LINCOLN – Thirty years ago, Deirdre Bird traveled the entire West Coast of the United States from Canada to Mexico by bicycle. Three decades later, at age 67, Bird and her friend, Lisa Watts, are preparing to set off on a 3,000-mile bike ride up the entire East Coast Greenway.
The pair will start their journey in the mild climate of Key West, Fla., and travel north up the Greenway to Calais, Maine, as the weather grows warmer. The journey will last about two months, with the cyclists averaging about 60 miles each day, and sometimes nearing 100.
Bird, who lives in Fairlawn with her partner, Sally, was born and raised in Zimbabwe, where biking is the main form of transportation.
“Before I was old enough to ride my own bike, my parents put me on the back of their bike and rode me to school. As soon as I was able to, I was riding my own bike to school,” she said.
Before she retired in December 2016, Bird cycled to work at Providence College every day for 21 years.
“I’d ride to work in my girly girl shoes and skirt. I was renowned for biking all year round, even in snow,” she said. “There aren’t many people who come to school on bike, and no women.”
Her first long-distance bike ride was in 1983, when she rode 280 miles from Dearborn, Mich., to Lafayette, Ind. The following spring, she did her second long-distance tour, a spontaneous decision made while awaiting the outcome of her dissertation. Without having any idea of how to do a long-distance ride, Bird borrowed a leaky tent, strapped it onto the back of her bike and rode around Lake Michigan. It took her roughly two weeks.
“I got sunburned, froze at night and I didn’t know how to camp. It was a complete nightmare but I did it,” she said. “I had a lot to learn and that really taught me a lot. It surprisingly didn’t put me off.”
Bird met Watts soon after, when they were hired simultaneously by Northeastern University.
“We sat down next to each other on the bus to orientation by happenstance and began to talk about our interests, including biking and running. That very weekend, we arranged to go for a bike ride, and we’ve been bike riding together ever since,” said Bird. “We’ve enjoyed staying in touch and watching each other’s lives grow and change over three decades.”
Their first ride was more than 40 miles, from Boston to Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. They’ve since enjoyed many rides together, cycling across New York state, Ohio and North Carolina over the years, as well as helping each other qualify for marathons. Their East Coast excursion, a celebration of their friendship, will be their longest ride to date.
“We motivate each other,” Bird said of Watts. “I wouldn’t be doing this right now if it wasn’t for Lisa.”
Watts, 57, lives in Durham, N.C., where she works for the East Coast Greenway Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to developing a protected biking and walking route up the coast. To date, about 32 percent of the greenway is considered “complete,” meaning 900 miles of pathway are off-road and away from traffic.
Watts and Bird will traverse through 15 states and 450 cities and towns, including large cities such as Miami, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Their trip will be unsupported, meaning both cyclists will have to carry their own gear in small panniers. Fortunately, their load was lightened by the decision not to camp.
“It took us about 2.5 seconds for us to say, ‘no camping,’ ” Bird said. “Camping would have meant extra gear, and it’s so uncertain in bad weather.”
Watts considers Bird the “expert” on long-distance treks, though Bird admitted that she’s far less of a planner than her friend.
“When I did the West Coast, I got on my bike one day and some time later got off it, and every single step of the way, I had no idea where I was going to be that night. It was just going along, and when I had enough, I stopped. Lisa is not in that category. She is a planner,” she said. “I could have done it, but I would have been messy. I might have spent a night on a bench.”
For Bird, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Back when the wall had just come down in eastern Europe, she cycled from Warsaw to Berlin through Poland and Czechoslovakia with no prior planning.
“I spent a couple of very unpleasant nights,” she said.
Watts has come up with a comprehensive itinerary for their trip, including lodging plans ranging from hotel and motel rooms to hostels, Airbnbs and staying with friends along the way.
Initially, Bird said her biggest concern about the trip is the weather.
“I don’t know how to dress for 80 degrees, I’ve been so long caught up in frigid weather,” she said.
Bird doesn’t believe in gear, preferring to dress in ordinary street clothes when she bikes, forgoing the traditional padded cycling shorts and clip-in cleats that hold feet in the pedals. She does, however, wear a helmet as a matter of principle.
“My partner Sally used to be a psychiatric social worker, working with people with acquired brain injuries. I never used to wear a helmet, but when we got together some 20 years ago, she said to me: ‘Remember who will be pushing the wheel chair.’ ”
Fears aside, Bird said she is looking forward to the memories she will make with Watts and people she will meet along the way.
“You always meet people. That’s the beauty of this kind of trip. It becomes a social activity,” said Bird.
She also looks forward to helping bring awareness to the East Coast Greenway so more people “can become more conscious that there are safe ways to travel at your own steam.”
“There’s a beauty in propelling yourself and knowing you’re doing this with your own body. That’s one of the main beauties of cycling,” she said. “There’s also incredible freedom. You get freedom when you walk and run but you don’t have the freedom to go so far. You see things in a way that you just don’t see in a car. You have a great deal more flexibility and pleasure in bike riding than in other forms of self-propelled transport.”
Bird’s top goal for the trip is simply to finish.
“I want to be able to do it. I want to have fun. I want to see the country and this is a wonderful way to do that. I’m not making it an anxiety, but I am aware that I’m not young,” she added.
With that said, she isn’t planning to stop any time soon. Her own mother rode her bike until she was nearly 90 years old.
“I am older, but I want to keep going. I’m imagining there will be other trips. Maybe not as long … not as ambitious … but there will definitely be more bike rides.
I am going to keep cycling … probably like my mom until I actually can’t do it anymore.”
She added: “… but then, ambition is a function of life. What part is less ambitious? Being 67, cycling the East Coast, or being 80 and cycling across the Cape? That’s still pretty ambitious.”