By Stan Purdum
Sometimes bicycle journeys have benefits you don’t expect, as this narrative of a trip with my son Scott 30 years ago indicates. I wrote this shortly after the trip, but I was reminded of it recently during a conversation with him.
“I don’t like long bike rides,” said my son, Scott.
We were in the first five miles of our long-planned and anticipated bicycle ride across Ohio. At 10 years old, Scott was a very immediate person. His words usually reflected how he was feeling at the moment.
He had been very excited about the trip up until our actual departure on that late June day; now his statement alerted me that the reality of our undertaking had hit him.
I heard his comment with dismay. If he already felt this way, how could we hope to accomplish the nearly 300 miles that lie ahead?
The present reality we were dealing with was temperature: 100 degrees. We were both suffering, but the heat seemed to be sapping Scott’s energy much more quickly than mine.
Our journey, as conceived in the cooler days of spring, was to ride from west to east, across the northern tier of our home state. We would begin at the Ohio/Indiana border, just west of Hicksville, Ohio, and conclude in Orangeville, a town that straddles the Ohio/Pennsylvania line, but officially belongs to Ohio.
Scott had now fallen behind. “I can’t do it,” he shouted, and then stopped altogether. As I rode back to him, I thought about my own goals for the trip: I hoped to accomplish the miles, I needed to get some exercise, but above all, I wanted to work on my relationship with Scott.
As the middle child of a workaholic father, Scott, who knew how to needle everyone in the family, received enough negative attention from me. He was, quite frankly, a difficult child, and while he could be cooperative and loving, he often chose to be stubborn and cantankerous. My wife and I called him our family tough guy. Father and son had almost daily confrontations where we bristled at each other. Scott and I needed time together, and I wanted it to be a positive experience for both of us.
Scott started pedaling again, and eventually we arrived at a small town where cold pop and snacks rejuvenated us. I learned of a nearby campground with a swimming beach. It was too early to stop for the night, but the lake sounded like a good place to cool off. We spent an hour there relaxing in the water, and when we began to ride again, Scott was cheerful. He talked of how far we might ride before nightfall.
I was optimistic about Scott’s ability to pedal at least part of the journey if his spirits did not flag. He was tall and strong for his age, and his red compact 10-speed was lightweight and rolled easily, even with the loaded panniers and sleeping bag attached. The terrain in northwest Ohio is mostly flat and so far, we’d encountered little wind. Also, on a training ride in the spring, with a strong headwind part of the way, Scott had ridden 43 miles.
My panniers were larger than Scott’s, so I carried more of the weight. I figured that might help compensate for the fact that each revolution of my 27-inch wheels carried me a bit farther than Scott’s 26-ers. Also, I had promised myself that I would ride at Scott’s speed, rather than forcing him to keep up with mine. This was easily accomplished by staying out of my highest gears.
We were riding on quiet country roads, following routes suggested in the “Ohio Bicycle Route Guide” maps that I had ordered from the Ohio Department of Transportation. For much of the journey, we would ride Bike Route N, one of nine cross-state bicycle routes established by ODOT.
The cooling benefits of the swim stayed with us a while. The ride now became a joyful experience, a mutual feeling of euphoria that lasted until we pulled into the cityof Defiance, our supper stop. Scott suddenly experienced nausea and was unable to eat his McNuggets. I looked at his red face and realized that he’d had too much sun.
Batman, a movie Scott wanted to see, was playing at the mall cinema across the road. I arranged with the theater manager to park our bikes in his office and took Scott to the show. The air conditioning and the relaxation did the trick. By the end of the movie, Scott was feeling fine.
We rode in the dark to a state park and set up our tent. When I checked my odometer, I was surprised to discover that despite everything, we had covered 40 miles.
Scott fell asleep in minutes, and I shortly thereafter.
The next day dawned overcast and some 20 degrees cooler than the previous one. By suppertime we had ridden 65 miles and felt so good that we rode another 10 afterwards. This enabled us to reach a town large enough to offer a motel, a luxury we’d decided on as a reward for our greater efforts.
Scott proudly telephoned his mother to report his mileage. We both slept soundly again that night.
Our route for the following day took us through Bellevue, our hometown, where we stopped for an extended lunch break with our family. I’d been concerned when my wife suggested the stop, afraid that if Scott was weary at all, he might not want to continue our trip. As it happened, however, he went on quite willingly.
But not for long. We soon encountered a mild headwind, and Scott, typically, wanted me to do something about it. I pointed out the unreasonableness of his request, and he talked of quitting. When, however, I left the choice up to him, he opted to go on.
As he continued to struggle, I gradually realized he that he truly was not feeling well. We pulled into a small general store for a restroom break, only to find that the public restrooms had been closed to the public. I explained Scott’s difficulty to the woman behind the counter and asked if he might be allowed to use restroom nonetheless. She said, “I’m sorry,” in a tone that indicated she was not, and we went on to a campground, stopping much earlier than originally planned.
Ironically, that general store near our hometown was the only place we felt unwelcome on the entire trip.
Scott felt no better the next morning, but he wanted to go on. After six miles against a significant headwind, coupled with repeated bouts of stomachache, we agreed that he needed to leave the trip. I telephoned my wife, who came with the car to take Scott home. While waiting for her to arrive, however, we did some counting. Scott had ridden 155 miles in a little over three days, part of it in intense heat. He had completed over half of our intended journey — not bad for a boy who just finished fourth grade. It was a time for pride, not disappointment.
We were later to learn that Scott really was sick. He was diagnosed some days later as having a major manifestation of acute rheumatic fever called Sydenham’s chorea. He was treated, but it took a long time for the effects of that illness to leave his body.
We didn’t know any of that at the time Scott left the trip, and we decided that since I had already cleared the time off, I would complete the trip without him. I’m basically an introvert, so spending time alone has never bothered me. I usually welcome solitude. So I was surprised to find myself feeling lonely as I set off without my son. Though I reached our final destination two days later, the rest of the trip was not the same. I had not expected to feel Scott’s absence that much.
As it turned out, even without the on-setting illness, Scott probably would have had great difficulty with the trek had he not stopped when he did. The strong headwind continued, and hills abounded over much of the subsequent route. I labored hard up many steep grades.
Mostly though, I was aware of the continued ache of loneliness throughout the day. That evening, after many more miles, I phoned home. I spoke with my wife, and then Scott came on the line. “I miss you, Scott,” I said. Our family tough guy said nothing for a moment, and then replied, “I miss you too, Dad.”
A new appreciation for each other was not a bad return on the energy we’d invested in a bicycle journey.
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Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.