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Northern Tier: Biking Cross-Country

Written By: Lief Carlsen

Returning from our cross-country bicycle trip in October 2006, my wife, Mary, and I enjoyed a brief period of minor celebrity in our home town of Chelan, Washington. A local paper published several articles detailing our on-the-road exploits and it seemed like everyone knew what we had done and wanted to congratulate us. We were poked, prodded, and pumped for details wherever we went. “What was your favorite place? How many miles did you do each day? Where did the idea to do this come from?”

Regarding the latter question, I’d have to say the idea didn’t come from “anywhere.” I’ve always wanted to do something like this and, frankly, I’m more than a little surprised other people don’t. My impulse (so far suppressed) when asked that question is to reply, “Why haven’t you ridden a bicycle across America?”

If you really want to know how we came to do this ride, you’d have to turn to Mary because it was when she decided she wanted to do ‘The Big Ride’ that I knew we would do it. Like launching a nuclear ICBM from a Trident submarine, all of the players keys have to be inserted into a special box for the missile to launch. My key had always been inserted into the special box. Our departure was waiting for Mary to insert her key.

For the first nineteen years of our marriage, Mary considered strenuous exercise-- especially in the outdoors--as an unpleasant behavior of mine comparable to, say, unclogging a toilet or informing the neighbor that you just ran over her cat. She had a discouraging habit of stubbornly resisting my occasional entreaties that we do some fairly vigorous hiking or biking.

About six years ago when our youngest son was approaching high school graduation, Mary realized she was going to have a lot of spare time on her hands. At the suggestion of a friend, she began attending a “spinning” class at a local health club as one way to utilize some of her alarmingly expanding surplus of time. In a spinning class, you sit on a stationary bicycle with a room full of other sweaty people astride identical machines and pedal (spin) your brains out to the beat of rock-and-roll music while the class instructor barks commands as to how fast and in what gear you should spin.

Crazy. But it worked for her. She liked it so much that, the following summer, she bought a bicycle that actually moved and started riding, out of doors, with a local group called the Apple Capital Bicycle Club.

Over the years I had occasionally dusted off my old ten-speed and ridden several modest rides so I naturally believed that I retained a residual level of bicycle fitness that would serve me well should I ever need it. After Mary had been riding for several months, I tagged confidently along one weekend and found I was being left behind like a dachshund thrown on a racetrack with greyhounds. I was incredulous – Mary (a girl!) a stronger rider than me?

Panic ensued, but by the end of the day I had convinced myself that this topsy-turvy turn of events could be explained by the technological superiority of her new bicycle over my antique. I immediately went out and bought myself a bicycle of the same caliber and, in case my point proved pure crap, spent a frantic week secretly building up my strength by riding up and down the canyon behind our house. On the next group ride, I put in a respectable performance and distanced myself from my shameful performance of the previous week by making vague references that I had been “under the weather.”

Thus began a routine that found us regularly riding along the rivers and through the abundant orchards in Central Washington in spring, summer, and fall. Mary’s transformation from an exercise avoider to an ardent enthusiast is best illustrated by the fact that we rode the popular Seattle-to-Portland ride (STP) together that summer. For those who are unfamiliar with this ride, it is a 200-mile event that can be done in one or two days. Our first year, we did it in two days. The next year Mary astounded me by doing it in one.

We bought a tandem bicycle in 2004 after encountering a chatty couple on one of our rides who enthusiastically promoted the advantages of two-seaters – faster on flat ground, easier communication between the two riders, and the perfect answer to individuals of different abilities. We rode our new tandem on a 360-mile, four-day loop through the Cascades that year and decided, after our very bruised and tender butts had returned to normal, that we had what it took to do something more ambitious. On that same trip, we encountered a Dutch cyclist at the summit of Washington Pass and were intrigued by his extraordinary maps – maps published by the Adventure Cycling Association. These maps broke various routes down to approximately 30-mile sections and showed every conceivable detail that could be of interest to cyclists. My favorite feature was an accompanying graphic profile of a route’s elevation changes. On this graph, the route through Washington Pass looked like the Dow Jones Industrial Average of 1929 – repeated over and over again. Having just climbed the east side of the pass, we appreciated what that meant.

Once home, we ordered the organization’s catalog and poured over the various offerings. A trans-continental conglomeration of highways and back roads called the Northern Tier Route crossed the country from Anacortes, Washington to Bar Harbor, Maine and passed just north of our home. The seed had been planted. We ordered the set of eleven maps in the Northern Tier Route and set about designing our grand adventure.

Details, Details:

This passage was excerpted from Lief Carlsen’s new book, The Northern Tier, about his cross-country ride across America. Several more excerpts will be published here at WenatcheeOutdoors in the months ahead. The next excerpt will cover events leading up to the Carlsens’ departure from Chelan. The Northern Tier is available from Hastings and Full Circle Cycle in Wenatchee; Second Wind in East Wenatchee; Riverwalk Books in Chelan; A book for All Seasons in Leavenworth; or at www.lulu.com on the web.