Madison man’s cross-country bicycle trip winds through a surprisingly United States

Across 79 days and 4,300 miles, John Haugen-Wente found comfort in the kindness of strangers.
John Haugen-Wente stands in a neon vest holding his bicycle helmet in front of the sign for Glacier National Park
Courtesy of John Haugen-Wente.
Glacier National Park was just one stop among many on John Haugen-Wente's cross-country bicycling trip.

It’s not like Kristin Haugen-Wente couldn’t have seen it coming.

In summer 2021, she brought home a magazine she thought her husband, John Haugen-Wente, might enjoy looking through. It was called Adventure Cyclist.

The couple met in a Colorado ski town and moved together to Kristin’s home city of Madison in 1987. John is an avid outdoorsman, sailor, wilderness canoeist and bicyclist. He has also shown a willingness to embrace activities not altogether tethered to rational thought.

In 2013, Haugen-Wente entered the Everglades Challenge, 300 grueling miles by kayak in South Florida waters and mud flats. About halfway through, Haugen-Wente’s racing partner — “the strongest guy I know,” he says — dropped out. Haugen-Wente fought through hallucinations to finish. He got an engraved paddle and a shark’s tooth.

That was a decade ago — John was 57 — but still, what was Kristin thinking? Once her husband began paging through the adventure bicycling magazine, the years fell away. In his 20s, Haugen-Wente had bicycled through the Midwest and western United States.

“That was 40 years ago but the magazine sparked my memories and imagination,” Haugen-Wente says. “I remembered the feeling of freedom, independence and self-sufficiency. I thought I might like to try to relive that.”

He was planning to retire — from the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research — in early 2022.

He said to Kristin, “I think I might like to bike across the country next summer.”

“You’re crazy,” she said.

“Would you pick me up in Maine at the end of the trip?”

“Maybe,” she said, grinning.

It was last month, Sept. 20, when Haugen-Wente pedaled into Bar Harbor — Kristin was meeting him — after a journey of 79 days and some 4,300 miles that began in Anacortes, Washington.

John Photo Glacier National

Photo of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park by John Haugen-Wente.

There were physical memories to unpack — stunning mountain waterfalls, steep hills, frightful descents he would have reveled in when younger — but the trip’s enduring souvenir came as a surprise.

“The big takeaway is how kind people are,” Haugen-Wente says. “People across this country are really kind.”

He steered conversation away from politics or religion. He was an engaged listener. It was more than reciprocated.

“I had people buying me breakfast,” he says. “Opening up beds for me, giving me money. A guy gave me $60 to help fund my trip and I look anything but destitute. A woman gave me money to buy a lobster dinner when I got to Maine. Some kids at a rest stop in North Dakota when it was 90 degrees brought me over an ice cream sandwich and strawberries.”

Haugen-Wente’s trip began with a 38-hour Amtrak ride — bicycle in tow — from Columbus, Wisconsin to Port Townsend, Washington.

If he was looking for omens, a good one arrived early. In Port Townsend, a man saw Haugen-Wente’s touring bike, came over and said hello. It was Dan Burden, a cycling legend who in the 1970s cofounded Bikecentennial, an organization currently called the Adventure Cycling Association — publishers of the magazine that spurred Haugen-Wente’s trip.

“What an honor to meet him,” Haugen-Wente says. “I stayed at his house a couple of nights.”

The route Haugen-Wente followed is one of many mapped by Adventure Cycling and is called the “Northern Tier.” He didn’t follow the route the entire time, at one point detouring into Canada. Haugen-Wente had four bike bags — called panniers — for his clothes, toiletries, other essentials and a small, one-person tent. “I camped almost every night,” he says.

But he also joined a group called Warmshowers, which provided access to what Haugen-Wente called “bike angels” across the country who would offer a bed or yard to camp in, and often a meal. He texted Kristin every other night and had little trouble with his bicycle, other than twice changing the chain and swapping out a bald tire in Fargo. He could count the unpleasant people he encountered on one hand, including a trucker who appeared to try to run him off the road and an obstinate border guard in Buffalo.

More often, as noted, the opposite was true. Numerous examples of grace and good will, in a country and a world we’re repeatedly assured is hostile and bitterly divided.

“It makes you wonder,” he says.

Haugen-Wente recalled a rest shelter in Canada, he alone at one end, and at the other, a group of perhaps a dozen Pakistani men all smoking furiously and talking over each other.

“They brought me over a dinner of lamb and watermelon,” he says.

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