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Setbacks and determination

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August 23, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

BRANDON — In the weeks leading up to her departure with the American Lung Association (ALA) of Washington’s annual Big Ride Across America, everything was telling Helyn Anderson not to go on that bike trip. She couldn’t seem to break $4,700 in donations, $800 short of the minimum required to join the ride.

And to make things worse, she had recently discovered her 21-year-old Rockhopper mountain bike was unsafe to ride because it had a fractured frame.

“My thing was going to be, ride the Rockhopper and then throw it in the ocean when I got to D.C.,” Anderson said. But back in June she had $800 and a replacement bike to find or she wasn’t going to make it to that ocean.

Anderson, a 63-year-old Brandon resident and special educator at Middlebury Union Middle School, has always been athletic but never considered herself a serious cyclist. Her thing is riding up and down the Brandon gap, but that’s about it, she said. But ever since she was a kid, she’s fantasized about bicycling across the United States.

She wasn’t about to let a few minor obstacles stop her from participating in this 48-day journey from Seattle to Washington, D.C. So she sent out a few more postcards, explaining her cause to local businesses, friends and co-workers.

Anderson’s connections to the ALA are strong. She has always admired the organization, which provides her students with information on the risks of smoking, and Anderson herself is in the beginning stages of emphysema, though she isn’t a smoker.

“I’ve lived with smokers, I’ve been exposed to smoke,” she said. Lung disease is killing a friend of hers, and she has watched others succumb to cancer. “I just wanted to do it because I could do it and these people couldn’t do it.”

Her pleas must have worked. Because she opened her mailbox a couple days before the registration deadline to find a pile of checks made out to the ALA.

“So by June 1, I was going,” Anderson said. “I didn’t have a bike yet … small details.”

She wrote to every bicycle company she could think of, asking if they would support her ride. Her kids had bought her a one-way plane ticket to Seattle for Mother’s Day; she couldn’t pull out now. But no one responded. So she started looking locally.

“I went to the Alpine Shop and they just said, ‘What can we do for you? This is so cool,’” Anderson said. They helped her pick out a Jamis hybrid and then just gave it to her. They threw in bike shorts, a jersey, extra tires and tubes. “They couldn’t have been more generous,” she said. 

This was a week before her flight to Washington. She rode the bike 34 miles to break it in, took it back to the Alpine shop where they boxed it up so she could take it on the plane.

But two days before she left, someone cut through the window screens of Anderson’s Brandon home and stole the $300 in cash she had been saving for personal expenses on the trip.

“Nothing seemed to be working smoothly for me, but at no point did I say I’m not going,” she said. “Every time the universe would throw something in my path, like the robbery, I’d just say, well if push comes to shove I’m going to use a credit card, I’m going to be in debt.”

Luckily, she didn’t have to. The next day, her coworkers at MUMS passed the hat and sent her off with nearly the same amount of money she had lost.

The trip itself was flawless, said Anderson, who left Seattle on June 11. She went through three tubes of SPF 30 sunscreen, ate five or six meals a day and never had a flat tire.

The group consisted of 45 cyclists, everyone traveling at their own speed. Anderson spent most of her time alone, concentrating on the road and meditating on endless cornfields.

“I brought up the rear every day,” she said, with a smile. “Because I’m on a hybrid, because I’m a slow rider and because I like to stop and check everything out.”

But at camp each night, she and the other riders shared stories about the day’s ride and about their lives out of the saddle. Anderson was thrilled to see such a broad spectrum of people — corporate lawyers, students, a lung and heart transplant surgeon, a forklift operator — forming a community by the side of the road.

“It was a metaphor for life,” she said. “To ride in a community of 45 strangers. We were really outside of society, camping out on roads … we were all there to help each other because we all had that common goal: to get to D.C.”

Anderson returned to Brandon last week, having completed 3,435.6 miles — she logged 136 “bonus miles” because she had a tendency to get lost, she said — in 48 days. That was more than 70 miles of biking per day. She checked her donation Web site and found her total had climbed to $12,300.

BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY

But the donations were just the icing on the cake for Anderson. She said that traveling past mile upon mile of cornfields every day may sound monotonous, but she found the experience enriching.

“After a while you think it would get boring, but it really doesn’t because it’s so incredibly beautiful,” Anderson said. “And the hills rolling and fields of mustard grass, all these striations in the land … This was the third most important experience of my life. The birth of my daughter, the birth of my son and this ride, and I’m glad I did it before I died. It really set my head on straight.”

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