REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. (AP) — Erik Andrews’ cross-country bike tour was the product of a global pandemic and a cause.
If the new coronavirus hadn’t halted baseball games, vacations or the organization Andrews has volunteered at for more than two decades, the 60-year-old Ohioan wouldn’t have hopped on his bike and pedaled 3,351 miles from southern California to Delaware.
Andrews rode into Rehoboth Beach on Thursday, Aug. 20, after 60 legs spanning 74 days. His right boot heel was falling apart, and his eyes were red from crying.
He’d helped raise more than $50,000 for Appalachia Service Project.
Andrews is one of thousands who volunteer for the Tennessee-based nonprofit every year, building new houses and providing critical home repairs for low-income families.
This year, in the midst of a health crisis that has killed more than 170,000 Americans since January, Appalachia Service Project’s volunteer service program went dark. The pandemic also halted fundraising, putting next year’s summer volunteer program in jeopardy.
So Andrews decided to become a mobile fundraiser.
He looked at his bike, then went to his wife of 32 years, Michele. She wanted two things: He needed to come home for the Fourth of July weekend, and he needed to call her often.
“I just need to make sure you’re not dead on the side of the road,” Michele said wryly.
CYCLING ACROSS A PANDEMIC-RAVAGED COUNTRY
Andrews set out June 7, three days after he decided to make the trip.
He wasn’t sure if California would even let him. Several cities were still in the early reopening phases, and some were still under shelter-in-place orders. But on June 4, he called ASP anyway with his plan.
Donations came from his family and extended family, then others who hadn’t heard of ASP until his trip.
There was a website too, www.paa4asp.org, where people could follow Andrews’ journey day by day.
His cross-country wardrobe consisted of three outfits. So every three days, he made sure the hotel he where was staying had laundry amenities — “I’ve done more laundry in the last 75 days than I have my entire life,” he laughed.
Some days he’d go more than 100 miles. Other times he’d struggle to make 40, collapsing on his hotel bed without shedding his “stinky” clothes.
None of the hotel served breakfast due to coronavirus restrictions.
“I had to make a meal out of food I didn’t have,” he said. “I’m exhausted, I’m in a place I don’t know, and I’m trying to get in 4,000 to 5,000 calories.”
Andrews, a rocket scientist by day, has been primed for adventure since he was 8, when he saw Neil Armstrong take those first tentative steps on the moon, 238,000 miles from Earth.
His 11-week trip may have been a few thousand miles closer to home than Armstrong’s, but biking across America marked an epic journey for him, one flanked by long, barren stretches of road, seemingly endless sunlight and parched earth.
From June 7 to July 15, California through Texas, it didn’t rain once. Andrews had no trees to bike under for shade, instead relying on early morning rides before his thermometer surged past 100 degrees.
“Not only did it not rain, there wasn’t a cloud to rain from,” Andrews said. “Noah went 40 days of rain. I went 40 days without even a cloud basically.”
He learned to never understatement the value of an overpass, where he’d stop for shade — and to take a selfie.
He decided to not watch any TV during the trip. He missed the daily death toll of COVID-19, nationwide protests brought on by George Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, the death of Rep. John Lewis.
Human contact was also scarce. During his 74-day trip, Andrews saw only two other cyclists who had packs similar to his. Few people were taking long trips, as some governors issued 14-day quarantines for out-of-staters, closed nonessential businesses and asked residents to stay home.
On the iconic Route 66, nicknamed “the Main Street of America”, Andrews saw the economic devastation COVID-19 brought to small towns dependent on thru-traffic and tourism.
‘A LOT OF WONDERFUL PEOPLE IN THIS BIG COUNTRY’
Still, he came across folks who helped keep him moving. There was the bike repairman in Elk City, Oklahoma, just after his 28th leg. Andrews’ bike had some screws loose from the bumpy asphalt roads, which made him shake like a high-powered drill.
It was Sunday when he road into Oklahoma, and the only bike shop in town was closed. He left a message, not expecting a reply.
Twenty minutes later, a guy was on the phone asking Andrews, “Where are you? I’ll come pick you and your bike up.”
He took them to his bike shop, where he tightened the screws and did a tune-up, making sure Andrews had a safe journey. He didn’t charge a dime.
“There’s a human element to it,” Andrews said of the trip. “There are a lot of wonderful people in this big country.”
Then there were the people who had no money to give but gave anyway, for the cause. Andrews had ASP stickers and signs on his bike, which folks at gas stations would squint to see and then ask Andrews about.
He told them about the roofs he’d installed, the leaky pipes he’d fixed, the homes he helped build. He wore the same 3-pound boots he’d have on while “pounding nails,” to stay connected to ASP.
Andrews tears up when he talks about the people who would hand him a dollar or two. He holds those donations closest to his heart.
There were the moments of solitude.
In Texas, a truck carrying thousands of water bottles crashed, affording him the rare opportunity to cycle on Interstate 40 with no other cars around, as traffic had been halted for cleanup. .
In Arizona, Andrews took a detour north to the Grand Canyon, which felt made even more empty and vast by COVID-19. The Grand Canyon Village, usually spilling with tourists, was a temporary ghost town, reminiscent of the red rock canyon millions of years before human contact.
Andrews stood alone, facing the earth, carved by water and time.
“It was you and the canyon,” he said. “You’re just there and there’s no one else.”
Through the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, the merciless Texas heat and through Tennessee, where he visited ASP Headquarters for the first time.
And finally, Delaware.
THE FINISH LINE
Andrews finished the last leg of the trip with his daughter, Sarah Stafford, riding from Georgetown to Rehoboth Beach on a morning that promised sun and 70-degree weather.
Twenty-four miles later, Andrews walked his bike to the sand and touched his tires to the water, just as he had done in the Pacific Ocean to signify the beginning of his journey.
Andrews’ advice for folks looking to make a similar trip?
“You can always get off your bike,” he said. “You can always keep pedaling.”