For the past two months, my daughter, Saya, and son, Sho, and I have retraced a large section of the path Lewis and Clark took on their monumental journey west more than two centuries ago. After cycling through North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington, we’re in the final stretch of our own journey in Oregon with just a couple hundred miles to go before we reach our goal, the Pacific Ocean.
Children learn best through direct experience, and I see evidence of their growth every day.
We read the journals Meriwether Lewis and William Clark kept during their expedition each night, using their recollections as an opportunity to have thoughtful discussions about difficult topics — like the harsh realities of westward expansion in the U.S. And experiencing the American West from a bicycle is far more intimate and memorable than seeing it from the capsule of a car.
My children have identified plants Lewis and Clark documented so many years ago, like blue camas, a source of food at the time for Native Americans living near the Rocky Mountains, and yampah, white-tipped herbs that grow up to four feet high. Riding bicycles makes it easy to look for these plants — or spot a prairie dog popping out of its hole.
But of all the lessons my children have taken away from our journey, perhaps the greatest has been the remarkable kindness of strangers. Nearly every day, someone approaches us with an offer of assistance of some kind – a place to stay, bottles of cold water, or advice on what to see along our route.
As I mentioned at the outset of our trip, in an effort to give back, we decided to don citizen-scientist hats and participate in a roadkill survey as we cycled west (another thing that’s easy to do from a bike). So far, we’ve documented more than 150 animals that have been killed by vehicles, submitting photos of each fatality along with a geo-tag in an effort to make America’s roads safer for wildlife and people.
In Missoula, we met with officials from the Montana Department of Transportation, who have overseen the construction of 85 wildlife crossings in Western Montana alone, one of the most ambitious roadkill mitigation projects in the U.S. The results are impressive: so far, there has been a 40 percent reduction in wildlife vehicle collision on I-93 alone. More states should emulate this approach.
Traveling by bicycle with children is both rewarding and daunting. The foremost priority, of course, is keeping them safe. We are following a route designed for cyclists by the Adventure Cycling Association. Six-year-old Saya rides on a trailer cycle connected to my bicycle, which gives her the chance to pedal (or take a break and let me do all the work) while I maintain control over where we’re going. All in all, Saya included, I’m pulling about 150 pounds. A veteran cycler at 12, Sho rides his own bike with about 30 pounds of gear.
We typically cover about 45 miles each day (though we have been known to push it to 70 on occasion), making sure to take plenty of breaks. But we haven’t spent all our time in the saddle. Setting aside rest days here and there has also been key to our sanity — and helps us connect with the different landscapes and cultures we’re pedaling through.
We’ve explored the depths of the Lewis & Clark Caverns, hiked through forests, rafted down the Salmon River in the shadow of towering rocky bluffs, and spotted bald eagles and ospreys in the trees along the shore. One of the highlights of our trip was riding horses at the Rocking Z Guest Ranch near Helena, Montana. From the moment we arrived, I could tell this was a place where guests become family and return again and again. Saya described it as “more awesomer than awesome, more better than best!”
A family bicycle trip requires planning and commitment. You must be prepared to deal with flat tires, sudden rainstorms, squabbling children, and oncoming traffic. It’s not easy to cycle over mountain passes on heavily loaded bicycles, but easy things are rarely worthwhile. Every day you can feel your body growing stronger — along with your appreciation for the unique landscapes of the American West, and your love for your family. I know we will remember this trip for the rest of our lives.