How To Become a Dirtbag: The Details

I had originally planned to share this past weekend’s microadventure with y’all, but I really want to use some of the photos that Will snapped and they aren’t ready. {The man takes his editing seriously!} So, that’s going to have to sit tight for another day or two. Instead, I want to address the questions I received regarding last Friday’s dirtbag post. It wasn’t too surprising that my inbox filled with various questions; after all, living out of a tent is pretty bizarre!

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How did you pay for the trip?

I wasn’t shocked to see that this was the most-asked question. I mean, it’s an expensive world out there! In short, we spent the year living off savings. We had both planned for this trip for months and had been pocketing as much cash as possible. We always ate dinner at home instead of eating out and *gasp*, dramatically reduced our post-collegiate bar hopping shenanigans.

Like I mentioned on Friday, we also sold our cars before the trip so we each had that additional chunk o’ change. In the end, I had just over $10k saved up. These days, it makes me laugh to think that I survived 13 months on $10,000 but you have to remember: I didn’t have a mortgage, I didn’t have any student loans and I didn’t have a dog or cell phone or anything. I paid my monthly health insurance payment and the rest was for the trip. We never determined an endpoint to the adventure, but we did figure it would be over once we ran out of money!

What did you eat while cycling?

Marissa from Barefoot Colorado asked this question and it totally made laugh. To this day, I still can’t eat Little Debbie snacks because I ate SO MANY of them while cycling! Gross, right?!

{For those of you that are huge health advocates, you may want to close your eyes or look away or something because the shit I ate while cycling was anything but!}

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Because we only had a set of rear paniers on our bikes, we didn’t have a ton of space to carry food with us. We had a few emergency cans of baked beans {or something equally horrid}, but that was it. However, eating out for every meal could get expensive so we definitely got creative. I mean, we were cycling for 8-10 hours every single day, so we were blowing through calories like crazy. I remember feeling like a teenage boy; I was always hungry!

A majority of meals came from gas stations since we would frequently stop there to use the restroom anyway. This, my friends, is where the Little Debbie’s came into play! Those things are so laden with calories and fat so they were the perfect “meal” to keep us fueled for a day of cycling. Since we were cruising through middle America, we spent a lot of time in tiny towns where the only establishment was a Dairy Queen. Y’all, I can’t tell you how many dinners I crushed at a DQ! {The food is horrible, by the way!} We’d grab fresh fruit at grocery stores when possible, but I will be the first to admit that our eating habits were atrocious. In short? If it was cheap and filled with a disgusting amount of calories, I ate it!

To be fair, this fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants mentality didn’t always work for us, and there were a few times where we ended up going hungry. Unbeknownst to us, may midwestern towns completely shutdown on Sundays. In the early weeks of the trip, we didn’t realize that everything would be closed and were horrified to learn that there literally was no place for us to purchase food. But, we only needed to make that mistake once or twice before we became prepared!

How did you shower or stay clean?

Showers definitely became a luxury…but they were also very sporadic! Some weeks would be lucky and we’d shower three or four times and then the next week would pass with nary a speck of water. Truthfully, this aspect was my least favorite of the trip.

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Probably trying to find a place to sleep!

Many midwest towns have public parks with showers and these were our favorite. They weren’t the most clean but they were free and had plenty of hot water. Trucker stops had shower facilities also, but these typically lived on the side of main interstates. Since we were avoiding highways at all costs, we didn’t really run into too many of those.

Once we got into the south, the heat and humidity became so unbearable that the lack of shower was truly disgusting. We would ride all day, dripping sweat, and then settle into our tent, still covered in water from the suffocating humidity. After a day or two, our clothes would be filthy and it got to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore {especially when I was on my period. Sorry guys, but it’s the truth!} In these instances, I’d call an audible and tell my friend that we were getting a motel, no questions asked. The beauty of random motels in the middle of nowhere is that they were cheap—we never paid more than $30-35 per night and the shower was heavenly. Literally!

Other than those intermittent showers, I did a lot of “self cleaning.” Oil of Olay had just come out with those cleansing cloths so I always carried a package with me. Cleaning the grime of the road of my face nightly felt fantastic, and the cooling soap did a sufficient job of topically wiping the sweat and sunscreen off my body. It wasn’t a perfect system but it became habit.

Where did you sleep? Did you really sleep in a tent?

Yup, we really slept in a tent! In fact, it was my Mountain Hardwear Light Wedge 2 which is still in our basement now. I don’t use the tent anymore but I have a sentimental attachment to it and I know I’ll never get rid of it. I mean, that was my home!

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I clearly remember sleeping behind this church

Of course, you need a place to pitch a tent and that was a nightly activity that became quite sporting. Truthfully, we never knew where we were going to sleep but it was ideal if it was free. We quickly learned that our sleeping arrangements would depend on what part of the country we were touring. In the early stages, we were the luckiest. Small towns in the eastern plains of Colorado and Kansas were the best: local law enforcement had zero problems with us setting up shop in the town park and many locals even offered up their front yards or basements. They trusted the two fresh-faced kids from Denver and had no qualms sharing their lives with us. However, it got much more difficult as we headed south and then east: peeps in that part of the country were nowhere near as hospitable.

Once we got into Oklahoma and then the south, crashing in parks was out of the question. We tried it once or twice and woke up to police officers banging on our tent wall and one time, a herd of teenagers throwing rocks at our rainfly. Once we realized that obvious camping was out of the question, we switched to Plan B: secret camping!

We’d typically roll into town before dark and evaluate the area, looking for wooded areas that no one would visit before morning. Oddly enough, these frequently existed behind large shopping centers with grocery stores or Wal-Marts. Yup, we slept in the open space behind Wal-Mart! We’d occasionally set up shop at a church, with permission from the pastor, and sometimes we snuck into deeply wooded areas in the center of city parks. Those were our least favorites because we couldn’t turn our headlamps on to read at night: the glow would give away our location.

When we got into true backwoods locations in the Applachians, we’d frequently just pull over on the side of the road and pitch our tent in the dirt. Towns were few and far between and we never knew where we’d end up just because tackling the beastly climbs took a varying amount of time. I remember one instance where we had just crested a 4,000 foot hill as the sun was setting. Instead of riding the descent blindly in the dark, we put our tent up in the pull-off area and hoped for the best. Luckily, it worked!

Lastly, we would occasionally pay for a campsite if it was necessary. We only had to do this a few times in Alabama and Tennessee, but it was probably the most annoying option. From my 24-year-old perspective, I wanted a bed if I was going to pay for a place to sleep!

Was I in the best shape ever? How did I train for this?

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Please observe my tan lines. You’re welcome.

Two of y’all emailed this question to me and the truth is this: I didn’t do an ounce of training!

My friend was a longtime cyclist so he was much more prepared than I was. I purchased my bike a month before we left and I think I had completed two 20-mile rides before our trip, and neither of them had the weight of the paniers on the bike. In truth Heather fashion, I just decided to wing it. It’s all mental, right?!

The first week of the trip was awful and I suffered more than I should have. I wasn’t in bike shape and sitting hunched over handlebars for 8-10 hours really took its toll on my back. We were averaging only ~55 miles per day which was ridiculously slow. However, as I built up my quad muscles, it became less physically taxing and more of a mental drain. Sitting on a bike all day was tough: we couldn’t really speak to each other since we typically rode single file and the wind prevented us from hearing what the other person said. More than anything, the trip allowed me to discover who I was as a person because I did a lot of talking in my own head.

As the months passed, the miles became easier and we regularly clocked 80-100 miles per day. I had found my zone and I think I mentally scripted the first five chapters of a book {which I will write one day!} My quad muscles became huge—to the point where strangers commented on them!—but the rest of my body damn near atrophied. I had minimal core strength and while my upper back became strong from supporting my arms, the rest of my torso was pretty scrawny. After the trip, Steve tried to run a half marathon in an effort to deduce how effective cross training was. Spoiler alert: he finished the race but said it was the most painful thing he had ever done. Apparently cycling 4,000 miles does not prepare you to run 13.1!

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14 Comments

  • Reply Jill Homer (@AlaskaJill) at

    I love these recaps. I did a similarly dirt-bag cross country bike trip in 2003 at age 24. Hiding in the woods, headlamps off in parks, cops banging on our tent in Missouri, sleeping behind churches, too little pre-ride training, $300 touring bike, Little Debbie Snacks, yes! Such a great trip.

    • Reply heather at

      Glad to see we weren’t the only ones eating Little Debbies 🙂 They should come on the Iditarod with you!

  • Reply Kate at

    This is fascinating! Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply misszippy at

    This is a really cool look into what it takes to get it done like this. And once again, I have to say how much I love your adventuresome spirit–you are living life to the fullest!

    • Reply heather at

      Thanks Amanda. I sure try!

  • Reply Axel (@apkussma) at

    Steve’s half-marathon reminds me of the story of Lance Armstrong’s first marathon… cross-training does not work that way!

    • Reply heather at

      Hahah right?! I mean, we had a feeling that’s how it would be but after so much intense training, we thought it would be easier…nope!

  • Reply Paula at

    Heather this was sooo fun to read! This might be my favorite entry of yours ever. 🙂 Loved hearing about the logistics!

    • Reply heather at

      Glad you enjoyed it, m’dear!

  • Reply Kovas - Midwest Multisport Life at

    That is a great adventure – I’m planning mini ones for the future once my kids are old enough to handle it!

  • Reply Kayla at

    You didn’t mention what to do if you get stuck in a hurricane!!! haha

  • Reply Kayla at

    P.S. Y’all should have had walkie-talkie’s!

  • Reply Marissa Lucero at

    This was so fun to read!! Thanks for answering my question, I was seriously curious how one maintained enough energy to cycle all day while living off of inexpensive foods. Little Debbies for the win! I also feel ya about the shower thing, albeit my stories aren’t dirtbag-y or hardcore haha. Whenever I travel either to the south or east I feel like I need multiple showers a day! SO STICKAYY.

  • Reply Karl at

    Great story! Love the “grubby” details of the Little Debbies and crashing in the woods behind WalMart

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