible backpack
Technology cords in a small bag
Bamboo eating utensils
2 battery back up chargers
Light weight bike lock
Tooth brush and tooth paste
Face and body cream
Apple cider vinegar pills
First Aid stuff
Chamois butter (used daily as preventative!)
4 REI dried meals (serves 2)
SOS electrolyte rehydration powder
12 Lara bars (refilled during the trip)
Clothes (and everything else) in 4 packing cubes
2 pair bike shorts
1 pair shorts - doubled as sleeping shorts and yoga shorts
4 short sleeve and sleeveless shirts (one for sleeping)
1 sun dress
1 pair of pants that zip off to shorts
3 pairs of quick dry underwear
4 pairs of smart wool socks
3/4 zip long sleeve shirt
1 micro fiber towel
1 pair of bike shoes
1 pair of flip flops
1 pair of xero hiking sandals
1 neck warmer
1 pair of gloves
Mini iPad and keyboard
Lacrosse ball (massaging muscles)
Light weight yoga mat
VII Wrap Up Stats
August 3 Drove to Chicago
August 4 Began riding north
September 5 Rode into Indianapolis
Total miles pedaled: 1,300
Miles of gravel roads: <10
Nights camping: 10
Nights with friends: 10
Nights of Warm Showers: 8
Nights in motels: 5
Rest days: 4
Miles per day: 45-65
$ spent per day: $45
Aired tires every 2-3 days
Greased chain 1x week
Cassie’s rack had to be tightened
Debbie’s rack lost a screw
Debbie’s kickstand sheared a screw and had to be replaced
1 broken spoke
2 flat tires each
Lakes we swam (or at least put a toe in)
North Manistique Lake
Little Brevort Lake
Illinois Beach State Park
South Nicolet Bay Campground
Luce County Campground
Little Brevort Lake - North Forest Campground
Ludington State Park and Campground
Kokomo United Methodist Church (yard!)
VIII A Few Final Thoughts
The whole 1,300 mile adventure was easier than I thought it would be! Now that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard at times, but the whole of the trip was magical. I know I keep using that term, but I gained confidence and insights that were so unexpected....
Camping was a more enjoyable experience than I had anticipated, and has opened doors to a new way of traveling.
Being in nature every day is AMAZING!!
The spinning of the pedals mile after mile, day after day had the same effect as if I was on a linear labyrinth. The mind was free....
My body is stronger than I thought it was (and got stronger!) - even at 59!
The stuff of the world felt far away.
People - strangers - made this journey amazing!
The gift of time can’t be overstated. We were able to explore Door County and go up to Pictured Rock State Park on Lake Superior because we had no hard end date.
Yoga every day (often 2x a day) was an important part of the physical recovery process.
Having a compatible riding partner is really, really important!
Slow travel continues to be a practice that works...
The rural/urban divide was evidenced by the political signs and now I better understand why. There were no black people (well, none that I saw) north of Milwaukee which explains the lack of exposure to “the other...”
I’m itching to ride across the country and there are just a couple of things to consider:
A front rack.
2 front Ortlieb panniers to carry cold weather gear.
Change out my gears to accommodate BIGGER hills.
See if I can get wee bit wider tires under my fenders. HHhhmmmmm....
Ride 1,000 miles and take 2 weeks off to volunteer though WorkAway.com - and repeat...
Ok, putting it out there............!!