Standing next to my bike in the middle of Boston, my back to a serrated range of ultra-modern mirrored peaks, I peered down a 17th century cobbled street. It was the start of a trip I had put off for years, a journey I had been saving until just the right time. So, here I was at the beginning: not just the start of my cross-country bike ride, but in the very place where the United States began. Turning to face the glass towers, I felt the past pulsate behind me, mounted my bike, and pushed off to rediscover the new world.
Despite opposing each other in two bitter wars – don’t forget the War of 1812 – America’s British heritage is worn proudly on the east coast of the United States. It stands out in the terraced brickwork of New England so that upon first glance, the country appears to be a younger sibling, tinged with a neon glow. But the resemblance fades quickly, the further west one travels.
It took two weeks to clear New England, riding through daily rainstorms in the Adirondacks and the Alleghenies, and another month to reach the Mississippi. From the bridge outside of Chester, Illinois, I peered across the river with disappointment. Not nearly so wide nor as muddy as Huck Finn had led me to believe, it reminded me of my first view of the Mona Lisa. It too had been smaller – dare I say, less remarkable, than I had expected.
The west side of the Mississippi marks a shift, not just in the landscape, but also in the psyche of America. From here on out, the country becomes increasingly less populated, increasingly more rural. In 1804, when the land to the west was wilderness, with the emphasis on wild, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were given the task of finding a route to the Pacific. Sixty miles to my north, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the Corps of Discovery set out to find what lay beyond the horizon. Though our paths barely touched at the Mississippi before diverging again, we followed a largely parallel route across the country, coming together again in the Rockies and once more at my ultimate destination, the Columbia River and the Pacific coast.
Amongst cross-country cyclists, Missouri is infamous. Back in New York, the first touring cyclists I met had referred to the state as ‘Misery’ because of the short, steep and relentless roller-coaster hills which spread across the Ozark Plateau. Hills in this region are not spectacular in terms of size – they are commonly just two or three hundred feet high – but they are in their temerity. All too frequently, I abandoned my pride and pushed my bike up these little climbs.
Kansas came as a relief. Its 600 miles of prairie, dissected and bisected by a grid-pattern of country roads, flashed by in a week despite the headwinds and crosswinds blowing out of the west. And after Kansas came Colorado, where the ground rose up once more. Heading north along the spine of the Rockies, Hoosier Pass marked my first crossing of the Continental Divide. The first crossing of nine.
With barely half a million people sprinkled across an area of under 100,000 square miles, Wyoming is the least-populous state in the union. In the east, an arid sea of sagebrush and sand stretches to the horizon, while in the west the jagged peaks of the Tetons cleave the land in two. In between, the earth shifts and folds and crumbles into some of the most rugged landscape in the country.
Named quite literally for the bare, fractured granite which rises from the surrounding desert, Split Rock served as a stop-over for pioneers heading west on the Oregon Trail and later, as a relay station for the lean boy-riders of the Pony Express. Standing on a precipice, one eye on the lookout for rattlesnakes, I traced the line of wheel ruts in the sagebrush and felt a caravan of immigrants pass by on the breeze. Wyoming’s best-known feature however, Yellowstone National Park, lies in the northwestern corner, overflowing into the border states of Montana and Idaho.
Within the giant caldera – the collapsed crater of Yellowstone’s supervolcano – the earth fizzes and steams, boils and pops. John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark team and the first white man to pass this way, called it a hellish land of “fire and brimstone”, and despite the herds of RVs that lumber along the roads, it isn’t difficult to imagine his horror the first time he saw the earth explode.
While the history of the United States unfolded as I travelled west, the history of the native people seemed to rewind. As I cycled through Yellowstone my route joined that of the Nez Perce, the tarmac following an ancient hunting trail, and I read their history, from 1877 backwards, on wayside tourist boards – their story turning back to a time before fence-posts carved up the west, before treaties were made and broken, before confinement or annihilation were the only two options they had.
At the little town of Wisdom, Montana, I sheltered from falling temperatures and checked into a motel run by the wife of a trapper. “These things get everywhere,” she said, as she plucked two pale globes the size of grape fruits from the desk and tossed them into an overflowing basket. They fell with a clatter as the pile collapsed and the skulls of coyotes, lynx and mountain lions spilled across the floor.
Ten miles north of Wisdom, wooded hillsides give way to a meadow where, for centuries, Native Americans crossing the mountains from the buffalo plains in the east to the rivers in the west, set up camp. It was here, along the banks of the Big Hole River, that the Nez Perce I was riding with stopped to rest. After coming into conflict with Idaho settlers, they had fled east through the Bitterroots. Here at Big Hole, certain their pursuers were far behind, the Indians set up their teepees and gathered strength for the next leg of their journey. As they slept, soldiers and volunteer civilians crept out of the trees and opened fire. Leaving the warriors to fight, Chief Joseph led 500 women, children and elders away from the battle in the direction of Yellowstone.
Two miles of steady climbing took me to the top of Chief Joseph Pass, my final crossing of the Continental Divide. To the west, the smoking peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains meant the end of the Rockies was near.
In the West, wildfires are an annual occurrence, fire season stretching from June until the first snowfall. A wet spring, followed by an arid summer helps to create a thick undergrowth in the forests, prime fuel when lightning strikes during rainless electric storms. Along the roadside, charred snags from old fires rose out of new growth and beyond the peaks, this year’s fires muddied the skyline with their smoke. I had once received an email with a photo of two elk standing in the middle of a river, the wooded hills on either side an orange inferno. I saw that photo again in the office of the campground where I stayed in Darby, the caption beneath it reading August 2000. That night, blackened fire-fighters from as far away as Alaska queued in the dusk for showers. Before daybreak, they were back on the road, heading into the hills for another shift.
By mid-September of 1805, the Corps of Discovery were deep in the Bitterroots. Finding little in the way of game to supplement their emergency rations of portable soup, the men began killing their horses. If not for their meeting with the Nez Perce, the first time that tribe had encountered white men, they would likely have starved.
Today, passage through the mountains is far less arduous. Heading west on Highway 12 from Lolo, Montana, the road climbs to the pass, gradually at first, then more steeply the last four miles to the top. But every uphill has its reward. From the summit, which marks the border with my home state of Idaho, the road unwinds alongside the Lochsa River, descending for a hundred miles.
Twelve miles south of Grangeville and seven weeks before the battle at Big Hole, the Nez Perces’ journey first turned to flight. En route to the reservation at Lapwai, where the tribe had been relegated to open their lands to white farmers, the Nez Perce camped for one last time near the top of White Bird Hill.
As they prepared for the final leg to Lapwai, three young braves took revenge for the murder of a Nez Perce, killing four men before rampaging through neighbouring homesteads. In the seven decades since their meeting with Lewis and Clark, it was the first time a member of the tribe had harmed a white man. Now, they had slaughtered innocent families and knew that retribution would follow. Turning south, they headed down the canyon before looping back towards Lolo Pass and the Big Hole River.
White Bird Hill has legendary status amongst cross-country cyclists. The old road, completed in 1915, snakes its way from the high prairies to the canyon floor over eight and a half miles of switchbacks, while the new road, opened sixty years later, cuts through the curves at a seven per cent grade. With August temperatures melting rivulets of tar, cycling up either is madness. Freewheeling down the old road, however, is nothing but joy.
At the Snake River in Hells Canyon, I crossed into Oregon, heat radiating off the cliffs as if from the blast-furnace of Hell itself. In the 1860s, gold miners arrived, their roads – high up on the cliff face – still visible from the highway. Homesteaders followed towards the end of the century, their untended cherry orchards, still full of sweet fruit in at the end of summer. But they of course were not the first inhabitants of Hells Canyon. The Nez Perce too were here, pictographs and petroglyphs reminding us that this land was their land first.
The Cascades were to be the last mountains I would have to cross, their volcanic peaks marking the boundary between the eastern desert and the rain-belt to the west. From Santiam Pass the road falls away in a final rush to the coast.
My ride came to an end at Astoria on the yawning mouth of the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark reached this spot in November of 1805 and wintered here before heading back the way they had come. On their journey home, they were to renew their friendship with the tribe who had saved them. Seventy-one years later and just a day’s march from freedom in Canada, the Nez Perce were intercepted by soldiers from Custer’s recently defeated Seventh Cavalry. At Bear Paw, Montana their journey too was over.
My journey had taken 78 days and my faithful bike had covered some 5,000 miles on this trip alone; it's good for many more! There is freedom in cycle touring, a freedom in knowing that what propels you forward – your legs, your lungs, your determination – can take you anywhere you want to go. Every long-distance cyclist knows this feeling and it is what drives many of us to return again and again to the open road. It is of course what the first pilgrims wanted, and what the pioneers sought at the end of those long wagon train trails out west. And it’s what the Nez Perce marched 1800 miles in order to keep. As I boxed up my bike for the plane trip home, I reproved myself for mourning my loss of freedom for I knew it was only temporary and that one day I would return to the road.