The stately roads
My travels through the first three states — North and South Carolina and Georgia — along with Texas, brought the most pleasure as far as scenery, road conditions, and friendly people. Total strangers seemed eager to give a wave as they passed by in their vehicles; many even stopping to offer directions if my mother and I had bemused looks on our faces as we poured over our Adventure Cycling maps.
I will admit I did enjoy cruising along Alabama's Gulf Shores, only because the road was flat and fast, and despite the fact that tall condominiums littered the coast. It is also where I suffered my one and only tire puncture. Furthermore, I relished riding among the extensive levee systems along the Mississippi River in Louisiana.
But the four favorable states previously mentioned just seemed very conducive to cycling. Most of the time, motorists gave me a wide berth when passing, and the back roads — many with very little traffic — provided a revealing glimpse into what makes America tick.
No one has more churches than North Carolina. Their parking lots became preferred waiting spots for my mother, and on Sundays we could hear parishioners singing their praises to the Lord. Another scene in that state included traces of its rich history in the form of gigantic warehouses once used for drying tobacco.
South Carolina, which won the prize for the most rubbish along its roads, and Georgia offered views very foreign to me, in the sense that I'd never witnessed up close and personal how rural black Americans lived and seemingly even struggled to survive. Many of their homes looked truly uninhabitable. But, despite the miserable conditions, every encounter I had with these people brought forth a down-to-earth kindness that carried the day for me.
My bike and I rolled by vast tomato fields and groves of dormant pecan trees in Georgia, along with ready-to-be-planted acres for cotton and peanuts. The two largest national forests I wheeled through — Francis Marion in South Carolina and Sam Houston in Texas — provided peace and quiet, while the Lone Star State also took me back in time with a scenic highway called the Texas Independence Trail.
We even took two ferry rides during our journey. One consisted of a 45-minute crossing of Mobile Bay in Alabama, which departed at Fort Morgan, and a 10-minute zip across the mighty Mississippi River at St. Francisville, Louisiana.
The portions of the trip that brought any grief, besides the flat tire and the horrendous roads in Louisiana, was the time my mother and I lost track of each other for three hours in Alabama — which was mostly my fault because I had failed to carry my cellphone that day — and the countless "please don't bite me" skirmishes I had with man's best friend. Dogs of every size and description were at my heels every day, only to be thwarted by an increase in pedal action or a wet facial from my water bottle. I was even chased by a steer on one occasion.
Austin and the weekend
As I came closer to my final destination, it was almost as if my bike went slower. Fully realizing the end was coming with each mile I traveled, I wanted to savor every moment and also reflect on what I was about to achieve and what it took to reach my accomplishment.
Once again, the emotions came to the fore. The fact that I had the opportunity to see, hear, touch and smell a vast portion of our nation was just overpowering to me. The diversity of our country, not only ethnically and racially, but also economically, I learned is best seen from a bicycle. It is amazing how much some people have, while others seem to have nothing, or at least very little.
Approaching Austin, I also thought about how lucky I was to be healthy enough to pull off such an endeavor, and how fortunate and honored I was to do it for those who could not.
And, if the truth be told, I kept thinking about finally seeing my wife, Vicky, as we had been apart from each other for 25 days.
Just like the special sendoff in Boone, the same sort of treatment was in store for me on my arrival into Austin. Jeff Sheldon, a resident of the capital city and bicycle messenger by profession, solicited other Peloton Project members about joining me on the last leg of my journey.
So on the final day, an overcast Friday, I was escorted the last 15 miles into town by three other cyclists and three new friends — Jeff, Branan Cooper of Pennsylvania, and Gregory Vince of Colorado. We never stopped talking the whole way in, them asking a zillion questions about my trek, and all of us learning about each other and bonding on our bikes. It was a blast, and only the beginning to a fun-filled weekend.
Being interviewed by Fox TV in Austin, Texas.
Before going to the hotel that served as Peloton headquarters and registering, Jeff was instructed to take us to a place downtown called Auditorium Shores. Upon our arrival, it was lights, camera, action, as I was interviewed about my trip by the local Fox television station. It kind of hit me then how cool and special the whole experience had been, and I couldn't stop smiling.
Once Vicky arrived from Maine and we got my mother settled into her hotel, it was just go, go, go the entire time. The rest of Friday consisted of the autograph/photo session with Lance and the Rock for the Roses concert, featuring Cake and Stone Temple Pilots.
I was up early on Saturday to partake in the private group ride with Lance — how many people can say they have ridden in a peloton with a Tour de France champion? — and other celebrities, including comedian-actor Robin Williams. In fact, I went up to Robin afterward and shook his hand as he mugged for all the cameras and he said to me, "Yo, man." Another special moment for my trip's treasure chest.
On Saturday afternoon, Vicky, my mother and I went to the Health and Sports Expo at the Austin Music Hall to check out all the booths and to listen to panel discussions about cancer and from those who had fought and won their battle against the disease. The fancy part of the weekend was that evening's gala, where hundreds of people heard the message of hope from Lance and his foundation. Tributes were also paid to cancer survivors and to those leading the fight.
The weekend's showcase event — the Ride for the Roses — was Sunday morning. I joined 7,000 other people touring the Texas countryside, each person selecting a distance of between 10 and 100 miles to cycle as a cancer survivor, or in memory or in honor of someone who suffered from the disease. I pedaled for my grandmother Elizabeth Donahoe and my mother-in-law Doreen Scammell, each a victim of breast cancer.
The wrap-up to the three days was Sunday night's appreciation dinner for Peloton Project members. As with every weekend event we attended, there was plenty of good food and an easy atmosphere for meeting people from all over the country.
Putting hope in motion
As you have probably gathered by now, my eight-state trek was a remarkable journey. The places I saw, the people I met, and the chance to cycle for such an extended period of time, will be with me for the rest of my days. It was a life-changing experience.
But the moments I will remember most — besides the special few minutes I had with Lance Armstrong — will be the opportunity I had to meet the cancer survivors. To hear their stories, delivered without a trace of self-pity, brought home the message to me that my trip was truly "not about the bike," and I will forever spread their wish to put hope in motion.
In fact, I've already signed up to be a 2003 Peloton Project member.
Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Kennebec Journal.