Greetings from Columbia, South Carolina, the official end destination of our 5,312-mile, 94-day bike ride across the USA! The WOWFWL ride has officially come to an end, after biking coast-to-coast, and then some. We reached the Atlantic on our 89th day just south of St. Augustine, dipped our front tires in the water, then turned north toward Columbia.
There are mixed feelings among team members about the end of the ride, but we are unanimously grateful and feeling very lucky to have had the opportunity to bike across the country.
From where we left off in our last blog, we had just written about our 20 days biking through Texas, a state significantly lacking in public lands, with less than 1.5 percent of its land being federal public land. As we traveled further east, public lands continued to be hard to come by. But when we did come across them, they were a welcome respite from the noise of the road and sprawling development, especially on the Gulf Coast.
The day we entered our tenth state of the trip, Florida, we biked along Santa Rosa Island within the Gulf Islands National Seashore, near Pensacola. It was a sanctuary of sea and sand. Up until the island, we had barely caught a glimpse of the ocean between all the houses and high rise hotels, despite the fact that we had been riding along the Gulf all day. Our ride through the Gulf Islands National Seashore was a refreshing break from the endless development and noise of the road.
The Gulf Islands National Seashore, established in 1971, protects 135,000 acres and 160 miles of seashore along the coast of Mississippi and Florida. The area is administered by the National Park Service and is one of 10 national seashores in the country. Included in the park are parts of 7 offshore barrier islands, maritime forests, historic forts, bayous and marine habitat. The Gulf Islands Wilderness, designated in 1978, provides further protection for 2 islands, Petit Bois and Horn Island in Mississippi. Due to recent damage from Hurricane Irma, the road along the Santa Rosa Island was closed up until the week before we arrived at the seashore. We were fortunate that the road had reopened before we arrived. The sparkling white quartz sand beaches were not something we would’ve wanted to miss.
Offshore barrier islands are areas of sand formed by waves and the tides, and occur parallel to the mainland coast, usually in chains. They protect the coastlines and mitigate ocean swells and storms that can batter the mainland. The areas of water on the mainland side of the barrier island have a unique ecological environment with rich habitat for a large variety of flora and fauna. In addition, barrier islands allow wetlands, such as lagoons, estuaries (where saltwater and freshwater meet), and marshes, to flourish.
Without barrier islands, these wetlands could not exist because they would be destroyed by waves, tides and storms. These islands also allow for protection of mainland homes and personal property from these same storms. Unfortunately these islands are seriously threatened by rising ocean levels and more frequent and severe hurricanes.
Another public land we looked forward to was the Congaree National Park, just 15 miles southeast of Columbia, South Carolina. Unfortunately, because of a few bicycle breakdowns and a crunch for time, we decided to skip going to this park. Even though we didn’t visit, we were intrigued by this 26,276-acre park and its location. The park sits on the Congaree River floodplain, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Originally, the Congaree Indians subsisted by hunting the floodplain and fishing the rivers, until they were killed off by the smallpox epidemic brought by the European settlers in the 1700s. After many tries, settlers realized the floodplain was not suitable for farming and livestock, so it was sold to the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company in 1905. This too was not very successful as most of the Cypress trees they wanted to harvest were inaccessible because of water, but they pressed on because of high timber prices. Unhappy locals saw this floodplain as an important ecosystem and resource and started a campaign to preserve the Congaree floodplain. As a result, Congress established Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976. In 2003, Congress changed the park’s name and designation and established Congaree National Park, now a popular place for canoeing, kayaking, hiking, camping and more. This park is yet another example of the power of local people and grassroots organizations to preserve and create public lands. It is also exciting and unique that this park is so close to a large city, making this vast intact ecosystem much more accessible to all people. We’ll have to come back and visit on our next trip!
Being that this is our last blog post, we had each team member answer some questions about how they’re feeling now and their thoughts on the ride.
1. What hurts the most?
Katie: It’s a toss up between lower neck pain and sore hands.
Hannah: My heart. I am very homesick for MN. My knees are a close second.
Alex: Out of the many options of hurting things (back, knees, wrists, hands, butt) the thing that has perpetually pained me the most is my left elbow.
Ariana: My butt. I have some really painful saddle sores that have calloused and opened up many times. It’s impossible to sit on a hard surface for more than 5 minutes because it’s so bruised down there. Oof!
Peter: My knees, especially when we were climbing mountains and hills day after day. I could not bend my knees when walking.
2. Favorite public land of the trip?
Katie: Eldorado National Forest was my favorite because of its beautiful views of forests and high alpine lakes!
Hannah: Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The terrain is awesome, the biking was thrilling, the towns are charming, and the scenery is captivating. I also loved Great Basin National Park, a very small, charming Park outside Baker, Nevada.
Alex: Although every land we went through was amazing by its own rights, this question asks for our favorite, but that’s really really hard. One of my favorite days was the day spent riding through Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This is an area on your way towards Bears Ears and so it’s a part of the region of Utah that is extremely desolate with no services for 70 miles or more in either direction. The ride through Glen Canyon was quiet and breathtaking; we rode up the base of the canyon with the walls towering over us on either side. At the end of the canyon we climbed and caught our first glimpses of Lake Powell. That night we camped on the banks at Hite Recreation Area, and although many places where we camped boasted the best night sky, this place would get my vote.
Ariana: Big Bend Ranch State Park and National Park in southwestern Texas. The road in the state park along the Rio Grande, highway 170 or “river road,” was spectacular and I loved every moment of the gnarly hills that road presented us with. Also, the hot springs in the national park, which are on the bank of the Rio Grande, were absolutely amazing.
Peter: Gila National Forest in New Mexico. I enjoyed the stark contrast of desert to lush forest with big pines. The Gila seemed isolated and vast with quiet winding roads that are perfect for biking.
3. What surprised you?
Katie: I was really surprised (and disappointed) by how difficult it was to recycle on this trip. Many of the places we came by did not have recycling systems or containers, and even more disappointing, I learned that most of the states we travelled through don’t have the infrastructure to recycle glass at all. Instead, some of them collect glass to crush it and put it on their landfills.
Hannah: Texas surprised me. There were such vastly different, interesting terrains from day to day; such fun, quirky towns; the drivers were the friendliest of all the states we’d been through at that point; the climbing we did in Big Bend State Park in southwest Texas and in Hill Country west of Austin was some of the hardest climbing of the whole trip, in my opinion (but also the most fun!). I was also surprised to find that I missed climbing mountains when we reached the flats of the east.
Alex: Google maps was often a surprise, and not a pleasant one. Google is supposed to be “taking over the world” and yet it guided us to roads that were blockaded or had loose sand, places where we simply couldn’t bike. On the bright side, I also had thought that when we got to the spiderweb of roads that make up the Eastern United States we’d be on super congested roads all the time. The truth was, though, that many of these roads were just as quiet as lone roads through desolate western regions, and when we did run into motorists in the East they were much more accommodating on the roadway: waiting until it was safe to pass, slowing down and moving over, giving us a lot of space, as they passed.
Ariana: I was surprised at how curious, generous and kind to us random people were along the way. Despite some rude drivers, we had positive experiences while on the road. Many people came up to us on a daily basis to ask where we were going, how long we had been riding for, if we needed anything, etc. Although we answered many of the same questions over and over, it was reassuring to know that we had the support and well wishes of locals who approached us. There were many times when “trail angels” repeatedly gave us food, paid for our meal, or took us in for the night, and we are eternally grateful for all of them.
Peter: Fair weather and kind people.
This bike trip seemed to be a natural progression for the five of us. We all started out riding bikes around the neighbourhood or with our family in our childhood, grew up learning to love to challenge ourselves outdoors, and always wanted to go further. Riding bikes across the country was a physically and mentally exhausting feat, especially with the additional challenge of having to take care of our bicycles. These simple, human-powered mechanical devices are not flawless. We had a number of mechanical and gear-related issues when it came to our trusty steeds, ranging from faulty tires, worn-out chains, a broken derailleur, one broken spoke, and countless flat tires. As a team, we all learned more about bike repairs, bikes in general, and how to work together to fix them.
One of our teammates, Ariana, only got one flat on the entire trip, while the rest of us had flats in the double digits. We attribute her lack of flats to her type of tire, the Panaracer Tourguard Plus. All of the other team members were riding on a variety of tires: gator skins, armadillos, and other less desirable tires. 5,000 miles are a lot for a set of tires, especially ones that are being toured on, so it was necessary to replace our tires when they started to get worn and thin. If a team member kept getting flat after flat, their tires were probably worn out enough that even little things could puncture the tube.
Tip: if you don’t have any tire boots for repairing rips in a tire, you can use a folded dollar bill instead!
Our whereabouts in the country also made a huge difference on the number of flats we would have. Once we were east of Austin, Texas, the number of flats collectively decreased, since we had left goathead-country!
During our trip, a couple of people suggested that we put sealant in our tubes so that when we get a flat we do not have to patch it, but rather just pump it up again and the sealant clogs the puncture. We were skeptical of how well it would work, but Peter decided to give it a try. As a result, he never had to patch a tube in the last 2,000 miles. The sealant prevented Peter from 4 or 5 flats! We would recommend sealant to people touring or just riding for fun.
Our first major breakdown happened in west Texas, when Hannah snapped a rear spoke. No one on the team had replaced a spoke before, so it was a learning experience for everyone. Thankfully, a kind person had given us spare spokes and spoke nipples way back in San Francisco. We would definitely recommend carrying extra spokes on any long distance bike ride. It ended up being a straightforward fix. After only 45 minutes, we were back on the road.
Our next major breakdown happened in Louisiana, and unfortunately was a little more debilitating. Peter’s bike had been making some strange noises all day, and then suddenly snapped his rear derailleur clean in half some time before lunch. To fix this one, we ended up having to change our route and travel 20 more miles for the day to stay with a Warm Showers host in Opelousas, Louisiana who said he could help us. To get Peter and his bike there, we took some links off of Peter’s chain and turned his bike into a “single-speed,” meaning he could no longer change gears. It worked, but it slowed Peter down because we had to use a pretty low gear (for low resistance) to keep the chain in line. Our host that night offered Peter a derailleur from a 90s road bike. With it on the bike, he was able to shift through six of his nine gears in the back. It would do. At this point, Peter had also lost his front derailleur and two front chainrings, so he finished off the trip on a six speed! This was an exciting fix because it showed that bikes are just mechanical devices that do not necessarily need precision and perfectly functioning parts to work [well]. However, they do need a certain amount of care and creativity to keep them pedaling sometimes.
While keeping a bike pedaling is easy, keeping a bike in tip-top shape takes a lot more work. On our ride, we did not do much preventative maintenance. Looking back, we realized it would have been best to replace everyone’s chain about half way through the trip. Replacing the chain reduces the wear on the front chainrings and the cassette. We were told by a bike shop in Gainesville, Florida that if we wanted to replace our chains at that point, we would also have to replace the cassettes and chainrings because the teeth were so worn on them that they wouldn’t fit an entirely new chain. However, it seems that bike shops may over exaggerate the severity of an issue; none of us took their advice to get new chains and cassettes, and finished the trip off with our original gears and chain.
One of the beauties of our tour is that for the most part we could fix just about anything when something broke, as best as we could. But sometimes we did need to rely on the kindness of strangers to get us pedaling again.
On our second-to-last day, Alex had one of these situations that required more resources than we had. It started off with Alex’s tire getting a blowout resulting in a hole in the sidewall that rendered it useless. Thankfully, Hannah had been carrying an old tire that still had some life in it, so Alex used this tire as a replacement. But more disaster was just around the corner. Two miles after the blowout, as Alex was powering up a hill, her thighs produced so much power that her chain was ripped apart and caused a subtle shift in the amount of energy in the universe. We pulled over and decided to try Katie’s old chain on Alex’s bike, but the chain was not compatible because Katie has a 9 speed cassette and Alex has an 11 speed. Chains are designed to fit a specific number of gears. After our first failed attempt, we were strategizing our next fix when a truck with some bikes in the back pulled over. He asked if we needed help, so we explained our situation and he instantly offered to drive Alex and her bike to the shop. This breakdown was a good reminder that you can never carry too many spare parts, but also that miracles can happen right when you need them.
All us had a myriad of other minor issues, but overall, our bikes worked well. Ariana had brake issues from her handlebar bag pressing on her brake cable housing. Hannah was constantly adjusting her derailleurs so they would shift perfectly. After the trip, all of our bikes will require some serious maintenance work, but the important thing is that they we learned so much about bikes and they helped us travel 5,312 miles!
The final flat tally for the entire ride was as follows:
On the day before we reached the Atlantic coast, President Trump announced his plans to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments by 85 and 50 percent respectively, both of which we biked through earlier on our trip. These actions are a reversal of protections put in place by Democratic predecessors Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and comes as the Trump administration pushes for fewer restrictions and more development on public lands.
As was written in a New York Times article, “Mr. Trump’s decision to reduce Bears Ears is viewed as a victory for Republican lawmakers, fossil fuel companies and others who argue that monument designations are federal land grabs that limit revenue and stifle local control. And it is considered a defeat for many environmentalists and recreation groups and for the five Indian nations who have fought for generations to protect the Bears Ears region.”
We are deeply disheartened to hear this news. Trump’s actions are a ruthless attack on US public lands and the natural environment, an insult to Native Americans (whom he never met with during discussions regarding the Monuments), and a clear message to the majority of Americans who want to see public lands preserved that he cares more about the rights of private, special interest groups than he does about the rights of US citizens. Despite Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke’s statements that mining and drilling played no part in President Trump’s announcement, it has been revealed that in fact a “uranium company launched a concerted lobbying campaign” to shrink Bears Ears. This company and more sent Zinke letters explaining that shrinking the Monument would give them easier access to the area’s uranium deposits. On July 17th, 2017, two of Zinke’s top advisors met with an energy company’s Vice President and lobbyists to discuss the Monument.
Shrinking Monuments is not inherently bad or unconstitutional, or unprecedented for that matter, but in this case, the administration so very clearly did not listen to the resounding voices of thousands of Americans and Native Americans demanding that these areas remain protected. The Trump administration is continually disregarding the voices of the Navajo, Zuni, Ute, and Hopi tribes, who had worked so diligently and for so long to make sure the Bears Ears Monument designation was done right. Instead, the Trump administration listened to the few lobbyists and companies and Utahn politicians, who, motivated by the financial benefits of opening up the land to mining and drilling, pressed for just that. And Zinke, in meeting with groups on his two day review of the monument took only an hour and a half to speak with two promonument groups: The Intertribal Coalition and Friends of Cedar Mesa. He did not hold any public comment period and met quite selectively with groups and individuals who wanted the monument shrunk.
The Bears Ears National Monument, under the proposal set forth by the Trump administration, will be split into two smaller Monuments. In doing this, the administration plans to rename the Monument to Shash Jaa, “Bears Ears” in Navajo. Before the original designation of the Monument by Obama, however, the tribes who worked together on its creation chose to give the Monument an English name for the sake of unity. In renaming the Monument, the current administration is again disregarding the work of these tribes. What’s more, “uranium mining is particularly sensitive among members of the Navajo Nation… More than 500 uranium mines have been left near or on their lands, and most of these designated Superfund sites have not been cleaned up. Contamination still affects drinking-water wells, springs and storage tanks.” When we rode through the Navajo Nation, we stayed with a Navajo family who told us about their family’s personal experience with uranium mining, and the endless health and environmental problems caused in their community by the abandoned uranium mines on their reservation. We cannot stand to let this country continue to disenfranchise and disregard Native Americans and basic humans rights over those of special interests.
We also want to stress that this is not a partisan issue on a national level. 64% of republicans, 74% of independents, and 85% of democrats are against the idea of selling off public lands according to research done by Colorado College State of the Rockies. No matter what side of the political aisle one may lie, the majority of Americans agree that these lands kept open and preserved for the benefit of all Americans is far better than the exploitation of these lands for the good of the few private interest groups.
It is worth noting, however, that although these monuments by far and away have National support, local Utahns are actually split on the issue of the Monuments size, according to an article by a Utah Policy website based on a survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates. 49% of Utahns support the decrease of Bears Ears while 46% oppose it. Utahns more strongly support Grand Staircase, however with 50% of Utahns opposing the shrinkage and 44% in favor. These stats do not paint the full picture. Another article by the Salt Lake City Tribune evaluating the data from the same survey describes the demographic breakdowns embedded in these numbers. According to the article, “Women voters were evenly split on the question, while men were far more likely to say Bears Ears is too big, as were people over age 45, those whose politics leaned to the right and active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
We are very grateful to those who are prepared to take up legal action against the reductions of these Monuments, including the Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, and the native groups speaking out against and fighting these injustices in the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. You can read the Coalition’s statements regarding the President’s actions here.
We worry that these shrinkages might seem unconcerning to the average American. We know or at least hope that if you’ve been following along with us and made it this far, you have an understanding of why Bears Ears and Grand Staircase are so incredibly extraordinary and deserving of National Monument designation and continued protection. But perhaps someone you know still doesn’t have a full understanding of just what is happening at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, and why this is important. Maybe these lands seem insignificant, or it’s hard to find significance without a personal tie to these particular places. But for many Americans, there is public land out there that we each consider sacred and to be our individual place of solace. These decisions made by the current administration, should they be upheld in the courts, will have sweeping implications for all of our nation’s public lands. It will set a precedent that we are a nation that cares more about development than conservation, and could potentially open up the floodgates for public land degradation and exploitation. It’s easy to think that this decision won’t affect you, but we believe Trump’s proclamation deeply disrupts the fabric of this country. This is something we’ve heard over and over again throughout our trip, that these lands represent our heritage and cultivate our collective well being.
We knew biking across the country wouldn’t be enough to simply #ProtectBearsEars and #SaveGrandStaircase, but we hope our ride will show Americans and all those who followed along the lengths we will go to speak up for what we believe in and care about. We hope this ride will inspire people to stay engaged, stay educated, and go to any length to get involved themselves. After three months of pedaling, our hardest work has only just begun, as we continue to stand up and speak out for public lands, and we sincerely hope you will join us to speak loudly for these quiet places.