That first photo of the Big and me was taken in April of 2016 at the annual Northeast Astronomy Forum in New York, where we announced the Pedaling Astronomer Project. I was 62 years old, 5’9″ tall and weighed 150 pounds; the Big was 7’3″ long and weighed the same as I when she was loaded in her full self-sustained journey mode. The following month, we left our home state of Louisiana with the goal of pedaling the entire country – sans Alaska and Hawaii, of course.
The second photo is of the Big and me – more than 11,000 miles (17,700 kilometers) and 37 states later – on the rooftop of the Adventure Science Center in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, on the morning of August 21, 2017, the date of what was popularly billed as the Great American Eclipse. I’d shrunk about an inch in height and had dropped more than 20 pounds, while the Big hadn’t gotten any shorter but had gained about 15 pounds.
The Big? She’s an overlong Surly Bikes (brand) first-generation Big Dummy (model) cargo bike, who long ago proved that, although decidedly surly, she was anything but a dummy. So, I shortened her name.
The 2017 astronomical event was the first U.S. coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in 99 years. Although it could be viewed as a partial eclipse from each of the 48 mainland states, most media outlets were focused on the narrow 71-mile-wide path of spectacular totality. I was working then as editor of an astro-tech magazine and wanted to help ensure that all in the U.S. who would not be in the narrow path that day knew they, too, could view the once-in-our-lifetimes event, at least as a partial eclipse.
The premise of the ride project was that we would deliver telescope views of the Sun in each of the 48 states in the months leading up to the eclipse and explain how the event would appear from that location. But I was overly ambitious; I managed just 37 states before the eclipse. In truth, there was no eclipse-related reason to pedal the remaining 11 states afterward, but I doubted I’d have another chance to experience them by bike if I didn’t continue on, and so, I did.
Those remaining states were in the northwest quadrant of the U.S. mainland, and I pedaled them in the fall and winter of 2017-18. The 48-state journey found me ever in the right place in the wrong season, but never in more extreme conditions than during those closing months.
All told, the 48-state journey took 613 days and 14,960 miles (24,076 km). I began it – my first such bike journey – in May of 2016, and traveled alone, carrying everything I thought I’d need. I pedaled the last state in February of 2018, but I paused often to catch up on magazine work, give presentations, participate in astronomical and cycling events, and, sometimes, just for rest. Along the way, more than 40,000 people got their first views of the Sun, Moon or planets through telescopes the Big carried, and hearing their breathless gasps of wonder, which so often accompany first telescope views, made every mile worthwhile.
My ambitions for the journey included posting daily to the project website, but reality intervened. Pedaling (and pushing) the Big 50 to 60 miles and finding lodging and campsites, plus >5000 calories to consume – day after day – left too little time for magazine duties, much less blogging. Something had to give, and the daily blog was among the casualties. Eventually, I shut the original project website down entirely.
Which brings me to this, the new web home of the Pedaling Astronomer Project. The Big and I will be back on the road soon, but without the overwhelming demands of too-grandiose mileage goals. We’ll visit the highlight national parks we missed on our first journey, we’ll meet ever-more fascinating people, and I’ll report more faithfully on our continuing adventures here. And, as always, the Big will carry marvelous little telescopes with which to share celestial wonders along the way.
Meanwhile, I’ll fill in the details of the inaugural 48-state journey, as they occur to me, in future posts here.
But in 2024, there will be a second Great American Eclipse, and although it can be viewed as a partial eclipse from even more landmass than the 2017 version, I won’t be riding all of those many states, content instead to pedal the far-more-manageable 4545 miles (7316 kilometers) of the path of totality from Mazatlán, Mexico to Bonavista, Newfoundland.
Until then, clear skies, friends, and may the wind be forever at your backs.