High Desert

We took 2 and a half days of rest in Estes Park and it was marvelous. Aside from an increased amount of down time, we were treated to 2-hour massages (Thanks, David and Alix!), and we went on a multi-hour hike. It was so nice to be able to cook in a real kitchen, drink good coffee, spend an evening watching Netflix, sleep in, and not have to worry about if it was going to rain. But as all things good, you can’t rest forever, as fun as that would be (?), although Estes will be less than a 2 hour drive for us come this fall!

Estes Sunset

Big dogs need big walking sticks
Us with Alix and David
At the top of Trail Ridge Road

David drove us back over Trail Ridge Road to Granby on July 1st, where we rejoined our route. It was a cold morning and we were conflicted about what we wanted to wear because we knew we would be starting a long climb to Willow Creek Pass shortly after leaving town. We went for windbreakers and bike gloves, even though we were still freezing, and sure enough 3 miles out of town we had to lose the jackets. We stopped on the two lane road, with no shoulders, where cars had good visibility, to pack up our jackets and put on the cold, thick sunscreen. In the middle of this process, Nicole heard a rustling in the trees on the hillside across the road. A moment later a moose and her calf came walking out of the trees, approximately 200 yards away from us, then re-entered at another point to exit again near the top of the hill, and finally disappear over to the other side. Neither of us got a picture of it though, so kids these days would say it never happened.

As we climbed to the pass we encountered some interesting geologic features that resembled straight-line walls cutting through hills across the landscape. Geologists call them dikes; I likened them to a mohawk hairstyle. From the top of the pass, the terrain looked to be downhill for the remainder of the day, however, the scale on the graph did a good job at hiding all the climbing we would encounter, nor did it forewarn us about the wind on the other side. Several times I was thrown across the lane by a gust, but the traffic was light so we took the amount of space we needed. As we ventured further north from the pass, the landscape dried out and flattened out rather quickly as we entered a large plain. Snow-capped mountains lined the horizon on 3 sides of us, all except where we were headed.

Dikes, or Mohawks
Top of CD pass #2

That wind…

We arrived in Walden, the self-proclaimed “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado,” however, we only saw seagulls – lots and lots of seagulls. We checked in with the sheriff through a basement window of the large and elegant courthouse then went to the park to set up camp. The city pool, where we planned to take a shower, was closed for the weekend. We then walked down the main strip looking for dinner only to find restaurant after restaurant closed an hour to two before their posted closing time. We settled for the dollar store and made dinner back in the park. As we crawled into our tent, a lady came up to inform us that 65 firefighters would also be camping in the park that night and that they would arrive in an hour or two. It was hard to believe, but shortly after dusk group after group of firefighters came marching across the grass, opened their pop-up tents and went to bed. By the time we woke up the next morning they had already packed up and left for their shift of managing a wildfire.

The wind was at our backs that morning swiftly carrying us away from the mountains and further into the arid high desert. As we crossed into Wyoming, we stopped to take a picture with the sign and noticed in the distance a road zigzag over a large hill. We learned that road was our road, and it was 12 miles away. For the next 12 miles the hill was the only thing to look at. It never appeared to get closer and the cars driving up never appeared to get bigger, even as we came to the base of the climb. The wind was no longer at our backs and by the time we crossed over the top it was in full gale at our sides. This combined with the heat may have put me in a rotten mood and you would have found me yelling profanities at the wind. I was briefly distracted by gunshots coming from an SUV parked in the middle of a field, with a rifle sticking out of the window towards an antelope and its fawn across the field. I assume they were just trying to scare them away, and when it didn’t work, they drove closer and shot again, and again, until the antelope calmly bounced away and looking back as if to say, “what’s his deal?” It wasn’t until we arrived in Riverside where I ate a pint of ice cream and drank a 20 oz fountain drink scrunched in the 14-inch band of shade that wrapped the south side of the store that I started to feel back at ease. Nicole got a cup of yogurt and a small milk.

This is the Welcome to Wyoming sign

The rest of the day was calm which allowed us to look around a little more and realize there were more sun-bleached skeletons on the shoulder than roadkill. I was ready to hang a skull and antlers on the front of my bike, but I was only able to find one antler. Eventually we made it to Saratoga and went straight to the grocery store. We bought a half gallon of orange juice for immediate consumption, a half gallon of pineapple-mango juice to have with dinner, a Gatorade for the next day, and a few other items not juice related. We then found the city pool, behind which was a hot sulfur spring free to the public. It smelled, the stairs were slimy, it was crazy hot, and it was great. We showered, made dinner in the park, bought a pint of ice cream to share, then went to the city campground, which turned out to be swarming with mosquitos. But we had a lovely view from inside our tent of the bright red sunset over the calm adjacent lake.

Pretty nice hot spring for free!
Wildfire haze made the sun bright red
Pretty sunset, safe from mosquitos

In an effort to minimize mosquito contact the next morning we packed up like a NASCAR pit crew and cruised north 20 miles before taking a rest to eat breakfast. This brought us to Walcott, also known as the Shell gas station at exit 235 on I-80. During our breakfast break we met several other cycle tourists, including Stuart, who is biking the continental divide one to two weeks at a time each year, as work allows, and Miles, a recent graduate of vet school also westbound on the TransAm. From “Walcott” our route put us on the shoulder of I-80 for 13 miles. While many people were nervous about this, we were actually rather glad because this meant we would actually have a wide shoulder for cars and trucks driving equally as fast as on smaller roads. With half the highway closed for construction, everyone was squeezed onto one side for 7 miles thus slowing the traffic a little more for us. We exited at Sinclair and followed frontage roads to Rawlins, where we found a Subway and split a $5 footlong for lunch. We assessed our options for the rest of the day: the next place to stay was in 70 miles (we had already gone 40 miles), and there were 20 mph westerly winds throughout the afternoon, with gusts of 50 – 55 mph. We decided to call it a day and stay in Rawlins. We found the public library, air-conditioned, furnished with comfy armchairs, had ample free WiFi, bathrooms, water, outlets, and books to browse. It was pretty great. For dinner, we ate baked chicken on the demo patio furniture in front of the grocery store. The chairs were chained to the center post of the small table so we really had to squeeze in – we are getting oddly comfortable eating in places most convenient to us with little regard to its social acceptability. That night, the free camping option was the lawn on the side of Wal-Mart, and while it was not pretty great, it wasn’t horrible either. Actually now that I think about it, it was bad. On the west side of us was Wal-Mart with a parking lot full of RVs and flood lights, on the south side of us was a train yard that was active through the night, and on the east side of us was I-80. The only thing giving us privacy was a dozen pallets of fertilizer.

I-80 has the best shoulders!
Not a bad way to spend an afternoon
Eating by the front door of the grocery store
Wal-Mart camping

We started July 4th, biking north from the dusty cowboy town of Rawlins into the wide open scrub land. We crossed the continental divide twice each after a long steady climb, followed by a dramatic drop. Lots of antelope could be seen in the fields and ditches. We came across Split Rock, a natural landmark for the Oregon Trail and a Pony Express station turned US Post Office, which remained in operation until the 1940s. The mountains looked so bare and isolated across the landscape, like drops of biscuit dough on a cookie sheet.

Continental Divide crossing #3
Downhill to the next valley
Continental Divide crossing #4
Starting to see tourists headed to Yellowstone

We made it to Jeffrey City, a uranium mining town that collapsed in the 1980s when the mine shut down. The town had a church open for cyclists to stay, and by the looks of the walls, nearly every passing cyclist has stayed there. There were showers, which were much needed and appreciated, a full kitchen, and private rooms with mattresses. We were lucky to have the company of 5 other cyclists that night, and have a viewing of another gorgeous sunset.

Locals at the Split Rock Cafe in Jeffrey City – 5 dogs and 2 people in a fourwheeler!
Jeffrey City
Jeffrey City Community Church/Cyclist Hostel
Postcards from previous cycle tourists
Kitchen wall in the cyclist hostel
The group at the hostel – Bob and Donna from South Carolina, Jay and Stan from London, and Miles from Georgia

New Time Zone, New Terrain

Eastern Colorado initially pretty much looks just like Kansas, but with the growing sense of anticipation that the mountains are coming soon. The first day we passed through tiny dusty towns one after another, fields sometimes with cattle but often just dirt. I read in another blog that many of these communities have sold off water rights to the larger cities, so without the ability to irrigate the towns are dying and everyone moving away.

Towards the end of our second day in Colorado, after staying in the church in Sheridan Lake, we noticed a change in the feel of the landscape, now scrub brush plains dotted with cactus and sage, distinctively western feeling. And finally we got a glimpse of the mountains in the distance! That day we’d planned to go 88 miles to the town of Ordway, where we could camp in yet another city park. We’d left early and made good time, and although we were really hot when we rolled into Ordway, but after lots of ice water, burgers and shakes at a diner (and sitting in the A/C for over an hour), we looked at each other and thought “It’s 5pm, we have a tailwind, and the next town’s only 18 miles away!” and rode on to Fowler. This was a record distance for both of us at 106 miles – it’s crazy how much difference flat terrain and a helpful wind can make! We camped in the playground of an RV park once again surrounded by playing children, as well as a few friendly dogs who came over to check us out.

Friday’s ride into Pueblo was an easy ride along a highway with a wide shoulder. After 11 days of biking without taking a rest day, we were ready to take a break, and instead of staying in Pueblo, decided to go up to Colorado Springs for a day to stay with a family friend who’d offered to host us. This proved to be a more complicated plan than we had thought, as our initial idea of getting a rental car was thwarted by the fact that we’d unwittingly arrived in Pueblo on the same day as a classic car convention, and there was not a single rental car to be found! We found a host on Warmshowers.com in downtown Pueblo willing to store our bikes for the weekend – one problem solved – and went with the backup plan of getting tickets for the Greyhound bus for the hour ride up to COS. With some time to kill before our bus, we meandered around Pueblo’s pleasant old town and river walk, stopping for giant fresh sandwiches and some local beer. The Greyhound station lived up to the stereotypical reputation for sketchy characters hanging around, and we were dismayed when no bus showed up, and looking online learned that our bus was delayed over an hour. However, when I contacted Pat, our friend in Colorado Springs, to let him know of the delay, he generously told us he’d just come pick us up – an hour drive we’d been trying to avoid him having to make! We were very thankful, though, and once again blown away by the generosity of friends along the way on this trip.

Pueblo’s downtown riverwalk
Mural in Pueblo
Yay for healthy food!

We spent two nights in their comfortable townhome, catching up (I hadn’t seen this family for 10+ years!) and enjoying the air conditioning and comfortable couches. A college friend of Robert’s came down from Denver to meet us for brunch on Saturday and we borrowed the car to run some needed errands while in a town with Target and REI, but our energy level was pretty low and we did a whole lot of sitting! Sunday morning Pat drove us back down to Pueblo and we started off again, refreshed and very ready to finally get to those mountains looming in the distance.

Pat Braker, an old family friend from years ago and our host in Colorado Springs!
First time driving a car in 6 weeks…

After Pueblo the terrain drastically changed, with plateaus and ravines and the beginnings of foothills leading to larger peaks, although our route stayed on the flat plain. The views of storm clouds moving across the valleys and gathering over the peaks were beautiful. That day we made it to Royal Gorge, an impressive natural canyon formed by the Arkansas River, but the suspension bridge, gondola, zip line, and myriad other attractions have turned it into a slightly disappointing tourist trap. We were shocked at the campground prices – one place quoted us $49 for a tent site – and settled for the $30 KOA, where we found our Dutch friends Hans and Eefke at the site next door, as well as Uwe, a German Lutheran pastor biking the TransAm as his sabbatical. We took advantage of the free mini-golf, where I think we were the only players over 12, and sat and talked with Uwe for a while about our countries’ respective politics and issues. It was clear we weren’t in the plains anymore when the temperature dropped to the 50s when it got dark, and we climbed shivering into our sleeping bags!

Heading towards the mountains!
Climbing to Royal Gorge from Canon City
Our campsite at the Royal Gorge KOA
Evening activities

In the morning we biked the 4 (mostly uphill) miles to the gorge visitor center itself, hoping for a decent view without paying to walk across the suspension bridge but couldn’t see much and were pretty disgusted by the pushy up-selling of overpriced tours and souvenirs in the visitor center. The climbing started soon after getting back on route, a steady grade through incredibly gorgeous valleys, ranches of green pastures and streams and bigger and bigger peaks coming in to view.

The one overlook without having to pay!

So. Many. Pretty. Views.
Climbing towards Guffey

It was hot and slow progress, though, and we were very ready for a rest when we reached the tiny town of Guffey, a mile off route and uphill but the only town for 20 miles in either direction so a necessary water refill spot. Several people had told us to be sure and stop here to see this quirky little town. We first got lunch in the cafe, where we were the only customers and it felt more like we were just guests in the home of the couple who owned it! They told us about all the other cyclists who’d stopped there recently. The town is only a couple of blocks long, and somehow they’ve made it so all the buildings are log cabin style, old or new, and it feels like stepping back in time to the old west. We’d been told to make sure to go to the Guffey Garage, a former mechanic’s shop where Bill, the proprietor, runs a collection of guest cabins, a bunkhouse, and a town museum, and has been welcoming cyclists since the 1976 inauguration of the TransAm route. It’s hard to describe the random collection of memorabilia, old cars, signs, and randomness filling the building and yard – a few pictures will have to suffice! Bill welcomed us by offering us cold water or a Bud Light in a koozie made of an old green bean can, and told stories of the town (where the mayor is a cat named Monster), how he got started hosting cyclists, and how there’s too many tourists now that they got “discovered”! He gave us the key to the museum/dance hall, where we explored the memorabilia of the town’s unique personality, including their Flying Chicken Contest every 4th of July. It was a surreal, incredibly fun little stop in the middle of our day, but we dragged ourselves away to push on to Hartsel, the next town, also maybe 3 blocks long. The wind really picked up for the last section, and altogether between the elevation gain and the wind it was a hard day. We camped behind the cafe/saloon in Hartsel and ate buffalo burgers in the bar, as locals sat around chatting and old-fashioned cowboy country music blared.

The Guffey Garage
Bill and friend

Guffey museum/dance hall
We were told these were real horses that a local rancher had to put down!

The next day, I started out with some trepidation, knowing we’d be tackling our first big pass, over 11,000 feet – after how slow I was the day before I was a bit worried! The climb to Hoosier Pass was actually a much more manageable grade than the earlier climbs, and after passing through Alma, the highest incorporated town in the United States, we chugged up 4 miles of steady climbing, the views becoming more and more stunning as we gained elevation. This week, as we entered the mountains, I’ve found my enthusiasm for this trip returning – there were times in the last few weeks, when the distances seemed unending and I didn’t particularly like the areas we were traveling through, where I’ve wondered if this trip was worth it. But pedaling up that pass, realizing that we got all the way up there from sea level under our own power, was pretty incredible.

Camping behind the store in Hartsel
Approaching Hoosier Pass
One of our frequent picture breaks!
11,539 feet, we made it to the continental divide!
Views from Hoosier Pass

At the top we met several other bike tourists who gradually arrived, as we one after another took pictures with the Continental Divide sign. The descent down to Breckinridge was some of the most fun riding I’ve ever done – coasting down winding curves, the green valley lined by towering rocky peaks stretching ahead of us. We coasted through the town of Breckinridge with every possible type of touristy and outdoor store on its manicured Main Street, and then got to ride 10 miles of beautiful paved bike paths winding their way to Frisco, our destination further down the valley on the edge of the Dillon Reservoir. There were SO MANY PEOPLE on bikes, running, walking, bike paths leading all over and between the towns, all in a valley that looks like paradise. We checked in to our hotel and then explored Main Street, continuing to marvel at the views of the cliff faces towering above the town. Much of this valley reminded us of parts of the Swiss Alps that we explored last September.

Breckenridge bike path

After Frisco, our ride was mostly downhill, with new views around each curve continually providing new things to look at as we passed through a national recreation area. We are stopping much more to take pictures now! We passed through several small towns as the landscape got hotter and drier, including one where the supposed convenience store marked on our map turned out to only be a liquor store where the owner refused to let cyclists fill water bottles from the tap. A couple in an SUV who happened to also be stopped there overheard this, however, and graciously offered us the water in their Nalgene bottles to refill our own. Kind gestures like this truly do overshadow the rare unpleasant interactions we have with people! The temperatures got up to the high 90s by mid-afternoon, and we almost stopped our day in the town of Kremmling, where an overpriced RV park let cyclists tent camp on their lawn. After downing a half gallon of orange juice and a pint of ice cream outside the Family Dollar, though, with the sun becoming less intense, we continued to Hot Sulphur Springs, getting to ride through a beautiful but slightly nerve-wracking canyon due to the sun setting and the road not having a shoulder. Cars in Colorado have still been decently considerate, but definitely don’t give us as much space as in other states – too many tourists distracted by the views! We camped by the river in the city park, in the company of five million mosquitos which drove us into our tent early.

Bike path along the Dillon Reservoir out of Frisco
More bike paths in Silverthorne!
New panoramas around every corner
Green Mountain Reservoir Dam
Canyon before Hot Sulphur Springs
Mosquito-filled yet picturesque campsite in Hot Sulphur Springs

Our plan had been to end in Granby the next day, Thursday, as Friday morning my dad was going to drive over from Estes Park, about 2 hours away through the national park, to pick us up so we could spend a day off with them. This morning, though, as we procrastinated facing the mosquitos, we realized that we were only 10 miles from Granby, and would have a lot of time to kill to wait for a pickup the next morning. I texted my dad, and somehow everything fell into place – he was free to come pick us up this morning instead! So here we are at his house in Estes Park, after a beautiful drive over Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ll take two days off here and get dropped off back on our route on Sunday morning, ready to tackle the rest of the West!

We’re Off To See The Wizard

It took 8 days for us to bike across Kansas, and most of this time we stayed on a single road heading straight west. Occasionally, our route would turn us to bike straight north for 20 miles to the next cross-road where we would turn west again. Kansas has vast open spaces, and each field is either wheat, corn, or cow pastures. Many residents warned us along the way to look out for the harvest trucks as much of the wheat is ready to be cut, and while we did encounter many trucks along the way, they would always move into the other lane or slow down for us. What scared us the most was when combines were being transported. We would spot one in our rear-view mirror coming up behind us, overhanging the road with no shoulder and we would pull off a few feet from the white line. Often it would, in fact, be a parade of combines and other farm equipment so we would wait for them to pass, then get back on the road if we didn’t see a second wave coming. Most of the time, the roads were empty and to help pass the time, we listened to podcasts – lots and lots of podcasts.

OK, there were some hills early on in Kansas
But most of it looked like this
And this

Our first day we had a late start, after oversleeping our alarms. Maybe because we were recovering from the 100-mile day to Pittsburg or maybe because we didn’t get to bed until after midnight, who’s to say, but that meant we would be riding more during the hottest time of day when forecasts were in the mid- to upper 90’s. Fortunately, every day felt gradually more dry as we slowly gained elevation and moved closer to the distant mountains. We crossed paths with one of the first TransAm racers going east. They were on day 11, we were on day 28, and the half-way point is in Colorado. Basically, these unsupported racers were going 200+ miles per day and getting about 4 hours of sleep each night. Several of the riders started sleeping in the afternoons to escape the heat then ride through the night and morning, however this didn’t end so well as one of the guys was struck by a truck in the middle of the night.

At the end of the day we arrived in the small town of Benedict where a church was said to host cyclists. Instead, it turns out that a 76 year old guy who goes by ‘Paster Joe’ owns the church and the town convenience store, and he was currently working on renovating the church so he had us stay in his house next door. He was friendly and very welcoming. His entire store and house were filled with posters from every different kind of Christian outlet to show how many millions of lives were being brought to Christ by a certain ministry, how many seats needed to be filled on a plane for another cause, or the reach of a missionary that resembled maps of the Roman Empire conquest strategy. There were a dozen bowls spread out across his living room and dining room to catch rain water. His dishwasher was a tote full of bleach water on the floor. The bathroom had no sink and the tub had a single pipe sticking out of the wall – no faucet. You’d almost feel sorry for the guy but he insisted that he would not fix a single thing in his house until the church was back in shape. The church where he would give a message, when God instructed him it was time, about the coming of the end of the world… and then we heard him talk for over 4 hours about all his conspiracy theories, how the FBI and CIA were tracking him and supposedly tried to kill him. We heard about how he served in the Army, Navy, and was a Regional Commander of the Kansas Militia and how he believes our shores are lined with submarines waiting to attack. Though he didn’t say it directly, he indicated in his stories how he believed he was a prophet of God. He knew the armadillos were invading the area en masse to nurture the flesh-eating birds. I asked where they were coming from. “From Texas,” he said, not seeing how Kansas has become the center of the universe to him. Nicole and I barely said a word the entire time we were there, often stone faced, looking at the floor or our phones, but he was thrilled about how much energy there was when fellow Christians come together as we were then. He was a great guy at heart, and it was sad to see the path people can go down when they feel absolutely certain about stories they tell themselves, often unfounded, over and over again, without hearing anyone else with an open mind that thinks otherwise, acknowledging they might be wrong.

Lowest priority
One small corner
Yes, that’s a mini-bus, and it’s his vehicle.

We left the house in a hurry the next day and while we appreciated him praying with us and for our safety, it was tainted when he would throw in a comment that was appalling. The day brought southerly winds which weren’t bad because half the time we were going north, but the heat took its toll. Tom caught up with us, last seen in Farmington, MO and we rode together for part of the morning. We pulled into a convenience store called the “Lizard Lips Cafe,” 2 miles north of Toronto (Kansas loves naming its cities after other cities) where we saw 2 other touring bikes propped up outside. The bikes belonged to a couple from the Netherlands, Hans and Eefke, the same age as us and they were just getting back on route after a detour to St. Louis and riding the Katy Trail across Missouri. They had bikes with straight handlebars, flat pedals, wide 26-inch tires and seats that looked comfortable. They rode sitting upright, wearing casual clothing and flip-flops. Not only is this very different to our approach, but we later learned they are quite a bit faster than us. I asked why they wear flip-flops and they said, “We’re on vacation; we want to feel like we are riding leisurely.” After Nicole and I finished eating lunch, we noticed hanging above the door a whiteboard with a list of names labeled “Dead Beats” along with the amount of money each debtor owed. There was an outstanding balance of over $2,400.

Other cyclists!
Dead Beats *spits*

We reached Eureka intending to go further, but when we realized how long we had to stand in the frozen food isle at the grocery before feeling like we weren’t going to die of heat exhaustion, we took the hint that it was best to stop for the day. We set up camp in the city park next to the playground and lounged at the city pool, free to cyclists. The Dutch couple and another cyclist were also camping there for the night. The other cyclist was an eastbound retired guy from the west coast but living in Bangkok for the past 35 years. The town had a Sonic with a half off shakes deal after 8 PM so we all walked there together and got to know each other a little. When we went back to the park there was a baseball game going and the younger siblings were running back and forth across the park within a few feet of our tents – they are apparently used to seeing cyclists camping there. Somehow, this didn’t prevent us from falling asleep.

We were extra determined to beat the heat going forward and started waking up at 5 AM, packing up the tent, skipping breakfast or eating a protein bar and hitting the road as soon as it was light enough to be safe, typically around 6. The southerly wind continued day after day, slowing our progress, but we would often reach our ending point each day around noon or the early afternoon which we were really glad about because it was usually above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon. The Dutch couple had the same itinerary as us so we would often see each other at rest stops or the city park at the end of each day, and every day another half dozen TransAm racers would whizz past. Every city had a park and a pool for us to use which was really nice. The only times we opted for something different was in Newton, where we stayed with a nice family that doesn’t bike, but enjoys hosting cyclists, then in Scott City where we got a motel to hide from a flash flood. Otherwise, we had a regular routine of waking up at 5 AM, biking until noon or 1 PM, hanging out at the city pool, make or buy dinner, then set up the tent and go to bed on our sleeping pads – no sleeping bags needed.

Where we spent every afternoon
He was a very mid-western guy
Our wonderful host family in Newton
Neon police sign
Feeding the family
One of the many guys who came to talk to us at the park
Beautiful sunrises
Ontheleeway with Eefke and Hans

As we moved across Kansas, we saw cattle feedlots starting to appear, and with them, biting flies. The flies were so bad that a water break that would normally be 2 or 3 minutes was cut down to about 10 to 15 seconds. We stopped seeing armadillos, though we’ve never seen one alive yet. Caterpillars resembling the head of a wheat plant were often booking it across the road as fast as they could go. I watched many a hawk or crow trying to escape a small bird chasing it out of its territory. This is apparently called ‘mobbing’. I also learned that no matter how thirsty I am, I will never be able to drink a 32 oz fountain drink. It’s too damn much.

Here’s a pretty sunrise
When will it end?!?
Here’s a photo for your viewing pleasure

The morning of June 20th, we woke up in our motel room in Scott City expecting to find water on the floor because not only did it rain over 5 inches the prior evening and flood the street on all sides of the building, it started raining again as we were falling asleep. To our surprise, all the water was gone. The pavement was wet and some ditches and fields had standing water, but nothing that indicated anything more than an overnight drizzle had occurred. We biked away for the first time fighting a northerly wind and it felt rather strange using the opposite set of muscles to counteract the force. At one point, in the middle of nowhere, we saw a cycle tourist standing on the side of the highway and as we approached he exclaimed, “Ontheleeway! I’ve been waiting for you!” We pulled off and quickly recognized him from Instagram. It’s so nice having this community of people to share stories and recommendations with, then get to see along the way in the middle of nowhere.

Flash flood and hail that flies into your room if you open the door.
Internet friends!!

We had originally planned to stop in Tribune, but felt ambitious to cross into the next state, Colorado. We made it to Sheridan Lake, where we were able to sleep in a church and use the kitchen to make dinner, which felt really good.

Shhh – We showered using their garden hose.
A kitchen!!
Tan lines

Kansas, Here We Come!

We decided to veer off slightly from the Trans-Am route in order to spend a rest day in Springfield, MO, and get Robert’s bike seat repaired. From Marshfield, this meant riding down the old Route 66 highway, which is now a frontage road and really not especially interesting – especially when you are sore and exhausted, fighting a strong headwind, and very ready to just get there, as I was – I’m afraid I was not in a very good mood. We took an obligatory picture with the Route 66 sign, and came into Springfield onto a busy commercial street with every strip mall and chain store you can imagine, all concrete and asphalt, and not a bit of anything green and growing in sight. To our relief, Springfield vastly improved when we turned off into some picturesque older neighborhoods with plentiful parks and bike lanes as we wound our way to our Warmshowers host Stuart’s house, first stopping for a lunch of local BBQ.

Yay? We’re not sure why so many people are obsessed with Route 66, but here we are

Stuart, his friendly and engaging kids Jane and Brady, and their lovable Great Pyrenees/Shepherd mix Jack warmly welcomed us, and as Stuart offered us a cold beer from the keg taps installed in a refrigerator in the garage, we learned that he is an architect who now runs Mother’s Brewing Company, a local craft brewery, and offered to take us on a tour later that afternoon once we’d showered and relaxed a bit. He’d taken the kids on a cross country bike tour 8 years ago, when in between jobs, and we enjoyed comparing experiences and hearing about what it takes to bike tour with toddlers, a whole different set of challenges!

Our delightful hosts, including the most cuddly dog ever

The brewery was great, we had the opportunity to sample nearly all their beers and found them all incredible, and really enjoyed learning about the chemistry and process of brewing and production in a bit more detail than we’ve ever heard before. That evening, another family came over for dinner and we met John, a former German professor now turned COO of Askenosie Chocolates, a local fair-trade chocolate company in Springfield that makes some amazing chocolate and works directly with farmers worldwide to fairly source their beans.

Mother’s Brewing Company taproom

It was delightful to sleep in and know that we didn’t have to cycle far the next day. We spent quite a bit of time at a local bike shop, where after several unsuccessful attempts to replace the broken parts on Robert’s seat, they ended up just giving him a brand new seat of the same model. We’re very thankful for Brooks Saddles two-year warranty! Excited to be in a city with a food scene and cafe options besides fast food and convenience stores, we shared half a dozen fancy donuts for lunch and sat at a hipster coffee shop for the afternoon to work on things. Good coffee is definitely one of the things I very much miss on this trip! We also stopped in at the headquarters of Bass Pro Shop, to marvel at the extravagant architecture of molded trees and taxidermy specimens set in realistic-looking wildlife scenes inside the colossal outdoor store. It felt incredibly light and free to be biking around town minus the 40lbs of gear we’re usually carrying – I decided that sort of short-distance commuting is, I think, my favorite way to ride a bike

Lunch!

Coffee Ethic, downtown Springfield, a remedy for our lack of good coffee on this trip!

Our day ended with an invitation to a potluck of a group of Stuart’s friends, at the urban farm that one of them owns which they converted from a formerly drug-filled and abandoned city block. We showed up at this house and were warmly welcomed by an incredibly interesting group of people, from the farm owners to some musicians to one couple who have been traveling around the US in an RV interviewing people about the current climate of divisiveness in the US and listening to their stories and experiences (you can see more about their project at www.somethinggigantic.com). The evening was filled with laughter, kids and dogs running everywhere, and the sounds of folk guitar and singing coming from the porch. We were really struck by what a connected, active, supportive community we had a glimpse of during our time in Springfield, the way Stuart welcomed us into it, and were inspired by the multiple people we met who started out their lives going one direction and have found themselves doing something completely different that they love. It was a great reminder that life is bigger and better than we often imagine it can be, especially as we dream about what we want our lives to look like when we settle down with a sort of fresh start after this trip.

Urban Roots Farm

From Springfield our ride was uneventful, with only a few small towns along the way and mostly a whole lot of farmfields, as we began our 5th week of cycling. We met several eastbound cyclists, including an Australian, a couple from Austria, and a guy from New Zealand. We also met our first cross-country racer – the Trans-Am Bike Race started on June 2nd in Astoria, and the riders are fully self-contained (carrying all their own gear in a minimalist bike-packing setup) and ride nearly nonstop, up to 250 miles or so a day, to complete the same route we’re doing but in a third of the time. We met the guy who was currently in second place, and he’d come all the way from Oregon to Missouri in 12 days. Crazy. It makes what we’re doing look like a breeze – I can’t even comprehend how it must feel to do that!

We’ve heard a lot about Kansas’ winds and days of nothingness – here it goes!

I was pretty proud of our own ride that day, however. We felt pretty good at each town we came to, and were making good time, so we decided to push to make it into Kansas, making it my first ever 100-mile ride and getting us to our 5th state of the trip! The city of Pittsburg, KS gave us an odd feeling as we rode into town, full of deserted-looking rundown buildings and people with a down-on-their-luck appearance. We’d planned to camp at the city RV park which let’s cyclists camp on their lawn, but when we checked it out, a couple was already camping there with two giant tents, some dilapidated mountain bikes, a giant mastiff dog tied to a tree, and a baby raccoon (!) they said was named Squirrel. We had greeted them and introduced ourselves as we usually do other cyclists, but in briefly chatting definitely got the vibe that they weren’t traveling by choice but were homeless. Uncomfortable with leaving our things there to go find dinner, we biked to Wal-Mart with all of our stuff where we got food and sat and ate in the Adirondack chairs that were for sale in front of the store as the sun set, people-watching. We’ve gone to so many Wal-Marts on this trip already, and usually sit outside to eat, that, we joked that it’s become our front porch. As we sat there we both couldn’t shake the feeling of uneasiness about staying in the RV park and about the town in general – I don’t know what it was and don’t know anything about Pittsburg, but I swear nearly everyone looked like they were a drug addict or homeless. Finally, we caved and booked a room at a hotel up the street, happily inside and safe from both the potential rain and creepy people!

A soft bed, air conditioning, and a bucket of ice – pure luxury!

Missouri Is Not All Misery

As we prepared to start our next state, and next “mountain range”, we slowly made our way to the Mississippi River meandering past statues and murals to commemorate E.C. Segar, the creator of Popeye, who grew up in Chester, and based his characters on people in the town.

Mississippi River Crossing

From the time we crossed into Missouri, we were granted 9 miles of flat, floodplain riding at an elevation of 400 ft above mean sea level, the lowest we would see for a long time, and then the hills started. Up, up, down, up. Our thighs moaned having thought the steep climbs were behind us. With only two towns en route, both in the first 20 miles, we made sure to stop and top off our water, including purchasing extra 1-liter bottles to keep on hand. It’s always a gamble with each convenience store if they will ask us to sign a guest book for all the cyclists who have passed through. Typically, the local and rural stores are more invested in the TransAm while the chain stores aren’t even aware of it.

Look at those naive happy faces

The hills grew larger and larger throughout the day and with it, some very unexpected places. It started with vineyard/wineries – there must have been three or four; from there, signs started popping up saying “Tours” with a calligraphic outline of a tiger. The ambiguity perplexed me, and was just enough distraction to coax me up the next climb. Sure enough, Southeast Missouri has a tiger sanctuary. We stopped at the shaded and gated parking lot entrance for a quick rest and to see about these tours – apparently Wednesdays were an off day. The day drew on and we drew from our water supply, until it became very low. Fortunately, we found a brewery and we were up for some “rehydrating”. Unfortunately, it was Wednesday, so they were also closed. We noticed one door at the end of the building propped open so we moseyed over and poked our heads in. Staff were busy on a production line bottling and boxing, but they were kind enough to let us come in to refill our water bottles with ice-cold water.

Tiger Sanctuary
Missouri has excellent signage for the bike route

That night we stayed in a cyclist hostel run by the City of Farmington, which until 1996, was a prison. It was converted to a rather nice hostel after a local who had been hosting cyclists passed away. When we arrived, like most hostels, we called the local police, they gave us the code to open the door, and we never saw any staff or personnel during the stay. Tom, another cyclist we had been leapfrogging, was also there for the night and he recommended a local Chinese restaurant, so we checked it out. We each ordered a combo-plate, and after we nearly finished them, they told us they almost never see people finish one. We were just hoping all the sodium would help keep us hydrated the next day.

Nice little prison hostel
Doesn’t resemble a prison much on the inside!

Thursday, we biked from Farmington to Ellington passing through multiple state parks and national forests. From this point on, we saw progressively more pine trees and dead armadillos. The most common road kill we have encountered on this entire trip would be turtles, followed by armadillos. Neither has a winning self-defense strategy when confronted by cars. Another thing we saw in these remote areas was an increase in confederate flags.

The first state park we passed was Johnson’s Shut-In State Park and we got there right when the day was hottest, so jumping into a cold river sounded very appealing. The park was bustling with tour groups – a charter bus of elderly people, a motorcycle gang, a swarm of middle school kids – and it made sense, it was a pretty cool park. A ‘shut-in’ is a narrow, deep section of a river, and in this instance flows through an obstacle coarse of igneous rock. Little waterfalls and whirlpools abound in this natural water park. We also passed through Mark Twain National Forest. While the roads in the Appalachians would follow the bottom of ravines then in a series of switchbacks climb over each hill, Missouri had a different approach. They appear to have stretched a ribbon straight and dropped it on the landscape making sure each rolling hill got its own moment of glory. They were short, but steep and relentless.

The danger level was ‘low’ the day we explored.
Quite a popular place
The shut-ins empty into a large pond / little lake

Make it stop

Ellington had converted what appeared to be an abandoned home into a cyclist hostel. The experience was drastically different from the previous night. Nonetheless, we were grateful for air conditioning, a shower, and a miniature fridge so we could buy perishable items for breakfast.

Ellington Hostel

We woke up very sore from the provided cots. They provided lots of support, but in all the wrong places. The roller coaster hills continued, making this one of our most difficult days yet, partly due to the heat and humidity, but I believe it’s also because we heard so many comparing the Appalachians and the Rockies and not mentioning Eastern Missouri, so we weren’t anticipating it. We found a buffet in Eminence having “Fish Friday” but we found the a/c even more enticing. We sat in a booth with all our water bottles lined up and when we asked for water with our meal, the waitress brought us each a glass full plus each a pitcher.

Ozarks

There was a natural spring we stopped to see that produces 81 million gallons of water per day, and from it, a new river flowed. The water was crystal clear like many rivers we’ve seen in Missouri, flowing over gravel and coarse sand, and sometimes directly over slabs of bedrock. We left the park after relaxing and walking around to cool down in the shade and started the next climb. The road was so steep, I was peddling my hardest to go 2 mph. And by the time I reached the top, both of my eyes were clenched shut from so much sweat dripping from my Minnesota Public Radio bandana (I call it my “dude-rag” because condescending jerks call me “dude” when I’m wearing it). I ripped off my glasses, helmet, and dude-rag to wipe my eyes, and by the time Nicole walked up to me, there was a new river flowing from each elbow. This was all in the first 0.15 miles.

The mill that ran on spring power
The spring
I’m one tough, scary-looking biker dude.

As we approached Summerfield, we felt ready to quit for the day, but then we met Andrew, an Eastbounder from London, and he said the next town, Houston, was much nicer. He was biking around 120 miles each day and at 5 PM with Eminence being the next town, he had a long ways to go. A storm then hit us out of nowhere and we ducked under a church canopy until it passed. We could see the park and our lack of cell service, and supposedly the worst terrain was behind us, so we decided to ride another 22 miles to Houston, and in the end we were very glad we did. That night we were able to split a pizza and each have a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and not feel overly full. We set up our tent under a park pavilion sandwiched between the tennis courts and city pool and across the street from a row of houses. From our interactions with locals, the southern accent has disappeared and everything feels very Midwest and familiar… except the armadillos.

*Crying* My legs hurt so much… ooh, a fire tower! Let’s climb it!
The door at the top was locked. I was ready to get DOWN.

We woke up Saturday morning to two guys playing tennis and a flood of kids running into the pool ready to start swimming lessons. We wanted to swim but the public hours were noon to 5 and we needed to start moving. We would be passing through 2 towns during the day, one at a quarter of the distance with only a convenience store closed on weekends then another, larger town at the half way point. It was an overcast day, felt rather lovely out, and we were making decent time, when suddenly I started catching glimpses of lightning here and there across various fields surrounding us. In not too long the rain started and the only hope of shelter was the convenience store still several miles down the highway. We were once again experiences those ‘zit storms’ that pop up ready to attack. Fortunately, the convenience store was open (how convenient!), though it was more of a farm supply / chainsaw enthusiast focus on what they sold.

Shortly before the storms struck

We hid inside for about an hour as more storm cells popped up and washed over us and during this time we got to hang out with the owner, his wife, and a bunch of their kids. The two youngest were especially excited to get our attention. They crawled up and sat next to us in the booth, asking us to write the names of everyone they could think of on sticky notes. All the while, a constant stream of chainsaw racing videos from online were playing over the TV.

Hanging out with the kids

We eventually made it to Marshfield where an RV campground said they let cyclists camp in their yard. The yard was approximately the size of 1 tent and surrounded by highway signs. We were wedged between the RV swimming pool, a Mexican restaurant, and a Holiday Inn, all of which, we nearly utilized. We finally got to swim in a pool, then went and shared a double order of fajitas before going to bed. We were very tempted to check out the hotel breakfast bar the next morning.

When your tent is overshadowed by the Holiday Inn sign…
…and all the other signs crowding the highway exit