NELSON ON THE BEACH

Nelson Palmer stands on the beach at Tybee Island, Georgia, marking the start of his trip to the West Coast.

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Bucket list. Lifelong goal. Dream. Adventure.

Call it what you will, but this summer, I did it. Ever since I was a young boy riding my Schwinn bicycle with a banana seat around my neighborhood, I thought that it would be neat to ride my bicycle across the United States of America.

I spent decades thinking about, researching, and finally, preparing for such a trip. Six years ago, I took 4 days and rode from the southern border to the northern border of Utah, riding 100 miles a day. I called my ride ThrUtah! Ever since I completed that goal, I realized that I was capable of riding across the USA, but just needed to find the right time to do it.

For the past couple of years, I have been saving my vacation days so that I would be able to take enough time off work to complete this goal. My wife and I researched routes, weather, prevailing winds (which actually go from west to east), campgrounds, and hotels; read blogs, books, and articles; and watched videos about others who had already crossed the continent on a bike. We learned about groups that ride for a cause. We learned about those who rode alone, with friends, or with big groups, supported by a van with supplies.

After two years of planning, including several weeks spent finding a route, we decided that the right time to go was this year, 2020. It was a good time for me to leave work for several weeks, our children were settled, we had reliable vehicles — bikes and car — and I was physically ready and felt young enough (I celebrated my 56th birthday on the trip) to do a long ride. We decided to call our ride ThrUSA!, got some tee shirts printed with our logo and packed the car.

March 17, 2020. This was to be the day that we would begin our drive to our starting point on the east coast.

We were a little concerned about the cool weather but decided a little cooler was better than too hot. Then, on March 13 at a press conference, President Trump declared a national emergency and announced a 15-day plan to slow the spread of COVID-19.

We made the hard decision to delay the trip. Even though the car was mostly packed and we were ready to go, we put our plans on hold until things settled down enough to be able to travel. We planned on waiting the 15 days to slow the spread.

The 15 days turned into weeks. Life moved forward. A daughter returned from serving her mission. We kept watching news from California and Georgia to see if beaches were opening. We watched news reports. We watched the temperatures creep higher. We made phone calls to hotels and campgrounds across the country to see if they were open for business.

After several weeks, we decided that it was safe enough to travel and that we would be able to get what we needed along the way. We didn’t want the COVID-19 pandemic to stop us from living life. We knew that we would need to implement some reasonable precautions. We wore disposable gloves when we pumped gas, wiped down surfaces in every hotel room with disinfectant wipes, used hand sanitizer frequently (probably even more than necessary), and wore masks in every public place in every state. We saw many other people doing the same kinds of things.

We left home on June 2 and drove to the east coast. I had personal reasons to bike in the opposite direction of the prevailing winds. I faced a headwind every day. We arrived at Tybee Island, Georgia, near Savannah, and I began my ride early the next day. We walked to the beach and I put my feet and bicycle tire in the Atlantic Ocean. It felt great! We were beginning a grand adventure. I was going to complete a lifetime goal. I was going to ride across the United States!

This journey of 2717 cycling miles over 26 riding days, with Sundays taken as much-needed rest days, was incredible. I climbed over 87,000 feet (by the way, Oklahoma isn’t completely flat; it is filled with lots of small rolling hills). On my longest day, I rode 172 miles with headwinds of 20-30 mph and gusts up to 50 mph. I was exhausted at the end of that day. I had 4 days of ridiculously hot weather and rode before the sun came up.

Each day I would ride from where we spent the night to wherever we would sleep that night. We used a variety of lodgings including a tent, camping cabins, hotels, a bed and breakfast and a couple of cousin’s houses. I rode every mile across the country. We met so many kind people and saw so much natural beauty along the way that we felt truly blessed. I think that most people are just trying to live good lives and do the best that they can. I believe most people are good.

As my wife and daughter were checking into a hotel in Georgia, Sandy, the manager of the hotel, saw my backup bike that my daughter was carrying into the hotel. Sandy had just started cycling for exercise and was interested in the kind of bike I had. She was surprised by how little it weighed. When my wife told her about what I was doing, she got excited and gathered all her hotel staff into the lobby to cheer for me as I came into the hotel. What a wonderful surprise I had when I walked into the hotel lobby which was lined with workers of all ages and nationalities cheering for me!

I was a bit apprehensive about my ride through Oklahoma City. Mostly, I avoided big cities but had to ride through a couple of them. Each night I would review my planned route for the next day and adjust as needed, but I was struggling with deciding which roads to take though this city.

After we checked into our hotel in Shawnee, Oklahoma, my wife found out that there was a bike shop in town with the most epic name “spOKeLAHOMA.” We thought, who better to know the roads in the area than local cyclists, so we hurried to visit them before they closed for the night.

The three men working there, including the owner who runs the shop as a hobby, were kind, friendly, and knowledgeable about the roads in Oklahoma City. One man spoke to me for almost an hour, describing the roads, intersections, areas to avoid, road construction closures, etc. My ride through the city was uneventful thanks to these people who took time to help fellow travelers.

We saw beaches, oceans, lakes, rivers, swamps, waterfalls, hot springs, deserts, sand dunes, rolling hills, towering mountains, plains, corn fields, rice paddies, logging operations, caves, volcanoes, state parks, city parks, campgrounds, hotels, museums (do you know that almost every small town has a historical museum?), and miles and miles of back roads. We saw small town, USA as we traveled through 9 states. We enjoyed seeing so many quirky places on Route 66, which we were on for a couple of weeks. I rode on every kind of road, including gravel, narrow with no shoulder, state highways, and Interstate 40, which has a nice wide shoulder, often filled with small wires that come off large truck tires and love to puncture bicycle tires. I ended up with 15 flat tires in all.

One thing that we saw across the entire country were yard signs honoring high school graduating seniors. It was gratifying to know that seniors in all states were being acknowledged for their accomplishments during this difficult time. Things like this help unify us as a nation.

After 5 weeks of cycling, I made it to the California coast. We traveled from Savannah to San Diego. I dipped my feet and bicycle tire in the Pacific Ocean. I did it! I biked across the United States! It felt amazing! I completed my lifelong dream to ride my bicycle across the USA, and it was an incredible adventure!

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