ROAD NTES
Editor’s Note: Cycling across the country is a time-honored tradition in America, requiring athleticism, fortitude and a sense of adventure. GP contributor William Eginton recently set out from King’s Beach, CA, for a 5,000-mile journey. This is his first dispatch from the open road.

I
was sitting at a picnic table in front of the Willow Creek Resort and Campground sucking down water. The Northern California heat was blistering — I could feel it radiating off the asphalt. I was talking idly to Gene, an older man on a ragged, street-legal CRF250. One of his eyes was drooping and cloudy. I wondered if he should be allowed to drive, let alone ride a motorcycle.

“Lassen Peak? On that?” he said, surprised.

“Yeah! It’s only, what, 10 more miles?”

“Ten miles straight up, man. There are plenty of good spots to camp down by the creek here.”

“I’ve gotta do it anyway”, I said. “I want cross the summit tomorrow.”

If only he knew how far I’d come already. It was close to 3:00 p.m. and temperatures in the valley were pushing triple digits. But I felt confident, so I set out, not knowing what the road held for me ahead.

An hour later and a couple thousand feet into a 10-mile climb, I felt the full extent of Gene’s words. The heat was compounded by the switchback turns. I was low on water. My legs were shot. It was a struggle even to pull my feet out of the clips. So this is it, huh? The grand adventure comes to a screeching halt only three days in. I still had four miles to go.

great-american-ride-gear-patrol-ambiance-1

I
had set out three days prior from King’s Beach, California, a sleepy Lake Tahoe town comprised of Mexican day laborers and ski bum kids like myself. I loaded my gear on my bike at Secline Beach, eager to begin what I intended to be a sprawling 5,000-plus mile bike tour of America. It seemed so simple in my head: get on a bike; carry a minimal amount of gear; visit friends throughout the country; make new ones along the way; and see the country from a new perspective.

But I’m not a cyclist — far from it. The term carries negative connotations in my mind. I just like to ride bicycles. When I was young, I rode trails in northwestern Virginia; in college, along the steep hills of Burlington, Vermont, I started riding fixed-gear bicycles with my friends. We would go out late at night and bomb hills and drink beer on our brakeless death traps. It was recreation and not much more.

In Burnette Falls, I sipped weak coffee with the manager of the general store and talked of the fire season that loomed ahead.

A couple of years later, in the mountains of southwest Montana, I used my bicycle to explore my new home. I became consumed by the idea of bicycle touring when a high-school friend called and said he was in Yellowstone National Park and invited me to meet him for some camping. I drove to West Yellowstone, stuffed a sweatshirt and a bottle of whiskey in my backpack and set out on a casual 55-mile ride from the park’s entrance to West Thumb Village on the banks of Lake Yellowstone. We stayed up late, drank and took shitty nightscape photos. In the morning I was too hungover to ride and had to catch a lift back to my car.

This past ski season, on a drive home from work, I took stock of what the winter held for me: close to 110 days in ski boots, but only around 40 that were purely for me. I was tired, burnt out. I had based my life around winters spent exploring Montana, but I somehow wasn’t able to find the time in my schedule to really explore. It was time for adventure, and I finally had positioned myself financially to pull the trigger. I bought some bikepacking gear and picked up a contract building tents and digging sewer lines in West Yellowstone to make some extra money. I set my sights on a summer of travel.

great-american-ride-gear-patrol-ambiance-2

A
nd now I found myself fully bonked, sitting on the side of the Lassen Volcanic National Park Access road with dwindling water reserves. The signage above me taunted another four miles. I have to make it. I will make it. And tomorrow I’ll cross the summit.

I pushed on. Those four miles must have taken me close to two hours, but I made it, spinning in my tallest gear at a staggeringly slow pace. Snagging a campsite at the base of the peak, I reflected on the past three days. I’d scratched out a meager 175 miles. I had descended from the mountains of The Sierras to the valleys of Northern California, ridden through the dilapidated resort town of Graeagle, passed over the welcoming banks Lake Almanor, and finally managed to catch the last light over Brokeoff Mountain and Lassen Peak. I felt a sense of accomplishment. Pride.

In the morning, I set out for the peak. The switchbacks passed with ease. The miles ticked away as I climbed. And then I was there, at the top, 8,500 feet above the valleys below. In the distance I saw Almanor glimmering in the mid-morning light. Yesterday, I was there. Now I’m here. That’s something. I pedaled on, descending, faster and faster through the rapidly warming forest, and emerged from the national park rearing to go. I had my eyes set on Burney Falls — a mere 70-mile day. It went fast, and I felt new again. I found my cadence and pushed quickly, spinning past the hills to camp by the waterfall surrounded by scores of Asian tourists.

“Know the difference between making a plan and setting a deadline”, he said. “Other than that, you’ll just figure it out as you go.”

The next couple of days blended together in a swirling visage of mountains, rolling hills, mountain lakes and small towns niceties. In Mt. Shasta, California, I stopped to pick up some crystals (whose vibrations will supposedly bring inner peace and align my chakras) and vegetarian Vietnamese spring rolls at a farmer’s market. In Ashland, Oregon, I chatted with a Southern Oregon University student who used to lead bike tours of the Washington coast. In Burnette Falls, I sipped weak coffee with the manager of the general store and talked of the fire season that loomed ahead. When I crested the summit of Crater Lake, I sat on the precipice of Rim Village, the expansive lake shimmering a deeper blue than I’d ever seen before. My mileage increased daily, and by the final day of this first leg of my journey, I topped out at 120 miles as I coasted into Bend, Oregon.

As I rolled into Bend, I bumped into a fellow bike traveller named Ted who was coming from Argentina. In the past year and a half, he had ridden north from South America, navigating deserts and rainforests on a 25-year-old East German Mifa bicycle. Over a plate of nachos and an order of chicken wings, I asked him if he had any advice.

“Know the difference between making a plan and setting a deadline”, he said. “Other than that, you’ll just figure it out as you go.”

It might have been the exhaustion or the IPA I was nursing, but something about those words struck me. It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling from California to central Oregon or crossing multiple continents; bicycle travel (or maybe any human-powered travel, for that matter) creates a level of exposure and self-reliance that can be equally soul-crushing and liberating. It is in those moments of upheaval and subsequent triumph — however trivial they might seem in hindsight — that you’ll find it. Whatever “it” might be — well, I guess I’ll figure it out.