A time to relax; a time to sleep in; a time to do whatever your heart desires; or if you want, do nothing at all.
I can only imagine a typical day for me in my retirement years. It would start off with my morning coffee on the deck, followed by a round of golf with my buddies, then most likely lunch with my wife, followed by a nap, then a re-run of a classic college football game, most likely followed by another nap, then a steak dinner, another college football game, and finally a drink on the deck before calling it a night.
Stuart Harper, 56, who recently retired last year after 30 years as a Science teacher at Lancaster High School, has a lot to learn about retirement.
Instead of golfing, napping and bingeing on steak, Harper spent the first year of his retirement preparing for something he’s wanted to do for the past 40 years; bicycle across the country.
Since his days as a young energetic teenager, Harper has always wanted to bicycle from Washington to Maine, and what better time to do it he thought, than during his first year of retirement.
“This has been something I’ve wanted to do since high school,” Harper reiterated. “Fortunately I have the time now, and so I kind of took my first year of retired life and got in a little better shape, and decided to do this.”
Harper’s plan was to spend this summer traveling the Northern Tier bicycle route from Anacortes, Wash., to Bar Harbor, Maine, a distance of 4,200 miles.
Prior to this summer’s cross country bike ride, Harper had biked across Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New England in his younger years. Most recently he had ridden in Ireland and Scotland, but had never attempted anything to this extent.
As some plans often do, Harper’s was modified days into his trek, and his goal now was to make it back to Lancaster from Washington, and resume the rest of the journey next summer.
As an assistant cross country coach at LHS, Harper realized days into his trip that he wouldn’t have enough time to make the entire trek in time for the start of cross country practice on Aug. 13. And, if he resumed the trip next summer, his lifelong buddy from Colorado could join him as well.
As a cross country coach, Harper explained how he encourages his runners to set an “A goal,” a “B goal” and a “C goal” for each of their races.
He followed his own advice for his trek across the country, setting his “A goal” to make it all the way to Bar Harbor, Maine this summer. His “B goal” was to make it back to Lancaster, his “C goal” to at least get to West Glacier, Montana, and his minimal goal was to not quit after the second day.
As he put it, “I made my B goal.”
Harper estimates that he has completed 65 percent of the trek, and also hopes that the hardest part is done.
Harper’s journey began on Thursday, June 21, with the traditional dipping of his front tire in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
As he explained, the philosophy of each cyclist making this trek, varies significantly. Some are riding totally unloaded with a friend or a guide, driving out ahead of them in an RV, carrying all of their supplies.
Harper, who was accompanied by a friend for the first 12 days, and was alone for the final 23, pulled a bike trailer the entire way with 70 pounds of gear strapped to it.
Included in his pack was a gallon and a half of water, which he drank daily, as well as three suppers worth of food, and the makings of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“I had to eat prescriptively,” Harper explained. “Every hour I would stop on the bike and I would have a couple bites of food, whether it was trail mix or a couple bites of peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I would drink every half an hour for sure.”
“One bicyclist I met had great advice. He said you gotta eat before you’re hungry, you gotta drink before you’re thirsty and you gotta make sure you’re getting electrolytes, otherwise you’d cramp up.”
He slept in a tent half of the time, while also staying in hotels or taking advantage of “Warm Showers,” which is where local residents along the route open up their home to cyclist, giving them a place to stay for a night.
“The first day is pretty easy, it’s fairly flat, and then the second day is brutal,” explained Harper. ‘You’re climbing two passes in one day and they’re both steep passes and steep approaches that go up and down, up and down, and it just wears you out.”
Harper’s longest day on his bike was his second day, starting at 7 a.m. and getting off sometime after 8 p.m.
“That is not to be recommended. I tell you, we were totally tapped,” Harper said.
The second day involved crossing over two mountain passes, which included a 5,000-foot accent, followed by 1,000-foot decent, and then another 5,500-foot accent.
After starting out at sea level the day before, Harper had reached an altitude of 6,600 feet in only his second day.
The very next day he crossed another mountain pass and then on the fourth day decided to take a rest day, which was influenced by the hot weather.
As everyone knows, what goes up, must also come down, and cycling down a steep decent with a 70-pound trailer pushing you is not a walk in the park.
“When you have a fully-loaded trailer behind you, it’s pushing you down those hills. It really is scary,” said Harper.
“The max speed I ever got up to was about 36 miles an hour going down one of those hills, and it can be terrifying.”
There were times I was going down hills, and my hands were cramping up because I’m alternating the rear and front brakes. Your hands really take it going down those hills, one of which was 24 miles long,” Harper explained.
As expected, Harper encountered other challenges along his route, including bugs, animals and of course the weather.
While biking through eastern Montana one day, Harper encountered a relentless attack that nearly had him at his wits end.
“Twenty miles of the most ferocious mosquitoes I’ve ever encountered,” exclaimed Harper. “They just kept coming and coming and insect repellent didn’t do anything. And, it was 95 degrees that day.”
“You would think that at 95 degrees with sunny conditions that mosquitoes wouldn’t attack you, but I guess I was the only thing to eat.”
When telling the convenience store clerk at his next stop, the clerk simply laughed and said, “The mosquitoes around here think deet is just a cologne.”
“That was one of those days that you just wanted it to be over,” Harper added. “And the next day was even worse.”
“The next day was a 100-degree day with a strong head wind,” Harper explained. “That day it took me seven hours to do 50 miles, which is really slow. It’s just demoralizing riding in a 20-mile an hour head wind.”
Following those two grueling days on his own, Harper’s will was essentially broken, as he pulled into the Amtrak station in Wolf Point, Montana.
He attempted to purchase a ticket for him and his bike to ride the train home, but was told the train couldn’t accommodate for his bike until the following week.
With his decision made for him, Harper concluded his bicycle trek back to Wisconsin.
“That was my low point,” Harper said. “If I could have gotten out, I would have. But I couldn’t.”
Harper spent the next two days in an air-conditioned hotel room, suffering from heat exhaustion and severe fatigue.
While the rest of his trip may not have been quite as taxing on his body or moral, Harper did encounter the occasional rain shower, of course the summer heat, and an attack from a pack of dogs while biking through an Indian reservation in Montana.
His longest day consisted of 107 miles, and he rode three days of 100 miles or more during his trip. Of the 35 days spent on the road, he took only three days off from riding.
He entered the trip with the naïve impression he would be able to ride 80 miles per day on average.
“I got behind that average fairly early on and knew it was time to rethink getting across this summer,” Harper said. “I really think 70 miles a day and one rest day a week would make it.”
After miles and miles of pastures and wheat fields, Harper was never so happy to see his first corn field, knowing he was getting closer to home.
After five weeks and 2,397 miles on the road, Harper road into the driveway of his Lancaster home last Wednesday afternoon with friends waiting there to congratulate him.”
Despite the difficult days and countless hours spent on his bike, Harper says cycling is a great way to see and experience the country.
“What’s really interesting, and why bicycle touring is really a great way to see things, is because you encounter it at a human speed,” Harper said.
“You get to see everything. Most people blow past all these little towns going at 80 miles an hour, and there’s a little town off to the side that you never get to see. I got to see all of those.”
“I also got to see other beautiful things like national parks and all that at a very intimate level,” Harper added.
While he says he has other dreams and goals he would like to accomplish, the chance to cycle across the country was something Harper wasn’t about to let pass him by.
“There’s a lot of other dreams I’ve had in my life that are too far gone. Growing up, I’ve always wanted to climb all of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. I’ve never got that, and I’m not going to. That one’s gone. I would like to get a couple more under my belt, but I’m never going to get them all.”
“This was one lifelong dream I thought I could still do. So I made it a goal, and I’ve achieved most of it so far,” said Harper, who will turn 57 this month.