Last Thursday I went to Frankfort with some of the riders for Alzheimer’s Advocacy Day at the capitol. It was a great day for me to skip physics class and go catch up with the friends I haven’t spent much time with since the ride. We had a blast swapping stories and got the chance to meet with most of our respective representatives and senators to talk about why we did what we did in the name of our cause.
Being back with the guys and in the company of so many people from the Alzheimer’s Association and the Alzheimer’s community was great because it swept me back into the mindset that I had last summer and let me revisit the thoughts I was having during our journey. Many people have asked me since why I stopped writing my blog each day and why I never summed up my feelings about the ride afterward. The truth is that I checked out of the ride about ten days early and stopped thinking so much about the cause as I did myself. I feel incalculable regret because of this. Each day as we traveled further from Kentucky, I became more consumed with what type of person I would be afterward the looming end of the ride. We had spent forty days living with more purpose and focus than I ever have on my own and I was scared that my life as a student would not have the same meaning as before. Visiting the capital reminded me of those days and I feel ready to share my thoughts on our ride in a clear perspective.
Each day last summer we would get up, put on our uniforms, stretch, and prepare our bikes. Then we did what I have not done a day since the ride, I am embarrassed to admit. We focused all our thoughts and energy on what we hoped to achieve that day. We had a goal in mind as far as distance, but also for how we would conduct ourselves. We considered a specific person or family that had suffered with Alzheemer’s disease and decided to honor them with our actions for the day. I heard fifty of those dedications over the summer, and by and far I don’t remember them all. What I do remember is how I felt each morning and how, as the trip went on, how each story seemed to blur together because they were all so similar:
A loving family member starts acting different. The family often denies that this strong and intelligent person has a health issue. Symptoms worsen. The family becomes alarmed and addresses the victim. The victim is scared and often ashamed. Treatment is sought. It is never enough. Health declines. The victim becomes a person the family does not recognize, and does not recognize the family in return. There is a long period of emotional and financial strife filled with guilt on the family’s part that they cannot give the right aid. There are no happy endings.
Then we would ride. We would ride all day and talk about these people. We would meet strangers and tell them what we were doing. Lots of the times we would sing and have great fun. The times when we were truly focused on our purpose were sobering and emotional. We had declared that our goal was to raise money and awareness and bring people to action against the disease. I often felt helpless as more and more people emailed us and asked us to dedicate days to their loved ones. There were so many stories that made me so sad. What kept me going was the response we constantly received from our supporters. While it doesn’t make much sense that seven college kids riding bikes would have any bearing on people, it overwhelmingly did.
People were inspired. People saw us and would cry. Strangers would hug me like a long lost son. People would give us their home and food and money, more than they had to give, and would thank us afterwards. I appreciate Tyler’s genius because I was so skeptical from the get-go, but the gesture of riding our bikes a long way really did make a lot of people happy.
I sat in the capitol rotunda last week during the rally and listened to speakers that had been touched by the disease. My memories from last summer flooded my head. The speeches from Phyllis George and Pat Forde were very personal, and most of the time I bit my tongue and stared at the ceiling to avoid losing it. Last on the schedule for the rally was the call to action, which turned out to be a speech from Tyler. I stood behind him and listened while I thought of what I would write in this last blog. I came up with this:
During the ride, I never felt like I was doing anything remarkable. I struggled daily trying to decide if we should have just donated the money we raised for supplies and let that be that. As I step back several months later, I am very proud to be a part of the ride. As I frame the whole thing, I realize that we touched many people deeply, educated many more, and called many, many people to do something help our cause. I learned a lot more than most would want to know about Alzheimer’s disease. It is dehumanizing, often shameful, and emotionally and financially draining. It is vast and unforgiving. We did not reach our goal for fundraising, but I don’t care. I had nothing better to do and we changed some people’s minds along the way. Riding my bike across the country to support my friend and what he believed in was the best thing I’ve ever done with my life. If I do something else from now until I die and can make the same assertion again, I will have been a truly blessed individual.
Thanks for reading,
We often talk about what the toughest part of the trip has been for us. Some cite the long, slow grind mountains of the Colorado’s as the most difficult rides of the trips. Some remember the hot, dry Arizona desert as particularly draining. Understandably, some remember the last two days that included Flagstaff, AZ and early Colorado as rough because we had been on the road for over a week. If you ask me, however, I would say that these last two days through Kentucky and the beginning of Virginia have been the most taxing of the trip. It could be that I am shortly removed from a couple days in my own bed in Elizabethtown or perhaps because I have been battling a case of saddle sores. In any event, these couple days have blurred together so hard that I have written them together, after the fact.
The climbs these last two days have been a sort of hybrid of the most difficult we have faced yet. Whereas Colorado was long and low-grade, and Missouri was steep and high-grade, these eastern Kentucky climbs have been the worst of both worlds: steep enough to wear you out and long enough to do the same.
I hate to say that I have completely let the grind get to me these last two days. I listened and prayed for the people who we rode for but when I tried to make it up and down those hills I must confess that I was thinking only about my own survival. The fact that we have not had cell phone service and that we have been riding through either national forests or areas that aren’t too perceptive to individuals that have matching spandex outfits hasn’t helped, but I have just been trying to get to the next day. To make matters worse, I broke a pedal in the last mile of today, which has been a constant frustration for me this trip.
I hope that I can make mileage tomorrow. Right now that is my only hope, as I am sort of afraid history will repeat itself and these broken pedals will be too much for me to handle for a whole day.
We’re working for the cause. Hard.
Today I had the opportunity to see a part of my home state that I have never seen before. Elementary school taught me that Eastern Kentucky is a region that has been dependent on the coal industry for a long time. Since then I have learned that some parts are suffering from a cycle of poverty, even UK gives scholarships to Appalachian students. Today, I saw a lot of nice places and people. Hazard seemed to be a bustling, if not vast, city. However, I also got a dose of the other side that I have heard about. As one Australian cyclist I met in Missouri told me, “The eastern part of your state is like a developing country.” In some cases, this was not far from the truth.
The part about today that shocked me the most was concurrence of these homes that seemed to be in poverty, with people sitting half-clothed on the lawn, and houses that look like they should be in a neighborhood in a suburb. We would see a string of a dozen trailers with pit bulls and rottweilers and next would be a house with landscaping and a pool. It was clearly a case of the haves and the have-nots, but I can’t explain why. All I know is that when one service station attendant described his town as “dope city USA”, I appreciated how there were many more mean dogs around and began to feel unsafe. I hate to think that, whether because of drugs or whatever oppressive force, there are parts of my state that seem to hold much less opportunity than in Lexington or Louisville- and these people are still in the range to take the Herald-Leader.
I don’t really know what to say about today. I had a somber mood that may have stemmed from the muggy heat or the Appalachian terrain that made me ultrasensitive to the areas I passed through. My thoughts kept going back to friends I know from UK that have received diversity scholarships because they are from counties in eastern Kentucky. While these are all bright and generally well to do kids, I know that for every one of them there are many more who didn’t dream of going to college. I have never considered getting into politics until today, and I’m still not sure what all the smart people in charge aren’t doing that I could do better.
With my thoughts deep in the affairs of the state of Kentucky, it was hard to remember that I was riding for Wade’s great grandmom. This seemed right after we met most of his family last night and they treated us so well. I hope that she had time today to look down on Wade riding through these hills and backwoods and leading five others for the same purpose.
Tonight is the last night I’ll sleep in Kentucky until the trip is over, as we’re about 40 miles from the state line. I’ll say a prayer tonight for safe travel on these narrow mountain roads and for all the people we have met that don’t have the means to burn a summer riding their bikes.
Today was probably the toughest 67 mile ride that I have done. I’m not sure if we’re officially in the Appalachians yet, but it sure felt like the hills were longer today. When I got off the bike today, I felt as tired as I have been since Arizona. Fighting cramps, I had to get help stretching.
I jumped to the end first because that can help explain what it was like for our guest. This morning Mrs. Lunceford, who hosted us last night, decided that she would come ride the first leg of the ride with us. I wish we would have taken a look at the elevation profile, because the first fifteen miles today were the toughest we’ve had in a couple of weeks. We knew we were in trouble when we passed a town only five miles in called Big Hill, KY. Yes, the name fit. The next three miles were a Colorado-esque climb that put a hurting on my hamstrings. I rode ahead, but three of the riders rode with Mrs. Lunceford. They said that although she took a couple breaks, she grinded it out like a champ. That reminded me of myself on our first big climb in Arizona, where I finished the eight miles about twenty minutes behind Justin. I’m glad that Mrs. Lunceford was excited enough about our cause to come ride, though. It’s a good thing that she was there this morning to hear Wade dedicate the day to the granddad of his girlfriend. I believe she felt the motivation of our cause and it helped her finish.
The rest of the ride was not as tough but it did get hot and we ended the day with two substantial climbs. As we rode through Daniel Boone National Forest I kept a lookout for bears. We finally finished in Buckhorn at almost 6pm (yes, we woke up late and took a long lunch again). I got off the bike to cheers, a shower, and a fantastic spaghetti dinner served up by the Haga family. A good ending to a good day, and I’ll sleep thinking about crossing into Virginia in just a day and a half.
I have raved recently about how nice it has been to stay with people we know throughout Kentucky. That is still true, but we have also learned that this is a double-edged sword. When we eat barbecue and sleep in beds, 5:30am comes very early. As we went to bed last night, we toyed with the idea of sleeping in since we only had a short day of 61 miles. We decided, however, that we should get back in the grind and wake up early. That is why I felt so worthless when I got out of bed at 7:15, knowing that Alex had been up and working for over an hour and a half. I thought about all my friends that are working tough jobs all summer and decided that my daily grind isn’t bad at all.
And today proved this to me. The grind was hardly a grind at all, as we knocked out twenty-five miles and I hadn’t drank two bottles of water yet. The arrogant confidence that comes from a ride like this often gives us bad ideas, and today was no exception. The little voice came back out and said, “It’s only thirty miles left.” So, when the three that had done this ride on their way to Lexington during fall break suggested a Pizza Hut reunion tour, nobody had any reason for us not to. It was only two miles out of the way after what Tyler recalled was a “big, tough hill”. As we rolled through Danville and came up to the hill, we all realized how much our cycling has improved. The “big hill” they rode over fall break now was only a minor speed drain. As we have gotten used to riding our mentality has totally changed.
Pizza Hut was great, while we were there. I learned in the ten miles afterward that it might not be the best idea to eat a pizza buffet in the middle of the day. This is as close as I have been to “hitting the wall” in a month. It was all I could do to make it to the water stop and then finish the day in Berea.
Making it to the end today was so worth it. First, our stop in Berea had in store for us a bunch of friends from WKU, Fiji, and the Alzheimer’s Association. I met the woman who had piloted the “Memories in the Making” art program in Kentucky. Then we drove to Richmond to a Fiji’s parents house where we have been treated to a killer dinner featuring twice-baked potatoes and steak skewers. Good day.
What another great day of riding across America. Although it wasn’t quite as cool as the ride into town, we had even more company. I wasn’t expecting this, but when the Vittitow’s pulled into the parking lot to unload Chaz, Charlie hopped out with his old ten speed. We also had Bob, the advisor for the Fijis until this semester, Austin, our friend who didn’t get enough the other day, and Alex, a friend who is a lifeguard for Tyler’s mom. As we headed out of town, Bob told us that he was being sponsored for ten dollars per mile by family and friends and that he was riding in honor of his mother. We liked riding around him and encouraging him. Not only was he the oldest rider of the day, but he was riding a department store mountain bike that only had three working gears.
As we stopped at eleven miles from Etown, Mrs. Vittitow announced to the riders that she would sponsor Bob for $100 per mile for every mile after eleven if we didn’t tell him about the pledge. We urged and encouraged him along, but as it heated up the bike resisted more until he put his bike in the truck at 31 miles. Overall, Bob raised $2300 for Alzheimer’s research and showed us that he is a warrior on the bike.
I really enjoyed riding with all of our friends. At one point, I gave my shoes to Austin and switched bikes with him. The mountain bike was so different that I’m glad Tyler wanted to try it out for the last ten miles into Springfield. After the last stop, I was feeling frisky, so I joined Justin and rode a bit faster to the truck. We stopped at McDonald’s about ten or fifteen minutes before the rest who rode a leisurely pace. This set us up for a view of one of the funniest things that has happened in weeks:
When I rode Austin’s mountain bike, I jokingly rode over every gravel driveway and small grass bump I could find. Tyler did the same and successfully crushed a coke can with the fat tires. As Justin and I waited in McDonald’s, Tyler tried his grand finale- riding down the grass hill to the parking lot. He found out halfway down that it was a ditch. With nowhere to go as the other riders occupied the pavement next to him, he went front-first into the ditch and stood up with a completely muddy front. Austin’s bike was filthy. I missed the crash but Justin jumped in shock in time for me to turn and see the swamp thing rise from the ditch. Priceless.
We said goodbye to the guest riders; I’ll miss the different company. After we loaded up we drove towards Lebanon to my friend’s farm where we ended the 4th of July with barbecue sandwiches and some (very poor) frog gigging. Happy Birthday America.
We woke up today and after a great breakfast provided by David, our host at Rough River Lake, it was all business. Tyler informed us this morning that we would have a police escort into Etown at 1pm eastern time and after we did the math we figured that we would need to ride 15 mph for the first 35 miles before we met up with friends to ride the last 23 into town. So we did. As we unloaded we were passed by the two women who slept at David’s house last night, both on their fully loaded bikes that I would guess weigh about 100 pounds. It reminded me once again of how easy we have it.
Today was a beautiful ride altogether. The weather was perfect. Cars were nice. The dogs weren’t mean. The scenery was great. We crossed into Hardin county. Just great. I thought it couldn’t get better until people started joining us. Starting at 23 miles out, Austin, a friend from Etown and a recent WKU alum, joined us on his mountain bike. At 12 miles out, Matthew, an eleven year friend of Tyler’s, joined us. Finally, my little sister Olivia joined in with three miles to go. It didn’t take her a mile to proclaim that she liked downhills better than uphills.
A very poignant moment today happened on 62 into Etown when we stopped at the cemetery and visited the grave of Barrett Cummings, Tyler’s granddad. There are times when this ride has been taxing both physically and mentally, but that moment when we stood together and reflected on why we started and how far we have come was amazing. I’m very proud to be a part of this group and right now I wouldn’t care if we hadn’t raised a dime for Alzheimer’s.
The icing on the cake of today was riding into town. There was a large group/small crowd of family and friends gathered at the community center to cheer us in. After seeing my dad and sister for the last couple hours as we rode in together, I finally got to see my girlfriend who has patiently listened to all my stories all summer while she has been home taking classes. That was great. I’m glad to be home for a couple days; I just hope I can leave when the time comes.