Wheel in the sky

Tom Baltes rides across the United States for a second time

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In the summer of 2015, then 61-year-old Tom Baltes of Camas did what few could imagine: He cycled 4,000 miles across the United States on his Specialized road bike to raise awareness and funds for arthritis research.

Despite enduring boiling heat and thick smoke, climbing three mountain ranges and putting in triple digit days on his bike, Tom noted the experience as being among the best of his life. He had no qualms about embarking on another cycling adventure.

On Dec. 6, Tom, now 62, and wife Louise fulfilled his goal when he stepped off the bike in St. Augustine, Florida.

“I decided on another cross country ride to try and recapture some of the magic Louise and I felt seeing America via backroads last year on the northern route,” he said. “It was such an incredible experience seeing the northern states at the slow pace of a bike ride and we hoped to have a similar experience across the southern states.”

Tom also chose to ride from San Diego to St. Augustine to combat holiday weight gain and to get a break from the Pacific Northwest rain. On Nov. 14, he and Louise set out, their truck filled with a variety of gear, including a spare bike and related supplies, cold weather gear, camping gear and a box full of snacks and bottled water.

As it turned out, weather nearly derailed his plans when a nasty storm hit in East Texas. However, he and Louise drove into Florida to bypass the storm, with plans to make up the missing portions on the ride back. But having heard the news that Louise’s mother’s health had deteriorated after a visit mid ride, it became challenging for the couple to focus on the planning and logistics needed for the trek.

“It became difficult to focus on the ride when more important issues had arisen, and after completing the majority of our biking goals, we terminated the trip early and are heading to Tucson to be with Louise’s mom,” Tom said.

As she did on the first ride, Louise served as his support driver and handled all the of the logistics of the ride.

“She has been my sole supporter for 40 years and is very independent and forward thinking, so I totally relied on her,” Tom said. “In reality, she was always more busy than me and probably more tired at the end of the day from all of the work that she did.”

Her duties included shuttling her husband to and from start and stop points on the bike, monitoring his progress via phone apps, and keeping an eye on the weather.

This year, the couple stayed in hotels instead of campgrounds, but had no preset reservations. Louise had to make last minute arrangements nearly every day, as well as shop for supplies, deliver a midday meal to her husband and search for restaurants.

“Normally Tom and I are point A to point B travelers, flying quickly down the interstate system,” she said. “So being part of Tom’s ride across America, traveling slowly along back roads has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to see and feel our country in a much more intimate way. The trip was never boring, as I stayed busy looking after Tom’s support needs, while still having time to look around, take side roads, and stop to read all the historic signs along the way.”

At the end of each day, the couple would compare what they had seen on that segment of the trip.

“Being in support of the logistics part of this trip was empowering for me, too,” Louise noted. “Relearning to navigate and make critical decisions every day was a thrill and so much fun. It challenged me to anticipate needs and plan for contingencies, while still being near Tom to help as needed. I’ve been so amazed in watching Tom’s determination at getting out every day to put in a hard day of riding working toward a larger goal, despite the many changes in weather and terrain. All-in-all, it’s been a powerful experience for me and gratifying to be a part of that demanding effort. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

The ride, which began in sunny San Diego on Nov. 14, ended with a fierce storm, winds, water filled roads and a bike coated by sand.

“Grinding up hills and facing unfavorable winds are always a challenge,” Tom said.

However, he was ready to put in the work, having completed his 4,000 mile trek the summer before, as well as regularly walking 4 to 5 miles per day with Louise and working out at Lacamas Swim and Sport to keep up strength and flexibility. Tom also completed several 30 to 75 mile rides in the weeks before the trip.

“October was our wettest month on record in the Pacific Northwest, so that really limited what was supposed to be a fairly heavy biking month for me,” he said. “I can’t say I was in better physical condition for this ride, but I was better prepared mentally to deal with the first week or so, as I got myself in shape to do those 100 plus daily rides. It didn’t take too long to get into a daily rhythm and that felt great.”

The highest number of miles Tom rode in a single day was 150. He wanted to go farther, but daylight hours were a limiting factor, both for that day and the entire trip, which is something that wasn’t an issue during his summer trek.

Another difference was the scenery.

“It is obviously quite different between the north and south, and the types of agriculture varied quite a bit too,” Tom recalled. “The north had more grain crops and apple/pear orchards, while the south had nut and citrus fruit orchards, cotton, chilies and other crops.

“Although we observed a decline in rural communities and poverty in both the north and south, it seemed that in the back roads of the south, it is more pronounced. We observed wildlife in both the north and south, but there were much different species of animals on each ride.”

Wildlife highlights from the trip included close up encounters with several wild animals, including a group of javelinas in New Mexico, an armadillo in Florida and bull that chased Tom down a country road in Texas.

The couple also had the opportunity to visit with Louise’s mom in Tucson before she fell ill, and spend Thanksgiving with their son in New Mexico.

As of now, they have no plans for future cross country cycling trips, but may return to the southeast to complete segments missed on the most recent trip.

“We really want to see that part of the country in more detail,” Tom said. “I’m also interested in backpacking across Oregon and Washington on the Pacific Crest Trail, so may have to start looking at that quest.”