What you should expect from a long bicycle journey
Bicycle touring for a sustained period of time is a…
“America is just like the UK, only… bigger, right?”
I’d like to ask you all a favour. If you ever happen to be within earshot of such a comment, please make a beeline for the offending individual (even if it requires a Starsky & Hutch style roll across a car bonnet), cup their face firmly between your hands, lean in and scream “Nooooooooo.” Anna McNuff’s ace new blog.
I first found out about Anna when she set out in solo-mode to cycle all 50 US states in a single trip. It turned out to be – as you’d expect really – a bit of a crazy ride. The mission was clear: to have an epic adventure, encourage kids to get active, and raise valuable funds for a children’s charity committed to giving every child access to games, sport and play.
What was less clear going into it though, was what else it would bring. Spectacular generosity, super sketchy situations involving flipped cars and 911 calls, grizzly’s and moose, and learning about priorities.
She’s recently finished that journey and a few days ago we caught up to find out what the draw was, what went down, and what she learnt from spending 7 months on a bicycle. Let’s go!
So you’ve just come back from The Big Five-O. What was that all about?
That was an 11,000 mile journey through all 50 states of the US of A. It was just me, a beautiful pink touring bicycle called Boudica and three missions: 1) To have a huge personal adventure, 2) To get local communities and the kids within them active, inspired, and on bikes and 3) To raise as much dosh as I could for a marvellous charity called Right To Play.
Can you briefly describe the rough route?
Sure thing, I’ve got this one down pat now. The first question everyone asks you is always “Where are you headed?” So I had to get a sub fifteen second answer nailed early on. Here goes: I started with a little pedal in Alaska, from there I flew to Seattle, went down the West coast to San Francisco. Across the Nevada desert, into the Grand Canyon, up the Rocky Mountains, into Montana, and across the the North until I hit Maine at the Atlantic coast. Down the East coast, via New York, Baltimore and DC, then into the panhandle of Florida, before doing a dog leg back up the Mississippi to Memphis, then heading across to Dallas, via Kansas. Phew. How did I do?
Amazingly – that’s a crazy long list. How on earth did you plot the best route to hit all the states?
I drank a lot of coffee, ate a lot of Haribo and stayed up many many nights into the early hours. I started with a blank map of the US and put a star at every place I wanted to visit – that was really important to me. Adventures are all about satisfying your own curiosities after all. I checked out the weather averages in each state, for each month, and decided that I needed to go West to East to make it over the Rockies while the passes were open, and North to South, to make it out of the Northern tier states before the snows hit.
That done I got hold of the Adventure Cycling association routes, and followed them as much as I could. That left me with a route that was 16,000 miles long. So I began the soul destroying process of scribbling and hashing out sections to save time, finally arriving at one that I felt was realistic to complete in the timeframe.
What made you want to do it? What were you doing before? Was there a catalyst?
There wasn’t one particular catalyst, but there was definitely that ‘ah-ha’ moment – which happened one night as I was standing in my living room. I’ve been working as a marketing manager for 5 years and I’d had that suffocating wanderlust feeling creeping up on me for months. I just couldn’t help but feel that what I was doing day in day out wasn’t what I was put on the planet to do. I felt I had more to give, the world I mean. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s true. If we’re not making a meaningful contribution to society, then what exactly are we doing here?! So I just decided, then and there, that I had no ‘real’ excuses and that I was going. Somewhere, anywhere, and probably by bike. It was an incredibly liberating and exciting moment.
Was it anything like you expected?
Yes and no (I’ve always wanted to say that). I thought it would be incredible. I dreamed for a year about that moment I’d wake up and have nothing but 7 months of cycling ahead of me. But it was even better than I’d hoped. I had different challenges to the ones I’d in envisaged. I didn’t get as lonely as I expected, or as tired or frustrated. I hit far more dramatic weather though. And people were far kinder, I mean so beyond kind it was ridiculous. The country was more diverse than I knew. And above all (I know this sounds incredibly blonde), but the USA a lot bigger than I thought. There is so much open space. I think you really need to cross a country like that to appreciate this tiny (wonderful) island we live on.
What was the draw to America – it’s just like the UK but bigger right?
I’m going to start up a swear box for comments like that one from here on in. Joking aside its probably that comment that made me want to go and explore the US. That and having been on a few trips there as a kid. I’d done the usual tourist spots, but I’d often look at a map, see that big ‘ol space in between California and New York City – and realise I had no idea what went on there. As I did a little research I came the conclusion that it’s an incredibly unique place. No where else is the world was there a country that had such a range of culture, religion, politics, wildlife and geology. The bonus being that the language is common too. Definitely a plus if you’re linguistically challenged like me.
Are you ready for the typical unanswerable question – favourite place and why?
That is an impossible one! Lucky for you I have a top ‘area’ – that would be the South West corner of Utah, and into Arizona. You can do Bryce, Zion and The Grand Canyon National parks within 4 days of each other. Each one is spectacularly unique, and like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’ll seriously blow your mind. For a state-surprise, I’d also pull out Wisconsin – it’s just so bike friendly. And Alaska and Hawaii have to get a mention too – for their sheer out-of-this-world, off-the-chart sensational scenery. If you ever want to see Grizzly bears and moose (who doesn’t), they’re guaranteed in Alaska.
Is there a moment of incredible generosity that really stands out?
That would definitely be the 4 days I spent holed up in a ranch in South Dakota. I met this girl as I rode into the town one day. It was a tiny place, just 300 people, up in the boonies. We got to chatting and she invited me to come and stay with her family. Thank goodness she did. A huge blizzard blew in the following day – bringing 4ft of snow in 24 hours. I was stuck fast. They were just the must wonderful, down to Earth family I’ve ever met. The older sister would come in from all day wading through snow drifts, rescuing cows, and begin looking after her elder relatives and making sure I was okay. Me, who’d sat around inside all day doing nothing except babysitting her 18 month old nephew. I’ll be friends with that family for life.
Was there a time when you were scared or you felt in danger?
This one is right at the front of my brain. I attempted to leave Colorado and got stuck in the middle of their ‘1,000 year flood’. I came across a road that had crumbled away completely, which was frightening enough, but as I turned around a car came down the road toward me. I tried to wave and shout to slow then down, but they actually sped up and flew off the road, and flipped into the river. I had to pull the couple out and call 911. I thought for a moment they were gonners. That shook me up a fair bit for the next few weeks. I’d just never seen anything like it, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to process it.
That sounds awful. Shifting gears a bit – in your new post you say there’s a difference between being lonely and being alone – can you explain?
Absolutely. And ironically, I think you have to have spent a fair amount of time in your own company to know the difference. Being lonely is 100% down to your mind, and the way you feel. It stems from you feeling mentally isolated. Like no one understands you, what you’re trying to achieve or cares about what you’re doing at the moment in time. You feel your life lacks purpose and can’t see how anyone could help you. That’s loneliness in a nutshell for me. Being alone is a physical thing. It’s not having anyone nearby. To be honest I’m a massive fan of the alone time. You’re forced to confront any demons you have and you also learn what makes you happy far quicker than if you constantly seek to distract yourself with other things. By the time I’d finished the stint through the West of the US, I’d had just about enough of being alone, I sought human contact, but I wasn’t necessarily lonely.
Did it happen at all – a time when you experienced loneliness whilst on the road?
Yes, but only a few times. And far less than expected. I wasn’t even lonely on Christmas Day, or New Years Eve, which I think I upset my mum by proudly announcing. I had to explain that I’m not lonely is different from “I don’t miss you” . The days I got lonely were either when something dramatic had happened – like the Colorado accident. Or when I lost sight of what I was actually achieving with the trip. I felt selfish or foolish for indulging myself on this big adventure…. Did it really matter what I did? Was I inspiring anyone? Was I actually doing anything particularly physically difficult? On those days I’d just crave a good old hug. Someone to say – “On you go, chin up chick.” Thankfully they were few and far between – I probably only had five or so spells of loneliness in the whole 7 months. Most would last a day. The final one lasted a week or so – and that was really just homesickness.
How did you find the whole “being connected” thing? I know some people think ‘adventure needs isolation’. What positives did being connected bring and what negatives? Did you ever get frustrated with it?
I loved being connected! I cannot imagine doing a trip without it. For me it was such a huge part of the whole mission – to involve as many people as possible in an ‘armchair adventure’. My view on travel in general is that it promotes understanding and diminishes prejudice. Being able to share what you see, hear and experience as and when it happens is huge. If you can plant one small seed that makes someone else want to go off exploring – then it’s mission accomplished. I guess the negatives are that it’s addictive, and you are often thinking about what might be interesting to others – but I’m not even sure that’s a negative really. I’m not sure it’s for everyone, but communicating frequently and with gusto tended to suit my personality.
Why do you think more people don’t do these kind of things? And what would your advice be to those who want to do something similar but haven’t yet?
You have to make it a priority. There’ll always be reasons not to go, of course there will. All that happened for me is that I decided there was nothing more important in my life than the trip. I had a job (they gave me a sabbatical), I have a mortgage (I rented the house), I was broke (I got a second job). Every obstacle can be overcome if you want to go badly enough. And so for those who don’t actually go – I’d wager that the burning desire just isn’t there…. yet. For those thinking about going… Just go! Stop making excuses, make a plan, and go. When have you ever heard someone say “Oh gosh, I really regret going on that enormous adventure.” (Never). More often you hear people saying they wished they’d worked less, and lived more.
Do you think the journey changed you at all?
The biggest shift has been realising that everything you do is a choice. Yes, sometimes we have to do things to pay bills that we don’t want to do, but it’s always a choice. I’ve realised that everything is a possibility. Nothing is set in stone, and I can always change direction… No one else is going to do it for me. Coming back from the trip into a normal working life has been tough – I’ll not lie on that one. It’s sucked a fair amount on some days. But I’m beyond excited about the rest of this year and the one after that, and after that. Because I know that whatever I wind up doing, whatever path I take – it will be a passionate one. Once you’ve experienced what truly makes you happy, you just can’t pretend it’s not there. It took me 28 years to discover that, and I don’t plan on going back to the old ways.
What happens next?
I’d like to tell you that I’d ‘got it out of my system’ with this one, but that’d be a lie. I’ve opened a gigantic can of worms and the worms have gone AWOL. I’ve come back with a determination to see much more of the UK, so I’ve a host of mini-adventures in planning for 2014. As well as a few in Europe. Then, once the bank balance is… errr… balanced again. I’ll trot off and do another epic in 2015. It won’t be bike bike – I like running, swimming, kayaking, roller blading too… So I’ve got the map out and am currently exploring a few ideas. Whatever it is, it’ll involve a physical challenge, me exploring a place or places I’d really like to learn more about, and above all getting others involved as much as I can.
Sounds mega! Thanks Anna.
– – – – –