This is the story of the numbers. My journey from Boston to San Francisco, mostly by bike, was relatively tech-ish, or at least more techy than any cross-country ride 10 years ago could have been. Everything I needed was in the form of one app or another my phone. In Colorado, I met a couple at Lizard Head Pass in Colorado who were taking in the view when I reached the summit. The gentleman had done his own cross-country ride decades ago when he was in his 20s, and he told me he had to carry a big road atlas to navigate. That would be different…
I recorded my ride every day with two apps on my phone: Ride With GPS and Strava. Sometimes Ride With GPS was also navigating me along routes I had pre-planned, and sometimes I used Google Maps to override my original plan. I took pictures with my phone, checked the weather with Weather Underground, shared pictures with Instagram (@mccronecolin), blogged with WordPress, and kept in touch with friends via texts, Facebook, Twitter (@colinmccrone), and Gmail on my phone. It felt odd but also pleasantly old-timey when I switched to using paper maps between Pueblo, CO, and Carson City, NV.
With tech comes data. Elevation gain and loss is notoriously difficult to calculate, and the two apps I used to record my rides gave different results. Either way, the scale of the thing is still insane even for me to think about.
Tot Distance 3,614miles5,816km
Tot Moving Time 317hr 317 hr
Tot Avg Speed 11.4mph18.3km/hr
Tot Elev Gain (Strava) 141,783ft43,215m
Tot Elev Gain (RWGPS) 179,620ft54,748m
Max Distance/Day 111miles179km
Max Moving Time/Day 9.05hr9.05hr
Max Speed 44.7mph72 km/hr
Max Gain/Day (Strava) 6,101ft1,860m
Max Gain/Day (RWGPS) 7,648ft2,331m
Weight of Bicycle 75lb34kg
Weight I Lost 9 lb4kg
Yes, 44.7 mph on a heavy bike is terrifying. Each time I “bombed” down a hill, I was hyper-aware of pebbles, sand, or any possible cracks in the pavement that could ruin me. I hit the greatest speed on a stretch of UT-12 on Boulder Mountain. I learned later that the Tour of Utah uses the same road, and cyclists regularly hit 100 mph there. My normal daily maximum was more like 35 mph.
Obviously I daydreamed several times during the ride about how I would visualize all the juicy data I was collecting when it was all over. Part of my professional self-definition is that I’m a “computational designer,” which mostly means that I like to solve design problems with math and logic. At Autodesk, I was once the “Computational Design Evangelist” (exactly as it appeared on my business card, in fact) for Dynamo, which is a visual–scripting program for architects and engineers. I won’t show you the script, which would be meaningless to the uninitiated, but the results are fun to see.
In the visualization tool I made, data about the distance traveled, time, moving speed, and elevation gained each day are shown with an animated bar chart, while a drawing of the bike (or the rental car during my week-long New Mexico side trip) makes its way across the country. You can play with it yourself at Colin’s Cross-Country 2017. You just need an Autodesk ID to sign in, which is free to setup.
Making this little toy was another way for me to process what I just did with my life. And numbers, we all know, often tell a different story than our memories might. For me, looking at the data, I learned a few things:
The ride from Denver to San Francisco was just as long and at least twice as difficult as everything else that came before. So it really was kinda crazy to plan to fit that into 3 ½ weeks as I did. I think I only made it because I was stronger than I realized after the eastern half of the country trained me.
My average moving speed each day was relatively constant, even after the plains turned into mountains. That says something about the physics of bike riding and air resistance, but also that my strength increased significantly over time to compensate for the increasingly challenging terrain.
That second day in Western Mass, which at the time I sheepishly called “A Little Too Ambitious” really was that hard. It was was tougher, elevation-wise, than every other day save one. For where I was physically at the time, that was a mistake.
My cross-country ride had three very distinct phases:
Boston – Cleveland: rushed and somewhat inconsistent
Cleveland – Kansas: Steady, consistent, with evenly-spaced rest days
Denver – San Francisco: Intense rides every single day with no break
The middle of the country isn’t nearly as flat as we all think it is.
The ride of my life ended on September 2nd with two wet tires at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I can still make a deadline, it seems, but classic me, I just made it—my new job and my teaching gig both started two days later, already with a work trip to Europe scheduled for the following week. The culture shock was extreme. Suddenly I was back in California, back working with two former employers, and back hanging out with friends I’ve known for years, not at all like the always-unfamiliar world I lived in for months, constantly moving. I ran into someone at the office the first week who greeted me: “Oh, hi Colin! I haven’t seen you in a while. What have you been up to?” A short explanation like “I moved to Boston for a year and then I biked back” just doesn’t seem to capture it, ya know? Now solidly back in the context of real life, I’ve learned to appreciate that the afterglow of my adventure is mine alone to know and mine to savor. I’ve written this post four times over trying to describe it all.
I left you last, dear Reader, at the end of The Loneliest Road in Fallon, Nevada, with about 350 miles left to the finish line. The ride from Fallon to Carson City started innocently enough except that I very confidently rode 15 miles in the wrong direction. I missed a turn and I only figured it out when I was halfway to Reno. That’s forgivable I think—it had been a week since there even was a turn to be had. When I got to Carson City just before nightfall, I met Ranger Don for dinner, and I was happy to take him up on his offer to host me. I camped on his floor. A former National Park Ranger at Alcatraz, Ranger Don is now a writer, and he lives in the historic (and haunted?) St. Charles Hotel across the street from the Nevada State House. We had great conversations over dinner and breakfast, which he insisted were his treat. Ranger Don gave me a tour of the historic district in the morning, and he took the opportunity to introduce me to many of his friends around town. Paraphrasing him: “It’s probably uncomfortable for you that I’m highlighting your achievement, but you’re inspiring all of these people! We should have more inspirations these days.” OK then!
Ranger Don is more talkative with strangers than I tend to be. In the Nevada State House museum, he struck up a conversation with two lovely women who were themselves traveling through town, and I joined in. Jan and Kim, sisters, travel around the country for about a month each summer. Jan keeps a terrific blog (Go Sassy Sisters!) chronicling their adventures. For each of their adventures, the sisters mostly follow a set of rules that we should probably all live by. Among them, my favorites:
Talk to strangers, the stranger the better
Always stop for ice cream, regardless of the hour
Drive on two-lane roads as much as possible
Stop and see any attraction that costs less than $5, especially if it has great billboards
They recalled passing me the day before on US-50, and they passed me later that afternoon too, honking hello as they said they would, as I was climbing Spooner Pass toward Lake Tahoe.
Almost daily for the entire year before, I imagined what it would feel like to complete my cross-country ride. I had a hundred guesses for what that it would feel like to truly earn that view of the Pacific I already loved. I only knew that whatever I could imagine was probably wrong.
It’s a weighty concept, the End. It conjures a crush of memories of the hard roads both figurative and literal that came before: the motivation that was forged in a cold and lonely winter, the physical pain I fought through, the dangers I felt, the fear I learned to manage, the new strengths I found, the honest surprise that I was even capable of any of this, and the relief that somehow I’m still alive. At the beginning, I had all the drive in the world but admittedly little idea what I was getting myself into, yet somehow I still made it. My friend Matt Conway, whom I met on the ride to Montreal, framed that really well:
“Wow, so, so great. I vividly remember you telling me on the Bostreal that you were going to ride to SF. You were like, sure I just took a bike repair class at Broadway, bought this here bike and in a couple weeks I am riding to Cali. I was like sandals, a new bike and a plan—I guess that’s how you do it. Sure enough that’s how you do it.”
It hit me all at once, not on the last day like I had always thought, but on the first sighting of California. The last big climb of the trip was out of Carson City over Spooner Summit to South Lake Tahoe, 3,300 ft up and 1,700 ft down in an afternoon. The summit itself was unremarkable save for the welcome return of trees to the landscape after 900 miles of desert. But after that, on the way down, bike cruising at 35+ mph, when the lake first came into view with its far shore, the unmistakable: My California. I cried instantly with tears blasted straight back over my ears. I shouted, I laughed, and I wore the world’s best smile all the way down to the shoreline.
When I got to my hotel in South Lake Tahoe, I noticed that the Sassy Sisters had reached to me through this very blog to invite me to join them for dinner. Since meeting them earlier that day, Jan had found my blog, and she read the whole thing out loud as they were driving to Lake Tahoe themselves that afternoon. It turned out we were staying near each other, and well, their rule is that they like to talk to strangers: the stranger the better! So I met them again at a restaurant along with their friend Laura, whom they were staying with. All three are a riot to hang out with. Laura drove me home after dinner so I could avoid dealing with the traffic, but it meant I had to cram my bike into an SUV rather quickly and reassemble it on the other side. For all of that and for being perhaps a colorful character in their journey as they were colorful characters in mine, I got an honorable mention in Jan’s blog too: Carson City, Colin, and Cozy Cabin.
I took a day off in South Lake Tahoe, the first since Denver. At first, I considered riding the circuit around the lake for the day, then I thought better. I definitely earned some beach time. And good food. And about five naps.
I made it to Sacramento from the state line in one crazy day: a grand return to sea level. It was 110 miles with a mile of climb and more than two miles’ decent. The first half of that was on US-50, including a shortcut at Echo Summit on the advice of a local cyclist to follow the original route of the old Lincoln Highway. The road was stunningly beautiful all day.
It sounded like such a good idea to take US-50 to continue the trajectory I had started in Nevada, but I had as many close calls in two hours there as I did in all of Illinois. The truck traffic is high, the turns are tight, and the margins were sometimes narrower than my 32 mm tires. I had the feeling that I was asking for trouble at the narrowest and twistiest part, so at one point I got off the road for a few minutes by half-climbing a wall of rubble with my bike so I could wait to until I didn’t hear any trucks coming. At least then, I could control the situation.
Distracted drivers are still, and always, a clear and present danger. On the decent from the Sierra Nevadas, road construction constricted travel to a single lane at one point. At least four highly-visible orange signs warned for miles ahead: “Watch for stopped traffic.” When I found that stopped traffic, I stopped too, right in line, but after several peaceful seconds, I heard a loud squeal of rubber-on-asphalt directly behind me, and I found myself suddenly off the side of the road. I had jumped, instinctively, with my 75-lb bike still between my legs. When I turned to see what had happened, there was an SUV occupying the same space where I had just been, and inside, an embarrassed driver wouldn’t look at me. I wish I could tell you that I was mad, or scared, but I wasn’t exactly; I just moved up the side of the line of cars to the front, wanting nothing more than distance between me and whatever that situation was. I stopped next to the first car in line, a pick-up truck. The driver of the truck looked straight at me like he was terrified. He rolled down the window, still staring at me wide-eyed, and he said only: “HE ALMOST KILLED YOU!” Somehow he saw what had just happened, or what had almost happened, and he was shell-shocked. Maybe I was too, except that by then, after 3K miles of that shit, I couldn’t muster the same alarm. Not ten miles later as I was traveling about 20 mph in the shoulder, an RV swerved sharply over the white line directly in front of me, then swerved back over the yellow line, back into the shoulder, back over the median, then wobbled a few more times before it could correct its path in the lane. The driver must have swerved so hard to the left to avoid me that he over-compensated by swerving back to the right, almost losing control over his building-on-wheels. I hope I never need to be that lucky again.
I spent a great two nights and a day in Sacramento with family: Tony, Marianne, and Anthony. It had been almost two years since I had seen them. Tony and his best friend Jeff and I went kayaking at Lake Clementine in the afternoon. Their kayaks were still new and quite nice, and of course they were the kind that use foot pedals to move around.
The last of the big rides was 80 miles from Sacramento to Vallejo. It was beastly hot, and I hopscotched between cafes and gas stations the whole way in the 120 °F heat. A very cool barista at Putah Creek Cafe in Winters, CA, wouldn’t let me pay for my snack and about six glasses of ice water, but I certainly left a nice tip especially as a thank you. When I descended the last big hill into Vallejo, I had arrived officially in the Bay Area, and I stopped for the night just a few miles from the ferry that would take me across the bay in the morning.
The ferry ride was surreal. My head was swimming in all the profoundness of finally and officially making it home, even while most everyone else around me was simply starting a normal Saturday.
When the ferry docked, I retrieved my bike from the storage area to find that the front tire was flat. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I managed to get my fourth and final flat tire of the journey on a ferry. On the very last day. I met friends at the Ferry Building. Brok and Courtney found me right as I stepped off the pier onto solid ground. My friends Jamie and Skye, who didn’t know each other before but who had also just relocated from Boston, were right around the corner with their bikes waiting to join me for the last ten miles to the beach.
But first, that flat tire. It took a while to fix; my tires were once again studded with thorns that I had to pull out with tweezers, and I pinched and punctured a couple of new tubes too before I got it right. Jamie provided a welcome set of extra hands, and Brok kept himself busy taking excellent candid shots with my phone, making the fourth flat by far the best-documented of the trip!
I had the honor of leading Skye and Jamie on their first bike tour along the edge of the Golden Gate. I jumped into tour guide mode for some of that, and I mostly enjoyed SF anew through their eyes. It was hard to remember that it was not just any Saturday.
I had been wondering about the logistics at the beach for some time. It’s a very wide expanse of sand, and heavily-loaded bikes don’t exactly roll through it. Skye and Jamie were both such good sports because they had to drag their bikes through the sand to the shore too because none of us had adequate bike locks to leave them by the road. My friends Anh and Reinaldo were waiting at the beach for us. We found them, and then, well, it was time for the End.
The day I arrived was the hottest in recorded San Francisco history at something like 106° F. (The city’s weather is famous for maintaining a relatively tight temperature range, nearly always a bit uncomfortably cool.) The ocean is very cold in Northern California since the current draws water from Alaska. But the sun was so hot that day that even the cold Pacific waters felt just right. Half the city, it seemed, was on the beach, and in the water! I had never seen anything like it before. I went swimming in the ~60° F water at least five times throughout the day. And once—not even kidding—dolphins swam by about 200 ft away.
I brought no expectations with me for my big return to San Francisco, but I ended up with the most perfect of days with some really good friends. I remember holding my bike up above my head to follow that famous tradition, and just like the picture below shows, for the first time, that bike felt weightless.
With Support From “Viewers Like You”
I never, ever felt alone. So many of you sent me texts, read my blog, asked me where I was, or just let me know you were watching, and it was all I ever needed. Jon Ramos checked in almost daily at first, and occasionally after to remind me of the cheer that started every day on the ride to Montreal. “Today’s ride is going to be great!” Marcie wanted to know what city I was in most days so she and her son Baron could track me on a map. My cyclist friends Pam and Ed Rowland and Glen Cunningham wrote with advice for problems they read that I had. And my cousin Jen called me one day out of the blue just because she had a feeling that I might need to talk. We’re close, but we’ve never talked on the phone before. I was in Emporia, Kansas, I had just realized I would have to stop, and I was reeling inside.
There were hundreds of ways that my friends and family supported me all the way, and quite frankly, that’s gotta be the best takeaway from the whole thing. It takes a village.
My “Good Luck Charm”
I had a “good luck charm” that I carried the whole way too, compliments of my dear friend Marcie. She mailed it to me in Boston, and I opened the envelope the morning I left. It’s really in the pictures from that day, and her husband Tim was there to witness it in person along with Marcie and their son Baron via video chat. I’m not much of a believer in luck, but Marcie was insistent that I have this thing, so what could I do but humor her? I honestly didn’t realize what it was until I felt the envelope.
It was a rubber snake. The snake has a history all the way back to at least 2005 when Marcie and I first started to be good friends in college. She used to spook easily, and I’m devious, so I tried to scare her once with a random rubber snake someone gave me. But she’s competitive too, so she took it and she scared me back with it. That snake has been a lot of places since: it came out on her plate at a restaurant, it was in a cake, and occasionally it scared people who were not its intended target. I hadn’t seen or heard about it in years, and I assumed it was lost. Ha! You got me. So now the snake has toured the US by bike, and it sent back some tourist pics when it felt like it.
What it feels like
My first visceral conception of this journey was on a flight from Boston to Las Vegas last November, which was the first time I returned to the West after leaving six months earlier. Not just in work, but in life, I sorely needed a bigger challenge from where I found myself then, and while I rested the side of my head against the plastic window looking down, I wished purely and deeply for all hardest days on those roads, to live that struggle somewhere down there steeped in realness, away for a while from planes and personal politics and emails. Now that journey is part of my past.
This year as my plans became incremental achievements, I spent a lot of time wondering what it would feel like to have done this thing. By my first window-seat daydreams, I first thought I might find fulfillment or some degree of confidence I couldn’t know otherwise. Later during the dark Boston winter, I wondered if I would feel lost at the other end, if perhaps I might let my expectations rise too high. After I hit my first thousand-mile marker and things were going well, it was fun to imagine that an epic triumph was waiting ahead. Then after the close calls in Illinois, I had to acknowledge the possibility that I might not get the end I wanted after all. In Kansas, dear Kansas, the time finally did come when it was obviously too dangerous to continue the way I had dreamed, in a pure, unbroken line. I was under-prepared for a lengthy heat wave and I was too time-inflexible to wait it out.
My ride from Denver to San Francisco was a wholly different experience than everything that came before. I had a deadline and a task I thought was probably impossible for me to accomplish. Every day was long and hard, but if Kansas was a failure, then I couldn’t let myself fail twice by not making it to San Francisco in time. To have any hope of succeeding, I let my body become simply a machine to turn calories into miles, which left my mind more free to wander than it’s ever been before. Time was rhythmic and so abundant that I relaxed any care for efficiency in my thoughts. I spent stupid amounts of time exploring how and why I was angry at myself for Kansas, which I had let become a symbol of so many other frustrations. No avenue of inquiry was off-limits for fear that I might discover something unpleasant. You almost can’t be more vulnerable or exposed than when you’re alone in the middle of the desert with nothing but a simple machine to save you. At some point, I probably picked up each major happy, embarrassing, proud, and disappointing memory I have as if it were a toy block. I would hold it for a while, turn it upside down, and inspect it with disinterest. I put each block back down again too. There were no rules on how long I could hold one of the blocks, and I could go back to any block I wanted whenever I felt like it. Of course all of these blocks make me who I am, even though in normal life, I (and I’m sure we all) tend to celebrate some parts of ourselves and ignore others. You can’t hide from yourself on a bike in the desert, which is precisely why it’s such a great thing to try.
In the end, or at least at this point two months later, I feel parts of all the things I guessed I would feel, but none of those descriptors—confident, lost, triumphant, disappointed, or happy—quite captures it, even when combined together. Mostly I’d say I simply know myself better for having done this. If I could describe my own greater knowledge-of-self and comfort-with-self by analogy to a structure, I would say that somewhere between Boston and San Francisco, I built, reinforced, and polished a beautiful tall ship in a bottle that will stay there, protected and unremovable, forever.
I found a theme song on my ride. I wasn’t looking for one, but it found me. I can’t pretend to have ever understood all the lyrics, but I promise that halfway up any mountain, when you’re in pain, you’re alone, and you’re tired, it helps to remember that you can do whatever it takes.
A 1986 article in Life Magazine did a smear job on Nevada, branding US-50 the loneliest road on America.
“We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
So the State of Nevada turned it into a brand to promote tourism. Official road signs celebrate the recent 30-year anniversary (you can tell they’re new signs because they have fewer bullet holes), and you can get a passport book to be stamped at a number of bars and historical sites along the way to show you “survived” it. The road’s not as lonely as it once was, but there’s no doubt that when you’re on US-50 in Nevada, you’re out there.
I survived the Lonliest Road.
Nevada has a scale and a rythm that aren’t quite human. There are some 100 or so mountain ranges within its borders, mostly oriented north-south for maximal barrier to east-west travel. Draped over all of this is a blanket of sagebrush and dry dirt so vast that taut basins 20 miles wide seem to hang between the ridges. Geologists (and interpretive signs) say that the Earth’s crust is being pulled apart here, so think stretch marks of the continental variety.
A dozen or so high altitude mountain passes combined with desert conditions, almost no surface water, and a rarefied population makes Nevada’s Great Basin a cruel last test for anybody heading west to California. I just did it on a bicycle, and I still have trouble imagining the agony of crossing in a covered wagon before roads and those still-too-rare convenience stores.
Few of my pictures could capture the feeling of the space here because everything is either very close or very far away, and there are no natural visual cues to help you understand the difference. In the photo above, I used powerlines to attempt that connection; withouth them, it’d be a completely flat scene, right? The same effect that frustrates the camera frustrates the eye.
Why am I not there yet?!, I said, multiple times a day. After the steep descent from one summit, the next ridge is 15-20 miles away but also seemingly immediately in your face. Despite the illusion, physics doesn’t change, and it’ll still take you well over an hour of hard work to get there at 13 mph.
Plenty of times in the basins, I would start to worry about my energy level because I would notice it was unusually difficult to peddle during the “flat” part. It would take looking at the slope of the road behind me to verify that I was actually climbing. Take a look at the next photo. It may look like the clouds are crooked, but it’s the horizon and the frame; there I had been peddling uphill for some time.
These are things you’ll encounter on a bike that you’ll never see with an engine. And it matters too. On a bike, Nevada is both a slow-moving funhouse for your perceptions and a hostile desert. Most of the time, it feels like you’re working hard but not moving at all, while you must always be conscious that anytime you’re away from a water source, you’re on a clock to get to the next one. It’s days like that: that rhythm, flowing smoothly from descents to climbs, with something indefinable inbetween, always feeling pressure to move faster, always climbing nearly a mile between remote towns. Nevada is a true test of the theory that if you keep moving, eventually you’ll get there.
Also, there really is pretty much nobody here. Of course I had mixed success with my first very long gap in services in Utah, and I knew Nevada would be nothing but long gaps. The first one was 83 miles from Milford, UT to Baker, NV. I started on the road at 6am to beat the heat and to also give myself a strong head start in my then-daily race with thunderstorms. I juuust made it before the rain and lightening reached Baker about 5 minutes behind me. For the 20 miles that I was chased by one cloud (photo below), I swear I set a land-speed record. (I know that sounds dangerous, and I’m sure it was, but it’s also the nature of the weather there. You’ve gotta play by the rules of where you are.)
The next gaps in service were 60, 75, 70, 60, and 50 miles. So for a cyclist, US-50 is something like a conveyor belt; everyone has to make the same stops in the same order (Austin, NV below). I didn’t see any other cyclists, but I’m told that it’s common, and everyone in the little towns that service the road has stories.
And once again, there are some shining examples of beautifully kind people. On my third day, I was climbing one of those 1,500-ft hills when I noticed a pickup truck/camper that had passed me was waiting at a pull-off, seemingly for me. My first reaction was to be alert but to look focused (standard urban tactic), until I realized that the couple was trying to give me something. Food! And cold Gatorade! Bobbi [sp?] and Mike were runners and cyclists themselves, and they said they always stop to give cyclists food when they see them. They were headed to Burning Man, and it was a great conversation.
Yesterday was my longest day and a personal record: 111 miles between towns in heat that climbed to 100°F by the afternoon. There was just one watering hole stop halfway through at the site of an old Pony Express station. I clearly belonged to the bicycle outside, so people were friendly with questions. One man a few tables away was particularly interesting and he gave me lots of great information on the history of the area. He has relatively old roots here; his great grandfather was one of the very first gripmen for the San Francisco cable car when it opened in 1906, and he’s a retired national park ranger who lives in Carson City, my stop later tonight. He offered to host me, and of course I’ll take him up on it. So I fully expext to learn a ton from Ranger Don about California and Nevada history soon!
Later in the afternoon, while I was still dozens of miles from the next town, an older man (also driving a pick-up truck) slowed down next to me and offered me water. I didn’t need any (see I learn!) but it was very kind indeed.
Finally, motorcyclists wave to me with encouragement frequently now, which is rad.
The Final Countdown
I’ve been so worried for the last weeks about being late to San Francisco that I’m in danger of arriving days too early. After today, I’ll be poised on the California border ready to cross Monday morning. I’ll only have 240 miles left, all downhill after one last giant climb over the Sierra Nevadas. I’m planning to arrive in SF on Saturday (details for my SF friends to follow), so I’m going to slow down and enjoy Lake Tahoe and visit family in Sacramento this week in preparation for reentry.
Nevada has afforded me a lot of time to think and to reflect on a huge journey nearly complete. I’ll save sharing my deeper thoughts here for a few more days, but it’s a wild concept that I’m almost done with something that I never fully internalized was possible to begin with. Let’s be honest—who could have? A gas station attendant in Austin, NV, is the first to ask where I came from and where I’m headed then respond simply with “Congratulations!” It hadn’t occured to me yet, but yeah, it’s time for the end of this, any and all profoundness to-be-comprehended later.