By Stephanie Wurtz
The hints of summer that are finally in the air on the CC campus might cue a flashback for Cari Hanrahan, senior assistant director in the Office of Admission, to the end of the 2015-16 academic year, when she was preparing to embark on the trip of a lifetime with Dan Morris ’16, paraprofessional in the Department of Music. It was last summer when she headed out on a six-week-long trek that began two hours south of Charleston, South Carolina, in Huntington Island State Park. As the two group co-leaders for the organization Overland Summers, Hanrahan and Morris were taking a group of high school students on the “American Challenge,” a bike trip all the way across the United States.
The trip took the group of 16- and 17-year-olds and their guides across the country, through small towns (and larger ones) experiencing “some of the best hospitality imaginable,” according to Hanrahan. “People were constantly asking if we needed anything. Strangers at campgrounds lent us their cars to get groceries; we had a state park ranger give us five pounds of pasta for one of our dinners when our group forgot to buy it.” It was a sense of generosity they experienced across the varied terrain and communities that make up the US.
The crew met up and assembled their bikes right in the Charleston airport. From there, the route took them through the deep south: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, as they made their way west. 13 riders: 11 high school students, Hanrahan and Morris.
Accommodations were modest, with the group camping part of the time and staying in community centers and churches the rest. “We stayed in a lot of churches,” says Hanrahan, “in the south there was nowhere to camp, and churches were the hub of these small towns; some even threw us potlucks. Or we cooked on camp stoves outside and took showers under spigots.”
The cyclists gained a new respect for the Great Plains when crossing into Kansas. Think it’s flat? Well, it’s actually a 3,000-foot climb. The route through Colorado meant climbing La Veta Pass and 10,800 feet of Wolf Creek Pass. “The kids crushed it!” Hanrahan says. Then they hit the four corners, the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and headed into the Mojave Desert.
To beat the scorching summer heat, the group crossed the desert in two days, 110 miles the first day and 111 miles the second, and woke up at 2:30 a.m. with temperatures already in the triple digits. Those were the only two days they rode directly with a support vehicle; it followed the riders with headlights to light the route before the sun came up. “It was like we were biking through the moon,” says Morris, “as the sun started coming up, the desert was a weird grey color.”
Each region of the country had its own challenges and beauty to share. “Every day was a new landscape and incredible scene,” says Hanrahan. “Every state is different and has a different culture. Every day, we met new people and were blessed to learn their cultures.”
One might think covering an average of 90 miles a day for 44 days would be the hardest part. Or crossing the San Gabriel Mountains, covering 50 miles of climbing. Or maybe it would be the biggest mileage day: 121 miles from Cortez, Colorado to Kayenta, Arizona. Actually, for the high school students, the two leaders say it was about learning efficiency and teamwork.
“For such a long trip, it’s about getting into a routine and these kids hadn’t done it before,” says Morris. “We got up at 4 a.m. until they could prove they could get camp packed up faster; the hardest thing to teach them was to pack their panniers (the bags on the sides of the bikes for carrying gear) to get things onto their bikes effectively and efficiently.” Fortunately, the high schoolers were given a three-month training plan to get them ready. Hanrahan says that helped. “Our kids were quick, strong, and athletic. And fun — they were so much fun!”
The cumulative effect of 39 full days of cycling, added to the stress of being responsible for the high school riders, left an impression on Morris and Hanrahan.
“It was terrifying — this is the ultimate trip that Overland Summers offers; there’s a lot of trust involved in that,” Hanrahan says. “We had to focus on things day by day. It forces staying present in the moment, relying on your co-leader and trusting each other. That’s how you shoulder it.” Plus, to participate as a leader, she took a leave of absence from her work in the Office of Admission, which added stress.
“I would do it again, but I will never be able to do it again. How many jobs give you two months off? The trip itself was amazing, but the prep was crazy,” she says. “I worked and worked to get things done in the office so that things were still running when I got back. It was tough to prep two months of work in advance. But it was worth every extra hour.”
Wrapping up the end of the academic year and preparing for a multi-month bike trip took a toll, leaving Morris little time to train. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done — that or graduating from CC,” Morris says. “I was a double major, so wrote two theses, had graduation, then biked across the country. On the last day of the trip, during breakfast I was signing a lease for a place to live, it was a little chaotic.”
The chaos was a distant memory as the group pulled in to their final stop, ending at the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles. “They had blocked off the pier for us!” Hanrahan remembers. “There were hundreds of people there with signs, cheering for our group: Parents, grandparents, friends, and a number of cheering tourists all there for the team.”
While she may never be able to recreate this cross country trip, Hanrahan says she’s inspired to do parts of it again, in the company of another very special rider. “My dad had stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; he’s in remission and doing incredibly well. He’s creating a bucket list now, and riding across the country is on it. I plan to do part of that with him.”
Heading into a new summer provides the opportunity to get back to the basics, Morris says, reflecting back on the forced simplicity of the trip. “Cari and I miss it. When we came back to this routine it was so much more complicated. Car, house, job, benefits. On the trip, it’s just ‘what are we going to eat today? ‘which pair of socks are the cleanest,’ it’s so simple.”
What did you do last summer? Or better yet, what will you do this summer? Wisdom from last year’s two CC riders still resonates: not thinking about the end or the destination, but thinking of every day as its own adventure.