Joel Schaefer cycles across America’s heartland
When Joel Schaefer told people he was planning to do a bicycle tour for his 60th birthday they said ‘that’s nice’. When he told them it would be a 3,000-mile journey, they said ‘that’s crazy!’.
“My birthday was on October 2,” said Mr Schaefer, a fitness enthusiast and cross-fit trainer. “At first I said I wanted to do six different athletic things in one day for my birthday last year. Then I hurt my arm, so that was that.”
Then he considered doing a backpacking trip.
“I had just retired from a local insurance company in March but was helping them to transition my responsibilities,” he said. “I needed to take my laptop but was not about to lug it around in a backpack.”
Instead, he decided to ride his gravel bike — a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike, from St Louis, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon.
He grew up in New York but moved to Bermuda in his twenties to work. This was a part of the US that was unfamiliar.
He bought maps from a Montana-based organisation called the Adventure Cycling Association.
“They put together these routes across the US and Canada that are meant for cyclists,” Mr Schaefer said. “It’s a combination of different roads that are, for the most part, bicycle safe. They connect all these different trails.”
Many of the paths follow rail to trail conversions similar to Bermuda’s Railway Trail. Sometimes they also take riders along some of the less busy highways.
Mr Schaefer admitted he really did not take his bike out for any long distance trips in Bermuda before going to his starting point in St Louis, Missouri. He began on June 2, planning to follow the route famed explorers Lewis and Clark took across America in 1802 and 1803.
“I was hopelessly undertrained for cycling up to nine hours per day,” he said. “I was not familiar with my gear.”
He said all the YouTube videos in the world could not prepare him for actually being out on the road.
He had to carry tools to fix his bike in an emergency, a camping kit, cooking supplies, a sleeping bag, tent, a satellite phone, medications and clothing.
The first time he tried to ride up a small incline with all this gear, he realised he might not actually make it to Oregon, at least not in the two and a half months he had set aside for the trip.
“Right away, I decided I was OK with that,” Mr Schaefer said. “My goal was not to finish, but to enjoy the journey and get something out of the experience.”
He changed his end point to Great Falls, Montana, a small town on the Missouri river, known for its waterfalls.
Taking a more relaxed approach, meant he could sometimes stop in a small town and stay a few days to rest, get some coffee and make new friends.
He travelled through Missouri, North and South Dakota and Montana.
Early on, one of Mr Schaefer’s challenges was an uncomfortable bike seat. He thought he would get used to it but two weeks in it was still hurting him. Once he swapped that out with a better one, he was able to increase his average daily distance from 30 to 40 miles, to 50 to 60 miles.
Another challenge was his direction of travel, east to west, usually against the prevailing winds.
“That slows you down,” he said.
He used the Adventure Cycling Association maps and his GPS, but sometimes both failed him.
“One day I was on a county road,” he said. “It turned into a gravel road and then a dirt road, and then no road. I looked at my GPS and it was telling me there was a road there. My phone said the same thing.”
He climbed a hill to spot the path but could see no sign of a way forward.
He decided his best option was to ride his bike across a nearby railway bridge.
“If a train came along there definitely would not have been room for the train and me and by bike,” he said. “It was very dangerous. I decided that if the train did come along, I would throw the bike over the side and then get myself to the side.”
Luckily, the train did not come until 30 minutes after he crossed the bridge.
There were other cyclists like himself in Missouri but once he left the state, he was usually by himself or only met a few other cyclists on the trail.
However, he met many people in the towns along the way.
“The best thing about this was walking away with the connections I made and the outpouring of generosity I received,” he said.
Construction workers gave him Gatorade, while other people offered him a hot shower, a bed to sleep in for the night and home-made cookies.
“These acts of kindness were genuine and sincere,” he said.
Sometimes he had to do a bit of “wild camping”, which is basically camping in a non-designated camping spot.
At least one town he rode through did not have proper camping places and he did not want to stay in a hotel.
“You just have to make sure to leave the spot as you found it,” he said. “You do not want to make a mess.”
When he reached Great Falls, he still had some time on his hands.
“I said I would keep going,” he said. He went another 400 miles.
He was glad he did.
“It was spectacular,” Mr Schaefer said. “I went through what was probably the most attractive section of cycling, going through that section of Montana. It took my breath away, a number of times.”
He ended his trip in Missoula, Montana, near the Idaho border.
It took him 70 days to get there.
“I finished earlier this month,” he said.
Missoula just happened to be the headquarters for Adventure Cycling.
“I thought I would stop in because they promised a free ice cream if you did,” he said. “I had had this vision of ice cream for weeks.”
Now that he is back in Bermuda, he hopes to do another cycle tour one day.
“I think the next time I would cycle with the prevailing wind,” he laughed.
However, he has other goals in mind, right now. Next week he goes back to school.
“I am studying for a master’s in mindfulness at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” Mr Schaefer said. “I am doing it online. They are the only place that offers such a degree.”
The course should compliment his work as a yoga instructor.
He is also in the process of starting a new business.