Bike builders that want a rugged but nimble bike might use steel tubing that is heat-treated. For those that don’t know, steel is an alloy; it’s not a pure metal. It’s mostly iron with a lot of impurities. But it’s exactly these impurities that - under the application of heat of around 1500ºF - allow the atomic structure of the iron to change. If it is cooled suddenly, the alloy is hard but brittle, and it can break. But if it’s cooled more slowly with air, the result is a stronger material. The tubing can be thinner and thus lighter, but still resistant to fatigue.
So yeah, in 2015 I rode the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route... all 2,700 miles of it, plus an extra hundred. It was incredible and life changing and all that rad stuff, but I knew I could do it. I had already been through a heat-treatment process of my own... It was my first solo, self-supported bicycle tour that made me lighter, stronger, and ready for the challenges I didn’t even know were yet to come.
I had just come back from a month-long work trip to Nicaragua, where I slept in a tent for four weeks straight. Coming back to office walls was uncomfortable at best. Acting mostly on gut instinct, I decided it was time for my first eight-day, entirely solo bicycle trip. I had never been to the White Mountains of New Hampshire or Maine, so there it was.
I spent too many hours figuring out which modes of transportation would get me from Philly to Maine, quickly. It involved a car, NJ Transit, Bolt Bus, Amtrak, and the good graces of my grandparents. Miraculously, I made it to Portland, Maine. I found my Air BnB, picked up a few last-minute items at a bike shop stocked with Bianchis far more gucci than my 2008 Castro Valley. I made two trips to the grocery store. I even stopped in at the local AAA and picked up a bonafide paper map. I studied it at a coffee shop, made notes, snapped last-minute pictures of my travel plans, and sent them to people that cared.
Sight-seeing in Maine was impressive. The ocean was impossibly expansive. The Bianchi and I took the commuter ferry to a nearby island. We soft-pedaled around, taking in the loud, late-autumn colors and quiet, closed-for-the-winter cottages. It was just me and the lifers on the island now.
I caught the ferry home as the sun sank. The waves on the water were mesmerizing. I hadn’t talked much all day, and the effect was dizzying - almost surreal. I had the bandwidth to take it all in… the people, the light, the waves, the colors. That night before I departed for the White Mountains, I was nervous. I tried to sooth my nerves at In'finiti Fermentation and Distillation (now Liquid Riot). It didn’t help much. As I cruised back to the Air BnB that night, I noted that the night air and the push of my legs did more to calm my nerves than the beer. I’m better for it, I thought.
The first day of my trip held good weather, but I wasn’t ready for the plainness of southern Maine. A creepy yard-sale stands out in my mind. I remember talking to myself in a voice that sounded too much like Tom Waits.
I was making a beeline for the nearest green splotch on the map, the White Mountain National Forest. In my mind, National Forest was a camper’s safe-zone. You’re supposed to be able to camp anywhere 200 feet from any road or stream. It was supposed to be a place of wilderness. Unlucky for me, I arrived in the mid-afternoon to find civilization everywhere.
That first night was the hardest. Over and over again, I debated staying in a hotel. But I would not be defeated on the first night. I finally found a hiking trail that led into the forest. Leaves coated the trail. They jammed themselves in my cantilever brakes. It was hike-a-bike at its finest. Bags on, I carried my bike half a mile into the woods. I secured the Bianchi under a tree and hiked my gear behind a knoll. I was out of sight from the trail, but on pins and needles. However, after 70 miles, exhaustion doesn’t compromise with fear; I eventually fell asleep.
To this day, I still don’t know what was out there. I heard a noise that sounded like a snake slithering through leaves. I heard a noise that sounded like heavy footsteps. Then I saw lights. Outside my tent, there was a red light, and then some white lights. I was in a sleepy haze, and my fearless, fight-mode self decided that Tom Waits alter-ego was ready for action. I coughed and grumbled loudly. I guess I hoped that I sounded like a burly guy that was pissed for being woken up. I’m not even sure what happened after that, except that the lights went away, and I eventually went back to sleep. With the first embryonic glow of morning, I sprang up, thankful to be alive, and super ready to skedaddle.
In the next three days, I pedaled through the White Mountains, seeking higher ground. I would find a mountain to hike, find a nearby campsite, stash my bike at the trailhead, and hike up. In my opinion, it’s never enough to just ride between the mountains.
At some point, the rain pushed me to my limit. I just wasn’t having fun anymore. That was the first time I realized that there was nothing to prove to anyone but myself. I let go of my ego a bit, and was better for it. I checked into a small, family-owned establishment and enjoyed the hell out of a warm shower and covered porch.
The upper reaches of the White Mountains were magical. Flirtatious clouds set the stage for vibrant fallen leaves, damp mosses, and thriving lichens. I laughed at the tiny, haphazard arrangements of saplings, rocks and moss… you could pay an interior decorator thousands of dollars and still not achieve nature’s next-level feng-shui.
There were moments of loneliness, sadness, laughter, mechanical difficulties, extremely tired muscles, and extraordinarily delicious snacks. I learned to laugh at my own jokes. I learned when to quit. I learned how to sleep through the noises outside the tent. I learned what fear felt like.
On my last day in New Hampshire, I spent the morning writing postcards at the Tamworth Lyceum, a cozy, hip, coffee shop / dry-goods curiosity. Full of lumbersexual paraphernalia like handmade stationary, wooden pencils, apothecary items, fermented snacks, transcendental philosophy books and very, very good coffee, it was the perfect warming-up spot. One at a time, locals came in and gossiped about the “green flash” that some people saw blaze across the nighttime sky. The proposition of alien activity got passed around in the casual way that a fat cat bats around a paper wad. When at last I could delay no longer, the Bianchi and I rolled away from the Lyceum.
Pedaling back to Portland was just about as eventful as the trip out. (Read: I was bored, and my Tom Waits alter-ego sang some tunes.) I made it back just in time for Halloween. While I tried to stay out for what was sure to be some weirdness in Portland, my over-worked quads ushered me to sleep at an embarrassingly early hour.
It was raining in New York City when the Bolt Bus dropped me off, but by that point I had my plastic-bag situation dialed in. I cruised the final few blocks to my grandparents house where my car was parked. I had made it. I remember feeling physically lighter than before.
It wasn’t an easy trip. In fact, it wasn’t even a fun trip. I daresay it was a lot like being heated up to 1500ºF so that all my impurities would show themselves and allow for my fundamental structure to rearrange. I came out lighter, stronger, and more resistant to fatigue.
Sharing with us her origin story into the world of adventure cycling, Amanda has since traversed all 2,696 miles of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route along the North American Continental Divide just last year, solo and unsupported. Most recently, she's been hosting women's bikepacking clinics in Colorado. Amanda's site, Small Tomatoes, shares more of her amazing adventures all over the country, detailed reviews of adventure gear both on and off the bike, and her thoughts and experience on technology and sustainability.