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Bethel graduates see the country up close, via bicycle

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Poll a sample of recent college graduates, and you’d probably find that most of them head out in pursuit of career goals, through full-time work or graduate school.

But a few take the road less traveled – and in the case of two Bethel College graduates, they go via bicycle.

Heidi Holliday, a 2006 Bethel graduate from Andover, and Elizabeth Rempel, a 2005 graduate from Newton most recently living in Lawrence, are traveling across country on bicycles. They began in August on the Oregon coast and hope to be in Yorktown, Va., in early November.

For Holliday, it’s the fulfillment of a dream of many years. She practically grew up on the back of a bicycle – her parents, Ruth (Rutschman) and Robert Holliday, have owned The Bicycle Pedaler in Wichita for 26 years – since they got married in 1980. Their honeymoon was a cross-country ride from Wichita to Chico, Calif., more than 2,000 miles.

Holliday has done the Bike Across Kansas ride and other shorter trips. For Rempel, her longest ride up to this point was about 50 miles, trying to ride from Newton to Camp Mennoscah near Murdock. Neither had done a trip with fully loaded panniers until now, except for one trial run to Harvey County’s East Lake Park last summer.

“We had both thought separately about biking across country,” Rempel says. “At fall break [in October] last year, we began talking about really doing it after [Heidi’s] graduation.”

“We both had read books about transcontinental biking,” Holliday adds. “I hadn’t been to the West Coast except as a 2-year-old. This seemed like a good way to see the country, and it has been.”

The two stopped for a couple of weeks in central Kansas after biking to Colorado and then riding by bus or car to Newton. Holliday’s grandmother, Harriet Rutschman of North Newton, died following a long illness and Holliday came home to attend the funeral. Rempel’s parents and brother joined her for a few days in Colorado and then brought her back for the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield. And both women had to recover from colds.

They got their route from Adventure Cycling, an organization begun in the mid-’70s that resources bikers who travel short or long distances in the United States. Adventure Cycling lists three major cross-country routes – a southern, northern and central one. Holliday and Rempel are using the central route.

“It’s a guilt-free way to travel across the country,” Rempel says. “You have a much smaller environmental impact and you’re much more intimately connected to your surroundings than in a car. You’re constantly forced to pay attention – to temperature, wind direction. There’s no music, none of the ‘silencing’ or separation of riding in a car.”

In addition, she says, cycling gives a much better sense of what white settlers and explorers must have experienced, traveling on the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Handcart Trail and the route of Lewis and Clark – some of each is part of this route.

Beginning with the Oregon coast, crossing the Coast and Cascade Ranges, riding in Yellowstone National Park and surmounting the Continental Divide in the Rockies, the two have seen spectacular scenery. But, says Rempel, “the most exciting part has been meeting other cyclists.” The Adventure Cycling maps also give details on campgrounds and small motels, grocery stores and other favorite stopping places for transcontinental cyclists.

It’s also been exciting, says Holliday, “to see how we get stronger. As we’ve gone along, we’ve been able to climb mountains and go against head winds easier, to go more miles in a day.” They are carrying between 35 and 45 pounds of gear on each bicycle.

“It makes it harder to propel the bike,” says Holliday. “You notice it when you’re going uphill. You catch the wind more – it’s hardest when the wind is from the side.”

Rempel says that the most difficult part for her is often mental – “toward the end of the day, when you’re physically and mentally tired and you know you have to keep going to get to a certain place.”

“I’m sick of peanut butter,” adds Holliday. “But my biggest fear is that something will go wrong on the bike and I won’t know how to fix it.”

They admit that there were bigger worries at the beginning. “What about bad drivers or dangerous people?” Holliday says. “But I’ve been completely impressed by how kind people have been along the way. It’s restored some of my faith in humanity.”

There was the woman named Jo, near Grangerville, Idaho, who invited the two to her mountain cabin and gave them dinner complete with fresh huckleberry cobbler and ice cream. There was the construction worker along a road who gave Rempel a push to help her get started on an incline.

“On Hoosier Pass [on the Continental Divide], a woman in an SUV passed us and yelled, ‘You go, girls!’” Holliday remembers. “In Wyoming, we were stopped to fix a flat tire. A guy in a pickup passed up, slowed down, made a U-turn and came back to check on us. There were two teenage girls on their horses who rode up to see if we were OK.”

“There have been a lot of little things like that, that have added up,” Rempel says.

Anyone can do this, they agree. “The hardest part is committing to it,” says Holliday. “Buying one-way tickets to Portland was the most nerve-wracking thing we did.”

“It’s really manageable, once you’re out there,” Rempel adds.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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