When couple Steve Pay and Jan Hills set out from Australia for an ocean-to-ocean motorcycle ride across the United States, they could have hardly have predicted the dangerous turn their trip would take, or the generous people they would meet in one small town in western Minnesota.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Pay and Hill moved to Australia as young adults. It was there that they first met, and they quickly bonded over their shared love of travel. Eventually they got married, spent some time exploring (and later living in) the extreme terrain of the Australian outback, before finally settling down. Even after the couple retired (Pay was a miner and Hills worked at a care facility), the pace of their travels only intensified.
The couple was inspired to attempt a transcontinental motorcycle trip after watching a recent documentary about a group that traverses the United States on motorcycle. The pair quickly set about putting their plans into action. After flying into Los Angeles, they purchased a motorcycle on Craigslist (an online classified advertising site) and set out on their adventure.
Although they faced several obstacles early on (“We were lost within 10 minutes on the highway,” Pay admitted), they quickly found their footing and everything appeared to go smoothly. After heading north to Sacramento, the couple turned east and began the scenic drive through Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
The ride through the Rockies proved more difficult than anticipated. Winds approaching 60 mph and torrential downpours battered the bikers as they slowly turned north in the direction of the Black Hills. After taking in the sights at Mount Rushmore, they again headed east across the Great Plains.
It wasn’t until they were just outside Granite Falls, however, that they encountered serious mechanical problems. With the motorcycle seemingly out of commission and stranded on the side of the road, Pay decided to walk to the nearest auto repair shop.
As it happened, Todd Soderstrom, a Granite Falls mechanic and owner of Soderstrom’s Performance on Highway 212, was at work in his shop when Pay walked in looking for help. “Hey mate, have a plier?” he asked Soderstrom, who was slightly surprised to hear a foreign accent. “It was kind of interesting hearing his accent,” Soderstrom remarked later.
The two walked back to the motorcycle and tried to figure out what was wrong. After removing the tank, they examined the fuel pump and discovered that it was broken. Soderstrom quickly ordered a replacement. However, since the new pump wouldn’t arrive until the following day, Pay and Hills decided to spend the night in Granite Falls. The next day, while Soderstrom and Pay worked on the repairs, Pay began complaining of chest pains. As he explained later, he didn’t think anything of it, assuming that he was simply suffering from indigestion.
The next morning, Pay and Hills prepared to finally leave. As Hills ate breakfast in the hotel, Pay was making final adjustments to the bike when he experienced another bout of chest pain, this one more severe than before. An ambulance was quickly called, and Pay was rushed to the Granite Falls Hospital. Hills described the first responders as “brilliant” and “amazing.” Following blood work, Pay was transferred to the St. Cloud Hospital where he underwent an angiogram.
The result showed 99% blockage, the consequences of an undiagnosed heart disease linked through genetics to his father. The doctors told him that he was lucky to stop when he did, explaining that he probably would not have survived another heart episode. “It was a frightening day for me, really horrible,” Pay recalled. “You feel like you’ve been hit by a freight train and left on the side of the tracks.”
Pay was quickly rushed to surgery, which was a complete success. With the worst now behind them, the couple had to figure out what to do next. Without a means of transportation (since they had taken the ambulance up to St. Cloud), Hills became conscious of being so far from home. “I was really overwhelmed,” she said. She reached out to their new mechanic friend, Soderstrom, for help. “He was really the only person I knew,” Hill explained. Driving between Granite Falls and St. Cloud, Soderstrom helped Hills collect her things and get situated near the hospital while Pay recovered.
Little by little, Pay’s strength returned. He was eventually discharged to a nearby recovery unit. “It gives you a new perspective on life,” said Pay, looking back on his recent experience. Despite everything, Pay and Hill were as determined as ever to carry on with their trip. Since motorcycling was no longer an option now, Soderstrom stepped in and offered to take them around western Minnesota to see the sights.
“We went all over,” Soderstrom said. Over several days, Soderstrom took the Australian couple to a number of places in western Minnesota. He showed them the exhibits and antique plane collection at the Fagan Museum. They sampled wine and pizza at the Grandview Winery in Belview and had dinner on Lake Minnewaska in Glenwood. Soderstrom also made sure they got to see that natural beauty of the area, guiding them along the Minnesota River Valley. In between trips, Hills took time to visit the medical staff and thank them for all they did.
While not exactly the trip they had planned, Steve Pay and Jan Hills enjoyed every minute of their experience. The slower pace of their journey provided the couple with the opportunity to get to know the area up close (even if it wasn’t from the seat of a motorcycle). But for Hills, it was the people she loved more than anything else. From those she met out and about in town to the doctors and first responders who helped save her husband’s life, she was in awe. “I’ve heard the expression ‘Minnesota Nice,’” Hills said, “so it’s good to be on the receiving end.”
The extraordinary experience also greatly impacted Todd Soderstrom. “From not knowing a person one week, to being in the middle of a life changing experience the next is pretty amazing,” Soderstrom said, before adding “we’ll probably continue to talk back and forth for the rest of our lives.” Besides his own personal connection with the couple, Soderstrom also hopes that they leave with a new appreciation for the people and places they got to know. “Granite Falls will be remembered by them for the rest of their lives, and that story will be passed on.”
Getting to know Pay and Hills has motivated Soderstrom to eventually visit Australia sometime next year. “I’m learning more about Australia than I ever thought I would,” Soderstrom exclaimed. He hopes to make the trip next year.
Although they still have another leg of their journey to complete (they’re flying to Canada next to visit friends), Pay and Hills are already looking forward to coming back to Minnesota to pick up where they left off. What could have been an even scarier end to their trip has instead become a touching (and emotional) memory. Hills credits “lots of kind people who have made the journey a lot easier,” and looks forward to returning to Granite Falls soon.