WOLCOTT — Carol and Jim May made a pilgrimage during the summer of 2004. They didn’t travel by car, bus, train or even plane, however, and their destination was not a religious site. Instead, their destination was the journey itself, and their goal was to explore the country and discover the “real America” — the people and places that are often overlooked by travelers on the country’s highways.
To find those people and places, Carol, youth minister at St. Mary’s of the Lake in Ontario, and her husband rode their bikes on a 3,440-mile trip across America that summer. They avoided major highways and fast-food chains, preferring to stick to back roads and frequent small-town diners. They began their trek in San Francisco May 4, biked through 12 states and arrived in Williamson, N.Y., on July 8.
Their adventure didn’t end there, however. In 2005 they published a book about their experiences, titled Bicycle Odyssey, A Pilgrimage to Discover the Real America. The Mays also give presentations about their ride to various community groups, and gave one such presentation to a meeting of retired teachers Oct. 11 in Wolcott.
Jim and Carol — both retired teachers themselves — had been dreaming about biking across the country ever since 1984 when they drove from New York to California with their three children to watch the Olympics in Los Angeles, Carol said during the presentation. Along the way, the Mays noticed cyclists crossing the country and admired the freedom and enjoyment those cyclists seemed to feel.
The Mays agreed they’d like to eventually try biking across the country, and after retirement seemed the right time to do it, Carol said.
“When you retire you look for a new challenge, something to focus on,” Jim added.
Both Carol and Jim had always been athletic and had been avid cyclists for some time. They had even gone on several weeklong bike trips but had never attempted anything of the trans-America trek’s magnitude. This trip was longer than any they’d done before, and the temperatures they experienced while riding ranged from 28 degrees on the coldest day to 110 degrees on the hottest day. Both felt it was an important trip to take, however, not only because of the physical challenges it provided.
“You see so much more at a slower pace than you’ll ever see zooming by in a car or a train. What you see on TV and what you see in the movies is nothing like what this country is,” Jim explained.
The trip was really about meeting people and experiencing their cultures and the land, Carol added. Most people are much more inclined to go up to and start a conversation with a stranger on a bicycle than with someone who hops out of a minivan, she said. A cyclist is more vulnerable than someone in a car, and this puts people at ease.
“People see you as nonthreatening. Next thing you know they’re telling you their stories,” Carol said in an interview after the presentation.
The Mays listened to the stories of many people along the way, and a number of these people reciprocated by offering the couple food, shelter and assistance. Carol dubbed these people “road angels,” and many of the stories of these meetings are included in the Mays’ book.
The couple met one particularly memorable road angel in Connersville, Ind., in late June. Carol had sustained a buckle fracture in her right arm after falling off her bike at a railroad crossing, so the Mays decided to rest in town that day instead of riding on to the next town. Upon hearing their story, another couple insisted that the Mays spend the night at their house instead of the local motel.
Carol and Jim accepted the offer and spent the day with the couple, who eventually ended up pouring out their frustrations and concerns about a family problem they were having. After sharing their problems with Jim and Carol, who is a Stephen minister, the couple said they were able to see the situation more clearly and felt better about it.
“I was meant to be there. It was like I took off the bike helmet and put on a Stephen minister hat,” Carol said.
That feeling of being watched over and guided to certain people and places stayed with the Mays for the duration of their journey, they said. Carol first felt it right before the journey started, as she sat on an airplane bound for San Francisco and looked down at the seemingly endless desert below. At that moment, a line from the hymn “Be Not Afraid” popped into her head, and she often found herself repeating that line — “you shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst” — as she rode across the Western states.
“I think that added a lot, knowing that someone was always going to be there to help us out, and someone was. We always had help,” Carol said. “I think (the trip) has reaffirmed a trust. A trust in human nature and in God looking after us.”
Carol plans to help spread that message of trust to those around her, she added. The trip was also a spiritual booster for Jim.
“I enjoy a physical challenge. Physical challenge for me is a way to get to my spiritual side. (The trip) reaffirmed the fact that there is a definite relationship between the physical and the spiritual,” he said.
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