Williamsburg native goes global on bike

Mirror photo by Walt Frank / Williamsburg native Ralph Isenberg, 84, now of Scottsdale, Ariz., rides his bike along the Lower Trail near the Williamsburg trailhead. Isenberg, who returns to his hometown each summer to ride, has biked all over the world.

WILLIAMSBURG — A friendly man with a long, white beard wearing a dirty, white Tilley hat is a familiar sight on the Lower Trail during the summer.

“I ride about 29 miles on a typical day. In my younger days, I did the whole trail end to end. I come out every day weather permitting,” said Ralph Isenberg, 84, a Williams­burg native and now a resident of Scottsdale, Ariz.

Twenty-nine miles a day is a lot of miles for many people, but that number pales to the number of bicycle miles Isenberg has racked up since Santa Claus brought him a bicycle in 1994.

Isenberg, who retired in 1995 from the former Garrett AiResearch — now known as Honeywell — estimates he has racked up about 166,000 miles over the years.

After graduating from Williamsburg High School in 1950, Isenberg studied engineering at Penn State for three years and then joined the Air Force and served two years. He then obtained a job at Goodyear Aircraft in Akron, Ohio, when it was making blimps. He worked there for over two years before moving to Arizona in 1958.

“The winter before I moved, we had two weeks when it didn’t get above zero. I told my wife (Linda) let’s move to somewhere warmer. I didn’t have a job when I moved. It was very risky, but I was too dumb to know better,” Isenberg said. “I had an application in, they interviewed me and they hired me. I got the job just about the time my money was going to run out.”

Isenberg worked for Garrett AiResearch, a manufacturer of turboprop engines and turbochargers, and a pioneer in numerous aerospace technologies, for 35 years.

“I finished my career as a test equipment design engineer. It was a very interesting job in the aerospace industry. They had contracts with NASA. I worked on turbine engines for the two-engine jets. The company had a contract with Taiwan to develop the engine for fighter planes for Taiwan,” Isenberg said.

Isenberg said he got into serious bicycling in 1996 when he met Shirl Kinney of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who asked him to ride in the RAGBRAI — The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

RAGBRAI is the oldest, largest and longest multiday recreational bicycle touring event in the world. It is held every year.

“You ride across Iowa from border to border. It was about 468 miles and took about six days. I did it another time by myself,” Isenberg said.

Isenberg and Kinney also biked the Great River Road, which parallels the Mississippi River.

“We flew to New Orleans and took off on our bikes to Lake Itasca, Minn. We did it on our own. It took at least four weeks,” Isenberg said.

It was Kinney who introduced Isenberg to Rick Bauman, a former politician and avid biker. Bauman served in the Oregon House of Representatives in the 1980s. In 1994, he organized Cycle Vietnam, the first large-scale American bicycle tour of that country, and in 1996, Bauman created Portland Bridge Pedal, a bicycle tour with a route over all 10 Portland bridges that cross the Willamette River.

Bauman and Isenberg teamed up to take bike trips all over the world — Vietnam, Laos, Egypt, Bhutan, South Africa and Myanmar.

“Ralph is a sweetheart of a guy. Not only is he a remarkable biker for his age, his sensitivity to the places we visit, his understanding about what it meant to be a visitor always was appreciated. The best way to interact with people is biking, not in a bus or a vehicle. The way you can interact while biking is very special, Bauman said. “He shows up everywhere and is always a delight.”

Isenberg fondly remembers his trips with Bauman.

“In Vietnam, we started in Hanoi and biked to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). In Egypt, we started at the pyramids and biked under the Suez Canal to Sinai. We stopped at St. Catherine’s at the base of Mount Sinai. We went across Israel into Jordan and then back to Israel and Jerusalem,” Isenberg recalled. “We rode across the Himalayan Mountains near the northern border of Bhutan. We were riding up and down the foothills of the Himalayas. We also biked in Myanmar. We rode on the original Burma Road used in World War II. The trip across the Himalayas was the most unique.”

Bauman also remembers the trips he took with Isenberg.

“In terms of the most-stunning scenery and interesting culture, it was Bhutan. In terms of cultural diversity and most-fascinating country, it was Myanmar. The most-interesting trip was starting at the base of the pyramids and biking into Jerusalem,” Bauman said.

Isenberg also said he has taken several trips across the United States on

his bicycle.

Isenberg said he originally came home to visit family. His wife died in 1990, and his mother, Helen Royer Isenberg, passed away in 2001. He has a few relatives in the area today in Williamsburg, Huntingdon and Altoona.

He comes back to escape the Arizona summer heat and to enjoy the Lower Trail.

“Every place is unique; this trail is very nice. You see deer and turkey, unlimited rabbits and squirrels. It is nice scenery, and there are nice people. I usually come at the end of May or start of June and stay until the first week of September,” Isenberg said.

Isenberg has made a lot of friends — regulars such as Tom Harvey and Bill Ward — while riding the trail.

Isenberg, who rents an apartment at Country Club Terrace, hopes to return again next summer.

“Health permitting and I can get an apartment, I will be back next year. Biking has enabled me to see a lot of the world. I just enjoy being out in the open. It has been a big part of my life ever since Santa Claus brought me a bicycle,” Isenberg said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

The Isenberg file

Name: Ralph Isenberg

Age: 84

Position: Retired engineer from aerospace industry

Education: 1950 graduate of Williamsburg High School, studied engineering three years at Penn State

Family: Three children: Mindy Greenfield, in West Palm Beach, Fla; Marc in Sparta, N.J.; and Mike in Millville, Wash.; four grandchildren- and two great-grandchildren.

Quote: “There are tourists and there are travelers. Travelers say it is not the destination but the journey.”