Quick Brown Foxes | Stephanie Puello
Words by Stephanie Puello
Summer 2016: I rode across the United States by way of the TransAmerica Trail. Though it’s not a feat I ever dreamed of accomplishing, I am convinced that it’s one of the most important things I will ever do.
I didn’t bike often as a kid, other than to a friend’s house in my neighborhood. I won a pink bike in a raffle when I was about 9, and that’s the bike I learned how to ride in. In middle school, my dad bought me a Huffy from K-mart. I loved it! It was red, white, and blue. I still remember how shiny it was and how I complained about it being stored in the shed because I was afraid it would get scuffed with my dad’s tools. After riding it for perhaps the second or third time to the nearby grocery store, my bike was stolen and I never owned a bike again until I was 22.
I grew up in Miami; Hialeah to be precise. Despite the warm weather year-round and flat terrain, Miami is not a cycling friendly city at all. There are some enthusiasts, but the city surely lacks an embedded cycling culture and the infrastructure to support it (but I recognize that it’s growing). Though my brother and I have always been athletic and participated in team sports, as a family, we didn’t particularly emphasize regular outdoor recreation.
So, I wasn’t surprised when I was met with dismay when I told my family I was setting out to bike across the country. It was bad enough that I traded the Florida beaches for the Colorado mountains, but now I was going to venture across the country on a bike to really cause my mother an aneurysm. For reference, my mom also thinks it’s ‘daring’ for me to drive from Miami to Orlando by myself, which is only a three and a half hour drive. So you can only imagine what a Caribbean mother would say to her youngest child/daughter upon hearing something like this.
My general perspective of the outdoors and adventuring began changing after I studied abroad in the Peruvian Amazon the summer preceding my senior year in college. Since then, my sense of thrill has intensified, and I am constantly looking for new areas to explore and new activities to get involved in. It also helps that I started dating my current partner, Austin, after moving to Denver, who has played a special and significant role in introducing me to new outdoor-sy pursuits. Perhaps more importantly, I have made a conscious effort to subvert the false perception that my identity doesn’t fit the mold for certain spaces or activities.
That said, I certainly was not always confident about this endeavor. I bought my touring bike (Sinister) in 2014 with the intention of doing a tour one day, but I never assumed it would be across the U.S. I never assumed it would even be outside of Colorado. Austin has had this goal in mind for eight years before finally finding the perfect opportunity to set out and do it. Naturally, he had to do some prodding before I decided to join him but he was going to ride the TransAm with or without me.
We were both set to finish grad school last June and there was a lot of uncertainty lingering for me. Finances, job security (or lack thereof), our apartment, etc. I was also unsure about the logistics of the trip and I was certainly doubtful of my strength and ability to bike 4,200 miles. The minimal biking I did on my single-speed in Miami, and fair-weather commuting I took on in Denver was not adequate prep to go across the country. But the more I read about bike touring, the more testimonies I read on cyclo-touring blogs, and the more videos and articles Austin shared with me, the more engrossed I became with the idea.
Slowly but surely, I accumulated the gear: the panniers, the racks, the jerseys, the sleeping pads, etc. I was intentional about saving my pennies and I started prepping myself mentally for this exciting journey. Austin bought us the Adventure Cycling maps and that’s when it truly hit me that we were going to ride our bikes from coast to coast. I remember seeing the elevation profiles for the first time and questioning our sanity. I also knew that I could bike 50 miles, which was the mileage we hoped to average, but I didn’t think I could do that everyday. Somehow, none of these legitimate concerns were enough to keep me from doing it.
One of the things I hoped rang true from the many accounts I read was that the best way to train for a bike tour is to go on one. I am not kidding; we did not train for this at all other than going on two or three long rides (< 60 miles) on rather undemanding terrain. We also rode without any gear or added weight on our bikes. Austin has been exclusively commuting by bike for most of about seven years so he at least had a foundation that I lacked. But at this point, I figured I might as well figure out what I was capable of.
June came and we graduated. The timing was opportune because our parents were able to visit for the occasion and it was nice to see them before we set off. We boxed up our apartment and headed for the coast via Amtrak about a week later. We decided to ride east to west because we preferred to end in the Pacific Northwest and hoped to bike through the more humid states before the unforgiving July/August heat set in. We started in Williamsburg, VA but biked east to Yorktown to the official start and then headed west.
One of the hardest parts of the tour was the very beginning. I certainly underestimated the climbs the Appalachian Mountains offered. Despite that, Virginia was gorgeous and lush. People were mostly friendly, and we made it across without getting hit by a logging truck, which was great. I doubted my strength even more as we hit the Blue Ridge Parkway, especially since we were riding closer to 35 miles each day (instead of 50) and taking more layover days than anticipated. I also had some knobby tires and my shifting was off so I had to anticipate much sooner than usual. When we crossed our first state line to Kentucky, I could not believe it. I felt accomplished then, but I wasn’t sure about the 3,600 remaining miles.
In Kentucky, Austin got sick with a 103° fever. This was a very scary experience for us and the closest we got to cancelling the rest of our trip. This was also where we had our first delay, after the seam on Austin’s tire ripped. Kentucky was characterized by fireflies, woodlands, and mountains. But it was also the state I perhaps felt the least comfortable in. Western Virginia and Eastern Kentucky were the areas where the ever necessary ‘confederate’ (rebel/dixie) flags flew most proudly, and where Trump/Pence signs decorated most yards. I could never distinguish between Southern pride and, you know, racism. So, it was quite nerve-racking to traverse this area of the country.
We took a ferry across the Ohio River into Illinois and all I can remember is the scorching heat (105° heat wave to be exact), humidity, mosquitoes, and Popeye. We then biked across the great Mississippi River into Missouri. The elevation profile and the horror stories of the rollercoaster hills of the Ozarks lived up to their infamy. This was the most difficult stretch of the trail for me but luckily, they didn’t last too long and the flatlands of Kansas were up next… thank God.
What a most welcome treat it was to bike across Kansas, despite the fact that there was absolutely nothing to look at but corn fields. Being able to see for miles was also rather tormenting but we got through it, and even biked our first century. Soon enough, we were back in our (current) home state of Colorado. We were about ready to leave the humidity behind and bike through the Rockies. One of the moments I remember most fondly on this trip was catching the first hazy glimpse of the Rockies on our second day. We were riding with someone else who had never been west of Chicago and only dreamed of visiting Colorado. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his elation when he saw the mountains, too.
Though the Rockies are much higher, they’re easier to climb, in a sense. We just dropped down to our granny gear and kept churning up the long but gradual passes; plus, the vistas and downhills are well worth it (the hills out east aren’t as rewarding). Wyoming was much like Colorado, with the added beauty of the Grand Tetons and much more open space. It was vast, mountainous, and cold at higher elevations. We struggled to sleep in a tent for much of the tour but at this point, we had to layer up while sleeping and riding. The ride from Lander to DuBois, WY tops my list of favorite days throughout the entire tour. But also marked a significant detour due to closures in Yellowstone after a wildfire.
At this point, I was really disappointed. My camera lens broke, we couldn’t visit Yellowstone, and the detour up Teton Pass meant an added steady 10% climb. I did feel like a champ getting to the summit, though. To my surprise, we had a delightful time throughout the Idaho detour, and after a few days, met back up with the trail in Montana. The landscapes in Montana didn’t owe us a thing. This is also where we visited the Adventure Cycling Association office and weighed our bikes for the first time; come to find out I’d been carrying 80 pounds while Austin was carrying a whopping 110.
From Montana, we went back into Idaho, the proper way. The Lolo National Forest and Snake River Gorge are areas I still daydream about. But, we did experience another delay here after Austin had a crash and we needed to ship another tire… and after getting bit by bed bugs in Kooskia, ID. I think we had at least eight delays due to tire issues (punctured side walls and flats) which inevitably added nearly 2-3 weeks to the trip. But alas, 3,800 miles later, we reached Oregon, the last state of the tour. Even while writing this I am in disbelief. No achievement has felt so grand and surreal. No future achievement likely will, either.
Oregon was (is) the stuff of dreams. The dry but beautiful woodlands, the Cascades, and the unbelievably lush Western side of the state were phenomenal to bike through. We met and were hosted by such generous people, biked through a lava field, and finally, made it to the Pacific coast. We rode 98 miles on the 101st day, arriving to the endpoint of the TransAmerica trail in Astoria, OR. I still cannot find the words to adequately express what I felt that day, and I’m sort of glad that I can’t.
I hope that many people are inspired to feel what I did, but for themselves. I want young girls who can care less about biking to feel especially inspirited to cycle across the country one day. I want others like me to silence the fear, apprehension, and self-imposed limitations that bar them from experiences they deserve. I don’t know that any other event would have so meaningfully solidified my own self-concept.
The physical aspect of riding the TransAm was, at first, the most formidable. Turns out it was the least I had to worry about. It was gratifying as it was surprising to discover (and develop) muscular strength I didn’t know or think I had, but the real revelation was the remarkable grit and resilience I falsely assumed I wasn’t cut out to characterize. Through this journey, I became sort of my own hero. I felt victorious not because I made it coast to coast but because I became aware of my own merit, without having to negotiate or sell myself short. Though there are plenty of other vehicles to empowerment, I hope that more women (particularly Black women) keep “pedaling toward equity” and finding freedom on two wheels.
Going across the country, as a young AfroLatina woman from a modest (at best) socioeconomic background, felt declaratory. But if I can do it with minimal training or touring knowledge, anyone reading this can, too! The doubts will always be there, and they are hard to ignore but, just go out and do it anyway! You may surprise yourself
(For those of you with questions about touring, maybe you’re finalizing your logistics or don’t even know where to start, please don’t hesitate to reach out! I can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Stephanie shimmied her way into my life as a Do Better Together participant, and I am stoked to know her. DO YOU SEE WHAT SHE HAS DONE? She has me out here wanting to bike through the Tetons myself... I've already put it on the list =)