Cows, turtles and Willie Nelson: A California man’s solo bike tour across the country

Carmichael man spends retirement biking across America

Martin Ward is spending his retirement biking solo across the country. After departing from San Francisco on April 21, 2019, Ward plans to reach Yorktown, Virginia on July 2, where his wife and sister will be waiting for him to cross the finish line.
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Martin Ward is spending his retirement biking solo across the country. After departing from San Francisco on April 21, 2019, Ward plans to reach Yorktown, Virginia on July 2, where his wife and sister will be waiting for him to cross the finish line.

The country looks a lot different when you’re going 12 mph at ground level. Martin Ward would know, though it’s a view he isn’t overly familiar with.

For the past 8 weeks, Ward has been cycling solo across America. He’s traversed the Sierra and the Rockies through California, Utah and Colorado. He’s crossed the Great Plains. Now he’s crossing the Appalachians.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t own a bike as of last August.

Ward said he’d contemplated his journey since the early 2000s and in recent years was inspired by a John Barrymore quote: “A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.”

He retired a little earlier than most people to put his dream in action – while his body was still young, he said.

“Maybe two years from now that may not be the case,” he said.

A road warrior

Ward has been traveling long distances since he was 4, when his family moved from White Plans, New York to Sacramento and turned it into a road trip.

He was raised in Carmichael with eight siblings and attended Sacramento State before transferring to UNLV. After college, he bought a 1966 Dodge Sportsman, – a van covered in windows – and embarked on another cross-country road trip with his friend Paul. Together, they traveled over 11,000 miles in six weeks.

Another time, he rode his motorcycle all the way to Tampa and back to visit his older brother.

This time, his whole trip is just under 4,300 miles from San Francisco to Yorktown, Virginia. He departed April 21, with family and friends there for the sendoff, and plans to arrive in Yorktown on July 2.

alley spring
Martin Ward visited Alley Spring while passing through Missouri. Martin Ward

Ward took the Adventure Cycling Association’s Western Express route from San Francisco to Pueblo, Colorado before switching over to the Transamerica Trail for the rest of the way to Yorktown.

The ACA publishes biking maps that include information about services and lodging information in the towns along the way. On the Western Express trail, there were times Ward had to bike up to 70 miles between towns where he could buy bottled water, he said.

But Ward is not traveling alone.

Crazy guy on a bike

At the end of every biking day, Ward uploads photos and writes about his day in an online journal he dubbed “Pedaling off into the Sunrise” – since he is traveling west to east, he explained in the journal.

The humor-filled journal, which has reached over 37,000 hits since the start of his trip, is hosted on “crazyguyonabike,” a page for bicycle touring fanatics. There, family, friends, and strangers can follow Ward’s adventures and leave comments in a guest book that has more than 180 messages.

His wife, Janell Ward, said she just laughs out loud when she reads it.

“I didn’t know he could crank out funny stuff day after day,” she said. “He’s that funny that consistently.”

Many of his journal entries are also accompanied by a YouTube video of the song for that day. “Black Water” by Doobie Brothers was the song when he crossed the Mississippi River and “Graceland” by Paul Simon was the song while riding through Kentucky.

When he started in San Francisco, Ward needed to average around 60 miles a day to arrive in Yorktown as planned. He’s more or less achieved the average; he was a little slower going over the mountains at the beginning, but on flat terrain and with good tailwinds, he’s traveled as much as 120 miles in one day, he said.

escalante river basin biking story
From Escalante, Utah to Torrey, Utah, Ward had to bike down into the Escalante River Basin and back up. Martin Ward

It was crossing the mountainous landscape of Utah near the start of the trip that Ward said he “bit off more than I could chew.”

From Escalante, Utah, to Torrey, Utah, Ward gained 6,000 feet in elevation in one day. At one point, the path was so steep that he could only pedal 100 yards at a time before he had to rest, he said.

“I worked hard, VERY hard to attain that summit and I had earned a blissful and fast cruise down the other side,” he said in his journal.

Sights and creatures along the way

Along the way, Ward has rescued many turtles from the road, which is a biker’s responsibility that he read about in other people’s bike touring journals while doing research for the trip. Fittingly, the song in honor of his first turtle rescue was “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas.

Cows were another recurring theme in his travels. According to Ward, they are ”very curious animals.”

“They always look at you, they’re watching you until you leave,” he said.

cows martin ward
Martin Ward has encountered many cows along the way. Martin Ward

He’s encountered many abandoned and vacant structures in the towns he passes through. The biking route he is on purposely takes him around big cities, he said, giving him a chance to see what the country is like away from the coastal metropolises and technology hubs.

“It’s a little eye-opening, it’s a little disconcerting,” he said. “Life is not the way it was 20, 30, 40 years ago in these communities.”

In his journal, Ward shares pictures of empty highways, breathtaking sunrises and snow-capped mountains. Some are captioned, some are not, but they give an idea of the range of landscapes that Ward has biked through.

Ward shared stories of kind strangers, from Sarah and Brandon at the Cozy Mountain Motel who gave him seven hard-boiled eggs to a waiter who made his pancakes particularly large.

Of course, he couldn’t just hop on a bike and go. After purchasing a bike last August, his goal was to put a thousand miles on it before the trip.

“Just to make sure me and the bike were gonna get along,” he said. He ramped up the training when he retired from his job as an asset manager for a commercial real estate company March 1 and started riding on his bike fully loaded – over 300 pounds with him and all his gear – three weeks before his trip.

trigger bike
Martin Ward named his bike Trigger, after Willie Nelson’s guitar and cowboy Roy Rogers’ horse. Martin Ward

Once he decided the bike was right, he gave his trusty ride a name: Trigger. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the name of country music star Willie Nelson’s guitar as well as cowboy Roy Rogers’ horse.

“Willie is an inspiration to me, crisscrossing the country in his bus performing dozens of concerts each year at 85 years of age,” Ward said in his journal. “Compared to that, what’s a little bike ride for me at age 61?”

His wife and sister, Mary Hronicek, will fly to Yorktown a day before he arrives to see him finish, he said.

Martin and Janell Ward have been married for 33 years, and this is the longest they have ever been apart. Janell Ward said she enjoyed hearing about his adventures but had no desire to join him on the trip. Instead, they talk on the phone almost every night, and she keeps track of his process on a map.

After his two-wheeled adventure, the Wards won’t take long before hitting the road again. Martin and Janell plan to drive around in their motor home for the next few years and continue seeing the country.

“First I’ll see the country at 12 miles an hour, then for the next few years my wife and I will see it at 65 miles per hour,” Ward said.

Editor’s note: This story was corrected June 25, 2019, to reflect the correct name of Martin Ward’s sister and to say that family members and friends were there for the sendoff, not his whole family.

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Jaimie Ding, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee with an interest in politics and international relations. She grew up in Vancouver, Washington.