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Reconnecting to America — at 10 mph

Two women biked 3,000 miles from Astoria, Oregon, to Portland, Maine.

Idaho bike photo.jpg
A view of the Lochsa River in the mountains of north-central Idaho. Note the fabric strips tied to the safety flag pole of Jennifer's bike containing the words of what's important to individuals they met. Contributed / Jennifer Brandel

Catherine and her niece Jennifer biked across America this past summer. The individuals they met along the way were a remarkable coast-to-coast sampling of people. They discovered kindness and generosity.

Jennifer wanted to document the experience, and brought along strips of fabric. With each encounter, she asked people what was most important to them. As they disclosed something meaningful or emotional, it would be written down on the fabric.

Jennifer tied each strip of fabric onto the safety flag on her bicycle. She carried their words, names and locations across the country. Catherine said they talked to around 300 individuals. People were curious, and would ask them where they were headed and offered to assist in various ways.

Catherine and Jennifer recently wrapped up this remarkable trip, biking 3,000 miles from Astoria, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. They left Astoria on May 22, and arrived in Portland on Aug. 2. I thought this was an incredible accomplishment, and I wanted to hear their story.

Catherine has been a friend of my wife’s for the past 20 years. They both worked in research at Mayo Clinic. Catherine had an extraordinary career in the nursing profession for 43 years. Now, Catherine and my wife are both retired, and, as they say, “Living the dream.”

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Backing up a bit, in the 1970s, Catherine, a farm girl from New Ulm, found work in the summers as a corn detasseler.

It was a hot, dirty job that wasn’t for all kids. Hired by the seed companies, Catherine and her girlfriends would load into a school bus at sunrise and head to cornfields. Sometimes it was a long day, as farm chores still had to be done.

Teenagers who worked this job could make decent money. With savings from her detasseling corn stints, Catherine bought a ten-speed bicycle from the local hardware store. She promptly assembled the bike in her parents' front yard.

Ever since her Radio Flyer tricycle, Catherine loved to ride. Indoor spin classes, triathlons, daily rides, biking to and from work, fundraising events, or touring — riding has been good for her soul.

Catherine is no rookie at long bike rides, touring in Minnesota, South Dakota and California. She describes biking as peaceful, enjoyable, and full of scenery.

This coast-to-coast trip was a dream for her. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was postponed from 2020 to May 2021. Jennifer, an associate professor of architecture in the School of Design, Architecture and Art at North Dakota State University, was still in.

This trip was self-contained, which means the two women did all the logistics (campsites, gear, water, food, etc.).

After sticking close to home for a long time under COVID restrictions, it was a chance to reconnect — to everything. Catherine said you become attuned to the world around you, including the scenery, animals, weather and songbirds. At the end of the day, they experienced extraordinary sunsets.

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Catherine and Jennifer told me of the many people — total strangers — who helped them and connected with them along the way. They reflected on what our basic needs are and what is important to all of us. What they experienced on the ride gave them hope in the goodness of the people in our country.

The printed word cannot provide the depth of emotion, the beauty, and the joy Catherine and Jennifer experienced at 10 miles per hour for 3,000 miles. What a ride.

Loren Else lives in Rochester and also writes the Post Bulletin’s “Day in History” column. Send comments and column ideas to Loren at news@postbulletin.com .

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