Decades After Biking Across U.S., Chehalis Senior Still on the Move
Some senior citizens like to play golf or take up water aerobics. Jerry Blanchard likes to pedal his bicycle 20 miles.
“My body feels good now that I’ve gotten out and gotten a ride in,” Blanchard said as we approached the end of our ride Wednesday on the Willapa Hills Trail. “I feel real bad when I’m not out there doing something. … A day like today, it just feels good to get out and get some exercise and see what’s happening on the trail.”
The 74-year-old makes his circuits around Chehalis these days, but he’s got a long life list of adventures that he casually catalogs the way some people recite their grocery lists. Blanchard biked from coast to coast in 1976, then followed that nearly three decades later by cycling the mountains of the Great Divide. He’s seen more of the United States on two wheels than most people have on four.
But you won’t find Blanchard sitting around his Woodland Village retirement community in Chehalis telling tales of the good old days. You’ll find him on his bike, every day the weather cooperates, putting in more miles.
Blanchard took me on an abbreviated version of one of his favorite rides, an 11-mile round-trip from the Willapa Hills Trail starting point in Chehalis to a trestle over the Chehalis River near Adna. He usually bikes to the trailhead from his home to make it an even 20 miles. Along the way, he pointed out where a bald eagle often likes to perch, where wildflowers and songbirds will soon be making their springtime arrivals.
This ride is one Blanchard does at least once a week, along with routes near the airport and Stan Hedwall Park. He likes to mix it up so he doesn’t get tired of any one circuit.
“If it’s nice, I’m out every day,” he said.
Born and raised near Spokane,
Blanchard joined the Navy after high school and served for four years. After moving to Seattle in the late 1960s, he joined The Mountaineers outdoor club as a way to meet people. He enjoyed the hikes, but really got hooked when he started going on bike rides with other members.
Blanchard hadn’t been much of an athlete when he was in school, but now he found himself coming into his element, mastering physical, logistical and technical challenges.
“When I got into biking, it was just me,” he said. “Being able to lead rides and help people out. I was able to learn how to fix my own bike, take it apart and put it back together. It felt good doing that.”
Soon he was taking trips with his new friends, like a 300-mile trip around the Olympic Peninsula and another 300-miler to the Spokane Expo. In 1976, he saw an ad for a bicycle trip across the country.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna do that,’” he said.
He talked to his friends in The Mountaineers, and they decided to put together their own trip instead of paying to join another group’s itinerary. Blanchard and 12 others started planning, with each taking a state to route — his was South Dakota.
When the time came, Blanchard asked his employer for a leave of absence. He was denied.
“So I quit my job,” he said. “I don’t think I even gave it a thought. If I feel I’m going to do something, I do it, and I don’t think about anything else until I’m done. … The people I bicycled with thought it was a good idea. Some people said I was crazy, because not many people were doing it at that time.”
Before the group even started, Blanchard set off on a trip of his own, biking from Seattle down through Oregon and California, then exploring the natural wonders of Arizona and Utah.
When he returned, his band of 13 set out from the coast in Gearhart, Oregon. They made their way through Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota, stopping to see the Tetons, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore. Blanchard recalled the ease of settling into the day-to-day patterns of the months-long trek.
“You get in a routine and that’s what you do,” he said. “You don’t have to think about anything else.”
They continued through the fields of Iowa and Illinois, then the countrysides of Kentucky and West Virginia. Finally, 4,500 miles from where they started, they reached the Atlantic Ocean at Yorktown, Virginia. The group made its way back to Washington, D.C., where they did some sightseeing and the others headed home.
Blanchard wasn’t done. He turned south and pedaled for Florida. By the time he reached the Sunshine State, he’d been on his bike for four and a half months and covered 9,000 miles. Finally, he caught a flight home.
Back in Seattle, he met Beverly, a fellow Mountaineer. She liked hiking as much as he liked biking, and they each shared the other’s activity enough to make the romance work. They were married and moved to Chehalis to work at the Thousand Trails campground. After 10 years at the campground, Blanchard went to work as a custodian at the Chehalis School District, where he retired after 20 years of service.
For a while, Blanchard put his bike away. He was busy with work and living in a small trailer. Eventually, though, he bought some property and discovered trails nearby. He was back in the saddle.
In 2001, he set out on a new quest: biking the Great Divide, the spine of the Rockies. Over the next six years, he’d take on a new section whenever he had the time, sometimes accompanied by Beverly. By 2006, he’d pieced together a route from Banff, Canada to southern Colorado. He’s characteristically nonchalant about the accomplishment.
“I’ve always wanted to travel, and I figured that was the best way to see the U.S. and meet people along the way,” Blanchard said.
Blanchard’s adventures aren’t limited to biking. He and Beverly hiked the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, and he’s traveled to Antarctica and the Amazon and Africa. In fact, I got so carried away listening to his stories that I forgot to ask him about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, which he did in 1970. He graciously described the trip on a follow-up phone call, explaining that he heard about it on a radio promotion and decided to join, simple as that.
“I got on the list and went,” he said. “It was great.”
Though Kilimanjaro is not a technically demanding climb, it was Blanchard’s first summit, and he had to push himself to climb in the thin air above 19,000 feet.
Blanchard’s trips have taken him everywhere from the Galapagos Islands to Vietnam. When we met up, he’d just gotten back from Australia and New Zealand and was leaving soon for Iceland. Alaska, South Africa and Europe are next in the queue. In recent years, he’s added photography to his hobbies to better document his travels. Whether he’s experiencing the world as a tourist or a cyclist, he enjoys meeting new people and seeing new places.
After Beverly died several years ago, he sold his property and moved to Woodland Village in Chehalis. Living in the retirement community has allowed him to keep up with his travel ambitions.
“I don’t have to worry about mowing grass or someone taking care of my place,” he said. “I can just pick up and take off.”
After every trip, though, he’ll always come back to his bike.
“Just get out in the fresh air and make my body do something, to move and get the wind blowing in my face,” he said. “It makes your body feel better. … It’s something I can do. It doesn’t take much planning to do. Just jump on a bike and go.”