When Bertha Cook of Carson told an acquaintance that she and three other middle-aged women planned to bicycle 3,400 miles from Portland, Ore., to Boston, the reaction was disbelief.
"She asked me, 'How long have you been macho?' " said Cook, 56, a retired medical laboratory technician. "People don't understand that this will be fun. We've been working for all these years and raising our kids; now we've decided that we deserve a good time."
While some may not consider seven weeks on a bicycle an ideal vacation, Cook and her friends--two of whom are also over 50--say the trip is a dream expedition, one they have planned for more than three years.
And for these women, 3,400 miles doesn't seem far since three of them pedaled more than half that distance in 1982. The 28-day, 1,800-mile expedition took them from Vancouver, Canada, to Tijuana.
"The exciting thing is the challenge," said Anne Fox, 50, as she and the other women discussed the trip recently in Cook's Carson home. "You have to prepare yourself for a trip like this--80% of it is in your state of mind."
"A little insanity helps, too," said Mary Jane McMaster, 42, a teacher at West Los Angeles Community College. "We're going to be dead tired when we hit Boston."
Indeed, the trip promises 75 miles of cycling a day. After flying to Portland, they will set out Saturday on 15- or 18-speed touring bikes, carrying 45 pounds of gear through mountains, against winds and during rainstorms to cross the country by July 20.
The women, who met several years ago during local bike expeditions, get together about once a month to cycle or participate in other sports outings sponsored by the Sierra Club and Canyon Explorers Club.
On the group's previous trips, "people along the way have always been pretty amazed to see us," said McMaster, an El Toro resident. "They are amazed to see four women traveling together and more amazed by our ages."
Cook added, "They tell us things like, 'You're the most mature group we've ever seen. . . .' Most of the other long-distance cyclists are men and they are much younger, but people seem to respect us for what we're doing."
During their Canada-to-Mexico trip, a group of young male cyclists stopped them and insisted that they pose for a photograph.
"They said they wanted to send it home to their mothers as kind of an inspiration," recalled Cook. "That's the kind of reaction we get a lot. People know what we're going through and what we're up against."
With serious cycling experience ranging from 5 to 12 years, the four women say they know the problems that may lie ahead.
"Recreational vehicles are the biggest fear," said Fox, a Torrance woman who has four grown children and works as a family nurse practitioner. "They're long and they forget that their tails stick out so far behind them. When they move over for a bicycle, they pull back into the lane too soon, without realizing that their tail is still next to the cyclist."
"Mosquitoes, too," McMaster piped up. "One mosquito is too many mosquitoes."
Each has completed a bicycle repair course and they carry an extensive repair manual in case of major breakdowns.
None suggested that crime is a particular concern for an all-female group, even though they often will be traveling separately, each at her own pace, meeting only for meals and camping.
The cyclists say they will stay in campgrounds when they are available, but many nights may be spent in other settings--perhaps in the backyard of an Idaho beauty parlor, or in a Michigan field, or in a Massachusetts park. About once a week they may stay in a motel to wash clothes and enjoy a private shower.
"We're aware of the safety issue but it's not something we dwell on," said the fourth member of the group, Ethel (Sam) Gerst, 55, a nurse at the student medical center at California State University, Long Beach.". . . . This is something I've wanted to do since I was 10."Gerst, a mother of two, lives in Garden Grove.
"I'd rather get hit by a logging truck than die in a nursing home," said Cook, a mother of two. "But we're safer there than we are here, anyway. In general, mid-America subscribes to the concept of helping others who need help, including travelers. Most of the people we meet are extremely nice."
The women, who travel as much as possible on side roads rather than on highways, chose a route through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, Ontario, New York and Massachusetts because of the cooler weather and lighter traffic.
"We will be stopping in numerous small towns," said Gerst, a mother of two who lives in Garden Grove. "The people are always friendly; it reaffirms your faith in the human race."
And along with other attractions--which the women say include a firsthand view of America's countryside--the cyclists look forward to sampling the variety of foods offered at small-town restaurants along the way. They estimate the cost of the trip at $1,500 each.
"We're going to eat our way across the country," said Cook, a self-described fan of ice cream and bakery goods. "When you're getting that much exercise, you can eat four meals a day without gaining a pound."
And despite some stunned reactions to their plans, the women--three are divorced and one is single--say their families are proud of them.
"My daughter's real proud," said Fox. "She tells her friends, 'I bet you can't top what my mom's doing.' "
"Not everyone could do this," McMaster said. "There's something that makes you feel good about doing something that not everybody else can."