Pedaling across America

November 30, 2012 12:52 pm

Hugh Donovan celebrates upon reaching journey’s end at  Yorktown, Va. His cross-country trip started in Enterprise.
Hugh Donovan celebrates upon reaching journey’s end at Yorktown, Va. His cross-country trip started in Enterprise.

From vast Kansas cornfields to cycle-chasing dogs of eastern Kentucky, Wallowa County 20-year-old covers 3,600 miles in 73 days atop recumbent bike  

Adventure came knocking on Hugh Donovan’s door last summer in the way of a 3,600 mile cross-country bike ride. Bitten by the travel bug, the open seas may be calling next.

A year at the University of North Dakota completed, Donovan decided not to return to school in the fall. His youth got the best of him. He wanted a big adventure.  

“I need to take advantage of youth and irresponsibility while its still around,” Donovan said.

Looking through photos of a friend’s nine-day bicycling trip, he was inspired to look into a cycling tour.

While doing some research, he stumbled across the Transamerica Bike Trail that starts in Astoria and ends in Yorktown, Va. Donovan said the trail was established in 1976 as the “Bike Centennial” by the Adventure Cycling Association based in Missoula, Mont.

How could he go wrong, following a path established by a group with “adventure” in its title?

Donovan turned 20 as he neared the end of the ride and has an athletic build, but said he was not a cyclist before the trip. 

He bought a recumbent bike, complete with a trailer for his camping gear, clothes, and his most important traveling companion — food. Eating was a big part of the experience as he burned 5,000 calories a day. Even after 73 days in the saddle, he hasn’t tired of Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese, a staple on his ride.

Donovan didn’t back track to Astoria, instead he left Wallowa County via the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road and eventually wound down the mountains into Idaho.

Along the way he met many young adults who were also in liminal places; they had graduated from high school or college or were taking a break between the two and looking for adventure. 

“A bulk of them had the same story; they were fed up with whatever they were doing,” Donovan said.

Though he was traveling alone, he met people every day of his trip. Two Stanford grads and he crossed paths several times all the way from Montana to Virginia. 

People and businesses along the Transamerican Bike Trail are used to the cyclists and are quick to offer up whatever the riders might need. In the course of 30 minutes in one midwestern town, Donovan was offered a place to stay by three different people.

At most stops and campsites along the way, Donovan said eastern and western travelers could exchange information about what was to come, such as bike-chasing dogs in Kentucky, a ghost town in Wyoming, or shortcuts to avoid hill climbs.

If a rider clicked out their feet from their pedals, it was a symbol to exchange information, said Donovan, about camp sites, showers and free food. Churches, campgrounds and private citizens offered meals in exchange for stories.

“Once I got to Kansas, I didn’t pay for food,” Donovan said.

Life on the road is an experience, but on a bike one is fully exposed to the elements and people from all walks of life. 

“A lot of weirdos gravitate to the biker crowd,” said Donovan, “but to bike across country you have to have a little craziness and put up with weirder people.”

He said he was advised to take a gun with him, but the only thing fearful along the way was gravity and riding his extra-long bike and trailer down steep, windy roads. In the Rockies he crossed the Continental Divide seven times; once he crossed it four times in a day.

Gravity wasn’t the only impediment – he said he hit a headwind so strong in the desert he had to pedal downhill.

Donovan said a recumbent bike isn’t ideal for getting around town, but for a tour it was a good choice because the rider sits upright and has a good view of his surroundings, no saddle soreness, and  fewer aches and pains in the neck, arms and wrists.

In Missouri, he ended up on a road that ceased to exist and crossed a footbridge to avoid a 20-mile detour. 

He crossed the Mississippi River from Missouri into Chester, Ill., and  from Illinois to Kentucky he rode a ferry across the Ohio River. 

The Appalachian Mountains provided more steep terrain than the astronomical, yet gentle pitches of the Rockies, he said.

“I knew it was going to be bad when the cars coming downhill had burning brakes.”

And the dogs of Eastern Kentucky? The same dog who bit his water bottle made toothy contact with his friend’s paniers.

One of the most iconic features of the ride is The Bike House along the Blue Ridge Parkway where the “Cookie Lady” lived. June Curry was known for offering cyclists cookies over the last four decades and her house is decorated in bike memorabilia and postcards from former visitors.

When Donovan reached Charlottesville he ran into his Stanford friends “one last time” to celebrate his 20th birthday. They met a couple intrigued by their journeys who not only picked up the birthday lunch tab, but hosted Donovan at their home outside of Yorktown where his ride ended at the Chesapeake Bay.

He arrived in Yorktown on Nov. 5 — too cold for a swim in the bay, so Donovan ceremoniously dipped his tires into the water. 

He spent three days resting up with his new friends before hopping a train to visit family in the Northeast. After three weeks, he and his bicycle rode the train west back home.

With a taste for travel, Donovan is researching sailing tall ships or possibly joining the Merchant Marines. 

“I would definitely do it again. I learned a lot about the country and myself,” he said.