On a cold day in March, after promising my Mom I would be okay, I left my hometown in Connecticut on a bicycle packed with 55 pounds of camping equipment, clothing, and trail mix. I rode up into Massachusetts, where I walked my bike through a snowstorm in the Berkshire Mountains. I stayed bundled up as I rode through upstate New York along the Erie Canal. After twenty days of riding, I reached Chicago. From there, I took a train to Denver, enjoying the cornfields of Iowa and Nebraska from the comfort of Amtrak. From Denver, I rode to Jackson Hole, backtracked into Yellowstone, made my way through Montana to Missoula, then followed Lewis and Clark’s route to Portland, Oregon. I left Portland in late May, rode down the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco, and finally rolled into Los Angeles 93 days and 4,312 miles after my departure.
The lessons I learned making my way to L.A. are countless. Many are bike trip specific: take good care of your butt, avoid on-ramps, go as fast as you can downhill, eat more peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, always wave. Then there are the deeper principles I came to live by: be humble, be a chameleon, trust strangers, never backtrack, reflect on your tailwinds, be flexible.
This last principle, flexibility, is at the core of perhaps the most significant realization I had on the road: a willingness to adapt will serve you better than being over-prepared. Over the course of three months, spent mostly talking to myself while riding a bicycle, I adopted a trust-you-will-adapt mentality, which has had a profound effect on the way I approach life.
In the early days of my trip, as I lay alone in a stranger’s home or in my tent in the woods somewhere, I would waste mental energy trying to foresee issues and piece together uncertainties. Have I picked the best route? Will my legs give up on me? Where will I sleep tomorrow? Will Amish country have convenience stores? I felt like I needed to be prepared for every conceivable obstacle.
Being well-prepared has always been a source of security for me. I devoted five weeks preparing for this trip, not to mention the three years I spent visualizing it. Night after night I glued my eyes to Google Maps as I plotted my route from town to town. It took weeks of contemplation and questioning and trial and error before everything fit nicely on my bike. Throughout the trip, I relished the act of planning my daily navigation, resupplying, and sleeping arrangements. But on such an adventure, and in life, there comes a point where foresight is no longer productive.
My anxiety peaked in Denver, where the Rocky Mountains stood waiting. I had never traveled through the Rockies, let alone on a bicycle or in early May when snow was still in the forecast. I had been checking Denver’s weather since back in New York, praying that it might get warm for my arrival. It hadn’t. I was overwhelmed by the coming ride into the mountains. I wanted to be back in Ohio, where my only concerns were boredom and ferocious farm dogs. After five long days in Denver, FedEx finally delivered my bike from the Windy City. With rested legs, I set off for Boulder.
I traveled north into Wyoming and buckled down for what was sure to be a week of harsh cold, blustery air, and desolate landscapes. An excerpt from my journal entry in Laramie, Wyoming illustrates just how much fun I didn’t have on this stretch: “…these moments of weakness and doubt and pain and loneliness and cold and suffering offer the opportunity to get in touch with the limits of your existence.” That was a Friday night. I lay in a cot in a kind man’s home with no furniture wondering what tomorrow would be like. Weather reports called for low 30s and snow. My next destination, Medicine Bow, population 270, was waiting for me in the middle of nowhere.
Eight days after leaving Denver, I coasted into Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Seeing the Teton Mountains for the first time actually brought tears to my eyes. I had crossed the Continental Divide twice, pedaled across the godforsaken Great Divide Basin, and battled relentless headwinds up the Wind River Valley. The most inhospitable portion of my trip was behind me, and despite my anxieties, I had handled each challenge as it came to me. I lay on the grass in Teton National Park under a finally-warm sun and promised myself that I would stop trying to predict the future.
In retrospect, my time in Denver spent worrying about the ride ahead did nothing to help get me through Wyoming. In fact, nearly all of my detailed predictions were entirely wrong. The altitude was never debilitating. The roads were never icy. No hill was too steep. There was always a place to fill my water. It was my ability to adapt—wear more, stop more, buy hand warmers, don’t waste the wind at your back—not my excessive planning, that helped me overcome this intimidating stretch. Charting the most efficient route was helpful, but solving problems that I hadn’t yet encountered was not.
As I rode on through the Pacific Northwest and down the West Coast, no obstacle I encountered was insurmountable. Bike trail dead ends into railroad? Okay, I’ll turn around and find another way. Tenth flat tire of the trip? You know what to do. Miserable Southern California heatwave? Okay, I’ll hitch-hike, nobody is keeping score, and now I know about this guy’s ghost theories. Had I encountered an insurmountable obstacle, no amount of foresight would have helped anyway.
When asked what my favorite part of the trip was, I say the West Coast. Perhaps it was the striking landscape of the Pacific shoreline, with its massive cliffs and infinite ocean turning a more perfect green everyday. Maybe it was the gang of cyclists that became my family for two weeks as we camped down the Oregon Coast. Or maybe it was that I had truly adopted my trust-you-will-adapt mentality by then. As I rode down the Pacific Coast Highway, I would wake up every morning with just three ideas in mind: keep the sun in front of me, keep the ocean on my right, and keep my mind in the present. The more flexible I let myself be, the more confidently I moved forward, and the more contently I experienced each moment.