By R.E. Wagner
In an effort to raise awareness for literacy, local coach/teacher, Kevin Vrabel decided to put his passion for cycling to the ultimate test by riding his bicycle across the United States during the summer of 2011.
“I’ve been riding my bicycle around for years,” shared Vrabel, “going cross-country had always been something that I’ve wanted to do.”
When asked about where he got the idea for supporting literacy, Vrabel gave a nod to an old friend.
“I was planning for the trip when my college friend, Chris Barrett, suggested the idea to ride for literacy,” explained Vrabel. “She knows that I love to read and it instantly resonated with me.”
Aside from support of close friends and family, Vrabel was joined on his adventure by his two 22-year old nephews, Andy Underwood, John Vrabel, along with his 82 year old father “Big Frank.”
“I had made a promise to my nephews about six years before the bike ride,” said Vrabel. “We had just finished cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway; it’s this 470-mile scenic roadway connecting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. When we were done, they had loved the experience so much that at I promised them that once they graduated, we would go on a cross-country ride together. And so with my father, their grandfather, on board for support, we had three generations of our family sharing in the adventure.”
After loading up their bicycles and supplies in a rented RV and heading for the Santa Monica Pier, Calif., Vrabel began the bike ride on May 22, 2011. Together with his team, the trio began a 3,111 mile ride back to Ashbury Park. The entire experience took 43 days to complete and when looking back on the extraordinary experience, Vrabel recalls the challenges he and his riders faced both on and off the road.
“That first day was challenging no doubt,” recalled Vrabel. “We ended up taking a wrong road. And when it’s over 100 degrees in the sun and no shade, you’re looking at a tough ride. But in the end it’s more mental than anything else; you just need to put keep turning those pedals. But sure, you bet there were days when we struggled!”
When asked about the one of the hardest challenges faced on the ride, Vradel’s response was instant.
“It was the worst,” exclaimed Vrabel, “normally on those flat farmlands you would have the wind at your back and the riding was supposed to be easier. But instead we had headwinds gusting so hard we could barely move forward!”
Sometimes Vrabel and his nephews would ride their bikes up to 100 miles in a single day all the while enduring heat, rain, wind, and both mental and physical fatigue. Known as a century in the cycling community, when asked for the secret of their success, Vrabel kept the answer simple.
“We were always there to keep each other going and support one another,” shared Vrabel. “We took breaks whenever we needed and made sure to watch out for each other. Plus we had our cause help raise literacy to motivate us.”
Throughout their ride, Vrabel reached out to local libraries in each state he visited, to offer to speak about the importance of reading and literacy.
“It wasn’t a fundraiser, just something to raise awareness for our cause, said Vrabel. “Sometimes we’d draw crowds as large as 100 people to hear us talk. It was amazing getting to connect with so many people and hearing their stories.”
Vrabel mentioned that it was during his very first talk that one of his favorite moments took place.
“It was our very first stop in Lucerne Valley, Calif.,” said Vrabel. “I had asked what he liked most about reading books and he replied that he liked how it made movies in his head. It was so funny and honest, I’ll never forget it.”
Throughout the 43 day trip, the group ran into all sorts of interesting people, including other cyclists riding across America.
“We met a woman involved in a seven day ride across America called Race Across America (RAM),” Vrabel shared. “She had already been cycling for almost 23 hours straight and when she got off the bike she started hallucinating, tiptoeing around on her cycling cleats while explaining that she was trying to avoid stepping on all the kittens!”
Vrabel made sure that he and his nephews continued to practice what they preached by reading books daily.
“Andy started Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing In the Rain,” finished it by the second day of the trip,” laughed Vrabel.
When asked about some of his own favorite reads, Vrabel made sure to include works from classic authors including John Steinbeck and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as the novel “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand.
He said, “Some of the books I read were “Travel with Charley” and “The Last of the Mohicans.”
Vrabel also decided to share his passion for literacy through his online journal, claiming that it was his grandmother who had inspired him.
“I was helping my father repair the roof on his garage, collecting some things when I came across my grandmother’s old journal from when she was 19 years old,” he said. “It was over 90 years old and when I read it, I felt this kind of connection and I knew I was going to write about this trip.”
Sure enough, Vrabel went on to use his journal as source material to write his book, “Bikes Books and Better Living.”
“I wanted to connect with others through my writing like my grandmother’s journal had connected with me nearly one hundred years after it was written,” explained Vrabel. “When I read her words, I was able to form a new relationship with he and I thought of her every time I sat down to write.”
When asked if he had any final words to share about his experiences on the roads of America, Vrabel shared one of the last passages of his book.
“We crossed a beautiful and magnificent country filled with breathtaking landscapes from the surf of the Pacific, to the magical, mystical desert to monuments in valleys,” he said. “We breathed in the splendor of the Rockies and the vastness of the Great Plains. We pedaled above the mighty Mississippi to the eastern mountains to home. Those physical images have already come and gone, but the people remain; their spirit is intact and lives inside each of us. Along with it, my grandmother lives again as a teenage girl in a country filled with hope and promise.”
Copies of Vrabel’s book can be purchased at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/221755.