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Spiritual journey: Biking across the U.S.

July 13, 2012

John Keller pedals along Highway 89A in Arizona during a recent cross country bike tour. He described the area near Sedona as “absolutely breathtaking.” In total, the 68-year-old of Wapakoneta rode more than 3,400 miles in 48 days.

Starting with a front tire in the Pacific Ocean and ending with a front tire in the Atlantic Ocean, a 68-year-old Wapakoneta man recently biked across the United States.    

John Keller and his wife Jane, tandem cyclists, had talked for years about riding across the country, but they never were able to fulfill that dream before she died from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Jane lost her battle late last fall, two and a half years after her diagnosis, a point when most people are given between two and three years to live. She had first gone to a doctor with concerns after she noticed problems with her speech.

“She was the best of the best,” John said. “We would have been married 50 years in August.”

Last Christmas after his wife died, John began to revisit the dream they had shared.

“I started looking up companies that specialized in rides across the U.S.,” John said.

Crossroads Adventure Tours caught his eye and after reading more about it, the father of three wondered what his children would think.

“I just kept thinking, I’m 68-years-old, single and my kids are all grown up,” John said. “I’m not getting any younger, so why not?”

After signing up to make the trip, John told his children and, pleasantly surprised by their encouragement, he began to train.

“I needed to be able to ride 80 miles a day back-to-back with the third day a century miler,” John said.

While he and his wife had been riding bikes together since they were married in 1962 and had done other rides, such as the Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure (GOBA), and made longer trips across Indiana, Iowa, and portions of Ohio, John said he had never done something of this magnitude.

He began a “fire” training program with Kantner & West Chiropractic to strengthen his core muscles and worked hard to accomplish his goals from January through the first week of May.

“I could feel myself riding and getting stronger,” John said of the preparations he was making.

Because of the mild winter, he also was able to get out and ride more often around area lakes and would come back in from those long rides feeling prepared for the long journey ahead.

He had his bike fine tuned and shipped it out to Los Angeles, where his ride was to begin.

The morning of May 13, the 22 bicyclists on the tour rode down to Manhattan Beach to dip their front tires in the Pacific Ocean to begin their trip.

Along the way, they were accompanied by a six-person staff, including a full-time mechanic, and had vans riding at the front and back of the pack to carry their gear and ensure their safety.

Flat tires became routine, especially when they had to ride on the berm in the desert. The group as a whole had 29 flat tires one day. Throughout the trip, John had five.

The average age of the cyclists was 62, with the oldest 70, two years older than John. They came from Canada, Great Britain, and all across the United States, sometimes pedaling more than 100 miles in 100 plus degrees.

Each day, they were on the road before 7 a.m. and off the road by 2 or 2:30 p.m., giving them plenty of time to rest and recover at hotels along the way, as well as satisfy the ravenous hunger they developed. They were given maps each morning, that they clipped to their bikes, and explained different parts of the day’s ride for which they needed to be prepared. Along the way, every 30 or 40 miles the cyclists were given food and drinks to keep them going.

John’s niece joined him to ride one day, one of his daughters another day, as well as his son and even his pastor.

“I had a lot of support,” John said.

The trip took them through 15 states, including Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts — and over 3,404 miles.

John said his favorites were southern California, Arizona, Missouri and the Finger Lakes region of New York.

“I never felt really into it until I got to New Mexico and started to enjoy God’s creation around me and the people,” John said. “We have a beautiful, beautiful country.”

The challenge of climbing mountains on his bike and higher elevations was one of John’s biggest concerns before the trip, but he said he managed to make it over the 143 hills in Missouri without any problems.

“It was quite an adventure,” John said reflectively.

After starting in Manhattan Beach, Calif., John’s ride ended in Revere Beach, Mass., with his family cheering for him.

The trip served as part of the grieving process for him, something John especially realized during the last leg of the journey, when another member of his group whispered to him before he took off the last day to “Take Jane with you.”

“I took her all the way across,” John said of his late wife. “I had been taking her with me all across the United States.”

The emotions he felt in carrying his late wife with him on a journey he had never made before was unlike anything else John had ever felt.

“When I got on the beach, I walked out away from the group and got down on my knees in the ocean and prayed,” John said.

“I thanked God for the safe journey, for the sights I had seen and the sounds I had heard,” he said. “All the grief I had been carrying poured out into the ocean.”

Joining other riders as they held hands, hugged and prayed as the waves lapped against them, John said it was a marvelous moment.

Although John said he had no expectations starting the month and a half trip, after it was over, he described it as a blessing.

“I came back a different man,” John said. “I’m a rich man with new friends and have accomplished something not too many have.”

“People have asked me, would I do it again,” he said. “There was a point half way through that I started thinking, ‘what am I doing,’ but it ended up so powerfully strong, that I would definitely do it again.”

Until then, John continues to pedal at least three times a week for 50 or 60 miles, to keep in shape.

“One of my concerns was to be an encourager and an example,” said John, who was the first person to sign up for the cross country tour in 2012.

The strong Christian said he wanted to be a good testimony.

“It ended up being just what I needed — new friends, encouragement and them ministering to me,” John said.

“They gave me an award for the person who influenced them the most,” he said as he choked back tears.

“I have never had anything thrill me in such a way.”

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