“How light and free I felt! …A woman on a bicycle has all the world before her where to choose; she can go where she will…“ ~Oliver Pratt Raynor, The Typewriter Girl, Ch. V
And it is light and free that I feel when I am on my bike, miles out into the countryside. Early springtime the corn sprouts, the lilac leaves unfurl slowly, and Shetland foals romp in the greening pastures waking up after sleeping beneath a layer of snow. Through summer, the corn seems to grow unremitting, the shade of a large oak on a ninety-five degree day becomes an oasis, and the whiskered muzzle of the Shetland pony tickles against the skin of my outstretched hand. Fall brings a brisk breeze crackling the browning leaves of the corn stalks, scarlet maple leaves covering the roads, and the thickening coat of the ponies huddled together against the Illinois wind. Winter tests my resolve to continue cycling, the biting winds daring me to venture out into the lonely, bare countryside, but even then, I feel light and free, free to go wherever I desire on my bicycle.
This love I have for cycling took me far beyond my beloved Illinois countryside the summer of 2012, when I began a cross-country trek with Bike the US for MS, to honor my mom who had suffered from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) through what should have been the golden years of her life. Her suffering and struggle came to an end in December 2011, her body finally giving in to the immense damage the MS caused. It was during the last two months of her life that I knew committing to the ride was a way I could show her that though her fight with the disease was coming to an end, I still had a few rounds I wanted to go to help knock the disease to its knees. I wanted to be a part of something that worked to find a cure for MS.
Starting out, the ride was a way to increase awareness of MS, as well as a way to raise the much-needed funds to further MS research. Being a rider registered to cycle the entire distance from Yorktown, VA to San Francisco, CA, I was obligated to raise at least $3785, a dollar per mile cycled. Spending hours writing letters to potential donors kept me focused on the impending ride rather than on having recently lost my mom, and it was through sharing with others the courage my mom showed during her last few weeks that I realized just how much strength and pluck she truly possessed to endure years of physical and emotional distress. I became more and more determined to spread the word and raise the $3785 required for the ride, to help others who were facing that same physical and emotional misery that is MS. At least that’s why I thought I was riding 3785 miles in 60 days. Almost as soon as I started out of Yorktown, waving good-bye to my husband and our two boys, I began to understand the ride was far more than simply increasing MS awareness and taking in donations for research.
Not even a mile into the ride, tears blurred my vision then slid down my cheeks as I thought about Mom and how she had hated every second of living with MS. The sadness that had gripped my heart since the moment she had slipped away six months before tightened its hold. I desperately wanted it to go away. The months following Mom’s death, work, family, cycling, and gathering all the items needed for the ride—a tent, a sleeping bag, and other roughing-it gadgets—kept me focused and helped keep my grief under wraps. Now, with nothing but the road in front of me and only the sounds of the tires whirring against the pavement, all that suppressed sadness wriggled free. I wiped at the tears while wondering how in the world riding my bike across the United States was going to make any difference. It wasn’t like I could help my mom.
By the time I rolled into the first rest stop, a small weather-beaten convenience store with a couple of old, rusty gas pumps and a picnic table under a pair of pine trees, I had gotten the tears under control. I wasn’t ready to let the other members of the ride see me with red-rimmed eyes and tear stained cheeks. It didn’t take long, however, for another cyclist to recognize the tell-tale signs of melancholy masked by fake enthusiasm. Sharon, blond haired with sharp blue eyes, sat next to me at the picnic table as we ate a snack before getting back on our bikes to continue on and complete the 62 miles for the day. I’d seen her profile on the ride’s website and knew she was a firefighter, but what I didn’t know even as we sat together under those pine trees, what I would come to learn one evening at a campsite in Kentucky as we sat in the waning light of the setting sun, was she had undergone back surgery. The ride was the test she put before herself to “prove she wasn’t broken.” Sharon picked up on my sadness that day and several other days throughout the ride and stayed with me, simply cycling along in a comfortable silence. We ended up riding the rest of that first day together and most of the next 59 days, right up to reaching San Francisco.
During the ensuing weeks, cycling through Virginia, Kentucky, and into southern Illinois, I could feel the sadness from the beginning of the ride diminishing. While I couldn’t bring myself to participate in an interview about why I was riding across the United States when we arrived in Charlottesville, VA, on the third day of the ride, I did find that I could think about Mom as I was cycling and not dissolve into tears.
With each hill I climbed and my legs aching from the effort, with each mile covered during 95 degree days and my mouth dry from thirst, I became stronger physically and mentally, completing each day with the thought that my suffering would never, ever compare to that which Mom experienced, as well as everyone else living with MS.
Embracing the difficulties of each day became what I looked forward to. Each morning I checked the whiteboard in the trailer that carried all the cyclists’ belongings, and upon seeing a 94 mile day ahead of me, I knew all I had to do was get on my bike and pedal.
Pedal for Mom.
Pedal for my dad, siblings, and friends who encouraged me via Facebook, Twitter, and phone calls.
Pedal for all those reduced to wheelchairs because MS stole their ability to walk.
Pedal for those individuals newly diagnosed with MS, struggling to accept what their bodies were facing.
The 94 miles of road would be difficult, but not nearly as difficult as the road those with MS navigate each and every moment of their days.
On day 26, after rolling into Pittsburg, KS, a reporter approached me with a request for an interview about why I was cycling across the US. I answered the reporter’s questions without tears interrupting—how Mom was told she had ten years to live but fought the MS, having those ten years plus an additional four to watch her 13 grandchildren grow; how Mom would roll her wheelchair out into the yard to watch her granddaughter put on plays just for her; how Mom loved to watch the hummingbirds dart into the feeder then leave with wings whirring. Being able to tell Mom’s story released any remaining sadness I still carried and pushed me to put my all into the rest of the ride. I opened up and began talking to anyone and everyone about MS.
During the rest of the ride, through Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California, I let each day be simply that day. Not the one before it. Not the one to come. Just that day. Within each day, the relationships with my fellow cyclists developed, our likeminded goal that of riding to fight the MS monster. Not a day passed that we didn’t meet someone along the way who was living with MS, had a family member with MS, or knew someone with MS. How far and wide the monster’s tendrils spread hit home. No longer was the ride about increasing awareness about the disease, though this was definitely part of it. No longer was the ride about raising funds to further research for medications and hopefully one day a cure, though this was important and I celebrated the day my friends back home donated to my funds, helping me reach $7600, twice the amount I needed for the ride. Rather, the ride became this “something” far bigger than anything I’d ever imagined it would be.
It became a conduit for making connections between human beings, all wanting and working towards a common goal: to ease, even if it was only a tiny bit, the suffering of those living with a terrible disease. Never before had I ever felt such a fulfilling sense of purpose.
When I made the decision to ride across the United States, excitement overwhelmed any second thoughts that tried to chip away at my resolve. Right up to the moment I pedaled away from my family in Yorktown, I never doubted taking on the task of getting on my bike for sixty days and cycling an average of 65 miles a day. Once the anticipation for the ride became reality, allowing all the suppressed sadness to rise to the surface, hesitation wriggled its way in. Not only did I shed tears those first few miles, but I also battled the urge to turn around, find my family, and return home. To the familiar. To the comfortable. To my life that was “safe.” How different my life would be if I had played it safe. I couldn’t hold close precious memories, like:
–meeting fellow cyclists, all motivated by the same hope of one day slaying the MS monster;
–the challenging climb up the Blue Ridge Parkway where undulating vistas of green spread gracefully to the horizon;
–admiration for Robin Creemer who, with her service dog Tootsie dozing on her lap, showed determination and persistence though she’s been living with MS since 1985;
–the delight of standing amidst a field of sunflowers, one of my mom’s favorite blossoms, and stroking their silky petals as they seemingly bowed under the rising sun;
–feeling awestruck as I turned in a circle atop Monarch Pass at 11,300 feet, and seeing nothing but snow-tipped mountains surrounding me;
–the magic of cycling through the mesmerizing and dreamlike landscapes of Utah;
–the happy surprise, as I walked my bike off the ferry at San Francisco, of being greeted by my brother and his family, who had traveled to California from Illinois.
What holes my life would hold if I had succumbed to the urge to end the ride before even really beginning the ride. With the decision to continue on that first day, to wipe away the tears and follow through with honoring my mom, I received the gift only a bicycle combined with a purpose can offer: feeling light and free while exploring all the world before me.
Jennifer Cherry lives with her family in central Illinois. Though she lives in the city, her heart belongs to the countryside of cornfields, wind turbines, and pastures full of sheep, cows, and horses. Cycling long distances throughout central Illinois gives her time to create characters that appear in her short fiction pieces, a few of which have been featured in The Storyteller Magazine, Mused: BellaOnline Literary Review Magazine, and Bergasse 19.