Sunday, February 15, 2015

Pedaling across America: June 2007

THIS IS THE STORY of my first bicycle trip across the United States in 2007. It was originally posted on a blog called I thought anyone interested in doing this kind of trip might prefer reading my story in a more compact configuration rather than clicking on fifty different blog posts.

Here, then, is the story of my great adventure, a solo ride across the continent when I was 58 years old.



Emily                                                          (originally posted: June 14, 2007)

In just a few days I begin my trip across the United States to raise money for diabetes research.

Emily, 17, our youngest daughter, was diagnosed as a type-1 diabetic in March, 2005—one of the darkest times our family has ever faced.

Still, we consider ourselves “lucky.” Emily had been healthy all throughout her childhood; and we could feel for those whose children were diagnosed at an earlier age. Emily was old enough to give herself her own shots...old enough to understand what risks were involved ...but not so old she wasn’t scared.

We have been lucky since, too. Our daughter has never once let a complaint slip between her lips. She knew from the start that being diabetic would change her life and might change her future. So she set her mind on making the best of a bad situation. I will have more to say about her in future postings. For now I can only tell you that her mother and I are very proud.

(This is still true, almost eight years later.)

Here are the basics of my plan. I have a family reunion in New Jersey the weekend of June 15-17. The next day my brother will drop me off along the coast. Bicycling tradition says you should dip your back wheel in the ocean where you start—and dip your front wheel in the ocean where you finish. I expect to complete my trip to Oregon in roughly two months.

Loveland community support has been tremendous. I have raised a little more than $10,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

(I was then teaching at Loveland Middle School in Loveland, Ohio. Students, staff and parents helped me raise funds for the cause.)

Emily, 17, a type-1 diabetic, in 2007.
We love her dearly.

Emily, left, ready to party at Ohio State.
She's now a diabetic nurse counselor in Washington, D. C.

Stress Test                                                                                              (June 14, 2007)

My wife is a worrier. So I can’t just get on my bicycle and ride. Today I have to take a stress test. I teach middle school. I know I have stress.

Part of it comes down to age: I’m 58. My weight isn’t too good, either: 190 on a bad day. Eating habits are an abomination. Twix bars for breakfast, four cookies for lunch. Bad cholesterol is an issue, too.

So maybe a stress test isn’t a bad idea.

I plan to ride my bicycle over from Glendale to Jewish Hospital in Kenwood in a few minutes, about twelve miles. I do find, without exception, that when I exercise my stress abates.

I recommend that middle school teachers exercise regularly.

Only 4,000 Miles to Go                                                               (June 20, 2007)

I'm sitting here in a Virginia library, sweating nicely, on my third day of riding.

So far my trip is about what I expected. That is: a relatively in-shape person of advanced age will suffer to get into shape.

My brother Ned dropped me off around noon on June 18 on the Jersey shore and I dipped my back tire in the Atlantic as required by tradition. Two months later I hope to dip my front tire in the Pacific. A pretty young lifeguard inquired where I was going. I replied, “Oregon,” with a smile. She returned my smile and wished me luck. I suspect she took one look at my physique and thought, “No chance in the world!”

(I began my ride twenty-five pound overweight and twenty-five years past my prime; but my background in the Marine Corps helped me believe I could still do it.)

Fat and old: but still ready to go.
I carry all my own gear when I ride.

Heading south with a good following wind I made 72 miles down the coast. As expected there were no hills, though heat was a factor. I crossed Delaware Bay on a ferry (another 15 miles) and rode through the Eastern Shore to Salisbury, Maryland.

Everyone I talk to has been nice, especially when I tell them I’m riding to raise money for juvenile diabetes research. At a fruit stand in Delaware the owner brought me her special chair and set it down in the shade so I could rest. At 6:00 p.m. I stopped in Millsboro, Delaware at a restaurant serving breakfast all day. When I told the hostess I hoped to ride to Oregon and was raising money for diabetes she shook my hand. Then she called two waitresses over to tell them about what I was doing. After polishing off a pile of pancakes I logged twenty-seven more miles and found a hotel before dark in Salisbury, Maryland.

The second day was uneventful, but roasting hot. I felt like I was riding in a sauna. For those interested in a beach home I can say that reports in the Eastern Shore papers indicate the region is booming. You heard it here first.

I also read in USA Today that 12% of all health spending in the country goes to diabetic care: $80 billion dollars out of $645 billion. I hope JDRF can help find a cure soon.

(That total would also include care for the much more prevalent type-2 diabetes; the difference is that with good diet and exercise, you can rid yourself of type-2 diabetes. Type-1 is, at least for now, a lifetime burden.)

At any rate, I can also reveal another travel tip to those planning to visit the Eastern Shore. DO NOT plan to use the ferry which crosses the Chesapeake Bay from Crisfield, Maryland to Reedville, Virginia. AAA maps indicate it will work; but the ferry carries passengers only and runs once a day. Unfortunately, I missed the trip on the 19th and ground to a stop after only 49 miles.

Today I finally managed to cross over to Tangier Island at 12:30. There you catch a second boat at 2:00 to finish the passage to Virginia. It was a picturesque island and I talked to several interesting locals, as well as a young man who had just finished boot camp at Parris Island.

I will say more about that; but I want to get riding. It’s 7:30 in the evening and I have ten miles to go to the nearest campground.

Slow Progress and Suffering                                                 (June 27, 2007)

I suppose my wife was right. She warned me riding cross country at my age was a stupid idea. But like many husbands before me and many more to come, I ignored my wife’s advice. Now I’m paying the price in sweat and suffering. The first week of my trip has been harder than expected and I have covered only 460 miles.

Hopefully, I’ll be in good enough shape soon to make this work. Yesterday, June 25 (my daughter Sarah’s twentieth birthday) I managed 82 miles, about what I hope to average.

Most nights, so far, I have run out of light before I can find a camping spot. So I’ve stayed in motels. I can offer one good travel tip: if in Fredericksburg, Virginia NEVER pay for a room at the Twi-Lite Motel (it may fall down before you have a chance anyway).

The first hint is the NO REFUNDS sign at the front desk. But it was growing dark the day I arrived and I had been pedaling on busy roads for hours. I took a look at a room, swallowed hard, and paid anyway.

Sometimes something bad rises to the level of an “experience” and such was the case on this night. My fine room had three lights. Two had no on/off switches and one had no bulb. The dresser was American Goodwill; but some previous guest had checked out and taken all the drawers with him. The ceiling tiles in the bathroom sagged with age and the towel must have been included in the linens on Noah’s Ark. Ah...the cable worked…even if the remote didn’t.

Another night I ran out of time to find a place and found myself deep in the countryside. So I raised my tent in a graveyard, butting up against a large wooded area. Around 2:00 am I heard a bobcat howling nearby. I hunkered down deeper in my sleeping bag and checked to see my pepper spray was near at hand.

I’ve been chased by dogs several times, so I reach for the spray (attached to the handle bar) when I think I might not be able to make my getaway. At this point, I’ve pedaled away from trouble every time; but I think some dog will get it in the end.

Actually, the dogs are ahead 1-0. I was on some back road when a dog came snarling across his yard, headed my way. I was coming up a hill, head down, and had time only to look to see where he was. Then I realized he was stopped by a fence—and looked up just in time to see I was headed for a ditch. I managed to stand my bike on its nose and fall gracefully into the middle of the road.

My best camping experience has been at the Small Country Campground near Troy, Virginia. The Small family has owned the place since 1971 and can accommodate hundreds of campers on any given night. I talked to the owners and it turns out they have a daughter with diabetes. She was diagnosed at 11 and is now 17 and a high school senior to be, as is Emily Viall. Miss Small, however, is interested in massage therapy and not likely to go to college.

Her mother worries what will happen when she hits 18 and can’t be covered on the family insurance policy.

I spent one morning at the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, an impressive southern mansion, built starting in 1748. Lee spent only three years there, -partly because his father fell on hard times, financially. A museum attached had many interesting items, including some of Lee’s personal letters. I noticed in 1834, when he was 25, that he wrote to one of his cousins to describe women in the Fortress Monroe area as “the most beautiful creatures” the Lord ever created, enough to “make the mouth water and the fingers tingle.” I like details which reveal the human side of history.

The next day I visited the battlefield and museum at Chancellorsville. It was here that Lee won his greatest victory, pulverizing a Union army twice the size of his own. The National Park Service places dozens of pictures of young men and women who were tied to the fighting on the walls. I was struck by one: Samuel Sager, who joined the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry in March, 1864. Less than two months later he was killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania (also covered in the museum), when he was sixteen. A Louisiana soldier was shot in the face and blinded but returned home to marry his sweetheart, had seven children (all daughters), and managed to live to 76.

The day after that I pedaled up the mountain to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. If you have never been there you should make the trip. The place is an architectural masterpiece, filled with interesting features to make life easy, easy for Mr. Thomas Jefferson, that is.

Much as I admire the man, and much as I love the ideals laid down in the Declaration of Independence, I wonder how he missed the obvious. Jefferson was a genius, our most brilliant president ever (and I include the present occupant of the White House), but on the question of slavery he was obtuse.

He loved books and had a library of thousands. He loved fine wines and imported hundreds of bottles yearly. He surrounded himself with fine paintings and busts, one of Voltaire. Yet he never put the ideals in the Declaration into action when it came to his own slaves. Couldn’t he have sacrificed some wine—some books—some paintings—and set some slaves free?

George Washington, a less brilliant man, but a man of far greater character, freed every one of his slaves, 388 in all, in his will. Jefferson freed five when he died, some of whom were probably his own children. (Jefferson, in all likelihood, had had a long-time love affair with one of his mixed-race slaves, Sally Hemmings.)

In any case, if a brilliant man like Jefferson can miss the obvious, I suppose we all must admit we can too.

As I strolled through the gardens I noticed a striking black woman, very dark, perhaps born in Africa, but figured it would be rude to ask. She was standing beside a young white man, clearly her boyfriend. As I passed, he leaned in to kiss her and I heard the sound of lips on lips. I couldn’t help but think: this was a state that lost a legal battle in 1967, the year I graduated from high school, at the U. S. Supreme Court level in an effort to uphold its laws against interracial marriage.

I have noticed several interracial couples in Maryland and Virginia, once strictly taboo. I have also noticed how many Hispanics there are and stores and businesses catering to them. America continues to change, as it always has. Three motels where I’ve stayed were run by families from India, who I think are willing to put in long hours to keep small motels alive. I think our nation can absorb them all and come out stronger in the end, as millions of Irish were absorbed after 1846, including my ancestors.

As for riding: in the mornings riding cross country seems like a good idea. By afternoon I am sunburned, caked in salt-sweat, with lips cracked and leg and shoulder muscles aching.

The hardest miles, so far, have been a steep three-mile ascent at Rockfish Gap, leading into the Shenandoah Valley, then a five-mile uphill push this morning just west of Salem, Virginia.

As I type, I am sitting in the library at Pulaski, Virginia. I have covered fifty miles so far today and the next twenty take me into forested country and over two big mountains. I am procrastinating...should I push it this evening or should I take the wimp’s route and quit early and find a motel?




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