Sunday, August 23, 2009

The boys of summer: Washington D.C.

The night before I left Elon once and for all, I spent some quality time with some of my closest fellow graduates. With the realization that the best four years of our life had run its course, we found it appropriate to blast some of the most depressing songs in our music arsenal about saying goodbye, while sharing some memories and leftover beer. Sounds pretty awful I’m sure, but it was strangely therapeutic. Well, I was unexpectedly woken up by another “DJ Depressing” mix by none other than Mike Keough on the final morning of the Journey. All the emotion I thought I might somehow suppress on this day I had awaited for so long began to creep out slowly (the first song to choke me up: “Goodbye to You” by Michelle Branch… embarrassing). And then it all began to move quickly – the final morning meeting and prayer, the final sponsor photo, the final proclamation of “Let’s ride bikes!” Before I knew it, we were on the road.

Of all days for things to go wrong… this had to be the most inconvenient! Luckily my bike went unharmed, but the TransAm team was stricken with countless flat ties, red lights and even a chain snapped in half as we neared our final destination. With time ticking away from our required appearance at the stage up site at George Washington University, we began to shred through the city once we got within its borders (this may or may not have been fueled by a sighting of the South team a few blocks behind us). Probably not our safest course of action, but we were acting on pure adrenaline and I’d have it no other way. After our team arrived at stage up in an unscripted double pace line, we fulfilled our various photo requirements (and plenty of not required, somewhat inappropriate ones as well). Then, as we so often did, the TransAm boys circled up.

Realizing our time together would come to a close a mere three miles away, the majority of the team was fighting back tears as we stood shoulder to shoulder with the men who had defined the most incredible summer of our lives. I was most definitely included in this contingent, especially when our project manager Jeremy, a man who has been through so much in recent years and been a fantastic role model for our team, spoke to us. “There has never been a better team than you guys right here,” he said with intention. “You all have changed my life.” After making a consorted effort to hug each of my teammates, we assembled the final, 100-plus man pace line. I had the unbelievable opportunity of being one of two men to lead the entire pack. I cannot claim any credit for this as my fellow Eloner Robby was the top fundraiser for the event (raking in around $13,000) and chose me to ride alongside him to the finish line.

With understandable butterflies in my stomach, it was time to begin the three mile procession to the Capitol Building. Words cannot do justice to how it felt to be there in that moment with the rowdy crewmembers hanging out of the van directly in front of me, my fellow cyclists in tow, and countless curious tourists snapping away at their cameras as we screamed “Feel the Hope!” through the streets of D.C. I will say that it had to be the quickest three miles of all time! Pretty soon we were on the Mall and familiar faces cheering and holding up signs began to pop up. We hopped off our bikes and began walking up to the lawn and there was my family and my friends and this moment I’d long played out in my head felt completely surreal. After the initial ceremony, I was cut loose to feel the love from everyone in attendance (and even feel the water my mom ceremoniously dumped on my head). It will undoubtedly go down as one of the best and most bittersweet days of my life.

By the time the following day rolled around my trusty bike was all packed up, goodbyes had been said (sometimes more than once), and a celebration worthy of 4,000 miles had most certainly taken place. En route to my hotel, I passed through the Capitol. In comparison to the day before, the lawn seemed empty and lifeless. I tried to conjure up everything in my mind all into one – the people, the places, the lessons learned, and the unbelievable strides I made since that grueling first day. It didn’t work. It became more clear to me than ever that the Journey of Hope and all that it meant was going to take some time to process. If and when I’m ever able to sum it all up neatly, I hope I am continuing to live the Hope as best I can. I am so thankful for everyone and everything that made it possible.

In closing, some wise words I came across at a bike shop along the way:

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” – Albert Einstein


Can you feel the love tonight?

Fredericksburg, VA - This ride was initially supposed to be about 50 miles, but it was decided that 20 miles would be tacked on for a safer, more scenic route. With two days left, it was hard to argue the logic. The day went relatively smoothly, with the exception of a randomly-placed mega hill where my chain opted to fall off at the least opportune moment! In another particularly random occurrence, midway through the ride we came across an “Elon Baptist Church,” which Robby and I felt a duty to take a photo by.

After settling into the familiar high school gym setup, we found ourselves en route to our final friendship visit. A weird feeling to say the least, but we were determined to make it one of the best. From the onset, I found myself talking with a guy named Donnie. He was there with his mother (a board member of the local ARC organization), and was dressed nicely with a tie featuring musical notes. He spoke with me about his love of singing and a statewide award he won for his craft in high school. Donnie entertained the crowd with three songs (including the Elton John song that's the title of this post) that night and was met with a standing O. He set the stage well for our last hurrah in the crazy dance party department. It was a perfect friendship visit to go out on, and (for once) I felt a ping of sadness when I heard Jeremy instruct us to “make sure this place is spotless” before we left.

That night we began a final bonding activity in which we sat in a circle and had a chance to speak about everyone in the group and offer up compliments mixed in with a bit of roasting. Based on the spinning of the water bottle, I was actually first up. I was a bit nervous, but it turned out to be really touching to hear what everyone had to say. You get a chance to hear how you were truly perceived by your team and I got the impression that they saw me as a funny, confident guy who had grown both on and off the bike during the summer. It was an important activity for us but, by the time our eyes were struggling to stay open, we decided to postpone the remainder for the following night.

Manassas, VA – This was basically considered our last official team ride for the summer, as the procession to D.C. was sure to be anything but ordinary. We decided to really mix it up and switch who we rode with at every crew stop. I was all about the idea and enjoyed the chance to have nearly every cyclist alongside me at one point or another. Some last minute challenges were unsurprisingly involved also, with McDonald’s double cheeseburgers making an appearance as we all kicked back at a way-too-long crew stop at a grassy area outside of Manassas. As we rolled into lodging at an enormous aquatics center, it was an unusual feeling because it was evident that our next lodging would be at a hotel in D.C.

That evening we met up with all of the Push teams at a D.C. area church to have dinner/debrief on the eve of our arrival. It was great to once again see the North boys and even to give them a little grief about the staggering 9-mile ride they had to look forward to in the morning (we were still 35 miles outside of D.C.). That night, after applying our much-anticipated and absurdly awesome red, white and blue team handlebar tape, we finished up the previous night’s activity outside on the lawn with some cigars in tow. We got to bed much later than usual, which was quite alright by us as we assembled a man-love circle of air mattresses. I didn’t think it would be possible to sleep, but somehow I managed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Borrrrrn in the USA

Farmville, VA – Our final century ride! I sincerely never thought this would be a milestone that would bum me out, but in a way it did. The ride was solid, with some scenic farmland thrown in the mix (probably implied by the name of our destination… check out our hay barrel picture below). There was also some role reversal going on, as our project manager Jeremy (a two-time rider from 1998 and 2001) spent the day as a cyclist and fellow Elon rider Robby Knelson tried his hand at crew chief – a position he is interested in for next year’s North route. Robby really nailed it with the meals, so I endorse him! After soaking up the east coast humidity I’ve apparently been oblivious to for so long, we arrived in town. That night we had a friendship visit at a center that employs people with disabilities and, while I enjoyed speaking with the individuals there, we were treated as “guests of honor” at our own table which was a bit awkward and not our style.

After the previous day’s shopping, it was time for our team “Secret Santa” exchange. I drew Colin Johnson, a rising junior at George Mason, as my person. In accordance with the gag gift clause, I bought him an “I Heart Music” wall plaque (based on his much, uh, scrutinized DJing abilities) and a McLovin driver’s license keychain (a reference to the movie “Superbad”) so he could ideally join the overage crowd in our celebratory D.C. festivities. I received gifts from Moff, who provided me with my casual summer addiction of Cherry Twizzler Bites as well as “diva” paraphernalia. The “diva club” is a group of us who will often assume whiny alter egos for the sake of comedy. There were a variety of other gifts presented, including (seriously) a live mouse given to future-veterinarian Cubby. Later in the evening, we had a chance to hang out at JT’s school, Longwood University, and I defeated my Isaac Polonco in a certain game Elon students tend to excel at. He wasn’t very happy… but at least he can brush up on his skills when he transfers there this Fall!

Richmond, VA – While I realize they are separated by many miles, Richmond and D.C. are fairly synonymous in my mind based on my travels up and down the east coast. I could not believe this city was now upon us. Adding to the looming feeling was the presence of staff from Push America nationals, as well as Bruce Rodgers and other Pi Alphas, who were in town for the annual three-day JOH alumni ride along to experience life on the road once again. Our friendship visit for the day was slightly out of the ordinary in a few ways. It took place at a preschool which did not primarily cater to children with disabilities. Therefore, our purpose was to spread advocacy as these children would no doubt encounter peers with disabilities in the years to come. Despite a crowd that was likely too young to fully understand our message, we performed our “Kids on the Block” puppet show. This school clearly had a vested interest in the Journey of Hope, as evidenced by a large map in the main foyer that has been tracking our progress, but we were all surprised to learn they had taken the initiative to raise $2,500 for our cause. This was something we had not seen happen all summer, so we were very appreciative.

After giving my bike Phoebe her most in-depth clean of the summer, I joined the majority of the group at a karaoke bar for the evening. I must say this place won my official Karaoke Crown of the Journey of Hope, as the performances and characters on stage just got more and more entertaining (among them the very Amurrrican “Born in the USA” by Kevin and James, and “Friends in Low Places” by Schmidt and I). With so much going on in preparation for the big day, this was essentially our last night out as a team and it was exactly what it should have been.