From HLG to Havana …A 1959 bike trip to Castro’s Revolutionary Cuba

At 5 AM on June 30, 1959, I rode down the HLG driveway to meet my friend since the 5th grade, Bob Miller. We were headed to Cuba by bicycle. It was one of those warm, hazy summer mornings, and I’m sure my parents watched me until I disappeared. It would be 63 days before we would return. They had always supported our adventures but I’m sure they thought this trip was beyond our reach. Recently I found an entry in my father’s daily journal dated May 27, 1959: “Bill has a big idea –go to Cuba by bike—What next?” So guided by gas station maps we headed south.

The trip started in the fall of 1958 when we entered our sophomore year at HLG. New in the student body were brothers Mario and Daniel Gonzales from Santa Clara, Cuba. They were trying to learn English and we were trying to learn Spanish. We became good friends.

Before leaving for summer vacation after the school year was over, they invited us to visit Cuba, and after some discussion, Bob and I told them we might come by bicycle. I don’t think they believed it and I’m not sure we did either.

We thought we would end up using a 3 speed, fat-tired Schwinns, which were popular at the time but just a few days before departure we drove to St. Louis to look for bikes. We found a bike shop that was the center of a small bicycle racing community. When we told the owner what we wanted to do he said the best choice was an 8-speed Raleigh Grand Prix. When we looked at the back wheel we said “what’s that?” It was a chain derailer, almost standard on bikes today. It was quite a contraption, and during our trip we spent a lot of time showing how it worked. We saw only one other during our trip—on a local bike in Florida.

On the first day we made it 75 miles to Winfield, MO. We think Molly Argent felt sorry for us and let us stay free in her rooming house. That day was the hardest of the trip, mentally and physically. We were thinking way too far ahead and left saddle-sore and chastened. We discovered what we were up against—two lane roads with few paved shoulders and drivers unaccustomed to sharing the road. Our safety equipment was minimal, a simple rear-view mirror. Only football players wore helmets.

The next morning we decided that if we were going to make it to Cuba we needed to do two things. First we would take one day at a time, and second, we hold our own and stay on the road, putting us inches from death hundreds of times a day. However we didn’t want to be “dead right,” so we got off the road when the situation was serious.

We had decided to eat in cafes and sleep in churches so we could travel light, with only a bed roll, clothes, and personal items. We didn’t even have a water bottle. We hydrated at gas stations and country stores—where we met locals— some of our best times. Laundromats were also favorite stops, giving us a chance to cool off, wash up, and meet folks.

Each day was a new adventure since we really didn’t know where we going to stay. Thanks to many kind people, especially church pastors and their families, we always had a place to sleep. On 30 of 40 biking days we slept in Baptist churches. Church stays were easy to arrange since Baptist churches were everywhere and the pastor and family almost always lived next door. Nearly all of the preachers were familiar with HLG.

On Day 7 (Memphis TN to Myrtle MS) we started into what we perceived as the Deep South. We saw signs that read “Colored in Rear,” “White Only,” and “Colored Use Cup.” Most gas stations had three restrooms—men, women, and colored. We were taken aback since we had never seen these before.

Also, we were served grits with breakfast whether we ordered them or not.
By Day 12 we reached the Gulf of Mexico, which gave us some encouragement, and with some 100-mile days, we were in Tampa, FL by Day 21. I noted in my journal, “The only thing free in Florida is Spanish moss.”

By Day 26, after 1800 miles, we reached Key West, FL where we found a Baptist Church and made our one phone call home! Some locals advised us not to wear shorts in Cuba, so we wore our only pair of long pants for the next two weeks.

On Day 28 we boarded a Q Airways DC-3, and 45 minutes later we arrived in Havana, a different world.

I noted in my journal, “What a mess,” but it was an exciting mess. There was confusion, with bearded Castro followers—most carrying guns—and peasant farmers carrying the tool of their trade, a machete. They were some of the half million people invited to the celebration of Castro. Thanks to some friendly Cubans, we were given directions to reach our refuge, the Baptist seminary where our gracious missionary hosts, the Caudhills, welcomed us.

We still had 170 miles to ride to Santa Clara so we called Mario and Daniel and yes, they were surprised since they didn’t know we were actually coming! They said it was too dangerous to ride those last 170 miles so they would come and get us. The next day we were on our way to Santa Clara, but not before the first of several press encounters, a story by a Havana TV station.

When we arrived in Santa Clara we were treated royally. Our friends’ parents owned a hotel, restaurant, and catering service, so we had room and board. Mario and Daniel were busy with school and work so we were free to roam, sometimes by bike and sometimes by train or riding along with the catering delivery person.

Santa Clara had been the site of a decisive battle by Castro just a few months earlier, so there were many fresh reminders, bullet holes and spent shells. There were also soldiers wearing army fatigues and carrying guns, but despite all this, we felt very safe.
Before the trip we knew there was cloud of Communism forming over Cuba, but once we were there we found an air of optimism.

We had only planned to stay one week but it stretched to two weeks, putting us behind in our schedule. We thought if we could get to New Orleans, we could get back on track. When we got back to Havana by train, there was only one option to get to New Orleans. That was to fly, but we didn’t have the $80 for a ticket, so Bob wired his mother for money and soon we were on a Delta DC-7 bound for New Orleans.

Once in Louisiana we headed North at a fast pace, still staying in churches, with friends, and at the Salvation Army. We were making such good time we took a week break at the Lake of the Ozarks with friends from Hannibal.

Early in the afternoon, after 63 days–40 of those in the saddle covering 2750 miles, we rode unannounced into Hannibal. We hoped Tom and Huck would have been pleased with our adventure.

Bill Foster, the son of HLGU’s 11th president, Dr. Luther Foster, is a retired biologist living in Sitka, Alaska, and Bob Miller also a retired biologist, lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Both returned to Cuba on separate trips in 2010 and 2011 but did not find their friends. They did find the same American cars they saw in 1959.