Coast-to-coast bicyclists reunite after quarter of a century

By John Warren

It all started in America's bicentennial year of 1976 when a group of cyclists dipped their back tires in the Pacific Ocean at Fort Stephens, Ore.

The crew of adventurous souls from Ambassador College and the Worldwide Church of God began its cross-country trek on June 8, 1976. The coast-to-coast trip would end 66 days later after 4,291 miles when the cyclists nudged their front wheels into the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 13 at Fort Story, Va.

A Canadian, Lister Chen of Prince George, B.C., one of the cyclists who made the historic trip 25 years ago, conceived the idea of a 25-year reunion in Jackson, Wyo.

Larry Haworth of Jackson told The Journal: "Lister worked with Mary [Mr. Haworth's wife] and Danny [one of the Haworths' sons] to put the reunion together."

So July 3 and 4 of this year 100 people gathered in Jackson to celebrate the quarter-century anniversary of the excursion.

Kermit Nelson of Big Sandy, Texas, who was on the physical-education faculty of the college in 1976, attended the reunion and remarked on the magnitude of the planning for the trip.

"It was a mammoth program," he said. "Larry [also on the PE faculty in 1976] did the majority of the planning, which started a year earlier. Church groups across the country helped make the trip happen. They provided us with food and places to stay. Jim Jenkins and Leonard Holladay [who pastored congregations in Montana and Wyoming, respectively] gave us tremendous support."

Dr. Nelson was the athletic director for Ambassador in Big Sandy. Mr. Haworth was the coach of a cycling class and touring team at the school.

Idea from a magazine

Mr. Haworth, earlier in 1976, had read in a cycling magazine about the coast-to-coast trail called the Bike-Centennial Transatlantic Trail. This inspired the coach to seek support for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate the nation's birthday by following the trail from coast to coast.

Mr. Haworth said the original concept was a summer camp on wheels. With the support of Jim Thornhill, the WCG's youth director in 1976, Mr. Haworth put the plan into action.

After a year's worth of planning to arrange for every detail from meals to nightly sleeping arrangements, 84 cyclists and seven support staffers began their odyssey.

"This was the largest group to ever ride the trail," Mr. Haworth said. "The group ranged in age from 13 to 34. The youngest was either Scott Hoyer or Donald Kunkle. I remember Donald weighed 89 pounds."

Donna Ussery (now Donna Toombs) of Mayflower, Ark., was between her sophomore and junior years at Ambassador when the trip took place. She was a student in Coach Haworth's cycling class and a member of the cycling team.

When asked in 2001 why she decided to cycle across America, she said: "I thought it would be exciting, and I was part of the cycling team. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. It taught me the best lesson of perseverance--like the day we went through Yellowstone Park and the Grand Tetons and covered 111.9 miles. That was our hardest day."

We asked Mrs. Toombs what it was like to finally dip her front tire in the Atlantic.

"That was a bittersweet day. It was great to finish, but we knew we may never see some these people again."

This summer's reunion, she said, "brought it all back again. Everyone was bonded and still friends. The camaraderie was so warm."

Those attending the reunion enjoyed two days of fellowship that included a dinner, viewing of movies of the trip, a pancake breakfast, a Fourth of July parade, a picnic, an outdoor concert and fireworks.

"The reunion exceeded all expectations," said Dr. Nelson. "Fifty percent of the original cyclists attended. People stayed until after midnight. No one wanted to leave."

"Tall men would come up to me and start talking," said Mrs. Toombs, "and I would realize it was those kids that were 13 back then. They could remember things I had forgotten about. Everyone had such positive memories in spite of the negative things we experienced."

Negative things?

Some of the riders got sick in Missouri from drinking some bad water, and a couple of riders had accidents. One cyclist broke his collarbone, another broke her wrist, and another lost a lot of skin when she took a spill.

"Everyone seemed to have a great time" at the reunion, said Mr. Haworth. "I found out after all these years I still can't seem to beat Kermit at horseshoes."

Everyone finished

Thinking back to the day the coast-to-coast trip ended, Mr. Haworth said the group was "ecstatic" when it hit the ocean.

"The amazing thing was that everyone finished the trip," said Dr. Nelson.

During the reunion in Jackson, awards went to the cyclist with the most kids, Don Kunkle; the least-changed woman, Debbie Woods of Gilmer, Texas; the least-changed man, Mike Lascendki; and the one who had traveled farthest to reach the reunion, John Don (from Australia). A special award went to Mr. Haworth for his leadership in organizing the 1976 trip.

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