If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, Whitney Washington’s 3,700-mile route across the country began with a few hard-earned turns of the bike wheel. She estimates that she traveled about 5 miles her first day, but as she gained strength and experience over the course of weeks and then months, that number grew to 20 and then 40 and then as many as 87 miles in a single day near the end of her journey.
“It was a very beautiful experience that I want to do more of,” enthused Washington of her adventure last summer on the Great American Rail-Trail®. “Before learning about rail-trails, it just seemed like such a far-off dream, like, ‘Maybe one day I’ll bike across America.’ And, now, it’s like, ‘Wow, I biked across America!’ Sometimes you don’t think it’s true—but it is!”
For Washington, someone who hadn’t biked in about a decade, the trip wasn’t just about discovering the country—it was about rediscovering herself.
“I’ve been fat my entire life and there is a point where you focus on just trying to lose weight,” explained Washington. “And you think that, until you lose weight, you can’t do these other things. But because of Instagram, I started to see the stories of fat people who were athletes. They were running marathons and climbing mountains and biking and doing all of these different things. You’re told you’re not capable of things and then you see people that are your size that are doing things that just seem impossible, so you start thinking, ‘What is actually possible?’”
After reading an article about the Great American route that a friend had shared with her, Washington decided that she wanted to give it a try. She began researching and preparing in February 2021, and started her journey that June, shortly after her 30th birthday. Taking the train up from her home in Jacksonville, Florida, she made her way to Washington, D.C., the eastern terminus of the route. The reality of the challenge before her was more difficult than she imagined and, after an inauspicious start, considered giving up.
“I called my dad crying because I just felt like I couldn't do it,” Washington recalled. “In the beginning, you get really lonely because you’re just out there. And my dad was like, ‘I’ll come get you, but just give yourself a couple more days and see if you still feel like that.’”
Buoyed by his support, Washington said she was encouraged to just keep pedaling. Taking it one day at a time, she soon acclimated to the experience and, as she crossed the Midwest, her confidence steadily grew. Iowa was one of her favorite states and she credits its gently rolling hills with making her a better biker, as she had to learn how to use her gears more effectively.
“After I went my first 10-mile day, I just started getting more and more excited,” said Washington. “I wanted to see how far I could go. Seeing myself grow was one of the biggest things that helped keep me going.”
Washington would be the first to tell you that the going wasn’t always easy. Early on, she struggled with a heavy bike made heavier by the things that Washington later learned she could do without.
“I definitely overpacked,” Washington chuckled. “Because I just hadn’t ever really even camped outside before. I packed, like, a camp toilet.”
And, once she got a lighter bike—one generously provided by RTC board member Noel Kegel, president of Wheel & Sprocket—“It just made it so much more magical. I felt like I could fly.”
Through the diverse terrain and ever-changing weather, one thing remained constant: the kindness of strangers. From giving her a ride to the trailhead to sharing snacks and filling water bottles to checking her bike to make sure it was in tip-top shape, people along the way recognized the challenges she faced and stepped up to help. Those small altruistic acts turned rain into rainbows and provided the motivation to keep going.
While pedaling through a remote area of Nebraska, she struggled with spoke issues that ultimately necessitated a drive across the state rather than continuing on-trail. As Wyoming, the next state over, still has a ways to go in completing its Great American route, she traveled by car across that state as well. These decisions, she admits, made her feel guilty, but as she reflected on the experience, she grew a deeper appreciation for what she had been through already and softened her stance on herself.
“At first, you have that mentality of being a completion-ist and making sure you do every single mile, but sometimes you just need to do what’s right for you—let it be your ride,” said Washington. “Otherwise, it kind of cheats you out of being able to embrace the adventure because you’re not having the fun that you were intensely trying to have because you’re trying to be perfect.”
Embracing the Journey
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Things went smoother once she hit Montana, which Washington calls “breathtaking.” Although she opted to bike on-road across the state, she noted that the route had a wide shoulder and there were “waterfalls, pretty lakes and views of the mountains” along the way. Approaching the border, Washington learned of wildfires raging in eastern Washington state and opted to take an Amtrak train the rest of the way, flying home from Seattle in September.
When asked about her Instagram handle, “Recapturing Life,” Washington recounts a story from her Great American experience: “In Missoula, at one of my Warm Showers, my host was 87 years old and, earlier that year, she had biked in Alaska—that Denali Highway—with this tiny pink bike,” said Washington. “She was just living her life! That's how I want to be: It’s about recapturing the life that you were meant to have. We limit ourselves because we don't even know what we’re capable of.”
So what’s next for someone who’s already biked most of the way across the country? Traveling across more countries, plural. This summer, she’s planning to bike from Alaska to Argentina, documenting her journey on video as her experience on the Great American helped Washington embrace another aspect of herself: that she’s a filmmaker.
“One of the biggest comments that I always get is people saying, ‘I could never do that,’” said Washington. “But I feel like there are a lot more people that could do it than they realize because it’s just a mindset thing.”
With her next trip, she wants to create a web series to provide a front-row seat to the experience and motivate other people to forge their own journeys. You can follow Whitney Washington’s next biking journey on Instagram or GoFundMe.
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