Wanting one really big adventure before having to grow up, Peter and Karen Wolfe decided that bicycling across the United States would fill the bill. Twenty-eight hundred miles, 77 days, 10 flat tires and a vast amount of roadkill later, the two are now back home in Pollock Pines. The Mountain Democrat caught up with them by phone as they rolled into Kansas City.
“America looks very different at 8 mph,” said Peter. “People asked us why we were doing this and the answer is because we could. The freedom of it was amazing. No permits, no permission — you just get on the bike and ride.”
To prepare for the big adventure, the couple consolidated expenses and lived with Karen’s parents, Don and Jeanette Boltz, in Pollock Pines while training and planning the route. Karen, 50, a retired software engineer and rocket scientist, logged 1,500 miles on back roads and bike trails on her old mountain bike in training. Peter, 62, an architect, a former Placerville planning commissioner and co-founder of Imagination Theater, worked out at the gym and occasionally put in cycling time on a new Trek hybrid bike.
“Peter spent about a year doing research, reading and talking to people to plan the route,” said Karene. “We wanted to avoid large cities and stay on the backroads through small towns. The two biggest cities we rode through were Albuquerque, N.M., and Richmond, Va.”
On April 18, Karen’s 50th birthday, the pair dipped their back tires into the Pacific Ocean at Torrey Pines State Park near San Diego and launched into their trek across the nation. A donated 21-foot motor home, following or preceeding them as needed, acted as their support vehicle during the daytime, their sleeping quarters at night. A variety of drivers drove the motor home, including Lanny Langston, Peter’s partner and co-founder of Imagination Theater, Karen’s parents, Don and Jeannette Boltz, her nephews Hayden and Hanz Boltz, daughters Alana and Suzanne Lewis, friends Alan and Jim Moylan and Peter’s son Brian Wolfe.
Cycling about 50 miles each day, the Wolfes made their way through California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Virginia.
“We took one day off every week to do sightseeing,” said Karen, “and we used Google Maps to look ahead and make sure the small roads we chose went through.”
Peter said that Karen was generally 2-3 miles ahead of him each day. “I chased her the whole trip. She didn’t walk one inch of the way. With my crochety knees, I spent about 200 miles out of 2,800 using my bike as a walker. People kept stopping to see if I was all right.”
Challenges and rewards
“The heat was the most challenging thing we dealt with,” said Karen. Riding through the Anza-Borrego State Park in California and the Arizona desert with temperatures of 110 necessitated a change in riding strategy as did the humid, hot weather in Kentucky.
“We’d get up at 4 in the morning, ride until it got hot, climb into the air conditioned motor home and sleep and then get up and ride again,” said Karen. “You could feel yourself sizzling.”
In one day Peter had three flat tires, necessitating an urgent call to Andrew Molinari at the Placerville Bike Shop for advice. Aggressive dogs were another obstacle.
“Eight out of 10 dogs will leave if you tell them to go home,” said Karen, “but this one dog wouldn’t go away. He kept trying to bite my tire. I had to spray him with pepper spray.”
In Missouri Peter was chased by a goat and a dog. “I hadn’t looked behind me in a long time and I saw this hill and got off to walk my bike. I heard a big commotion behind me and turned. There was a huge, black SUV pulling in right behind my back tire.”
The SUV belonged to the local undertaker who had observed a goat and a dog giving chase and about to overtake the hapless cyclist. He interposed his vehicle between the hunters and their prey. “We ended up eating dinner with him and spending the night at the funeral home,” said Peter.
Despite 10 flat tires, six bottles of sunscreen, three bottles of insect repellant, Peter’s loss of 15 pounds, a wasp sting on Karen’s elbows, and sore knees, the Wolfes successfully dipped their front tires in the Atlantic Ocean near Yorktown, Va., on July 6.
“My daughter, Suzanne, had alerted the local paper and they came out to take pictures,” said Karen. “People on the beach thought we were celebrities and some of them asked to have their picture taken with us. That was pretty funny.”
Crossing the Continental Divide in New Mexico, crossing the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and climbing the Appalachian Mountains were highlights of a trek Peter called “amazing” and Karen called “enlightening.”
“Most bridges going across the Mississippi River don’t allow bikes,” said Karen, “so a man at a bike shop advised us to cross at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at Illinois. He told us to have the RV follow us with the lights flashing. We did and we held up traffic. It was very exciting. In one hour, we were in three different states.”
“We were stunned at how many of the small towns were boarded up,” said Peter. “Placerville has a lot to be thankful for because we saw town after town that used to be booming places to live and they were all but deserted. Riding down the middle of Main Street in those boarded up towns was like being in the Twilight Zone.”
Karen found $15 in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters along the road and Peter had his picture taken next to two different Kiwanis signs, trying to make up for missing Kiwanis meetings at home.
“We talked to lots of people, took a million pictures and got to know the world of trucking,” said Karen. “Where to take a shower was the pressing search of each day, so often we stopped at truck stops and bought a $10 shower.”
They also showered in YMCAs and on military bases, as Peter is a military veteran. They parked the RV in Walmart parking lots overnight.
Returning home in the RV, the couple took the freeway to do a little more sightseeing along the way and arrived home on July 21.
To anyone thinking of doing a nationwide bike trek, Peter advised, “Go for it. It’s very doable and being able to see America like this before it disappears is a phenomenal experience.”
Road haiku by Karen Wolfe
Trucker’s vortex whoosh
Gravel spits across the road
I want a Big Mac
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or email@example.com. Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.