New York to Seattle: Cycling the Northern Tier

StoriesJune 14, 2023

When my riding partner and I decided to take on the Northern Tier cycling route across the top half of the United States, we had a few trips under our belts, but nothing longer than three weeks. We were lifelong city kids, used to weaving in and out of traffic, arguing with drivers, and climbing New York’s bridges by bike, not a pine in sight. Dedicated athletes, we were not. Having decided we were going to ride cross country just because we could, we put our energy into finding the right gear, investing in touring bikes that actually fit us, and arranging our lives to allow for a trip that had no set timeline. Our goal was to complete at least 50 miles a day, and we planned each nightly stop around that estimate. 

Our most crucial planning resource was the Adventure Cycling Association, an organization committed to the power of bike touring and advocacy on the part of cyclists since 1973. The Association’s laboriously designed route maps are a priceless helping hand for anyone considering a long-distance ride. Clear, detailed, and beautifully printed, the map sets indicate important roadside resources like lodging, restaurants, and, perhaps most importantly- cyclist-specific accommodations where riders can hunker down safely for the night. Accommodations could mean anything from campgrounds to city parks open to cycling campers to ordinary individuals opening up their homes. This unassuming network of trail angels and trail havens was our lifeline as we rode from upstate New York to Seattle, following the Adventure Cycling Association’s route through twelve states. It also makes a two-and-a-half-month trip completely plausible for anyone on a tight budget and the will to eschew everyday comforts in favor of experience. 

Setting off from New York’s Adirondack Mountains in early May, we took on the High Peaks, quickly learning that having high-quality, ultra-warm gear meant the difference between a night of cozy chills and a one of freezing misery, our tent conversations drowned out by the howl of pine forests. From the mountains, the landscape gave way to rural New York farmland and milder weather until Lake Erie’s glossy surface began to peek over the horizon. Unsettling, boundless, and impossibly still, the lake accompanied us through a sliver of Pennsylvania and on to Ohio, which then blended into Indiana and Illinois. Crossing the Beckey Bridge from Illinois to Muscatine, Iowa, we rode over the Mississippi, one of the more significant milestones of the trip. The river guided us north along the Iowa and Wisconsin shorelines before we continued west through Minnesota. Northern woods and evening loon song soon turned into notoriously windy North Dakotan mornings- the state was a challenge to traverse as a lone duo completely exposed to the elements. Nothing humbles you like a wall of wind preventing any sort of progress for hours on end. 

In fact, having no choice but to spend every day (and most nights) outdoors reminds you of the sheer power of forces we often forget about while holed up in our homes and vehicles. You begin to feel the rain coming on again, re-learn to bask in the primal relief of fresh water and cheap ice cream, and get used to outrunning the lingering smell of roadkill. Speaking of outrunning, you also find yourself racing against the clock when dusk starts to spill over the horizon, trying to outsmart raging dogs as they chase you down empty backroads, keeping up with the freight train and pedaling onwards just to be able to say goodbye to another grueling 70 or 80-mile day. As we passed Fargo, enjoyed Gackle, and fought the gusts, we neared the state border, almost ready to bid North Dakota a bitter goodbye. A few miles from the state line, Theodore Roosevelt National Park sucked us right back in with its brutally gorgeous badlands, proving that a natural wonder becomes something completely different when seen from the seat of a bicycle as opposed to the passenger side window. 

In Montana, confronted with the empty, void-like beauty of the state’s eastern half, we couldn’t wait for the distant promise of Glacier National Park. Heaving through the park itself days later, we climbed 6,650 feet to Logan Pass before being rewarded with an uninterrupted downhill ride surrounded by icy peaks. “Electric bikes,” a sporty dad mistakenly muttered to his family as we crawled by hikers on the ride up. Silent, exhausted pride is another quality you just kind of pick up while on the road, especially when most people you meet start by asking the same question- “Why?”

After an idyllic weekend catching our breath on the lake beach in Sandpoint, Idaho, we moved on to a final milestone- crossing the border into Washington, the last state on the route. Taken aback by the state’s dry, desert-like (and deserted) east, we glided through it paying close attention to the changing landscape. After reports of heavy wildfire smoke from a new friend who passed us on his way west, we tweaked the route, straying off the established route to avoid the fires. The new route pieced together from internet tips, road maps, and intuition forced us to drag our bikes down many a gravel road before getting on the John Wayne trail across western Washington. It would be hard to imagine a better introduction to the Northwest- forested and vivid, the trail took us practically all the way to Seattle, with a brief stop in North Bend. Pulling into Seattle felt strangely like rolling back into New York, signaling that the trip had, unbelievably, come full circle. Falling asleep in a kind stranger’s backyard that night, I thought about all the things I had just lugged across the country on the back of that bike, including my favorite old cycling cap, trusty pink sleeping bag, and yes- even my full-size banjo, its slender neck freshly snapped as a result of a roadside mishap outside of Spokane. Those things, it turned out, were all I needed to not only move through the throes of America for nearly three months but to redefine my definition of home by packing it all up every morning and carrying that home onwards, rain or shine. 

The best part about crossing the country via the Northern Tier was (and remains) its longevity. Long after the initial adrenaline rush of completing the trip faded into a smug satisfaction, its images, spontaneous moments, and hardships come back in flashes when necessary. The trip exists not only as a confirmation of what’s possible but also as a lesson on the purity of experience in times when travel is a commodity. Having met countless people on the road that are the opposite of what you may think an average “adventure cyclist” looks like, I stand by the belief that a cross-country cycling trip is possible for anyone who is healthy enough to take on the challenge and lost enough to yearn for a true connection with one of this country’s most timeless, deceptive symbols- the open road.

thumbnail - 150x150 - crop: true
medium - 300x300 - crop: false
medium_large - 768x0 - crop: false
large - 1024x1024 - crop: false
1536x1536 - 0x0 - crop: false
2048x2048 - 0x0 - crop: false
alm-thumbnail - 0x0 - crop: false
largest - 0x0 - crop: false
post-thumb - 0x0 - crop: false
phone-image - 0x0 - crop: false
profile_24 - 0x0 - crop: false
profile_48 - 0x0 - crop: false
profile_96 - 0x0 - crop: false
profile_150 - 0x0 - crop: false
profile_300 - 0x0 - crop: false