In February 2015, when I accepted a new job that wouldn’t start until July, I realized I had a rare opportunity to do something with my 75-year-old dad, Merv, that we’d dreamed about for decades: bike across the country on the TransAmerica Bike Trail. The TransAmerica runs 4,200 miles from Yorktown, Virginia to Astoria, Oregon and was originally set up in 1976 to help celebrate the nation’s bicentennial.
We had a hundred reasons not to do the trip. But in just three weeks, we cleaned out Merv’s house and listed it for sale. We got bikes, panniers, and other basic gear. Then we did one test ride: 15 miles with a little weight, in the dark, in the rain, with a hill. Afterwards, Merv smiled. “Dad,” I told him. “Now all you need to do is repeat that about four times a day… with breaks in between… one day at a time… and we’ll both get stronger as we go.”
But our biggest challenge? Merv had early-stage Alzheimer’s. For the last year, friends and family had growing concerns and were sounding alarm bells about his daily behavior. So bike across country? Many suggested we were crazy. But I wondered—would we be crazy not to?
When we pedaled out of Yorktown in the cold rain on April 15, it was clear that the first few weeks would be the toughest—and either make us or break us. On Day Two I feared I’d already lost him when he unexpectedly wandered off behind some trees to go to the bathroom. On Day Four he took 45 minutes to use the restroom so I made a mental note to check in on him going forward. On Day Five he greeted me with his Lycra shorts on inside-out, the bright red crotch screaming like a bullseye. We spent that frustrating day along the Blueridge Parkway shifting nearly all the weight on his bike to mine, and alternating between pedaling slowly, walking our bikes, and even napping on the side of the road. Adapt became our mantra.
But on Day 10 we hit rock bottom. The previous night we camped out and temperatures dropped below freezing. The problem was that Merv would get up as many as five times a night to go to the bathroom, and by the time he’d managed to zip and unzip everything, get outside, then return, his sleeping bag was cold. By morning he was shivering and hadn’t slept. This might be too much, we both thought, as we considered throwing in the towel.
But after a 20-hour rest in the next town of Damascus, Virginia, we regained perspective and our spirits—and continued adapting. We’d stay in motels as needed, even if it blew our budget. We’d keep Merv’s bike in a lower gear so he never had to shift gears on hills—and he’d walk his bike as needed. Most important, we’d pedal as far as we could in the time we had, even if that got us only part-way across country. We were now focused again on doing what we could instead of worrying about what we couldn’t.
By Day 21 with the hills of Virginia and most of Kentucky behind us, I started to regain confidence that we might pull this off. There’d be more challenges… thunderstorms and tornado warnings across Kansas, snowy mountain passes in Colorado… but on Day 41, when we crossed Hoosier Pass at over 11,000 feet… and we now had 11,000 feet down to the Pacific Ocean, I knew that as long as we were smart, we could pull this off. And we did. On Day 73, after 4,600 miles, we reached Astoria, Oregon.
But this journey—I’d realize several years later—had given me a chance to show, through action, the most important lessons I’d learned from my dad in our 4 ½ decades together.
My dad stressed the importance of, and modeled, working hard. No shortcuts. First in, last out. Do what needs to be done. We’re of Finnish descent, and Finns take pride in their Sisu, determination to keep going, to make as many adjustments as it takes to endure. Every day on the TransAm, I got to show my Sisu.
But my dad also talked about how important it was to love what you’re doing… and have fun. So, of course, we enjoyed mint julips with a Kentucky Colonel, a sidewalk steak barbecue at a bike store in Kansas, and stops at many wineries along the way.
But most of all, my dad taught the importance of being nice. By “nice”, he didn’t just mean pleasantries and playing by the rules, he meant really listening to others. Growing up, I saw him serve as a sounding board for major political and institutional figures, help my Ghanean soccer coach deal with alcoholism, guide hundreds if not thousands of law school students and alumni on their professional journeys, and strike up lengthy conversations with random people—tech CEOs, bus drivers, waitresses, doctors, travelers—anyone he met wherever we went. And, of course, he used this ear with me, an almost Mr. Rogers-like ear that said, “You are important. I’m proud of you. How can I help?”
When you travel on a bike, people come up and talk to you. A lot. Because you’re vulnerable. And what starts with a curious, “Where you headed?” or “Where you coming from?” can quickly turn into people sharing their own stories, especially if you use Merv’s magic ear. So I began listening my way across the country.
We met coal miners in Kentucky, farmers in Kansas, entrepreneurs in Colorado, immigrants in Idaho, people walking or jogging across the country, and so many more. Often in just a few minutes, people would share their triumphs and tragedies. I transcribed these conversations and asked everyone if I could take their photo. The result was a wonderful snapshot of America in 2015, especially rural America. We have an amazing country with a wide range of people… and we were always inspired by the generosity of so many people we met.
Ironically, it’s often hardest to listen deeply to the ones we love. By our ninth state, Idaho, we finally hit a rhythm on the bikes, and could talk about things other than logistics. Over the next week, on two wheels, Dad and I had some tough conversations about his health and Alzheimer’s. There was nothing easy about any of that.
Merv was never one to puff his chest, but for the next four years until the week he died, when someone would come up and mention the cross-country bike feat, Merv would glow. On any given day of the trip, Merv had been unable to say where we began and where we ended. But give him the chance to pedal in the right direction… and keep pedaling, Merv was capable of biking across the entire United States.
This was a journey of patience, adaptability, empathy, perseverance, and sense of humor—useful for handling uncertainty or any big challenges, whether Alzheimer’s… or a world flipped upside-down by COVID. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us. I encourage you to find someone you love, and instead of focusing on what you can’t do, focus on what you can. And seize the day—whatever that means to you. You will enjoy that magic the rest of your lives.
About the Author
Kari Loya is an educational leader, storyteller, and adventurer. He is the author of Conversations Across America: A Father and Son, Alzheimer’s, and 300 Conversations Along the TransAmerica Bike Trail that Capture the Soul of America.