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Breaking Away
Marathon biker Glenn Theron.


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Breaking Away

Long-distance bicyclist Glenn Theron gets a different worldview, and a taste of small-town America, at 10 miles per hour.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

 

On a fine day starting to feel like spring, Glenn Theron sits in a Silver City coffeehouse, surrounded by maps—two spread out across the table, a bunch more in various stages of unfolded-ness perched atop his knapsack, some cascading to the floor. These are good maps, huge and detailed, topographically revealing with rich greens and browns like a grade-school classroom globe from yesteryear.

Avid cyclist Glenn Theron.

"They're National Geographic maps," Theron explains. "They give you these things for subscribing. I've got the whole series by now, I guess." He says he's subscribed to the worldly periodical for 35 years.

An avid bicyclist who's traveled thousands of miles per year on two wheels, Theron says, "I was looking over some of the routes from my past trips." He shuffles maps from floor to table. "Oh, here are the Rockies!"

He points to a mountain range, then traces his finger along the tan stretch denoting a valley. His eyes peek out from the small visible portion of his face between his omnipresent ballcap and trademark full beard, and a smile of wistful familiarity comes to his face, as if he's perhaps gazing upon not a mere map but a good friend.

"This is the trip I did in 2004," he says. "I'm taking shorter trips these days. Most will be only 10 days to maybe two weeks."

Well, as they say, it's all relative. A short bicycle trip to Theron would be a pretty major trek for most. Last month's first "short" trip of the new season—from Silver City to Gallup, over to Albuquerque, then up to Los Alamos to see some friends and back down to Silver—clocked in at just over 900 miles.

 

Theron counts off the variety of reasons he chooses two wheels over four whenever he can. Environmental sustainability is one, for sure. He'd like to see a lot more people "just thinking ahead, planning and using their bikes when they can."

Not that Theron doesn't own a car. He just doesn't, well, use it.

He's had a relatively new BMW motorcycle locked away in storage since 2001, along with a 1974 VW Beetle he stashed in 1994 when he moved to Silver City. Once asked by a friend why he doesn't just sell the vehicles, Theron replied that keeping them stored keeps two more gas-burners off the streets.

"But don't think I'm a complete Luddite!" he says with a laugh. "I do like some creature comforts. But I also live in a town where I can get to anywhere I need in 10 minutes. So why not bike?" Certainly more people could if they just thought about it, he says, and if they weren't so darned convinced that life is a race.

Health is another fringe benefit, he says. For a guy somewhere in his fifties, Theron's fit frame and youthful appearance make it pretty obvious he's seeing some payout there. Only a few gray hairs in his beard even hint that he's said goodbye to his forties.

And then there's the enjoyment of coming across the delightfully unexpected and sometimes entertainingly weird. "You see other things when you're only going 10 miles an hour, things we pass by and miss every day," he says.

Theron says he started taking his adventurous bike trips in the 1970s, back in his university days. "I'd take holiday trips, trips to see my friends. I'd go up to Vancouver, British Columbia, and I made some trips to the Northwest."

A career in the Navy put the brakes on his freewheeling ways for a number of years. But you can't keep a good biker out of the saddle forever.

Theron retired from a full career in the service at the tender age of 43. While he was doing a little work in a motorcycle shop in Tucson, a customer told him about Silver City and gave the standard invite, "Look me up if you're ever in town."

Theron did, and fell in love with the funky town, moving to Silver City mere months later. It didn't hurt, he says, that the place is something of a bikers' mecca. He notes the renowned Tour of the Gila bike race, in its 21st annual run this month (see story in this issue's events section), the number of triathletes who live in town, and the desirable weather and terrain.

"It's a great place," he says of Silver City, "and people are attracted to it for a lot of reasons. I've seen the ebbs and flows over the years, in the economy, the people."

 

For his bike trips, Theron trades his "around-town clunker" of a bike for his Rivendell custom touring machine, a small trailer of supplies and gear in tow. The ATM era allows him to travel without hauling a lot of cash with him. When he's in a place where he needs cash, he explains, that means he's in a town. And towns—even the little Podunk ones—have ATMs these days.

As for emergency gear, he says, "I take along four or five tubes. . . and one extra tire. But remember, I'm visiting a lot of towns, and there always seem to be enough bike shops along the way." The trailer also holds a small tent, bedroll and even an air mattress.

In addition to staying at legitimate campgrounds, Theron says he's been known to practice the fine art of "stealth camping."

"Industrial parks are great," he says with a mischievous smile. "It's a big open space and everybody goes away at the end of the day, so I think, 'OK, that's my home for tonight,' and I just make a note of it and come back after quitting time."

Most of the time, things work out just fine, he says. But one stealth-camping adventure in south Texas last spring led to a scene that felt like something right out of a movie—Deliverance, not Breaking Away. Theron had scoped out a schoolground—the only possible option he'd found in what shall remain a nameless small town—waited until dark and then pitched his tent. Come morning, it seemed he was a little more visible than he'd realized. The school superintendent was notified. For some reason, the superintendent then called in a Border Patrol agent.

"He just looked at me and very slowly said, 'We don't like your kind around here.' Just like that," Theron recalls, laughing. He admits he was looking a bit gnarly at that point in the trip. "Well, I had a ZZ-Top kind of beard and probably my clothes weren't the cleanest."

The adventures of stealth camping aside, there are times when Theron springs for a hotel along the way, perhaps just needing a softer bed. After all, as he's already pointed out, he isn't a complete Luddite!

And sometimes a hotel is, well, more than a hotel.

"In a hotel, the sink becomes my Laundromat," he says with a big grin. He details how he'll wash out all his garments and hang them to dry. Sometimes they'll need a little more drying time than just overnight, he adds, in which case he's been known to hang them off the back of his trailer to dry in the breeze as he rides.

"Hey, I'm not proud," Theron says, chuckling. "I mean, I look like a moving junkyard!"

He totes only a day's worth of food—meal bars and the like—preferring to savor the flavor of small towns through their eateries. "Besides, after being alone with my thoughts on the bike all day," he says, "it's just nice to be with some people."

 

The people, indeed. People—that human flavor so varied and unique the world over—are a big reason Theron loves his bike trips. He says he met more than a few interesting specimens on a five-month tour of a half-dozen states in 2004. He shuffles the maps to find New Mexico, then begins tracing his trip.

He took Hwy. 60 east through Clovis, NM, then continued on into Texas, over to Lubbock. Traveling along the Panhandle into Oklahoma, Theron then cut back northwest until he found himself in Colorado, from which he rode into Nebraska. He biked halfway across Nebraska to Kearney, then went up Hwy. 183 to South Dakota. There he followed the Missouri River up into the southern end of North Dakota, passing Indian reservations along the way. He turned west into Montana on I-94 and traveled up as far as a little town called Plentywood in the extreme northeast corner of the state. Plentywood is noteworthy for being the only town openly run by communists, Theron says, back in 1932.

"It was the FDR years," he adds, "and a candidate was running under the slogan, 'Vote Communist'!"

Perhaps there's something in the water in Montana, the state where Theron says he had one of his more interesting close encounters of the human kind. He makes it a point when traveling through small towns to take in the flavor of the place. Libraries are high on his list.

In one small town in Montana, having enjoyed the charms of its greasy spoon eatery and old-fashioned downtown, he stopped a woman on the street and asked for directions to the local library. "She just looked at me and said, 'Well how should I know? I've only lived here since 1962!' This was in 2004," he says with a laugh and, like a good comedian, waits for the punch line to hit.

After having a good laugh himself, he bends his head over the map again, tracing his journey west and north, dipping up into Canada, pedaling through Saskatchewan, and then back down into Montana. He turned at the town of Havre, headed west, then took back roads across the Missouri River over to historic Fort Benton, called the "birthplace of Montana," owing to its significant riverboat trade route.

The sailor in Theron comes alive as he describes the historical river culture: Fifty steamboats a season would dock along the banks, bringing in fur traders, gold seekers and settlers. From there, freight would be loaded onto wagons and pulled by oxen along the trails of the northern plains to far-flung settlements. "The last riverboats came there in 1922," he notes.

From there, he made his way west over to Great Falls, an area rich in history and culture. "It's a popular destination for people traveling the Lewis and Clark trails," Theron says. Nearby is the Charles Russell Museum, honoring the famed western artist who interpreted the Montana lifestyle and landscapes in his paintings and bronze sculptures.

Russell is widely celebrated in the region, with many landmarks bearing his name—and the Montana Department of Tourism even referring to it as the "Russell Area." But Theron says he found it a very different attitude when he biked through Archer, Texas, toward that city's own famous son, Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry.

"He's not beloved," Theron says simply. Evidently having equal amounts of literary ego and cash, the successful McMurtry came back home and pretty much bought up the downtown, turning it all into bookstores. Theron describes the whole scene as "really pretty weird. In one store, you'll have just this one kind of book. In another store, another kind of book." The kicker comes at checkout time—with customers having to hoof it across the downtown, intended purchases in hand, to the only store with a cash register.

"In one store, there's this big sign that says, 'Mr. McMurtry will not sign your book!' The message is pretty clear: He's from here, but he's not one of us," Theron says.

 

Back to the Montana map, this little memory detour to Texas done, Theron traces his route from the Great Falls area south to Butte, then on to the little town of Wisdom. When asked if "wisdom" was his goal all along, Theron gives a good-natured laugh.

"Oh, I've been searching," he says with mock seriousness. "At this point, I don't know if I'm gonna find it!"

From there, it was a short hop westward to the Big Hole National Battlefield, an area where many Nez Perce Indian skirmishes took place. "There are a lot of references to Chief Joseph throughout the area," Theron says, and recounts a bit of the struggles and travels of the famous Native American chief who led his people up through Idaho into Canada.

After Big Hole, Theron continued south toward Idaho, taking Hwy. 93 along the Salmon River, then down through the Bitterroot Valley. He meandered a bit east and west in Idaho, stopping in the town of Arco.

"It was the first town in the US to be powered by nuclear power," Theron says. "There's a national engineering lab there today."

At the site, visitors can view Experimental Breeder Reactor-1, known as EBR-I, the first atomic reactor to generate usable amounts of electricity. It lit the lights in Arco in 1955. Arco was also home to design work on two prototype X-39 atomic aircraft engines designed for the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion project. That endeavor was cancelled—the warplanes never even built—due to radiation leakage problems during testing.

Having paid his visit to a piece of nuclear history, Theron continued south past the Craters of the Moon Lava Fields, a national monument and preserve in the Snake River Plain.

"It's something to see," he says simply of the three huge lava beds with a variety of volcanic features and open rift cracks, including the deepest known on earth, at 800 feet deep.

He switches to yet another map and traces his route farther and farther south, into Nevada. He turned west on Hwy. 80 to visit Reno, then spent some time traversing the "California Trail," an old pioneer route.

"Wagon trains would go this way," he says. But the westbound pioneers faced hardship and tough decisions when they hit the Humboldt Sink. "It's 40 miles of desert where the river just disappears," Theron explains. The sink is an intermittent dry lakebed where the Humboldt River terminates, running underground for miles. "There are places along the trail where (pioneers) left off pianos and other heavier things they'd brought along from home. They just had to abandon things. It was a matter of survival."

It was at this point that Theron ran into a bit of trouble himself. Suddenly he found himself with a whole lot of miles to cover and just one day before he was slated to meet up with friends in California. When he hit Davis, Calif., Theron says, "I had to cheat." He hopped a train to San Jose.

"The bike trip was essentially over with Davis," he confesses. After he visited with his West Coast pals, Theron says he took another train back to Phoenix, then biked back home to Silver City.

Even with his "cheat," he estimates the trip at "more or less 5,000 miles on the bike." He looks down at the maps strewn across the table before him, and with a contented smile, adds, "It was still a good ride."

 

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