Coast-to-coast: Brown finds challenges, joy, reflection on his bike
By ANDY KIRKALDY
MIDDLEBURY — On July 16, like any number of summer vacationers, Swift House Inn co-owner Dan Brown and his longtime friend Jim Mower dipped their toes into the Atlantic Ocean in Hampton, N.H., not far from Mower’s home.
But Brown and Mower were not typical bathers: Getting their feet wet was the last step of a 3,173-mile, 48-day bicycle trip that began in Everett, Wash., on the shore of the Pacific Ocean.
And the journey truly began 20 years ago, when the idea of a two-wheel cross-country odyssey first struck Brown, a retired U.S. Navy pilot who is now 59.
Back then, before 13 years of innkeeping began to demand his full attention, Brown was a cycling enthusiast, and trans-continental bike races were making headlines.
“I just thought it was a great thing,” he said. “It was just something so big that when I first started talking about it, it was like talking smack, ‘OK, I’m going to do this.’ And then eventually talking smack it was like, ‘OK, you’re going to have to do this if you’re going to keep talking smack about doing this.’”
The Ithaca, N.Y., native and U.S. Naval Academy graduate kept that dream alive when he retired from the military 10 years ago. At that time he and his wife, Michele, sold their Annapolis, Md., bed and breakfast and bought a small inn in Maine, which they sold in 2004 to buy the Swift House in Middlebury.
But the moves and the rigors of the hospitality business kept postponing the trip, until finally everything lined up for this year — the Browns felt they had done enough at their Stewart Lane inn to allow him the time off.
If anything, Brown’s motivation had grown stronger in the interim.
“Particularly now at my age it was just a confirmation that I don’t have to be old, that I can still do amazing things physically and mentally,” Brown said. “It was all personal, not to celebrate my ego or anything like that. It was just to say I’m still alive and healthy and can still do things like that.”
The first 10 days of the trip proved to be the toughest challenge to that goal. Although Brown and Mower swung southward to avoid the heart of Washington’s Cascade Mountains, they still had to deal with highlands, climbing the 4,061-foot-high Stevens Pass, and the reality of logging roughly 60 miles a day in rugged terrain.
Brown described the challenge as about 40 percent physical and 60 percent mental. His knees and back started barking at him, and it hurt to sit in the saddle.
“I don’t think I ever thought I would quit. But I thought on a few occasions, ‘What am I doing out here and why?’ And on several occasions I thought, ‘How? How am I going to do this? How am I going to get the physical strength?’” he said. “I was hurt so bad the first days … It got so all I had to do was sit in the saddle, and it was searing, burning pain.”
But he and Mower learned their bodies were resilient, and that determination would take them a long way.
“After things started healing and I started feeling better, it was just get up one more day and do this. Get up one more day and do this,” Brown said.
Mutual support also helped.
“I would have a bad day or a bad couple of hours, or he would have a bad day or a bad couple of hours. Fortunately, I don’t think we ever coupled them together,” Brown said.
And even during the tough days, the sense they were making progress and the breathtaking scenery around them kept them going. Making it to the top of Stevens Pass, even after stopping every half-mile to rest, renewed their resolve.
“It was beautiful. We were surrounded by snow up there. It was so beautiful. And it was an accomplishment,” Brown said.
After the Cascades they reached the high plains of eastern Washington and rejoined U.S. Route 2, which they followed all the way to Michigan. Another highlight lay in wait before they left Washington. With Mower riding on ahead, Brown coasted alone on a cool, sunny day. A planting of winter wheat stood on one side of the road, and a plowed field lay on the other.
“I stopped the bike on the highway, and there was an old abandoned house across the street, and I could see forever. And I just looked around, and the only sound was a chirping peeper and a bird. There was no wind. There were no cars. Nothing. And it was just gorgeous. And you knew it was made to bike across,” he said.
Another high point was crossing the Continental Divide in western Montana.
“Knowing that was our last mountain until I got to Vermont was exhilarating, Brown said. “Those mountain passes were typical occasions where Jim and I would high-five each other.”
One more challenging stretch was to come. Montana should have been a scenic joy, with vistas of vast plains and distant mountains. Instead, eight straight days of rain and fog made life miserable, and Brown hit his lowest point.
“It was beautiful around us, but we couldn’t see anything because of all the fog around us. And I was really hurting that day. I was really sore, and Jim was way ahead of me and out of sight, and I just stopped the bike. And I … looked around and said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this. How am I going to do this? How am I physically going to get through this pain and keep going?’ And I literally sat there and cried,” he said.
To this day, Brown is not sure how he kept going. But he said at the end of each day, when he and Mower checked into a motel (they didn’t camp, in order to keep their load to a manageable 24 pounds), they were in a good mood.
“Every day I came into the motel I was smiling,” he said.
When the rains stopped, they began to crank out 85 miles a day on a regular basis across the upper Midwest. In all, Brown estimates they averaged 75 miles a day, with five days of rest, after the slow start in the Western mountains. They crossed over into Canada in upper Michigan to save several hundred miles, and re-entered the U.S. at Niagara Falls.
After following a New York state bike path that in large part tracked the Erie Canal, they crossed into Vermont, a stretch of the trip that Brown said was unsurpassed.
“It is the prettiest state. Riding from Bennington to Brattleboro was the prettiest stretch of road that we rode on, except maybe on that Montana stretch that we couldn’t see the mountains. That might have been breathtaking,” he said.
Before long came the final ride. As they pedaled by Mower’s home on the way to the beach, Brown knew Michele and many of Mower’s family would be waiting, and that the journey would be over. He found it to be a surprisingly moving moment.
“I cried. And I can almost cry now. It was really exciting,” he said. “As we were cycling in, and it was a beautiful road we were on, and I was just behind him, and he said ‘Around the next curve.” And I said, “I can smell the ocean.’ And he said, “Around the next curve it opens right up into the ocean.’ So I just came up alongside him, and we just came down the street, and there they were, with a great big banner. I can get emotional about it now. It was just so exciting to finally be done and see that anybody cared.”
SENSE OF CALM
Now, Brown contrasts his and Michele’s hectic life at the Swift House with the hours of reflection his odyssey allowed.
“I think it gave me a great sense of calm, and one thing I said I would like to do is if I could bring that sense of calmness back to my work and back into my life. Because being an innkeeper is really busy. There are constant demands and people coming and going,” he said. “I was just hoping to bring back that I can be a little more at peace and a little more calm about who I am and the way I do business. And so far it’s worked, but it’s not October yet.”
But Brown believes he can hang onto some of that newfound tranquility even during foliage season, the inn’s busiest.
“I think I’m thinking twice before I react, and stuff like that, and the interesting thing is we still have the same pressures we had before I left,” he said. “I think it’s having an impact on me.”