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Cross-country cyclist from Bemidji experiences new vistas; raises funds for mission

Paul Bengtson always wanted to see the deserts of the American Southwest wearing their springtime blooms.

Last March, the Bemidji man set out to accomplish that goal on his bicycle with a ride across the United States from Carlsbad, Calif., to St. Simon's Island, Ga. In between, he pedaled 1,500,900 revolutions in 172 hours on his bike, covering 2,550 miles.

"The ride was the biblical 40 days and 40 nights," Bengtson said.

Bengtson took a north-south ride from California to Canada in 2004, and last fall, he bicycled from Stillwater, Minn., to Memphis, Tenn. For those rides, he carried his own equipment, but for the cross-country ride, he signed up with a tour company, Wandering Wheels.

"It had been a long-time dream of mine to ride across the country, and when I found a dirt-cheap supported ride in January, I jumped at the chance," he said. The company supplied meals, a sag wagon and equipment van and arranged sleeping accommodations in churches, schools, motels and campgrounds.

"In Luverne, Ala., I once woke up with a crash," Bengtson said of a night the group spent camped in a church. "I felt something fall across my body. I had kicked over a cardboard camel in the third-grade Sunday school classroom."

Bengtson is a dentist who practices in Blackduck. He said he called a friend who agreed to take over the clinic while Bengtson was on the road. He chose the southern route because it is the narrowest east-west crossing and he didn't want to stay away for more than six weeks.

Besides being Bengtson's first cross-country and first supported ride, the trip was a first in another way, as well. He rode to raise donations for Randy Bevis, who operates a tilapia fish hatchery in northern Thailand. Bevis supplies Thai farmers with fingerlings. However, a flood destroyed his hatchery, and Bengtson's church, Evangelical Covenant, had adopted Bevis' project as a mission.

"I'm not good at raising money, but we did raise some money for these guys," Bengtson said.

Bengtson said the ride was led by Bob Davenport, a former professional football player who started making bicycle trips in the 1960s as a way to help troubled high school youth. Bengtson said Davenport had made the southern crossing hundreds of times, so he knew the best routes, scenery and restaurants along the way.

Nineteen cyclists and six Wandering Wheels staff, many of whom also rode along the way, were in the group, Bengtson said.

"The average age was between 50 and 60, so it wasn't a bunch of kids," he said. "My roommate, the guy I was assigned to for the motels, was 71 and he'd never ridden more than 10 miles on a bicycle. He started training in January. We averaged between 70 and 80 miles a day."

He recalled one day when they rode with a 40-mph tailwind, covering 60 miles in two hours. He also recalled a day in Alabama's hill country when they rode against a stiff headwind.

On the way across the country, they saw camps with refugees from Hurricane Katrina, the book depository in Dallas, Texas, where Lee Harvey Oswald waited to shoot President John F. Kennedy, and novelties such as Christ's Apostolic Rib Shack and the Lily White Baptist Church. Bengtson explained that Lily White was an African American woman who, at age 93, couldn't get to church anymore. So her church family built a church next door to her house and named it after her.

"We went through the town where Bonnie and Clyde were shot," he said. "There was a sign along the road saying 'Rosa Parks was born here.'"

Bengtson said the main difference between riding with a group and riding alone as he has in the past is that he meets more people along the way when he rides solo.

But having the convenience of an equipment carrier, bicycle mechanics and snacks available at convenient times were positive aspects of group travel.

"It was more about the trip than the destination or going the distance," he said. "Every day was a fun day to ride."