NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - It wasn’t until after he suffered a stroke that 63-year-old Gary Parkerson decided to mount a bike and chase the Great American Eclipse all the way to Nashville.
On May 24, 2016, Parkerson loaded his bike with 150 pounds of telescopes, eclipse glasses, food, a tent and other road trip gear in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a start point south of his Shreveport, Louisiana, home. Then the self-titled “über amateur astronomer” embarked on the Pedaling Astronomer Project, a ride through the entire country aimed to educate people about the upcoming historic eclipse.
He’s been biking for almost 450 days now, pedaling his mobile classroom - a mini-observatory perched on the back of his unique bike - more than 9,000 miles down highways, aside railroad tracks and through swelling metropolises and tiny towns, all the while teaching astronomy lessons to strangers to promote the eclipse.
Parkerson has adopted his role as teacher throughout his trip, even though his astronomy expertise is self-taught - he said he spent his education studying economics, education, English, finance and law.
But that hasn’t stopped him from lecturing at planetariums, observatories and schools, or pointing out constellations to kids playing in the backyards of homes where families have invited him to stay.
And on Aug. 21, his route will land him in Nashville, where he will lead a pack of cyclists to view the eclipse right here in Music City.
The pedaling astronomer
Parkerson is an easygoing guy - just the type of person who can crank out an average of 50 miles a day and not complain about it.
As pictured all over the Facebook page documenting his ride, Parkerson’s grin dominates his features. He doesn’t have a lot of hair, but his nearly bald head rarely emerges from an orange and red helmet. At 5 foot 9 inches, he’s a little shorter than the average American man, and he has to work to maintain his weight, what with all the biking.
Parkerson stashes about 15,000 calories of food on his bicycle, but that supply only lasts him about three days.
“My biggest challenge is food. Food is readily available, but I have to eat something more than 5,000 calories a day to fuel the bike,” Parkerson said. “It’s just hard to eat that much.”
So he eats everything he can. He keeps two jars of peanut butter, among other snacks, on his person at all times, along with a half-pound hunk of cheese that can last a few days without refrigeration. Parkerson frequents convenience stores, and is known to stand outside the shops and down entire quarts of ice cream or cartons of yogurt.
Aside from food, he also needs rest. Parkerson spends about a third of his nights in campgrounds, snug in a tent protected by a green rain fly.
“I camp when I can because people in the summer are already at campgrounds and outside, so I have a ready audience for looking at celestial objects,” Parkerson said. “Jupiter and Saturn are up now, and the moon is always wonderful through a telescope.”
For the other two-thirds of his nights, he stays with folks from the astronomy and cycling communities.
People are the stars of this astronomer’s trip
These interactions, when strangers-turned-friends welcome him to their campsites, yards and even homes, have taught Parkerson more about the people marveling at the cosmos than the cosmos itself.
“People are just much nicer than I had realized. A lot more compassionate and generous,” Parkerson said. “There’s something about an old man on a bicycle that brings out the best in people.”
Parkerson calls his bike the Surly Big, or the Big for short.
The Big hails from a model made by Surly Bikes named the Big Dummy. But Parkerson nixed the Dummy because the bike’s reliability amazed him, just as its quirks entice strangers.
“I’m not particularly gregarious by nature, so it’s nice that it’s a natural conversation starter,” he said.
The strategy has helped Parkerson succeed. He’s met all kinds on the road.
“Part of the goal has been to introduce people to practical astronomy, to demonstrate that it doesn’t take a lot of expensive, high-end equipment,” Parkerson said. “This is me canvassing. This is me going door to door, offering people views of the sun.”
Parkerson has actually already been through Nashville. He started his journey along the Natchez Trace Parkway, which begins in Mississippi and ends in Nashville. He camped here for 10 days, getting to know a few locals before he continued on his way.
Michelle Clonce-Turner and Scott Turner, the husband-and-wife owners of Nashville bike shop Trace Bikes, met Parkerson when he retrieved packages from their shop as he finished the trail.
Clonce-Turner said Parkerson showed her and her family the small telescope he had toted, and they later received a telescope of their own from their new friend.
What happens after Aug. 21
The eclipse craze will soon end, and the event that has entranced Parkerson for so long will be behind him. But he said he plans to finish his 48-state journey - he still has 11 states to go, a portion leftover because lectures, presentations and visits delayed his expedition.
Once he’s finally done, he doesn’t know what will come next. He might settle down in another part of the country. He might pedal off on another biking adventure.
One thing is certain, though: Parkerson will always love cycling, and he’ll always love astronomy.
“When I look up most every clear night, I still hope to see something I can’t explain, but as far as I know, we’re it,” Parkerson said. “And that’s humbling, too. It’s a big responsibility.”
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