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Long-anticipated bike trip across U.S. proves real deal for teacher

By Scott Swanson
Lebanon Local

Brad Bauer says he’d never seen a live cougar until he rounded a curve on his bike near Lexington, Va., this past summer.

But he hadn’t seen a lot of things, which is why he decided to ride across America in the first place.

“I’d been wanting to do this particular ride for quite a while,” said Bauer, 55, a social studies teacher at Lebanon High School.

He was also a coach until he retired from that last year, which was why he hadn’t done the 4,000-plus-mile ride earlier.

“Six years ago I planned to resign from coaching to do this bike ride,” said Bauer, who coached football at Lebanon for “seven or eight” years, then coached cross-country for six more. The latter, he said, is a discipline in which summer workouts are vital.

“I didn’t want to be the coach that doesn’t run a summer program,” Bauer said. “I feel like if you’re going to be competitive, you’ve got to run a summer program.”

Also, “I made a promise to (team member) Isabella Ayala when she came in as a freshman, that I would coach until she graduated.”

So he put the bike trip on the back burner during his years at the coaching helm. This year Cameron Eberhart took over the program.

“We got the right guy,” Bauer said, noting that he also is now in the stage of life where he’s got the finances, his kids are out of the house and he doesn’t have older relatives who need care.

“It was always something I’d planned on doing, when the right time came. There’s a small window when you have time and money at the same time, and the health to do the whole thing. It was the perfect time for me to go.”

Bauer left Lebanon June 5, three days before school let out for the summer (“I used some personal days”) and headed east.

In Wyoming with the Grand Tetons in the background.

“I’d ridden between here and Newport enough times, so I didn’t need to start at Newport or Florence. I wasn’t compelled to have to do that.”

Bauer actually got into cycling as a college student, joining friends on rides. Those got longer, turning into overnighters and eventually Bauer was riding long distance, because he enjoyed it.

He’s ridden from Astoria to Brookings “seven or eight times,” sometimes taking high school kids with him. He’s ridden to Baker, to North Dakota, and once he rode south, finishing just north of Los Angeles.

For his cross-country trek, he departed on a bike he’d built entirely himself, towing a single-wheeled “BOB” trailer containing his tent, sleeping bag and some clothes in a dry bag. He packed the stuff he used during the day in saddlebags and he carried a fold-up chair.

“It’s perfect for me,” Bauer said of his bike. “The best part about it is, if anything went wrong, outside of the bottom bracket (in which the drive shaft is mounted), I could fix it. I carry all kinds of bolts, cables — anything for any kind of possibility.”

He’d decided to follow the popular TransAmerica Trail route, which runs east through Oregon, north through Idaho to Montana, then south and east through Yellowstone, Wyoming and Colorado, then due east to the Atlantic. He stayed on the route to Charlottesville, Va., where he swung north to finish in Washington, D.C.

Since cyclists burn thousands of calories during a day’s ride, particularly on a loaded bike with a trailer, Bauer bought a lot of food along the way.

“It ended up getting to the point that I would make breakfast in the morning on my camp stove, then eat a second breakfast at a diner. There were a lot of roadside diners.

“That was the best part of the whole thing: It was a back roads tour. No McDonald’s. Scio would be a big town that I would go through. I’d eat at the diner, talk to the local people. I got to see the real deal.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing.

He got snowed on in Montana.

Wyoming presented some “really tough sledding.”

“It was really hard. The wind was blowing. The mosquitoes were bad.” And, he said, he came within about 3 inches of a rattlesnake, sunning itself on the blacktop.

In Colorado

“Colorado was interesting. The roads are terrible in Colorado. There’s no shoulder. Around Denver, there was a lot of traffic.

“I was actually in Colorado on the Fourth of July weekend. It’s a pretty tough ride through there.”

The chair, which Bauer strapped to his back rack, along with some “regular shoes I could wear when I went into a store,” proved invaluable.

“Occasionally, I would say, ‘I’ve had enough,’ and I’d pull over to the side of the road, set up my chair and do some reading or something. If there was a huge headwind, I’d take an hour or two off in the middle of the day until the wind died down.”

He said he started out riding about 50 miles a day, but later upped that to around 100, when things got “boring” in eastern Colorado.

Kansas, he said, “is just a wheatfield — forever. On a bike, it’s day after day.”

The TransAmerica route follows back roads, so he rarely saw large towns like Lebanon.

Most of the small towns he saw were about the size of Scio, he said. Churches were everywhere — he posted along the way that he passed one “about every 50 minutes,” each with its own cemetery, often “in the middle of nowhere.”

“If the town is the size of Scio, it usually had a park with a swimming pool. I would stay in the park and they’d let me swim in the swimming pool. I took a solar shower bag with me. I had a stove, I’d heat water and fill up the shower, then I’d throw it over a swing set in the park, or over a tree limb.”

He met other cyclists, including one from the Netherlands, Rene, with whom he’d often camp. The cyclists often rode on different schedules, but they would agree to camp in the same spots, so they’d meet up at the end of the day.

“It’s such a popular route. I ran into some girls and a guy in Sisters, right off the get-go. I ended up traveling with them on and off. We didn’t really ride together, but we’d be in camp at the same times every three or four days. We ended up parting ways and I never saw the girls again after Missouri.”

Missouri hills

Missouri was a tough slog, he said. The route through it and Kentucky is literally hill after hill.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said. “I told everybody I compared it to Tyler Hill, just south of Lebanon. Really short, but pretty steep. You’re climbing a couple hundred, 300 feet, you go down, and then you’re doing it again.

“Real steep.”

And there were dogs.

“The bike community has talked about the Kentucky dogs. I first heard about Kentucky dogs in Wyoming,” Bauer posted along that stretch. “Yesterday, I had to spray a dog with bear spray. A pit bull came at me, I gave him a quick spray and he was rolling in the grass immediately with paws over eyes.”

After feeling “bad” all day, Bauer gave himself a dose of the bear spray when he knocked his bag off the table at a laundromat.

“It’s really bad, but I’m OK and the dog will be as well,” Bauer reported. “I’d do it again and not feel nearly as bad.”

He finished the ride on Aug. 7, almost exactly two months after he left Lebanon.

“I could easily have made it lot quicker,” he said, but he needed to coordinate with his wife Nancy, who was flying in to Washington D.C. to meet him and accompany him back. “I didn’t want to pay for a hotel for more days, so I waited at a campground for her.”

He was near the end of the ride when he had his most memorable experience — the cougar.

In Washington, D.C.

He was riding in western Virginia, alone on a country road that really wasn’t that remote — it paralleled a freeway about three miles away and it was farm country. But the road was empty.

“I probably didn’t see a car or another human being for five hours,” Bauer recalled. “Nothing. I came around a corner, on kind of a downhill, and there, standing in the middle of the road, was the biggest cougar I could imagine, about 20 yards away. His tail was bigger around than my wrist. I remember that vividly.”

The cat looked him, then sauntered off, across the ditch.

“It didn’t seem like it was in a big hurry. It just went.

“It’s not like I’m out in the middle of nowhere. There were cows and pigs everywhere. I guess they were a lot easier meal for that cougar than me. That was my big scare.”

Otherwise, it was a “great” trip, he said. “No issue whatever. I didn’t even have a flat tire.”

What he really enjoyed was the “routine.”

“I really thrived on that. I got to the point where I had my best sleep I’ve ever had in my little bitty tent. I felt the best I’ve ever felt. The whole thing, I really didn’t have a single worry.

“I kept texting my wife: ‘It’s amazing how little you really need.’ You don’t realize it until you get out on your bike. A couple pairs of shorts, shirts, a coat, a sleeping bag.  Everything you need, you’ve got on your bike.”

Plus, as a history teacher, he said, he enjoyed seeing the sights, the historical markers and road signs.

“There were a lot of great places to see. I really enjoyed it. But I think the routine was the best part.”

To see photos of Bauer’s trip, visit instagram.com/bradsbiketrip.