American Bike Project: The Journey Begins

National Geographic Travel photographer Tyler Metcalfe recently quit his job and sold his possessions. Now he’s setting off on the American Bike Project—an epic solo adventure of cross-country cycling that will take him 4,228 miles across the United States.

Virginia Horse

Tyler Metcalfe pedals in rural Virginia. Video by Tyler Metcalfe

I roll my bike to a stop at a lonely intersection in the middle of rural Virginia. In one corner stands an abandoned building; the other, a small convenience store. Fields of grass surround both for as far as I can see. Hungry and thirsty, I walk into the market looking for supplies. In the back of the shop I find three large tubs filled with murky water and hundreds of small minnows, with a sign above reading “Live Bait.” Opting instead for something to quench my thirst, I grab a bottle of Gatorade and approach the counter. Waiting to check out in front of me is a girl holding a pack of cigarettes.

“Sorry, I can’t sell you those,” says the clerk with a drawl iconic to the American South.

“Why not? I’m old enough,” the girl replies.

“No, I’m sorry, you’ve got one more year to go,” the cashier says, lifting the girl’s license and pointing to the date printed under her name.

“But I turned 18 last year! Look, May of 2015,” exclaims the girl, who also points to the date on her license.

The cashier looks down again at the license, and his expression turns from confusion to astonishment.

“My gosh, it’s 2016, isn’t it!” he yells. “I thought it was still 2015.” The cashier proceeds to explain that he has been dating each of his checks with 2015 for the last four months. As the clerk laughs to himself, the girl pays, takes her cigarettes, and walks out in disbelief.

Such is life in rural Virginia, where time appears to slow down. I’ve only been on the TransAmerica Trail a few days, but I’m already accustomed to the unique, unhurried pace that comes with bike travel. Free from the noisy bustle of the big city, I have the time—and the quiet—to appreciate each small encounter I have.

Map by Jon Bowen

There was the day when I stopped at B&L Country Store in Bumpass, Virginia, for some of the best barbecue of my life (though surely all food experiences are biased when you’re pedaling 70 miles per day). Shortly beforehand I met a father and son woodworking in their Beaverdam Antique Shop. In both places, I was greeted with warm smiles and patient demeanors that suggested these people had nothing to do but wait around and welcome travelers.

There was the day I was taken in by hosts Kathleen and Dave, who offered me my first home-cooked meal on the road, a soft bed, and great stories of Kathleen’s 20 years as a nun. We took the time to sit and talk with one another, and I welcomed the opportunity to listen to Kathleen practice the piano, something she’s dedicated quality time to since retiring.

There was the day when I battled traffic, construction, and detours until finally arriving at the Virginia Outdoor Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I was given a peaceful campsite next to the river and had the time to sit and reflect on my days.

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Postcards cover a wall in the “Cookie Lady’s House” in Afton, Virginia.

And there was the day I ended up staying in the legendary “Cookie Lady’s House,” which sits at the base of the Appalachian Mountains in Afton, Virginia, and has hosted cyclists along the TransAmerica Trail since its founding in 1976. Every room in the house is decked out, from floor to ceiling, with cycling memorabilia, postcards from around the world, and newspaper clippings chronicling the life of June Curry, the Cookie Lady. Though Curry passed away a few years ago, her spirit of giving lives on here.

Each of these encounters stands out as a stark marker in time, allowing me to define my journey by significant events rather than days.

Most meaningful have been the many generous people I continue to meet along the way. A few days ago, I was preparing to make a two-day push over the eastern section of the Appalachian Mountains. After passing the last major city before the climb, I realized I wouldn’t have another opportunity to resupply my food until I made it over the mountains. I checked my map. The nearest grocery store was seven miles in the opposite direction. Agonizingly, I turned back, and in the heat of the morning pedaled back toward town.

As I locked my bike up outside the store, a woman and her child approached to ask where I was headed. She listened to my plan to bike across the country, wished me well, and we parted ways. Ten minutes later, as I approached the checkout line, the same woman showed up with a handful of cash and insisted on buying all of my groceries. After hesitating and assuring her I didn’t need the money, I realized this wasn’t about the money: It was about her gesture of goodwill. I beamed and thanked her profusely.

Most inspiring, however, was my run-in with fellow TransAmerica cyclist Bruce. Bruce and I met on my fourth night on the road, as both of us had decided to seek lodging at a church in Palmyra, Virginia. Happy to see a fellow cyclist on the trail, we exchanged stories while eating in an empty room adjacent to the chapel.

A few years ago, Bruce was diagnosed with cancer, and after chemotherapy he was left without most feeling in his feet and lower legs. Such a transformation would likely discourage most people to give up most physical activity altogether, but Bruce reacted in a way most wouldn’t. He decided to bike across the country on a recumbent bike. This decision was a bold one, and it put the possibilities of the TransAmerica Trail in perspective.

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Fellow TransAmerica Trail rider Bruce uses a recumbent bike in Virginia.

Bruce and I chatted for an hour or so before heading off to sleep, and by the time I was ready to leave in the morning Bruce had already departed. I wasn’t sure if I would see him again. But his story stuck with me as I continued to bike westward.

Two days later, after an intense section of heavy traffic along the trail, I began to feel tired and a bit worn down. Then I saw Bruce pedaling 200 feet ahead of me, his bright bike flags whipping in the wind. “Bruce!” I yelled as I approached him. Surprised to see me, he laughed and we spent the next hour riding together, exchanging stories from the last few days since our run-in. Though we had known each other for only an evening, seeing him again felt like running into an old friend and it restored me with an energy that carried me forward into the evening sunset.

It’s moments like these that make traveling by bike unique. Every day is a new adventure. I wake up not knowing where I will sleep or who I will meet, but certain that anything can happen.

Follow along in the coming months as I ride my bike 4,228 miles across America. I'll be pedaling through 11 states, three national parks, and countless landscapes—and reporting the stories I find along the way. I’ll be updating my story here and on Twitter @tyler_metcalfe, as well as posting images to the @natgeotravel Instagram account, and my personal Instagram feed @tylermetcalfe.