Home Commentary Cycling These Skies: A Solo Coast-to-Coast Bike Journey to the Edge of...

Cycling These Skies: A Solo Coast-to-Coast Bike Journey to the Edge of America 

Mitch Smoller
By Mitch Smoller

A solo cross-country bike tour came into reality last summer, when I rode from Ogunquit, Maine, to Anacortes, Washington. I retired in June 2021 and hopped on my bike on June 22 after three years of research and preparation to peddle over hills, mountains, and oppressive midwestern heat. I arrived in Washington three months later, on September 14, 2021.

I stopped in to the Cuppa Joe coffee shop heading west in Ness City, Kansas, and was greeted by the owner. With wide eyes, she said “Sure glad you came in today.” I asked, “Do you have pancakes?” She replied with a sincere look in her eyes, “Oh, no, this is what we have today. I change my menu each day.” She was friendly and personable, directing her conversation at me as though we knew each other for some time. I overheard her talking about the rising prices of her grocery delivery and other items. 

“Blueberries have gone up so much,” she said. “This food container used to cost 13 cents, it’s now 50 cents.” A rancher joined the conversation and spoke about the sudden significant rise in the cost of supplies.

I watched a customer come in wearing an orange shirt. He announced that he was concerned about a sick calf. I asked “Can you bring the calf to the veterinarian?” He replied, “Oh yeah, he’s just at the edge of town.” He added, “I left a bowl of water by the calf since I thought she was dehydrated.” One of the cooks, a young Hispanic woman, referred to the calf by name and asked how the calf was doing. An ill calf is a very serious issue for these caring Kansas people. They directed questions to me: “Where are you from and where are you going?” I said, “I’m from Vermont and left the Maine coast June 22 and I’m heading north of Seattle.” I told the owner, “My short-term destination for today is Scott City. She then said with certainty in her voice, “Oh, that’s only 53 miles. You can do that.” The rancher asked me what the political view was in Vermont, and I responded as accurately as I could. He replied, “Oh, we’re conservative here.” I added, “We’re all in the same boat trying to make everything work.” Heads nodded. I could have easily sat in that cafe booth in Ness City, in rural south central Kansas all morning, drinking coffee with my legs extended out on the seat. These people accepted and embraced me as a member of their community in the moment and unconditionally. It felt safe and comfortable. A spiritual transaction occurred as much as a material one, unknown at the time. 

The wind rose up in energy, a lot of energy. I arrived in Dighton for a much needed lunch at the Bowl and Grill, after riding down the small town’s main street unable to find another cafe. I leaned my bike against the large glass window in front of the building. The two waitresses were apologetic for the delay in the order, despite managing a very large room. I was in no hurry, and I let them know. Before I left the waitress asked, “Can I fill your water bottles?” A gentleman from the far side of the room walked over to my booth and said he saw my bike by the window. He said, “Oh, I would love to do what you’re doing, but I don’t have that strength anymore. That wind is blowin’ about 25–30 miles an hour.” He added, “Ya know, I’m famous around here!” The waitress turned to me and, smiling, said, “He’s infamous …” Between the Cuppa Joe in Ness City, Kansas, and the Bowl and Grill in Dighton, Kansas, I felt immersed in the center of our planetary social system.

The wind blew strong and my hopes that it would have dissipated by lunch went unanswered. I left Dighton, and farther out in the open prairies, along came a lone rider. Blaise was a man riding solo like me who left Oregon. He crossed over to my westbound lane and I stated, “You are one lucky guy having the benefit of the tailwind.” Blaise replied, “Oh, I’ll ride a century today and I’m sorry about the wind.” We spoke for a few minutes then went about our journeys.

The wind did not abate and speed was slow and arduous. People write about it, speak about it, and send warnings about the wind. I had no choices to make, nor options to consider. I simply turned the pedals with my head down and looked up frequently to consider the immensity of the prairie and sky in rural south central Kansas. I stopped frequently in exhaustion, stood silently, admiring the surroundings. The wind was fierce, unwavering , and relentless. … and so was I. We therefore were friends with a common bond. I would not want the conditions any other way; cycling under the wide open sky, wind, sun, and prairies. This was my experience that I so much wanted to live. I pedaled into Scott City after a long day, so grateful for the experience.

John Steinbeck said about his intent to sail down the Sea of Cortez, “I’m in need of an objective.” Mine was met that day.

Mitch Smoller is a retired school counselor who lives in East Montpelier. He’s an avid cyclist who first considered crossing the continent in 1989 and finally did it the summer of 2021. He left Ogunquit Beach, Maine, June 22 and arrived in Anacortes, Washington, on September 14, riding a total of 4381 miles with an average of 60 miles per day. He’s writing a book about the experience.