ADVENTURERS | CATHY & JIM MACTAGGART
The plan is for me to fly from Heathrow out to San Francisco on Saturday, June 28, with my bike, aka the Red Raven. There, I will meet my husband, Jim, who is already touring the western coast of the USA, as recorded in his blog One Big Mac on the Pacific Coast. While I finished my degree in the UK, he went on ahead of me for a solo tour. I am delighted to say it was worth me staying at home for an extra 6 weeks, as I achieved a first.
The program for the next four months is for Jim and me to cycle across the USA from San Francisco to Washington, before returning to the UK, ready for my graduation ceremony. For my graduation ceremony, I would like to wear the suit I wore when Jim and I married 16 years ago. As I am 2 stone heavier now, I feel quite entitled to call myself a "Big Mac". I need to lose some weight and hope to drop a couple of sizes…I couldn't think of a better way to achieve this than cycling 4,000 miles across America! When I return to the UK I hope to be a mere slip of a thing, along with my husband who will have changed from another Big Mac to a Slim Jim!
Various people have asked me why I want to cycle across America. Neither Jim nor I want to be ordinary - and many people who know us would wryly raise their eyebrows, thinking we have certainly already achieved this. Whenever opportunities present themselves, each of us is inclined to take the chance to go somewhere interesting in life - whether this is mentally or physically. Mentally, I have had to take a large ‘brave pill’ on a few occasions before doing something that challenges me. We both push our boundaries and accept sometimes this means you get your fingers burned, but most often, you find life to be really interesting. And when it does all go wrong, you end up with some funny/shocking/breathtaking/amazing stories to tell. I know plenty of people have cycled across the USA, and although it’s no longer considered to be innovative, it’s a tremendous challenge for me. With a total of 4,000 miles in front of us with roughly 40 miles per day, I’ve got my work cut out for me. One mental challenge for me will be to take one day at a time, concentrating on just "today's 40 miles," rather than being overwhelmed by the idea of only 4 months to accomplish 4,000 miles.
The Red Raven and Yellow Nomad are both Thorn bikes, built by SJS Cycles. They are wonderful bikes. I have a long standing back problem, and because the Red Raven was built to specifications, I can ride all day long without it aggravating my back. The best word to describe the experience of riding the Red Raven is fluid. It is a smooth ride and a wonderful experience. Any difficulties are because of the lack of fitness, and temperament of the rider! I love my bike!
Time To Ride
Before I knew it, day one of our adventure was here and it was time to travel Heathrow all the way to San Francisco. Safely landing in the U.S., now we just had to hit the asphalt and dive into the first day of our 85-day journey. Departing San Francisco, we rode up and into the hills on a 10-day trek before making it to Kirkwood, which lies right on the Nevada/California border.
Day 10—Kirkwood to Genoa
Crossing Carson Pass, Entering Nevada, and Jim’s Birthday!
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
42 miles, total so far 254 miles
Jim and I left the Meadows accommodation at the Kirkwood resort at 6am. Given the feast the mosquitos had made of me yesterday, today I tried using a DEET, to try to stop the mozzie attack. We set off uphill past the Silver Lake, and pleasingly, the mozzies left me alone, but settled on Jim instead, although he had no bites at the end of the day.
We anticipated a hard, continuous slog to the apex, but compared to previous ascents, it was comparatively easy. The weather gods smiled on us again: it was cool and overcast. Jim thought it would be an 8-mile ride, but we had only done 7 miles when the Visitor Center came into view. Here, we realized we had reached the high point of Carson pass! As this was Jim's 76th birthday, he could truly say he was on top of the world!
We had an interesting conversation with Roger and Ann, volunteers at the Visitor Centre. They had driven past us on their way to book on duty and we were their first visitors of the day at 8am. Here, we took the opportunity to debate about how altitude affects people differently…apparently at 8,500 feet, the oxygen content of air is 8-10% compared to 15% at sea level. I definitely was not used to altitude, and was also developing fitness. Roger and Ann observed many people under-estimate the impact of altitude, noting they get a lot of visitors from the surrounding areas who drive up from sea level, are overweight, and then go for a hike at 8,500 feet and wonder why they feel unwell. Also, alcohol and drugs have a greater impact at this level, so it is sound advice to acclimate slowly, drink only plain fluids and be conservative in your estimate of your physical capacity. All good takeaways.
Roger informed us that the weather forecast for the west side of Carson Pass was for thunder storms in the afternoon, but that the east side was for a fine afternoon. As it was only 8.30am when we started our descent, it was still cool, and we donned a couple of layers, anticipating the free-wheel downhill would be cold. And we were right.
The descent was steep and fast. I have become rather cautious when negotiating descents, since crashing a few days ago. I used to be quite happy to reach 35 mph downhill, but today kept it to 20mph. The road quality here generally has been good, but I am not used to the white line sometimes being 6" from the edge of the road, with a cinder hard shoulder and a steep drop. I have to say that for much of the time the hard shoulder is 3' wide, but I still exercise caution. The traffic today was incredibly light and all drivers have been very courteous and competent (although local residents keep warning us of bad drivers). This alone emphasizes how densely populated Britain is.
As we had descended to the plain, the temperature had soared to 95F and I was starting to find the heat sapping. We pedaled on to Genoa, and as it was Jim's birthday, decided to scout out a bed and breakfast, rather than seeking out the local Sheriff to request permission to camp in the local park. The Wild Rose Bed and Breakfast, recommended on the ACA map, is currently being refurbished, and we got the room for $113 (instead of $150!) as the workmen were outside our bedroom window. Expensive but really lovely. The Wild Rose Bed and Breakfast is the best place we’ve stayed yet.
Having found our accommodation by 1pm, we had time to look round the local museum. Here we learned that Mormons founded Genoa as they traversed the Immigrant Trail, and that Genoa was Nevada’s first establishment. Other cultures started moving in, and when the U.S. Government started criticizing the Morman way of life, Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, called all his followers back to Salt Lake City in 1848, thereby leaving Genoa to become inhabited by non-Mormons.
Jim has observed several times that although comparatively few people cycle across the USA, what we are doing is quite tame really. If you consider what the immigrants did, it is amazing. They had all their goods on a wagon or a string of mules, on poor roads, and even had to haul wagons over huge rocks. They had to carry all their food had no access to safe drinking water, find the route, look after their cattle and mules, and then build a community when they decided they had arrived. Absolutely astonishing.
Day 11—Genoa To 5 Miles East of Dayton: An Unexpected Meeting
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
32 Miles, Total So Far: 286 miles
Jim and I slept well at the Wild Rose Bed and Breakfast! We had the best breakfast for years. Our hostess got up and prepared breakfast for 5am - pancakes, bacon and maple syrup; juice; and a wonderful fruit salad.
I have discovered that altitude has various effects on the body - apparently altitude affects the sleep center of the brain by making you wake up during the night. I normally sleep soundly all night long, but every night since the start of the climb, I have woken up several times, feeling thirsty. Now I know it is a side effect of altitude!
We departed at 6am, on a clear, light morning. I was very pleased to discover that having descended to an altitude of 6,500 feet, I could now pedal steadily up a 2% gradient for 2 miles, which was beyond me on previous days. The roads here have very long gentle gradients and, as a Londoner, one of the repeated delights of this trip is the clean air. Later in the morning, while we were riding out of Carson City, we had a 2-mile climb up a 3% gradient, which I steadily ground up. Given my struggles over the last few days I was delighted with my progress.
Jim and I had planned to stop after 25 miles to camp just outside Dayton, then ride 50 miles to Fallon, because of campsite locations. We were just looking round a campsite, when we met up with a local cyclist, Gerry. We chatted a bit about our tour and discovered he was the Pastor of the local church. He kindly invited us to spend the night at his home, which we gratefully accepted. This meant we travelled 5 miles further today, and 5 miles less tomorrow to the campsite at Fallon.
Day 12—5 Miles East of Dayton to Fallon: Flat and Fast
Thursday July 10, 2014
45 Miles, Total So Far: 331
It was 5.30am when Jim and I left the hospitality of Frankie and Gerry's home. The sun had risen and it was lovely cycling into the sunrise.
We soon joined Highway 50, the Loneliest Road in America, and followed this route 45 miles—all the way to Fallon. The road was incredibly flat, which was a nice breather. A lot of today's riding has been fractionally downhill with a gentle tailwind, meaning we have hammered along at 20mph at times. There are rumble strips both in the center of the road, and at the outside edges. These are great for drivers, but are like riding over a ploughed field for cyclists! We made good time and ended up in McDonald’s for breakfast by 10am.
While enjoying our breakfast, I looked up how many calories we had burned in the 3.5 hours on the bike. When I saw we had blown through 2,770, it started to make sense why I was getting a little irritable on the bike before arriving in Fallon!
We had planned to camp, but on exiting McDonald’s in the heat, we saw a Budget Inn opposite that looked pretty tempting. At only $45 a night for their cheapest room, we decided to go for it.
Day 13—Fallon to Middlegate
Friday, July 11, 2014
50 Miles, Total So Far: 381
Realizing the journey that lay before us, we left early at 5:15am. We soon hit the desert, with lots of low-lying sagebrush, although there was plenty of cloud cover for the first hour or so. The first 25 miles were across very flat plain, changing from low sagebrush to salt flats. I found this to be quite unnerving, considering nothing grows in the salt flats. I was quite relieved that vehicles passed us every 5 minutes or so, otherwise it would have been very spooky.
The first peak of the day was at Sand Springs Pass, 4,600 feet. We were just resting at the crest, having done 30 miles at 10am, when we saw another cyclist behind us. We pulled over to wait for him, but realized he was trying to video a couple of friends riding up the hill behind him. After meeting the trio, Tom, Luke and Ollie, we learned that the three friends are cycling around the world to raise funds for MacMillian Cancer Care.
Having ridden 40 miles, we made it to Drumm Pass and I was starting to feel the pressure. The weather had remained decent with a fair amount of cloud coverage, but having been on the bike over 5 hours, my core muscles were feeling tired and my balance was not so good. I am still trying to master taking on enough fluids and calories while making progress along the road, but still seem to lose the core strength at around 40 miles.
The ACA map showed a long gentle decline, followed by a long incline before we reached Middlegate Station where there was a restaurant with camping. We ground steadily along, and to our surprise the long incline was very gradual and we were able to plod along at about 7mph until it came into view at 11.45. We had been on the road for 6 ½ hours. When we got here, Tom, Luke and Ollie had already had their lunch, having arrived at 11am. They said the burgers were wonderful. Instead, we had chicken and ham sandwiches with chips…large and very good!
We discovered Middlegate not only offered free camping, but also had a suite of rooms available. The best part was, it appeared as if it had been lifted from a Western movie! Quite well-loved, but very, very appealing to an exhausted cyclist. Best yet, it was only $35 for the night. The bedcover is beautifully made patchwork, and looks like it is made from offcuts from rancher’s shirts...very congruent with the setting and absolutely lovely.
Day 14—Middlegate to Cold Springs Station: Almost A Rest Day
Saturday, July 12, 2014
14 Miles, Total So Far: 395
We had a late start today as it was to be a very short day. Jim and I went across for breakfast at 7am and shared a couple of pancakes. We chatted with other people who had stayed the night at Middlegate Station and discovered the World Championship Landsailing event was taking place just up the road.
We set off at 8:15am and it was already warm, compared to when we start at 5:30am other days. The road had a couple of long declines and inclines and pedaled along steadily averaging 8.3 mph. There were times when it seemed appallingly slow, but we both struggle to see whether the incline is uphill or downhill on long stretches of road.
By 10am we had arrived at Cold Springs Station and booked into a cabin. With an immaculate shower and laundry area across the way, a large area for RV’s, a large restaurant and bar you wouldn't ever know you were in the middle of the desert.
14 miles might not seem a lot to ride in a day, but it will make tomorrow a lot easier. I can cope with the idea of a 50-mile bike ride, but any more than that is too daunting. Jim has checked out the mileage and he thinks it will be pretty spot on at 49.5 miles, and includes two serious hills. I hope to be finished with riding by midday, so we don't spend too long in intense heat which always zaps me.
Day 15—Cold Springs To Austin: Altitude Affects Catherine Again
Sunday, July 13, 2014
50 Miles, Total So Far: 445
We departed early at 5.15 am, just as dawn was breaking. It was slightly cold, so I started off wearing my windproof jacket, and rode tucked in behind Jim, as there was a slight headwind. Cold Springs is just beyond the crest of a hill, so we started off the morning with a very gentle downhill for about 10 miles.
After a couple of miles on the flat the road started to go up an incline. The gradients on the roads are very good. When ever possible, the routes have a very gentle 1-2% grade, which makes it decent to pedal up. We crossed the Lander County state line about half a mile before the apex of New Pass. As we started going through the cutting to New Pass, the gradient went up to 4% but I managed to keep pedaling steadily for a couple of miles.
A little later, a car pulled over in front of us, and asked us if we wanted any food? The driver had been at a bike competition (on and off road) in Beaver, Utah, and had some spare supplies. We were the first touring cyclists he had seen where he could pull over. We gratefully accepted yogurt, granola, raisins, and spicy sausage. Another example of the kindness of strangers.
With only 20 miles left to go until Austin, we had climbed from 5,500 to 6,600 feet and had a long descent to 5,800 before climbing sharply into Austin’s city limits at 6,700 feet. I hammered down the hill, trying to make the fastest time possible for the descent, so the ascent would arrive sooner. The descent was fine, but lasted for almost 15 miles, leaving the final ascent to be very steep for the last couple of miles. I had ridden 48 miles, (far more than I could have done even 2 days ago) but the last few were nearly impossible. We finally made it to the main street, found a garage shop selling cold drinks and consumed a pint each of cold Coca-Cola. While sitting outside the shop, we had a conversation with a Belgian man who spoke impeccable English. He was attending the Landsailing Championships. His younger brother was competing, and he was supporting his brother as chief mechanic and chauffeur. He said the only problem was that there was no wind, so the championships were quite difficult and everyone was praying for a change in the weather from this unseasonably hot sun, to a bit more wind.
We went to the Mountain Motel and booked a room for the evening. I was absolutely spent due to the altitude, but Jim seemed to be perfectly fine. Even resting I was breathing deeply, so we decided to have a rest day the following day so I could acclimate before crossing the double peaks for Austin Pass and Bob Scott Summit.
Day 16—Austin to Eureka: Jim Rides With Alan While Cathy Hitches A Ride
Monday, July 14, 2014
71 Miles, Total So Far: 516
Yesterday, while feeling exhausted by the altitude, Jim met up with Alan and (another) Jim who were seeking a motel room. Alan and Jim were riding across Nevada with a support car, and sharing the driving between them. They struck up a conversation, the outcome of which was that Alan and my Jim would ride 70 miles from Austin to Eureka, while Jim and I took the support car with all our luggage, fuelled Alan and Jim with drinks after 30 miles, and drove on to Eureka to book motel rooms and meet them there. This was music to my ears!
My Jim and Alan set off at 5am. Alan in particular seemed exhilarated by riding through the flat open expanses of country - huge basin plains that millennia ago were sea beds, divided by ranges of mountains. I went up to the local shop to stock up on Gatorade, before Jim and I loaded the car for a 7.30am departure. At 7.30am Jim and I loaded his car with all our panniers, and put my bike on the cycle rack on the rear of the car. The ascent out of Austin was spectacular – from the car it looked virtually insurmountable, although my Jim said it was only a 5% gradient. With Austin Pass sitting at 7,500 feet, I am sure I could not have ridden a loaded bike up that incline.
Jim and I had a good conversation in the car while we caught up with my Jim and Alan. We looked out for our riders, by the time we caught up with them they had already cycled 30 miles. Having refueled our riders, Jim and I drove on to Eureka and found a motel at about 10am. When picking them up later in the afternoon, Alan mentioned he found riding after 11 am difficult—with an escalation in temperature and reduction in humidity he found it to be sapping. Although I knew there were some sections where Jim and I would have to wild camp and we would need to carry enough water and food for 2 days, I had completely underestimated the lack of shade, water supplies at campsites, and the overall effects of altitude. We need to rethink the next couple of days, particularly as the temperature is unseasonably hot [it is normally in the mid 90s in July,] but today was 114 degrees when the boys arrived in Eureka.
Day 17—Eureka To Ely: Rest Day By Hitching A Ride
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
78 Miles, Total So Far: 594
Waking up in the Wild West town of Eureka, we set our sights on the next town the road: Ely. At about 78 miles away, the only thing stopping us between Eureka and Ely were four mountain passes! As the altitude still affecting me, Jim and I accepted the offer of Jim and Alan to take a lift to Ely.
Alan decided his game plan was to depart on his bike at 3am in order to maximize his riding in the cooler hours. So, the two Jims and I loaded the car with all the gear and bikes, and hit the road by 5 am. We met Alan at 6am, soon after sunrise, just after he had crested the Pancake Summit. It was obvious he was in his element - ecstatically pedaling his bike in the solitude of the road through the wilderness. His joy was infectious and it was easy to be enthusiastic for him. We enjoyed watching the terrain change as we crossed each pass, noticing small trees making an appearance through the sagebrush.
We met Alan just prior to the crest of Robinson Summit and despite already having pedaled 50 miles, still managed to be in good humor! With a 5-mile ascent in front of him, followed by an 18-mile descent into Ely, we were on the home stretch for the day.. On this basis, the sag wagon crew went on ahead to find a suitable motel in Ely at the Best Western. When Alan arrived in Ely he was delighted to have completed that leg as a solo ride, but had found the final ascent hard work, followed by an equally difficult descent as a strong headwind had arisen. He is an astonishing rider!
With some remote places lying ahead, at this point in the journey we decided we would be able to enjoy the Loneliest Road in America by vehicle. Plus, with 150 miles ahead of us the next day with almost no services available, we came to terms with this being beyond our ability. So, although we had planned to ride all the way across the USA, we realized we must follow our contingency plan of renting a vehicle for this long stretch, in order to make better time to meet our flight out of the country. After all, we did have a hard deadline!
During our afternoon in Ely, we noticed several murals around town, noting some of the significant townspeople of the 20th century. The one who sticks out in my mind the most is First Lady Patricia Nixon, who was a daughter of Ely!
We noticed Ely’s two main forms of employment: mining copper ore and gambling. On entering Ely we passed some ENORMOUS spoil heaps [man-made mountains, really] from the copper mines on the outskirts of town. It made us realize that it’s not every day that you will encounter such a large-scale, present-day operation.
Day 18—Ely to Beaver: Riding A U-Haul Truck
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
15 Miles, Total So Far: 672
Today Jim and travelled 180 miles in our U-Haul Truck! I must add what a fantastic job Jim did driving an unfamiliar vehicle. We climbed steadily to Connors Pass and descended to Majors Junction. We stopped here for lunch, and were quite delighted to see some familiar faces roll in…Jim and Alan!
Before crossing the Nevada/Utah border, we took note of the beautiful panoramic landscapes. We were quite surprised to come across a huge bank of wind turbines in the middle of the plain. In Brittain, there is often an outcry about wind turbines spoiling the view, but I find them quite acceptable and infinitely prefer them to the sight of a power station. Before long, the road was taking us up and around another pass, bringing us near the entrance of Great Basin National Park. With no time to lose, we pushed on, passing through the tiny town of Baker. Just a few minutes later, we found ourselves crossing the Nevada/Utah border and entering our third state!
Over the next few months, we traveled thousands of miles across the United States. By Day 83, we toured our final leg from Lexington, KY to our final stop in Washington D.C. Looking back on the trip, Nevada was one of the most memorable parts of our journey across the USA. The environment is so totally different from anything else I have ever experienced! As a Londoner, I am familiar with densely populated, noisy, urban places. Nevada had such clean air, huge silent open spaces, minimal populations and courteous drivers. I have lived at sea level my entire life, so the altitude was a bit of a struggle. Despite that, the air smelled and tasted wonderfully different—presumably because it was unpolluted! The huge open spaces will remain with me forever; I felt so tiny and insignificant in the enormity of the landscape, and aware of how puny I was in the face of the forces of nature. All in all, my time in Nevada on The Loneliest Road in America was an eye-opening, mind-expanding trek I wont soon forget.
Reflecting back on our total journey across America, I can’t help but take a minute to emphasize some interesting things I learned along the way. So in no particular order, here it goes…
- The importance of the kindness of strangers. Repeatedly throughout this cross-country tour, people have been so kind to us, and genuinely interested in our well-being. This was particularly notable in smaller communities, and totally amazing.
- Although there were days when I felt like I was moving mountains, what we have done is insignificant compared to what early pioneers did. We have traveled in heat, carried our own food, water and shelter…BUT, we were on paved roads with maps! Compared to early settlers, what we did was easy by comparison.
- I was fat and unfit at the start of the journey. My weight loss was the fastest in the first three weeks, but boy was it tough. Next time, I will be fitter at the start!
- The tour made me aware of the physicality of the environment. I struggled physically with altitude, lack of shade, intermittent water supply and the need for shelter. And, with no appearance of rain, fog, snow, ice or darkness, we didn't even cover the tough stuff!
- Make alternative forms of transportation part of the original plan. The purpose of it all was never to pedal every mile of the journey, but instead to expand my mind and look at similarities and differences between two westernized cultures. In the beginning, I was demoralized hitching a ride, but if this had just been apart of the plan all along it would’ve made much more sense.
- Pushing boundaries was so, so important. I try to do this because I do not want to live my life in an ordinary fashion. But, if you always succeed in going beyond your comfort zone, can you really have pushed it? Through this journey, I realized I have conquered riding in a salt plain, on rolling Desert Mountains, at altitude, over mountain ranges and camping out in the open.
- With that being said, through this extensive journey, I realized I do have the strength and character to say when I’ve had enough. While some of the most difficult riding was in Nevada and Utah, I found that it also proved to be the most visually stunning…something that will stay with me forever. I’m glad I did this, but am so happy to be home!