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Feature | Sept. 27, 2007

Bicycling across America: It's not the destination, it's the journey

By Dale Weaver retired

Mr. Weaver retired from Langley as Major Weaver in 2004 where he served as the Air Force Command, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center's chief of combat search and rescue. After working as a guidance counselor for the past three years at the Aviation Academy Program, a magnet school under Denbigh High School, Mr. Weaver currently works at the College of William and Mary, where he's also taking classes toward his doctorate in counselor education.

I stared at two gigantic turkey vultures at the top of the steepest hill I had ever cycled up, a nearly 20-percent grade. The scavengers stood there defiantly, eying me from afar, daring me to approach. It almost seemed like they doubted I would make it to the top alive and were looking forward to an afternoon snack of "bicyclist a la lycra." Their presence only strengthened my resolve. I continued pedaling hard in a steady cadence, looking right at the ugly creatures as I approached, until they grudgingly gave way and flew off into the distance. I had triumphed; at least for the moment. 

My 3,000-plus mile bicycle ride across America this summer from California to Virginia was punctuated by moments such as these. Unexpected encounters with wildlife, including birds, reptiles, bugs, dogs (wild and domestic), and even a few country folk. The philosophy I adopted for the trip helped carry me through the entire ride: "It's not the destination, it's the journey." I knew from the start that it wasn't just about finishing the ride; it was more about the experiences I gained along the way, and I enjoyed each and every moment. 

This ride was challenging in three different ways. First, there was the physical challenge. In order to be able to ride 75-100 miles per day, day after day, through all kinds of weather and terrain, I had to be in top physical condition. I trained 30-60 minutes a day, seven days a week, for months prior to my departure. The last few weeks, I cycled 30-50 miles a day in Williamsburg, Smithfield and Gloucester -- anywhere I could find open space away from traffic. 

Second, there was the psychological challenge. Being on the road by yourself for six to eight hours a day, every day, in the hot sun, with cars and trucks whizzing by you at breakneck speeds, is enough to drive anyone a little batty. Your mind starts to get baked, along with your body. For me, I combated hours of boredom by rehashing every aspect of my life, forward and backward, almost like you would rewind a videotape, watch a part of it, and then fast forward to another section to watch that part. I had lots of time to reprioritize my life, making new plans and goals. The other thing I found myself doing on the road was singing and talking to myself. One of the more difficult things out there is trying to get a song out of your head that's been stuck there for hours and hours. 

The third challenge was the logistical one. I chose to have a car and a driver (my wife, daughter and son each took turns) accompanying me in a support vehicle. This was my safety net, should I need food, water or repairs. We stayed in touch via cell phones and used walkie talkies as a backup. We started with a rented an RV trailer, but this proved too much for our car, so we downsized to a tent and stove. Camping proved to be a much lighter alternative and easier on the pocketbook. 

The bike ride itself was a fantastic experience. It was exhilarating being out on the open road with all the sights, sounds and smells of Mother Nature. I loved beginning my ride at daybreak, watching the mist rise from the fields, seeing the morning sun poke its head up from the distant horizon. The early morning was the coolest time of the day to ride and also the quietest. The traffic was light, my legs felt fresh and I was eager with anticipation for the day ahead. The land literally undulated before me, as I pedaled across hills and valleys, the hot, dry desert, the wide open space of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, through the Great Plains, the Ozarks, the Appalachians, and finally, into the heavenly state of Virginia, my destination. 

What you don't realize until you get on a bike is how much life there is out there. Bugs literally fly at you, hitting your face, torso and legs. I had beetles dive-bomb my eyes, face and head. I experienced grasshoppers jumping up on me, sticking to my legs and chest, even though I was traveling at speeds approaching 20 miles per hour. I saw numerous lizards playing a cat-and-mouse game with me on the side of the road, standing right in front of my wheel until the last second, when they would dart out of the way at lightning speed. I even had a rattlesnake directly in my path slither off the side of the road, just in time to avoid getting squished by my tire. 

Have you ever stopped by a field full of cows and just looked at them? Cows have an eerie habit of standing perfectly still and staring at you when you ride by. The more you look at them, the more they stare at you. I'm not exactly sure what they're thinking, but I've seen an entire herd of cows, hundreds of them, lock their gazes upon me until I was completely out of sight. It certainly made me glad they were all behind a barbed-wire fence. 

If anyone tells you Kansas is completely flat, don't believe them; I'm here to tell you that there are plenty of hills. Second, if someone tells you it doesn't rain there much, they're dead wrong. Kansas had one of the worst floods of the summer. Finally, the wind blows across the plains from the Gulf of Mexico and doesn't ever seem to stop. If you're lucky, the wind will be at your back, propelling you ever-forward. Unfortunately, when I rode through Kansas, I had to fight a constant crosswind and headwind. The only luck I had in Kansas was when I got behind a tractor and drafted for 25 miles. I hardly had to pedal, as the vehicle's suction just pulled me along at 18 miles per hour. I figured I deserved a break, as hard as I'd worked. It still took five full days to pedal across the lovely state.
When I left Great Bend, Kansas, and pedaled toward Nickerson, I noticed there were very few cars on the road. I rode for about 25 miles and hardly saw anyone. I finally came to an old rancher by the side of the road and asked him about the way ahead. He said, "The road is flooded; you'll never get through." I asked him how far it would be to ride around the flood. 

"Twenty miles," he answered. 

Forget that, I thought. If I have to kill alligators bare-handed and walk across their backs, I'm not backtracking 20 miles. So I continued on and came to a portion of the highway that had completely collapsed and was flooded with water. No car could breach the gap, but a clever cyclist would be able to lift his bike over his head and ford the stream, which is exactly what I did. Five minutes later, I was back in the saddle and on my way. I didn't even have to kill any alligators! 

Not all of the ride was smooth sailing, however. In Missouri, there's a stretch of road in the middle of the Ozark Mountains between Eminence and Ellington that's beautiful, yet very hilly. I was riding with a cyclist, who measured the angle of the road at a 21 percent grade! The people in cars seemed to be in a hurry and were very impatient when they had to wait to pass a cyclist. I experienced several passengers who yelled choice words to me and other cyclists as they passed by. 

"Get the blank out of the blankity-blank road," I recalled one man yelling. 

At the end of the toughest day, the steep hills of the Missouri Ozarks, I needed some type of physical therapy. My right knee was aching, I was exhausted and my body was sore. As luck would have it, I came across a group of cyclists riding the same direction as me. One of their leaders was a trained acupuncturist. She offered to give me a treatment at the campsite that evening. Although I was initially skeptical, I took a chance and let her stick almost 30 needles in my head, arms, knees and ankles. Afterward, I was shocked at how good I felt! The pain in my knee had greatly diminished, and I felt a renewed sense of energy. I'm now a firm believer in the benefits of this ancient Chinese treatment. 

In Kentucky, on Route 421 just outside the town of Hyden, I watched in sheer terror as a brand new red pickup truck veered from his side of the road right at me as I cycled past. The man in the truck didn't look all that happy as he drove straight for me and looked right into my eyes, as if to say, "Get off the road; it belongs to cars, not bicycles." He turned away at the last possible moment. 

When I finally got to Virginia, I stopped to rest at Occoneechee State Park. I took off my shirt and laid down in the shade on the cool grass. Less than a minute later, I opened my eyes and looked up in horror as a giant hawk had begun its rapid, direct descent directly towards me from about a mile away. There was no doubt in my mind that he thought I was a goner and I would make the perfect midday meal for him. I quickly sat up and started waving my arms. 

"I'm alive, you dumb bird! Leave me alone!" 

He saw the movement and realized his mistake, quickly altering his angle of attack. I got dressed and got out of there as soon as I could. 

I don't know how many times I "almost" got hit by cars. In many places, the roads were narrow or didn't have any shoulder whatsoever. Some drivers were very careful and moved toward the center to give cyclists the room they needed. Other drivers were not so considerate. I can recall early on how an elderly woman in her car came within inches of my life. She didn't even know I was on the road. In Arizona, an older gentleman in a giant RV missed me by less than six inches. I caught up to him when he stopped and I asked him if he realized how close he had come to hitting me. 

"I'm so sorry," was his reply. "I didn't even see you." 

So, for the truly adventurous and physically fit, I recommend bicycling across this great country of ours, coast to coast. It's the experience of a lifetime. You'll face earth, wind, water and fire. You'll deal with a variety of animals, birds and bugs. You'll have to come to terms with the demons inside your head. You'll meet mostly good people out there, but a few bad ones, too. And you'll have to be careful riding with the traffic. If you're like me, you'll come away with an exhilarating sense of accomplishment. Above all, remember: it's not the destination, it's the journey.