Riding the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail — the story of Timothy Oracion, part 4
By Christina Stock
Today, we continue Timothy Oracion’s adventure on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. The first part was published Jan. 5, with a look into his background. After learning about preparations and the first challenges, Oracion’s story describes the dangers of a grizzly bear attack that happened to another camper in Cooke City, just outside of Yellowstone National Park. On Feb. 2, Oracion talked about the support that he had from home. On April 19, Oracion found shelter in Sioux City, the night before the city was struck by three EF-2 tornadoes. He also talked about the adventures he had traveling through Montana and South Dakota and his encounters with local law enforcement.
Today, in the last chapter of Oracion’s adventure, his focus is on the people he met and challenges along the way.
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In a follow-up phone interview on June 3, Oracion said, “On this trip, versus the Pacific Route (that he had done previously), what really made my TransAmerica trip special were the people. That did make the biggest impression on me, even though everything I saw and did was spectacular — but it was really the people, the ones I stayed with, the relationships with the people that I met that will be with me for the rest of my life.”
Oracion said that after a while, the days ran into each other, what stood out were the encounters with the locals. One of those were right at the start of his trip, which began Aug. 14 of last year. His host was a woman. “I met the neatest people. She actually rode out with me that morning; she was on the way to work. She’d worked for the University of Washington, so she said, ‘I go with you ways,’ heading out on the Burte-Gilman Trail out of Seattle, Washington.”
The 20-mile long trail is well-kept and crosses the University District. It follows a historic railroad route near the Lake Washington Ship Canal and along Lake Washington. It is a very popular cyclist route among the weekday non-motorized commuters of Seattle as it accesses several Seattle neighborhoods.
After an arduous looping road, Oracion met with a surprise: “I encountered a couple of people, they were doing the hike through the Pacific Crest Trail, I just happened to catch them as they were coming across there,” he said.
This trail is for experienced hikers, rewarding breathtaking views await them, however, the harsh unforgiving nature of the environment can be forbidding. The Washington part of the trail has one of the most beautiful views. Steep canyons lead up to Highway 12 at White Pass, looping around and around.
“After that pass, I did the descent, that was like 70 miles — I started that morning and didn’t finish,” Oracion said.
Asked what technology he used to find his way and if they were always correct, Oracion said, “There were a couple of times that I used Google map; I had the maps from Adventure Cycling and then I used also a bike app that keeps you off the interstate, it shows you where bike routes are.
“With the exception of three times it was accurate; it had me bushwhacking because it didn’t know if I was on a mountain bike or regular bike instead of fully loaded bike,” Oracion said. “There was one time in South Dakota, I think it was around Iona, South Dakota. I started off on a paved, really beautiful bike trail and then it went to a gravel, today they are using a lot of the old railroad sections that they don’t use anymore. They’ve taken the tracks off and turned them into really nice trails. Very nice to ride on, you don’t have to worry about traffic and you can really take it in. This one section went from paved, to nice gravel and then I looked across the way and it actually was a single track, like hiking path. I thought, well it’s mature enough, I can see the path. It would take me 2.6 miles to get to the next highway or county road. So I thought, OK, it looks mature enough, and if it deteriorates, I turn around and come back. Well, after 2.5 miles, it started deteriorating. I used a rating system, it started off as a 10 and now it’s a 7, now I am at about a 3 and I’m thinking, I can still see where the trail goes and then, at the 2.5-mile marker, it just quit. No trail and it was just that tangled brush. I could hear the traffic on the other side, I could hear the road that I needed to get to and I thought, can I push through and of course, I had to go through rose bushes that had thorns on them.”
Despite that Oracion’s goal was now only 30 yards away, he was not able to go straight through, but had to go around that patch of brush and forest when the next hurdle appeared.
“It was all marsh land, it was all standing water, mosquitos and all that,” he said. “I now invested almost two hours into that 2-mile stretch. Do I take all that time to go back? Oh no, not me, I’m stubborn: I had to lift my bike over a couple of trees, so do I want to do all that again (on the way back)? I thought, I’ll just find some large trees that are long enough that I can drop over that marshy water, and then I could kind of scurry across it. Well, that took another 30 minutes — to find trees that weren’t under other trees. I got several across there and got my bags and got those across, and kind of teetered and got my bike across it, and got it all loaded up again.
“I was on my way. It took me about 3 hours to go 2.7 miles. I thought, I’m not letting Google get me again, but it got me two more times,” Oracion said and laughed.
Oracion was not in a hurry, he said that he stopped over and over and took thousands of photos. “I encountered on some of the trails tunnels,” he said. “There was this one tunnel, it was actually 3/4 of a mile long, when I got in, you can’t see the light, you get in there and can hear the water running down the sides. Those were really neat.”
Traveling like Oracion did burns a lot of calories and to keep up his energy, he could splurge trying the different specialties of the region he went through. Some highlights of his was touring Hormel in Austin, South Dakota. In New Hampshire, he came upon a barn that had been a venue for a wedding the day before. The caterer gave him cupcakes he could enjoy. In Grand Rapids, Michigan he could sample some of his favorite beer.
By far his favorite moments Oracion said were when he stayed with members of the Warm Shower Community, a free worldwide hospitality exchange for and from bicyclists. One of those hosts was close to his age and surprised him with her trust. When he called her to see if she had room for him, Oracion said, “She said ‘Yeah, I can put you up.’ That was Red Lodge, Montana. I go there, had a nice meal, good craft beer, and I met her boyfriend Scott who came over. Then she said, ‘I’m leaving, I’m staying with Scott tonight.’ So she leaves me there (in her home) to lock up after I left.”
Still in Montana, Oracion had trouble with his bicycle. Far away from any town, he had to find help. It came in form of a Hippie couple named Spark and John. “This van came and pulled up and they come out saying, ‘I don’t know where we’re going to fit you because we got the van loaded. I said, ‘No problem.’ They had two bikes on the carrier on their van; they put the bike there, bags inside, but I would have to sit on top. I said, ‘No matter, I’ll lay on top if I have to.’ I really appreciated it. I had a nice visit with them.”
However, Oracion said that he had a little bit of an uneasy feeling because that’s how horror movies begin. “Hmm, I hope it ends well and I can go back and tell the story,” he said he thought at the time. “So we’re visiting, and we went to some places to grab fruit because they were familiar with the area, then we get to the town and the bike shop’s closed. It was a Sunday. They said, ‘You’re welcome to stay with us if you want.’”
To Oracion’s surprise, the couple turned out to be not only musicians, but the man was a renowned marimba drum maker — an African xylophone-type instrument — with contracts around the world. “So that evening, I am listening to them playing marimba,” he said. “Some of them are huge, like the bass, they had them set up in their living room. They usually have five people visiting, and I am listening to a concert that night. They were the neatest people, they weren’t part of the Warm Showers, but they were just as nice.
“I never knew where I would be (during his tour) and here I was listening to this, being entertained. They said I could set up my tent, so I slept outside — very comfortable, but they were in Grizzly country. I told them, ‘I am close enough you can hear me scream,’” Oracion said and chuckled. “That was it that made the trip special.”
Another host was a freelance writer for a bicycling magazine. She gave him the advice to go through South Dakota not North Dakota. “She did a story on sites to see in South Dakota, that was real helpful,” Oracion said.
“On the day of my birthday, I woke up in Minnesota and made it over to Wisconsin, that was the evening for my 60th birthday. I almost went through the entire state of Wisconsin without having to get on a road, they had those paved trails because they had a lot of former railways. One was like a 106-mile trail that I could ride on without ever getting on a road,” Oracion said. He hit the area just in time to enjoy the colorful leaves of its Indian Summer.
One of the toughest parts of the trip was toward the end of Oracion’s tour. He had planned to finish on Oct. 16, but it would be a day later when he arrived in Bar Harbor, Maine because of an approaching nor’easter that blew in with gusts up to 90 mph, hard enough to drive in it with a car, even tougher on a bicycle. But he made it just before the full force of the storm hit, arriving safely in a hotel from where he called his wife Donna Oracion.
Back in Roswell, Oracion said that his memories are some of the most precious things he has, next to the thousands of photos and video clips. “It is nice to wake up in the morning and think about it,” he said. “I really did that. You always tell people that traveling and all of that, it’s memories that never can be taken away from you, even if you become homeless tomorrow or destitute. If you traveled, you always have those experiences regardless what happens in life.”
The interview took place in Roswell before the pandemic hit. In the phone interview, Oracion said he was glad that he had not postponed the trip.
“I keep thinking if I had planned for this trip this year, it just wouldn’t have happened, or if it was going to happen, I would have had some reservations because of traveling and meeting people and staying, having them host me,” he said. “Those type of things may not have been even available and if so, on a limited basis, with people afraid to have someone come into their home. That did weigh on my mind as I thought, ‘Wow, I am glad that I did that in 2019 versus this year.’ I would have probably not done it because of my concerns.
“You think you have time, but we are never guaranteed any additional time. Today could be our last day on Earth and — at least in my case — I feel you need to act on things sooner rather than later,” Oracion said.
This insight comes due to a tragic loss. One of the couples Oracion stayed with before his birthday were in Minnesota. “A very nice couple,” he said. “He was a youth minister and associate pastor, and I’m going to say they were in their late 50s and real nice. He even made a trip from work. He came home, opened the garage, greeted me, invited me. I really had a wonderful visit with them that night. They also were cyclists and he was talking about the fact that he and his wife were going to take some weeklong tours — they’ve done it in the past. I only met them overnight, but they really made an impression on me. I stayed in contact with him on Facebook. He was diagnosed with cancer in November or December, and I was there in September — he had probably no idea — he certainly looked healthy and probably didn’t know he had cancer and about two, maybe three weeks ago, he passed away. They were talking about making cycling trips and planning for the future, and little did he know, he had no idea, that his time on this Earth was going to be very limited.
“‘Don’t put it off because you don’t know what the future holds,’ those were a couple of things I reflected on since I finished my trip,” Oracion said.
In the months of social distancing and the pandemic, retired, Oracion kept busy, bicycling and hiking where he was permitted. He said he was one of the first out at Bottomless Lakes on Sunday after it reopened last week. However, the brush was so thick that he almost surprised three snakes. They were hidden so well, he couldn’t tell if they were harmless or rattle snakes, so he chose a different route.
Asked about his future plans, Oracion said, “I am laughing to myself, I had enough time that I started to plan on my bucket list, and Donna, she rolls her eyes and says, ‘Sure go ahead, that’s not happening.’ I’ve had enough rest that I have a couple of ideas what my next adventures might be.”
Oracion said he might take on the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail, this time with a mountain bike. “The other thing,” he said, “I told Donna, if and when she will retire, then I would love to do a bicycle tour of Europe with different areas like Spain would be fine; Ireland, which we’ve done before but not on a bike. Those are a few things I’ve been teasing her so far, but I hold my breath for now. I’ll let you know what happens with it.”
Oracion achieved to ride the TransAmerican Bicycle Trail in 56 days, starting Aug. 14 and finishing Oct. 17, a trip of 4,600 miles.
For those who missed the first parts of Oracion’s story, they are available for free at rdrnews.com/category/news/vision.