Lessons From Folks Who Biked Across America

My former student, Rachel Timmons, and her husband, Brian Gottleib, recently finished biking across America. Yep, they biked 3,886 miles: starting in Florence, Oregon on May 14, 2010 and finished on August 6, 2010 in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  They planned their trip for a long time. The items they would bring, their expectations high. Along the way, they encountered physical and emotional challenges so grueling, they weren’t always sure they would make it. They had to dump gear, change routes. Adjust. But they never gave up. They just kept meeting people, collecting stories, photographs and memories.

Before their journey ended Brian wrote:

There has been so much emotion on this trip. So much happiness, so much anxiety, so much love, so much discomfort, so much triumph, and so much inner and outer conflict. There have been . . . years worth of tears abbreviated in a few months. Most have been tears of pain, it’s true, but not exclusively.

Before this trip, I only remember crying once out of joy, it was at my wedding. I’ve broken down in tears of joy three times on this trip. I’ve been surrounded by so much beauty and freedom that I found myself crying uncontrollably and being unsure why.

I hope to remain in this feeling of freedom after this trip draws to a close. It’s not a physical freedom or the freedom of being on a vacation, but a freedom of the mind . . . Perhaps I owe it to the monotony of the routine. Every day, we pedal six to eight hours. When it rains we pedal, through heat we pedal, in traffic we pedal, when sore we pedal. There was no perception of choice or option, there was only the pedaling.

For the first month, the discomforts magnified each day—within hours the rain became a mental monsoon and the wind a mental hurricane. A small disagreement in the morning could become a huge rift in my mind within two hours. But at the end of the day, I would look around and there would be no monsoon, no hurricane, no gap in our love for each other. And this repeated for days and weeks, and then I became more accepting of the routine and occasionally forgot to judge the rain, the wind, the small disagreements. I focused on the pedaling and a light rain remained a light rain and a breeze remained a breeze and I stopped clenching when a truck passed from behind.

Now . . . I look back at all the intense emotions and they are all my favorite part. The best days were the ones I felt the most, regardless whether it was intense joy or grueling discomfort. The worst days were the days of sterility and numbness, the days that I turned off and hid from both lows and highs. Perhaps my mind believed it was only hiding from the lows and was still open to the highs, but it was mistaken. In hiding, I hide from both.

I don’t see this trip as ending. My goal is to keep this trip going forever. I want to transition back into daily life as I’ve pedaled through these best of days: free. I want to let in all the feeling I can, high or low, as I pedaling through my next assignments at work, my search for a new place to live, and my lifetime adventure with Rachel.

I loved reading about Rachel and Brian’s youthful adventures avoiding buffalo and sleeping in freezing cold temperatures, finding country jamborees and attending rodeos. These days, I know so many people who are struggling: kids trying to figure out how to deal with new schools, new teachers, new routines; young adults working three jobs so they can afford to continue to take classes; graduates tirelessly trying to obtain meaningful work while toiling daily in low-paying jobs. I have friends going through terrible divorces and friends wrestling with terrible illnesses. I know people who have recently lost parents, best friends, spouses. I know people living in poverty. Sometimes, there is little to offer people in the way of words.

So I would like to offer up some of Brian’s optimism, and remind people that — despite the sad/frustrating/annoying/angst-filled/seemingly unfair parts of the story — life is still an amazing journey worth making. Remember that little goofy Blue Tang fish from Finding Nemo, Dory? Remember when she and Marlon come to a deep, dark, seemingly hopeless point in the ocean, and Marlon wonders what to do? Dory’s answer is “Just keep swimming.”

When Dory swims, she doesn’t do it resentfully, but with a kind of faith that shows she believes that the dreary, dark water will – one day – end, and that, eventually, a more pleasing stretch of life will reveal itself. It is just downstream; she’s sure of it. Her funny amnesia propels her forward so that she can only focus on the moment, the swimming. We laugh at her, but there is something innocent and yet profound about her trust in the cosmos.

So, like Dory, the Blue Tang, and Brian and Rachel, I urge everyone to just keep going. And I urge everyone to think about where they would like to be in five years. Because sometimes having a vision of where you would like to be can help you move forward and think beyond the hard times you may be having in the moment. Keep pedaling and swimming. Keep reading and learning. Just keep moving forward. Why? Because Dory said to.

Where do you want to be in five years? When you look back, what would you have liked to achieve?

17 responses to “Lessons From Folks Who Biked Across America

  1. carl d'agostino

    First, I congratulate Brian and Rachael on their accomplishment. They persevered and struggled and won. I do not mean to minimize their accomplishment. But when reading these things my mind immediately shifts to the plight of our inner city youth. Where is the energy to help the fatherless boy? Or the teen mother forever stuck in the cycle of poverty? Where is the commitment to help our youth receive a vocational or college education without crushing debt they will never pay off? The community outrage that should energize a commitment to save our youth from drugs and crime? Individual success stories are inspirational, but all the inspiration in the world doesn’t help the economically disenfranchised youth of our country. I would ask Brian and Rachael to consider their next adventure to help a teen who comes to high school 5 years below reading level. Now that’s a legacy!

    • Okay Carl, so where do YOU want to be in five years? Are you all done with goals because you put your time in?

      • Reply to Jacobson question. First of all I want to be ALIVE. ( ha, ha, ha) I want to learn from other writers and bloggers and improve. I will continue to study. Love Roman/Christianity period, Elizabethan England, Puritan Massachusetts. A dozen little baby heart attacks struck me down hard in 2006, but I will remain sole caretaker for aged parents, father for sometimes troublesome children and education resource for grandchildren. Was crushed print media/establishment political career 1980’s (effort did bring positive change).

        “Put time in” is never justification for vapid idle life of evaporation, unheeded call to civic duty. When asked about retirement, Billy Graham said nothing scriptural about retiring from preach Word. So we must be a resource to others until we are called home. I am optimistic that at 61, I still have time to think, grow and contribute. I think I am already but not yet. And I thank you for the challenging question. Keeps me awake and focused. I have become computer literate only in last two years. I would also like to ride in a horseless carriage and buy vegetables in a store.

  2. You pull no punches today, my fellow blogger. This is a tough question! I mean we all have goals but when you sit down and think “Where do I want to be in 5 years?” all these thoughts rush in and confuse.

    Having done a lot of traveling both abroad and here, doing volunteer work along the way when I was younger (and continuing to travel lots even today within the US), I can relate with some of what your two friends have seen and gone through. We can not discount inspiration, it is what helps us help the fatherless and feed the unfortunate. Inspiration is the great catapult and is the difference in doing something with passion and doing something merely because it is the right thing to do.

    All this said in five years I hope to be a better mother, friend, wife and lover. I hope to be further down the path in my art and further along in myself. I also hope to have bought my own house🙂 It’s not winning any Nobel Peace Prize but if I can be a better more accomplished person in 5 years than I am now, then I have succeeded. I also really want to buy my own house……Did I already say that?🙂

  3. In five years, I aim to be debt free (aside from the mortgage), and just about purchasing an old car for me and my son (who will be 13 then) to hot-rod. For the two of us, it will be a huge bonding experience and something I shared with my dad around the same time. The two of us bought an old boat and did a total restoration job on it over the winter. That summer (my first, working at summer camp), was one of the best I can remember. I had my own “speed” boat. None of my friends had boats. Or if they did, they were their parents, not theirs. Oh, the great times I had on that boat.

    Having had that experience, I can only imagine the great times my son will have with his car or truck. I know I will be looking at him remembering summers gone by.

  4. Congratulations to Brian and Rachel on their story. I have named it “A Journey With Optimism.” Thanks for sharing this Renee. Everyday is a miracle for me. It’s great to be alive and breathe the air, see nature and the joy of family, enjoy one’s friends and have good HEALTH.

  5. I have some ideas about where I want to be in five years, but first I think I have to figure out where I am now.

  6. I have a really good life and can’t complain about the serious things – so in all honesty, I wouldn’t mind being where I am right now, in five years’ time. Aside from self-improvement projects (which are always ongoing) and forays into helping others, I’m content. The family is healthy, we’re employed, meeting financial obligations, and keeping ourselves open to helping others as/when we can.

    Brian and Rachel’s journey isn’t one that many people would take on – for whatever reasons, it was important to them to do – and it sounds like it strengthened many relationships – marriage, faith, humankind – etc. I think the “just keep swimming” connecting is apt. Congratulations to them for finding the willpower to keep swimming. Now – did they treat themselves to a flight home?

  7. Dear Rachel, Brian and Renee,

    Renee, one of the greatest things about you is how you highlight and focus attention on others. It is one of the things that makes your blog so strong. I am very lucky to be your friend again, after losing touch for over 25 years! Rachel and Brian, your writings are really inspirational.

    I want to congratulate all three of you on this blog entry. It is really beautiful. I think fully living–experiencing all the emotions, and shooting for whatever dreams you can, REGARDLESS OF YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES, is the key. For that kind of proactivity, I greatly admire Nelson Mandela (who lived in captivity for decades) and some of the Holocaust survivors. I think to fully live, one also needs to begin with immense gratitude for life itself, again, REGARDLESS OF YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES. I have lived among the worst circumstances you can imagine–there I found what was most important and essential–just as much health possible, and a few key people to love and be loved by: In my case. my two sons, most of all, and hope for some form of creativity.

    About where I want to be in 5 years–with my kids, with family and friends (and me) alive and well. “Well” can be defined as with minimal needs met and lives full of love, with the ability to be creative about self-development in a variety of ways. That is enough. The rest is icing on the cake or, carried a little too far, even a distraction or worse–destructive ambition or consumption.

    And in fact, I hope Americans learn to live with substantially less, as I have here in Cochabamba, Bolivia, living on less than you can imagine, even if you are on welfare. I hope within 5 years I can teach some SURF==Simplify, Underdo it, Relax and Focus. And we need to share the planet more equitably. I would like to teach some of that too. I hope to teach people where to find the strength to give up choices and consumption for the greater good–to somehow halt the worst effects of human-induced climate change etc.

    In a few months, I hope to swim (like Nemo) across Lago Titicaca (at 14,000 feet and about 50F) and be practicing martial arts under the tutelage of the Bolivian national team’s coach. That will be fantastic! And if it does not happen, whatever I do and whatever circumstances I am living will be enough, as long as I have my two boys with me and they are healthy. Remember Cat Stevens’ words–“And if I ever lose my X/ I won’t moan and I won’t beg/ and if I ever lose my X, ohh wayyyaa, wayaaa, I won’t have to Y no more. ;]

    I hope to remind people not to forget to sing to their kids, to belt out their soul to their kids, every day. And no matter what happens to me, I will always be looking for another dream to accomplish, under my circumstances.

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness and love in asking this question, Renee.

    • Adam, you know I love you, and I hope you get everything you want in 5 years. In fact, I believe that you will make all of these things come true because that is the person you are: a person with vision!

      I also want you to know the words to Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow!” (What’s with the X and Y?)

      Oh, I’m bein’ followed by a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow
      Leapin and hoppin’ on a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow
      And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land,
      Oh if I ever lose my hands, I won’t have to work no more.

      And if I ever lose my eyes, if my colors all run dry,
      Yes if I ever lose my eyes, I won’t have to cry no more.

      And if I ever lose my legs, I won’t moan, and I won’t beg,
      Yes if I ever lose my legs, I won’t have to walk no more.

      And if I ever lose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south,
      Yes if I ever lose my mouth, I won’t have to talk.

      Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light.
      Did it take long to find me? And are you gonna stay the night?

  8. Renee, thanks for this. A bunch. And thank you all for the supportive comments on our journey!

    I’m working on my last post to the blog—Brian beat me to it by a bunch of days, to be sure.

    Just keep swimming, or pedaling, moving through the muck and the joy and the pain and the ruts and curves and high and low as best one can. It has taken me many years to learn something of how to do this, as I am so often prone to hedging and inaction and overanalysis when simple DOING is what is needed to find any kind of clarity or resolution.

    Nowhere was this lesson more evident than in the deserts of Oregon, Montana and Wyoming, where I was often gritting my teeth and swallowing fear and anger (at myself and at my husband) and self-doubt and and and….because I had to ride that bicycle. Pedaling while my mind screeched out BUTS and WHYS and HOWS and WHAT IFS and STOP RIGHT NOWS for my consideration. Sorry, overdeveloped anxiety gene! I’m just going to ride this bicycle, thanks anyway. And at times it actually felt…stupid…to be riding, if you can believe that. Foolish. “Why are you riding this fucking bicycle and not dealing—right now, please—with xxxx INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT emotional/mental/physical/relationship-related matter? ALERT. ALERT.” So my mind would urge me.

    Yet most often, there really wasn’t much option but to keep my thoughts to myself (at least until we got to the evening’s stopping place). It was so remarkably difficult, sometimes, to simply…let it go, to override the tendency to indulge, or give in to, fears and anxieties and neuroses.

    But usually, when I did, I realized that it all just amounted to a bunch of mental or psychological junk that had lost its potency with continued riding.

    Whoops—now I’ve written quite a comment. Better take it to my last blog entry….

    rat

  9. I knew Rachel in another life, many years ago, and I have to say it sounds like the girl I first met in 9th grade. Her determination and passion still shines through all these years later. It’s a touching story on its own, but even more so knowing in these days where career, age, kids, ailments can all get in your way Rachel is still holding on to that passion, and loving life.

  10. In five years? I can only imagine. With any luck, I’ll be helping my daughter shop for colleges, but who knows? The best part of life is the journey itself. I’d like to say where I’ll be, but what was it John Lennon said? “Life is what happens to you while you were out making plans.” It’s all about the journey.

    http://sparkyridesagain.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/my-heroes-have-always-been-highways/

    Sparky.

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