You can learn about the United States through a book or newspaper, a tablet or television, a passenger car or a tour bus.
Michael Seibert of South Road and daughters Apple, Lizzie, and Maddie, all 27, undertook a more intimate option: bicycles.
Last week they pedaled into Boston to mark the completion of almost two full months on the road.
Check the trip blog, Coasting to the Coast, for daily details and scads of great pictures!
“We used to do long family trips—Boston to New York, Boston to Montreal, across Iowa,” Seibert, 63, related. “I was thinking we should do a longer trip after my retirement, and so we thought we would do Seattle to Boston.” (Actually, he still does some consulting and is co-founder of a startup.)
That coast-to-coast plan was thwarted before it began by persistent wildfires in the Northwest. So the Seiberts decided to start near the middle of the country and take a meandering route, so the ultimate distance would be around the same 3,500 miles.
The riders began on Aug. 17 in Kansas City, MO, and followed the Missouri River easterly across the state to its mouth just north of St. Louis. Their path then headed north, along the Mississippi River through Illinois and Wisconsin all the way to the river’s headwaters near Bemidji, MN. That’s almost 800 miles.
Next, the trek turned east and southeast across northern Wisconsin, into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, all the way through the state (almost 500 miles long) to Ohio and northeast into New York. Along the way, they pedaled close to each of the five Great Lakes and Niagara Falls.
Ultimately the family paralleled the 363 miles of the Erie Canal, crossed the Hudson and the Berkshires, and headed home.
Of the 59 days from start to finish, 49 were spent cycling, according to a chronicle kept by Maddie Seibert, who lives in Berkely, CA, and works with a consulting company that helps local governments with climate planning. Her partner Tim, who happens to be a bike mechanic, was part of the Seibert entourage.
The riders said they carried pretty much everything they needed on their bikes. But there was a backup plan for most of the journey—some relatives with a recreational vehicle trailed the group for a couple of weeks, and wife and mother Abbie Seibert traveled by car with her family for three more. “I was the food and beverage wagon,” she laughed.
Abbie was involved in the planning—for safety, for gear, and “making sure they were ready.” Apple Seibert, an attorney with the federal Department of Energy, noted that the riders’ phones were connected to a GPS app specifically for cyclists. So they always knew where they were.
“We had a range of different kinds of bicycles,” her father pointed out—a custom-made touring bike, a road bike, a converted mountain bike. “You can pretty much do a trip like this on almost any kind of bike.”
The most difficult hour came along quickly—on the first day, in rural Missouri. “We were out in the middle of nowhere when big storm clouds came, and just out of nowhere there were strong winds, heavy rain, hailstones, and we were miles from the nearest town,” Mike recounted. “So we parked our bikes, spread a tarp over our heads, and waited for the hail, lightning, and thunder to slow down.”
Abbie pointed out that “part of the planning was a lightweight tarp that they could all fit under.”
They settled into a routine. “We pretty much went day by day,” Mike said. Maddie estimated that 75 percent of the nights were spent in campgrounds, but there were also opportunities to stay with “people we knew along the way” and even hotels.
Some of the most interesting interactions occurred at campgrounds. “We had a bear hunter at one of our sites—it was his first vacation in nine years,” Apple recounted. “He told us the best kind of bait to catch a bear was peanut butter cookies.”
Lizzie, who writes books for children and young adults, reported, “There was a man named JFK who was making the biggest ball of twine in all of Wisconsin. He has been building it in his garage, working on it for four hours every day.” JFK said the twine sphere weighed 12 tons.
She added, “People at campsites were really nice to us. One site in Minnesota stayed open just for us.”
In the Midwest, “A lot of the little towns we rolled through were eerily vacant—no parked cars, no people on the sidewalk, shops were boarded up,” Mike said. “A lot of communities have gone dark in rural America.”
“We saw a lot of Dollar Stores and Amazon vehicles and Wal-Marts, but not a lot of small-town life.”
Some localities along the Erie Canal were almost ghost towns,” Abbie said. But others “figured out how to reinvent themselves and turned themselves into tourist stops.” Many of those were near state parks or larger campgrounds.
The group negotiated varied challenging conditions: heat in Missouri, wind in Illinois, cold (down to 35) in Minnesota, rolling drumlins along the Mississippi in Wisconsin, and the elevation of the Berkshires. Lizzie said she thought about the three-hour round trip from home in a car as the cyclists took two days to traverse the mountains in western Massachusetts.
Mike noticed the outcome of drought conditions in the northern Midwest states. “Thousands of acres of corn were turning yellow, turning brown.” They asked a farmer they saw at a campground about the future of his business. “He said they were all insured,” Mike reported. “Those millions of acres of corn—they still get their money.”
They crossed paths with other long-haul cyclists en route. “When you are doing a tour like this, with two big bags in front and two in back, you recognize other people doing the same thing,” Maddie said.”
Lizzie recorded their experiences with a blog along the way. “I got a lot of input about what our highlights were for the day. I always wanted to put in our mileage and photos.” She said a lot of friends and family members followed her reports, along with some other people around Bedford. “I really used this trip to get some inspiration for books. It was really cool to see a bunch of different places.”
The entire experience was emotional, Apple commented because there was inherent stress and uncertainty—about food and shelter and choosing the right clothing for the conditions of the day and covering the miles anticipated.
“We were biking seven, eight hours a day. We had to find things to think about,” Lizzie added. “Sometimes it was easy to stay focused, but at other timed it was more difficult.” Maddie agreed. “We didn’t have access to a lot of things. Sometimes it a just about getting through a day together.”
“One of the things I learned is you can do a lot if you’re creative,” Abbie commented. “Things like camp cooking – it’s amazing how creative you can get – and eat something tasty — without it being extravagant or time-consuming.” Mike pointed out that the daily menu also featured peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whatever bread happened to be available. Oatmeal was the team’s other staple.
Asked if they learned anything about each other during the time on the roads, Abbie cracked, “Probably about how to better push each other’s buttons.” Lizzie said it was about communicating: “We all have different styles, so we learned how to get along, how to adjust expectations for each other. There were things we didn’t have to face on our other trips.”
Abbie noted that after a year of planning and pedaling, the travelers are slowly readjusting. “This trip moved really slowly thru the world for two months,” Maddie said. Apple pointed out that for two months, “We were going to bed at sundown and getting up at sunrise.”
Her mother had some advice for those who want to follow in the Seiberts’ tracks: “You could talk about it forever, so you’ve got to decide to do it. You’ve got to say, ‘This is actually going to happen.’”
Waterfalls along the Way
Camping on the Shore
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763