"Never quit" — 2,400 miles in 34 days

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Ricky Jensen of Guttenberg prepares to embark on his 2,400 mile journey from Santa Monica, Calif., to Chicago. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

Retired Clayton Ridge School physical education teacher Ricky Jensen, of Guttenberg, recently rode his bicycle on Route 66 for 2,400 miles from Santa Monica, Calif., to Chicago in 34 days. 

Jensen gained insight and inspiration to complete the challenging adventure in his younger years. "I remember reading Walking Across America by Peter Jenkins; Climbing Everest books, specifically about the 1996 season where there was a blizzard that killed 12 people; The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, as well as stories about walking the Appalachian Trail," said Jensen. 

In the beginning...

The ultra-athlete was reluctant to share his plans with others. "I didn't talk to many people about the trip – partly because of my personality, and I didn't want to say I was going to do something and fail," he shared. "I departed on my journey with three things in mind. One – the last Amtrak back to the Midwest was in Santa Fe, N.M.; two – I could bike Route 66 to Missouri where it intersects with the TransAmerican Trail and finish the ride to York, Va., and visit my son, Jake, who is enlisted in the Navy and stationed in Norfolk, Va., 30 miles away, or just bike Route 66 the entire way." 

Jensen's trip began with a 40-hour train trip from Galesburg, Ill., to Union Station in Los Angeles, and a $47 dollar Uber ride to Santa Monica Pier. He experienced a wide variety of entertainment and oddities along his route. "One Sunday afternoon I came upon a reenactment of a gunfight in Oatman, a tourist destination and mining town, 25 miles from the Arizona border," he laughed.  "Donkeys had the run of the town like wild cats and dogs elsewhere. I met a character down-on-his-luck named Paul outside of Newberry Springs, Calif., along a very quiet Route 66 road. He was walking to Ohio. I encountered him a second time the next day east of  Ludlow, Calif. The first time I felt guilty for not giving him anything and the second time I ran into him I gave him a six inch sub-sandwich, a bottle of water and $20 dollars."

People along the way...

The determined cyclist was challenged throughout his journey. "After an incredibly hard four-mile ride up a hill into the wind my trailer axle feel off and disappeared," he relived. "I slowly had to coast back into town for nuts, a bolt, and washers for a repair to continue the trip. I paid a gentlemen named Mike, who was parked in a parking lot eating French fries, $16 dollars to give me a ride back to where I broke down, so as not to have to repeat the morning ride. Mike, who used an artificial voice machine to talk, and had recently suffered a stroke, was a good friend for a short time."

Jensen met Walter Jones on the only five-mile dirt road on his route. "When I told Walter I was on my way to Chicago he called me 'crazy,'" Jensen recalled.   "Walter was a good ol' boy who would have loved to give me a ride if he wasn't in a government truck. He was an enjoyable ten-minute companion who I agreed with when he said, 'The meteorologist lied to us again today when they said the weather was going to be out of the west.'"

The Navajo Nation was of interest to Jensen. "As I recall we had four students that attended Clayton Ridge who grew up in New Mexico with Navajo ancestry. It's possible they may have been descendants of Code Talkers," noted Jensen.   

Moments of joy and keeping in touch

The adventurer experienced a wide variety of elevations and east winds in the southwest through Arizona and New Mexico. "The Colorado River, Mississippi River and Lake Michigan brought me so much joy to see," Jensen exclaimed. "Coming around a corner and being surprised by Lake Michigan elicited a vocal, 'Wow!' out of me. What a sight, but it may have been influenced by the fact that my remaining mileage was in the single digits. I was close to my final destination." Jensen communicated with his wife, Donna, and two sons, Sam and Jake, through a private Facebook group called Head East. "The only time I posted was at night if I was staying in a motel room," he said. "We mostly communicated though group texts. Sam sent me daily pictures of our girls – cats, Lucy and Grace. That meant a lot to me. I also sent cards to four different people after the trip who I felt compelled to write to because of their kindness and generosity."

Bike safety and shops

Bicycle safety and appropriate headgear was important to Jensen. "It was important to me to get the message out to wear a helmet," he stressed. "I've had three accidents in the last couple years where the helmet protected my head – two really bad and another that would have been a serious concussion at the very least."

Jensen was grateful for all the bike shops he visited along the way. "I had two flats on busy Interstate-40, close to the Arizona-New Mexico border, making eleven flats total for the trip, when I found out my air pump was broke – again," he said with frustration. "It caused me to wonder about the trip. I quickly put that thought to the back of my mind, and hitchhiked into Gallup, N.M. I got a room, changed my back tire, spent $3 dollars on air in a gas station to ride to a bike store across town that normally would have been closed. The owner was in the next store over helping his wife with an order in a sports store. He took me next door to his bike shop, fixed my tires with thicker, stick-resistant tubes, sold me several more spares and sold me a replacement air pump. I never had another flat after that, but I had plenty of spares if needed."

"A bike shop in Flagstaff, Ariz., replaced two broken spokes, another in Oklahoma City replaced four spokes and tuned up my back wheel," he added. "He guaranteed me I wouldn't need to fix another spoke. He was right. I made it all the way to Chicago without issues with my wheels!"

Time to relax

A mother and son he struck up a conversation with in a convenience store four miles from Adrien, Texas, earned him a discount rate at a local hotel. "This was my favorite encounter,” Jensen remembered. “I was at the halfway point. The mother said, ‘Tell the hotel owner that Art sent you.’ The owner charged me a flat $40 rate!” 

Relaxing after a long day on the open road was well-deserved. “My most relaxing moments were after a long day and I got a room,” said Jensen. “I was meticulous about the set up – bike here, trailer there, second bed for rearranging clothes, electronic devices on charge, food set up, computer at ready, an enclosed clean neat room versus being outdoors all day long was a great relief.” 

Challenging moments

On May 8, a week from finishing the trip, Jensen’s axle to the back wheel that hooked up his trailer to the bike broke just before sunset on a quiet North Oklahoma road. “I realized at this moment that my trailer was done,” commented Jensen. “Was I done? No, but I would have to complete the journey without a trailer. I sent the trailer home with almost all of my belongings, including my camping equipment and computer, which meant I had to find a room every night. Once again I had to hitchhike into town. The following day I sent my trailer home and kept only the items that would fit on the back rack of my bike. I had to locate another bike shop to get a replacement axle so my back tire would hold out.”

Without a trailer Jensen’s challenging journey changed dramatically. “I no longer had the option of camping,” he said. “I couldn’t just ride till I decided to call it quits. I had to get a room or I would freeze. I came close to messing that up once – the last night of the trip – 45 miles from Chicago. But I actually got lucky and got a room and a late checkout. Without the trailer I finished my trek with four 100-mile days the last week.”

Keeping warm, eating healthy and staying safe

Jensen came up with creative ways to stay warm at night while camping outdoors. “I had a tent that I would lay out, but not put up,” he reported. “I would put my air mattress and fleece sleeping bag on it, which unfortunately I broke the zipper on the first night, and roll up in the tent to try and stay warm.”

Jensen fueled his body with healthy choices and carried three 22-28-ounce bottles filled with water and drinks with electrolytes. “There were a couple of mom and pop setups that I took advantage of, but I mainly stuck with Sonic’s egg, cheese, hold the bacon, but add onions and green peppers on toast, or Subway’s veggie patty, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich with onions, pickles and green peppers, or just a veggie sub,” he commented. “I would almost always carry these with me in addition to lots of nuts and healthy fruit snacks. I treated myself to a delivered pizza in hotel rooms at night and some snacks, but that was the only time I indulged in junk food.”

Jensen experienced very little fear during his 2,400-mile journey. “I almost got hit by a semi trying to avoid a huge sheet of metal that I didn’t see until the last moment. I swerved to about a foot of the truck going by at 70 mph – it would of have been quick. I was more thankful than scared,” he said with gratitude. “People or situations never came close to worrying me – not because I’m fearless, but there never appeared to be any danger.”

Never quit!

The challenging, solo journey presented difficulties for the cyclist. “For many days it was the hardest thing I have ever done, physically or mentally in my life,” he explained. “The wind, which never seemed to blow from the west, was always strong in the southwest and almost always from the east, northeast and southeast. That and the weight of the bike and trailer made it a challenge, that is now great to look back on, but not one to re-experience. At a low point, my son, Jake, said to me in a text, ‘The harder the challenge the better the story.’”

“I wouldn’t allow myself to quit,” he added. “I know my family would of been accepting if I had to call it off, and even made up excuses so I didn’t feel bad about it, but I also know deep down, in life, your loved ones want you to succeed with your challenges more than anything. My brother Gary asked me, ‘How did you do it?’ I replied, ‘Never quit!’”

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