World needs to see great-grandmother with gumption, Doug Clark says.

Senior cyclist a bit battered, but not blue

Ruth Thomas, 78, stands on the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes in Kellogg. Thomas is getting closer to her goal: to bicycle to the smallest incorporated town in all 48 contiguous states. She's been to 37 states.Ruth Thomas, 78, stands on the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes in Kellogg. Thomas is getting closer to her goal: to bicycle to the smallest incorporated town in all 48 contiguous states. She's been to 37 states. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-ReviewJesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review )

Doug Clarkdoug Clark
The Spokesman-Review
August 19, 2004

The way New Jersey treated Ruth Thomas you'd think she crossed Tony Soprano.

Heat exhaustion. A serious spill. A checkbook running on empty …

Six years, 37 states and 10,992 miles into her Homeric quest to pedal to America's smallest incorporated hamlets, Thomas knew it was time for some serious R&R.

As in, "rest and remuneration."

The 78-year-old great-grandma checked her burgundy 21-speed bike into an Islip, N.Y., storage unit a few weeks ago and bought a ticket on a westbound bus. Now back in the Spokane area, Thomas says that though battered and broke, she's not at all blue.

Our gray-haired wonder woman, in fact, sounds more determined than ever to complete the odyssey she started on a June day in 1998.

"Oh, I will," she vows. "If I do it 'til I'm 90."

Thomas says she can still barely move her right arm. That came from hitting a pothole and flipping her bike late last month near Clifton, N.J. She says she skidded across the asphalt like a stone skipping across a river.

An officer who showed up to help took a gander at her bloodied arm and quipped: "We really like our highways the way they are. You don't have to pave them with your skin."

Teetersboro, for you keeping score at home, is New Jersey's smallest official burg. However, the census figure of 16 residents is misleading, Thomas says. Although few people actually live in Teetersboro, the town is a commercial center that draws 15,000 people each day.

This isn't the first injury to knock Thomas out of the saddle.

Chronic sore feet sent her back to Spokane in the fall of 2000. In April 2001 she collapsed and needed more down time. Two months later she was taken to a Colorado hospital because of dehydration.

Thomas mends fast, though. It's the bank account that needs the healing time.

She says she's already spent $100,000 on her ride. That figure not only includes the profit she earned selling her North Side home, but another 30 grand in credit debt.

She found a modest apartment in Kellogg, where "if I sit still for 10 months I'll have enough money saved to get back."

It's too bad Thomas has to hole up because of money. If some senior citizens group was on the ball, it would latch onto this woman and sponsor her. You couldn't find a better national symbol for how to not let age keep you from living.

Since that first interview with me in '98, Thomas has told her story to scores of reporters. She has saved stacks of clippings and has filled 30 journals with her on-the-road experiences.

"You don't want to get me started," she says. "I could talk for hours."

She tells delightful stories. Like the time heavy rains trapped her in an Indiana town so minuscule it had only one restaurant, a pizza joint.

Thomas hates pizza.

After several days she couldn't take it anymore. Thomas pulled on her rain gear and pedaled into the deluge. The downpour was so bad she had to walk four miles and ride through flooded roads with water up to her calves.

"Finally," says Thomas, "I got to a town with another restaurant."

In Kentucky her nemesis was gravity, not rain. Pulling a bike trailer loaded with 125 pounds of gear up the state's steep inclines kept Thomas from averaging no more than five miles a day.

There were plenty of Thomas doubters six years ago. Some friends even encouraged her to see a shrink.

The former schoolteacher brushed aside their negativity. She busied herself in all the details that such a trip demands.

A cross-country bike ride – that was the original idea. But the more Thomas looked at maps, the more fascinated she became with those small towns few of us have heard of.

She hatched an ambitious goal to bike her way to the tiniest incorporated towns or villages in each and every state.

Warm River, Idaho (Population 10), for example. Or Dellview, N.C. (Population 11).

Now she has 13 states to go. Thomas is understandably itching to finish the deed. After that, she can turn those journals into a book and promote it on Letterman and Leno.

Why not? The world needs to see a great-grandmother with so much gumption.

Thomas laughs. "People have told me, 'Oh, I could never do that.' I tell them, 'That's because you don't want to.' If you want to do anything bad enough, you can."