Bicycling XC USA

From Katie Robbins, RVC member (for 15+ years)

There’s a proverb: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  In my daughter’s and my case, the journey was 3,300+ miles across the USA and started with a single pedal and before that, a tragic accident five years prior.   The journey had a firm foundation, for me, in the RVC community of exercising and striving for fitness, well-being, and positive change all together.

My daughter Liesel (22 years old) and I (also double-digit age, but substitute 5’s!) really did   bicycle XC USA this past summer (!!!) from Hunting Island by Charleston, SC to Santa Monica pier of Los Angeles, Calif.  Just the two of us, self-supported and mostly camping, with the well wishes and some worry of lots of family and friends and a passion for completing an important mission set by Liesel (and with me joining in as a companion).  It took us 6 weeks and 1 day with only one day off that we were not in a bicycle seat. It was truly epic, amazing, awesome as well as challenging, emotional, tiring, and brutal at times.  Put any superlative in there and it would be true.

Overall summary:  YES— We did “Every single inch” as I like to proudly say.

3,300+ miles, 43 days, 12 states, 9 familiar faces & countless incredibly kind strangers, 14 flats & 4 other bike fixes, 16,600 cows agrazin’, a bottomless pit of calories consumed, 8 like-minded wild bike tourers (that’s right—ONLY saw 8 bikers the ENTIRE time), ~500 honks of mostly a supportive nature, 4mi on the interstate, 1 police escort across the Mississippi river, infinite moments that took our breath away/left us breathless, 2 turtles escorted across the road (wildlife we did not escort included crocs & caribou & snakes), 4 panniers assaulted by an army of snuffley armadillos/raccoons, 6 epic mountain passes in the Rockies/ San Juans/ Black Hills juxtaposed with 5 days of numbing Kansas flatness, 4 monster monsoon storms, 7 days of over 100mi and probably about that many days over 100 degrees, 5 unfortunate wrong turns (all navigational errors), ~20 SuperWalmarts that saved us, 5 intersecting trails of history to grapple with (Sherman’s march, Natchez trace, Trail of Tears, Santa Fe trail, PCT, Japanese internment camp route), many railroad crossings, 2 days of stretching Mojave desert.

Why do this?? The lead up to the journey really began five years prior:  When Liesel was about to be a senior in high schoolin 2013, she was part of a summer program youth group of 12 people which set out to do their XC cycle of this route.  Very tragically, their group was hit on a deserted Arkansas country road by a distracted driver, injuring several of the tripmates and killing one of them, Merritt Levitan, who was set to enter college that fall. (And therein lies a Dartmouth College connection… besides myself & some relatives as Dartmouth grads and having raised my family here in Hanover…Merritt’s dad is Rich Levitan D’86).  Merritt’s family and friends have created the TextLess Live More foundation to spread education and advocacy efforts around safe driving and to prevent distracted driving, especially regarding young drivers (as had been true in this case).  Merritt died due to 4 seconds of distracted driving.  Liesel was determined to do the ride coast-to-coast on the exact same route to honor Merritt and see her memory through to the Pacific as had been Merritt’s dream. The goal was to also raise awareness for biking safely and distracted driving issues, and fundraise for TextLess Live More.  While Liesel had planned to do this ride with several of her tripmates from five years ago, real life issues and things like jobs starting preempted that plan from playing out, and I as mom jumped in when invited to join.  Carpe Diem for sure.  I honestly was not sure I could even get to the next state, but was ever-so-determined to do my best.  The Levitan family extended their support and blessings, and off we went from July 9 to Aug. 20.  Poignantly, we began just after the state of Georgia had just enacted hands-free legislation about holding devices while driving, in large part due to efforts by the Levitans and TextLess Live More.  As we left SC into Georgia, many billboards announced the new changes and filled us with even more purpose and commitment.

Crazy? A bit.  The reactions ranged before, during, and after from, “Are you out of your minds?!!” “You are totally crazy”  “Never hurts to try , but good luck with that”  “But you’ll die out there” “Wow, I wish I could do that” “Wow, I wish I could go with you…but only if I had a nice hot bed each night and spas along the way” “Did you train FOREVER to do this?” and…utter speechlessness or “You WHAT…TO WHERE…HUH??!!!!”

On my bucket list and planned this for a long timeNo—it sounded like a fun adventure some people do, but I never dreamed I would do it, let alone self-supported.  And I honestly don’t know how well I would have completed this had it not been for our singular passion of completing the trip for Merritt and the TextLess Live More mission.  I had about a two-week notice that I would join in, but the summer timing allowed for it, so I was all in.  But Liesel, yes, had been dreaming of and plotting this for the past 5 years. 

So did you train? THIS IS WHERE RVC COMES INTO PLAY!!   We both like to bike and I’ve done some century rides and the Prouty every year, but there was no super-prepping for this and on my end, little notice that I actually was doing this.  HOWEVER, I’ve been a long-time RVC member and I thank all of its top-quality facilities and super supportive people for helping keep me on the path of fitness and enjoyment these many, many years.  Unlike many of the training stories profiled in the RVC newsletter, ours was not the months of training with this XC goal in mind.  BUT—RVC has allowed me years of training broadly so that I was in a prime position to attempt this XC goal and be successful.  I consider myself more of the “liberal arts” or “Renaissance” version of an RVC member.  I do a little of everything but not one thing zealously.  And that’s why RVC is so great—I can plug into almost any activity depending what I feel like and really have a cross-training experience.  And always there seem to be welcoming RVC staff and friends along the way to make it fun, challenging, inviting, and just a great setting to work out. So leading up to the bike ride, I had been enjoying the range of RVC options:  regular Pilates training with Cindy; tennis clinics with Andrew, Tammy, and Josh and monthly matches; some workouts in the gym; swimming on my own; pool waterfall or post-shower hot tub to ease any muscle aches and just relax; some yoga here and there; Janet’s Monday AST class; a post-workout nutritional smoothie; massage with Lisa or Alan; last-minute hair cut with Kim. That’s an amazing array when you think about it, and it’s really just a tip of the RVC iceberg of offerings.   Ironically I have to admit, I’ve never been a spinner, but I may start adding that in as I miss the cycling now we are in winter.  As for daughter Liesel, RVC has played a role growing up from CrossFit youth training classes to the occasional gym, pool, yoga, Pilates, and group fitness class.  Often during her college vacations, we would exercise together at RVC, and maybe that helped set us up for a good working duo on the bike trip.

As my daughter just said as I wrote this, RVC is really a community where people come together for exercise and health and wellness and community….sweaty, hot, tired, but happy… pretty much just like us each biking day as we interacted with people about our mission and had conversation about wellness, fitness, goals, life.   Each one of us at RVC is there for different reasons— it may be to gain cardiovascular stamina, to get more flexible, to be stronger, to train for a specific event, to lose pounds, to rehab from an injury, to learn to play tennis, to rehab and/or indulge from the spa offerings, etc..  There are really so many inspirational people at RVC—both members and staff–that our story is likely just one of the many we would learn if we all shared them.  

The bottom line is that we are thankful for RVC in this community.  It helped us lay a foundation to be successful, to move our bodies and apply our minds for positive change, and to feel supported.  You never know how your time at RVC may prepare or springboard you on a grand life adventure!!  

You also never know what adventure may lay in wait with your little “baby” when you come full circle as a parent and she leads you XC!  Our trip also underscored what an incredible community we have here in the Upper Valley as we appreciated support from Omer and Bob’s and Positive Tracks along with RVC in setting us up to GO FOR IT!!!!

Final reflections:  Despite the planning of needing to be somewhere each day and reach that future goal of the Pacific, the real beauty of the ride was being in the moment and  having the health at the moment.  Taking each breath, embracing each day, carrying forward, remembering what a privilege it was to be alive, to move, to explore, and to live out a dream.

MORE details about the trip if interested…

Wait, was it truly self-supported?  Yes, we had us, our touring bikes, 4 panniers and a handlebar bag each, and our Camelbaks. We each had 2 bike outfits and a change of clothes.  Amazing how little one can exist on…and even that can seem like too much sometimes.

Hardest days: The brutal heat of the South when we started, with temps over 100 degrees; multi-days trying to cross Kansas which goes on FOREVER and can be beautiful but utterly monotonous at time on bike, and with headwinds that can reduce you to a crawl; climbing up to the rim of the Grand Canyon; crossing Navajo reservation land, with one landmark or town in a 50-mile radius.

Days to remember: There were many for lots of reasons.  Summiting Red Mountain Pass in CO at 11,018 ft., as well as Monarch Pass in CO (11,312 feet) and Mingus Mountain by Jerome, AZ; crossing the Mississippi River (I had never seen it) with a police escort as the 1 mile bridge was too narrow for cyclists; revisiting the accident site in Arkansas and encountering, by chance, many people who had played roles that day and remembered it clearly.  Going thru states in the south—a part of the world utterly unknown to me, as I grew up in the West and have lived in the East, but done little in the “in between” lands of the USA.  Descending out of the Angeles National Forest in CA to see the whole LA basin spread before us and the ocean soon to come.

Most epic: Crossing the Mojave desert from Parker, AZ to Twenty-Nine Palms, CA.  A 122-mile day and pure desert.  Left at 2am for several hours of cycling in the dark so as to try to be off our bikes by 12 noon and not become a desert fatalitystatistic.  (Yes, we had a support person on standby to meet us if necessary, and ironically, he had to meet us with less than 10 miles to go as the scorching heat was taking its toll and we needed some immediate icing down and cold drinks to make it the last stretch.)

Bike problems:  Oh yes—14 flats, 1 broken chain, 3 tire changes, 1 alignment busted, 1 cassette replaced, 1 cable replaced.  One epic encounter was trying to fix the broken chain in Alabama when a gruff old local man came up in his truck, concerned we would be breaking into his property.  He then tried to help us for the next hour with the mechanics and told us all about growing up and living in those part of rural AL.

Risk: Absolutely.  We were reminded of risk to ourselves being hit by a car or otherwise having an accident every day.  We had several close calls, some aggressive/angry drivers, and some choice comments and gestures directed at us a few times. And we knew the reality of why we were doing this at all —in memory of Merritt and why she died.  Hopefully our conversations, spreading awareness, encouraging respectful coexistence of bikes and cars, and inspiring more people to think of riding their bikes has helped a bit.  But no two ways about it, there is real risk and sadly probably always will be.  

Weather:  You bet.  We used essential cooling-off towels in the South that saved us.  There was a violent thunder/lightning storm in Mississippi as we camped on a lake, and we had to take refuge for hours on the bathroom floor.  (This is the same storm that resulted in the duckboat tragedy in nearby MS that evening.)  There was a sudden violent storm as we crossed CO that had the wind and rain going sideways and had us dive into a random car garage that a man was opening and beckoning us to shelter in. We stayed for 1-2 hours as we learned about his restoration of vintage cars and were offered drink and cookies.  He later donated to our ride!  We dodged a  massive dust storm, barely, in eastern AZ as it hovered in the fields near us and approached closer and closer.  I now understand what the Dust Bowl really means.

Serendipity:  Meeting in Kansas at almost exactly our halfway point a father-son bicycling the other direction XC.  They told us a route we should do in the CO mountain passes—which we did—and we all took a picture together.  They successfully ended their ride in SC a few days before we did ours in CA.

Education:  The ride opened our eyes on EVERYTHING.  Not just because of oodles of time, but because of what we encountered.  Civil rights, building construction, demise of the South small towns, confederate statues, tornado sheltering, cotton growing, agricultural equipment, industry, role of Walmart and Dollar Generals, meat packing industry in western Kansas and eastern CO, Calif. population growth, fitness and obesity; pollution and transportation, state parks, all the types of RVS, all the types of fun equipment that RVs pull, hunting, mining, nutrition, fried foods etc. etc…

Bodies:  Yes, we held up.  1 eye infection due to too much weather exposure; 1 set of sore knees; 1 major sunburn; lots of experimenting with, shall I say, where the body meets the seat… that actually was something that may have derailed me if not for constant change of position in the saddle and adjustments and chamois cream.

Nights:  Mostly camping which was a true pleasure as we have amazing state parks that otherwise we never would have seen.  We camped the first 1/3 of the trip; did 1/2 camping and ½ motels the next 1/3 of the trip(shout out to Super 8’s); and as we made it into the west the limited options for camping and other factors made motels the best option Sometimes we camped as the only tents in the land of RVs—quite the spectacle and garnered a lot of dismay and invitations by the RV people!

Typical day:  On the bike at sunrise (usually 5:30-6am) and usually in transit till 6pm with stops along the way.  Typically rode 80-100 miles every day.

Route: We followed the original planned itinerary from five years ago:  SC to GA to AL to AR to MS to MO to KS to CO (with the 4 corners of CO/UT/NM/AZ) to AZ  to CA.  This is probably the hottest route XC but one of the shortest distance.

People and random acts of kindness:  Best part of the trip was probably not just “seeing” everything and doing it, but meeting amazing people along the way.  We hung out so much at random campsites, convenience stores, Dollar Generals, and Walmarts and seemed to attract a lot of attention with our bikes and how we looked.  Most people were intrigued, stupefied, worried, but supportive.  As Liesel wrote in a trip summary: “Thank you to the inspiring folks that hosted me again from 5 years ago, the strangers who tossed us cold Arizona teas on the pavement, the offers to tow us on the back of pickup trucks across Alabama, the prayers from strangers along the way and the sharing of Merritt’s story across the country, the ice cube delivery in the Mojave, the warm long-awaited hugs upon reaching the Pacific, the much appreciated bike, weather & logistic advise along the way, the shared laughs & exclamations of disbelief from passersby, and the outpouring of support & encouragement from back home.”

Weirdest facts?  We carried a ukulele all the way from Tupelo, MS (home of Elvis)—just “because”; armadillos can eat thru weather-proof panniers; you really can count cows all the way XC if you try; young sunflowers all face the same direction but mature ones don’t.

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