I'm planning to leave May 18 or May 25. I'm thinking ... to mirror the westward expansion of the country.
Does that departure date sound good? Should I budget more time? I could use as little as 8 weeks and probably as much as 11, but I don't want to overbudget either.
A May 18 departure from the east is nearly ideal. I did it in 10 weeks, which I think is about average. Some people who like low mileage or frequent rest days might take 12 or 13, and some crazy people in a hurry might do it in 8, but 10 is very doable and slow enough to be enjoyable.
It seems that for most people, the TransAmerica route is best for the first time. I think I could ride from New Jersey, where I live, to Virginia and pick up the trail from there.
However, I'd really like to wind up in San Francisco, where my grandma lives. How difficult would that be?
I see from the map that there is a route directly west out of Colorado. I read that southern Utah is beautiful, and that's where this route would go.
I also have friends in Chicago, Minneapolis and Oregon that I'd like to see. Would it be possible to see them as well? Is the Northern Tier a better option?
I agree that the TransAmerica Trail is the best route, especially for first timers. There are tremendous resources and support along this well-established trail that make it ideal. You could certainly ride from New Jersey to Yorktown, but I'd recommend (without much conviction) that you get a ride, rent a car, take a train, fly or take some other way to Virginia. Splitting off the TransAm at Pueblo and taking the Western Express to San Francisco is very doable, would allow you to see the beautiful southern Utah, would save you about a week in time, and would take you to a place easier to get home from. However, the terrain is more remote (and thus a bit more challenging--but you should be able to handle it by then), and misses out on Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and some beautiful scenery in Montana, Idaho and Oregon. I would (strongly) recommend that you not laden your trip with trying to visit all your friends. Visit them some other time. Don't try to cram everything into one trip. I would NOT recommend doing the Northern Tier as your first trip (and I've done both the TransAm and the Northern Tier).
I've read tales of danger coming from coal trucks in West Virginia and Kentucky on the TransAmerica trail, and danger from oil and logging trucks in the Dakotas and Washington on the Northern Tier, so I suppose there's no way of avoiding them.
Yes, there are coal trucks and logging trucks, as well as dogs, but they don't pose as much risk on the road as they do in your imagination, or in what you read. These risks are very manageable. Be aware of them, but don't fret about them.
Among my notes from the forum, I read: "ACA routes preferably take you through very scenic but hilly and demanding roads … When considering among paved roads, the ACA will almost always pick the lowest traffic roads, even if it considerably increases the hills and distance (up to 50% longer) and sacrifices the shoulder."
Yes, all that is true. That quote might have even been from me.
I have two bikes: a time trial bike that would obviously be a poor fit for this venture, and a Trek 1200 2003 that I'd love to ride cross-country, since that bike and I have a lot of history. However, I'm open to getting a proper touring bike if really necessary. Novara Randonee or Surly Long Haul, right?
There are many advantages of a touring-specific bike. If your budget allows, I would get one. But if your budget does not allow, then ride what you have. The two bikes you mentioned, as well as the Trek 520, are probably the most common touring bikes you will find out there. All will do well (and many others would do well too).
I'm not a very experienced camper, and I could probably do credit card touring, but it seems like camping is more common.
With credit card touring though, I probably would be more comfortable on the road and off. I could travel more lightly without camp equipment and sleep in a real bed. I can imagine traveling with a backpack, a change of cycling clothes and a change of regular clothes, and a light laptop, like a MacBook Air.
What strategy would you suggest (buy a bike or not? credit card tour or not?), and is this more possible on one route versus another? And how does this affect my bike choice?
Most people camp because it is vastly less expensive to do so. I did the TransAm on $16 a day. $14 of that was food and $2 was for a place to sleep. The reason that it only averaged $2 a day is that many nights I slept for free in churches, fire stations, city parks, etc. You are not experienced in camping, but there is still time between now and May to gain some experience. A lot depends on whether you would enjoy, or whether you think you would enjoy camping. Many cyclists enjoy the outdoors, and camping is just a way to extend your time outdoors. I really like to camp. Bicycle tourists often say that the human interaction is one of the best parts of the trip. You'll get more human interaction by camping than you will by closing yourself up in a motel room. Furthermore, camping allows you more options than motels, especially in more remote areas (e.g., camping in Yellowstone is much more available than lodging, and Wyoming and Utah have some long stretches without motels). But the advantages you cite for motels are valid. It's really a matter of money and which way you think you would enjoy more.
But seeing as I have about 4 months to go, what should I spend my time on?
Ride as much as you can (at least some of it fully loaded, and as much as you can in hilly terrain), get some experience camping (take one or more overnight or several day bike tours from home), accumulate your gear, try it out, order and study your maps, read more forum posts and how-to articles, and plan your transportation to the start and home from the finish.