The Great Ride

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Bike Ride Tetons

Forty years ago today I rode my bicycle into Boston and across the city to Revere Beach, 55 days after leaving Astoria, Oregon, ending one of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life.

I rode with Lane Hakel, whom I had not met until we arrived in Portland. We had both responded to a classified ad in “Bicycling” magazine placed by someone who was looking for riding companions to do the Bikecentennial, a trans-America trail from Oregon to Virginia mapped out by cycling aficionados to commemorate the country’s bicentennial a few years earlier. I never did meet the fellow who placed the ad – he broke his kneecap a week before we were to set out. There was a third respondent who did meet up with us in Portland and began the ride with us. But he was an immature 17-year-old who would take off in the morning without us and sometimes wouldn’t show up at our predetermined stopping point that night. I, being the ranking adult at 28, told him he either had to ride with us or find another group. We last saw him a few weeks later in Yellowstone and no one in the group he was riding with had killed him yet, so I guess he ended up OK.

So it was just Lane and me, two strangers crossing the country on pedal power.

We carried everything on our bikes: a tent, sleeping bags, a backpacker-style stove, cooking pots and other necessities crammed into our panniers.

And we rode, first down the coast of Oregon and then east through that state’s high desert and then into the Cascade Mountains. And then the Rockies. I had been living in a small town in rural Illinois when I took up cycling a couple of years before. We had no mountains and few challenging hills to train on, so facing mountain climbs that sometimes called for riding in first gear for four hours was a new experience. But oh the thrill of the 20-minute glide down the other side.

We feared logging trucks who barreled along two-lane roads and had been rumored to swerve and take out bicycles leaning against guardrails – their drivers resented recreationists using the roads they made a living on. We also were leery of cars pulling trailers, especially large Airstreams, which passed us in curiously large numbers. We figured that at least the truck drivers knew how to handle their rigs and if they hit you it was on purpose.

Bike Ride Tent

We camped along the way, usually pitching the tent in a city park or somewhere off the road, especially in the northwest where it was not considered unusual. We ate lots of peanut butter and jelly, which I kept in tubes in my handlebar bag, next to a large block of cheese, which was never refrigerated. When we got out the camp stove it was usually to heat up water for packets of ramen, which could be purchased for about a buck, were filling and added much needed carbs. (Who knew a few decades later I’d be reviewing restaurants that specialized in real, authentic ramen?)

Bike Ride Climb

Our longest day was 127 miles, which included two mountain passes; our shortest day was about 8 miles – we both knew when we started out that day that we just didn’t have a long ride in us. As we mapped out how far we would like to go each day and how many miles it would take, we agreed on one thing: We did not want to be in Yellowstone National Park over the busy 4th of July weekend. There would just be too much traffic.

Bike Ride Sign

July 3 – Yellowstone National Park. I had developed a severe sore throat and found it too painful to swallow food or drink. I was hurting and couldn’t sleep; I paced in the cinder block restroom next to the camping site then decided I needed to hitchhike to a hospital. I woke Lane and told him I was going and then set out for the road. But it was the middle of the night, there were few cars, and the ones that passed me were surely spooked by my disheveled look. I thought I would have to end the ride and fly home. I sat down on the side of the road and tried to cry but I had no tears. I looked up and saw a moose – it had been my goal to see one before leaving the northwest – and just beyond it I saw my tent. I had walked in a circle. I climbed back into my sleeping bag and passed out.

Apparently my swollen throat was causing me to wheeze, which scared Lane. He fetched a ranger who came to the tent. The ranger said, “Look, I can take you to an infirmary but it sounds to me like you’re dehydrated and you just need to force yourself to drink fluids.”

He was right, and I did. And that night, July 4, 1982, in a place I swore I wouldn’t be, we spent a fascinating evening around a campfire chatting with other cyclists, including two very funny guys from New York and a father and son, the father totally deaf and his son interpreting the conversation for him. I’ve never spent a better Independence Day.

One day, while riding with a group of four other cyclists near the appropriately named Hell’s Half Acre in Wyoming, some guys in a pickup truck asked us all if we needed a place to stay for the night. It turned out they were working on an oil rig two miles off the main road. They invited us all because the other group included two women and, well, they had been on the oil rig a long time.

They offered us and our bicycles a ride in the truck. I loaded up my bike but said I had vowed not to ride in a motorized vehicle until the trip was over. So I walked the two miles of rocky road in my cycling shoes with steel plates in the soles. I rode out in the truck the next morning.

While we were at the oil rig, the guys told us about the job and how dirty and messy it was. They said the only thing that could get the crude oil off their hands was Dawn dishwashing liquid. I don’t know what I had been using to wash dishes before that but I’ve been a Dawn user ever since.

Bike ride paper

Shortly after that, Lane and I both realized we had no desire to go to Virginia. Boston sounded nice, we agreed, and so we left the Bikecentennial Trail and mapped out the rest of the trip on our own, crossing Nebraska, which ain’t as flat as you think it is, Iowa (ditto), through my hometown of Moline, Ill., where the local paper sent out a photographer, Indiana and Ohio, where Lane’s parents met us for an evening (and another newspaper in Conneaut also photographed us). We crossed Pennsylvania in one day – it’s a very short strip along Lake Erie from Ohio to New York – went through the Finger Lake region and on to Massachusetts.

We met many kind people along the way. In Missoula, we were invited to stay in a private home, which allowed us to store our bikes and do something normal, like going to see a movie (we chose the film that was supposed to be the summer’s blockbuster: E.T.).

While taking a break one afternoon in Grand Island, Neb., and trying to decide where we could camp, a young man came riding up to us on his own bike. He chatted with us about what we were doing and then held up the back of hand, which had the tell-tale tan marks made by mesh-backed cycling gloves. He said that he and his sister had just been on a long bike trip and people had been nice to them along the way. When his father saw our gear-laden bikes go by their house, he sent his son out to get us – pay it forward, as it were.

We stayed in their home that night. Neither of us had had a shower for quite a long time. I never knew taking one could be a religious experience.

(The name of the family was Gee, and if any of my six degrees of separation knows anyone in Grand Island, I’d love to send the Gees a note.)

We were also taken in by a mother and daughter spending the summer at Chautauqua, an arts institution in upstate New York. We stayed a second night just so we could see the flutist James Galway in concert. Better than E.T.

We were met with many more kindnesses. In fact, there were only two instances of rudeness I can remember. One was in Wyoming where there were no surface roads and we had to ride on a stretch of interstate (and it was legal to do so). Although we were well off on the shoulder, someone in a passing car thought it was a good idea to throw a large cup of soda at us. Hit me squarely. And in Albany, N.Y., we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant breakfast. We pulled up, parked our bikes out front and went inside. The restaurant was practically empty but the manager told us we should go somewhere else – he didn’t want our bikes outside his place. (I’ve always dreamed of going back to review that restaurant.)

Lane and I got along remarkably well considering we had been thrust into a situation that today seems perfect for the premise of a reality tv program. There was one instance where I threw him out of the tent with an ultimatum, but I’ll leave it to Lane to tell that story if he still remembers it. And by the time July turned to August we were both ready to spend some time apart. He went back to Ohio, became a teacher and acts in community theater productions in Bowling Green.

Still early in the trip, along the Oregon coast, we stopped at the Tillamook Cheese factory for a tour (and free samples). A woman saw our rigs and asked us what we were doing. When I told her we were riding across the U.S. she threw her arms up and exclaimed what a wonderful thing to do, the perfect way to see the country. But, she said, that gas tank doesn’t look like it holds much, “How many miles to you get on a fill up?” she wondered. I realized she was pointing at my water bottle; I told her it was a bicycle, not a motorcycle. Her jaw dropped: “You’re crazy,” she said, and walked away.

Maybe, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat, assuming my physician says my heart would keep beating through the experience. This time with smartphones and GPS and cameras that don’t use film. And a bigger budget – I had allotted $10 per day, which even in 1982 currency wasn’t enough.

And maybe an e-bike to cheat on those mountain climbs.

And I’d keep a journal, something I intended to do but did not. At the end of a long “work” day – and we considered riding from Point A to Point B each day to be our job – all I wanted to do was put up the tent, eat something, then crawl inside to sleep. Wake up, have something for breakfast, roll up the sleeping bag, break down the tent and put it into its stuff sack, lash it all to the bike and head out. There is a lot about the process that isn’t romantic.

Bike Ride Cattle 2 1

But I have good memories and many more stories. Like riding very carefully through a cattle drive of about a hundred head, to the consternation of the cowpokes.

Or the time we headed up a mountain in late afternoon calculating that there was plenty of light to make it to the top but not realizing it was already nighttime on the other side (we had no lights on our bikes because they weren’t needed if you did not intend to ride at night).

Or discovering that all those RV trailers were headed to the Airstream Jamboree in Helena, Mont., and being invited one evening inside one and finding it luxurious and the owners delightful.

Or coming across a gathering of the Rainbow Family, with hundreds of people who at one time would have been described as hippies standing in circles, holding hands, staring at the sky, and us feeling like we’d ridden into The Twilight Zone.

Or deciding on a hot day to jump into a lake not realizing that it was comprised of snow melt.

Or riding along a beautiful range of mountains on our right, their tops covered in clouds, then seeing a few minutes later that the clouds had engulfed the mountains and a big storm was heading our way – we made it to the next town and the covered porch of a saloon just as marble sized hail started to dent the cars parked out front. Our helmets would not have been sufficient protection.

Or pulling into an overlook after climbing out of the Jackson Hole Valley and lifting my camera to take a picture of the Grand Tetons and realizing the grandeur could not be caught on film. It was the last picture I took until Boston.

Bike Ride Boston

I was 27 when I started to plan the trip. I remember thinking that if I didn’t do it then, in 20 years I’d be looking at 50 and wishing I had. I didn’t even think about 20 years after that.

A lot has happened in those 40 years, and I hope for a lot more is to come, if not in the next 40 years (not likely), or 20 (perhaps), then whatever.

But The Ride will always have a special place in my heart.

And yes, I still have the bike.

Bike Ride TrophyMy family presented me with a commemorative trophy after the ride that I still cherish today.

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