Thursday, July 30, 2009

Phase 2, Days 1-4

Day 1 of Phase 2
July 26, 2009
Wichita to Toledo, KS
85 miles
Weather: Warm and Sunny, with a TAILWIND!!!
Where we stayed: Toronto Point Campsite, Cross Timbers State Park

The past two days were more emotional than I ever thought they would be. After spending 2 full weeks with the Grabers in St. Paul, it was pretty hard to leave. Our relationship has grown so much over the past few months. Before this trip, we had only really seen each other once or twice a year, in the parallel universe called Family Reunions, and so it wasn’t guaranteed that we would like one another all that much spending the whole summer side-by-side.

But it turns out, blood ties run deep, and our bond is tight. If crossing half the country by bicycle together weren’t enough to bring us close, the past two weeks of tears, laughter, and grief certainly sealed the deal.

So when it was time to go yesterday, I hugged Amelia and Rosalie (the youngest sister) tightly, and then went upstairs to wake up Rachel. We held each other for a good long while without speaking, said just a few parting words, and shed a few tears as I walked out to the car with Dale and Martha.

The 9 hour drive yesterday from St. Paul to Wichita is kind of a blur. I slept through a lot of it, having stayed up too late the night before working on YouTube videos for TUJ. We stopped at an Amish market for lunch, where my uncle Dale chatted in Dutch with a plump older lady who sold us a huge tin of sweet rolls for $3.75.

We stayed in donated hotel rooms in the Hotel at Old Town Wichita, where we met up with my Dad (who had driven all the way from DC!) and had some good eats and brews at the brewery across the street.

We went on a long walk after dinner, trying to wind our way down to the riverwalk through downtown Wichita. I sort of knew my way around, but ended up walking us down to the theatre where we had seen KISS ME, KATE instead. Their current show, MISS SAIGON, was just getting out, so I stuck my head back in the dressing rooms to hug some of my Michigan colleagues that I had seen two weeks prior.

Mark and Wayne had told them all what had happened, and I found myself more overwhelmed than I expected to be by all the, “I’m so sorry”s and “That’s so amazing you’re going on”s that I received.

We walked back to the hotel along the Arkansas River, glad that I had stopped to see those folks, but really surprised at how hard it had been.

This morning, we woke up to coffee and sweet rolls in the hotel room, and then headed over to a little café to have breakfast with Mark Madama, my professor who took us in two weeks ago when we got the news about Jay. It was really good to see him, and thank him for taking Greg in for a few days on such short notice.

After breakfast, we drove over to his house to load up our gear and collect the bikes. Again, I was caught off guard by my reaction to being at his house again. The last time we had been there, two weeks ago, we were all in such shock, we didn’t really know what to think or feel.

But today, it all came flooding back, with far more clarity and awareness than I had had before. I found myself choking up just separating out my gear from the girls’.

Dale and Martha had a long drive ahead of them, so we shed a few more tears and hugged for as long as we needed to.

After they left, it was another hour or so before I had my gear packed into Dad’s van and my bike in riding shape. It felt both foreign and familiar to put on my bike gear after so much time away, and try to resume something like a routine that I had left behind. It felt so wrong to be rolling out alone, and yet so right to be back on the bike.

Hugging Mark and Wayne one last time, I saddled up and hit the road. Without my gear, I felt light as a feather, and in no time I was back on the same highway we had been on when we got the phone call from home.

Dad was waiting for me up ahead, and so I was alone as I approached the spot where we had sat for an hour, dumbfounded. My chest kept tightening as I approached places that looked like our spot. Of course, just about every point on a Kansan highway looks the same as any other, and so I’m not really sure where the exact spot was. But eventually, when it felt right, I got off my bike, poured a little water out on the ground for my homies, as they say, and got back on the road.

After that, I turned off my little solar-powered radio, and rode for several miles in silence. I found myself weeping as I pedaled, feeling for the first time in months like I wasn’t responsible for anyone, like I didn’t have to stay strong for anyone but myself. I wept for my teammates who had planned to finish but had been cut so short. I wept for Jay who lived so long and so hard and died too soon. I wept for Rachel and her family and Jay’s family who are just beginning to navigate the depths of their grief.

But mostly, I gave myself permission to weep for myself. I didn’t know exactly what I was grieving, but I knew it was important to do so, and so I wept until I didn’t need to anymore. And then I turned the radio back on, and laughed that they were playing Like a Rolling Stone.

For the first time since I’ve been in Kansas, I had a tailwind. I couldn’t help but feel like someone upstairs was looking out for me, knowing how hard a day this was going to be. My dad and I set up a system where he would drive 10 miles ahead and wait for me, sporting the giant car magnets with our team logo that were donated by Allegra Imaging in Chantilly, VA. He brought along his scores and recordings to study for the coming school year (he’s the Director of Bands at the University of Maryland), and so has plenty to do while he waits. But with a tailwind like we had today, he said he barely had ten minutes to look things over before I came whizzing up to refill my water bottles and grab a snack. You sure can’t beat riding unloaded with a tailwind!

As we moved East from Wichita, we left behind the flat boringness of Agro-mania flat cornfields and instead enjoyed the beautiful pastures of the Flint Hills. Dad was just in awe of the scenery, and I would smile and say, “If you think this is amazing, I just wish you could have seen the first half of the trip.”

We stopped for dinner at the Pizza Hut in Eureka, where the waitress had a really hard time wrapping her head around my final destination. “Virginia?” she said, “But this is KANSAS! That’s like, 17 states away!” She said it with such sincerity, I have to assume she wasn’t being hyperbolic.

After letting dinner digest for a few minutes, we hit the road one last time to try and reach Toledo before dark. Riding in the early evening provides such a welcome relief from the heat of midday, the only tradeoff being the swarms of gnats and mosquitoes that you end up picking out of your teeth and arm hair when you arrive.

Added to the unloaded tailwind, these last 21 miles were mostly downhill. In less than an hour, I was in downtown Toledo (don’t blink, or you’ll miss the lovely little place!), rolling down Main Street, when three slightly intoxicated men shouted at me from the darkened stoop of a café. “Are you from DC? Get over here and have a hot link. Your old man will be back soon.” Dad had been chatting with them, apparently, and was following a camping lead they had given him while waiting on me to catch up.

They fed me hot links marinated in 28 different spices, which had been an anniversary gift for Brian from his wife. Today was their 24th, and she was nowhere in sight. It was just Brian, and his two cousins Randy and Charlie. Charlie was sporting large, 70’s style eyeglasses, and what he lacked in teeth he made up for with comedy. He was sporting a sign taped to his chest that said, “I’m at the Deli, Come and Get Me!,” which apparently was meant to help him find his way home if he couldn’t get there on his own.

Night fell on us fast, and so Dad and I rolled out to the campsite in Cross Timbers State Park, just a few miles down the road. It was strange setting up camp out of a car: I couldn’t find any of my gear, being so accustomed to everything having a very specific place and function on the bike. I’ll have to do some serious reorganizing in the morning.

But for now, I’m going to enjoy the fact that I have my dad by my side, snores and all, to see this journey through to the finish. I know how lucky I am to have friends and especially family so unconditionally supportive of my every step. I don’t take it for granted, and hope that I’m able to pass along all of the love and positive energy they send my way to the folks I meet out on the road.

Day 2 of Phase 2
July 27, 2009
Toledo, KS to Nevada, MO
97 Miles
Weather: 92 and clear, winds from the SW
Where we stayed: America’s Best Value Inn & Suites, Nevada, MO

Dad started stirring in the tent this morning two minutes before my alarm went off. We discovered together just how much faster it is to pack up in the morning when there are only two people and one tent involved.

By 8:30 am we were walking into the Toledo Café, where the older gentleman smoking outside affirmed my trip by proclaiming, “Well, you can’t sit on your ass, can you?” The café had just reopened in a new location, and the owner had been working her tail off to get the place ready for the health inspector’s visit today. On top of it all, she had hired a new cook to help her handle the load, and the guy didn’t show up on the café’s big re-opening day!

Yet with all the stress on the staff, we still got the best darn service around, and the food was excellent, to boot! (Try throwing a little cinnamon and vanilla in your pancake batter next time, and thank the Toledo Café later!) We were happy to hear that our waitress was going back to work at her factory job, from which she had been laid off several months ago. Looks like there might be an upswing in the economy after all.

We drained several cups of coffee as we poured over our maps, trying to decide how to make the most of the next week or so. A while back, our team decided to leave the TransAmerica trail in the state of Missouri, switching over to the Katy State Trail---an old railroad that has been converted into a bike trail. It crosses almost the whole state of Missouri, from Clinton to St. Louis. In order to get up to the Katy trail without adding on a bunch of extra miles to the trip, we left the TransAm today, heading straight east on Highway 54. It was a beautiful ride—eastern Kansas being far more scenic than the flat west.

One of the things that changed with the addition of Dad’s support vehicle to the trip is that I no longer have to stop in every town to refill my water and get snacks. But it was in those stops that I got to meet all of the interesting townspeople everyday, talking about our adventures, and why we were riding.

Today, even though I didn’t really need to, I stopped in all of the small towns anyway, hoping to meet a few interesting folks to spice up my day. It was on just one such stop that I met Cindy, her son Preston, and their dog Shadow. Cindy and Preston were really excited about the trip, and shared that Cindy’s had lost her grandmother to Alzheimer’s.

Preston shared with me that he was living with Cerebral Palsy, having been born nearly 4 months premature. He was so proud to share this news about his life’s challenges, and I was truly inspired to jump back on my bike with renewed vigor.

I rode about 70 miles into Fort Scott, Kansas, the last big town before crossing into Missouri. I stopped for a dip in the town pool to cool off a little bit before continuing on, and had a little bit of dinner at the Nu-Grille Café. Our waitress, Jessica, was probably one of the most charismatic people I’ve met in a long time. When my dad asked her where she went to college, she laughed and told us she wasn’t even 16 yet!

With food in my belly, I headed out for the state line in much cooler weather than I had earlier today. Just before I got to the state line, I passed a farm with a herd of eight giant elk by the side of the road. Several of the bucks had huge racks of antlers, and there was one little calf with completely snowy fur. That, paired with all of the road-kill-armadillos, made for very interesting sightseeing on the side of the road.

By the time we got into Nevada, MO (pronounced Nuh-VAY-duh), it was getting close to dark. We rode past Cottey College, an all-girls school that my childhood piano teacher had attended. We had a hotel room donated by America’s Best Value, for which I was really grateful after such a long day (97 miles)!

Day 3 of Phase 2
July 27, 2009
Nevada, MO to Montrose, MO (to Gravois Mills, MO)
55 miles
Weather: Stormy!
Where we stayed: Aunt Ellen’s Lake house!

Last night, I stayed up way to late, trying to write in the journal while Dad watched V for Vendetta. Looking back, the journal entry is pretty incoherent, and will need a little reworking. I gave up around 2am and fell asleep.

This morning, we slept in well past the 6am wake-up call we had asked for, and once we did actually get up, spent a couple of hours organizing all our gear, which had been thrown haphazardly into the van at Mark’s house a few days back.

Relatively satisfied that everything had a place and I could find my clothes when I needed them, we left the hotel around 10:30. I stopped in at the bank on my way out of town, and Dad programmed his Garmin to take him south to Golden City, to retrieve the bike parts that had been shipped there when we were in Wichita two weeks ago.

We were only separated for a few hours, but I put a pannier back on my bike to carry extra food and water, just for old times sake.

Today, I was navigating by the seat of my pants, not having an Adventure Cycling map or a Katy Trail map to go by for this stretch. I followed Highway 54 east all the way to El Dorado Springs, where I stopped for directions at a service station.

The cheery looking grandmother in the window grinned like the Cheshire Cat when I walked in, and asked her which country road I should take to get over to Clinton, where the Katy trail starts. She wasn’t too sure, but just kept grinning the whole time like she had a really good secret she was holding onto.

She took me to the garage, where her son had a car up on a jack and was doing some work on a wheel. She opened the door and shouted his name, to which he responded in a frustrated voice,
”What NOW, ma?” He had his back to me.

“Now I’m not bothering you, son, but this guy needs directions on his bike,” she said. Together, the three of us stewed over a map for a good while, and decided that taking Highway 82 east, to Country road H North was the best way to go. There wouldn’t be a shoulder and there were a lot of hills, “But I guess if you’re doing this thing for EXERCISE you don’t mind hills too much, do you?”

I left the service station with water bottles filled, and got a call from Dad that he was almost back from Golden City, bike-part-retrieval-mission accomplished. It hadn’t been easy: The lady I had spoken too at Cooky’s Café wasn’t working today, and apparently was the only one who knew why these cyclist kids had sent a box of bike parts to the café.

Dad had sat down at a table to eat before inquiring about the box, coconut cream pie being an essential part of his mission. (After all, the reason I sent the box to Cooky’s was because Will and Trevor told us that they had the very best pies in all of Missouri.)

While he savored his pie, Dad asked about the box. I had called just a few days before to confirm that it had arrived, and was told that it had. So we were both surprised to hear that no one at the diner had any clue what Dad was talking about, and couldn’t find such a box anywhere. After calling me to make sure he was at the right place, Dad found a friendly looking lady that seemed to know her way around the place, and a few minutes later, she had found the box stashed in a hallway by the Men’s Room. Phew!

By the time Dad caught up with me, I was enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery of the entire trip. I had been riding north on Highway H for several miles, gliding up and down the pastoral foothills of the Ozark Mountains. After all the monotony of Kansas, those hills were such a welcome change of pace, especially since I wasn’t hauling all my gear up the steep grades.

Through small little forests, over rivers, and past hundreds of haystacks, I rode for about 55 miles to Montrose, stopping once to get directions from an older guy wearing overalls and driving a giant John Deere. For a few miles outside of Montrose, Dad rode right behind me, since there wasn’t a shoulder and traffic started picking up…which for this part of the country, means 4 or 5 cars every 10 minutes.

To the west, the sky turned a very ominous shade of almost-black, as a thunderstorm mounted in the distance. I made it to the Short Street Tavern just as the sky opened up, and stayed warm and dry in the pub, listening to the raindrops thunder down on the tin roof.
We watched the news as we waited for the storm to pass, and saw on the weather radar that there would be storms in the area all evening. Feeling pretty proud of the nearly 250 miles I had covered in three days, I decided that there was no need to be a hero and keep going through the storm. I called it quits for the day, tossing my bike in the back of the van and driving with Dad to his sister Ellen’s house in Gravois Mills, MO.

We had planned to take this detour to her house to rest up for a few days and play on the Lake of the Ozarks. I had just hoped to get a little further before doing so. On Friday, we plan on driving back to Montrose to resume cycling from the same place I left off.

We made it to Ellen’s in time to see her and my Uncle Rob play in their community orchestra concert in Versailles, MO. The two of them have been tooting their horns with this community group every Tuesday night for two years, playing a series of ten concerts through the summer months. I felt a swell of pride when they were each prominently featured as soloists in several different numbers!

After the concert, we drove to Rob and Ellen’s beautiful lake house, right on the water at the Lake of the Ozarks, and talked late into the night over summer sausage, cheese, and brews. I was so happy to be there, instead of soaking wet in my tent!

Day 4 of Phase 2
July 29, 2009
Rest Day in Gravois Mills, MO
Weather: 81 and Sunny, with a balmy breeze
Where we stayed: Ellen’s Lake House

I just love rest days, especially with family! This morning we slept in a little bit, enjoying the warm breeze off the lake blowing over us in the sleeping porch. Uncle Rob had set the coffee pot to start perkin’ at 7:30, (doesn’t he know I’m on vacation!?!?) so I was wooed out of bed by the promise of sweet rolls and coffee.

Dad and Ellen sat down on the dock in the cove, swinging on the porch swing and draining several cups of coffee, while I sat at the computer and wrote in the journal. A little while later, Rob called from his office at the bank to tell me that a reporter from one of the local papers was interested in talking to me. We had a conference call for about twenty minutes, in which I found myself repeatedly saying, “We do this, and we ride that…” I sure miss the team.

After the interview, Ellen took me to a Mennonite bike shop around the lake called World of Wheels, where the owner, Mark, helped me get my bike tuned up. (My grandfather, after leaving the Amish church, was an old-order Mennonite pastor for 29 years.) It was a surprisingly large store for the area—one of the biggest and best-equipped bike shops I’ve seen on the whole trip. And Mark lives with his family on the same property, just across the driveway. He came out of the house and greeted us at the car when we drove off the country road to come find him, and was eager to talk about my trip.

Mark had done a little bit of cycle-touring around Kansas and Missouri himself, and dreamed of doing a cross-country tour one day. I asked him what his plans were for the next week or so, but he had a precious little one-year-old and a wife and a business to think about.

He replaced my chain rings, cassette, and chain, using the parts that my buddy Joe had sent from College Park Bicycle Shop back home. We put on new handlebar tape, and installed a super-bright front headlight. He worked on the bike for about an hour, talking about taking over this business from his father, and his passion for cycling.

When it was all said and done, he told me that the labor was on the house. Ellen bought the headlight and bar tape. Again, I’m so deeply moved by people’s generosity and kindness. I hope that Mark has the chance to do his own cross-country tour someday soon, so he can experience the same kind of hospitality that he gave me.

After getting the bike all ready to go, we headed home to the lake house, where Uncle Rob had come home early from work to take us out boating on the lake. It was more than relaxing—it was a little piece of heaven. We sat on the boat for a couple of hours, rocking gently in the waves and looking at all the different shapes and sizes of the houses on the shoreline. I fell asleep on the bow of the boat, working on my ghastly cyclist tan lines.

By the time we docked back at the house, we had just a little bit of time left to get ready for the church fellowship dinner that night. Brian, my other cousin (Ellen and Rob’s son, and Adam’s older brother) came down from Fulton Missouri for the dinner, and we all rode over to the church around 5:30.

It was a lovely evening, seeing Ellen in her element with her congregation that loves her so much. I got to visit with the United Methodist Women, who had given a very large donation from their Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner to support my trip to Nicaragua two years ago. And Ellen invited me to tell the congregation a little bit about my bike trip. I was really moved by the outpouring of support from the congregation, who took up an offering to send in to the Alzheimer’s Association.

I don’t think there’s anything quite like the hospitality and fellowship of good old Midwestern folks. I was sorry to leave when the time came, and hope to be back again soon.

We went back to the lake with an hour or two left of sunlight, so we dragged a cooler down to the boat and rode out to the middle of the lake to watch the sunset, and drink a toast to family. We came back just as it was getting dark, and sat on the dock chatting and fishing long after midnight.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Check out our YouTube Channel!

Before the trip started, a dear friend of mine, Thom Shipley, donated a video camera to our trip. I've been filming like a mad-man, but haven't really had the opportunity to edit any of the videos together and get them up on YouTube.

When I filled up a memory card, I would mail it off to a friend, who dumped the footage onto his hard drive, and mailed the empty card back to me. The system has worked pretty while to archive the footage, but it doesn't do much to get the video into the public eye.

In some of the time I had here in St. Paul, I edited together the footage from 2 of our days on the road. It just so happens that the footage I had on my camera at the time is from days 40 and 41 of the trip.

The videos are all made to be widescreen, so they don't quite fit in the column of this blog. I recommend clicking on the FULL SCREEN icon down in the bottom right corner. (For those of you unfamiliar with YouTube, it doesn't say "Full Screen" is just a grey box to the right of the volume control, beneath the 'You' in YouTube in the bottom right corner of the video.)

I sure wish I could get videos online from every day we are on the road, but the logistics of that just aren't possible until I get home. Hopefully this teaser will be enough to keep you interested until then!

You can see a few extra videos on our YouTube Channel. Hopefully we can get a few more videos posted in the near-ish future.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Day 46 - Day 52

Day 46
July 5, 2009
Captain: Rachel
Town: Eads, CO
Weather: Gorgeous, until about 4pm, when we were DUMPED on with rain and LIGHTENING
Where we slept: Traveler's Lodge

Amelia woke Kendal and I up about four times before either of us actually emerged from the Youth Group Room. Kendal was especially slow, so I turned on his new radio, which was on the Classical station, so we blasted a Handel oratorio from about 7:50-8:30.

Amelia had cooked us little individual bowls of oatmeal and made a pot of coffee. How did we survive before she was on the trip?? We hurriedly threw all of our wet clothes into our panniers, which had been hanging from every rafter to dry after yesterday's storm. We had just enough time for a quick refresher of last night's music rehearsal, which really only Kendal and I were conscious for. (We think Amelia was sleepwalking.)

A few older gentlemen poked their heads in to inquire after us and our muddy bikes in the foyer. They were very welcoming.

We went into the service and were introduced and welcomed by the whole congregation. Attendance was low that morning, as most of the congregants had experienced Jesus with BBQ and pyrotechnics the night before.

Pastor Wayne opted to skip one of the anthems, allowing us to sing the hymn "Never Grow Old" instead. After all of our visits to nursing homes, where you never really know if anyone is really listening, it was lovely to be able to sing for folks who were smiling and looking at us, vain though that may sound.

Pastor Wayne's sermon resounded very profoundly in us. He was preaching on a story from Mark 6, when Jesus goes to his hometown to preach, and is greeted by people who think they have him all figured out. They can't see past the kid they knew who grew up as a poor carpenter's son. They had him in a box, and couldn't get past it.

It served as a reminder of why we go on journeys. We all put people in boxes, and think we have them figured out. But the best thing about meeting all of these new people and being welcomed into their homes and church basements and nursing homes is that they rarely fit into these boxes. It is a sometimes difficult but beautiful realization.

Pastor Wayne announced that, although he had not discussed it with the board, he proposed that the day's offering would go to us, to support our journey. Kendal whispered to me, "Does that mean I shouldn't put this five in the plate then?"

After church, we stayed and thanked everyone we could and talked about our trip and handed out cards (for our website). We all felt so overwhelmed with gratitude, and so grounded and reaffirmed in what we set out to do.

We got our last soggy things together and hugged Pastor Wayne, and were about to set out when we realized we were missing our map! I ran out on my bike to retrace our steps from last night, and found it lying on the side of the road. When I got back to the church, I found Kendal rummaging through the church trash cans looking for the map.

Luckily, the map of western Kansas basically says, "Get on highway 96 and ride East. Forever." But it would've been VERY difficult to plan ahead for water breaks and food places without it.

We got on the road and biked into Ordway (15 miles ahead), just as Greg, who had spent the night in Ordway, was pulling into our destination for the night, Eads. We had a LONG ride ahead of us, but mission control Dale had set us up with a donated motel room 78 miles ahead, at the Traveler's Lodge, and we were gonna sleep in a bed tonight, dag nabbit!

The only scenery that changed for about 40 miles was the graffiti on the railroad cars on our left. For miles in every direction, corn fields stretched as far as you could see, and a 30-mile long train was parked parallel to the highway on our left.

About 30 miles outside of Eads, we saw a storm forming on the horizon. The wind was coming at us from the Southeast, but the storm seemed to fight it, running towards us from the north.

It was scary.

The whole sky seemed to rattle like it was collecting all the electricity it could hold until it burst. Our bikes felt very...METAL.

It rained so hard and the sky was so dark, I really thought that hell had come to Earth. And then I took off my sunglasses and realized that it wasn't actually that scary. But we were definitely dumped on by a LOT of rain.

Amelia kept shouting, "Is this HAIL?" But I think it was just really mean rain. We biked faster than we had all day, which was impressive since we had already but in about 50 miles.

We pulled into Eads, drenched and shivering. If we had not had the promise of a warm bed, I might have seriously considered sticking out my thumb and hitchhiking back to Pastor Wayne and the Lutherans in Fowler.

We called Greg when we got into town, who was at the bar keeping warm and dry. But outside the motel were parked four unfamiliar loaded bikes, and a guy named Mike stuck his head out of the room Greg had told us was ours. Mike and his buddies had started out in Yorktown, VA, a mere MONTH ago, and had already made it to Colorado, averaging about 80 miles a day. WHEW. Glad I'm not on their team. They were headed home, which was in San Diego, CA.

The rest of the clan, including Greg, returned from the bar, and we invited them to share our room with us, as it was about to start angrily downpouring again, and they were headed to the park to camp. The owner walked by and noticed our packed room (the door was open...8 stinky cyclists in one room...are you kidding?) and generously gave the boys their own room next door.

We spent the rest of the evening microwaving Tostitos and string cheese (aka gas station nachos!) and sharing stories with Mike, Jordan, Adam, and Jeremy. Check these speedy cats out at If nothing else, make sure to read their post about meeting us, here. If it doesn't make you chuckle, check your pulse.

Day 47
July 6, 2009
Captain: Greg
Town: Leoti, KS
Weather: Threatening Skies
Where we slept: Leoti City Park

After finally being reunited, we enjoyed a lovely night's rest in a real bed. It is funny how the things that matter on the road are food, sleep, and friends. But to be honest, what more do you need?

We said goodbye to our San Diego buddies and I headed out before the others. The ride was extremely nice and cool due to threatening skies, but the nice part about Eads is that it has a lot of natural vegetation. Most of Kansas is an Agro-tropolis so you don't get much of a sense of what the land looked like before commercial farming.

While rolling into Sheridan Lake (our last "major" town before reaching Kansas), I was greeted by a crop duster who flew over me by what seemed like 25/30 feet. It was really really cool.

I eventually got into Sheridan Lake and hung out at the gas station, where I ran into three recent Brown alums doing the Western Express (Adventure Cycling Route) for charity. It turns out one of the guys is from Ann Arbor. We end up eating a ton of food and sharing stories from our respective trips. Apparently one of the guys, Pete, I think, teaches in a charter school in New Orleans, like Amelia. Again and again, it's a small world.

When the rest of the team arrived they ate some lunch and took shelter from the sun. While we were eating, a couple sat down behind us and asked us ragtags what we were up to. It turns out the couple were from Rogers, 15 miles away from Fayatteville. Le Petite Monde.

We roll out, to cross into Kansas. We were ecstatic as we were approaching the border, where we came across another group of 4 who were doing a photo op as they crossed into Colorado. They apparently have never had state border pictures with all four members. Talk about good timing.

The horse flies were also very happy to have all that sweaty biker in one place. They feasted upon our bare legs and made chit chatting a lot less enjoyable. The rest of the ride was the first time in a long time that we all rode together. It was a nice change from the monotony of the open road. We were even echelonning four wide to counteract the crosswinds. [i.e. riding like geese fly in a "V"...only it looks more like a "/" with the wind coming like this: / <--- ] This took us into Leoti (pronounced "Lee-OH-tuh") where we were greeted with the Kansas gem: Free Public Pool!

We spent the remainder of the evening in a covered patio, bracing for a thunderstorm that never came. We all made phone calls home, sharing a case of Corona that Amelia had picked up from a gas station. Kendal had a long conversation with his Grandma and his Aunt Gobie, while Rachel talked for a good long while to her boyfriend Jay, who was headed off on a backpacking/camping/rafting trip in northern Alaska the next day.

Eventually, the kids who had been playing in the nearby park all went home, and we were able to get some sleep.

Day 48
July 7, 2009
Captain: Amelia
Town: Dighton (and Ness City), KS
Weather: HOT
Where we slept: Dighton City Park

Greg took off early and the rest of us were ready soon thereafter, but morale was low, and we decided to deal with it the Graber way---hashing it out for a few hours before hitting the road, over several rounds of breakfast. Our team had long been limping along as a 3 + 1 fractured mess, with different agenda and goals, and we decided it was time to really do something about it. We planned on having a much needed heart-to-heart when we got to Ness City that night.

It was nearly 10am before we were on the road to Ms. Anna Kelly's. Anna is the aunt of a member of the Lutheran church in Fowler where we stayed a few nights ago. Her niece stood up in church on sunday and announced the birth of her great-GREAT grandson! She approached us after the service and told us we'd be passing right by her Aunt Anna and that she would love to host us. (The Aunt of a great-GREAT grandmother? This we had to see...)

Scott City, where Anna lives, is only about 3o miles out from Leoti---not enough for a full day of riding---so we decided to pop in for coffee and a brief visit instead.

Ms. Anna lives in a little ranch-style house on a street called Antelope, with cinderblock planters in front filled with petunias and chicken-something-or-other plants that resembled artichokes. Beautifully tended rosebushes line the North end, still in full bloom. A tall white-haired lady met us at the door, leaning slightly on her cane, smiling.

We followed her into the living room and stood a moment, blinking awkwardly while adjusting to the cool, dim light. It was hot outside, and we sunk, speechless, into the shag carpeting, with cups of coffee and plates of those orange-vanilla wafer cookies that only Grandmas have.

Ms. Anna's wood-paneled walls were heavy with paintings; portraits of plains Indian chiefs, wintery landscapes, and quaint prairie farmscapes...all in a similar, almost sister-Moses-like style.

"Are these paintings yours?" We asked Anna, who was in the kitchen dishing up mountainous bowls of ice cream. They were.

She brought us out to a little sunporch in the back that had served as her studio for fifty-something years, and a new canvas sat on the easel, figures of ducks emerging from a green background. "I've been having trouble with my eyes," she told us, "and can only paint for a few hours in the morning when the light is really good. I'm having a heck of a time with this one," she motioned towards the easel. "Can't get my colors right... especially the greens."

The walls were covered with ribbons---mostly blue and red---for years of county-fair and state-fair art barns. We discovered that Anna was also a retired schoolteacher and restauranteur, which she and her late husband bought after an accident halted his postmaster career.

We didn't talk much beyond this. We were all a little unsure of what it was were were supposed to do together. Stevie Wonder was blasting from the TV back in the living room, and we all settle back into big comfy armchairs and realized that this glitzy televised concert was indeed Michael Jackson's funeral, broadcast live from L.A.

Starved for and equally disturbed by pop culture, we re-entered this world, guided by our 91-year-young host, who had been following the MJ drama for the past few weeks from her electrical lazy boy (it raised and lowered to help her stand). She knew a good deal about the commentary, the investigation, the scandals, etc. We spent the next two plus hours watching, intermittently offering commentary or questions about Anna's life, though we were all clearly fixated on the funeral, Anna included.

After MJ's daughter croaked the final punchline, we watched CNN commentary for a few minutes longer, and Anna turned down the volume. We were all kind of quiet, shaking our heads at the spectacle that had just taken place.

It was getting late, but Anna wanted to make sure the local paper editor got a chance to speak with us, but he was apparently caught up in a county commissioner's meeting.

Anna was reluctant to see us go, as was I. I felt strangely connected to this woman, who spent her days doing crosswords, painting, gardening, going to church, and listening to the local R & B station, largely alone. She had no children, and doesn't see her stepkids or nieces/nephews that often.

I wanted to learn as much about her as I could in the next few minutes, and she seemed equally eager to share... Wedding photos, drawings, a painting constructed from the memory of her childhood home in NW Kansas. I wanted to know if she was happy, how she fed herself, how she kept her mind so engaged, how much TV she watched, if she used the Meals on Wheels calendar posted on her bathroom wall. If aging is what it often appears to be from the outside, a slipping back, maybe, into simplicity---simple pleasures, simple fears---I felt a similar fascination and awe that I often feel around my students, or most children. The drama and complexity from our long conversation in the park this morning seemed, all of a sudden, not childish, but distinctively middle-aged, and silly.

It was time to go. We had 50 some miles left to go, and it was windy and hot. I felt like crying. "I just wish you could stay," Anna said with a tear in her eye, a little bewildered by our anxious haste. We took some pictures, still feeling much like strangers, and left.

I did cry, then, over my turkey and Kraft singles hoagie in the grocery store foyer. What was that all about? Waltzing in and out of this person's home, leaving so abruptly, forever, presumably? I had a distinctively bad tasted in my mouth. But why?

I realized that I would never again see MJ without thinking of Miss Anna and her house of paintings, and probably vice versa. And whatever that is---that was---is significant somehow. As much as I fancy myself a traveler, there is a good deal of sorrow in the transience for me... has always been. Dipping in and out of mini-ecosystems and always finding your own face---or other familiar people, stories, hopes, fears---leering back at you, unexpectedly. And then saying goodbye. Hitting the road, with only you, your friends, perhaps, and the road in front of you...

....which we followed, gloomily, to Dighton, realizing we couldn't safely make it to Ness City before dark. Greg had been in Ness City since noon. Mid-life crisis conversations would have to wait 'til morning. We ate our feelings away at Frigid Creme (DQ-style burgers and ice cream) and spent the night in the city park pavilion, listening for the storm that work us early the next morning.

Day 49
July 8, 2009
Captain: Kendal
Town: Larned, KS
Weather: It felt like we were running on a treadmill, wearing a wool coat, under a heat lamp, sucking air through a hair dryer.
Where we slept: The Award-Winning Rodeway Inn

How to begin? Today was one of our most epic so far. Having been separated again last night, the girls and I set our alarms for 6:30 am, hoping to get a move on and reunite the group ASAP.

When our alarms sounded, we were already stirring in our tents, due to the raging thunderstorm happening on all sides of the pavilion (and spritzing into my tent). Not about to get up and submit ourselves to the elements, we hit the snooze button and snored on 'til 8.

The storm passed soon enough, and Amelia went to a gas station to find us coffee---God I love her---to help our engines turn over. All things considered, we got on the road relatively early, before 9am, making the 32-mile trek into Ness City before noon.

We met up with Greg at the Frigid Creme Burger joint in town, where a delicious meal was generously donated by owner Susan Hoff. This Frigid Creme is not to be confused with the other Frigid Creme in Dighton where we supped last night---a totally separate business, despite sharing the same name, menu, building design, and habit of knocking on the window when your food is ready.

Here is were things started getting epic. We haven't talked too much yet about the tensions that have been brewing within the group. It may seem pretty obvious that in a trip so intense---24 hours a day, with a small group of young, headstrong personalities---would lend itself to a certain reality-TV-show-style drama. And to be fair, I think that our group tensions have been fairly tame compared to what they could have been.

The down and dirty version (more easily told in hindsight) is this: Greg's racing background and personality give him a strong desire to do thing quickly and efficiently. He likes to leave ASAP in the morning, ride fast and hard, and then have the rest of the day to relax.

Contrastingly, the other three of us (especially Rachel and I) have a much more stop-and-smell-(and maybe plant a few)-roses style. For us the cycling is very much secondary to meeting people, journaling, blogging, visiting nursing homes, etc.

Due to our two very different approaches, we tried to avoid conflict early on by riding separately during the day: Greg eaves whenever he wants, and the three of us brought up the rear once all of the duties of the day were done.

Over time, our team of four felt a lot like 3+1. Greg was always telling people about "the rest of the team behind me," while we joked about our "speed demon up ahead." We had such very different days, and priorities, hat it began getting harder to relate to one another. We started resenting one another's priorities, and subtly (and not-so-subtly) tried to make the opposite party behave like ourselves, on both sides.

Tensions came to a head when we reunited today in Ness City. Greg was upset that the three of us hadn't reached our agreed-upon destination the night before, leaving him alone to camp in the park. We resented Greg not being present for our meeting with Miss Anna yesterday, and our interview with the Scott County Record Newspaper, which were the reasons we were forced to cut the day short as night approached yesterday.

It turned into a two-hour discussion about why we were even still traveling together, if our goals were so different. It was suggested that we split up, tears were shed, and we eventually decided that it was worth traveling together because our mission to fight Alzheimer's was most important. Greg would ride with us again, and we would try to leave earlier in the morning.

It was a temporary solution to solve a pretty fundamental disfunction within the group. But, the overall conclusion was that the relationships in the group were too important to not fight to fix the situation.

With frazzled nerves and emotional resources wearing thin, we saddle up and headed east into a strong cross wind, riding another 50 or so miles to Rush Center, a very tiny town with just a post office and a bar, where we stopped for dinner, and where we also discovered that Rachel had broken a spoke.

On our way into the bar, a man shot out of a back kitchen door and barked at us, "You don't have GUNS in those bags, do you?," pointing to our very modestly-sized handlebar bags. Startled, we shook our heads and kept walking.

Over chicken fried steak (my very first and last encounter with this meal), fried jalepenos and beer, we gathered our last bit of strength to ride 20 more miles into Larned.

In retrospect, I don't know why it was important to do 95 miles to Larned, except that we had a short day yesterday, and I was anxious about moving on. But it was getting late, and the sun was setting before we even got within 10 miles of the city limits.

My dad called at that point, telling us about free Pizza Hut pizzas (we were already stuffed!) and a hotel (the Award-winning Rodeway Inn) awaiting us. So Greg sprinted ahead to pick up the pizza before they closed (God Bless our beloved Speed Demon) and the girls and I turned on our lights and rode into the dusky night.

At first, we talked about how dusk was our favorite time of day: It was cool, the wheat fields glowed in the sun's last rays, and all around us copious fireflies made the fields glitter like fireworks.

But then it actually got DARK, and with no street lamps to light the way, we got a little scared. We nearly ran over a huge snake warming itself on the road, and a raccoon-sized snapping turtle nipped at my wheels as we rolled past. I nearly messed my bike shorts when we approached the huge silhouette of a bison---until I realized it was just a very large lawn ornament.

We got checked into our hotel around 10:30, parking our bikes in the "game room" (which I learned was for hunters to clean their game, not for pinball, like I had imagined). We showered, ate pizza, and fell asleep by 1:30am.

***We fell behind a little bit in our journalling at this point, and then received the news about Jay. In the days that followed, Kendal kept himself busy by writing a few of the missing journal entries, which is why the following days are all told from his perspective.***

Day 50
July 9, 2009
Town: Hutchinson
Weather: Hot
Where we stayed: Zion Lutheran Church Bike Hostel

Even though we were up late last night, the continental breakfast downstairs wooed us out of bed before 8am. Greg and Amelia worked on Rachel's broken spoke replacement, while Rachel and I worked on the journal and ate waffles and cereal and biscuits and gravy and anything else we could get our hands on. (95 miles yesterday took a toll on our bodies!)

As we gathered up our gear, we couldn't help but notice the intense wind blowing out of the south. People coming and going from the hotel lobby kept saying to us, "I sure hope you're headed north today!"

Unfortunately, we were headed straight south for a few miles, right out of the gate, and then east.

Despite their best efforts, Amelia and Greg were unable to replace Rae's spoke, lacking the necessary tools to take off her rear cassette. (Of course the spoke HAD to break on the drive side of the rear wheel. Grrrrr.) Greg called ahead to the closest bike shop, which was in Hutchinson, KS, which was slightly off the TransAm, but on our way to Wichita. Greg asked if they had time to work on Rae's wheel, which they did, and they also told us about a church in town that ran a hostel just for cyclists crossing the country like us. The bike shop would leave the key for the church on the back door of the shop for us. Pretty sweet deal.

So off we went into the brutal heat and the wicked headwind. We didn't make it very far at all before the heat overwhelmed us. We took a break in the shade of a few trees in someone's front yard, eating our leftover pizza and reading the third Harry Potter book out loud, in Spanish, translating for Greg as we went. (What nerds!)

It was a great way to pass a lazy, hot morning, but it didn't get us any closer to our destination. Eventually, we got back on our bikes, and headed out into the wind.

About 10 miles further down the road, we stopped at a church (the only building we had seen for an hour) where we filled our water bottles at the outdoor spigot, and Amelia and Rae tried in vain to find a bathroom.

They noticed a parsonage of sorts next door, and tried their luck. When they knocked, a 14-year-old boy wearing only boxer shorts opened the door, bleary-eyed and yawning. Rae apologized for waking him, but he said he'd been up for a while. The girls used the restroom, and when they left, felt pretty sure that the kid and his buddy sitting on the couch were pretty stoned. You meet all kinds out here on TUJ!

While waiting on the girls, I talked to my buddy Joe back home, who was going to ship us some bike parts to Wichita. We decided to send them overnight, just to make sure we got them in enough time to get them all installed on Saturday, two days away.

The rest of the riding that day was pretty uneventful, except that we passed through a huge wildlife preserve, which gave us an idea of what the great plains must have looked like before the land was cleared for the mega agro-business that rules the land today.

Upon reaching Hutchinson, our first stop was at the grocery store, where we stocked up on REAL FOOD (i.e. not dehydrated food), knowing that we could take advantage of the kitchen at the free hostel that night.

Rachel looked after our bikes and talked on the phone with her mom, Martha, while the rest of us shopped. She told us later about a little boy of about 8 she observed arriving at the grocery store with his mom on his bike. He locked it to a railing outside the store, and then followed his mom in. A few moments later, he came back outside, unlocked the bike, wrapped the cable lock around the frame a few extra times, and relocked it. Rachel said that the care and concern he showed over his bike was more than a little adorable. She invited him on the trip with us, but he wasn't so sure he knew how far Virginia was, and declined.

While shopping, we met a lovely lady who told us that our story was so inspiring, it gave her goosebumps. At the end of a long day, it was nice to be reminded that our mission is important.

The hostel was pretty close to the grocery store, and Greg met us there after retrieving the key from the bike shop. The hostel was essentially just the basement of the church, equipped with the essentials that cyclists need: There was a cold shower (welcome on such a hot day), lots of towels and travel-sized toiletries, a full-service kitchen, coffee-maker, and places to charge cell phones. The stage platform at one end of the fellowship hall had been divided into two "rooms" by a curtain, each with a large bed and piles of fresh linens. Each "room" even had a TV, and we found two other cyclists zoned out on one bed, enthralled by HELLBOY 2.

We cooked a pretty amazing dinner--spicy spaghetti, a big salad, and grilled portobello mushrooms. It was a huge improvement from campsite food!

The movie finished in the other room, and the other cyclists emerged: Will and Trevor had just graduated from prep school, and were cycling the TransAm East->West before heading to Harvard and China in the fall, respectively.

The guys definitely enjoyed having two pretty girls to whom to tell their adventures, flexing their muscles as they lounged in just their gym shorts. And I'm pretty sure the girls didn't mind the attention!

We stayed up pretty late, sharing stories and writing post cards and thank-you notes home to friends and family. Will and Trevor told us about a guy they met on the trail who kept a giant hunting knife strapped to his bike, which he called "The Kentuckinator"---intended "to fend of the crazies that live in the mountains of eastern Kentucky." We also heard about Raoul, the Spaniard, who subsisted entirely on spaghetti, and was eager "to meet some sexy American ladies."

We went to bed at about 2am, grateful for the good conversation, but kicking ourselves in the butts for one more night short on sleep.

Day 51
July 10, 2009
Captain: Kendal
Town: Wichita, KS
Weather: Cloudy, with a few sprinkles of rain
Where we slept: Sam's apartment

There was a little rustling this morning as we snoozed in bed: Greg, Will and Trevor were up and at 'em way before the rest of us. Through the curtain dividing the sleeping areas, I heard Trevor say in an intentionally loud voice, "I guess OLD people just need a little more time to sleep in than we do."

Greg later said that he's never seen us move faster than we did after hearing that!

We cooked our favorite breakfast (Red Mill 10-Grain Hot Cereal), shared it with the guys, and got some coffee in our bellies, while musing over the "Bible Trivia" board game that had been sitting out on one of the tables.

Before we left, Will told us about his favorite gas-station pastry---the award-winning Texas Twist. He said we could find it in most gas stations around the country, and he talked it up so much, we just knew we had to find it!

We said our goodbyes, and headed out in opposite directions on highway 96.

We had a pretty strong headwind right out of the gate, so it wasn't long before we stopped at the gas station in search of the TX Twist. (Any reason to have a break from the wind!) We couldn't find the elusive Twist, sadly, and so we settled for leftover spicy spaghetti.

Halfway to Wichita, we started seeing signs that warned us of Amish buggies that might be sharing the shoulder with us. This was particularly exciting for me and my cousins, because we descend from Amish roots. (My mom and their dad were both born Amish.) We waved to a few Amish kids playing outside their farm house, reminding us of visits to Grandma's house in Central Illinois.

A few miles outside of town, we came upon a man who had pulled over to offer us a place to stay. He was the president of the local cycling club, and had all kinds of insights and places to work on our bikes, shop, and ride in town.

We rode the last few miles into town on a beautiful bike path alongside the Arkansas river (pronounced Ar-KAN-sas by the locals), which spat us out right near where my friend Sam lives.

Part of the reason we left the TransAm to reach Wichita (other than to break up the monotony of KS) is because of the summer theatre company there, Music Theatre of Wichita, which has strong ties to the University of Michigan, where I did my undergraduate degree in Musical Theatre. One of my professors, Mark Madama, direct many of the shows at MTW, and his partner, Wayne Bryan, is the artistic director of the theatre. A lot of Michigan students end up performing in their productions, and I was excited to make the Wichita detour to visit them.

One of those students, Sam Lips, is a really close friend of my little brother Joel, who is also studying musical theatre at Michigan. Sam was happy to host us, even though he was also hosting his parents and grandparents for the weekend. What a guy!

When we arrived at the apartment complex, Sam was out to dinner with his family. While we waited on his return, we easily found the pool and laundromat, which were enough to occupy us for a couple of hours.

We must have made quite a scene: We had stopped to do some grocery shopping on our way into town, so I had a bunch of bananas and a dozen eggs on the back of my bike. We rolled up to the clubhouse of the apartment complex, and changed into the only clothes we had that didn't need to be washed, which for me meant a swimsuit and a raincoat.

After dumping in a load of laundry, we realized that there wasn't any detergent for sale (usually there is), so I had to ask another family to borrow some soap. They didn't speak any English, but it gave me the opportunity to whip out my Spanish for a minute. I felt bad when I realized that they were just picking up their clothes, and they sent their little girl back to the apartment to fetch us some soap.

While we waited for our clothes to wash, Greg, Amelia and I took a dip in the pool, which hadn't been cleaned for ages. The water was... slimy... but we were too hot to care.

We must have looked practically homeless to the security guy, because he kept circling us in his golf cart, eyeing us suspiciously, and fingering his taser. He even asked Greg if he had jumped the fence to get to the pool---to which Greg responded that the door had been unlocked.

We then got a call from Sam that he wasn't able to come back to the apartment before his 8pm show---a show the four of us were planning to see. So I felt the need to make friends with our taser-happy security guard, who obviously took his job extremely seriously, and just needed to be respected and appreciated.

I asked him if there was a place to stash our gear and groceries (raw chicken being a major concern) during the show, to be retrieved later. He just didn't think that would be possible (looking around his incredibly large office, with a refrigerator in it), unless we were able to get ahold of Sam and get his permission to enter his apartment.

By this time, 8pm was only 20 minutes away, our clothes were still in the dryer, and I was still wearing a swimsuit and a raincoat. Sam was obviously getting ready for his show, and it took a few tries to get him on the phone. But he answered the guard's questions, as the guy looked over the lease to Sam's apartment.

There some confusion on the phone: Sam's name wasn't on the lease. After a few questions, the problem became apparent: We had been at the wrong apartment complex the whole time!

So, with only 10 minutes to showtime, we loaded all our damp clothes on our bikes, quickly changed into damp, but socially acceptable clothing, and sprinted on our bikes to the theatre, a few blocks away.

The overture was playing when we entered the lobby, and the folks in the box office stared at us in confusion as we asked if we could roll our rigs into the lobby, bikes, bannanas and all. The girls asked the box office manager to put our chicken in the fridge, while I found the tickets that Wayne had set aside for us. (Thanks again, Wayne!)

We may have missed the opening number, but by 8:05, we were comfortably sitting in the air-conditioned theatre, thoroughly enjoying KISS ME, KATE, the Cole Porter musical based on THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.

The show was absurdly funny: We particularly related to the running gag about having a butt too sore to sit on. The dancing was breathtaking, and the singers outstanding. It had been such a long time since I'd seen a show, and I felt so proud of all the younger Michigan kids who were featured in the production.

After the show, we hugged and greeted Wayne and all the UM kids, and had a pretty good laugh about all the strange glances hundreds of theatre-goers threw our way as the passed our loaded bikes in the lobby.

Greg had been a counselor at a summer performing arts camp recently, and was really surprised to see on of those students, Han Park, performing in the show. It was a very unexpected reunion for both of them.

It was getting to be well past our bedtime, so we cycled back to Sam's, found the REAL apartment (but not before knocking on the door of the WRONG apartment, at midnight...)

Since we didn't have much time to eat anything substantial before the show, we cooked up 3 boxes of Annie's Mac and Cheese and then hit the sack---exploding all over Sam's living room with gear, sleeping pads, and bodies.

Day 52
July 11, 2009
Captain: Kendal
Rest Day in Wichita, KS
Weather: Clear and Hot
Where we stayed: Sam's Apartment

The show certainly kept us up past our bedtime last night, so we were mighty glad to have a rest day lined up today. We all slept in pretty late...except Greg of course, who was up at 9 and chomping at the bit to get breakfast. Before too long, the rumblings of Greg's stomach woke the rest of us up, and Amelia cooked up a delicious egg-scramble feast unlike any other.

Our primary objective for the day was to get our bikes tuned up and drive chains overhauled, using the bike parts my buddy Joe had overnighted from home. To that end, I headed across the parking lot to the mail building in search of our package. As is wont to happen when you need something right away, the package was nowhere to be found.

Stumped, I returned to Sam's apartment to figure out a next move. Rachel needed to get her spoke replaced regardless, so she headed straight to the bike shop in town to get started on that project. Amelia and I heard there was an internet cafe near the bike shop, which seemed a good place to start making calls to track down our package.

Joe helped me find the UPS tracking number, and it didn't take too long to figure out that I had been given the wrong address for the mail building near Sam's apartment, and the package was being held in a warehouse south of Wichita, which of course, was closed all weekend. BLAST.

UPS was happy to have the package delivered to an alternate address at the beginning of next week, and so I set about trying to figure out destinations where we might encounter our poor wayfaring bike parts. Usually, we have our mail delivered to post offices, general delivery, and just pick it up when we get into town. But UPS of course can't deliver to a post office. We knew we'd be seeing my Aunt Ellen in about a week's time in Gravois Mills, MO, but she has a P.O. Box address...and of course UPS can't deliver there, either!

Mental gears turning, I turned my googling fingers towards Golden City, MO...our projected destination a few days ahead. 'Maybe a church will receive a package for us,' I thought. I called all 10 churches that came up on my google search before someone picked up. The cleaning lady at the Baptist Church in town picked up, and handed the phone over to the flustered preacher's wife, who had just walked in the door from a retreat she had been on.

Granted, my request was odd: "Could you receive a package for a traveling bicycle troupe?" But FPW (flustered preacher's wife) was a little less than understanding of my predicament. FPW told me it wouldn't be possible, said good luck, and hung up. Ouch.

Suddenly, I remembered a cafe that Will and Trevor had told us about, that boasted the best pies in all of Golden City, MO. A few moments later, I was chatting with a waitress there about how the reputation of her pies had reached as far as Hutchinson, KS, and that we'd surely be passing through to eat heartily, and would they mind receiving our package of bike parts. After checking with the boss and chuckling a bit, she said they'd be happy to. God bless Cooky's Cafe!

Rachel joined us shortly thereafter, with her spoke fixed and fresh tires on her bike. The shop had outfitted her with the fattest tires they could, since we were planning to leave the TransAm route in Missouri and ride the Katy Bike Trail (unpaved) instead. Greg joined us, and together, the four of us rode over to Mothers and Others, an assisted living community across town.

Right away, we knew something was different about this community. At first, we went to the wrong address, landing at a large apartment complex instead of the care center. Realizing our mistake, we looked more closely at the map, and saw that Mothers and Others was actually just an unassuming house with beautiful gardens, trees, and chickens everywhere!

We were welcomed by smiling, young nurses who served us up bowls of delicious, hot chili from a real kitchen in the back corner of a large, communal living room. Plants and homemade quilts hung above comfy recliners, circled cozily around a TV screen. We sat at a dining room table set with placemats and a wooden chicken centerpiece, to chat with a woman we'll call Alice, one of the home's 8 residents. Alice was a circus performer for many years, married an innovating young magician, and worked as a trapeze artist with some of the day's most famous acts.

A nurse dug out a few old photos of a foxy twenty-some year old Alice in sequined leotard and top hat, and pointed to black and white newspaper clippings of her exploits, hung proudly on the living room wall. She can't move like she used to, she told us sadly, but she likes to stretch and can still touch her toes!

Greg and Amelia visited awhile with Maxine, a delightful 80-some year young resident; a former lear jet administrator, trombonist, and sports enthusiast. She was the first to tell us how Chuck and Karen, the founders and current RN at the home, had built the place several years ago on an empty lot to house their own mothers and a few other folks that Karen had been doing home visits for.

Soon after, Chuck and Karen popped in from downstairs, where they live and administrate the place. They told us that they had designed the building with the help of an architect friend, complete with a private bathroom for each resident, and bells and whistles that only a RN would be able to think of. Chuck and Karen were warm, huggable, homey people, proponents of gardening, holistic healing, and good eatin'.

It was easy to see how the physical space they had created was perfectly suited for caring for seniors in an environment completely opposite the sterile, forlorn facilities we had seen elsewhere on our journey. Each resident was so happy to be there: We were told over and over again that they felt completely at home there, not in a home.

Before we left, Karen and Chuck introduced us to their pet chickens, which enjoyed being held and petted. It was starting to get late, so K & C loaded our bags with holistic vitamins and supplements, a very generous financial donation to our trip, and several garden-fresh cucumbers. They hugged us like old friends, we took a few extra pictures and videos, and hit the road.

As we cycled back in the direction of Sam's apartment, we were all BEAMING. So often, we leave the nursing home visits feeling drained and overwhelmed. It feels like there is something so WRONG about the way our nation's health care system deals with the end of life.

But Mothers and Others showed us that there's a much better way to do things. It really made me believe that it is possible to spend the end of life in dignity with a strong sense of community and personalized care. I imagine there are other places like it, but there is certainly a glowing, positive energy in that place, unlike any I've ever seen.

On our way home, we had a Mary Moment. We saw a Sonic just off the main drag, and having just received some Sonic gift cards from my friend Nancy in St. Louis, couldn't help ourselves.

We ordered cherry-lime-mocha-something-or-others, enjoying the cool of the evening. After a bit of discussion, Greg decided that we ought to invest in a mini-laptop as a group, to make it simpler to post on the blog more frequently. He headed off in search of a new computer, Rachel headed back to the internet cafe to type up more of the journal, and Amelia cycled back to Sam's to cook up some cajun-style grub for the crew.

Just as we were about to leave, I got a call from Mark, my professor from Michigan, inviting us all to a cookout at his and Wayne's place for the cast of KISS ME, KATE. The others were pretty wiped (and it was almost 10pm by then anyway), so I headed out on my own.

I hadn't seen Mark for a few months, and we had a great time standing by the grill, chatting about the bike trip, and the magical marinade he special orders from upstate New York.

It was a lovely evening, swapping stories with the cast, and watching some of Mark and Wayne's favorite theatre blooper reels. (They can bring me to tears, every time.)

By 2am, it was time to say goodnight. I cycled back to Sam's, sure that I would find an apartment full of snoring teammates, who would chastise me in the morning for staying out so late.

Turns out, they were all still up, eating Amelia's amazing grub, and futzing over Greg's new computer. We told stories and laughed for a little while longer, and then crawled into bed, ready to get back on the road in the morning.


That was the last "normal" day of our trip, before we got the news about Jay. Since then, the trip has been on hold.

Greg went home to Texas, and then to Arkansas, where he is getting ready for graduate school auditions.

Kendal, Rachel, and Amelia all went to St. Paul, where they spent 2 weeks celebrating Jay's life with family and friends. Rachel will stay with her parents in St. Paul for a while, heading to Lawrence University in Appleton, WI in the fall. Amelia will fly back to New Orleans on Tuesday, to prepare for the school year, which starts on August 6th for teachers.

Kendal is on the road to Wichita with Dale and Martha, where he'll meet up with his dad, Rich, and resume the journey on Sunday.

Thanks to all of you for your love and support through this difficult time. It really means so much to us.

That's all for now. I must get some rest...TUJ Phase 2 starts very soon!

Dad to the Rescue!

My quest to find a new team for The Unforgettable Journey just got a heck of a lot easier. My dad, Rich Sparks, is dropping everything back home in DC to come ride with me for the next few weeks.

He's bringing out our van, and will be riding alongside me as a support vehicle, carrying some of my gear so I can make up a little lost time. He'll also be carrying big coolers of water and Gatorade, so he can stop and offer support to other cyclists along the TransAmerica Trail.

Dad will ride with me at least until St. Louis (visiting two of his sisters along the way), at which point, hopefully we'll have met up with some other eastbound cycle-tourists that might be willing to let me tag along on our way to Yorktown, VA.

There are certainly lots of variables left to work out, but I'm pretty confident that with my Dad by my side, things will start moving in the right direction.

The plan is to drive from St. Paul on Saturday with my Uncle Dale and Aunt Martha (Rachel and Amelia's parents), heading down to Wichita. We'll pick up our bikes at Mark's house (my professor who came to rescue when we got the news about Jay), Dale and Martha will head back to St. Paul with the girls' gear, and I'll be back on the trail by Sunday morning, with my Dad at my side.

Thanks for all of your kind thoughts, prayers, (and emails) over the past week. It has meant so much to the whole team, and especially Rachel, to have such an outpouring of support. For those of you who may be interested, Jay's family has asked that memorial contributions be made to Friends of the Mississippi River -- a environmental conservation non-profit in the Twin Cities.

Until the next time,

Monday, July 20, 2009

Photos of Jay

A beautiful celebration of Jay's life took place yesterday in St. Paul. Through all of the laughter, tears, music, food, and dancing, his impact on every life there was honored and cherished.

I just wanted to post this slideshow that was shown at the service, in case anyone reading would like to view it again or even download it. You'll have to follow the link to my Picasa page, where you can watch the video.

From Movies

In the next few days, I'll be posting journal entries from our last week out on the road as a team, as well as my plans for resuming the trip.

I want to repeat my invitation to come join me on the trip for a little while. Now more than ever, I would really appreciate having friends and family show up for a few days, weeks, or even the whole thing! You don't need to bike: You can bring a car out and "ride sag", camping together and visiting seniors, etc. Even if it's just for a long weekend, I could really use some company out on the road, now that team has moved on to other adventures.

Send me an email ( if you're thinking about coming out. Everyone is welcome!

In the meantime, take care of yourselves, and remember: Strangers are really just friends waiting for you to buy them a beer.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Remembering Jay

Here's an article that will appear in today's Star Tribune, remembering Jay.

A celebration of Jay's life will take place this Sunday at Minnehaha Park in St. Paul, between 4 and 10pm.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A time to pause...

On Sunday, July 12, while riding east on highway 254 just outside of Wichita, Kansas, Rachel received a phone call from home. Jay Schoenberg, her best friend, lover, companion, and boyfriend of 5 years--no one word seems to fit just right--lost control of his raft while backpacking in Alaska, and was drowned.

In the moments that followed, our world spun to a halt. We sat on the side of the road for over an hour; stunned, unable to move, unable to breathe. Several concerned motorists stopped to help, and one couple, Heath and his wife Michal, stayed with us for that whole hour. Heath, a firefighter, went home to attach a trailer to his pickup truck, and hauled us and our bikes back into Wichita, where Mark, one of Kendal's college professors, lives. We unloaded our gear into Mark's house, took showers, and were at the airport in less than three hours.

Through many tears and desperate hugs, we said goodbye to Greg, who stayed in Wichita to sort through our gear, and got to the terminal. We were to fly to St. Paul through Atlanta, but our flight was delayed for several hours due to storms down south. Feeling helpless, frustratingly immobile, and still very much in shock, we coaxed Rachel to sleep on the terminal floor with Tylenol PM, wrapping her in a sleeping bag, and rubbing her back.

Eventually, our flight boarded, and we made it to Atlanta, with barely 5 minutes to catch our connecting flight. (Kendal's dear cousin Kristin was ready and waiting to scoop us up in Atlanta should we have missed it.) By 3 a.m., we were in the loving arms of Dale and Martha and Rosie, the rest of the Graber crew.

Greg will head home to Texas today, and Kendal will stay in St. Paul with the Graber's for a while. When the time is right, he may very well fly back to Wichita, pick up his bike, and continue The Unforgettable Journey solo.

For now, we are holding each other close, appreciating all the love that Jay poured into every life he encountered.

Rumi - There is a field

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

Rachel and Jay at their high school performance of HAIR in 2004.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Amelia's Photos from TUJ

Here are a few photos Amelia took during the time she was on the trip with us.

Starred Photos

Saturday, July 11, 2009

second cousins and 3rd of july fireworks!

Day: 42
Date: July 1, 2009
Captain: Greg
Town: Canon City/Florence
Weather: muggy with scary clouds
Where we slept: The Emerson School (ie Beth from Pizza Madness's mansion!)

Our original gameplan was to wake up at 6 am and get a start on the day. It was freezing, so I called Kendal on my cell phone for wake up call, because there was no way I was getting out of my sleeping bag. It's too cold at 9000 feet! Once a resonable temp was reached, we emerged from our tents and packed up camp. I rode ahead while the rest of the gang went back to the city of South Park and took pictures with the signs and posed for a local photographer (an adorable 8 yr old named Piper who happened to be walking by at the time).

The ride was 75 miles, our longest to date. Fortunately, we were going downhill MOST of the way, or so we thought.

The route turned out to be much more climbing than we had anticipated. It was also quite windy. We were racing rainclouds the whole way, so we rode quite a bit faster than normal. Along the way, we ran into an Adventure Cycling supported tour. I waved as they flew down the hill I climbed, but ran into some lovely ladies at the top of one of the passes. After a brief chat, enjoyed 10 r/s mile downhill. There was a serious damper on the "prepaid" miles. the wind made the downhills very sketchy. After all these miles, we finally descended for 10 more glorious miles into canon city (pronounced "canyon") and eagerly looked for the campsite and pizza that had been donated. We discovered a hitch in the sleeping arrangements. The campsite was at Royal Gorge, at the top of the glorious 10 mi descent, which meant we would have to climb straight back up after gorging ourselves on free pizza, which would have been painful, to say the least.

The unanimous decision was to forego the very generous campsite donation, and look for a more local option. Pizza would definitely help us brainstorm, so we went to Pizza Madness, where we were greeted by the owner Beth, who had donated the meal. We told her of our dilemma, and after making a few calls, invited us to her house in Florence, the next town over. We were VERY grateful.

Pizza Madness is not a spot to be missed. There is a ton of cool Night-before-xmas-inspired sculptures and murals, all the staff have cool piercings (except Beth) and were very sweet and interested in our trip, and the restaurant seemed to serve all types of people; old couples, college kids, big family parties, teenagers, etc. And the food was top knotch, we especially appreciated the pesto house salad dressing. mmmmmmm.

After a considerable digest, we biked the 7 miles to their absolutely amazing manor. Beth and her husband Colby (who we sadly did not get to meet, he was out of town) and their three kids live in a school house built in 1903 that was converted to an incredible mansion. They moved to into the house when they came to the area from Denver four years ago and bought Pizza Madness 4 years ago. The school was HUGE, and filled with incredible antiques, some left over by the previous owner, and some of their own. It was the kind of house you'd see in a movie like Blank Check. We spent the rest of the evening hanging out with the kids, Kristin, Michael, and Matthew. The boys very generously gave us their king-sized beds to share (also left by the previous owner) while they protected their mom from the boogey-man, since Colby was out of town. we are really really enjoying colorado.

Day: 43
Date: July 2, 2009
Captain: Rachel
Town: Pueblo
Weather: still muggy with scary clouds that still didn't quite get us
Where we slept: Kaleigh and Adams beautiful home

The next morning we awoke to a delicious breakfast and great conversation with Beth. She had a very interesting life story, and told us all about some unique aspects of Pizza Madness, where we all want to be employed now. At around 10 Beth had to run to work, so she kissed all the kids and gave us all hugs, and was off.

We spent the next three hours playing nerf wars and air hockey with the kids, meeting their pet turtles, their beautiful corn snake, 2 anoles, and Echo and Max the fearless watchdogs.

We reluctantly donned our spandex at around noon and Matthew and Michael and Kristin helped us pack up our gear. We were very sad to go. We were pretty sure we could fit Matthew in our panniers, and Michael could ride Max and Kristin could ride Echo! But alas, their mother would be very lonely in that big house without them, so we resisted temptation to suggest the idea. After hugs and pictures and the necessary video blogging, we headed out. Kendal, amelia and I stopped at the Florence Farmer's Market on the way out and picked up cherries and carrots.

The wind ws head on and full forve as we biked past the Federal Correctional Facility. A storm was brewin all around us, and we could see lightning striking the mountains around us.

We met a kid in Wetmore that was driving sag (support vehicle for cyclists companions)for the day for three other riders on the TransAm to raise money for the Shepherd Hospital t hat saved his life when he broke his neck 5 yrs ago playing football. They ride unloaded, but average about the same mileage as us, so hopefully we'll run into them often along the way.

After 20 more miles of CRAZY winds, we finally pulled into Pueblo. We stopped off at the city pool for bathrooms and directions to the local brewery where greg was waiting for us. The barely pubescent boys were EXTREMELY eager to tell us all the highlights of Pueble: the Central/Centennial high school rivalry, the mall, the clubs (although there was some dispute whether Pueblo actually had any clubs..) and of course, their muscles. Kendal had a hard time controlling his gag reflex, but Rachel and Amelia were charmed by their new boyfriends.

We arrived at the Shamrock Brewery and called Kaleigh and Adam who decided to join us there for an aparitif. Greg had made friends with a guy named Marty who bought us a round of brews and put us in tough with his friend Dave Feamster, who owned several local Little Ceasar's restaurants, and would be interested in donating a pizza dinner.

Kaleigh and Adam showed uo not too long after, and we spent a half hour or so trying all the brews on tap, and catching up with our second cousin Amelia and I have not seen in at least a decade!

Adam and Kaleigh had very thoughtfully ridden 2 cars so they could fit all of us and our bikes and bring us back to their beautiful home. After the grand tour and meeting their adorable retriever puppy, Lola, we showered while A and K cooked up delicious pasta and meatballs and salad. We spent the rest of the evening maxin and relaxin outside on their patiom watching Lola run in circles and the sun set on Pike Peak. Ahhhhhh.

Day: 44
Date: July 3, 2009
Captain: Amelia
Town: Pueblo
Weather: muggy hot
Where we slept: Adam and Kaleigh's beauteous home

REST DAY! we woke up late in our delicious beds to the smell of the famous Bliss/Livingston family breakfast casserole in the oven. MMMMMMM. more maxin and realxin on the patio and many helpings of casserole later, we set off to tackle our list of errands. Kaleigh and Adam had the day off, and very sweetly devoted it to shepherding us around in their two vehicles--wholeheartedly devoted to our pursuit of new bike seats, rear cassettes, and granola.

We spent hours at our new favorite TransAm bike shop, The Great Divide. A crew of yougn, cute, and highly knowledgeable mechanics went to town on fitting Kendal and Greg for new saddles, measuring us up for new chains and cassettes, wheel-truing, cable replacements, and a several-hour fiasco of stem replacementon my bike--complete with cutting, beveling, un-wrapping and re-wrapping handlebars, etc...without a peep of grumble!

We meanwhile took advantage of their extremely thorough gear selection, including water-bottles, thermarest patches, dog mace, and the best flavors of Cliff Bars. We left after paying a mere pittance for labor and blowing kisses on our way out the door. VISIT THESE GUYS at

Next on the list was Sports Authority, where Rachel spiced up her bike wardrobe with a new sporty tank and Kaleigh bought a hula hoop!, Vitamin Cottage for granola,dried goodies, and Kombucha, and finally Radio Shack, where the boys bought two solar-powered radios. VERY exciting purchases!

We stopped by the fireworks stand on the way home, scooped up free dinner from Little Ceasar's thanks to Dave Feamster, and enjoyed another sunset meal on the patio with our toe-licking friend Lola and new fave 2nd cousins.

After a few hours of computer stuff, laundry, and packing away all our mom-goodies and new purchases, we dug into our buy on get one free firework fun-packs and put on a killer 3rd of july show, complete with hula-hooping sparkler twirling, popper fights, and a fiery bicycle tour around the backyard. After considerable peer-pressure, Kendal overcame his Nervous-Nelliness and discovered the pyro within, lighting off multiple flashers at the SAME TIME! we were very proud. Kaleigh and Adam were AWESOME playmates, and they spent the rest of the evening digging around their house for goodies to send along with us like new bunjee cords, packages of crackers and tuna, and washing our disgusting camping dishes and waterbottles, and patching the bear-bitten thermarest that I'm going to attempt to sleep on. What love!

We all went to bed way too late for our morning ahead of blogging, more packing, and 9 am visit to a Memory Care Center.

Day: 45
Date: July 4, 2009
Captain: Kendal
Town: Fowler/Ordway
Weather: POURED ON and scary lightning and thunder
Where we slept: Trinity Lutheran Church/Conestoga Park

We woke up early this morning with every intention of leaving Kaleigh and Adam's by 8 am to visit the Sharmar Memory Center. It was a little harder to pull ourselves away than expected, so I called Sharmar and told them we'd make it there by noon.

We packed up our bags with loads of goodies from Kaleigh's pantry and the care apckages from home, and boxed up our cold-weather gear (sweatshirts, hats, gloves, wool socks) and sent them home.

A few pictures, hugs, and plans for cousin reunions later, we arrived at Sharmar around noon. We split into two pairs. Amelia and I sat with a lovely, sagacious blind woman named Elsie, who talked to us about growing up in the Dust Bowl and making music with her 11 siblings. Rachel and Greg had a slightly more difficult experience. They spoke with several women suffering from various kinds of dementia, who were very tangibly confused and anxious, and even a bit frustrated. Rachel and Greg left feeling a little anxious themselves, as they felt they were caused more confusion than diversion.

Greg had a flat before we even left the center, so the other 3 of us set out, knowing he would catch up.

As we rolled out in the sunshine we heard a clap of thunder, and could see a massive storm system moving towards us from the North, but we decided to brave it and see if we could out-run it.

We couldn't. About 15 miles into the ride, the clouds opened, and we dodged into an abandoned, creaky, dung-filled barn to don our rain-gear. Rachel's long lost boyfriend called from a pay-phone in Alaska, so we took it as an excuse to stand around the barn for about 30 min and waited for the worst of the storm to blow over. Greg passed us on the highway, but couldnt hear us shouting to get his attention. That was the last we saw of him for the next day and a half.

We rolled out as the storm slowed to a drizzle, riding through pretty sparse country in a soggy, cold mess. A very strong headwind plagued us all day, and we arrived in Boone at about 5:15pm. The girls got this tiny one store town before I did, but I saw their bikes parked outside a convenient store. Excited to get out of the rain, I tried to open the door to the store, but it was locked. I knocked several times, knowing the girls must be inside, and finally a grouchy old man with a leather vest and a fabulous snow-white handlebar mustache opened the door in said in his best Oz-keeper voice "Read the sign!"

I looked where he pointed, and only seeing the large orange "OPEN" sign, decided against being a smart-ass and replying "you mean that one?" But he noticed it and flipped it over to read "CLOSED" and said "It's past 5, and I have a VFW picnic to go to." But he allowed me inside, standing in the way of me walking forward, and said "Well?"
"Happy Fourth?" I grinned nervously.
"Where you from?"
"AND?" he asked, like I ought to have something more to say about that.
"Can I pee?" It was my only escape.

I returned from the bathroom to find ever-eloquent Amelia chatting with the shopkeeper, who now was inviting us to the VFW picnic, as well as offering shots of whiskey from his glove compartment flask in his truck. we declined, although I had the thought that maybe I should drink at least a few shots worth to lessen his supply for the drive home that was hopefully not our direction...

We struggled through 15 more miles of rain and wind and a flat tire on Rachel's back wheel before reaching Hwy 167, which offered the opportunity to stop in a town called Fowler, just a mile off route. We called Greg who was already settled in Ordway, our planned destination, and were told that more thunderstorms were on our way again, and that dark would be coming in an hour, and fourth of july traffic was sure to be tipsier than normal, we decided to call it a day. It was the first tome the team has ended a day in two different places, and it felt strange.

Fowler was mostly asleep on a rainy saturday night, it seemed most families had given up on fireworks with the weather, and the only places showing signs of life were the gas station and the liquor store.

We went to the gas station first to ask about places to stay, and were directed to an RV park at the edge of town. on our way there, we thought we might like to pick up some festive, heart-warming spirits to help us thaw, and stopped at the liquor store.

As we checked out, I asked Suzie the shopkeeper about places to camp. A few phone calls later, we heard her say "Hello, Pastor? I have three cyclists here, they're soaked and would like to talk to you."

Half an hour later, we were warmly welcomed inside Trinity Lutheran Church, where it just so happened Pastor Wayne from Stillwater, MN was up late working on Sunday's sermon. He took us and our soggy bikes in and told us to make ourselves at home, which we are way too good at. 20 min later his wife, Pastor Cindy (at a Lutheran church in Pueblo) showed up with freshly baked peach/blueberry pie and ice cream! we had lots of laughs and story-swapping, and even a quick music-rehearsal before calling it a night.

As I lay on my new ThermaRest in the Youth Group Room, I thought about how much more this July 4th meant to me on this trip. We have crossed through so many niches of this country that I would never have seen otherwise. I have found myself in situations every day that completely shake up prejudices I didn't even know I held. I am falling so much more in love with this country. A few days ago, I found an American flag on the highway in Canon City, which I am not proudly flying on the back of my bike.

Listening to the far-off boom of fireworks and falling rain, I fell asleep, realizing I am proud to be an American.