Bicycling around the country with one eye and half a brain

June 9, 2011

Two recent books are vivid demonstrations that cycling can be a way for older people to maintain and renew their sense of vibrant life. One of these books, which I featured in this column a few days ago, portrays the aggressive race-oriented cycling of 80-year-old Madonna Buder. As I read her book, I remembered another book that I found more inspiring, Megan Timothy’s 2009 volume 12,000 Miles for Hope’s Sake in which she describes her solo bicycle trip (at the age of 63) around the United States. So that more readers of my blog can meet Megan, I am reposting this column which first appeared April 10, 2010.

When I met Megan Timothy, she was working her way over Chehelem Mountain west of Portland, Oregon. Her bike was arrayed with gear for self-contained travel, while mine was stripped down for a fast training ride on a late summer day. A few moments of conversation, at a shady place on the side of the road, persuaded me that her story was one I wanted to hear.

In 2003 Megan experienced a stroke-like cerebral accident that left the shell of her body intact but robbed her of the ability to communicate. Printed letters and words made no sense, efforts to speak came out in gibberish, and writing was nothing more than scrawls. With the devoted and aggressive care of friends, she entered into therapy and then decided to accept the offer of surgical intervention to repair some of the damage to her brain.

From her saddlebag, she pulled out her book, Let Me Die Laughing—Waking from the Nightmare of a Brain Explosion, in which she tells her story.

During her convalescence, which had led to less-than-full recovery of communicative abilities, Megan had resumed bicycling, using a sturdy machine that she had ridden for many years in Africa, Europe, and the United States. Soon after her book was published, she decided to bicycle around the country. When her friends objected saying that she was “sixty-three years old, with only one eye and half a brain,” she responded by asserting that it was her best eye and the best part of her brain.

Because she had virtually no money, she would camp along the way, asking permission to pitch her tent at churches, in back yards, and sometimes behind the bushes on stretches of unpopulated roads. Often she did her laundry by swishing her clothes in soapy water in grocery bags.

When we met (September 2007), Megan had already cycled from her home in Southern California, across the United States to the east coast, up the Atlantic seaboard, across the northern stretches of the country, including the upper Midwest during 100-degree-plus weather. She had made her turn back to the south and hoped to be home in Hemet, California, by Thanksgiving.

As we parted, Megan promised to let me know when the book we both knew she would write would be out. Two years later, the announcement came: 12,000 Miles for Hope’s Sake, published by her friend’s small press, Crone House Publishing in Idyllwild, California.

Remarkable stories fill the book: perils of the road, serendipitous experience and encounters, the inherent generosity of people along the way, the fellowship of cyclists who find one another in their journeys across the land. Megan demonstrates that despite her mature years and compromised communicative skills, she continues to be an amazingly strong and resourceful cyclist capable of overcoming a wide range of hazards of the road.

Although traveling alone, she was supported by her network of friends who arranged book signings and press conferences as she worked her way across the country, and met her for brief interludes during her eight-month journey. Her best times, however, were when she traveled with complete freedom from schedules and friends. Quoting William Hazlitt (1778-1830), Megan asserts that “the soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases.”

Megan rises above the twin challenges of traveling with little money and a damaged brain. She really couldn’t read maps, and in moments of unexpected stress, she would experience the temporary breakdown of communicative skills. With increasing frequency, she spent time with other brain-damaged people, some of whom she met in chance encounters along the way and others in treatment centers around the land.

On the basis of her own experience, she explains what brain damage is like, illustrates the frequent deficiencies in medical care and therapeutic intervention, and recommends how families and friends can become advocates for brain-damaged people as they struggle to recover their abilities to communicate.

If only I had known what Megan has revealed, I would have acted differently when my mother suffered the stroke that robbed her of most communicative skills. With the right kind of help from family and therapists, Mother’s half-sentences and seemingly aimless turning of pages in magazines might have become what they became for Megan, the tools of an active, intelligent brain still capable of effective, mostly independent adult life.

After reading 12,000 Miles for Hope’s Sake, I agree with the publisher’s comment on the back cover, that Megan’s “adventures and challenges and the wonderful people she met will have you laughing and crying and shaking your head in amazement.”