Arkansas postcard historian bicycles with a buddy 3,000 miles from sea to shining sea

Cross-country tour takes 55 days for septuagenarian Ray Hanley and his friend from the U.K.

Ray Hanley (right) and Malcolm Rawlins get their wheels wet on St. Augustine Beach, Fla., 55 days and 3,000 miles from their adventure's start on Ocean Beach near San Diego. 
(Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Ray Hanley)
Ray Hanley (right) and Malcolm Rawlins get their wheels wet on St. Augustine Beach, Fla., 55 days and 3,000 miles from their adventure's start on Ocean Beach near San Diego. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Ray Hanley)

"Um, I think Dad's goal is to not die in the nursing home. Besides, once Ray Hanley decides he is going to do something, nobody is going to talk him out of it."

Such was my daughter's reply to someone who asked why she wasn't protesting her 71-year-old father's plan: to ride a bike 3,000 miles from San Diego, Calif., to St. Augustine, Fla.

In my 20s I had started running seriously, on the Forest Heights track and on suburban streets; in my 50s I began running 26.2 mile marathons as a personal challenge (beginning with the Little Rock Marathon). This evolved into marathon tourism, as I sought races around the country to work toward "completing, not competing."

In my 60s, with some 13 marathon medals in my collection, my running career was ended due to two knee replacement surgeries. I hadn't ridden a bike since I was perhaps 14 years old, but I needed something else to stay in shape, and biking was an easy transition. I soon joined overseas biking tours, again for the personal challenge and interesting tourism. I have ridden in 25 countries on five continents, in such countries as Cambodia, Albania, Cuba and South Africa, on trips up to 400 miles long over eight to 10 days.

In 2020, at age 69, I gave the Board of the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care two-years notice of my intent to retire as president and chief executive officer. As August 2022 and this life-changing turning point slowly approached, I began to contemplate the idea of riding my bike coast-to-coast.

I bought the seven-map set for the "Southern Tier" U.S. route published by the Adventure Cycling Association, based in Missoula, Mont. Along with advice on lodging and other services along the way, the maps provide a turn-by-turn route that avoids interstates as much as possible.

To boost my confidence, I tried a shorter solo trip in September 2022, immediately after my last day of work: 1,400 miles along the Mississippi River, from the headwaters in northern Minnesota to a McDonald's in West Memphis.

I was initially planning to do the coast-to-coast trip alone, but a friend from the U.K. wanted to ride with me. I'd met Malcolm Rawlins in early 2022 on a bike tour in Sri Lanka. He was soon to retire at age 70 from his career as an electronics engineer, and most helpfully, was also a skilled bike mechanic. I gladly scheduled my plans around his availability.

I got my Surly touring bike outfitted at Community Bicyclist in Little Rock to carry ample camping gear. And then, on March 16, my wife, Diane, delivered me to Ocean Beach near San Diego, where we connected with Malcolm after his flight from the U.K.

We began our ride with the surf at our backs, and navigated through the city along several miles of bike trails, which were often lined with homeless camps. Around noon, we emerged east of the city and began a steady climb that was to take us on our first day from sea level to an elevation of 5,000 feet, at the town of Pine Valley, Calif., in the lower end of the Sierra Nevada range.

It was the hardest day of the first two-week leg of the trip, but more challenges lay ahead.

Our second night in California brought us to the tiny settlement of Ocotillo in the desert, where we had dinner in a World War II-themed biker bar and camped next to a general store. The next night we camped in the Imperial Sand Dunes National Monument, billed as the "Dune Buggy Capital of the World," with constantly roaring vehicles nearby all night.

Along the U.S. border near Calexico, we periodically got a closeup of the border wall supposedly keeping people from crossing, but paths out of the surrounding desert suggested it doesn't work very well.


After a night in Blythe, Calif., we crossed into Arizona and rode two days, headed for the old town of Wickenburg. Against all odds, the ride from Salome to Wickenburg was the only rainy day of the entire 55-day trip. It was also where I got three of the four flats I experienced on the whole trip, all from thorns and cactus stickers.

After a layover rest day with friends in Scottsdale, we set out to climb into the high desert and then the mountains of eastern Arizona. The scenery was spectacular, with the blooming cactus and wildflowers a testament to the resurrection that comes with spring everywhere, but especially in the desert.

With few amenities in the Tonto National Forest (a desert-scape of saguaro cactus), we camped in the sand at a traffic pull-out on the Beeline Highway. Compensation for rough rides came over the next three days, with a motel night at Roosevelt Lake, then the Apache Casino Resort in Globe, and another motel in Stafford. We finished off Arizona with camping at the city park in Duncan, near the state line. The mountain climbs in Arizona were tough, but greater challenges lay ahead.


Entering New Mexico, our third state in the journey, we camped near the continental divide in Lordsburg. At suppertime, we ate at a McDonald's and were introduced to "open carry" in action, which would be gunslingers packing double holstered six guns.

In the old mining town of Silver City, we enjoyed the historic 1930s Murry Hotel, at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Our route then dropped down to about 4,000 feet elevation, though the problem remained of having to climb back up again to scale Emory Pass, which sits at 8,200 feet and was the highest point of the entire trip. The 30 miles of road winding up to the pass were thankfully closed to motor vehicles due to winter road damage, but bikes were allowed.

It took me the better part of six hours to climb up to the summit, reaching it just before dark in below-freezing weather. Malcolm, being speedier, had been waiting for me at the pass for the better part of an hour, to make sure I made it.

Next came a fast 15-mile descent in the dark; our headlights brought us into tiny Kingston, N.M., to spend the night in the Black Range Lodge, a B&B converted from an 1885 miners' hotel. The innkeeper told us that the week before, a biker from the U.K. had died after a heart attack up on the pass. We would learn more about this, some 1,000 miles down the road.


New Mexico took two more nights, camping riverside at a state park on the Rio Grande (and discovering the joys of goathead thorns), followed by a motel night in Las Cruces. We entered the state of Texas and were soon trying to make our way through very bike-unfriendly El Paso, with miles of suburban sprawl navigated one stoplight at a time. With the prospect of spending the next 18 days working our way across 800 miles of Texas, my friend Malcolm decided he really wasn't big on camping, and we switched to mostly a motel plan. Being thrifty by nature, I made places like Motel 6 and Economy Inn part of my British friend's cultural immersion.

It's hard to explain how vast and often empty is the expanse of west Texas. The land is certainly huge when seen from a car at 70 mph, but it seems much more so when viewed from the seat of a bike at 12 mph. We crested vista after vista with distant mesas, canyons, steep climbs, brilliant cactus blooms and sweeping downhills.

The west Texas route required us to use the widened shoulder of Interstate 10 for a dozen miles, which was allowed by law since there is no other road. We found that those big trucks can make quite a lot of wind when passing a bicycle.

Leaving Fort Hancock for a night in Van Horn, we then headed into the remote Texas desert, with long stretches of nothing man-made except the road beneath us. We faced grueling headwinds of up to 30 mph; only with great effort could I ride even 5 mph, as I and my bike "panniers" (front and back wheel saddlebags) made a particularly broad target for the wind.

Late in the afternoon, as I was resting by a bridge railing, a young border patrol officer pulled up in his truck and said, "Windy enough for you?" I might have laughed, and he next asked, "Want a ride?"

Not being a bike-route purist like Malcolm, I certainly did want a ride, so my bike and my exhausted self enjoyed a lift with the border patrol the last 14 miles to the motel in Marfa. He told me about his work on the border.

From Marfa, where the movie "Giant" was filmed, we rode 55 winding miles through the Del Norte Mountains to the town of Marathon. The only accommodation in town was a Vrbo cottage that turned out to be a shed like one sees on a Home Depot parking lot, thankfully outfitted with a tiny kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, plus a futon for Malcolm.

The next day brought us through 54 desert miles to Sanderson, and a cool, refurbished 1950s motel. The empty 80-mile stretch between Sanderson and Comstock gave us a full appreciation of how stark yet scenic is the Big Bend. Malcolm unfortunately took a spill in the dark, injuring an elbow, which would bother him much of the trip.

As for eating in such expanses, we found in the small towns of west Texas that the best dining might be at the hot food counter of the local gas station, often run like a regular cafe by grandmotherly Hispanic angels serving hot breakfasts and fresh-grilled burgers.

Many times, roadside food trucks with authentic Mexican food kept us going a few more miles.

Del Rio was our largest city since El Paso, but we pressed on to Brackettville, where the movie "The Alamo" with John Wayne was filmed. We stayed in a motel established in a converted Army barracks at Fort Clark, which had been established before the Civil War and decommissioned after World War II.

Winding north into the Texas hill country, we found great scenery but steep climbs, sometimes reaching elevations of up to 3,000 feet, with lots of roller-coaster hills.

West of Austin, we took a rest day with a shuttle from Fredericksburg to Lago Vista, where my brother and sister-in-law treated us to a backyard barbecue. The next day we enjoyed lunch at a winery, followed by a shuttle around the sprawl of Austin to resume our biking in Bastrop. Four days of biking through east Texas' rural farmland and piney woods were completed in segments of 65, 70, 80 and 43 miles.


Entering our fifth state, Louisiana, our first stop was DeRidder, near the state line; we enjoyed dinner at the Cajun Cafe with my cousin Inez who drove down from Shreveport to meet us. While anticipating a planned three-day break in New Orleans, we still faced a lot of Louisiana to pedal through.

Next up was a night in tiny Mamou, the self-proclaimed "Cajun Music Capital of the World," where we stayed at the Hotel Cazan, dating from 1910. The hotel shared a block with four bars, and I think we tried all four, including dinner at Grease E. Pete's.

En route to Livonia the next day, we crossed the Atchafalaya River on a comfortable bridge near Krotz Springs. Our first look at the mighty Mississippi River came while crossing the very high Huey P. Long Bridge, built in the 1930s for rail and car traffic. It had a narrow shoulder for bicycles but was probably the worst of all the bridges we crossed.

Navigating congested Baton Rouge and seeking to stay out of the heavy traffic, our route took us through some of the poorest neighborhoods on one side of town and the wealthiest on the other. Leaving downtown, we gratefully climbed up onto the Mississippi River levee, where a bike path begins that skirts the Louisiana State University campus. It carried us most of the way to New Orleans.

Up on the levee, as we took a break next to a Civil War cannon, we met a British biker who was doing the same Southern Tier route we were. We soon learned that Ian and his friend were atop Emory Pass in New Mexico some two weeks earlier. Indeed, it was Ian's friend who had suffered the fatal heart attack. Ian related some of the horrific experience, and explained that after making the necessary arrangements, his friend's widow back in the U.K. urged him to finish the ride that he and her husband had begun in San Diego.

Although he rode longer days than we did and camped more frequently, our paths crossed again and we kept in touch via text. We would later have dinner with Ian in New Orleans, and again on the last day of the ride in St. Augustine.

The river levee path dropped us into Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans, which put us onto bike-friendly St. Charles Avenue for the ride to our French Quarter hotel for three nights. We were refreshed by comfortable sleep, good food, some music and even a street parade on Bourbon Street. After a full day in the fabulous National Museum of WWII, we were ready to point our wheels east toward the Gulf Coast for the last leg of our journey.

Leaving New Orleans, we made a special effort to stop at the national park site of the 1814 Battle of New Orleans, where, per the Johnny Horton song, "in 1814 we took a little trip, along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip ..." My British friend knew the song and appreciated the history, despite his country having been on the losing end of that battle.

 Gallery: Bike across the U.S.

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It took a mere two nights to cross the "bootheel" of Mississippi, with stops at Bay St. Louis and Pascagoula, pushing through the busy cities of Gulfport and Biloxi. Much of our day was spent following U.S. 90 as it hugged the coast, often using an elevated bike and pedestrian path along the white sand beach.


Our route next took us into Alabama, where we struck south and reached Dauphin Island via a long, soaring bridge. Our single night in Alabama ended with an 8 a.m. ferry trip and a scenic ride from Fort Morgan to Gulf Shores, before pushing east to Pensacola, Fla.


Much of Florida has been ruined by rampant coastal overdevelopment, but the rural panhandle gave a nice contrast in its string of small towns that afford a pleasant look at what old Florida must have been like. Towns like Quincy, Monticello and Starke were like "pearls on a necklace of roadway," in Malcolm's poetic parlance, displaying Victorian-era courthouses and stately houses, with ancient oaks spreading over the sometimes brick streets.

Such towns were a pleasure to pedal through, as was the Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail that afforded safe and often shady biking on the last day of our journey.

One interesting aspect of our shared trip was listening to the observations of my British friend as we biked 3,000 miles of the United States, especially in view of his having, I think, watched a lot of cowboy movies. One thing he commented on more than once, especially in crossing Louisiana and the rest of the Southeast, was his surprise at how many churches we passed, and that people actually seemed to attend these, which he reported is in contrast to life in the U.K. today.

Malcolm also stated several times that he was pleasantly surprised at how friendly and helpful the Americans were he met, with very few irritable drivers along the way.

Our adventure finally concluded at the end of day 55, when we arrived at St. Augustine Beach and dipped our wheels in the surf. Diane was there waiting for us, to take a celebratory photo and load up our bags. We had traveled 3,000 miles of deserts, mountains, swamps, forests and towns too numerous to count, staying in settlements of all sizes and descriptions and levels of comfort, absorbing a deeper appreciation for our vast, wonderful country that spans the oceans.

According to the computer and GPS calculations, Malcolm determined that we each had done more than 3 million rotations of the bike pedals and had climbed a cumulative 80,000 feet in elevation.

Along the way we had visited with more people than I could count, many of whom took a real interest in what we were doing. At least a dozen people asked me some version of "If you don't mind me asking, how old are you?" When I replied with my age, one memorable fellow responded, "Well, I guess 71 isn't what 71 used to be."

This trip was indeed a challenge, physically and mentally, and at times was an exercise in problem-solving, but it was a great adventure that I'll never forget. My next trip will be with Little Rock friends this fall, to bike the U.S. West Coast from north to south.

Ray Hanley writes the Arkansas Postcard Past feature in the Democrat-Gazette and is the author of more than 20 postcard anthologies, histories and a recent novel, "Reunion in Time." 

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