How many people do you know who are spending the summer traveling from St. Louis to Seaside, Ore. -- by bicycle? "I have never done anything like this before, and I never even knew this world existed," Sue Fischer says. She stopped long enough to chat last week just before the last leg of her tour, which ended in Seaside on July 31. "There are people on this tour who've been back and forth across the U.S. several times by bicycle."
A van carries the cyclists' camping gear, food and supplies, so each rider just needs to carry water. Every six days or so, the group has a day off to spend sightseeing, doing laundry, or just relaxing. Seventeen people, most of them retirees or teachers, are part of the 44-day, 2,700-mile tour that closely follows the Lewis & amp; Clark Trail. Historical Trails Cycling, based in Lincoln, Nebr., organized the tour; they've also done tours of the Oregon Trail. Fischer learned about the tour from a tiny ad in Adventure Cycling magazine. Intrigued by the combination of history and bicycling, she checked out the details on the group's Web site, www.historicaltrailscycling.com.
"It said that if you can ride 60 miles a day comfortably, you can do this trip," she says. "So, I went out and saw if I could ride 60 miles a day. I could, and so I went."
Fischer says she regularly bikes 10 miles each way to work during the school year, and after deciding to take the trip she began taking longer routes to build her endurance. Over Memorial Day, she rode 60 miles a day for three days in a row, just to make sure she could do it, but that was the extent of her training. "I found out after I got there that these guys do serious training to go on this," she says. With a laugh, she adds, "I didn't do that."
When asked how long it takes to pedal 60 miles, Fischer laughs, "Are you talking about me or the rest of the group?" Prior to the tour, she says, a 60-mile ride would take her close to eight hours. "I'm heavy, and my bike is heavy," she says matter-of-factly. "It's a mountain bike. The rest of the people are riding road bikes -- and they're lighter people -- so they go a lot faster than I do. Most of them ride about six hours a day. I ride about 10 hours a day to get the same distance. Or, maybe not the same distance."
Not the same distance?
"If it gets to be suppertime, and I'm not where we're supposed to be, they come looking for me," she smiles.
That kind of aid is one of the joys of a van-supported tour, especially for a first-timer like Fischer. She had few expectations when she began the trip but says she has enjoyed the historical connection of this tour. "We are following the Lewis and Clark Trail pretty exactly, so one has the option of stopping at every historical marker and every little museum in every teeny town."
Thanks to the upcoming bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery, towns along the trail are receiving grant funds to improve their cultural and tourism facilities. Many improvements are still in the planning stages, however, leading to some curious discoveries. One of Fischer's favorite finds was a natural history museum in Nebraska City that she has dubbed the Road Kill Museum, where an 89-year-old taxidermist has created little tableaux with local fauna and flora.
"It was this little dingy, dusty room at the top of some rickety stairs," she says. "He made a point of explaining that none of the animals had been killed specifically for this museum; they were all road kill that he had reconstructed, or birds that had flown into somebody's window."
"He's done these little family groupings of the animals," she continues. "In one, there's a baby raccoon hanging from a tree branch by one paw, with the mother raccoon below, looking up. You can just hear her saying, 'If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times...'"
Along the road, she has seen tributes to everyday people and even pets: a marker for the grave of Jim the Wonder Dog and a statue to Shep the Faithful Dog, who met every train for years after his dead master's body was shipped away. In South Dakota, she saw the Oldest Sod Post Office -- "Not the kind of thing you see every day in Spokane," she says -- and Fort Benton, Mont., advertised "The Finest Hotel Between Seattle and The Twin Cities in 1892" -- "That was before the Davenport," she quips.
The tour has traveled through parts of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, and the scenery alone has been worth all the work, Fischer says. "I've traveled in a lot of other countries, and I've seen nothing that's better than the scenery right here in this country," she says. "You see so much more at 10 -- or six -- miles per hour than at 55 or 60. And the back roads have vistas that you just don't get on the interstate."
Meeting people along the way has been another highlight of the tour. "Since it's been so hot and I'd lag behind, I'd often stop and sit under a tree to cool off," she says. "Invariably, someone would come by and stop and talk to me." At one farmhouse in Missouri, a farmer offered Fischer a ride to the next town when he found out she was biking in the 111-degree heat. "He threw my bike in the back of his truck and off we went," she says. "Saved me 10 miles of pedaling in the heat."
The heat isn't the only source of physical discomfort, of course. Sitting on a bicycle for days on end leads to discomfort of a very personal nature, but the shared pain has brought the group closer, Fischer says. "After the second day, nobody's shy about sore butts and remedies, and whether Bag Balm works better than Gold Bond Powder, and what you do with it and how to apply it. It's real fast leveler. That, and the first rainstorm, when everybody jumps out of their tents in their underwear -- maybe -- to put the rain flies on."
Fischer says she probably hasn't learned a lot about Lewis and Clark that she didn't know before, although she has discovered more about the local Native American cultures, both past and present. She has learned a lot about the trail's present-day residents and made some fast friendships along the way.
"A big part of the fun is the people," she concludes. "First, you've got to be a little bit crazy to do this. And everyone is so nice. Everyone is dealing with the same problems -- camping out, dealing with strange showers and potty situations -- but everybody's in it together. It's hard work, but at the end of the day, you see how much you've done. And you're with like-minded people who also think it's fun."