Bradenton retirees take a 'virtual' trip to Texas oil town

Kilgore (Texas) News HeraldMarch 17, 2014 

They've pedaled steadily through the miles - 1,078 separating Bradenton and Kilgore, in East Texas - and though their recumbent bikes and treadmills haven't budged in the past month, the 40-odd members of the Jets Team will be immersed in Kilgore culture when they reach their goal this week.

The youngest trekker is 70 years-old and the oldest, days shy of a century, will close the gap Tuesday morning, "Kilgore Day" in the Westminster Shores retirement community, in their fitness-focused staycation.

It's boring just working out in the facility's fitness center, 73-year-old team captain Dennis Vest says. Why not use the exercise machines' odometers to actually plot a journey, pick a destination and make the effort to reach it?

"We got caught up in the idea," he said. "It's just a way for people to do something different and talk about it. It's much better than just going to the physical fitness area and riding a bike.

"These things are important when you live in an adult independent living center."

It's the second fitness machine-based "trip" the group has taken - the first group of 28 seniors set their mileage to Portland, Maine, and together logged 1,428 miles, receiving a long-distance welcome from the city's mayor when they reached their goal.

The word got out, and the Jets Team grew to 37 riders then more than two-score for the second challenge, passing through Texas on the way to the west coast and beyond.

"We decided to take this trip out to San Diego, Calif., and we stopped along the way in different cities," Vest explained.

Kilgore is in the "oil patch" of East Texas, about 120 miles east of Dallas.

One of the riders has an oilfield background and another, 79-year-old Gene Byron, grew up in Longview, Texas, north of Kilgore. Vest has been aware of Kilgore for years from his time fundraising for various colleges and universities. "I'd heard about the Kilgore College Rangerettes ... We decided to make the whole thing go through Kilgore."

The group found an eager tour guide at Kilgore City Hall in Deborah Dane - the city clerk put together a "Welcome to Kilgore" package featuring mementos provided by the Kilgore Chamber of Commerce as well as videos featuring the East Texas Oil Museum and the Rangerettes.

"I think it's cute. It's very creative," said Dane, city clerk. "We were happy to accommodate and help them to Kilgore in any way that we can. It's kind of taken on a life of its own."

Working with Dane, Mayor Ronnie Spradlin shot a welcome video for the team featuring his proclamation naming the residents of Westminster Shores honorary citizens on Tuesday.

It's an exciting idea, Spradlin said. He wishes the Jets could visit in person, but he's pleased with the virtual tourism.

"It's such a novel thing. Instead of just pedaling a bicycle, to have a reason to get on every day you have a destination," he said. "They picked Kilgore out of the whole of the United States. Out of all the touristy towns in the nation, they picked us to bicycle to."

Beyond the Rangerettes, the residents were aware of Kilgore's boomtown heritage and of its famous son, the late Van Cliburn, Spradlin added.

Tracking so many miles together is an impressive feat, he said, and praised Dane for her outreach efforts, working hard to make the group's roadtrip a memorable one.

"She really, really went above and beyond doing this for them. I'm sure no one in the city has ever done something like what she's done," Spradlin said. "In the video, I tell them 'Welcome to Kilgore,' and 'We hope you'll stay as long as you like.'

"I was tickled and smiling the whole time I was making the video, that it was going to be shown at an assisted living center in Florida to a large group that has anticipated arriving here for weeks and weeks."

Anticipating the warm welcome, Westminster Shores is reciprocating the hospitality, Vest said: the facility's executive director, Thomas Sutton, plans to issue his own proclamation naming Kilgore's citizens honorary residents of Westminster Shores for the day.

The Jets' destination-celebration also includes a menu of Texas-themed food, beans and barbecue, he added, after Britta Adams completes the last half-mile's work to reach the miles-goal, a day after her 100th birthday.

"They have to ride the bike at least once a week during the process to be eligible to be part of the Jets team. Senior citizen rules, I guess," Adams said.

In fact, the women on the Jets Team have shown the men up, Vest quipped: although she started after the Feb. 12 kick-off, 77-year-old Norma Mayle added the most miles to the team's cumulative score, logging 154 on the recumbent bike in hour-long sessions.

"Isn't this cool?" praised Jaycee Johnson, director of fitness and wellness and namesake for the group, Jaycee's Exercise Team Shores. The seniors' journey has included all manner of workouts to log miles. "They're lifting weights, they're doing repetitions, they're riding bikes and doing miles on the treadmill. We're working our way to Kilgore, which I just think is so fun, so neat. We started the ride about six weeks ago, which I think is phenomenal."

About one-third of the facility's 139 residents are participating, she said, and all will have the chance to watch the videos provided by Kilgore City Hall in addition to sampling the Texas staple-fare.

Celebrating the success, Johnson anticipates more residents will sign up for the team: once their mileage reaches San Diego, the Jets will continue on to their final mileage goal, Haines, Alaska - it'll be more than 4,100 cumulative miles.

"I want all our people to be well as long as they can," she said. "They've just become very, very excited. In going forward, we're learning about that part of the country. I think that's important.

"It's a nice quality, a quality of life for my residents ... When you go forward with some ideas they have, you touch them."

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service