WEST ADDISON — Lee Kayhart had a recurring dream that helped sustain him through the trauma and self-doubt that had enveloped him after a farming accident took both his arms 27 years ago.
That dream was to ride a bicycle. It’s an activity that most folks take for granted, but which seemed like a veritable Everest for someone with no hands to clasp handlebars.
Now Kayhart, with a lot of help from his wife, Pat, and his friends, has conquered his Everest — in a big way. The Kayharts returned to their home in West Addison late last week following a cross-country bike trip of more than 3,700 miles, from Washington state to Maine.
The trip, which Lee and Pat made together this summer on a one-of-a-kind recumbent tandem trike, inspired the couple and sent a message to the thousands of people they met along the way that great effort yields great results.
“You might have challenges in life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t live your dreams or achieve goals you set for yourself,” Lee said last Thursday morning during a break from chopping corn on part of the family farm.
Lee has been setting new goals for himself since his accident. He still does a lot of work on the farm and two years ago made a parachute jump. He and Pat do a lot of traveling, including what has become an annual sojourn in Apache Junction, Ariz. The couple has made a bunch of friends in Arizona over the years, people who have shared in some of the Kayharts’ adventures. Among those friends are Bob and Terri Rohde. Bob Rohde is an avid cyclist who had been looking for a partner to complete a lengthy bike trip. Lee had recently taken to biking on a recumbent trike and reckoned — after a great deal of introspection — that he was ready for a long ride.
But he and Pat, both in their early 60s and not seasoned cyclists, conceded they could not take on a cross-country trip on separate tricycles or bicycles. So they decided, in the true spirit of partnership, to share the load. They were alerted to a tandem trike in Seattle posted on Craig’s List. The Rohdes checked it out and gave it a thumbs-up, whereupon the Kayharts bought it and shipped it to a bike shop near Apache Junction. There, the recumbent tandem trike they would dub “Ruby” went through a substantial overhaul to make it suitable for use by Lee. The trike was equipped with a special steering bar that Lee could manipulate with his prosthetic arm. It was also outfitted with an electronic Shimano gear-shifter with buttons that Lee could push with the aid of a rod protruding from his bike helmet.
“It is the only one like it in the world,” Lee said proudly of the bike.
After a lot of planning and packing, the Kayharts, Rohdes and another friend, Rick Meyer, met in LaConner, Wash., on July 7 for the beginning of their summer odyssey. The Kayharts ceremonially dipped their rear tandem tire in the Pacific Ocean to mark their departure.
With Terri Rohde driving an RV with food, clothing and other support, the cyclists bit off chunks of real estate, averaging around 60 miles per day. It was slow going in the beginning, the couple acknowledged, due to mountainous terrain in the northern tier and the fact that they hadn’t done a lot of pre-trip training on the trike.
But they got the hang of it, sharing the peddling load. Pat, sitting in the rear seat, could peddle and multi-task, checking maps, taking photos and texting family and friends. Lee managed the steering and shifting from the front seat.
“I am not really a bicyclist,” Pat said. “But I told Lee when we started this that I wasn’t going to quit.”
Indeed, the trip got a little easier once the group had cycled out of the Cascade mountain range of the northwest U.S. Lee breathed a sigh of relief when he got to Montana.
“For me, that was the point when I really started to enjoy the trip and had the confidence that we were going to be able to do it,” he said.
Pulling the plug never felt like an option — in part due to the Kayharts’ many friends who were cheering them on. Pat, Lee and other members of the group kept their followers abreast of their travels in a blog that can be found at www.crazyguyonabike.com, in a journal titled “Across The Northern Tier.” Every night after parking the tandem, Lee and other travelers would upload accounts and pictures from the day’s journey.
“We felt if we didn’t succeed, we were going to let all these people down,” Pat said of the followers of their blog, which has drawn more than 92,000 hits.
Their path took them through portions of Idaho, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, the Canadian province of Ontario, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and finally, Maine.
Many miles melted away in their rearview mirror, but the memories will last a lifetime. They said 99 percent of the motorists and truckers they encountered were polite and supportive, with many motorcyclists giving them a “thumbs-up” as they passed by on the roads.
“Pat and I never felt threatened,” Lee said.
Along with the magical scenery (they tried to stick to rural roads), they met some great people who offered them the free use of campgrounds, swimming pools and shower facilities.
There was even a silver lining to the most down note of the trip. Pat was bitten by a dog while they were traveling through Orwell, N.Y. Thankfully, it was not a serious injury. Townspeople felt very bad about the incident.
“They offered us a free chicken dinner so we would have something positive to remember the town by,” Lee said.
Lee and Pat were often reminded of their farming roots as they traveled along. They noted Vermont was not the only state hit hard by flooding this summer.
“In North Dakota, there were some horrible looking crops,” Lee said. “People had planted, and there was nothing there.”
With beaming smiles on their faces, the travelers cycled their way to their final destination — Bar Harbor, Maine — on Sept. 23. Local police cleared a path to a busy boat ramp so they could officially end their trip by dipping the front tire of the trike into the Atlantic Ocean. Friends and family — some of whom had traveled for thousands of miles — lined up with strangers to cheer on the group as it capped its epic voyage.
“People really got caught up in the story of it,” Pat said.
The Kayharts are back home and will undoubtedly plan a new adventure in the near future. For now, they are still basking in the glow of their cross-country feat.
“It is really empowering,” Pat said.
So much so, that Lee wants to offer himself as an example to other physically challenged people who place limits on themselves.
“I think that God had a big part in me surviving, and for the longest time I used to question ‘Why’? What was my purpose?’” Lee said. “I guess at this point I have to say my purpose in this is to be an example for people (for whom) life might not be perfect.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]