Something about Junior seemed odd.
Junior, an elderly man with a fuzzy white beard and unkempt hair in a run-down pickup truck, was giving Ellee Thalheimer and her dad a lift along the Oregon coast. The two were cycling from Astoria to San Francisco, and they’d overestimated their ability to ride 110 miles, with several thousand feet of climbing, in a single day.
“He was yelling stories about his truck while driving very much over the speed limit on these windy coastal roads,” says Thalheimer. “I thought his gaze was weird, and then I noticed that he had a glass eye. My dad was white-knuckling it the whole way.”
It’s these offbeat characters and experiences that define long-haul bike touring, and they’re what turned Thalheimer into an evangelist for two-wheeled travel. Since that 2002 trip with her dad, the 35-year-old Arkansas native has toured in Cuba, Argentina and Italy. She’s also managed to turn touring into a career: She wrote Lonely Planet’s guide to cycling in Italy, has led several women-only tours across the country and her Cycling Sojourner books offer guides to multiday bike tours in Oregon and Washington. “Whole cultural divides are crossed just because you’re riding,” she says, “and people are interested.”
Thalheimer’s catalog of personalities doesn’t stop at Junior. There was the miner in Eastern Oregon who gave her a lift on a snowy October day, offered her beer at 10 am and then taught her to shoot a gun. And the grizzled Vietnam vet endlessly crisscrossing the country on a recumbent bike. She drank beer and discussed disc brakes with a motorcycle gang in tiny Spray, a town of 160 on the John Day River in Central Oregon. There were the “fabulous Italian men” she met while working for Lonely Planet, and the policemen on the Argentine Pampas who taught her how to drink yerba mate. “We sat and just chatted forever with those cops,” she says. “What kind of trouble are you really going to cause, showing up on a bicycle?”
The summer after graduating from Lewis & Clark College, Thalheimer and a friend took a bike tour through Cuba. One evening, they ended up in an unfamiliar town with nowhere to sleep—save the offer from a shady-looking guy that they stay in a dank room at his house. “But then up rolls this grandmother on a bicycle,” Thalheimer says. “She has white hair and in her front basket is this bouquet of wonderful-smelling flowers, and she’s asking us our troubles.”
Thalheimer ended up bunking at the woman’s house, which she shared with four generations of her family, including a grandson who did all the cooking. “After dinner, we all sat back and relaxed and watched a dirty, dirty Antonio Banderas movie,” Thalheimer says. “Like a dirty one, with naked humping, and everyone’s just like, ‘Ooh yeah, look how hot he is!’”
Thalheimer also considers bike touring a psychological “reset button.” “All you have to do is ride and keep on riding,” she says. “It’s this long, peaceful, endorphin-infused time to think.”
For as much bike touring as she’s done elsewhere, Thalheimer describes the scene in Oregon as “world-class.” In addition to the hugely varied scenery—arid deserts, craggy coastlines, lush forests, fertile vineyards—there’s impressive cycling infrastructure across the state. Oregon is the only state in the country with officially designated scenic bikeways, 11 routes that are signed and mapped to make trip planning easy. There’s no shortage of bike-friendly businesses, either. These are places that understand it’s in their economic interest to accommodate hungry, weary bike tourists: a church in the John Day area that always has its doors open to cyclists looking for a place to sleep and shower, or a hardware store-cum-bike shop in Joseph. Though you encounter the occasional raging motorist—RVers on the Oregon coast are particularly prickly—Thalheimer says she’s more often come across drivers who stop to give her water or to point out a family of bald eagles.
Over the years, Thalheimer has not only learned what to pack (she always carries a hammock) and the importance of flexibility when things go awry, but also how she wants to grow old. While leading women-only trips across the country, she noticed many riders were past retirement age.
“In the front of the pack was a woman—she must have been 70,” Thalheimer says. “She put on her lipstick every morning. She always had her roots done, always had this even color of auburn. And she went out and killed it every day. She was awesome, no complaining about aches and pains. It was like, wow, you don’t have to get old and complain and sit around in your rocking chair. You can ride across the country.”