Cycle of Life

In

Lon Haldeman towered over my breakfast table on Day Two of my month-long bike ride across North America. “How you doing?” asked the deep-voiced man who once pioneered the Race Across America and organized this trek. At 60, I was the oldest female among 20 international cyclists riding from Seattle to a New Hampshire beach last summer. I said cheerily that the first day had been like the Horrible Hundred, a 100-mile bike ride across Central Florida’s ridges.

“Well, it’s about to get more horrible,” he said.

It did.

By the end of that second day, I called my husband and said I wanted to quit. Climbing over the snow-capped Cascade Mountains made the Horrible Hundred seem like speed bumps. I wasn’t the last to crest the peak, but I descended so cautiously that I came in last.

This flatlander was done. Lying in my bed that night, I formed the reasons I would tell people I quit. But as dawn broke, I geared up for Day Three. I realized that quitting was not an option. This ride was my fundraiser supporting the Adult Literacy League. I had started a GoFundMe page, “Wheels for Words,” with the goal of raising $3,569 — the same number as the trip mileage. Friends, family and neighbors donated more than $4,000 to the league in honor of my quest.

The idea for the ride was planted more than a decade earlier when I learned about the transcontinental ride from a friend and journalism mentor facing a terminal diagnosis. The ride was one of the memories he cherished most in his final days. The inspiration for riding for charity came from a story I had written at the “Orlando Sentinel” about a 24-year-old who learned to read and write. He had gone from being illiterate to writing amazing stories. The students in my story sometimes changed buses three times to get to class. They sacrificed wages and family time in order to learn. And I was going to quit a bike ride?

In the next few days, my legs hit a rhythm. Tailwinds, downhills and scenery blessed us. I joined four other riders, and we took turns confronting headwinds. Camaraderie lifted me as we worked together.

A routine emerged: Up about 5:30 a.m., with buffet breakfast in the hotel parking lot. Ride with breaks every 30ish miles at a roadside trailer flush with Oreos, hydration and sunscreen. At our hotel, we scrubbed our bikes clean before hauling them – and our 40-pound bags — to our rooms. Hotels ranged from Super 8 to luxury.

“The Best Part of the Day,” as my roommate and longtime friend Lisa Portelli called it, was a hot shower. A bottle of India Pale Ale beer sometimes sat next to razors and Dr. Bonner’s Castile Soap.

Riders washed their spandex and hung them on bushes and fences to dry while the famished travelers sought steak, lasagna, salad and pie.

One night, an internist from Johns Hopkins and I headed to Walmart for a rotisserie chicken. A wary deli clerk looked at our sun-beaten faces with a look that said, “You’re homeless, aren’t you,” and reminded us to get eating utensils.

Ultimately, stress takes a toll when you’re riding 120-140 miles daily. After two weeks, my respiratory system rebelled and the flu funk hit. Heading to Mount Rushmore, I just wanted to crawl into bed. I fantasized about sheets so thick they crumpled. Maybe it really was time to quit, as other riders had. But I pushed on. I climbed the Rockies and Tetons to challenge myself. I persevered the entire 3,650 miles to empower people with reading skills.

When we finally reached the Atlantic Ocean, there on the roadside scanning cyclists’ faces was my husband, Chris Testerman. I considered quitting a few times but I never teared up… until I saw him.

A lot has happened since I got back home. I have been busy with my company, Fifth Estate Media, and I was asked to join the Adult Literacy League’s board of directors.

And Jeremy White, the young man featured in the “Sentinel” story about literacy, now has a job with supervisory duties. Shortly after I returned, he wrote an unsolicited check to the League for $40. Then he crossed out the number and wrote $50.

Longtime journalist Mary Shanklin has written for “Orlando Sentinel,” “USA Today,” “Architectural Record” and more. She has a master’s degree in publishing from George Washington University and is the founder of Fifth Estate Media in Winter Garden, Florida.