The world is full of adventure. Perhaps you have a chronic illness, like me, and your days of adventuring might be on pause at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find another to follow along with and enjoy!
This Spring/Summer I followed a fun and unique adventure across America and I thought I would share my favorite points with y’all.
Julian Redman, who went to the same high school as me, rode his custom-made Penny Farthing bike from San Francisco to Boston. His plan was to follow the path of Thomas Stevens, the first person to ride a bike across America, in 1884. Julian’s bike is a replica of Stevens’ bike.
Now, to clarify, I won’t be including every word he wrote and picture he took, but you can certainly check out his website: https://www.offofyourrocker.com/in-for-a-penny-farthing for more!
Here is an excerpt of Julian describing his plan (for the rest of this blog, I will use italics anytime they are Julian’s words):
Penny-farthing [pen-ee-fahr-thing]: noun, British
1. The precursor to the modern day bicycle, celebrated today primarily for its high front wheel and usefulness in b-roll footage for old timey films synced to Scott Joplin piano pieces. Historically remembered as a terrifying way to see new and up-close bits of road due to its propensity for sending the rider head first over the handlebars and for being considered a little sketchy in an era that thought it was totally cool to …have cocaine in Coca-Cola and lead in silverware. See also: boneshaker (colloquial); really, really stupid (Julian’s mother, 2017).
Starting next month, using his journal as my map, I’ll be chasing the ghost of Thomas Stevens across America, riding my own penny-farthing through a country where prosperous, gold mining hubs have been replaced by derelict ghost towns, where bumpy, country roads have been paved over by highways, and where the fabric of who we are as a country has been largely lost to the haze of history. From San Francisco to Boston, I’ll attempt to step into the past to compare what Steven’s saw and wrote about with my own experiences and celebrate the legacy left by a man who grew much better facial hair than I can ever hope to.
Finally, a parting quote by Mark Twain on the penny-farthing: “Get a bicycle. You won’t regret it – if you live.”
Now, it is worth pointing out that his bike has no gears, no lights, and no brakes. What could go wrong? I tend to agree with his mama.
But, How Did He Pack?
It’s a fair question. First it must be mentioned what Stevens packed back in 1884. He wore a basic white long sleeve shirt, white trousers, and knee-high gaiters. He wore white to help with sun protection. He had a rain jacket strapped to his bike to double as a tent if he couldn’t find a lovely brothel, I mean.. accommodation for the night. Safety first when riding cross country so he wore a pith helmet to protect his head. Stevens also had a revolver in his pack, as well as an extra shirt and spare socks.
Julian also mentioned this fun fact though regarding some differences in ability to restock supplies along the way:
Along the route Stevens followed in 1884, more towns could be found along the way than today, as many of the small railroad towns dried up and disappeared after the railroad was diverted in the early 1900’s. As such, Stevens was able to restock his essential supplies daily and sleep in hotels or people’s homes almost nightly, and the longest stretch of road without civilization that he had to encounter was a 40 mile segment in Nevada – an area he dubbed The 40 Mile Wilderness.
The 40 mile wilderness still exists today, but the longest distance I’ll have to travel without any towns, people, or services for the same route today is 100 miles. Twice.
Julian wore the following for his journey:
Not one to buck tradition, I am also wearing a pith helmet, but the similarities stop there. To fight against the morning sun and to create a beautiful canvas for dead bugs, I’ll be wearing sunglasses. A moisture wicking shirt as my base layer will help to keep me cool during the hot, muggy days of the summer, and also provides UV protection from the sun. A Kühl rain jacket serves as an outer layer in cooler locales and helps keep me dry. Padded bike gloves will keep my hands from experiencing the massive shocks that the bike will be subjected to and finally, padded bike shorts will help to alleviate saddle sores and keep my bottom from being pulverized hamburger meat.
Julian also took a camera bag with camera, lenses, batteries, and his laptop. He continued to keep up with his job and work along the way in between his ride.
Back to the Journey
He started by dipping the tires of the Penny Farthing in the Pacific ocean, with the hopes and intention of dipping the tires in the Atlantic once he reached the other side of the country.
In Newcastle, California he was flagged down by an elderly gentleman who owned the oldest building in town. He opened it up just for Julian to give a tour and a free beer and meal.
May 24th – Hello Auburn. I hate every single one of your hills.
May 25th- How many Ibuprofen do you need to take before you overdose? Asking for a friend.
May 25th- Overlooking Donner Lake, outside of Truckee
6,000 feet of elevation gain, snowed out routes, and tough switchbacks, but worth it for views like these!
May 27th- I’ve made it through treacherous downhill switchbacks on the Sierra Nevadas. I’ve made it through perilous Bay Area traffic. I haven’t crashed until today. What force of nature finally caused the first header? A freaking goose. This trip is stupid.
May 29th- Outside Beowawe, Nevada: Today’s highlighted stop: Maiden’s Grave Cemetery, outside of Beowawe. In the 1860’s, a woman named Lucinda Duncan was buried here after falling ill on a wagon train to California. She was believed to be a little girl in Stevens’ time, but it turns out she was a 70 year old grandmother. At any rate, men who discovered her grave in the 1870’s thought it was “romantic”, and built a fence around the grave to protect it from coyotes. With time, it became an intrinsic part of the California Trail and a popular place to bury the remains of lost friends and family along the way. It’s mostly forgotten about these days and a bit tough to get to, but it’s one of the few times I can say so far that I stood exactly where Stevens did and watched his words come to life.
May 30th- Two states officially down now! Original route I wanted to take was flooded and washed out, so I got to play in the Bonneville Salt Flats today instead. Used today as an international speedway and test track, but back around Stevens time, it was known as “one of the most inhospitable places on Earth” due to the complete lack of vegetation and drinkable water, but with an abundance of thick mud that the wagons would just sink into. In fact, it was the main reason the Donner Party was late to the Sierra Nevadas in 1846 – the party lost almost all of their oxen, supplies, and wagons thanks to the flats – leaving them late and unprepared for the mountains to come. Luckily, I’m traveling the other direction.
June 2nd included a little pep talk from John Wayne himself!
June 2nd- Rock Springs, Wyoming: Celebratory shot of whiskey- I’ve officially ridden 1000 miles now!
June 4th- Oh thank God, it’s starting to flatten out. I was starting to come up with creative suicide techniques. Only a day or so from the Nebraska border!
June 6th- Perfect sunset on a great day. Only went 20 miles, and got to spend a day alone by a lake with some coronas and a steak. Tough to beat that! I’ll be taking Nebraska slower than I’ve been going, in order to relax a bit more and to allow my knees, feet, and back some time to recuperate; the fast pace through the mountains wore them down quite a bit. Thanks everyone for your support – we’re almost halfway there now!
By the way, I think this here photo is my favorite of the trip!
June 7th- I’m beginning to suspect Nebraska is a trap. After weeks of fighting through mountains, I was very much looking forward to the promised land of flat, smooth highway as far as the eye could see. I should have been more specific with my wishes. Nebraska, I’m fine with you being boring and full of nothing but grass and corn. I can handle that. But constant headwinds and crazy storms is not really the trade-off I was shooting for here!
June 12th- Frequently Asked Questions that Julian gets on the road, edition 1: how do you ride that thing day in and day out like that? What is it that’s motivating you?
Answer? Easy. This, 100%:
June 13th- Avoca, Iowa: Oh thank goodness, my legs were just telling me how much they missed hills! 🙄Thanks for the thoughtful welcoming gift, Iowa!
June 14th- Adair, Iowa
June 17th- Princeton, Illinois- Big Midwest storm rolling in.
June 27th- Niagara Falls, New York
July 3rd- It’s a very bitter-sweet feeling, but tomorrow will lead me to Revere Beach in Boston and mark the final day on the penny-farthing adventure across America. Over the past 43 days, I’ve seen the gauntlet of what America has to offer. From breathtaking vistas to incredible people, this stupid trip has been an experience I’ll only forget when Alzheimer’s kicks in and leaves me simply with a half-faded memory of a goose attack in Reno.
However, this stupid trip is not my stupid trip. It’s ours. Every one of you who gave me support, offered me food, shelter, words of encouragement, water, beer, and so much more along the way have impacted me and this adventure in profound and real ways and without that, it wouldn’t have been the amazing experience it was.
July 4th- Revere Beach- Game. Set. Match. 44 days and 3,333 miles later, the penny-farthing has been dipped in both oceans. Thanks for following along everyone.
My Pressing Questions.. Answered by Julian
1. What did you miss the most during your 44-day expedition?
I missed quite a few obvious things like friends, family, and comfortable seating arrangements, but the most surprising thing I missed was spontaneity. You wouldn’t think it, but life on the bike was actually often more routine and mundane than a typical day at home. Every day you spend coaxing yourself out of a bed that is too comfortable to leave at an hour that nobody has any business being awake during to pedal for 8-10 hours before you get off. Wash, rinse, repeat. There’s certainly a lot of newness in there too – the scenery is different from day to day (unless you’re in Nebraska) and there’s always something new to experience at each stop – but the large majority of the trip is just a repetitive routine of trying to make yourself pedal for just a bit longer.
2. Were there ever any moments that you wished you had a revolver in your backpack?
Ha! Yes, but only to use on myself during some of the more challenging moments.
3. Did any strangers offer you their home as an accommodation?
Absolutely. I stayed with people all over the country that I had never met before, from big cities like Chicago and Des Moines to tiny towns like Little Falls, NY and Truckee, CA. The generosity showed to me on this trip was really a refreshing wake-up call to how the vast majority of people in the world are good, kind people who would take the clothes off of their own backs to help a stranger. These same people also fed me, gave me tours of the area, fixed my bike, held important mail for me, and n some cases, provided much needed medical assistance for me.
4. Did you buy any teeny tiny souvenirs on your trip?
When I got to Cooperstown, New York, I came across a bar/beverage exchange that had a guy riding a penny-farthing as their logo so I, naturally, had to buy a bottle opener from them with their logo on it.
5. Before you left, which part were you dreading the most? Did it end up being the worst?
When I was planning the trip, I figured the Rockies would be the toughest part to get through. The elevation gain looked intimidating from all of the road profiles I read and knew that it’d be at least a few days before I got through it all. And you know what? It actually wasn’t that bad. There was indeed a lot of elevation gain, but the grade was gradual and the weather was cool, meaning I could actually ride a good portion of it without completely exhausting myself. The worst part of the trip, riding wise, came in the Sierra Nevadas where the grades were steep, the roads had no shoulders, and the snow covered parts of the path.
6. Was anyone mean to you, I mean besides the goose?
Nope. The people I met were the absolute best part of this experience. I had literally hundreds of people stop their cars on the road just to talk to me, ask me questions, give me food/water/beer, and encouragement along the way. I didn’t have a single negative experience with anyone I met.
7. Do you have a love/hate relationship with your Penny Farthing now?
Ooooh, absolutely. I’ll never be able to get rid of the thing- we’ve been through an awful lot together and it’s still fun to ride over short distances. But make no mistake: that adventure was physically, mentally, and emotionally the toughest thing I’ve ever been through and you don’t make it through something like that without some lingering feelings of resentment.
8. Were the bottles on your bike ever filled with whiskey or beer, instead of water?
Nope, water is he nectar of the Gods out there on a trip like this and I needed as much as I could get. That said, I did have 3 mini bottles of Jameson whiskey that I saved and cracked open on special occasions – one when I hit the 1,000 mile mark, one at the halfway point, and one once I hit Boston.
9. Be honest, did you ever camp in a Walmart parking lot?
I camped in quite a few bizarre places, but never the Walmart parking lot. Sadly, the pavement parking lot makes it hard to drive in tent stakes. But I did manage to camp underneath railroad trestles, on the side of a mountain just above a freeway, in a field surrounded by fireflies, and in the foundation of a hotel from a deserted ghost town.
10. Do you have another adventure on the horizon?
Always. Short term, I need to rest my knee up (it took quite the beating on this trip), get healthy, and replenish my savings account a bit, but once that happens and the Wanderlust properly sets back in, I’ll be jumping into the next thing, whatever that may be. I’ve got a few ideas, just not sure which I’m going to run with yet.
** all photos used were personal photos of Julian’s from his website and Facebook account. **