Great Trips: Biking the TransAmerica Trail

Writer and teacher Heidi Beierle is biking from her home in Eugene, Oregon, to Washington D.C. Along the way, she’s handing out decals that celebrate and promote the TransAmerica Trail, one of the Adventure Cycling Association‘s many North American bike routes that altogether span 40,633 miles in the U.S. and Canada.

The decals serve to mark bike-friendly businesses in an attempt to boost the economic development of the rural communities the route whizzes through. One such spot that Heidi visited (and happily sampled) is Cooky’s Café in Golden City, Missouri. Heidi writes that she left Cooky’s “pleased to bursting,” powered up for her next chance to engage with community businesses and enhance awareness of the route.

As I bike everyday to the office, biking as transportation, I was eager to learn more about biking as a unique and up-close form of travel directly from someone who’s actually out on the road, doing it.

Read my Q&A with Heidi after the jump.

As recently as last December you joked that you’d ride your bike from Eugene, Oregon, to Washington, D.C., along the TransAmerica Trail. How did this joke become reality?

The original joke was an email exchange that my Mom started. I recently returned to school for another degree. I took a course called “Transportation and Preservation” and loved it. My mom is a preservationist herself and forwarded an email announcement about the Preserving the Historic Road conference to my brother and I with the message, “Let’s go and stay with your uncle.” I looked at the message for a moment and responded, “Ok. I’ll ride out and meet you.”

I’m crazy enough to think that an idea like riding across the country is within a “normal” range of activity. To see it as a realistic undertaking, I had to figure out how I could cram training for a cross-country ride into my schedule. And I started fundraising, which began as a networking project. Soon, I had the ear and interest of Adventure Cycling. I submitted an abstract to the Preserving the Historic Road conference and was selected to present a paper on bicycle tourism as a rural economic development vehicle. Then I began fundraising and researching in earnest: I had purpose, destination, and deadline.

As part of your journey, you are distributing decals to local businesses along the route as a way to indicate that they are cyclist-friendly. This is all part of the Adventure Cyclist Association’s effort to boost bicycle tourism as a vehicle for economic development among rural communities along the route. How did this idea come about? Is it working?

There are a number of efforts underway to give cycling and bike-ped infrastructure projects higher priority at local, state, and federal levels. One of the significant challenges to elevating bicycle projects’ priority comes from the absence of measurable data on the number of bicycle tourists and their economic impact in communities. When it comes to approving funding for projects, policymakers want to have a clearer sense of the return on investment.
 Distributing decals is a beginning step toward establishing dialogue with businesses along the routes. If the businesses support bicycle route development, for example, we cultivate additional support and advocacy for these projects and may be able to enlist the businesses in helping collect data.

Additionally, in most places across the country, it’s impossible for cyclists and non-cyclists to know that they’re traveling on established bicycle routes. By inviting businesses to post decals, the route becomes signed and the likelihood that more people learn they’re on bicycling routes increases. The more cyclists and motorists know to expect one another on particular roadways, the more comfortable travel for both becomes.

How do you know where to go on your trip?

Adventure Cycling has done a phenomenal job selecting low-traffic and scenic roads to ride and coding communities and settlements for essential services on their maps. I follow the route and use the elevation profile included with the map to help gauge how far I will go each day and then evaluate the towns for desired services. Since I travel with no cooking gear, it’s important to know where I can get food or meals. Lodging options are also a priority. The maps have icons to differentiate between camping, hostel, motel, and bed and breakfast services and then provide further specifics on the reverse of the map including phone numbers, location, and other specific or relevant information.

How long is your journey taking you?

I set aside ten weeks to arrive at my destination in Washington, D.C. My entire round-trip from Eugene, Oregon and back will be just over 12 weeks. I’m taking the train back to Eugene from D.C.

I bike daily to work and dream of making a trip like yours. What advice do you have for novice bike travelers like me?

Keep biking to work. Riding your bike daily is a great way to love your body, love your bike, and develop tolerance and skill for what you encounter on a daily basis–good weather conditions, bad weather conditions, good road conditions, bad road conditions, nice drivers, and mean drivers. Bicycle touring requires psychological training as much as it requires physical training. Invariably you will encounter something you find challenging or difficult.  

If you’re interested in going on a long-distance bike ride, start with a manageable trip. Go for an overnight. Go for a week. Go for two weeks. Set a reasonable goal–one that will stretch you and give you a solid sense of accomplishment but not one that will be over-ambitious. 

Talk to other people who have been bicycle touring for tips or ideas. Join your local cycling club. Go on long rides on the weekend or whenever you can work it into your schedule. Set cycling goals. Spend some money on a nice pair of cycling shorts. Make friends with the staff at your cycling shop. Know how to fix a flat, patch a tube, and lube your bike. Stretch your body.

I really enjoyed your commentary on Cooky’s Cafe in Missouri. What were some of your other favorite food spots along the way? (I imagine food is of primary importance when you’re biking so much!)

Funny, this is the one question that I’ve spent most time thinking about on the road. Food has a kind of primary importance on any cycling trip because it fuels the engine. The best food spots are usually the ones that have what you’ve been fantasizing about for miles. I had a recommendation from some cyclists in Lowell, Idaho, that Lochsa Lodge near the top of Lolo Pass (the high point at the Idaho-Montana state line) had great food. The ride from Lowell to Lochsa Lodge is 66 miles without any services along a gorgeous and winding road that follows the river. I found the gentle grade enjoyable to ride, but I had quite an appetite when I arrived at the lodge. It sometimes can be embarrassing to eat as much as I ate that afternoon; the brownie sundae I had for dessert was obscene.

What are some of the trails’ highlights in terms of natural beauty? Historical interest? Cultural value?

Most of my favorite spots were lush, mountainous areas: Scenic Riverways, Montana; Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Wyoming; Rocky Mountains, Colorado; Appalachian Mountains, Virginia.

 The trail travels some incredible arid and desert areas, which also stuck with me for their historic and cultural interest. The Oregon Trail crosses the Continental Divide in Wyoming through desolate landscape that has just as little settlement today as it did in the 1840s. Pedaling through the area on my relatively high-tech bike with high-tech gear made me appreciate the hardships early pioneers endured and gave me a keener understanding of how the dream of Oregon’s green must have kept hope alive.

What have you been learning about the U.S. that you didn’t know before by undertaking this journey? And about yourself?

The U.S. is a big place. Pedaling it, I know no

w. For me, there is something singular about knowing how much energy it takes to cross the Rockies, Ozarks, Appalachians, and the great flats in the Midwest. I have a new appreciation for the road-building that makes it possible, too.

 Personally, this trip has taught me that there are more commonalities among us than differences. I reconnected to my country; it’s an incredible place. I’ve also learned that, when I give it space and opportunity to navigate, my heart has an awesome sense of direction.

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David Swanson’s March 2010 piece on Eight Bike-Friendly Cities in North America and last November’s feature story by Jim Conaway on Portland, Oregon, for how easy (and fun) it is to get around it on bike.

Photos: Top photo Greg Siple; Bottom photo Heidi Beierle

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