Neil Kopplin, who grew up five miles east of Tulare, and now lives in Portland, Oregon, recently completed what he calls “by far the most exciting, most fun,” thing he has ever done in his entire life. He traveled from Portland to the plains of South Dakota by bike on a trip he dubbed, appropriately, “Portland to the Plains.” It took him 40 days. In addition to patience, purpose, and perseverance.
The idea is born
“Last year, during the lockdown, it was a little more dramatic in the urban areas out there,” said Kopplin. “After a summer full of disappointment, my soul got a little restless and I started planning this bike tour. You know, a lot of people take bike tours. And it was something I had been wanting to do for the last four or five years. I had been talking to my wife, Sarah, about it. …So last year, when things got really gnarly and we were really bored, I started to plan it.”
Kopplin began riding his bike “a little more seriously” on longer distances about four years ago.
“I was middle aged, and started doing it to drop a couple pounds and then I realized it was something that I really enjoyed doing.” said Kopplin. “Then the farther you ride, the more you realize that this isn’t necessarily a workout. It is more like traveling. The more I did it, the more I realized that you can cover quite a bit of distance in a day. So I read a lot about these people doing bike tours and I started researching stuff on Youtube and saw that people video their tour, and that became very exciting. So the whole goal for me was to record as much as I could on the way out. Shoot some video and work along the way. Basically turn my bike into this mobile office slash movie studio all the way out.”
Recording the trip
Kopplin took off from Portland on the 12th of June, 2021. He used a drone, a GoPro, and his phone to take videos and photos during the trip.
“It was tough, but the technology is so good. I would just send the drone straight up and frame up a shot, then just ride through the frame, and then bring the drone in like a kite,” said Kopplin. “So I would just get like a static shot. My favorite shots were actually getting out into nature, moving through nature, and then rising above so I could see where I was from above. That was really cool and amazing.”
Challenges on the road
Kopplin rode from 40 to 60 miles every day. He traveled on three different cycling paths: the Trans America Trail, Lewis and Clark Trail, and the Peaks, Parks and Plains Trail. He took all of his camping gear with him, and camped “about 33 percent of the time.” During the rest of the trip, he stayed in hotels.
“One of the most challenging parts was probably traveling from Buffalo, Wyoming to Gillette, Wyoming,” said Kopplin. “It is a 100 mile stretch and there is one small hamlet between the two called Claremont, which is about 25 miles outside of Buffalo. Then there is only one other stop to get water. I had to commit to doing all 97 miles in one day or…What I did was I took and bit off the first quarter of it one day and then the last three quarters the next day. It was hot. It was a really hot time of year. And then to travel 80 miles on a fully loaded bike across Wyoming with no water. You really have to think about what you are doing and be careful with your planning and make sure you carry between five and seven liters of water with you across the whole stretch. Once you get going, you’re committed. It is like going out on the boat knowing you have to go from one island to the next. Once you are moving, you are moving. So that part was pretty challenging.”
On another challenging day, Kopplin found himself out of food and water during the last ten miles of his ride along the Clearwater River in Idaho.
“It was a very slow incline for about 70 miles and I underestimated that ride a little bit and the last ten miles were really difficult,” said Kopplin. “That ride took a lot out of me, and I was also kind of in the first week.”
Perhaps one of the most stressful moments, however, happened when Kopplin had been on the road for only five days.
“I stopped for lunch in Dayton, Washington and as I got back on my bike, my rear tire had about golfball sized blisters on it. I had about nine pounds too much weight. So, in a fit of rage, I trimmed my entire pack down by nine pounds and sent it home,” said Kopplin. “So, I didn’t have a spare tire. I didn’t have a spare tube. I tried to hitch a ride through the public transit into Walla Walla, which is about 15 to 20 miles away, to get a new tire and tube. I was there the day before to get some work done and get some supplies, but the public transportation was completely full. So I talked to Emma Kopplin, my niece, who is staying with us for the summer. She is just a peach. she volunteered to go to the bike store and get me a new set of tubes and grab a set of tires from my garage that I had that I already knew worked and she drove them 250 miles in one night to get me those tires so I could stay on schedule.”
Soaking in the scenery
Kopplin had a lot to say about the scenery he rode through during his journey.
“Seeing the country from outside of a car at a slower pace puts you in close contact with the rolling of the hills and the depths of the mountains,” said Kopplin. “I think my favorite day, strangely enough, was my third or fourth day out. Which was a ride from Goldendale, Washington to Prosser, Washington. I saw a lot of different terrain that day.The ‘funnest’ part was the last 20 miles, which was descending down from a relatively high plateau down into the valley of Prosser. Which grows a lot of grapes and hops. It is a very lush valley. That was beautiful. But there was a storm coming in behind me. So I had a 20 mile an hour tail wind coming down into Prosser. I got pushed into this little town with very little effort. It was like flying. I got pushed in, grabbed a bite to eat, checked into my hotel and then as I was eating my dinner, at the hotel window I could see the rolling bluffs to the south. The sky was navy, indigo dark from the storm. But the sun creeped in underneath this storm and the light started bouncing off those bluffs, so the bluffs turned into these yellow, orange, fiery electric bluffs backed by these deep maroon storm clouds. It was so dramatic. So I grabbed my phone and ran outside and found myself in this little field. The moment that I got out there, things started getting super dramatic. I was standing in this little field and the sun was starting to set and the bluffs were all on fire and then a rainbow started to appear. And then a double rainbow appears. Then the sun set in the northwest, hooked underneath the clouds, and the sky lit on fire.
So here I was in this field, capturing this double rainbow to the southeast and this absolutely dynamic sunset to the northwest. It was just fantastic. Just fantastic.”
Kopplin said the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota may also be one of the country’s “best kept cycling secrets.”
“The Mickelson Trail, riding from Deadwood to Hill City is so pristine and untouched because no motor vehicles can go back there, and it is an old rail trail,” said Kopplin. “I was just processing everything in the moment and getting very emotional. The Black Hills are one of the oldest mountain regions on the planet, and to see it like that…my biggest obstacle that day was playing ‘chicken’ with chipmunks and riding in flocks of butterflies. It was just this really spiritual place to be. That was beautiful.”
Another favorite place for Kopplin was Earthquake Lake.
“In 1959, there was a river that ran through the West side of Yellowstone and a massive earthquake hit during the peak camping season that created this massive landslide that choked off one of the rivers. It killed a lot of people. They had to dig a lot of people out. But because it choked off one of the rivers, this lake formed. So I camped next to that lake one night and got to walk down into that area and see these old dead trees and this little lake. It was all perfectly symmetrical and very remote. It was very, very cool,” said Kopplin.
Joys of the journey
Kopplin said that, along with the scenery, he most enjoyed meeting others during his travels.
“It is really, really about meeting other people who are thrown into a similar situation as you. Because when you are out there you are alone and exposed to the traffic, the elements, and whatever mechanical issues that could go wrong on your bike. So there is some unspoken rules about making sure other cyclists are safe and that they have what they need to get from point A to point B,” said Kopplin.
“I met one kid from Chicago. He is about 23 or 24, about to go into grad school, and he is traveling all the way across the country,” said Kopplin. “I met him in a little town called Two Bridges, Montana. There was just one place to stop in Two Bridges. When I pulled in to that place, there was like eight or nine cyclists in that little cafe all at the same time, which is highly unusual. When you are out on the road by yourself like that, you automatically have something in common with everybody else around you. It is super fun to introduce yourself and find out where people are coming from and where they are going. There was a kid there named Nick Johnson that I hit it off with. Really funny kid who was traveling with about 100 pounds on his bike. Everybody gave him s*** about riding too heavy. But I kind of had this protective uncle aspect for him, and we ended up traveling together for like three or four days. We traveled from there to Yellowstone together.”
Kopplin also stopped to help a cyclist stranded nine miles from Hill City.
“I stopped and I said, ‘Hey, is everything alright? Are you okay?’ She said she got a flat. Flats are usually not a big deal if you are carrying a spare tube. She didn’t have a spare tube. I happened to have a spare tube, but it is very rare that the tires match. In this instance, they did. I had a really weird size of tire. She had a very weird size of tire. And it just happened to be the right size of tire and right tube. So I got to help that lady. It felt so good to help her out, knowing that she was really bumming and having to push her bike,” said Kopplin.
Reaching goals, touching history
Along with videoing and recording his trip, Kopplin had several other goals for his journey.
“One of my other goals was to tour very old pubs and taverns and mercantiles and general stores. I worked really hard not to spend money at corporate establishments. I spent money at small local restaurants, mercantiles, general stores, mom and pop shops all the way,” said Kopplin. “It was cool to see the culture that still exists. Because the culture that still exists is a part of the past. All of those old taverns and pubs and mercantiles are owned by people that are completely unaffiliated with the people who started it. But there has been a generational passing down, even though it is not familial. It is a passing down of this Western Outpost culture. It still exists. There was a little outpost in Wyoming called Spotted Horse in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It is a pub and restaurant and it is 40 miles in either direction from anything else. But it is there. And people go there. It is open from 10a.m. until midnight every day. There is just this couple that live there and they run it. It is part of who they are. …But I feel like I kind of reached out and touched the face of history a little bit. That was part of what the goal was, too. To really understand history.”
The end of the journey
Looking back on his journey, Kopplin said that it has taught him some lessons.
“I didn’t have a lot of fear before I left, although I did have some apprehension. But that trip shed any fear of the unknown or fear of adventure that I had,” said Kopplin. “I have no fear of adventure or being cut off or self-sustaining. I think the human spirit often doesn’t give itself enough credit for being able to take care of itself. We really like our things. We like our cars, our houses, our stuff. I no longer have any fear of losing all of that. With the exception of my family. That’s different.”
Kopplin finished his journey on Monday, July 19th at Mount Rushmore and then drove to his parents’ house on Tuesday, July 20th.
“It was a little awkward being in a car, because I hadn’t driven a car in 40 days, so it felt like I was going really fast. But then the next day, my body was like okay, now you need the ritual. You need to get up and put on the clothes you need to bike with and go. So I was out on the farm and I still had my bike with me. I wanted to get up and ride about 25 miles, because that was on the lower end of what I had been doing. I got up and I rode 15 miles and I was like ‘I’m done. I don’t want this anymore. I need a break,’” said Kopplin. “I was telling Sarah, my wife, and my folks that I think I just needed that one last little ritual to realize that I’m good. I think I’m done for a little while.”
To view video footage of Kopplin’s journey, check out his YouTube channel, Two Wheeled Media, or follow him on Facebook.