There were a few times during Jim Hewins’ 3-month-long, nearly 4,000-mile cross-country bike ride when he wondered if he could finish the grueling journey he tasked himself with.
From the barren roads of Nevada, to being chased by unleashed dogs in Kentucky, to encountering quite the cranky worker at a McDonald’s in Kansas, the Penndel native and William Penn Fire Company volunteer’s trek, which lasted from April 27 through July 24, was far from easy. At 59 years old, with a loving wife and children waiting for him at home, Hewins thought about throwing in the towel on an occasion or two.
But when would he have the chance to do something like this again?
Hewins had just retired on April 14 from Sandmeyer Steel in Northeast Philadelphia after four decades. With so much free time on his hands and no medical issues, it was the perfect time to embark on his second ride across America, the first of which he completed in 1992. Since the only state he missed last time (other than Hawaii and Alaska) was Nevada, this route would take him through the southern part of the country.
According to Hewins, no one in his family had ever gone on a bike tour before. Rather than it being an inherited passion, Hewins’ interest was sparked in childhood, when a man biked up to the Penndel Borough Police Department right next to his home. The man, who hailed from Japan, had “some serious road rash” and was seeking help. The Hewins’ were able to connect him with a Japanese family who owned a small farm a few miles away.
“I was amazed by this stranger who literally showed up on our doorstep. This man could barely speak English and didn’t know anyone in the states, but he was brave enough to take on a challenge like riding across the United States, a foreign land,” said Hewins. “I was hooked and thought I wanted to be like this man. So thank you, random man from Japan. You had no way of knowing how much of an influence you had on a little kid in the early 1970s.”
Shortly after celebrating his retirement, with support from his family, Hewins flew from Philadelphia to San Francisco, the same trusty bike that brought him cross-country 28 years ago in tow. The journey, however, was different in many ways.
“Mentally, it was harder because I had more at home this time. I have kids, grandkids, a wife and all those things that make life worth living. They’re all here and I missed that stuff more so than when I was a kid. I didn’t have anybody waiting for me at home [last time] other than my parents,” Hewins told The Times. “And it was probably a little harder just because I’m older. But I found it easier to pay for hotel rooms because my budget is much better than it was back in ‘92.”
Despite missing his loved ones in Bucks County, Hewins made countless new friends along the way. While eating at a diner, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to anonymously pay for Hewins’ meal. For portions of the trip, he was joined by other bike enthusiasts, with whom he enjoyed a few beers at the end of a long day. Total strangers would offer Hewins dinner and a place to sleep for the evening.
“It’s really cool how quickly you become friends out there. Even if you only see them for one night, it’s a bond. You’re doing the same thing. You know how hard it is, what they’re going through,” he said. “The people I met were actually better than the sites and sounds I saw. There’s some nice, generous people that live here in this country. We gotta put our phones down, turn that dang TV off and actually meet people.”
Each day’s happenings were chronicled by Hewins online at crazyguyonabike.com under the title “if it weren’t so damn windy, this trip would be a breeze.” As he described it in one journal entry, it wasn’t all “puppies and rainbows.”
“There were some days it was so windy I couldn’t even peddle the bike. My bike weighed about 75 pounds with all my gear on it,” he said, adding that he experienced a total of four flat tires, which he expected.
The only place Hewins didn’t enjoy in the slightest was eastern Kentucky, a “depressed” and trash-ridden area where dog owners regularly let their pets run loose – something that’s not ideal for an out-of-towner on a bike. At this point, Hewins had befriended a biker from Oregon who had a fear of dogs. When one began chasing them, the woman panicked and accidentally ran into the back of Hewins’ bike. She ended up breaking her collarbone.
Aside from some angry dogs, Hewins didn’t encounter any aggressive drivers on the road or people … for the most part.
“There was a woman manager at a McDonald’s in Hutchinson, Kansas who was just a really nasty person. That’s the only run-in I had with anybody. I was kind of hangry that day. I was hungry, grumpy and tired, and she was the same so we kind of butted heads a little bit,” Hewins said. “You get days like that. But most of the days were really good. I just couldn’t believe how lucky I am to be able to do this.”
For Hewins, it was bittersweet to see his adventure come to an end.
“I was really getting into my groove. I started riding with a couple of guys at the end. We were having meals together and I felt like I had known them for years. It was sad that we’d never be together again in the same situation,” he said. “But I couldn’t wait to get home.”
Upon returning to Bucks County, Hewins was greeted at Trenton and Tyburn roads by his fellow firefighters from William Penn, who gave him a grand escort home in the middle of a torrential downpour. Family and friends lined the streets, cheering Hewins as he cycled past familiar territory.
Now, the big question is, would he do it again?
“I don’t need to go across the whole country, another 4,000-mile trip. Maybe Levittown to Key West, Florida. That’s a 5-week trip and my wife can fly down and meet me,” Hewins said. “There’s no mountains in the way from here to Florida, so it’ll be easier.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com