Single wheelers winding up their cross country run
October 13, 2013
MCKENZIE BRIDGE: When does riding a bicycle across the U.S. sound like kicking back? After you’ve done it on one wheel. That’s the opinion of 41-year-old Dustin Kelm after traveling uphill and downhill over 3,347 miles in 92 days. He and his wife, Katie, were having breakfast Thursday morning at Belknap Hot Springs after riding over the Old McKenzie Pass the day before.
The route, that even some motorists find challenging, was a delight for the couple – despite that downhill thing. (Unicyclists can’t freewheel and never take their feet off the pedals.) Katie used to live in Eugene and says the nearby Three Sisters and other scenery along Hwy. 242 made her feel she was coming home. Dustin agreed, calling that part of the ride a “real apostrophe” to their journey.
Pedaling from 40 to 50 miles a day wasn’t just for a lark. Dustin, who received his first unicycle for Christmas when he was 10, went pro years ago – attending his first international competition in Japan when he was 15. Last year, while performing in Switzerland at the Montreux Jazz Festival, he met another 10 year old. The boy had escaped from Syria the night before – after his parents had been killed in the conflict. Like other refuges he’d fled his homeland with only the clothes on his back, probably never to return.
The encounter caused Dustin to look closer into what was happening. He and Katie found that Lebanon, with a population of 3.5 million people, had already absorbed 700,000 escaped Syrians, and more were trying to come in. Other surrounding countries had harbored the rest of the estimated 2 million people displaced by the civil war.
Their reaction was to create the “Refuge Ride” across the United States in an effort to raise awareness of the plight of the Syrian refugees as well as some cash. Luckily Katie began riding a unicycle about eight years ago, knowing it was a big part of Dustin’s life. The couple now supports themselves as professional riders and performers.
“There’s a whole world of unicyclying out there that’s growing,” Dustin says. Competitive events include everything bicycle riders take on – from high speed to long distance racing or from off road events to free style competitions. “At first I didn’t realize you could do more than ride in a straight line,” he added. Some riders can jump up in the air and rotate 180, 360, and even 570 degrees before coming back down to land on their seat.
On their journey this summer, the Kelms met a lot of different people. They were pleasantly surprised to see signs on the outskirts of Sisters advising drivers that cyclists can legally use the full travel lane. That was the first they’d ever seen.
Once when coming out of a Kansas town a washed out bridge caused them to detour onto a busy winding 2-lane road with no shoulders. “Some of the local residents didn’t appreciate our riding in the road,” he remembers. Reacting to the situation the county sheriff arrived on the scene with his lights and siren going. “But he was a nice guy and affirmed our right to use the road, then helped us find an alternative route - getting us off as soon as we could.”
Another encounter with an official occurred because of the only breakdown they experienced during the whole trip. Just outside of Sisters a flange on Dustin’s wheel hub bent, leaving a couple of spokes dangling. Another friendly guy at the Eurosports Bike Shop in town helped them arrange getting a part Fedex’ed and in their hands in less that 24 hours, then fixed the hub. Turns out that fellow, “Brad,” is the mayor of Sisters.
Wildlife encounters included copperhead snakes on a bike trail in Missouri and the skinniest raccoon they’d ever seen – who they suspected was either on his last legs, sick, or tipsy from getting into the goods at nearby vineyards.
“Cows were very interested in what we were doing,” Kate recalls. “They’d stand there with grass hanging out of their mouths.”
Dustin remembers that cows could stop them from mile away. “You could see their heads come up,” he says. “Then they’d all come running up to the fence and just stand there as we went by.”
The Kelms planned to end their ride in Yachats, on the Oregon coast. People willing to contribute to their quest can make a contribution at refugeride.org.
What was that about a bike ride being a vacation? “On a unicycle you can’t relax, ever,” Dustin says. “There’s no coasting downhill. You can’t stand up and stretch your legs. You have to be focused on the road at every moment, watching every pothole and every crack – anything that can throw you off. The physical part of it is fine but the mental strain all day long is pretty hard on you. On a bicycle you can ride over something that will ruin your day on a uni.”
Image above: Photo By George Letchworth. Riding 36-inch “big wheel” unicycles with fluorescent green rims, the Kelms racked up over 3,000 miles between Georgia and Oregon’s Cascade mountain passes as part of their coast-to-coast Refuge Ride.
McKenzie River Reflections