Biking across America at 80

Posted 7/21/11

“I decided it was on my bucket list, and it was now or never,” said Bob Garrett, who turned 80 in May. “I was going to do it by myself.”

His family didn’t care for that idea.

“So Gail went with me,” he said, looking at his …

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Biking across America at 80


Father, daughter ride from Pennsylvania to Wyoming

Just consider this bicycle trip by the numbers:

A six-week journey covering more than 2,400 miles, bicycling a minimum of 14 hours a day, averaging 65 miles each day, encountering heat above 100 degrees, facing wind gusts of more than 40 mph — at age 80.

“I decided it was on my bucket list, and it was now or never,” said Bob Garrett, who turned 80 in May. “I was going to do it by myself.”

His family didn’t care for that idea.

“So Gail went with me,” he said, looking at his daughter. “I never would have made it without her.”

On June 6, Garrett and his daughter, Gail Gretch, each equipped with a bicycle and the “bare, bare necessities,” headed west. They left from Ohiopyle, Pa., with Wyoming as their final destination.

After encountering varying weather elements — wind, rain, heat, flooding — amid memorable moments of laughter, beauty and Americana, the pair arrived in Cody on July 14, where they met their relatives Carl and Betty Cook. The Cooks took them to their home in Clark, where Gretch and Garrett rested for a day before visiting Yellowstone — via bicycle, of course.

Garrett loves to bike. He grew up in Kitty Hawk, NC., where the Wright brothers flew their first airplanes. In his old age, Garrett wanted to see America by bicycle rather than airplane or automobile.

“It’s a lot prettier. You get to study the different areas, canyons and towns that have been bypassed by the Interstate. There are just so many more things to see (by bicycle),” Garrett said.

Even on the hottest days, the windiest or the longest, the pair just kept on riding, inspired not just by the destination ahead, but the journey along the way.

“The scenery is so pretty and you meet all these people, so your adrenaline kicks in and you just keep on riding,” Gretch said.

She kept on riding even after suffering a concussion on Day 20 of their trip. As they biked through Iowa, flooding along the Missouri River closed all roads through Omaha, Neb., except the Interstate, forcing the father-daughter duo to take a detour. They headed toward Sioux City, Iowa, knowing the rerouted course meant an additional two days of traveling.

Along the detour, they got another blow. Gretch’s front tire got stuck in a gap in the concrete and she crashed, landing mostly on her head.

“Thank goodness for the helmet,” she said.

Gretch continued to ride, but her head hurt, and she felt foggy and had little energy. Still, she rode her bicycle 150 miles before they reached a hospital in Sioux City, where she was diagnosed with a concussion and told to rest for a full 24 hours.

It was one of the few full days of rest during the six-week journey.

Most days, they awoke early so they could begin biking by 6 a.m. or so. Some mornings, especially in hot weather, they awoke at 3:30 a.m. to start by 4 a.m. They would reach their evening destination by around 8 p.m., and they always stayed the night in a hotel.

Originally, they were using Google maps to follow a trail of country roads and other bicycle-friendly routes, but soon found it took them on unpaved or nonexistent paths.

“We couldn’t rely on it,” Garrett said.

“So we carried out our own trail,” Gretch added. “That seemed to work.”

They traveled through beautiful Amish country in Indiana, where they shared the road with buggies. Then on to Illinois, where they stopped at Chicago, and in a right-place-at-the-right-time moment, they met a passerby who offered them free tickets to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

“We received random acts of kindness all along the way, across the country,” Gretch said, in the form of complimentary food and drinks, free T-shirts or just a friendly conversation.

When people found out that 80-year-old Garrett was riding his bike across America, “the reaction was surprise, amazement,” Gretch said.

“Older people are more amazed by his accomplishment than younger people,” she added.

They also encountered random moments of oddness along the way.

Riding through the Nebraska plains, Gretch saw some sort of animals in the distance.

“Dad, I think those are hogs,” Gretch said to Garrett.

Curious, the pair stopped to take a picture. The pigs sniffed the bicyclists’ gear, where food was stored. Then a truck came upon where the hogs and bicyclists had stopped in the wide-open prairie.

“Are those your hogs?” the truck driver asked.

“Yeah, we’re on bikes, and these are my hogs,” Gretch said jokingly as she recalled the story. “No, those are not my hogs.”

The driver loaded the hogs in his truck and away they went, leaving Gretch and Garrett with a random Nebraskan experience and a bit of hog snot on their bicycle gear.

As they headed west, the weather got warmer and windier.

“Wind is a bigger deterrent than hills,” Garrett said. “With the wind, a lot of those days seemed really tough.”

They did a 100-mile day from Casper to Shoshoni with wind and hot temps.

It was Gretch’s first “century,” or 100-mile day trip. And, while it wasn’t a first for Garrett, “how many 80-year-olds do you know who ride centuries, loaded down (with gear)?” she asked.

Garrett has a neck problem, so he can’t lean over his bike but must sit up, increasing wind resistance. Still, Garrett rode mile after mile without complaining of pain, and he often set the pace.

“I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with him,” Gretch said.

“You put up with the pain,” Garrett said.

In addition to sore muscles and Gretch’s concussion, they encountered some other mishaps along the way. Gretch had five flat tires in four days, which her dad patched until they could get to a bike shop to buy replacements.

They each went through a set of tires.

“All that peddling,” Garrett said.

They both have a fondness for ice cream, so the pair took periodic breaks from peddling for a cold treat.

Their route across America — from east to west — is considered the toughest way to go, hampered by west winds and the uphill slope from increasing altitude.

On Wednesday, they flew from Jackson back to their homes out east — Gretch lives in New Hampshire and Garrett in Maryland. They shipped their bikes home.

After spending a full six weeks together on a trip that could be tiring and grueling at times, they agree their journey across America strengthened their relationship.

“We get along really well,” Gretch said. “We’re able to work things out and not get in each other’s way.”

“It’s something you’ll never forget. What a great memory,” Garrett said.

Nearing Cody, a sign came into view — just 25 miles left.

“It suddenly dawned on me … the long distance is back there, behind us. Not in front of us anymore,” Garrett said. “I’m sorry it’s over.”