The last mile
In 1997, I quit work for 12 weeks to ride my bicycle from coast to coast on a 5,100-mile journey that took me through more than a dozen states and a couple of Canadian provinces. The trip began June 8 in Bellingham, Wash., where 17 of us in the “Cycle America” group dipped the back tires of our bicycles in the Pacific at Bellingham Bay. The trip ended Aug. 29 in Gloucester, Mass., where the same 17 celebrated by dousing our front tires in the Atlantic at Gloucester Harbor.
Today is the 12th anniversary of riding that “last mile.”
That mile was definitely the goal we had all worked for and dreamed about as we trained separately in the months leading up to the trip. We’d all built it up in our minds sort of as this Rocky Balboa moment where we’d reach the ocean and raise our hands over our heads in triumph. But in the end, and even now looking back on it years later, it turned out not to be the most important mile at all. It was everything that came before that mattered most. That’s where I learned the lessons that stick with me today.
I learned that the toughest people in life aren’t the ones that look tough or pretend to be tough. Our core group was kind of a gang of mismatched misfits. Only two of the members of our group even knew each other before the trip began — Jeff Hochbaum and Marty Siegel, a couple of weekend cycling buddies from New Jersey. The rest of us had arrived from 15 other places and we ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-60s. It took a couple of weeks for us “coast-to-coasters” to even sort one another out and get to know each other amid the ebb and flow of larger groups of cyclists that joined us for a week at a time to travel across a single state. Some of us were in better shape than others. One rider was an anesthesiologist from Chicago named Bill Zimmerman who made it a point of pride to say he had only ridden 40 miles total on his brand new bike in preparation for a trip that would take us over three major mountain ranges, hundreds of miles of desert, open flatlands and rolling hills. Bill about died every day the first three weeks of the trip, but he never got off the bike and eventually he got into shape. A couple of the other guys — Gordon Whittaker and Paul Chaikowski — were experienced touring cyclists who had taken long solo or group trips in various locales all over the world. They were both very generous in sharing their experiences and helping the rest of us through rough patches. Then there was Brian Wimer, an Accu-Weather meteorologist from State College, Pa., who would become our official trip weatherman. There was a kid from New York named Thomas O’Brien who was legally blind with macular degeneration, but who was still able to make the trip. Another younger guy named Mike Bredehoeft hardly ever said a word. I just called him “Quiet Mike.” Another cheerful fellow who tended to keep to himself but laughed alot was Will LaJack. There was a group of “old guys” approaching or over 60 — Jerry Hassemer, Ed Krimmer, Don Brenner and Dick Avery — who’d always be the first to pack up their tents each morning and get on the road, often by daybreak. Then there were the only two women along, both good Irish girls: Katie O’Connor from Chicago and Cathy O’Brien from New York City. The strongest cyclist in the group was a fiftyish man named Richard McAteer, from New Hampshire, who generally was the first to finish each leg of the trip. But he was very humble and quiet, and never once pointed out that he was the first to finish.
What made the main coast-to-coast group most special was that nobody in it turned out to be a blowhard or a showoff. Imagine that. Maybe it was because we were all there as individuals on equal footing. There were no pre-formed cliques. Nobody was out there trying to pretend they were Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong riding in the Tour de France to outrace everyone. And we even made a point of talking about and avoiding the undesirable outcome of allowing ourselves to develop into a clique as we covered more ground together over time. Even deep into the trip, after reaching Ohio and Pennsylvania, we’d make sure each week to reach out to the newcomers for that week, introduce ourselves and develop bonds with them and include them in our fun. And we were rewarded. Some of them turned out to be the most memorable characters of the journey.
Every once in awhile, though, certain people deserved to be ignored. There were a few groups of those Type-A cycling types I call “hammerheads” who would show up for a week and try to take over the whole tour. The rest of us would just laugh at them. They’d have these brightly colored racing team jerseys and matching shorts, they’d get in their little pacelines with their shaved legs and hi-tech bikes outfitted with the latest gizmos such as aerodynamic disc wheels and tapered helmets, and they’d constantly be checking their aerobic performance on their heart rate monitors. They were the standard loud, insufferable Alpha Males (and some Alpha Females) that you might find in the pace line on a typical weekend cycling club ride back home, but out here they just looked silly. Meanwhile, the glorious and timeless vistas of a Glacier National Park or a Yellowstone National Park would elude the hammerheads because they were too busy riding wheel to wheel, literally with their noses up each other’s butts as they tried to maintain some ridiculous pace. And for what? They totally missed the point of what touring cycling is all about. They were too fried at the end of each day to take in the small towns with their county fairs and arcades and little-league baseball games and pig races where the rest of us would go to relax and unwind after a day on the bike. Based on their demeanor, I’m not sure the hammerheads were even having fun. Too often in life, we allow people with this type of personality to assert themselves as “leaders” and give them the power to shape our everyday existence — whether it’s in politics, at work or even in our social lives. But we should ignore people like this. They are not leaders. They are all about bluster papering over insecurity, and they don’t know how to live.
I learned that the worst headwinds are much harder to ride through than the highest mountains are to ride over. And the thing about wind is that it doesn’t show up on a map like mountain ranges do. You can plan for the mountain ranges and study them over and over again in advance and visualize yourself “conquering” them. But the wind just hits you when it decides to hit you. In the same way, life’s toughest challenges and obstacles are probably going to be the ones you never gave much thought to in advance. So even when you’re hit by the unexpected things, you should at least know enough not to be surprised.
I learned that you should never count down the miles. That’s a surefire way to make a bad ride seem twice as long. Even if it’s too hot and you have a 25 m.p.h. wind in your face, just ride. Don’t keep checking your odometer. Don’t keep counting telephone poles. And while you’re at it, stop looking up the value of your 401(k) at the close of each day of trading, and stop checking zillow.com to see what your house is worth today. It will all still be there tomorrow.
I learned something from a corny banner hung up over a row of lockers at a high school where we camped for the night in Holland, Michigan: “It is good to have an end to journey toward,” the banner said, “But it is the journey that matters in the end.”
I learned that even when you think you’ve “conquered” or “kicked the ass” of something big, like a continent, there’s always something even bigger out there that can kick your ass right back, like an ocean. This lesson was driven home to me right in the middle of our Rocky Balboa moment at Gloucester Harbor. We were gathered on the waterfront around the city’s Fisherman’s Memorial, which was dedicated in 1923 to all the fishermen who had died plying their trade from that port in the three preceding centuries. The memorial depicts a fisherman struggling at the wheel of a listing ship in the midst of a fearsome storm. The inscription on the memorial is simple and stark. It just says: “They That Go Down To The Sea In Ships.”
I remember feeling a big lump in my throat when I read that inscription.
I have thought back alot to that summer of 1997 in recent weeks as I’ve started another journey through the treatment of my brain cancer. Much of what I learned on that trip is helping to shape my attitude for this one. I’m not really thinking much about what the last mile of this journey will look like or be like, whether it’s good or bad. I’m just enjoying all of the miles that I know will come between now and then. I take comfort in that knowledge each weekday, when I hop on my bicycle and ride from my house to my radiation treatments at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
The distance is exactly one mile.