June 28, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Cyclist retraces Underground Railroad route

John Gladden | The Gazette

LIVERPOOL TWP. — If you are a State Farm Insurance agent somewhere in America, don’t be surprised if you get a call from fellow agent and cross-country cyclist Mike Derr.

That’s how Derr, 58, came to be bunking Tuesday night at the home of Ed and Mary Peacock. A touring cyclist, he is in the midst of a 2,600-mile trip retracing the Underground Railroad from Mobile, Ala., to Ontario, Canada.

Over the years, he’s crisscrossed the country — solo — from coast to coast, from Florida to Maine, from Canada to Mexico, logging some 25,000 miles. When planning his itinerary, Derr looks up State Farm agents near where he would expect to end a day’s ride, and makes what he humorously calls “that awkward phone call.”

“I say, ‘I’ve got a personal question for you … and you can tell me no,’ ” he said, relaxing in the Peacocks’ sun room. Derr, who lives in Fresno County, Calif., asks them for a bed, breakfast and a shower. Access to a washing machine is helpful, too.

“He called out of the blue and said: ‘You don’t know me … and you may tell me to go jump in a lake,” said Ed Peacock, laughing. He’s operated a State Farm agency in Medina for 28 years.

After finding out more about Derr and what he was doing, the Peacocks said, sure, come on over — inviting friends and bicycle enthusiasts from Medina United Methodist Church to join them for a cookout.

If a fellow insurance agent doesn’t work out, Derr said he’s got three more options: He’s also a Baptist, a Rotarian and a longtime city councilman and former mayor in his hometown of Selma, Calif. One of the connections always seems to work out.

“The Rotarians took care of me a few weeks ago,” he said.

There are two reasons Derr takes this approach to cross-country lodging. Call the first one networking, road-warrior style. An insurance agent for 30 years, he learns something from everyone he visits, and hopefully, they from him.

“He (Peacock) is doing things in his office I haven’t even thought of,” Derr said, his blue-gray eyes shining through a sun- and wind-burned face.

The second reason is peace of mind. Derr’s cycling hobby takes him thousands of miles away from home. Knowing he is planning to link up with colleagues along the way makes Derr’s family feel better.

“It makes my wife much more comfortable to know there’s someone to rescue me if I need rescued,” he said.

Derr and his wife, Jeanette, have been married 33 years. They have two daughters and two grandsons. He checks in by phone with home and office every day. When he has time on a computer or to sit down with his Palm Pilot, he taps out his “Travel Notes,” which are e-mailed to 600 readers. Derr is glad to let others share in his adventures.

“I’m in Ohio, I’m on a bike, and I’m having the time of my life,” he said.

Peacock did come to the rescue earlier Tuesday when Derr’s carbon-fiber Scattante road bike had its second flat tire of the day outside Wellington.

Weather is unpredictable, and mechanical things will break, but he’s never had a fall or serious mishap in all his thousands of miles. Instead, he’s been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers who take him under their wing, showing him local sights and helping him with MacGyver-like repairs.

Derr rides alone — following maps from the Adventure Cycling Association — simply because few friends have the time or inclination to get on a bike and ride around the country for weeks at a time. The multiday-tour community is surprisingly close-knit. On any given day, he said, there are 1,000 people on the road, crossing the country by bicycle. When they cross paths, they always ask each other the same three questions, Derr said.

“How did you do on White Feather Hill?” (A notoriously challenging hill in Idaho.)

“Did you get a chance to meet The Cookie Lady?” (A baker named June Curry known for sustaining cyclists on the Blue Ridge Parkway with cookies.)

“How about the dogs in Kentucky?” (Which apparently have the nation’s largest appetite for cycling shorts.)

Once, Derr did manage to beat some Kentucky pups at their own game.

He was riding up a hill when he spotted about seven dogs in the road ahead. He stood up on the pedals, cranking as fast as he could, and broke into a yell. The dogs ran.

“I must have chased them half a mile,” Derr said, laughing. “One by one, they peeled off into the woods.”

Usually, his experiences are much more serene. On this trip, he’s particularly enjoyed visiting the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati and seeing Amish buggies in the Ohio countryside. Probably the most beautiful scenery in his life has been along the Oregon coast. And crossing the Golden Gate Bridge by bike is an almost religious experience, he said.

On a bicycle, you cover in an hour what would take all day on foot, said Derr. In a car, you cover in an hour what would take all day on a bike. And in a plane, you cover in an hour what would take all day in a car. For him, a bicycle seat offers the best trade-off for experiencing the country.

“I have a life philosophy that says, ‘If you’re not having fun, stop it,’ ” Derr said.

And so he plans to keep on riding.

Contact John Gladden at gladden@ohio.net.