MAPLEWOOD, NJ — When the members of the Columbia High School Class of 1968 gathered for their 50th reunion Oct. 19, most probably drove a car or flew on an airplane to reconnect with one another. But one member of that graduating class rode his bicycle 3,092 miles from Missoula, Mont., back to Maplewood, a two-month expedition. Matthew Cohn rolled into the Bronx on Oct. 15, just in time to see old friends and explain why he had decided to make a weekend trip back to his hometown last 72 days.
“I went to my 20-year reunion but not any other one,” Cohn said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Oct. 18. “And around the time of my 45th reunion, I read an article about a woman who rode from Montana to her high school reunion in San Diego and I thought, ‘That could be cool.’ Then I forgot about it. About two years ago I got a reminder that the 50th was coming up, and I thought I could actually do it.”
So Cohn bought a new touring bike, named it “Mariah Montana,” and began to break it in by riding more than 10 miles each day. Hoping the reunion would be later in the year so he wouldn’t have to bike through winter snow, Cohn started training seriously in May and worked out his route in June. On Aug. 5, he set out for the East Coast with 50 pounds of camping gear on his back.
Cohn has lived in Missoula since 1976, when he took a job with a nonprofit organization in the western Montana city. He grew up in Maplewood and worked for a Japanese manufacturer that had an office in New York City until he was 25, before he realized that wearing a suit and tie to work every day wasn’t for him.
“I had this romantic notion about the west, and happened to end up in Montana,” he said.
He and his wife, Mary Ellen, have been cycling as a hobby for years; Cohn said that traveling on a tandem bike around other countries is one of their favorite activities. While he has done shorter bike trips in the past, this is the longest distance he has peddled. To map out the route, he relied on information from the Adventure Cycling Association, a nonprofit group that lets cyclists know where the safest roads are throughout the country.
While Cohn spent time camping, he also said he did some “couch surfing,” staying in volunteers’ homes for a night or two before setting off again. Because a cyclist can’t bike on highways or interstates, Cohn said that he traveled down county and local town roads.
“Going through rural America, you see all these little towns,” he said. “You can stop and read the signs and look around. People think it’s lonely but it’s not, total strangers would come up and ask me what I was doing and tell me about things like this they want to do. It’s a very social thing.”
Cohn documented his trip in real time with his blog, “Riding with Mariah Montana.” He spent time writing and posting photos from the trail in libraries along the way, or creating an internet hotspot with his cell phone and writing at night.
“You’re alone with your thoughts for a lot of time, and you think about the history of these places,” Cohn said. “I wrote about the places I saw and the people I met. There’s about 200 or 300 people that have been following it, and I now have a record of this for myself.”
The trip wasn’t all fun and games, though. It rained a lot, and spending two straight days at a time in precipitation wasn’t ideal.
“There is some complaining on there,” Cohn joked about the blog. To read about his trip, visit www.crazyguyonabike.com.
His route took him to Niagara Falls and then south through upstate New York into the Bronx, before Cohn ended his trip at a cousin’s house in Summit. The trip gave him a lot of time to think about his time at CHS.
“In a lot of the towns I was going through, the population was smaller than our class,” he said. “It’s funny how your long-term memory pops up, we’ve all been on this journey for 50 years. I’m excited to reconnect with people.”
Cohn said he sees Maplewood differently now than he did when he was growing up.
“As I’ve gotten older, I realize what a special place I grew up in. You don’t think about it as a teenager, but it was a special time and place to be in. I’ve appreciated it more now that I’m older and even though it’s not where I want to live there’s still people there who knew me when I was ‘Matty,’ and I haven’t been called that in a long time,” Cohn joked.
He isn’t going to double his mileage on the bike — Cohn is flying back home to Montana. But the trip did teach him an important lesson.
“You should do everything in your power to enjoy your life,” he said.
Photos Courtesy of Matthew Cohn