May 16, 2004 in Features

Tours de friends

Rich Landers Outdoors editor
 
Christopher Anderson/ photo

Paul Eichin heads out on the roads of Green Bluff for a shake down cruise before leaving for a tour. Eichin combines his electrician skills with a desire to see the world and help others.
(Full-size photo)

Slide show

Cycling Brazil

Men of retirement age usually phase into more sedentary activities, but Paul Eichin — who’s already pedaled nearly 100,000 miles in the past two decades — still logs about 5,000 two-wheel miles a year.

And that’s not even close to being the most fascinating angle on the 65-year-old cancer survivor from Green Bluff.

As a teenager, Eichin appeared to be on the road to nowhere. He could have lost his faith after numerous medical setbacks. But he didn’t.

He has reason to be shy and self conscious. Instead he rivals a diplomat in his vast list of friends all over the world.

Three times since the age of 18, Eichin has had radical surgery to remove rare tumors that recurred on the back of his neck. He remains disfigured and his left eye doesn’t close despite several reconstructive surgeries since 1971.

Yet when he talks about life-changing moments, he starts with his first bicycle tour, a mere overnighter to Priest Lake in 1985.

“I’ve never gotten over it,” he said.

Two years later, he launched his first major tour, a 2,300-miler from Canada to Mexico along the Pacific Coast.

“After that I was totally addicted,” he joked, noting that he pedaled a one-day 200-mile “double century” to celebrate his 50th birthday in 1988.

This month, he’s been taking Spanish lessons and preparing for his 14th major tour — in the Pyrenees of Spain. But he concedes that even though he’s cycled in 23 countries, his two most memorable tours have been home-grown.

“Your first time is always the most memorable,” he said, noting that the Pacific Coast tour gave him the confidence to keep going. “I guess it’s the challenge. When you head out for the first one, you’re wondering whether you can do it.

“Each trip has its own special flavor, but I’d have to say my (1998) tour across North America is the other standout. If you want to be considered a true cycle tourist, you have to ride across America. It puts you in a separate group, like the elite runners in Bloomsday,” he said.

(Incidentally, he finished 4,971 out of 39,557 runners of all ages in this year’s 12-kilometer footrace through Spokane. Eichin has run in every Bloomsday since 1982.)

In what has become a trademark to Eichin bike tours, he gave the trip across North America some meaning. He pedaled through the capital of Washington, his home state, to the capital of Rhode Island, his birth state, and from the westernmost point of the U.S. mainland to the easternmost point. He capped it all with a surprise visit to his mother, who’d just celebrated her 100th birthday.

“It was successful, and I wanted more,” he said in his usual understatement.

When he’s not traveling, Eichin is active in Spokane, raising fruit and vegetables at his hobby farm and volunteering for various recreational and charitable organizations. He served as a bicycle representative on the Spokane County Board of Zoning Adjustment for 10 years.

He runs, skis, backpacks and dabbles in outdoor photography primarily to bring back slide programs from his travels.

Eichin was the Upper Columbia area engineer for the Bonneville Power Administration when he retired in 1995. Although he still has a consulting business, he often donates his electrical expertise to Assembly of God missions.

For example, most tourists go to Belize to visit the beach or cast for bonefish. Eichin, on the other hand, went this winter to camp in the jungle beside a church pastor with no running water and food that basically boiled down to corn tortillas, chicken and beans. He worked so hard he had little time for cycling.

“I brought all my tools,” he said, describing his wiring job to prepare a mission for the day electrical service finally comes to the village.

“You have to innovate quite a bit. There’s no Home Depot there.”

When he returned home, he left his bicycle at the mission as a gift. “Getting a bike down there is like getting an automobile,” he said. “It’s their transportation.”

Eichin has a big welcome waiting and a floor to sleep on anytime he visits Belize. Ditto for El Salvador, where he has a long list of contacts.

His fascination with meeting people has shaped his casual approach to cycle touring. “I don’t usually get in too much of a hurry because the people of different cultures I meet are as important as the cycling,” he said.

Some of them are fellow adventurers, such as the Swiss couple he met in Labrador during their two-year motor tour of the world and the man he met in North Dakota who was cycling across America after having his hip replaced.

While cycling in Hungary, he met Larry Witlow of Canada. “I was with him and his wife for two days but we kept in contact by e-mail and decided to get together to cycle the Brazilian coast,” Echin said.

“We are 180 degrees in terms of philosophy and values. Larry is very intelligent, a PhD in physics and he retired at 35. He’s a theory person and I’m an application guy. He’s not religious and I am. He’s searching for reality and I’m a dedicated Christian.

“It’s hard for him to accept anything unless he can prove it mathematically, and I’ve had to accept many things that can only be explained as God’s way.

“But he could speak Spanish and Portuguese. That made me stay with him and see that sometimes we get so isolated into peer groups we don’t get into other people’s way of life and try to understand where they’re coming from. Give it some time and you learn to respect them despite their different value systems.”

The odd couple worked out differences and hugged each other at the end of the trip, he said.

“Cycling was our common bond,” Eichin said. “It’s safer to have two people.

“We used the Lonely Planet book on Brazil, although Larry had a set of satellite maps and we avoided main roads virtually the whole way. We found backroads, and hired people with boats, or hired somebody to take us in a Jeep across areas too bad to cycle even on our mountain bikes.”

The pair lived cheaper on the road in Brazil than they do at home, he said, and even though he has financial resources, he says the cheap way has its rewards.

“Europe has lots of hostels that are very inexpensive while giving you the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life,” he said.

Generally speaking, Europe is easy for cyclists to negotiate. “You don’t have to go far to find a place to stay,” he said. “You can’t say that about parts of Montana or North Dakota, where you might have to ride 100 miles between towns.”

Last year he cycled 60-80 miles between villages in Latvia during his tour of Eastern Europe. “There was lots of nice wooded rolling countryside that made for interesting cycling. The language was a challenge, especially in the rural areas. But somebody usually spoke English in the tourist offices and my German helped in some areas.”

Of course, life on the road is not entirely trouble-free. “Problems come in waves,” he said, noting that while he averages a flat tire every 1,700 miles or so, he had three while crossing the Idaho Panhandle.

In Labrador, the black flies might have been unbearable except that the wind was blowing most of the time. “It’s unusual for a bicyclist to be hoping for wind,” he said.

Indeed, a rainstorm with gale-force wind caught him while cycling the exposed east coast of Iceland on a dirt road with a high vertical drop-off to the ocean.

“Two times, powerful gusts blew me and the bike off the road into the ditch above the ocean far below,” he said. “I rode in the middle of the road praying for the storm to let up. I did not get off the bike for 40 miles fearing that if I did, the lightened bike could be blown away from me.”

People are largely supportive to cyclists, but a traveler must always be wary, he said.

In Hungary, after getting cash from an ATM machine, he paused to snap a photograph and was greeted by a man and a woman.

“They were very friendly,” he said. “Too friendly. Another couple came out and they all surrounded my bike and kept touching the components like my handle bar bag to see if any would come loose.”

Realizing the men were starting to go for the bags where he’d packed his camera and money, Eichin did what a guy has to do in that situation.

“I screamed,” he said. “They went running,” and Eichin made sure he was wearing his money belt for the rest of the tour across Eastern Europe and Turkey.

“I learned my lesson on always being aware of your surroundings,” he said. But other than that, Eastern Europe was wonderful for touring, he said, with Poland being especially safe and friendly even though it was at a train depot there that he lost a bag with all 15 rolls of film from that tour.

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, ranks in Eichin’s top 10 cities in the world to visit, he said.

Even though he’s bicycled the equivalent of four times around the earth, Eichin has had only one notable biking accident.

“Oh, I’ve gone down in the gravel a few times — my helmet’s always saved me — and I’ve been bitten by dogs a couple of times, right here in Spokane on North Monroe! But I’ve only had one major accident, after my first big tour in 1987, and that was caused by a dog near Portland.

When he woke in the middle of the road, he had gravel in his eye, a broken collarbone, a punctured lung and more.

“All the ribs on my left side were broke probably because all my muscle there was removed from cancer operations,” he said. “I had to stay in intensive care because I banged my head.

“I’ve never broken a bone since. I’ve broken more helmets than bones.”

He’s gone through numerous bikes, too, but his road touring continues to be on the original Lotus he bought in 1984. His affection for the bike is a bit irrational for overseas touring where it’s virtually impossible to get tires for his 27-inch wheels.

“I love that bike,” he explained. “So I just take extra tires. It doesn’t have click shifting and other fancy stuff. It’s so simple I can fix most anything on the road.”

With so much behind him, Eichin has not stopped looking forward.

“I do lots of two- and three-week tours that aren’t much to write home about, but I need to cross Asia. That’s one of my goals to link up trips around the world.

“Maybe I’ll go from Turkey to China or continue where I left off last time and finish crossing Russia.

“It will probably depend on whether I meet a cycling partner who speaks Russian or Chinese.”

Humid environments are more friendly to Eichin’s eye. “It’s a problem for a cyclist, having an eyelid that doesn’t shut, especially in dry climates,” he said. “I have to lubricate it and wear goggles. But that’s a thorn in my flesh I’ve had since I was 18. I wouldn’t know any better.”

His facial deformities used to bother him. While working for BPA, one of his supervisors tried to be helpful by suggesting he grow a beard to deflect people’s stares.

“I’ve had one ever since,” Eichin said, “But you can’t let something like this drive your life.

“When I first got cancer, I thought ‘How am I going to go on?’ It was my early midlife crisis.

“Instead of worrying about something that could come back and take my life, I decided to get in the best physical, mental and spiritual shape I could.

“You have times when you think about things you wish didn’t happen to you, but in reality, what’s happened to me has opened more doors.

“I enjoy sharing that message with anyone who wants to listen.”

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