There’s no better way to get a sense of the United States than to bike across it, which is exactly what I did the summer after my junior year of college, pedaling 3,600 miles from Seattle to Washington, D.C. in six weeks. I started in mid-June and finished in late July. I was with a group called Bike-Aid (now Global Exchange), a fundraising effort created in 1986 by Harvard and Stanford students for the Overseas Development Network, an organization with projects in communities in need worldwide.
There were four Bike-Aid rides starting simultaneously—in Seattle; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; and Los Angeles—following different routes to Washington, D.C., where we’d all meet for the grand finale ride up to the United Nations in New York City. The goal was to raise money and awareness for ODN’s development projects. I picked the Seattle ride because I hadn’t been to many of the northernmost states and joined roughly 20 other people who ranged in age from 14 to 60-plus. We camped, slept on church floors, and worked in soup kitchens along the way. But mostly we biked, logging 100-plus miles many days, through some of the most stunning terrain in the U.S.—the Cascade Mountains; Couer d’Alene, Idaho, and its huge lake; the Northern Rockies; and Montana’s wide-open spaces, where one cold night a local sheriff insisted on putting us up in his empty jailhouse. You’d be surprised how nice complete strangers are when you show up carrying your world on a bike.
While the West had the most dramatic scenery, I fell in love with the Midwest. Parts of Minnesota were having a mayfly invasion the summer we rode through, and the flies in some places were an inch thick on the roads. Cars slipped and skidded through them, as did our bikes, mayfly guts gathering in our tire tread and other less optimal places. Still the lakes, rolling hills, and vast farmland were inspiringly beautiful. I found the mountains on the East Coast harder to pedal up than the mountain ranges out West. Most of the western mountain passes we climbed were graded lower, so while they were long, they weren’t outrageously steep. But those twisting roads up the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains took more of a bite out of my legs than any of the bugs back in Minnesota.
It’s difficult to get in shape for long-distance biking unless you can ride all day, which not everyone can do. I trained for a couple of months, but it took the first two weeks of the trip to get my legs in all-day cycling shape. Some nights early on, my quads were so sore that if I moved in my sleep, the pain would wake me up. I was also burning hundreds of calories each day, shoveling in PB&J’s and bananas by the dozens—and couldn’t gain a pound for the life of me. By the end, we were knocking off 100-mile rides almost easily. I’ve never been so strong, or so happy.
To Do It Right: Check out these web sites (bikeacrossamerica.org; bikeacrossusa.com; americabybicycle.com; travel.nytimes.com) for advice and inspiration, grab some friends, and go. Do it for the adventure or choose a cause to raise money for, asking friends and family for monetary pledges by the mile. Need more ideas? Global Exchange has a Sustainability Ride Across America slated for summer 2012, in which you’ll visit farms and learn about food and permaculture. Or sign up for the American Lung Association’s Big Ride Across America.