I suppose you could call our bike trip around the U.S. and Mexico a midlife crisis, or maybe a simple plea for a life less ordinary.
All we hear about, it seems, are the bad people: drug dealers, suicide bombers, bank robbers and murderers. By watching the nightly news or reading the morning paper, one would get the impression that our world is filled with bad people; people who would happily mug or rape or kill us. But my family’s experiences have shown us another side of our vast world – a kinder, gentler side where people are kind and generous and more than happy to give us a helping hand.
My husband and I were middle-aged parents who were comfortably nestled in a large house with a couple of cars in the driveway. We got up early and taught school all day. We came home late, fed the kids, and collapsed into bed utterly exhausted. In short, we were living the American Dream.
One day we woke up and realized that perhaps the American Dream wasn’t the be-all and end-all we had hoped it was. We used to be avid cyclists, but our last bike journey was back in our BK (before kids) days – back in those years when we were young and carefree. Now, as parents entrenched in the realities of life in the U.S., we decided to throw abandon to the wind and take off with our 8-year-old twin boys to explore our country on bicycles.
When we pedaled out of our driveway three months later we knew we had embarked on a family adventure. As we rode around our country on something resembling a rolling wagon train, we saw a side of North America most people miss. And yet, all the random acts of kindness people showed us astounded us. Each and every time someone reached out his hand and offered us help, we were humbled. And those experiences were not few and far between.
Take, for example, the couple in New Jersey who rescued us from pouring rain. We had taken off like a herd of stampeding buffalo after discovering the last ferry of the day was leaving in 30 minutes from a pier five miles away. While we were stopped at a traffic light, a black car pulled up alongside. A window rolled down and a face emerged. “Where are you headed?” the woman asked.
“We’re trying to make the ferry to where our friends live! And it leaves in half an hour!” I replied as I took off through the red light.
Pedaling like mad through the torrential downpour, I crested the top of the second hill and readied myself for the final push to the ferry. The same black car pulled up beside me. “You aren’t going to make it,” she announced. “The ferry leaves in two minutes. There is no way.”
My face fell and my shoulders sagged. I looked around at my dismal surroundings. Rain fell from the sky… puddles filled the road… we were soaked to the core, along with all our gear. This was about as bad as it gets. “Do you know where a hotel is?” I asked.
“The nearest hotel is about 10 miles away. And it costs around $250 per night.”
Life just doesn’t get any lower than that. That was a low point for us. We were stuck out in the pouring rain with our precious children in the middle of a massive urban sprawl. No place to pitch our tent… no hotels… nothing but rain and more rain. What kind of parent was I to subject my darling boys to conditions like this?
“Would you like to stay with us tonight?” she asked. “We live just a couple miles from here.”
Once again, America’s Road Angels had reached out and added magic to our journey.
Or maybe I should tell the story of the total stranger in Portland who handed us the keys to her house. “Go on in and make yourselves at home,” she instructed us. “I’ll be there in a few hours.” And she didn’t even know our names. Or perhaps the tale of the doctor in San Luis Obispo who pulled up alongside us as we pedaled into town and asked, “Would you like to spend the night at my home tonight?”
Each and every time complete strangers go out of their way to make our lives brighter our faith in mankind grows. Our children are seeing the good; the way people were meant to be. It may be something small like stopping on the road to give us tomatoes or oranges or water, or it may be something bigger like leaving caches of Gatorade over the next 200 km, but each example of kindness teaches our children the value of giving.
My boys were on the receiving end of kindness so many times during our year on the road I have no doubt they have learned an important lesson in giving. Indeed, my son told me, “When I grow up I am always going to keep Gatorade in my car so I can give it to bicyclists. And I’m going to have an extra room in my house so people traveling by bike can stay there.” And I have no doubt he will.
Those little acts of kindness – a cold Pepsi on a hot summer day, a shower when we’ve gone too many days without one, or refilling our empty water bottles during long stretches of nothing – are like little rays of sunshine. They lift us out of the doldrums and put a new perspective on our day. And they show us, in no uncertain terms, that people on our planet are not as portrayed on the nightly news.
Nancy Sathre-Vogel, along with her husband and 9-year-old twin sons, recently completed a 12-month, 9300-mile bike ride around North America which they chronicled at www.familyonbikes.com