Field Trip! Schoolteacher leads Teens Across the Nation by Bicycle

I heard the most fantastic tale at dinner a couple nights ago.  Rumor had it that during the seventies, a schoolteacher on Mercer Island, Washington took it upon herself to lead a group of junior high students on an epic bike ride across the country.  Not only did she do this once, confided my informant: supposedly, she lead this teenager-infused cross-country bike tour multiple times.

No offense to the messenger, but I didn't believe it.  No way.  No way in hell does a schoolteacher make the mistake of volunteering (yes, VOLUNTEERING, as in, UNPAID) to lead fifteen of her students across the nation on bicycles.  And after the first trip, (which I assume was fraught with homesickness, awkward situations, unruly hormones, and crying teenagers) there's no way she'd VOLUNTEER to do it again. 

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But my informant sent me the link.  And right there, plain as day, is the unfathomable story about how one woman took four different batches of teens across North America, without major incident.  The full article can be found here.

According to the article, Ms. Fran Call did it alone.  Alone.  Forget the whole "3 students to one adult" chaperone ratio.  It was just Ms. Call with fifteen youngsters.  How on earth did she keep them in line, I wondered?  But then I read the part where she describes their pace: "They cycled for five days, then took one day off — sleeping in until 7 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. The group... rode a record-breaking 194 miles in one day. They usually biked an average 85 miles per day. "

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Aha.  The trick was: she kept those buggers so exhausted, they could barely move, let alone be naughty.  Eighty five miles per day is a solid ride, even if you're Lance Armstrong.  Solid.  But these teens didn't have carbon fiber, state-of-the-art bikes to ride, remember? It was the seventies.  They probably had bikes that were as heavy as a Game of Thrones season finale, and they carried all of their own camping gear, food, and water.  These kids, and their intrepid leader, were total athletic beasts.

By the way, in all my journies, I've never met anyone who cycled 194 miles in one day.  I met a pair of gentlemen who'd gotten close, and it was because they were in Florida, being pushed northward by the stiff tailwind of an oncoming hurricane.  What magic gave these youngsters the ability for superhuman feats of strength? 

And beyond the physical challenges, how did they not become ferociously homesick in the three months they were gone from home? "Every third night, a girl and boy would call home on a rotating schedule. No one had cell phones then; they had to use public pay phones." It strikes me that this cross-country adventure was akin to boot camp: grueling, and a great bonding experience.  The exhausted kids needed to band together to stay alive, and one of Ms. Call's groups got to shake hands with the President of the United States upon their arrival in Washington DC.  When you're being physically and emotionally tested, it helps to feel like a hero in the process.

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"For Call, the most rewarding aspect was 'returning the kids home safely. The trust their parents had in me … with their most precious possessions,' she said." This is the most staggering fact of the entire article, to me.  How did so many parents entrust their children to one schoolteacher for the entire summer?  Even her former students, who are grown up now with children of their own, can't imagine giving their approval for such a journey. "'They can’t quite imagine sending their kids off to do this,' Call said."

Hands-down, the most heroic thing that Ms. Call did was believe in her students.  She believed in them so strongly that she inspired them to challenge themselves in ways they'd never been challenged before: "Call’s legendary outdoor fitness class was unlike any other. Walking 55 miles around Lake Washington in one day and canoeing around Mercer Island were annual events."

"'Today, we tend to think kids are lazy and feel entitled. We (adults) are guilty because we don’t provide opportunities for them to be adventuresome,' Call said."

Reading that line was sobering to me.  I am only 28 years old, and already I'm guilty of not believing in the young people coming up behind me. I would never, in my wildest dreams, think that a band of junior high students could safely and successfully pedal across the continent.  And that's partly because I lead outdoor trips to incoming freshman in college, and saw my fair share of drama and dysfunction.  But perhaps we should up the ante. After all, who has time to misbehave or gossip when you're cycling 85 miles per day???

Read more interviews with female bike-touring heroines Here.

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