Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A journey for the ages

80-year-old's nationwide trek ends without a finish line, but with victory

Ruth Thomas, 80, consults a map of Hawaii, the final state seen in her bicycle tour that took her to all 50 states in almost eight years. She rode to the smallest incorporated town in each state. She sold her home and many of her belongings to pay for the trip. (Photos by Holly Pickett The Spokesman-Review )

Doug Clark
The Spokesman-Review
April 27, 2006

She did it.

On Sunday, 80-year-old Ruth Thomas pedaled her battle-scarred burgundy bicycle through Barbers Point, a housing complex north of Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

This was the final destination of the improbable journey Thomas began from Spokane one June day in 1998. A geography and American history lover, the retired schoolteacher mapped out an ambitious goal to ride her bike to the smallest incorporated town in each of the 50 states. In Alaska she had to settle for taking a skiff to an island location, because no bicycles were allowed.

Friends thought she had flipped her gray-haired lid, especially when they learned that Thomas had sold her home and many of her belongings to grubstake her ride.

The Thomas doubters didn't know who they were dealing with.

Although injury and illness forced her off the road several times, Thomas kept heading back to resume her quest where she left off.

She wasn't riding to promote a cause or to prove any points. Thomas rode for the best of reasons: the sheer adventure of it all.

"I'm doing this for me," she told me before she left in 1998. "I don't want to be on anyone else's schedule. Time is irrelevant. If I want to go five blocks and stop, that's what I'll do."

Now back in Spokane, Thomas sat in a motel lobby Wednesday morning and posed a rhetorical question:

"What do I do now?"

I have the answer to that. Get this woman an agent.

If this gritty great-grandmother can't get some TV face time or an endorsement deal or two, I'll eat her bike.

Speaking of which, the Diamondback bicycle execs should be first in line to sign her up.

Thomas paid about 350 bucks for her 21-speed steed. She logged 12,265 miles on it. The bike held together through the entire trip.

"It's not shiny now," she said. "But it's almost like home."

Thomas kept copious logs throughout her travels. She plans to write a book.

But high on her list is banking some money. Thomas figures her journey cost her between $250,000 and $300,000.

"I'm $40,000 in credit card debt, and I don't own anything," she said. "But I will never declare bankruptcy. I'll pay it off."

Thomas is as optimistic and articulate as the first time I met her. She'd be terrific on a national chat show like Leno or Letterman.

She certainly wouldn't be at a loss for stories.

Thomas could talk about the moonlit night a gang of skunks bested her near Fargo, N.D. All of a sudden "there were 15 to 20 skunks right in the middle of the road," she said.

Several of them let loose. The spray somehow missed Thomas but nailed the trailer she was pulling to carry her gear.

She tried everything she could think of to neutralize the stench. Nothing worked, and Thomas had to buy another trailer.

Thomas could talk about the single worst stretch of weather she encountered. It happened near Cabool, Mo. In the span of 20 miles she was blasted by rain, snow, sleet and hail.

Freezing, Thomas inched her way to a mom-and-pop motel. She promptly came down with the flu and "was laid up there three weeks."

She could talk about the kids at Tryon Elementary School in North Carolina.

Pedaling past the school one day, Thomas noticed that the entire student body was assembled outside the building. "I thought they were having a fire drill."

They weren't. As Thomas glided by the kids began to cheer for her. Then they broke into a wave.

Someone had apparently seen local news coverage about the woman's ride and wanted to make her feel welcome when she arrived.

We should do the same. In an age desperate for role models, Ruth Thomas defines the term.

"I don't think anybody thought I'd do it," said Thomas of completing her nearly eight-year odyssey. "But I never doubted for a minute that I would get there. It's been spectacular."