Packing Out Trash and Unpacking Myself
4,700 Miles Across America by Bicycle
By Abigail Taylor
On the outside, it might look like I wing most of my life. In the past five years I’ve never spent more than 6 months in one spot; always dragging my tired truck from job to job, coast to coast.
In my heart, I am a planner. I’d go crazy not knowing what the next six months held for me, so I string jobs and housing together seamlessly.
True to form, about a month into my winter ski bum gig, I was already figuring out what I’d be doing once spring hit. This wasn’t that hard, because I’d been returning to the Northwest Outward Bound School for the past four warm seasons, and this one would be no different. My dream contract was offered to me: all the river trips I wanted, the mountains I yearned to climb. I signed it immediately, only a short fax job between me and summer employment bliss.
Then, something happened that I didn’t and in all honesty, would never have planned for: someone I hadn’t spoken to in two years called me.
While I’d been adventuring around Oregon, an old college flame of mine, Seth Orme, had been walking and trash picking his way to thru-hiker celebrity status via the Packing It Out initiative. As a Leave No Trace trainer and lover of the outdoors, I really respected Seth for cleaning up both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, but it’s something I would never do. To know how I feel about backpacking, know that last time Seth and I hiked together, we had to hitchhike out of the Smoky Mountains during a snowstorm.
So why was Seth calling me? He needed my help. He was doing Packing It Out for a third year, but wanted something different: something audacious. He wanted to do a cross country bicycle tour, while cleaning up scenic spaces, giving 11 presentations and organizing community cleanups along the way, fully sponsored and paid for by REI and a couple other outdoor companies. So where would I come in? He needed a partner, and I was the top name on a short list of people Seth knew with enough outdoor skills and time available to make it work. He ended the offer with laugh, “Don’t worry, this isn’t some elaborate ploy to get you back.”
I’d been a commuter on my fixed gear bike, but my longest ride to date was a 50K that was more Pabst drinking than physical effort. My completed Outward Bound contract was glaring at me, waiting to be faxed away. It was a lot to think about at once. I demanded Seth give me a week to give him an answer.
I spent the next seven days making lists and calling my favorite confidants. Deciding between a job I really enjoyed and something I’d never even thought about doing was harder than I thought. At the end of the week, the nagging feeling I’d had since talking to Seth won out. I mournfully rejected my Outward Bound contract and said yes to the bike tour.
That was where things stopped being easy.
Ski season ended April 17th, and I needed to be packed up on a bicycle, pedaling away from the Georgia coast on April 26th. My little red truck hauled all my gear back to my hometown. I spent what time I could with my family before my mom shuttled Seth and I to Cumberland Island, Georgia. It didn’t feel real until I watched my mom’s car drive away. I was left with a bike, the belongings I’d packed, and someone I hadn’t seen in two years.
Those first days were rough. Humidity in South Georgia is something you never get used to, but must embrace. These little bugs called gnats swarm your face, making breaks off the bikes much less enjoyable. Litter culture is prevalent, and every roadside was covered in fast food trash and beer bottles. We pedaled on, picking up trash at 10 mph all through the south. Seth and I eased into getting to know each other again. He’d been thru-hiking the past two years, and runs marathons for an afternoon workout. I’m a weekend warrior with asthma. We are an unlikely pair.
Seth and I eased into getting to know each other again. He’d been thru-hiking the past two years, and runs marathons for an afternoon workout. I’m a weekend warrior with asthma. We are an unlikely pair.
We hit Atlanta and then headed east to Asheville, we poked through Tennessee on our way to Virginia. It was incredible to be able to explore the stomping grounds of my youth via bicycle. It is such an immersive style of travel, you can feel the wind and the fog. You can smell the sweet honeysuckle or sour dairy farm. Your skin buzzes after a long day of riding. The downside of slow travel is that you are able to see everything. Trash on the side of the road permeating past the tree line. So much litter that if we’d stopped to pick it all up, we’d still be down south somewhere, stuck on some roadside shoving Bud Light cans into a bag.
The downside of slow travel is that you are able to see everything… So much litter that if we’d stopped to pick it all up, we’d still be down south somewhere, stuck on some roadside shoving Bud Light cans into a bag.
Our route was about as indirect as you could get, based on where public land access and the 11 REI stores we would be presenting at. We changed our plan often, mostly for my sake. We’d planned on cycling the entire Blue Ridge Parkway, but after the elevation change on the way to Asheville, I told Seth I needed a different option. We lucked out that we always seemed to have a different way available.
After reaching Washington DC we headed north through the Rustbelt, then we crossed Lake Michigan into the heartlands of the Midwest. We camped in church yards, backyards, on floors and on park benches. We cycled through blinding rain and halting headwinds. We picked up wild trash: ancient cans, cliff side sex toys, and a rainbow of plastic bits.
The landscape opened up in South Dakota. Light lasted forever, the sun seeming hesitant to drop below the horizon. South of the Black Hills toward Nebraska, things got desolate. The road we’d picked was more of a sand path, winding through remote ranch lands: no shade or civilization in sight.
For a 14 mile stretch I pushed my bike through tire-sucking sand. I cursed at the sky, and often wondered why I was out in the middle of nowhere with a bike. Sometimes, I couldn’t find any answers I actually believed. After wiping my tears and taking a breath, I would pick my bike up and move on. Something in me kept pushing me forward. Something kept me digging aluminum cans out of the dirt and strapping them to my bike.
After wiping my tears and taking a breath, I would pick my bike up and move on. Something in me kept pushing me forward. Something kept me digging aluminum cans out of the dirt and strapping them to my bike.
We continued south, to Colorado. We had an amazing cleanup with the staff at Sierra Designs, packing out several truckloads of trash. The prettiest of places are not immune to litter, and sometimes sadly, it seems they attract it. After taking a short break off the bikes and attending Outdoor Retailer, I finally felt ready to get back at it. We’d made it over halfway, farther than I’d ever imagined. There were many times I had to push my bike to make it over a pass or we’d had to change our route to easier terrain. I’d cried my eyes out plenty of times, but was finally feeling confident again.
I got blindsided by Rocky Mountain National Park. While we did have the freedom to change our route as we pleased, we were still on a time constraint to get to presentations on time. Leaving from Estes Park, it was most direct to take Trail Ridge Road through RMNP. The highest paved through road in the country. We weren’t even past the gates when my legs started feeling like sandbags. Pavement climbs upwards, winding through progressively steeper Colorado mountains. I pushed my bike and gasped for air. Tears stung my eyes and I thought of how I’d get through this because I certainly couldn’t cycle it. I began to think of outs, how I could turn around and coast back to Estes Park, get a bus to Denver and fly home.
I laid down my bike and began to sob on the side of the road. I was frustrated, embarrassed, scared. I’ve always been very independent, and have never wanted someone to carry my weight… figuratively or literally.
Seth knew I was struggling. He offered to take the weight of my panniers and add them to his bike. Choking back tears, I told him no. I laid down my bike and began to sob on the side of the road. I was frustrated, embarrassed, scared. I’ve always been very independent, and have never wanted someone to carry my weight… figuratively or literally. It took me too long to realize how childish and selfish I was being. I was choosing giving up over letting someone help me. I’d set off to cycle across the country with a partner, not by myself. As I composed myself and attached my panniers on Seth’s bike, I let go the feeling of guilt. Later on I picked up an aluminum can in the fragile alpine zone that the road passes through, I was grateful for having made it this far. We continued upward and westward.
In Wyoming my legs felt strong again, and I took back my bags. We began to follow old routes, the same ones the Pioneers made when they headed west.
Descending into Teton Valley was incredible with Mount Moran towering above the road, playing peekaboo around each corner. We wound our way through Yellowstone, meeting and sharing campsites with people from all over the world. In Montana smoke started to creep over the mountains and haze out the landscape. Soon it grew thick enough to cloud the sun, snowing ash and choking our lungs. We pushed forward through Washington, and as we descended into the Columbia River Gorge heading towards our final mountain pass, the smoke cleared.
The summit of Steven’s Pass came sooner than expected, my legs felt good and were pleasantly over-prepared for the climb. We came upon a group doing trail magic for PCT thru-hikers on the pass, they waved us over and turned us toward the table of free food. We ate ham sandwiches and Oreos triumphantly; we were finished with the last pass of the trip! What I had imagined being one long beautiful coast into Seattle turned out to be a nice descent from Steven’s and then a healthy up-and-down to the city. We spent our final night at a hiker hostel, and then pushed the remaining 73 miles to Seattle on Sept 11th.
Finally rolling my tires into the sand and looking out over the Pacific Ocean made the last four months seem to go at lightning speed. As I took my shoes off and waded into the freezing water, I felt the entire range of emotions. Grateful and happy to have made it to the end. Sad to be done with the trip but relieved at the same time. Anxious about life after the tour wrapped up. I didn’t laugh, or cry, or yell, I just stood in the cold water and let the summer wash away from me.
When I needed to learn a lesson, my bike didn’t sugarcoat it.
All in all we cycled 4,700 miles, packed out over 2,130 pounds of trash and met thousands of people across the country. We couldn’t have done it without our friends, family, sponsors, volunteers and kind strangers. This cycling tour helped me in a lot of ways. It came at a time when I needed a healthy kick out of my comfort zone. While our nation is so divided, it helped me fall back in love with the United States and my fellow citizens. When I needed to learn a lesson, my bike didn’t sugarcoat it.
It’s been almost two months since we showed our last PowerPoint, weighed our last bag of trash and shipped our bicycles home. I’ve been catching up with family and friends, but mostly I’ve been finding quiet places to think. I believe that taking time to reflect is a very important part of any experience.
I can say that I am tougher now, both mentally and physically after this trip. I have a little more bike knowledge. I’ve learned to accept help and not be embarrassed for needing it. Other learnings will come in time, but I’m in no hurry. I think Seth said it best as we watched the sun set across from Mount Ranier on our last day. “Maybe that’s why it’s called the trip of a lifetime. It takes a whole lifetime to digest.”
Photos courtesy of Abigail Taylor and Seth Orme.
Abby Taylor – Born and raised in the Appalachian foothills of NE Georgia, I’ve always spent as much time as I could playing outside. Turns out it wasn’t a phase. After being called a Tomboy for most of my life, I support SheExplores because they give women a voice in the wilderness and a platform to share experiences.