New York to Seattle: Cycling the Northern Tier

New York to Seattle: Cycling the Northern Tier

Author:Anita Maksimiuk
While the term “adventure cycling” is open to interpretation, it might seem like a far-fetched idea in most contexts, especially to anyone who rides a bike strictly for fun. When I discovered the adventure and bike touring community, the idea of crossing the country powered by nothing by sweat, strong will, and some savings became a priority. I had to see just how possible it was- and what the experience would teach me.

When my riding partner and I decided to take on the Northern Tier cycling route across the top half of the United States, we had a few trips under our belts, but nothing longer than three weeks. We were lifelong city kids, used to weaving in and out of traffic, arguing with drivers, and climbing New York’s bridges by bike, not a pine in sight. Dedicated athletes we were not. Having decided we were going to ride cross country just because we could, we put our energy into finding the right gear, investing in touring bikes that actually fit us, and arranging our lives to allow for a trip that had no set timeline. Our goal was to complete at least 50 miles a day, and we planned each nightly stop around that estimate.

Our most crucial planning resource was the Adventure Cycling Association, an organization committed to the power of bike touring and advocacy on the part of cyclists since 1973. The Association’s laboriously designed route maps are a priceless helping hand for anyone considering a long-distance ride. Clear, detailed, and beautifully printed, the map sets indicate important roadside resources like lodging, restaurants, and, perhaps most importantly- cyclist-specific accommodations where riders can hunker down safely for the night. Accommodations could mean anything from campgrounds to city parks open to cycling campers to ordinary individuals opening up their homes. This unassuming network of trail angels and trail havens was our lifeline as we rode from upstate New York to Seattle, following the Adventure Cycling Association’s route through twelve states. It also makes a two-and-a-half-month trip completely plausible for anyone on a tight budget and the will to eschew everyday comforts in favor of experience.

Setting off from New York’s Adirondack Mountains in early May, we took on the High Peaks, quickly learning that having high-quality, ultra-warm gear meant the difference between a night of cozy chills and a one of freezing misery, our tent conversations drowned out by the howl of pine forests. From the mountains, the landscape gave way to rural New York farmland and milder weather until Lake Erie’s glossy surface began to peek over the horizon. Unsettling, boundless, and impossibly still, the lake accompanied us through a sliver of Pennsylvania and on to Ohio, which then blended into Indiana and Illinois. Crossing the Beckey Bridge from Illinois to Muscatine, Iowa, we rode over the Mississippi, one of the more significant milestones of the trip. The river guided us north along the Iowa and Wisconsin shorelines before we continued west through Minnesota. Northern woods and evening loon song soon turned into notoriously windy North Dakotan mornings- the state was a challenge to traverse as a lone duo completely exposed to the elements. Nothing humbles you like a wall of wind preventing any sort of progress for hours on end.

In fact, having no choice but to spend every day (and most nights) outdoors reminds you of the sheer power of forces we often forget about while holed up in our homes and vehicles. You begin to feel the rain coming on again, re-learn to bask in the primal relief of fresh water and cheap ice cream, and get used to outrunning the lingering smell of roadkill. Speaking of outrunning, you also find yourself racing against the clock when dusk starts to spill over the horizon, trying to outsmart raging dogs as they chase you down empty backroads, keeping up with the freight train and pedaling onwards just to be able to say goodbye to another grueling 70 or 80-mile day. As we passed Fargo, enjoyed Gackle, and fought the gusts, we neared the state border, almost ready to bid North Dakota a bitter goodbye. A few miles from the state line, Theodore Roosevelt National Park sucked us right back in with its brutally gorgeous badlands, proving that a natural wonder becomes something completely different when seen from the seat of a bicycle as opposed to the passenger side window.

Those things, it turned out, were all I needed to not only move through the throes of America for nearly three months but to redefine my definition of home by packing it all up every morning and carrying that home onwards, rain or shine.