Bike Trails

We’ve talked a lot about where we are biking, why we are biking, and what we are seeing. This blog post is devoted to what we are biking on.

Here is a breakdown of the 2250 miles we’ve done so far, accurate to 4 significant figures ;).

– 1800 Miles on paved roads

  • 100 miles bike lanes, mostly in Colorado
  • 400 miles on Transamerica Route which runs from Yorktown, VA to Oregon

– 150 Miles on dirt roads

  • 10 of which were mostly sand and we had to walk

– 300 Miles on bike trails

  • 75 miles paved
  • 220 miles crushed Limestone
  • 5 miles “Natural Earth” ie a thorny mess that caused us 10+ punctures

By far my favorite place to ride was on these bike trails, because they are very flat, are often along rivers or in other pretty areas, and of course, avoid cars. While most of the trails are found near cities, it’s exciting when we find rail trails or short bike paths in the middle of rural areas.

We started out the first day on the Mount Vernon bike trail out of DC, which followed the Potomac river and passes by several historic monuments including Washington’s home. The next trail we hit was the Virginia Central Railway Trail, which began being constructed  in 2013 and to date is only 4.5 miles. It is supposed to be extended to become 30 miles eventually. We didn’t see any more bike trails until we crossed the Appalachians and found the Mammoth Cave Railroad trail, where we rode of several miles on a trail surely designed for mountain bikes. Good thing the trail wasn’t nearly as long as the 400 miles of cave passages below it!

In Harrisburg, Illinois, we briefly rode on the 56 mile long Tunnel Hill State Rail Trail. The railroad line that used to run here transported coal up from Southern Illinois, and was profitable until the Clean Air Act of 1970 reduced the demand for high-sulfur coal. This trail is named after an 800 foot tunnel that the railroad used to pass through, which partially collapsed in 1929.

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The longest trail we rode on was the Katy trail, a crushed limestone rail trail which crosses almost all of Missouri. At 240 miles, this is the longest rail trail in the country, and is named after the MKT (Missouri-Kansas-Texas) Railroad. Its construction began in 1982, and was completed in the 1990s. We were fortunate enough to ride on nearly 220 miles of this beautiful trail.

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After crossing MO almost entirely on trail, we were pleasantly surprised that Kansas was also home to many bike trails. We rode on the Indian Creek Trail out of Kansas City, and then camped in Ottawa, which is at the intersection of two old rail lines, now converted in bike trails. I thought the most beautiful trail of the entire trip was one of these, the Flint Hill nature Trail, which passes by 117 miles of woodland and open farmland. Unfortunately, because the surface was so rough and thorny, we only rode it for 5 miles, and still popped way too many tubes over the next 3 days because of the thorns that got stuck in our tires.

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We didn’t see any trails again until Denver (given, we were going through areas where there was absolutely nothing but farms or empty grass fields for up to 50 miles at a time). We were certainly grateful for the multitude of bike paths around Denver because we hadn’t seen that many cars since St. Louis. Yesterday we rode from Denver to near Boulder almost exclusively on bike paths (South Platte River Trail, Cherry Creek Trail, Denver-Boulder Bikeway to name a few), and then into Fort Collins on bike lanes the rest of the way. According to the League of American Bicyclists, Colorado is the 7th most bike-friendly state, and 1st of the states we are passing through this summer. (But Massachusetts is beating it!)

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I think all of Spokes would agree that rail trails are great. But we are still eagerly looking forward to the 3000-mile trail that we hope will eventually be drilled through America, allowing cyclists to traverse the entire country without cars, wind, or a single foot of elevation gain.

-Margalit

Border Crossings

Politics aside, borders hold a significance wherever you go. Whenever my family travels somewhere that involves crossing a border, we all lift our feet from the car floor as we cross. I think this would be a little unsafe on bikes, but so far Spokes has safely crossed the Virginia-Kentucky, Kentucky-Illinois, Illinois-Missouri, Missouri-Kansas and most recently the Kansas-Colorado border. Crossing state lines has definitely been a motivator for our team and a fun photo opportunity:

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-Olivia

Learning Festivals in Missouri

This past week on the road was a bit unusual: in the past five days, we spent only one day riding, and four days teaching.
Our first stop was in Farmington, MO, just an hour out of St. Louis. We taught at Lab:Revo, a community maker-space in the basement of a factory founded four years ago by Ann Boes. The maker-space was entirely run by volunteers in the community and offers various robotics, Arduino, 3-D printing, and other engineering activities for kids of all ages in the area. This setting was far more informal than the Challenger Learning Center in KY, and we taught a smaller group of local kids who were Lab:Revo regulars.
Our next stop at the St. Louis Homeschool network had a similar feel to Farmington. We taught in the United Methodist Church which the network often used for classes. In the 18 hours of teaching over the past five days, we all had a chance to ramp up our workshops.
In Masha and I’s circuit workshop, we had the opportunity to collaboratively build a 5-bit binary adder (Translation: a calculator that can add two numbers up to 31).
For those of you who haven’t dabbled in circuits or computer architecture, here’s a run down of what we do in our workshop.
We start by warming up with a small circuit that turns on an LED (translation: light) and then a static electricity detector that teaches the students about transistors, the basic semiconductor building block of a computer.
We then learn binary, the computer number system which only uses two digits: 1 and 0.
After learning about three basic logic gates, the students build a half adder on their circuit boards. A half adder is a combination of logic gates which can do a 1-column addition problem. This “machine” takes in two 1-digit numbers to add (each 0 or a 1) and then a carry (just like the carry you might have when you are adding 2 numbers by hand). It then outputs a the sum bit of those numbers and the carry to send on to the next column of the addition problem.
The students then cascade their projects together to create an adder (calculator) that can add longer numbers. We were able to build a 5-bit adder today that could add two numbers up to 31! The answer is displayed in binary on lights – “ON” means 1, and “OFF” means 0.
Its always fun seeing the circuit calculator get the right answer at the end, and it’s a good example of modularity in computers – how simpler units fit together to form a larger, more complex unit.
-Margalit

Update – Hazard, KY to Farmington, MO

Howdy!
My name is Thi Bui, and I’m one of the idiots lucky MIT students that decided to bike across America for the Summer! In all seriousness, I’ve been having one of the greatest times of my life on this biking trip, and I know there are many people out there (like my mom) that are curious about what exciting things have happened – so here’s an update since our first learning festival in Hazard, Kentucky!

Day 12 – Hazard, KY to Buckhorn, KY

Instead of enjoying the day off on the second day of our Learning Festival in Hazard, where we taught for half of the day and were finished by 1PM, we decided to bike 30 miles partway to our next Warmshowers host 75 miles away in hopes of minimizing time biking during a thunderstorm. The ride was especially hilly, and I personally think this 30 mile day was the hardest day we have biked so far. We ended up staying at an Airbnb in Buckhorn, KY and had some delicious chicken nuggets that Olivia prepared for us.

Day 13 – Buckhorn, KY to East Bernstadt, KY

After a relatively easier (but wet) 45 mile ride to East Bernstadt, I destroyed what may have been the best burger of my life cooked by our Warmshowers host, Braxton. Shortly after, Braxton’s sister, Evelyn, who has also conveniently biked across the country before, gave an impromptu bike maintenance clinic and taught the entire team some basic bike maintenance procedures. We now know to check our ABCs (Air, Brakes, Chain) every time before we ride!

Day 14 – East Bernstadt, KY to Columbia, KY

This day was especially tough, as it was an 85 mile day filled with lots of uphill biking. I remember in particular this day also being filled with unleashed dogs that chased us on the back roads of Kentucky. Fortunately, Evelyn biked with us for the first half and taught us how to discourage dogs by spraying them with our water bottles.

We stopped at Southern Performance Center bicycle shop where the owner, Michael Phelps (no, not that one), tuned up our bikes for free and offered us advice on how to maintain them. Michael let us into his workshop and guided us through on what he was doing to our bikes. Huge Thanks to them for helping us! Masha would still be in her small front gear pedaling like a madman on the flats if not for them.

Our warmshower hosts, Gary and Diane Rose, welcomed us to Columbia with some delicious jambalaya and went the extra 10 miles by giving us pepper spray for any dogs ahead and printing out detailed directions on the best bike route to Mammoth Cave, KY, our next destination (which they have ridden before!).

Day 15 and 16 – Columbia, KY to Mammoth Cave, KY

We enjoyed a beautiful 65 mile ride to Mammoth Cave National Park and stayed with Richard and Stephanie Shull (who actually host an amazing bed and breakfast!). At Serenity Hill Bed and Breakfast, we had some amazing Mexican food (As a Californian, I’m slightly biased about how great Mexican food is). We stayed there for two days, and took a tour of Mammoth Cave the next day. Also because of California, I’m slightly biased about what the best national park is cough Yosemite cough. Nonetheless, as the name implies, Mammoth Cave was huge and crawling through the natural cave system was a surreal experience. We finished the day off with a nice fire and a group Support Van Cleaning (of which I personally love because it was my turn to drive the van the next day).

Day 17 – Mammoth Cave, KY to Hartford, KY

After cruising through 60 miles, we ended up at the Twin Island Trails LLC campsite with plenty of daylight left. We were catching up on some sleep and chatting with the owner of the campsite, Don Mueller, when I heard a blood-curdling shriek coming from the river. Fortunately, the shriek came from an excited Olivia who had caught a fish after trying for the past week (or so)! Masha then proceeded to scale, gut, and cook the fish with the help of Don, and we all had a piece of the delicious bluegill.

 

Day 18 – Hartford, KY to Henderson, KY

A slightly longer 68 mile day led us to Henderson, KY, where Brad and Amy Ayer and his family welcomed us into his home. After introducing us to Grippos, the best barbecue chip on the planet, Brad called the local news station and was able to get us on the 10 o’clock news! (Here’s the link ~ http://www.tristatehomepage.com/news/local-news/henderson-family-hosts-student-cyclers1/753393672 ~ for the video! Warning – I hadn’t shaved since the last learning festival)

Day 19 – Henderson, KY to Harrisburg, IL

After one of the flattest 70 miles from KY to Harrisburg, IL, we had turkey burgers at Brad McCormick’s house (that rival the burgers we had at Braxton’s house). We unfortunately found out earlier in the day that our host for the next day was unavailable to host us, but Brad heroically called a coworker in Murphysboro and we found out the next morning that we had a floor to sleep on!

Day 20 – Harrisburg, IL to Murphysboro, IL

A flat but windy 50 miles later, we make it to Terry’s house and we are allowed to cool off in his beautiful pool (one of the first pools we’ve used on the trip!) After hearing there was a small bike shop in a nearby city with a very skilled mechanic, I stole the van from the team and drove over to Carbondale Cycles a few miles away. Choke, the bike shop mechanic, fixed the annoying creaking sound in my bike for absolutely no cost and gave us a huge discount on inner tubes and biking clothing! It was definitely one of the sickest bike shop experiences I’ve ever had – Choke was amazingly helpful and extremely passionate about bikes.

Day 21 – Murphysboro, IL to Farmington, MO

Our last trek before a long period of learning festivals, crossing from IL to MO was one of the most surprising changes during the trip. Almost immediately after crossing the border, we were greeted by a steep incline and we knew were in Missouri. After one of the hardest 75 miles I’ve ever ridden on a bike, we rolled up to Al’s Bike Hostel in Farmington, MO and prepared for our next learning festival.

And here we are! I’m currently sitting in a community workspace hosted by Ann Boes in Farmington, where we are having our second learning festival. This workspace of sorts hosts all sorts of activities for the local kids from all age and socioeconomic groups, including an FLL (First Lego League) team. I was part of an FLL team during middle school, and I remember that as being my first foray into STEM (Thanks Mrs. Mayne!), so it’s really awesome to be teaching these kids!

The amount of hospitality we’ve received from our hosts so far has been unbelievable, and I’m extremely grateful for every individual that has made our trip so much easier. The biking has been smooth(ish) and America has been beautiful.

Thank you to Warmshowers hosts, donators, friends, family, and everybody in between for making this experience possible.

– “Sweet Thi” Bui (The beautiful Southerners of Hazard gave me this wonderful name)

On the Road From Hazard, KY

At 2pm after our final round of workshops in Hazard, we sat around the table at Harmony House Bed and Breakfast debating what to do. We had been teaching for two days and were exhausted. Jamie from the Challenger Learning Center wanted to take us to the pool and the community event “Thursday on the Triangle”. Our friends from Hazard we had met last night wanted to play board games. Our plan was to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in Hazard, and then set out the next day for East Bernstadt, KY. But there were eighty miles in between Hazard and there, six thousand feet of elevation gain, and a tropical storm coming in. It was already pouring.

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For context, we had just biked over the Appalachian ridge, known to be the steepest and hilliest part of the ride cross country. Our 60-mile days then typically meant 2,000 feet of elevation gain, 3,000 at best. Six-thousand was going to be a challenge. There was no way we would make it in one day, especially if we had to stop for frequent lightning storms.

So we bid our Hazard friends goodbye, found ourselves an Airbnb 30 miles on the route to East Bernstadt, and set out off biking in the rain. For those of you wondering what that first huge lump on the elevation profile felt like, it was a roughly 800-foot hill which took us between 15 and 45 minutes to conquer, depending on whether you braved it on anything higher than your lowest gear, or admitted defeat to the Kentucky “foothills” (I prefer “foot-mountains”) and walked your bike. I did my usual slow but steady 1-1 gear up the hill.

You’ll also notice that on that elevation profile above, there are no flat sections. Unfortunately, when the rain is spitting at 20mph into your eyes, and the roads are full of tight turns, it’s hard enjoy the downhills like we usually do. But it was a good ride nonetheless.

Over the next few days riding through Kentucky, something magical happened. The hills got shorter and shorter until all of a sudden they completely disappeared into the flattest corn fields I have ever seen in my life. Check out this elevation profile from last Wednesday, our last full day in Kentucky. Spoiler: it gets way flatter in Illinois, but then Missouri gets bad again.

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It turns our biking on flat ground is a challenge too, when you are confronted with 10-15 mph headwinds. To combat this, many of us have started drafting each other, a tactic that blocks much of the wind for the riders in the back (like me). Shoutout to Thi for being a mule and leading most of the time. We have also started playing lots of fun games on the ride, like “Contact” or word association games that distract us from the endless miles of corn and soybeans.

We’re looking forward to getting back on the bikes after our two Learning Festivals in the St. Louis area. Stay posted. I’ve heard a lot of great things about the elevation profile in Kansas.

 

–Margalit

 

The Traveling Circus Stops For A Show

We just finished our first Learning Festival! We were warmly welcomed by the Challenger Learning Center in Hazard, Kentucky, one of the 47 centers across the country started by the families of the Challenger Astronauts killed in the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster. Students from all over Kentucky flock to Challenger for a variety of STEM programs, including Spokes (for the third year) and a chance to simulate space missions.

In eastern Kentucky, a region plagued by the decline of the coal industry followed by the rise of opium addiction, it is crucial that schools adapt to the new needs of the local economy. We met the former governor of Kentucky and other politicians who emphasized the urgency of this issue. Companies like Bit Source are turning laid-off coal miners into software engineers (read more: BitSource). One guy I met has successfully put iMacs into schools across eastern Kentucky on the condition that they be left on at all times so that when not in use by students, they work as a super computer doing cancer research (read more: DataseamGrid).

Our two day circus of STEM was in no way a solution to the problem, but it was a step in the right direction. Our team often discussed the balance between teaching and inspiring, how we can do both, and how we can make the biggest impact. My favorite teaching moment was while teaching the four color theorem by having the kids color a map of the US. I asked them to explain their strategy on how to use as few colors as possible and one kid explained how he started with coloring Kentucky because it borders seven states. Other states border more, but Kentucky borders an odd number so it is going to need more colors. This is exactly the strategy behind the four color theorem, but it was only coincidence that the kids were from the most strategic state to color first!

Thank you Hazard for making our first Learning Festival a joy to teach. As Dukes and Duchesses of Hazard*, we are ready to continue on our journey of biking and teaching and a whole lot in between. Thanks for reading, y’all!

-Olivia

* After the first day of teaching, one of the board members at Challenger had us over for a cookout with delicious southern home-cooking. During dessert, they presented us with certificates granting us official Duke and Duchess status of Hazard. Too bad we were all to young to get the reference and the Hazard in the TV show takes place in Hazzard, Georgia.

 

fruit (i’ve picked) so far

raspberries – the family made them into jam and salad dressing

mulberries – on the side of the road

black raspberries – not very ripe, but taste good because they were at the top of a hill

lavender – this was my favorite because although I didn’t pick it myself, I watched our host John pick it and then proceed to put a bunch of it in our van to try to eradicate the stench. It doesn’t get better than that.

-olivia