Why? – Part 2: My Bicycle Ride from Florence, Ala., to Fairhope, Ala.

Part 2 of my bicycle ride from the Tennessee-Alabama border to the Gulf of Mexico.

monroe county
Diverting from my planned route to reach a motel by sunset, Google Maps sent me down a red clay road (which, as a native of Alabama, I call a “dirt” road) on which I came upon this scene that made me think of Andrew Wyeth’s melancholic paintings of the countryside near Cushing, Maine. This is something you’ll never see on I-65 going 75 mph. (In Monroe County, I think.)

(This is the second post about my 415+ mile bike ride from the Tennessee-Alabama border to Mobile Bay. Part 1 is here. I have no idea how many parts there will be.)


First among the questions I was asked before, during and after the ride was a variation of “Why?” Why did you do it? Why the route? Why now?

Of course, most of the these “Why’s” were proxies for the real question, “Why would an apparently sane person take six days to ride a bicycle some place that would take, max, an hour to fly on Southwest?”

I enjoyed such questions the most when they came from the people I met in the convenience stores, restaurants and motels along the ride. African American or good ol’ boy; teenager or retiree, they all asked me the “why” question with a look of incredulity I’d expect to see on the face of someone interviewing a visitor from Mars. And it amazed me how nearly everyone I encountered wanted to ask me the question. They’d walk across a restaurant to ask me. If I was passing through a town and stopped at a red light, they’d roll down their car window and ask. “Where you coming from?” I’d tell them and then I’d get a polite version of the “why question.”

“Have you ever seen that movie with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson called The Bucket List?” I’d respond. “The one where Morgan Freeman has a list of all the things he wants to do before he kicks the bucket? Well, a long bicycle ride like this was on my bucket list.”

Most people at least knew about the bucket list concept, so they typically accepted my answer without asking the obvious followup, “Why was it on your bucket list”? Or perhaps they thought my answer meant I was expecting to kick the bucket soon. I’m not, just to set the record straight.

To be honest, I don’t really have a bucket list, but I have wanted to take a multi-day bicycle trip for a long time. Indeed, I can recall wanting to do it from childhood when I read a Boy’s Life article (I wasn’t a scout, but I had a subscription to their magazine) about a teenager who rode a bicycle from coast-to-coast. Or, perhaps I made up the story, as I’ve never been able to track it down despite Google Book having a century of Boy’s Life in its database.

While few people knew of my biking wanderlust, my wife has heard me mention it for years. But it would be in passing and she’d respond, “yes, Rex, that sounds great” in the way a parent responds to a five-year-old saying he wants to grow up to be a fireman. She knew, however, that I’d probably do it one day, as, well, “that’s so Rex.” I’ve never quite figured out what being “so Rex” means, but I’ve never quite figured out how a TV works, either.

About two years ago, when I started riding my bike more, and then, more recently, when I started commuting to work by bike, my thoughts returned to bicycle travel, or “bicycle touring,” as the bicycle-industrial-complex calls it. After about a year into riding the slow, non-taxing, in-town and fun routes I enjoy, I realized that all of the parts of my body necessary to endure a long trip were likely fit enough to handle several hours of riding per day. That’s when I decided to make plans, just in case a travel window presented itself. I started collecting the gear and doing the research, just in case the opportunity presented itself.

The “why?” question wasn’t limited to being from people I met along the way, however. Friends in Nashville, family, anyone who hears about the trip, find it a good first question to ask.

The short answer is likely curiosity. (1) Curiosity about my ability to endure a bike trip that would require me to ride around 75 miles a day on a bike loaded with an additional 30 lbs. more gear than I have while commuting. (2) Curiosity about the experience of a pace of travel completely different from what any of us typically experience–a slow pace more in sync with the pace of travel before the introduction of the steam engine. (3) Curiosity about how I’d feel towards the bike if I extended the hour and a half I spend on one on my lucky days, into several hours. What would I see? Who would I meet? How would I feel?

When I first started thinking about the trip over a year ago, I was focused on it being a ride down the Natchez Trace Parkway, which was related to my desire also to link such a long ride to gaining an understanding of travel along a route and at a pace tied to an event in history–the bicentennial of the War of 1812, specifically the Battle of New Orleans (fought in January, 1815). Originally, my intention was to start at the northern terminus of the parkway (about ten mile from where I live) and to trek down the parkway over the course of two weeks. (A bit faster than Volunteers marching to New Orleans, but slower than a direct flight on Southwest.)

For logistical and planning reasons I’ll touch on at a later point, I ended up shifting the route from the Natchez Trace Parkway to the one I rode, but was still able to tie it into something history-related as 2/3rds of it was along a commemorative route tracing one spur of the Underground Railroad–a heritage route designed by the Adventure Bicycling Association, who have a similar route tied to the Lewis & Clark expedition.

Another reason “why” is because I’m a member of a tribe of people who think bicycles are an amazing form of transportation that bring us great, yet often inexplicable joy.

To this tribe, the chance to spend even more time on a bike seems only natural. And if you can ride for days and days on a bike, what could be better?

Indeed, bicycle touring is fairly common in many places around the world and is gaining popularity all over the U.S. (I’ve blogged about what is perhaps the best known group ride in the U.S., RAGBRAI in Iowa.). Heck, there’s even a website called “Crazy Guy on a Bike” that serves as a forum for crazy guys who do long-distance bike treks. (While easily falling into the category of “crazy guy on a bike,” I personally haven’t participated in that forum, but did find it helpful in planning my trip.)

In addition to the solo, self-supported type of ride I did, there are also many other ways to travel by bike, including extremely upscale bicycle trip outfitters like Backroads who charge significant fees to handle the logistics of tours through some of the most beautiful places in the world. (I can see some of their trips in my future.)

I’ve just realized I haven’t answered, “why?” So, here goe.

During the past couple of years, the way I view bicycling has undergone a radical change. Or, perhaps, it’s better to say that I’ve re-captured a point of view I once had about my relationship with a bicycle, before spandex somehow got associated with bikes.

I rode a bicycle a lot from the age of 8-14. The rolling hills of the town I grew up in and the distance from where I lived to the places I wanted to be all combined to make riding a means of transportation that, with one fixed gear, trained my legs and butt to ignore any pain related to hours a day on a bike. From that time, I’ve always associated a bicycle with fun and freedom. Bicycling has never been about fitness, or competition (except briefly), or even recreation.

In short, bicycling is one of the most fun things I do. I don’t view it as a chore or challenge or something that I have to do. It’s all about that thing I thought of as a child as being my favorite toy and how much fun it is to fly down a long hill.

But, I know, that still doesn’t explain why I’d want to ride a bike 400+ miles in six days.

So I’ll use the only other answer I can think of: Because it is there.

Coming next: Some discoveries along the way, including my surprise that it’s not all downhill from Tennessee to the Gulf of Mexico.