Some of the best memories of months of bike touring across the country crammed into one 5 minute song.
Song by Lord Huron: Time To Run
I cannot stop staring at his white teeth peeking from under his mustache. They call attention every time he slurs “th” words. His tongue pushes against the back of his teeth sliding his dentures around the roof of his mouth. “Thla, thlar, thirty two.” He sucks them back into place. The action is barely noticeable, probably well practiced—he’s rather loquacious. He has impeccable style for a hillbilly. Sporting a wolf shirt and a red Chevrolet ball cap with unruly white hair escaping from the back.
His name is Tunnel Tom—a classic character. From his shack on the side of the Elroy-Sparta rail-to-trail in Wisconsin, he sells water, popsicles, and flashlights to cyclists. He’s like the kid in the neighborhood that sells lemonade. While his stand is made from plywood, not cardboard boxes, it has the same imagination of a young heart wanting to make an honest buck out of sugar and lemons. He waits for customers in a row of wooden chairs, the ones he carpenters and sells during the off season. When cyclists approach, he retracts into his shed behind the pick-up window framed by hand-painted signs.
An economy has built itself around the Elroy-Sparta rail-to-trail and cycle tourism. The first of its kind in the United States, 32 miles of old railway path was repaved in crushed limestone, fitted with public restrooms, and opened to the public. Today, the trail thrives during high season. Private campgrounds and bed & breakfasts run at full capacity. Amish country restaurants sell out of their hickory nut pies. Even the town of Sparta holds claim to being the “Bicycle Capitol of America” while boasting an enormous statue of “Ben Bikin” which happens to be “The World’s Largest Bicycle”. Oh, the mid-west.
Tunnel Tom was one of many banking on cycle tourism in Wisconsin. Thousands of cyclists pass by his stand in need of thirst quenching or a flashlight for the mile-long dark tunnel ahead. The same tunnel that earn Tunnel Tom his nick-name. When we met, somehow conversations trail off into the benefits of peanut butter and how Greg’s wealth came from a Walmart buyout of the farm. I had no idea who Greg was, or maybe I was too distracted by slippery teeth to catch that point in the conversation. In anycase, there is something pleasant about this character. His style, his simplistic means, even the cadence of his voice, he was right were he needed to be helping out travelers. He offers an ice-cream sandwich and a bottle of water in applause for my extended tour. We chat more over used cars in the southwest and then I on my way. Another simple moment in a perfect day.
The Elroy-Sparta rail-to-trail was plush riding from what I was accustomed to. There, wind always pushed against my back and the sun shined a little brighter. Spotted cows grazed on unadulterated green pastures. Barns were painted with a fresh coat of bright red and church steeples raised above the trees on rolling hills, marking another quaint town. Light dispersed through the leaves, illuminating a golden trail in a tunnel of lush foliage. And even against a bright blue sky, clouds billowed as perfect white pillows, spacing themselves politely in equal breath.
“Stupid cute” was the only way I described this little piece of Wisconsin. Frankly, I was in shock. My defenses were accustomed to being high against harsh winds, blazing temperatures, and unforgiving drivers. I was a lost for words when riding was… pleasant. I had forgotten what it was like to take pleasure in the ride when the path is enjoyable. Most of the time, I found appreciation in the worst of circumstances, but on the Elroy-Sparta trail there was no struggle, no suffering, only peace and blue skies. For this, “stupid cute” was the only way a haggard rider could describe a utopia that even Tunnel Tom was perfectly a part of.
I’m on my way to Milwaukee. Before dawn, I have breakfast at the town square in Lake Mills. Cereal, gas station coffee, and my sketchbook. Riding any earlier means biking in a chill that stiffens my joints and numbs my extremities.
When the sky turns a soft magenta, I head east on the Glacial Drumlin bike trail through a tunnel of over arching trees. Even in this beauty, I pass the time by pondering algorithms. Estimating inputs of distance and speed against headwind, fatigue, and toilet breaks. Everyday, this algorithm more or less dictates my ride, aiming for an output in the positive—a quantified “fun”. My mind swiftly diverts focus with a bird spotting, a glimmer of trash, or a right turn; restarting equations all over again. Math exhausts my thoughts for the better part of the day; however, today I can’t get the math to add up. Although I hope for a quick tourist stop in Milwaukee, escalating headwinds and a deadline to reach Chicago by tomorrow win out. I decide to cut part of the route to drop mileage, avoid lake breezes, and increase opportunities for secluded camp spots away from urban sprawl. I’ll aim for the state boarder by sunset and exchange Milwaukee for a frozen custard at Culver’s.
Wending southeast on farm roads, I turn on White River trail outside of Burlington when a loud hiss comes from my rear tire, and I brake to a stop. Going to dismount, my left cleat sticks to the pedal, throwing my imbalance to the falling bike. In slow motion the horizon tips and I hit the ground, when my cleat effortlessly clicks free. For a moment, I just sit in the dirt, contemplating. Another thorn, another flat tire.
The sun hangs somewhere at 5pm and I’m still 2 hours from camp. I’m not hungry but I go straight for the snacks in my panniers. I polish another granola bar and dust off an opened chocolate bar. To patch the tire and reach camp in time would be a vain attempt. In hindsight, even without a flat, I was cutting it too close anyways. I search up and down the path as the trail disappears into farmland with no open spot to camp. My GPS shows no park, no motel, no food nearby. I look down to the ground at the thorny weeds creeping onto the path. I sigh and savor the last bite of bitter chocolate. Time to come to terms with my position: I don’t know where I will stay tonight. In these situations, unexpected has become the norm, but not usually this close to sunset.
With a breath of uncertainty, I stand up, wipe the dust from my legs, turn up my bike, and head to the road. A new plan, a new algorithm: input—hitching. At the corner of Durand and S. English Settlement Ave. there’s higher traffic, meaning more possible rides. I’ll leave the tire flat, which might evoke more sympathy from drivers. This time, variable Z—good will—is up to chance.
Back on the street, my bike bumps with loose rubber swiveling between pavement and rim. After 100 feet down the road, I hear a man yelling as he approaches from his farmhouse across the street. He greets me, notices my flat tire, offers his assistance and air compressor. While tire pressure isn’t exactly what I need at the moment, I never reject generosity–it’s just bad karma. I wheel my bike over the grassy berm, and the farmer slides open his massive shed.
With speed, I patch the tire, but pinch the tube. So I redo. Patch the tire, then blow out with the air compressor. Redo. Patch the tire, then a patch rips off. Redo again. By this time, the farmer has already run through the What, Where and Why questions of my bike tour. And by the 4th patch, he’s onto stories of his four adult kids, and how I remind him of one of them. He reveals his thoughts of retirement and upcoming plan to travel to Brazil, he says the cattle just need to be sold by winter. He’s owned and worked this farm since his twenties, raised a family, and he shuffles his feet while giving me the tour of his factory on wheels—a combine. His sense of pride for his family and his farm are almost tangible. His joy in meeting new people and sharing is palpable. The tire is finally patched, and the farmer introduces himself as Clayton. Farmer Clayton.
At first, farmer Clayton offers to drive me to a campsite, but with the sun crowning the lower grain silo, he pauses and offers his guest bedroom in his home. He’s notably hesitant. Not for himself, but the outward perception of a single man offering a young woman a bed. He stutters during his overly cautious but gracious request. It feels familiar. Familiar like other gentlemen who have offered a ride, food, a place to camp, or even warm words of encouragement. Not out of wrongful intent, but of genuine kindness. It’s a paternal sensibility. And I gratefully accept his hospitality.
Settling in his modest living room with the television as background noise, we say, “Cheers” with Coronas in hand, and he flips on the digital photo frame loaded with family pictures. Clayton asks my opinion of the eclectic display of art on the walls and he jokes about the “damn democrat” tenant living in the basement. Discussion topics are short as Clayton’s eye frequently corners to the next flashing photo, occasionally interjecting politely with another story of his daughter’s wedding or his new grandchild. I’m happy to listen, his exuberant joy in sharing family memories reminds me of a schoolboy eager to show off his construction paper crafts. Adorable really. But as the credits run on the television movie, we take note of the end of the evening and say our goodnights. Clayton drives the school bus on weekdays so we set our alarms for an early 5am wake-up.
My phone buzzards when the sky is still dark. I tear myself from bed, dress and pack, ready to leave. I close the bedroom door from the hallway and notice, at the other end in the kitchen, farmer Clayton carefully setting dishes out for breakfast. He’s serving greek yogurt, blueberries, soggy watermelon, and cereal. Clayton admits, normally he forgoes a complete breakfast in favor of a Slimfast. But this morning was special. I’m so deeply humbled, in part by his overwhelming generosity and his extra attention to folded paper towels as napkins. I can only share my gratitude briefly before I need to stuff my face, otherwise I’ll make him late for work. We rush out the door to bid our fair-wells and he sends me off with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich left over from last weekend’s football game.
Miles down the road, it’s decidedly too cold to ride and I stop 6 miles from the state boarder. In Paddock Lake I have second breakfast: PB&J, McDonald’s coffee, and my journal. On the television, I realize yesterday was September 11, and I learn for the first time, of an American ambassador killed in Libya.
Farmer Clayton’s hospitality was one of many altruistic acts I experienced across the country. But as I come back to reflect on my bicycle ride, I remember him first because in the final hour of the train ride home, after five months away, I received word from farmer Clayton’s beloved son. The message informed me that his father had passed in a farm accident. A tragedy that occurred only two weeks after my tire popped outside of his farm. In that final hour, I was sent into mourning and tears for the loss.
An overwhelming wave washed over me. Some of the most profound moments of my journey came unexpected, unplanned, and by random chance. Farmer Clayton and dozens of others on my journey took a chance on a traveler, a perfect stranger, and in moments made me family. I remember Farmer Clayton explaining his tractor combine which I understood in rational terms. Input: acres of crop; function: harvest; output: soy and corn kernel. This was logical math that could be counted for. Yet, amazingly on my tour, whenever I relied on “chance” to pull me through, people ALWAYS came forward with open arms. Maybe this wasn’t chance at all. Maybe this was humanity all along.
When I reached home, I didn’t feel the rejoice of a return. When I laid in the stillness of my bed I came to realize, in fact, I never left home. Instead, home came with me across America and was welcomed in by the homes of others. Here in the memories, not a quiet bedroom, I found comfort. Here, I could relish in the love I received and in the humanity that ineffably connects us all, and me to Farmer Clayton.
Craig performed this song for me back in May 2012 on the ranch. It was just another luncheon with visitors, he was another guest of Bob’s that I would get to know over an afternoon. I captivated him with my famous “Jessie’s chicken” and a from-scratch fruit tart which didn’t last 10 minutes on the table.
Wowing guests with a home cooked feast on the veranda overlooking the Fallbrook valley was what I did best. And my favorite task. Managing the kitchen, food preparation, receiving guests, and presentation was under my total control. Bob let me run it my way because he didn’t know how to push buttons on a microwave, but he did know how to uncork a bottle of wine. Most days, the kitchen was only stocked with a tub of mayonnaise, a jar of pickles, beer, and a half day-old baguette. But every week he’d called me from town: “I’ve got 7 people coming for lunch in two hours. I’m at the market. What do you need?” (Preplanning in Bob’s eyes was superfluous). On those days, I triumphed as Iron Chef.
Maybe Craig called it with one lyric in his song. But somehow, I too knew the last super at sunset on the veranda in July, only days before riding my bike into the sunrise was my both physical and cognitive end of a chapter.
Parting from the ranch and Bob was cordial, I’ll always be invited back. But I can only estimate the measure of impact my time on the ranch. My bipolar experiences at the ranch holds stories enough to fill novels, or 4 seasons of Bravo’s next hit reality TV show. Featuring three British bulldogs, the crazy genius neighbor Rick, and guest starring ex Raiders quarterback Todd Marinovich. And don’t miss the season premiere with cameo appearances with trapist monk, Benny, former Chuck Norris personal trainer. Tuesday nights at 10!
By the bye, the whirlwind with Bob offered more than just wacky moments and roller coaster rides. The opportunity has been a one of a kind, raw experience with a thriving, established artist and businessman who art is always displayed at the Yard House Restaurant. Living on a retreat, Italian inspired villa with guest amenities including an outdoor shower, a beer loaded fridge, and year round, trailer-side grown avocado and oranges. The venue for the best goddamn birthday party ever! And my first escape from the city to live, work, and in many ways thrive.
And now, after two years at the ranch and a lifetime in southern California, it’s time for the next chapter—Seattle.
I leave now with a fond memory of painting on the ranch.
On my way to Glacier National Park, I became accustomed cows popping their heads up from the tall grass, their eyes nonchalantly following me as I pass. So I was surprised to find the iconic white mountain goats of Glacier National Park to be much the same.
This painting was made right on the trail. Originally there were 3 goats, I even had drawn one pissing in the grass and later edited it out. But much like roadside cattle, these mountain goats pay about as much attention to visitors gaulking and googling with their cameras. At the end of the trail on the Hidden Lake overlook I find a wall of tourists leaning over the railing, fingers and binoculars pointed to the distance. A spotted a grizzly 10 miles away. From this viewpoint, visibly a speck. Behind the wall of tourists, a white mountain goat approaches unnoticed. When the first person jumps as he discovers the stirring noise from behind, all others follow turning their attention. The goat also jumps back trying to get away as everyone desperately fumbles for their camera for this close encounter.
Then I capture this next shocking scene.
This man trying to feed a goat a waffle!
Is this a zoo? Are these wild animals pets? Is a park entrance fee a permit to feed wildlife? Has Yogi Bear taught us nothing?
For the remainder of my time in the park, I see this conduct again and again, but it becomes so frequent that I am no longer shocked.
Weeks later I ride to Yellowstone, the famous premier National Park of our nation. And as soon as I enter the gates, I’m ready to leave. A mile of cars are stopped for a handful of park tourists with digital cameras taking pictures of elk. Here we go again.
One painting was made of Yellowstone and none others. The heard of cars rushing by, traffic jams, and road raged tourists and massive RVs is enough to alienate me from wildlife that Yellowstone is suppose to stand for.
But on my way out of the park, I stop by the mud volcano where boiling silted water bubbles and steam billows from the mouth of the cavern. Families run out from the parking lot, cameras ready when right next to the cave, a massive buffalo lounges. Just as he is ignorant to the fact that he has become the lead attraction, the zoo of people are ignorant that I am drawing them.
When people ask me about my visit to the national parks so far, I politely agree that they are stunning. But in reality, if found my greatest moments were when I returned to the empty roads outside of the park. East of Yellowstone is the Shoshone National Wilderness and one of the best rides. There, an orange canyon and crumbling rock pinnacles—a garden of giant carons against the sky. I drop my bike by the side of the road to scramble up to the base of one of these pinnacles, not by trail, but by goat tracks. And in this view, even in a smoke filled sky, I find my serenity in the presence of nature.
I’ve been scolded for bypassing the infamous Old Faithful of Yellowstone and rushing out of the park. But for me, some of the most astounding moments of this trip are the ones not highlighted on the map, but the ones I discover for myself.
Early morning in a McDonald’s in Libby, Montana and I run into this guy.
“You’re a real cowboy!” I burst with exclamation. He smiles with a twinkle in his eye at my naive wide eyes and says “howdy”. Then humbly returns to his coffee, oatmeal, and smartphone.
Welcome to the west!
While the real cowboy ranchers and are all over no one displays “the west” better than Cody, MT. The town thrives on the nostalgic feeling which has been cleverly been packaged and marketed as a must see before heading to Yellowstone. There, Buffalo Bill is the idol, the icon of the town and most of Wyoming. Just as Buffalo Bill became internationally famed for western entertainment, so has his town.
I visited the rodeo which happens every night during July and August. This is, however a real rodeo. Participants are competing for points to go to nationals rather than a repeat performance of stunts and showmen. Before the show, I got a glimpse from above of 2 of the cowboys right before the music chimed them to the arena.
Everyone assumes it takes a particular person to do an epic bicycle tour. As one British man stereotyped me over lunch, “either just graduated, laid off, boyfriend dumped, or for a cause”. Don’t get me wrong, for many cyclists this is accurate. But most of my time talking with strangers is spent dispelling the “type” of person who does and can do bike touring. This week I met a group of 300 riders doing a 500 mile ride through OR, ID, and MT—all of different ages and shapes, and sizes. Yesterday I met a group of 12 going across the country on tandems—8 kids and 4 adults.
So back in Libby, Montana I camped with the complete yin and yang of all riders and this has since become my testament to diversity of touring cyclists.
Name: Scot Heisdorffer, PhD
Occupation(s): French and German professor at St Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa
Tour: 400 miles of Northern Washington, Idaho, and Montana
Average miles per day: 70
Bike: A small collapsable bike to fit in luggage when he tours in Europe in the summers.
Budget: His retirement
Riding attire: Loose padded shorts, Chacos with socks, fluorescent jersey, purple helmet
Camping equipment: All the lightweight REI camping equipment
Recreation: Revolved entirely around bicycling. Drove a car once in the last 5 years. Does marathons to keep in shape for cycling in the summers.
Occupation(s): Trucker, Construction, Fry cook
Tour: Eureka, Montana to the Oregon coast
Average miles per day: 28
Bike: Mountain bike
Budget: 60 bucks until he gets to next day job at a truck stop
Riding attire: Construction boots, jeans, cotton shirt w/o sleeves, “to hell with sunscreen and helmets, damn’it!”
Camping Equipment: $17 tent from Big 5 and Mexican blankets.
Recreation: Taking the dog, his truck and a chainsaw out back for firewood.
The bug etymology on the road changes as frequently as scenery. With every new hill crossed, it seems there is a new set of flying insects to avoid. When I headed south from Glacier National Park, two bugs dominated the road: butterflies and locust-like grasshoppers. Everyone enjoys the company of a beautiful butterfly, however I barely tolerate the grasshoppers which unavoidably charge at you. I developed a fear of these crazy pests after a bad encounter with them when I was younger.
I avoid, hit, squish these pesky hazards all over the road from Glacier National Park down to Dayton. There I met CouchSurfer hosts Julian and Nick. Pulling up, this looks as an undeveloped piece of property with a stream leading to a pond. In introduction, I open up discussion of the land. Nick points to a heap of dirt and apparently vacant space that appears to be covered in weeds and states “this has occupied much of our time in the past months”. I’m puzzled by the contradiction of what I hear and what I see, but I don’t press questions. We grab our swimsuits and make our way out to pond for swimming in the later day summer heat. As we make our way through the maze of dirt and weeded area, Nick, Julian and friend Ben are picking and eating from the leaves. It’s then I realize these aren’t weeds, this is permaculture. As they describe, permaculture farming is a self-maintained agricultural system by which the plants work together helping each other thrive. A plot of land grows several different species of plants that all are part of the natural ecology. Instead of organized rows of one kind of crop that is sown, reaped, and repeat process, this ecological engineering renews itself naturally and friendly to the earth. I’ve heard of such design but never seen it for myself. It was amazing to pull from these dirt mounds mustard greens, lettuce that tasted like Wasabi, a fresh beets, radish, dill, and so many others that were delicious, abundant, and lush without the use of massive farming equipment or chemicals.
The next morning I left early in preparation for a 95 mile ride to Missoula, MT. In upwards to 95 degree weather, heavy traffic, and some pretty gnarly hills at the end. I got 2 flat tires along the way. While fixing the second flat on the highway, I called to where planned to stay. The conversation revealed that what I had thought was an invitation to stay was none at all. The door felt shut on me. Ugh…. I sat on the side of the highway, changing my tire, black grease all over my hands and jersey, a second skin of sweet and sticky sunscreen which adhered exhaust soot, gravel, and insects. The biggest climb ahead of me, and still 25 miles away from my destination. Was I wrong to feel upset in disappointed hopes? Back on the uphill, I fight myself over expectations in myself and humankind. Already demoralized, my spirit continues to drop under the heated sun, rushing cars, and a hardening sense of humanity. Halfway up the hill, a man runs out from a junkyard—a bearded, scrawny, torn shirt man chasing after me on an uphill. He signals a tipping cup to his mouth for water. He catches me and tells me I look like I could use water and a sandwich. In this jaded state down on humanity, I don’t want to trust him, but thirst answers the call. I decide to check things out. Walking past the parking lot of used cars and before the piles of junk is a large garage and inside a hostel. The man, Zack, tells me the history of the hostel being open, free, and generous to bike travelers. I soften over a ham and wasabi cheese sandwich. Sitting in the common area with a bearded mountain man and purple haired transvestite who also rooms here. Amazed. Here Zack saw a rider from a quarter mile totally exhausted, needing saving with sustenance. But what he really saved for me was a broken spirit.
Fed, hydrated and happy, I give my sincerest thanks and am grinning on my way back up the hill.Renewed, I notice the grasshoppers don’t feel like hazards, and, for the first time, I see the grasshopper go into flight with delicate designs of black and yellow wings. These are band winged grasshoppers, in flight they look like butterflies! Had my prejudice and previous fears blocked my ability to distinguish two sides were actually one? I saw disgusting pest grasshoppers and delicate butterflies but could not see that they were the same thing. Had my cynical side altered my perceptions so much that I could not see beauty in both sides of these dynamic insects, or in the plot of weeded land is actually a thriving permaculture farm, or a scraggly looking man off the road wants to offer the kindest generosity?
A person said “The road always provides”. Cycling the open road gives you exactly what you need, the biggest challenge is just accepting it and accept that it’s real.
A scene least expected in Newport, a small junction town on the boarder of Washington to Idaho.
Morning coffee at McDonald’s and three older veterans and two middle eastern men are peacefully discussing international politics. While the veterans still insisted Obama is a Muslim, this was a moment to restore faith that Americans can still be open to discussion even in disagreement. Bring your thoughts and opinions to the table even if it’s over breakfast sandwiches and hash browns.
The Barton family found me on CouchSurfers and boy, I’m glad they did. After being continuously beaten down my long uphills over the Cascades, I was ready for a break. I asked if I could stay for 2 nights, and I ended up staying for 3 because it was so much fun.
The Barton Family Farm is located in a farming valley just 5 miles north of a Colville. On 470 acres, the farm itself maybe takes under 30 acres, the rest is a nation park sized mountainside of rocks, a lake, and gorgeous forest.
The farm crop is hay but is known for a zoo of animals. The following is a list of animals on the farm
pet Magpie bird named Jeepers
dogs and cat
peacock and peafowl
Polish crested chickens
The family, while smaller in number, are equally as dynamic. Siblings: Luke, Rachel, Ellie and Claire are well raised, responsible and extremely welcoming. Ellie and Claire, twins of the age 21 are a rock of the household. Between they two, they milk goats and cows twice a day, tend to customers buying hay, garden, churn butter, culture cheeses, cook family dinners, spindle wool, knit, and feed all the animals throughout the day. An incredible duo, I’ve never met such responsible young females.
Rachel, a young beauty of 14 has initiative and drive. Between tapping her feet to Irish jigs, she is an artist, and shares responsibilities with her older twins. Her posture is strong and tall, with modest confidence. And Luke. Luke throws. He throws sticks, rocks, anything he can get his hands on. At age seven, he has as much energy as the 3 year dog he runs around in circles with. At times, he’s mischievous, but never malicious. A good hearted boy, he toured me through the property and showed me all his little hideouts.
Then there’s mother and wife, Angie. Angie is the blood, the life pulsing through the family and the farm. A beautiful silvered haired woman who was destined and built for farm life. Angie handles everything from heavy farm equipment, to beastly animals (she was gored by a horned cow during my visit). Even in the hardness of her hands, and strapping tall body, there’s an unweathered life energy that flows through her. Cracking jokes, teasing her kids, running through trails up mountains, swimming in streams, and climbing the sides of log cabins to catch a pack rat, Angie’s spirit knows no age. And why should it? She is complete and completely happy with her family and her farm.