Marianne Worth Rudd’s tales after riding across the USA from the East to the West coast will make you start planning your own cross-country cycling adventure next. A sustainable traveler’s dream!
We expected a flurry of snow, sudden lightning storms, intense heat, and turbulent winds while bicycling cross-country. That all happened. What we did not expect was a sudden car collision, a broken arm, or Hurricane Sandy. This all happened, too.
For thirty-two years, I dreamed about cycling cross-country, almost as long as I’d known my loving husband, Terry. I thought the bike trip was simply about getting ourselves from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. I discovered I was mistaken.
A Trip of a Lifetime
In our quest from one coast to the other, we experienced the unexpected challenges, joys, and surprises of a 4500-mile, twelve-week bicycle journey, but pain and grief unexpectedly seized our trip mid-way with a car collision and broken arm for Terry. However, three months later, our quest resumed—cycling out on a snowy October day in northern Minnesota.
Throughout our travels on this continent, we experienced not only the changing terrain and state borders but an elation far more gratifying than just reaching destinations—we discovered the curiosity and kindness of strangers and its lasting impact. From simple gifts of root beer and oranges on a hot day, to shelter from a lightning storm and random invitations country-wide for meals and lodging, strangers offered us unexpected generosity and care throughout our travels. More than anything, we discovered that our trip was made great through each and every interaction with these kind strangers.
For transcontinental cyclists, it all starts with a tire-dip. Terry and I dipped our rear bicycle tires in the cold Pacific Ocean in mid-May near Astoria, Oregon, and from that point, there was only one direction to go: east. We began peddling closer and closer to the opposite coast.
Paralleling the Columbia River, we gradually rolled through old-growth forests into open rangeland, which later pulsed as the beautiful foothills of the Rocky Mountains approached. Our heavy bikes were laden with clothing, camping gear, and supplies to get us through a multitude of conditions, including the challenging task of going up and over the Rockies in late spring.
By three weeks into our trip, we’d left the hot, sweaty days of central Washington far behind, and instead were layers deep in our foul-weather clothes as we encountered two intense blizzards while traversing mountain passes.
I wished I’d thought to pack my ski goggles; what was I thinking to leave ski goggles behind for our summer bike tour? In lieu of ski goggles, little wipers on my dark glasses would have been equally as welcomed.
On the Road
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” is a phrase my husband often declares. I disagree, but it is true that the right equipment frequently gets you through severe situations and makes all the difference. When the Rockies and their eastern next of kin, the Big Horn Mountains, were suitably distant in our rearview mirrors, we gleefully pounced upon the Sheridan, Wyoming post office for the fastest weight-loss program ever.
Five pounds gone each, just like that. Boots, heavy mittens, extra layers of warm clothes were boxed up and sent home, with the knowledge we were now heading into the hot mid-west. We’d soon be looking for shelter from the sun, not from the snow. Traveling through the seasons and various weather conditions proved to be a big challenge for us but not one that we couldn’t overcome.
Flush with our post office success, that day held an unexpected bonus hours later: a conversation with a woman who stopped her car while Terry and I took a break on a rural road, which led to an invitation to spend the night with her family at their nearby home. Warmly welcomed into their home and dinner-out plans for a family birthday celebration, we too felt celebrated, and Terry and I left the next morning boosted by their kindness and good cheer.
What a wonderful rest this was before heading back on the open road.
The Kindness of Strangers
People made an impact on us, from one ocean to the other. Our route was planned with visits to the homes of friends and family, yet we also made significant connections with previously unknown folks as we cycled. How about some couch surfing for cyclists? I must shed a light on Warmshowers, an organization that promotes the connection between volunteer hosts (and their warm showers) and cyclists. What a valuable program for cyclists!
A generous night in Washington state introduced us to delightful Warmshowers hosts in farm country and paved the way for future Warmshowers experiences for us, both as guests and as hosts. Warmshowers is a planned connection, but many kind invitations unexpectedly came our way. One night Terry and I didn’t make it to our destination due to strong headwinds and Terry’s (surprise) hernia, so we stopped at a house in Wyoming, asking if we could pitch our tent in their big side yard for the night. An unexpected response followed: “Well, we have a room downstairs you could use.
We’ve had rain and hail the last two nights, and it would be a lot more comfortable than a tent.” And it certainly was. It was a wonderful night and another memorable encounter with folks looking for good company.
Further east, a cyclist invited us to his parents-in-law’s house along the Mississippi River for a meal and the night: guess who’s coming to dinner?
Another reminder that the generosity of strangers contributes to successful long-distance cycling trips.
Preparing for Storms
An extreme lightning storm in Michigan reversed the traditional format of invitation: I quickly invited myself to someone’s porch as lightning cracked overhead, and the owners couldn’t easily rid themselves of Terry and me while the storm violently thrashed above us.
With neither campgrounds nor motels nearby, I later asked for permission to pitch our tent on their large porch for the night. Their reluctance was obvious, but they eventually agreed. With our tent right outside their dining room window, an invitation later came to join them inside for a homemade dinner, but I sensed it was out of a feeling of obligation rather than desire. However, we gladly took the invitation to avoid the storm. By the time we finished dinner, we’d received an offer to use their shower.
After showers, we conversed in their living room, and when Terry stood to retire to the tent for the night, an invitation came for us to sleep in our reluctant hosts’ spare bedroom. One hesitant invitation after another, one gradual step at a time. Terry and I were grateful for all of them and their generosity. When morning came, we all ate breakfast together, the man mused “It ended up being a great pleasure to have you.” That was a relief to hear since I was sure it didn’t start out being a pleasure to have us. I am sure they have not forgotten about us.
When we weren’t being invited into people’s homes, we camped in our tent, or in bad weather or grizzly bear country at Yellowstone, we “credit-card camped” in motels or inns. Long-distance cycling journeys expose you to all forms of shelter. Much of the first seven weeks of our trip found us happily camping in our cozy tent. A tent we knew backward and forwards at this point.
Abruptly, our entire bicycle tour came to a sudden painful, grieving end, when a car hit Terry on a northern Minnesota highway near Bemidji.
One of a cyclist’s worst nightmare came to fruition.
A Major Setback
“The Biking Viking”—this is what we called Terry, who bicycled another six miles to our son’s summer Norwegian camp after being struck by the car and initially taking a rest. His persistence was inspiring! A few hours later, an X-ray revealed a hairline fracture of his left arm—and this marked the sudden end of our trip. A broken arm for Terry, a broken dream for me. The devastation we felt was immense as we knew that our trip would be paused for who knows how long. We began our travels back home, farther from the east coast. Although this was a setback, we knew that it wasn’t the end.
If we had to end the trip abruptly, the camp was the perfect place for us to be. Surrounded by a caring family, friends, and a supportive camp community, Terry and I gradually processed pain and disappointment—Terry the pain, and me the disappointment. With an all-camp front tire dip ceremony at the lake, we ended Part one of our trip and set our sights on Part two.
Three months later, after Terry healed, we returned to the lake for a rear tire dip, and set out on a mid-October rainy day, knowing that weather could shut down our completion plans at any time. On cue, snow began falling within the hour, but fortunately, it didn’t last. No more tent camping for us; campgrounds were closed for the season, and our available daylight hours for cycling plummeted along with the temperatures. It was “credit card camping”, and by the end of the frequently chilly, wet days, inside lodging seemed heavenly. Warm showers and beds are not to be taken for granted.
Back on the Road
The day we left our “lightning hosts” in Michigan during Part two of the trip, an outdoor market stop revealed some interesting news. “There’s a hurricane coming next week”, a woman told us, “but this area of Michigan shouldn’t be affected. Its name is Hurricane Sandy.” A hurricane—we figured we’d encounter snow for Part two, but never even considered a hurricane. How does a cyclist prepare for a hurricane?
We considered it a lot to take on within the next week, however, we continued to push east towards southern Ontario, Canada, and my cousin’s home. We didn’t have to just fear Sandy; three strong storms were converging in the area, and we raced to reach the safety of my cousin’s. Safe with family and inside their brick house, we all weathered the storm as Sandy raged on.
Cross-country cycling is a big commitment. It takes all you have mentally and physically to push towards your destination. You constantly challenge yourself and what your body can do. This trip provided such an adrenaline rush. However, what made the trip a wonderful experience for us was that Terry and I enjoyed the journey not the race towards the finish line.
Encounters with kind strangers, views of breathtaking nature, and the joy of peddling closer to new experiences made the setbacks and obstacles worth it.
Through preparing, goal setting, and persistence, this trip was possible.
Two weeks and about 600 miles later, Terry and I happily dipped our front tires in the Atlantic Ocean, near Plymouth Rock. We’d made it, despite a broken arm, blizzards, and Hurricane Sandy. A safe arrival, a huge feeling of relief, and a sense of accomplishment make for a satisfying ending. A dream come true.
Or was it just the beginning? That was in 2012 and proved to be just the first of several cross-country bicycle trips I’ve done. Since then, Terry and I biked another, I did a solo trip, and my 31-year old son and I finished up a cross-country bike tour during the COVID-19 pandemic. This made for an interesting trip indeed.
The lesson learned is that bicycle touring is addicting. The feeling of the road beneath your feet as you press forward, I have discovered, is the best feeling in the world.
A passion of mine from a young age, I will never forget the feeling I got from receiving my first bike. As I think back on this journey, I remember thinking that this was only the beginning of many long-distance trips across this country.
If you have taken anything away from my story, it should be that no matter your age, place in life, or fears, your dreams are worth chasing after. Whether it is cycling related or another activity you have a passion for, set goals, and make plans to get to where you want to be.
And If you have an interest in cycling cross country or even cycling down your street, there is no better time to start then now!
You can learn all the details about the book in my memoir, Pedal Pushers Coast-To-Coast: A Cross-Country Bike Tour Fueled by Kindness
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Bio: Marianne Worth Rudd is a veteran of self-supported bike touring in North America, Europe, and New Zealand. With a passion for language and youth camps in the United States and Switzerland, she has devoted her time towards working as an English-language teacher and as a camp nurse. When not on her bicycle or at camp, Marianne can frequently be found in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband.