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.”

Faith-based cycling

June 6, 2011

The Grace to Race by Sister Madonna Buder is the only book I know that combines the author’s religious faith with aggressive engagement in cycling as an endurance sport. At first glance, it would seem to be just the book for a blogger (like me) who regularly posts columns on American religion and cycling. The fact that the author, at 80 years of age, is a little older than I gives still another reason why this book ought to be more satisfying than I find it to be.

This memoir of a woman who spent many years as a cloistered nun and triathlete does have positive attributes. Near the top of the list is the fact that she began her running activities when she was 48 years old, later moving into full-fledged triathlons. She continues her aggressive athletic endeavors despite the fact that she now is an octogenarian.

Another commendable factor is Buder’s advocacy of good causes, which she links with her athletic activities. She uses her running, swimming, and cycling as the means of doing good works for others. It is only right that she do this because, as the book reports, Buder herself has been the frequent recipient of acts of kindness and generous gifts from other competitors, race sponsors, and officials.

With respect to its religious side, The Grace to Race provides an interesting description of how Buder decided to enter the religious life and select the order in which she spent many years. It also portrays the way that one devout woman has moved from one kind of religious work to another. It describes how in later years, as her life and the Catholic Church changed, she transferred from a cloistered order to one that encouraged more active involvement in the world.

When Buder began running, and then cycling, she had little knowledge of the techniques and disciplines of these sports. Using borrowed and inadequate equipment, and competing with insufficient preparation, she pushed herself to the extremes, often using zeal and naive piety as substitutes for training, coaching, and practiced skill.

One result was that “the iron nun,” as people often described her, generated a growing notoriety (and sympathy) among triathletes. Another result was that she suffered a wide range of mishaps, accidents, and serious injuries. It is hard to believe that she was really as accident prone and foolish as the book portrays her. Perhaps the professional writer who assisted Buder in developing the book hyped the story with mock heroics rather than write a thoughtful exposition of her career as serious athlete in nun’s clothing.

Since this is the memoir of a religious woman, The Grace to Race integrates Buder’s faith with her athletic activities. In the race chosen to open the book, she is competing beyond the level for which she had trained and as her performance lags she makes “a kind of deal with God.” If she completes the race, she would know that her nephew, who had died the previous month, had died in peace. Beating the cut-off time by seventeen seconds, she thanked the Lord: “Now I know that my nephew is in peace.”

Near the end of the book, she describes an incident when she returned to a condo parking lot where she had left her car eight days earlier, only to find it missing. In her haste, she had parked the old car near a dumpster, thinking that it was an unused slot, and it had been towed. The very day when she came to claim her car it was to have been auctioned. After reclaiming the car, Buder named it for Saint Therese of Lisieux, “who is known to pack a lot of influence with the Lord. I am sure she saved my car from the auction block.” The very next night, however, the car was towed again because Buder had carelessly parked it on an arterial road that was “quiet at night, but busily trafficked during the day.”

During more than thirty years as an aggressive participant in extreme sports, “the iron nun” has competed in a remarkable number of events and demonstrated skill, strength, and uncanny ability to deal with unexpected developments. She demonstrates that people in their seventies can still perform at a high level. Buder has succeed in these activities despite the difficulties imposed by her religious vocation and, paradoxically, because of the piety with which her life as a nun has been infused. Both sides of Madonna Buder–religious woman and endurance athlete–deserve more thoughtful presentation than this book offers.