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Pedal Power: Jerry Phelps in America's Heartland

By Colleen Chandler
October 2005

Jerry Phelps
Jerry Phelps at the official halfway marker between St. Paul, Minn., and New Orleans, La. The trip, however, was cut short by Hurricane Katrina and ended 500 miles north in Hernando, Miss. (Photo by Colleen Chandler)

route map
The Great Mississippi River Ride started in St. Paul, Minn. It meandered to (1) Red Wing, Minn., (2) La Crosse, Wisc., (3) Prairie du Chien, Wisc., (4) Dubuque, Iowa, (5) Clinton, Iowa, (6) Galesburg, Ill., (7) Keokuk, Iowa, (8) Hannibal, Mo., (9) St. Charles, Mo., (10) St. Charles, Mo., (11) Festus, Mo., (12) Ste. Genevieve, Mo., (13) Cape Girardeau, Mo., (14) Union City, Tenn., (15) Ripley, Tenn., (16) Memphis, Tenn., (17) Memphis, Tenn., and finally, (18) Hernando, Miss. (Photo by Colleen Chandler)

It was no luxury vacation for Jerry Phelps this summer.

Instead, he packed up the bare essentials - which in this case included his bicycle - and headed for St. Paul, Minn., where he met up with a group of 31 people to embark on the Great Mississippi River Ride.

Members of the group made their way south from St. Paul, following a path along the Mighty Mississippi that took them through small towns virtually invisible from the interstate. Total distance: 1,201 miles, weaving through 17 cities in eight states over 16 days. That's an average of 75 miles each day.

Besides the changing landscape they witnessed, which ranged from heavy foliage and trees to corn and soybean fields, riders encountered a variety of wildlife and met local residents. "The beauty and diversity of this country and its people are best seen on the back roads at 20 miles per hour," Phelps said.

The route was planned to meander along the Mississippi to New Orleans, taking the group through Red Wing, Minn.; La Crosse and Prairie du Chien, Wisc.; Dubuque and Clinton, Iowa; Galesburg, Ill.; Keokuk, Iowa; Hannibal, St. Charles, Festus, Ste. Genevieve, and Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Union City, Ripley and Memphis, Tenn.; and Hernando, Miss before heading into Louisiana. But, it seems, Mother Nature had other plans. Hotel rooms along the southern part of the route were in big demand by Hurricane Katrina evacuees, and most riders decided to end the trip 500 miles shy of New Orleans rather than take up valuable resources, Phelps said.

Phelps' wife, Beth Anderson, a program analyst in DERT who grew up in the Midwest, describes her husband as a very active person who sets arduous goals and pursues them with commitment. Anderson and Phelps' daughter, Emily, drove along the route, meeting up with Phelps each evening and at rest stops. They, too, enjoyed the sights in American's heartland. "The views on back roads, through the rolling farmland, are spectacular in a wholesome way," Anderson said.

Phelps said he enjoyed talking to the local people, who were always curious about the trip. He and another rider appeared on the cover of the Sun Times Aug. 26 in Ozora, Mo. Anderson said she has no doubt her husband was asking as many questions as he was answering.

"Jer's very social nature turns something like this into an opportunity to expand his horizons for meeting people out of our everyday sphere. Not only did he meet people on the tour, but almost every day he had some interesting encounter with someone along the road - frequently local cyclists," Anderson said.

Phelps will soon have an opportunity to tell his tales in person. EEO is sponsoring a presentation on the trip Oct. 5 from 2-3 p.m. in the Rall Building, conference room 101A.

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