By Ryan Buffa | firstname.lastname@example.org
Many people spend the summer lounging on the beach, reading a book or maybe doing some sightseeing. But for Flagler College associate professor of natural science Barbara Blonder, this summer was spent on a bicycling trek that crossed the entire country.
“It was really liberating and empowering,” Blonder said, sitting in her office while surrounded by framed pictures of her journey. She is wearing a pair of silver earrings with dangling bicycles.
Blonder said the idea to travel from St. Augustine to San Francisco came to her about five years ago.
Beginning in her early 30s, she and her husband started bike touring on the weekends. “I really liked seeing a place that way,” Blonder said. “So I think that kernel kind of got stuck in my mind.”
She exercised with a number of tri-athletes for a few years who always seemed to wonder why she was training and when she would start competing.
“I told them ‘I hate competition,'” she said. “So I think I’ll ride my bike across the country when I turn 50 … Then I sort of said, ‘OK, I need to do this or I’m a liar.’ “
Last summer she began the first steps to making her dream into a reality and began seeking out people who had biked long distances.
St. Augustine is the end point for a lot of cross-country trips, so when Blonder saw a person with a bike packed with camping gear, she didn’t hesitate to ask if they were traveling cross country and then seek advice about how to prepare.
“I got ideas from a lot of different people who had done it before,” Blonder said.
As for training, there really wasn’t any, she said. She started to prepare by biking 100 miles on weekends and short rides on the weekdays.
However, she was told by her masters swimming coach that there wasn’t really any way to truly train for such a journey. Turns out he was right.
Although she bicycled hundreds of miles before the cross-county journey began, a leg injury that occurred a month before she left landed her in physical therapy.
“You just train on the trip and that seemed the best way to go,” she said. But everyone approaches their trip differently. She met people on the road who chose to bicycle across the country as a way to lose weight or who simply decided to buy a bike two weeks before the trip and just go for it.
Blonder left St. Augustine on June 4, accompanied by a friend for the first week on the trip. Her husband, 11-year-old son, and their dog were supposed to meet her once school was out.
However, the van that her husband and son were traveling in blew a head gasket in Jacksonville and delayed their start to the trip.
Once Blonder’s friend left, she was on her own on the road for a few weeks until she met up with her family in Kansas.
Once her family arrived, they would meet up at a campground at the end of the day and trade stories of their adventures, Blonder said.
“It was an awesome family trip …. definitely the best half of the trip,” Blonder said.
Her family became her support team as she traveled alone on her bike during the hottest days of the summer — the hottest she remembers was 107 degrees. They helped by bringing her food and water when she traveled roads that had 80 miles dry spells.
To help avoid heat exhaustion, she would leave at dawn and bike a minimum of 60 miles before the late afternoon when the hottest hours of the day set in.
As for nutrition, it depended on the area and what food stores were available.
“That was a challenge with keeping enough vitamins and minerals,” she said. “Not a lot of fruits and vegetables are available because there aren’t a lot of groceries in the rural areas. I ate a lot of fried food in some parts of the country — usually Power bars and potato chips.”
Her mileage per day varied, depending on her preference or the weather conditions.
“That’s what was really cool about the trip, that a lot of the time it was like, ‘I don’t know where I’m sleeping tonight,’ ” she said. “It was like that every night, and that’s a really cool, liberating feeling.”
Choosing a town could be pretty humorous at times, she said. She and her family spent a night at the Hotel Nevada, the nicest hotel in they could find, complete with a lobby full of slot machines that she passed through with her young son and dog in tow.
But she met a lot of new people too. She would strike up conversations with people in convenience stores and fellow bicyclists.
“That’s one of the coolest things about bicycle travel … because you’re not in your car cocoon, you’re more approachable,” Blonder said.
She met several high school and college students trying to achieve the same goal of cross-country travel for reasons such as personal preference or to raise money for causes such as cancer research or multiple sclerosis.
But she wasn’t scared.
“I wouldn’t let myself go there [and think], ‘I know I’m alone and I know I can be vulnerable,’ ” Blonder said. ” I didn’t want to focus on that because it would have taken from the whole experience.”
The difference between riding alone and riding with a pack creates a different experience, she said.
“I was really lucky to have that time…to be by myself to stop and smell the roses, literally,” Blonder said. “If there was a cool bakery I wanted to stop in, then I would.”
Missouri, AKA Misery
Although Blonder braved the open road with a peaceful mind, fear did rear its ugly head when three dogs attacked her in Missouri, which she now deems, “Misery.”
Blonder said Missouri had really narrow curving roads with no shoulder and at the top of one hill, three dogs were waiting. They attacked all at once.
“I got bitten,” she said. “I got away from them and didn’t want to get dragged down.”
After she biked about a mile away, she assessed her injuries and called 911. She also tried to investigate whether or not the dogs had their vaccinations. She filed a report and continued on with her journey, although it did slow down her trip for a few days.
“I changed the route a little bit because I was worried that I might need medical attention,” she said. “… to a bigger town that had a clinic.”
Despite the injury, she looks back on the trip fondly. Out of the 12 states that Blonder traveled through, she said Utah’s huge landscape and color amazed her the most.
“It was so different from Florida,” she said. “Everything was just so big and dramatic … The scale of Utah is what blew me away. It was just so beautiful.”
Of all the sights and memories she has of her cross-country journey, her favorite was crossing the Continental Divide, which is the line between the half of the country that leads to the Atlantic Ocean and the half that is nearer the Pacific.
Blonder said crossing the Continental Divide was a moment that made her realize that she really was making this journey.
“It was like ‘Wow!’ I really am in the middle of the country,” she said. “I really did make it this far.”
“It was powerful and really emotional,” Blonder said.
As for another bicycling journey, she said she is already planning the next trip.