Pedaling through history

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jessica Hines
  • 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
In 1968, a 16-year-old Oklahoma native and veteran Boy Scout traversed more than 3,000 miles of Europe on a bicycle, changing his life forever.

Recently, Mike Nishimuta celebrated the 45th anniversary of his historic trip by revisiting part of his journey through Europe and biking along the same 50-mile path from Venice to Bassano, Italy, Oct. 19.

"I wanted to see if I could do it again," said Nishimuta, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus director at Aviano Air Base and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.

When talking to Nishimuta about his expedition through Europe as a young man, one can't help but wonder where he got the idea from.

"The real inspiration for the trip was from an article I read in a National Geographic magazine," he said.

The issue, published July 1955 entitled "Europe Via the Hostel Route," talks about a young man who stayed in hostels and pedaled his way through Europe.

With the idea in mind, not much stood in the way of making his dreams a reality. All he needed was a way.

Having already completed high school two years ahead of schedule, he was too young to be drafted for the Vietnam War or attend college.

While working at the Officers' Club on Fort Sill, Okla., Nishimuta received an invitation for a hiking trip in Sweden with a group of Swedish Boy Scouts, which he met one year earlier during a Boy Scout Jamboree.

"I thought if I'm going to spend the money to go to Sweden for this hike, I might as well stay for a while," he said.

With the support of his family, Nishimuta set a budget and began planning his trip.

"I pretty much looked at the map, looked at the cities and the geography, and would pick a distance that I thought was doable," he said.

Over the course of five months, Nishimuta would visit an astonishing 11 countries, staying at youth hostels or with family friends and Boy Scout contacts. Always prepared, he even kept a sleeping bag and tent with him if he couldn't find a place to stay for the night.

"It was a different time back then, sometimes I hitchhiked if the weather was too bad. There were so many young people who hitchhiked their way around, it was just an accepted way of traveling," he added.

With limited means of communication, Nishimuta relied on a banking and travel agency service to receive and send mail back home. To keep up with world events, he would read the newspaper in hotel lobbies or listen to a small AM transistor radio he carried.

"I was able to hear the night that Nixon was elected, probably on AFN radio, the world was definitely changing. You think about Europe in 1968, it was only 20 years after World War II, many of the countries and areas still had damage that hadn't been repaired," he said.

On his way through Austria, Nishimuta experienced a piece of history, seeing families and students struggle with the aftermath of the Soviet Union invasion of Czechoslovakia.

"When I got to Austria in September, it was only a couple weeks after the invasion. I remember, very distinctly, seeing hundreds of Czechoslovakians in the west that had been visiting and didn't know what to do. I had never seen anything like that before," he said.

Having met some new friends along the way, Nishimuta was invited to spend the night in Ljubljana, a city of former socialist country Yugoslavia, now capitol of Slovenia.

"I ended up, for some reason, hitchhiking and was in the back of a truck when we passed the border into Yugoslavia," he said. "They didn't stop for any passports and I didn't know you had to have a visa."

After spending a few nights and engaging in friendly political debates with his new friends, Nishimuta gained insight into the evolving political arena.

"I had never heard the other side of the argument; I was from a pro-military Army town. I had never met anybody that was that far on the other side of us. It was very interesting."

On his way to Italy, Nishimuta was held at the border for failing to have the proper documents, but was released after only a few hours of questioning.

"They eventually let me go, thinking I was just a silly American," he said.

Once in Italy, he set his sights on making it to Venice.

"I had come in from Trieste and it was night, it had been the longest ride of the entire trip. I'm coming across the causeway and it just rises like a diamond, these brilliant lights on the sea," he recalls motioning with his hands as he describes the view of Venice.

In October of 1968, as Nishimuta made his way through Italy and into Switzerland, he was halfway through his European adventure and credits the entire trip for changing his outlook of the world.

"It essentially made me want to travel for the rest of my life, and by joining the Air Force I got to do that," he said.

Upon his return home in December of 1968, Nishimuta was able to document his travels and use his adventure as part of his application to the United States Air Force Academy for fitness and athletic performance.

"It was absolutely the single most character-forming event that made me an independent person. At that point, I knew I could set high goals and achieve them, it was a major milestone that I didn't know if I could do it or not - and I did it," he said.

"The next milestone was the Air Force Academy, and again, I didn't know if I could do it, but I did with the support of all my amazing classmates," he added.

Nishimuta credits the trip in addition to the many mentors and friends he made as a boy scout and at the Academy for helping him achieve his goals.

"I was set up for a pattern of success, of not being afraid of a challenge and not being afraid to set high goals and achieve them," he concluded.