Alumni Profile: Bill Samsoe
This article highlighting Bill Samsoe (Beta Rho/Illinois Wesleyan 1974) has been reprinted with permission from Alex Strickland, Editor-in-Chief for Adventure Cyclist Magazine (adventurecycling.org). In 2021, Brother Samsoe plans lead a group and bike across America to raise funds for the American Heart Association, Special Olympics, and foundations to help find cures for lymphoma, leukemia, and prostate cancer. His goal is to raise $100,000 for each of the four charities. He plans to begin his epic journey in Bar Harbor, ME and end near Seattle, WA. We’ll have more details on his trip in future editions of The Rattle.
Once You Do Bikecentennial, You Can Accomplish Anything
Bikecentennial made Bill a more goal-oriented person. “Once you do that you can pretty much accomplish anything,” he says. Bill also met his wife Barb during Bikecentennial 76, although they didn’t start dating until a year after the trip when Barb was a nurse living in Hawaii and Bill was a flight attendant for Braniff Airways and had a layover in Honolulu. They saw each other at the airport for 15 minutes, but that was enough. “Barb and I are the same age and we had this shared experience that made us feel like we could relate to one another,” Bill explains. They now have two kids, one grandchild with another on the way, and they will celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary next month. To stay in touch with Adventure Cycling about the 40th anniversary celebration please fill out this form.
How old were you when you did Bikecentennial?I was 24 years old. I was a bicycle bum and a ski bum for two seasons after college. I was working at a ski area in Wisconsin and a high school friend told me about American Youth Hostels. I got involved with them and ended up leading a trip for them. That’s where I met Bonnie and Tim Leifer who later encouraged me to lead a trip for Bikecentennial.
What inspired you to do Bikecentennial?
The following winter I lived with my sister, who is five years older than me, in Walla Walla, Washington. I always looked up to her and she had found out about Bikecentennial and was going to lead a trip. I was still in touch with Bonnie and Tim Leifer who were also involved with Bikecentennial. They encouraged me to come to Missoula to help with Bikecentennial and sign up to lead a trip. I did, and slept on their floor near downtown Missoula with many others and worked in the office doing whatever was needed. A few people had assigned jobs and tasks and the rest helped with various tasks. I made almost all of the IDs for the people doing trips that summer. I also helped put together the tool kits and first aid kits.
The trip I led left on June 15 so from May 15 until I left for Bikecentennial I also worked in what we called the “War Room.” It was a 24 hour phone line where tour leaders could call in if they had problems. I remember getting a call from a parent in Australia who was worried about floods in Idaho, which were nowhere near the route. Out of country calls weren’t as reliable as they are today so the line wasn’t very good and I kept losing the call. After several tries I was able to tell the parent that the floods weren’t affecting the cyclists.
I wanted to do Bikecentennial after I heard about it from my sister and the Leifers because having goals in life has always been important to me. I thought to have a goal to cycle coast to coast… once you do that you can pretty much accomplish anything.
What sticks out in your mind when you reflect back on the trip?
Images pop up of various moments on the trip. I see people more than I see landscapes. The people we met along the trip were so friendly. We stopped at a fair in Ordway, Colorado and were invited to a free picnic. When we stopped near the Lochsa Lodge in Idaho I led my group on a pretend hunt for Bigfoot. We didn’t find Bigfoot, but someone saw us and gave us a $20 bill to buy ice cream for our group. There were stories of people bringing cyclists home to feed them. One guy brought cyclists two or three at a time to his house every night so they could make phone calls to family and friends. While one cyclist was making a call the guy would ask the others about their trip. People were curious about what we were doing and wished they could do something similar.
We had mail drops every 10 days to stay in touch with family and friends. My sister’s group was two weeks ahead of me so she would send me letters about what to expect on the trip. I remember she wrote to warn me about a black and white dog in a particular spot that was attacking cyclists, and sure enough we saw the dogs come running out when we got there.
As the leader of my group I was responsible for the day to day planning. I also had to help with medical issues. At one point half of our group got food poisoning and had to spend the night in the hospital to rehydrate. Another time one person cut his foot badly and had to get medical attention.
Bill Samsoe during Bikecentennial
The best thing that came from Bikecentennial for me was a happy marriage. My wife Barb was riding with another group—an inn to inn group—and I was with a camping group, but our groups left at about the same time so we kept seeing each other.
I rode with Barb one day in Kansas, just outside of Cassoday, Kansas, the Prairie Chicken Capital of the World. I remember there were so many grasshoppers on the road that we were crunching them with our tires and we had to keep our mouths closed while we were riding.
One day, in Kentucky, I was stopped with some other guys in my group to get a pop and Barb rode by with her friend Leslie. I said to the other guys, “I think I’m in love” when Barb passed by. “So am I,” the other guys said. I had made an agreement with myself that I wouldn’t get involved with anyone on the trip so I could be a good leader. Barb and I didn’t start dating until almost a year after Bikecentennial.
I was told that my group was only one of four that made it across the TransAm intact, in 1976. I don’t know if this is true or not. In Barb’s group some people were asked to leave because they were causing strife. My sister finished with only one other person. Group dynamics were challenging.
How are you different because of your trip across the TransAmerica Trail?
Bikecentennial helped make me a goal-oriented person. I like to set my mind to a task and I like to set point A to point B goals. Since Bikecentennial I’ve run two marathons and walked six or seven others. I have done many triathlons. In fact, I did my 16th Grizzly Triathlon in Missoula the day after I retired from the Missoula Chamber of Commerce on April 18.
After Bikecentennial I moved to Dallas and became a flight attendant for Braniff Airways. Barb was a nurse in Hawaii and Braniff flew to Hawaii once a day. I had sent Christmas cards to everyone in my group and some of the people in Barb’s group, including Barb. As a result, Barb and I started exchanging letters. That spring we planned to meet in Hawaii during my layover there. Less than a year had gone by since Bikecentennial and it was a huge experience in my life. At that time it wasn’t just about seeing Barb. To be able to share the Bikecentennial memories with anyone who also experienced it was a big deal. My layover in Hawaii was only two hours. When I got off the plane Barb wasn’t there. I went to a payphone to call her, but there was no answer at her apartment so I went to get a drink with some of the other flight attendants. When I got back Barb was there. We only had 15 minutes together, but it was the start of something fantastic.
After that we started writing and calling each other. A month later I flew to Hawaii again and this time I had a 26 hour layover. Barb and I are the same age and we had this shared experience that made us feel like we could relate to one another. Barb moved to Dallas with me and we married and had two kids, Erik and Kelly. This June, we will be married 37 years.
We always had a dream of moving to Montana. The Leifers had moved to Florence, a rural area about 25 miles south of Missoula. We asked them if they could give us tips on how to buy property in Montana. Soon after, the property next door to them was for sale. We bought it and moved to Montana and still live there today. It turns out the property is right off the original TransAmerica Trail. During Bikecentennial I remember reading on my map that the population of Florence was 40. Today it’s 765.
Which bike trips have you done since then and what’s still on your bucket list?
Barb and I haven’t done any big bike trips since Bikecentennial, but we love to travel and have made multiple trips to Hawaii and hope to get back there now that we’re retired. We walked the Kona Marathon in Hawaii once. We love to hike. We walked the Coast to Coast Walk in England and have hiked throughout Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Our goal is to hike all 734 or so miles of the maintained trails in Glacier. We hiked about 200 miles last summer and saw eight bears.
I would also like to bike the TransAm again when I’m 86 years old just like Clarence Pickard who did Bikecentennial 76 at age 86 from east to west. He succeeded in making it halfway. I’d like to make it the whole way at that age. Clarence is a great inspiration to me.
Barb and Bill Samsoe hiking near Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park