By: Seth Wesman
In 2010, Neal Friesen spent six months riding a bike. His goal: ride through all of the 48 lower states.
Friesen, the resident director for Yoder Hall at Goshen, spent 25 weeks from May to November on his bike. In May of 2010 he left his resident director position at Hesston College and embarked on what he called “the trip of a lifetime.” An avid biker, he had already made one trip from Kansas to Idaho with a friend in 2008. As Friesen’s contract was coming to an end at Hesston, he was trying to figure out what to do next.
“I was thinking about just getting on my bike and biking for six months and somebody suggested I try to touch all of the lower 48 states,” he said.
And that’s exactly what he did. On May 31, 2010 Friesen started his journey from a Mennonite Disaster Service center in Louisiana and began making his way across the country. When he began, he was nervous. “I was kind of inwardly nervous because I was thinking to myself, ‘Who does this? Who gets on a bike and just rides for six months?’”
Throughout his trip, Friesen said he met many people. One of his favorite memories from the trip was when he attended a 50th birthday party in California.
“I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I was taking a break by a gas station and these pickups pulled up with kayaks on them and one guy walked up to me and asked what I was doing. I told him what I was doing. He asked where I was staying that night and asked if I would rather go to his house to celebrate his friend’s birthday instead. It was a huge feast and we just sat around eating and talking. That was a wonderful evening.”
But there are some memories he would prefer to forget. They include the times that he was run off the road by semi trucks. “A lot of the people I met face to face were really nice. The faceless drivers were not always so nice. I ended up in the ditch a few times but luckily no major injuries, just a little scraped up.”
Riding through Connecticut he met two women, who gave him two gifts. “They saw me standing outside their store and they came out and asked if they could fill my water bottle,” he said. “So I started talking to them and they had an interesting shop. They were selling rocks and gems that had special meaning. One of the women ran across the street to fill my water bottle in her house because she said the water was cleaner. They actually ended up giving me a rock that I still have today. And as I was going to leave, they gave me $100 to help me along my way.”
The trip was also an emotional time for Friesen. Three of his former students from Hesston died while he was biking, and he put his trip on hold to attend funerals for two of them, in Virginia and then in Colorado, the third funeral being in Poland. One of the deaths was the result of a bike accident on a road in Colorado that Friesen had been on himself just days before.
“That was obviously tough but there was an added element of ‘that’s what I’m doing every day,’” he said. “All of [the deaths] were painful, but that one kind of hit home for me because that’s what I was doing all the time.”
The trip eventually ended back at the same Mennonite Disaster Service center in Louisiana on Nov. 19, nearly 25 weeks after he set out. Overall, Friesen remembers his trip fondly and says if it were feasible he would gladly do it again.
“Every now and then when I get on my bike and go for a ride, I’m tempted to just not stop. It’s a of a Forrest Gump kind of thing.”
He says he would like to bike up to Alaska if the opportunity ever presents itself.
“I’ve thought about biking up to Alaska, get that 49th state,” he said. “Not really any way to get to Hawaii. But it was one of the greatest times of my life. I would love to do something like that again.”