Trans America Trail: The End of an Odyssey
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An inspiring epilogue to the Swallow’s 87 day, 4,970 mile, off-road ride on the Trans America Trail. Plus, tips for riding the TAT, a final QA, and their favorite gear…
From Morehead City, North Carolina into the Great Smoky Mountains, across Southern Tennessee, we dropped into Northwest Mississippi, pedaled across Arkansas, over the Ozarks, and dead straight across Northern Oklahoma and the Panhandle. We rode into the gulches of Northeast New Mexico, climbed up into Colorado, up and over the Rocky Mountains, before we dropped down to ride across Utah, and from basin to range northwest across Nevada and the high desert. We tapped California before riding northwest again, across Oregon, where we came to the end of our western route in Port Orford, Oregon on Sunday, October 26, 2015. The final tally of miles came in right around 4,970, which we completed in 87 days (81 days pedaling with 6 days off).
The best part about our trip was that we got to do it on primarily dirt roads, which eliminated the stresses of high-speed traffic and allowed us to ride side by side the entire time. We immersed ourselves in the cultures of the very small towns of America that are found along these roads, making use of what they had in the way of supplies and accommodations to keep us on the road. We felt akin to the early settlers of the West, making their way by wagon, as the diversity of land slowly unfolded in front of us, revealing new environments and forcing us to adapt.
Overall, the weather during our trip was ideal. Leaving in August ensured that we would minimize our exposure to the heat in places with the least access to water, like the high desert of Utah and Nevada. We did not avoid the heat completely. During our first week through North Carolina, temperatures reached the 100’s, as they did in Oklahoma, and highs in the 90’s kept us hot through Utah and Nevada. We learned to cope with the heat by ending our days, when possible, between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to avoid the sun’s most direct abuse as it sank into the western horizon, shining directly in our faces. We took frequent breaks in the shade, when there was shade, and protected our skin with tubes upon tubes of sunscreen, long-sleeves, and hats. We managed to avoid a considerable amount of mud along our route purely by luck, but the sand was our worst enemy, almost catapulting us over our handlebars as it brought our bikes to an immediate stop. We did not see any snow, a result of the mild weather many western states are seeing this year, and had wind from the south most of the time.
Washboard surfaces, smooth groomed roads, freshly tilled roads, small rocks, big rocks, pointy ones, and round ones.
Every single road was different, depending on the county, state, and federal land. Adaptation was key and, thankfully, starting on the east coast allowed for a slow learning curve while adapting to our bikes, the diversity of the environments, and simply living on our bicycles. We were gradually weaned from close proximity to civilization and frequent resupply points before the route spat us out into the west, where resources and population were sparse, and the land and its features were much larger. We embraced the unknowns of the route and have made it across, seemingly intact.
Our bicycles turned out to be extremely capable steeds. Bicycle configuration and design occupied hours of discussion while pedaling across the country, until the subject was officially banned somewhere in the foothills of the Rockies. We considered various uses of suspension, wheel size, tire size, handlebars, drivetrains, even the merits of a good old beach cruiser, and continued upon the bikes we had, as they were the day we started (albeit with a few new tires, spokes, and fit adjustments). There is a saying that goes something like, “A good race car is one that falls apart 50 feet after the finish line,” and it has been interesting to see what survived and died along the way. Aside from a couple flats related to Tom’s riding habits, and two broken spokes thanks to some rock intervention on my machine, we had no major mechanicals until just before Port Orford, when everything seemed to happen at once. In the night before our final day, a huge windstorm managed to throw my bicycle, derailleur side down, to the ground, severely bending the derailleur hanger. Then, on the last major descent of the trip, another spoke died, Tom pinch flatted his front tire in a series of nice rim banging sounds, and the wet weather wore our already tired brakes to their end.
Oregon combines everything we like about Colorado and the Midwest and felt very familiar as we rode through the dense forests, along rivers, and over shorter mountains. We experienced the roads changing from a sandy base at higher elevation to more dirt once we dropped below 1,500 ft. One day of riding consisted of 3,000 ft of elevation gain and nearly 7,000 ft of elevation loss. How awesome is that!? We were motivated by our previous experience along the Oregon Outback to visit the Cowboy Dinner Tree outside of Silver Lake. We pedaled our longest distance since Oklahoma, riding 100 miles to make their last reservation of the week for a hearty meal of salad, chowder, rolls, steak, potatoes, pie, and pink lemonade.
At the higher elevations of Oregon, the temperatures were getting colder and the frost onthe ground lingered into late morning. Threat of the cold, wet, temperatures of late fall, spurred us on to finish our ride. As we got closer to the coast, the route got harrier. A missing bridge here, a rockslide there, and wildfires had us hiking our bikes and re-routing around impassable sections. For the record, we did not climb over the rockslide with our bikes, because that would be really stupid, since rocks could slide more, and likely another slide, or two, await further down the road. It was a mad dash to meet my sister Mary for the remaining 50-miles, but well worth it. Her excitement breathed new energy into the ride and it was so fun to rip some gravel roads with her again.
We ended up camping the last four nights of trip. Our final night out was like a kick out the door as strong, 50-60 mph, gusts of wind pulled our tent stakes out of the firm ground. After resetting the stakes in the middle of the night, I fell back asleep to a dream of Mary (who in reality was sleeping in a hammock fairly close to a creek), partially submerged in the creek as it swelled. I woke up and convinced Mary to move into our tent with us for the rest of the night. Two hours later the rain came, heavy rain, and by morning the entire campground was submerged, inches deep in water. As our tent began to float, we made a mad dash to the only available shelter of the restrooms, where we packed our soaking wet sleeping bags, tent, clothes, and electronics for the very last time. The ride to the coast was a wet one, but our van was there with warm, dry, comfortable civilian clothing. We pedaled up and over Iron Mountain where the views were masked by misty clouds until we reached the coast and had no further to go.
We followed the Trans America Trail dual sport motorcycle route designed by Sam Correro, including GPS Kevin’s North Carolina coastal addition (which is where we saw the most pavement). We stayed on route 100% through the Rocky Mountains where there were a few route options available to take through the final passes. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we probably took the most difficult option, but the memories from those rides are some of our favorites. In retrospect, we were battered, bruised, and tired from the Rockies and by the time we reached Green River, Utah we had hit our limit for exposing ourselves to the technical trails on route, so we started making modifications to our route here and there, opting for more gravel roads, than trails. Even with these modifications to the route, we estimate that we were on course 90% of the time. After meeting quite a few travelers along the way, we speculate that this is a higher percentage than most of the motorcyclists doing the route. The ease and distance with which they are able to travel, by use of power, allows for a great deal more range and reduced consequence as a result of off-route excursions. There is a lot of flexibility for bicycles on this route, with the original route that dual sport motorcycles use, including all the atv trails as one option, and a more bicycle-friendly route including more dirt road, and fewer atv trails. There were also many opportunities out west to integrate single track into the route that, if we had known before, may have altered our plans.
What’s next? We’re focusing on sharing this route and our story of riding it while we make our way back to Ohio, the long way, visiting the cities we missed, and riding moreofAmerica’s back roads. Stay tuned!
Q & A
We thought a great way to close this series was to ask the Swallows a few questions. Here is what they had to say along with tips for riding the TAT and some of their favorite gear.
OK, it may be too soon to ask, but would you do it again?
Definitely, but we have a lot more to explore, before we ride the same route twice!
What was the most challenging part of the TAT?
The Ozarks were the most challenging for us. The roads were very rough and steep, the weather was steamy hot, and only at our fastest pace were we able to escape the relentless and innumerable biting flies. Those conditions and a period of food shortage, due to an oversight in planning, had us in a very dark place for a moment.
Overall, what was your favorite part?
Riding from Lake City to Ouray via Engineer Pass, the first highest place we have ever been on our bicycles, and one of the most scenic climbs we’ve ridden (Imogene Pass was the highest at 3,200 ft).
How does it compare to any other long distance bike rides or tours you’ve experienced?
Because this trip was so much longer than anything we had done, we really focused on preserving our energy by taking more breaks, stopping earlier in the day, and maintaining a lower daily amount of miles than all of our previous trips. The beauty of the route is that because it covers such a vast area of land, change is constant. You can see seven kinds of gravel, seven different ways, in as many different climate conditions and when you finally start to think you’ve seen it all, the route offers you something new. In this sense, ever day was its own unique ride.
I know you went ‘off route’ a little, how hard was it to find other tracks or detours? Did you have a maps, a GPS, or take guidance from locals?
We used what was at our disposal at the time. Sometimes we used local paper maps we found in stores and information/map kiosks on the side of the road, but most of the time we used our GPS devices (lots of zooming in, and zooming out), and when we had access to the internet, we would modify the GPX files using Ride With GPS on our tablet. We were very selective of what we would believe from the locals about the route. Suggestions were often influenced by a lack of familiarity with the back roads, or a lack of understanding about why a person would go the hard way, which often resulted in suggestions of paved highways and folks saying things like, “I wouldn’t drive over that road!”
How were the bikes you brought; would you ride the same bikes if you did it again?
The bikes we brought made it all the way and were very capable. We built our bikes with the assumption that the route would include more pavement, more dirt roads, and fewer ATV trails. Speed and efficiency, in our case, didn’t necessarily equate to more miles as the route was much more technical than we had predicted. If we were to ride the route again, we would come back with a little larger tire, a little more suspension, and with a couple easier gears so we could be more comfortable, stable, and hopefully have an easier time riding the steep technical grades (both up and down).
What are several of your favorite pieces of gear you had on the trip?
- Our Boombotix wireless speaker for music on the road and podcasts at night, it kept our minds energized with entertainment.
- The Porcelain Rocket Mr. Fusion seat bag system was used for a lot more than just our seat bags. We used the rack by itself to haul bulky groceries like, a six-pack of beer, a medium pizza box, and a gallon of milk.
- We carried multiple Platypus water reservoirs in various sizes. When we weren’t using all of them, they took up very little space and were ultra lightweight.
- The external battery packs we brought, although not the nicest or lightest on the market, surpassed our charging expectations. We never ran out of power.
- Our Lezyne Road Drive hand pump kept our tires inflated throughout the trip, without fail.
What are 5 tips you would give someone setting out on the TAT?
- Consider the weather and your timing, it could make or break your trip.
- Go your own pace.
- Camp out.
- Take the time to talk to people.
- Know your resupply points.
Any folks you’d like to thank?
From the road, we’d like to thank John Vaughn for giving us food, water, and positive energy during a time in need. Thank you to Gil and Mary from Oklahoma who welcomed two strangers into their home for food, rest, and a shower. Thank you to the cool moto dudes from Best In The Desert who shared their accommodations with us, when the rest of the town was booked up. Thank you to Max, Hillary, and Angela from Telluride for your hospitality and the restorative stay. Thank you to the countless other individuals who shared their story with us or gave us water, food, Gatorade, beer, etc. along the ride.
Lastly, thank you to all the followers and customers of Swallow Bicycle Works, our family and friends back home, for all your overwhelming support throughout this journey.