April 7, 2015
As Adventure Cycling approaches its 40th anniversary I will do a series of interviews with people who were involved in Bikecentennial as riders, founders and volunteers. Expect to read about a variety of Bikecentennial experiences throughout 2015 and 2016.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Joel and Patti Meier on the phone. Joel was the founding President of the Bikecentennial Board of Directors. He reflects on Bikecentennial by saying, "It was one of the most exciting things I've been involved in during my professional career." Joel and his wife Patti now live in Colorado and spend much of their time skiing.
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How did you find out about Bikecentennial?
I was a professor of Recreation Management at the University of Montana from 1970 to 1994. Dan Burden, the co-founder of Bikecentennial, was one of my graduate students. I had known that he had done this incredible bicycle trip with his wife and Greg and June Siple. The story I remember from Dan was they were on their Hemistour trip from Alaska to Argentina and somewhere along the way they were sitting around the campfire and thinking what a great experience their bike trip had been. Wouldn’t it be great if we could share this with the world, they thought? Someone looked at the odometer on their bicycle and it said 1976 and they had an epiphany and the light bulbs went off. They had an idea to design a cross continent bicycle trip for America’s bicentennial. Later they came up with the name Bikecentennial 76. That’s how it all started.
Dan came into my office one day and asked if he could do Bikecentennial as a graduate project. "We’re going to go design this trail and apply for funds through the bicentennial foundation," he said. I wanted to be a good hearted-professor and said, “Oh Dan, that’s a wonderful idea.” But I was thinking, “This guy is a dreamer.” The next thing I knew I said he could design Bikecentennial as a graduate project.
A couple of days later he came in to ask me if I would be on the Bikecentennial Board of Directors, and I agreed. We had Board meetings at the little one bedroom apartment where Dan and Lys lived in Missoula. They turned the bedroom into an office and the living room had piles of maps and charts they were using to design a cross continent trail. The event had been established as a bicentennial event, but the organization didn’t have a dime. Dan and Lys didn’t have a credit card and couldn’t get credit from a bank. Finally, they realized they needed foundation money. My wife Patti and I were living in a little mountain chalet up in Grant Creek. We went to the bank with Dan and used our house as collateral for a loan for Bikecentennial.
What made you believe in the organization to the extent that you were willing to mortgage your house to support Bikecentennial?
Dan Burden is a pretty convincing guy. It was contagious to be part of it. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve been involved in during my professional career. Dan inspired so many people to be part of the grass roots movement. He was so intoxicating and electrifying.
The whole idea was interesting, but it seemed impossible. But then people started to sign up for things and the money started to come in. Soon we were told that Bikecentennial was the biggest depositor of the bank. There was a million dollars in the account at one point. The bank started rolling out the red carpet for Dan and putting a cigar in his mouth when he walked in. It was a dramatic change from when they didn’t have any money and were trying to get a loan.
The loan was enough to get started and as soon as people started signing up for memberships and Bikecentennial tours the money just started pouring in. It didn’t take long before the lien went off our house. We felt it was going to a good cause, but we were certainly glad when the lien was taken off.
The Burdens realized that Bikecentennial couldn’t exist in their apartment. When they finally got a little money they rented an office in a two story building on Higgins Avenue in Missoula. They were growing so fast that they had to take down walls and create more office space. They finally took over an entire floor.
Every other day the office was expanding, probably too fast. It got to be mass chaos. It was kind of everyone for themselves and there wasn’t much administrative structure.
Bikecentennial took place and people got such great pleasure from their experiences on their trips. When it was over, the staff took a big sigh of relief and they thought, “Now what?” They decided to keep creating maps. Dan is such a creative guy – a creator and innovator who really did not want to be an administrator or manager. He recognized that a manager was needed and stepped aside and let them hire someone else.
Greg, co-founder of Bikecentennial, put out some of the greatest drawings, and marketing materials. Dan and Greg and their wives made a good team. They were laid back and went with the flow.
The Burdens made a lot of sacrifices for Bikecentennial. They were humble grassroots people and let Bikecentennial volunteers sleep on their floor. If anyone came through Missoula on a bicycle they dragged them home for a home cooked meal and one or two nights on their floor.
Joel, I know your academic work has focused on recreational management and leadership. How did you apply your skills and expertise to Bikecentennial?
I tried to apply leadership skills in general as President of the Board. I tried to make good decisions. One of my standing philosophies is to keep your options open and remain flexible for as long as reasonably possible. In other words, don’t fly up a box canyon in an airplane without room to turn around.
I try not to make decisions too early and find out that it was the wrong decision and too late to do something about it. Keep moving toward your goal and find a different route if needed. It was the same with Bikecentennial. We were feeling our way through the process.
I wasn’t a bike expert at all. I didn’t contribute anything related to trail development. It was mainly business development and decisions that the board had to make. We left it up to the staff to make the day-to-day decisions. There were some big business decisions to be made. They were always hiring new staff and there was huge burnout and turnover. It was almost a 24-7 kind of a job. The closer we got to the event people were working long hours. It was electric, an exciting event.
Have you done any bike travel? Tell us about some of your trips and what’s still on your bucket list. If not bike travel, tell us about other recreation and adventure experiences.
Patti and I had mountain bikes, but didn’t really tour on bikes. I didn’t even know what a pannier was before I got involved with Bikecentennial. We didn’t engage in bike travel, but all of our married life we’ve been engaged in outdoor pursuits of different types, including whitewater kayaking, extensive ocean kayaking in places like Alaska, Greenland and Siberia, mountaineering, outdoor photography, motorcycling, camping, hiking, and skiing. Patti is still a ski instructor with Vail Associates in Keystone, Colorado and has been for 42 years since we lived in Missoula. I’m just a retired ski bum.
40th ANNIVERSARY HIGHLIGHTS is posted every other Monday by Adventure Cycling’s events and outreach coordinator, Eva Dunn-Froebig. Eva and guests will preview 40th anniversary events and projects and interview Bikecentennial cyclists. Adventure Cycling’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2016 will honor the past and look to the future of bicycle travel. Fill out this form to express your interest in the 40th anniversary.