Early in the morning on June 26, 40 bicyclists left Seattle, passing through forests of giant evergreens. After 87 miles and 3,000 vertical feet, they were spending the night in the desert. They rode through the second day in 114-degree heat. “Basically an oven of wind was meeting you,” said Sean McCallum, one of the riders. He recalled a landscape of bare earth, wizened cacti and dead wood.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked himself. He had 46 days and more than 3,000 miles of pedaling ahead.
McCallum, a nurse in the emergency room at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital, was participating in the Big Ride Across America, an event sponsored by the American Lung Association. Its participants each raised at least $5,500 for the ALA. McCallum said he had been contemplating a cross-country trip for years, and his encounters with lung-disease patients at the hospital gave him an added incentive to do the Big Ride.
Unlike all the other riders, who were mounted on lightweight, narrow-tired road bikes, McCallum rode a fat-tired mountain bike, built by the Japanese company Koaga Myata. He had the most important component specially installed: a Brooks Conquest all-leather saddle, one of the best on the market. McCallum’s thick-framed beast, decked out with front and rear panniers, earned him the nickname, “The Tank.” He said that while some riders had to repair seven or eight flat tires a day, his treads burst only once the entire trip.
After the deserts of Washington State, the riders skipped through Idaho and into Montana. The ALA carefully routed the riders on back roads. They slept at campsites where support vehicles would drop their tents and arrange for catering or give them money to buy dinner from local restaurants. In the Rockies, the riders climbed the 6,600-foot McDonald Pass and crossed over the Continental Divide. Going down the east face, McCallum said he reached a top-speed of 53 miles per hour. “You just hold on.”
Beyond the big mountains, the riders reached the flat prairies of Wyoming and South Dakota. This was the most brutal part of the trip. “The roads were as straight as this hallway. It just seemed like you were riding in place.” McCallum said, gesturing down the length of the emergency room. “All you saw were miles and miles of cornfields.” The exception to this monotony was the surreal moonscape of South Dakota’s Badlands, McCallum’s favorite part of the trip.
THE TRAVELERS sometimes went 100 miles without seeing even a gas station. The winds that flowed unimpeded across the cornstalks and prairie grasses could reach speeds between 20 and 40 miles per hour. The riders, whose average speed was in the teens, sometimes spent days pedaling into these winds.
Outside De Smet, S.D., they spent three-quarters of the day in a rainstorm. But that was an exception. Drought was turning the land to dust. Most of the towns McCallum passed were completely dependent on agriculture. “They were hurting, you could tell,” he said, recalling the time he saw the blades of a plow strike a stone in the dry fields and start a blaze that had to be extinguished with a backhoe. Outside one small town he passed a sign that read, “Please Pray for Rain.”
The people McCallum met were always eager to welcome the riders and hear their stories. Many communities were too small to cope with 40 unexpected guests. In Sheridan, Wy., the riders made one of their frequent en masse ice cream stops at a drug store with a soda counter. The lone employee watched in dismay as they kept trooping through the door. One rider took pity on her and climbed behind the counter to help her scoop ice cream and ring up bills.
On day 31, the riders reached Madison, Wis., where McCallum’s parents, who relocated there from Mount Vernon a year ago, cooked a meal for them all. In the following days, they skirted Chicago, passed million-dollar Mcmansions along Lake Erie, and climbed into Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains. Though these mountains were shorter than the Rockies, they were just as fatiguing. Around every corner there was another steep grade to climb. As the land flattened out, and the horse-drawn buggies of the Pennsylvania Dutch began to appear on the roads, McCallum knew he was almost done. “Once I got to Pennsylvania I was basically at the end of the ride,” he said. “I had mixed feelings because you don’t want the ride to end.”
McCallum had grown used to the routine that had carried him through the journey: rising in the early morning, packing his tent and loading his luggage into the van, eating breakfast and clipping into the pedals by 6:30 or 7 to ride 25 miles before a water break. He said he and his comrades would ride side-by-side when possible, encouraging each other.
“This group really becomes a community along the ride,” said Paul Peyton, the director of communications for the ALA’s Washington State Chapter, who has helped with rides since 1999. “They support each other. They look out for each other. If you get a flat, they work it out together. No one’s left alone.”
ON THE 48TH DAY, Aug. 12, the riders reached the finish line at the Lincoln Memorial. McCallum’s mother surprised him by being there. Even though he had called her every night to update her for the e-mail she sent out, he’d had no idea she would be flying in from Madison. Some of his coworkers were there as well. They had been following his progress on a U.S. map posted in the emergency room. “He was tan, very tan,” said, McCallum’s supervisor, Maureen Karnbach, when asked what she first noticed about him at the end of his ride.
She said when he asked for leave, she’d wondered whether the department could manage to give McCallum so much time off. But he’d been involved with the hospital for 13 years, beginning as a junior volunteer and ultimately working on every floor. He has been a nurse for the past six. His devotion to Inova Mount Vernon was rewarded by the extended break, as well as responses to his fund-raising efforts. When he was away, people from every floor of the hospital, and even the emergency medical technicians, would ask her how McCallum was doing.
“Everyone was really glad to have him back,” Karnbach said. “We’re just really proud he’s part of Mount Vernon.”
Now back in the hospital, McCallum’s journey isn’t over. “This event can be life changing,” said the ALA’s Peyton. “The way riders, when they come back, realize they don’t need as many material things."
“It puts you in a different perspective, what you value, what’s important. [The riders] become friends for the rest of their life. It’s a tight community.”
In October, McCallum will fly to Vermont for a reunion of the 2006 Big Riders. “We’ll do a ride around Burlington and the Adirondacks,” he said.