MADAWASKA, Maine — Want to know just how big this country is? Ask a long distance biker.
More to the point, ask any bikers who have completed the Southern California Motorcycling Association’s Four Corner Tour.
The idea is to tag the country’s four corners — San Ysidro, Calif.; Blaine, Wash.; Key West, Fla.; and Madawaska — in 21 days or less.
Riders can choose any route they want and commonly rack up more than 9,000 miles in the process.
And if there’s an unofficial ambassador for the tour, it’s two-time four corner finisher Joe LaChance of Madawaska.
Riders completing the tour are required to document their progress by taking a photograph of their motorcycles at each corner in front of a police station, post office or other landmark.
About 12 years ago he decided Madawaska needed a landmark and began promoting the idea of a Four Corners Park.
“It took about eight years but in 2008 we officially opened the park,” LaChance said during an interview Saturday morning from the park. “We are the only corner to have a park dedicated solely to the tour.”
The park sits on a hillside just south of Madawaska’s Main Street with a commanding view of Canada across the St. John River.
Special paving stones line a walkway around the gazebo and fountain and tell short stories of some of the riders who have driven through over the years.
“The pavers are our main fundraiser,” LaChance said. “We sell them for $100 a square foot and anyone who has completed the tour gets their paver in red granite.”
There is the paving stone for Jorge Kleiman and Oscar Argel, two riders who in 2010 became the first Argentinians to complete the tour.
LaChance tells of a father and son who had planned on completing the tour together but before they set out, the son was killed in a motorcycle accident.
“The father decided to go on the tour anyway and brought his son’s ashes along,” LaChance said. “When he got to Madawaska and saw this park, he said, ‘I’ve found biker heaven and I want to leave my son here.’”
Today, a paving stone marks the spot where Nathan Allan Loftin’s parents scattered their son’s ashes.
There are pavers marking multiple tour finishers, including that of Betty McClosky who began riding motorcycles at the age of 64.
Since then, she has completed the Four Corner Tour five times — four riding alone — the most recent in 2008 at 82 years old.
Not to be outdone is Ray Davis, now 85, of Irvine, Calif., who has made 13 four corner stops between 1987 and 2004.
Riders have come through from New Zealand, Europe, Canada and from around the United States — too many for LaChance to count, but he has managed to meet most of them when they arrive.
“Everyone who comes gets a certificate signed by the governor welcoming them to Madawaska,” he said. “I like to be here as often as I can.”
In fact, LaChance has set up a sort of early warning system with people along the major routes leading into Madawaska so he can get heads-up when bikers are approaching.
For groups of five or more cyclists, he has begun organizing police escorts from the town line to the park.
Over the years he has taken finishers on ATV tours of northern Maine or to other local points of interest.
And few, if any, leave without a personal tour of the park.
“They really enjoy learning about this park,” he said. “And a lot end up buying pavers [and] some see the names of their friends when they are reading the ones already here.”
As if on cue to make that point, 16 riders with Women on Wheels roared into the park Saturday morning representing the organization’s Maine and North Shore chapters.
Almost immediately two riders spotted the paver of a friend.
“Hey, I know them,” Kim Carll of Waterboro said, pointing to the paver of Robert and Denise Neal of Naples.
As the riders snapped photos of the park’s monument and took in the view, LaChance got busy handing out certificates of welcome and giving tours.
“This is really beautiful,” said Paula Smart of Biddeford. “It’s a really great tribute to riders.”
Smart, director of Mainely Angels Women on Wheels, said the crew had put in about 430 miles getting to Madawaska from southern Maine, including a few U-turns.
“It wouldn’t be a ride if we didn’t have any U-turns,” one of her companions joked.
“This is marvelous,” said Sue Fountain, director of North Shore Women on Wheels. “It’s really good to have a place people can memorialize and pay tribute to the riders who have completed all four corners.”
All the women agreed riding was more than simply putting tires to pavement.
“For me it’s a stress release,” Oakland native Terry Mulliken said. “It really clears my head [and] I don’t have to think, I can just be out there and enjoy nature.”
Fountain said it’s about the people.
“It’s about camaraderie and being with friends,” she said. “This is our family, our wild family.”
Of course, undertaking the Four Corners Tour does add a bit of competitiveness into the mix.
“You have that 21 days to do it and if you are one second late, it does not count,” LaChance said, adding he and his wife Diane LaChance did their tours in 16 days and again in 19 days.
“Diane is really the road captain,” he said with a laugh. “After we leave St. David, I’m lost.”
The 21-day limit was set by the first man to organize the tour in 1985.
Josef Usalin made the ride in three weeks with his 9-year-old son, LaChance said.
“At the time he said, ‘if I can do it in 21 days with my 9-year-old, anyone can do it,” he said.
Over the years the park has benefited from scores of volunteers and the support of local businesses.
“Ed Pelletier and Sons did a ton of work for us,” LaChance said. “And Robbie Morin Construction showed up with all the paving and labor we needed for the job when we started — that’s the kind of people we have around here.”
LaChance added the Southern California Motorcycling Association remains one of the park’s biggest fans.
“They are flabbergasted by what we’ve done here,” he said.
On Saturday the park gained 16 new fans as, before they left, each of the Women on Wheels kicked in enough money to by paving stone for their group.
“This is just a very special place and monument,” Smart said.
Information on the Four Corners Tour is available at www.usa4corners.org, and about the park at www.madawaskafourcorners.org.