Understanding the legendary status of the cross-country TransAmerica Bicycle Trail requires knowledge of the state of American bicycle travel in the 1970s. Back then it was basically unheard of.
Conscientious objector and cyclist Greg Siple was one notable exception. He, his wife June, and friends Dan and Lys Burden hitchhiked to Anchorage to embark on an adventurous, Alaska-to-Patagonia bike ride they dubbed the Hemistour. They were featured in a National Geographic article, and as enthusiasm began to build for two-wheel transportation, they dreamed up an epic way to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial.
The resulting “Bikecentennial” rides across America in 1976 are still the biggest bicycling event in U.S. history, according to Siple. Over 4,000 cyclists from 50 states and 329 foreign countries rode more than seven million miles that summer. What an adventure — a self-propelled journey through some of the most beautiful rural landscape in the country.
Now, 45 years later, the legacy of those rides continues in the form of the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, a nationwide route that is still drawing diverse riders and bringing many benefits to rural communities across the country.
Image left: a map of the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail across the nation. Image right: An original flyer for the 1976 Bikecentennial.
“Washington Post reporter Cynthia Gorney has finished her 35-day, 1,400-mile ride from Astoria to Jackson, and is back in DC, where from she writes: ‘It would warm your collective hearts to see all the bikers whizzing around Washington here. Already I am told that the series [of articles written for the Post] inspired three reporters’ spouses to go out and buy 10 speeds. I have a nice bunch of letters from bikers and non-bikers alike, full of encouraging words for all the Bikecentennial people; many phone calls from parents of TransAm trippers; notes from old bedridden ladies and all manner of people.'”Excerpt from “Trans-America Trail News,” published weekly during the 1976 “Bikecentennial.”
The TransAmerica Trail was designed to feature a variety of geographies, include an array of services, and travel roads with low traffic volume. In 1976, Pueblo, Colorado, population 120,000, was the largest city on the route; now it’s Eugene, Oregon, population 172,000. The route wends near the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave national parks and touches both the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia and the Pacific in Oregon. It traverses nine states and about 4,218 miles.
The trail continues to capture the imagination of hundreds of riders every year and a loyal following of welcoming hosts across the country that offer a place to stay, a meal, or sheltered transportation in the rain. Many businesses and towns along the route have established themselves as must-stops for their hospitality and singular service, with sky-high pies and amenity-laden campgrounds.
Today the trail’s use is coordinated and promoted by the nonprofit Adventure Cycling Association which grew out of the ragtag group that first coordinated the Bikecentennial. Besides the flagship TransAmerica Trail, they have developed detailed service maps for 30 other routes of various lengths, making bike travel accessible to a growing number of people.
While Siple has not cycled the entire trail himself, he led a small group on a section of the trail during the Bikecentennial and has literally written the book about the TransAmerica, “America’s Bicycle Route: The Story of the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail.” In his 40-plus year career at Adventure Cycling, he’s met thousands of TransAmers who’ve come through the bicyclists’ lounge in the association’s Missoula headquarters. His rider photography project has cultivated a library of images and stories for posterity.
Siple believes there is something special about the TransAmerica. “Other people understand the significance of it,” he says. “Going coast to coast has a real beginning and a real end; it is very clear what [cyclists] are accomplishing. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world.”
“On two around-the-world bicycle trips, Lloyd Sumner has acquired many survival skills and tricks for economizing. As a Bikecentennial leader, he recently applied his knowledge: Observing a prairie chicken just struck by a passing car, Lloyd packed the bird to camp, plucked and cleaned it, and roasted it over an open fire for dinner. Mmmm.”Excerpt from “Trans-America Trail News,” published weekly during the 1976 Bikecentennial.
The trail’s more than four thousand miles allow plenty of room for all kinds of people to bike it, for all kinds of reasons. Some go fast: in this year’s TransAmerica Bike Race, first place winner Kraig Pauli finished in 18 days. Some make history: this summer, Shawn Cheshire completed the first cross-continent bicycle ride by a blind athlete on much of the TransAm. At any given time, riders can include a couple on a tandem bike celebrating retirement, a volunteer working on Habitat for Humanity houses along the way, or a German on an American adventure.
As Siple explains, “The TransAmerica could be the great adventure of your life. Unlike climbing Mount Everest, it is something everyone is capable of doing. Riders are not necessarily athletes; the physical conditioning doesn’t have to be much, but they know how to pace themselves and eat right.”
Each rider has their own story. On a day off from cycling in July, 806 miles into his journey, Zach Wierzenski — trail name Kilgore — shared his.
Kilgore fell into the non-athlete category, at least until he began his ride in Virginia. The trail has been his conditioning and he admits he is much slower than most people as he builds up his body. He is riding 40-mile days.
“I thought the physicality of the trail would be more difficult than it is,” he says. “It is more a mental thing, with emotional extremes ranging from a floating feeling of freedom to knowing the only thing that is keeping me moving is anger.”
Kilgore decided to take off across the country on a bicycle just three weeks before his departure. “I used to be perpetually restless, full of wanderlust, and I realized that had faded and I was stuck in my comfort zone,” he says.
So he quit his job as an auto mechanic in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and hit the road on his mountain bike. He has encountered wild dogs, brutal 21 percent grade terrain, and sparse services for replenishing the 7,000 calories a day he burns. But he is enjoying the adventure.
“The best part,” he says, “are the people I encounter. The conversations are so good.”
The Hosts and “Trail Angels”
“Just one and a half days’ ride east of Reedsport, Oregon, the Waggener family has set up a stand offering lemonade, iced tea, cookies, information, and sympathy to riders finishing the grueling, waterless Oxbow Burn climb. ‘I honestly don’t know why I’m doing this,’ Pat Waggener told us. ‘It’s a nuisance and an expense, but … well, there’s a need, and the enthusiasm of these people is catching. Besides, I wasn’t going to let half the world pedal past my door and not say hello to them.'”From “Trans-America Trail News,” published weekly during the 1976 Bikecentennial.
Kilgore was apprehensive his first night on the Trail. It was all new and he was having trouble finding his way. It began to rain. Then a truck pulled over and he got more than a physical lift; the driver regaled him with tales of his own cross-country ride in the 1980s. The next thing he knew, Kilgore was eating birthday cake outside of the guy’s RV.
“When I have needed something, it appears,” he says about the abundant hospitality on the trail. “Just a shower can change your life.”
With such a long history of cyclists on the trail, the TransAmerica route has engendered a formal and informal network of hosts, supporters, and angels. The Adventure Cycling maps list “official” services along the way. Other resources are found through word of mouth, or chanced upon like a cooler full of water with a sign, “for cyclists.”
Some people go above and beyond, offering cyclists keys to their vehicles to drive to a bike shop, or an invitation to enter their home and spend the night when they are not even there. “Nothing on the internet is as good as local knowledge,” says Kilgore. “I needed small town ingenuity to fix my bike rack on the trail, and residents pointed me toward Commissioner Bill.”
Some trail angels are truly legendary. Siple shared the story of the Cookie Lady. A Virginia resident, she learned about the trail by asking the cyclists riding by her house. Her first offering was a garden hose for filling water bottles; then she heated up her oven to bake cookies. She began hosting thousands of riders in the house next to hers, filling the building with trail postcards and memorabilia. Much of her later years were built around the trail, and Siple speculates it gave her life purpose and meaning.
Formal help often comes through warmshowers.org, an online service that connects bicycle travelers with volunteer hosts around the world. Members compose a profile and guests and hosts review each other at the end of a stay. As the name intimates, the minimum requirement is access to a bathroom. Hosts can decide what other amenities they will offer: space for a tent, a bed, breakfast, transportation, or tourist information.
Host Maya Todd lives at a popular TransAmerica stopping point in Berea, Kentucky. She has hosted more than 100 cyclists since her daughter asked her to host a friend in 2014. Her guests have hailed from Germany, Norway, India, South Korea, and the Netherlands. She has built a lasting connection with some of them.
Guests don’t just receive; the exchange is meant to be reciprocal. Todd says guests have cooked her meals, taken her out for dinner, scrubbed her porch, and bought her a small gift. Many send a thank you card from the end of their journey, and one sent a book she composed from her journal entries during the ride.
Todd advises potential hosts to be clear about their rules and what they are offering to cyclists. She says it can be a meaningful cultural experience, in some of America’s remotest locales. “I meet fantastic people from all over the world,” she says. “It feels good to give and not expect anything in return.”
Image left: A 1976 Bikecentennial rider waves to a farmer in passing (Photo by Dan Burden). Image top right: A group of TransAm riders in Kentucky in 1995 (Photo by Jeff Hiles). Image bottom right: A 1976 Bikecentennial cyclist near Fairplay, Colorado. Note that many cyclists did not wear helmets in 1976 but Adventure Cycling encourages their use today (Photo by Peter Bower). Photos courtesy of the Adventure Cycling Association.
“‘We have had over 200 stop and we have nothing but praise for these folks. We have yet to see one smoke, drink, or use harsh language, and we have never met a finer, nicer bunch of young people. Bicycling is such a clean healthy recreation and keeps a lot of the young folks out of trouble, and they learn a lot about their country and the kind of people in it.’ -June Haven Curry, Afton, Virginia”From “Trans-America Trail News,” published weekly during the 1976 Bikecentennial.
Sterling, Kansas, population 2,500, is just a mile off the TransAmerica Trail. It has almost everything a bicycle traveler needs, including seven food establishments (café, grocery, and food marts). The city park has a campground with bike sites, a swimming pool, free Wi-Fi, and a new shower house. There is a nearby bike repair station; a kiosk with visitor information is in the works.
The local community has made a concentrated effort to develop and promote their town as a destination for bicycle tourists. There is a big sign at the Sterling turnoff on the TransAmerica Trail listing available amenities and the distance to town. Community members reviewed their listing on the official Adventure Cycling Association trail maps to ensure the information is accurate.
Sterling’s efforts began with a county-wide bike and pedestrian master plan that intentionally ties into both tourist and resident needs. To other communities along bicycle trails, Craig Crosette, Sterling City Manager, says there is a real opportunity. “Being inviting can be as simple as fixing a street and increasing signage. We offer a bit of Kansas charm, and not a lot of communities are in tune with bicyclists’ needs. We feel we are setting the bar pretty high for a rural community.”
Sterling benefits from Kansas’s hospitality infrastructure. Widely touted as the friendliest state on the TransAmerica, Kansas offers more than just a cheery wave to passing cyclists. The Kansas State Bike Map demonstrates how the state intentionally considers the needs of its cycling visitors. All bicycle routes, rails-to-trails, and scenic byways are clearly marked. There are lists of bicycle laws and state recreation facilities. Colors indicate the daily traffic volume of roads and symbols indicate locations of bicycle shops.
Hospitable bike communities have…
- Safe corridors with courteous drivers and bike paths.
- Access to drinking water, showers, bike maintenance tools, Wi-Fi, and charging stations.
- Services like restaurants, food stores, bike shops, and guaranteed cyclist campsites.
- Good signage and maps for locating amenities and attractions.
Source: Adventure Cycling Association.
For towns along the TransAmerica or other mapped routes, bicycle tourism offers an economic opportunity. According to a 2017 study of the outdoor recreation economy by the Outdoor Industry Association, bicycling participants generate $97 billion nationally in retail spending. Communities can tap into that by sharing with those who pedal through what makes them special.
The town of Mitchell, Oregon, population 120, has seized that opportunity. It has become a cyclist destination largely due to the efforts of Jalet Ferrell. Five years ago, she opened the Spoke’n Hostel for adventure travelers. The first year, 365 people stayed; in 2019, they hosted 1,500.
Ferrell had the vision for the hostel, then did a deep dive into bicycle travel culture to make it happen. Working with Travel Oregon tourism, she learned the eastern region was a resource-deprived area for cyclists. According to a state-commissioned study by Dean Runyan Associates, cyclists spend $30 million annually in just their part of the state.
Armed with that information, Ferrell embarked on a community education project. “People here saw cyclists as a blight on the roads,” she says. “They were served here but not really welcomed.” In just the hostel’s first year, the four other businesses in town, including a brewery and general store, saw a 30 percent increase in sales.
Spoke’n Hostel has a unique business model. Housed in a closed church, Ferrell found the space when she visited on their last Sunday of services. She convinced the church to allow her to use the building for the hostel and as a community resource. She can see this model spread to other locales.
“It would be wonderful to see old resources, like granges and churches, become cyclist hubs across the country,” she says.
Committed advocates and improved infrastructure could ensure another 45 years of bicycle travel on the TransAmerica. It would build on the trail’s legacy of spinning a strong network of cyclists, hosts, and communities, across rural America.
As Siple of the American Cycling Association shares, “Even though the trail is designed rurally for practical reasons, it goes through an America most people don’t see. Even Americans are impressed. The experience can change perceptions of rural people.”
Image left: Mitchell, Oregon welcomes participants in the 2019 TransAmerica Bike Race. Image top right: Mitchell is near the Painted Hills of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, another draw for cyclists. Photos courtesy of Spoke’n Hostel. Image bottom right: The amenities inside of the Spoke’n Hostel in Mitchell.