Mark Mansell 2013-05-14 15:44:11
Learning to Be a Lion … One Mile at a Time Trust me: it’s a big country and a long way from coast to coast. Here I am on Day 27 as I head from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Ludington, Michigan, a relatively short jaunt of 45 miles that included a ferry ride. June 16th, 2012 (Day 1) - 2:30 a.m. The alarm clock glows and I roll over for the umpteenth time. I’m 51 years old with the aerodynamics of a semitruck, carrying 270 pounds on my six-foot, six-inch frame. I normally put in long hours at my desk at work, where I am a school superintendent. In six hours I will embark on a 3,500-mile bike journey across America. No wonder I can’t sleep. My wife, Debbie, and I belong to the La Center Lions Club in Washington. My half-crazy plan is to pedal from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, to raise awareness and funds for Leader Dogs for the Blind. OK, I have put in thousands of miles training over the last year and a half alone and logged hundreds of hours planning, prepping and promoting this trip. But up until a couple of years ago my longest bike ride was no more than 10 miles. I’m Everyman trying to do something few have done. Obstacles likely standing in my way are bad weather, equipment breakdowns, falling off my bike or getting sick. Many Lions are counting on me to be at their events on specific dates and times. I’ll have no support vehicle to rescue me if I run into problems. I’ve done my research and tested my equipment thoroughly, but who knows what awaits me. I think I’m ready for almost any anything. I’ll haul camping gear, wads of clothes, communication devices and photographic equipment along with spare parts in a small trailer I’ll pull behind my bike. But here’s my inspiration: those who founded Leader Dogs for the Blind in 1939 to help a fellow blind Lion faced huge challenges. They persevered and succeeded. Like them, I’ll undertake my journey as a Lion–plunging ahead in the service of others. June 19th (Day 4) – 8:40 am I left camp early this morning to get in some miles before the heat of the day. My goal was to settle into a routine. But today I am struggling and feel off kilter. Biking can do that to you. I basically skipped breakfast and planned to stop in a small town for my morning meal. When I arrived, the only business open was a convenience store. I know that without nutritious food my body could wear down. Turns out I had a more immediate crisis. Hearing a rumble, I glanced in my rear view mirror and spied a double trailer fuel truck, charging up the hill and getting frightfully close. I veered to the far end of the gravel shoulder just as the road curved right. I teetered and struggled to stay upright. The air blast of the semi-tractor pelted my back. I rode through thick black exhaust smoke as the truck roared by. Another rumbling immediately rose up. A second semi cut the corner even more than the first, missing me by precious inches. June 22nd (Day 7) - 6:30 p.m. My seventh straight day of riding began in the dark at 4 a.m. Exercise is supposed to work like Ambien, but I couldn’t sleep because I knew I had a lot of ground to cover. My trip odometer showed 570 miles ridden. To stay on schedule, today I need to ride nearly 100 miles with 4,000 feet of climbing. Less than two hours ago a sense of accomplishment washed over me as I completed a steep climb out of Idaho’s Salmon Wilderness area and over the summit of Lolo Pass to cross into Montana. Now was supposed to be an enjoyable, easy 2,000-foot descent over the last 35 miles into Missoula. Instead, as I crested the summit a stiff headwind nearly toppled me over. Storm clouds brewed on the horizon. Stopping early was problematic. The Lions who awaited me did not know me but they believed in my trip and me. That thought energized me. I pedaled hard, envisioning the Lions cheering me on. June 29th (Day 14) - 8:45 p.m. Daylight dwindled as I arrived in the small eastern Montana town of Custer. I needed to find the town’s park commonly used by bicyclists for overnight camping. Even though Custer probably has a population of maybe 100 people, I couldn’t find this park to save myself. “Hey, do you have enough water?” a man calls out to me. Today I rode more than 100 miles in the most challenging heat and wind conditions I have experienced. Along the way there were few signs of life. The temperature shot past 105 degrees. Any cool water I found to fill my bottles soon turned warm or even hot. No, I did not have enough water. Ed has lived in Custer most of his life. He often sees bicyclists come through town looking for the park, and he’s learned over the years that almost all of them are thirsty. That’s why he has bottled water ready to share. He buys it in bulk every time he goes to “the big city” of Billings and puts as many as he can in his freezer. I offer to pay him for the three ice-cold bottles, but he sternly declines and says it is something he wants to do. Ed and I chat briefly as the last of the sunlight fades from the sky. His act of kindness impresses me and reminds me of our Lions motto, We Serve. Ed had no motive other than to be kind. He turned a long and exhausting day into a memorable experience. Beyond the water, Ed gives me an even greater gift ... simple directions to the park. July 6th (Day 21) – 5:45 a.m. Loud cracks of thunder woke me early. A glance outside my motel window showed sideways rain with regular flashes of lightning. My first thought is relief I chose to stay in a motel rather than in my tent at a campground. I also think that Debbie would not be thrilled if I rode through the lightning. The TV news shows the storm will pass soon, so I head to the motel lobby for breakfast to let the storm pass. With my brightly colored yellow “Cycling for Leader Dogs” shirt, conversations are usually easy to start. Sue, the motel desk clerk, tells me about her husband, Bob, who actually has a Leader Dog. She tells me how comforting it is to know he can get around safely without her because of his Leader Dog, and she thanks me for doing the ride. Sue helps me realize the multiplying power of our service to others as Lions. Not only does our service help those directly in need but it also helps their families, friends or neighbors. July 21st (Day 36) – 12:30 p.m. So far I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of Lions across the country. Surprisingly, I have arrived at every single scheduled event within minutes of when expected. Today’s scheduled event is extra special. I’m riding to Leader Dogs for the Blind headquarters in Rochester Hills, Michigan. A handful of Leader Dog supporters met me on bikes 35 miles from the headquarters. At 10 miles out, a larger group of 25 riders joined us. On a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, we glide into the parking lot, filled with Lions from around the region and many other Leader Dog supporters. They cheer, clap me on the back and shake my hand. After more than 2,400 miles of pedaling, I am extremely moved. They made me laugh, too. Time and time again I heard “you have only 1,100 miles to go!” Easy for them to say! July 28th (Day 43) – 2:30 p.m. My journey reminds me of that wonderful Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day.” Basically, I get up early, eat, ride 50 to 100 miles while munching down what I find along the way and turn in for the night not long after I get off my bike. My mind and body both have acquiesced to this routine. Instead of being worn down and perpetually sore, my body has been resilient and adjusted to the pace. Burning through 8,000 to 10,000 calories, I am certainly tired at the end of a day. But I eat nutritious food that does its job. This is my life now, and I like it and find it normal. What distinguishes each day are the people I meet. This morning a convenience store clerk, noticing my Leader Dog riding shirt, asked if I was that “dog guy” riding his bicycle across America. He must have seen the interview I did on a local television station yesterday. Apparently convenience store clerks across America regularly watch the evening news because I am often known in advance. I’ve done more than 50 newspaper, radio and television interviews so far. The people I meet are excited to have me in their stores, and their enthusiasm never fails to boost my energy and spirits. Around mid-morning a car passes me slowly and then pulls over ahead of me. The driver jumps out and waves me over to him. Ron is a Lion who heard about the trip through a district governor’s newsletter and then saw me on the news. He tracked me down to personally thank me for doing the ride as a Lion. He handed me a donation and wished me well. Once again, it was gratifying to see how my ride brought out the best side of people. Later I reached the Erie Canal trail and enjoyed the scenic view. Walkers, runners and a few recreational bicyclists shared the path with me on this beautiful Saturday morning. I rode past a man and a woman who were leisurely riding along on their bikes when the man called out, “Are you doing a charity ride?” We talked a bit. Jamey reached into his wallet and gave me a crisp $100 bill. Kathy, his companion, told me they were headed to the town of Medina a few miles away to meet their two sons and their girlfriends for their regularly scheduled Saturday lunch. They invited me, and we had a great time. Back on my bike, I reflected on all the craziness in the world that we hear about daily in the news. Virtually every day of my trip I encounter kind, compassionate people who just want to make the world a better place to live. Driving around the country never gave me these types of opportunities to connect with people. Beyond the bicycle, what makes these interactions even more special is doing the ride as a Lion for such a great cause. August 5th (Day 51) - 10:25 p.m. Today I put in more than 100 miles and climbed 5,500 feet. The sun set hours ago. But I kept going. It’s my final day of my seven-week journey across America. I am a mere two miles from Portland, Maine. Today has once again brought heat and humidity as well as a severe late afternoon thunderstorm. All my gear is still drenched, and I am soaked to the bone. But my spirits are high. I am about to complete the promise I made long ago to family, friends and my fellow Lions. They believed in the project and in me. I’ve covered nearly 3,500 miles, always on schedule. Darkness engulfs me. The dim lights of my bicycle create shafts of clarity. Then suddenly the headlights of passing cars and the periodic streetlight fully illuminate the road before me: a light-filled final sprint. I have met literally thousands of people and have been helped by the kindness of so many. Nearly $100,000 has been raised for Leader Dogs, almost three times our original goal. Three Lions back in 1939 simply wanted to help get a fellow Lion a guide dog and they ended up creating an organization that has now provided more than 14,500 guide dogs. They believed, acted and found success. That formula worked for me as well. Present Day Ever since I returned, I hear the same question: “Have you recovered from your bike trip yet?” I understand why people ask me this. By any measure, 3,500 miles is a long way to travel, especially on a tiny triangle-shaped bicycle seat. The person I was before the trip surely would have had a ready-made answer about how tough it was. But the person I am now simply smiles and nods. How can I ever possibly explain the experience that captures how this journey changed my life, as a Lion and a person? I learned a lot on my journey. Lions are separated from one another; they belong to their own clubs, each distinct. But knowing we are part of something bigger than ourselves brings encouragement and power to our service. It unites us. An everyday Lion like me who had a crazy idea of riding a bicycle across America could have done only so much alone, but it is the connection among Lions that made my journey possible. Our simple acts of kindness bring us together. My eyes have been opened to what is possible through the power of Lions. Not everyone is able to nor wants to ride a bicycle across America, and that’s OK. Knowing you are part of something bigger than yourself as a Lion, unselfishly being kind to others and trusting in the multiplying power of service to others in need is what is really important–not the project itself. I will carry these lessons with me in my service as a Lion, whether it involves a bicycle or not. Cycling for Leader Dogs has changed my life not because of what the project accomplished but because of what I learned as a Lion through this journey–one mile at a time. The irony is I’m not finished: I have many more miles to go– 10,000 miles in fact. This summer Debbie and I will travel through 48 states in 24 days on motorcycles to again raise funds for Leader Dogs. Wish us luck and good weather. We know for sure that Lions across the country will be there to greet, shelter and encourage us. My entire journal for the bicycling trip (and my other bicycling adventures) can be found at www.bigguyon abike.com. You see a quieter, more beautiful side of America while on a bike. The Rosebud River in Montana (top left) meanders through gorgeous country. While traveling along the interstate in North Dakota, I passed by a lake where this man had caught an impressive Northern Pike (top right). One of my surprise encounters was a group of boys near Abbotsford, Wisconsin, out early guiding sheep right down the road (middle). I was not sure where they were going, but it looked like they were having an interesting time keeping them headed in one direction. Vermont was one scenic view after another including this church in a small town and a covered bridge (bottom). I met multitudes of Lions as well as ample reminders of our service. On my way out of Hysham, Montana, I passed Lions Park (top left). Randall Lions in Minnesota made a banner (top right). In Michigan, I spoke about my trip at the installation dinner for 11 A2 District Governor Jim Pettinato (right). In Bluffton, Minnesota, District Governor Margaret Van Erp and her husband, Past District Governor Pete, hosted me for the night: two of the most fun and energetic Lions I met (opposite page).
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