Coast to coast in stages: Jamie Lynch and Gil Self have cycled half way across the US

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

Jamie Lynch and Gil Self know they might seem a tad eccentric for the annual cross-country cycling trips they take. Some trips often stretch hundreds of miles in the summer heat, but the couple said it’s a hobby that keeps them meditative, physically active, and young.

“It’s a mindset. You have to be half crazy,” Lynch said with a laugh. “It’s so much fun. It’s an adventure, and we can do this. We can do this, and we enjoy it.”

Lynch began long distance cycling about 30 years ago when she completed a bicycle route from the Gulf Coast to the Canadian border.

She said she took on the challenge in pieces with a group of friends. After conquering that feat, she promised herself one day she would bike across the U.S. from the east coast to the west coast.

She finally started making good on that promise after retiring as an educator amid the COVID pandemic.

“I started by myself, basically from the Potomac (River),” Lynch said. “I rode the C&O, which is the Chesapeake and Ohio Towpath, and then I went up the Allegheny Rail Trail to Pittsburgh.”

The two trails which cover over 300 miles across Maryland and Pennsylvania are popular among cyclists and hikers. After crossing off the first two states, while planning for her next cycling trip, Lynch said Self expressed an interest to tag alongside her.

“This was my deal,” she said with a laugh, admitting she was a little reluctant to share the experience she’d dreamed about for so long. “I wanted to do this on my own, but I did not share that part with him. I thought, you know, great. He can come along with me.”

On the second stretch of the route, Lynch and Self started in Richmond, Indiana, and rode nearly 400 miles across Ohio to connect back to the point Lynch had reached.

Self, who has about 40 years of experience in long distance cycling, said he undertook the C&O and Allegheny trails earlier this summer to catch up with Lynch.

“Now, we’re both halfway across the United States,” Lynch said.

The couple’s most recent trip took them about 675 miles across the state of Missouri, which is about 75 miles over Lynch’s personal record for longest distance biked in a single trip.

Similar to their first trip together, Lynch and Self began their latest cycling adventure at their western goal — just outside of Kansas City, Missouri — and paddled back east to where they had left off in Richmond, Indiana.

Lynch said the route included the Rock Island Rail Trail in Illinois and a portion of the Katy Trail, which follows Lewis and Clark’s historic expedition up the Missouri River. She said the pair averaged about 60 miles a day on the two-week trip.

This time, however, the two said they veered off cycling paths mapped out by the Adventure Cycling Association and opted for back country roads to avoid gaps in the trailways and higher trafficked metropolises.

“We have found Apple Maps is a wonderful tool,” Self said. “You can put in your destination and hit the bike, and it will get you off the main pass. We did that a lot.”

He said change took them through small towns he might not have considered traveling through otherwise.

“I’ve seen more of this amazing country atop my bicycle seat than I ever have from a car window,” he said. “For me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about the people, and it’s about Americana.”

He said his favorite stop on the cross-country trek was in Casey, Illinois, which boasts “Big Things in a Small Town.”

Self said the title is quite literal.

“We ride in and find the biggest mailbox you’ve ever seen,” he said of the tiny map dot that had a recorded population of 2,404 people on the 2020 census.

“It gets better,” he said. “I’ll jump to the punchline. Some years ago, the town was dying like a lot of these Midwestern towns, and there was a guy who had grown up on a corner. He decides as a tourist attraction to build the world’s largest mailbox, and Guiness Book of World Records certifies it.”

The town covers less than three square miles, yet Casey miraculously fits 12 official World’s Largest items and dozens of other giant things, like the town’s towering golf tee or its colossal No. 2 pencil.

“It’s just hilarious,” Lynch said.

“I’d have never stumbled on that town had we not been on our bicycles,” Self added. “There were people everywhere, and it was fun. He built the world’s largest rocking chair, and then the world’s largest mousetrap, the world’s largest twizzle stick, and the world’s largest car key. All this stuff. It was amazing.”

Another of the couple’s favorite stops was in Marthasville, Missouri, where Self said he noticed a local co-op lent out farm equipment on an honor system.

“It was beautiful. The store wasn’t going to be open over the weekend, so they just leave access to it. Farmers come by and get what they need and then settle up later,” he said. “Unfortunately, we hear all about the negative stuff going on around the country, but that’s not totally accurate. You come into these small towns, and they’re full of good people. They’re kind and they’re helpful. It’s refreshing, and it’s just good for your soul.”

For Lynch, one of the most remarkable points of the trip was their stride across Martinsville, Indiana, when they rode up on a flock of Goldfinch feeding on the seeds of wild thistle along the side of the road.

“It was one of the most beautiful rides, and those bright yellow wings against the green of the corn and the beans,” she said. “I’m an artist, so I’m always looking at textures, colors and shapes. It took my breath away, but we were able to share that. And we were in it! We were just part of the flock.”

Both Lynch and Self said they thoroughly enjoyed taking in the sights and sounds of their time on the road.

“Gil was on his ride, and I was on my ride even though we were together, you know what I mean,” Lynch added. “It was a good way to meditate and to just kind of reach in and do some soul searching.”

As peaceful as much of their ride was, Lynch said stretches of the trip could also be extremely arduous, especially on dangerous stretches of narrow road as they were traveling from city to city.

“You have to really organize. You’ve got to pack your tools in case something happens to your bike. You’ve got to take lots of water, but then you’ve got to have electrolyte packs, and you’ve got to have snacks,” she said.

Lynch added that she was grateful she’d agreed to let her partner tag along for the ride, as he often offered a second pair of eyes to help look out for traffic. The pair also held one another accountable for staying hydrated and well-nourished throughout the trip.

Lynch said she and Self took breaks every 10 miles or so to stretch and snack to avoid bonking, a term athletes use to describe the condition when a body has depleted all its energy.

“Once you get to that level, you’re in a bad place. You can’t replenish what you lost,” Lynch said.

She and Self rode for 13 days, only taking a single break in Jefferson City, Missouri, for Independence Day.

“That’s a lot on our bodies, and we’re in our 60s. I hate to say that. We’re getting younger and younger,” Lynch said. “There is a lot of discipline. You have to be goal oriented, but it was really great to have that support. We were always checking in with one another.”

Lynch said she is also grateful to have Self help her navigate the grueling climbs of the Rockies as they continue planning their journey westward.

Next year, she said they plan to tackle a 500-mile ride across Kansas. Self said they might take two trips in 2024 to begin the long stretch into North America’s largest mountain range.

“I have a big respect for it,” Self said, quoting the film “Jeremiah Johnson,” as he told of one of his first excursions conquering summits along the Rockies.

“’You can’t cheat the mountain, Pilgrim.’ We learned the hard way. You can’t,” he said. “You have to be prepared, because you don’t know what you’re going to find at the top.”

Self recalled the trip he took years ago with a group of fellow cycling friends to the summit of Colorado’s Bell Mountain, which peaks at 10,605 feet.

“When we got up there, it was sleeting and 32 (degrees). When we had left, it was 85, and you know, I’m dressed like this,” he said, gesturing to his dry-fit short sleeved top and biking shorts. “Several of the summits I have been up were pretty unpleasant, especially on a bicycle.”

Lynch, who said the ride through the Rockies will be a first for her, said she is up for the challenge.

The couple said they have no mileage goal in mind when it comes to completing the North American route. Their main concern is pedaling to the Pacific Ocean.

“I think we’re going to have to flip a coin to decide if we’re going to end in San Fransisco or if we’re going to head south towards San Diego or L.A.,” Lynch said, smiling.

Either way, she’s proud to fulfill her longtime dream with someone who enjoys the journey as much as she does.