Early this morning in Palm Coast’s E Section, Charlie Ericksen Jr., the 71-year-old Flagler County Commissioner, met the goal he unknowingly set out to achieve six years ago: the odometer on his bicycle turned 24,901.5 miles, the precise circumference of Earth at the equator.
He’d bought his Trek 7100 bike from PC Bike on July 9, 2008, along with an odometer. The idea of cycling the equator’s equivalent didn’t come to him until a year or two later. Once it took hold, the mission was on, and lately he’d been highlighting his approach of the goal on his Facebook page, sometimes with his characteristically biting mixture of humor and poignancy: “Yesterday was trash pickup day,” he wrote two weeks ago, “and I normally see an older person on a bike with big plastic bags going through the trash, picking up any aluminum cans attached. Hope things never get that bad for me.”
It doesn’t appear it will. The final 17-mile stretch was accomplished on a damp, bittersweet morning, starting at 5 a.m. today: Ericksen’s 86-year-old father in law, Jack Van Nortwick, had died the day before in Arizona, where Ericksen’s wife Shirley has been for weeks, at her father’s bedside. “I just decided with Shirley’s dad passing away yesterday,” Ericksen said this morning, “and with Shirley’s birthday being tomorrow, that we’ll do it in the middle. Then we’ll have three days to remember as we age.”
He dedicated his finish to Jack and Shirley.
“That’s fantastic,” fellow County Commissioner Barbara Revels said on hearing the news. “I just want to say congratulations to him and maybe one day I can do a tenth of that.” Revels is a hiker and biker who every Sunday bikes from Flagler Beach to U.S. 1, has biked the Loire Valley in France and next August will be biking the 150 miles from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Bruges in Belgium. “None of that touches what Charlie does,” Revels said. “It is an inspiration to us all.”
Ericksen achieved the feat despite developing atrial fibrillation recently, a condition that causes the heart to beat out of rhythm, and in his case causes rapid heart rate and low blood pressure. The Mayo Clinic does not yet list county commission meetings as a likely contributing cause. He’s been hospitalized three times since because of the condition. The first time it struck three years ago, he’d been having lunch with Jack Howell, who heads Teens in Flight, and State Attorney R.J. Larizza. He wasn’t feeling well. He went home and collapsed. That led to his first trip to the hospital.
“The first time I’m there and the chaplain from the church comes in and visits me,” Ericksen says. “Then probably 10 or 15 minutes later Jim O’Connell, the former county commissioner, he comes in and he had a white collar on, and then of all people Jack Howell comes in and he had a white collar on. I asked them, ‘You guys know something I don’t know?’” If they did, they were off. Ericksen biked on. He’s yet to have any part of him replaced. The same can’t be said about his bike. He’s had at least five flat tires, seven tire replacements (six rear and one front), about 10 replaced spokes, a new seat, brake cushions, a new chain, and he’s emptied a few spray cans of lubricant.
“Makes us all feel like we’re incompetent when someone that age does something like that and we’re sitting around eating potato chips,” said Sheriff Jim Manfre, with whom Ericksen has gone on five-hour bike patrols three times in the past two years. The first time took place on a bitterly cold March day—bitterly cold for Florida, anyway—when the sheriff and his patrol were bundled up, and Ericksen showed up in shorts and a light windbreaker. Manfre warned him of the cold ahead. “That’s not cold,” Ericksen replied, recalling his days biking the roads of North Dakota in early spring, when they’d still be whipped by arctic gusts. “I would bike the 116 miles straight from Bismarck to Minot, North Dakota, it took me about six and a half hours,” he says of his weekend treks back then, grain silos and whistle stops keeping him company on the Great Plains.
A retired insurance executive and U.S. Army veteran elected to the County Commission in 2012, Ericksen started biking when he was 6. “My grandfather bought me a new shiny 26” Western Flyer bike to celebrate the day,” he says. “The bike was what is now called a one speed ‘fat tire’ bike, with chrome fenders, chain guard and horn area. I still remember my Dad adjusting the seat for me and pushing me off, to try it out, right out of the box. I was a bit nervous and shaky but got more confident as I went up the street. Unfortunately when I got further up the street, I started to think–just how would I turn it around at the end.” He fell for the first time, into sand. He wasn’t hurt. His biking years were on.
But it was in North Dakota that he got serious, night-riding and accumulating 20,000 miles during that five-year job posting. His equatorial feat through Palm Coast started as more of a retirement lark, then turned into a seven-day-a-week commitment, tallying up more than 100 miles a week, weather and work commitments permitting. In the 2,263 days since the odometer turned its first mile, Ericksen has averaged 11 miles a day, or 77 miles a week. He could log more than 125 miles a week when he started, but has forcibly slowed down since. His longest single ride was a 55-mile trek up U.S. 1 to the causeway in St. Augustine, then down A1A to Flagler Beach and back to the E Section.
Otherwise you can see him at dawn on any of four favored routes–east to Flagler Beach and back, a big circle out of the E Section and through the deserted expanses of Grand Reserve, up U.S. 1 to Lehigh Trail, or through Town Center to the hospital to Colbert Lane. “I usually change every two to three months to prevent boredom,” he says.
Bill McGuire, the Palm Coast City Council member, is four months older than Ericksen and likely the fittest of all local government officials, whatever their age. He’s been lifting weights for 50 years and still does so, along with biking for his cardiovascular workouts, as a matter of ritual. “If I don’t do it, I feel guilty,” he says.
“I’ve ridden with Charlie a couple of times around the trails in the city. He knows what he’s doing and he’s very good at it,” McGuire said. “The man set a goal for himself, he laid out a plan to reach that goal and he exercised it, without any pun intended.”
Such commitments, McGuire says, start at an early age and become a lifestyle. McGuire does it, he says, because no matter how long he lives, he’s told his children, his aim is to remain fit and self-sufficient until his last day. Ericksen displays a similar streak of autonomy and pragmatism, two characteristics that shape his political outlook as well, beyond his credentials as a fiscally conservative Republican.
He’s autonomous, but not invulnerable. There’s been close calls with vehicular traffic, as drivers are still learning to share the road with bikers, sometimes not very successfully. Ericksen’s gravest incident was a near collision with a Flagler County Transportation bus that sent him sprawling into a ditch after the bus cut him off at a crossing.
“In most episodes of encountering cars in Palm Coast, they’d like us either on the sidewalks or never on the road. Most don’t know the state’s three-foot law,” which requires that the minimum clearance between a car or truck and a bicycle, when passing the bicycle, be three feet. “But I’ve also observed that bikers don’t respect cars. They assume that bikers have the right, but it’s shared.”
Between the time of day when he bikes and what he does as he bikes, it’s probably a wonder Ericsken hasn’t gotten into more serious accidents. “When I bike,” he says, “I think of problems and their solutions, projects for the day and upcoming week, items along the way that have changed, good and bad, from a prior ride down this route. Our five boys, seven grandsons and granddaughters, medical problems of getting old and biking. Never do I zone out and think of nothing.” He’s been wanting to take a small recorder along to document his observations and record his to-do list. Short of that, he’s called his wife and she’s written things down.
Vehicles aside, he’s had run-ins with deer, a coyote, small alligators, armadillos, skunks, turtles, loose neighborhood dogs, snakes. He’s also encountered a number of homeless people, who seem to be on the move in the wee hours, and other, more unusual characters.
“In one case I had a one-hour discussion and breakfast from nearby fast food location with a man and his dog travelling via skateboard from Miami to the Boston area, all on Highway 1,” Ericksen says. “A real life adventure, especially since he was not homeless and had a debit card, but had to find the banks.”
To each his own journey.
Naturally, the question is: what next for Ericksen? The answer is the same as Captain Kirk’s at the end of every voyage. Start a new one. For the record, Mars’s circumference is 13,263 miles. Starting tomorrow, Ericksen could have that one licked by January 27, 2018, in time for his 75th birthday.
You can email Charlie Ericksen at his county commission address here.