TransAm Roundup: 8 Things That Totally Surprised Us (USA Day 105)

For better or for worse, the TransAmerica Trail hasn’t even been close to how we imagined. I thought it’d be interesting for those who’re planning to ride it, or those who’ve ridden it and want to compare notes, to share what we found surprising about this cross-continental bike route, and to give it the evaluation it deserves. So on this rainy day in Portland, I’ve put some proper time into coffee, donuts (of the Voodoo variety) and a long hard think about our TransAm experience. Here’s what bubbled to the top:

1.      You’re one of thousands. Everyone, in every town, knows what you’re about. They’ll nonchalantly ask, “East or West?”, then go about their business. The cyclists passing through have an important role to play in the town’s tourist trade, plus a responsibility to uphold the locals’ opinion of us as a homogenous group, even though that’s not what we are. When you’re on the TransAm, you’ll never freewheel into a town to see shocked faces at windows: there are places that will cater for you, and those that won’t, and you won’t shock anybody with your presence. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: any problem you’ve had, someone will’ve had before. Anything you need, someone will’ve needed it before. There’s a comfort in not being the first.

2.      The TransAm is not the shortest, or fastest, or easiest way across America. You can take the Western Express from Pueblo if you’re in a hurry, or Route 66 straight from Chicago to Los Angeles. You can avoid masses of Virginia and Kentucky hills by sticking a little further north: Pennsylvania and Ohio are full of pan-flat rail trails. What the TransAm is, is historic. Since its inception in 1976, this is the way people ride across the country, and that’s the biggest thing it has going for it. It’s a pretty fantastic ride, to be sure, but it isn’t the best one by any single metric.

3.      The route is nothing special. Much of the route was picked for ease of travel, so it’s not always the best way. Don’t get stuck following the route religiously just because: maybe you want to take the windier, hillier back road as opposed to the very straight main road with much more traffic. Maybe you want to go the long way round Yellowstone. Maybe you fancy Nebraska, not Kansas. There’s nothing special about the roads on the TransAm, except you get more cyclists on them. So between Sisters and Astoria, why not go off-route, following the Cascades north, then the Columbia Gorge west? It's been truly beautiful. I've been terrible at uploading my routes, but at some point I'll make sure I share this.

4.      Today’s weather: all of it. I can only go by experience here, but the weather has been so much more variable than we expected. Regular thunderstorms, plus torrential rain and hail, baking heat and intolerable humidity, strong wind in every direction, cold mornings, floods, dust storms, we’ve had the lot (except snow). If you’re doing it cheaply, as we have, you need more than a single season camping setup if you want to sleep.

5.      You’re never far from pie. We thought the trail would feel more remote more often. You’ll ride regular highways with loads of cars, pass plenty of towns with all the services you need, and those wonderful (scary) moments when you truly feel alone are rare. As before, take this as neutral. For some, this is great news. For others, you might want to search a little further out for your kick.

6.      The going’s good. Pretty much every road on the route has a good surface, Sometimes they get intermittently bumpy (something to do with how they’re laid) but you can do the whole thing on narrow tyres if you’re that kind of rider. The major obstacle to your enjoyment of the roads will be the roadkill, of which there are just far too many, and the shredded truck tyres which have been the cause of most of our punctures.

7.      East to west? Not the best. We did not, not, not go the ‘wrong way’. Repeatedly, we were told that east to west was harder because of the prevailing westerly headwind, and therefore a poor decision. But travelling west, like so many groups of adventurers before us, has felt resonant (often in shocking and eye-opening ways). You go from historic to new, built-up to spread out, tame to wild. Like any factor: your bike’s weight, your daily mileage, the hills, you just get used to headwind, plus it’s so variable that you’re never guaranteed any (apart from in Wyoming where it’s relentless).

8.      The political divide is irrelevant. Politics really don’t matter when it comes to people just being good people. We’ve learned to trust in the kindness of strangers on this trip. It’s a wonderful feeling. And maybe this comes from a position of middle-class white privilege, but whether we arrive in a wholly Republican town or a Democrat one, we’ve been welcomed just the same.

So there it is. The TransAm is a great first bike tour for a novice or a marvellous experience for a road-worn traveller, but don’t expect it to take you down America’s best roads and don’t expect to find true, untouched wilderness. I guarantee you’ll make hundreds of new friends, see some incredible sights and rarely get bored. It’s just interesting that the best moments of our trip have been when we abandoned the TransAm. Going off-trail isn’t always going wrong.