Pedal Pushers

America: A 2,781-mile ride from California to Florida had its uphills and downhills, some downright scary. But with luck and pluck, and an angel or two, Baltimore bicyclists enjoy a tour de force.

May 23, 1999|By Kirk and Susan Nevin | Kirk and Susan Nevin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

We could smell the ocean long before we could see it or hear it.

After a "Whoop!" of triumph as we entered the city, we pedaled in silence, concentrating on the complexities of St. Augustine's urban traffic. Above noisy Interstate 95, across the six busy lanes of U.S. 1, and finally left on A1A and straight into the parking lot of Castillo de San Marcos National Monument on the Atlantic shore. The odometer read 2,781 miles.

We had done it!

As if awakening from a long dream, we clambered stiffly off our bikes and hugged each other. Kisses and high-fives. Elation and letdown in equal measure.

A winter on our trusty old touring bikes, snow and cold and wind, mountains and deserts and swamps, cities and tiny towns. A journey completed on the first day of spring.

We had cycled across America. Pacific to Atlantic. Sea to shining sea.

A powerful mix of emotions for both of us: a rush of relief at having actually completed this daunting task; deep sadness that the wonderful journey had finally ended, that this was the last day of working together as a team to achieve an extraordinarily difficult goal; and a feeling of joy that we could now begin in earnest to plan our next adventure together.

We thanked each other, knowing that each had made the trip possible for the other. A winter-long team effort.

We had done it!


Susan's Journal: San Diego, 12-2-98

Our gear made it in one piece. Bikes still in the boxes; reassembly is tomorrow's project. We looked carefully at the map, and it appears we face some incredible climbs as soon as we leave this campground -- multiple passes, the highest well over 4,500 feet! A man here cautioned us to carry lots of water and not to ride during commuting hours because the road is winding and narrow.

I'm feeling ridiculous. Old and unprepared and wildly ridiculous. Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

The idea for this adventure came last June during a fun ride on the Northern Central Trail in Baltimore County. Susan commented that it had been too long since our last bike tour (two months in Provence, France, in 1991).

The seed germinated and matured. Why not fly to California and ride back to Florida?

We had the equipment: touring bikes, tent, sleeping bags, a stove. We also had six months to get into reasonable physical condition, to choose a route, to buy incidentals, to rewrite our wills.

And so it happened. On Dec. 2 we flew, with two disassembled and boxed bikes and a pile of camping equipment, from Baltimore to San Diego. We pitched the tent in a campground near the Pacific, then took three days to assemble the bikes, pay a daylong visit to the nearby beaches and visit the famous San Diego Zoo.

On a sunny Saturday morning, Dec. 6, we packed the gear on the bikes, strapped on our helmets and rode east.

Journal: Alpine, Calif., 12-7-98

Threats of snow tonight. Made 25 miles in 3 3/4 hours, nearly all uphill (Alpine is at 2,500 feet, San Diego at sea level). The ride was hard; we got cold, so stopped for hot soup and Powerade. Looked for a motel ... too expensive ... campground is fine, and we're all alone. Spaghetti and broccoli for supper. Our route climbs another 25 miles to over 6,000 feet, then within 8 miles plunges below sea level in the Central Valley. Scenery today reminded us of Crete -- rocky mountains with olive and lemon trees.

Cold? The bottle of drinking water in the tent was frozen solid in the morning.

Our bikes were monsters -- 16 years old, heavy (30 pounds each), laden with full panniers (two on the front wheels, two on the rear), plus handlebar bags and piles of camping gear on the racks over the rear wheels.

We were equipped for virtually anything: cold-weather clothes for riding in sub-freezing temperatures, camping equipment that would allow us to survive 10-degree nights, and a full kitchen with stove, two pots and a 48-hour supply of food and water. We also had a small mountain of incidentals: photo equipment, writing and art supplies, books and maps, first-aid kit, a tool kit and spare parts for the bikes, and rain gear.

All this on two bicycles. In the winter. In the mountains. With 2,750 miles to go.

Journal: Gordon's Wells, Calif., 12-9-98

Had ridden only 12 miles this morning when the sandstorm hit. Powerful gusts from the Algodones Dunes to our west, filled with sand and rocks. We have the tent anchored to a squat tamarisk tree in an abandoned RV park. So we're hanging out, reading, writing, listening to the wind roar across the desert. We're only 20 miles from Yuma.

We had found our limit two days before the sandstorm. We left our campsite early, only to face a sustained, freezing 25 mile-an-hour headwind and a 9-mile climb from 2,500 feet to 4,200 feet. Then it got worse: a 7-mile drop, down to 2,800 feet, and another long climb to 4,500 feet. All this on the shoulder of Interstate 8, a busy, truck-infested superhighway and the only road headed east through these mountains.

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