Ruth Thomas is riding her dream out of Battle Creek today.
The 77-year-old retired teacher from Spokane, Wash., has ridden more than 9,700 miles in the past five years, pedaling her bicycle into the smallest town in each of 32 states.
It's what she has wanted to do since she was 18.
"Everybody has heard me talk about this all my life," she said Monday. "But I don't think anyone figured I would do it."
This morning she will pack her bike trailer with about 150 pounds of supplies and camping equipment and head south on M-66, ready to check off Indiana.
She has ridden about three years in the last five after starting June 10, 1998, and wants to find the smallest incorporated towns in each of the 48 lower states and Alaska.
"I don't know why small towns it just came to me," she said.
She had not ridden a bike much before she started and only made nine miles on her first day before she had severe cramps in her legs. The next day she did 12 miles.
She keeps precise track of her mileage, so she was able to say just how far she has ridden on her national journey: 9,723.3 miles as of Monday.
She has been sidelined by a heart problem, a fungus infection and a bad back after she had to ditch the bike when a car nearly hit her in Iowa.
Before the ambulance took her from the scene, she made her rescuers take her bike, too.
"I may be dying, but I am not leaving my bicycle," she said.
The weather has been a problem on the trip. When she was breaking ice off her tent in Wisconsin she decided to postpone the trip for a while.
But she has not been stopped by mountains, wind, rain, heat or miles of pavement.
She averages 25 to 30 miles a day in cool weather, but less in the heat.
She doesn't hesitate to camp along the road or in parks or rest areas but sometimes rents a motel room and has slept in a firehouse and a tire store.
Thomas is not sponsored by anyone and isn't riding for a cause or to raise money.
"I just wanted to," she said. "I sold everything I own - I wanted to get rid of my house - and I wanted to do this."
Thomas is a former bookkeeper and taught school for 25 years in Kellogg, Idaho. She has outlived two husbands, and her eight children and stepchildren apparently knew not to argue with her about the trip.
"They have heard me talk about it all my life and figured they couldn't stop me," she said.
She carries a cell phone but doesn't like to use up her minutes. She calls family about once a week when she thinks of it and asks reporters to send clippings of interviews to her son.
T-shirts and mementos she receives along the road also get sent back home.
"And I have got lots of T-shirts."
She is riding the same bike but had to change trailers in North Dakota when she rode into a pack of 15 to 20 skunks.
"Then I had to get rid of that trailer."
Thomas has been keeping a journal and takes photographs along the way, especially the smallest town in each state. Though she never contacts the press, she has been interviewed scores of times.
Finding her small-town destinations took time and effort, she explains.
She sought help from tourist councils, an atlas company, the Internet, census bureau, post office and each of the governor's offices without ever learning the smallest town in each state.
Finally, she learned that the Department of Transportation knows which town is the smallest.
In Michigan, Eagle was the smallest until the last census, when Forestville, in the Thumb, lost enough people to become the smallest in the state.
Police officers watch over her as she travels through their area, she believes, and she said only once has she had any concerns. It was there, along an Alabama highway that a man in a red pickup truck exposed himself to her.
She expects to finish the Midwest states this year and move into New England next before ticking off Texas and California to finish the trip, hopefully by January 2005.
When she puts the bike away, she plans to walk the Appalachian Trail.
"That's only 2,200 miles," she said. "That isn't so bad."
Trace Christenson can be reached at 966-0685 or email@example.com