America by Bike

It was raining when they passed through Nickerson, Kan.

Doug Hopper MAT ’06, his wife Teresa (Gustafson) Hopper ’86, and their longtime friend Jon Stoner, had stopped in the Midwest town of 1,100 for a quick lunch.

They stood outside a grocery store with Doug and Jon’s bikes, eating under an awning to stay dry. A woman drove up and offered to open the local community center to let them take shelter.

They declined, but she persisted.

“If you change your mind, just go to city hall and they’ll give you a key,” she told them.

“We didn’t go back, but we thought about that offer all day long,” Doug said. “How kind people are, and how shocked we were by how kind people are.”

The steady rain in Nickerson was the only foul riding weather the Hoppers and Stoner encountered in seven weeks of traveling along the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. The town’s hospitality, though, was echoed at every stop.

“People were so kind to us,” Doug said. “I had read they would be, but I had no idea the magnitude of their kindness.”

Doug Hopper is a former IT professional turned math teacher. He completed his master of arts in teaching at Pacific University in 2006 and immediately secured a job teaching at Century High School in Hillsboro, where he still teaches today.

He’s enjoyed biking casually, riding about 25 miles a week on the roads and trails of Washington County. He’s thought about bigger ventures, though the everyday responsibilities of life have kept those thoughts in the dream world until this trip.

Teresa Hopper, meanwhile, attended Pacific as an undergrad, studying elementary education in her hometown of Forest Grove on the campus where her mom was a long-time employee in the Registrar’s Office. She taught for a few years before turning her attention to her family. Today, she teaches piano out of her home and is a part-time instructional assistant at Harvey Clark Elementary School in Forest Grove.

She describes herself more as an occasional bike widow than a cyclist, but she, too, has a sense of adventure.

When Doug started talking about riding across the country, she was his first supporter.

“Teresa immediately jumped on board,” he said.

The TransAmerica Trail was established in 1976 in honor of the country’s bicentennial. With a route chosen for safety, scenery and historical significance, it meanders through 4,400 miles of back roads and small towns from Virginia to Oregon.

Doug, Teresa and Jon completed half of the journey over the course of seven weeks this summer, traveling from Yorktown, Va., to Pueblo, Colo. They plan to do the last half of the trek, from Pueblo to Florence, Ore., next summer.

“We wanted to see small-town America, talk to people, experience it,” Doug said.

And they did.

Each morning, Teresa would drive ahead on the route about 40 miles, stopping to run errands (oil changes were important, as she put 9,500 miles on her car over the summer) or scout out a lunch locale. In the afternoon, she’d find a place to stay for the night.

“We never knew from day to day where we were staying that night,” she said. “They’d ride in and say, ‘What did you find?’”

Meanwhile, Doug and Jon experienced the country from their bikes. They dodged what Doug called the “plagues of Egypt” — giant grasshoppers, piles of frogs. They avoided curious dogs. They shared the road with fellow bikers, cars, and the scarier coal or cattle trucks.

They visited all the places Doug lived as a child, as well as his undergraduate college in Little Rock, Ark.

“I got to see all kinds of things he’s talked about,” Teresa said.

And they talked to people, endlessly.

They were invited to camp in city parks and playgrounds, to sleep in fire houses and churches. They were given water and encouragement by strangers. At diners, they were handed logbooks to sign and asked about their trip.

Each town, they said, had a sort of make-shift ambassador who would come chat. Back in Kansas, one such ambassador walked up and handed over a business card.

It read “cyclist.” He sat down and started regaling them with stories of his travels — all of which had occurred between when he started riding at 61 and his current age of 84.

“It was like that everywhere,” Doug said. “These are the sorts of stories you get when you’re on a bike in rural America.”

As part of their cross-country journey, the group decided to raise money for the OHSU Parkinson Center of Oregon. Doug’s mother has lived with Parkinson’s for 28 years and is doing well for her age and disease progression. Per-mile pledges for the first leg of the trip have yielded more than $5,000.

Follow the journey at Gears, Grit and Gray Hair, where each member of the group blogs about their experiences.

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