July 12, 2006 - As a young girl growing up in Ohio, Julia Zahn would spend her summers riding her bike. Whether it was on the paved roads of town or trekking the countryside's dirt roads to visit her favorite teachers, Zahn wanted to ride until the road ran out.
On May 14, Mother's Day, the 69-year-old dipped the back tire of her bike in the Pacific Ocean in Manhattan Beach, Calif. and set out once again to find the end of the road. Fifty days, 13 states and more than 3,000 miles later, Zahn finally found the end of the line in Boston. There, awaiting her front tire, was the Atlantic Ocean.
The cross-country excursion was part of CrossRoads Cycling Adventures, a bicycle organization that annually puts on the tour of the United States. Of the 35 riders who started the tour in California, Zahn was among the 31 who finished and the only woman to ride all 50 days.
For the Sun City resident, waking up at 5 a.m. every morning to ride a bike all day, proved to be intoxicating. Some riders dropped out because of injuries, others picked up and left the tour throughout the 50 days. The majority of riders were retired.
"It's incredibly hard, yet you can't wait to wake up in the morning and do it again," said Zahn surrounded by welcome home banners and balloons in her kitchen four days after returning from New England.
Hard is an understatement. Zahn's group climbed up and down mountains a total of 90,043 feet - while braving just about every kind of inclement weather Mother Nature could hurl in their direction.
In the Mojave Desert, the group rode through temperatures that reached 115. That doesn't factor in the heat coming off the melting asphalt. The Navajo Reservation in the northern part of Arizona greeted the riders with crosswinds strong enough to lift both tires off the ground - as if slaloming the mountains wasn't enough of a challenge.
Once the Mountains ran out in New Mexico it was on to the plains of the Midwest, where a rider could go for miles and not even see another rider.
"It's hard, it's frustrating, it's scary, dangerous, really dangerous and then it's also gorgeous, big, huge open areas," said Zahn. "I think here in the desert I've got big open areas but you ought to see those Kansas farms. They just go on forever, you're out there alone and you can't see anybody ahead of you or behind you and you think I could scream my head off, I could blow a whistle until it burst and nobody would know, it's that empty."
After traversing hills in Missouri some shaped like the "inside of an egg carton" - so steep that at times she wasn't able to propel her 120-pound body up to the top, even while standing on her pedals - Zahn entered familiar territory of states like Indiana, Pennsylvania and her home state of Ohio, a place she left when she was 20.
The treacherous weather only got worse as the group entered the Northeast along Lake Erie, where driving rains caused major flooding.
Despite the adverse weather, every state seemed to hold something special for Zahn.
Bob and Irene Camp - Senior Olympics cycling and power walking champs who winter in Oro Valley - stopped by to see Zahn in Pennsylvania. In Ohio, Zahn met up with a dozen friends from her high school one night. Another night she caught up with her college roommate from Miami of Ohio University.
In Abilene, Kan. a strange car on the side of the road turned out to be a former bike coach out to offer support and a chance to say hi.
Each morning, the group was given a daily itinerary, which basically were directions to the hotel they needed to end up at by the end of the day.
A crew followed the riders in a van, leapfrogging in front of them every 10 miles or so to provide water, power bars or gel packs. The group would bike anywhere from 40 to 115 miles a day.
The Connecticut-based CrossRoads Cycling, in addition to the cross-country tour, organizes similar adventures of the Southwest, Middle America and Eastern United States.
Zahn only had three flats tires, all occurring before she left New Mexico, and only needed to replace three bike tubes. All told, she logged 3,415 miles from ocean to ocean.
"It never occurred to me to quit," said Zahn, who picked up biking again after a 40-year hiatus from the sport ended eight years ago.
She found CrossRoads Cycling after overhearing fellow riders in the Sun City Bike Club talking about the tour. The two men didn't end up doing the ride, but Zahn's interest was piqued. She signed up a year in advance and started training on the roads throughout the Northwest, often scaling the heavy hills of SaddleBrooke retirement community.
"I'm more convinced now that I've done it than ever before that having a goal, a short term goal or a long term goal, adds interest and purpose to your life," said Zahn. "When you're retired, a lot of people kind of lose interest, they don't have a real reason to get out of bed in the morning. They don't have a real reason to train or stay fit and by having a goal, it gives you something to think about everyday and work toward every day. I'm sure it's a healthy thing."
She hasn't picked out her next adventure quite yet. Perhaps she'll ride the 80-mile event of the El Tour de Tucson bike race in November for a sixth time.
"I want to just kind of float around until something absolutely gets me by the throat and won't let go," said Zahn of her next adventure. "I don't know what that's going to be. I'll savor this a little more, it's going to take some time to sort it all out."
Her body was fine after the 50-day-trek. The hardest part of returning home was adjusting to life off of the bike. Her 'reintroduction to humanity" as she called it took a few days to conquer and mainly required her to remember email passwords and get used to driving a car.
While she awaits the return of her bike from Boston via mail, she's resting up and reliving in her mind that moment when she dipped her wheel in the Atlantic Ocean.
"Everybody thought it was a silly ritual (at first) but it ended up that everybody was crying," she said. "I think it was a sense of relief. It was over; we really did it. People, who never expected to cry, cried. It wasn't that they were sad; it was that we had no more strength."
It's not a bad thing that all the strength has been sapped from her body, for Zahn she's finally ran out of road.