Burke resident Mark Taylor teaches violin, viola, cello and bass to students at London Town Elementary in Centreville. A bike trip he made, just before the start of school, will help fund strings scholarships there.
"I wanted to offer private lessons to students who might not get that opportunity," he explained. "And I also wanted to get some of the students at Westfield High [in Chantilly] involved teaching these children because they'll someday go to Westfield."
Taylor, 24, grew up in Springfield and is in his third year teaching strings to about 250 students a week at London Towne, Cub Run and Fox Mill elementaries. He chose London Towne for the scholarships because it's such a mobile community.
He had already planned a 17-day bicycle trip with his friend Tommy Daigle of Falls Church. Daigle has a bachelor's in music education and hopes to teach strings in Fairfax County next year.
The pair had played cello together at George Mason University and, said Taylor, "We're usually up for anything." So after a friend of Daigle's told him he'd just traveled cross-country on a bike, Daigle asked Taylor if he'd like to do it, too.
"We decided to do something to help the schools," said Taylor. "And I'd had the scholarship idea for a long time." He then e-mailed friends, family and co-workers, describing the trip, distance and its purpose, and soliciting donations.
"We originally thought it would be 1,500-2,000 miles, so we asked people to pledge a penny a mile," Taylor said. "The money will be used to pay the Westfield students to teach cello to the London Towne [scholarship recipients]."
TAYLOR WILL teach the high-schoolers how to set up and run a private studio, after school, at London Towne. And fifth- and sixth-graders — who are second- and third-year music students — will apply for the scholarships. "I was hoping to raise enough for two or three scholarships — about $600 per child," said Taylor. "And it looks like it'll be three or four scholarships."
Principal Andy Camarda said the fund-raising effort shows Taylor's commitment to the children. "At London Towne, we say, 'Whatever it takes to support our kids,' and that's a clear example of that in action," Camarda said. "And I like the way it involves Westfield kids, making it a partnership and showing we're all in this together in the Westfield pyramid." As for Taylor, Camarda called him an "excellent teacher and a real benefit to the school."
The trip was 1,400 miles because Taylor didn't have time to go cross-country. He was finishing his master's in music education at the Shenandoah Conservatory. His master's thesis was on teaching elementary students how to compose music.
So the trip went from his hometown of Springfield to Mobile, Ala. "We picked Mobile because Tommy has family there, and we thought we could get a ride back," Taylor said. "But in Wilmington, N.C., he messed up his shoulder. He had a repetitive-stress injury from playing cello [and re-injured it]." That's why, in school, said Taylor, he makes sure his students play with good body position to avoid such injuries.
BEFORE SETTING out, Taylor and Daigle researched the logistics of how much food to take, how far they could go each day, where they'd stay and what kind of camping equipment they should carry. They each had a lightweight, one-person tent, and Taylor said equipment was their biggest problem.
"We had to carry all our food and clothing in cages around the rear wheels," he said. "We brought extra spokes, tires and inner tubes, tire pumps, Camelbac backpacks of water and a couple water bottles each. At the end, there were a couple days over 100 degrees, so we drank a lot of water. We could fill up at churches and libraries, but we'd often go 50 miles without seeing a store."
The trip was the first time Taylor had done road biking, so he'd bought a Fuji racing bike. But he soon learned a touring bike would have better withstood the weight of everything he was carrying on the rear wheels. "On the third day, outside of Richmond, the spokes started breaking, and I had to buy new front and rear wheels," said Taylor. "It cost $200."
They journeyed through six states — Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. They biked along the Coast until Brunswick on the southeast tip of Georgia; then they cut west, going through northwest Florida from Pensacola to southern Alabama and Mobile, along the Gulf of Mexico.
They usually averaged 100 miles a day. Through the adventurecycling.org Web site, they'd obtained maps showing different routes. "They tell you all the back roads to take," said Taylor. "That's why it took 1,400 miles instead of 800, because we were zigzagging. But the route was safe and well-marked."
After Wilmington, Daigle picked up his car and took some of Taylor's camping gear in it so Taylor could bicycle faster. He biked alone during the day and joined his friend at night. Coming home, they both took the car; but going, Taylor bicycled.
"Probably the most challenging thing was getting past the wild dogs in the southern part of Virginia," he said. "They weren't fenced in, and they'd form packs around their territory. We had to go where the maps told us, so we decided to charge the leader and ride as fast as we could, past them. Usually, they'd give chase and you'd yell, 'Heel!' at them." Most times, Taylor said, that would scare off the leader enough so that they could pedal furiously out of their range.
THE TRAVELERS faced other problems, too. When the mercury went past the 100-degree mark in southern Georgia, Taylor began seeing spots, so they had to stop awhile. They also had to ride through thunderstorms when they could find no place to take cover. "Wind was also a factor when it wasn't going with you," said Taylor. "Especially along the beaches."
They'd normally stop twice a day to eat, so they'd meet new people each day. "Pizza was best because it was cheap, filling and good for carbohydrates," said Taylor. "And sometimes, the waitress would say, 'Don't worry about the tip; use it toward your scholarship fund.' Sometimes, people would give us donations."
Along the way, strangers also offered them food or a place to stay. At a church in Carsley, N.C., the travelers expected to find a store because it was listed on their map. But when they arrived, they found three houses, a church and lots of cornfields. A light was on in the church.
"Five elderly ladies were just finishing up a week of Bible Study camp, so we asked them where the store was," said Taylor. "They said it was in another town, but they gave us hot dogs and cake from the camp."
Another time, part of Daigle's bike broke when they were 50 miles from a bike shop and 30 miles from a town. But a man in a pickup truck stopped and gave them some rope so Taylor could tow Daigle. After towing him about five miles, Taylor said the only way things could get worse would be if it were raining.
"Almost on cue, the rain came down," he said. "But a retired couple in a pickup truck with bikes on the back pulled up and gave us a ride about 55 miles and dropped us off at a hotel next to a bike store."
TAYLOR'S FAVORITE places to ride through were hilly Richmond and southern Virginia and scenic Spotsylvania County. He also liked the friendly people, laid-back atmosphere and Spanish moss-covered oak trees in Savannah, Ga. And he enjoyed riding along the beach in North Carolina and the swampland in southeast South Carolina.
"I even encountered a rattlesnake — which I totally didn't expect," he said. "But I just rode around him." He said the trip was worth it because of the music students it'll help and because it's an adventure he'll probably always remember. "I had a lot of time to collect my thoughts," said Taylor. "There's nothing like seeing the country and meeting people, 15-20 mph."
The trip raised nearly $1,500 for the scholarships, but more is still needed to reach $1,800 so three children may receive them. Anyone wishing to contribute may send checks payable to London Towne PTA, with "Strings Scholarship" written on the memo line. Send the checks to the school at 6100 Stone Road, Centreville, VA 20120.