It is free form and spontaneous. Tim and Tracy Johnson describes their long-distance bicycling tours that way. The couple traveled from their home in Denver to East Boothbay covering 4,240 miles in 59 days, April 27 - June 24, to visit with Tim’s parents, Allen and Sally Johnson, at Ocean Point.
Last summer, they set out on their first long-distance bike trip across northern Europe – 5,800 miles over three months. The couple had planned a bike trip through southern Europe for this summer, but COVID-19 put the kibosh on that adventure.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis began re-opening the state April 26. The Johnsons set out April 27 on steel-frame Kona Sutra heavy duty touring bikes.
The trip had five touch points or goals: Wisconsin with Tracy’s family, Mount Rushmore, swimming in all five of the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls, and reaching Ocean Point by the Fourth of July.
Tim said their favorite roads didn’t have lines on them. That would leave out conventional maps. Instead, they used Google Maps, clicking on the app’s bike icon for those roads less traveled. Sometimes gravel, sometimes dirt and sometimes taking them to places they didn’t know about – like the Erie Canal Tow Path.
Typical days for Tracy and Tim began at 8:30 a.m. and ended around 4:30 p.m. cycling for six of those hours and using the other two for finding food, breakfast, lunch; eating, washing up, and finding restrooms and a place to spend each night.
“We averaged 80 miles a day; sometimes 95 because we were looking for a place for the tent or a store for food,” Tracy said. “We would stop – always had a loaf of bread, peanut butter, apples, water and cookies. Getting food really determined how long the day was.”
Early in the trip, they were riding through towns that appeared empty, abandoned because there were no people outside. Everything was closed due to COVID-19. Many of the towns were small with populations of 300 or less.
“In the bigger towns with buildings on both sides, nothing was open but food or convenience stores,” said Tracy. “People had to travel longer distances for food or supplies like a mom in North Dakota who was driving an extra 15 miles to get to a store.”
The first half of the trip, campgrounds were closed. That meant thinking creatively about where to set up camp at a day’s end. Unusual spots included pavilions, baseball dugouts, a warehouse, church back dooryards, schools and under a store awning.
“The kindness of strangers is absolutely precious. It’s fun to do the biking and see stuff but the most fun we have is chatting with people,” said Tim.
A man in South Dakota offered them sleeping space in his warehouse – but not before he gave Tim and Tracy a tour of his cattle ranch where they got to bottle feed newborn calves.
“We’d come out of a grocery store or convenience store and people would ask us where we were going. They’d ask where we were staying,” Tracy said. “One person offered us his office space at the end of the driveway; someone else said they had a bedroom above their garage.”
After finding a place for the night, it was time to set up camp; everything was neatly packed in the four bags (think saddle bags) on their bikes – 70 pounds of gear: a sleeping pad, the down winter coats that doubled as pillows. Staple foods always included peanut butter, potato chips, apples and water.Friday nights were happy hour with a six pack of beer and Triscuit crackers and cheese; there were also happy hours later in the trip, when the weather was warmer, if they traveled 80 miles in 80F-plus weather.
“Psychologically we know we have this big goal. The shine does dull some, but it never turns sour,” Tim said. “Tracy and I have done enough hard things to know we can work through those days and at the end of it we will feel good about having made it through.”
Challenging days were largely due to weather. In Fargo, North Dakota, 30 mph winds were blowing into their faces. There was pouring rain in the Detroit Lakes. And there was a snowstorm in Bismark in early May when it was a whopping 24F.
But, those challenges pale in memory (somewhat!) to the intimacy with nature experienced traveling by bicycle along those roads less traveled where there are bears, elk, moose, buffalo, mountain goats and hundreds of butterflies!
Most memorable journal posts include the 10-day stay in Tracy’s home state of Wisconsin for a birthday celebration; Mount Rushmore, the Niagara River, seeing the rapids, rainbows coming off the Falls; and Lusk, Wyoming. The couple celebrated both their birthdays.
The Johnsons went on another bike tour after quarantining for two weeks at Ocean Point. The tour was 815 miles around Maine, July 10-24 to visit friends and family. Along the way, they celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary.
“It wouldn’t work if we weren’t evenly matched,” said Tracy about their long-distance bicycling trips. “If one of us lagged behind or something like that …”
“The trail boss pushes hard,” interjected Tim with a smile.
The Johnsons will return to Denver with their bikes in early August, by air.