By Stan Purdum
“Adventure,” said the prolific writer, Louis L’Amour, “is nothing but a romantic name for trouble.”
Having spent his young manhood years knocking about the oceans on tramp steamers, hobo-ing the West on freight trains, working as a circus roustabout in one place and as a skinner of dead cattle in another, and once making a desperate flight out of the Mohave Desert on foot, L’Amour was flush with experiences to back up his remark.
Of the forced march out of the Mohave, he wrote, “It is better to sit in comfort with a cold drink at hand and read the tale than to actually walk out of the Mohave Desert as I did.”
At times, bicycle tourists might argue the point.
What rider among us would say that it is better to read about taking a bicycle journey than to actually take one? Speaking as one who has both toured and written about it, I am not quick to second L’Amour’s opinion about adventure … except now and then.
For example, a some years ago I got caught on my bike out in the barren panhandle of Texas by a nasty storm featuring lightning, driving rain, high winds and hail. Another time, I pedaled, walked and finally nearly crawled, pushing my bike up an 11,500-foot pass in Colorado while unknowingly suffering from dehydration. Take it from me, it is better for you to read about these “adventures” than to go through them first-hand.
Good Days on the Bike Far Outweigh the Bad
Everybody who rides extended tours has a bad day now and then, most of them the result of weather problems. But it is almost axiomatic that the good days, which generally are the majority, more than compensate for occasional bad ones on a tour. In fact, on both of my cross-nation tours, the days bearing trouble were almost always singular events. Only rarely did two problem days come in a row, and when they did, they were followed by a string of days so excellent they made me glad to be on my bike on the open road.
All of this is by way of explaining why four weather-problem days in a row, coupled with some bike-unfriendly routes, made my tour along the Ohio River an “adventure” to remember.
My idea was to follow the mighty Ohio where it borders the state of Ohio — essentially from Cincinnati to East Liverpool — switching from shore to shore, depending on which offered the best bike path in each area. I also knew that high temperatures could be a terror on the tarmac, so I purposely scheduled my trip for the first week of June rather than in August.
But Bad Days Can Include: Pavement-Melting Heat…
The surprise was that the first three days of the trip, during which I rode from the Cincinnati area to Gallipolis, Ohio, proved to be unseasonably hot for that week in southern Ohio. As the afternoon temperatures nudged 100 degrees, I fried on the road and became so hot that I was repeatedly in distress. I managed to get through the days by stopping frequently in the shade to let my internal temperature return to somewhere near normal, and then advancing a few more miles before repeating the process.
At least the route was good — for the first day and a half. I left from Covington, Kentucky (across the river from Cincinnati) on Kentucky Route 8, a quiet, low-traffic road affording occasional views of the river. At Augusta, Kentucky, I took a ferry to the Ohio side and followed U.S. 52 to Portsmouth, camping en route in Aberdeen in a RV park right on the river.
Route problems began at Portsmouth and continued to Chesapeake, at the very bottom of Ohio. Between those two communities, there simply is no good choice for cyclists. On the Ohio side, almost the entire way of 52 is high-speed, high-traffic four-lane, with much of it being freeway, on which bicycles are not allowed.
The balance is expressway, which does not prohibit bikes. But who enjoys riding with semis whizzing by alongside?
The Kentucky option is U.S. 23, all of it a four-lane expressway, a heavily traveled, high-speed thoroughfare as well. There are no other choices, even if one is prepared to abandon the river. That’s because mountains on both shores rule out any parallel paths.
Being Trapped Between a Rumble Strip and 18-Wheelers…
So in the end, I crossed the river on the West Portsmouth bridge and rode 23, figuring it at least would have a paved shoulder. It did, about three-feet wide, but about 30 inches of it was taken up by a continuous rumble strip, forcing me to ride right on the white line and hope the 18-wheelers would give me a little room. I wasn’t much fun, and I seldom saw the river in any case.
I spent that night in a motel at Greenup, Kentucky, as camping choices were nil. The next morning, I recrossed into Ohio from Ashland and pedaled more expressway to Chesapeake. Ohio, at least, hadn’t messed up the safety lane with a rumble strip.
Ohio Route 7 begins in Chesapeake and follows the river northward, and frankly, after the misery of the expressway riding, 7 proved to be a delight, at least as far as Gallipolis. It’s a two-laner with a rural feel and carries only moderate traffic. At times, I had the highway to myself. Only the intense heat was a spoiler.
Arriving finally in Gallipolis, I was so heat-distressed that I didn’t even look for a place to camp, but went directly to a motel.
The Searing Heat Being Replaced with Driving Rain
The heat broke during the night, driven off by a downpour that continued through the following day, hence prolonging the “adventurous” aspect of my journey. I set out anyway, but by the time I reached Pomeroy, Ohio, I was thoroughly drenched. Worse, however, as I looked at the map, I saw that Route 7 was about to become four-lane expressway again for a lot a miles, and the truck traffic was already building. With the rain showing no sign of letting up, I decided to end my trip in Pomeroy. A quick phone call home was all it took to arrange a pick-up.
The next day, I sat in my comfortable, dry, air-conditioned home, cold drink at hand, writing about my journey. The misery parts of it were already fading from my memory, but I recalled clearly the interesting things I saw, the little river towns I rolled through, the ferry ride across the big river, the people I talked too, the good places I found to eat, the hum of my bike tires on the blacktop, and the sense of accomplishment I felt each day to have made my mileage goals despite the weather problems.
They were indeed days of adventure.
I was already thinking about where my next tour should be.
Readers: We invite you to share your own “bad day(s) on the bike” stories in the Comments below the Newsletter version of this article. Heaven knows we all have some stories!
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.