Riding the dream

After 35-year wait, Connor cycles cross-country in solo adventure
By: 
Bill Livick

Photos submitted. Stoughton resident Mike Connor celebrates the start of his cross-country bike trip on June 5 last year by dipping his feet (and bike tires) in the Pacific Ocean at Seaside, Oregon.

A view from the Going-to-the-Sun Highway at Glacier National Park in Montana.

As unlikely as it seems, Mike Connor thinks almost anyone could do it.

The longtime Stoughton resident spent 68 days last summer bicycling across the United States, from Seaside, Ore., to Portland, Maine.

That’s 3,696 miles, from June 5 to Aug. 11.

What’s more, Connor, 56, made the solo bike trip entirely self-supported. He put panniers on his bike, carrying a tent, sleeping bag and a few other essentials.

Perhaps “self-supported” is a tad misleading, because more than anything, the journey “renewed my faith in humankind,” Connor said.

“That was the best part for me. In my blog one day I wrote, ‘I eat, I sleep, I pedal and I meet nice people in between.’ That’s really what it came down to,” he said. “There’s nice people all the way across North America.”

Connor doesn’t have any plans for a similar trip this year, but he’ll be conducting a mini-course Tuesday, June 10, at UW-Madison’s Union South, where he’ll talk about his trip and long-distance cycling.

A lifelong local

The Village of Oregon native has lived in Stoughton for the past 27 years. He’s been married for 31 years, has two adult children in their 20s, and retired last year from a 35-year career at Cummins Inc.

He’s wanted to do the coast-to-coast journey for the past 35 years.

“It was the culmination of a longtime dream – to ride across the country,” he said.

Connor explained that as a 21-year-old student at MATC, he enrolled in a calculus class that he was dreading. But on the first day of class, instead of doing calculus, his Japanese professor presented a slide show of his bike trip across the country – from Washington State to Boston.

“He flew from Japan to Seattle and then got on a bicycle,” Connor recalled. “He thought the best way to see America, meet Americans and learn English was to ride his bike across the country.

“From that moment on, I wanted to do that,” he added. “It was an inspiration to me.”

But reality intruded on the dream, and instead Connor landed a job at Cummins, married and started a family.

What planning?

Connor started thinking seriously about taking the bike trip a few years ago. He began amping up for it by taking some long rides in Wisconsin  – the Great Annual Bicycle Adventure Along the Wisconsin River (GRABAAWR), and the MS 150.

But he didn’t do a lot of planning, considering it was a nearly 4,000-mile bike trip.

“At first I thought I would just go with my credit card and bicycle,” he said. “There’s 1,000 different ways to do it.”

After talking with some experienced long-distance cyclists and reading about it, Connor decided to take a tent and sleeping bag because he knew there would be some wide-open spaces between towns in the West.

“That turned out to be one of the best parts of the trip – the camping part,” he said. “That was a real adventure.

“I didn’t do much planning on that part,” he admits. “It was the last month and I decided to change the way I was going to do it.”

He also didn’t have a pre-determined route in mind. Instead, Connor, with his Trek carbon-fiber bicycle, flew to Portland, Ore., near Seaside.

He rode from there to Missoula, Mont., in his first two weeks on the road.

The journey

By the time he’d arrived in Missoula, Connor had already cycled up and over several mountain ranges that to most Midwesterners might seem virtually insurmountable: the Coastal Range, the Cascade Range, the Inner Mountain Range, the Bitterroot Range and the Rocky Mountains.

“The first two weeks is where your body is really adjusting to the rigors of it,” he said. “So when you get down to Missoula, everybody’s about in the same shape, whether you trained or not.”

Once he’d reached Missoula, Connor was feeling strong and healthy. That’s when he decided that he could actually continue across the country.

There, he went to visit the Adventure Cycling Association, where he got professional advice about the rest of his trip.

“They provided all the maps, which took all the stress out of the logistics part of it,” he said. “They have different courses and trails across the U.S. and they plot your course.”

The association put Connor on roads that are lightly traveled or on busier roads with a wide shoulder.

From Missoula, he pedaled to Great Falls, Mont., and followed the Lewis and Clark Trail all the way to Bismarck, the Capital of North Dakota. From Bismarck he rode to Fargo, N.D., and on to Minneapolis.

From there, Connor cycled to Stillwater, Minn., and then down the Mississippi River to La Crosse. He took bicycle trails from La Crosse to Sparta, rode the Elroy-Sparta trail to Reedsburg, and then cycled on roads to Middleton.

“I got to Middleton and my bike broke down, which was awesome because my son works there,” Connor said, with a laugh. “My first breakdown was in Middleton, and my first and only flat tire was in Pepin, Wis.”

After spending a few days with family at home in Stoughton, Connor took a ferry across Lake Michigan and continued on to Portland, Maine.

Trials

He said there were only two times when he considered quitting.

“During the first part of the trip, I had a lot of anxiety about where I was going to stay or where I was going to eat, what the route was like … Then after a couple of weeks, my body just settled into it,” he said.

His first real trial was the result of a saddle sore, near Walla Walla, Wash. Similar to the bedsores that afflict the long-term bedridden, a saddle sore “will rub you until you can’t ride anymore,” Connor said. “I put everything on it to prevent it, but it still came and I thought I was done.”

As luck would have it, however, he met a nurse where he’d gone for a massage, and she had experience treating bedsores. She knew exactly what he needed.

“It’s like a patch for the bedsores,” he explained. “She got me four of those. I put it on, and she said in four days you should be healed up. And I was. It was amazing.”

The second incident that nearly broke his spirit happened in the rolling hills of eastern Montana.

He left Great Falls and had made it through the rest of the mountains.

“I thought, I’m home free,” he recalled. “My biggest fear was I couldn’t do the mountains, but I was through the mountains and I got into these rollers – I call it dinosaur country, near Jordon, Mont.”

Connor described a series of very steep, seemingly unending hills.

“You go up 500 feet and you come down 500 feet. And you do that over and over, all day long for three or four days,” he remembered. “And when you get to the top of one of them, you can see for miles all the way to the end of them. So you see 10 or 12 of them.

“And then you go down and come up and you see another 10 or 12 of them. And it just keeps going, like waves in the ocean.”

He compared the landscape to a scene from Jurassic Park: beautiful and green, but very hot. The West had record heat of at least 100 degree every day when he was riding through.

“On the third or fourth day of this, I’d just had it,” he recalled. “I ran out of water. I got to the top of this huge hill, and I was just done. I thought, I’ll pull beside the road and put my head against one of these big boulders and I’ll bang my head until I’m dead.”

Connor stopped beside the “only mailbox within 40 miles,” weak and shaking from dehydration. Just then, a rancher in a pickup truck came down the long driveway and stopped to talk.

“He takes one look at me, and he goes, ‘Where you headed?’” Connor recounted. “I tell him Jordon, and he goes, ‘That’s another 10 miles.’

“I said, ‘you wouldn’t have any water in your truck, would you?’

“He reaches into the back of this cooler and pulls out this huge Gatorade and throws it to me.

“He said my eyes just popped out from my head, and from then on the last 10 miles were a breeze. It was just awesome.”

The next day, Connor reached the end of the “rollers” and cycled into flat country.

“So just when you think you’re done, life tells you you’re not done,” he observed. “I was saved by just luck, and the kindness of a stranger.”

Highlights

Connor counts the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho, the Adirondacks of Vermont and New York, and Niagara Falls as the most spectacular places he traveled through.

He was incredibly lucky to experience only four days of rain in 68 days of cycling.

In addition to his encounters with remarkably friendly and generous people, he said the trip had a profoundly calming affect.

He remembers how much it took out of him, mentally and physically.

By the time he’d reached Maine, “part of me wanted to keep going and part of me wanted to have the trip end,” he said.

“The part that wanted the trip to never end was the mental game. It was so peaceful. My mind was never so calm and clear. I never noticed things as well – just passing flowers and bugs and being in the here and now.”

He said returning to normal society was like culture shock: Things moved too fast, and he felt over stimulated.

During the journey, “for the first time in my life, I was able to stop the wheels in my head from spinning,” he said. “But when I got to the East Coast, physically I was done.”