Last summer, my brother Matthew experienced the distance of the United States in the BEST way, and I must brag about him for a moment. He rode his bicycle from Florida to Wisconsin.
Yes, his bicycle.
Because I honor and deeply respect his choice to travel using two wheels, muscle, and sweat, I am sharing this. Because I want to meet him at Aldo Leopold’s Shack (aldoleopold.org) someday, maybe witness the sandhill crane migration together, bike the roads of our childhood again, I am writing dreaming, and wishing this.
I interviewed him about his trip and his responses are here. At the end of this post, I wrote him a poem, inspired by him and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Please enjoy.
1: How did you choose your route? Can you share some of the resources you used?
The first thing I did in choosing my route was to pencil a straight line on an atlas from Madison to Tallahassee, which turned out to be a rough guide at best, because it passed through too many cities. Also, along with avoiding congested areas, I wanted to stay west of the Appalacian mountains. So this basically meant western Alabama, coming out of Florida north of Tallahassee and angling north and west out of Dothan.
First, though, from Tampa to North Florida, I was lucky to have two paved bike trails heading in my direction. I picked up the Withlacoochee Trail north of Dade City, and it turned out to be very encouraging because of how flat and smooth it was. I stayed in my second motel in Inverness, which was right on the trail, and was allowed to check in before noon. Earlier that day I sat out a rain storm under a kiosk for a state park, which I didn’t mind at all. Otherwise, I used Gazetters for Florida, Alabama and Illinios and Google maps when I had access to wifi.
2: Can you describe some of the natural beauty, places you could best see on a bike and maybe miss with a car?
Bike trails. Otherwise I shared the road with drivers who could see what I saw if they slowed down. What they did miss though, are the smells and sounds of where they are traveling through.
3: Can you describe some of the places you stayed along the way?
Campgrounds/cabins/hotels/towns? Funky hotels, mostly. Cheapest ones that offered wifi. I only camped in North Florida, Southern Illinois and Wisconsin. Three Rivers State Park in northern Florida is on Lake Seminole and from the shoreline, you can see Georgia. I camped two nights there and stayed one night in a waterfront cabin that was close to a perfect lodging. At first, I had a tent site with electricity and slept with a puny desk fan just inches from my face, but my Thermal Rest was too narrow and I woke up every time I rolled over. Otherwise I had 90 degree days the entire trip, so I stuck to motels with a/c.
4: What surprised you along the way-impressions of people and places, feelings you had?
I used my laptop at McDonald’s damn near every day. What surprised me were how many older couples I’d meet there who just loved to hear my story. I would have ridden right past the famous music studio Muscle Shoals if an older guy didn’t strike up a conversation at a McDonald’s two doors down. In Luverne, Alabama I stopped in the shade of a parking lot and got to say hi to a couple of dogs being walked by very friendly home health care worker. We talked for awhile, and she left but came back on her way to work with a plate of eggs, toast and snacks for the rest of the day. Another place in Alabama I was offered Gatorade and cash while still on my bike. I took the drink but passed on the money.
5: What were some of the biggest challenges?
Traffic, wind and hills. A crazy head wind going up an interstate overpass with a green light and someone wanting to go right at their red light, that was the worst. I had one lady pull up next to me in Kentucky and say “You’re going to cause an accident” after struggling with a narrow shoulder and long ass lines of cars. In Alabama, the caution bumps carved into the pavement were smack dab in the middle of the shoulder, which gave me only about six inches of space to ride on. Once I had a truck coming behind and one coming at me and all three of us would have met on a bridge-where the already narrow shoulder tapered to next to nothing- had I not turned into the ditch at the last minute. Semis were the other big challenge. Then monster pot holes in the roads, starting about the middle of Illinois.
6: Which states or regions seemed the friendliest toward bicyclists?
I saw more people on bikes in Wisconsin the first few hours I was here than I saw in all the other states combined, and this was over four weeks. The people in Alabama were friendly but the roads were not.
7: What was your favorite aspect of the trip overall?
Sunday morning on a quiet country road. Sitting out rain showers in abandoned stores that had an awning, which were fairly abundant in Alabama. From the middle of Tennessee to northern Illinois I got lucky with tail winds. My best day was 80 miles in southern Illinois where the farm roads were laid out like a grid, and I kept a 15-17 mph average, which felt like hauling ass.
8: What will you do differently on your next ride?
Be out of the south before June. Plan for more camping and not shy away from the mountains so much. Next trip I start in the north and go north.
9: Where are you planning to go?
Canada if I can renew my passport. Otherwise the Boundry Waters in Minnesota. Heading west isn’t off the table, just very unlikely.
10: What specific equipment/gear/supplies would you recommend to other bicyclists?
Surly bikes and Ortileb panniers. Gazetteer’s were big and clumsy but sometimes showed camping areas that Google maps did not. A side view mirror is essential. I used insulated aluminum water bottles, so I always had cold water. Stopping for ice became routine.
11: Lastly, as a rough estimate, it’s 1,330 miles from where you started in Valrico, Florida to Madison, Wisconsin. How many total miles of trails vs. miles of road did you travel? And do you think the U.S. will see more bike trails in the future, like the Rails to Trails movement?
I’d say I rode about 100 total miles on trails and the rest were roads. I think I could have ridden more trails if I had made the time. They were there, but I really wanted to get to Wisconsin. As far as the future of bike trails in the U.S., well, I don’t like to make predictions like that.
I think my brother’s answer to that last question is honest and practical. I sincerely hope that the U.S. does become more of a bike-friendly nation, because as Matthew says, I want to experience “the smells and sounds of where [I am] traveling through.”
Poem for Matthew
My brother followed cut-leaf Silphium,
to a root
vertical and deep,
clear through to bedrock
a seed that tastes like sunflower,
but with its own man-high stalk,
saucer-sized yellow blooms.
He wanted to celebrate
a prairie birthday,
a flowering age,
before rail lines or highway.
He rode his bike,
following the scent of this flora,
this weed like a book,
to the rivers he knew with his fish pole
and I am following him