When his sweetheart dumped him, Forrest Gump took off running.
He ran and he ran and when he reached the Pacific Ocean, he turned around and ran back to the Atlantic.
He was a runnin’ fool, that Forrest Gump.
That part of the movie struck me as pretty ridiculous. Then I met a real Gump named Harry Willadsen Jr.
Harry talks in a deliberate, halting manner like Gump because of brain damage from a car accident 30 years ago. He is even a fountain of Gumpish wisdom.
Harry can’t run, but when his wife left him in 1975 he became a bicyclin’ fool.
That was 115,000 miles ago.
He has ridden the entire periphery of the United States and the periphery of states like California, Nevada and a few others. He’s made round trips from his home in San Diego to Portland, Kalispell, Mont., British Columbia, the East Coast….
You name it, Harry’s been there.
“Most people, when they haven’t talked to somebody in a long time, just pick up a telephone,” says Harry. “I just hop on my bike.
Harry wheeled into Spokane the other day, on his way north to see friends in Canada. After that he plans to visit an old Navy buddy in Connecticut.
He’s a rock-hard, 200-pounder who surprised me when he said he was 50.
Harry’s knees are battle-scarred from many spills. His hairy face is a weathered, sun-baked road map. His hands are great powerful claws.
Long-distance biking is hardly new, but there’s a huge load that separates Harry from the rest of the pedaling pack.
This is not a guy who subscribes to the high-tech, lighter-is-better philosophy. “That would be sissy,” he says, flatly. “There’d be no challenge in that.”
So Harry drapes his Fuji with 160 pounds of his belongings - a full-sized tent, a sleeping bag, tarps, clothing, pots, pans, a cookstove, books….
Harry doesn’t ride a bike so much as he navigates a barge loaded with the insides of a second-hand store.
There’s even a huge stereo boom box hanging over the handlebars. “Your car has a radio,” says Harry, defending his unorthodox cycling. “Why can’t I have a radio?”
At his budget motel room on Division, Harry invited me to try and lift his unwieldy steed. I couldn’t budge the thing.
You can see why Harry’s legs resemble thick oaks.
To add to the challenge, Harry removed the lower five gears on his 10 speed. He only pedals in the high ones, he says, to keep himself strong.
“He’s got his life right there on his bike,” says Julia Hogland, Harry’s sister who lives in a suburb of Portland. “I worry about him, sure, but he’s not really content unless he’s riding his bike.”
Harry’s lucky if he can push all the weight 60 miles on a good day. Faced with a mountain or stiff head wind, Harry inches his damnable load ahead at a glacial pace.
He rides the interstate highways whenever he can because they tend to be flatter. The increased traffic, however, poses a hazard.
This free-spirited man has been derailed more times than he can recall. The last fall broke his collarbone. On a 1983 journey through southern Idaho, a hit-and-run driver shattered his hip.
He was laid up several months in a Veterans Affairs hospital, but it didn’t stop his passion for cycling.
Harry pays for his adventures by selling copies of “God’s Scapegoat,” a book he wrote and published 10 years ago. It’s half a bicycle trip diary, half his quirky religious philosophy.
He sells copies for 10 bucks wherever he goes. Because of his disability, Harry can’t hold a job. The money from book sales and a pension are all he has.
He doesn’t seem to mind. This man’s vision of happiness is an overloaded bike and a long stretch of open road.
“Most people like things easy, that’s the American way,” says Harry, in his slow, Gumpish manner.
“But when you make things a little hard it spices up your life.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo