Riding a bike is second nature to Bill Pierce.
That’s why he wanted to follow the spring season north by traveling via bicycle through the center of the continental United States.
“Middle America is kind of important — small towns, little places that people that live on the coast don’t think about or take for granted,” Pierce, 69, of Burlington, Ontario, said. “For a number of reasons, there’s probably four of five thousand people a year that ride their bikes across the U.S., but not too many people are doing it up the middle of the country.”
Pierce retired less than a year ago, and already had plans to travel via bicycle across the country this spring. With his findings, his goal is to eventually write a book.
In between Garnett and Lawrence, Pierce stopped for two days in Ottawa, he said Monday at the Franklin County Visitors Center, 2011 KS-68, Ottawa.
He’d driven by Ottawa while traveling on I-35 several times before, but never bothered to stop.
“It’s a sizeable community, and a place that seems to have a little growth and an attitude that the people care about the place and want to preserve it,” he said. “It was one of the places I decided, ‘I’m going to spend two nights here.’”
Spring travels north at an average of 19 miles a day, Pierce said, which is slightly less than a mile an hour. At first, he thought he could walk the route. The problem? There’s not a town “neatly laid out” every 20 or so miles. Some areas along the way have 50 miles between places to stay. That’s where bicycling came in.
“I said, ‘What is it I’m comfortable with?’ and that was bicycling,’” Pierce said.
Mapping it out
As a self-proclaimed “Google expert,” Pierce said he spent about six months preparing for the trip.
“I spent those six months basically doing nothing but researching and looking at maps, and figuring out the best places to stay,” he said. “I’m a voracious Internet searcher. I’ve been involved with the Internet since the 1980s.”
Pierce spends nights mostly in motels and bed and breakfasts, but occasionally Warm Showers, an organization for hosting touring cyclists, has a place for him to stay.
The majority of the trip is on U.S. 59, which he actually rides his bike on. The trails are too slow, most of them unpaved and only can be traversed at six or seven miles per hour — not fast enough for the purposes of his ride.
“You can’t throw something at me here that’s really going to frighten me,” he said. “The five miles I rode into Garnett here the other night was as harrowing as anything I’d ever want to do. There was no shoulder, and there was lots of truck traffic. People were not happy I was there, but I made it.”
Pierce said he’s purposely taking a route that goes through smaller places.
“I’m trying to dig deep. I’m trying to get under the surface. I could drive this in three long days...but you wouldn’t see anything, you’d just see miles and miles of the highway. So my goal is in smaller places, it’s easier to get under the surface, it’s easier to meet people, to hear people’s stories and what they have to say, get a feel for the town and the places and folks. That’s what I’ve been doing and it’s worked out really well. I’ve met really good people. People have just been great to me. I’m collecting lots of stories and soaking it up like a sponge.”
His journey began Feb. 5 in Brownsville, Texas, near the U.S./Mexico border, and he plans to arrive in Winnipeg, Canada, at the beginning of May. He’s about 60 percent done, he said.
No snow days
Although he hasn’t seen any snow yet, Pierce has, thankfully, seen snippets of the arrival of a warmer season, he said.
“My constant since Houston— who would’ve thought this? — has been the blooming redbud trees going north here,” Pierce said. “I’m wondering, ‘When am I going to run out of the redbuds?’ Maybe not until Minnesota where the redbud is not such a native tree.”
For Pierce, the trip is about both the journey and the destinations he experiences along the way. He tries to travel about 40 miles in one day — at about 10 miles an hour — and then stay a few days in each town.
“That’s enough time to go in the cafes, talk to people, go to the public libraries, wherever people congregate and say, ‘Tell me about your town. Tell me what’s here. Is there anything you want people to know about this place?’” Pierce said.
Today, Pierce will travel to Lawrence, residing in the University of Kansas college town for an additional two days. Then he’ll head to Atchison, followed by St. Joseph, Missouri. The next chapters of his trip take him to northwest Iowa, Minnesota and lastly Canada.
While biking, Pierce carries about 70 pounds of weight along with him.
“I don’t have a tent, but I have a high-tech ground cloth, a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, and all that,” he said.
When he toured Europe on bicycle in 1985 and 1986, Pierce rode 15,000 miles in 11 months and 27 countries. Then, the most technically advanced item he carried during the ride was a portable cassette player.
“Now I’ve got my laptop, I’ve got my Smart Phone,” he said. “I’ve got a cellular data modem, and I’ve got all this tech stuff, spare batteries and cables that connect me to various things. That takes up a little weight, and I’m a writer, so I have my notebook and things, as well.”
Also packed are clothing items to accommodate to temperatures from the low 20s to the high 90s, he said.
“I carry more stuff than I think I should be to satisfy [his wife],” Pierce said. “She thinks, ‘Well, I don’t want to hear that you’ve frozen somewhere or that you’ve come down with a cold because you were stuck out in the middle of nowhere.’ She’s been concerned about that.”
While Pierce is on the three-month venture, his wife continues to work in Toronto as a computer engineer, he said.
“We talk once a night on the phone,” Pierce said. “...She believes in me, and she kind of felt that if I didn’t do this that I’d be disappointed with myself and she didn’t want to see that. I think that if [or] when I get the book done, she’ll be proud of the fact that I actually did something I said I was going to do.”
Although he’ll have been gone for about 90 days by the time he returns to Canada, homesick is not a word Pierce has even thought about while heading north.
“My focus is the moment in the trip,” he said. “I have occasionally gotten tired, I’m not as young as I used to be...but mentally and psychologically, I’m in the middle of this. It’s like it’s happening all the time, even when I sleep at night, I’m dreaming about it. It’s really intense that way, and it’s good. I know I did the right thing by choosing to go.”
Susan Welte is a Herald staff writer. Email her at email@example.com