The first thing I’m often asked when someone hears about this plan to ride Highway 89 from Canada to Mexico is “Why?”
Following the Line
To explain, I guess I should start by talking about maps. As I child I liked to follow along on a map while we drove. I made up my own maps and dreamed of exploring new places as I stared at maps. When I began driving, the itch grew. As I drove on highways and freeways, I would ponder staying on the road and exploring where they would go.
A few years later, while a student, I started planning out a bike ride from Sharon, Vermont to Salt Lake City, UT. I had participated in the sesquicentennial pioneer trek in Wyoming two years earlier and thought to follow the historic route of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the birthplace of Joseph Smith, to Palmyra, New York, through Ohio, Missouri and to Utah.
As I graduated from Utah State University, began a job as a reporter, and then started a grad program at the University of Missouri, the idea of exploring a road from start to finish remained in the back of my head, but life was too busy.
After I finished grad school I started participating in cycling events. LOTOJA, Salt to Saint, and Saints to Sinners all used portions of Highway 89. The sections I rode were beautiful. I moved into a home near the road and often rode 89 when going into work. The idea of riding this road grew into a plan.
U.S. Route 89
Highway 89 starts near Glacier National Park. It heads southeast through Montana’s Rocky Mountains and enters the northern border of Yellowstone National Park. The road continues through Grand Teton National Park and on to Jackson, Wyoming. It goes briefly through a corner of Idaho. In Utah the road passes Bryce Canyon National Park and heads toward Zion National Park. In Arizona, it goes past Grand Canyon National Park and in Tucson it passes between the two sections of Saguaro National Park. That’s seven national parks along one highway.
Highway 89 started in 1926. At first it ran from Nogales, AZ to Spanish Fork, UT. In 1934 it was extended to Canada. It’s not the longest highway, but it has to be the most scenic. In 1992, the southern end of the highway was moved to Flagstaff, AZ. I plan to follow the historic route south of there, though we’ll follow an alternative route out of Flagstaff to avoid riding on a freeway.
This road is beautiful. And it runs just past my house. I can hear traffic on the road when I’m lying in bed. The desire to explore it from end to end, to truly know this road burns within me.
So that’s why 89.
But why the bike?
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” —Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway had it right. You really appreciate hills on a bike since you’re responsible for getting up and down them.
The fact is, I love riding my bike. I feel an intimacy with roads that I can’t gain in any other way. When I’m riding at 12-40 mph, there’s no motor to block out the noise. I can hear birds, animals, and the breeze. The smell of the sun-soaked pine trees and sage fills my nose. You become part of the landscape instead of seeing it through the window of an air-conditioned vehicle while listening to music at 60 mph.
By exploring a road so thoroughly, Highway 89 will become mine. I will own it because I will know it so completely.
So that’s why I want to do it. I hope you’ll join me, at least virtually on this exploration.