Biologist on a Bike

The Countdown Has Begun

One Hundred and Twenty Days!


2,880 Hours


172,800 Minutes

Yes, the countdown has begun. Although the plane ticket hasn’t been bought yet, I plan to begin my ride of the TransAmerica Bike Trail in 120 days in Astoria, Oregon.

When I sat down to write this post, I thought that putting a number on it might make it real, but I don’t think my head has quite grasped the enormity of what I’m going to attempt this summer. Frankly, as somebody who has only done short tours up to this point, I’m not sure it’s even possible to really comprehend what I’m planning to do.

Maybe I just lack imagination.

But I’ve been to Yellowstone before, so maybe I’m blocking it out on purpose. That way I can be in happy denial about the prospect of riding a loaded touring bike up mountains after training primarily near Chicago, where the biggest hills I see on a regular basis are pedestrian overpasses. Yeah, that sounds like something my brain might do. Thanks, scumbag brain.

I took my bike to the Poconos this summer and rode a 30 mile loop, unloaded. There were portions of hills where I was in the granny gear, standing, and still only managing 4 mph. There were longer portions of hills where I was between 6 and 10 mph. The first day I rode the loop, I freaked out before I was 10 miles in, wondering how in the world I ever thought I could manage a self-supported cross country tour. I got back from that ride and I plopped down on the floor with the intention of not moving for at least an hour.

Me lying supine on the floor after an exhausting ride.

Chicago has no hills.
The Poconos have no flats.

If the Poconos cause such angst, why am I attempting a coast to coast ride? And why now?

The why now is easier to answer. I work in higher education teaching non-majors biology. Like many others with professorial aspirations, I spent several years as an adjunct. There are many sources out there that speak passionately on the difficulties that adjuncts face: working long hours at multiple campuses to make ends meet with no benefits and the ever-present risk that there won’t be a class available for you the next semester. The financial stress can be extreme, even to the point of homelessness, for individuals for whom adjuncting is their primary source of income.

I was never homeless, but I was eating on under $100 a month while working more than the equivalent of a full time teaching load at three different campuses and thinking I would need a fourth job to pay for the gas to drive to my first three. There was more than one time in those several years that my bank account dropped down into double digits. On one memorable occasion I had a grand total of $8 left in my checking account at the end of the month.

During the deep, dark nights, I told myself that once I got a full-time position I would start visiting all the places I have always wanted to visit. And that once I got tenure I would take the summer off, because, dammit, I deserved it.

Three years ago I was hired into a full-time tenure-track position. That summer, I started in on the first part of my promise to myself and took a week between the spring and fall semesters to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon. Six days and five nights of views that defy description.

A Grand Canyon Vista

Sunset at Cremation Creek

The summer after that, I went with my parents to Yellowstone. No camping this time, but equally impressive in a different way.

A stream of steaming water flanked on both sides by vibrant orange.

Water flows from a hot spring into a river. The colors are caused by thermophilic bacteria and archaea.

Steam from one of the many hot poos in Yellowstone rises up off the plain.

When you’re standing on a supervolcano, the ground lets you know it.





And somewhere during that time the “summer off” evolved from wanting to sit around doing as I please, hanging out with family (who live on the east coast), and generally wasting time because I could into wanting to do something big to celebrate. I originally considered a backpacking trip and toyed for a while with the idea of attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I was never comfortable with the timing, though, as I would have needed to maintain a crushing pace to finish during my summer break. The lack of room for error put me off.

I’m not entirely sure how the idea of bike touring got into my head. I had seen people touring before. In 2005 I met a couple on Chicago’s lakefront trail who were riding from coast to coast. While driving through Yellowstone with the parents, we say the separate entry fee for cyclists and even passed one solo rider bundled up against the cold–there was snow on the ground–and making his way up a hill that makes me tired to think of. (Yes, I am aware that I will be riding up the same hill in a few short months.) Even so, until about a year and a half ago, I didn’t have a word for it.

Then I found the word. And the Adventure Cycling Association with their route maps. And the forums. And so very many blogs and websites. Down the internet rabbit hole I went. In August 2016 I decided I wanted to ride across the country. By November I had a touring bike (don’t judge…fall is bike sale time, plus the correct number of bikes to own is n +1 where n is equal to the number of bikes you currently own). I started researching and purchasing gear. I trained. And plotted. And grew more in love with the idea by the day even as I was struggling to maintain my sanity while completing my final portfolio in the tenure process.

But now it’s done. I have tenure, and the celebration is on!

120 days. And then, I ride!

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