I decided in my mid-30s that I had to get away from Chicago, no matter the cost. I’d discovered cycling a couple of years before and was working as a bicycle mechanic, and more than anything else I liked to ride a bicycle. Bicycle touring was the answer.
Over the next year and a half I gathered together a suitable bicycle piece by piece, buying everything individually, from the spokes to the brake cables.
I built the wheels first, because I could use them on the bike I had. An old racer I met at the Schwinn school had told me that the simplest way to upgrade a bike was with better wheels, and he was dead right. My new wheels were so much lighter and better than the ones I was used to that they served as daily encouragement for me to keep scrimping and saving and adding to my kit.
I’d been camping only once before, and then with five other people who knew what they were doing, so I didn’t learn much of anything other than Wisconsin Dells is crowded in the summer.
I finally got the last of my stuff and was eager to try out my gear. I decided to ride to Illinois Beach State Park and camp overnight. My girlfriend would pick me up the next morning.
I don’t remember how long it took me to ride the 70 miles with loaded panniers and a trailer to Zion, Ill. Let’s call it all day, the last couple of hours in light sleet. Did I say this was in November? I got there after dark and pitched my tent by flashlight.
I’d been asleep a couple of hours when a park ranger rousted me because I wasn’t in an approved campsite. Mind you, when I got to the park, there were no other people or shelters in sight, and no lights of any kind except my flashlight. He made me move maybe 50 yards away, where I re-pitched my tent.
I learned later that it got down to 28 degrees that night, surprising the weatherman and me. Suffice it to say that I at least had plenty of confidence in my equipment.
In the spring I flew to Minneapolis and then rode west, shedding weight whenever I could, including way too much fuel for my stove. I loved my trailer, and still do, but it made it easy for an inexperienced camper to carry too much stuff. I’m a lot more restrained now.
Everything about that month on the road was harder than I’d imagined, from climbing hills in the rain to dealing with mosquitoes, Minnesota’s unofficial state bird. The farm dogs and rednecks in pickups weren’t much fun, either.
I loved being outside all day, and being self-propelled, and the quiet away from cities, and not having to talk to anybody much, and the beauty of the Earth, and not knowing what the next day would be like. I still love all that and more.