About nine months ago, Jared Mehring signed away his 2019 summer, committing to a cross-country bike ride from Seattle to Washington, D.C.
This week already, he’s ridden more on a bike than he probably has in his whole life. He has biked up Mount Rainier. He has pedaled the hills between Walla Walla and Pullman, where he is a student at Washington State University, and then up along U.S. Highway 195 to Spokane, where he grew up.
So yeah, he’s a little sore.
“My legs have been super tight every morning,” said Mehring, a Mt. Spokane graduate who will be a junior at WSU this fall. “You stop and get off the bike for five minutes and they’re tight again. But it should get easier. This first week is really hard.”
Mehring is one of 23 mostly college-age men from across the country – all of them members of Pi Kappa Phi – riding the Trans America route of the Journey of Hope, which raises money for The Ability Experience, the fraternity’s exclusive philanthropy. Its purpose is to instill lifelong service in its members while helping to empower people living with disabilities.
This is the 42nd year of the ride, which often comes through Spokane in early June, as it did this year. It is a 67-day, 4,350-mile ride, the team pedaling mostly 65 to 135 miles per day, with some rest days built in.
There are two other active routes – the North and the South – that are about one week and 700 miles shorter. They all end in Washington, D.C.
But they don’t just ride. In most cities they visit, they attend dances, outings or other events in partnership with local organizations that align with their cause. As they crossed Washington state they held these Friendship Visits with Ashley House in Enumclaw, The Arc of Tri-Cities and Lillie Rice Center in Walla Walla. While here, they visited The Arc of Spokane.
“We try to have as many Friendship Visits as we possibly can,” said Adam Brown, the team’s project manager and a veteran of the 2017 Journey of Hope’s North route. “In these larger cities like Spokane, there are these organizations we try to partner with and meet their participants, and really get to see where the money we have raised, how it positively affects these individuals.”
As of the team’s stop in Spokane, Mehring had raised $7,312, clear of his $6,000 goal. Overall, the TransAm team was at $161,860, on their way toward a goal of $200,000.
“I’m excited to do a lot more of these friendship visits,” Mehring said. “I haven’t really worked with people with disabilities very often, and just out of the first three friendship visits I’ve been at, I feel like I’ve already learned so much and have been inspired by them as much as we inspire them.”
The team spent Monday evening at the Salvation Army, their bikes, sleeping bags and gear occupying most of the gymnasium floor. After eating dinner – the team relies on sponsors to fund their meals along the way – the team sat in a loose circle for the first of their weekly meetings.
They started with sharing highs and lows from the first week, and then they went over each line of their charter, discussing to what degree they were achieving it so far. They do this to ensure they are keeping their focus on the mission of the Journey and to hold everyone accountable to it, Brown said.
“The main reason we have these meetings would be to avoid complacency and to remind the team of why we are here,” Brown said.
They also discussed specific safety concerns and other key moments of the ride, teaching good riding habits and overtly highlighting the importance of maintaining a positive vibe along the journey.
It is certainly a grind of a ride. On riding days, the team splits into pace lines of two to four cyclists, spread about a minute apart. They have six vans this year, donated by Sprinter Vans, that carry their gear and from which the support team can set up rest stops every 10 miles or so.
Brown drives ahead to ensure their site for the night is ready. He carries a thick notebook that outlines the logistics of each stop.
The team started in Gig Harbor for four days of training. Then, on June 4, they dipped their bikes in the Puget Sound at Golden Gardens Park in Seattle and started riding.
“We have guys who have never cycled at all, and then you have some guys who have been cycling since they were able to ride a bike,” Brown said.
All three teams will dip their wheels in the Potomac River – or, if they want to go 15 more miles, the Atlantic Ocean – when together they reach Washington, D.C., on Aug. 10.
Most, but not all, riders are college students. Rob Raesemann, 50, is a member of the chapter but didn’t complete the Journey until after he had graduated, as a member of the TransAm route in 2005. He is back 14 years later for a second go, leaving his wife and 10-year-old son at home in Jacksonville, Florida.
“We waited till (our son) was 10 till I could do it again, hoping it inspires him to do this as well,” Raesemann said. “I’m sending postcards, (and he) has a map of the United States with pins. After I get to a place, I text my wife that it’s OK to pin it, so he’s been following along.”
He is riding a Litespeed titanium bike, which he said is “like having a vintage Ferrari.”
Mehring is on a Cannondale, borrowed from Ben Garrison, a chapter brother who completed the ride two years ago.
“I hadn’t worked with people with disabilities very much,” Mehring said, “but I talked to Ben Garrison … and he was just explaining to me that he couldn’t even put into words the impact it had on his life and how important that summer was to him, so I figured I had to do it.”
All the riders are sacrificing their summer for this, which for most of them means eschewing internships, classes or working a job. Raesemann stepped away from his electrical engineering business. Mehring said he’d probably be working a job if not for this.
But one week in, he’s glad he made this choice.
“Giving back has a different intrinsic worth that you can’t measure with money,” Mehring said. “You have to work on being a servant leader and work on giving back, so I’m excited to work on that all summer.”
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