This is the tenth year of my blog at Semi-Rad.com, and since I started it, I’ve been fortunate to get to go on some pretty wonderful adventures. Throughout 2020, I’ll be writing about 12 of my favorites, one per month. This is the second in the series.
As we looked over our menus, we began to sense that the Waffle House staff was nearing a complete meltdown. It was evening, day 39 of our 49-day bicycle ride across America, March 15, 2010. Tony and I had pushed our bikes and trailers into a hotel room a block away, showered, and walked to the nearest restaurant, which was a Waffle House. We were tired and ready to eat. Almost six weeks into our trip, our bodies had basically turned into machines that pedaled fully loaded bicycles all day, burning 4,000 to 8,000 calories. We’d taken only three rest days so far and would only take one more the remainder of the 3,000-mile trip, so our daily average was 66.67 miles. The day we arrived in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, we had pedaled 105 miles from Rogers Lake, Mississippi. It was my first-ever century ride, and although Waffle House might not be many people’s first choice after a ride like that, I was more than fine with it.
My back was to the open kitchen, so I could only eavesdrop, but Tony could see everything. From what we gathered, a rather large carryout order had come in, and the cook had totally fucked it up, causing delays with not only the large carryout order but all the orders for customers sitting in the dining area as well. Not to mention that the staff, arguing among themselves in full view, were enough to convince even the most diehard Waffle House fan to eat elsewhere that night. Despite pleas from the waitstaff to call a manager in to help, the cook adamantly refused, making things awkward for everyone within earshot—which is to say the entire restaurant. It was the kind of thing that nowadays someone would record on a smartphone and post to Twitter in hopes that it would go viral. Since I couldn’t see, Tony narrated for me, as we tried to calculate how much food to order to replace 105 miles’ worth of calories.
“This is total mayhem.”
“The cook just threw something.”
“OK, now the younger waitress is in the back crying.”
Were we not touring cyclists, we might have decided to leave. But we just wanted to eat and go to bed so we could get up early and pedal 60-some miles the next day, and our dining options in such a small town were pretty limited, and further limited by the fact that, if we wanted to go to a different restaurant, we’d have to walk to wherever it was. And, you know, you sort of have to ask yourself: If I want to go see America, is America things like the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, and the Hollywood sign? Or is it a Waffle House in a small town, hoping that the staff doesn’t mutiny so we can get some hash browns? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’d argue for the Waffle House. It’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, a completely different scene at 2 A.M. than at 7:30 A.M., affordable to anyone who can scrounge up five bucks, and thus an option to people of all income levels but mostly patronized by those of us not in the 1 percent. It has potential for brief moments of public theater, but it mostly just chugs along, making eggs and waffles. I mean, I love the Grand Canyon, but I think you can learn more about America at a diner.
We eventually were able to place our order, our food eventually came to the table, we eventually ate everything, and the Waffle House was still standing the next morning when we returned for breakfast, like nothing had happened. We ate pretty much the same thing as the night before, and a local sitting at the counter chatted us up, reminding us that part of Forrest Gump was set here, in Bayou La Batre, Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue’s hometown, where Forrest buys a boat to start the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.
Tony and I went to high school in a town not much bigger than Bayou La Batre, and we spent many Friday and Saturday nights working together in a restaurant, washing dishes and busing tables. Tony shot up to six feet ten inches midway through high school, and everyone expected him to play basketball, but he had other ideas. He topped out at seven feet tall, went to college, and became a chiropractor in Chicago and an entrepreneur.
When he asked me in 2009 if I’d like to bicycle across the country with him the next year, I said of course I would. He said he’d pay for it, which was an ideal situation for me, since I was making $26,000 a year working at a nonprofit. I’d been riding my steel road bike to and from work in Denver for three and a half years, while trying to become an adventure writer in my spare time. In Chicago, Tony had been getting into triathlons and road rides. The last time we’d ridden our bikes any distance together was the last time I did RAGBRAI, the bike ride across Iowa, in 2000, and that was more of a party than a bike tour for us, to be honest.
Having not spent much time together in the previous eight years, but hoping we could make it across the country on bikes and remain friends, we dipped our tires in the Pacific at Ocean Beach in San Diego on February 5, 2010, pushed our rides to the pavement, and started pedaling. Our final intended destination was Saint Augustine, Florida, the opposite end of the Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier route—the flattest, shortest route across the country. Our first day, we climbed out of San Diego, managing 34.5 miles to Alpine, California.
Tony riding past pecan trees in New Mexico (Photo: Brendan Leonard)
Before I left for the trip, my wise friend Mick gave me two pieces of advice about long bike tours: “You’re going to have some high highs and some low lows out there” and “Don’t try to muscle through anything—just keep spinning.” And my friend Maynard half-joked: “I hope you like riding eight miles per hour into a headwind.” All those things would ring true over the span of about 24 hours much later down the road.
I didn’t have any grand ideas about the trip, besides maybe being able to write about it for a magazine article or even a book. I knew bicycling across America wasn’t the most unique thing, but maybe something would happen that would sustain a narrative. I bought a URL and created a blog to keep our friends and families updated on our progress and to help raise money for the nonprofit I worked for. I packed a $250 Asus laptop to try to keep the blog current and added Wi-Fi service to my Verizon plan so I could turn my flip phone into a hot spot when we weren’t staying in a hotel with that capability.
I updated the blog every day, downloading photos from our digital cameras, writing a few sentences about our progress and sometimes a quote from a conversation with a stranger. Most days, though, in the “no shit, there I was” sense of adventure writing, nothing really happened. What did happen is we plugged away, every day. We got up, ate as much food as we could stomach, got dressed, filled our water bottles, wheeled our bikes out to the road, swung a leg over the saddle, and started pedaling. We’d ride together for a few minutes, then Tony would get warmed up and start to pull away, riding a half-mile, or a mile, or two miles ahead of me the entire day, stopping every couple hours to check in or stop at a café to eat lunch or pop into a convenience store to buy cans of Coke, Snickers bars, and whatever other calories looked good. Somewhere between 40 and 105 miles, we’d knock off for the day, find a hotel, shower, and eat at a restaurant. Tony wasn’t that excited to camp, although we’d brought camping gear (including a tent that could fit a seven-foot-tall person). I protested at first, saying I thought it would be “more legit” if we camped more. Tony said, “Riding your bike across America is legit,” and I could not argue with that point.
We rode across the bottom of California, occasionally looking at the U.S.-Mexico border fence to our right. We rode into Phoenix from the northwest and out its southeast side, almost 60 miles of pedaling to get across the entire urban spread, and we pedaled through the desert, away from angry dogs (I eventually developed a technique of explosively yelling at them, which stopped them in their tracks, surprised—except for the rottweilers) and into New Mexico, where we hit the highest elevation of the trip, 8,228-foot Emory Pass, on day 15. We started to meet other cyclists on the same route, either headed in the same direction or the opposite way, and realized there was really no “typical” cross-country rider: some were pedaling 50 or more miles a day, unsupported and stealth camping, while others were riding solo 20 or 30 miles a day, with a friend driving a minivan somewhere behind them. Some had a schedule, some were taking their time.
On day 20, we adjusted our route to take a less hilly path, avoiding the Davis Mountains in West Texas and heading to the town of Marfa on U.S. Route 90. My memory of the day is the flattest, straightest road I’ve ever ridden on, with a few barely noticeable adjustments to the left, a slight uphill grade the entire way, and wide-open ranchland along both sides of the pavement. In the morning, we caught up with a couple named Bruce and Dana, a pair of retired teachers from Tacoma, Washington, and rode with them a good part of the day. The chip-seal road was so rough that we tried to keep our wheels on the painted white line on the side of it, because it was that much smoother. Tony said he watched his bike computer slow from 14 to 9 miles per hour several times when he rolled off the white line. In 75 miles of riding that day, the only town we’d pass through on our map was Valentine, Texas, population 184, with no businesses to speak of aside from the post office. A few miles before Valentine, however, is the art installation Prada Marfa, a fake Prada store in the middle of nowhere. I was riding with Bruce and Dana, and Tony was ahead of us somewhere. We stopped, took some photos, and pedaled on, catching Tony in Valentine a few miles later. He hadn’t stopped at the Prada store, because he hadn’t even noticed it on the side of the road as he rolled past—which is either almost unbelievable, because the ride was so straight-ahead monotonous, or completely expected, because the ride was so straight-ahead monotonous.
The Prada Marfa store in Texas (Photo: Brendan Leonard)
A few days later, I got the high highs and low lows Mick had promised. I did a lot of things to pass the time out there, pedaling six to eight hours a day, all the time in my own head while Tony rode a ways ahead. Tony had a little speaker on his bike to play music while he rode, but I didn’t want to listen to music because I thought it would ruin my favorite tunes for me, spending all day listening to the same playlists for 300-plus hours total by the end of the trip. So I chose silence, talking to cows as I passed, making up lyrics to songs, sometimes talking to myself a bit. I didn’t have a bike computer or smartphone map, so I just pedaled, watching the horizon for signs of the next town. It was fantastically boring, and a decade later, when I spend all my waking hours checking my phone every few minutes, I look back on it with incredible nostalgia. I suppose we always look at the past as a simpler time, no matter what, because we remember the images in our minds and the general tone of a memory but forget all the other things we were thinking about at the time. But it really did seem simple: wake up, eat, pedal, eat, pedal, eat, go to sleep, repeat until you hit an ocean.
On day 23, a few miles outside Langtry, Texas—unincorporated, population 12, home to a museum and almost nothing else—I was pedaling by myself as the wind picked up, right in my face. I had read somewhere on the internet that you could camp in Langtry, but if you didn’t arrive by 5 P.M., the water was shut off. So I was a little anxious to get there as the wind started pushing into my face, and then I began to get worried, because I had almost no water to drink, let alone to cook our food with when we camped that night. Then I got a flat tire. And the wind picked up some more. Then I got another flat tire. I got very frustrated and then just kind of lost it for a few seconds. I screamed at the top of my lungs for a couple of minutes while pedaling by myself into the wind, alone on a highway, cranking my metaphorical steam valve wide open, and then, catching my breath, closing it again. Low, low: check.
When I arrived in Langtry, the rumor about water turned out to be false. I bought and ate a few ice cream sandwiches at the corner store. We set up the tent, had dinner, crashed, and during the night, the wind picked up to a steady 30 miles per hour, coming from the east. The next morning, we headed out with a handful of candy bars from the museum store to sustain us to Del Rio, 55 miles away. We pedaled, looking like two cartoon characters leaning into the wind, in granny gear on the uphills and granny gear on the downhills, too. I just laughed and kept spinning. The wind wouldn’t let up or even change direction. If we’d had more food with us, we might have stopped for the night, but we didn’t, so our only hope was to reach Del Rio. We pedaled for 11 hours, stopping once at a small bar to grab some bags of potato chips and a few candy bars. We averaged five miles per hour the entire way, the wind never relenting until our last five miles into town in the dark. Pedaling eight miles per hour into a headwind, as Maynard had said, would have been a dream.
We rolled our bikes into a hotel room in Del Rio, ordered three large pizzas from Domino’s, ate them, and went to bed. Later that year, Tony would finish his first Ironman Triathlon, and when I texted him to congratulate him, he texted back that it wasn’t nearly as bad as “that day in Texas with the headwind.”
Tony by the Mississippi River (Photo: Brendan Leonard)
One of the things I believe many people will tell you about a long trip, whether it’s thru-hiking a long-distance trail, backpacking a hostel circuit for a month and a half, or pedaling a bicycle for weeks at a time, is that it’s as much about the people you meet as it is about the places you see. You meet people on a bike tour because you are on a bike, and the bicycle is a conversation starter. People see you as somewhere between a little crazy and a complete idiot because you’ve chosen to travel by bicycle in the 21st century but also, because of the bicycle, they find you probably harmless enough that you won’t mind a little chitchat. If they see you and your fully loaded bicycle outside a restaurant, convenience store, or hotel somewhere, they will ask you some, if not all, of these four questions:
Where are you headed?
Where did you start?
How many miles do you ride every day?
What do you eat?
At some point in the conversation, you’ll get a chance to ask them, “Are you from around here?” and in that way, you get to meet a few people. Which is something that happens way less when you’re traveling inside a gas-powered, climate-controlled vehicle, in my experience. On my bike, I had brief conversations with Walmart greeters, waitstaff, ferry employees, convenience-store clerks, and fellow restaurant patrons, and it helped new, strange places feel welcoming, wherever we were.
The thing I started to feel as we racked up the miles, and that we both agreed on years later, is that we were going a little too fast and that maybe it would have been nice to have taken a little more time and do a little more exploring and talking to people. At the time, though, Tony’s business was young, and he was definitely motivated to get back to work and try to keep things moving forward from the road with spotty cell service. And I was just grateful to have two months off work (even unpaid), something that hasn’t happened since and may not happen again in my life. As we made our way across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and finally Florida, we ran into more and more people bicycling the Southern Tier and even one lady, Robin, riding the Southern Tier as just one leg of a giant rectangle around the perimeter of the United States, ensuring she’d still be pedaling her bike after I’d been back in the office for six months.
We had friends join us for sections, including our pal Nick from high school, who rode the last 210 miles with us from Tallahassee to Saint Augustine, slipping in as seamlessly as if he’d ridden the previous 2,800 miles. As we got closer to the end, I started to think about what we’d done and how I framed it in my life. I couldn’t really nail it down. It felt like a big adventure, but in the Yvon Chouinard sense of “when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts” never really happened; we’d made it through pretty unscathed and according to plan, aside from a bunch of flat tires and a couple of worn-out bike chains. It went really well—basically the opposite of a book like Into Thin Air, when everything did go wrong, to the point where it became a disaster and a bunch of people died. In 49 days together, we didn’t even have enough disagreements to fill half an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
In the ten years since Tony and I started pedaling east from San Diego, I’ve been lucky to spend lots of time in the outdoors, doing a bunch of different things that fall under the idea of adventure. Be it backpacking, rock climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, trail running, kayaking, whitewater rafting, or bikepacking, I think about all of it as travel and trying to understand something through a mode of travel. Because whether it’s a boulder problem or a 2,200-mile thru-hike, you define it as moving from one place to another by human-powered means, crimping through a 12-foot-tall V11 or walking three miles per hour for 250 miles, from starting line to finish line or put-in to take-out. On our bike ride across America, I realized that traveling by bicycle is just about my favorite way to see a place: slow enough to take in scenery but with the ability to coast, carrying everything I need with me but not on my back, and burning enough calories to eat a large pizza every evening if I want to.
I’ve since become friends with a couple of people who also bicycled across the U.S. but aren’t from here, one Chinese and the other English. I sometimes wonder how different their trips were from mine, how different their perspective was on it, and if any of us (or anyone really) can say they’ve actually “seen America,” because America is a story or an idea, and it’s much different now than when I pedaled across it in 2010. I guess all I know is that if you want to put in the effort, and you want to feel like you’ve seen it, I don’t know a better way than on a two-wheeled machine that runs on Snickers bars and diner coffee. I can’t say exactly where you should go to look for America; I can just say I’d look somewhere besides the internet.
Tony and Nick cycling among Florida oaks (Photo: Brendan Leonard)
I never did try to write a book about our trip. I did manage a couple of magazine articles and a few blogs about bike touring, and I left our blog up on the internet for a decade before I finally made it private. But as the ten-year mark approached, I wanted to do something to thank Tony for the trip. So I started copying and pasting all the text from all those blogs, and tracking down all the photos, and cringing at some of my writing (and fashion choices) at the time.
I spent probably 25 or 30 hours formatting everything into a hardcover book. I printed a total of three copies—one for Tony, one for me, and one for my parents (my dad had printed and kept all the blog posts in a file this whole time). The photography isn’t amazing, and I’m not particularly proud of the writing, but it’s a book.
I finished it and had it ready to ship to Tony a few days late for the tenth anniversary of the start of our trip, and I composed a few sentences on a card to stick in the package. I can’t remember the exact words I wrote, except for two things: “Thanks” and “still one of the biggest and best adventures of my life.”
A memento years later: a book about the route (Photo: Brendan Leonard)
Read more: outsideonline.com