Bicycle Bonding 

Siblings from Memphis are pedaling across America.

click to enlarge Wills and Caroline Gardner
  • Wills and Caroline Gardner

Last I heard, they had made it to central Oregon — and his pedals weren't falling off anymore. That's a good thing, especially when your goal is to ride your bike across America.

To judge from their whirlwind beginning, Caroline and Wills Gardner — siblings from Memphis determined to ride their bikes this summer from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine — were relying primarily on youthful enthusiasm and a couple of St. Christopher medals given to them by a Central Gardens neighbor.

St. Christopher is the patron saint of safe travel, but in the first 15 minutes of their ride — 15 minutes! — what they needed was their first aid kit and tools to repair Wills' bike. That's because A) it's unclear if they had ever ridden their bikes fully loaded with gear and B) they didn't take their bikes for a test ride after they were assembled.

Let's back up. Why are these two twentysomethings — he a 2009 UT-Knoxville grad and she a refugee from a Dallas hedge fund — riding their bikes for 72 days and 4,200 miles this summer? Simple, really. "We were going to volunteer in Nepal," Caroline told me, "but then we realized we'd be there for the rainy season."

I took them to Astoria, on the Oregon coast, to pick up the bikes, which had been shipped from Memphis. Along the way, I asked them some questions.

How long have you been training for this? Caroline: "A few weeks."

How long has it been since you rode your bike 40 miles in a day? Wills: "I never have!"

A few more questions determined that they didn't know how to use their camp stove, had yet to spend a night in their tent, and their food stash consisted of ramen noodles, peanut butter, honey, bread, and Pop Tarts.

I stopped asking questions and started praying to St. Christopher.

They started out on June 3rd, with the goal of reaching the Atlantic August 10th, and immediately both crashed. I think Wills went down first, but both needed patching up. Then Wills' pedal came off in a construction area, which is where that test ride back at the shop might have helped.

That night in camp, they discovered that their alcohol stove, made from an old Budweiser can, "proved quite dangerous." Caroline set it and a can of denatured alcohol on fire, but they eventually feasted on "burned beans, cold corn, and half-cooked ramen." (Mom and Dad Gardner, back in Memphis, have probably quit reading by now.)

The next day, they were confronted with that quintessential Oregon hazard, the logging truck — in a tunnel, no less. Both sprawled out again, and a couple miles later, Wills' pedal was gone for good. So there they were, unable to ride, "questioning just what in the hell [they] were doing."

But that is when St. Christopher intervened, in the form of "a crew of Texans," one of whom was a biking enthusiast. They were given a ride to a bike shop and treated to a new crankshaft for Wills. They just beat the rain into camp that night. They had peanut butter and honey sandwiches with Pop Tarts at Cape Lookout State Park on the Pacific Ocean.

The trip was on, and special travel magic — every day a story — was flowing.

The next night they camped by the Salmon River, and on Day 4, they were given homemade jerky by a man with a shotgun (he was hunting gophers). Then they stopped at a winery for a tasting. In Corvallis, Oregon, they met an original member of the 1976 trans-America bike ride and were fed pasta with meat sauce by a group of 15 Germans in camp.

Like I said, the last message they left said they were in central Oregon. This means that the Cascade Mountains are behind them and that some more friends in my Portland betting pool have been eliminated. (I lost when they pulled out of Eugene.)

With continued good luck, on the day this issue of the Flyer hits the street, they will be in or near Grangeville, Idaho, looking forward to arriving soon at Montana's Lolo Hot Springs. After Montana, it's on across Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and New England. We shall see.

As I waved to them outside the bike shop in Astoria, I think I spoke for all of Memphis when I said, "Good luck." Wills said, "We'll need it!"

It or St. Christopher.

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