The Road Taken
The Remarkable Story of a Transcontinental Bicycle Odyssey
In 1972, five college graduates set out on a remarkable transcontinental bicycle journey from North Carolina to Oregon. This true story of determination, camaraderie, and finding strength and kindness of strangers along the way invites the reader to remember or imagine the beauty of America and of finding oneself on the journey.
About The Book
In 1972, five college graduates set out on a remarkable transcontinental bicycle journey from North Carolina to Oregon. This true story of determination, camaraderie, and finding strength and kindness of strangers along the way invites the reader to recall or imagine the the beauty of America and of finding yourself on the journey.
Rediscover the sense of wonder and adventure as you ride across the United States along with Bryan, Stig, Bill, Hal, and Vaughn. Encounter the hospitality of strangers. Remember the joy of overcoming your own self-doubts and proving your mettle to those who say you don’t have what it takes. Revisit the natural beauty of America from the seat of a bicycle and rekindle your sense of wonder.
Presented in a daily-journal style, The Road Taken brings the gritty reality of the hard work of the journey into focus while remembering that any quest requires attention to the goal. Read along as the cyclists get separated along the way, inviting you to join not one, but two incredible stories of biking across America.
Hatching the Plan
Graduation Plays a Role
The Odyssey Begins for All
A New Start for Stig
The Trio Heads Out West Without Stig
Stig Tells His Story
He Can Do it Alone
The Trio Climbs the Rocky Mountains
Stig’s Home Stretch From Lolo Pass to Portland
The Trio’s Home Stretch
Road Warriors: Summary Reflections
What Happened to the Five Bicyclists
How to Plan a Long-Distance Bicycle Journey
I was one of five students at Duke University in Durham, NC, wanting upon graduation, in May 1972, to do something physically memorable, and perhaps transformative for the rest of our lives. We all recognized that once we were on a career path, the opportunities for alternative adventures and discoveries could shrink drastically, and before we knew it, we might be old men not capable of such pursuits. Furthermore, the prospect of doing something together and having each other’s support was particularly appealing. Our aspirations for travel in 1972 may have been unconsciously reinforced by major events in the US: President Nixon ordering the development of the space shuttle program (January 5); Mariner 9 sending its first pictures from Mars (February 4); and the Pioneer 10 spacecraft being launched from Cape Kennedy, the first man-made satellite to leave the solar system (March 2). However, we were more interested in exploring the vast unknowns of our own country rather than that of the universe.
Four of us (Bill Jackson, Hal Hemme, Vaughn Lamb and me, Bryan Simmons) were close friends living in the same dormitory. We had toyed with hiking the Appalachian Trail, which can take a year to cover a significant distance, but we decided to do a cross-county
bike trip due to Vaughn’s commitment to start a job at Duke’ Marine Lab on June 19th. We envisioned that biking cross-country would offer broad opportunities, socially and geographically, to discover much of our country that we knew little about. Little did we know at that time that we would be confronted with so many unexpected events and challenges. These included overwhelming winds, torrential rains, extreme heat, life threatening gunshots from strangers, sleeping in jails, bicycle accidents, and the separation of our group that changed the dynamics of the whole adventure. Also, serendipitous meetings with remarkable people at critical junctures uplifted us in times of greatest need.
Stig Regli, who did not know us initially, had been contemplating a possible around the world bicycle trip in search of meaning for his life. He had not found any willing partners and did not have the courage to do this alone. When he learned about our plans for doing a cross-county trip he became interested in joining us. Stig had to be back in Durham during the last week in June for a friend’s wedding, so the timing fit well with our plans.
I had a mediocre history of athletic accomplishments up until the bike trip. I walked 25 miles at age 12 in response to President Kennedy’s clarion call for increased physical fitness. After the walk, my back went into painful spasms that confined me to bed for almost a week. I was an average runner on my high school cross-country running team. Together with Bill and Hal, I jogged frequently at Duke University covering two miles back and forth between Duke’s two campuses sometimes several times per week. Hal came in 21st in the one-mile inter-campus Cake Run contest; the cheerleaders gave the first 20 finishers a cake (no piece of cake for Hal). Bill, Hal, and I were very active on the Windsor dormitory intramural sports team, and our dorm won the school intramural championship three years in a row, retiring the trophy. Dormitories at Duke acted as local fraternities at the time and competed in intramural sports against all other dormitories, including the dormitories of national fraternities. None of us were avid bikers.
Stig had a bicycle that he sometimes used to
commute to his classes on campus from where he lived off campus. He also played intramural tennis and basketball and played golf with some members of Duke’s golf team. In an indication of what was to come, Stig had a penchant for physical extremes. He once played 144 holes of golf in one day in Denmark with four of his close friends. During his junior year at Duke, Stig had a bet with one of Duke’s fabled beer drinkers that Stig could walk or run more miles than John could drink beers, each in one day. Stig covered 68 miles in 16 hours but the bet was annulled when John threatened to induce self-vomiting to increase his beer drinking capacity.
All five cyclists were good students at Duke. Bill had a double major in mathematics and economics. I majored in mathematics. Vaughn and Hal each had a major in chemistry. Stig majored in mechanical engineering but nearing graduation he thought environmental engineering might be a better career path which would eventually warrant graduate school. It is interesting to note that all five of us had technical/scientific majors rather than majors in the arts and humanities. Bill, Vaughn, Hal, and I were the four who planned the trip before meeting Stig. We each purchased a bike over the 1971 Christmas holiday and began long distance training rides around Durham, NC, with some trips covering 50 or more miles. These practice trips helped us develop endurance and learn basic lessons such as the importance of always carrying water, tools, and a candy bar. I became so weak from hunger on one training trip that I couldn’t get up off the ground and had to be rescued by a candy bar. Thereafter I lived by the motto: don’t go far without a bar (of candy). Hal and Vaughn biked an ambitious 180 miles from Durham to Duke’s Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC, over Spring Break. The trip back to Durham was aborted when a freak snowstorm hit parts of North Carolina with three inches of snow on March 25-26 and they returned by bus. Hal too had a near paralysis on this trip from presumed hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) confirming the need to carry a candy bar with us for revival.
Of note, Hal remembers the huge billboard,
easily visible when biking into Smithfield, NC, which advertised the Ku Klux Klan. It displayed a hooded figure carrying a burning cross. It was torn down in 1977 after remaining for ten years and was well known in North Carolina. Jesse Helms was an openly anti-Civil-Rights five-term US senator from North Carolina; the Washington Post called him a “White Racist”. Much of the South in 1972 wasn’t welcoming for black persons or long-haired Duke graduates. The sculptures of Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and Stonewall Jackson were completed at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in March 1972. In 1970 there had been a nation-wide student strike and shooting of students at Kent State University in which four students were killed. It seemed as though it wouldn’t take much for a bigoted person to push a biker off the road if the bicyclist fit the appearance of Liberal. However, Duke moved forward by establishing a department of African American Studies in the early 1970s.
Hatching the Plan
It was, in more ways than we knew, a mammoth goal: to ride our bicycles across the United States. In the spring leading up to the odyssey, Bill, Vaughn, Hal, and I engaged in a rigorous practice schedule.
We could not find books that described how to prepare for and complete such a journey, so we had to plan and learn on our own.
Bill, our navigator, did in-depth research on the best route to take across country. We knew that we wanted to visit four places in particular: Cumberland Gap National Historic Park at the intersection of Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky; Hannibal, Missouri; Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming; Portland, Oregon.
This gave Bill the rough plan that he developed into a very comprehensive and detailed itinerary, including what specific roads we should take and how to establish our daily travel goals. Our travel plans were influenced by the need to sandwich the trip in between the end of school, on the one hand, and June 18 on the other, because Vaughn started work at Duke’s Marine Lab the next day.
We planned to avoid big cities, unnecessary
mountains, and interstate highways (where bicycles were prohibited). We needed to cross the Allegheny, Rocky, and Coastal Mountains, but there were plenty of local mountains in the West that we didn’t yet know existed. One of our better ideas was to progress from the Southeast to the Northwest as we rode on into June, so we could try to avoid the high daily temperatures that the impending summer would surely bring. This was, of course, decades before we had GPS on our cellphones. Instead, Bill had an odometer fitted on his bike that was accurate when correlated with distances calculated from a map.
We decided not to carry our meals. Eating at
restaurants or buying ready-to-eat foods as we went would decrease the weight we carried on our bicycles through avoiding carrying cooking equipment. We figured we would also save on food prep time so we could make better progress on our journey. My bicycle weighed 35 pounds, which is a little heavy for a touring bicycle — especially when compared to today’s lightweight bicycle construction. We carried sleeping bags, but no tents, and only two sets of clothes. Even though that meant frequent visits to a laundromat, we expected the lightweight provisions would help us make good time.
We had no escort vehicle or back-up automobile. We were entirely on our own, with no one monitoring our progress by cellphone or email. We would touch base with infrequent pay-phone calls and through letters we sent by U.S. mail. We carried water, snacks, toiletries, ground cloths, tools, and bicycle/tire repair kits. Bill carried a film camera (no digital cameras yet!) and took about 50 photos that have since faded but nonetheless act as reminders of our journey. Except for a water bottle carried on the bicycle frame, our baggage was carried on the back of our bicycles, which increased the bicycle stability compared to carrying on the front. My load weighed 15 pounds on average, not including water.
An Unexpected Companion
As we were training that spring, Stig became aware of our plans serendipitously through a mutual friend six weeks before the trip was to begin. After sharing aspirations for the trip and becoming acquainted with each other, Stig asked to join our group. We all agreed with the proviso that we would leave Stig if he couldn’t keep up with us.
Stig’s mother had been against him embarking on a long solo bicycle trip, even though she herself had taken a tandem bicycle trip through Europe with a girlfriend when she was in her twenties. Bicycling with four other Duke graduates was a way of assuaging his mother’s concerns. Stig was committed to joining the other four. However, he didn’t have the benefit of the training we had been engaging in and would only later fully realize the obstacles that he would have to overcome.
The Buy in USA link is through Bookshop.org. The Buy in Germany link is through Amazon.de. The Buy eBook link is through Amazon.com. We may receive a referral bonus for purchases made through either link, which helps to fund us without increasing your cost or decreasing the author’s earnings.
About the authors.
Bryan Simmons has spent his entire career as an infectious diseases specialist and hospital epidemiologist, a specialist that seeks to understand and prevent adverse outcomes in hospitalized patients. He was elected President of the Society for Hospital Epidemiology of America (SHEA) and was invited to the White House to discuss efforts to prevent hospital-acquired infection. He has lectured on this topic in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Argentina, and multiple cities in the USA. He was an early advocate for using Continuous Quality Improvement in healthcare. He has continued to emphasize physical activity after his cross-country bicycle journey. He completed a triathlon at age 40 and walked 500 miles on the Camino Frances in 2018. He has homes in Memphis Tennessee and Jackson Hole Wyoming. He fell in love with Jackson when he stopped there on his bicycle journey in 1972.
Stig Regli worked as a civil servant for 40 years with the USEPA as an engineer, regulation manager, and senior leader policy advisor developing regulations and policies to protect our Nation’s drinking water. Prior to coming to EPA, Stig served as Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan. Early in his career he took two extended leaves from EPA to work for Africare in Somalia and as consultant for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Thailand. His interest in public health as it relates to drinking water began during his senior year at Duke University and was further prompted following graduation thru travels on bicycle in five continents, all beginning with the bicycle trip across the US described in this book. Stig has a BS in Mechanical Engineering (1972) and an MS in Civil Engineering (1976) from Duke University.
Bill Jackson. Along with Bryan and Stig, Bill was one of the five riders whose amazing story is told in “The Road Taken.”