This is part five of a series of posts discussing various aspects of a bike trip I did across the United States in 2012. Part one discussed the start of the trip and choosing a route. Part two discussed my daily routine and nightly shelter. Part three discussed general mileage, elevation encountered, and state-by-state scenery. Part four discussed mileage extremes and water. This post discusses what I ate during my trip, before, during, and after biking.
Some people when touring will purchase food in grocery stores and cook with a backpacking stove or similar. This saves money over eating in restaurants, but it requires more time and effort, and it’s extra weight to carry. My goal was to bike across the country, and really nothing more: particularly, not to bike across the country while camping. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just wasn’t a goal this trip.) So I did whatever made sense where I was. In the western parts where I didn’t try to bike quite so far each day, I usually had time to eat in a restaurant for lunch or dinner, perhaps both if I was in the right place. But it depended where I was, and whether anything was available.
It wasn’t uncommon for me to eat out of small food supplies rustled up from a general store. This became much more common after I passed Pueblo, when I reached smoother terrain and needed to make up for lost mileage. By the last couple weeks, I was fairly regularly eating out of gas stations. It wasn’t ideal, and it was not high cuisine, but it got the job done.
The best meal of the entire trip was doubtless the barbecue dinner I had at K&A Chuckwagon in Monticello, UT. The large quantity and variety of traditional Western dishes left me contentedly stuffed. They even gave me a loaf of bread and honey butter to carry and eat the next day — a much-appreciated change from constant candy bars. (Seriously: parents, if you have a kid who likes candy too much, take him on a trip like this with only candy bars to eat for energy. He’ll get so sick of them eventually that he’ll never enjoy eating them again. [Which isn't to say I've reached that point, exactly, but I very rarely eat a candy bar for anything other than energy while exercising, these days.]) If you’re passing through, you absolutely must eat at K&A Chuckwagon. You might also consider staying at Inn at the Canyons, literally across the street. They have a pool, unlike one other place in town they’ll let you take your bike in your room, and you can’t ask for a shorter walk to food after a long day of cycling.
I noticed very quickly that if I hadn’t had breakfast, or a good approximation to it, I dragged in the morning. I always dragged in the morning — I’m not a morning person, and I never really tried to consistently start the day early. But on days when I didn’t have much to eat in the morning, it was noticeably worse. Unfortunately, sometimes this came with the terrain: if there was no place around to eat, I made do with whatever I’d purchased the previous day.
Energy during the day
While cycling I survived on a constant stream of candy bars. Snickers and peanut butter Snickers in particular are generally the best candy bars for this, because they have the most calories per ounce. (Although, it looks like chocolate-peanut-butter-Twix may have recently usurped this throne, judging by experience from my last backpacking trip.) And as the calories are peanut-based, they’re at least slightly more complex and long-lasting than the sugar calories in most candy. (Probably not as good as an actual energy bar, but who wants to eat those? Ugh, they taste awful.) I carried a few to half a dozen candy bars pretty much constantly, depending on planned mileage.
I didn’t plan on it, but often when I stopped to use a bathroom at a gas station, I had more than enough candy for the day’s ride. I had to find something else to nominally pay for the bathroom, and as often as not I’d pick up a Powerade or similar, to break up the monotony of plain water. This worked reasonably well, but I found that it didn’t take much of it for the citric acid in it to trigger mild heartburn. I eased off somewhat after I noticed the correlation, but it was the simplest solution to the problem, so I kept buying them in lesser quantities as I went.
Milk shake mania
On the go, the best recurring snack was doubtless milk shakes. Cold, lots and lots of calories, full of water to rehydrate, lots of flavors — what’s not to like? I stopped at ice cream stores and local soda fountains for shakes (and perhaps lunch) when I had time. But many more times I enjoyed a shake at a gas station, courtesy of the amazing f’real experience. Their concept is a fountain-drink-sized cups mostly filled with ice cream (or blended fruit, but those had fewer calories, so I stuck to the ice cream), in any of various flavors. Then each store has an machine that will add milk and mix up a shake for you. What could possibly be better? (I will admit, however, to wondering who else possibly enjoys these things, as they ranged from 300-700 calories — even crazier than the count in a king-sized [pardon me, "two to go"] candy bar. That’s a huge number of calories to enjoy, not even as an entire meal!) f’real seemed to exist more often in the west than in the east, sadly. And I was particularly disappointed to see that the main gas-station chain in the central states, Casey’s General Store, didn’t have them at all. They’d have made a lot of money off me if they did! (And I wouldn’t have deliberately avoided them hoping to find f’real at other stores.)
One thing I wish I’d seen while biking was a Cold Stone. I don’t particularly care one way or another for Cold Stone. It’s not bad, but honestly, I don’t really truly notice the higher-quality ice cream enough to make it worth paying for it, usually. But shortly after I returned from the trip I happened to visit a Cold Stone, and I observed that the posted calorie range for a milk shake ranged from ~700 calories up to 2000 calories. I have no idea how you could possibly make a 2000 calorie milk shake! But it would have been about perfect for me, on this trip. (I wonder whether I’d have needed to eat anything else the entire day!)
Most people at restaurants order food with fewer calories. Subway prominently advertises calorie counts on everything, for example. I always find these numbers highly amusing on trips like this, because I’m constantly aiming to maximize calorie count as obscenely as I possibly can. Low fat? Sugar-free? Pshaw. Pass the butter!
Next time, elevation extremes, Monarch Pass in particular.