Like Odysseus’s long journey home from the Trojan War, Frank Henson has found what he calls his “meanderings” interrupted. For the hero of Homer’s epic, it was the beautiful but possessive goddess Calypso who quashed his ancient travel itinerary. For Henson, it was the equally insidious COVID virus.
Henson is the father of Cincinnati’s bicycling scene. Much of what you see in our city’s growing bicycle infrastructure is what he constructed in his head 20 years ago: a city and region connected by two wheels and a kickstand. The Central Parkway bike lanes, Wasson Way, the recently-begun Beechmont Bridge Connector, and Red Bike were all part of his volunteer lobbying efforts with both the business community and City Hall. When he wasn’t buttonholing the powerful, the King of Queen City Bike was on the road or on the trail.
Henson still has a bike, but now it’s parked in front of his apartment on a bluff overlooking the bucolic little fishing village of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. He’s 3,000 miles and a raging pandemic away from the famous Flat Frank sculpture that cheers bikers at Sawyer Point. COVID has flattened his tires.
Henson and his wife, Mary Messman, have always been adventurous travelers. So as they contemplated retirement, the Madisonville couple began, like so many Cincinnati couples, to look south. But not to Florida, and not to Hilton Head. They were headed “as far south as you can go,” Henson says, to the windswept Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America. They didn’t call Delta Airlines. This journey was to be by land only and, as his oft-used term “meanderings” suggests, freeform. They left Cincinnati in July 2018.
“You miss so much if you fly over things,” Henson says on our Zoom call, “so we got on a bus and headed to Brownsville, Texas, where we transferred to another bus that took us to Matamoros, Mexico.” When they arrived, he and Mary sat in the bus station and debated where to go. “That’s how much planning we did,” he says, laughing. “We knew we’d figure it out as we go.”
Before leaving here, Henson and Messman sold everything and consolidated their only worldly possessions into two backpacks—other than their house, which they’ve rented out. They were determined to travel light, stop wherever it looked interesting, stay as long as they wanted, and then move on in search of another experience. “It’s been remarkable to me how free it’s felt to not have stuff,” Henson says.
Nearly 70, he says he’s weighed down neither by “stuff” nor life. Quite frankly, he looks like Santa Claus minus the pot belly—a physical appearance he’s employed to play the role for years and years on his bike, entertaining Cincinnatians and now our brothers and sisters to the south. He speaks with eagerness in his voice, framed by the twinkle in his eye and fringed with a sly smile. Just like Santa.
Henson has by now likely achieved celebrity status in Puerto Lopez, where the ecotourist economy collapsed when the pandemic hit last year. Frank and Mary are the last of those tourists remaining, and, thanks to his Santa role last Christmas, when he enters the village mercado the vendors greet him with a hearty “ho, ho, ho” that’s become his signature.
Scanning the bus routes out of Matamoros in July 2018, the couple chose Tampico, a city about the size of Cincinnati on Mexico’s gulf coast. They stayed a couple of weeks, hitting a local food court to test their digestive prowess. “I figured if we were going to have any negative reactions, I’d rather it happen sooner than later,” Henson says, laughing. Both he and Mary passed the Mexican equivalent of Sbarro’s with flying colors.
“One thing I’ve learned is, in terms of infrastructure and sanitation, we Americans have the wrong view of what it’s like down here,” Henson says. “For instance, you go to San Jose, Costa Rica, and see the fabulous 300-year-old city center, but then you go out to the suburbs and it’s just like Sharonville.”
The couple’s odyssey is now approaching the end of its third year, with the Hensons having traveled through Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia before COVID brought it all to a screeching halt in a 6,000-person Ecuadorian fishing village. Along the way, they’ve climbed to the summit of an active Nicaraguan volcano and “tobogganed” down it at 50 miles per hour; explored Aztec and Mayan ruins; traveled the Silver Trail, where Hernando Cortez and other Spaniards transported their stolen booty to waiting galleons; climbed mountains and descended into magnificent valleys; swum in an underground Mayan reservoir; taken a group mud bath in a dormant Colombian volcano; and participated in a one-month immersive Spanish class in southern Mexico.
“I can get by now in the language,” says Henson, probably being modest since, after all, they’ve been immersed in Hispanic culture for nearly three years. “I think I’m about an 8-year-old Spanish-speaker in terms of my enunciation. But that’s good enough to get me through, and I’m still learning.” He admits he still can’t trill the “double Rs,” but he clings to the promise of his instructor who told him, once his tongue cooperates, he’ll never forget it. Just like riding a bicycle.
Of course, whenever they can, Henson and Messman have jumped on bikes and visited every street, alley, and marketplace they can find. Henson has posted hundreds of colorful photos on his Facebook page, often accompanied with the simple phrase “Seen While Meandering.” He leads the league in “likes.”
Sitting comfortably in front of his laptop, Henson tells me he and Mary are going to be in Puerto Lopez for a while—maybe as long as an additional year. “We got here on March 16, 2020, with the intention of staying a week and doing six things,” he says, laughing. “Well, we’ve been here 15 months now and we’ve done just three of them. So, when things finally open up again, we’re not going to rush out of here.” Both have been vaccinated, though Ecuador’s current vaccination rate is under 10 percent of the adult population.
When the Henson and Messman do finally leave—when the land borders in South America open again and the wanderlust rush Frank anticipates calms down—they plan to continue their journey south down the Pacific coast to the tip of the continent. Then they’ll turn north into the Patagonian wilderness and, Henson says, possibly wander through Uruguay, Bolivia, and into Brazil. Like I said, this is a freeform journey. He figures they won’t return to Cincinnati for another two and a half years.
Local life is slowly re-emerging in Puerto Lopez, Henson says. He and Mary walk the three-mile-long beach, shop in the mercado at a designated time, and chill in their nicely decorated apartment. “It’s a good place to be right now,” he says. “We feel comfortable and safe. Life as a beach bum is pretty good.”
He has no elves to help, but Henson is already preparing for Christmas by upgrading his Santa alter ego to include a green metal sleigh that a local craftsman made for him. He’ll pull it around town on his bike every day in December, handing out candy and good cheer.
And Henson has plans for that bicycle once he leaves Puerto Lopez. “I’m going to take it out on the last day and, the first 12-year-old I see on the street, I’m going to ask him if he has a bike. If he says ‘no’, I’m going to say, Well, you do now!”
Sí, Virginia. Realmente hay un Papá Noel. And his name is Frank Henson.