BAR HARBOR – A pair of Maine bicycling enthusiasts completed a journey of mammoth proportions last week, when they ceremonially dipped their tires into the surf at Sand Beach in Acadia National Park.
Those same bicycles had been wet with the spray of the west coast eight weeks and 4,300 miles earlier, when Jerry Ellis and John Hwalek began their trip at Alexander Beach, north of Seattle, Washington.
“It’s incredible,” Ellis said, “to see the whole country, and to see it from the bicyclist’s perspective, not flying by in a car. Just incredible.”
And helpful as well. Ellis used the trip as a fundraiser for the Jerry Ellis Scholarship Fund, which helps people in need of fiscal assistance within the University of Maine system. The Phillips-born Ellis, who was a 1960 graduate from the Phillips High School, worked for 33 years within the Onward Program. He retired as the director of the UMaine College Success Program, which took over the role of the Onward Program within the college system. Hwalek is an associate professor of chemical engineering at UMaine.
All in all, the UMaine Foundation took in more than $5,000 during the trip.
The journey, which required Ellis and Hwalek to bike as many as 100 miles a day, followed the “Northern Tier Route,” which generally is within states bordering Canada. Hwalek had always wanted to bike across the country, and Ellis became enamored to the idea as well. Ellis had always been aerobically active, first as a runner, then as a cross-country skier and a biker. When Hwalek approached him with the idea, Ellis had already been spending at least five days a week at a spin class in a gym.
“I just grabbed onto the idea,” Ellis said. “The concept of using the ride to raise money for the fund was a totally natural extension.”
Hwalek and Ellis began training in earnest in March. Throughout the spring they rode 50 miles a day, in preparation for the planned start date of June 17. They shipped their bikes by UPS from Rose’s Bike Shop in Orono to a bike shop in Seattle. That shop agreed to assemble the bicycles, so when the pair arrived they took their bikes, packed their panniers and were off.
The first leg of the journey wound through the northwestern Cascade Mountains in Washington, with Ellis and Hwalek having to ride up through four major passes.
“In terms of aerobic capacity,” Ellis said, “you’re building it right away.”
While noticing many similarities between the many Americans that Ellis met along the journey and Mainers, he noticed some differences as well. He recalled him and Hwalek stopping in front of a Montana cafe for lunch, walking in wearing their Spandex biking suits.
“We’re walking into these places wearing Spandex,” Ellis said, “and these people are wearing cowboy boots and jeans and Stetson heats. We would get some strange looks. But if you’d start a conversation, if they’d ask what you were doing, and you say you’re on this trip, the spandex just disappears.”
Reactions, Ellis noted, ranged from genuine admiration to “you’re crazy.”
The hardest part of the journey, Ellis said, was not crossing the hills and mountain. With roughly half of the trek complete, the bicyclists spent nine days going from Illinois to New York, traveling 100 miles a day.
“I got pretty tired,” Ellis said. “The thought of getting back on the bike the next day was tough.”
Finally they reached Rochester, resting with Hwalek’s parents for two days before taking on the Adirondack, White and Green Mountains.
They entered Maine on August 9, after nearly 8 weeks of riding, with what Ellis described as “an enormous sense of relief.” While staying the night in Otisfield, Ellis and Hwalek were surprised by their wives, who had driven down to meet them. That night, Ellis said, marked the beginning of the end of the trip. The next three days, to reach Bar Harbor, were through mostly well-known bike routes.
“We realized the we’re in Maine, we’re with family and it’s wonderful,” Ellis recalled.
The trip’s over, but the memories will last forever. Ellis recalled arriving at a small town sandwiched between Indian reservations in North Dakota. Warned against stopping in the supposedly crime-ridden town by friends, Ellis and Hwalek decided to take a break for lunch. Within a little museum they found a 76-year-old woman on oxygen, and proceeded to have an in-depth, substantial discussion about the presidential primary.
They met a man in Maine who had been a bike rider and racer in his youth. Unable to bike any more, he spent time with the bikers, talking about his personal attachment to the bike riding he could no longer do.
They saw others traveling from coast to coast, seeing the same people on multiple occasions, sometimes days apart. They rode some distance with pair of women from Napoleon, Ohio, who insisted that Ellis and Hwalek stop in to visit. They did, eating dinner and spending the night and then riding with them the next day for 30 or 40 miles.
“It’s not any one experience that made it what it was,” Ellis said, “it’s the sum of the experiences.”