There and back again: A rock climber’s tale

By Sarah Pridgeon

Frank Sanders enjoys a visit at the end of his journey with friend Roger Bansemer in St. Augustine. (Courtesy photo)

Frank Sanders enjoys a visit at the end of his journey with friend Roger Bansemer in St. Augustine. (Courtesy photo)

 

When Frank Sanders set out on a coast-to-coast bicycle ride, he was content to let his course be swayed by which way the wind happened to blow. What he didn’t expect was just how much the kindness of strangers would dominate his experience.

“The physical aspect of riding across the land, moving over pavement and watching the scenery change is mesmerizing and deeply touching, it’s not to be discounted,” he says.

“But the high points were talking to people and seeing a different way of life.”

Sanders’ ride took him right across the country, from San Diego to St. Augustine. Along the way, he took in many of the southern states, including Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana.

“There’s more than geographical distance that separates those places from Wyoming. There’s social, economic, political and psychological distance there,” he says.

“It’s a whole other mindset and it’s amazing and eye-opening.”

The twists and turns he took along the way added hundreds of miles to his total, but Sanders says that none of them were extra. Each one, he explains, took him to exactly where he needed to go.

“There were so many interesting things to see and roads to travel,” he smiles.

“I don’t advocate that someone set out without some sort of course navigated, but it’s foolish to follow that course dogmatically and reject all these attractive alternatives that are just blowing by you. My route was subject to daily redirection.”

A good bottom line for the journey, Sanders says, is that every road, whether intended or not, led to someplace interesting – and it made him proud to live in Wyoming.

“I went through hundreds of small towns the size of a Sundance, a Moorcroft or a Hulett and half of the downtown stores were closed and the rent signs had blown away,” he remembers.

“Whatever industry had been there was closed, those people had left and the people who remained had to think outside of the box and come up with a new way of earning a living. Those were the people who came up with clever things.”

Those clever ideas, he says, could be as simple as a builder who moved to repairs and remodeling when the town stopped building. At the other end of the scale, he met a welder who was no longer able to find work and had taken to welding art instead.

Instead of booking hotel rooms, Sanders opted to spend the nights wherever he happened to be. He had a credit card with him just in case, he says, but preferred to find more interesting places to stay.

To achieve this goal, he made great use of a website that connects willing hosts to weary travelers. He also stayed in some unusual places, such as a fire station that’s manned for 24 hours of every day.

“Those fellows had already told each other all of their stories – you were new meat,” he grins.

In Louisiana, he wandered into an old but active bed and breakfast that was originally constructed in 1836 and still flaunts its antebellum décor. The next day, he played piano for the local veteran’s home and stayed on to provide some dinnertime entertainment.

Sanders sometimes accepted the kindness of strangers to help him along his way. In one town, on Mardi Gras weekend, he found a system of tunnels with no obvious route for a bicycle – fortunately, a pair of local police officers were happy to leave the celebrations to carry him through in the squad car.

In other cases, he chose to rely on his own ingenuity and determination, once cycling a full 70 miles to find a more stable bridge across to Baton Rouge rather than accept a lift in a pick-up. That decision, made on a whim, took him to the antebellum hotel and the piano at the veterans’ home.

“It was an enchanted time,” he says.

“The challenges I faced were in crossing the rivers and finding the right bridges. There was an ice storm in Houston and a tornado in Louisiana but, while these were physically big challenges, the answer was simple: find a place to hunker down and it will pass.”

The greater challenge, he says, came as each morning dawned and he asked himself which way to ride.

“It was rather meditative; in your mind is your backlog of making decisions about taking black highways or blue highways and how that turned out. You’re reviewing decisions in the past, but other times it’s just being quiet and listening,” he explains.

“Every time I did that, the rewards were huge – either in the quality of the ride, the nature of the people I met or the amazing sights and feelings.”

Sanders’ adventure was full of profound experiences, he says, comparing the never-ending skies of New Mexico to the lushness of the Mississippi and its constant arbor of trees, every corner teeming with life.

“One thing I can focus on is the huge contrasts that wash over your senses every day,” he says.

He describes one experience that moved him almost to tears. Riding along in the second month of his trip, he was beset by an overwhelming memory of his father teaching him to ride a bicycle.

The recollection hit his senses with great clarity, he says: the smell of the grass, the feeling of his father’s hand steadying him and the colors in the yard that day, all taking him right back to being five years old. Two hours later, as he arrived at the next town, he came across a young father teaching his own little boy to ride.

“When it got so I could talk again, because it took my breath away, I did go over and introduce myself,” he says.

“I related to him what I had experienced and reinforced on him as much as I could that his son would remember this afternoon, and other afternoons with his dad, for the rest of his life. These are sacred moments.”

Among his many encounters, Sanders met a man who joined the French Foreign Legion for three years, walked the width of Africa and the length of Europe and then returned home to become a traveling salesman. Pining for his piano, he was given permission to play a brand new Yamaha with a $76,000 price tag in the front window of a music store in a Florida town.

He spoke with a lifelong military veteran who returned with a mission to improve the water in his own home town and a Dutch man riding from coast to coast in the opposite direction.

“I got so I could explain my ride in 15 seconds or less and get that out of the way, because that doesn’t need to be the topic of conversation. It’s the way conversations start,” he says.

“I wanted to ask them what they were doing. If there was a theme to my ride, it was kindness from strangers at every turn.”

Sanders has vowed to himself that he will take two months of every year to continue his explorations.

“If there is one thing that I’ve discovered, it’s that there are multiple chains of interconnecting two-lane roads that link the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Most of them I haven’t ridden yet and I look forward to sampling the ones that I haven’t touched,” he says.

His coast-to-coast trip was an experience rather than an achievement, he says, and he hopes it encourages others to seek out their dreams. His next challenge, of course, will be the season ahead, during which he will continue towards his eventual goal of giving every resident of Crook County their own Devils Tower experience.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ fundraising efforts are ongoing. The money raised during his trip has been split between the Second Chance Ministry and Wounded Warriors.

“We’re still on the raising funds and awareness,” he nods. “Second Chance Ministry has located a house in Gillette and is agonizingly close to purchasing the facility they have so desperately sought for half a dozen years.”

To make a donation, contact Sanders via frank@devilstowerlodge.com. Footage of the final mile of his journey can be viewed on YouTube by searching for “Frank Sanders – Bike Ride from San Diego to St. Augustine”.