The Freedom to Recreate

My first memorable experiences with public lands occurred in Southern California over a seven-year period during which my parents homeschooled my five siblings and me. Our education included regular trips to public lands and parks such as Mono Lake, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and June Lake. In these places, I noticed how the air felt crisp and smelled like pine — how quiet and peaceful it was. I associated those positive feelings with the fun I had hiking, fishing, and camping.

Eventually, my Dad changed jobs and we moved to the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, where things changed for my family. We all started going to private school and we stopped exploring. For the remainder of my middle and high school years, the places I spent outdoors were in the woods behind my parent’s house, on a field hockey field, and in and along the Little Miami River.

I didn’t find the desire to explore again, until I started riding bicycles. The more I rode around the suburban sprawl-inflicted countryside by my parents house, the more I desired finding a quieter, more scenic place to enjoy my rides. I looked to Google Maps for inspiration and noticed the solid green spaces outlined on the standard map. I zoomed into to the closest one to home and found Shawnee State Forest.

Google_Parks.png

After an hour and a half of driving, I found a natural amusement park of winding rolling gravel roads through lush forests and eroded valleys in the heart of the Appalachian foothills, devoid of cars and people. I had lived in Ohio for 12 years and had never seen a place so beautiful. I rode a different pace in Shawnee State Forest. Rather than rushing through my ride, I enjoyed longer and more frequent breaks, just to soak up my surroundings. I was hooked and I started to explore more of those green solid spaces on Google Maps throughout the Midwest, Southeast, and eventually across the country by bicycle.

Apart from the stimulation I get from immersing myself along the gravel roads in these beautifully diverse landscapes and ecosystems, my favorite quality of our public lands is the freedom to camp. On my first long, cross-country trip I gained an appreciation for this freedom in Great Smokey National Park and Chattahoochee National Forest in North Carolina and Tennessee, the Ouachita National Forest in the Ozarks of Arkansas, the Rio Grande, San Juan National Forests in Colorado, Manti La Sal National Forest in Utah, the BLM land in Nevada, and the Umpqua and Winema National Forests in Oregon. In all of these places, I took advantage of my legal right to camp freely in nature. The majority of the space between these places is private, protected by frequent bold signs and barbed wire fencing as a reminder.

For people traveling great distances by bicycle, camping is a necessity. When traveling through heavily privatized expanses of land, options are limited to private campgrounds, where you pay three-quarters of the price of a motel to pitch your tent 20 feet away from a motor home, or the generosity of strangers, if you’re so lucky.

The other option is to secretly camp somewhere you are not really supposed to be. To camp in secret is a reality of bicycle touring where a restful time can be a stressful time. Since you are not technically supposed to be there, it’s easy to feel vulnerable and paranoid. Camping in our public lands is so much more enjoyable for the peace of mind that you are allowed to be there. Not only are you permitted to camp, you also have the option to choose the quality of the place you are going to call home for the night. In a free environment you have been able to select, camping is at its best.

As tax paying U.S. citizens, our public lands are one of our greatest privileges. There are 640 million acres of public land and we each own a little piece. That is a whole lot of space to call our backyard. Get out there and enjoy it this Bike Your Park Day, September 30, 2017!

Find Parks Near You

To quickly find parks near you, go to the standard map view on Google Maps and zoom the scale to 100–200 miles. The solid green spaces show everything from city, state, and national parks to state and national forest. To find BLM land, visit blm.gov/visit for a comprehensive BLM recreation map.

Learn More

Read America’s Public Lands Explained and follow @USInterior on Instagram

Read Seven Differences Between State Lands and Public Lands

Read Three Million Acres of Public Lands Are Off the Market — For Now

Gravel Routes To Ride For Bike Your Park Day

Lost Coast, California (75 miles): ridewithgps.com/routes/12307187

Glacier National Park Loop, Montana (114 miles): ridewithgps.com/routes/23004167

Central Oregon Backcountry Explorer (152 miles): ridewithgps.com/routes/17232885

Cades Cove Loop, Tennessee (28 miles): hridewithgps.com/routes/6378658

Monongahela Loop, West Virginia (190 miles): ridewithgps.com/routes/6371419

Yellowstone Mammoth Hot Springs Out and- Back (12 miles): ridewithgps.com/routes/23004395

Titus Canyon Road, Nevada/California (53 miles): ridewithgps.com/routes/12427865 

Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping is the term used by the National Parks Service, National Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management to describe camping outside a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services. There is no bathroom, no trash removal, no water spigot, no picnic table, or fire pits. Review the Seven Principles to Leave No Trace before choosing your next dispersed camping spot, lnt.org/learn/seven-principles-overview.

The Inaugural Ride

Story for Bunyon Velo Issue No. 07 by Sarah Swallow. Photos by Tom Swallow and Sarah Swallow

January 2, 2017. Nearly a hundred cyclists gather at Ruocco Park in San Diego for the grand depart of the Baja Divide, a 1,700-mile bikepacking route through the backcountry of Baja California, pioneered by Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox during the winter of 2015 and spring of 2016. The Baja Peninsula separates the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California and the Sea of Cortez by a series of mountain ranges and several distinct ecological regions, making the terrain and scenery very diverse. The route zig-zags down the Baja Peninsula, crossing the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur and ending with a loop at the southernmost cape. The route repeatedly intersects Highway 1, making it very easy to take a bus or hitchhike to any other point on the route. The group departure was organized to establish the presence of bicycle travel along the route for years to come. The logistics required to show up at the start are a challenge. The terrain necessitates a fairly purpose-specific bike capable of handling rock-strewn roads through the steep mountains, dry arroyos, and deep sand in the thorny desert. Bikes must be equipped with food and water storage for 160- to 225-mile stretches with no substantial resupply or water options, encouraging minimalism in shelter, clothing, and non-essential amenities. Weather is a worthy source of fear. Roads can be dry and fast one day and impassable the next, forcing riders to choose between staying put or pushing on through tough conditions. Cyclists likely have to be self-employed, unemployed, seasonal, or taking leave to have the time required to make it through the route. At a 25-50 mile per day average pace, the route takes about 1-2 months, although a motivated rider could shave some time off. Lael Wilcox holds the fastest known time at a blistering 11 days, 13 hours.

The inaugural ride of the Baja Divide is not a competition. The amount of time each cyclist can spare determines much of the rider’s trajectory. Some choose to make haste, riding every mile for 1,700 miles with the goal of getting to the end before their allotted time is up. Others take it slow to soak it all in. Some make it and some don’t. Some hitchhike, some bus, and some take a boat.

From nearly 100 riders, we break down to a big group of 30. Between our luck, weather, and susceptibility to communicable diseases, the unpredictable is inevitable. Entropy ensues. After two weeks we’re down to 14. After a third week we’re just six. Then, we’re two, but a quick bus ride changes everything. We see people we haven’t seen since the start. We ride together, then we ride alone. Priorities, pace, and lifestyle dictate the longevity of our little riding groups. We gather in big towns to rest, use wifi, eat, repair, and explore together.

We’re trying to catch a ride on a local fisherman’s panga boat to gain passage to Los Hornitos, a remote peninsula on the other side of the Bahía de Concepción. Finding a ride has proven to be more difficult than we expected. High winds are causing dangerous water conditions, and most of the local fisherman are hunkered down until the conditions improve. After three days we are eager to move on. We roam the streets of Mulegé in search of a fisherman willing to take on the passage. Finally, we meet Francisco in the town square, and he agrees to take us across the bay the following morning during a small window of opportunity when the wind and water conditions will be less dangerous.

Our friends Joe and Leia have also arranged a boat, and a group consisting of Rafa, Justin, and Ryan want to squeeze in where they can. Colleen and Brett are also in town, but foreseeing an eventful boat ride, they opt for the paved alternative out of town. We pack our bikes the night before in anticipation of our boat trip and the next 225 miles of riding with limited resupply. Those of us going to Los Hornitos make plans as a group to meet and ride to the fisherman’s beach together to ensure everybody has a ride, but Rafa, Justin, and Ryan are still eating breakfast when it’s time to leave. Not wanting to miss our chance to cross the bay, we ride to the beach without them.

Joe and Leia’s skipper, Alex, is there. His boat is in the water and is ready to launch. Our boatman, Francisco, is nowhere to be seen, and neither are Rafa, Justin, or Ryan. A rushed and confusing five minutes later, we find ourselves in Alex’s boat with Joe and Leia. In the madness of cramming his small boat with four mountain bikes heavily loaded with food and water, I don’t take the chance to grab my rain jacket, a decision I questioned after noticing that Alex is dressed head to toe in waterproof skivvies. “For the way back against the current,” he says.

The first few minutes of our boat ride are relatively calm, until we pass the rock jetty of the lighthouse, where we learn just what 20 mph winds feel like in a small, open-hull boat in big water. As four- to six-foot waves come crashing against the boat, Alex pushes the throttle to climb the next set. With every thrust to climb the wave, there’s a release to land on the other side and a consequent thud, jump, and bang of the boat and everything and everyone in it. Wave after wave comes spilling overhead and into the boat, soaking us in salt water. Tense and wide-eyed, we hang on to whatever we can wrap our arms around for what feels like the longest 30 minutes of our lives. The urgency of our skipper and the severity of the conditions that delayed our travel are now obvious to us. We’re so overwhelmed by adrenaline and relief that we could kiss the sand when we land on Los Hornitos. We graciously tip and thank Alex for getting us safely across and push him off to make it back across the bay against the current, which apparently is more dangerous than than the direction from which we came.

We see another boat heading toward the shore just as we begin to navigate our way down the deserted peninsula. It’s Francisco’s boat with Rafa, Justin, and Ryan, heading our way. We regroup and laugh at the confusing and eventful chain of events that got us all here and ride some miles together before separating when the three of them go to visit with a local rancher. By 3 p.m., Tom and I are content to stop for the day and camp beneath a vacant beachside palapa, while Joe and Leia opt to keep pushing forward in search of a hot meal. We spend the night at the beach, looking for clams and mussels to add to our soup and enjoying a driftwood campfire and easy life under the palm frond lean-to.

Over the following days Tom and I ride alone from the gulf coast into the mountains, stopping at small tiendas to replenish our food and water supply with whatever we find. Some stores have juice, chips, and cookies, but no water. Others can make us a meal and replenish our water. We find a bag of chips and a sleeve of cookies at one store and a few cans of tuna at the next, which tops off our food supply as we move along. Tuna becomes less appealing the further we go, and strong cravings for a simple bag of refried beans, fresh vegetables, and tortillas are creeping their way into our psyche.

The heat intensifies with each day, and my Garmin reads 95 degrees. We dive for shade when it’s there. The hills grow steeper and more rocky as we climb into the Giganta Mountains, a system of canyons dotted with freshwater and date palm oases throughout which relics of old missions are the center of tiny communities where people live a simple life. We take time in these places, sitting in the water and cleaning our salty clothes. We’re out of real food and our fatigue is evident. It’s been five days since we left Mulegé when we finally reach the small mission town of San Javier, our last minor resupply for the next 100 miles. Over beers, we deliberate over whether to fill our empty bottles with the only available drinking water in town, 24 individual 12 oz plastic bottles. San Javier is a popular tourist spot, and we linger in conversations with vacationing tourists and indulge in another beer, delaying any decision-making. By the time we peel off, it’s the heat of the day, and the prospect of riding another 27 miles of off-route pavement to the coastal town of Loreto for some real food, culture, and a shower sounds good to us. What we assumed would be a 27-mile descent to town is in reality a roller coaster of steep, hot tarmac that forces us to dig deep for the “easy” way.

Loreto is a whole new environment, a low-key coastal mission town surrounded by comfortable middle class Mexican life. We spend less than 24 hours eating, exploring, and resting up before catching a bus back to the next town on the route, Ciudad Constitución. A day later we’re back on route and in the middle of the desert, headed to La Paz along another long, tough stretch between resupply opportunities. The steep and rocky terrain continues to challenge our tired bodies, while the heat demands a slow pace and many siestas in the shade. During one of these siestas a shepherd joins us, offers us a cigarette, and boasts of the strawberry ice cream and beer that could be found in the small fishing village of San Everisto, slightly off route. The detour sounds worth the reward, considering our diminishing water and food supply. Tired and desperate to make it to town before total darkness, we make the final climb into town just as the sun drops behind the mountains, casting a shadow over the coast of the Sea of Cortez. To our disappointment, we find that the only tienda in town has no water and mostly candy, cigarettes, and potatoes for sale. Are we in the right place? Where’s the ice cream? Where’s the beer?!

We leave the shop without purchasing anything, and just as our patience starts to diminish, we see two people waving at us from across the beach. We’re shocked to see Colleen and Brett, who we haven’t seen since they opted for the paved alternative out of Mulegé. They had taken a day off here after struggling through the brutal heat and terrain of the last mountain segment. We catch up at Lupe and Maggi’s restaurant, where the host has an endless supply of cold beers and fresh fish, and an idyllic spot available to camp on the beach, though the strawberry ice cream remains a mystery lost in translation. We eat, drink, exchange tales of woe, and are merry to be in one another’s company again in such a beautiful setting. Over coffee the next morning, we talk reluctantly about the washboard roads and steep hills of the route’s next segment. Colleen and Brett had ridden a significant portion of it, but had to turn back to San Everisto when they realized they needed the resupply. Sensing our mood about the ride ahead, Lupe enthusiastically offers to take us in his boat to our next waypoint, Punta Coyote. Within an hour we’ve launched on the second panga boat ride of our tour. The shortcut saves the day, not just 17 lumpy miles, unexpectedly turning a temporary low to a euphoric high point of our Baja Divide experience. In this case it was a calm boat ride, showcasing pastel ribbons in the sandstone cliffs along the shore, with energetic dolphins guiding our way.

On the Baja Divide you may get stuck in the mud, you may have to hitchhike, or you could come close to falling off a panga boat. A coyote could steal your sunglasses, a skunk could bite you in your sleep, and you could get diarrhea for 10 days in the desert. You could also swim with whale sharks, snorkel with exotic fish, witness bioluminescent algae, or live on your own private beach for a while. Your bike could get stolen, but you might even get it back. There are as many unique Baja Divide stories as there are individual riders. Come find adventure in Baja, welcome the unexpected, and return to tell your story.

 

 

Dirt Republic

The longest off-road route in the United States was designed for motorcycles, making tackling it on bikes even more sporting

Story for Adventure Journal Issue 03 by Sarah Swallow. Photos by Tom Swallow and Sarah Swallow

I’m dreaming about home, my cat, and my bed. My down mummy bag is snug around me and everything is warm except my face, which is exposed to the crisp, cold air. I’m toasty, my face is frosty, I can smell coffee, and it’s getting brighter by the minute, which means it’s time to get moving. Soon it will be warm everywhere and we have a big day ahead. There are 70 miles of loose, steep, mountain dirt to cross, with no prospective water sources, and we have to make it to the next town to restock our food. It’ll be the first town in 140 miles and two days. After that, it’s another 140 miles until the next one. How long will that stretch take us? Two days? Three? I don’t want to think about it, so I burrow down, but my husband Tom tugs at the tent door and holds out a cup of coffee and a bowl of apple cinnamon granola cooked in hot water. Looks like it’s the start of another beautiful day on the Trans-America Trail.

There are plenty of options if you want to cross America on dirt, so long as you’re going north to south or south to north. Hikers have three major routes, the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest trails, and mountain bikers have the 2,768-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Going the long way, though, east-west, there’s historically been just one well-traveled path, and it’s covered in pavement—the TransAmerica Trail, developed in 1976 for a group ride called Bikecentennial and promoted since then by the Adventure Cycling Association. There’s another option, though, and it’s all dirt: the Trans-America Trail. That hyphen makes all the difference. The TAT we’re riding is a whopping 5,400 miles of dirt roads, gravel roads, forest roads, and jeep trails. It’s nearly twice as long as the Great Divide and has only a few short stretches of asphalt. But don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it. The route was designed by a dual sport motorcycle enthusiast unfamiliar with the cycling route (hence the name overlap), making it popular among the community of adventure riders, overlanders, and ATVers but relatively unknown and seldom considered by bicyclists until just the last year or two, when the boom in bikepacking began to put it on their radar.

Today the Trans-America Trail begins in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but it first started in central Mississippi in 1985 when pharmacist Sam Correro was looking for a fun way to get to his cabin. “I had piece of property in Alabama,” he said, “and I thought it would be nice if I could just ride my motorcycle to my weekend house and not get on the damn interstate. So I started that way and got to the Alabama line and the counties there had paved every road they could find. I got discouraged, so I thought, well, I’ll just head the other direction.” He aimed west with no plan to go to the coast, just to keep going as far as dirt would take him. “I got through Arkansas no problem. I got through Oklahoma no problem. I got out the maps and next thing you know, I was at the Pacific Ocean.” The first routing was about 75 percent dirt, 25 percent pavement, but Correro wanted a ride that avoided cities and towns and asphalt altogether, and it took him 14 years to plot today’s route. Because it was designed for motorcycles, he stitched together opportunities for gas, plus food and motels, and planned a typical day to cover 200 miles, making a straight push last 31 or 32 days. The TAT now travels west across coastal Carolina and over the Great Smoky Mountains, then follows the lush, humid river valleys of southern Tennessee and northern Mississippi before crossing the Mississippi River and the rugged Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. There’s a long, gradual climb through Oklahoma and the state’s remote panhandle, then 100 miles through northeast New Mexico before navigating northwest into the Rocky Mountains and over the high alpine passes of the San Juans, the most challenging stretch. Next comes the red rocks of Moab, the high desert of Utah, the Great Basin of Nevada, and eastern Oregon. Following the footsteps of the early pioneers of the California Gold Rush, the TAT finally leaves the desert and drops into the greener land of Surprise Valley, California, and over the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, where the water begins to flow in the creek beds again. It finally comes to an end on Battle Rock Beach in the moody coastal town of Port Orford, Oregon. Cordero, 77, retired a decade ago and has been devoted full time to the TAT ever since. He gets increasing inquiries from cyclists, but they’re still a small portion relative to motorcyclists, which is a shame, because there are few ways to witness America free from the stresses of cars, trucks, and tourists—not to mention the crazy speeds of the interstates. With distances between small towns ranging between 70 to 160 miles, the TAT forces you to be immersed in backcountry living and surviving. The biggest challenge for dual-sport motorcyclists is to haul enough gasoline for the long stretches, but for cyclists it’s finding and carrying enough water. By Oklahoma, the creeks are dry, forcing you to rely on the kindness of people who still live on the land. But that’s a good thing, because it connects you to the small but growing TAT community, which isn’t so different from the trail angels one finds along the triple crown of hiking trails. Correro regularly gets requests from people who live along the route to be added to the TAT’s official map set—many are offering their property for camping and some go well beyond that, with ranchers often making their shops available for welding and other repairs. Tom and I bit off a lot when we committed to the TAT. Prior to this expedition, we’d only done a handful of three- to sevenday bikepacking trips in the Midwest and Southeast. Once we learned about it, we were drawn to the TAT instantly, and from that point it was just a matter of putting our departure date on the calendar and arranging our personal lives to accommodate a three-month hiatus.

We began August 1. It was hot, awkward, and uncomfortable. As cyclists, we had to figure out our own way, since the TAT was designed for the range and speed of a motorcycle. We ran out of water, got stuck in the mud, hid from thunderstorms, slept with bed bugs, and rode in a crosswind for over 600 miles. We snuck water from private property, pushed our bikes for miles, and sprinted from aggressive dogs. But we were awestruck by the beauty in front of us, food tasted better than it ever had, sleep felt the best ever, and our encounters with humans seemed true and honest. We did hard things and they were good for us. Eventually, we found a rhythm, pace, and ease of living.

We’ve now been on the road for more than two months. I know how far we’ve come, I’ve witnessed it, I’ve lived it, but it still doesn’t feel real. I’m tan, darker than I’ve ever been. I take a sip of water. It has a faint taste of dirt, or does it? Maybe it’s because I know what it looked like before we purified it. I add a packet of instant iced tea powder into my bottle. Better than dirt. I think back to New Mexico and the windmills that made filling up with clean water a joy. Every place should have windmills. Our road takes us through a ranch, where we stop and speak with the owner, who gives us a six-pack of cold Gatorade. We drink two each while talking with him and pack the other two away. He offers us another six-pack, we’re good, so we thank him and make our way down the road. The sky is clear and there are few clouds. The temperature will rise to 90 degrees today. We apply sunscreen to our dusty skin. The temperature reminds me of North Carolina and Oklahoma, but we’ve been lucky with the weather. We avoided snow in the Rockies, and if it rained now the dusty silt would turn sticky-wet like clay. I stop to take a picture. For miles, there’s no person, house, or vehicle in sight. We’re in the Great Basin, and I’m on top of a range looking straight at another range with a basin in the middle. It looks drastically different than what lies just behind us. How is this possible? I’m enchanted. We keep rolling and finally make it to the town. It has a bar and so does my phone. Population 500, Google says. There’s a grocery, a gas station, a restaurant, and a couple motels. We have choices! We make our way to a motel, where I’m greeted by a puzzled look on the face of the clerk. I’m dusty, dirty, and wearing a raccoon sunglasses tan. “We’re riding the Trans-America Trail. Do you ever get folks coming in here on motorbikes?” I ask. “Absolutely,” they say, “but never anyone on a bicycle! You’ve ridden all this way?” It’s the same conversation I’ve had in every motel along the way, and it grounds me in the reality of the trip. We’ve come so far and still have 700 miles to go. But at this point, it doesn’t seem like much at all.

9 THINGS I LEARNED RIDING THE TAT

1. Windmills are a great source for water. Even if they don’t appear to be working, venture over. There’s often a quick release to allow the fan to run and soon the water will follow.

2. If an aggressive dog is chasing you, dismount and put your bicycle between you. A person on a bicycle looks like a UFO to dogs—as soon as you stop and stand up, most dogs will get the idea.

3. Longsleeve shirts are a lifestyle, not a fashion statement. Sunscreen only goes so far.

4. Be like a camel. Pre-hydrate and post-hydrate when you have access to water. Carry a minimum of six liters.

5. The best bug repellent is your hand. If a fly or mosquito is bothering you, kill it.

6. Be present. Stop and talk to the locals. There aren’t many of them, and it’ll be worth it for both parties.

7. Plan two to four days at a time. Be flexible. Your expectations and plans will change.

8. It’s okay to walk. The bike is simply an aid to get your person and your stuff from place to place. When the going gets too rough to pedal, walk for a while, let different muscles take over and give others a much-needed break.

9. Even in the desert, there are natural springs. While traveling through Utah, Nevada, and eastern Oregon, if you see even small patches of green vegetation or old well structures, there’s likely water nearby.

BY THE NUMBERS

3 Flats

7 Worn-out tires

2 Worn-out chains

3 Broken spokes

176 Starbucks Via coffees consumed

1 pair of Rapha bib shorts lost

87 days total

6 days off

Plan B

A couples journey from owning a bike shop to pioneering the crossing of the other Trans-America Trail

Story for Adventure Cyclist Magazine March 2017 Issue by Sarah Swallow. Photos by Tom Swallow and Sarah Swallow

Imagine riding across America on Adventure Cycling’s TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, the classic paved route from Astoria, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia. You pass through small-town America, experiencing places and sites that you have reached under your own power. The journey occurs at a rate of speed slow enough that you are immersed in your surroundings but fast enough to shock you with frequent changes in geography, culture, and climate. Now imagine the magnitude of a similar journey in the intimate and remote setting of America’s backcountry dirt roads, and you get the Trans-America Trail. The two routes share the same name, but the Trans-America Trail (also known as the TAT) is a 5,000-mile route across the United States that follows dirt roads, gravel roads, forest roads, jeep trails, and paved backroads. 

Yes, there is a dirt-road route from east to west across the United States of America, and it’s nearly double the length of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it. This route was initially designed by and for dual-sport motorcyclists (hence the name overlap), making it popular among a community of adventure motorcyclists and 4x4 enthusiasts, but relatively unknown to bicyclists. That is, until the summer of 2015, when my husband Tom and I rode the TAT on our bicycles over a three-month period. For us this was more than a journey of exploration and adventure. We began the ride just weeks after closing our bicycle shop, leaving our so-called “comfortable life” to embark on the unknown. This is how we went from owning a shop to pioneering the crossing of the TAT by bicycle and how it changed our lives.

First, let me address the curiosity of every gravel grinder reading this by telling you a little more about this route. The TAT begins in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and travels west across coastal Carolina and over the Great Smoky Mountains. From the Smoky Mountains, the route follows the backroads of the lush, humid river valleys and forests of southern Tennessee and northern Mississippi. The route travels over the Mississippi River and into the rugged Ozark Mountains of Arkansas before it begins a gradual, straight ascent through the prairie grasslands of northern Oklahoma and the No Man’s Land of the state’s remote panhandle. For 100 miles, the route travels through northeast New Mexico before navigating northwest into the Rocky Mountains and over the high alpine passes of the San Juans. The red rocks of Moab are the route’s introduction to a long stretch across the high desert of Utah, the Great Basin of Nevada, and eastern Oregon. Following the footsteps of the early pioneers of the California Gold Rush, the route finally leaves the desert and drops you into the greener land of Surprise Valley, California, and over the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, where water begins to flow in the creek beds again. The route comes to an end on Battle Rock Beach in the moody coastal town of Port Orford, Oregon.

Sam Correro, a passionate dual-sport motorcyclist from Tennessee, developed the route over 15 years as a way to cross the country off pavement with his motorcycle. Sam completed the route in 1996 and has since launched a website (TransAmTrail.com) as a resource to purchase maps and information for the route. Since the route was released, it has naturally become popular among dual-sport motorcyclists and 4x4 enthusiasts made evident by the countless forum entries on ADVrider.com, YouTube videos, a Land Rover commercial, and even the documentary film Road Less Traveled. Every summer, the route draws more individuals from all over the world who travel to witness a perspective of America that few have ever seen. During our ride, we encountered people from New Zealand, South Africa, and even a couple from the UK who were riding Honda Passport motor scooters. They had all spent months, if not years, preparing the equipment necessary for the physical and logistical challenges of making it through this extensive route. Sure, riding the route on a motorcycle is a bit easier and requires less time than doing it on a bicycle, but motorcyclists are still on a major journey. 

We enjoyed sharing the route with motorcyclists. Our speed relative to theirs was slow enough that they eventually passed us, allowing us the opportunity to meet many of them. We shared stories, meals, campsites, and even motel rooms. Not unlike the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, the TAT is surrounded by a culture of those who have completed the route, are riding the route, or hope to ride it someday. Regardless of the type of journey you’ve undertaken, the ride on the route is like a pilgrimage shared by all who participate. 

I stumbled across Correro’s route while researching another ride I would be doing with a group of friends in the Smoky Mountains. I remember seeing the website and hardly believing its authenticity. I bookmarked the page and didn’t think about it for a while until curiosity compelled me to pull up the page again, do a little Google searching, and watch some of the YouTube videos. I did this once in a while until I was finally convinced that it was a real route. But I asked myself, if this information was out there, why couldn’t I find any information about someone riding a bicycle on the route? The cycle continued with me bookmarking the information for another rainy day. 

In 2008, I was 20 years old, living in southwestern Ohio, and had just left my childhood job of eight years at a bike rental outfit for a “real” job at my local bike shop. There I met Tom, who was unlike anyone I had ever met. Tom had a lust for life and wanted to be happy, and riding bicycles was his way of doing that. To make a long story short, we became friends, fell in love, and decided to get hitched. During all this, we were working side by side managing two bike shops. The shops had been in business for over 16 years, and their owner was losing the motivation to keep them open, ultimately closing the doors in 2011. 

When the shops closed, there was a hole in the local marketplace. Tom and I felt that we had the skill sets for operating a bike shop, our clientele was there, and that we could really give this a go under a few conditions. The first condition was to retain a fundamental level of freedom by not taking on debt and by starting with what we had instead of involving outside investors. The second condition was to commit to riding bikes more and integrating that into our lifestyle as business owners. Last, we would only keep the bike shop as long as it made us happy. We were two kids in our early 20s trying to be as practical as possible, considering the circumstances. 

We invested in our brand, Swallow Bicycle Works, and invested our time in rides, sharing our stories, and in learning experiences with others. We became known as a personal husband-and-wife-owned and -operated shop that practiced what we preached and focused on good old-fashioned honest interactions with people, selling them products and services that would make riding more fun and compatible with their lifestyles. It actually worked. We were busy and making money. In 2013, we put on Southwest Ohio’s first gravel adventure ride called the Ridgetop Ramble, a free event that drew over 70 participants from all over Ohio. From then on, there were more rides. Some were open to the public; others were our own miniature explorations of the surrounding Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana tri-state area. The more we rode, the farther we wanted to go, and the more refreshed and inspired we felt going into work on Monday. We were checking roads off the map, not letting any go unridden. All the while, we were sharing our routes, experiences, and photos with others, hoping to break the common group-ride racer routine that can dominate the market. That worked too. People were buying gravel bikes, touring bikes, and bikepacking bags. More important, they were seeking out mini-adventures of their own with family and friends. 

Bigger companies were catching on to this increasingly popular category of riding and wanted to invest in it. In 2015, I received a grant to document the adventure riding we had been doing for the past couple of years through the shop. I was given the freedom to explore anything I wanted, and nothing felt more right for us than riding the TAT across the country while documenting the route from a bicyclist’s perspective for the first time. We put it on the calendar for August 2015. The trip would be a sabbatical of sorts, a chance for a fresh perspective about what we were doing with our business, to see whether that lifestyle was sustainable for us. In July 2015, we closed the shop for our trip with the intent to relocate when we got back. 

Our experience on the TAT changed our lives. We were finding our own way as bicyclists along a route designed for a motorcyclist’s distance and speed. All of our considerations for food and water had to be carefully planned. We ran out of water, got stuck in the mud, hid from thunderstorms, slept with bedbugs, and rode with a crosswind for over 600 miles. We did without, snuck water from private property, pushed our bikes for miles, and sprinted from aggressive dogs. We did hard things, and they were good for us. Eventually we learned to see the inherent beauty in all life and began to travel with ease. More important, we talked to people — a lot of people. They welcomed us into their homes and taught us how to live on the road. It was meaningful, it was real, and it felt very natural. We had plenty of time to consider how big the universe is, how small we really are, and to learn that what might seem to matter may not actually matter at all. We finished the ride with open minds regarding what we would do and continued to allow positive experiences to steer our course. 

So we found ourselves at a fork in the road. Down one path, we could give up a little freedom to pursue our previous careers. Down the other path, we could capitalize on our freedom right now and see where it led. We realized that we should continue the journey we started with the TAT, navigating the course of life by bicycle and learning as we traveled.

Our bike shop was more than a place of business, it was a community of family, friends, and customers who shared their stories. We inspired one another to take a step back from the busyness of life, ride a bike, try something different, and participate in the world. This community has been our biggest motivator to explore the world by bike, a journey that began with the TAT. Many people ask what our security plan is and how we are going to make money. I get that. Ours is an unlikely lifestyle, and I am not suggesting it works for everyone. For us, though, normal life is plan B.  

Nuts & Bolts: TAT

• 5,273 miles; 349,101 feet of climbing

• 80 percent dirt roads

• The route boasts many singletrack alternatives, including the Whole Enchilada in Moab, Utah.

• The best time to ride the TAT is June through October. However, the heat in Utah and Nevada, and the snow in Colorado, should be considered when planning.

• The route is designed to be ridden east to west. As you go farther west, the route becomes more challenging and remote, with fewer towns. 

• The original route starts in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. The North Carolina section was added later by an outside party to create a coast-to-coast experience. The North Carolina section is mostly paved. 

• In 2016, Sam Correro revised his route to travel north from Utah into Idaho, eliminating Nevada altogether. This revision adds 500 miles to the original route.

• The maximum distance between towns is 160 miles.

• ridewithgps.com/routes/9275460