have a short list of real regrets and one of them is not bicycling across America with my younger brother, Rob, a few years ago. Then in his late twenties, Rob pedaled from Burlington, Vermont, to Napa, California, where he’d gotten a job as a teacher. I was busy and Rob averaged eighty miles a day: our orbits never quite intersected. So I satisfied myself with his Kerouacian dispatches from the road. Many featured a website called “Warm Showers,” where strangers offered beds and showers (“but nothing more,” Rob swore) to long-distance cyclists. One host, who suffered from Lyme Disease and had all his windows blacked-out, insisted that Rob watch weird movies with him in his basement. Rob survived, eventually riding a few thousand miles with another Rob, devouring all-you-can-eat buffets from Kansas to California.
So a few months ago, when I felt an urge to hit the road under my own power, I called Rob. “Yes!” he replied, before I’d invited him. “The long-awaited next installment in the Bethea Brothers Adventure Saga!” (A decade ago, he and I thru-hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail for Backpacker, which ran photos of him in his preferred hiking attire: a speedo. In 2016, I climbed up and biked down the tallest volcano on earth with Rob, for Gear Patrol.) Next, I phoned two photographer pals, one of whom, Justin, could ride a big chunk of the trip, which we’d by then plotted from Portland, Oregon to McCall, Idaho, some seven hundred miles. The rationale: it’d take ten days (all the time I had); we’d pass by many breweries (Rob’s requirement); and we’d meet mom at the end, where she’d be finishing a float trip. Then we’d return to our lives: mine as a correspondent for The New Yorker, in Atlanta, and Rob’s as an English teacher in San Diego.
I boxed-up my Salsa Vaya Apex touring bike and boarded a plane in mid-June. In addition to ample beer and pie purveyors, there are plenty of bike shops in Portland, including Crank, where I went for last-minute tuning. We screwed on our rear racks, installed our Salsa panniers, and took off in our Rapha onesies: bike touring triplets. The Vaya is ultra-light for a touring bike, but mine was saddled with thirty pounds of gear: food, tools, tubes, clothes, sleeping and eating stuff. I was especially excited about a few items: my MSR Hubba Tour 2 tent, which sleeps two (brothers) and has a vestibule big enough for a pair of bikes; Giro’s Empire VR90 superlight mountain bike shoes; and a Goal Zero solar-charging panel to keep my phone alive (for mapping, not email) while riding in remote areas.
Bike-touring offers the immersive perspective of a hike, over distances typically achieved by car. We’d decided to use a few well-established bike routes, including part of the famous Trans America, a well-known cross-country cycling route. We would generally, I hoped, avoid the back-alleys Rob had coerced me down on previous trips. But this lingering possibility was part of the excitement of traveling with him.
On our first day, we left the city later than planned, following a bike path bisecting a highway out of Portland. But soon we were on a forested two-lane heading to Hood River, sixty miles away, where Thunder Island Brewing Co. waited just outside town along the Columbia River Gorge. We traced the path of the river, on its less-traveled, hilly northern shore. Rob pushed up the rollers. Justin stopped often—for pictures, he claimed. I fiddled with the Goal Zero solar panel attached to my rear panniers, and tried to consume some electrolyte goo when Rob started to pull ahead. It tasted awful, even after a pull on a fruity vape pen we’d — legally, of course — brought along. The sativa helped a bit with the ups, I thought, and soothed a few early-stage squabbles. A typical, context-free exchange between me and Rob:
Rob, with a big smile, as I finally catch up to him: “You need some more of this pen, bro!” I’d supplied the pens, but Rob, who carried them, had become their Tim Leary-esque evangelist.
Me: “Okay, but do we have to pass the pen like it’s a baton, while riding on a narrow shoulder with trucks flying by?”
Justin, who also has a brother, would laugh, shaking his head at these moments. Then we’d stop so he could photograph us squabbling.
Our first night was spent in beds, at a buddy’s house in Hood River — an idyllic little Oregon town best known for its world-class wind-surfing opportunities — which was handy since we were exhausted and a little too stoned to assemble tents. But the next night, at Timothy Lakes Campground, in Mt. Hood National Forest, the tent was useful as the mosquitos came out. It had been the most glorious day of riding in my life, with four thousand feet of climbing leading to a screaming forty-four miles-per-hour descent (according to Strava) on perfectly-paved two-lane blacktop bisecting old growth forest. Each of the following days had a few things in common: three or four local Deschutes Black Butte beers each, washing down heavy food in a small town; a break to soak our feet in a river; and that sense of absolute freedom that only comes from pedaling all day with nothing more than basic appetites (hunger, thirst, curiosity) to satisfy. Through Willamette, Deschutes and Ochoco National Forests — all still thankfully preserved — we went, then eastward into the high desert and the Hells Canyon Wilderness, North America’s deepest river gorge, straight on to the Oregon-Idaho border.
Strange things happen when you disconnect. While replacing my second flat tire on the highway into Bend, Rob and I broke out into spontaneous song: Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” Justin filmed it. The next day, after Justin returned home, Rob (presumptive navigator) and I (blind follower) took a two-hour accidental detour along a gorgeous stretch of the Crooked River, which elicited oohs and ahhs. The road ended up petering out, we realized our mistake, and the only truck for miles — a dad and sons out on a remote scouting mission — saved us from a long uphill retracing of our misbegotten steps. We didn’t regret it. They dropped us in Prineville, Oregon, where we’d veered off-track. A food truck at the Crooked River Brewing Company provided the best burger of my life. On down the road, in minuscule Mitchell, Oregon, we stayed at Spoke’n Hostel, a church-turned-biker-retreat. There was no preaching, just comfortable bunks, a massage chair, a refrigerator full of snacks and a beer-loving, beatific proprietor who shared his favorite Bible and Zeppelin verses.
By the end, we’d climbed nearly forty thousand feet of elevation and passed out under star-littered skies, by creeks, rivers and ballfields. We’d beaten one old guy on a carbon bike up a steep pass. We’d been buzzed by trucks and vape pens alike. We’d shared a tent pretty successfully, and avoided bivvying in back-alleys. We’d had just one serious argument, over breaking camp. But we’d laughed harder, and more often, than I can remember laughing in years. The Goal Zero hadn’t consistently charged my phone, but the sun and sweat and camaraderie had left me deeply energized. I had a nice Rapha tan. It wasn’t the full coast-to-coast trip I’d wanted to take years ago, but it was close enough. Maybe even better. We tentatively decided to pick up where we left off next summer, continuing east to the psychedelic wilderness of Yellowstone.
Salsa Vaya Apex with Salsa Panniers
The Vaya Apex is a sleek yet sturdy touring bike, at just twenty-five pounds, that also wins style points. Its durable, proprietary panniers complete the package. Pro-tip: switch your seat to a more comfortable leather model by Brooks.
Rapha Riding Wear
The pinnacle of performance and aesthetics, Rapha has every item you need to wear while riding. I endorse the Brevet base layer, Brevet lightweight jersey, Core rain jacket, Core bib shorts, and the Check cap.
Giro Cinder MIPS Helmet
It’s light, breathable and tough: MIPS technology redirects impact energy. Pretty much all you can ask for from a helmet. Also, nice: it’s easy to adjust.
Giro Empire VR90
The Giro Empire VR90 off-road bike shoes have a carbon outsole and Vibram tread, making them both lightweight and powerful. They also breathe well, lace-up and look pretty sexy, too.
MSR AC Bivy Sack
Stay dry, bug-free and comfy in this super-minimalist shelter weighing just a single pound.
MSR Hubba Tour 1 Tent
The perfect tent for a pair of bike tourers who want to share a shelter with a vestibule for their bikes. It’s four-and-half pounds, but that’s nothing split two ways.
Thermarest NeoAir XLite Pad
An ultralight three-season pad that offers luxe comfort while weighing less than a pound.
Blockerlite Compression Dry Sack
The best way to pack a lot into your panniers, with extra waterproofing.
MSR TrailBase Water Filter Kit
It takes the work out of water filtration, cleverly using gravity to purify. It’s a bit heavier than carrying a bottle of iodine, but the taste is worth it.
Blackburn Central 800 Front Light
Offering a generous eight hundred lumens, it’s easy to mount, waterproof and rechargeable.
Blackburn Core Slim Mini Pump
It comes with a handy pull-out hose, weighs less than five ounces, and is not much bigger than a pen. It’s also presta and Schrader valve compatible.
Blackburn Wayside Multi-Tool
Offers nineteen functions, including chain tool, spoke wrenches, screwdriver and five hex keys. And it weighs less than half a pound.
Dompen (Sativa) Vape Pen
A pre-loaded, disposable vape pen that offers energy with a citrus flavor. Lightweight and lasts forever: some two hundred two-second “doses.”
Sword Endurance Single-Use Pouches
The best-tasting, most energizing drink mix I’ve tried.