Tom Armstrong’s wheels were turning — literally — when the idea for a business venture came to him.
It was 13 years ago and he was bicycling across the country. He’d started his trip in Oregon and as he made his way east, he kept crossing paths with a famous trail.
“When I got to just south of Baker City, I saw what appeared like wagon ruts,” Armstrong recalls. Sure enough, nearby was a weathered sign that identified the ruts as the historic Oregon Trail. He continued to have encounters with the 1800s-era migration route as he made his way toward his native Nebraska.
“I thought, if there’s access to it, wouldn’t it be great to re-create some kind of trip on the trail,” Armstrong says. As he peddled along, he thought about the trail and all the people who’d made their way west on it, beginning more than 150 years ago.
“Of all the people who headed west on the Oregon Trail, 99 percent walked,” he says. “I sort of looked down at my bike and thought, I’m not much different than those people.” The thought “sort of percolated” in his mind over the weeks of his trip. Soon after he got home, he read that the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail was soon to be celebrated. Suddenly, everything came together and he began planning a bike tour along the trail.
He led his first Oregon Trail Migration bike tour in 1993. Thirty-five people peddled from Independence, Mo., to Oregon City over five weeks. That trip helped launch Armstrong’s company, Historical Trails Cycling. Later this summer, he’ll lead yet another tour along the Oregon Trail.
But before that, he’ll lead his newest cross-country bike trip: the Lewis and Clark Bicycle Tour of Discovery. In fact, Armstrong packed up his bike trailer last week and headed from Hood River — where he recently relocated — to St. Louis to prepare for the trip, which departs June 15.
The trip follows the historic trail forged by Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery on their legendary trip from 1804-06. Participants will cycle 2,800 miles in 44 days, starting in St. Louis and ending at Seaside. According to Armstrong, 18 people will cycle the whole way; several more will join for various legs of the trip.
Armstrong and three staff members take turns driving a support van and trailer with riders’ gear, food and water. Everyone in the group gets a map each morning of the day’s route, along with historical information and landmarks that the riders will pass that day. The group rides an average of 75 miles a day, with everyone going their own pace and meeting up in the evening.
Armstrong knows first-hand that bicycling cross-country is one of the best ways to get to know the land and the people. Prior to his trip across the U.S., he traveled by bike in Europe for four months.
“When you’re biking, you really get into the small towns,” Armstrong says. “You get invited into people’s homes. It’s a great way to meet people.” His trip participants usually end up having the same experience.
“People on my tours have the best stories,” he says. “Townspeople invite them in, serve them food. Sometimes they end up visiting so long that they have to get a ride to catch up with the group.” Armstrong says most of the people they encounter on his tours realize “their linkage” with the Oregon Trail or the Lewis and Clark route, and are pleased that the cyclists are taking time to explore them.
And that’s exactly what Armstrong and his tour participants are doing.
“We pass by many historic sites — graves, rock formations that pioneers scratched names and dates on,” Armstrong says. “When you travel from the Midwest to the Northwest by bike, you really get this sense of how the nation grew.”