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Bike across America: Anna McNuff’s cross-country bike trip

Anna McNuff’s epic cross-country bike trip
March 19, 2014
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Bike Across America

I remember the moment it happened. For weeks I'd been suffering from an acute case of the adventure itch. I knew the symptoms well: Google maps always open in a background browser, prolonged periods of time spent drooling over emails from Lonely Planet and a heavily thumbed '1,000 places to see before you die' book occupying front and center on the coffee table. I'd been here a thousand times before, and a thousand times I'd calmed the itch with a few days away, doing something marginally insane and wholly adventurous. I'd cycled to Paris – then through Wales and Scotland. I'd swum my way around parts of Croatia, Greece and the British Virgin Islands. But as I stood, pajama clad, in my living room that evening, I felt different. An irrepressible belief that there was something 'more' out there clawed its way to the surface, and a thought popped into my head. What if I just... go? That was it. I bought a touring bike, traced a line through all 50 states of the USA, made a plan, and left.

Challenges and blessings on a cross-country bike trip

The seven months that followed were without doubt the most formative of my adult life. For 11,000 miles I pedaled, solo and unsupported through each and every state of a country so varied and vast, that it may as well be 10 completely separate nations rolled into one.

Anna McNuff - Waiting for Old faithful, Yellowstone National park, Wymoing
 
Anna McNuff - With a friend on the Californian Coast
 
Anna McNuff - Yellowstone national park, Wyoming 1
 
Anna McNuff - Zion national Park, Utah
 
Anna McNuff - Steaming pools, Yellowstone national park, Wyoming
 
Anna McNuff - Sunset on a Seattle beach, Washington
 
Anna McNuff - The highest Point of the trip, Colorado
 
Anna McNuff - The Oregon Sand dunes
 
Anna McNuff - On Route 50, Nevada 1
 
Anna McNuff - Riding in minus 8F, Arkansas
 
Anna McNuff - Seacrest beach, The Gulf Coast, Florida
 
Anna McNuff - My 2nd pass of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado
 
Anna McNuff - Niagara falls, New York
 
Anna McNuff - North Rim, Grand Canyon, Arizona 2
 
Anna McNuff - Making the San Francisco, with a friend in tow
 
Anna McNuff - Montana 2
 
Anna McNuff - Denali National Park, Alaska 2
 
Anna McNuff -  Angels landing, Zion national park, Utah
 
Anna McNuff - At Lake Tahoe, Nevada
 
Anna McNuff - Dauphin Island, Alabama
 
Anna McNuff - A low canopy road, Florida
 
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The trip wasn't without challenges; these are part and parcel of a true adventure after all.

When a record-breaking blizzard hit South Dakota, I was taken in by a farming family. And so, through a storm that left 22,000 people without power and killed over 20,000 cattle, I sat inside and played Uno.

• Battling chronic knee pain for the first 2 months.
• Camping alone in Northern Wyoming, scared witless that a bear might come wandering by.
• Pitching my tent in a bush between an interstate and a freight railway line.
• Pulling two people out of a car wreck in the Colorado floods.
• Setting out to ride 120 miles in pouring Iowa rain, verging on hypothermic

Yet with every disaster, something magical happened. A random act of kindness would drag me kicking and screaming from my personal pity party, and catapult me back on the road. When a record-breaking blizzard hit South Dakota, I was taken in by a farming family. And so, through a storm that left 22,000 people without power and killed over 20,000 cattle, I sat inside and played Uno.

In Arkansas, when the mercury hit -4F and there wasn't a scrap of paved highway in sight, the same happened again. These instances, among others, went so far beyond kindness that it beggared belief. I was treated more like a long lost child than a guest, and each time I was grateful: to get a glimpse of a life in such stark contrast to my own. At every departure I was overcome with sadness, leaving behind those who were once strangers, now friends for life.

So, of course, the challenges paled in comparison to the rewards.

• Watching grizzly bears forage in the shadow of the Mount McKinley.
• Finding myself on the road at dawn in the desert, alone with no sound beyond the whirr of my wheels.
• Cresting that first pass in the Rocky Mountains.
• Striding through the plains of Wyoming, a herd of mustangs running alongside.
• Perched on a rickety bench, watching the morning sun creep above the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
• Stargazing at 2am in Colorado at a sky so full, I wondered that it might cave under the sheer weight of its own sparkle.
• Looking out at classroom of excited schoolchildren, kids as young as five, telling me they want to be an adventurer when they grow up too.

What did I learn as I biked across America?

I learned that there's a difference between being a badass and a dumbass. Pushing on through pain, dragging yourself out of bed when all you want to do is sleep - that's badass.

Well, I learned to accept help where help is offered – something that was difficult for me at the start. I learned that there's a difference between being a badass and a dumbass. Pushing on through pain, dragging yourself out of bed when all you want to do is sleep - that's badass. Winding up on a busy road at the mercy of trucks, or ending up soaking and freezing with no shelter in sight - that's dumbass. Honestly, I coped better than expected, in both body and mind. When the mental lows hit, I just cried and carried on cycling. Because, quite frankly, I didn't want to waste any time sitting still. As for the body, I confirmed what I always knew to be true - that it's an amazing machine. If you beat it up enough times, treat it with mild sympathy and lead the way with a firm yet unwavering hand - it'll soon catch on. We're animals after all. We're built to adapt.

Still, the greatest personal triumph was to achieve something that made a difference. To invest seven months in an endeavor that offered a meaningful contribution to the world. I collected over $16,000 for charity. And I took my pretty pink bike into schools en route, talking to kids in the hope of planting a starter seed for a lifetime of exploration. To see their eyes light up as I shared pictures of the beautiful country they lived in, fuelled me in turn. And to think that even one of them might be inspired enough to take off and see the world from the humble seat of a bicycle too? That made it all worthwhile.

So what now? Well, I've opened a can of worms, that's for sure. I'm going back to work for a little, but it won't be long before I'm gone again. In the meantime, I'm content. I've realized that adventure is a state of mind. It's about making the most of what already surrounds you and appreciating the simple pleasure that comes from seeing the natural world through fresh eyes. When the adventure itch next rears its ugly head, I’ll think back to my 8-year-old-self. When great escapes were free and happened in the 'jungle' out the back gate of my Grandpa's house. I’ll rest safe in the knowledge that adventure lies in wait absolutely everywhere. You just need to go looking for it.

Photography: Anna McNuff

  • Eddy’s love child

    Would love to see a map of the route you used! please post!

  • douggrosjean

    Very good. Your experience parallels my own, after being unemployed in the Great Recession, and guiding on a couple non-commercial raft trips through Grand Canyon, and taking up bicycling again as a 50 y/o man, and then becoming an 1885 farmhand and plowing with horses at a living history museum. Adventure is *everywhere*, and every single adventure teaches us something about the world, and something about ourselves. I’d shake your hand and pat you on the back if we were face-to-face, recognizing a kindred spirit and fellow student-of-life.

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Anna McNuff

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