Forest Lake native and wife cycled a 4,165-mile adventure

The seed to undertake a cycling adventure across the country was planted into Forest Lake-native John Motschenbacher’s mind in 2016, when he and his wife, Kim, encountered a couple who were biking across the country at their local Walgreens in Chaska. 

“I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s super cool,’ and then I went on about my day and my life. And he’s like, just wouldn’t let it go,” Kim said about John. 

It wasn’t until late 2019 into early 2020 when they seriously revisited the idea to bike the 4,165-mile TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, which runs from Oregon to Virginia. The “experiences over stuff type of deal,” John said, began to appeal to them as they began a downsizing lifestyle. So the couple read more about the trail and previous cyclists’ experiences through blogs and books. 

Their son Colton inspired them, too, they said, with his sense of adventure and minimalistic lifestyle. But the couple also hoped to, in turn, inspire their children and grandchildren. 

“Just to inspire them to do what makes you feel good in life. … Create your own path,” John said.

Additionally, they both agreed that they wanted to not only do the trip for themselves but raise money for an organization. 

“We both decided we wanted someone to benefit from our efforts, and so the natural path to that was the Lobular Breast Cancer Alliance,” Kim said. She is a 10-year survivor of the disease. They raised more than $25,000 for the organization.  

The ‘Motch Across America’

With plans, maps and a mission to inspire set in place, the Motschenbachers got rolling on their journey at the end of May 2021. They shipped their bikes across the country to a bike shop in Astoria, Oregon, which is where the trip kicked off with a heavy start.

“We kind of never got the opportunity to ride with our packs fully loaded on our bikes,” John said regarding the shocking adjustment that 40 to 50 pounds of weight made to their bikes. They said the first morning, on May 26, they set out to dip their bike tires in the coastal water, something cyclists of this trail do at the start and end to signify riding coast to coast,  and were surprised by the shakiness the full pack weight added.

“I couldn’t balance it at first,” Kim said. With traveling on highways and roads with speed limits of 60 to 70 mph in some areas, “You can’t afford to tip over, or you’re going to get hit by a car,” Kim laughed. She said it was nerve-wracking at the start and made her appreciate cyclists more in her everyday life.

On the second day of the trip, they collectively shipped 20 pounds of stuff home, like extra tennis shoes or a 4-pound battery charger in an effort to lighten their bike loads, but kept essentials for day-to-day needs. They kept snacks for breaks, like Clif bars and trail mix. “Then we had a ton of supplements,” Kim said.

The Motschenbachers used and relied on the section-by-section maps of the TransAmerica Trail, made by the Adventure Cycling Association, to plan out where they could get meals, replenish goods at stores and figure out lodging along the way. But COVID-19 protocols and closures affected even much of that.

“We ran into a lot of problems. … That’s when the world started to open up a little bit, but you couldn’t rely, even if they said there was a restaurant or grocery store, because a lot of times they were closed,” Kim said.

“We found, many times, restaurants would only be open like two or three nights. … It seemed like the days we got there, they weren’t open,” John joked.

He remembered one of their longer days of biking, in which they rode more than 110 miles, that put them at the halfway point in Eads, Colorado. It’s a small town with limited food options, and one restaurant near the hotel in which they stayed.

“I went over there and basically begged the cook to make something, and they did,” he said, since they got into town late. 

They always could rely on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on hamburger buns, they said, and in some instances they would eat PB&J for dinner and breakfast the next day. One night’s dinner was microwave popcorn. 

“You can tell along the trip, we get thinner and thinner and thinner,” Kim laughed, while John quipped he got back to his high school weight along the trip. They still lost weight eating 2,000 to 3,000 calories for dinner when they could to replenish what was lost throughout the day. 

They followed the maps, which showed the elevation levels for the upcoming stretches of trail they would cover. 

“We had to push our bikes up the hill quite often. ... It was steep, and it would take us hours to get just 5 miles, and then you have cars racing by you,” Kim said. 

Some of the highest elevations they reached were above 11,000 feet. 

“I had some meltdowns, some threats,” she laughed. “But John was always really positive.” 

John said he wasn’t worried about completing the trip or making it up the hill, and that they took it one hill at a time and dealt with whatever lay around the next corner. 

“The only way to make it through the trip was to make it through the next day, so you just had to have the mindset of like, ‘OK, what are we doing today?” John said.

Now Kim misses the simplicity and routine of the trip and how their only tasks each day were riding their bikes and figuring out what to eat and where to get water. 

And, sometimes, where to stay.

That daily task, they realized, might be more difficult than they anticipated when they started biking around Memorial Day weekend and hotels were booked. Hotels, campsites, hostels, churches and — on occasion — strangers’ homes were where the Motschenbachers rested. 

They planned to alternate between camping and staying in hotels until about halfway through the trip when the heat of the summer picked up in the Midwest. 

“It just got to the point where this is getting too exhausting to set your tent up and then pack it up the next morning and ride 50 miles a day,” Kim said, adding they kept their camping equipment with them in case of an emergency.

John added the heat would prevent them from getting a good night of sleep, and taking down their tent would exhaust them in the mornings before resuming their biking. 

In Hamilton, Montana, the hotel they had booked was too full to fulfill their reservation, so they went to a café to figure out a sleeping arrangement. 

“I was kind of teary-eyed and exhausted,” Kim recalled. “We had ridden quite a few miles that day, and this couple came up to us at the cafe. … And they said ‘Well, we live two blocks from here.’” 

They invited them to spend the night. Kim slept on a couch and John slept on the floor. Upon visiting with them the next day, they learned that the woman had biked the same TransAmerica trail in its inaugural year of travel in 1976. 

“The tens of thousands of people that we encountered, whether they were behind us in a car or in the town or whatever, it just renews your faith in humanity that there’s good people everywhere,” John said. It’s become one of his lasting takeaways from the trip that touched them both, he said.

They heard that the cycling trip is a life-changing experience. They are grateful they remained healthy and received help from their family, community and sponsors to accomplish it. 

“You’re not changing your life in a [single] moment in time. There’s a lot to the trip, and it’s life changing, but in small pieces,” John explained.  

Kim added, “We’re still learning things about the trip, about ourselves from it. ... Now I can’t even believe we did it.” 

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