Kalamazoo man finishes bike ride across America

Oct 21, 2013

Mel Church finishing his trip in Virginia

This past summer, Kalamazoo resident Mel Church rode his bicycle 4,200 miles from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia. WMUK reporter, Nancy Camden rode on the Portage bike trail with Church to learn what he experienced after his report from Wyoming in mid-July. 

For the trip, Church’s bike, a Surly Long Haul Trucker had been set up for touring with racks and panniers for carrying his equipment of camping gear, extra tubes, tools to do basic repairs and food. It was about a thirty pound load. Without the load, Church says, “It’s a little wobblier and it steers different but, it’s really fun because you can ride like a rocket, compared to a heavily loaded touring bike.”

On the cool fall day, Church says that on the worst days when biking fifty or sixty miles.

“You’d be covered with sweat constantly," he says. "In the Midwest, I had very muggy conditions, up close to a hundred; so, I was drinking water all the time and I still couldn’t keep up with it.”

Church says he would worry when faced with a big pass to go up and over.

“But, I always found that it wasn’t as bad as I thought and when I got finished it was such a great sense of accomplishment that I got through it, that it was always worthwhile,” he says.

No matter what he ate, Church lost fifteen pounds riding the trail. He also lost a bag of clothes that blew off the back of his bike in Kansas where he had side winds and cross winds.

“It’s hard to be in a low gear and have your head down and just pushing, knowing it was going to be all day like that," he says. "That’s hard. But after you do a couple of days, you realize, okay, I did it. And, just keep going.”

Three guys walking on the Portage Trail who were told of Church’s accomplishment were fascinated.

“Since I’m retired, I had the time and I figured, I’d better do it while I can,” Church says.

Church is 59 but met a lot of guys in their seventies and a few in their eighties who were making the trip as well.

“You start out in not great shape and work your way into it,” says Church.

One of the guys wondered how long it took him. It was three months on his twenty-seven speed bike. Church rode by himself but met people at camping spots who were doing the same ride. He used maps which he purchased from Adventure Cycling. The maps told where there was food at convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants.

Another guy told Church that he would be worried about crazy drivers.

“Once you got into Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia,” Church says, “there were no shoulders out there and they would be laying on the horns. Coal trucks. Sometimes, I just had to jump off the road when I saw them.”

Church says he is not a very outgoing guy but all along the way, people were very interested him and his trip. He says that he learned a lot about farming in middle America, about wheat, corn and problems with lack of water.

“Unless you get hurt,” says Church, “it’s really mental. It’s pushing your self to finish the trip.